Remember going to sleepovers as a child? Wasn't it special and fun to see how another family lives? What would they have for dinner? What were their nightly rituals? Imagine this same experience overseas, with a community completely different than the one you were raised in. This is what a homestay is like.
In this video we stay for 2 nights and 3 days at the Miso Walai Homestay, an award winning program that offers a community-based cultural tourism experience in Lower Kinabatangan, Sabah. Since the year 2000, around 40 families have participated in housing tourists and teaching them the traditions of the Orang Sungai people, while raising money for their villages.
Before our arrival, we were prepped on how to respect the beliefs of the village. Malaysia as a whole is a melting pot of different cultures and religions. The foods and customs of Malaysia mainly come from China, India and Indonesia. Islam is the primary religion in Malaysia. Followers of the Islam religion are referred to as Muslim. We followed the do's and don'ts of the Miso Walai Village for Muslim etiquette.
Muslim Culture Tip #1: In the Islam religion, unmarried couples sleep in separate rooms.
At the time, my husband and I were not married, so the facility arranged for us to stay in a house with two separate bedrooms.
Muslim Culture Tip #2: Visitors to an Islamic region should cover their shoulders and knees to respect traditional dress.
Although I only had a backpack of clothes for my two-year traveling adventure throughout Southeast Asia, I managed to find a few items that covered my shoulders and knees. Throughout our travels in Malaysia, however, I did begin to run out of modest clothing and ended up having to borrow Cedric's t-shirts and long shorts! Good thing we are the same size haha.
Muslim Culture Tip #3: In Islamic theory, the right hand is for honorable activities, like eating. The left hand is for removing impurities.
Our lovely host, Isa, taught us the Muslim tradition of eating with your right hand that has been passed down from generation to generation (learn more about this custom here: why the right hand is preferred over the left hand). First we washed our right hand with a special kettle, and then we used it to eat our first meal!
During this homestay experience, Isa made us delicious homemade food! This was our first time having tempeh, which is a traditional Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans. We love it now and try to have it often at home. It was also our first time trying the Asian fruit langsat. It was sweet and sour! Isa even taught us some common Malay phrases.
Common Malay Phrases:
“Terima Kasih” - Thank You
“Sama-Sama” - You’re Welcome
“Ayam” - Chicken
“Goreng” - Fried
“Mee Goreng” - Fried Noodles
“Nasi Goreng” - Fried Rice
“Pisang” - Banana
Between eating the food, playing with the Malaysian children and exploring the village grounds, we also participated in some great activities that showcased the nature of Kinabatangan. Each of these activities can be added a-la-carte to your stay with this homestay program.
Wildlife Observation Cruise
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia with a length of 560 km! On this cruise, a guide takes you through Lower Kinabatangan and describes all the beautiful wildlife around you. During our ride we saw macaques, proboscis monkeys, herons and more! It was very cool seeing these animals in their natural habitat instead of in a zoo or sanctuary. The Wildlife Observation Cruises (2hr) departs daily at 6:00am (sunrise) and 4:30pm (sunset), the cost is MYR 45, or about $10 USD per person.
Forest Habitat Restoration
In the late 1980s, Lower Kinabatangan experienced widespread forest fires and droughts causing massive damage to the region. A part of the MESCOT initiative is not only to preserve the culture of the Orang Sungai people, but also to restore the nature of the area. One way they do this is through offering tree-planting as an activity to the tourists during their stays. During this activity, your guide will educate you on the botany of the area while showing you how to successfully plant a tree sprout. Since 1999 this program has planted over 100,000 trees, which has greatly rejuvenated the environment. This program is free with an optional conservation fee of MYR 25 or about $5 USD per person.
Agop Batu Tulug Hill & Caves
Agop Batu Tulug is about 40 meters in height, and part of the Labang limestone formation, dated 20-25 million years ago. Agop Batu Tulug was used as an ancient log coffin burial site from about 500 to 900 years ago. This practice of log coffin burial is still prevalent in this part of Sabah today. The name of this hill derives from three languages.
“Agop” in Sungai means "Cave”
“Batu” is Malay for "Rock"
"Tulug" is Cebuano for "Go to Sleep”
125 ancient log coffins are in these caves, making it a unique cultural heritage site of Sabah, Malaysia. Commoners had coffins that resembled house lizards, snakes and crocodiles. In Orang Sungai myth the crocodile is seen as a protector and represents the power of darkness. Higher status individuals had more intricate coffin designs, such as bull heads. Some believe there are coffins of Chinese settlers in these caves because Chinese artifacts were found with the remains.
For this activity you trek up 500 steps total, stopping at the different caves throughout this limestone hill to observe the ancient coffins inside. At the hill's top you'll enjoy breathtaking views of Kinabatangan. The entrance fee is MYR 15 or about $4 USD per person.
Our 3-day, 2-night trip to the Miso Walai Homestay (including food, lodging, tour guides and the activities mentioned above) came to a total of MYR 448.70 or about $107 USD per person. This was one of our favorites experiences in Malaysia. The staff and hosts were extremely accommodating and welcoming. We learned so much about Malaysian culture all while helping a local village. This would be my top recommendation for traveling in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia!
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