MY visit to the highlanders at Ba’kelalan in north central region of Sarawak state on Borneo in May 2009 came at short notice. It was a post-festival tour organized by the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) for media representatives from various parts of Malaysia who covered the Fourth Miri International Jazz Festival, including a handful of foreign travel writers.
I managed to get in touch with the STB officials, through the kindness of an old friend Datuk Irene Benggon Charuruks, the general manager of Sabah Tourism Board, just a few days ahead of the festival.
As we alighted from the Twin Otter aircraft of MASWings that took us from Miri, we were welcomed by a long line of Lun Bawang dancers (about 30 of them) all in their colourful traditional attire. From that moment on, till our final departure three days later, we were showered with endless expressions of traditional welcome by these natives who are a sub-tribe of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu (rural people).
In their welcome song, the tribesmen at Buduk Nur Village, nestling in a valley 973 meters above sea level, declares to the visitors clearly and loudly, “In the heart of Borneo lies, a hidden paradise called Ba’kelalan. This land is made for you and me. It’s my home sweet home. Ba’kelalan welcomes you with love.”
Although about 8000 from the Lun Bawang tribe still call Ba’kelalan their “home sweet home” but have left the highlands to work and live elsewhere, only around 1500 now remain in the villages of Buduk Bui, Long Langai, Long Lemutut, Long Ritan, Long Rusu, Buduk Aru, Long Rangat, Pa Tawing, and Buduk Nur.
Walking through padi fields under the hot sun presents a close-up view of the farming life of the Lun Bawang folks, a rewarding educational tour. Unlike other farming communities living in hilly areas in the interior regions of Borneo, we quickly discover that the Ba’kelalan folks do not plant hill padi. Before our eyes at Buduk Bui and Long Langai villages, are huge areas of carefully fenced-in fields, surprisingly well irrigated.
Seeing these wet fields, we begin to understand the origin of the name of the place, Ba’kelalan. For, ‘Ba’ in the Lun Bawang language means “wet lands” and the Kelalan River runs pass the villages. Their ancestors had somehow developed and maintained through the centuries a unique indigenous irrigation system that remains intact till this day.
That is not all. Such well irrigated wet padi lands produce the prized ‘Highland Adan Rice’ that is fine, with small grains and sweet. During tea break, after the long hike through the farmland, villagers take pains to show us how various types of delicious snacks, like ‘bee pang’ (rice crackers), are made.
There is even a demonstration of how bera kopi (rice coffee) is prepared. Some fine white adan rice is fried in a tiny wok over a slow fire with an occasional sprinkling of sugar that helps to give a glow to the fried rice that eventually looks like, and somehow, tastes like coffee.
Clearing of the padi fields takes place in June and July followed by planting in the two months that follow. By January, harvesting begins. Since our visit was in May, it was off season time. Hence, during our trek through the fields, we see herds of water buffalos lazing around some with their young ones, wallowing in mud and keeping themselves cool in puddles of water. It is off season for them as well.
One of the treasures of this “hidden paradise” at Ba’kelalan is the existence of salt water wells from which the villagers can process into salt, a product that helps uplift their economic well being. Like other activities, the whole process of producing salt is a cooperative effort. Salt water is fetched from the nearby wells and continually poured into a tank above a fire stove fuelled by wood.
Slowly, salt crystals begin to appear as villagers take turns to stir the water and keep turning the crystals over and over until the residual salt completely solidifies. The entire process takes five days and four nights, round the clock, none stop.
On an average, they could produce about 40 kg of salt a week, fetching RM15 (US$4) per kg at Ba’kelalan and costing more at markets elsewhere. Presently, 24 households are participating in this economic activity, rotating this task with farming and other village chores.
The Lun Bawang natives ‘the people of the place’ is a tribe living in a world of their own much like an island. It is a people with an unwavering spirit of team work, firm adherence to spiritual values accompanied by genuine hospitality and generosity, imbued with enterprise and having a deep sense of resilience.
It is a tribe in the ulu (remote) Borneo from whom the world outside can learn a good lesson or two in harmonious living and preservation of peace that lasts.