Bario, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo
Posted on March 4th, 2005
A lot of thoughts go through your mind when you are lost and alone at night
in the jungle highlands of Borneo. In my case, chief among these thoughts was
“How the hell did I get lost in a place with only one *^%&%# road???”
I have a long and storied history of getting lost in various urban jungles,
usually clutching a deficient map and desperately searching for non-existent
street signs, but I was taking this anti-aptitude to new giddying heights on
this particular evening in the infinitely more menacing, genuine jungle.
When I wasn’t cursing my abysmal orientation skills, I was mentally reviewing
all of the native animals of Borneo that I had viewed from a safe distance a
few days earlier at Jong’s Crocodile Farm. Then I categorized this list
into what could conceivably be lurking in the highland bushes and finally distilled
from that group a list of what could maim or kill me. Truthfully, it was ultimately
a short, non-intimidating roll-call of small, furry, harmless creatures, but
this did little to soothe me.
I had walked out of Bario - a tiny jungle village nestled in a valley nearly
5,000 feet above sea level - 45 minutes earlier at a fast clip, heading for
my objective, Gem’s lodge, six kilometers (three miles) down a muddy jungle
road. I had lingered too long in Bario, waiting out a series of downpours and
the quickly setting sun and distant regrouping clouds were cause for mild concern,
but I was optimistic. I knew that average human walking pace was about three
miles per hour and if I really poured it on, I could be at the lodge in about
45 minutes, just as total darkness was setting in and with any luck before the
next round of showers caught up with me. I had spent the afternoon at Bario’s
new Telecenter, the village’s pride and joy, catching up on neglected
cyber-duties while simultaneously charging both of my laptop batteries. I had
depleted both laptop batteries earlier in the day at Gem’s Lodge. The
Lodge had been doing without electricity for four days, ever since the installation
of a new diesel generator that made a lot of noise, but no actual electricity.
The Telecenter is open four hours a day, five days a week, solar powered and
sports surprisingly speedy Internet service provided by a satellite feed. A
21st century marvel in 19th century Bario.
Central Bario, the Telecenter is is the right
The road out of town.
I was traveling light for my furious, ill-fated walk, carrying my tiny day
bag which held my laptop, the spare battery, power cable, camera, raincoat,
water bottle and roll-on bug repellent. Even in the cool early evening, the
jungle humidity combined with my walking pace had me drenched in sweat in minutes.
After 45 minutes of intense walking, it was utterly dark and I was in the middle
of nowhere. Worse still, the road was now climbing a sizeable, unfamiliar hill.
Though I was plainly only paying mild attention during my walk into town, I
was certain I had not passed this particular obstacle. Just as I was absorbing
the inconceivable possibility of having somehow taken a wrong turn on a road
with no turns, I crested the hill and saw lights. Knowing Gem’s Lodge
was candle-powered at the moment, this cemented my status as hopelessly lost
and confused. Additionally, there wasn’t just one set of lights. Even
through the murky night, I could make out a half dozen Kelabit longhouses grouped
together at the bottom of the hill. Showing up unannounced at a longhouse, nevermind
as a dufus stranger after dark, is not recommended, but I needed directions,
so I headed toward the light.
The only ace up my sleeve throughout this disaster, was my key chain light.
While I was home in October, my friend Laura J turned me onto the Garrity key
chain light (US$5 at Wallgreens). Cracker-thin and about two inches long, it
casts a startlingly bright beam of light for its size. This little miracle had
repeatedly proven to be invaluable over the previous three months while stumbling
through dark hostel rooms, preparing for bed while trying not to wake sleeping
roommates, but now it was going to single handedly save my bacon.
I used the key chain light to guide me over a narrow, two-log “bridge”
that crossed a thin marsh, separating the longhouses from the road. A small
child standing on the nearest porch saw me coming and summoned an adult who
thankfully spoke some English. I explained the situation and asked for directions,
but deep down I was hoping that someone would take mercy on my sorry self, put
me in their truck, or failing that, the village tractor with a top speed of
four miles per hour, and drive me to my destination. Having just spent a week
in the company of the Iban tribe, people who would give you their last Insulin
shot if you asked for it, I was hopeful the highland dwelling Kelabit tribesmen
would be similarly generous and helpful. They were not. At least this guy wasn’t.
He curtly gave me the dispiriting news that I had indeed missed a vital turn,
that was nearly 4km back toward Bario. Then he turned around and disappeared
back into the longhouse without another word. I was on my own.
Not only was it full-on night, but my trailing thick cloud-cover had overtaken
me. Mercifully, it wasn’t raining yet, but equally I didn’t even
have the benefit of moonlight to help me along. I was able to stumble along
in the dark, just able to make out the course of the road, hitting the key chain
light every few moments to scan for the innumerable potholes, ruts, fresh piles
of water buffalo shit that could swallow a shoe and muddy slicks that could
lead to a leg-flailing, ass-slide into the boggy, roadside trench. Once in a
while, way off in the distance, there was lightning. Assuming no further screw-ups,
and I wasn’t overly-optimistic about this, I was looking at a minimum
of another hour and 20 minutes of careful, trudging through the jungle, with
a bag full of very un-waterproof, expensive equipment. A rain shower would have
been catastrophic. And let’s not forget the ever-disconcerting prospect
of stepping on the tail of one of the little, cuddly jungle creatures, that
I imagined sprouted six inch fangs and bad attitudes when the sun went down.
Forty cautious minutes later, I saw the familiar sight of De Plateau Lodge.
I had flown into Bario with De Plateau’s owner, Douglas, and I stopped
to verify the quick and vague directions I had received at the longhouse. Douglas
assured me that there was a turn off just up the hill from his place that I
had neglected to note both on my way into Bario that morning and again as I
motored past on my return while racing against time, light and the elements.
After the turn, it was yet another forty minutes down atrocious, ankle breaking
terrain to Gem’s Lodge. I managed this, surviving a hair-raising encounter
with two jumpy water buffalo and walking through a horror film sized cobweb,
straddling the entire road, that could have detained a Doberman, before finally
arriving at the lodge, much to the relief of my hosts.
The kitchen where we spent our evenings.
Gem’s Lodge is owned and run by Jaman and his wife Sumi, both Kelabit
tribe members and natives of Bario. Jaman’s jungle trekking skills and
the wonderful hospitality provided at Gem’s Lodge are so wondrous that
Lonely Planet nearly falls over itself singing their praises and every bit of
it is true. Jaman is an infectiously cheerful, friendly guy who takes great
pleasure in hosting people at his large, comfortable, well-equipped lodge. When
he isn’t maintaining the lodge, he guides groups on jungle treks for as
little as two hours and as long as six days. Sumi, who despite having pushed
out three kids and been the repeated victim of highland dentistry, is a beautiful,
energized woman, who spends her days in constant motion; cooking, cleaning,
gardening and weaving souvenir can-holders for the guests from bandanus leaves
that she collects from the surrounding jungle. Sumi never sits still, rarely
stops smiling and sings all day long. This is exactly the remote, quiet, totally
beguiling place where one could imagine getting comfortable and never leaving.
For my part, my three night stay turned into five and even then I wasn’t
ready to leave. After a full week in Kuching, sitting in Stewart’s car
for hours on end, my longhouse trip and the productivity-robbing effects of
repeated rice wine benders, I was horribly behind in my journal and picture
processing. I knew the instant that I stepped up to the peaceful solitude of
Gem’s Lodge that I would be staging my catch-up on work and sleep there.
Sumi and two of her three kids.
Jaman (center) and buddies.
These gigantic, gravity-defying butterflies lived around the lodge.
Bario, population 800, is deep in the center of the Sarawak highlands, within
blow-dart range of the Indonesian border. It’s only accessible by the
daily 18 seater prop plane service from Miri on the northern coast and Marudi
an upriver town, bordering Brunei. Well, truthfully you can also reach Bario
by journeying upriver and overland, but this is a grueling three week excursion
and no sane person has made this trek in over 30 years. The diminutive center
of town is comprised of a half-moon collection of tiny shops, modest cafes and
the Telecenter. Despite the painless one hour flight to get yourself into Bario,
there is a profound sensation of having arrived in one of the most remote, disconnected
places you are ever likely to visit. People are sparse. “Roads”
are grass and butter-soft sandstone, peppered with incessant suspension crushing
fissures. Electricity is available through generators and solar cells. Plumbing
is via forced water coming down distant mountains. There are few vehicles in
Bario. Everything needs to be air-lifted to the tiny airfield. Anything larger
than a moped requires a ride on a specially chartered plane, costing roughly
US$1,300. With Bario’s humble economy, saving up to buy and ship a simple,
tiny jeep into town is a life-long investment. Many people get by on motorcycles
or bikes, but most simply walk. Bario’s 800 residents are spread out in
small settlements and far-flung longhouses over tens of kilometers. In this
simple, but demanding jungle lifestyle, an eight or ten kilometer walk carrying
upwards of 100 pounds on their backs isn’t extraordinary. It gets worse.
For many of the residents, even the deficient road isn’t an option. A
thin jungle path is the only access that many longhouses have to the rest of
the world (read: Bario), so yes indeed, everything that is taken to or from
home has to be done on one’s back. And these guys are legendary. Burdensome
sacks of jungle fruits being taken to market, 32 inch TVs (followed by the ubiquitous
satellite dish), old fashion metal, foot-pump sewing machines and even 6 foot
wide rolls of corrugated tin roofing are routinely hauled in and out of the
jungle. Sometimes these items are carried for days. It’s unfathomable.
Sadly, the clock is ticking for Bario’s cherished isolation, along with
the highland jungle and the very way of life for the Kelabit tribe. Logging
companies are making quick work of the countryside. It’s estimated that
in five or six years a logging road will reach Bario that will wind all the
way down to Miri. Nevermind the gut-wrenching sight of a decimated landscape,
when the jungle is gone the Kelabit settlements that subsist off the land will
be left standing without their only resource. Instead, if they’re lucky,
they will receive a one-time wad of money to compensate them for their loss.
With their foundation for self-sufficiency gone and having never known anything
else, they will have few options when the money runs out except to head for
a big city and start from scratch with few urban-ready marketable skills. The
people who stay in Bario will suddenly have to come up with the funds to buy
the goods that they once collected from the surrounding area, including food,
medicine and, ludicrously, the lumber that once occupied their backyards, which
will have to be shipped back to Bario from Miri at great expense. Trekking as
an activity will be gone and so then will the modest tourism that Bario currently
enjoys. Jaman and Sumi will have to go back to farming. Get here while you can
But enough of that. Back to enjoying the moment.
The electricity shortcoming at the lodge required me to make the daily trip
into Bario to charge various batteries at the Telecenter and/or Lian’s
place. Lian, a good friend of Jaman’s, shares local guiding duties and
even baby-sits Gem’s Lodge while Jaman is away on multi-day treks. All
this and Lian runs his own modest longhouse-style lodge just outside central
Bario. Lian installed solar cells three years earlier, so I spent a fair about
of time hanging out in his living room, working and watching the Travel Channel
on his satellite TV as I replenished my laptop batteries.
The road into town had some obstacles.
The one hour trudge into Bario never got easier, though after my night of unintentional
jungle touring I could hit that insufferable turn with my eyes closed. Walking
was slow, hot and when it wasn’t damp from rain the powdered-sugar consistency
of the road, meant that you were covered in dust and grit by the time you reached
the village. One day, after my night wandering rural Bario in the dark, Jaman
took pity on me and offered one of his son’s bikes to ease the trip. The
problem was that the road was so appallingly beaten that biking was only marginally
faster than walking and three times as strenuous. Also, as I discovered on the
short, deeply rutted, breakneck hill just outside of the lodge gates, the bike
did not have brakes. It was an Evil Kenevil moment that should have killed me,
or at least broken my back, but somehow I wrestled the bike back under control
just before I shot onto the slightly less terrifying wood-plank bridge.
When I wasn’t writing I did some minor, solo jungle trekking. Knowing
my proclivity for losing direction, I stuck to the well-used trails. Even though
these trails were clearly being maintained (if they weren’t the jungle
would gobble them up in a matter of weeks), with rickety, but serviceable cable
and wood plank bridges and even a few mysterious property fences, the dense
jungle surroundings and the fact that I never saw another sole on these walks
made it feel as if I were possibly the first person to venture into these regions
This is off-roading it.
It's almost too overgrown to see, but i am crossing a dodgy cable, wood
plank bridge that had been reinforced with metal sheeting.
The only mildly menacing aspect to these treks were the water buffalos. There
wasn’t a single instance where these hulks ever made me feel the least
bit threatened, but that didn’t change the fact that they had giant horns
and could flatten a mid-sized car if they wanted to. I maintain that even the
most docile creatures are bound to have a bad day now and again, so I never
took it for granted that I might cross one of these beasts during a particularly
poignant moment and become the target of its discontent. With the exception
of one nervous, stare-down episode, the water buffalo would turn and run into
the bushes as soon as they laid eyes on me.
Beating the heat
The satellite dish is out back
Aside from my initially cool reception at the longhouse, the Kelabits turned
out to be entirely gracious and wonderfully good-natured people. I met much
of the movers and shakers of Bario in my first 24 hours and they never hesitated
to bend over backwards to help me out. Only a few of the hardcore aging locals
looked the part of the classic Kelabit member, covered in tattoos, with their
earlobes pierced and stretched, dangling down to their shoulders from years
of supporting large, heavy ornaments. No one wears traditional garb outside
of official ceremonies. Growing up in Bario used to be very rough – before
the airfield opened, kids had to trek to and from their respective boarding
schools through the jungle for up to three weeks, one way – but the locals
have a playful sense of humor about their back-water existence and don’t
hesitate to impishly encourage misconceptions about highland jungle life. During
my visit, a friend of Jaman’s had kindly delivered the faulty component
of his new generator back to Miri for analysis. The mechanic in Miri became
loudly indignant that Jaman had tinkered with the component, changing the factory
settings, in an effort to correct the problem on his own. The friend decided
to have a little fun with the grumpy, big-city mechanic, saying (roughly paraphrased)
“Of course we tried to fix it ourselves! Do you have any idea what we
had to do to get this thing to Miri? Four guys had to fasten it to a bamboo
pole and carry it eight hours through the jungle, at 3AM, uphill, with no shoes…”
and so on. In actuality, a guy backed his jeep up to the generator shed, loaded
it and had it at the airfield in 20 minutes. Moreover, the influx of satellite
dishes in Bario, some mirthfully perched on the sides of leaning, dilapidated
stilt houses, is a constant reminder that the Kelabit have left their former,
detached isolation far behind.
A nearby longhouse settlement
They speak the international language of volleyball in Bario. No kidding.
They even have a women's league.
I spent my evenings at the lodge sitting on the floor in the candlelit kitchen
with Jaman, Sumi, Lian and/or the smattering of other guests. Jaman was educated
during a period when all classes in Malaysia were conducted in English. His
vocabulary is impressive. Sumi speaks only a handful of words in English, but
she still manages to sit and follow along at times, interjecting her own questions
and always laughing when we did whether she understood or not. Jaman is an excellent
story teller with decades of the kinds of anecdotes that inevitably occur while
living on a developing, jungle island. One night while it was just he, Sumi
and I nibbling on jungle fruit, while their kids, home for the weekend, sat
cross the kitchen doing their homework by candlelight, Jaman explained his intense
fear of flying by recounting how he had survived two plane crashes in the space
of nine months back in 1991. Holy dairy cow! What are the odds? Well, perhaps
in deep Borneo, plane crash odds increase a bit, but still… I couldn’t
fault his phobia. And I slowly began to dread my own return flight to the coast.
Before I left, Jaman took me and a few guests with him to a Kelabit longhouse
so we could look around while he helped the residents with some paperwork. The
modern Kelabit longhouses are drastically different from the Iban longhouses.
Rather than being bare and wide open, the communal area is where all food preparation
and storage rooms are located. The private living quarters are in an adjacent
building connected to the communal building by a series of short footbridges,
one leading to each door. The classic Kelabit longhouses did not have separate
living quarters. Everyone lived and worked in the one communal building. As
I tried to imagine this existence, I commented, with an accompanying wink, about
the lack of privacy. Jaman laughed and explained that he actually had to ask
the elder tribesmen about the intimacy limitations of the old days, on behalf
of a curious researcher. He couldn’t ask the question directly of course,
so he simply asked “What did you do when you wanted to have children?”
The tribesmen all laughed, knowing the root of the question and explained that
whenever they had jungle fever, they would sneak off to the farm house (each
family had their own farm house by their respective patches of land). Or failing
that, they could usually sneak in a quickie “when it rained very hard.”
After five nights I left Bario. It’s always mildly difficult to leave
a newly familiar place, having earned hard-won knowledge like the best places
to stay, eat, hangout and get drunk, knowing that you have to start the tiring
discovery process all over again. This issue aside, there have been very few
instances over the past 20 months where I have been truly regretful to leave
someplace. Bario is at the top of that list. As a traveler, while you can usually
count on your hosts/locals to wish you well and maybe even say something to
the effect that you’re always welcome to visit, it’s usually just
a genial, polite exercise. Almost mechanical. In Kuching I walked away with
several firm and genuine invitations to return and stay in people’s private
homes. In Bario, there was a sincere tone of melancholy as I bade farewell to
my friends. Nearly everyone I knew was at the airport as I waited for my plane.
I would have liked to think they were all there just to see me off, but the
airport is one of the main social centers in Bario and many people go there
daily to use the public phone, receive freight/family/guests or just sit with
a coffee and watch the action. Still, while I walked the gauntlet, saying goodbye
to all these people, some of whom I had only spoken to briefly, I was overwhelmed
by the intense sincerity each of them showed when they wished me well and hoped
that I might return some day. Not surprisingly, I felt a particular attachment
to Jaman and Sumi. These two were like my caregivers way out there in the jungle
and consequently I developed a reverential affection for them. And despite my
roll as the guy who disappeared with his laptop for extended periods of time,
reappearing only to be fed until bursting three times a day by Sumi, they seemed
to have an inexplicable fondness for me. This was reinforced on my final night
at the lodge, as the three of us fought the urge to go to sleep at a reasonable
hour, knowing we all had an early start (Jaman and Sumi rise without fail at
6:00AM each morning), instead staying up until the wee hours, trading stories
in the shadowy kitchen.
Jaman lingered at the airport with me until the bitter end, lamenting about
how we had never had the chance to trek together. I promised him I would do
my very best to return to correct that oversight. And for once really I meant