Back in the Perhentian Islands, our new friend, Andy, upon learning that we were heading to Borneo, couldn’t say enough good things about a town called Bario in an area known as the Kelabit Highlands.  He told us about a man named Jaman who purpotedly knew all there was to know about Bario and its residents and who ran a guest house called Gem’s Lodge. 

A quick word about geography.  For those of you without a map in front of you, Borneo is an island located northwest of Australia and southwest of the Phillipines.  It’s divided into three sections: a Malaysian area on top, tiny Brunei in the middle of the Malaysian area and an Indonesian area on the bottom.   Borneo 005.JPGBario, with its 1,000 residents, is in Sarawak, the western state in the Malaysian region.  It’s accessible only by plane, which means that all of the goods not manufactured in Bario have to be flown in.  (So, for instance, because there are no motorcycle dealerships in Bario, anyone who wants one must buy it elsewhere, have it disassembled, packed onto a plane, and then reassembled once it arrives.  This explains a lot about the asbsence of both motorized vehicles and other large machinery in the town.)  But I digress.

After a quick flight on a 14-seater airplane, we arrived in Bario and asked the first person we saw if he knew Jaman.  Of course he did.  He pointed to a lanky guy seated nearby in the airport and within minutes, we were loading our backpacks into the back of his friend’s pickup truck and on our way down the bumpy road to Gem’s Lodge.   

The next three days exceeded anything that we could have imagined as an ideal stay in the highlands.  On our first day at Gem’s, Derek and I wandered past rice paddies Borneo 013.JPGand buffalo pastures to a small shack where local residents were converting water from a salt spring into salt via a method that surely hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  The next day, Jaman arranged for a guide named Leon to lead us on a 7-hour walking tour of Bario and its surrounding areas.   As we walked down miles of dusty roads, Leon–who, like so many in Malaysia, spoke near-perfect English–taught us about Bario and its people. 

In what was to be one of the highlights in Borneo, he led us to the Bario Asal longhouse.  Longhouses are communal homes that are scattered throughout Borneo.  They serve as homes for many of the island’s indigenous people.   Borneo 097-1.JPGThe Asal longhouse was fairly empty, in part because it was the middle of the day and many of the residents were working in the rice and pineapple fields nearby.  Leon explained that the emptiness was also due to the fact the longhouse population is dwindling as the children who are raised in it grow up, move to the city and grow accustomed to the privacy that comes with living in an individual home.   Even if they do return to Bario, they usually don’t move back into the longhouse. 

Even despite the lack of people, the longhouse was enchanting.  Borneo 084-1.JPGWalking through the front door, we came into a long room used for group assemblies and celebrations.  The walls were adorned with photos of important moments in each family’s history.  We saw everything from pictures of the elders in native dress to graduation mementos from American universities to photos of brides in big, white wedding dresses (a sign that even longhouse residents are victims of westernization).   Borneo 022.JPGAlong one wall were about 20 doors, each of which led into a separate family’s living quarters.   The quarters all featured bedrooms and a bathroom and opened into another communal room with 20 separate fireplaces, dining tables and sinks.   Iron kettles rested on some fireplaces, promising hot tea to those returning from the fields.  Oh, to have been there during mealtime.

Speaking of meals, we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days at the Gem’s Lodge kitchen table.  Sumi, Jaman’s beautiful, serene and seemingly eternally at-work wife, cooked what was by far the best Malaysian food we’ve had to date.  The lack of roads leading into Bario results in a similar lack of grocery stores.  Borneo 001-2.JPGNot a problem for Sumi – the jungle is her supermarket.  Every night, she served us dishes made from the river ferns and wild boar found therein.  Alongside those were pineapple curry and endless plates of rice.  Amazing.

On our last full day in Bario, we trekked through the jungle for 8 hours, but I’ll let Derek–or, as he is now known, Leech Boy–tell you more about that.  A loquacious Australian named Jungle George arrived at the lodge that night and regaled us with tales of his lifetime of travels, sprinkled with occassional Oscar Wilde quotes and restaurant recommendations.    We were sad to leave the next morning, but we’ll never forget our time in Bario.

I think we mentioned before that one of our goals on this trip was to seek out places that time had left relatively unchanged.  Bario is one of those places, but I fear it won’t be that way for long.  Jaman explained that loggers had started decimating the area last year, with plans to continue through 2011.   They’re already started to see resulting changes in the weather and a diminishing wildlife population.  Jaman and other concerned residents are doing everything they can to protect as much of the jungle as possible, but they fight an uphill battle.  Go there now and see this place while it still exists as a little utopia in the middle of Borneo–you’ll be glad you did.