I must admit it was quite a new experience for me, a city kid through and through, to be boarding a train heading to the rural areas in the northern state of Kelantan for my first homestay experience. As a young adult relishing the comforts of a modern world, I wondered how I’d fare in the absence of an internet connection, flashy restaurants and bustling roads.
Nevertheless, my anxious spirits were slightly elevated as I travelled with other Singapore tourists wanting to check out the Malaysia homestay experience as well. Seeing the excitement portrayed on their faces, I thought that perhaps, like them, I should see this as a good opportunity to get away from city life and enjoy the pleasures of simple living for a little while. So I threw my concerns out the window and resigned myself to the experience as I boarded the train.
As we got closer to our destination, the landscape changed dramatically to what I was accustomed to seeing in the city. Skyscrapers were replaced by single storey wooden houses elevated on one metre stilts, and advertising billboards were replaced by coconut trees.
As we arrived at the Kubang Telaga village, one of the many small villages littered across the state of Kelantan, we were greeted by a festive reception -- the local villagers had made a small procession, carrying decorative ornaments, showering us with smiles, making us feel as comfortable as possible. Fresh coconut drinks, chilled by ice, were served straight from the husk as a welcome drink. Local snacks were also served, consisting of ketupat and pulut (rice prepared in coconut leaf sacs), tapai (a sweet and tangy desert made from gently fermented rice) as well as roti jala, a type of lacy pancake.
I was introduced to my foster parents who then showed me their home, a charming but spacious wooden house with a generous living room. While some homestays provide en suite bathroom facilities, the one I stayed in only had a common bathroom. I wasn’t complaining, though, as the bathroom and toilets were really clean.
At lunch, we were introduced to the local delicacy, the budu. Made of fermented anchovies and salt sauce, it is typically eaten with almost all rice dishes in Kelantan as an accompaniment to the regular chicken, meat and vegetable dishes.
The next day’s activities began with a visit to the rubber plantation. Malaysia has a long history in the cultivation and production of rubber cultivation (since the late 19th century) and we were about to learn how it was done. While not particularly challenging, the trick was to apply a firm enough force to skin off a thin layer of bark for the latex to drip down.
Our next stop was the orchard where we enjoyed some delicious, fresh-off-the-tree rambutan and duku langsat. For the uninitiated, the rambutan is called so because of the hairy surface of the fruit’s skin, the local term for hair being rambut, while the langsat is a distant cousin of the lychee fruit. They were the sweetest fruits I had ever tasted!
Next, we witnessed a fisherman’s attempt at catching fish by casting his fishing net. Standing on a small boat and armed with only one net, it was a wonder to watch him cast it deliberately into the river, and very carefully swirl his net back and forth before pulling it out of the water. It came out empty, though, since it wasn’t the fishing season yet.
Then it was off to the paddy fields. We got a chance to walk through the paddy fields and run our hands through the growing grains, as we observed first-hand the lush paddy fields that stretched for great distances. They explained to us the irrigation systems used for the paddy field, as well as how paddy is processed to yield rice.
After an eventful morning we took a short interval to enjoy more local delicacies, among them the siput sedut – perhaps the closest thing we have to the escargot. A variant of whelk, it is eaten by sucking out the flesh from its protective shell. It was well worth the noisy effort though! The flesh had a very succulent juicy taste.
Having enjoyed our break, we were then brought to the place where the traditional tops, locally known as gasing, were made. Top spinning and making remains one of the oldest crafts in Kelantan, and it was truly a privileged evening for us to be able to witness how tops were being made and played. Traditional tops must first be tightly wound with a length of rope, and this was achieved by first tying one end of the rope to a sturdy object, and then winding the other end around the top as tightly as possible. Then with a deft fling of the arm, the top is thrown into the air and onto a small stage. The top – still spinning at a furious rate – is quickly picked up and transferred onto a small handheld platform, where a timer is set to see how long it would last. The longest-spinning top would of course be the champion!
Next, it was time for us to go see how one of the traditional cakes of Kelantan, the kuih bahulu, was made. This cake involves mixing whipped duck eggs, flour, sugar, and banana extract together before baking it in a traditional oven, heated by coal from above as well as below.
During a break in the day, we were entertained by the penghulu’s pet monkey who had been trained to pluck coconuts straight from the tree! As we cheered on, the agile monkey scrambled effortlessly to the top of the tree, and began dropping coconuts to the ground. All of us watched, amused, as the penghulu (village headman) gave directions to the witty monkey. Apparently, there was a technique to it – the monkey would first grab on to the fruit, and begin twisting it in one direction until it came loose and finally drop to the ground naturally.
That night, we gathered at the penghulu’s house for the main event, a mock Malay wedding full of tradition and culture. Typical of Malay weddings, newlyweds are considered as Raja Sehari, or King for a Day, and given the royal treatment right from the beginning. The wedding started off with a merry procession accompanying the groom as he made his way on foot to the bride’s house. His entourage consisted of his best man, locally termed pengapit, as well as an assembly of men beating the kompang, a shallow drum instrument that was played loud enough to announce to the entire village of the wedding.
The “royal” couple was then ushered to an elaborately-decorated platform where they were seated before their “subjects” or guests, and entertained with a performance of silat, the local martial arts of Malaysia. In the background, traditional musicians with equally traditional instruments played court music throughout the night.
The musical entertainment didn’t end there, however, as the celebrations reached fever-pitch with the trance-like performance of the dikir barat, a sort of vocal chant by all the young men of the village. A group of them sat together in a tight circle and started chanting in the local Malay dialect unique to Kelantan accompanied by fast and furious hand-clapping, a perfectly synchronised and coordinated performance that was impressive. Although clapping your hands may sound like a simple task, I was later informed that the performance took many hours of rehearsals and I appreciated the performance a lot more.
The night ended with everyone dancing the joget. Joget is basically the local term for dancing, and the locals congregated together on a stage and danced to the traditional music. The dance is done a particular way, with both arms outstretched to one side or both sides, and everyone dancing rhythmic steps to the beat. Everyone was having fun and celebrating joyously as the crowd slowly trickled back to their homes for the night.
The next day was the last day of our time at Kubang Telaga village. We exchanged gifts and were given some local snacks to bring home, including the local popcorn (made from special rice grains) and curry puffs. But perhaps what was most memorable and touching was planting a tree in front of the penghulu’s house to commemorate our visit, and bidding farewell to our “families” to whom we had grown attached during the short stay with them. On the way back to Kuala Lumpur, I thought of how far I had come from the initial apprehension for the simple kampung life to feeling sad over having to leave my “parents.” Definitely something to blog about once I reach home!
About Malaysia’s homestay experience:
The Malaysian homestay programme offers visitors a warm and memorable experience of living in traditional village communities in the outskirts of town. Experiencing a homestay in a traditional village is perhaps one of the fastest and easiest ways to get to know the real Malaysia. With the recent introduction of the Malaysia Rail tourism packages, tourists can now travel to their homestay village conveniently by train.
For more information, log on to www.go2homestay.com