Bario Homestay in Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak

by Gunver Bennekou

Sarawakan Stephen and Danish Tine had a dream. Now the dream has been fulfilled. They have established an art gallery and a homestay called Jungle Blues Dream in the Ulung Palang longhouse in Bario, an amazing village in the Kelabit Highlands of northeast Sarawak, close to the Kalimantan border.

 Longhouse in middle surrounded by rice fields.

Longhouse in middle surrounded by rice fields.

The Bario plateau is remote without road or river transportation, and it is very peaceful. Around 1000 people live there, mainly Kelabits and Penans. 

The village is rather widespread as there are paddy fields in between the longhouses and surrounded by forests. Trekking into the woods brings on delightful discoveries and so does walking to remote villages.

 An afternoon with a Kelabit woman.

An afternoon with a Kelabit woman.

While roaming, you might bump into old Kelabits with elongated ears. Encounters of Penans carrying wild sago from the forests are a treat. The village also has its touch of modernization - an internet café and some cars, although there are no paved roads.

The homestay is situated in a new Kelabit longhouse which is still under construction. The former longhouse had caught fire in 1998 and was destroyed. Starting in 1999, the new longhouse took shape bit by bit as each family rebuilt its own “room” adjacent to another within the same row.  They use local wood Agathis while poles are made of ironwood, transported from Miri or Marudi.

The longhouse is situated on top of a hill so from the balcony you can enjoy a wide-angled view of the beautiful paddy-fields and surrounding mountains.

A Typical Day in Bario Homestay

Usually you are awakened at 5.30 in the morning when the church bells start calling. You hear the bamboo bells followed by the metal bells, now accompanied by a dog’s bark and then the roosters’ call. After a little while you might hear the singing from the church.

 No room for Nintendo here.

No room for Nintendo here.

You don't need to get up that early; you can just turn to your other side and relax in bed until breakfast is served. The rhythm in the house is very much related to daylight. You often go to bed early as electric-powered light is only available between 6.30 pm and 9.30 pm. The electricity is produced by a generator.

You get the most wonderful food in this place. The main dish is rice, which is a bonus as the fragrant Bario rice is famous throughout Sarawak. Tine and Stephen have their own paddy fields which mean the rice can’t get any fresher.

Even the vegetables are picked from the forest. My favorite dishes are wild ginger flower salad and soup made of wild spinach – very delicious. The meat is local too, either from the forest such as wild boar or deer, which can be roasted or smoked. The fishpond delivers fresh fish.  The pineapples from Bario are very sweet and the local fried bananas are delicious. The food is usually prepared at the open fireplace in the longhouse.

 Living in the midst of art.

Living in the midst of art.

A sape, a local musical instrument, sits in the front room. The host Stephen is also a fine sape player. The walls in the rooms are decorated with local material and Stephens’ own artwork. The art gallery is also the living room and in the gallery Stephen’s paintings are exhibited.

The neighbor to Tine and Stephen is the headman of the longhouse. On a fine evening, there is a possibility where you’ll be in very good company with these artistic and musically-inclined neighbours.

Staying in the Jungle Blues Dream is really eco-travelling at its best.  A house made mostly of local materials. Local food cooked on open fire. Very little use of fossil fuel.  A great connection with the local community and culture.

 Kelabit highlands.

Kelabit highlands.

The only large carbon footprint is your trip to Bario. The only possible way to go there is with a flight from Miri. Twice a day MASwings sends a little Twin Otter plane over the highlands to Bario where a marvelous sight of the rainforest awaits until your descent into Kelabit’s charming enclave.

Photos by Gunver Bennekou.

 Tine and girl next door.

Tine and girl next door.

Getting there:

First get to Kuching, capital city of Sarawak. From Kuching, get a connecting flight to Miri. Spend a day or two visiting the awesome caves there before heading to Bario. MASwings flies twice daily from Miri to Bario. The cost of a return ticket is approx. RM 200. To get from Bario airport to the homestay, it is either a 45 min. walk. Taxi is an alternative, at RM 10 per person. Or make arrangments for Stephen or Tine to meet you there.

The daily rate at this homestay is RM 70 per person per night. This includes the three main meals and free tea/coffee. There are four guest-rooms in the house which can accommodate up to sevenpersons. Towels supplied. Western type toilet and showers (cold) available.

Guests are welcome to stay as long as they like. Trekkers typically spend a week in Bario and the surrounding areas. Activities: jungle trekking/camping, river cruise, hunting and fishing, longhouse visit, mountain climbing.

Booking is mostly done by email as there is no cell phone connection in Bario and only a couple of public satellite phones. Payment is done by cash on leaving Bario. There are no banking facilities in Bario so guests should bring enough cash for their stay.

For more information or enquiries about Jungle Blues Dream homestay, contact Tine and Stephen at junglebluesdream@gmail.com. As the internet works intermittently, try calling them at  (+60) 019 884 9892. Address: Ulung Palang Longhouse, Bario, Kelabit Highlands

 Stephen loves forest-grown cinnamons.   

Stephen loves forest-grown cinnamons.