Situated about 1,000 metres above sea level, Bario is a remote Kelabit village at the centre of the Kelabit highlands to the north east of SCORE and on the border with Kalimantan, Indonesia. The area consists of a number of longhouses with a recorded population of 5,000 although many of the younger Kelabits have migrated to Kuching and peninsular Malaysia.
Although the Kelabit are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak they are known for their bravery and thirst for human heads! However, the practice of collecting heads ended about 100 years ago.
More recently in 1945, eight members of the allied forces landed in Bario to prepare for the liberation of Borneo. Their mission was to make contact with the Kelabit and other tribes and train them to assist in the fight against the Japanese.
The Kelabit fought gallantly and a number of warriors were honoured for their bravery as the Japanese, and then the Indonesians in the 1960s, were driven out of the highlands.
But the Kelabits are also known for their politeness and hospitality and as a result, Bario has come to be known as the ‘Land of a hundred handshakes’. And this polite, welcoming culture and the pleasant climate of the highlands is driving the fledgling but growing tourism industry in the area.
A recent allocation by the Federal government of RM64 million (US$15 million) for better infrastructure, including the upgrading of old logging roads and a bridge, will help fast track the tourism industry in Bario.
“Now it may take 18 to 20 hours to drive from Miri to Long Beruang and Long Peluan, but it can be slashed to six or seven hours once the area is developed,” said Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu Numbang recently. “This is a strategic move to lift families in Bario above the poverty line and contribute to the Chief Minister’s pledge to eradicate poverty in rural Sarawak,” he added.
Bario is widely regarded as one of the most beautifully untouched and untamed areas of Malaysia and whilst this makes the purists happy, it does little to raise the living standards of the Kelabit.
Bario is an eco tourism destination waiting to happen. The Kelabit people are renown for their ancient agricultural practices and traditional machinery is still used to harvest the rice in the padi fields, which, incidentally, is cultivated without the use of chemicals. This no doubt contributes to the reputation Bario rice as of being one of the world’s finest grains, with a distinctive aroma and flavour that has rice purists gushing praise at every opportunity.
To help increase Bario rice production, the Agriculture Ministry, the federal agency Pemandu (Performance and Delivery Unit), and a private company, Ceria Group, are trying to revitalise wet rice cultivation in Bario with the help of a soft loan and grant of RM17.9 million.
Besides rice, Bario is famous for its sweet, refreshing, juicy pineapples, and during the season, visitors can take off with villagers to pick enough for their own use.
Salt is another mineral that is harvested the way it has been since the Kelabit settled here. Salt Hunters collect salt from remote mines and springs, some of which are 3 to 4 days travel time from the villages.
The salt and spring water are boiled in a big pot known as a Kawang. Once the water has evaporated, it is dried and inserted into bamboo pipes that are burned over an open fire for 24 hours until the salt is hard. The result is a unique, organic, natural brown salt with a very high mineral count.
Bario already offers trekking, an outstanding natural environment, unique wildlife and adventure tourism plus many cultural activities and terrific homestay experiences. As SCORE evolves, developing Bario as an eco tourism destination with its cool, highland climate, unique culture and natural, sustainable approach to agricultural production, is a logical move.
It is already accessible by ‘puddle jumper’ from Miri and the new infrastructure will make the highlands more accessible from other areas. However, the traditional way of getting to Bario via longboat and 4-wheel drive is still a unique experience for those who appreciate the jungle in all its glory.
Second and third photo from Wikipedia. Images have been cropped, resized and brightened.