Slumming in Style: Luxury Homestays

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A GLANCE AT POLYCARP AND LOUISE TEO SEBOM’S guestbook reveals their guests had a wonderful visit, and despite the old saying “houseguests and fish begin to smell after three days,” quite a few have made repeat visits to the couple’s luxury home situated at the foothills of Mount Santubung in Sarawak.

They are not relatives or friends, but paying guests who want a holiday away from hotels and resorts. These intrepid travelers from all over the globe are a discerning group who enjoy interacting with their hosts, and gaining a deeper cultural knowledge of the country they are visiting.

Nick and Tina Smith, residing with the Sebom’s, highly recommend their hosts’ residence. “It has been a wonderful visit,” they enthusiastically say of the home, aptly named Nanga Damai, meaning “peaceful spot” in the Iban language.

To Tina, meeting people she would never have encountered gives her a unique cultural perspective. “Instead of being a tourist, viewing everything from outside in, I have gained tremendous knowledge of the culture and become actually part of the household and community.”

Nanga Damai, opened about four years ago, stands in complete harmony with nature, has a stunning view of the South China Sea, and the house itself encourages relaxed living. Built along the traditional Iban longhouse lines, this calming retreat testifies to Polycarp’s Iban heritage.

Polycarp, a lawyer, is also a certified trained Tantra Yoga educator. Louise, originally from England, cares for guests and makes sure they’re well-fed with her outstanding cuisine.

“They become friends in many ways,” says Polycarp. “Guests make themselves very much at home, and are free to use any part of the house, or swim in the pool, or go for long treks in the vicinity.”

“Homestays at Nanga Damai can be as short as an overnight stop or as long as a few months,” he adds. Above all, it is their personal touch and genuine warmth that makes their homestay programme a resounding success.


Homestay is growing in popularity, with advantages for both hosts and guests, including the opportunity for cultural exchange. Polycarp and Louise are among the many individuals and expats opting to share their cultural traditions, personal perspectives, and daily lives with guests from around the world.

In Sabah, Terry and Rose Mills also take in paying guests for a few weeks a year. Sinurambi, (meaning “jungle abode” in the Kadazan language) is their spectacular tropical hideaway that truly touches the spirit of the owners and homestay guests lucky enough to stay there.

The location is truly magnificent. Situated about 30 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu, Sinurambi is perched about 300m above sea level, close to the boundary of the Crocker Range National Park. The Crocker Range culminates into the ridge of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain – Mount Kinabalu.

Nature puts on a kaleidoscopic slideshow for them every day. The winds blow down the mountain range and sweeps right into the house, and after a downpour, the mist slowly surrounds and creeps into the house before descending into the valley.

Guests awake to truly indescribable, glorious sunrises over the mountains, breakfast on the timber deck watching Mount Kinabalu in full bloom, or swim while worshipping stunning sunsets, or sit by the evening fireplace listening the jungle’s nightlife.

“Although we built Sinuranmbi as simply a comfortable home for ourselves, our Western guests were always struck by its unique location and serenity,” says Terry. “Their comments always revolved around how their friends and acquaintances would love to come to Borneo and stay in such an unusual and beautiful place.”

This prompted the Mills to mull the idea of opening their home to guests. “The folk who come to Sinurambi will be people like us,” adds Terry. “Those to whom the thought of sitting in a 5-star hotel with 500 other guests and being taken by the coach load to dreary pseudo-cultural shows would be abhorrent and boring to the extreme. We hope to open our home to those who want to share our love for Sabah, and all the special things it has to offer.”

To ensure quality, exclusivity, and privacy, the Mills only accept a couple or two couples travelling together or a couple with children. Guests are accommodated in a selfcontained apartment, complete with a small kitchenette. Their homestay, with its spa and masseuse services, will launch soon.

“Otters and dogs are another ‘no charge’ extra,” laughs Terry. “Fortunately or unfortunately, walks to the rivers are inevitably accompanied by seven friendly dogs and two amazing otters.”

One of the most fundamental problems confronting ongoing and start-up homestay programmes is the absence of any kind of strategic outline, step-by-step format, or even a basic homestay manual that presents in “hands-on fashion” how a successful homestay program should be administered.


Jacobus and Mina Witte, who also open their doors to homestay visitors, say the whole process is ‘trial-and-error.’ Despite earlier misgivings, today they find running a homestay a rich and rewarding experience. It has been their window to a new world – meeting people from different parts of the globe. Their guests are enveloped in a welcoming home atmosphere with personal interaction and connection, as well as guidance to a new environment and rich cultural learning opportunities.

“We are overwhelmed because we never intended to build this house to have paying guests,” says Jacobus, originally from Holland. “We feel flattered that people feel the house is good enough to pay to stay in.”

Jacobus and Mina built their ‘farm house’ (Boerderij Welgelegen-Do’o Tudor, meaning “an excellent place to be,” or “a good location” in both Dutch and Mina’s native Kelabit language) amidst a rural environment surrounded by Bidayuh villages and miles of padi fields. Their homestay guests have the unique opportunity of observing quiet village life, and can also go jungle trekking or fishing.

“Depending on the time of the year, they can witness or participate in the various activities relating to rice farming or pepper farming,” says Jacobus. “A visit to the nearby caves can also be arranged.”

“Our guests become immersed in the pulse of a different culture, a new environment, or a household with contrasting styles,” adds Mina. “They can get a taste of indigenous cuisine and I make the effort to introduce them to new styles of cooking.”

Homestays in private homes is a new concept, and most would agree it adds diversity to Malaysia’s tourism, helping to meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive industry.

The positive interaction between host and overseas guest is good for international relations, and more cooperation between the multinational homestay providers themselves – often independent-minded people sharing a common goal – can only enhance the future prospects of the whole sector.

Homestay programmes can be a powerful means to promote international understanding and goodwill. These households that open their doors to visitors do so for many reasons – interest, curiosity, conviviality – but the effect of even short stays can be profound for guest and host alike. In fact, the future of international understanding may rest more on such simple acts of hospitality than on all the treaties we can devise.

Source: The Expat March 2005, article by Nikki Lugun

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