The Kelabit Highlands: The Land Of Nowhere

By Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man

The Kelabit Highlands. Ever heard of it? Not many people have. It’s one of those places where you go to escape the world. Situated in the highland mountains far into the interior of Borneo, this is as far away from the fast pace of the modern world as you could get. It is a place where time could easily slow to a crawl.

The only real way to get to the Kelabit Highlands is to fly in on a small propellor plane to the regional town of Bario, the main gateway to the region. Only a few a day leave from the coastal town of Miri in Malaysia, and carry around 15 people at a time.

Bario has a population of 800 and is the main town in the whole region. That gives you an idea how remote this place is. The first thing you will notice, apart from the surrounding mountains, is the peacefulness of where you are. Then you will start to meet the locals and find out how friendly this place is.

The Kelabit are the main tribe of the region, and are a very friendly group. Smiles are everywhere. There really is something about reaching remote places, you will almost always find some of the nicest people you could meet anywhere!

Kelabit woman cooks up some delicious local food. (Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)
Kelabit woman cooks up some delicious local food.(Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)

Staying in a traditional longhouse, where many families live in one long building, is a great way to get a local experience. After settling in you can go for a short walk to get to the base of Prayer Mountain. Here you can climb up in about 1.5 hours to get a view across Bario, and the mountains surrounding it.

I was pretty sure they called it prayer mountain not for the cross on top, but to pray you don’t slide all the way down on your ass, on the muddy, slippery, steep slopes!

Around Bario there are some treks into the jungle along mountain trails, to reach remote villages. The modern world is slowly encroaching here however, with some trails now cut off by logging roads. However some routes are still undisturbed, and this is where you would want to head.

Moving out to the village of Pa-Lungan, deep in the mountains, takes about 4-5 hours trekking along a jungle trail. In parts muddy, with broken bridges to navigate, and some treacherous, blood sucking leeches to keep an eye out for, it is an interesting walk to take.

Part of the jungle trail around Pa-Lungan. (Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)
Part of the jungle trail around Pa-Lungan. (Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)

The reward is worth it. High up in the misty mountains, lies one of the most tranquil places you could ever be. With only around 100 people in Pa-Lungan village, and the only way out a 4-5 hour hike on a jungle trail, this is remote!

The area, in fact the whole area of the Kelabit Highlands, is surrounded with ancient stone megaliths, mostly used in ancient times as burial sites. Staying at a local lodge run by a very friendly older couple, the husband can take you out to take a look at one of these megaliths.

That night you will be fed some of the most delicious meat you would ever have! Wild boar caught by local hunters, smoked over a fire, and then served to you, is one of the best things you could ever do for your taste buds.

The rest of the home cooked food is equally outstanding, and was for all the nights spent in Pa-Lungan. The area is famous for their rice, and mouth watering sweet pineapples. The pineapple will blow you away, the best I ever had. You could come here just for the food.

There is only electricity for a few hours at night, powered by a generator. So when the lights go out and you want to read, it’s time to get the flashlight out. However you are up in the jungle area surrounded by numerous insects, many of which are attracted to light.

Your flashlight being the only source of light around, will soon leave you getting bombarded by huge insects to the face, as you try to read! Then there are the rats and spiders running along the roof beams and floors. Not for the faint hearted.

The next day the owner will again take you out for a walk. This time it is the “jungle supermarket” walk. Here he will take you along a trail surrounding the village for a few hours, pointing out the local flora, and what uses they have.

The owner of the lodge cuts some local fruit. (Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)
The owner of the lodge cuts some local fruit. (Jonny Duncan, Backpacking Man)

Again the trail is full of mud and bamboo bridges, making it difficult to walk in parts. Thankfully not to many leeches were found crawling across your shoe! The owner of the lodge is very knowledgeable about the flora, and the uses of it. It is very interesting listening to what he has to say, but the only main points you will most likely remember, are how to get fresh water in the jungle, in case you ever got lost.

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Copyright © 2014 by Backpacking Man. This article was written by Jonny Duncan and originally published at backpackingman.com

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