Next to an empty fountain across from the community centre, village toughs hang out astride their idling hogs, diesel fumes rising into the sweltering darkness. Two girls on a cherry-red Vespa ride around the boys in ever-narrowing circles, their beautiful, intent faces framed by crimson selendang, the head scarves Malay girls and women wear.
Welcome to Kuala Medang, population 1,200, a Malay village a three-hour drive and a half-century of development away from the future-forward towers of the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur. This village is the first thrust of a two-pronged experience here: a rural homestay, and a luxurious escape to the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur. I decided to start in the country.
Kuala Medang is the kind of place where the jungle is the nearest neighbour, where they would roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. – if they had any. You won't find a cinema, a mall, any restaurants or bars, either. In fact, there's nothing to do here at all, and the humidity makes doing that – nothing – an onerous activity. So why am I so busy?
From the second I arrive, I eat, watch food being prepared, ogle food at the morning market and, when I'm not eating, dream about food I'm going to have when I wake. In Malay culture, food is key. Malays eat six meals a day: breakfast, morning tea (plus snack), lunch, afternoon tea (plus snack) and, confusingly, dinner followed by supper (Nescafé, plus cake).
And what meals! My host family serves up yellow noodles fried in garlic, salt mackerel with rice, banana fritters by the platterful and bottomless cups of pulled tea, made by pouring equal measures of tea and condensed milk back and forth until froth forms. And that's only breakfast.
My hosts are part of the Malaysian Homestay program, a government initiative to spread tourist dollars to the hinterlands. Like the rest of the village, and half of Malaysia's population, they are Muslim, so there's a red plastic ewer and basin on the table where we wash our hands before and after every meal, forsaking the Western world's fastidious cutlery. We, too, will eat with our right hands only.
The Malays, I discover, are a warm and sociable people. After breakfast, we call on the neighbours, a jungle tribe living nine kilometres up the mountainside. Pantos Village, home to 100 members of the Semai tribe, sits high above a swift river and is a collection of weathered wooden houses half-obscured by palms and flowering trees. We've come here for lunch, which a tribal woman prepares, stuffing lengths of bamboo with rice and tapioca root and baking them over an open fire.
Village children scramble everywhere, shy and inquisitive, helping with the cooking, practising their English on the ungainly white newcomer in their midst. The meal is delicious, tasting of river (salted fish), jungle (broad green leaves serve as dinner plates) and wood smoke.
Soon, the Semai people will move across the river to a new, more hygienic village the government has built for them – row upon neat row of identical white shoebox houses laid out in the harsh sun with no vegetation to shade them.
As I leave, the village kids come racing across the suspension bridge spanning the river, shouting their goodbyes.
My homestay house back in Kuala Medang is opulent in contrast to the Semai village ones, richly coloured inside and out, with a tree densely hung with rambutan fruit in the garden. The house belongs to the head of the village. He and his wife have seven grown children who have all left home to work in Kuala Lumpur, so there's no shortage of bedrooms. My room is airy and simple, with a bed, armoire, dressing table, a rack hung with prayer rugs and a combined toilet and shower.
My hosts treat me like family, even though we can't communicate with more than smiles and nods – they have had homestay visitors before, and so their attitude toward me is, in the much-honoured Malay phrase, “free and easy.” I can hang out in the family room watching M-Pop on TV, or slip out for a late-night walk. No one fusses over me, or mentions the word curfew. There's no air conditioning, but the slowly revolving ceiling fans in every room fill the house with breezes.
Homestay in Kuala Medang was so relaxed and yet full, so unusual and yet strangely familiar, it took me back to a place I had thought irretrievable. Its heat and slowness, the constant throb of cicadas, the long evenings passing languidly on verandas – it all reminded me of my grandparents' neighbourhood on a hot Midwestern night. On my nocturnal rambles, I found myself half-expecting them to wave at me from the next veranda.
Leaving the village and arriving in Kuala Lumpur makes for a fast fall from a soft place into a hard and honking one. But as the doorman ushers me into the bustling, glittering lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel, I was immediately cosseted in the cushiest of urban retreats. The Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur offers luxury on a grand, cosmopolitan scale. The lushly upholstered lobby lounge looks onto a lavish garden. Ladies in silk, emeralds and tiny hats are sipping tea.