If you’re looking to find a way to completely unplug from the world, where better than the remote villages of Ba’Kelalan? Located within the Maligan Highlands of Lawas, Sarawak, Ba’Kelalan is a mere 4 kilometres away from the Indonesian border of Kalimantan.
Ba’Kelalan is about 3,000 feet above sea level and is home to nine Lun Bawang villages. The name is derived from the Lun Bawang word Ba’ meaning wetlands and the nearby Kelalan River.
Ba’Kelalan is not your typical eco-tourism spot, but more of a truly rural Sarawak destination. Don’t think of hotels or commercial shops, think more homestays and locally run shops. Even electrical supply or cell phone connections are scarce, making it a truly unplugged type tourism spot.
You can make your way to Ba’Kelalan one of two ways, by flight from Miri or Lawas via MAS Wings Twin Otter, which is available three times a week, or by land on a 4×4 from Lawas town via an old logging road, which takes about 5 to 6 hours. Ba’Kelalan’s one airport is what you’d expect in a place like this, small, unassuming but sufficient.
1. Salty pride
Ba’Kelalan remains as the only place in Borneo where salt water bubbles up from the ground. These salt springs can be found around the mountains of north Sarawak and can be used by anyone willing to chop and transport enough firewood to keep the water boiling for at least 24 hours.
The salt is special because it’s not only tastier than store-bought salt, but also healthier. It was discovered generations ago by hunters who discovered that their prey tasted better when they fell into one of the salt springs. People then started to use the water for cooking and in time, they learnt how to make salt, which is now sold in nearby villages or even in faraway cities like Kuching.
The Buduk Bui Salt Factory is the most popular among visitors as it has accommodations for visitors; the other two is located in Pa Komap and Punang Kelalan. Salt factories use modern pipes to transport the salt-water downhill to a facility where the salted water is processed and eventually crystallises to salt.
Ba’Kelalan’s salt not only tastes good, but also has medicinal properties. Consuming it can help with swollen throats and even heal scabies.
2. Fascinating trails
Ba’Kelalan is a place mostly untouched by development, offering some of the best of what nature has to offer, like skies so clear that you can see every star.
Ba’Kelalan, being the rural spot it is, has many hiking and trekking trails. Used mainly for the locals during hunting, you’ll need a guide to navigate the dense woods, as you will not want to get lost in these parts. There is the Pa Sarui View Point that gives a great view of Ba’Kelalan and is a relatively easy 45-minute hike.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even hike up parts of Mount Murud, the tallest mountain in Sarawak, but make sure you have a guide with you! The trails aren’t marked properly so you will need the guidance of someone familiar with the area.
3. Golden fields
As part of the Borneo Highlands like the Kelabit of Bario, the Lun Bawang in Ba’Kelalan also produces Adan rice, which is a local variety of organic rice famous for its excellent taste and slightly glutinous texture. The local rice farmers have been using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) since 2018, which is a chemical-free method that enhances their traditional and sustainable ways while doubling their harvest yield.
The premium quality rice is then sold in other cities, along with their salt.
Eco-prints are essentially impressions of leaves or flowers on fabrics, which is made possible by arranging and then hammering them onto fabrics, allowing its natural juices to imprint on the cloth. These fabrics are then dipped into limestone water and then rinsed with clean water before hanging it out to dry.
The result? A beautiful array of naturally imprinted ferns and other plants on fabrics, when then can be sewn into clothing or accessories like bags.
Bird watching around the raw nature that is Ba’Kelalan have been going on for years, especially for bird watchers around the world looking for birds endemic to Borneo. Bird tours are available, and there are a couple of local bird watchers in the village too.
You can find two birds here that you can’t find anywhere else, not even in other parts of Borneo, the Dulit Frogmouth and the Black Oriole.
6. Rice Coffee
One of the most intriguing things you can try out in Ba’Kelalan is the local rice coffee. Back in the olden days, coffee beans are hard to come by in the highlands, so people used rice instead. Rice is dried outside in the sun for about 3 hours prior to being roasted. It then takes about an hour of constant stirring to ensure that the rice grains are roasted properly and not burnt. Once it turns a nice toasty brown, sugar is added to it and then stirred until it’s a deep brown.
The toasted rice is then put into a pot of boiling water and left to simmer for a few minutes. Once strained, you can enjoy a delicious, aromatic cup of original Ba’Kelalan coffee. Maybe try it with some of their other signature delicacies like the Nubalaya (pounded rice wrapped in banana leaves) or Telu (game meat).
7. Local living
The local Lun Bawang people is known to be hospitable and friendly, with people greeting and shaking your hand as you descend from the airport. Ba’Kelalan is also home to a six-door Lun Bawang longhouse, probably one of the last few ones in the area.
The local people are a resourceful kind, venturing into not only rice and salt production, but also eco-tourism by turning their homes into homestays for the occasional travellers. They also excelled at planting apples, strawberries and organic vegetables. Lets not forget that they run mostly on generators, and that electricity is scarce, so candles and firewood are the way to go around these parts.
Whether you’re in need of an escape from the city life, or just want to experience Sarawakian culture and nature in its purest form, Ba’Kelalan offers unique taste of the everyday life of the highland Lun Bawangs. Come and escape with us for a truly unplugged adventure!