The Kelabit Highlands is a highland plateau in the interior of Sarawak in Malaysia. The isolated region bordering Kalimantan, Indonesia, is now very popular for jungle trekking as well as those hoping to get away from it all.
The Kelabit Highlands comprise a vast highland plateau in the interior of Sarawak, near the border of Kalimantan, Indonesia. The area is the headwaters of the mighty Baram, Limbang, Lawas Rivers. Administratively, it comes under the Miri and Limbang Divisions.
The Kelabit Highlands is a highland plateau of over 1,000m. It lies between the Tama Abu Range and Apo Duat Range on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. The many valleys in the region are peppered with settlements of cottage-like homes and often surrounded by paddy fields. The area also boasts many high peaks including Sarawak's highest mountain, the 2,423m Gunung Murud.
Flora and fauna
As most of the highlands is over 1,000m, the nights can get a little chilly. Daytimes are usually warm and humid, especially when struggling through thick forests while trekking. The rainy season is between October and February.
The area is named after one of Sarawak's ethnic groups, the Kelabits. They are mostly highland farmers and staunchly Christian, belonging to the Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Assembly) church. They are also known to place a lot of importance in education and many hold professional jobs, including the managing director's post of Malaysia Airlines.
Although the highlands are named after the Kelabits, it is actually home to many other groups such as the Penan and Lun Bawang. The Lun Bawang, who are the same group as the Lun Dayeh in Sabah, are the predominant people around Ba Kelalan in the northern part of the highlands. All of them are collectively known as the "Orang Ulu" or "People of the Highlands".
The most popular and simplest way of getting into the Kelabit Highlands is by plane. The highlands are dotted with little airfields, often just grass airstrips other than the main airport at Bario which is a modern tar-mac runway, these are linked by 16-seater Twin Otter planes operated by MASWings  since taking over from Fly Asian Xpress (FAX) on October 1, 2007. These are 18 seater flights and locals are given preference due to it being the main transport in and out of the highlands but you can now book online at MASWings website. Note that there are sometimes problems with non-Malaysian credit cards booking on this site; best to contact your card issuer in case of problems. There are still some cancellations of flights due to bad weather but it is a fallacy that this is regular. The transition period from FAX to MASwings saw cancellation due to MAS having much stricter regulations on safety and servicing. There is talk of lengthening the runway in the future for the larger planes.
The most popular entry points are Bario (BBN) and Ba Kelalan (BKM). There are also air services to Long Akah (LKH), Long Banga (LBP), Long Lellang (LGL) and Long Seridan (ODN) although these other locations do not have any purpose-built infrastructure for travellers.
The main coastal city that acts as the gateway to the highlands is Miri where most flights originate. However, there are also flights from Lawas and Marudi in the Lower Baram, which is connected to Miri by several flights daily as well as a combination of boat (between Marudi and Kuala Baram) and bus (between Kuala Baram and Miri).
Getting to the Highlands by land is hard work, especially when compared with flying.
The easiest and fastest way is by four-wheel drive or trucks between Lawas and Ba Kelalan. The journey, which takes about four or five hours, is over old logging roads and you are virtually guaranteed a bumpy ride as well as the possibility of being bogged in mud during the rainy season.
The labyrinth of trails fanning out from Bario and the nearby villages can possibly lead you to the lowlands. Besides walking, you may have to take boats to travel down river. The journey will take several days of tough walking. Guides will be necessary and costs may be high for boats. Not surprisingly, most, including the locals, turn to planes.
It is possible to enter/leave Indonesia via the Kelabit Highlands. In fact, the trek between Bario and Ba Kelalan goes through Indonesian territory and the village of Long Bawan is within easy reach. There are immigration officers in Bario and Long Bawan. From Long Bawan, there are flights to other East Kalimantan cities.
Note that Long Bawan is NOT and visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry point (see Indonesia's Get in section) and an Indonesian visa must be obtained before you cross the border. However, the visa requirement is waived if you are just trekking between Bario and Bakelalan. However, you must carry your passport.
There is now a logging road from Miri to the Bario area which is mainly suitable for supplies and vehicles to be brought into Bario, but this is an option for travelling although you will need to know locals as this is privately used only.
Permits were once required but are now not necessary. Bring your passport however if you intend to trek through Indonesian territory, such as on the trek from Bario to Ba Kelalan.
The usual way to get from one village or longhouse to another is on foot. Some of the usual walking trails linking the various settlements are now doubling up as hiking trails by visitors. See the "Do" section below for details on the more popular hiking trails.
A few vehicles, mostly trucks and motorcycles have made their appearance in the highlands and you can try thumbing a lift from the friendly locals. These are generally used around the "urban centre" of Bario.
If slogging through steep slopes between Bario and Bakelalan does not sound attractive to you, MASWings  flies between the two settlements on Thursdays (departing Bario at 09:55, returning from Bakelalan at 10:30). Journey time is about 20 minutes and the fare is RM23 before taxes and surcharges.
Although several of the other settlements in the highlands have working airfields, there are no flights between them or with either Bario or Ba Kelalan. Flights are to Miri and Marudi.
This is probably the main reason why travellers make their way to the highlands. The hikes range from lazy strolls which last a couple of hours to tough treks which require several days.
The following list shows the more popular walks that you can complete within a day, and which do not usually require a guide, just a crude map when you set out.
Multi Day Treks
There are many tracks which criss cross the highlands, and even the most well trodden paths (for instance, the popular Bario Loop, also known as Kelapang Loop) require a guide.
A good guide will talk to you about where you would like to go. Note that with a couple of day hike exceptions you cannot follow these trails on your own. The trails that you follow tend to connect different local villages, and there are many branches and tracks crossing, none of which are marked. Various stories abound, including a Swedish girl who had walked the trail 12 times with a guide, tried it alone the 13th time and mistakenly took the trail to Indonesia and got lost for four days. And the Belgian guy who at one of the branches took the wrong fork (the bigger path) and was found three days later suffering from dehydration. He had to be airlifted to hospital in Miri. Get a guide!
There's a guide licensing system in Bario - the guides are licensed by the Sarawak Government as wildlife guides. The licensed ones we had dealings with seemed great and to know the surroundings very well. They also have insurance should anything untoward happen.
The price for a guide (as of September 2010) is 80RN per guide per day for day treks, overnight camping will cost 100RN per night. A 10RN per day tip is appropriate if you feel the guide has done a good job. If you'd like them to provide food & cook for you, it's 25RN per person per day. This is highly recommended as as well as bringing provisions they will collect food from the jungle for you to eat in the evenings (mushrooms, sago palm hearts, etc). Note that these are fixed prices set by the guides' association. Attempts to bargain will not be appreciated! Expeditions to Gunung Murud and Butu Lawi require two guides for security reasons.
A recommended guide is Irwan. He is very knowledgable about the jungle, has a good knowledge of English and is a very entertaining person. Contact him at [email protected] for bookings.
There are then two types of guide you should avoid:
A popular multi day trek is:
There are not many restaurants in the Kelabit Highlands since food is usually included in the price for accommodation. The food is very different from what you get in other parts of Malaysia. It's usually made of ingredients from the jungle plus a few locally farmed ingredients.
Bario rice is different from other rice types for its shorter seeds. Outside of Bario it is quite expensive. Also famous are the pineapples you get here. You can find them in Curries or in desserts.
Ingredients from the jungle include wild boar, deer or for vegetarians wild ginger flower, edible fern and many more.
You can arrange camping out in the jungle as part of a multi day trek with your guide.
Contact Gems Lodge at [email protected] to ask about local overnight camping.
As part of a multi day trek you can stay either in rough huts where you'll need to bring your own food, or in longhouses where they will provide lodging, dinner & breakfast for between 40RN and 60RN per night (as of March 2012). It is well worthwhile taking your own sleeping bag, light hammock, leech socks, torch and candles if you do intend to do a multi-day trek as it is not always possible to stay in a longhouse every night of the trek.
Check with the Sarawak health department for incidences of malaria outbreak Although there has never been any history of any person contracting Malaria in the Highlands itself.