We were like giddy school children on a field trip, giggling and snapping photos, as we boarded the 16 seater Twin Otter prop plane en route to Bario, Borneo. Based on nothing more than an online article recommendation and a strong urge for adventure, we walked up the stairs and crouched into our seats, ready for an exciting flight. After making friends with the pilots and the other locals on the plane, we watched the propellers lift us into the bright morning sky and over the oil palm plantations that cover seemingly all of northern Borneo. After a few shaky reminders that we were in a plane that was likely produced in the WWII era, we leveled off parallel with the “twin peaks” of the highlands and began our descent into Bario. After 50 minutes of the most exciting plane ride of my life, we landed on the lonely airstrip of Bario, deep within the Borneo jungle about 8 kilometers from the Indonesian border. We took our bags off of the plane and, not having any plans for lodging, agreed to stay at the “hiker’s lodge” whose price included all meals. Some things are predictable.
Bario is a little-known town nestled deep within the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysian Borneo, accessible only by plane or helicopter, making it a relatively tourist-free zone. The corruption that the tourism industry brings has yet to reach Bario and we instantly fell in love with the hospitality of the people and natural beauty of the surrounding area. Our first full day began bright and early as we prepared to trek through the jungle to the village of Pa Lungan. We had met our guide, Joshua, the evening prior and been impressed by his friendly demeanor, knowledge of local trails, and the size of his calves. The man has clearly spent the majority of his life in the jungle- It would be a good day.
Our trek through the jungle was unlike any hike I had ever undertaken. We were sweating profusely, batting away mosquitos and crossing jungle streams while keeping an eye out for the monkeys and stopping occasionally to flick the leeches off of our legs and ankles. The ones that had already gotten into our boots were having a field day with our fresh American blood. Calling the leech bites our “trail tax,” Joshua pressed on, blazing what seemed to be his own trail by hacking away with his machete and giving us different jungle plants that he claimed were edible and often consumed by the locals. I quickly dismissed the notion that he was teaching us basic jungle survival directly before he abandoned us to fend for ourselves (confirming my mother’s fears), and was happy to find that after about 5 hours we arrived at our destination, the village of Pa Lungan.
We stayed the evening with an old couple in the small village of Pa Lungan, giving us an opportunity to not only try the local cuisine but also engage in some conversation with our hosts. The village itself is only accessible by foot, meaning that the nearest place to obtain any materials involves going to Bario (5 hours each way). Given its remote location, Pa Lungan maintains its livelihood through hunting and farming, just as it has for generations. The village is comprised of about 20 families and has a chief, a specified number of local hunters (a wild boar was caught the day before we arrived), and a large rice paddy in which each family is responsible for a portion.
Upon arrival, we were given lunch of wild boar soup, fresh papaya, and barking deer, all served with their world renowned rice (Bario rice is apparently heralded as some of the world’s best). The evening’s cuisine consisted of the above as well as freshwater turtle meat that had been caught by Joshua while we were getting ready for dinner. The resourcefulness of these people was astounding- left to our own abilities, we would have certainly gone hungry during our time in Bario. Our appreciation for the variety and taste of the food was only surpassed by the conversation that accompanied it.
Our hosts had been running the homestay for 11 years and, combined with Joshua, shared some of the history of the area and the culture. (Although we have been trying, our Malaysian isn’t quite to the “conversational” level, despite Allen’s affinity for languages. Luckily for us, the British occupation with World War II means that most locals know English and, even today, all school courses are taught solely in English.) The Kelabit people are known for their hospitality but also for their history of violence and intense notion of pride. Prior to World War II, the practice of headhunting was not only accepted, but was the only way for a man to show his courage and honor. A young man would simply go to a nearby village and attack other men, bringing back their heads as decoration to show his bravery. Apparently, a man needed to have accumulated at least 5 heads for a woman to even consider marrying him. Joshua’s grandfather was known as a great warrior and accumulated 36 heads (stud!). Upon my asking what spiritual reasons there were for this practice, Joshua asserted that there was not any spiritual meaning behind the headhunting, simply a man proving his manhood. Allen and I concluded that we would have led very short, unmarried lives as Kelabit men. In the morning, we thanked our hosts and took part in a quick game of darts (using traditional blowdarts, of course) and began our trek back to Bario.
Upon our arrival back in Bario, we enquired as to whether there was a place in town to relax with a couple brews to contemplate our jungle experience. What we found was a rudimentary shack aptly named “Rainforest Café.” Built of warped jungle wood and powered by a generator to keep lights on throughout the evening, the Café serves up an ample supply of warm beers (due to the lack of a refrigerator) and friendly locals celebrating after a long day laboring in the rice patties. Then the music came on- Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley were top picks of the local crowd who, intrigued by our nationality, confessed their love of country music and yearned for more Alan Jackson CDs. After getting their country music fix, they began the equally hilarious nightly ritual of karaoke. The only problem is that they only have one karaoke CD: 100 Best Love Songs. All in English and riddled with hits by Michael Bolton and Sting, our Bario highlight may well have been watching drunk Malaysians rock out to “Hey Jude” and singing arm in arm with us while we belted out “Country Road” into the wee hours of the morning.
All in all, Bario has undoubtedly been a top travel experience for us and acted as an appropriate introduction to our much needed “Borneo adventure.”
Next stop: Sabah, the eastern state of Borneo, for orang utans followed by some “hardcore snorkeling.”