Looking to get away from it all? Somewhere there aren’t many tourists, indigenous cultures exist and live and you can explore nature? Consider the Kelabit Highlands!
The Kelabit Highlands, located in the heart of Borneo, is a beautiful and remote mountainous region that is the perfect destination for travellers seeking adventure and a unique cultural experience. With its pristine rainforests, rolling hills and towering peaks, the Kelabit Highlands is a nature lover’s paradise with an abundance of opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing and bird watching.
The Kelabit Highlands is also home to a vibrant indigenous culture with its residents known for their warm hospitality and rich cultural heritage. This region is known as the “land of a hundred handshakes” thanks to the hospitality of its people.
Visitors can immerse themselves in the local way of life by staying with a Kelabit family, learning about traditional customs and crafts, and participating in traditional ceremonies. The region is also famous for its cuisine which features a variety of dishes made from local ingredients such as rice, sago and a variety of herbs and spices.
The Kelabits are an Orang Ulu group (the collective name for the 27 tribal groups in the northeastern part of Sarawak). There are also Penan people here (a seminomadic group). It’s easy to visit traditional longhouses here, and even stay in one for a true cultural experience.
However, as not many people travel to Kelabit Highlands Sarawak Malaysia, there is a lack of information about visiting this region of Malaysia. Its isolated position away from roads and highways also can make it seem complicated to visit.
But don’t worry, with daily flights, it’s really not that hard to visit this amazing region of Borneo. You can book accommodation and activities and have a great experience here – as long as you follow this full guide to Kelabit Highlands with everything you need to know to visit here!
This guide is based on my own experiences of visiting the Kelabit Highlands. It really is a unique place to go in Malaysia and one I enjoyed a lot. I have travelled a lot (96 countries!) and all over Malaysia and nowhere have I had such an authentic, local travel experience. I was around and talking with locals the whole time I was there.
Many people speak great English (thanks to Australian missionaries coming here, converting the population and opening schools with English instruction) which adds so much to the experience as you can talk to some of the locals easily. I don’t think I have been somewhere so remote before in a non English speaking country where there are multiple people who speak perfect English 😀
Keep reading for everything you need to know including the things to do in Kelabit Highlands, Kelabit Highlands trekking, Kelabit Highlands homestays and accommodation, how to book a trip here and more. You’ll soon be all set for your own Kelabit Highland adventure!
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Where Are The Kelabit Highlands?
The Kelabit Highlands is a region in the state of Sarawak on Borneo. It’s in the northeastern part of the state by the Indonesian border and Mulu National Park.
Bario is the main town in the area, although it is actually a collection of villages that only has 1,200 people. So don’t expect a big bustling town here. It’s best to bring in everything you need as there are limited shopping opportunities.
The Kelabit Highlands itself is much bigger than just Bario and has about 47 villages.
Top 14 Things To Do In Kelabit Highlands
Kelabit Highlands is best known for its trekking opportunities to visit remote longhouses, but there are other things to do in this region as well.
Here are the best places to visit in Kelabit Highlands. Read through and select the ones that fit your interests and timeframe.
Discover The Beautiful Bario Rice Terraces
Within Sarawak, Bario is famous for its short grain rice. The Kelabit people have been growing rice for a long time using traditional methods, but this is being abandoned by younger generations who would rather an easier method of earning money than hand cultivating this rice.
It’s also difficult to be profitable with just one harvest a year.
However, it’s still one of main industries in the area and you can visit a Bario rice farm while you are here to learn more about the fabulous Bario rice and to see rice farming in action. If it’s planting or harvesting time, you can easily see this by walking round. You won’t be able to miss the rice paddies.
I visited in August when they were planting. It was back breaking work, but people are transitioning to using machinery to help.
To understand more, it’s easy to hire a guide to walk you around and explain everything you want to know. Homestays can usually arrange this for you. It’s what I did.
You’ll no doubt get to try some during your visit as well. Make sure you take a moment to appreciate it.
Enjoy A Traditional Longhouse
This region is famous for its longhouses and, with many still in action, this is one thing you have to do when you’re in the Kelabit Highlands.
The most famous one is Bario Asal Longhouse. It has 22 doors and is reputed to be the longest one. It still has a traditional Kelabit layout.
The longhouse has enclosed front and back verandahs. The front one has a hearth for each family. The back verandah makes a huge hall of over 100 metres long where weddings, funerals and parties can take place.
Some of the older residents have the famous Kelabit earlobes that hang down to almost their shoulders after wearing heavy brass earrings for so many years. Don’t take any photos without asking first.
It’s quite an experience to walk through here and see the living history. There’s a small fee to do so or you can choose to stay here. I did! There is more about my experience staying here below.
There is also a small shop under the Bario Asal Longhouse homestay which has bicycle hire if you feel like a bike ride.
Shop At Bario Market
This is the small shopping area in the centre of Bario in the Kelabit Highlands. It has a few shops and restaurants. Before the pandemic, there were more there, but many have shut thanks to not many tourists visiting currently.
I ate at a bead shop which was run by the cousin of my host at the longhouse. She had the famous long ear lobes and was very friendly.
I bought some great beaded jewellery for me and my kids and ate a delicious lunch of fish, greens, some nasi lemak and the famous Bario rice and pineapple.
It was incredibly good, and the company was even better. They were also very thankful for the purchases I made (and there had been no pressure to buy anything). It’s extra great to buy something that will have so much meaning to me and had meaning to them too.
If you are here on a Saturday, definitely check out the Bario Market.
Visit Bario Museum
Bario Museum is a small museum next to Bario Market in the centre of the main village.
This museum tells some of the story of the Kelabits, the area and more. There are many great photos and a focus on the megaliths found in the area as well as Tom Harrisson.
It’s only small, but there’s a fair bit of information especially as it seems like you get a guided tour with entry.
Entry is RM5.
Take A Look At Bario Memorial Park
This small memorial park is not far from Bario Market and is an important memorial for the people of this area as it commemorates the landing of British and Australian soldiers who parachuted in to help protect the area from the Japanese. It’s also a memorial for the local people who died fighting against the Japanese.
There is an event here each year in March to commemorate this and Tom Harrisson who didn’t just lead the British and Australian troops who came here in World War II, but he stayed on in Borneo, eventually ending up back in the Kelabit Highlands helping out during the Konfrontasi with Indonesia and also documenting the people and culture he found in Bario.
Hike Up Bario Prayer Mountain
One of the most popular hikes in the Kelabit Highlands is up Prayer Mountain for great views over the valley. It’s quite high and if you look up, towards Miri, you’ll see it with the big cross on the top.
It’s definitely not the easiest trek I have done. A lot of it is more climbing than trekking and there are ropes by the well worn path to help you get up. It is worth it though!
I had read beforehand it is a two hour walk with the first hour being relatively easy and the second hour full on. This was not my experience.
The whole walk is quite steep, but the good news is that it only took me about 55 minutes and that’s including rest breaks including ten minutes at the old church.
The path starts about 15 minutes walk from Bario Asal Longhouse. It’s not where Google Maps says. Instead, it’s the road at the other end of the longhouse. You follow this road to its end which is on the opposite side of the neighbouring village. You then walk through a rice farm to the start of the trail.
I went with a guide, which I recommend, but if you are doing this alone, ask a local to point out the right road so you definitely head the right way and the trail entrance when you hit the end of the road.
From here, maybe the first 5 minutes are relatively easy and then it’s a steep climb. About 2/3 of the way up, there is an old church. It’s a good place to stop and take in the views. There’s also a washroom here.
I actually managed to get stung by a bee while waiting here so be careful 😀
It’s then a very steep climb to the top. This section took me about 17 minutes and I was very glad when it was over. Especially because I was at the top!
When I was booking, they recommended doing it for sunrise at the top, but I didn’t like the idea of walking up in the dark so I waited until sunrise to walk up. I’m glad I did!
It’s a hard walk, but worthwhile. Parts of the walk have ropes to help you climb up. I have a bad ankle so I did find it tricky but doable.
It’s definitely a must do while you are in the Kelabit Highlands.
Visit The Bario Wind Chapel On Revival Hill
The Bario Wind Chapel is a special church located on a small hill called Revival Hill. It’s just before Bario Asal Longhouse.
The church has been constructed with a transparent roof and without any pillars. Inside is a small circle of stools where you can sit and prayer or reflect to the sound of wind chimes up above.
From the church and Revival Hill, there are nice views of the surrounding area and hills.
The church was built here because it’s said that on the 3rd of October 1973, the Holy Spirit descended on the people of Bario with a sound like rushing wind. This chapel commemorates this event and serves as a reminder of it and the revival of faith that it brought to Bario.
The Wind Chapel is another easy place to visit if you are in Bario. It’s located in the school compound, and you need to sign in here (there is a booth next to the school entry) to visit the hill.
Explore A Pineapple Farm
Bario isn’t just known for its rice in Sarawak but also its pineapples. Another Kelabit Highlands attraction is to visit a local pineapple farm and, of course, to try to pineapples.
It’s another organic crop grown with traditional methods. It’s said they are sweeter than your average pineapple due to not using any fertiliser. Some locals also believe that eating them will keep you young and help with stomach problems.
With a local guide, it is easy to visit a pineapple farm or just keep your eyes open as you wander around Bario, and you will see them.
Tour Around Bario
The Bario region is the main one in Kelabit Highlands and a great way to explore the villages that make up this area, learn more about the Kelabits and to see rice farming and pineapple farms in action is to take a walking tour.
A walking tour takes 2-3 hours and will take you around many of the villages that make up this area. We went to small lookouts, talked to rice farmers and talked about everything Bario and Kelabit. It was fantastic.
The walk was easy and enjoyable as well. There always seemed to be a new amazing scene enfolding in front of me.
You can walk around this area by yourself, but you’ll get so much more out of it with a guide. I booked this in advance (see packages below), but you can probably book it through your homestay too.
Learn Traditional Salt Making
Another kitchen ingredient made in Bario is salt. The Kelabits have been making own salt for a long time so that they were able to preserve their food.
If a Kelabit family needed more salt, they would all go camp at the salt lick for a week to make the salt they needed. Back then, there was little trade and they would mostly make salt just for themselves.
40 years later, most Kelabits buy their own Bario Salt Sarawak thanks to younger generations being better educated and often leaving the area. Buying salt is much easier than making it.
However, this doesn’t mean that the salt lick is abandoned. It can be just as busy today. However, now it’s not people making it for their personal use, but for sale. This is where Bario salt is from.
The process of making the salt takes about a week and is a 24 hour process with fires burning to help boil and dry the salt. It’s a more complicated process than I would have imagined. It’s also very mineral rich, especially with Iodine, which means it is good for you. It’s meant to be especially good if you have a thyroid condition.
And what is great is that you can go see it for yourself at the Main Keramut Salt Lick. While it’s not always operating, it is worth checking out if you can. It’s really just luck whether someone will be there using it when you visit.
When people come, they usually stay for about two weeks. There are areas for them to sleep (the platform to the right in the picture above). My guide said they can make about RM1000 in two weeks. It’s open to all locals.
The best way to visit is with a guide who will drive you most of the way here in a 4WD. It’s then a ten minute walk down a path like pictured below.
I don’t recommend visiting in the rain. It started raining while we were here and the path quickly turned into a heap of mud and running water for our walk back.
You can learn more about this salt making process (and see more of the Kelabit Highlands) in this great video:
Visit A Grape Farm
I was also able to learn more about agricultural in this area when I visited a grape farm.
The farmer was quite amazing and spoke perfect English so I was able to gain a lot from this tour. He talked about the problems he was having finding the perfect grape variety for the region. He also showed me other fruits he was growing and discussed the difficulties of producing for profit here.
For example, he had been concentrating on melons, but they were big and heavy which made them too expense to transport out by plane. However, if they went by road on the horrible bumpy track to Miri, they would be damaged and not able to be sold.
I visited this as part of a tour to the salt lick.
Megaliths are manmade structures or carvings on/with rocks. There are many to find in the Kelabit Highlands that can date back thousands of years! They can be quite massive. Visiting at least one of the estimated 800 megaliths here should be on your to-do list.
They can be found sprinkled across the area. You can reach them by trekking/4WD. It’s possible to find guides that will take you to them.
The most famous one is Batu Ritong. It’s massive, and no one knows how it would have been created with its four massive rock pillars and one across the top which is a whopping 4.6 metres long, 3 metres wide and 0.76 metres thick. The average height of the pillars is 2 metres tall so how did they all get there?!
It is a mystery.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to go to one of these, so a picture from the museum will have to suffice until I return 🙂
Trek In The Kelabit Highlands
While you’ll have little choice but to do some trekking in the Kelabit Highlands due to the lack of roads, you should also consider doing some longer tracks.
You have multiple choices from trekking the megaliths in the area to jungle trekking to mountain climbing or trekking to different longhouses. Some people also trek between villages/longhouses in a one way direction, like from Bario to Ba Kelalan. From there, you can also fly out of the region.
Trekking is the only way to get to some remote areas, and treks can vary from easy to hard taking in the jungles over the border in Kalimantan as well. It’s best to only consider multi-day treks if you have a good level of fitness.
While you can do some treks alone, you’ll usually need a guide, especially if you are going into the rainforest. Guides can usually be organised in Bario, but if you are travelling during peak times of July and August, organising one in advance via your guesthouse or tour company can be a good idea.
They can also help you work out your route and overnight stops. If you do a one way route, you’ll still have to pay for your guide and a companion (so they aren’t tracking alone) to return back to the starting point.
A typical route is Bario to Ba Kelalan. This is a three or four trek and is a good mix of primary rainforest, paddy fields and villages. You can stay in the jungle and in a village on the way.
Leaches can be problems on tracks in this area, so leach socks can be a good idea. Take extra batteries for your phone and camera too.
I didn’t do this on this trip, but after loving Bario so much, I am keen to return and give it a go 🙂
Other Activities In Kelabit Highlands
There’s a surprising range of activities in the Kelabit Highlands. Here are some other options that were available through my homestay to give you a taste of what you could do:
- Cultural night. This is an evening of traditional dancing, games and singing
- Beading class. Learn how to make traditional Kelabit necklaces
- Cooking class. Learn how to make traditional Kelabit food
- Dancing class. Learn a traditional dance
Kelabit Highlands Map
Getting around the Kelabit Highlands is by 4WD or by walking.
Best Place To Stay In Kelabit Highlands
One of the best ways to experience the Kelabit Highlands is by staying in one of the traditional longhouses that are scattered throughout the region. These communal living spaces offer a unique and authentic way to experience the local culture.
Even if you don’t want to stay in a longhouse, most accommodation in the Kelabit Highlands is a homestay/guesthouse with a thin line between the two.
Most options include all meals and this is what you want since there aren’t a lot of eating choices. At the very least, you’ll want access to the kitchen. You’ll usually have to share a bathroom.
You can find a couple of choices on Agoda, but generally you need to book with a local agency as not much is available online. Many places do use whatsapp to communicate so messaging on that can be the way to go.
You could consider:
- Zara Lodge – Rooms in a central location in Bario Kelabit Highlands with access to shared living and kitchen facilities
- Bulan And Daud Homestay – Twin rooms in Bario with shared bathrooms
Bario Asal Longhouse
I stayed at the Bario Asal Longhouse which is not just a place to visit when you’re in Bario but also a place to stay. There are a few homestay options in here. I stayed at the Bario Asal Longhouse Homestay. The pictures here are of that as are the ones above where I discuss visiting this great longhouse.
It is in a building directly connected to the main living area of the longhouse near the front which meant a great balcony with great views.
There is a lovely big common area with the rooms branching off this. The rooms are simple. Mine had two single beds, two bedside tables (which were big, I had my luggage on one) and some shelves and hanging space.
The only problem was that it could get a bit stuffy and smoke could come in from the longhouse hearths. If it had had a fan, it would have fixed these problems.
There was one shared bathroom plus an additional toilet.
I booked mine via my package deal described more below. Since I was in the Kelabit Highlands to enjoy the culture, this was the perfect place to stay for me.
All my meals were included. The only thing I didn’t like was not having my own bathroom, and there could be quite a lot of animal noise, but these were both things I expected. I could also hear people in the longhouse but that quietened down about 9pm.
My meals were fantastic, and I would eat them with my elderly host who was lovely. I could see up and down the longhouse dining areas when I was eating including all the hearths for cooking (the traditional fire places) that were still being used. It was fun just soaking it all in while I ate.
There were also tea and coffee making facilities and filtered water I could access as needed.
How To Get To Kelabit Highlands
The main (and best) way to get to the Kelabit Highlands is by flying. There is a small airport in Bario, and MASWings, the regional carrier of Malaysia Airlines, has flights here daily. They fly in tiny Twin Otters which, in theory, seat 19 people but they only sell tickets for 9 people. The flight is quite an experience in itself.
There are generally a couple of flights a day from Miri with some going via Marudi. The scheduled flying time is just 50 minutes. Prices can be surprisingly reasonable starting at just RM90.
The flight is definitely like none I have taken before. At check-in, they will weigh you and your luggage as there are weight restrictions due to the size of the aircraft. The baggage allowance is only 10kg for check-in and 5kg for carry on. Although since they weighed both me and my hand luggage at the same time, they didn’t check that my carry on met this 5kg limit. It was weird to have my weight highlighted on my boarding pass!
The guy I booked my tour package with in the Kelabit Highlands said it is possible to pay for extra baggage if you are over, but I was reluctant to rely on this.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any luggage storage at Miri Airport. Some local travel agencies will hold your luggage for an extra (small) fee if you book through them or you can ask a hotel in Miri to store your luggage. Because of these flights, I made sure I packed light for my trip.
The planes are small with no toilets, meal service or flight attendants. You can see the pilots though! I could see nearly everything they did. Flights can be delayed or cancelled due to adverse weather conditions such as wind so try not to have a tight connection.
As there are no flight attendants, in Miri we were given our peanuts and water at the gate and sat in a room to watch a video of the safety demonstration. This was a little pointless as the volume was so low, I couldn’t hear anything. At Bario, I was given peanuts at check-in.
The flight itself is incredibly scenic as it does not go very high. On the way there, there were barely any clouds and I saw the coastline turning into palm oil plantations turning into rainforest including Mulu National Park. It was superb. I loved every minute and have not been glued to an airplane window since I was a kid!
The seats and space is quite limited on board, though. I am a slimmer build and 1.64 metres tall and I only just fit in my seat. When they go back to filling up the plane (they need to increase the length of the runway at Bario Airport first), bigger people would find this flight hard. It’s also quite loud so ear plugs would be helpful.
There is only one other option to get to Bario and that’s trying to get a seat in a 4WD journey between Bario and Miri. This takes at least 12 hours and sounds quite painful. I am not sure how you can book this. I would start with a local agency if you really don’t want to fly. It’s likely to cost a lot more than flying though.
Kelabit Highlands Tour Packages
While it probably is possible to fly to Bario and worry about the rest of your stay in Kelabit Highlands later that would probably be quite difficult. There aren’t taxis waiting for you at the airport, and it’s not somewhere you can arrive and have several hotels right there to find accommodation.
While you may be able to walk some places from your accommodation, you really need a tour to get around and see all the great things to see in Kelabit Highlands.
At the very least, I recommend you book accommodation and a transfer from the airport before arriving. You can then talk to the owners about tours. Find more information about Kelabit Highlands accommodation in the section above.
However, the much better way is to book a tour package before you arrive. This way, you won’t waste any time and will be all set to go.
This is a little harder than it sounds. I only found one local agency online before going that had tours – but they were a crazy price for a single traveller, and they would only do a four day package.
Luckily, I then found Bario Reality Tourism. They sadly don’t even have a website, but I could book via whatsapp. This wasn’t without its hurdles after all my booking messages disappeared from whatsapp as they had their account set to make all messages disappear after 90 days! When I messaged asking for the details again, they gave me different ones! I sorted it out but I did worry what would happen when I got there.
Thankfully, my host was there when I got off the flight, and it all went smoothly. In fact, I received more than I expected and was met with such great hospitality.
They have many options of what you can do and fantastic prices. I only paid RM630 for a 3 day package full of activities, my own guides, accommodation, airport transfers and all meals. I think this is a bargain.
But if you book with them, make sure you save all your messages somewhere 😀
What To Pack
As I stated earlier, you are in a remote area without many shops so take what you need with you.
Some items to make sure you pack:
- Good walking shoes – even for walking around the village. There aren’t nice sealed roads and footpaths here
- Rain gear. It can rain a lot!
- Jacket/slightly warmer clothes than you need on the coast. I wore a long sleeve shirt over my t shirt and trousers in the morning
- Mosquito repellent. Mosquitoes weren’t a problem during my stay in August, but a guide told me they can be when it’s been raining a lot as can sand flies. If you stay at a homestay by a river, it’s likely to be a bigger problem too
My homestay had a laundry service as probably does others.
Kelabit Highlands Weather
The Kelabit Highlands has a tropical rainforest climate with heavy rainfall year round. The higher elevation does make it cooler than the coast, and temperatures are similar throughout the year.
Kelabit Highlands temperature average minimums and maximums vary from 17 – 25 degrees in the Bario area. The driest months are January and February and the wettest is May followed by April, September and December. If you ascend to a higher part of the Kelabit Highlands, the temperatures are likely to be cooler.
I hope you have found this full travel guide to Kelabit Highlands useful. This is a unique and awesome part of the world that not many people make their way to.
From trekking to cultural interactions to the rainforest to the villages, there is a lot to enjoy here. While I feel the word “authentic” has been overused in respect to travel where it has lost a lot of its meaning, this really is the perfect way to describe a trip here.
With a homestay in a longhouse, meals with locals, guides and more for a great price, it’s very easy to have an authentic experience here and really have a taste of life with the Kelabits. It’s like nowhere else in the world and so different from peninsular Malaysia.
Do yourself a favour and book a trip. Flights can sell out since there are so few seats, but there are plenty of people in the Kelabit Highlands ready to give you a magnificent experience.
I very much enjoyed my trip to the Kelabit Highlands, and I hope you do too.
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