For the first time in his life, our writer immersed himself in kampung life at several homestays in Negeri Sembilan, and emerged feeling enriched.
OH, my God, why did I agree to do this,” I murmured under my breath as my eyes took in the sight of the rumah kampung that was to be my abode for the night at Homestay Kampung Batang Nyamor in Rembau, Negeri Sembilan.
Charmingly simple with a vast outdoor compound that houses a plethora of lush vegetation against a picturesque backdrop of the neighbouring Gunung Datuk, the house is by no means inhospitable. Far from it, pollyannas would have called it – for lack of a better word – rustic.
To be fair, my temporary residence doesn’t exactly fit the bill of an actual traditional kampung house. It’s not built on stilts nor is it completely constructed out of wood.
But here’s the thing, having spent the past 22 years of my life in big cities, I’d take metropolitan over provincial in a heartbeat. Terraced house is a convention; self-assembled furniture from IKEA, a way of life; and hot shower, a basic necessity.
So imagine my horror when I was told by my hostess that I had the option of showering in the great outdoors at the little shack of a washroom located behind the house.
“Well, it’d be quite an experience, but, er, is there a water heater in there?” I politely asked my hostess, a retiree by the name of Badziah Dahil.
Her bemused expression revealed what I’d already suspected. Forget about hot water. By then, a dozen absurd thoughts had crept into my mind.
What if a monkey jumped on me while I was showering and I’m forced to run out of the toilet butt naked? Or worse, what if the legend about the orang minyak (oily man)
is true? Either way, I wasn’t going to take any chances. New experiences could wait.
There I was, an outright city boy deep in the countryside surrounded by crowing roosters, living the languorous life where 3G mobile signals are non-existent, and congestion on the road is more likely to be caused by cows than cars.
That awkward scenario from the second day of my homestay trip encapsulates perfectly my novel brush with kampung life as part of the Jom Jelajah Koperasi Negeri Sembilan 2013 (Let’s Explore Co-operative) programme. In conjunction with Visit Malaysia Year 2014, the Malaysia Co-Operative Societies Commission has invited members from both local and foreign media to stay at various homestays across the land of the Minangkabaus. For four days and three nights, I traded urban life for a much simpler kampung lifestyle.
Our hinterland getaway began at Homestay Kampung Pachitan where we were honoured with a traditional Malay kompang performance upon our arrival.
Located in the Port Dickson district, the village was originally formed in the early 1920s by settlers from East Java, Indonesia.
Today, it is the only homestay village in the country that still upholds traditional Javanese culture and heritage.
After observing some cooking demonstrations of local delicacies such as coconut jelly, rempeyek (deep-fried Javanese cracker made from peanuts, coated with crispy flour batter) and kuih kelepong, we made our way to Homestay Kampung Pelegong in Seremban where we were introduced to our first foster family.
I was to put up for the night at the home of Haji Abu Hassan Arjak, a 73-year-old man who operates a stall at the local weekly farmers market.
For the uninitiated, a homestay vacation is a form of tourism whereby visitors stay over in the home of a local family while immersing themselves in the culture of the community.
Noor Afendi Abdul, who runs a homestay with his wife Maizatul Ahmam at the previous village I visited, described it best: “We may not have the best homes or the nicest rooms in town but what we can offer to our guests is warm hospitality,” explained the 46-year-old geologist who helps his wife to operate the homestay programme when he’s not tied up with work obligations.
However, my Homestay Kampung Pelegong foster dad’s single-storey five-bedroom bungalow with its sprawling fruit orchard is anything but humble.
Later that night, our group was treated to a cultural performance that included a “wedding ceremony” that observed Adat Perpatih (matrilineal system), a unique custom practised by the Malays in Negeri Sembilan. The customary law is unique in that it gives preference to the womenfolk, particularly when it comes to inheritance and right of properties.
Little did I know that I was to be part of the evening’s entertainment!
“Here’s a fan. Just sit beside the groom and fan him. And if you feel it’s stuffy after a while, just forget about the groom and fan yourself,” the mistress of ceremonies instructed as she handed me a spade-shaped fan.
Before I could protest, I found myself decked in a bright orange-and-brown silk pengapit lelaki (best man) outfit and was ushered as part of the newlyweds procession.
If it’s genuine traditional Malay culture that you’re looking for, perhaps there’s no better way to experience it than at a Malaysian homestay.
During the course of my trip, I spoke more Malay than I’ve ever done since leaving high school and put my palate to the test with Negeri Sembilan’s signature masak lemak cili padi dishes.
Such a hands-on experience would indeed prove interesting for foreign tourists who would like an authentic introduction to rural Malay traditions, culture and lifestyle. In this case, a twenty-something guy who’s never stepped within the vicinity of a kampung.
As a matter of fact, the villages we visited were to host 300 Japanese students who would be visiting as part of their extra-curricular activities right after our departure.
Marco Moraglia, who hails from Italy, appreciated the experience of mingling with the locals. He expressed his love for the colourful culture he observed during his stay at various homestay villages.
“I used to live in Japan for a number of years and over there, people try so hard to achieve uniformity. It’s great to see Malaysia embracing diversity,” he said.
Meanwhile, another international participant, Vittorio Lloyd Salac from the Philippines, said he had no problem adapting to local food.
Malaysia Co-Operative Societies Commission of Negeri Sembilan state director Haji Zakaria Mat Jusoh said that the response towards the homestay programme has been encouraging.
“From the period of January to August this year, the five homestays in Negeri Sembilan which are registered under the Co-Operative received over 2.6 million visitors. Out of this number, over 600,000 are international tourists,” revealed Haji Zakaria.
The healthy statistics could partly be attributed to the well-planned itinerary that’s offered in the programme. For instance, a three-day stay at Homestay Kampung Pelegong includes activities such as handicraft-making, playing local folk games, fishing, rubber-tapping and fruit-picking at the many orchards.
There have also been occasions when foreign tourists stayed for over a month and completely assimilated themselves into the daily grind of the villagers.
Obviously, those who are used to living in a city will need a little nudge to adapt to life in a village.
But by the time our group arrived at Homestay Kampung Lonek in Jempol, the fourth and final village for this trip, the golden hue of the paddy field against the bright evening sun provided a welcome change from the grey hues of the concrete jungle.
Sure, a hotel with room service and breakfast buffet would have made for a much more comfortable stay. But the warmth of the families that welcomed me into their homes and gave me an intimate glimpse into their lives more than made up for the lack of amenities.
“Maybe the houses are not fully equipped, but you do get a genuine taste of culture, heritage and a sense of community,” said Badariah Ahmad, chairperson of Homestay Kampung Lonek, while we were having a picnic breakfast on a river bank on the last day of my trip.
The opposite of the Malay phrase “Tak kenal maka tak cinta” (which literally means, I can’t love what I don’t know) best describes my homestay experience.
They might not have been five-star resorts and spas, but if you go with a receptive mind, chances are, you will fall in love with the charm of kampung life.