Couchsurfing in Islamic Borneo and Why it was Awesome

I was back on my own, traveling solo through one of the less traversed areas of Indonesia. This was no Bali. Seriously, I would eventually go almost 10 days without seeing another Western traveler. So at the time, it only made sense to try Couchsurfing again. It’s hands down one of the most authentic ways to visit a country, through the eyes of a true local. Not only that but I could use some company. So I disembarked from my twelve hour ferry ride across the Makassar Strait and asked a stranger if I could use his phone. Ten minutes later, I was jumping in a car with my host, Emen, and his family, complete strangers who would find the time to alter my world view.

Have you ever received such enormous hospitality that it almost makes you feel uncomfortable? That’s the level I’m talking about. I was given my own room and bathroom, fed all freshly prepared meals, taken to a wedding and personally chauffeured around to all the city sites (including a totally private peek into the world class orangutan rehabilitation facility). They even did my laundry. Hospitality just came naturally to them.

My host family parents

But I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of the family’s love. They also ran their own orphanage and it appeared that each member of the household helped out and did their part. I decided it would be the best place to part with my soccer ball, so Emen set up a little pickup game in the orphanage yard, which, predictably, was a big success. They particularly loved my “Defense! Defense!” chant although I’m pretty sure they have no idea what it actually meant.

Did I mention Emen and his family were extremely devout Muslims? Before this trip, I had never visited a Muslim country and if I’m completely honest, I hadn’t spent any substantial time with anyone practicing Islam. I knew the overall populace takes an unfair hit for those who interpret the Quran more radically, but still, there was that element of the unknown. Now, I found myself surrounded by it firsthand, seeing it on the daily level and it didn’t strike me as very different. Sure, they had different habits and routines (Once, they pulled over mid-trip saying it was time to pray), but it was for the same reasons. It was largely on par with legalistic Christianity. Lots of rules that need following, but overall, good intentions to live a life of love and service. In truth, comparing the family to myself, I felt a little ashamed. Here I was on a completely selfish pursuit of traveling the world and all I could do was donate a soccer ball. But that wasn’t the full truth.

It just so happened that I was the first Westerner to stay with the family. They loved having me, making fun of my attempts to eat rice with my hands and having me take pictures holding each squirming baby. Emen said he once had the opportunity to study in the US but his family forbade it. By the end of my stay, his parents were talking about how they wanted the whole family to go experience “America.” Just by talking and spending time with them, we had shattered that mutual fear of the unknown. We both had affected each other in a positive way, which immediately made me think of one of my favorite quotes and just how fitting it was.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” – Mark Twain

20 thoughts on “Couchsurfing in Islamic Borneo and Why it was Awesome

  1. Great post!! I’ve always been a little hesitant about couchsurfing but I think I will definitely try it on my next international trip. I’m always amazed by the friendliness of the locals in the towns I travel to. It’s great to see what a wonderful experience you had.

    • I would highly recommend couchsurfing on your next trip. I’ve hosted people as well stayed with others and have never had a bad experience. Go for it!

  2. Accidentally found your nice blog when searching muslim couchsurfing. Nice post, wonder if all the people in the world will have a same thinking like you. Open minded no matter what we are… I had host and also surf in couchsurfing, honestly its was awesome…

  3. willing to have the opportunity to be hosted / host a muslim couchsurfing user like you had! It must be a really rewarding experience. Thanks for sharing!!!

  4. I’m so happy that you wrote this post. I stayed in a small village in W. Sumatra last summer and had an incredible experience, similar to what you described. The people I met, known as Minangkabau, are also devout Muslims. They treated me incredibly well and I’ll never forget it. Glad you had the experience you had and wrote about it.

    I’d like to return to Indo. in a few years and would like to visit Borneo. Maybe I could stay with this family, too! 🙂

    • That sounds awesome. I wasn’t able to make it to Sumatra this time around but hopefully in the future.

      Borneo along with my couchsurfing host obviously come highly recommended!

  5. How did you originally meet your couch surfing host?

    Am thinking about doing some couchsurfing when I go to Indonesia!

    • I have an account on There’s a feature where you can post your itinerary. Hosts can then get a hold of you if they are available while you’re in their town.

  6. Interesting insight about couchsurfing Phil, we’ll be active now in couchsurfing. Been a CS member but hibernating for quite some time.

  7. Hi phil..i ve just read your “diary” about your travelling in borneo…. my mom n dad ask me when will u come again 🙂 .. we’ ve just went to derawan a week ago..

    • Hey Emen! Hope all is well in Borneo. Your brother told me about your trip to Derawan. I hope you got to see the huge sea turtles. They were probably my favorite part. I wish I could just come for a weekend visit but unfortunately you guys are on the other side of the world! Maybe one day

  8. Today… 19th of january, my family n i wanna say : Happy birthday phil, may GOD always gives u succesful in your life and countinou your travelling to all around the world. n tell us when u get married 🙂 … althougt we can’t come to your party, we will happy to hear it.

    • Thank you for the birthday wishes! I miss all you guys. I probably won’t be married for awhile but I’ll definitely let you know when I do

  9. Thanks for sharing your culture experience in Indonesia…As far as the couchsurfing goes, I don’t
    have my own “couch” to offer per say at this time…for a proper exchange… I wouldn’t feel right about crashing on other people’s if you know what I mean. For Cultural exchange, sounds like a great idea but just to save $, not so much…

    • There are obviously those who take advantage of the system, but overall I think it’s possible to weed those people out when accepting couch requests. It’s understandable that some people cannot offer a couch for whatever reason. I’d would still recommend giving it a shot.

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