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Insider Asia

Sarawak's fields of gold

Rice farming in Ba Kelalan is still done the traditional, back-breaking way - each seedling is planted by hand

Published on Jun 29, 2014 1:09 PM

It was almost like waiting for the new Pope to be chosen as we stood watching for the smoke. A cloud of white drifted from the faded green hut at the far end of the pasture, rising to meet the clouds above.

They were there: the women who make salt.

We crossed the pasture ringed by forested mountains and over a covered wooden bridge to get to the hut where two women were feeding hefty logs into a roaring fire.

This is where the people of Ba Kelalan make salt from the salt springs that dot the mountains of north Sarawak, the only place in Borneo where salt water bubbles up from the ground.

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Background story

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines' Twin Otter planes fly from Miri to Ba Kelalan via Lawas three times a week. The plane seats 18 people but frequently will fly only about a dozen, depending on the cargo weight. Every passenger has to be weighed before the flight. Return airfare is RM211 (S$82.90).

There are four direct flights a week from Singapore to Miri on AirAsia. Otherwise, it is possible to fly from Singapore to Kuching, then to Miri on Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia. Return airfare is around $300.

Where to stay

One of the best things to do in Ba Kelalan is to stay with the local people and get to know the ins and outs of village life. There are many accredited homestays in Buduk Nur or the other villages. My host Sang Sigar and his wife Julia Balang welcome guests from around the world to their quaint blue house as they both speak fluent English.

The Apple Lodge, named for the apple orchard set up here by its owner Pak Tagal, is structured more as a small guesthouse but do not be surprised if your hosts occasionally join you for meals.

Many visitors do turn up unannounced in Ba Kelalan, and ask around for a place to stay. Some of the homestays of the highlands are listed here at The accommodation tends to be basic, but clean and comfortable. Beds are often mattresses on low platforms and bathrooms use a pail and scoop. 

Some hosts do not state a price as they regard it as part of their Lun Bawang culture to open their homes to visitors. But do offer a fair price, of around RM80 (S$31) a night, as meals are included.

Where to eat

With your hosts. All meals are provided by the homestays but there are a handful of cafes in Buduk Nur which offer coffee and simple meals such as fried noodles or fried rice.

Guests are welcome to bring their own provisions. Do bring biscuits, chocolates, cakes and anything else as supplies are very limited there, but not alcohol as drinking is frowned upon in this staunchly Christian village.

Getting around

Travel within Ba Kelalan is mostly on foot or, sometimes, on motorcycle.

I walked around Buduk Nur on a cement walkway that goes all the way through scenic padi fields to the neighbouring villages. It is also possible to walk to the salt springs but as that is a good two-hour walk away, I travelled there on the motorcycle belonging to Paulus, my guide.