Brunei Bytes

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

June 20, 2017

The ferry ride from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan and the connecting one from Labuan to Muara were uneventful, the only excitement afforded by a trio ahead of me as we entered Brunei immigration. The entire island of Labuan is duty-free and every second shop sells liquor. Brunei being famously dry, there are plenty of locals that come here to shop, as had these three. They had between them, acquired enough to stock a small shop. Going through customs at the Muara terminal was necessarily slow, as the team of officials checked their declaration forms in minute detail, against the wagon load of clinking bottles. A few barked questions elicited mumbling replies as the others waited in queue impatiently.

Emerging outside, a hopeful taxi driver offered me advice about the shuttle bus into Bandar Seri Begawan. “You wait, la” he said. Sometime come, sometime no come.” But come it did, a battered and ramshackle van and the driver helpfully pointed out to me that it was Ramadan now and we trundled off toward town. All others had had a car waiting and the van was empty except for myself. The pot-holed road and some of the decrepit houses I saw were at odds with the image I had of this fabulously wealthy country, as were the open sewers bordering the road. Interspersed between old wooden houses raised on stilts, were newer elaborate mansions. The multi-angled roofs are covered with sheets of molded plastic, made to look like terracotta tiles in colors of red, blue, gray and green. None more than two or three stories high, they looked picturesque in their manicured gardens, contrasting sharply with older houses with their patched corrugated-iron roofs.

The pot-holes vanished and neatly trimmed roundabouts appeared along with slick buildings, shopping centers and hotels as we entered the city center. The buildings in downtown Bandar are opulent, built on a large scale and meant to awe. But now, in the midst of Ramadan, all the roads and public spaces are more or less deserted during daylight hours and many of the small shops have their shutters pulled down. It is after the call of the muezzin in the evening, that people normally begin to stream outdoors, most of them heading to restaurants. But these last couple of days have been awash with rain and not many ventured out. I wandered around, ducking between buildings and snapped pictures through sheets of rain.

The new buildings may be swish, but the origins of Bandar, indeed that of Brunei, lies in Kampung Ayer, or the water village across the Brunei river. It was this place that intrigued me more than anything else. Stretching more than a couple of kilometers, it includes some forty-two villages. An astonishingly large percent of the population, numbering in thousands live here. All houses are built on stilts, some wooden while the more recent ones are made of cement. There are planked walkways between houses, much like village lanes, their layout erratic and unplanned as lanes of all old cities. Some of the houses are painted in bright colors, decorated with potted plants but there are an equal number if not more, of ramshackle buildings patched up. There are pipes for water and sewage connected to some houses but not all dwellings are connected. Electricity comes from a spaghetti of power lines supported by poles. Dish antennas of varying sizes interrupt the tangle of power lines line punctuation marks. Motorboats driven at full throttle ferry passengers, zipping from one side of the river to the other and along the water channels between houses. Some of the more opulent homes bear signs that say a tour of the homes are possible. Peering at one such home, I was politely but firmly shown a sign. It stated that a thirty-minute tour is five dollars for an adult and three dollars a child.

The dismal weather has not let up in two days and there is more of the same in store for the next few days. I don’t feel tempted to wait. Polite and helpful as the people were, none seemed inclined to chat and I got the sense that the welcome did not extend beyond the friendly helpfulness. Having heard a lot about the friendliness of Bruneians I feel strangely let down. Who knows? Perhaps Bandar wears a different face when it is not Ramadan. Perhaps it is the constant rain that is at fault. Perhaps I have not given it enough time. I may simply have to re-visit.

Chasing Pygmy Elephants

Sukau, Malaysia

June 16, 2017

The first couple of days in Sukau, were spent diligently looking for a boat, and in the process I met a number of people in this village. Yesterday, I heard from a young man who has a friend, whose cousin has a brother who works with the conservation department. There may be a couple more links in that chain and it was through this convoluted grapevine, that I learned of a large herd of elephants downriver. These are the pygmy elephants that had me coming to Sukau! I could hardly believe it and lost no time in locating a boat and setting off. The boat was shared with three other tourists who had just arrived. Not tied to any tours, they were equally excited at the prospect.

Barely fifteen minutes downriver, we saw the tell-tale sight of a couple of boats huddled near a tree. Like safari jeeps, the huddles are giveaways to location of wildlife. Sure enough they were gawking at the upper branches of a tree, at a lone orangutan. A female sat, one long arm gripping a branch while her feet curled around the branch she was sitting on. She had a baby on her lap but I could only see the rounded back of the baby huddling against its mother. One little paw peeked out. The orangutan looked down, saw the cluster of three boats and unperturbed, continued eating berries, staring off into the distance.

Just then, over the water came another sound. A short, sharp trumpet pierced the air – there was an elephant lurking in the bushes on the opposite bank. It sounded annoyed and annoyed it was. By the time we had crossed the river to the other side, a young bull with two short tusks was walking out of a thicket. The wet hide showed it must have been bathing in the river when the boatloads of these two-legged creatures showed up.  He paused, looked at us as we stared at him. Clearly we were not going anywhere and after another short blast of trumpeting, he ambled off into the bushes, out of sight.

We continued downriver for a fair bit, to a place on the river with a little knot of boats. Just beyond them, on the bank, was the broad gray back of another elephant. Unlike the skittish youngster, this one continued to eat as cameras clicked away. These elephants are fully formed and proportionately built but truly are pygmies! At the shoulder, an adult is just about two meters, about the height of a tall adult human. I watched in awe. The discharge from his temporal glands traced a path down the sides of his head, indicating that this was a bull with high levels of testosterone. They are supposed to be extremely aggressive in musth, but this elephant seemed very zen.

This was not the only one though. Judging from the sounds, there were others hidden from view, all intent on the busy task of eating. Nearby, the bushes along the bank swayed and shook and the sound of the stalks being pulled up and crunched down carried clearly in the air. Our boatman tried to maneuver so we could get a better look at this other elephant. In the process of eating, this one had thinned out the bushes at the edge of the bank and we caught glimpses of gray now and then. As the elephant continued eating, more of the green curtain disappeared and in an astonishingly short time, it was gone. Like a veteran at curtain call, she/he appeared before us, deigning not to notice the gawking faces or the cameras. If the first elephant we saw was a nervous newbie, this one is a celebrated diva who took the photo session as her due.


Floundering in Package-Central Kinabatangan

Sukau, Malaysia

June 13, 2017

The Kinabatangan river is supposedly one of the best places in Borneo to see wildlife, the cast ranging from orangutans, proboscis moneys, long-tailed macaques to birds like herons, kingfishers and various kinds of hornbills. The star though is the pygmy elephant, found only in Borneo and it was this, that had me eyeing Sukau. The nearby towns of Sandakan and Sepilok are chock-a-block with travel agencies, guesthouses and hotels, all apparently under a mandate to snare tourists. And snare they do, by the boatload. Since the idea of an organized tour tends to make me break out in hives, I set to work to find an alternative. Two days spent checking every agency and guesthouse and I had zip. Nobody was interested in a customized tour but as one older guide told me, I would better off trying getting to Sukau.

There used to be a ferry from Sandakan to Sukau but “Oh la, that stopped years ago” I was told, when the road was built. What about a bus? “No la, sorry la” I was told. No direct bus but, I could eventually get there through a series of transfers, waiting at road junctions. Needless to say, the times of the various transfers did not pan out but hitching – at fairly exorbitant rates – got me to Sukau none too worse for wear. The houses in the villages we passed were a mix of the traditional ones on stilts, made of wood and newer concrete blocks. The two-lane highway was lined by a monotonous stretch of palm plantations with nary a break, stretching as far as the eye can see. The much-touted wildlife is limited to a narrow strip of land along the banks of the Kinabatangan river and the strip seems to be narrowing more with each day. New roads being built, the thrum of machinery and workers, tugboats hauling massive platforms of supplies and huge oil-refining machinery are among the everyday traffic along this section of the river. And there is of course the plethora of motorboats loaded to the brim with tourists booked on tours. The lodges that line the one lane through Sukau village rattle them off like secret codes – 3D2N and 2D1N seem the most popular.

I found a local homestay and was diligently making the rounds, trying to chat up some denizens in hope of finding a boat and a boatman. Long-forgotten Bahasa Indonesia is coming back in fits and starts. It is similar enough to Malay that I can use it with small variations. One conversation began auspiciously enough with the usual greetings:

“Selamat Pagi! Apa Khabar?”

Greetings exchanged, I asked if they had a boat for hire.

“Yes, we have boats” came the reply. Followed by a flourish toward a board scrawled with the going rates. All rates specified a minimum of two people and therein lay the rub.

“How many?”

“Well, I am just one” I replied.

“Minimum two person” came the prompt response.

“Can you charge me more and take me?” I asked.

“Minimum two person” he replied.

“What if I pay for two?” I asked, cringing a little at the cost.

A thoughtful pause followed by some staring at the ceiling and then

“Minimum two person” was the reply, albeit offered with a regretful expression.

Other conversations followed more or less the same pattern. Two other locals who seemed more amenable, were going to charge rates that would easily cover an entire tour group and more besides. They were “specialists”, hence the elevated price, they explained graciously. Yet another boatman who had just brought a passenger and his motorbike simply declined. No reason was deemed necessary and none were offered. I threw in the towel and joined a river cruise from one of the many lodges that line the one lane road through the village.

A motorboat loaded with ten passengers, and newly minted guide left the jetty, heading downriver. The rain that had poured down in sheets for an hour, had let up a little, but was still spitting under gray skies dark with clouds. Downriver we headed, along with a host of motorboats from other lodges, all going up and down the main river, not remotely interested in the smaller tributaries where the chances of animal encounter are higher. Some proboscis monkeys and some birds, all seen at distances requiring zooms of eighty to hundred times were on the menu. A part of the set menu, the intent was to fill in the requisite two hours and before we knew it, we were heading back upriver for the all-important dinner-time. I saw far more animals of the two-legged variety than I did any others. Whether they are wild or not was not determined. I remembered fondly, the various trips along the rivers of Kalimanatan, from a few years ago – living and sleeping aboard boats and wandering where one pleased. Methinks Malaysia does not quite do it for me. Who knows? Perhaps Sumatra will be more my speed.

Buzzing Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

June 7, 2017

I am not quite sure what I expected, but it was certainly not this! Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it is called maybe located near the northern edge of Borneo, but it is far from a collection of huts with the jungle murmuring behind. This is a sprawling concrete town with one or two newly-built glitzy malls, older buildings in various states of decay, a constant stream of traffic threading its streets and restaurants and shops that take over entire blocks. None of the buildings are more than five or six storeys and the hot, humid climate does not seem quite so bad with the constant sea breeze. Along with the breeze, one gets the occasional aroma of open sewers – a reminder that the development here is recent and not quite complete. But there is a lively buzz to this town that is refreshing and the friendliness of its residents makes it appealing. Seated at cafes, drinking the coffee that I seem to have become addicted to, more than once I have fallen into conversations with someone at the next table.

The waterfront lines the north end of town and is lined with docks where disreputable boats bob in the water. The wet market nearby is housed in an enormous warehouse-like structure with rickety stalls. Beneath glaring fluorescent lights and few dangling dim bulbs, the stalls sell fruits, vegetables, spices, banana leaves and herbs, some of which I do not even recognize. A separate section houses the meat – where chicken, mutton and beef are butchered to specifications and the floor is slick with stuff I would rather not know. Just past is another warehouse, this one of dried fish. Dried squids, shrimps, fish of all stripes are piled in their sealed packages along with sea cucumbers and other members of the marine species in a bewildering array. Yet more sit in plastic bags, waiting to be packaged.

Ramadan it might be, but the cafes and restaurants that line the streets are busy from early in the morning to late at night. There are some that even stay open twenty-four hours! And it is because of Ramadan that this town takes on an extra buzz. Tents pop up like mushrooms after rain and take up entire blocks of streets. Chicken in every form – grilled, fried, curried and barbequed are offered on a bed of rice it may be or kebabs rolled in a tortilla or pressed in a sandwich. But by far the liveliest restaurants are the ones that line the waterfront, tempting diners with their bins of fresh seafood. Tented stalls that serve as car parks during the day, morph into restaurants come sunset. Fish of every possible kind lie next to lobsters which lie next to prawns and clams. The crabs try to crawl away from hands reaching into the bin and business is brisk as potential diners line up.

Race Day at Changi

Changi, Singapore

June 3, 2017

A few clouds marched across the blue skies above and now and then, a breeze sent them scudding. Painfully bright sunshine shone down on the waves lapping at the beach at Changi Sailing Club. A hum of excitement wafted across the club as the crews got their boats ready and tinkered with last minute repairs. It was race day. Teams formed amid an air of friendly competition as people headed down to the sailboats for the last race of the season. Sailboats of all sizes and a few catamarans drifted this way and that, jockeying for position near the yellow buoy which marked the start of the race.

I had had an introduction to sailing the week before. This time around, invited to sail on one of the boats, I figured prudence was the better part of valor and declined. Instead, I had appointed myself photographer of the day. At the head of the jetty is the crow’s nest, where the staff hoist the flags and clock the times of the boats. Up the ladder I climbed to this platform.

A blast on the foghorn to my right, had me jump a foot, to the amusement of the staff. And had a narrow escape from an ignominious, unplanned dive into the waters below. Little did the staff realize that were it not for the sturdy railing, they might have been treated to far more entertainment. The race begins, I thought, frantically getting my camera ready and getting into what I thought was a very professional-looking crouch. But that was merely the ten-minute warning to the start of the race, not the signal for the race itself. One of the members, with three boys in tow were just setting off in a motor boat for one of the sailboats – clearly it had not begun yet. Another blast and I leapt into position once more, focusing the lens. But no, that was not it either. And so followed a few other blasts along with raising and lowering of some of the flags. A string of numbers and phrases followed, spoken over the radio, presumably to the waiting crafts. I listened intently but all of it sounded Greek to me. In between they gossiped about the various boats. I understood nothing but some of the names of boats. Mention of one particular boat dubbed Capsize King and the guffaws that followed had me grinning as well. I had become more or less inured to the blasts of the horn by now. Predictably of course, when the actual race began, I was nowhere near ready and barely managed to snap some photos.

Off went the boats, their sails upright, their hulls cleaving cleanly through the water. The white sails filled out and they glided on the sparkling blue waters. A pretty picture they made, with sunlight glinting off the water. They glided one way and then the other, completing the figure eights that was the course set for the race. They leaned into the wind and away, some of them far enough that they seemed to be a hair away from capsizing. But none capsized; Capsize King was either not racing that day or its crew had improved tremendously.

A couple of hours later the race ended; blasts from the horn announced each boat as it crossed the finish line. It had been a good race and the celebration that followed was boisterous. We  trooped up to the bar to applaud the winners and ring in the last race of the season to the tune of a splendid sunset.

Strong-armed into Sailing

Changi, Singapore

May 31, 2017

The Changi Sailing Club traces its origin from the nineteen thirties and forties when sailing races took place between the Changi Garrison Yacht Club and the Royal Navy’s Red House. From its venerable beginnings using native sailboats like Koleks and Jongs, to dinghies used by three British servicemen to escape during the Japanese occupation, the club has seen its share of excitement. These days the excitement is largely limited to spirited races between members on the Johor Straits. And it was to this area that we were headed.

Landlubber that I am, the thought of setting off on a boat does not usually rate very high on my priority list and I am not quite sure how it came about. I have a sneaking feeling that rash promises made at the party the night before, was in part, to blame for t. Making a mental note to avoid making promises in the vicinity of flowing drinks, I trailed along the dock and soon found myself on a  bobbing little sail boat.

The waters around the islands of Ketam and Pulau Ubin hummed with traffic of all shapes and sizes. Motor boats, kayaks, massive freight and cargo ships and sail boats all bobbed and weaved across the muddy green water. And airplanes roared in to land at the airstrip not far away, their underbellies seeming just a stone’s throw above our heads. Trussed into a life-vest, with strict orders to park myself on the bench, I bobbed and swayed and dutifully listened to instructions issued by experts. My vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds. The conversation flowed from boom to bilge and boathooks to boom vang. It eddied around cleat and cringle to fluky and jib with a few lazy jacks thrown in for good measure. Lovely words, I thought. I have a good mind to start bandying them about in conversation, albeit not quite in the way they were intended.