LABUAN is best known as an offshore financial centre offering international financial and business services.
The island with a population of about 100,000 people, is, however, seeking a niche in the market as a tourism destination.
A dearth of tourist accommodation in Labuan has led the villagers there to embark on homestay programmes in 2005. These became fully operational two years later.
The Labuan homestay villages are sited in areas adjacent to each other but defer in environment. This unique blend of scenery is intensively promoted by the locals.
Kampung Bukit Kuda is one of the villages actively promoting its homestay programme. It is sited next to Labuan’s largest natural reservoir – the Bukit Kuda dam – which supplies the island with most of its drinking water.
The village has excellent infrastructure and public amenities. The roads are tarred and litter-free. The surroundings are tranquil. Kampung Bukit Kuda is a typical modern village with beautiful houses.
Village spokesman Haji Mustapha Tangkim said life in the village was laid back but could be interesting to visitors.
“We are Kedayan Muslims and modern farmers.
“Our environment is green with houses set amidst natural beauty. We have fresh air, peace and tranquillity and our guests can relax, read a book or join in the various activities,” he added.
The activities include making traditional cakes, tasting local food such as sago and sampling freshly caught fish.
The village produces the island’s very own Lidi Noodles and Virgin Coconut Oil. Oyster mushroom farming is a common activity among villages here.
There are also top spinning competitions.
“If visitors are lucky, there may be a wedding in the village and they can take part in it. We will dress them in traditional attire and invite them to join in the merenjis (blessing ceremony).”
Named after horse
Mustapha stressed Bukit Kuda is named after a horse left behind by a colonial master. It was given to a caretaker who allowed it to roam freely.
The horse was usually seen eating grass at the hill where the village now stands. The area was first called “Where The Horse Grazes” and overtime, it became known simply as “The Horse’s Hill” and eventually “Horse Hill” which is Bukit Kuda in the local dialect.
The other village actively promoting the homestay programme is Kampung Air Patau Patau. It was established in the 1930’s but destroyed by Japanese bombs during WWII.
After the war, the villagers rebuilt their homes and soon they began to thrive again.
The original architecture, patterned after the water village concept, dating back to the villagers’ ancestors in Brunei, has been maintained. The Kedayan Bruneian culture and customs have been incorporated into villagers’ daily lives.
The ‘water houses’ are very sturdy and can withstand the buffeting by winds and waves.
The novelty of living in a water village is the most interesting experience for tourists.
The homestay hosts are friendly. They serve guests with traditional delicacies, including ambuyat, a traditional Bruneian sago dish that goes well with sour and spicy sambal dip made with young mangoes, chilli and dried shrimps.
Guests can go fishing, watch traditional dances or enjoy a boat ride.
The village comes equipped with water and power supply, telephone and sewage lines, streetlights, water taxi jetty, grocery shops, handicraft shops, clinics, schools and surau.
Another village in the homestay programme is Sungai Labu Village which has a unique history, according to its spokesperson Haji Hashim Haji Abdullah.
“Long time ago, during the Kuomintang Confrontation in China, many people left the country to look for greener pastures,” he said.
“Some of the Chinese refugees landed in Labuan. Most brought their own food, including pumpkins and gourds which would not rot for at least one week.
“On reaching Labuan, they moored their junks close to shore. Whenever they ate their gourds, they threw the seeds onto the riverbank. After a while, the villagers were surprised to see gourds growing along the bank. There were so many fruits that some could be seen floating in the water.
“The villagers thus called it Sungai Labu or Gourd River.”
Hashim said this was not the only attraction in Sungai labu Village.
“There are also nice beaches. Our guests can opt for long walks or a swim or even go crabbing.
We can also take them for Nature walks and show them herbs that we used before,” he shared.
There are 30 homes at Bukit Kuda, 24 at Kampung Sungai Labu and seven at Kampung Patau Patau.
“We like to liaise with Sabah tour operators so that they can promote us as a destination in their packages,” he said.
According to him, more direct flights and ferry services can help to promote the tourism industry in Labuan.
In the past, the homes of the Kedayans had thatched roofs and bamboo walls and floors.
They were mostly built near rivers as the dwellers used the waterways as their thoroughfare.
The present Labuan homestays are very modern and almost western in appearance.
Hosting a homestay allows the local family to earn additional income. However, with its low profitability, homestays cannot be regarded strictly as commercial venture but more a cross-cultural exchange.
It should stay true to its “home away from home” philosophy.