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Fishing for Company
The Telaga Air Homestay Project

The fisher-folk of Kampung Telaga are proud of their way of life. That's why they want to share it with you.
By Mike Reed.

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Off For A Day's Fishing.
©LKIM
For most visitors to Southeast Asia, the word homestay conjures up visions of small, family-run guest houses in the more touristed areas of Indonesia. The people of Kampung Telaga Air near Kuching in Sarawak, take the expression a lot more literally and have got together to offer visitors a slice of real life in a Malay fishing village.

I'd better start by pointing out that these folks know very little about tourism, which makes the project potentially such a great idea. Nobody visiting Telaga Ai will get to stay in "Ye Olde Pirate's Rest Guest House" or dine in a tacky fake-nautical theme restaurant. Telaga Air is a working fishing village, and visitors will stay with a fishing family, take part in everyday activities, eat home cooked food, and even help the kids with their English homework.

Don't imagine for one minute that these are humble, impoverished fisher-folk who have been told to "get into tourism" by a bunch of all-knowing bureaucrats. The project is entirely community based, and has been meticulously planned for over a year now. The Telaga Air Fishermen's Association and the local Fisheries Development Authority got together to work out how they could provide accommodation and hospitality to visitors, earn a little bit of useful side income, and have a lot of fun in the process.

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Sampling Durian Fruit At The Kitchen Table.
©LKIM
I recently attended a small gathering to launch the project in the village, and it was quite clear that everybody planned to enjoy themselves as much as possible looking after their guests. The tone was set by local Member of Parliament Mrs. Rohani Karim, who took part in a fact-finding visit to Langkawi to make sure her constituents knew what they were getting into. She described seeing a very tall, very pale individual ploughing a rice field with a team of buffalo. Remarking to the bus driver that some Langkawi people are very European-looking, she was surprised to learn that the "farmer" was a German tourist on a "farmstay" project. To gales of laughter she suggested that every farmer should get himself a tourist as they obviously work a lot cheaper than regular farm labourers.

Jokes aside, this underlines the fact that Mrs Rohani and her constituents have done their homework. They are also determined to get it right, and to do that they have decided to get in some practice before taking in foreign guests. This is where UNIMAS comes in; the nearby Universiti Malaysia Sarawak has, naturally enough, an endless supply of students, many of whom have a lot of free time during weekends and vacations - perfect guests to practice on and right on the doorstep.

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Learning How to Make Keropok Lekor
(Fish Crackers).
©LKIM
No hard-up student in his or her right mind would pass up a free weekend of home cooking and home comfort with a spot of fishing and river cruising thrown in, so the first batch of trial-guests were bussed-in, resplendent in their official project T-shirts and baseball caps. These folks got the full treatment; kompang drummers from the local mosque, a martial arts demonstration from the village kids, having their foreheads daubed with lime paste in a traditional Malay greeting and - last but not least - coffee, cakes and curry-puffs.

I made a point of chatting to one of the project co-ordinators, Abang Zulkipli of the Fisheries Development Authority, who filled me in on the background. The plan is very simple; when the participating families feel they have mastered the art of looking after the students, they get to practice on more demanding clientele. The Fisheries Development Board are responsible for hosting quite a few conferences and seminars throughout the year, so they have a captive market of delegates and trainees for the next phase. This is a truly brilliant idea, because the Fisheries Development Authority will probably be able to pay for the entire project with the money they save on hotel bills, but don't tell them I said that.

Once everybody is confident they can make foreign visitors feel at home (should be much easier than dealing with worn-out seminar participants) the fun will really start. Abang Zulkipli anticipates they will be taking in their first paying guests about June or July of 1998.

So what can you expect at Telaga Air' Well first of all you won't be staying in some tumble-down shack next to a smelly wharf. These people are expert fishermen, they own their own boats and the price of fish is pretty steady in Kuching. Accordingly they live in nice, spacious and comfortable detached houses, designed along traditional Malay lines so that they are airy and well ventilated. Everybody's got a telephone, electricity, TV and video and running water. The bedrooms are spacious and comfortable, and some of them even have en-suite bathrooms, so a good night's sleep is assured.

All five families who are taking part in the project live facing or near the mouth of the Sarawak river, with typical views of river, waterfront and mangroves. Added attractions include fishing trips and river cruises exploring the mangroves. The boats are fully equipped with life jackets, radios and safety and rescue equipment, so nervous land-lubbers will find themselves in safe and expert hands. Other attractions include visits to nearby national parks (Bako and Kubah), cooking demonstrations, barbecues and even learning how to make keropok (prawn crackers).

Of course the best fun of all will be just hanging around in the village, getting to know the locals and chilling out. This should be quite an easy task, as one of the participants, Mr. Saleh bin Zainuddin, is also the proprietor of the fishermen's favourite coffee shop, built onto the side of his house. What makes it even easier is that almost everybody speaks English (there is at least one member of each host family who is completely fluent), although they will be delighted to teach you a few words of Malay.

The great advantages of staying at Telaga Air are cost and convenience. Prices are not fixed yet, but should be around RM 40 per room (RM 20 per person) including a very substantial local-style breakfast and unlimited tea and coffee. Fishing trips and other outings will be extra, but will be pegged firmly at local prices. Convenience is assured because you can book by phone through the Fisheries Development Authority in Kuching, who can also assist with transfers (40 minutes by car).

Nearly everybody who comes to Sarawak seems to associate the state with longhouse visits and upriver safaris, but the homestay project at Telaga Air allows you to sample an equally fascinating culture and lifestyle, in considerable comfort and for very little money.

Further Information

Lembaga Kemajuan Ikan Malaysia (Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia), 2nd Floor, Bangunan Bank Negara, Jln Satok, PO Box 2201, 93744 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Tel: 082-245481 Fax: 082-256871. Contact Person: Abang Zulkipli. Please mark all correspondence "Projek Perintis Homestay."

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