Wednesday, October 28, 2009


1. After early breakfast on 26 Oct, Day 13, we left for Miri airport at about 6.30 am to catch a flight to Bario, a small mountain village, 45 mins flight time from Miri. We left the car in the hotel car park.

2. Bario is located in the centre of the Kelabit Highlands in NE Sarawak, close to the Indonesian Kalimantan border, at more than 1000 m above sea level, in the beautiful valleys flanked by high mountains. The area grows the famous Bario rice, which is regarded by some Japanese as the best rice in the world. Bario airport has a short air-strip and is linked to a number of nearby towns by small aircraft.

3. Kelabit is one of the smaller tribes of Sarawak, number about 5000 with about 1000 staying in Bario, many still staying in their traditional long houses. However, many younger Kelabits have migrated to the cities. Kelabits are known to be friendly and hospitable.

4. At the departure lounge of Miri airport, we were seated next to a number of senior people who were on the same flight with us to Bario. Indeed they were very friendly and one of them kept smiling at us. We said hello but was not very successful in striking up a conversation with them in English. They spoke little English. Yeow Pheng asked the old man next to him his age. The old man took out his wallet from his pocket and retrieved a folded paper. I thought he was getting his birth certificate to show us. It was not the case. What he was showing us was a certificate of service, which was sort of a certificate of good conduct from this service in the ranger department. He was obviously very proud of this service as a ranger and carried the certificate in his wallet.

5. The plane taking us to Bario was a 18 seater Twin Otter. It could take 12 people on its way to Bario but 18 people on the way back to Miri, given the less fuel load on the way back. The aircraft flew at about 7-8000 ft and we could see the ground fairly clearly. We could see that the logging industry was a thriving business, with its network of logging tracks. Vast tracts of land had been cleared for oil palm estates and they were huge. On flat ground, the plantation tracks ran perpendicular to each other, like a huge chess board.

6. Bario airport was a small airport, like a small family airport; a small canteen and a room each for arrival and departure, and everybody seemed to know one another.
We were "greeted" at the airport by this very cute young couple. There was no tourism counter or office, no tourism rack or brochures, no tourism advertisements. A couple of enterprising local people were in the airport tactfully trying to market their accommodation. In the absence of tourism information, they were performing an useful function. The staff of the handling agent recommended us Bario Asal (meaning The Original Bario). We accepted it and "Joe" drove us to the long house for RM10 each.

7. We reached Bario Asal at about 10 am. After some clumsy introduction to the hosts, and after settling down and a drink, we asked James Maga, a warm and welcoming gentleman who was a resident of Bario Asal, to show us around Bario. James disappeared for a while and returned, nicely equipped with jacket and rubber boots, all ready for outdoor activities. We were much less prepared. Yeow Pheng remarked that his shoes were not fitting and not intended for real walk up and down the hills.

8. Our first outing was a visit to the water project -some 3 km walk to see how the mountain stream was dammed, and water piped to a facility where it was filtered and stored and then distributed to the long houses. This project was undertaken by the government, and the villagers pay for the water used. The mountain stream was a small stream, with little water. The water tank was one tenth full. We were told by James that they had not have rain for more than 5 months now.

9. Along the way, we were shown an experimental windmill and solar energy project undertaken by the government. Accordingly to James, the project was not yet fully operational because the cabling to the homes had yet to be completed. If proven successful, this windmill and solar cell project could be replicated for other villages.

10. On the way to the dam, James showed us a teak tree - round, straight and very tall. This the first time I saw a teak tree even though teak wood furniture is very common in Singapore. The sap from the tree could be used for lighting. On the way back, James saw and picked a huge mushroom; largest I had seen. He did not know if its edible.

11. James was 64 years old. His weathered face made him looked older than his age but he moved fast and was as agile as a younger man half his age.

12. Lunch was a simple home cooked meal at Bario Asal - Bario rice and a couple of dishes (fried chicken and vegetables). Bario rice did taste especially fragrant, or maybe we were just hungry. After lunch, I took a walk with James to visit a micro-hydro 45 KVA project. 50 homes funded a RM1000 each and with remaining funding from the government, this power project was initiated. The long pipe brought the water down to the dynamo room, but unfortunately, there was too little water for the plant to work and generate electricity for the homes.

13. In the evening, before dinner, Yeow Pheng and I took a stroll to the nearby schools. We were surprised to see a bar cum small provision stall and we dropped by to have a beer. There was a group of friendly locals enjoying their evening there too. On the way back to Bario Asal, we came across this thirsty padi field.

14. We had a simple dinner, took our showers and went to back to bed early. We were alerted that power would only be available up to about 8 pm. Before we did, we walked around the long house, took some pictures and dropped by James' home to give him the guide fee for the day and gave some souvenirs to his grandchildren. He had 3 with him (one of them to the right), out of five. I gave him RM 20 and asked him if it was enough. He took it and replied "I dont know". His grandchildren were thrilled with the the Hello Kitty stickers which Yeow Pheng gave them. That night, it rained for a short time. I felt happy for Bario.

15. The long house was essentially a community. When asked, we were told that Bario Asal's population was 500. But, clearly, we didnt see that many people; only a few older people there. After further discussion, it became clearer to me that the extended family of Bario Asal numbered 500 if the family members who had gone to stay in the towns and cities were included. Take James Maga, his 5 children were working and staying in KL, Kuching and Miri. They would all come home for Christmas. Three of the 5 grandchildren stayed with him and they went to school in Bario. James' situation was not unique. Many young Kelabits have gone working in the cities. The long houses looked sadly empty.

16. The structure of the long house was fairly simple. Families have their rooms in the middle, linked to a long open corridor of compartmentalised kitchen cum dining area for each family and a long corridor on the other side. Each family had its own stove for cooking, though now they had gas cookers on the side as well. The hall in the picture on the right was specially built for functions and to handle tourists. Our room was attached to this hall. In there, there were family pictures on the wall, and traditional souvenirs for sale.

17. Woke up at 4.30 am next morning to attend 5.15 am morning mass. The kitchens were already alive with fire in the stove. Kelabits are mostly Christians and each cluster of long houses had their church. At 5.15 am sharp, the wooden gongs outside the houses were sounded one after another to get people to the mass. After mass, they would have enough time to have their breakfast and get ready for work when first light appeared at 7 am.

18. Here we are, with Hendrik Iboh (also 64, and retired, after 30 years in the Police force), whom we were staying with in Bario Asal, after the morning mass. James was not in the picture but was at mass too. Mass started punctually at about 5.20 am, when a handful was already present. One of locals started singing with an acoustic guitar. More people trickled in and another went on stage to play the accompanying base electric guitar, followed by a female pastor delivering the sermon. It was done by about 6 am. All in, there were about 12 people at mass. After mass, James told me that it rained last night. He was visibly happy. Here, mass is everyday, at 5.15 am.

19. Had breakfast with James Maga and Hendrick Iboh. Loved the rice fried with ikan bilis; really good. James and Hendrik told us they each owned about 5 ha of padi field. Without their children, they had to depend on Indonesian workers from across the border to work on the rice-fields during planting and harvesting times. These workers would walk one whole day to get to Bario. Between planting and harvesting, they would look after the rice-fields themselves.

20. We paid RM60 each for our stay at Bario Asal. After packing, we were off to the airport at 7.30 am. Hendrik was at the airport and saw us off. I left with a heavy heart, wondering what Bario will be like 10, 20 years from now.

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