Story and photos by CAROLYN HONG

Where is my home – and what is my hometown? This feels like it should be easy to answer, but it isn’t.

The Star2 Monthly Challenge for Travel is tougher than it appears. It asks people to think about where they call home, and what makes a place a hometown.

Is it the place of your birth? The place where you grew up? Or your current abode? Or is it a matter of, as they say, “home is where the heart is”? I don’t have the answer.

I grew up in Petaling Jaya, and lived there almost all my life. But now I have a new home through marriage, and over time, perhaps, it will also become a hometown. Anyway, I’ll still tell you about Ba Kelalan, the village which I now call home.

Ba Kelalan is as far away from Kuala Lumpur as you can get, nestled in the mountains of north Sarawak, tucked up against the border with Kalimantan. It’s 150km (on very bumpy roads!) from the nearest town of Lawas, and just 4km from the Indonesian border.

Surrounded by densely forested mountains, the settlement has a population of fewer than 1,000 people, who live along the narrow valley of the Kelalan river.

At 1,000m above sea level, its cool air, warm people and tranquil beauty have made it justifiably famous.

Buduk Nur is the largest of nine villages here, stretched out along the valley of the Kelalan river.

Buduk Nur is the largest of nine villages here, stretched out along the valley of the Kelalan river.

People come from afar to see the picturesque rice fields still planted entirely by hand and grown without the use of chemicals, or to taste mountain salt extracted from the natural salt springs in the highlands. Some come to take part in tough hikes up Mount Murud or to Bario, and some even cross the border to visit Kalimantan.

At one time, Ba Kelalan was the only place in Malaysia to produce apples but the orchard has seen better times because of a labour shortage. Now, visitors can go to a sheep farm and cuddle cute lambs.

Ba Kelalan is calm, green, pastoral and bucolic. But it is also filled with mystery. Myths and legends of its ancient hills abound. Some may call these mere fables, but the stories tell you a lot about the place and its people.

Though the settlement is small, their world is huge.

Their myths tell us that the people were once part of a large community that stretched as far as the East Kalimantan highlands, and down to Brunei.

Highland salt is made in these mountains, where natural salt springs are found.

Highland salt is made in these mountains, where natural salt springs are found.

The overland trail taken by the mythical giant Upai Semaring tells us that there must have once been a thriving trade route from Kalimantan through Ba Kelalan to Brunei.

Upai Semaring was a pretty huge guy who could span rivers in one stride, but had a romantic and impulsive side too. He is said to have lived in these highlands in ancient times.

One day, the story goes, he found a rattan ring in the river in Kalimantan. It was part of a broken fish trap but he mistook it for a calf ring traditionally worn by men. Given its size, he believed that it must have belonged to a much larger giant.

Fearing such a rival, he left Kalimantan. In a few strides, he reached Ba Kelalan.

In Ba Kelalan, he seemed to have led a homely life, given the artefacts he left behind – a rock with a hole where he pounded padi, a black rock with a flat top where he sharpened his parang, and four grooved rocks that formed his stove.

There was also a rock mound where his daughter is said to be buried, and a rock bridge that he made.

Well, no one saw him do any of these things. These are ancient legends. But the oddly-shaped rocks, around which these myths sprung, remain.

The flat-topped object reputed to be the sharpening stone of Upai Semaring.

The flat-topped object reputed to be the sharpening stone of Upai Semaring.

Similar Upai Semaring stories and artefacts can also be found in other villages along the trail, right down to Brunei where he was also said to have gone.

Mythical or otherwise, do look out for these stones in Ba Kelalan that tell us stories.

Many are located near the house of Pak Dadius Tagko, the headman of the Long Lemutut village. Visit him, and he might show you other mysterious stones found when he was building his home.

One in particular is intriguing. It stands upright, with a carved face looking upwards to the sky. Man or animal? And if it is meant to represent a man, who was he? No one knows.

How to get here: Flights from Miri to Ba Kelalan three times a week on a 19-seater Twin Otter, or take a five-hour bumpy car ride from Lawas.

Where to stay: There are many homestays where room and board are provided at reasonable rates. Get to know the local people and learn about their food (delicious!), crafts and way of life.

For the Star2 Monthly Challenge for Travel, write a travel-related story (600-800 words), with seven to 10 photos (1MB), about your hometown or the place where you now live.

Give us an insight into the place that only a local or resident can: something unusual, off the beaten path, insider tips and interesting anecdotes; not the usual tourist spots and anecdotes that almost everyone knows.

Send your entries to with “Star2 Monthly Challenge” in the Subject line. Entries close on June 18.