Every year I make the journey to Kampung Telaga Nenas – possibly the least known village in Malaysia – in order to celebrate Hari Raya.
Before I met my wife and started making this journey, I really had no idea what to expect. People sometimes ask what this place is and what it is like.
Getting There: If you are Malaysian – it’s about 40 minutes from Setiawan – to the north – near Lumut – you’ll need to get detailed directions from my wife. It’s really kampung kampung so expect to get off the main roads.
If you are not Malaysian – it’s around 250km north-north west of Kuala Lumpur on the coast not far from Pangkor island (you may have seen advertisements for Pangkor Laut resort which is on stilts in the ocean).
Enjoyable highlights of getting there:
Eating: Occupying the majority of time & attention of the Raya festival. Everyone seems to bring their “famous” dishes and there’s constantly food out on the table. Fish curry, fried chicken, noodles, rice, rendang curry (of all varieties) are commonly on the menu (on some visits to the village I’ve eaten snail but I don’t think it’s common at Raya). Spicy sauces (sambal belacan) accompany the dishes. One of the very famous Raya foods is lemang – a kind of pressed rice ring – made by cooking rice in bamboo and continuously adding coconut milk to it. As the coconut milk is rich and fatty, the rice becomes saturated and incredibly rich. It’s a cardiologists nightmare. Hari Raya is not a good time to lose weight.
Other important foods are Kuih Raya – I thought it meant cake but at Raya it seems to consist of biscuits. Kuih Raya seem incredibly important given the number of stalls that spring up all over the country - but aren’t much different to the biscuits you can buy in the supermarket every day. I guess there’s a better mark-up on them though.
There are a few places to buy food in and around the village – during Raya they are closed. I always bring in a few bottles of diet coke or the like because there’s nothing in the village that doesn’t have added sugar. It’s a diabetics nightmare.
Sleeping: the other important facet of life in the village is sleeping. Given the weather (hot and humid) and the air-conditioning (rare) it’s quite common to sleep away the day siesta style. Not to mention many of the attendees are party-crazy highly social residents of Kuala Lumpur, the chance to “retire” to a village where there’s a different pace of life is a great opportunity to catch up on a month’s sleep. Not to mention the last month has been spent fasting during daylight hours and hence has had plenty of late nights and early mornings anyway.
Sleeping is often carried out on the floor with just a mat and perhaps a cushion from the couch. This morning for example there were around 12 people asleep on the floor in the living room (dorm room style). When I travelled through India I often slept on very minimal padding like this and it’s amazing how good it seems to be for your back after a while.
Fortunately as an international visitor (and a married man) I get to commandeer a bedroom with a mattress and air conditioning. If they didn’t have it I would have bought it as a gift by now.
Showers: there’s no running hot water in the village house but pouring cold-tepid water over your head with a bucket is surprisingly refreshing after a day of sleeping in the heat and humidity. There’s not much point maintaining a hot water service when you think about the weather.
Gossip: families are families so the usual level of family discussion (i.e. gossip) goes on almost constantly from morning until the wee hours. Babies need to be discussed, as do marriages, jobs, houses, cars, etc. The whole extended family gets together during this time so there’s plenty to catch up on.
Mosque: just like every other major religious festival, you need to pay a visit to the mosque, do a few prayers and most importantly give “alms to the poor”. Currently it’s 7 ringgit ($2.20 USD) which is enough to buy a bag of rice, so it’s hardly a big burden. Of course you can give more if you wish. And of course you need to pick up the tab for your wife too (while she sits at home and gossips/sleeps/showers/eats). You get a receipt so you can claim it against your tax.
At the mosque you’ll also hear about how Raya is a celebration of victory over oneself during fasting month. It’s a bit of a contrast to the emphasis on eating and enjoyment for the festival itself (which apart from the clothes and the sobriety would be hard to distinguish from Christmas day).
Visiting: it’s important to visit other people’s houses. We always go to the Rumah Besar (big house) which is around 80 years old and is a traditional Malay house – built on stilts without any nails (it’s all wooden slots and pegs that fit together). It’s down by the waterfront (a salt-water estuary that connects to the ocean) and is one of the older houses in the village.
Last year we visited the house of a lady who is 106 years old and lives in the village (and has lived there a very long time). My wife usually goes over to Pangkor island to visit relatives (I haven’t done that yet), and occasionally you are invited to other houses in the village in order to eat their food.
Clothes: most of the time you dress in traditional clothes (especially the first day), although for the men it’s acceptable to just wear a western style shirt/polo at a pinch (and for women jeans/trousers and a traditional top are ok). Head coverings (covering hair) for women are common but not totally required. Kids can do what they want but are sometimes decked out in matching traditional outfits (sometimes a whole family wears the traditional outfit).
Language: discussion is almost exclusively in Malay. To make it harder – there are a lot of local accents and dialects that seem to come out which means although I can follow quite a bit of the TV report of what’s happening in Kuala Lumpur, I understand much less of what’s happening around me. Of course most people around can (and will) speak English if they feel like it, but my time is spent listening to tell-tale signs that I’m being discussed or asked a direct question. The usual giveaways are laughter, smiles in my direction and a slowing down of the Malay into a speed I might be able to comprehend. For the first year I came here I found out that in almost all cases they were only asking whether I could understand – so the best response was “faham setengah” – (“I understand about half”). Now we seem to have an agreement that I’ll chip in when I understand, I’ll shut up otherwise, and if they need my opinion (usually on matters of IT, Australian politics or when we will be having a baby) they will ask directly and slowly.
Otherwise I’m free to eat and sleep
One more point:
Internet: There is not a lot but options are opening up. No broadband at the house (although it is possibly offered by now). Dialup is probably available. GPRS via mobile phone is available but very rarely 3G. If you get a 3G signal my advice is to sit very very still like I am doing right now . I’ve tried all 3 providers and none give you a good signal.
Anyway that’s where I am and what I’m doing. Also managed to get heavy does of the flu this time around so I’m certainly happy to be able to sleep so much.