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Published: March 30th 2014
Our home–stay – Suka Suka Lake Retreat
– was a peaceful haven on the edge of Lake Chenderoh, far from the bustling madness of KL. Our hosts were Aziz, Asiah and Azam, and they were incredibly friendly. We settled into our bungalows and then wandered the tranquil surrounds. The father of the family, Aziz, taught us how to play congkak
, a game involving marbles and a wooden board. We took to this immediately and played for about an hour. I ended up playing Azam, the 11 year old son, who was a little master at the game and completely outplayed me. We wandered back to our bungalow and kicked back for the afternoon, relaxing in cane armchairs and selecting photos for the blog.
What I haven’t mentioned is the heat. It was hot, almost oppressively so, and there was no air–conditioning, no air through the windows and no alcohol. This was a beautiful but basic homestay. The bungalows were on stilts and you could see the earth through the cracks in the floor boards. The walls were thin and the mosquito net was full of holes. There were mosquitoes everywhere, and Azam warned us of biting ants. Monkeys
were throwing leaves from trees while the afternoon sun grew exponentially hotter. Yet this place was a haven of peace. It was so relaxing. We wandered over to the dining house around 6.30pm and discovered dinner was at least an hour away, so we settled in on a lakeside deck and watched the sunlight fade across the water.
The dinner preparation was complete by 7.45pm. The numerous dishes were spread on a long table, so we grabbed a plate and helped ourselves. It’s hard to know where to begin. We had lemongrass and chicken soup, nasi goreng
(fried rice), barbeque chicken, barbeque sweet potato, grilled fish with tamarind and chilli sauce, barbeque eggplant (the absolute standout dish for me), lightly grilled mushrooms, green salad with green mango, stir fried green leaves, rojak
(fruit and par–cooked vegetable salad with chilli dressing), watermelon and green tea. An absolute feast! By the end of the meal the sun had disappeared but the evening seemed to be getting hotter, so we had to retire to our bungalows for a cold shower. Before we left, Azam rushed to his room and brought out a pack of cards, hoping to find a playing partner, but
we were too tired. I promised a game the following night, but that did nothing to quell his enthusiasm to stay up and play games. I hope I have the energy at the end of tomorrow to meet my promise!
This had been a mixed day – fantastic morning in the Cameron Highlands; terrifying bus trip to Kampung Kelantan; fantastic afternoon and evening in Suka Suka Lake Retreat. Sometimes travel isn’t all smooth sailing.
We slept well (having finally adjusted the mosquito net) and woke late, as there was no city bustle to jolt us out of our early morning slumber. However, the cold shower well and truly woke us up. The sun was only just rising as we stepped out of the bungalow, and the sunlight on the still lake was a sight to behold.
We headed over to breakfast at 8.30am, and our home–stay family had prepared an incredible meal of roti canai
(flat flaky Indian bread) with beef curry and dhal, popiah goreng
(fried spring roll), pulut panggang
(sticky rice rolls filled with shrimp floss, coconut and lemongrass and grilled in banana leaf), lepat pisang
(rice flour and mashed banana with fresh coconut filling
steamed in banana leaf), tepung talam
(a layered rice flour sweet with salty coconut on top and sweet green pandan on the bottom), juice and coffee.
After breakfast we set off on a walk around Kampung Kelantan with Aziz and Azam. Aziz gave us a guided commentary on the local history and local vegetation, while Azam provided his own commentary as and when he pleased. We walked in the searing heat for a few hours, passing rubber plantations, palm oil plantations, small village houses and local schools. We were about to drop from heat exhaustion, but luckily we stopped at a small village shop for a cold drink. I had a Kickapoo Joy Juice which I’d wanted to try since we arrived. The taste didn’t match the name.
Aziz then shared a surprise. We had been invited to join a local Muslim wedding celebration which was being held just down the road from the home–stay. As we approached the outdoor celebration (which was basically being held on the street), Aziz gave us sarongs and explained that we needed to wear them out of respect. With sarongs fitted, we walked into the wedding. I couldn’t believe how welcoming the
people were. We were given a small bag of treats and then guided to seats at one of many long tables in a neighbour’s front yard. We were instructed (with smiles and friendly gestures) to help ourselves to the food, which included rice, beans with liver, beef curry, chicken curry, rojak
and red cordial. We ate with our fingers, as there was no cutlery, and I think this provided much amusement to the hordes of Muslim women and children who were sitting at adjacent tables.
After the meal we were invited into a house on the other side of the road for a viewing of the bride, whose name was Saidatun. She was in a small room in the front of the house behind a makeshift screen of red and white flowers in the shape of a love heart. I ducked through a small opening in the screen and suddenly found myself face–to–face with her. She was standing against the wall, and two other women were in the room with her. There was barely enough room to move. I stumbled out my pre–prepared ‘selamat penantin baru’
, but all three laughed and corrected my pronunciation of baru (I think I
said barrow). The atmosphere was incredibly welcoming – Saidatun didn’t know us from a bar of soap, yet she welcomed us to her wedding.
We were about to leave when Saidatun emerged to meet Muhammad (the groom), who was slowly making his way towards the wedding party along the narrow road we had walked earlier in the day. We took photos as they walked together, and even more photos as they sat at their wedding table (which was just across the road from our table). Muhammad looked a little confused when he first saw us, but a few quiet words from Saidatun put his mind at rest. At the suggestion of Aziz, I offered Muhammad a small gift, which he gratefully accepted. This had been a fantastic experience, and we were grateful to Aziz for seeking permission for us to attend.
We made our way back to Suka Suka, which was only a few hundred metres further along the road. We crossed the rickety bridge and arrived at our bungalow around 1pm. We took off our sarongs, peeled off our clothes and slowly came to life under the cold shower. It had been a great morning. We relaxed
in the bungalow for a few hours, caught up on our travel notes then headed over to the dining house around 4pm for a cooking demonstration.
We cooked rendang ayam
(chicken curry), pajeri nenas
(pineapple curry) and sambal udang
(chilli prawns). The cooking spanned two hours, and it was incredibly hot in the dining house. We chopped, pounded, stirred and tasted while sipping tea with palm sugar. It was fantastic, and Asiah was a great host. We finished at 6pm and then relaxed by the lakeside until dinner was served at 7.45pm. Our hosts cooked an additional five dishes – whole fried fish, long beans fried in chilli, vegetables in soy sauce, omelette and bubur pulut hitam
(sticky black rice in coconut milk with palm sugar and pandan leaf) for dessert. It was exceptional. We dressed in sarongs, sat on the floor and ate with our fingers. I haven’t mastered this yet, but it was a great way to enjoy a meal. We finished with teh tarik
(pulled sweet milky tea) which Ren ‘pulled’. She only spilt a little, which was impressive for her first attempt. Aziz asked where the froth was, but he was only joking. Pulling tea
is certainly a skill.
We sat at tables for the sticky black rice pudding (our knees were struggling on the wooden floor) and then played congkak
until 9.30pm. It was a fantastic evening, and we would probably have played into the night if we weren’t so tired. We retired to our bungalow, had cold showers to cool down and caught up with our travel notes. We finally crashed around 11pm.
We woke in darkness at 6.30am to prepare our packs, as we were leaving Suka Suka Lake Retreat. The serenity of this home–stay had been rejuvenating, but it was time to move on to the buzz of Penang. We were travelling via Kuala Kangsar, so we caught up on some travel writing and woke ourselves up with a cold shower before breakfast.
Breakfast was amazing – lompeng
(steamed rice four and palm sugar), onde onde
(sweet potato and wheat flour filled with palm sugar, coconut and sesame seeds), jemput jemput pisang
(banana and wheat flour fritters), gomak
(glutinous flour filled with sweet palm sugar and coconut), rambutan fruit jam, roti
with beef curry and dhal, fried rice, coffee and juice. An absolute feast! Roti
and curry is such
a good way to start the day. We decided to buy our sarongs, as they were comfortable and great to wear around the house. We’d worn them for the last two days, including to the village wedding, so it seemed only fitting to take them home.
We packed our bags (sans my ring) and left Suka Suka Lake Retreat at 9.15am. As we slowly made our way across the rickety bridge, Azam informed me that he never put his seat belt on until he was on the other side, just in case the bus toppled into the lake. I heeded his advice!
When we arrived in Kuala Kangsar at 10am, Aziz took us into the Masjid Ubadiah (Royal Mosque). This was a fantastic opportunity, as it is usually closed to non–Muslims. We donned brown robes (Ren also wore a head scarf) and made our way into the small prayer room, which had a particularly ornate ceiling and colourful carpet. We left the mosque and drove to a car park to view the Istana Iskandariah (Royal Palace). It was here that we said goodbye to our homestay hosts and began our journey to Penang.
We left Kuala Kangsar
at 10.30am, and 15 minutes into the trip I realised I wasn’t wearing my ring. We were returning to Suka Suka Lake Retreat in a few weeks, so our guide rang to let them know. SHE SAID...
We left Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands in a minibus driven by a mad man, and headed towards Kuala Kangsar in Perak State. Our final destination was a small village just outside Kuala Kangsar called Kampung Kelantan
When we arrived at the Suka Suka Lake Retreat Homestay
at 3pm, we had to cross a rickety wooden bridge that even our death–wish driver was hesitant to cross. However, Aldrin seemed confident that we wouldn’t plunge to our death, so the driver inched his way across it. I have to admit that I was quite nervous about it, and with every jostle and jolt my palms got sweatier.
The sprawling homestay property is on the shores of the serene Lake Chenderoh. The location is as wonderfully isolated as it sounds, and it was an ideal quiet and peaceful place to unwind. It was also a great place to experience the customs and culture of a Malaysian Muslim family and
rural community. Our hosts were a lovely family – Aziz, Asiah and their 11 year old son Azam.
We were shown into the main bungalow, and offered a cold drink while Aziz briefed us on the intricacies of the homestay and the agenda for our two days there. This building is where we had all our meals and hung out when we weren’t in our own bungalows.
The buildings of the retreat are mostly traditional kampung–style (village style) wooden homes on stilts, all of which have been set up around the lake. Aziz sources old traditional houses in need of some TLC, relocates them to the retreat and then painstakingly reassembles them. We stayed in one of these reclaimed quaint little wooden bungalows (ours was originally built in 1952). However, Aziz has adapted the original houses quite a bit to provide a shower and toilet for each room. The accommodation wasn’t plush, but it was comfortable enough.
Our wooden bungalow (traditionally named Rumah Pak Long), which we shared with Brian, had a living space (with fridge and TV) and two bedrooms. There was no air–conditioning, so the fans in the bungalow worked overtime to keep the heat
at bay. We did have the option of a warm shower, but we only used the cold shower for the two days we were there. And happily, the TV never got turned on either.
The bungalow seemed to be a small ecosystem for whole families of geckos and their prey, and frankly the click–clicking geckos were very welcome, as they are the natural predator of my arch nemesis – the mosquito. There was a lot of bird song, chicken chuckling and rooster crowing. There was also a troupe of monkeys around, but they were a bit on the shy side. The only housetrained animal around was the most chilled out cat I have ever met. He could lie like a rag doll in anyone’s arms and was also quite partial to a head scratch. A few of us were missing our cats at home, so Mr Cute (I can’t remember his Malay name, but it meant ‘cute’) happily obliged for surrogate kitty duty.
It was clear that a lot of thought and love had gone into designing the layout of the bungalows and grounds of the retreat. There were many nooks and quiet corners for guests to mingle
or have alone time. We favoured the little decks set up with deck chairs that overhung the lake. It was the luck of the draw as to who got the deck chair with the broken netting. 😊
On our first afternoon, Alice, Andrew and I were walking around the grounds trying to acclimatise to the intense heat (a bit of a shock to the body after the Cameron Highlands) when Aziz walked into the hut that I can only describe as the ‘games room’ and offered to teach us to play congkak
. It’s a traditional wooden board game played by two people, and each player has their ‘villages’ and ‘home’. It is played with marbles, with the aim of the game being to accumulate as many marbles as possible. The inaugural game between Alice and Andrew was a draw, which is apparently very rare. We had been warned that it was addictive, and we were hooked after only a few games.
We retired to our room and hung out with our roomie Brian for a bit. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting to Aziz, learning about the local culture and listening to his tales of the
island – of gibbons destroying trees; otters trying to steal the fish he was farming; and spotting a rare Malaysian tiger swimming in the lake.
The food during the homestay was superb traditional Malay cuisine, some of which were family recipes. It was such a brilliant opportunity to be able to talk to the very lovely Asiah about her cooking, and then watch the activities of the kitchen.
On the first night we had lemongrass and chicken soup, bbq chicken, grilled eggplant and mushrooms, grilled fish with tamarind and chilli, nasi goreng
(fried rice), stir fried greens, green leaf and green mango salad, and rojak
. We finished the meal with watermelon and tea. The banquet of food Asiah presented to us was delicious beyond words.
We tried to stay up and socialise, but we were all really tired and crashed by 10pm (after a very cold shower). We spent some time trying to get our mosquito net just right, but Andrew’s feet overshot the end of the bed, so the net had a gaping hole at the bottom anyway. We fell asleep to the geckos clicking sound and the comforting whirling of the fan. We slept incredibly
well on that first night. However, there were some complaints from others about the old rooster who rather liked the sound of his own voice. He had woken me at 4:30am, but we went back to sleep and didn’t get up until 7:30am – our biggest sleep in yet.
Breakfast was at the civilised hour of 8:30am. We had roti canai
(made by one of the villagers) with beef curry sauce and dhal curry; popiah goreng
(fried popiah rolls); palut panggang
(cigarette sized sticky rice rolls filled with shrimp floss, coconut and lemongrass and grilled in banana leaf); lepat pisang
(cigar sized rice flour and mashed banana with fresh coconut filling steamed in banana leaf); and tepung talum
(a layered rice flour sweet with salty coconut on top and sweet green pandan on the bottom). I loved the lepat pisang
We then went on a long walk through the surrounding villages at 9:30am with Aziz and Azam leading the way. We stopped to look at herbs like turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, pandan and citronella, and local fruit trees like tamarind, jack fruit, durian, mangosteen, mango, cashew, papaya, banana and rambutan. We walked through a rubber plantation, and we were
also shown the different palms – oil, sugar and sago. Outside the cities, the majority of people in Malaysia seem to live very traditional lives based on agriculture, animal husbandry or other small enterprises. The lovely thing about the few villages we walked through was that every single person was really friendly, and we really didn’t feel like we were intruding on their lives.
At the welcome briefing the day before, Aziz had told us that there was a local wedding that day, and that most weddings are open invitation to whoever wanted to wish the bride and groom well. We were quite excited about this, but by the time we finished our walk, we were all hot and sweaty and hardly in fit wedding condition. To add to the comedy, Aziz wanted us to dress in sarongs for the occasion. He had sarongs delivered to us at the local shops, and after a quick demonstration on how to wear them, we were off. We were supposed to look more respectful, but given I had a checked shirt and converse shoes; I don’t think the barely–holding–together batik sarong said anything but ‘stupid tourist’.
Even though we felt awkward
arriving at an event where everyone was so well dressed, the wedding organisers could not have been more welcoming of the motley crew of sarong wearers. We were ushered to a table in a tent set up in the neighbour’s front yard, and they wanted us to eat (while the others waited). There were four curries and a biryani
style rice with raisins set out on the table – beans with chicken liver, beef curry, chicken curry and a rojak
. It was simple but tasty food.
We had to eat with our hands. Once we were all seated at the table, Azam gave us a quick demonstration on using our right hands to shovel rice and curries into our mouths. I had a slight advantage over the other group members (except Brian who had travelled to India many times), because even though I have no practical skills in eating with my hands, Sri Lankans traditionally eat with no cutlery and I knew the theory behind it! It brought back memories of my childhood – of Dad feeding me rice and curry in this way. The flavour of the food really is different when ‘mixed’ and eaten by hand.
When I stood up to wash my right hand after eating, my sarong fell open and gave two nanas the chuckles as I desperately tried to retie it with my left hand. Thank goodness for the trousers I was still wearing. The whole crowd was amused at our presence but not rudely so. As soon as we sat down, three teenage girls brought us a small bag of goodies each, and then asked to have their photo taken with us. They were extremely cute and shy looking, but as soon as the camera came out, they turned into typical posing teenagers. 😊
We then got a chance to wish the bride, by lining up and walking into the bedroom where she was very gracefully receiving visitors, dressed in a purple traditional dress and wearing a small tiara. She seemed quite taken aback by us, but thought it quite funny that we tried to congratulate her in Malay... ‘Selamat Penantin Baru’
. Or something like that.
When the groom arrived, the bride walked down the path with her family to meet him, and then walked back to the house with him. They were then seated at the bridal table and
Andrew was nominated to give them a small present of money which we had all chipped in for. It had been a lovely event to witness and be part of, and plus we gave the guests free entertainment too.
When we arrived back at the retreat at 1pm, we rushed to have a cold shower. We chilled out until 3:30pm when we got another (better) lesson in sarong wearing from Asiah. Then it was time for our cooking class. Asiah taught us how to make rendang ayam
(chicken curry with a thick lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, chilli and coconut sauce), pajeri nenas
(pineapple sweet and sour curry) and sambal udang
(chilli prawns). It was a fun class, and Asiah’s gentle style made us very comfortable to get hands–on and give everything a go. What I loved about this style of cooking is that no premade sauces were used. We made everything from scratch. It’s not something we’ll ever faithfully replicate at home, but it certainly was an education in understanding the dishes we love so much.
That evening we were given a further taste of traditional Malay customs, where we dressed in sarongs and ate dinner sitting cross–legged on
floor mats. Aziz, Asiah and Azam also wore traditional attire. In addition to the three dishes we’d cooked, we were also served kangkung
(water spinach/morning glory), stir fried with long beans and chilli, fried fish and omelette. We ate with our hands again, and while it was messy, it was enjoyable. Cultural etiquette requires the host to keep feeding us until our plates were completely empty. Dessert was bubur pulut hitam
(sticky black rice cooked in coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan leaf), which was quite lovely.
We had mentioned our love of teh tarik
to Asiah, so after dinner she called me into the kitchen and gave me a go at ‘pulling’ the tea. It was much harder than it looked, but I got through it with only one spill. I felt so bad that the maid had to clean up after me. It tasted ok, but I clearly need practice.
After dinner we snacked on ciku
fruit (tasted like a cross between custard apple and kiwi fruit) and played congkak
again (through some ferocious thunder) until bed time. The humidity was exceptionally high, so I had my third cold shower for the day. I should note
that I was very surprised to only get two insect bites over two days – I’m normally covered in bites despite using insect repellent.
The next morning we woke at 6:30am and had to turn the fan off, as it had cooled down overnight. I got more cuddles from Mr Cute as we ate our last breakfast and prepared for our journey to Penang. For breakfast we had roti canai
, fried rice, lompeng
(steamed rice four and palm sugar), onde onde
(sweet potato and wheat flour balls filled with palm sugar, coconut and coated in sesame seeds), jemput jemput pisang
(banana and wheat flour fritters), and gomak
(glutinous flour balls filled with palm sugar and coconut).
We left Suka Suka at 10am and headed back to Kuala Kangsar for a brief tour of the town with Aziz before we drove to Penang. Kuala Kangsar sits on the banks of the Perak River and literally means ‘100 minus one’ as it is the 99th tributary to flow into the river. It’s a well–preserved historic royal town and the seat of a sultan. The sprawling outer suburbs of the city were quite unremarkable, but the gold lamp posts, wider streets
and manicured gardens were a clear indication that we were approaching the royal part of town.
We explored the grounds and main hall of Masjid Ubudiah (Royal Mosque) with its imposing golden dome. We had read that non–Muslims weren’t usually allowed admission. However, Aziz clearly has some sway, as they let us in. We had to robe–up in brown gowns and the girls got some lovely orange floral scarves too. Aziz pointed out that the mosque was more ornate than most Malaysian mosques. However, seeing as my only mosque comparisons were the Ottaman empire mosques in Turkey, I thought this design was very beautiful yet comparatively subdued. We then drove to the Royal Palace and viewed it from the car park, as it’s not open to visitors. At this point we said goodbye to Aziz, Asiah and Azam. However, the good news is that we will be seeing them again in two and a half weeks when we return to their homestay. I’m a little bit excited about that. 😊
Next we travel to the state of Penang to visit George Town and surrounds!
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