In the lands of the Kelabit people – giant insects, ears hanginig to the shoulders and nomad tribes


The beach at Mukah


In the morning while we bathe in the South China Sea Mr. Shushtari is stung by a jelly-fish. He later told me that his heart had stopped for a second and he felt excruciating pain from the strong neuro-toxin. The tentacles touched his neck, chest and leg and the moment he got out of the sea red blisters started forming.

By the look of it we decide that this is not the most dangerous kind of jelly-fish and we run to the tent to put ointment on the blisters. Later the fisherman, we communicated with before, shows up (he is from the Melanau ethnic group, a Catholic) and tells us that this is the pink jelly-fish and though the sting is quite painful it is not dangerous. He says that he has been stung by the white jelly-fish that can cause fainting and medical care could be needed. Well obviously we were very lucky to be stung by the pink one.


House of the Melanau people


Melanau village

In the afternoon we stay several hours at an Internet cafe and then we head to the outskirts of Mukah in order to visit some old house-museum. The house is situated at a village on the river. The village is lit by the setting sun and it looks like it came out of a fairy tale. The houses don’t have streets but wooden bridges and quays and we feel like we are in the Venice of Borneo. It is strange that there are no tourists in this beautiful place. We reach the old house called Lamin Dana, but to our surprise it turns out to be a new hotel built in the fashion of the old house.


Traditional tilt-houses village

We continue on a wooden bridge and arrive at a pavilion out of the village and decide to stay here. We are surrounded by water and are thankful for this pavilion otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to pitch the tent.


The pavilion


It rains all the morning so we relax at the pavilion. In the meantime we enter the so called old house. We pay the entrance fee of 3 ringgits and see the small exhibition of baskets, earthen jars and traditional musical instruments. The woman inside tells us that the Melanau people who have converted to Islam are often considered Malay people and thus lose their ethnic identity. One of the main reasons for building this house was to help them keep it. Most people from the village Kampung Talian are Christians. We walk one last time around the picturesque village and start hitchhiking in the afternoon.


Lamin Dana

First a weird Chinese guy takes us with his shabby truck and drives us to the fork to the highway but we get off before it, because we want to visit an old long house we have spotted when we were coming. In this area there are many old houses of the Iban people. This one is abandoned and it looks like it will be destroyed soon. The whole village now lives at a new brick building behind this one.

Almost all thicker trees in Sarawak are cut off and now is much cheaper for the people to build houses made of bricks and concrete than wooden ones. The tree belian for example has one of he heaviest and hard woods and even drowns in the water. Now its export is forbidden because there are not much trees of this kind left. In ancient times even the Chinese emperor ordered belian for his palace. The columns at the Forbidden City in Beijing are made of this “iron” tree.


The abandoned old house


A strange guy driving a luxury jeep takes us at the highway. He is a policeman from the Iban ethnic group. He is laughing all the time but his driving style is horrible. He drives with 40 km/h and when he sees another car in the opposite lane decreases his speed more and almost stops. Later we understand why he does it – he drinks alcohol from a milk box and is afraid to go faster. Like this we pass the distance of 130 km. for 3-4 hours instead of one. When we are near Bintulu offers to take us to sleep at his palm oil plantation and we agree. It is getting dark and we feel exhausted.

Before the town we enter a small road leading to the sea. Around us appear ugly factories with chimneys. The way becomes dirt road and he has told us that his plantation is very close. His English is not so good and becomes worse from the alcohol. We get a little nervous. We start wondering where he takes us. After ten kilometers we reach his plantation and a small shabby hut where his worker lives. His wife and children show up from inside. We calm down. The hut looks miserable. The land outside it is very wet so we set our bivouac at the wooden porch outside. They don’t even have running water inside the house and use plastic barrels to collect rain water.

The policeman brings waffles and alcohol from the jeep and he and his worker, who is his relative, start drinking. He gives the worker a bottle of black Guiness beer that costs as all the week expenses of the whole family. The family itself is quite strange too. The man is Iban, with tattoos all over his body, around 60 years old and his wife is a Chinese, at least 20 years younger than him. They have four children.


A dragon


In the morning our friend wakes up with pretty heavy hang-over and takes us to the highway. He tells us that when he comes back he will drink with his worker again. He shows us several bottles of Chinese liquor he has prepared for the occasion.

Before we leave we enter a small hole in the ground behind the house that is kind of their bathroom. The woman tells us that when there is no rain the hole dries up and they become miserable. For breakfast she picks up some fern growing next to the road and we fry it with noodles.


The “bathroom-hole”


The policeman (second from left to right) and the family of the worker

Another policeman takes us to the exit after Bintulu. Recently the hitchhiking is in series – first several teachers, now policemen 🙂 We don’t want to enter the town because there is nothing to see in it – it is built for workers in the oil industry.

Then we continue with a family from thr Kayan ethnic group who return back to their long house for the elections. These elections are regional for Sarawak and everyone seems to have gone crazy, we see flags and posters everywhere.

This family is the first to ask us for money for taking us since we are in Borneo. When we explain our way of traveling they not only take us for free but even give us waffles and mineral water. The region of Bintulu is full of long Iban houses, there are other ethnic groups inside, but they could be reached only on dirt roads made by the loggers. More and more palm oil plantations appear as we travel, opposite to the area south of Kuching where all is jungle. People continue to Bakun Dam and we get off on the highway. It is extremely hot and it seems that soon a tropical rain will start falling. Before it did an Iban woman took us. She is very well educated and we chat on the whole way.

She is going to Miri, the last town before the border with Brunei, but we want to have one last adventure in Sarawak, so we decide to get off earlier. We pass the fork to Niah Caves where we want to enter without paying entrance fee and get off at Long Lama, a town situated at Baram River.


A “small leaf” in the jungle

River Baram is the second biggest after Rajang River and its upper part is inhabited by Kayan and Keniya people. Because of the extensive logging in the region most of the villages, even the furthest ones, are connected with dirt roads and that is why we hope we will be able to reach some authentic long houses of the above mentioned ethnic groups. There are not so many cars passing by though and nobody stops. We start thinking of giving up and continueing to Miri instead.


At this moment a small truck, delivering the fruits of the oil palms, stops. It is empty at the back and we hop in the greasy bodywork. We head to Lapok, which is 90 km away. Then to Long Lama and Baram River we have only 20 km. left. The road is in good condition and we arrive in no time. Houses here are of the Iban people. It is late afternoon and we decide to sleep at the Logan Bunut National Park. Its entrance is 5 km. away from Lapok. We start walking on the road and to our surprise a jeep stops. What the almighty fate has prepared for us we can’t even imagine at the moment. Two young men are in the jeep. The driver is a Malay from West Malaysia and has quite an alternative looks: long hair and hippie looks. The car is filled with food and sleeping bags. It turns out the guys are technicians and they will install solar panels in a remote place.

It turns out they are going to the lands of the Kelabit people, 5 hours of driving deep into the jungle. They ask us: “Would you like to come with us?” and you already know our answer 🙂 We have never even dreamed of going further than Long Lama region and now magically we will visit the furthest parts of Borneo.


Long house of the Iban people at Lapok region

We stop at Long Lama to drink coffee and eat before the long trip. The sun is setting down and the small, mostly inhabited by Chinese, town becomes quiet in the pink night. One can reach Long Lama by crossing Baram River with a ferry. There used to be a bridge too but it was destroyed by a flood some time ago. Many Kayan people from the region come here to buy stuff from the shops – all owned by the Chinese. Faiz, one of the young men in the car, does not allow us to pay the bill.

We hop on the jeep and take off. All the ways after Long Lama are dirt roads passing on hills through the jungle. There are many forks reaching various long houses – some close-by, others far away. Though the Toyota jeep is brand new it jolts and slides at the endless curves of the road. The further we go the less we believe it where we are going.


In the lands of the Kelabit people

I fall asleep and then am awakened by someone screaming. Mr. Shushtari told me that they had almost killed a porcupine with the car but he yelled at them to not do it and the animal managed to escape. People here think that all that moves has to be killed and eaten. I sigh with relief that the porcupine escaped.

We then see several people riding motor bikes in the dark, carrying guns. We pray to not see other wild animals, but a barking deer crosses our road. This time the guys we are travelling with don’t attempt to kill it, maybe because we start shouting: “Stop! Don’t kill it!”.

We enter deeper into the hilly lands and the road becomes muddy and slippery. The jeep starts sliding more often. Faiz struggles to keep the car on track, but he has passed on this road already 20 times so he has become a master of extreme off-road driving. Even 4×4 jeeps can get stuck here, and a normal car will not be able to drive on it at all. At 11 p.m. our brains are all shaken and we are exhausted. Suddenly we come across a river and we have to cross it with the jeep. The water is not so shallow but we manage to do it. Half an hour later we reach Long Lelang – where the road ends and our final destination is.

We stop in front of a long wooden house. A man shows up and gives us some keys. Then we are accommodated at the electric station. We are all in a big room without any furniture. We put our mats on the floor, enter inside the sleeping bags and literally faint.


In the lands of the Kelabit people

The Kelabit people are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the world with their population running to 5000. They live in the medium high and high areas of Borneo, close to the border with Indonesia. They are hunters and agriculturers and being isolated they have kept their original long houses that are quite different than those of the Iban people. Up to recently women prolonged their ears to their shoulders with putting weights on them. They say that the weights make their walk more beautiful and graceful. The young girls who weren’t tattooed all over their legs and arms (which was done the ancient painful way) were considered ugly 🙂


Kelabit women

After we were magically transported to their lands we wake up in the morning and it’s hard for us to believe where we are. We go outside and see the biggest insects ever. Giant beautiful butterflies, cicadas as big as sparrows, stag-beetles 10 cm long and more. We are surrounded by the jungle and the sounds of the birds and cicadas deafen us.






The young men who drove us start working without even having breakfast or washing their eyes. Later the man who gave us the keys yesterday came to take us. He is kind of a leader though the Kelabit people, contrary to the Iban, don’t have a chief of the long house. After searching for traditional, well preserved long houses for so long, fate brings us to one – authentic and in perfect condition. We are flabbergasted. The rooms are huge – around 200 sq. meters (2150 square feet). All is made of shining wood and mahogany. On one of the walls there are photos of old people wearing traditional clothes and women having their ears prolonged.

The living space of the families consists of giant living room with dining room, long fireplace in the middle of the kitchen comprised of stones on wooden boards (the open fire is set inside the room), sink and a huge porch with modern kitchen utensils. There is a covered wooden path that passes along various other rooms, starting from the porch, reaching the river itself.


The living room


The porch


The fireplace

The young men who took us here sit on the table and started eating. They feel like home here. People invite us to eat fried noodles and coffee. We are dumbfounded by meeting the young man’s father and mother-in-law – the woman with prolonged ears. The house, the people and the whole atmosphere here make us feel really strange.

Soon the teacher of the village appears. He wears white shirt, black pants and traditional necklace for the Sunday liturgy. The older people speak perfect English and are very well educated. The old woman is the last one who has prolonged ears and was given a medal by the king for her leadership services in the Kelabit region of Long Lelang. One thing we can’t understand is how people living in this desolate place that has five wooden long houses in total are so rich, drive 30 000 dollar jeeps, own big flat TVs and iPhones.


With the old lady and the other women from the family


From left to right: the two young men who took us here, the leader, me and the teacher, the squatting one is Mr. Shushtari

The atmosphere at the long house of Long Lelang is strange in a way I can’t describe. Most young people work and study at the towns in the low lands. There are around 50 people living permanently here, all of them old. At the long house lives only one family but everyone comes back during holidays. Now there are many people because of the forthcoming elections. After breakfast we go around the village. Our young friends go back to the station to fix the problem with the power supply. There will be electricity in the village – up to now everyone used power generators. There is no Internet or mobile operators coverage, so we have no idea why they need the smartphones 🙂

Long Lelang is in fact the center of the whole area. It has an airport with three flights a week (the plane has 16 places). There is a hospital, a school, Evangelist Church and two stores. The houses here are no more than 20 but when people go out on their evening walk they dress with official western clothes. Along the river there are pavilions, alleys, flower-pots and the grass is mowed, to summarize: it looks like a well maintained European village.

Not long ago the only way to come here was by plane. The river is not floatable here because of the swift currents downstream. The logger’s way has been made just two years ago. The plane flew once a week and back then it had 8 places. Even today there is no asphalt on the landing-strip. The closest Kelabit town is several hours away.

The region is inhabited by the semi-nomad tribe Penang. The school here is built namely for their children. Long Lelang is a really peculiar place, remote and unknown by civilization but with its own active life. The heart of the lands of the Kelabit people though is not here, but in Bario area – 5-6 days of walking distance through the jungle. Most of the pupils once went to school to Bario. There is a dirt road going there starting from Long Lama but it takes several hours of driving to go there.

People here are very nice, everyone greets us. A couple just goes out of the church. They have come to visit their relatives for 1 of May – labor day. They invite us to drink coffee on the other side of the river. We cross it on a wooden bridge and arrive at a small long house – built for one family. Back in the kitchen the fireplace is on the ground in the middle of the room. They offer us traditional black rice with fern, fruits and other delicious meals.


Traditional fireplace


Local fruit

We find out that if we follow a path going along one of the river’s sleeves we will reach a village of the Penan people. We become enthusiastic because our friends will stay one more night, so we decide to visit the village.

It is an hour away, walking through the forest. We don’t meet anyone on the path except our old friends the leeches. We walk in the humid jungle engulfed in silence. Shortly we see the first rice fields and pine-apple crops. The wooden tilt houses on appear in the flat land before us.


Penan village

The Penans are the last nomads of Borneo with the majority already living settled way of life. Just ten years ago all of them were hunters and gatherers, like the Batek people we met in Malaysia. Their houses and way of life are much more primitive than those of the Kelabit people. They don’t earn much money and many of the are uneducated. In the long Kelabit house there were Penans living, helping with the house work. They have been adopted as children we understood later. An interesting fact is that the languages of the two communities are very different and as Penans don’t speak Malaysian or English, they have difficulties communicating with one another.


Penan house

There are no more than ten houses in the village. While we are walking around a woman peeks from one of them and invites us in. Her son has visited the school at Long Lelang and speaks some English so we manage to have a conversation. They tell us that they settled twenty years ago. Before this they walked around the jungle building just wooden shelters here and there. The man and his wife look like they are 40 years old but already have eight children. The oldest ones have already moved to work at various towns. The Penans have abandoned their animist cults and have accepted Christianity influenced by the Kelabit people.

We start talking about hunting and the man proudly shows us his blowpipe with poisonous arrows. It is quite big and one could send an arrow 300 m. with just a blow. They extract the poison from the resin of the Ilo tree. Even in small concentrations it could kill a boar in an hour. They tell us they hunt everything: birds, boars, deers, monkeys and go hunting three times a week. While we look at the poisonous arrows the man becomes nervous because the poison could kill a man even by a small prick.


The Penan man with the blowpipe shooting poisonous arrows


The woman sets fire


With the Penan family

Time goes by and we have to head to Long Main Village. We manage to leave just before it gets dark. When we arrive the people from the long house call us to dinner. We feel uncomfortable eating there three times a day, but they insist. Men have started drinking already and women are watching a TV show. We say goodbye to them and tell to ourselves that we will come back someday to visit this marvelous place again.





Sunrise at the land of the Kelabit people

We leave at 5 a.m. and watch the sunrise at a hill with an amazing view. All is pink and the morning mist covers the jungle below us. It takes us 4 hours to get back to Long Lama where we eat breakfast. Then the young men leave us at the highway after Miri. We don’t want to visit it as it is not so interesting oil industry town. Instead we decide to go to Kuala Baram, 15 km away where we plan to buy food and head to Brunei. In 20 minutes an old Chinese-Bruneian stops. He is travelling to Brunei with his helper, a Filipino girl. They decide to lead out of their way and leave us at Kuala Baram.


Lady cleaning the alley

So we are now driving with the incredible Michael and Sherleen. Michael is 80 years old, very eccentric, he refuses to wear his hearing-aid device so we need to speak very loodly in order to communicate with him. His English is perfect and he and Sherleen talkwith each other in a rather amusing way. She shouts every two-three minutes: “Grandpa, slow down” and is navigating him while Michael is occupied with his favorite game of taking over the other vehicles. We feel like we are in some mad TV series.

When we reach Kuala Baram it turns out it is not even a town. Luckily there is one shop. Michael says he will wait for us and then we will go to Brunei together. We are about to pay when Sherleen comes, pushes us away and pays instead of us. Going out of Kuala Baram we encounter a crocodile farm. The entrance fee is 36 ringgit (around 8 Euro) and we say we will wait outside, but Michael buys tickets for all of us. We feel uncomfortable by this. On top of this Michael enters just a few meters inside, sees the first crocodile and goes back to wait in the car because he gets tired. The place is horrible because the crocodiles are bred for their skin and meat and live in bad conditions. We also see binturong and civet for the first time – they are very cute.


Salt water crocodiles


Sun bear


Porcupine – one of the biggest rodents on earth




Imperial pigeon



After the farm we continue to the border. Sherleen stops at the duty free shop and states: “Grandpa, I want to buy some alcohol”. Alcohol is forbidden in Brunei and only foreigners are allowed to bring small quantities so Sherleen makes use of the fact that we are with them and buys beer and whiskey.

To be continued…


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