The Kelabit Highlands. Ever heard of it? Not many people have.
It’s one of those places where you go to escape the world.
Situated in the highland mountains far into the interior of Borneo this is about as far away from the fast pace of the modern world that you can get.
It’s a place where time slows down.
The Kelabit Highlands Borneo Adventure
The only real way to get to the Kelabit Highlands is to fly in on a small propellor plane to the regional town of Bario.
Bario is the main gateway to the region but only a few flights a day leave from the coastal town of Miri in Malaysia, and carry around 15 people at a time.
Bario has a population of 800. That gives you an idea how remote it is.
The first thing you will notice, apart from the surrounding mountains, is the peacefulness of where you are.
Then you will start to meet the locals and find out how friendly the place is as well. The Kelabit are the main tribe of the region, and are very cool.
Smiles are everywhere.
There really is something about travelling to remote places. You will almost always find some of the nicest people you could meet anywhere.
Staying in a traditional longhouse where many families live in one long building, is a great way to get a local experience.
After settling in you can go for a short walk to get to the base of Prayer Mountain, where you can climb up it in about one and a half hours to get a view across Bario, and the mountains surrounding it.
I was pretty sure they called it prayer mountain not for the cross on top, but to pray you don’t slide all the way down on your ass on the slippery slopes.
Around Bario there are some treks into the jungle on mountain trails to reach remote villages.
The modern world is slowly encroaching there however, with some trails now cut off by logging roads.
But some routes are still undisturbed, and this is where you would want to head.
Hiking Into The Kelabit Highlands Jungle
Hiking to the village of Pa-Lungan, deep in the mountains, takes about 4-5 hours along a jungle trail.
It’s in parts muddy, with broken bridges to navigate, and some treacherous blood sucking leeches to keep an eye out for.
It’s an interesting hike to take to put it mildly.
The reward is worth it as high up in the misty mountains lies one of the most tranquil places you could ever be.
With only around 100 people in Pa-Lungan village and the only way out a 4-5 hour hike on a jungle trail.
It is remote.
The whole area of the Kelabit Highlands is surrounded with ancient stone megaliths, mostly used in ancient times as burial sites.
Staying at a local lodge run by a very friendly older couple the husband will take you out to take a look at some of these megaliths.
They will feed you some of the most delicious meat you would ever have.
Wild boar caught by local hunters smoked over a fire is one of the best things you could ever do for your taste buds.
The rest of the home cooked food is equally outstanding, and was for all the nights spent in Pa-Lungan.
The region is famous for its rice and mouth watering sweet pineapples.
The pineapple will blow you away, the best ever.
You could go there just for the food.
There is only electricity for a few hours at night provided by a generator.
So when the lights go out and you want to read, it’s time to get the flashlight out.
However you are up in the jungle area surrounded by numerous insects, many of which are attracted to light.
Your flashlight being the only source of light around, you will soon be getting bombarded by huge insects to the face as you try to read.
Then there are the rats and spiders running along the roof beams and floors. Not for the faint hearted.
The next day you can go out for a walk with the owner again. This time it is the “jungle supermarket” walk.
Here he will take you along a trail surrounding the village, pointing out the local flora, and what uses they have.
The trail is full of mud and bamboo bridges, making it difficult to walk in parts.
Hopefully not too many leeches will be found crawling across your shoe.
The owner of the lodge is very knowledgeable about the flora, and the uses of it.
It’s very interesting listening to what he has to say.
But the only main points you will most likely remember are how to get fresh water in the jungle, in case you ever got lost.
You will get the chance to taste some plants and fruits from the jungle.
Heading back to the village you will have to navigate rivers and walk through jungle on no trail.
Back at the lodge you can take a cold bucket shower to wash away the dirt and sweat of the jungle.
Before leaving in the morning have a great home cooked meal again.
For the next day will bring a pure jungle experience, trekking deep into the middle of nowhere to sleep rough with no trail to be found.
And endless blood sucking leeches.
Kelabit Highlands Jungle Adventure
Blood sucking demons from hell!
That was a phrase I didn’t think I would use much in the remote and peaceful Kelabit Highlands.
But there it was dripping off my tongue, more often that I would have liked.
Let’s rewind to the start.
That day the relaxing village of Pa Lungan was left behind, and the plan was to go for a nice few hours walk along a jungle trail, reach a jungle shelter for the night, and after some more walking take a boat down the river back to Bario.
So around midday, the guide/hunter showed up and it was time for the jungle.
Jungle hiking in The Kelabit Highlands
You start the walk feeling enthusiastic and relaxed.
You think to yourself, “time for a cool stroll in the wilderness”.
But as many people will tell you, in their summertime the illusion of a ‘peaceful’ walk can be interrupted by the countless mosquitos that come out en-masse, to pester you at every turn.
Up until this time the wandering around the jungle on easy trails was enjoyable and with minimal wildlife encounters. And it was the same at the start of this jungle adventure.
But that was to change fast very soon.
The first 30 minutes were easy enough hiking, but then the trail started to become more and more difficult to follow.
Eventually the guide took us away from any resemblance of a trail, and straight into the pure jungle itself.
Now that is exciting and adventurous for sure, but then they came along.
They being leeches.
Let’s be very clear about leeches. F**k them!
Leeches are small, wiggly, fast as hell little bastards. They latch themselves onto your feet, then faster than you could think, start making their way up your leg and into your shoe to start sucking your blood!
Leeches are absolutely everywhere in the Kelabit highlands in some areas.
You can see them crawling over the ground as you walk, and climbing all over your feet.
Grabbing a stick we tried to push them away, but they are strong little suckers and are difficult to move.
They stick like glue.
The guide seemed to look back on all of this with a sense of bemusement and wonder, as these people behind him kept stopping every two minutes to try and remove the leeches.
All the while slipping around in mud.
The going got worse and worse. The mud is so thick in places it almost sucks your shoes into it.
The branches scratch at your arms, as you try not to slip over.
All the while those leeches crawl around your feet.
In many parts the guide had to build makeshift bridges to get across ravines.
He cut down bamboo with his machete, which he also used for cutting a path in the jungle at times, and placed the bamboo across the occasional ravine, to cross over.
Some people seem to think that walking in the jungle brings you closer to nature, and that you can see wildlife all around you.
The only wildlife you can see regularly in the jungle are leeches.
Ok, I lied.
You will also see mosquitoes, bees, and various other insects that like nothing better than to follow you around and bite you.
The only time there happens to be an actual animal to see, in this case a monkey, the guide/hunter shoots it.
That’s right, shoots it!
A fellow traveller came up behind and I informed her that there is a monkey in the tree. The excitement on her face soon faded fast though, when told that our guide is hunting it for dinner.
Just ahead we heard the sound of a rifle firing and saw the monkey fall from the tree.
Happy with his kill, the guide/hunter brought it back to show us.
Content the hunter attached the dead monkey to his backpack, and of we went again slogging it out in the jungle.
Having been swearing all this time at the leeches, generally referring to them as blood sucking demon fuckers from hell, I gave up trying to keep them off.
Constantly stopping was getting annoying, and with the hard jungle walking, I gave up caring about anything by this time.
It was rather amusing watching my fellow travellers trying to keep them off though. Especially when one had a leech crawl all the way up his leg to his butt.
Then it started to rain, but it didn’t really matter at this point as by now we were covered in mud and sweat anyway.
The shelter in the Jungle
After around five hours of this hell we finally reached the jungle shelter where we would stay the night. We took off your shoes to see what leeches may have got inside during the hike.
Luckily most of the leeches that had got onto the shoes hadn’t made it inside them, or up our legs too much.
Still, pulling a few leeches that were there out was not exactly fun. Especially the smaller ones that like to hide among the shoelaces.
I managed to only have a few leeches biting into my flesh that day. Not bad compared to what it could have been.
The shelter is basically a wooden structure with a fireplace inside.
All around were bees buzzing about, and insects and spiders creeping around.
Welcome to the jungle!
We were definitely unprepared.
There were no sleeping bags, mosquito nets, sleep mats, nothing. It would be a fun/not fun night.
The guide/hunter went straight to work cutting up some bamboo for firewood and got a fire going.
With the fire going the hunter took the monkey from the backpack and placed it into the fire.
The smell of burning hair was everywhere.
After sometime in the fire the monkey was taken to the river in front of the shelter where the hunter cut it up into smaller pieces, cleaned them, then brought it back up to the fire to cook some more.
Being a bunch of westerners up there the hunter also had some tinned sardines and instant noodles.
But I am always up for trying something new when offered the opportunity, so I grabbed some of the cut up pieces of monkey meat, and started eating.
How does monkey taste?
Well if your waiting for the standard answer of chicken, then you are wrong.
It actually has a kind of pork taste to it, and I can happily say it tasted rather good, being barbecued and all.
It was a little chewy however.
The other travellers refused to try it, even after a few attempts at goading them into it.
Not something g I would be interested in eating again though.
The hunter then went out by himself to go hunting in the dark.
A gunshot was heard around an hour later and the hunter appeared soon after with a dead mouse deer. If you hadn’t guessed by the name it’s basically a really tiny deer.
With nothing to do at night it was time to try and get some sleep. A novel idea considering that sleeping would basically involve lying down on the wooden floor, with nothing but your dirty clothes on for protection.
Trying to get to sleep with insects trying to bite you and cockroaches crawling around you, and most likely over you, is not what one could call a luxury holiday for sure.
As the night progressed it got colder and colder, to the point where what little sleep we were trying to get was given up on.
I got up to start the fire again for warmth.
For an hour there in the middle of the night, by myself listening to the sound of the jungle all around, sitting around the fire, a great peace came over me.
This is what I came to the jungle for.
One of the best feelings in the world.
The boat to escape the Kelabit Highlands Jungle
The next day with a sore back from lying on the wooden floor all night, it was time to set off again into the hell of the jungle.
It was just as bad as the day before, leeches around and so on, but you get used to it after a while.
And this day was sweeter because after only an hours walk it was time to get in the guide/hunters boat that he had gone on ahead to get.
Getting onto the boat for a one and a half hour cruise down the river, and eventually out of the jungle, was a great experience.
The boat weaved in and out around obstacles.
Fallen trees, small rapids, and buried branches being the worst of it. A bit bumpy at times, but all the more fun for it.
Eventually reaching a small village we took a short ride to the main settlement of Bario. Finding a homestay for the night we got all your clothes washed while taking a 20 minute bucket shower.
It feels so good to shower after being out walking hard in the jungle.
A good home cooked dinner and a fun night with the locals at the homestay made for a great ending to the trip.
The jungle was hard but an amazing adventure. Everyone should try it at least once to see.
The next day we headed to the small airport and boarded the tiny propellor plane to fly out of the Kelabit Highlands.
The Kelabit Highlands
If you ever happen to be in Malaysian Borneo, then a visit to the Kelabit Highlands cannot be recommended enough.
It’s remote, peaceful, has delicious food, and is full of some of the friendliest people you could meet. With plenty of fun(!) to be had in the jungles!
Two travellers John and Heather who blog at roamingaroundtheworld.com came back from the Kelabit Highlands and posted this information in the comments below about recent costs in the area.
I’m posting the info here in case you didn’t make it to the comments.
Hey there! I actually just returned from Pa’ Langun last week, partly inspired to go from reading over this awesome post! Anyhow, I can fill ya in on our costs and experience.
Bario guesthouses ran about 80-100 ringgit per person including 3 meals (we paid an odd amount of 87.50). We hadn’t booked anything but a friendly home stay guy intercepted us at the airport. In Pa’ Langun, we stayed at David’s place and paid 90 ringgit / night including meals.
We did not go on the jungle trek, and just hung around Pa’ Lungan, so I can’t comment on costs there. We weren’t in the mood for monkey, lol.
The return boat trip cost 250 ringgit per boat (fits about 4 people) and you can share that cost if you can find other people.
The return trip from Pa’ Lungan to Bario takes 3-5 hours. If you’re catching a flight, I’d plan to take at least 5 hours. And even though its a tiny little airport, the check-in counter supposedly closes 45-minute before the flight, so don’t delay!
You can trek back or take the boat. The boat actually didn’t shave off much time because there’s still a bit of walking involved there too, but the boat is just more fun! From Pa Lungan, it took nearly an hour to get to the boat where we hung out and ate some lunch for a while.
The boat ride took more than an hour. Then we walked for nearly another hour down a road back to Bario (and also hitchhiked w/ the one and only truck that happened to pass by.)
How to get to Borneo and The Kelabit Highlands
Borneo reached from within Malaysia with budget airlines flying from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. You can also get there from Singapore easily and from Kota Kinabalu from Manila and Cebu.
Useful Links for The Kelabit Highlands:
If you’re thinking of heading to the Kelabit Highlands, or anywhere else in Borneo, then check out my post on what to pack for travel in South-East-Asia.
I recommend the Bradt Travel Guide to Borneo to help plan your adventures in Borneo.
Lonely Planet Borneo is another decent option.
For booking transport in Malaysia I use 12GoAsia Transport Booking for most of my transport needs.
And finally but certainly not least take travel insurance! Seriously it will cost you a small fortune if you end up somewhere remote and need airlifted out, or something like that.
I use WorldNomads and they are brilliant. I had a serious medical incident in India back in 2007 and they were great helping me. Book insurance with them here:
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Check this out for more offbeat adventures in Borneo.