Authentic experience in the heart of Borneo
30 Mar 2022 | The Star
Batu Patong Eco Village incorporates modern and sustainable design approach, while preserving the needs, preferences and aspiration of the local Kelabit community.

Nestled deep in the unspoiled jungle of the Bario Highlands in Sarawak, Batu Patong Eco Village is a hybrid between a boutique scale eco-resort and a community home stay that emphasises the ‘back-to-basics and natural’ concept.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the state, the project is a social effort between Gamuda and the local Kelabit community of Batu Patong. The eco-village aims to promote self-reliance, social empowerment and a sustainable business model to bring back value and worth to the much-neglected populace of the nation.

Gamuda is honoured and grateful for having answered the calls to action by listening to what the land has to tell us and working with nature and the people of Kelabit on this development.

Preserving the land, empowering the native

First of its kind in the state of Sarawak, Batu Patong Eco Village reflects working with nature and community empowerment for the people of Kelabit.

Before the 1960s, the longhouse in Batu Patong on the Kelabit Highlands accommodated 15 families. However, due to the 1963 Confrontation (conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia stemming from the former’s opposition to the latter’s creation), the Government had ordered them to move into Bario for their safety in the mid-1960s.

The villagers not only have to leave their communal homes, but they also have to abandon their farms and burial grounds. Despite having resettled well and even after decades, this group of displaced people have longed to return to Batu Patong.

Thus, this eco-village project fulfils a dream of returning to inhabit ancestral lands and instils an immersed sense of ownership and belonging amongst them.

In addition, the establishment of the eco-village also helps boost the local economy and promote eco-tourism in Batu Patong and surrounding areas, providing a source of income for the community.

The Kelabit worked hand in hand with the Gamuda team to conduct a feasibility study and site survey to better understand their culture, needs, preferences and aspirations.

Through this, our team was able to tap on the villagers’ inherent knowledge of nature by getting their guide on design and functionality, including from the cultural and traditional point of view to suit local needs.

The practicality of the design is in cognisant to the climate with minimisation of natural resources and energy.

The Kelabit teams, comprising 14 men mainly from the Batu Patong community, were mobilised to build the lodges and community hall that were completed in December 2018.

Furthermore, the Kelabit, who had no prior actual contracting experience, learnt how to manage project funding and delivery based on milestone payment terms. The successful delivery oft his project was a confidence booster to the local community.

The entire resort is owned and operated by the villagers, predominantly farmers. They wholly managed the housekeeping, preparing meals for guests to transportation and jungle guides for trekking and exploring around Batu Patong, sharing the uniqueness of the Kelabit culture with outsiders.

Sustainable construction, incorporating Kelabit tradition

A view of the interior shows the fine workmanship by local builders and artisans using traditional construction methods.

Soaring 3,500 feet above sea level Batu Patong is located approximately 40km southeast of Bario and some 6.5km from Malaysia-Indonesia’s border. Given its isolated location, it requires a two-hour drive off-road from Bario town.

The Batu Patong Eco Village is gently positioned on the site of the long-abandoned Batu Patong longhouse, overlooking an old rice field.

Inspired by the Kelabit’s longhouses, the resort consists of a traditional Tawa (communal hall and kitchen) flanked by seven lodges in a symbolic ‘Flying Menengang’ (Hornbill) formation.

This arrangement signifies the heart of the community connected to the individual family dwellings, which are modular in design for easy replication and expansion.

The design is also incorporated with the biophilic landscape approach by preserving much of the existing matured rainforest specimens while reintroducing indigenous saplings to re-inhabit the site and establish a new jungle habitat to co-exist naturally with the eco-village.

As part of the project’s sustainable measure, 23 matured native and quality living trees, namely Gaharu, Tualang, Tree of Heaven, Engkabang and one vulnerable species, Kapur, were identified on the site for preservation. The eco-lodges were then carefully positioned among the trees.

The eco-village was built entirely by local builders and artisans to rekindle the connection between the people and the land. Traditional construction methods were applied with little or no reliance on heavy machinery.

Ninety percent of the timber such as Meranti, Keruing, Kapur, Jati and Belian for the construction were sustainably harvested from the surrounding jungles and transported to the site on ox carts or via the river to reduce carbon footprint.

Sustainable construction materials were prioritised, where natural rock slabs split from boulders found in the nearby river were used for walkways. Recycled products such as the roof tiles were repurposed from old rubber tires when raw materials were unavailable.

And as waste disposal services are not available in Batu Patong and transferring them to Bario would be unsustainable and very expensive, the eco-village has committed to a rigorous recycling and composting programme.

A hundred percent of the food waste is composted to nurture the fruit and vegetable garden behind the Tawa kitchen. At the same time, guests are required to take generated rubbish with them to dispose of in Bario or Miri.

There is also a long-term plan to instal photovoltaic (PV) cells on the eco-lodge roofs to harness solar-generated power for electricity.

There is no better designer than Nature

A place for nature enthusiasts to explore, the eco-village is surrounded by breathtaking views and beautiful nature.

Far-flung yet accessible, Batu Patong Eco Village, which was softlaunched in mid-2019, had enjoyed an encouraging response.

It had hosted an entourage of European ambassadors, sports training camps and team building events before it was closed to the public due to the nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

This unique eco-village has once again opened its doors to tourists by the end of 2021.

United by the beauty of nature, simplicity and culturally-rich experiences, there are exciting activities that nature enthusiasts can explore during their stay here.

Tourists can hike and trek through Bario Highlands’ dense jungle landscape and waterfall. Other key activities include wild bird watching and discovering more about Batu Patong’s magnificent built structure, such as historical megaliths and traditional Kelabit’s longhouses.

Besides these, guests also get to experience a taste of authentic Kelabit life through their daily activities like fishing, cooking and meeting the local community.

Batu Patong is blessed with many resources, from rolling terrain to beautiful hills and lush forests. Much of the area around it is still a virgin jungle, the closest to nature one can get.