I can now proudly say that I have successfully completed one of the most difficult trek ever in my life; trekking from Ba’Kelalan, up to Mount Murud and down Murud and then all the way to Bario. Why do I consider this the hardest trek ever? Read on and find out! This article is about the village of Ba’kelalan and Bario and our amazing journey in between. Please take note that this route can be done the reverse way as well (
from Bario to Ba’kelalan).
This article is divided into
BA’KELALAN & BARIO
Ba’kelalan and Bario are actually groups of smaller villages located in the remote highlands of Northern Sarawak (
see map below), bordering closely with Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Ba’Kelalan is home to the indigenous tribe while Bario is home to the Lun Bawang tribe, but both places share something in common; Kelabit . Both Ba’Kelalan and Bario are known for their rice production premium quality rice which is acknowledged to be sweeter and could easily sell for about triple the price of other normal varieties in the cities.
Location of Ba’kelalan and Bario in the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo ( click to enlarge)
Other than rice production,
from the various nearby mountain salt springs is another main export; known for its natural high mineral content and does not contain toxins and pollutants like normal processed table salts. salt production
to get to Ba’kelalan; via flight (Maswings) or via land (4-wheel drive over logging roads). The latter can be a bit tricky at times depending on the road condition (if it has been raining for a few days, the road can be so muddy that progress on the 4WD will be slow hence needing to stay overnight somewhere along the way), while the former option is the easiest ( two ways Maswings flies from Miri to Ba’kelalan with a transit in Lawas three times a week).
Naturally we went for the easier option of flying with Maswings using the Viking Air DH6-400 Series Twin-Otter 19-seater plane. It’s approximately a 2-hours flight to Ba’Kelalan with a quick transit in Lawas.
Sitting in the Viking Air DH6-400 Twin-Otter 19-seater plane was an interesting experience, with a direct view into the cockpit and seeing through the eyes of the pilots. Shown in the pic are the pilots making final preparations of laying up the plane to the airstrip of Ba’kelalan.
Ba’kelalan’s one and only airport is in the village of Buduk Nur and it was as expected; small, unpretentious but adequate. Folks in the village crowd the arrival hall waiting to help their loved ones carry their belongings. Even the family dogs are there to greet! People there would usually just step out of the airport and walk home; only those that come from places further away would come in their 4WD.
DAY 1 – THE OWL HOUSE HOMESTAY
Our first homestay for the first two nights was located in the ballpark to the airport, one of the nearest house in the vicinity; across a small stream and some padi fields; it was a really an enjoyable stroll getting there. The Owl House homestay was actually a last minute addition to our itinerary as Gillian and I were not able to get on the same flight as all the others, therefore we had to book the next available flight which is two days prior to the date where the whole group is arriving.
Our first obstacle was this bamboo bridge; especially challenging if you’re carrying a heavy backpack at the time!
Once across the bamboo bridge, we were treated to a sight of the Owl House Homestay against the beautiful picturesque backdrop of green hills and padi fields.
Kopi, the homestay’s family dog accompanied us all the way from greeting us at the airport.
The welcoming committee; The few buffaloes that were grazing the grass near the padi fields.
After navigating carefully across the padi field’s muddy path ( it has been raining for days), we finally reached the shoulder of the hill where there the Owl House is sublimely built on. The dark brown house against the green of the hills stands out in contrast across the landscape. Shown in the pic is Andy, the homestay owner who was very insistent in helping me carry my bright red Karrimor backpack.
Before I entered the house, I took once glimpse of the view behind me and it was simply breath-taking. I can’t believe this is the view I will be having for the next few days.
The living room of The Owl House is built with varnished wood giving it a very vintage look yet snugly feel.
The living room receives plenty of light from the generous amount of windows, ensuring that it constantly receives fresh, calm and cooling mountain air into the home reminding me of my bed and how it would feel to be snuggled up in my blanket.
The interior of the house features a lot of ornaments related to owls. For example each newel of the stairs are guarded by owls. Then there’s the owl clock, photo frames with the different species of owls found in Ba’Kelalan and many others around the house.
The first floor is quite spacious, probably able to fit in at least 8 mattresses comfortably. The mosquito tent netting is a very nice feature as there are times there might be insects that are in the house from the opened windows. Unless we would like Mogli, the house cat to help keep the bed warm for us!
This was my bed for the 2 nights, which faces the slope of the hills. Gillian on the other hand wakes up to the view of the front; a view of the village against the landscape of padi fields.
View from Gillian’s bedside window! Even with all the fresh mountain air, I found myself short of breath as the lush green scenery takes my breath away.
Outside there is an old tree stump that has been converted into a bird pool (
left) and a very intuitive ‘weather station’ ( right).
The main door to access the house ; Andy & Maureen’s names hangs on the ceiling.
The elevated ‘bridge’ that connects the main house to the kitchen and dining area.
The size of the kitchen and dining area is colossal, love the very generous space here. It’s almost as huge as the main building with the ground and first floor combined.
The dining area was the place where a lot of our conversations took place. With coffee and tea available anytime throughout the day, we found ourselves with our cup of coffee sharing stories with Andy and Maureen.
Masterchef Maureen. It was obvious from first sight that Maureen was an expert cook. The aroma from her kitchen was always the best smell around the house!
He seems to concur! The aroma from the kitchen was simply irresistible, so much so that he keeps popping his head up every few minutes to check on the status of the food!
clockwise): Soya sauce chicken, Fresh long beans fried with eggs and onion, Bunga Kantan ( Ginger Flower, a wildflower commonly used by the natives of Sarawak) with cucumber.
This was an interesting dessert; the ice-cream bean. It tastes just like vanilla and the texture feels just like eating ice-cream. The fruit feels refreshingly cool for the throat.
After ingesting the delicious lunch and allowing the stomach a bit of time to digest, Andy and Maureen asked if we would like to walk to the next village. We jumped at the chance! So off we went, on our little walk.
From the Owl House , we navigated the small alleyways that had simple convenience stores dotted along it.
left) The locals are trying to grow this orchid, recognise it? Vanilla! ( right) The locals call this fruit, Kristinal.
In no time at all, we reached the main square of Buduk Nur. Shown in the pic is the community hall ( left) and church ( right) of Buduk Nur.
This is the wooden church gong. Each time before the start of a church service this gong will be knocked creating bonks that resonates throughout the whole village sounding as if someone is knocking at your doors, summoning everyone to church.
Some very nice houses with interesting architecture can be seen from the square.
If you notice closely, the architecture of this particular house closely resembles that of the Owl House. That’s because the owner of this house is the same person that designed the Owl House.
One of the long houses in Buduk Nur. At first sight, it does not look like the typical longhouse Malaysian would be familiar with. However, it still does assume the important features of a longhouse, which is a house consisting of many ‘apartments’ for the different families and a common living room area called the ‘ruai’. I suspect that the longhouses resembles more of a long double storey house because of the constant cold weather here.
The beautiful flowers seen in and around Buduk Nur.
There is a strawberry farm that was recently started by one of the locals of the village.
It was really amused to see that badminton is a major past time in the village.
Volleyball is also a main sport here. It is great to see that the youth in the village are able to keep themselves busy by getting involved in healthy activities.
It was also a heart-warming sight seeing the village children still enjoying themselves spending time together just being kids without the distractions of modernization and technology.
On the right is the ice-cream bean tree (Inga Edulis).
Buffaloes, chickens and ducks are everywhere.
This path leads to the next village, Long Langai. It is an enjoyable 5 minutes walk with sceneries of padi fields surrounded by lush green hills.
The first ‘fun’ would be this hanging bridge which will magically transform any normal sane adult into kids again. Even Bapak wasn’t spared!
The view of the river from the hanging bridge on the way to Long Langai. Spot the hidden buffalo?
The walk to Long Langai from Buduk Nur is one of the most rewarding walk that brings you through many beautiful picturesque landscape.
Upon reaching Long Langai, the first landmark would be the one and only primary school in Ba’Kelalan. (The nearest secondary school is all the way in Lawas!)
The Lun Bawang people are extremely friendly people. This little girl came over to say ‘Hi’ to us and quickly ran away! Maybe they are shy too?
“Well hello there handsome little one”. Literally, everyone knows everyone in Ba’Kelalan. Not only that, everyone is a cousin someway or another.
left): the little one seems amused by our presence, while ( right) the four-legged ones continues on sleeping in the cold weather.
Long Langai would be the hop-on spot for a 4WD ride to the other villages of Ba’Kelalan.
After the pleasant walk to Long Langai, we made our way back home to the Owl House. Andy started preparing the fireplace as it was getting quite cold at night.
Gillian and I helped with preparing the ginger flower (bunga kantan). It involves peeling the outer layers of the flower taking just the inner bud of the flower.
The outer layer of the flower is often used for garnishing of dishes (not shown in picture) but the more important part of the flower is the bud of the ginger flower which has an exotic, sweet and flowery flavour to it, high in antioxidants and antibacterial properties and is often used as a spice in many dishes.
For our dinner, Maureen stir-fried the bunga kantan with local scallion. The resulting dish was a very nicely balanced sweet and somewhat minty.
Sayur Riep soupl. This particular vegetable has a very sticky feel to it. But tasty!
left) Fresh black pepper chicken, ( right) Mani Cai (also called sayur manis) with eggs.
For a change, we sat near the fireplace feeling totally relaxed and comforting while we had our dinner.
Even Mogli decided make himself cosy right next to the fire. Either that or he’s just waiting for the food!
We spent the rest of the night just sitting around the fireplace warming ourselves and sharing our stories, especially stories of our first-hand paranormal experiences. I vote Bapak (Maureen’s father) for having the best first-hand paranormal experiences stories from his army days!
DAY 2 – LONG BAWAN (KALIMANTAN)
Gillian and I wanted to visit the nearest main Kalimantan Indonesia village called Long Bawan. Since it was only the two of us, Badau arranged for 2 motorcycles to take us into Kalimantan. Normally, the better option would be to use a 4WD, but because a 4WD for two would be quite costly, we went for the cheaper alternative. A ride in a 4WD would mean a comfortable and pleasant ride throughout. Going on a motorcycle would mean our legs and shoes would probably get some mud as there are certain section of the road that are just too muddy which would result in the splatter of mud.
Breakfast for champions! (
left) Fried Mee Maureen ( right) Vegetable Fritters
Nature at work. While walking to the ‘bus station’ of Buduk Nur, we encountered this snake along the way, having a frog for his breakfast.
This stretch of road is located just opposite of the airport of Buduk Nur. It is the ‘bus station’ of Buduk Nur as this is where people will get on their 4WD or motorcycle rides to head to their next destination.
The motorcycle ride from Buduk Nur to the first Malaysian immigration post took only approximately 10 minutes. The immigration post is a simple post which consist of just a table manned by an Immigration officer; they are renting a small corner of a house from a local, who happens to be our motorcycle driver, John.
While our driver John helps us with all the immigration procedures (which involves presenting our Malaysian IC), Gillian says hi to the puppies. Meanwhile, a watchful security duck keeps an eye on our movements.
The road on the Malaysia side (before reaching the actual border) is mostly tarred and the ride is smooth with just a few small potholes here and there.
As we approach the border the road started to get more sandy with loose stones as if the road was only half finished.
Here it is, the border between Malaysia and Indonesia. The red sign marks the invisible boundary line between the two countries.
The boundary marker that identifies the change of the land boundary between Malaysia and Indonesia.
After passing the Indonesia border patrol who are manned by TNI (Tentera National Indonesia, in English is Indonesian National Armed Forces) soldiers, the roads from here onwards are now all mud. Since it has been raining for the many days that we were there, you can imagine the kind of challenges our motorcycle riders faced. By the way, we were not allowed to take pictures of any of the TNI outpost.
After half an hour, we finally saw some signs of civilization. The arch says “Selamat Datang Di Indonesia” which means ‘Welcome to Indonesia’ in Malay.
Our final destination is Long Bawan, the main village of upper Kalimantan. However, Long Bawan is not the first village we will encounter. Long Medang was the first which we made a quick stop to visit the salt spring.
We were treated with a very rustic looking wooden hut which we were unsure about at first. Can this really be a salt processing factory?
After peeping into the ‘hut’ the owner gestured for us to come in and that is when we saw these barrels of salt water which is taken from the deep wells behind the hut. It is left to boil for days until all water has evaporated leaving only the salt.
The end result of boiling the spring salt water and then drying out the salt is this; fine mountain salt, rich in minerals and pure of toxins.
After visiting the salt factory, we continued on our journey further into Kalimantan.
I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of churches in all the small villages that we passed by since Indonesia is supposed to be Muslim country. I really enjoyed looking at the architecture of the churches here as most of the churches are made of wood and had a spire (pointed tower) giving it a very gothic-like old-english look.
Meanwhile, flock of ducks rule the ponds in the villages.
I found this particular lonely tree in the middle of the padi field very interesting, with only one side of it having leaves while the other half remains bare creating a sense of eeriness.
After 1.5 hours from the border going through all the muddy roads, we finally arrived in Long Bawan. It seems that the government of Indonesia is in the middle of a building a bigger and wider road.
The houses in Long Bawan doesn’t seem all that different from those in Ba’Kelalan. However, I did notice that some of the houses were built on stilts, indicating that the area is prone to flood.
Can you guess what building is this? It’s the airport, formally named Juvai Semaring Airport! Don’t be fooled by its size though. The traffic for this airport is quite heavy.
While sitting down for lunch across the town square, I noticed that there were no more than 30 minutes between each take off and landings from the airport. What a busy airspace.
I’ve never seen a small yellow plane before in my life. Is this the airborne version of a yellow taxi?
This building’s tower was sticking out above the rest of the houses, making it look like a pagoda. But then I thought, why would a village in Kalimantan have a pagoda. After further close inspection, this turned out to be the mosque!
This is the Information Centre located in front of the main town square.
This seems to be the busiest street around town, with plenty of motorcycles and 4WD coming in and out. Many of the convenience stores, coffee shops and accommodations are located along this stretch of road.
Things are very laid-back in Long Bawan, to the point that riders there don’t even bother to wear their safety helmets.
It was the school holiday at that time, so we get to see many kids, well below the allowed age, riding around in motorcycles.
We ended up having lunch at Kapan Lagi, which basically means “When else if not now?”. It was recommended by Andy and Maureen since its their usual go-to place.
Kapan Lagi’s Nasi Lalap was surprisingly simple; just rice, fried chicken and vegetables. However, the fried chicken was delicious with very tasty crust and the vegetable was very fresh and its gravy was very tasty as well.
Here’s me posing with Frederick (center) and John (right). A big thank you to them for keeping Gillian and I safe during the whole ride to Long Bawan and back. Their skills in navigating through all that mud on a motorcycle is God-like!
DAY 3 – BA’KELALAN VIEW POINT / BUDUK BUI SALT SPRING / BUDUK ARU THEOLOGY SCHOOL
This was the day that Gillian and I was going to be united with our friends. They are flying in Ba’Kelalan and expected to arrive around 10 am. That gives us more than enough time for an early morning workout, going up the viewpoint of Ba’Kelalan, also called the Pa Sarui viewpoint. The afternoon would see us having a ride on the 4WD to see the other villages of Ba’Kelalan that is further away including Budur Bui’s Salt Spring and Buduk Aru’s Theology School.
Conveniently, the entrance to trail up to the viewpoint is located just behind the Owl House. We set off at 6 am after having a scrumptious breakfast prepared by Maureen.
It looks like its a trail that is not frequented as the grass and ferns are overgrown. Progress was a bit slow at first as Badau had to clear the overgrowth for us.
We had to climb over a bamboo fence to continue on the trail. Most of the fences and gates around the village are meant to keep the buffaloes from invading (thereby causing damage) their territory.
Lovely, more muddy trails. Seems like we are blessed with mud since our first day.
Passed this sign but could not make out what was written on it as the markings were already worn out.
After more grass and mud, we reached the brow of the hill where we continued along more wooden fences. At this height, I was wondering if the buffaloes really bother to climb all the way up here.
I was captivated by the size of leaves of this plant. Its size is big enough to be made into an umbrella hat if I turned it upside down and placed is on my head.
Saw some passion fruits along the way.
Some of the flowers that I saw along the way.
As we pushed forward, the trail started becoming more bare with rocky terrain… the kind of trail that I like.
Alas, we reached the viewpoint of Ba’Kelalan on Pa Sarui after 40 minutes. Not the best of weather at that time, but the fresh air and good company makes this for a very enjoyable morning workout.
Someone up there must have liked us, and cleared the clouds above the village for us for a few seconds just so that we could get this shot.
Some pineapple growing on top of the hill. The story goes that this hill used to be an pineapple farm but has been neglected.
Morning dew on the cobweb.
The view from the brow where there were some wooden fence was also nice with a closer look at the fields of Buduk Nur.
These two lovelies was startled by our sudden presence and glared at us suspiciously. Sorry! Didn’t mean to invade your territory! We be leaving now!
One last photo with Andy (center) and Maureen (left) before we left. Thank you so much for having Gillian and I over. Your hospitality and the hospitality of the Lun Bawangs should be role models of what Sarawak is.
One last look at the Owl House… going to miss the place and the people in it terribly.
Badau works as Maswing’s Load Planning Supervisor and he was on duty that morning so he offered to accompany us to the airport.
Like the superman that he is, he changed into his work uniform in no time. Thank you Badau for everything! Especially bringing us up to the viewpoint and the last minute sourcing of the motorcycles to Long Bawan for us!
While waiting for the rest of the group at the coffee shop outside the airport, we spotted this kitten with its unusual looking charcoal-like fur.
The final approach of the Maswings flight navigating between the hills and over the padi fields.
A local and his dog walking the airport to fetch someone, just in time for witness the plane approaching overhead for the land.
Finally the whole group is united and the adventure begins!
Rani’s house is located literally behind the church. This is where we will be spending a night before the long trek to Mount Murud and subsequently to Bario will begin.
First things first; a warm welcome and briefing for us all.
And then it was time for lunch!
One of the local delicaies, their version of the escargot called Akep (edible river snails).
Pinaram (Grated Tapioca, sugar and salt mixed together and rolled into balls which are then deep fried)
Nuba Laya (steamed rice mashed and wrapped in Itip leaves)
One thing is for sure, when in Ba’Kelalan, we will never go hungry!
After lunch we headed straight to Long Langai where our 4WD was waiting for us. We climbed on to the carriage of the 4WD for our joyride to the other villages cowboy-style.
Our 4WD were fitted with makeshifts benches which were made using planks that are placed horizontally across and secured with tough rubber stoppers. It was kind of nervous at first, but on the other hand, we get the best ‘seats’ with the best views.
This is the kind of road that linked all the 9 villages of Ba’Kelalan. On a good day, the soil is dry and hard so going on the road is easy. On a bad day, especially if it has been raining for days, the road will be reduced to a muddy mess giving birth to hero drivers who can navigate through all the difficult spots.
The entire journey was painted with never-ending padi fields stretched out for infinity. The fields that are now flooded with rain-water, like a mirror reflecting the vast, seemingly milky sky.
This is Ba’Kelalan’s version of a bus stop, except there are no bus services there. As most of the villages are situated a few meters below the hills, It is used by the locals to wait by the roadside for their pick ups.
We arrived at Buduk Bui Salt Processing after 1.5 hours. I was surprised by how modern the facility was compared to the one at Long Medang.
The salt plant seems to be double the capacity of the one in Long Medang having two rows of boilers for boiling the salt water.
Behind the salt plant building is the old building, now abandoned. A salt lick is right next to it and the salt wells a bit further on.
The inside of the salt well.
Going hunting anyone? Noticed these two locals having a delightful afternoon chat before he rode of with his rifle in hand.
I never knew there was a full-fledged theology school all the way in Buduk Aru. This tells me that the people of B’Kelalan really takes their faith seriously.
The main building of Buduk Aru’s Theology School where the classes are conducted. Kudos to all the people responsible in maintaining the school’s welfare; beautiful flowers planted at every corner, clean and conducive classrooms and many posters and murals of faith painted on the walls.
The girls’ hostel looks extremely cosy as well!
After visiting the theology school, we made a quick stop at Buduk Bui village as some of us wanted to buy the salt.
A four-legged local stares on curiously, studying the foreigners to his land.
This elderly woman and her foour-legged friend was also curious on our sudden presence in the village. Eventually she offered us her mangoes from her mango tree explaining that a lot of her mangoes goes to waste as there are not enough mouths to help her finish them!
We arrived back in Buduk Nur in the evening. We still had some time before the sunset, so we decided to take a short stroll to the river behind the village and was rewarded with this beautiful sunset.
Dinner for the night!
It gets quite cold at night and Rani was kind enough to prepare boiled water so that we could bath in warm water. Boiling water is not an easy task in Ba’Kelalan.
There’s no electricity, therefore water has to be boiled the old-fashioned way, someone needs to monitor the fire by constantly fanning or blowing the flame to keep it alive, and adding on more firewood whenever needed.
This would be the last comfort we would have before we start on our long and painful journey tomorrow. We went to bed early that night, knowing that the next day would be the start of our adventure.
Click here to continue to the next part of the article will cover our 4 days trek up Mount Murud and then finally to Bario, all on foot!