The Art of Bathing in the Developing World

By Kattina Rabdau-Fox
Batu Puteh, Borneo, Malaysia

borneo-homestayThe place where we’re staying has a tub full of a brownish water for bathing. It’s “pond water,” I’ve been told. It has a funny smell, supposedly because of the grasses it contains, but I’m assured it’s clean.

It’s a far cry from the high end resort in Brunei where we’ve spent our two previous nights.

Washing from a bucket is tricky business. It’s a struggle getting things wet enough to soap up. Speed is a priority, but the water is cold, so I don’t want to go fast.

borneo-hoemstay-kitchenI squeak and stammer as the water touches my skin. I’m making a racket when I hear a giggle.

The mother at our homestay is right outside the bathroom in her kitchen. I’m sure she has heard such squeaking from the dozens of previous visitors she has hosted at her house in rural Borneo. It probably never gets boring.

Everything in the developing world takes work. Collecting water, like they do here in the village of Batu Puteh, requires unique engineering and water management skills. Bathing water comes from a local pond. The water takes on the color of the reeds and rushes that surround the pond. Rain water for drinking is collected in barrels.

borneo-homestay-batu-puteh-daughterHomestay projects like this one are, in part, supported by tourism efforts in the region. Our homestay is with a family of six. It’s one of 35 homes open to visitors in the communities near the Kinabatangan River in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The families participate through MESCOT/KOPEL, an organization that coordinates ecosystem and community development programs. They facilitate community-driven initiatives and support long-term ecological and economic sustainability in the Kinabatangan River Basin.

Homestays are one of the best ways to experience a community. While the features of a local homestay vary from place to place, you live with a family. Housing is simple – usually a bed, a mosquito net, and a fan.

borneo-homestay-familyWhat you miss in luxury, you gain in firsthand experience of how others live – staying with local residents in their homes. You eat meals with your host family, sleep under their roof, and bathe the way they bathe.

I brushed my teeth in our family’s simple kitchen. Frogs and cicadas sang their nightly chants beyond the bare wood wall. Our family of six welcomed us with smiles, curiosity, and a sense that for one night, I was one of them.

I wouldn’t trade it for all the 24 Karat gold plated sinks in Brunei.

Published on Friday, June 28, 2013

2 Responses to “The Art of Bathing in the Developing World”

  1. July 9, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    i have experienced a similar to what you had when i used to work as project officer in several NGOs. but it gave a very a valuable experience which like what you said ” I wouldn’t trade it for all the 24 Karat gold plated sinks in Brunei.”

    i am from the philippines. there are places here which you will experience different ways to bathe: privately or publicly.

    • July 11, 2013 at 9:02 PM

      Hi Antonio,
      Thank you for your reflection. It was valuable to hear your personal story about working in the developing world.
      It sometimes takes a lot for someone to write feedback on a blog, so thank you for taking the time.


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