Bario – a Highlands experience


The town centre where dignitaries watch the traditional performances.

A misty morning in Bario.

A SINGAPOREAN tourist stepped on the scale to have his body weight verified by the counter officer as he checked in for a Twin Otter flight, operated by Sarawak’s Rural Air Service, to the Bario Highlands.

His fellow Singaporeans and Kuala Lumpur friends travelling with him, were amused they had to weigh in for their first-ever flight aboard the 19-seater light aircraft to the highlands for the Bario Food and Cultural Festival 2017 (Pesta Nukenen) from July 27-29.

Apparently, they did not expect this, at least not at Miri Airport which is classified as an international airport. But it was all taken in good spirits and their trip to the Bario Highlands turned out to be an enjoyable and memorable one.

On an ordinary day, Bario could have over 50 visitors flying in on the three daily flights. But for the Pesta Nukenen, it is quite usual to have a few more chartered flights besides the normal three.

The group from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, who booked their fight last September, were only told the opening ceremony of the Bario Food and Cultural Festival would always be on the last Thursday of July – in this instance, the same day of their arrival in Bario. So, they could hope there would be sufficient culinary delights to sample on the second and third days.

Accompanying the group was a much-travelled Canadian from Toronto. She told thesundaypost she had been googling for more information on the festival since knowing about it last year. She was excited about visiting the highlands and experiencing life in the Land of a Thousand Handshakes.

The Twin Otter made a smooth landing and one of the travellers was even eager to get her bags by herself from the belly of the small plane but the luggage man at the spot saved her the trouble.

Bario is A STOLport — an airport designed with STOL (short take-off and landing) operations in mind, usually for aircraft of a specific weight and size class.

According to a local, if Bario airport were to have a longer runway, it would have to move somewhere else because there is a river at the end of the runway.

“We may have to wait many years before bigger planes can land here,” he lamented.

Bario seen from a lookout point.

Arrival in Bario town

A short ride from the airport took group to their destination. Bario is truly a one-street town, 5,000 feet above sea level. It was a hot day – 33 degrees Celsius. A few in the group were eager to try Bario’s noodles.

While the dancers were performing with their backs to the public audience (as they had to face the VIPs and VVIPs seated on the stage at the town centre), the group had other things in mind – like looking for brunch.

Business was as usual in the town’s small eateries. People were eating and taking shelter from the hot sun in the coffee shops while kids were playing happily on the nearby lawn.

The tented stalls were decorated with plants, mats, palm leaves and bamboo. Some even had small pineapples growing in huge bamboo troughs for decor.

If there were, indeed, thousands of new arrivals to Bario, pamphlets or brochures should have been prepared to introduce the different types of Bario foods. That would have been most helpful.

Most of the stall owners were either too busy selling food to answer enquiries or entertaining their long lost relatives who were visiting Bario.

It is easy to conclude many visitors would find it a lot less time-consuming just to point and buy, pack and go.

And why not, when some did not even know what they were buying unless it was from the stalls offering labelled packed food in plastic containers. Those expecting food packed in cut bamboo or wrapped in jungle leaves were a little surprised, if not disappointed, they couldn’t find any.

However, the packed food and drinks were very affordable —  from RM1 to RM10, depending on what you were looking for. Only one stall was selling an original drink, made from torch ginger – a little on the sour side, maybe a little tart, but refreshing, nevertheless.

A few tables were arranged for visitors to dine or have a rest at from the hot sun. The relatives of some of the stall owners were even having picnics at the stalls, sitting on the floor.

At one of the stalls, a retired teacher, Stanley, introduced the different types of exotic food from his longhouse. The mushroom rice was original and awesome. The downside was that visitors could not find any dried mushrooms to buy home.

A passer-by commented, “We’re rather short of supplies these few days. Even cucumbers are hard to find and our food supplies have to be air flown from Miri if we run short. The road to Bario is really bad but our petrol and diesel nowadays arrive by land — and it’s a good thing they are sold at subsidised prices. Can you imagine how much we have to pay if they come in by air? Just look at cement – one bag flown in by air is more than RM200.”

A Penan stall at Bario Food Festival.

Gugkang Raja with the guests, including DUN Deputy Speaker Datuk Gerawat Gala (second right) and Miri mayor Adam Yii (third right).

Different kinds of porridge

If you are not squeamish, you can try Bario porridge, made with ulat kelatang, the Bario tree grub.

Gugkang Raja, whose house is just behind the tented stalls, showed visitors the trees where the grubs grow.

He explained, “When a young Kelabit man finds such a tree in the jungle, he will collect the grubs. If he can get a few kilos, he can already buy a plane ticket to Miri. We in Bario are trying our best to grow this type of trees. So far, I myself have just one tree.”

Porridge in Bario can be prepared with different coloured rice – from red, purple to white. It can also be cooked with a green riverine herb called tengayen, a favourite breakfast food. The popular Bario staple, nuba laya or soft rice wrapped in ‘isip’ or ‘itip’ leaves can keep longer and is easily brought from home to farm and up the mountains.

A Mirian known as Wong told thesundaypost, “My family have specifically asked me to buy Bario pineapples. But I’m rather disappointed I couldn’t even find one to take home as this is the end of the season. Anyway, due to the 10kg allowance for the flight, it’s difficult to choose bottled products because there is none to try first.

“I would suggest placing some samples at the stalls. Maybe I should go for the jam, labelled Made by the Bario factory.”

Getting the rice field ready for planting.

Bario rice

Bario rice is a premium staple food named after the Highlands where it is grown. A stall owner told the group the best variety – purple rice — is from the village of Pa Derong but very hard to come by.

Offering information on cinnamons, a chieftain and shopowner from the village Pa Mada said the bigger trees would produce thicker cinnamon bark.

He sells thick cinnamon bark by the kilos — one big bunch could cost up to RM50 while the thinner ones about RM10. Cinnamon bark can be used to make drinks like coffee and tea more fragrant. They can also be added to soups and are part of the Chinese Five Spice powder.

Tenem or wild pepper berries (litsea) are sold at most of the stalls. Tenem are fragrant and good for making soaps. Tenem products are now highly commericialised in Sarawak. The berries are produced by wild trees found in Bario and the highlands areas. The Chinese boil pork legs with tenem roots to make a nourishing soup.

A special performance by famous sape player Anderson Kallang.

Salt Mines (Pa Umur)

A German couple told thesundaypost they trekked all the way to the Salt Spring to see how Bario salt is produced. There is a new concrete building next to the old factory. In the past, salt water was drawn pail by pail for boiling in the factory’s 24-hour kitchen. Today, a pump and a generator are used.

Some of the villagers take turns to supervise the production 24 hours a day. Many years ago, the Salt Spring was a few hours’ trek from Bario Asal but today, villagers and tourists can get there by truck. During the rainy season when the road is really bad and impassable to vehicles, the villagers and tourists have to walk one hour or longer to reach the Salt Spring.

Bario pineapples, a favourite among tourists.

Tourism and Bario

An event like the Bario Food and Cultural Festival is very popular with its ethnic food, medicinal herbs and plants. Food can, of course, be presented in various ways, samples can be given away and famous chefs can do demonstrations. Experts can promote the local methods of preserving and fermenting foods. Competitions like how to wrap hot soft rice with leaves can be organised while mobile kitchens set up to roast animal meat.

Besides, trips can be arranged to the 17 villages of Bario. There is also an archeological site where one can see megaliths and enjoy the serene scenic surroundings. The Bario Salt Springs can be a tourist attraction as well, provided the roads are good.

One of the Singaporeans in the group said, “It’s good to introduce the cultural traditions, culinary arts and beauty of the highlands to visitors from all over the world.

“The products are good, especially Bario rice and pineapples. I certainly would love to bring some of my friends over for a visit. I will be wearing my Kelabit beads and using my new Kelabit name.”

Traditional welcoming dance for the tourists from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Canada and Germany.