If you want to meet the locals, stay at home

As Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence, Fiona Cullinan checks in with a family in the padi belt for a taste of traditional life
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The Independent Travel

Perched on my backpack under a the awning of a restaurant, I peer through the monsoon for signs of my contact. I have no idea what a penghulu (village headman) looks like, and I hardly stand out from the battery of backpackers outside Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya bus station.

An hour late, two moustachioed men emerge from the curtain of rain, say my name and lead me to a beat-up saloon car. Suddenly, the whole arrangement seems flimsy. Everything has been set up via a mobile number plucked from the back of a brochure. Now I'm about to jump in a car with two strangers, heading for a farming backwater.

The Malaysian Homestay Programme, now in its 12th year, offers tourists a chance to stay with a host family deep in the padi belt. The trouble is, the scheme's rural nature means little more than contact details are available for its 25 kampungs (villages) and 1,200 homestays. Few have email. If anything puts the agro in agro-tourism, it's trying to arrange everything via payphone across a language barrier.

It is night when we pull up at the edge of a vast rice field in coastal Selangor. Frogs are jumping across the country lane, cicadas screaming. My Muslim "family for the weekend" are waiting on the verandah of a modern detached bungalow with kitchen garden (and chickens) and carport. Two young grandchildren are pushed forward to kiss my hand and touch their hearts. Albiah Salamat, a smiling older lady, doesn't speak much English but ushers me through a heavily curtained doorway. Beyond it lies a bedroom with television, fan, fridge, phone and a huggable body-sized bolster.

Head of the house is Mr Salamat, 54, a local government officer. He speaks English, though it takes a while to realise this since he has only one tooth. After dinner, he's keen to show me his workplace, where a by-election is taking place. It's 10pm but the imposing concrete cube of Kuala Selangor District Office is lit up. The electioneers stop to shake my hand, all but one. Is it because I am a woman? No one is saying.

The colourful food market I visit the next day is more my scene. This is where Albiah buys the ingredients for her cooking, a highlight of my stay. Throughout the day, she serves up fresh, local dishes, and the family take great pleasure in watching me try kuih (cakes) with sweet black tea, durian fruit in coconut milk with sticky rice, spicy sambals, crab and more. I nearly commit a faux pas when I try to pour water from a silver teapot into a cup rather than using it to wash my hands. But it's here in the kitchen that I also learn the basics of their life: halal cleaning rituals, prayer times, conversational Malay and how to eat with my fingers.

Mostly, though, nothing happens – it is simply too hot (about 40C). Half a dozen tourism students arrive to interview me about my homestay experience, but I have little to tell them. Instead, I ask them questions. What do they do for fun? Watch TV, do nothing; typical teenagers.

During the cooling sunset, the penghulu conducts an agro-tour. We walk through rows of cucumbers, across rice fields and under papaya trees. We take tea and chat to workers in the fields. I'm a bit disappointed that I don't get to tap a rubber tree or crush palm nuts (at £45 per tonne, palm oil is their most profitable crop).

But that night, I have the region's main attraction virtually to myself. Floating down the Selangor River on a sampan boat under the stars, I watch the banks light up with millions of tiny lights. The native berembang trees attract fireflies, the little blinkers lighting up nightly in one of nature's prettiest mating displays.

The dark silence is later broken by the human whirlwind of goodbyes – group photos, babies plonked on laps, another dinner. Mr Salamat takes me aside to say: "Next time, not a guest but a friend." When it comes time to leave, Albiah shows me a paper Pepsi cup, which she scissors and weaves into an amazing swan, before filling it with potpourri and presenting it as a gift. "Call me momma," she says as we hug goodbye. Strangers have become friends, a guest has become a member of the family, and back in KL's hostels, it's the backpackers who seem from another world.


Fiona Cullinan stayed at Kampung Sungai Sirih in Tanjung Karang for 90 ringgit (£12) per night. For more about the Malaysian Homestay Programme, contact Tourism Malaysia (travel.tourism. gov.my). Return flights to Kuala Lumpur cost from £479 with Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com).

Further reading: 'The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya' by Tim Harper, Cambridge University Press, £19.99