Jagoi’s stairway to heaven: A glimpse into mountain village life

The Bung Jagoi signboard at the foot of the mountain.

By Marlynda Meraw and Ling Hui

JUST a few more steps left, I mentally told myself as I took another step up the stairs, feeling the strain of exhaustion permeating in my muscles. I just about had it, and was close to giving up especially upon looking up only to see a seemingly endless flight of stairs leading to Bung Jagoi (Jagoi summit).

Perhaps there’s some sort of truth when my mother described the trail as the ‘stairway to heaven’ considering how steep it was. Still, I went on, with the burden of my bagpack weighing on me and silently thanking the weather for its mercy and just the right number of clouds curtaining the sun.


Our group was accompanied by three loyal dogs and a local guide, 74-year-old Juis Megan, who is very well-versed with the area, even more so as he used to live in Jagoi’s mountain village.

There was never a shortage of stories from the man as he led us to one of our first stops, the ‘jalan toki’ bosi’ which roughly translates as ‘iron dump road’.

Sure enough, as we looked down, there were black fragments embedded in the ground that we trod upon. At a glance, we wouldn’t have thought of it as anything, but as Juis told us that the fragments were pieces of iron, we were instantly intrigued.

A little bit of scrubbing with a steel brush should do the trick, Juis said, and mentioned that the iron had a yellowish colour, leading us to joke perhaps the fragments were gold. If the pieces were indeed gold, you can definitely count me in on a return trip.

The ‘toki bosi’ (iron dump) fragments found along the path.

The area has a storied past as a site of historical significance to the Bidayuh, and especially so during the Japanese occupation. During our hike, Juis directed our attention to a two-person bunker that doubled as a tunnel for soldiers to move about without being detected by their enemies.

Who knows how long exactly the mountain village of Jagoi has existed, but according to Juis’ calculations based on the generations of his family, he thinks that it could be approximately 300-years-old.

“My assumption is that the Bung Jagoi village is almost 300 years. Because when my paternal grandfather passed away at 110-years-old, I was only 14-years-old.

“My brother had the chance to see my paternal great-grandfather, and he (paternal great-grandfather) passed away at 98-years-old, but I don’t know what year was that. If you add it up, it would’ve made almost 200 years,” Juis told DayakDaily as we ascended the steps.

Along the way were also a few rest stops with roofs, which Juis said were originally used by the villagers to temporarily rest and place their paddy yields before going down the steps to bring up some more. Paddy however, has not been cultivated in Bung Jagoi since the 1980’s.

Concrete stairs were built at the beginning and the end of the trail, with the middle section being a natural trail. While Juis claimed that the climb was a mere 498 steps (more steps than Batu Caves, which is only 272!), my legs begged to differ.

Bung Jagoi demands only an hour-and-forty-five minutes’ climb—an easy feat for locals, seasoned hikers, and of course, people with lighter loads (of which did not include me).

Juis, our reliable guide for Bung Jagoi.
One of the rest stops along the way to Bung Jagoi.
Concrete steps leading to Bung Jagoi.

Authentic kampung-style homestay on a mountain

Despite the almost deafening shrill of cicadas, the only sound that filled my ears were my laboured breaths, and while the thought of it was borderline hysterical, sadly, I couldn’t even afford the laugh as I mustered the last of my energy to conquer the final flight of stairs up to the mountain village where our accommodation, the Dorod Jagoi Homestay awaited.

The towering trees made for perfect shade even as the sun hung high in the sky. Mist still lingered despite it being past afternoon, and as fresh air started to fill my deprived lungs, I felt revived and new.

Alexius Azza Jemat, or Alex for short, greeted us from a distance soon after our group reached the mountain village area, relieving Juis of his guide duties as we entered the homestay.

Dorod Jagoi Homestay is a simple village home with ample space, managed with care by 34-year-old Alex alongside his 74-year-old father, Jemat Nopis. While Alex provides a ‘kampung’ (village) style stay—open, communal spaces for a night’s rest—he did hang up a few curtains should his guests prefer a more private sleeping space.

Our hosts at Dorod Jagoi Homestay—Alex (left) and his father Jemat.

You can’t get closer to an authentic kampung experience than this—the nostalgic sight of a traditional cooking area, complete with a log fire and lively flames flickering, unlike the uniform blue flare of a modern gas stove which tamely obey the turn of a dial.

Naturally, being in the thick of the jungle would mean that phone network reception is spotty. If we had to contact the outside world through our phones, we had to sit by the dining area window.

It was literally our window to the outside world—physically and online—a lovely spot that overlooked the viridescent forest while we scrolled through various online platforms, checking in before returning to reality.

Alex was an amiable host who made us feel right at home despite not having known us until just moments prior. According to him, his home had been a transit point for guests to rest in ever since the 1980’s, as evidenced by the guest logbooks. However, the Dorod Jagoi Homestay itself was only officially established in 2017 and received its certification in 2019.

The oldest guest logbook was old and dusty, but well-cared for. Based on the entries, Alex’s home has hosted guests from all over, including Europe, Brunei, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, apart from locals.

With darkness shrouding the sky as the day came to a close, we prepared to retire for the day after arranging our mattresses in our preferred areas. With heavy eyelids and heavier limbs, I laid on the bed, lulled by the songs of insects into a gentle reverie.

If you’re interested in experiencing a true ‘kampung’ style mountain homestay, contact Alex at +60 16-855 3117 for further information and booking.

Our window to the ‘outside’ world.
Dining and kitchen area at Dorod Jagoi Homestay.
Dorod Jagoi’s indoor open fire cooking area.
One of the pages in the Dorod Jagoi Homestay’s guestbook, with the dates going back to 1988.

Milk siblings and Bidayuh paddy planting rituals

Bung Jagoi in Bau is rich with diverse cultures and traditions. During my trip there, I learned a new term: ‘milk siblings,’ which refers to a sibling-like relationship between children who have shared the same wet nurse.

“This is why neighbours of the same ‘kampung’ are not allowed to marry each other. They (the children) are very much like siblings to one another, as if sharing one mother,” Juis told DayakDaily and added that sharing a wet nurse was quite common in the past, especially when women took turns looking after each other’s children while the mothers went out for work.

The Bidayuhs, collectively known as Land Dayaks, have many rituals, most of which focus on farming. They are particularly centred on paddy cultivation, especially demonstrated during their Gawea (Gawai) rituals.

Juis, as one of the elders, provided us with a wealth of information about the many Gawea rituals and their associated taboos. He added that unlike in the past, paddy planting can now occur any time without traditional restrictions.

Juis sharing stories of Bung Jagoi and the Bidayuh culture.

In the past, before paddy planting, villagers needed to hold a ‘ngudung’ (meeting) and then search for new, suitable land. After that, they had to return and report to the wise man about their observations before resting for two days. During this resting period, the villagers were not allowed to go anywhere.

When searching for land, if a wooden cross erected three feet above the ground is seen, it meant the land had been claimed by someone else, and the villagers needed to find another place. Once the land identification process was complete, the villagers would clear the area and wait for the burning season to begin.

“Dry season is between July and early September, which is time for burning. They (villagers) will then hold a ritual. Every tree branch will be collected and placed in a pile as an offering for the jungle spirit to eat after the villagers had felled the trees,” said Juis.

During the Gawea ritual, a pig and at least three chickens are sacrificed, overseen by five elders that consisted of three priestesses and two priests. If the beheaded chicken’s neck faces the chosen paddy field, it signalled a good season.

After four days of rest, burning will then take place, followed by the sowing season from late September through October. During this time, villagers plant paddy or start nurseries before resting for another month.

At the end of the harvest season, another ritual was held to cast out bad spirits, Juis said. Villagers were required to tie a piece of white cloth around their wrists, to be worn from the tree-felling season until the burning season.

“During this (casting out bad spirits) ritual, a boat-shaped platter was made out of betelnut fruit skin.

“Everyone (villagers) was required to spit inside the platter to cast out the bad spirit from their bodies,” he said. A woman who would also be present in the ritual will chew betelnut and betel leaves, and put her saliva into the ‘pogank’ (sweet rice in bamboo, used for ceremonial purposes). The spit is then smeared on the foreheads and cheeks of the villagers.

“This (smearing the spit over forehead and cheeks) served as a mark that the villager has participated in the ritual.”

Juis could only laugh as our noses wrinkled slightly at the thought of another’s spit smeared on our faces, but this is part of the old traditions that are important to remember.

We were extremely fortunate to have Juis as our guide as he provided in-depth information regarding the Bidayuh culture and the history of Bung Jagoi. Those interested to learn about Bung Jagoi’s history and culture while climbing the mountain may contact Juis at +60 13-904 7463 to enlist his guide services.

That being said, I will surely return to Bung Jagoi, but perhaps next time with a much lighter load. — DayakDaily