Great Snakes!

Penang, Malaysia
July 23, 2017

Once upon a time, there lived a Buddhist monk called Chor Soo Kong who had moved to Penang. He was widely revered and known for his compassion to all living creatures, including snakes. When a temple dedicated to him was built in Penang in 1850, legends say that some pit vipers appeared at the altar and made it their home. And they continue to be temple residents to this day, apparently co-existing with the monks with no mishaps.

,Entering the temple, it looks like any other temple, but once my eyes adjust to the dimness, I see a pair of what looks like flower stands at the altar. And draped on those stands are three or four pit vipers! With a coloring of yellow, green and black they look simultaneously beautiful and loathesome. Fascinated and repelled in equal parts, I stare. And there on the other side, are some more. Next to the temple is an annex and here there even more – on beams, on picture frames, atop railings. There are no glass partitions – they apparently crawl and park themselves wherever they wish. They doze within touching distance, certainly within biting distance. A particular one, carefully marked with red paint has been de-venomed and is the unwilling participant in photo shoots. The three large boa constrictors that share a big glass case seem equally resigned to the few tourists that opt to have photos with snakes draped on them.

Outside the building is a small garden enclosed by a chest high wall. Bright red rose-apples hang in clusters on the two trees and plenty more litter the ground beneath. The fruits are apparently safe from humans and animals alike; the resident guardians are yet more pit vipers. Draped on branches and coiled around trunks, are literally dozens of vipers. Half hidden by the leaves, they are playing a game of spot-me-if-you-can, no doubt.


Penang in Pictures

Georgetown, Malaysia
July 21, 2017

With its old temples and clan houses, colonial buildings and quirky street art, Georgetown seduces easily. The thriving night market and buzzing bars lend their weight to busloads and boatloads of travelers and a couple of days stretch into multiple ones. This is one of those cities where history blends effortlessly into the new. Better yet, this feels real, unlike the carefully-preserved-under-a-glass-case museum-like feel of many other enclaves in other cities.

A Blooming Stink

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
July 17, 2017

The cool climate of the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia is a welcome relief from the all-pervading sauna that is the rest of the country and not surprisingly, this is a wildly popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. The winding road goes past tea gardens, their meticulously pruned bushes looking like frayed corduroy. There are plenty of tea estates that allow visitors to wander up and down the paths and offer a taste of their tea. Some even have tours of the tea factories. In this major agro-industrial area of Malaysia, the primary forest is long gone; entire slopes are covered with white plastic, serving as greenhouses for vegetables and fruits. Large arrays of red and green lettuce are among the vegetables are grown hydroponically.

The two towns of Tanah Rata and Brinchang are a scruffy mess of hotels, cafes and restaurants with a thriving taxi mafia maintaining control of transport between them. The Tudor buildings of their colonial past have long since given way to concrete boxes with strokes of paint mimicking wooden beams. This is where tacky meets kitsch, where the much-touted strawberry farms come complete with huge cement strawberries and joyrides for tots.

But this place has another attraction – the forested hillsides in these parts are home to the Rafflesia. A parasitic plant found only in this part of south-east Asia, the species has the distinction of having the largest single flower. I was keen to see it and was willing to brave a tour. The three or four hour hike through the forest was surprisingly nice and I learned something new. There is a species of bamboo that stores water, providing a lovely cool refreshing drink in the steamy sweltering jungle. Just like the vines I remember using in the Amazon. The trail led through the forest, going up and down steep muddy slopes, using bamboo bridges across small streams.

And there it was – a giant flower, more than a meter across. The bright red was dotted with white, the white spots much larger on the inside. The buds looking like flattened purple cabbages lay in spots here and there, on the roots on which they grow. While most flowers use perfume to attract bees, in a daring departure, this particular bloom uses the smell of rotting flesh to attract flies!

Melaka Mosaic

Melaka, Malaysia
July 10, 2017

The annals of Malay history say that Melaka, also called Malacca was founded in the fourteenth century by Paramesvara, a fleeing Sumatran prince. Situated on the straits of Malacca, it prospered through trade with the neighboring countries. The sultanate of Malacca soon established itself the leader in this area in culture, art, literature and architecture. But the golden years were not to last. The colonial period began with the Portuguese in early fifteen hundreds and there is a Portuguese settlement here to this day. But the hand of time wrought yet more changes – the Dutch were to supplant the Portuguese in 1602 and it is their legacy that is enshrined in many a spot in the historic center of town. The Dutch in their turn gave way to the British about two hundred years later until the time of independent Malaysia. Today the legacies of all the colonial powers remain in the form of a broken rampart here or a roofless church there. The Dutch legacy is largely confined to a square with a clock tower, a church and a couple of buildings uniformly painted a garish rust red, for indecipherable reasons.

But it is not only the colonial rule that has left its mark on Melaka. Male Chinese immigrants who began coming here in the sixteenth century, married Malays, Orang Asli and ethnic Thais. It was their descendants who developed a distinct hybrid Malay-Chinese culture, a culture that they maintain to this day. The Baba-Nyonyas as they were called, were a distinct class of society who thrived, especially during the British rule. The wealthy families buit elaborate mansions and many of their descendants live in them still.

Heavy carved wooden doors lead into a spacious high-ceilinged hall, opening into the interior. Lace-like wooden screens grace corners and wooden staircases access the upper storeys. A number of open inner courtyards with small pools and gardens add beauty and serenity. Art and artifacts are displayed in a jumble, many for sale if the price is right. Furniture, lacquered cabinets, old photographs in sepia tones and frayed clothing are tumbled next to the ubiquitous junk found in every tourist shop.

There are still a few families who live in these mansions. But there are a few that lie forgotten, behind locked, rusty gates. Not all are grand old mansions though. Hidden down small lanes, sandwiched between modern concrete buildings are small dark wooden houses in the traditional style. The terracotta tile-covered roof slopes down in multiple levels, the carved eaves reminding me of the gingerbread trims of Siberia. Built on stilts, meter or so off the ground, the houses are tiny – almost dollhouse-like. Seeing me take a photo, a woman sweeping the floor beneath the house invited me in. The dining room is tiny as well, barely large enough for the table and chairs. Old photographs grace the walls and the harsh sunlight is filtered in through the curtains. A short hallway has a steep short staircase leading to the bedroom. Also tiny, it nevertheless contains a bed, an armoire, the shelf beneath the eaves used for storage.

The narrow streets are not the winding serpentine streets of very old towns but laid out in a grid. The mix of immigrants of various heritages meant diverse houses of worship. The mosque is unlike any other mosque I have ever seen. The white-washed building with its green-tiled multi-layered roof is reminiscent of the temples in Bali. Only the square minaret proclaims its functionality. Chinese temples dot the city and are in active use everyday. Fat round urns sprout incense sticks, planted by the faithful, their scent drifting out into the street.

Like most rivers in this area, the Sungai Melaka too carried cargo and was lined by warehouses hugging its banks. But the days of river-borne commerce are long gone and the decaying warehouses have been given a new lease in life. Cashing in on the tourist boom, many have been converted to hotels, restaurants and cafes. Large boats ferry tourists up and down on sight-seeing trips for a kilometer as the lights on the Riverwalk blink. A feature, uniquely Melaka’s it seems, are the trishaws. Outlandishly garish, each is lavishly decorated with cartoon characters amid a nest of tinsel, soft toys and laminated posters. Equipped with speakers blasting pop music they seem to have no shortage of takers.

Melaka has woken up with a vengeance to the clarion call of tourism. Most are from China, the huge groups trailing after a flag-waving guide. Every site is mobbed as are the shops, restaurants and cafes. Wandering is done at the peril of being jabbed by the veritable forest of selfie sticks.

Lounging in a Longhouse

Machan, Sarawak
July 3, 2017

Vanessa was in Miri, on a school-sponsored field trip, when we met. While we chatted, she told me of their ancestral longhouse deep in the forest, built of bamboo and wood. Little did I know that as I listened entranced, she was hatching plans. The next day she informed me that she had already called her parents and they were waiting to meet me in Sibu. Halting Malay at my end and stuttering English at theirs notwithstanding, I was promptly invited to their home. Suluk, Vanessa’s father picked me up in Sibu and it was only then I learned that they live in the tiny township of Machan some forty kilometers away. Their longhouse is even further in the interior, and the plan was to go there that weekend. Suluk had grown up in the longhouse but nobody in the family lives there now, he told me. Most have jobs in towns and cities but they all congregate in the longhouse for festivals and holidays.

The downpour began as we left Sibu and in the increasing torrent we drove to Machan. Their home is not so much a longhouse as separate houses, built in a row, very close to each other. All the houses belong to the same extended family and are surrounded by fruit trees – coconut, papaya, pineapples and mango trees stand along with chili and lemon bushes. Some of the bushes are the greens that they traditionally harvested in the forests and still use for cooking. At the end of the row of houses are a series of cages – chickens I thought, for fresh eggs. But these were roosters! For cockfights, they tell me. With a smug look and the broad smile, they pointed out the king of the roosters; the source of a good bit of money, I gathered.

The large open-sided, covered parking area is next to the front door is full. Each family seems to own multiple vehicles including latest model SUVs. The front door leads into a spacious living room with four rooms leading off it. A large flat-screen television dominates the living room; it was the first thing switched on in the morning and the last thing switched off at night. There are some photos on the wall – graduations and weddings mostly. A large poster of Jesus claims another wall. A kitchen to one side of the living room has a bath and a toilet off it. The house is no different in design from millions of others and their lifestyle in this generation is no different from those elsewhere in the world. But old habits die hard. Come evening, quilts are spread out on the living room floor and everyone sleeps there, despite beds in the bedrooms.

Vanessa’s older sister is already married at twenty, and pregnant with her first child. Her brother Wincelause, at nineteen, is studying at college. He wanted to practice his English and while peppering me with questions, was happy to answer mine. The youngest daughters said not a word but were appreciative of the cake that I had brought. The copious amounts of sugar in the icing clearly met with their approval. I met the uncles, aunts and cousins and was inspected and interrogated thoroughly. My vagabond lifestyle garnered a thumbs-up from the older women, surprising me. But in keeping with traditional values, the men were not quite as approving.

I was shown the rug handwoven by Suluk’s grandmother and a couple of his grandfather’s parangs. About a foot long, these are the machete-like knives that were traditionally used by the Iban and still are. One had a bear’s tooth attached as decoration – the bear supposedly killed by one of his ancestors, several generations ago and handed down through the males in the family. The six-inch long tusk of a wild boar was also from his grandfather’s days, another valued memento. The scabbard of the parang was beautifully carved, the work of his grandfather. It is a lost art, they tell me. None in the family now, know how to carve, nor can any of the women weave. Suluk’s mother still weaves mats and makes hats and baskets. She was happy to reminisce and tell me stories of life in the forest. With Win translating, she told us tales of catching wild boar and killing snakes. Dinner that night included wild boar but this had been bought, not caught.

The downpour had continued all night, making the rough road through the forest to their longhouse unusable. Instead, Suluk had been making other plans. The town of Kanowit, about twenty-five kilometers away was the first stop as they showed me the one sight of note – Fort Emma. Of Charles Brook fame, it is a squat building, still standing. But it was fenced in and locked up even though the sign outside proclaimed its history and fame. Wandering through the bazaar, we were greeted at every step – everyone seems to be related in these parts. Cordially introduced each time, I hadn’t a hope of remembering the names and faces, let alone the relationships! Our motley crew of six soon grew into a gaggle of a dozen or more and we squashed into two cars for the trip to the longhouse where more Suluk’s extended family live.

Located on the bank of the Sungai Poi, this really is a long house, the home of twenty families. A courtyard festooned with laundry leads to the ruai, the communal corridor with doors to each house leading off it. These are not the single-roomed homes I remember from Kalimantan; here each door opens into an apartment. Built identically, each apartment consists of two rooms, laid out like train carriages, one leading to the next. The living room is large and mostly empty, with the few pieces of furniture pushed against the walls as are the pile of bedding. Beyond it is the kitchen, also spacious in size. A narrow, steep staircase leads up to the loft, the domain of one of uncles. He weaves mats and baskets here from palm strips. Against the wall are a row of large ceramic jars, from “old days” he tells me.

Plied with platters of sunflower seeds, a couple of ripe papayas and kopi, we chatted, sitting on the floor. My curiosity about the jungle produce seen in markets, had them amused and our host, insisted on taking me out in their boat to pick ferns from the jungle. Crouching in the longboat, we puttered upriver and pulled up next to the bank. My misgivings of snakes lurking in the grass was roundly scoffed at, as we squelched up the bank. Hidden in the grass, are thickets of paku. Along with the fiddle-head fern, this is used widely in these parts. The bundles we picked would be part of our dinner tonight.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Vanessa’s mother, Margaret’s family. They too live in a longhouse, this one even longer, with twenty-seven doors. A row of satellite dishes perch on the roofline, for the large flat screen televisions that seem to grace every home. The rooms inside are decorated with tinsel and strung with beads made from colorful strips of plastic. It is Margaret’s mother who creates these. What used to be traditionally palm, is now, plastic “straw” bought in the market. A cross between origami and weaving, the decorations show a strong preference for eye-popping colors. But it is a skill that will not survive another generation.

A boardwalk leading from the backdoor and is lined with cages. The roosters peck away unperturbed as we walk past. A larger cage had a pig but it lies empty now, the pig long since consumed. A small area holds a barbecue pit, the feathers and rubbish in the pit has the dogs happily scavenging in it. The communal boardwalk leads down to a small sluggish stream. Despite the bathroom, complete with a washing machine in the corner, it is in the stream that everyone bathes. Women in their sarongs, men with towels wrapped around their waists and children in the altogether. Liberal use of soap and shampoo in the waters that they wash food in, does not seem to be a deterrent. Neither are the piles of plastic bottles and assorted junk that float, caught in the reeds. Bamboo shoots are brought in from the forest across the stream and washed here and the chicken that is going to be cooked in bamboo, pansoh style, is cut and cleaned in the same water.

It is put on the fire first, the charred feathers pulled off before being taken down to the stream to be chopped up. Sprinkled with salt and MSG, it is stuffed inside the hollow of a bamboo stick and left in the fire to cook for an hour. The assortment of leaves that were stuffed down the bamboo combined the distinct taste of bamboo with a delicate lemony flavor. It was delicious as were the other dishes. Our festive dinner included the ferns we had picked earlier along with fish, a pumpkin dish, a broth of wild boar with the usual mounds of rice. Despite the dining table and chairs set proudly in the middle of the room, we all sat on the floor and ate.

Most evenings after dinner are spent in the communal ruai, amid chatter and conversation. More often than not, it is accompanied by tuak, the traditional rice wine. As a first visitor to their longhouse, an immersion into Iban culture was practically mandatory, especially for one as ignorant as I. The volume of tuak consumed was in direct proportion to the hilarity and jokes that had everyone convulsing with laughter and me begging for translations. Tattoos that most of the men wore were presented, their meanings explained amid plenty of tall tales.

As the evening progressed, more of the doors opened as other residents came out to join us and before I knew it, it was a party! The set of gongs were brought out, as was a drum. The musicians were rounded up and dancing was not too far behind. A ketapu – a woven white hat of rattan decorated with two long hornbill feathers was brought out. Anyone on whose head this was placed, was given a drink of tuak and had to dance. The tune never varied and the steps were slow. Arms waving, knees bent, I mimicked the others and managed not to fall flat on my face.

Meanderings Around Miri

Miri, Malaysia

June 23, 2017

The usual slick malls in between older buildings seem to make up most of Miri with new buildings under construction just about everywhere. There are pavement eateries and cafes aplenty but there is a faintly flat feel to this town. The various markets are probably the most happening in town. But they too are strictly low-key affairs, hovering at the edge of somnolence. On sale at the fish market, are fish of all stripes including baby sharks and stingrays. A bit further on is a more interesting market selling a satisfyingly odd mix of goods. From woven baskets and hats made of tree bark to baby chicks and ducklings, to a host of jungle medicine reputed to cure whatever ailments one might have. Heaps of bright red chili peppers sit next to piles of cabbages and potatoes. Dragon fruits share space with pyramids of limes and the small square-shaped packages of woven palm, called ketupats are heaped on counters.


Niah National Park

June 24, 2017

Of the several cave systems dotted around Borneo, turned into national parks, the one at Niah interested me the most. Among Pleistocene tools, pottery, beads and ceramics, the most famous find in these caves was a human skull dating from 38000 BC.  Word is, there are cave paintings here that date back to several thousand years ago; I was keen to see them.

A bus ride from Miri to Batu Niah and a shorter bit to the national park brought me to the limestone ridge housing the caves. A thirty-second boat ride later, I was on the path that led to the caves. The cement path soon gave way to a planked boardwalk, a meter or so above the forest floor and continued all through the caves. This park is said to host a fair amount of wildlife, including gibbons. But clomping of my boots along the boardwalk ensured that I making enough of a racket, that I saw none barring one small snake that slithered off the boardwalk and a couple of brilliantly colored centipedes.

Three kilometers or so from the museum is first cave, often called the Traders’ cave. Time was when locals who collected and traded bat guano and swiftlet nests, lived in these caves. The swiftlet nests are prized by the Chinese and fetch good prices. The traders may not live in the caves anymore, but there are collectors still; I met a trio of them as they hauled huge loads of guano. They paused for a rest and we chatted a bit. Nowadays they are required to have licenses to harvest and timings are strictly regulated. Guano is collected year-round, but the nests only at certain times, they tell me.

The second cave a little further on, is justifiably called the Great Cave. It is immense, dwarfing the boardwalk, stairs and even the dilapidated building inside it. An excavation site to one site is fenced off but bears no signs of recent activity. There are long ropes and ladders that soar easily forty or fifty meters up to the ceiling. It is these that the nest collectors climb to collect the nests. The constant chirpings of swiftlets filled the air and I could see them dart in and out of pockets high in the pockmarked ceiling.

At the far end of the cave is the kilometer and a half long tunnel leading to the other two caves. With my usual brilliance, I had forgotten my headlamp at the guesthouse and had to rent one. The broken hinge required some maneuvering and inhaling the smell of bat guano, in the diminishing circle of light, I tried to walk without tripping in the pitch-dark. I ate my share of bugs that congregated in the light of my headlamp and chalked it up to an extra-protein-rich lunch. The only reason I was not lunch for mosquitoes was no doubt, thanks to the bat population. Occasional slick patches due to constant dripping from unseen openings, had me clutching the guano-thickened railings, trying not to cringe. The complete absence of light made it impossible to get a sense of space and the passage of time seemed far longer than it actually was. After what seemed ages, I saw a faint glow ahead. It grew, signaling the opening into the forest and after another half kilometer or so was the painted cave. Along a wall are faint smudges of ochre-colored paint. The few paintings that are fenced off, are a pale reflection of the brilliantly colored paintings seen in pictures from the time of their discovery. I can barely make out a boat and some figures. Not quite in the league of the famously old skull found here, these paintings are relatively recent. These are dated to a mere twelve hundred years ago.


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.