By Carolyn Hong
As we reconfirmed our return flights in Bario’s tiny airport tucked within the beautiful northeast highlands of Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak; it struck me that only 36 people can travel in and out of this settlement each day. That is the maximum capacity that the 18-seater Twin Otter can carry on its twice-daily flights, and these small planes are the main link between Bario and the cities.
There is also the option of a 16-hour trip on a gravel road to Miri but only the hardiest would brave that. We chose the flight, of course.
Bario’s isolation has kept it pristine even though its charms are well known by now. Tourists come for the cool crisp air of a settlement 1,000 metres above sea level, exotic food of jungle vegetables and wild meat, and its breathtaking scenery.
But the lesser-known sights in its outlying villages are no less charming.
Bario is not one large settlement. Rather, Bario usually refers to the “town” which houses the airport, a couple of shops, clinic and police station to serve the dozen villages that are half an hour to eight hours’ walk away.
Just 50 years ago, it had only one longhouse, today called Bario Asal, but it grew during the Confrontation of 1963 when villages close to Kalimantan were relocated here after incursions by Indonesian soldiers.
Artist Stephen Baya,, who runs the Jungle Blues Dream homestay, was barely a few months old when he was whisked by helicopter to Bario with his parents. Their houses were dismantled and transported out but they left behind livestock like buffaloes.
Hardly anything remains of his birth village of Pa Main, a two-hour trek from Bario. Its last remaining hut is now used by hunters hunting for deer, wild boar or monkey in its pristine forests.
The hunter’s trail
We trekked an hour to Pa Main’s lone hut on this muddy trail passing the rusty British ammunitions store from World War 2. Leeches joined us with every step, a sign of thriving wildlife in its jungles. The hut had a fireplace, and water came from the river nearby. Our beds that night were hammocks, and our candle-lit dinner was fish, monkey and vegetables from the jungle. It was atmospheric, to say the least.
The salt trail
But if hunting is not for you, hunt down salt instead. Bario is famed for its iodine-rich salt from the mountain springs, made by boiling salt water in huge vats over a wood fire for 24 hours. We reached the salt springs in the Pa Umor village after an hour’s walk on a cement path and half-hour on a muddy foot path. If the salt-maker has supply, salt can be bought fresh from the vats.
The ancient trail
Bario is also rich with ancient stone monuments erected to mark significant events like deaths of noblemen or war victories. Some stones have notches boasting of the number of heads taken in the head-hunting days. Dozens of these monuments dot the villages, with one of the more famous being the two-metre high table-shaped Batu Ritong erected as the burial site of the nobleman Ritong. It’s in the village of Pa Lungan, a four-hour walk from Bario.
The buffalo trail
To get to Pa Lungan, we walked the trail used by buffaloes transporting goods to and from Bario. It’s all foot power here as no motorised vehicles can traverse the swampy path. There is one hill to climb, some swampy crossings, lots of mud and a few leeches make it a bit more exciting but it’s an easy walk. With just about 100 people, Pa Lungan life is dictated by nature as people rise with the sun and sleep not long after it sets to plunge into deep darkness a village without electricity.
Small as it is, Bario is immensely rich with beauty. A food festival will be held here on the last weekend of July, so that might be a good time to be one of the 36 people on the daily flights into this lovely hidden spot.
Photo credit: Carolyn Hong