By Harlina Samson
BARIO, Feb 22 (Bernama) -- Bario, which means "wind" in Kelabit, is a remote plateau in Sarawak's northeast that stands at about 1,150m above sea level.
Almost entirely surrounded by densely-forested highlands, some rising to as high as 2,400m above sea level including Sarawak's highest peak Mount Murud, the air over Bario is always cool.
The temperature ranges between 16 and 25 degrees Celsius. However on some occasions it can dip to as low as 11 degrees and it is advisable to wear some warm clothing as it can be very "unpleasant" as the evening approaches.
Bario is about 50 minutes by air from Miri or 40 minutes from Marudi. Malaysia Airlines, via its Rural Air Service, operates nine flights a week to Bario from Miri and Marudi, using the 19-seater Twin Otter aircraft.
Another way to reach this valley of the highlands is a tortuous journey through leech and mosquito-infested jungles from Marudi, Bario's closest town or Ba'Kelalan, which is about 60km away.
HOME OF INDUSTRIOUS KELABITS
The Bario plateau is the home of the highly industrious Kelabits and the source of the highly popular, sweet aroma and high fibre Bario rice apart from the area's "signature" sweet and sugary pineapples.
A brief stay in a longhouse in Pa' Bangar, owned by Muslim convert Mustapha Raja, gave some insight into a Kelabit family's daily routine.
Mustapha's daughter Zaharah or Bulan as she is fondly known among the local community and her elder brother, Abdul Halim or Ben are busy with their daily chores.
This means taking orders and supplying rations for a nearby army camp and school, getting provisions from the airstrip and harvesting pineapples before sending the tropical fruits to Miri and nearby settlements.
"This is our routine. Most of the time I would be around here, carrying out my father's tasks as he is always on the move to Marudi, Ba' Kelalan, Miri and nearby areas," said the 29-year-old mother of two daughters, whose husband is working in Miri as a diver.
Abdul Halim, 30, said despite Bario's remoteness and under development, the Kelabits are happy and contented with the valley's natural beauty and feel that it should not be disturbed.
LAND OF HARDSHIP
"It may be a land of hardship as there is no proper roads ... we have an unsurfaced route which is only good enough for light motorised vehicles, enabling the people to reach the schools, shops and airstrip as well as areas as far as Pa' Umor and Pa' Ukat," he said.
However basic amenities are available in this valley. There are two schools, a clinic, an immigration office and a police station manned by skeleton staff as well as 12 shops, wet market and food stalls.
There are three pay phones that can be used to make calls during emergencies -- one at the airstrip and the other two at a shop and the secondary school. There is also a public phone that can only receive calls.
Abdul Halim said as there is no public transport in Bario, pick-up trucks are used to transport goods while motorcycles are the preferred choice of locals to move around.
Most longhouses and the two schools use portable diesel or petrol-powered electric generators for lighting while others use solar panels as there is no power supply in Bario.
FRIENDLINESS OF KELABITS
For newcomers, they could feel the warmth and friendliness exuding from the Kelabits, as early as when they set foot at the Bario airstrip. And one may have the impression that they are not among strangers after seeing the smiles and greetings from the villagers.
Going around Bario's villages namely Ulung Palang, Pa' Ramapuh, Arur Layun, Arur Dalan and Pa' Umor, everyone met would stop to say hello while those riding motorcycles would raise their hands or nod their heads as a sign of greetings and courtesy.
A hospitable and friendly person is highly respected and valued by the Kelabits, said Zaharah, adding that the locals consider it rude if hospitality is not offered to any longhouse visitor.
"... and members of the community are expected to at least greet one another," she said.
The Kelabits are one of the state's 26 ethnic groups.
Bario community leader Pemanca Ngimat Ayu, 84, said there are more than 6,000 Kelabits in Sarawak and about 1,500 are in Bario. The rest have sought better life in the petroleum-producing town of Miri.
Ngimat said most of those living in Bario are from the older generation, easily recognisable as they bear the traditional Kelabit tattoos, elongated and pierced earlobes as well as heavy brass or hornbill-ivory earrings.
One of them is Maran Ratu, 94. He is still strong and commutes regularly on foot to the town from his Ulung Palang longhouse.
WALK FOR HOURS
"I can still walk for hours," said Maran Ratu, sporting a wide grin while showing his elongated and pierced earlobes, apart from the heavy brass earrings.
Ngimat said the younger men and women have forsaken the Kelabit tradition of having tattoos and pierced ear lobes. Nowadays they are only noticed as Kelabits when they speak their mother tongue.
The Kelabits live in individual houses or longhouses in 17 villages and most of them plant paddy, pineapples, pumpkins, beans and other tropical fruits. They are also good hunters and fishermen.
They are predominantly Christians, with many of them still leading their traditional way of life in inherited longhouses. There are three Muslim families, including Zaharah's.
Bario's strongpoint, apart from its natural beauty, is the friendliness and hospitality of the Kelabits, making the valley a "must visit" place for tourists in Sarawak.
In a month, there are about 20 to 30 visitors in Bario and this number swells to hundreds during peak seasons.
Bario's remoteness seems to work more to its advantages than the otherwise. It is the site of the "e-Bario" cyberspace programme, Sarawak's pilot Rural Internet Project to link the state's remote areas to the rest of the world.
The e-Bario, launched five-years ago, is a project under the collaboration of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), Canadian Government's International Development Research Council (IDRC) and Mimos Berhad.
As part of the Government's e-community initiative, e-Bario is an attempt to get rural settlements connected.
Housed in the Gatuman-Bario telecentre, the effort is a huge success but is continously plagued by power problems due to irregular supply of diesel.
Last year's price hike of gasoline had brought more misery to Bario folks as petrol, diesel and kerosene are sold at RM32 a gallon or RM8 a litre. To further compound the hardship, the fuel is always in short supply.
The cost of living in Bario is very high as all the necessities have to be flown in and this made their prices to "triple".
Sugar is sold at RM4.50 a kg, while a 14kg cylinder of cooking gas is priced at a "whopping" RM120 to RM180 (inclusive of the cylinder). Hence, the traditional way of cooking is still very much alive in Bario.
The hardship aside, Bario offers a different kind of living experience to outsiders and tourists.
Owner of De Plateu Lodge, Douglas Munney Bala said Bario is fast gaining a reputation as a tourist destination.
Munney said tourism provide a good source of income for the locals who are hired as guides for tourists who wished to venture to Bario's exotic spots such as the Pa' Umur salt springs, Pulung Tau, Batu Lawi and Mount Murud.
Tourists can experience activities such as jungle trekking, sports fishing and hunting, sight-seeing, longhouse visits, longboat trips and traditional farming.
"It is a great retreat for those from the urban areas who seek a serene atmosphere apart from tranquility and relaxation," he said.
There are several lodging houses adopting the Kelabit longhouse homestay style namely the Bariew Backpacker Lodge, Labang Homestay, De Plateu Lodge and several others.
For tourists and adventure-seekers, Bario is an eco-tourism haven not to be missed.