Monthly Archives: July 2014

Medan, Thursday 24/07/14

In Kuching I met some interesting people.

There was an American woman, Renee, about my age, who has been travelling for seven years. She was quite an inspiration to me and though our time together was brief, I hope to stay in touch. One evening we went for an evening cruise along the Sarawak River together and on the following day we visited Bako National Park. You take a bus and then a boat, before disembarking on the peninsula.
The route we decided to take through the forest was actually quite a trek, scrambling over rocks and roots. At one point a hole in the ground opened up beneath Renee and pitched her over. We didn’t see any Proboscis Monkeys, which are one of the main attractions there, We did see lots of Fiddler Crabs and the Bearded Pig. More impressive were the rock formations in the sea, which we saw when taking a boat back to the centre.

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When Renee continued on her travels, I had some time on my hands. Orangutan were not to be seen, as it is the fruiting season, so they are perfectly content to forage for themselves and keep their distance from Orang-Orang, (us).

So I took to exploring the town. Kuching is quite an attractive place. The name means “cat” in Malay, so there are plenty of statues of them about.

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I had already visited the beautiful orchid gardens with a few friends – I can never have enough of orchids, so here are some of my favourites.

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There is a Chinese area, noted for it’s cuisine and typical extravagant temples.

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This was the home of the “White Raj”, so there are plenty of old colonial buildings and some interesting museums. The ethnology museum, however, persuaded me not to visit the “cultural village”. People no longer live in real long houses in Sarawak, and are probably grateful for the fact. In reality, the new generation may wish to preserve their culture, but they live in the present. They have a brand new State Legislative Council building and a big pink mosque. No more head-hunting.

There were some friendly and informative people in my hostel and while waiting for them to share a drink in the “Speakeazy” I got talking to Rob, another well-travelled American. He told me he was an ethnobotanist and we whiled away a few hours. We met up again a couple of days later on the evening before I left. What he didn’t tell me, until he sent me a farewell email, was that he has written the definitive book on Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, as well as other books on the same subject. He has been described as a “recluse”, but I think he’s just modest.

It’s true that I spent little time exploring the wilder places of Sarawak, but it is clear that large parts of the island are now used to produce palm oil. I needed a little bit of time to stop travelling and just hang out and Kuching is a good place to do this. From there I flew to Jakarta, which is a completely different story, to be continued.

Kuching, Friday 11/07/14

Forget Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t like it.

So went to the Cameron Highlands by bus and stayed in a town called Tanah Rata. This is another hill station developed by the British. It’s in a large farming area of which they are extremely proud, but I have my reservations. The tea plantations are lovely and date back to over 80 years ago. The trees have to be cut right back every three years to keep them in this tidy state.

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Boh Tea Plantations

There are strawberry farms, flower farms, cactus farms, hydroponic farms . . . What this means in practice is that nearly all of the valleys are covered in plastic tunnels or awnings. Not very attractive. Then they obviously use vast amounts of fertiliser which gets into the water systems, besides the fact that they use quantities of water. However, they point out that intensive farming is reducing slash and burn, which destroys more natural forest. What a dilemma!

I went on a jungle walk to see this . . .

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Rafflesia, the biggest flower on earth.

OK, the two I saw were not record-breakers, but impressive nevertheless. They are pollinated by flies and the seeds are distributed by ants, so there are a number of “buds” in any one location. It takes about eight or nine months for the flower to mature. There was no nasty smell.

I also entered the Mossy Forest, which is one of the few, truly primary forests left.

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Here you find “pitcher plants” or Nepenthes.

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They are all over the place.

You also get orchids at the proper season. This apparently is no longer considered to be one, but it was the only flowers we saw at the time.

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Some of the local people, the Orang Asli, demonstrated blow-pipes to us. It was explained to us that as well as going barefoot to make no noise, they would smoke a special home-grown cigarette, which covers the human scent and made it less likely that they would be detected by their prey. It is almost certain that this is the last generation to use these skills.

Onwards to Georgetown, which sits on an island off the coast in Penang. This I did like. It has a very mixed population, including Chinese, Indian and of course Malay. It has wall murals and iron cartoons describing the history of the streets.

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There are many places of interest to visit, such as –

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The Time Tunnel, with it’s history of Georgetown and 3D interactive photo ops, (or is that oops?).

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and ancestral homes, such as the
Pinang Peranakan Mansion, showing artefacts from the late 19th century up to the 1940s

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I had the good luck to be there for the Cultural Heritage Festival, when local businesses, workshops and artisans exploded out onto the streets. Even better, I met Patie, with her impeccable English, to show me around.

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We saw temples

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Cakes

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And some of the local people

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There was so much I didn’t see and I would love to go back. In August they have a month long Arts and Music Festival!

Another good thing about Malaysia is the free and cheap bus services. The free bus goes around the South-Western side of the town and a cheap bus will get you to the beaches and beyond. I went to Penang National Park, after a recommendation from my guide in the Cameron Highlands. It has been a reserve since 1928, but there are still signs of the tracks that were used for logging. The government is trying to maintain biodiversity, but there are scars from its past and trouble with the palm oil plantations.

The track through the forest is clear but not intrusive.

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I chose to go on the route to the Meromictic Lake, where fresh and salt water meet in two different layers, salt below and fresh above. This walk took me to the beach where there is a turtle hatchery and conservation centre. I saw five day old baby turtles.

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They may not look much in the picture, but it was a thrill for me. They would be released in one to two weeks time. I couldn’t stay to see this event as I had a flight booked to Kuching the following day.

I am now in Kuching, on the island of Borneo. How cool is that?

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, 03/07/14

Halley and I took a plane to Hanoi, as the train and bus options sounded a bit grim.

Hanoi is very different from HCMC. During the day the streets and buildings reminded me of Paris, but at night it is totally SE Asian. People on the street, sitting on those small stools, eating and drinking, lots of noise and laughter.

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There are plenty of museums to visit, a chic area full of luxury shops, and lakes and pagodas. This is Tran Quoc, the oldest, which exudes an air of serenity in the heart of the hectic city.

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On our first evening we managed to see the water puppets – almost obligatory for tourists in Vietnam. They are a simple pleasure, originally devised as an entertainment in the rice paddies. There’s lots of splashing about, dragons which shoot fire and tales of family life, but the actual puppets are fairly crude.

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In spite of trawling around Hanoi, we failed to see a number of things, such as Ho Chi Minh museum, because it was Monday and the majority were shut.

Halley was not feeling her usual bouncy self, so we decided to take a couple of excursions out of the city.

The first was a day trip to Ha Long Bay. The weather was perfect, our companions were amiable and the location a dream. No picture can give an impression of the feeling of sailing through, as one island slides out from behind another, or the depth and richness of the vegetation, but here is a picture of me taking pleasure in the experience.

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Then we spent a couple of days in Mai Chau, a rice-growing village set among the mountains.

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We slept in a dorm on the first floor of a wood and bamboo house in a Homestay.

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We ate plenty of good food, went around on bicycles – I fell off once but blame that on a pile of sand I was trying to avoid – and climbed 1203 steps up the mountain to a cave.
Our roommates were great fun and by the end of our stay Halley was in good spirits again.

It was then time for us to say Goodbye and go our separate ways. It is strange to be on my own again and I miss Halley enormously. We shared so many tastes, opinions and experiences. She confided in me about her life and her feelings. Most of all, she is good for a laugh! I have no doubt that one day we will meet again.

Hanoi, Saturday 28/06/14

Our first full day in Hue, Halley and I took a boat down the Perfume River to Thien Mu Pagoda.

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This is also the place from which Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist Monk, set off to Saigon in 1963, to set fire to himself, as a protest against policies of the South Vietnamese Government.
They still have the car in which he travelled and which can be seen in the film taken at the time.

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The boat then dropped us off at the “Citadel” – the old imperial complex.
Inside the square walls lie the Thai Hoi Palace, or Hall of Supreme Harmony,where the Emperor received the ministers and presided over state functions.

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The exterior of Vietnamese palaces and temples is rather simple, in contrast to those in other South-East Asian countries.
The Citadel also comprises The Purple Forbidden City, where the Emperor lived with his wives and concubines. The interiors of the buildings which remain are delightful, I think.

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Nevertheless, it does not appear that the life of an emperor was desirable. They had to eat alone always, were subject to plots against their life, illness, exile and invasion of the country. The last emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945, but was invited back by the French. It all ended badly of course. Many parts of the Imperial city are now in ruins. We spent about two hours there and certainly did not see it all.

The following day was a complete contrast, as we visited Khe Sahn, the site of a large military complex and epic battleground. In 1968 the American marines found themselves isolated and under constant attack from the Vietnamese for 5 months and 18 days. In response, the U.S. Air Force dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs. In the end the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed everything they left behind. Casualties on both sides were heavy. The place is desolate and saddening.

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The reconstruction of the American bunkers shows how desperately inadequate they were, as they were only half below ground.

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Our tour took us far into the “Demilitarised Zone”, (DMZ), and to the Vietnamese tunnels at Vinh Moc. These were built as a response to US bombing, estimated as 7 tons for each of the 300 people living in the villages. A picture of the terrain taken at the time looks like the surface of the moon. The tunnels were on three levels, the lowest being about 23m below ground, according to our guide, and dug out of the red clay.Inside there were kitchens, a maternity unit, a meeting room, etc. the longest time anyone stayed down there without emerging was said to be 10 days.

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About 17 children were born in the tunnels and some of them still live in the village.

The area is an example of the tenacity and ingenuity of the people, but it is also clear that there were anti-aircraft guns on the beach and it would be impossible to distinguish between “civilians” and those fighting for “liberation”.

It may seem that I was immersed in the history of the place and I did visit “the Hanoi Hilton”, Hoa Lo prison, where first the French kept Vietnamese criminals and political prisoners and later the North Vietnamese kept captured US airmen.
I thought it was important to see for myself the things I had only heard about second-hand.

However, I do wish to point out other things I have learnt about the people.
They like Karaoke, kite flying and carving wood and stone. They love to take pre-wedding pictures in photogenic places, like parks or luxury shopping malls. They eat lots of seafood; clams, whelks, eels, etc but mainly as street food and not so much in restaurants. In the parks they do exercises, dance, talk to strangers, play badminton, play with their children . . .

I definitely have to mention the “motos” and the traffic. Whole families fit on to one scooter, the children squeezed between parents, perched on the front or hanging on behind. The scooters are used to transport anything, from furniture to livestock and often in enormous quantities. In the South they continually sound their horns, as others may have no rear-view mirrors or are too overloaded to be able to see around themselves. They drive on the wrong side of the road and on the pavements., where they also sleep on their scooters in the middle of the day. It becomes quite an art to cross the road, one which Halley and I prided ourselves on having achieved.

You can only get a true picture from a video and after an “upgrade” I no longer know how to do that, so here’s a picture instead.

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Last words on Hanoi and the North in my next post