The secrets of Bario, Sarawak's gem in the luscious heart of Borneo


Photos By EDDIE CHUA

Bario is a living canvas painted with vibrant hues of green and stunning sunset.

In the northeastern reaches of Sarawak, bordering the wilds of Indonesian Kalimantan, lies Bario, its secrets blowing quietly in the wind.

Affectionately known as ‘Bariew’ – meaning wind in the Kelabit language – this village is a tranquil sanctuary nestled 3,500 feet above sea level in the Kelabit Highlands.

The heartbeat of this land is the rhythm of the Kelabit, part of the Orang Ulu tribes, numbering around 6,000 in Sarawak.

In Bario and its surroundings, some 1,200 Kelabit people keep their rich and colourful culture alive. It serves as the perfect base camp for those looking to delve into the mysteries of the Kelabit Highlands.

Kids from Bario in their traditional hats.Kids from Bario in their traditional hats.

There are about 13 villages there, each offering a unique window into the lives of the Orang Ulu tribes. Kampung Bario Asal, the original longhouse, is a must-visit for its ancient, smoke-darkened timbers and rich history.

Arriving in Bario is an adventure in itself. The journey from Miri by MASWings, lasting a mere 45 minutes, offers a magnificent bird’s eye view of the emerald rainforest canopy.

For those seeking rugged outdoor adventure, a 12-hour drive through ancient rainforests on old logging roads presents a bone-rattling alternative.

The flight to Bario from Miri offers a magnificent bird’s eye view of the emerald rainforest canopy.The flight to Bario from Miri offers a magnificent bird’s eye view of the emerald rainforest canopy.

In Bario, the symphony of life is a blend of culture and nature.

The Kelabit’s traditions, practices, and community-oriented lifestyle are as old as the forest itself. Each longhouse and ritual speaks of a heritage that has gracefully resisted the tides of time.

Surrounded by the lushness of the Kelabit Highlands, Bario is a green refuge with an occasional splash of wildlife.

The landscape reflects the character of its residents, which influences everything from the famed Bario rice cultivation to the myriad of outdoor activities.

Traditional handmade Orang Ulu Kabo necklaces are available for sale as souvenirs for visitors to Bario.Traditional handmade Orang Ulu Kabo necklaces are available for sale as souvenirs for visitors to Bario.

My first walk through the Bario Asal Longhouse was like stepping into a realm where time dances differently.

The enclosed verandahs, the grand communal hall which stretches over 100m, the Bario Market, and the taste of the locally grown pineapple were all special.

And then, there was the famed Bario rice. You have to taste it to know it. The local economy, in fact, thrives on the around 500 tonnes or so of Bario rice produced annually.

The making of Bario salt, renowned for its high natural mineral content, takes place at salt springs located  in the villages of Pa Umor, Pa Bangar, and Pa Mai.The making of Bario salt, renowned for its high natural mineral content, takes place at salt springs located in the villages of Pa Umor, Pa Bangar, and Pa Mai.

The Bario rice fields are shrinking as they become less cost-effective – there is only one harvest a year – but ecotourism, which is becoming popular in Bario, adds to the economy. Visitors here experience the local culture and the beautiful, untouched nature.

Geographically, Bario is cradled by the Tamabu range in the west and the Apo Duat mountains in the east.

It lies within the Pulong Tau National Park, a stone’s throw from Mount Murud, Sarawak’s highest peak.

The cooler climate here, with temperatures ranging from 14°C to 26°C, offers a refreshing respite from the tropical heat.

Twin Otter pilots making a landing at Bario airport.Twin Otter pilots making a landing at Bario airport.

For those seeking spiritual solace, the Wind Chapel on Revival Hill is a sanctuary under the sky. What started as a ramshackle memorial in 1973 was, in 2019, converted into a pillarless chapel with a transparent roof and circle of stools where the wind sings through the steel roads.

It has a rather large cross, which aligns with another in Prayer Mountain.

Prayer Mountain offers a trek that rewards with breathtaking views of the valley, a panorama that holds itself into memory.

In Bario, every handshake is warm, every smile genuine, a tradition that has rightly earned it the moniker “land of a hundred handshakes.”

Bario is not just a gem in the luscious heart of Borneo. It’s also where the pulse of traditional life beats strong.

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StarExtra , Outdoors

   

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