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Borneo. The name inspired visions of wild jungle and indigenous peoples carrying on a way of life that has changed little for hundreds of years. My yearning for adventure took me to the Malaysian part of the island, which is also shared by Brunei and Indonesia. Searching for the most authentic, real Borneo experience brought me to Bario.

Bario can only be accessed via prop plane or an 18 hour drive in a 4WD vehicle from Miri. A oneway plane ticket only runs about $30. The town of Bario itself has already abandoned the traditional way of life, has nothing of substance to offer visitors, and the food is horrible. Accessible by boat or a very scenic and beautiful 2-4 hour hike, nearby Pa’lungan was said to be the last vestige of the Borneo that was.

Unfortunately, even Pa’lungan has fallen victim to the changing world. The town is literally dying. Once children reach 6 years of age, they move to Bario for school and only visit on weekends and holidays. When it’s time for high school they are sent to either Miri or Kuching and only come back home for holidays. Few return home for good after university.

The old-growth forests that I dreamt of are also lost forever due to logging; the major treks from Pa’lungan take you through secondary growth forests along logging roads. If you are looking to join indigenous people using blowguns to hunt monkeys hiding in thousand year old trees, this is definitely not the place.

In recent years, the aging population of Pa’lungan has been using tourism to generate revenue, with a number of homestays popping up in the small village. I arrived during rice planting season and at a time when several guides were in the jungle with a large group. The village was virtually deserted, but I was taken in by an incredible man named Balang Mudut.

Although Balang Mudut isn’t in the business of operating a homestay, he let me stay at his home. He and his wife, Doreen, were like having parents in Pa’lungan. Their genuine and tremendous hospitality was among the best I have ever received anywhere in the world. They fed me extremely fresh, very delicious food and even let me help plant in the paddy. It truly put the “home” in homestay and was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. If you visit Pa’lungan, Balang Mudut’s cell number is 01119198810. Call and let him know you’re friends with Jay from Hawaii.

The only available trekking guide in town was a man named Mado, who also operates a guesthouse. DO NOT DO BUSINESS WITH THIS MAN in any capacity. He tried to grossly overcharge me for a trek and I managed to talk him down to just overcharging me. We were supposed to spend 5 days in the jungle. Without me asking, he repeatedly boasted that his farm was organic. The sprayers and containers of RoundUp laying around his farmhouse were the final straw for me. Midway through the second day of our five day jungle trek we had been in the jungle for just a total of four hours, with the bulk of the time spent at his house or “organic” farm. I later found out that he has a reputation for short changing and even stealing from visitors.

Disillusioned, I left Bario early. There was no problem moving my flight up a few days and it only cost $5 to change the ticket. Bario was definitely not what I had hoped it would be, but meeting Balang Mudut and Doreen more than made the trip worthwhile. You don’t always find what you expect and may even encounter a Mado, but, fortunately, there are Balang Muduts too.

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