A homestay programme offers community living, sustainable agro-tourism and a whole lot of merriment.
STANDING in knee-high grass under the blazing afternoon sun, Rashid Hisham takes a step back to survey his handiwork on the figure.
â€œThis doesnâ€™t look quite right. She needs something to make her look more ayu (demure),â€? he says, whipping out a white headscarf from a bag of clothes and throwing it over the scarecrowâ€™s coconut head.
â€œAh, I need a woman to tie this on her. Iâ€™m not very good at it,â€? the 53-year-old confesses with a grin.
If there is one thing to learn from this man, it is that scarecrows are meant to keep the birds away, but they should not scare people.
We are in a padi field in an idyllic village tucked away in Tanjong Karang, Selangor, where the United Federation of Travel Agentsâ€™ Association (UFTAA) congress Â Â Â Â Â Â Â delegates have gathered to try their hands at harvesting rice with traditional hand-held harvesting tools.
Rashid, a tour guide with Agrotourism Sungai Sireh, says he feels absolutely at home in the rice fields. Padi planting and harvesting is his specialty, and he often brings visitors to the area.
As it is padi-harvesting season, the delegates are shown a method of hand-threshing after their padi field expedition, which involved beating sheaves of rice stalks against a hard surface to separate the grains from the stalks.
On this post-congress familiarisation excursion hosted by Tourism Selangor, they are given a crash course on the communityâ€™s culture and rural lifestyle â€“ a sneak peak into what visitors to the Agrotourism Homestay Sungai Sireh can expect to experience during their stay.
Despite it being their first time, a few of the delegates prove rather adept at ketupat-weaving as well.
The humble rice plant, common as it is here, is a novelty to many of them and they are quite delighted to reap the fruits of their labour. Placing a few stalks of rice carefully into her bag, Nevin Ozkan from Northern Cyprus says she intends to bring them home to her grandchildren.
â€œI would like to show them these rice stalks as it is nothing they have seen before. Back in Cyprus, we donâ€™t have padi fields like you do here,â€? she says.
Ahmed Nor Osman from Somalia describes the rice harvesting experience as â€œvery nice, very interesting.â€?
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he says, â€œBut I didnâ€™t expect it to be so hot here; it is just like in Somalia.â€?
All for one
Launched in April 1995, the homestay programme is a community-based agrotourism project. The main operation site is located in Sungai Sireh, but there are several other neighbouring villages involved.
Sixty homes have taken on the role of host family to visitors, and the number is growing by the day. Full board is offered (there are different packages available) and visitors can join in the daily activities of the community for the duration of their stay.
Global Environment Centre (GEC) senior biodiversity officer, Nagarajan Rengasamy, explains that GEC is collaborating with the homestay folks to help develop eco-tourism and agro-tourism products and programmes.
â€œWe also advise on how to make use of resources in a sustainable way,â€? he says.
Depending on the time of year, visitors can participate in different community activities, including fishing, kayaking or fruit picking.
â€œWe sometimes bring the visitors to the padi fields to catch eels with their bare hands. These eels burrow in the soft mud, make a hole in it, and then live in it. Some tourists are a bit apprehensive about using their hands, so we give them a fishing rod,â€? relates Nagarajan.
And catching the eel is only half the fun; the cooking and eating after that makes up the other half!
â€œThe villagers will show them how to make soup with eel. They believe it is a nutritious tonic, very beneficial for oneâ€™s health,â€? he says.
Most evenings end with merry-making, complete with dance and song accompanied by traditional musical instruments.
Past and present
According to Nagarajan, some 8.000 visitors participated in the homestay programme last year. Of these, around 2,000 are foreigners, mostly from South Korea, Japan and European countries.
â€œThe irrigation system in the padi fields are from the days of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s,â€? he shares. â€œSo the Japanese in particular have a special interest in coming to visit the villages as we are still using the same technology that they introduced here.â€?
For visitors who have the means to return frequently, the homestay programme offers a little incentive out in the fields: an opportunity to monitor your crops.
A small site in the padi fields has been set aside solely for visitors to work on.
â€œThey plant the padi and then can return as often as they like to check on the progress of the plants,â€? says Nagarajan.
â€œFour to five months later, it is ready to be harvested. Some people actually come back to harvest the rice they planted!â€?
One of the largest remaining contiguous areas of peatland in the Peninsula is accessible from these villages. Most of the peat swamp forests in the country have been logged or degraded, and this peat swamp forest, covering an area of 70,000ha, has been identified as a conservation site.
Nagarajan describes the North Selangor peat swamp forest as â€œreally big â€“ it is the size of Singapore!â€?
And lest you think that community living in the village is routine and perhaps dull, Nagarajan discloses that surprises are aplenty: just last September, around 500 Asian Openbill Storks descended upon the padi fields, where they remain until today.
These migratory birds, usually found in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, are not commonly seen here.