As city dwellers, we are used to demanding for things to be done “yesterday.” We are so used to listening to the scripted customer service dialogue at fast-food counters that we’ve learned to tune it out. We are used to the mass-produced “nutrition” in polystyrene boxes. And no matter how much we “communicate” on our hi-technology gadgets, truthfully, we are actually distancing ourselves socially from more meaningful inter-personal connections.
Seriously, city life has become the bane of our existence. And I, too, have become a sad part of it! But at least I have learned to recognize it and done something about it.
My pill for life – which I pop whenever I feel I’ve become too stressed out, too deep in work, too “out of the loop,” irritated at the world – is a quick getaway. By that, I mean “get-away-as-far-from-the-city-as-possible-and-do-it-fast!”
And it’s not just to any fancy resort of a certain star-rating. These places I go to are hardly rated at all. In fact, they’re not made of glitzy perfection; they don’t have turn-down service, butlers lurking at every corner nor room service.
But that hasn’t stopped them from offering the warmest and most welcoming hospitality I know. I’m talking about the more than 3,000 kind families scattered around Malaysia’s kampungs who have graciously opened up their homes to total strangers like me looking for a genuine Malaysian experience. They call it the Malaysian homestay programme. I call it first-class hospitality.
In my escape of the clutches of city-life, I have ventured to several Malaysian kampungs that have taken part in this national tourism venture, meant to give the rural population a piece of the tourism pie. The programme has actually been well-received and today, 15 years after it was first introduced in Pahang, there are more than 200 villages listed under the programme.
They have all been pleasant experiences to remind me that a satisfying life is more about being in the present moment rather than in the pursuit of the next promotion, the next big gadget, the next sleek car.
I felt this most when I was making my way to Kampung Pantai Suri in Kelantan. We had to abandon our car for a more eco-friendly transportation. From the Kok Majid jetty, we glided slowly down the Sungai Kelantan estuary on a long boat (it was the only way to get to the village). Along the way, we passed sandbanks, wooden bridges, and the sight of young boys diving off a tree into the river in wild abandon. The splashes, their gleeful laughter, the friendly teases exchanged among them reminded me of a life less cluttered.
But it’s not just the children who know how to enjoy life. Even the elder folks have a deep sense of appreciation for the present. They know that they’ve worked hard, and they know that their bodies deserve a good respite. Despite the urban dwellers high-flying life in the cities, it is these folks in these older parts of Malaysia who lead much more enriching and full lives.
At the end of my stay at Kampung Pantai Suri, I was rushing off to board the boat home. On the way, I passed by a group of elders joking and laughing away under the shade of a huge mango tree. It was high noon and the heat was searing but the shade beneath the tree was a cool place to relax. These folks were sitting around hacking away the tops of coconuts to get to the juice and fleshy insides.
They saw me in my rush and called me to slow down and join them. Not wanting to miss my boat, I hesitated, but finally, their jovial demeanour and cheery calls won me over. “If you miss this one, you can take the next boat,” they said. So I sat with them as they selected a coconut for me to drink. It dawned on me that we sometimes lead our lives with clock-work precision that we forget to stop and drink the coconuts, so to speak.
This was as natural as it gets. The wind to cool me off, instead of the air-conditioning; a leafy, shady tree overhead, instead of a zinc roof; and fresh coconut juice in my hands, instead of those mocktail glasses with the little umbrellas stuck in them.
The kampung folk’s hospitality is legendary in Malaysia. When you check in at one of the homestay kampungs, you’ll notice that it’s like coming home to your grandparent’s home for Hari Raya. Some people may find the idea of staying at a stranger’s home rather awkward, but whatever they say about Malaysian hospitality being genuine and warm is true – in fact, they could possibly put public relations agencies to shame! It doesn’t take long to bond and you’ll immediately feel like part of the family. Many “host families” and their guests have parted ways in tears at the end of their homestay duration. I know I have…!
Another thing in abundance here in these traditional villages is time. Things around here move at a slightly slower pace than in the city. An entire morning can be dedicated to the preparation of lunch. On one occasion, the womenfolk who were neighbours with each other congregated at their friend’s kitchen and commenced their preparation of the day’s meal. Amid their twittering gossips, teasing banter, the peeling, cutting and slicing of a variety of herbs, leaves and spices, and the steaming pots of what-not from the stove, lunch slowly took on the form of a feast! Just another example of teamwork at its best!
Despite being in a kampung, you’d be surprised at the variety of things to do. Each kampung is unique, has its own traditions and cuisine heritage (depending on its location in Malaysia) and lifestyle. Some of the villages are set near jungle, others may be by the sea or river. Some may be surrounded by paddy fields or fruit orchards.
A host family at Kampung Haji Dorani has their own paddy field and during the harvesting season, I had a chance to help them out in gathering the crop. I considered it as my little contribution to alleviating world hunger, and took great pride in it! They also happened to have a small fruit orchard and many an evening was spent on the patio of the house peeling away the skin of the mangoes to reveal the juicy, golden flesh beneath. There’s just something so satisfying about picking your own fruit, harvesting your own rice and catching your own fish for the night’s dinner. This is exactly what they’ve been saying about the farm-to-table concept, and there I was living the life!
The afternoons are usually my favourite time because that’s when I get to spend time with the village kids. At Kampung Batu Laut near Banting, Selangor, the children would rush down to the beach after school and practice their sailing skills. These kids are being groomed to be the next sailors and sea captains and some of them have excelled so well as to compete in sailing competitions worldwide!
Despite the age difference, there’s a whole lot to be learned from these kids -- about creativity (fashioning kites from bamboo) and teamwork (building a raft made of old tires). It was way better than those corporate training sessions in hotel meeting rooms!
The Malaysian homestay experience may have some similarities with the bed and breakfast concept in Europe, but I dare say that we’ve perfected it. It’s not only a retreat for those wanting to escape the city, it’s a lesson in life about humanity, patience, and for us, Malaysians, our heritage and traditions.
So if you find yourself stuck in life, corporate meetings, a 4x4 cubicle, traffic jams, or whatnot, perhaps it’s time to take a little drive back to our kampungs and learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of life again.
P.S. The Ministry of Tourism has a comprehensive listing of Malaysia’s homestay kampongs at http://www.go2homestay.com/