If you are not absolutely sure just how far off the beaten track Bakalalan is, you start to get a really good idea as you first fly from Miri (Sarawak, East Malaysia) to Lawas in a tiny Mas Wings prop’ plane. Fifteen seats and a Pilot so close you can tap him on the shoulder and ask him where you are.
Below, as far as the eye can see Palm oil plantations, wide brown rivers that wind like massive pythons through the plains. Forty five minutes later we land at the last ‘big’ town Lawas. I use the term loosely.
I learn later that it is the town with the secondary school that all the Indigenous peoples send their children to and it is clearly a growing town with lots of new houses going up.
The airport reminds me of the old Australian Outback stations, an airstrip and a small building with friendly officials and a very relaxed feel. It is clear everyone knows everyone.
Another 35minuites in the same plane, now the country is more rugged with fold after fold of sharply ridged hills covered in jungle. Big rivers are replaced by rocky, fast moving streams and the only brown among the many shades of green is the occasional dirt road snaking through the jungle. There is little or no sign of habitation anywhere.
In the final approach into Bakalalan you see the paddy fields filling the valley floor ringed by heavily wooded hills.
The Bakalalan rice is famous and at the time of my visit the planting is just finishing, leaving a view of slightly brown fields, dotted with green. I can only imagine what it must look like as the time passes and bright green paddy gives way to yellow just before the harvest.
As we disembark from the plane it is now abundantly clear that not only does everyone know everyone but they are all related!
I am here for my friend’s wedding and travelling with them feels like I have arrived with celebrates. The large extended family is all there at the airport…… airstrip plus smaller shed…….. and everyone is sooo excited.
I am introduced to, and shake hands with what seems like the entire village. This welcome sets the tone for the entire visit, I will be shaking hands and saying G’day constantly, the Labuan people are friendly, very friendly, with the guileless curiosity of all country people.
Some speak English, most speak Bahasa Malay and all speak Labuan. When words are lacking body language and laughter get the message across.
I am staying with an Uncle San and his family all home for the school holidays. San works as an English teacher at the gorgeous Bakalalan Junior School. Nestled at the foot of the hills and a real community driven school it has won all kinds of awards for academic excellence and education initiatives. Every classroom has been decorated by a different family, a place where people really care. I can see why the kids would love to go there and excel within it. Would that every school oozed the same passion and excitement for education.
The next thing you learn in Bakalalan is that everyone wants to feed you and cries of ‘makan, makan’ come from every door way as you pass by. Rice not surprisingly is both the life blood and the staple diet of all the locals, they grow their own vegetables and have a plentiful supply of freshwater pond fish, some deliberately kept for eating in manmade ponds and some that have to be caught in the padi before they eat the young plants. Catching these fish in the padi looks like mud fighting with a purpose. These fish are fast! Hilarious to watch and even funnier to try.
Special occasions like the wedding and the Hunters set off to shoot Buffalo and Boar which is then cooked very simply by boiling in huge pans over outdoor fires, tastes delicious.
I am told that the tribal origins are that of Head Hunters; it is a relief that they have not hunted heads for quite a while now. Yet the history of their culture, their ability as hunters, their crafts, the colourful baskets, the beautiful bead belts and headdresses all are worth exploring and anyone will tell you all about it, over a meal of course. Preferably in the longhouse were everyone still comes to share a meal even if most now live in their own spate houses.
The simplicity of the lifestyle is a wonderful tonic for the visitor and if you enjoy jungle walking, star filled nights, lovely food and wonderful people you really should put Bakalalan on your to do list.