Although in the past 50 years Malaysian Borneo has undergone dramatic development, there are still pockets where you can experience “old Borneo” — that is, places where people still live in longhouses and go out into the forest to gather food. Here are a few suggestions on finding them.
One such place is Bario, home to the Kelabit people and an hour’s plane journey from Miri (as with all rural flights, MasWings is the only operator). It’s also possible to get here by 4×4, although it will take you 12 hours, mostly on unpaved logging roads. Be nice to yourself, and go in a plane.
In Bario, old cultural traditions of hunting and foraging sit side by side with modern amenities such as the internet and mobile phone reception. This may not quite be the “old Borneo” that you are thinking of, but it’s an example of an increasingly modernised indigenous community who have taken modernity and molded it to their own cultural needs. It’s a good place to go if you want to have an “authentic” Borneo experience but don’t want to be cut off from the world completely.
A good time to go is in mid-July for the Bario Food Festival, where you can sample indigenous foods from around the Bario region. Even if you visit outside of this time, be sure to eat some pineapple or rice, both of which Bario is famous for. Accommodation is easily found here, with a plethora of homestays, lodges and guesthouses to choose from. And while some lovely forest surrounds Bario, don’t be tempted to wander around on your own; always hire a guide.
If you are more of an intrepid traveller, head out on a rural MasWings flight to any destination with the word “long” in the title. Once there, find the headman’s house and ask if there is somewhere you can stay. Don’t be surprised if the headman replies in a perfect British accent, as he’ll have probably gone to school when Borneo was under British rule. It used to be that you could turn up and stay in someone’s house in return for a bag of sugar but this is no longer the case; expect to pay around 50 ringgit per night per person, which should include three meals.
Turning up out of the blue and demanding somewhere to stay may seem a bit rude to us, but it’s actually perfectly normal for most Borneo communities; lack of a means of communication and an historic culture of travelling from village to village has panned out quite well for the intrepid tourist. If you want to do some jungle trekking, it’s best to seek out the guide who speaks the most English and agree on a price for their services beforehand. Prices per day can range from 80 to 100 ringgit for a guide and 60 to 80 ringgit per day for a porter.
By Hollie Tu
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.