Think Penang, and its array of mouthwatering food comes to mind. But beyond the flaming woks, the state has another face that remains mostly unexplored—a conservative side on the mainland that is perhaps unbeknownst to those who’ve only heard of the island. Through Jom Jelajah Koperasi (Let’s Explore Cooperatives), we stayed at traditional homestays to learn more about a culture that is distinctly Malay. Read more…
As mentioned, there are two sides to Penang—the popular island, known locally as Pulau Pinang, and the mainland that includes Butterworth. While the island is inhabited more by the Chinese-Malaysians as a consequence of historical migration, the mainland side, attached to the rest of the peninsula, has a more Muslim population.
The stops in our itinerary were mostly found in the mainland, as did the two homestays we stayed at. After traveling five hours from Kuala Lumpur, visiting a cooperative on the way, we arrived at our first homestay—Kampung Mengkuang Titi, a village named after a pine bridge.
They organized a small welcome parade as we arrived, and following the usual speeches and pleasantries was an energetic exhibition of silat Melayu (indigenous martial arts).
Although at the time a nap seemed apt after a good minum petang (afternoon tea), the villagers thought that they would let us experience their idea of fun, which doesn’t involve electronics of any sort. We all gamely played sack race, tug-of-war, coconut bowling, and water balloons, among others—activities we don’t get to do in the city anymore.
And as the nighttime set in, we were brought to our respective host families who were introduced to us early on. Bunking with me that night was also a city boy, Malcolm of Malcolm Sunny from Singapore, and so off we went to our modest kampung home.
The thing about Malaysian homestays is that host families belong to a spectrum of profiles—some may be middle class, while some may be living on simpler means. But for sure there’s always the mother who instinctively sees to it that her ‘children’ are being taken care of. That night, our mother settled us into our simple room, which was devoid of most conveniences back home. It was a complete change of lifestyle, at least temporarily, but the willingness to adapt to a locality is one of the fundamental qualities of seasoned travelers.
After munching on yet another snack over conversations and fitting into our sarongs, we went back to the dewan (hall) to congregate for dinner. Later, we, sitting on mats, feasted on a traditional kampung meal. Some dishes, like the stewed papaya, were too exotic or downright odd for my taste, but thankfully there was fried chicken.
The next morning, breakfast included my favorite mee goreng (fried noodles). It was supposedly paired with teh tarik (pulled milk tea), but being the true rebel that I am, I swigged glasses of my smuggled Coke Light with my fiery noodles.
Our morning activities were mostly to discover what the residents do for their cooperative. Most of those involved are stay-at-home-moms who would rather do something productive than sit around the house all day, but of course, the husbands provide much help too. Their cooperative produces honey, dodol (sticky confection), and bedak sejuk (cooling powder).
Before long, it was time for us to leave the kampung and transfer to the next. Our second homestay was in Kampung Sungai Chenaam. As its Malay name implies, it’s located by a sungai (river), and that river bisects the small village located in Nibong Tebal town.
The homestay experience went pretty much the same—only this time, our family had a more comfortable house big enough to accommodate four of us guys. And well, the homestay’s cooperative has a much profound purpose.
See, unlike the other cooperatives we’ve familiarized ourselves with, Koperasi Homestay Sungai Chenaam Seberang Perai Berhad has vowed to protect the mangroves lying on the banks of Chenaam River, as the river is their source of livelihood. Mangroves are, of course, very essential to ecosystems and therefore in maintaining life.
Our two homestays in Penang allowed us to imbibe true Malay culture by engaging us with locals. The experience was authentic—hosts welcomed us to their lives by treating us less as foreigners but more like family. And lastly, we understood how their woven community functions as a unit and helps each other—a rare feat in individualistic cities nowadays.
This year is Visit Malaysia Year 2014 with the theme, “Celebrating 1Malaysia Truly Asia.” Visitors can expect a series of year-long special events and activities. For more updates on VMY 2014, check out tourism.gov.my and like Tara Na Sa Malaysia on Facebook.