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February 21, 2019, Sarawak, Malaysia

Life-changing travel with anthropologist

Carolyn Hong travelled to a remote settlement in east Sarawak and the visit turned her life inside out, upside down

Carolyn Hong

My pair of silver Havaianas were gone. I exclaimed in dismay that someone had stolen them.

The Sarawakian anthropologist, with whom I was travelling, gave me a strange look: “They aren’t stolen, someone borrowed them.”

He was right. Soon enough, a burly man reappeared with my dainty slippers on his feet.

We had just arrived in Ba’ Kelalan, a settlement of nine villages in the mountains of east Sarawak, where my friend was researching the production of mountain salt and its role in the community’s cultural life.

I had tagged along this research trip with two other anthropologists. It turned out to be the first of many trips that we made together to rural Sarawak over the next two to three years, and a trip that turned my life inside out, upside down. But of course, back then, I did not know all that.

I had joined them simply because I wanted to see Malaysia — a place I call home but yet, knew little about its people, their ideas about a well-lived life and how they organised their communities.

As I looked at my Havaianas on the man’s broad feet, I realised how little I knew about life outside the city where we treat our personal possessions as near sacred. This being my first time in a Sarawakian village, I did not know that the sharing of possessions is a routine part of people’s lives.

I was surprised to find that villagers build their own amenities such as water and electricity supply, and that the telephone line worked only intermittently.

I was stunned by the blanket of stars across the dark skies on clear nights, and thrilled to walk by the light of the moon which shines so bright that we didn’t need our torchlights.

We spent the days visiting salt springs to see how salt is produced. By night, we talked about random things that we had seen. With anthropologists, conversations inevitably turned to structures and systems, and communities.

I began to catch a glimpse of value systems so different from mine, and lives where people are not defined by their jobs. To the question ‘what do you do for a living’, I got a baffled silence as many people didn’t slave away at just one occupation that comes to define them. Their answer will likely be along the lines of ‘I farm, I hunt, I fish, I make things, I build houses ...’

I also began to see that how people’s identities aren’t necessarily wedded to the abstract concept of race. The people I met were as likely to identify themselves as being from a particular place, as being from a particular ethnic group.

It was a week filled with discoveries. After that first trip, I leapt at every chance to travel with the anthropologists.

As I got to know Sarawak better, it became harder to return to Kuala Lumpur each time.

Long story short, I decided to stay for a while in Ba’ Kelalan after a friend from a non-governmental organisation offered me some volunteer work there. Well, I did get the work done by and by but spent more time simply enjoying life and learning new skills, from planting rice to foraging for wild vegetables.

The months went by, and Ba’ Kelalan, with its deep sense of community and tranquil pace of life, became a place where I felt truly at home. Most people can speak Malay, and I have since picked up a rudimentary grasp of the local language, Lun Bawang.

Now, five years later, I am still here. Obviously, there have been plenty of adjustments and cultural differences along the way.

For me, the most difficult switch was from an urban to a remote rural environment. I didn’t miss the shops or internet but it took a while to adjust to a communal type of life.

In a village, community life is very important, and that means a lot of community work to maintain amenities like water and power supply, clean the village grounds and host visitors. Weddings and funerals are multi-day community affairs. The frequent community work can be disruptive to your own plans but it is part of village life.

The change hasn’t been easy but it has been deeply enriching, with plenty of new discoveries to discuss with my anthropologist friends. As it turned out, travelling with anthropologists can change your life.



Ba’ Kelalan is a settlement of nine villages in the mountains of east Sarawak. Located about 1,000 metres above sea level, its main economic activity is rice farming. It is around 120km from the nearest town on a logging road, or a short flight on a small aircraft operated by Malaysia Airlines. Tourists often visit for its fresh cool climate and scenic views. Ba’ Kelalan is also the gateway to Mt Murud, the highest mountain in Sarawak.

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