Visiting Bario, the valley of the wind

By Jude Toyat
@judetbpseeds
judetoyat@theborneopost.com

After hearing so many exciting stories about Bario over the past few years, I’ve always hoped to be able to visit the highlands and eventually on April 3, my dream turned into a reality.

Joining a work visit by the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek to the Jewel of the Land of the Hornbills, my trip started as early as 8.30am.

Bario is located in the northeast part of Sarawak close to the international border between Kalimantan and Sarawak. It is good to know that there are three flights available to Bario daily from Lawas and Miri.

For those who are somewhat afraid of flying, however, be warned that the MASwings Twin Otter from Miri is smaller than a commercial plane, with no flight attendants or toilets on board.

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The journey soaring above the rainforest at low altitude allowed me to witness a wide view of Bario’s breathtaking landscape, taking photos while anticipating my first trip here before arriving at Bario Airport at 9.20am.

Apart from the flights, visitors can also travel by road today. It takes approximately 12 hours from Miri and they will be able to have a closer look at the natural beauty of the rainforest on land compared to travelling by air.

Situated in the midst of a rainforest on a highland reaching up to 1, 000 meters above sea level,  it is no wonder that this isolated territory is known as Bario which literally means ‘the valley of the wind’ in Kelabit, the language of its indigenous residents, as the average weather here is 20 degrees Celsius all year round.

Upon arrival, the locals welcomed our entourage made up of representatives of the media fraternity and officers from the Ministry of Agriculture with warmth, sincere smiles, and refreshing drinks.

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Besides the ever-present instant noodles at the airport, what made our arrival truly unique was a bite of the traditional delicacy known as ‘Senapeh’ (Bario glutinous rice).

After pampering ourselves with food and drink, we loaded our luggage and hopped on to a pickup truck before embarking on a journey to the Bario mountain salt processing facility at Main Keramut, Kampung Pa’Umor here.

The Salt of Bario

As you enter the processing facility, you’re hit by a scorching heat caused by the steel drums containing salt water collected from a nearby salt well and used as part of the salt-making process.

It was a fascinating experience for me as this was my first time witnessing the traditional method of manufacturing salt. I was made to understand that the water in the steel drums takes approximately five days to completely evaporate, leaving behind wet salt crystals.

Ahmad Shabery and Alfred Jabu listening to explanation on the methods of processing the Bario mountain salt by Kampung Pa’Umor village chief Pasang Iboh (right).

Ahmad Shabery and Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu listening to Kampung Pa’Umor village chief Pasang Iboh (right) explain the methods of processing the Bario mountain salt.

Once the wet salt crystals are formed, they are then packed into bamboo tubes and placed over fire to continue the drying process.

The salt eventually hardens into tubes that will be wrapped in palm leaves tied with string before being sold or consumed.

Ahmad Shabery preparing the processed Bario mountain salt for sale.

Ahmad Shabery learning how to pack the processed Bario mountain salt for sale.

Bario salt has a high mineral content (natural iron, potassium, and magnesium) that helps to ensure good health, thus making it a highly desirable product from the highlands. A tube of Bario salt is also available for sale at a price of RM20 each and you can also found it in nearby areas including shops and markets in Miri.

What makes Bario rice so special

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To increase its appeal to the mass market, Bario rice manufacturers like Bario Ceria have vacuum sealed their products for freshness and compact shipping.

One of the most talked about products from the highlands is Bario rice, and I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Bario Ceria rice mill to take a closer look at its rice manufacturing facility here.

I came to learn that what makes Bario rice special is that the paddy fields are submerged in clean, spring water thus making it a natural product. Apart from the terrain here, the weather also contributes greatly in ensuring the rice is unique, setting its own standards in terms of taste and aroma compared to other rice products elsewhere.

One of the many paddy fields in Bario. The picture was taken recently showing the field before the planting season that usually starts in August here.

One of the many paddy fields in Bario. The picture was taken recently showing the field before the planting season that usually starts in August here.

Although Bario rice is slowly expanding its market to other places, due to its relatively limited supply and availability at a reasonably high price, it is still a hot item among locals as well as foreigners.

Despite its popularity, the farmers face a number of difficulties which include transportation which threatens the sustainability of their businesses.

The cost of fertilizers alone, for instance, can change from RM50, 000 to RM70, 000 per season.

Malik Bala

Malik Bala

Bario rice cultivator Malik Bala confirmed that the difficulty involving the production of Bario rice stemmed from the high shipping costs of fertilizers, which were not only too expensive but took about 12 hours to be brought in to the area.

“The Bario rice is really popular and it is very special because it involves the use of organic fertilizers without any chemicals. However, the problem is the harvesting of rice that has to be made manually as well as the lack of water supply when the drought season arrives.

“Talking about fertilizers, it is definitely hard to bring it in from the city because it involves a relatively high cost when the price of a kilogram of fertilizers is RM1.20, making a gunny of fertilizers that I need come up to about RM150… and every season I need five gunnies of fertilizers for an acre of land,” said the 49-year old farmer from Kampung Para Mapuh.

Matius Litah

Matius Litah

As for Kampung Pa Lungan village chief Matius Litah, 56, who has been farming since he was 17, he looks forward to seeing the local rice product be made commercially viable to the highest level.

“I hope that the government can continue to help farmers in Bario enhance our businesses because I can see that the local products from Bario can still go far if they are being expanded and developed even further.

“I also wish to see more of the younger generation getting involved in farming activities to ensure rice production in Bario can be sustained for years to come,” he added.

A place for the weary

We were finally brought to the Nancy Harris Homestay where we would be spending the night and the first thing that I looked for after a gruelling afternoon was the air-conditioner.

Unfortunately, the homestay located on a hill near the expansive Bario farmlands is run by locals offering visitors a traditional way of living, which meant that there were no air-conditioners available here. But being in the highlands means that all you need to cool down is to open a window for a breath of fresh cold air.

Homestays may not be anything like city-standard hotels, but I was very excited to observe the place’s interiors. Family portraits were obvious as I entered the hallway with Kelabit artefacts placed near the comfy sofa where I laid down to rest.

There are more than 10 rooms at Nancy Harris Homestay, as well as a spacious balcony which gives you the chance to look out over the paddy fields. I highly recommend it for those seeking to indulge in a paradise of tranquillity.

After leaving our luggage in the homestay, we then moved on to Iskandar Café for refreshing drinks and appetizing food before continuing our journey with the ministry to visit several places of mesmerizing scenery and monuments on bikes.

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During the journey around Bario, past several farmlands, paddy fields, churches, schools and main attractions, we also got the chance to mingle around with villagers and I came to know that some Kelabit villages still use power generators that only start operating close to evening. It is also useful for those who would like to visit Bario to know that there are not many shops available here, only cafes, while hotels are non-existent.

I also came to learn that Bario was a great place for several activities including jungle trekking, bird watching and kayaking – which was disappointing as I did not manage to do any of these due to the insufficient time allocated for us during this media trip. Nevertheless, we were happy as we managed to do some fishing and play golf at a home of one of the villagers here.

Sweet, sweet pineapples of Bario

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Jabu laying his head on the back of a buffalo after a visit to Mustapha’s pineapple farm with Ahmad Shabery (second right) and other visitors looking on.

Day two of our stay in Bario brought us to a pineapple farm owned by Mustapha Radja Sewa Abdullah and to my amazement, there were also buffaloes scattered in the nearby fields peacefully eating grass.

I learnt that the sweet pineapple from Bario is of high nutritional value and is believed to help one retain one’s youthfulness as well as cure several diseases.

“The Bario pineapple has always been one of my medicines for sickness ever since I was 13 years old and I continue using it until today,” said Mustapha’s 38-year-old daughter Fazidah Mustapha.

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Fazidah Mustapha

The Bario pineapple is said to be truly special for many reasons – one may be for its exclusivity of taste as it is believed that it can only be eaten at its best in the highland after being harvested. If it is taken out of the area, it will not stay as sweet due to the area’s climatic factors that help set it apart from pineapples elsewhere.

According to Mustapha, 76, who has been cultivating this distinctive product for more than 15 years on nearly 15 acres of land, the Bario pineapple also has several other useful qualities including helping one retain their youthfulness.

Mustapha Radja Sewa Abdullah

Mustapha Radja Sewa Abdullah

“The pineapples here are sweet and the experts say they contain high nutritional value. As far as I am concerned it can also help to retain youthfulness particularly for women who consume it once a day it helps them to become more beautiful.”

To date, Mustapha or better known as Pak Mus, has planted over 50,000 pineapple plants that are mainly for sale at nearby areas including Miri. It has become his great source of income, especially when the cultivation of Bario pineapples in the family has been taken care of for three generations.

To be honest, I did not enjoy eating pineapple much before, but after tasting Bario pineapple, my indifference to this fruit has changed and it has become an exception to my dislike of pineapples for the rest of my life. It is definitely a must-try here.

After indulging in the sweet taste of the pineapples, we moved on to the Bario immigration complex to witness the opening of AgroAgent in Bario. The banking facility here should help this rural area and its community live a better life, especially in terms of financial assistance.

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Mingling with the Bario community

My second day trip in Bario ended with a visit to the Bario Asal longhouse, my first time visiting a longhouse of the Kelabit community. We made our entry from the back, or the kitchen area which has a traditional fireplace, the heart of the longhouse, and considered a normal practice here.

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The villagers gave us a warm welcome and sang as we entered the hallway. Everyone gathered in the balcony area where we enjoyed the meet and greet session with lots of chats and pictures taken for keepsakes.

I was told that there are about 6,000 Lun Bawang, Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit people in Bario. Bario shares the highlands with Ba’ Kelalan and two more similar villages known as Long Lellang and Long Seridan. There are about 10 villages here, with Bario as the main village.

Meanwhile, in the Kelabit Highlands, there are a total of 15 longhouses, with seven of them belonging to the Bario district. The oldest longhouse is known as Bario Asal while the rest include Lung Palang, Arur Dalam, Pa’ Ramapoh Atas, Pa’ Ramapoh Bawah, Pa’ Derung, Padang Pasir and Kampung Baru.

Most of the population here do agricultural activities for a living, including farming Bario rice, mountain salt, and pineapple.

At 1pm, I was brought to the Bario airport for my flight back home, from Bario to Miri first, then to Kuching. Although I did not get to see as much of Bario as I wanted, it was indeed an exciting experience of a lifetime.

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Ahmad Shabery (6th left) with members of the media during a photo call after visits to several interesting places in Bario.

I look forward to visiting Bario again in the near future, especially during the Bario Food Festival, or known there as Pesta Nukenen Bario that will take place in July, for an opportunity to get closer to the highland community and give me the chance to write more about them thereafter.

To me, Bario offers an opportunity to enjoy distinctive lifestyles and cultures hardly made available elsewhere. Being away from the bustle of the city, it allows the local communities to continue practicing their own traditions and enjoy undemanding lives together. I can say that it is a perfect getaway for those who wish to enjoy a peaceful and serene life while enjoying beautiful natural scenery.

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