The Villages of Bario Highlands ~ Sarawak
Pa'Ukat is another longhouse about an hour's walk from Bario town. It is also where Larry, our guide comes from. We stayed a night at the longhouse with Larry's family - his aging mother, his young wife and their 3 young children. Like most longhouses in the uplands, the residents are predominantly made up of the old and the young. Larry like a diminishing number of young adults chooses to remain in bario for his mother and the rest of the family. The longhouse inhabitants are normally related to each other by blood or by marriage. Larry's wife prepared us a room next to theirs.
This room used to be occupied by his sister but now the family has moved down to Miri, it's left vacant, only to be used by guests and family when they come home during festival reunions. Like all other longhouses in Bario, the long corridor walls are covered with framed photographs of family members. Walking down the corridor, skimming through the photographs on the wall, I can just feel the atmosphere in these longhouses during their reunions. The oneness, the community, family love and the sharing.
Pa'Lungan village is some 3+ hrs walk from town. There isn't much of a choice but to walk the journey, carrying your own baggage with you. Another way would be to hire a buffalo cart to take you all the way to the village. This is normally how heavy goods are transported from town to far reaching villages. The walk is not too strenuous but Larry decided it would be an eye opener to take us through parts of the highland jungle, the long way rather than take the dirt road all the way. The trekking was not very eventful except for the great number of leeches that wouldn't let up. Even when taking a break for lunch, we had to eat on the run. On the way to Pa'Lungan, we stopped by at the megalith sites. These are sacred sites where gigantic stone slabs are arranged in a certain order to mark the site. Larry believes that these were grave sites or memorial sites.
The highlands have a strange, spiritual hold on those who set foot on its soil. There is a good feeling of peace and serenity. Blessed with the good earth, gentle weather and remoteness, the people living in the uplands are content. They help each other during rice harvesting time, working on each other's lands as have their ancestors for hundreds of years. Things are slowly changing though. With the young people leaving for studies and for careers in the cities, there are fewer hands in the field. Once the harvest season is due, the Lun Bawang tribe and Indonesians from across the border in Kalimantan make their day's walk to bario for work. It has become clockwork now. They work at the fields they have worked at in previous years and once the harvest is complete, they collect their wages and make their return home.
Batu Ritung Homestay owners, Supang and Joe continue to tend to their fields and rests when the padi has been planted and continue to work in their well tended garden and the homestay. Supang is a fantastic cook and she together with her assistant, whip up an scruptious local dishes for her guests.
Do give her a call though before making your trip to Pa'Lungan. The couple visits their children often down in the cities and may not be around all the time. Bario itself still relies on diesel or petrol generators. They once had mini hydro power plant constructed at the cost of RM13million but lasted a mere 7minutes. How about that? It cost us taxpayers RM31,0000 for every second the plant produced electricity for the tiny community in Bario! I wonder how long the newly proposed wind and solar powered plant will last?!
Petrol and diesel is horrifically expensive here in the highlands.The transportation cost is exorbitant and hence most home stays do not provide hot showers. So do have your showers before nightfall.
The temperature can drop down to 17ºC. So it may be wise to pack a sleeping bag with you as well as towels and thick socks. The home stays normally provide quite thin blankets, though you could ask for extra blankets. Despite the high fuel cost, staying at the home stays are cheap and they normally provide full meals
Supang's husband has a nice collection of wild plants in his garden and will give a good rundown on the various species. We walk round this tiny village and visit Larry's cousin who has a house just a stone's throw away from the home stay. There isn't a longhouse in Pa'Lungan. The village consists of a handful of wooden, stilted houses. The entire village people were digging the ditches in the football field to make sure the field doesn't get too boggy during the rains. The young, the old -they were all out in the midday sun working and they were joyfully singing away as they worked.
We packed our bags , bade Supang and Joe farewell and headed back to Bario. From Bario, we hired a 4WD to drive us to Gem Lodge located by the Dabpur River. The owners of this lodge are Jaban Riboh and his wife Sumi. The lodge is a tidy little wooden house and the best place in the house is the kitchen. For guests who would prefer to spend the evening chatting with Jaman, the hearth where Sumi does all her cooking is the perfect place to chill. The locals still use firewood fuel for cooking. Jaman has been guiding up in the highlands for decades and still remains passionate about life in Bario. By talking with him, one can tell his love for his homeland is boundless. His passion to retain some of the remaining culture and nature for his 3 children is infectious. So he takes his guests out for walks and shows them the unique qualities of the jungles and the beauty of the soft, clear waters of the river that heals the aching body or the survival tricks to be learnt in the jungle.
As we stand looking out from the valley, we see a high wall of trees on the ridges of the hills surrounding the plains. Jaman explains where there are clearing of trees on the ridge that looks like a kink, it is not an act of vandalism. It is a deliberate clearing for a ritual the ancestors conducted. In the old ways, when a hill tribesman died, his family would provide a big feast a week later to celebrate his departure. Then a year later, the family would gather more rice, buffalo and gifts for an even bigger party. Once the food has been consumed and the last drop of borak has been drunk, the entire party races up to the nearest ridge and cuts a clearing some 20 to 30 yards wide along the top of the peak. This represents the doorway for the manâ??s spirit to pass into the after-life. The bigger the party, guests feel much obliged to cut a bigger clearing and hence a bigger door is made for the spirit to pass into the after-life. A few of these "doors" are still visible from afar.
Jaban takes us to the village longhouse where only a few residents are left living there. We sat and chatted with the oldest residents there, the chieftain of the village. There are few kelabit men and women left who have not cut away their long looped ears. Although this distinct adornment is not only restricted to the kelabits, they are the ones who are associated with such traditions. The elderly couple maintains their looped ears and continues to dress in their traditional headwear for formal occasions. Many, having been ridiculed by the folk in large towns, clipped off their ears and conformed to normalcy.
Bario and the kelabit people are a jewel and unfortunately, like most civilisations, they are succumbing to the pressures of the outside world. One day, not very far away, we will have lost most of our own cultures, traditions, language - we will have become one people. The irony is, then with this integration, we will still have differences such as colour, creed and greed and what will that make us? For now, we have the beauty of these nuances, these tiny twitches that make us unique. It's a trip worth going , just to feel human again?¦