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Misompuru Homestay: A Sabahan Adventure

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The main road leading to Kudat in North Borneo is dotted with dogs: stray dogs, wandering dogs, dogs that belong to nearby farmers, all in danger of being hit by a car doing nothing guiltier than driving.

Amidst the dogs off to the left a muddy road climbs a hill and cuts through a few trees until it reaches a simple house in a hot, humid clearing which I’ll be calling home for the next few days.

Misompuru Homestay near Kudat, Sabah

Houses of all sizes and shapes welcome visitors to Sabah

The house is one of several dozen making up the Misompuru Homestay, a modest home but one that made me feel amazingly welcome, as a homestay should.

A homestay, as I was to learn, is much more than a room and a few meals: it is a slice of someone else’s life, one I would never have discovered had I stayed in a hotel or B&B.

But first, let me introduce  you to Inuliah Itam, the lady of the house, who would be feeding me and allowing me to share her family’s life  for the next few days.

Meal at Misompuru Homestay in Sabah

Inuliah Itam is a member of the Rungus tribe, one of several dozen tribes found in Sabah

Family around table at Misompuru Homestay

Inuliah’s husband, extended family and members of the Sabah Homestay Association relax after a meal (but more  food kept appearing)

My Misompuru Homestay experience

I would divide my homestay adventure – to me it is an adventure – into two parts: what happens inside the house, and what happens outside.

Inside the house, a lot centers around food, which is cooked with local products  the family grows on its land: rice, plenty of green vegetables I didn’t know, fish of course with the sea nearby, and chicken. None of it was particularly spicy but it was delicious, and it was filling.

In the  spaces allotted between meals, the extended family – they brought in cousins, brothers, sisters, grandparents – showed off some of their cultural skills. In this part of the world dancing ranks high, with girls as young as five being trained part-time for the future. This ensures dancing traditions are not lost while  providing the dancers, their families and the community with income.

Here is a little taste of that dancing if you’re curious.

Outside the house, there’s even more to do.

Some of the activities homestayers get involved in include cooking dinner with the family, going fishing, fruit picking, crab catching, rubber tapping, volunteering to help with building and forest conservation… Or visiting caves and cruising along rivers or enjoying water sports. Sabah’s efforts to become a world-class ecotourism destination make it easy to find something to do out of doors, and in nature.

Each homestay has its own focus and since mine concentrated on culture, I visited a ‘factory village’ – an entire village dedicated to making gongs: big, fat, musical, glorious gongs, many made by women.

Making gongs in Kudat, Sabah

Kampung Sumangkap Gong Factory is near Misompuru – the entire village is dedicated to making these ceremonial instruments

It’s not just about gongs, but about disappearing culture. Like most indigenous groups, the Rungus watched their culture fritter away as the young and jobless headed to the cities, leaving only the elderly behind. With no one to carry on age-old traditions and pass on knowledge, the tribe’s extinction was almost guaranteed.

Jeffry Ayah, a young Rungus man with a dream, decided to do something about it.

Nicknamed Cobra, a name he picked up along the way but can’t quite explain, he has transformed the homestay experience in North Borneo into a veritable cultural survival movement. (Under the British, Sabah was known as North Borneo; the name somehow sticks.)

“The idea is to generate income for local people and to provide jobs so young people stay. It is also an important way of keeping traditions alive,” explained Jeffry, who is President of the Sabah Homestay Association.

And it seems to be working.

Variety of handicrafts at Misompuru Homestay

Colorful beadwork and weaving have been revived as artists are able to sell handicrafts to homestay tourists

What’s special about the Sabah Homestay program is its non-profit approach – actually, there is a profit but it’s returned to locals, with much of it reinvested in the community.

It’s (not) all about the money

While Sabah’s homestays are providing much-needed income to poor families, it’s not just about the money.

“More and more young people are staying in the villages rather than going to the city, and they are finding jobs on the homestays,” Cobra said. “About 1000 people are involved in the homestays in one way or another.”

Rungus old woman and girl

An elderly Rungus lady shares an intimate moment with one of her younger relatives

It’s not only about jobs, either, but about revitalizing a culture and ensuring its sustainability. In a region whose population was once mostly indigenous, the constant influx of Malaysians from the mainland and immigrants from neighboring countries have strained the social fabric of tribal communities.

Anne Lasimbang is the Executive Director of PACOS, an organization that raises awareness about indigenous issues and rights. We spent some time chatting in Kota Kinabalu and she felt the homestay program and many other efforts to preserve Sabah’s culture and environment were all sorely needed.

“A divide has been created here over the years,” she said. “What with the brain drain of young people, environmental damage and the erosion of indigenous culture, our worldview and our knowledge was severely under threat.”

Anne herself has an indigenous background but like many Sabahans, her own extended family is a mixture of cultures and she is acutely aware of how easily culture can be lost.

The longhouse, a central element of Sabahan culture

One aspect of Rungus culture being given a reprieve is the traditional longhouse. While most longhouses accessible to travelers are new, a few old ones have been refurbished and some are still lived in. Traditionally entire families live together in rooms leading off from a main hallway. Several dozen families could live in a longhouse, and there are even rumors of longhouses for 100 families.

Most private life took place behind the doors (below, left) while more public interchanges happened on the open terrace (along the right side). An entire family lived in a room, although girls reaching puberty were usually separated from the rest.

Hallway of a Rungus longhouse in Sabah, Borneo

Now you see where the longhouse got its name – and it’s much longer than what you see

Double room in Rungus longhouse in Sabah

Rooms are usually simple, much as they once were – except for the mosquito nets

Most rural Rungus families won’t speak English, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying each other’s company and when he was there, Cobra translated.

My own host family, Jonuring and Inuliah, were humble and lovely, apologizing profusely for the simplicity of the accommodation and for the absence of hot water.

Had I been desperate for a hot shower after a day of sightseeing, I knew I’d have access to one in a day or two.

My Rungus hosts, on the other hand, will make do with cold water, just as they always have.

If getting to know the less public side of Sabah is appealing, a homestay will unwrap it for you.

And if you’re going to Misompuru, please try to avoid the dogs lying in wait for you along the road.

Misompuru homestay dancers

Entertainment can be a two-way street – Rungus children were entertained by my efforts to follow them gracefully

Things you should know

  • A homestay can be quite primitive (mine wasn’t) or relatively luxurious (mine wasn’t either). It will be comfortable enough and have the basic conveniences, but don’t expect the privacy or luxury of a hotel. On the contrary you’ll be surrounded by people, and you’ll make new friends.
  • Fancy a Sabah homestay? Check out the many possibilities throughout Sabah. Remember homestays are often simple places so come equipped at least with your own towel.
  • You can book at Misompuru by contacting Jeffry aka Cobra: cobramisompuru [at] live.com.
  • Find out more about Sabah’s indigenous people by visiting the PACOS Trust website.

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  1. Freya on August 3, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Looks like you had a lovely time. I have never done a home stay so far but definitely plan to do a few going forward, I believe it provides a more authentic travel experience and of course it is good that you learn the people & culture from the places you visit and that these people can also benefit from that.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      It was lovely, and more. It allowed me to get to know a few individuals more than I would have otherwise and opened a window for me into a culture I knew nothing about. I looked at Sabah differently after that.

  2. Carmen on August 3, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Wow, what a great experience! I’ve never heard of homestays before but it sounds like a lot of fun. Reminds me of when I was younger and went on exchange to live with a family in France. I always find that this is the best way to learn a language and about a culture.
    Thanks for the great read and inspiration.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 3, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Thanks Carmen! In some places homestays can be more commercial in nature, sort of a glorified B&B with a bit of local flavor for window-dressing. The association in Sabah is keen to place culture at the center of the homestay and to me that makes it special. I love that you already had a similar adventure in France but this isn’t at all for the young – just for the young at heart!

  3. Kelly @Try New Things on August 6, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    I admire how adventuresome you are and wonder about my own ability to get to that point. I am going on my first solo travel trip and it is not anything close to this level of adventure.

    Maybe over time I will get bold enough to try this level of adventure! Thanks for sharing the details of how to get in touch.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 6, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      Kelly, none of what I do requires being adventurous, really! The homestay can easily be organized with an email or two – you fly into KK, someone picks you up at the airport and takes you there. And then you meet some lovely people, work on your sign language, taste new foods gingerly, and just relax and go with the flow. And there are homestays that are more modern or have more conveniences than the one I stayed at. Just don’t be afraid of letting your agency or guide or contact know about your preferences. Just tell people what you want and need – most often they’ll bend over backward trying to give you what you want.

  4. Lorette on August 6, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    I have been thinking about Sabah for some time but am hesitant to travel as a solo woman in many muslim counties. What do you think? Is this unfounded? I general I try to avoid the costs of tours and prefer to arrange things on my own but am not sure this is the best practice everywhere. Were you alone? did you feel safe and respected?

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 6, 2013 at 9:19 pm

      Hi Lorette, I wasn’t alone as I was hosted by the Sabah Tourist Board. However, in this case, I would absolutely travel alone to Sabah, no problem at all. In fact I plan to return and I’ll be doing it on my own. There are a few things to be aware of (but the fact that it’s a Muslim country is really irrelevant). For the homestays, you need to make sure they arrange transportation for you. Unless you’re fluent in the language taking cross-country buses is a bit tricky. I don’t think I’d enjoy that.

      As for Sandakan and the Kinabatangan River, you should also organize transport beforehand. The good news is that many of the lodges can handle that for you. Johnny Lim’s agency (I’ve given his contacts at the end of the post about the Lower Kinabatangan River) can organize all that for you (tell him Leyla said Hi!) or any other similar agency. The lodges along the Kinabatangan are far from the main road so you’ll definitely need transport.

      I’m not quite sure what evenings are like in all parts of Kota Kinabalu, the main city, but two of us women did walk around in the evening on our own without the slightest issue. I have no statistics or knowledge but I think Sabah feels safer than the mainland.

      In some Muslim countries I’d be cautious about traveling alone, especially those in turmoil, but Sabah isn’t one of those places. I was there during Ramadan and people were friendly, approachable and helpful.

  5. Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans on August 7, 2013 at 12:37 am

    I really like the idea of a home stay. I wonder if most countries have home stay associations that can help match travelers with families. Now you have me curious. I will definitely have to look into this for my future travels. I’m inviting you to link up on my site each Wednesday for Wanderlust Wednesdays – a link up where travel bloggers can share their wanderlust-inspiring posts with readers.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 7, 2013 at 7:02 am

      Thanks Dana! There are homestays in many countries, but many of them (not all by any means) are dedicated to finding year-long or semester accommodation for college students so make sure you check before booking. Some are run by associations, others by private entities and are commercial companies, like a hotel or B&B. As far as I know there isn’t an umbrella group. You might start with Homestay Bookings or Homestay, two different booking agencies (I don’t know them so I can’t vouch for them). Also if you Search for ‘homestay in…’ you’ll bring up plenty of results.

  6. Jo brazil on August 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    A great read and very inspirational Leyla, thank you. I had not thought of home stays as a holiday adventure and certainly not North Borneo… That’s right out of my tree but you have planted the seed of curiosity. I know we are all only limited by the extent of our imagination.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 18, 2013 at 2:58 pm

      I’m glad to see I’ve planted a seed 🙂 Actually a homestay wasn’t on my radar screen either but I was given the opportunity and I’m so glad I experienced living with a local family. As for North Borneo, that was an even greater eye-opener. I expected to enjoy my visit but not to fall in love with this part of the world. I’ve decided to return because I was only able to see the northern part of Sabah – there’s still the entire South, even more remote. There can’t be too many places like it left on earth.

  7. Annette Clavin on September 25, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Funny. Me and my family were the first guests in the house of Inuliah Itam. This was in May 2012. We had a great time there, with fishing, cooking, harvesting. The whole family and the members of the homestay program were so lovely. We really can recommend this. Best wishes. Annette from Germany

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 25, 2013 at 10:47 am

      That’s amazing, Anette – very cool. I had a lovely stay – but it was too short. I would have loved to stay a few more days and really get to know the whole family a bit better. As it was I was just getting acclimatized and was already leaving. I’d say for a homestay I’d need an absolute minimum of 2-3 days.

  8. Kaleena's Kaleidoscope on January 28, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    This sounds amazing! I’m going to Malaysia this summer so I’m definitely going to look into doing something like this. That food looks delicious! 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 28, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      You will love Malaysia! It’s one of my favorite countries. The food IS delicious (Malaysian and other foods) and it’s beautiful. If you have a chance to go to Sabah and watch those amazing sunsets, don’t miss it!

  9. Sabbia on February 24, 2014 at 5:55 am

    Please can you give me the contact information for arranging a homestay next week where I can learn handicrafts and stay for 2 days? Many thanks.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 24, 2014 at 6:10 am

      The only contact I have is the one I listed on the post, and I’d suggest you contact the Sabah Tourism Office at .

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