Teaching Traveling: Looking for ideas about touring Malaysia in an educational yet delightful way?
Welcome back to my esteemed former student, Steph Alexandre, who just returned from a tour of Malaysia relevant to Global Education.
Steph, tell us about the highlights of touring Malaysia.
Steph: Hello! Great to be back. For those interested in exploring Malaysia (either in person or online), allow me to recommend my two favorite experiences during the group travel adventure I had.
Highlight 1: The Upside Down Museum, Penang
The Upside Down Museum in Penang, Malaysia quickly became one of my favorite museums! Friends, let me paint you the scene.
For the first half of the day, we had walked across Penang on a city tour and learned all about famous sites and historical events as well as some local favorites: shops, restaurants, etc. Around midday, the guide invited us to eat at one of his favorite places. We rushed there and I quickly slurped delicious ramen.
“Ok, who wants to go to the Upside Down Museum?” our guide, Ron, asked.
“Uh oh — are they really going to flip us upside down? Because I just drank that soup too fast,” I choked out.
“It’s just around the corner!” Ron responded.
A majority of the group seemed to nod in affirmation so I decided to go. I was in for an adventure. We walked in the museum and were quickly asked to remove our shoes. It was as if we were entering a home.
The museum is separated in about ten sections of a typical house: living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, and so on. It looked like a house, filled with everyday items as props… but it was flipped upside down!
The guides located in each room are experts at positioning people to make the scene make sense. Each room was more complicated than the last. We started with a welcoming entrance but soon we entered rooms with beds and dressers glued to the ceiling.
The guides expertly positioned us for the best possible and hilarious shots on our phones: “Stand over there. Now, Miss, put your hands! Miss, close your eyes like you’re sleeping. Ok, sir, touch that railing to the staircase.”
“Ok. One… Two… Three… Big smiles!” SNAP — they took many photos, and we ran over and marveled as they turned their cameras upside down, revealing a masterpiece of optical illusion genius.
We rushed to the next room and snapped photos in piano rooms, local market places, and finally, we ended in the witch room where we took epic pictures of escaping a witch’s boiling pot! After this we exited the museum and thanked the guides for their time and talent of human placement in an upside museum. Now that would be a unique skill to put on a resume!
Highlight 2: An Educational Malaysia Homestay
Let’s move from the humor of the Upside-Down Museum to a powerful stay in Malay homes: Suka Suka homestay, a hidden gem in Kuala Kangsar in western Malaysia.
This site was located towards the latter end of the trip because the great planners at G Adventures knew that we would be tired and need some rest and a space to recharge. We were on a journey of three countries in 15 days (see the affiliate link to the Southeast Asia tour I did here), so we carried our tired bodies and heavy luggage from Thailand to Malaysia, and finally to Singapore.
Each passport stamp filled my adventurous soul with eagerness to meet new people and taste delicious foods. But by the end of our time in Malaysia, we needed time to decompress and take it all in. Here entered the safe haven: Suka Suka Homestay.
The bus swayed left to right, beating down on the unpaved road, as we entered the small village. We were exhausted; the the reality of 3 countries in 15 days had started taking its toll. I sprinted out of the private van with Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” stuck in my head, eager for some peace and quiet.
We were welcomed by Aziz and his wife, Asiah, who eagerly waved us down and welcome us into the main house. The antique Malay houses were simple, quiet, and beautifully decorated. The outside of the main house is painted a beautiful bright yellow with a small peppers and garden of flowers bordering the area of the homestay.
“This is slimming tea from a local herb,” said Asiah as she welcomed us with some delicious tea that I drank in 2 seconds.
Aziz greeted us and gave some key information.
“As you can see, we border Lake Chendorah. Before you ask, I have to tell you three things: Kayaking is definitely allowed, napping on the hammocks are great, and no, there are no crocodiles in the lake. If there were crocodiles, I would be the first one out of this place.”
This was crucial information, though, I must admit every time a hostel or homestay owner reminds me that there are no crocodiles in the lake, the only thing I can think of is how there might be crocodiles in the lake.
There were no crocodiles in the lake.
As Aziz was telling us of non-crocodiles in a certain nearby lake, Asiah was passing around snacks to rejuvenate our tired faces. Aziz informed us that over the years, they have hosted weddings, honeymoons, corporate retreats, etc. in their home. It certainly keeps him and his wife busy!
“One newlywed couple forgot their wedding rings here and we had to chase their van down!” he shouted between bursts of laughter.
Over the next few days in Suka Suka, I took herculean two-hour naps on hammocks by the lake, ate fresh rambutan fruit, and played with the kids in the village. So here are 3 things that I have learned from staying in this wonderful little Malay community.
Malaysia Tip #1: Take off Shoes Upon Entering a Home.
I cannot believe how many times I (and others) had to be reminded to take off our shoes before entering the main house of the homestay. Given that I take off my shoes in my own apartment in Brookline, it was odd to see the difference between my home brain and my travel brain.
There is ample evidence of the benefits of taking off one’s shoes upon entering homes, but I do it out of habit at home. However, when I was in Malaysia, I eagerly rushed into homes without taking off my shoes. Up until Suka Suka, we had been hotel and hostel hopping, so we never had to take off our shoes. Thus, when I entered the homestay, I had almost forgotten that it was a home!
There are many crucial reasons for keeping a clean, dust-free home in Malaysia. Given that most of the country practices Islam, Malaysians are used to taking off their shoes. Our guide, Ron, explained that Muslims pray multiple times a day, and they have to take off their shoes and wash their feet before praying.
Some homes are smaller than others, and it would be a pain for the owners to clean up every time someone brings dust in — they would practically have to be cleaning all day long! Furthermore, taking off your shoes upon entering someone’s home is a sign of respect.
The prayer area must be clean before a Muslim person can pray and dust from outside can make the place unclean. Next time you’re in Malaysia, remember to take off your shoes before entering someone’s home!
Malaysia Tip #2: Dress for the Heat.
The whole country is hot. Really hot. I made the crucial mistake of wearing jeans under my sarong for the village tour. I was wearing long pants under a long skirt under the hot sun. Let me explain.
I knew that the bus driver would put the air conditioning on at the highest level and I did not want to freeze during the drive to Suka Suka… so I wore the most cold-resistant pant I brought with me on the trip — my long black jeans. Foolishly, I thought I would have ample time to change before the activities began. I was not wise.
In hindsight, I probably ate so many rambutan that day to stay awake and get the sweet water from the fruit.
Malaysia Tip #3: Eating is a Crucial Part of Community
Aziz later took us for a tour of the village! It is a small village of a few hundred people and he explained how the community respects each other and how it is crucial to respect every member of the community.
As Aziz was talking, Ron started passing around this strange red fruit that looked like tentacles were growing out of it: rambutan.
“Ron! Ron!” I whispered, “Are you sure this is edible? Like I won’t die or anything?” I whispered.
“No. Look, I’m eating it! They are good! I have been eating them for years,” Ron whispered back.
After a quick tutorial on how to peel rambutan fruit and eat the inside, I immediately wanted more rambutan! They are delicious!
As we walked around, I shyly asked if we could eat more rambutan.
“Yes, please!” Aziz answered, “We have so many! Sometimes we even let the dogs eat them.”
A brutal blow to my cold Bostonian heart — tired of eating apples, apples, and more apples all year round.
“These are amazing! They are so sweet!” I shrieked!
At one point, both Ron and Aziz took long sticks and started shaking tree branches. They literally made it rain rambutan. It was like the first snowfall — except rambutan are far more edible than snow.
I ate 37 rambutan that day.
Then it was time for dinner. Asiah and her friends cooked a feast meant for royalty! There were various dishes of potatoes, roasted chicken, and of course — rice! Rice as far as the eye could see. It was a scrumptious meal!
For our dinner, we ate on the ground, and listened attentively as Aziah went over the dinner rules in a Malay house.
“For traditional Malaysian meals, we only eat without right hand.”
This proved to be a challenge for me I am used to eating with both hands and have been cutting up my meat in semi-reasonable chunks for decades! At one point in the night, I literally had to sit on my left hand as to not disobey the right hand only rule.
“You never say no to the head of the table — if I offer you more rice, please eat more rice.”
Easily my favorite rule. Ever.
The most impressive aspect of staying in Suka Suka is the lack of access to technology. Even after dinner, we stayed in the guest house until well after midnight playing board games and laughing with each other. I looked around and there were no phones in sight! We did not need them.