Guests receive a welcome from a delegation of Kuala Medang’s homestay ladies.
Story and photos by Margaret Deefholts
Malaysia takes great pride in welcoming visitors to the glittering cities of Kuala Lumpur or Penang where luxury hotels offer the highest standards of service. Cosseted in plush surroundings one is insulated from the everyday lives of ordinary Malaysians, many of whom live in small towns and rural communities across the country. What weaves the fabric of their lives, their day-to-day routines?
These and other questions crowd my mind as our group of eight people travels by road from Kuala Lumpur to the kampong (village) of Kuala Medang in central Malaysia’s Pahang Province to take part in a three-day rural homestay program. At a formal occasion the previous evening, Tourism Malaysia officials had laid out in great detail the initiatives of this new program, emphasizing standards laid down for host families and their homes, as well as planned activities such as cooking demonstrations, traditional games, cultural performances and a visit with tribal people.
Our group arrives at the Community Hall of Kuala Medang kampong to a welcome by women bearing brightly colored tinsel “umbrellas” (photo above). Not the growl of thunder, nor the tropical rain that has begun to pelt down can dampen the warmth of our reception. The main road winds past bungalows painted yellow, blue or peach. Flowering bushes and trees with orange and yellow blossoms grow in profusion and the air is rich with the scent of moist earth. Traveling with us, our guide, Kamal, has already proved to be informative, entertaining and helpful.
Our host family’s bungalow is large, with a broad verandah running along the front. We walk shoe-less on the cool, tiled floor to meet our host “father”, a dapper 80-year-old man and our host “mother”, his 76-year-old wife (right). They are both dressed in traditional garb – he in a tunic and a sampin, i.e. a full length printed cotton sarong and a songkok cap, she wearing a cotton batik print gown with a scarf covering her head and shoulders. They bow slightly, hand over heart – a charming Malaysian traditional greeting – as they usher us into their home.
Their living room is furnished with sofas covered in brown flowered material and a medium-sized older model TV. Bunches of plastic flowers, some in vases others in wall holders, add color to the decor. Our host mother shows us to our room.
Room. Singular. To be shared by the three of us! Four beds stand side by side, each with thin cotton mattresses, cotton sheets and coverlets. The only other furniture in the crowded room is a miniscule dressing table with child’s size stool. A table-fan affixed to one wall, oscillates slowly barely stirring the humid afternoon air. No cupboards, no space for suitcases. We are complete strangers to one another, having only met a few hours earlier, and the lack of privacy isn’t a welcome prospect.
The author’s host mother.
I look around the bathroom. It has a Western style toilet (thank heavens!) with a plastic seat, a tiny washbasin with a pocket-sized mirror over it, and a tap with an outlet (sans shower head) protrudes from the wall. A small stub of well-used soap rests on the washbasin and there is no toilet paper — as in many Asian countries, Malaysians use water to clean themselves. We have extra soap between us, but haven’t thought to bring toilet paper.
Tea-time snacks are served in the dining-cum-family room, and our host mother and a younger woman, presumably a daughter of the house, welcome us to the table. They don’t join us at the meal, but stand by urging us to sample spicy curry puffs, coconut sweets, and Malaysian-style milky tea.
A host family’s living room.
Which raises the next question: how can we converse when we don’t share a common language? I’ve rehearsed a few phrases like “thank you” and “good morning”, but that’s obviously not enough. I’m itching to know more about the family, their lifestyle, opinions, traditions etc. But all we can do now is smile and communicate with gestures: I point to the curry puffs, roll my eyes and rub my tummy appreciatively which sends our hostesses into a flurry of giggles.
A roommate whispers to me, “Should we ask about the toilet paper?” I whisper back, “How do we explain what we use it for?”
To our relief, a visitor who speaks basic English drops in for a visit. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I broach the subject: “Excuse me sir, but we’d like to have some toilet paper. There’s none in the bathroom.” He looks nonplussed and for a moment I wonder whether he is going to ask why. Then he says “Okay, I’ll see…” and disappears. A few moments later he’s back with a packet of bright pink table napkins embellished with flower designs.
“Not even five star hotels offer such fancy toilet paper!” says my roommate, struggling to keep a straight face. The visitor preens, “We Malaysians are always pleasing our guests.” Later that evening, the three of us somehow manage to remain politely poker faced as a roll of white toilet paper is placed on the dining table, intended for use as table napkins.
In a village kitchen, a lesson in curry puff making is a hands-on affair.
A noodle-making demonstration.
Before the day’s program begins, we tour the homes where others in our group are billeted. They are all large, clean and tastefully appointed. Four university students who have been studying Bahasa Malay are thrilled to be able to chat freely with their host family. My fellow Canadian, Will, has a room and bathroom to himself and his hosts speak a little English.
Our kampong experience involves the entire village community. We watch the production of skeins of noodles processed in a kitchen with state of the art equipment; the finished product will be packaged and sold at a local farmers market. We help prepare a variety of traditional Malaysian sweets – dodol (made from glutinous rice and coconut milk), onde-onde (soft white balls covered in grated coconut) and Malaysian pastry curry puffs with dainty fluted edges.
Later we head into the jungle to visit the Semai, a tribal people living in a jungle environment, for a very different cooking demo. A tribal elder prepares a snack of tapioca roots and rice wrapped in leaves, stuffed into hollow bamboo stumps with water and salt, and roasted over an open fire. Eaten with dry salted river fish, this is tastier than it looks.
The Semai depend on the forest for their food – whether plants, vegetables, fish or game. Their traditional hunting tool is a blowpipe and we are invited to try blowing a pellet at a paper bag hanging off the branch of a nearby tree. Our amateur efforts evoke much merriment among the children.
Semai tribal children grow up in a jungle environment.
Tribal visit over, the group boards dugout canoes with outboard motors to travel up a treacle-colored river. We wind through dense tropical jungle – mango, palm groves, rambutan trees and flowering creepers bend to the water’s edge.
Next day, we set off after breakfast to the weekly Kuala Medang farmers’ market, crowded and noisy. Vendors sell everything from readymade garments and knick-knacks to food. Shoppers haggle vociferously, vendors bawl their wares and music blares from stalls selling knock-off DVDs. The smell of frying kebabs and Satay mingles with spicy noodles and cut papayas.
Made with chicken or beef on a kebab stick, satay is a traditional grilled dish available in markets and restaurants.
Ladies sell traditional foods at the weekly Kuala Medang farmers’ market.
By late morning the air is close and humid and a scowling sky threatens rain. Undeterred, we visit two plantations. Palm oil is one of Malaysia’s most lucrative products, and we watch, fascinated, as laborers using long handled scythes bring the fruit to the ground. The country is the world’s third largest producer of rubber, and at a nearby rubber farm, a plantation manager talks about the life cycle of the trees, and the process of rubber tapping.
That evening at a farewell cultural show staged specially for us, dancers in traditional costumes move gracefully to a rhythmic and plaintive melody. The formal program over, we are welcomed onto the stage, where, crowned with flowers and arms linked, we fall into step with the dancers.
A memorable evening of cultural song and dance makes a fitting farewell for homestay visitors.
While touring plantation, we discover palm oil nuggets like this are pressed into one of Malaysia’s most lucrative products.
Our hosts’ home isn’t perfect. My bedsprings squeak and groan so I am self-conscious about turning at night in case I disturb the others. The bathroom fixtures aren’t up to minimal visitor standards. And the sonorous chant of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the nearby mosque wakes us up at dawn; this charms me, but not so my roommates!
Offsetting these quirks, we have gained insights into homespun traditions and everyday occupations in rural Malaysia which most tourists never see. Our host mother, a warmly solicitous older lady, goes to great lengths to offer us traditional Malaysian food, breakfasting on mee goring, a spicy fried noodle dish and eating dinners of coconut rice, steamed vegetables, tangy mutton, and river fish curries served fresh from her spotless kitchen.
Back again in Kuala Lumpur, Tourism Malaysia convenes a meeting to review our feedback. While praising the many positive aspects of the program, we recommend the services of a translator for visitors: it is important, perhaps even essential, to the experience that guests are able to exchange opinions and ideas with their host families. We also suggest that inspections of hosts’ homes should take place on a regular basis to ensure that facilities are consistently up to standard. In closing, we point out that everyone should be provided with a list of items to bring with them – toilet paper for one!
Malaysian Homestays Information:
An overview of the homestay program and the Kuala Medang homestay web page in detail.
Malaysia Tourism website: www.tourismmalaysia.com.
Many international airlines serve Malaysia. I traveled on Qatar Airways out of Montreal, Canada which offers three flights a week to Kuala Lumpur via Doha. Their helpful cabin staff and above average in-flight entertainment and meals made this a comfortable, pleasant experience despite the distance.
A professional travel writer, editor and photographer, Margaret Deefholts is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada, and the B.C. Association of Travel Writers. She is co-owner/editor of Travel Writers’ Tales, www.travelwriterstales.com, a syndicate which provides travel articles to several B.C. community newspapers. Her articles and short fiction has been published in magazines, newspapers and book anthologies in Canada and India. She is the author of Haunting India, a collection of short fiction, poetry and memoir.