Homestay offers true Malaysian experience

17 March 2012

A sonorous chant wakes me up. I peer blearily at my watch: 6.a.m. It is a call to prayer from the village mosque and the baritone voice is haunting, the cadences mystical.

I am in Kuala Medang a kampong (village) in the Pahang province of Malaysia staying with a Malaysian family. We don’t share a common language, but my gentle-eyed host “mother” urges me to eat breakfast with a series of gestures.

Malaysian breakfasts are hearty: rice, a bowl of chicken mee goring (fried noodles) and aubergines in a spicy sambal sauce –Tea Set washed down with milky tea. The young men of the family have already left for work at a nearby palm plantation but my elderly host “father,” dressed in a traditional Malay sarong and tunic, is watching a political rally on TV. He smiles and responds to my greeting “salamat pagi” (good morning) with a slight bow, hand on heart. Charming!

Malaysia’s Homestay Program has been in place for about 10 years, and my host family’s large (Tourism Malaysia approved) bungalow has several bedrooms for family members, in addition to a guest room and bathroom set aside for visitors.

Our homestay involves not only our host families, but the entire village community. We drop into a spotless communal kitchen to watch, fascinated, as two women produce skeins of noodles to sell at a local farmers’ market.

In an adjoining kitchen, we get hands-on experience at making traditional Malaysian sweets: dodol (made from glutinous rice and coconut milk), ondeonde (rice and palm sugar balls covered in grated coconut) and curry puffs with dainty fluted edges.Our reward is a high tea where we sample our Malaysian delicacies and chat about recipes with our hostesses, with the help of our guide and translator, Kamal.

The next day we head into jungle to visit the Semai – a tribal people living in a world far removed from technological wizardry – to get a cook-ing demo of a very different sort. A wrinkled old woman and her granddaughter hack away the bark of tapioca roots, stuff the pieces into a hollow bamboo stump with water and salt, and then, along with rice wrapped in Lerek leaves, place the stumps over an open fire. The roasted result is tastier than it looks, especially when eaten along with dry salted river fish.The Semai depend on the forest for their food whether that’s fruit, plants, vegetables, fish or game.

When hunting animals, they wield their traditional hunting tool – a blowpipe. We take turns at blowing through the mouthpiece while aiming at a paper bag hanging off the branch of a nearby tree. While most of our group manage to hit it, my effort goes wide of the mark, evoking much merriment among the tribal children in the audience.

Visit over, the group boards dug out canoes fitted with outboard motors to travel up river – an experience that is at the very heart of Malaysia. Disembarking at a village community centre, we are plunged into activities that are not only unusual but also a lot of fun. Most of us supermarket shoppers only know rice in its sterile packaged form, but today we run our fin-gers through yellow kernels from a nearby paddy field.

“Top spinning is a fiercely contested sport here in Malaysia,” says Kamal, beckoning us over to watch a top-maker as he painstakingly crafts tops from Malaysian hard wood. Later we watch a lively top spinning competition between two teams. Urged on by our hosts, some of us wrap the large heavy tops with sturdy string and whip them with varying degrees of success onto a mat.

The day wraps up with a colourful cultural dance performance at the kampong’s Community Centre. I fall asleep to the whirr of my bedroom fan, and the faint scent of ripe mangos wafting through my window.

Travel Writers’ Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers.


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