I’m in remote jungle, roughly 40km from the border with Thailand and my three-day visit to a rural Malaysian village is getting very real and exciting.
The setting is out of this world: a sea of green, clipped by bright blue skies, and dense palm-oil trees and water-logged paddy fields stretching for as far as the eye can see. To be honest, I’ve only seen such scenes in movies and it’s quite awe-inspiring.
The rice crop in the village of Seterpa is not due for another two months and the farmers have turned to fishing the paddy fields in the hope of raising some much-needed income.
I’ve been looking forward to meeting the fishermen of the fields for days. They represent the real Kelantan, the remote northern state where the people’s strict Islamic faith saw them withdraw from national politics 18 years ago.
The people here are serious about religion and even more serious about utilising the resources around them. Whether it’s the bananas and coconuts in the trees, the pandan, lemongrass and ginger which sprout in abundance or, in this case, the fish which populate the rice fields, it can all be used. It’s the epitome of a self-sufficient population.
The fishermen’s methods are basic and traditional, unchanged for centuries, carrying out the most simple but essential tasks of all – hunting and gathering. It’s a job actually stitched into their DNA. These craggy, weather-beaten fishermen simply slam an upturned, wooden basket through the water and mud in the hope of imprisoning several catfish at a time. They then reach down through an opening in the basket and remove the fish by hand. The catch is then transferred to another basket, slung casually over their shoulders.
Taking the Plunge
I ask my guide from Tourism Malaysia if I can join the men in the field. Minutes later, I’m up to my knees in paddy-field mud, wading through the water with a torn and tattered basket in hand. It’s a messy job and the muddy splatter covers my clothes every time I plunge my make-shift cage into the water.
Then it dawns on me. I realise how the fishermen are stalking their prey. They feel for the fish with their bare legs and feet. Soon I can detect dozens of catfish slithering past my toes. I try not to think about any other terrors lurking below the surface.
It’s early in the day but already the morning sun is burning. My two colleagues have wrapped their heads in rags to make a kind of turban and although my thick hair is absorbing the heat, I can see why this is sensible attire.
The men celebrate like they’ve scored the winning goal at Wembley every time they nail another target. Soon the fish will be taken to a nearby market and sold for a couple of ringgit each, roughly one Singapore dollar.
I’ve never tried catfish – I find the slimy texture off-putting. But I’m assured it tastes fantastic on the BBQ and now I’m on a mission. Anything I catch, I am eating.
I slam-dunk my woven basket and look through the small opening at the top end. I’ve caught two fish, each around eight inches long. Now I feel like celebrating, my head held high, victorious in the morning sun. Then I realise I’m expected to reach in and transfer my wriggling prey into the other basket.
This presents me with a problem as I struggle to cope with the idea of handling live fish. But after giving myself some positive affirmations, not to mention not wanting to embarrass myself in front of the assembled crowd on the riverbank, I grab the fish and hold it aloft like a trophy.
The Sucker Punch
My new bosses seem pleased with me. They pose for pictures, happy that I’ve contributed to their morning haul. Most of it will be used for this evening’s dinner as 50 or so gather for the mock Malaysian wedding ceremony that I am to participate in.
It is as I am smiling and hugging my fisher friends that my guide drops her bombshell. There are leeches in the fields, she tells me. The same water that I’m currently up to my knees in. My brave face and pent-up enthusiasm collapses, along with any sense of pride, as I leap two feet in the air and back onto dry land.
I think that the tourism official might be joking but I am not taking any chances. She’s not. I have two, big black leeches attached to the backs of my legs. I’ve heard the stories of how you have to burn leeches off with a lit cigarette and I’m sure my ordeal is going to continue for some time. I look around desperately for a smoker.
But these blood-suckers have not yet got their teeth into me and are quickly slapped aside as one of my new pals runs to my rescue. A mild panic, but one that only serves as an addition to the whole adventure.
I feel like Indiana Jones. Soon I’ll be back in Singapore telling my pals how I fished in paddy fields with my bare hands. For me, this is what travelling should be about. Not only new experiences, but ones which you’d struggle to find anywhere else.
Later that evening, I sit cross-legged eating the smoked catfish. The slimy body which I had to endure earlier in the day is now crisp and tasty. Soon I will change into my traditional Malay outfit for my mock wedding to local Muslim girl and homestay organiser, Azma.
There are hundreds of homestay operators all over Malaysia. It’s an ingenious idea designed to show people from all over the world real rural life and centuries-long traditions. For my visit to Kelantan I was joined by five others. But overall more than 90 participants from 13 different countries, including the US, Holland and Japan, have taken part in this event to raise awareness of the homestay experience.
Each of us has lived with a local family, feasting on gorgeous food, taking part in the traditional dances and even dressing in each village’s distinctive costume.
The families are friendly and work hard to make their guests feel at ease. In a multi-billion dollar tourism industry, this is a glamour-free, ground-breaking concept. But having travelled all over the world, I can think of no other experience I’d be happier to repeat.