There were many options along the Kinabatangan River. This was an extremely biodiversed area with an active community trying to preserve their resources. Sharleen selected Sukau River Homestay just down the river from the swanky Sukau Rainforest Lodge featured by National Geographic.
Sukau River Homestay felt like a home. There are chickens and ducks running around the yard along with cats and two goats. There is a main house back from the river, and a stilted house on the river. Several boats parked under the river house. Kids run about and fruit trees are everywhere. It just got better and better.
A family operation
Maria is the heart and soul of the operation. She is warm, inviting, respectful, and knowledgeable. She answered all our questions and shared her story with us. “My grandfather built this house in 1940, and I was born here.”
We were lucky to be among the first batch of guests to benefit from the stilted house on the river. “Last flood season a lot of wood floated down the river, so I told my husband Raman, we should make use of that. He is very handy. He cut it up and build this dining area and deck.” She was loving and passionate about her community and environment.
However, there were more people contributing to the success of this operation. Raman, never stopped working. He was fixing plumbing, fishing, fixing a motorcycle, gardening, and cutting wood, and carpentry. He was extremely industrious. He also had a great laugh and a warm smile.
Adan, Maria’s younger brother picked us up from the airport and drove us the two hours to the homestay, and then drove us back to Sepilok.
Shah, Maria’s other younger brother was our guide. He motored us out every morning and evening. A knowledgeable guide, he was able to spot many animals and identified them for us.
Ameen, Maria’s cousin, along with Maria’s sister-in-law helped prepare delicious meals.
The food was amazing. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were included. They were open and showed us how they did the cooking. Raman caught fresh fish and crayfish for our meals.
Sometimes Adan would fish off the jetty. They have a working piece of land. “It’s so nice you are here in fruiting season, that way we can give you fresh fruit for dessert instead using the sugar cane.” Maria took us on a fruit tour around their property. They grew Coconut, Rambutan, Langsat, Mango, Sugarcane and an whole array of vegetables. She grows spices and herbs in re-purposed plastic containers on their porch. Chickens and ducks (and quail and turkey) laid eggs. Everything was organic and free range (except for the quail and turkey which would run off). Two fruits stand out: The white mango (belunu) and the lancet.
They had two giant mango trees. The fruits would drop periodically, banging the tin roof of the shower room or the river house. If the fruit fell in the yard, they would run out and pick it up before the chickens and ducks could get it. The flesh was white and tasted like a cross between champagne mangos and soursop – lightly tangy and sweet, and highly addictive. “We call it belunu, I have not seen it anywhere else.” (It’s scientific name is Mangifera kemanga). It was so good, we could not eat enough of it. Maria and her family appreciated what they had: “We could have someone climb up the tree and cut them down, but by letting them fall, we can stretch out how long they last.” As if we weren’t lucky enough to find this place, we were even more lucky to be there this year, as this tree doesn’t fruit every year.
Also langsat is a sweet, white fleshed fruit that grows in pods high in the trees. Raman climbed on their trees and got more for desert. Alyssa nearly ate her weight in them. We learned later that there were two varieties one sweet and one tart. Appropriately, Maria had the sweet kind.
The homestay only had three rooms. And we would eat with Maria and her family.
Maria often joked that food took so long to prepare and Raman finished in less than 10 minutes, usually to hustle away to finish a task here or there.
Food was always plentiful, tasty, and rewarding. Leftovers went to the chickens.
Dining riverside, in an open air environment was interesting. Cats purred at our feet looking for hand outs and the goats walked up the steps and tried nibbling at our clothes. But the most entertaining aspect was the bats that flew in regularly to eat the insects gathering around the lights.
The heat in this area sits on you like an elephant. There is no AC, just a few fans. Surprisingly, the breeze off the river is cooling and sitting in the river house watching life happen is wonderful. Hours of time melted away watching the slow pace along the river. Hens with their chicks forged for food. Ducks went down the river’s edge to cool off. Egrets and purple herons searched for food. Various house members would fish off the jetty. A small ferry carrying cars across the river would go by occasionally. The river has a healthy crocodile population. Maria’s neighbors lost three goats to crocodiles. This hasn’t deterred Raman from bathing near the jetty after fishing. It worried Maria and she watched over him telling him to be careful in her local tongue, which is different than Malay, while he bathed. Every once-in-a-while the serenity would be broken by a lout CLANG from a mango dropping on the roofs.
She explained that something is always happening. It may be a monkey troupe that moves to steal fruits or a wandering pygmy elephant that wanders the village trying to steel sugar cane.
Maria is a connected member of the community. Aside from her boats, the local police leave a boat docked at her place as well. Also, the floating hospital docks a boat there. A few times a year, a physician travels up and down the river to the more isolated communities by boat.
Good fortune and luck don’t even begin to describe our feelings after staying here. Beyond being welcoming, Maria was a tour de force that left us inspired after leaving. Being in the presence of someone who does so much with so little is really one of the biggest impressions and takeaways we had. She truly is a model of someone who gives more than she takes.