8 Interesting Things About Bario

Despite having moved back to Malaysia for almost 3 years now, I still don’t know my country as well as I should. I guess it’s just one of those “grass is greener” things where everywhere else seems more interesting than where you are now. In a bid to correct this, I've decided to make it a point to visit more local places. Over this past Eid-al-Fitr weekend, we went deep into the Kelabit Highlands in northeastern Sarawak, to a place called Bario (or Bareo, as Google Maps likes to call it).

Here are 8 interesting things I learnt while visiting this amazing place:

  1. Bario is remote! It’s in Malaysia, but only about 15km from the border with Indonesia. There are hardly any roads into Bario, only jungle as far as the eye can see. It sits at 1000m above sea level which means it’s actually not as humid as the rest of Malaysia and the temperatures are really quite pleasant.
  2. Flying into Bario is quite the experience. We flew in from the nearest major city, Miri, in a turboprop 18-seater Twin Otter plane. Except for one short flying lesson in a tiny American Grumman, the Twin Otter is the smallest plane I've ever been in. It’s hot and uncomfortable but provides some amazing views of Mount Mulu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). My nerves were a little jangled on the flight home due to some turbulence but it’s all part of the package!
  3. Bario is home to the Kelabit people. At around 5000 people, they are one of the smallest groups of indigenous people in Malaysia. They are an extremely hospitable and friendly people though and I was constantly surprised by strangers walking up to me in the street just to say hello and to have a chat.
  4. The Kelabit traditionally stayed in longhouses. As the name suggests, it is literally a long house, in which multiple families stay. Longhouses are measured by “doors”. 1 door per family. With modernization, most families have moved into individual houses and longhouses are mainly used for tourist homestays now.
  5. Bario is known for rice and pineapples. The land here is extremely fertile resulting in some amazing produce. It’s also well known for salt. There are multiple springs in the area that produce water suitable for making salt. This water is boiled in large stainless steel vats and then inserted into shafts of bamboo and dried out over log fires resulting in cylindrical blocks of salt.
  6. Bario is completely off the power grid. Electricity here is garnered from a small local hydro-dam as well as petrol powered generators. When the rains stop, so does the electricity. When we were there, it had not rained for a while so to conserve fuel, generators were only used between 7pm and 11pm. I wasn’t too bummed though as no rain meant no leeches! It’s also really nice to be forced to unplug every now and then.
  7. Bario is one of the darkest places I’ve ever been to. I thought Death Valley on the American West Coast was amazing for stargazing but this managed to beat even that experience. It just so happened that we were there during a new moon which can only mean one thing: the Milky Way! The combination of the remote location, not having 24-hour electricity, the new moon and the altitude meant that I managed to shoot my most detailed Milky Way shots ever.
  8. A Toyota Hilux pickup truck can carry 9 people! 5 inside the cab and 4 on the back deck. This has to be the best way (if not, the most fun at least) to move around dirt tracks. We could probably have fit one more on the back making it 10 people. That’s almost an entire football team!

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