South East Asia

Pongo the jungle man and Borneo wildlife photos

Coming face to face with Pongo, now that was something. He’s family, so I knew a bit about him. But we’d never actually met before.
When I saw him for the first time I could see the resemblance straight away. The facial expressions and the way he stands. But we’ve grown apart, like many modern families, I suppose. In fact it’s been fourteen million years since we had a common ancestor. But Pongo Pygmaeus (his formal name) better known to you and I as orangutan, shares 97% of human DNA. And it shows.
The great ape is only found in Sumatra or here in Borneo. But they are seriously endangered. It’s estimated just over 40,000 still remain on the island. Huge scale logging (legal and illegal) is destroying their habitat. The conversion of huge tracts of forest to palm oil plantations has also devastated their traditional areas. It’s appalling to witness the pace of rainforest destruction.
I did see a few orangutans in the wild but to be honest the best place to watch them is at either Semmengoh or Sepilok rehabilitation centres. Both rescue orphaned orangutans with the aim of releasing them back into the forest. They are both very successful.
After release, some Orangutans turn up at the centres for fruit, which is provided twice a day. The food is deliberately monotonous so as to encourage them to stay away and find it for themselves in the forests.
Borneo teems with amazing wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on earth, so enough of the words, I hope you enjoy the photos. (Note: Big thanks to Isabel Rybuschka and Simon Staiger for the picture of the very rare and elusive pygmy elephant – I left my camera on charge in the room. Idiot).

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Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Borneo – hunting and sleeping with the headhunters

The still, silent, dead of night, deep in the Borneo jungle. The full moon casts a silvery, dreamlike trance over the primal rainforest.
Gently, two paddles sink into the inky water, the surface breaks and we glide soundlessly downstream.
The moonlight adds a sheen to the edges of the virgin forest but beyond the riverbank is impenetrable darkness. Only the rattling chirp of the cicadas and the mooted calls of owls taint the silence.
It is a canvas of calm and the night is achingly and hauntingly beautiful.
The silence is finally broken by a low murmur from behind me. Two beams of light flash to the bank on our right. There in the rays of death stands a mouse deer.
With a few rapid strokes we reach the riverbank. Two tribesmen race from the canoe. They scramble up the muddy rise. Their torch beams slash through the trees and undergrowth in a frantic search for their prey.
It is to no avail and one of the hunters gives up and returns empty handed to the boat.
As we wait we catch fleeting glimpses of torchlight off in the distance but silence has settled once more on the jungle. It seems the deer has escaped with its life.
But 15 minutes later the peace is shattered by the grave, echoing sound of gunshot.
A few minutes pass before Jangolin reappears at the riverbank. He carries a rifle in one hand and from the other dangles the bloody, still and lifeless mouse deer.
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Seventy years ago the Kayan were a feared headhunter tribe living in the remote upper Rajang river of Borneo. Nowadays they hunt only for food. Their lives depend upon it.
Lower down the river at Kapit, which is only accessible by boat, I discovered that many of the traditional Iban longhouses have gone. Most people now live in modernised concrete versions, often with electricity and TVs.
But in some of the older wooden longhouses the past still lurks, skulls of headhunting victims hang in baskets.
Belaga, which is mainly Kayan territory, is a further six hours by boat through the Pelagus rapids. The settlement is small and I soon meet Bruno. He has good English and agrees to be my guide for a couple of days.
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Early the next day he and I set off, we’re heading for a remote longhouse. It’s an arduous journey.
When we finally arrive the people are distant but not unfriendly and although dirt poor they’re generous. Smoked fish is soon brought out along with a bottle of tuak, Borneo’s notoriously strong rice wine. Bruno explains that today is a rest day so drinking will be heavier than normal.
The women mostly keep their distance. Some of the older ones have fully inked lower arms and long, drooping earlobes from days when this was considered fashionable. The practice is no longer en vogue and has died out.

Note the inked lower arms

Note the inked lower arm

A common area runs the length of the longhouse. Off it are small rooms for sleeping and cooking. Even in the daytime they are dark and dingy.
There’s neither electricity nor running water. Food is cooked over an open fire.
For lunch there’s a selection of meat the men have hunted. Wild boar, rich and quite sweet; mouse deer, which looks and tastes a little like pork; and ‘wild cat’, civet, I think. Its meat is gristly and I find it almost impossible to chew.
There’s also rice and tapioca. Everything they eat they either grow or catch themselves. Even the cigarettes they smoke are from their own tobacco.
After lunch it is time for a wash and bathe.
Grooming is taken seriously and the boy checks all the men's hair

Grooming is taken seriously and the boy checks all the men’s hair


A nearby stream is the communal bathroom. Similarly, the jungle is their toilet. But only in daylight. Bruno warns me the night can be dangerous so I should just stand on the longhouse verandah and do what I need to do over the side.
Late in the afternoon, after several bottles of tuak, we get in a boat and go fishing up river. A catfish is quickly caught and an impromptu barbecue is soon underway. But after some loud mutterings my guide tells me that we need to return to the longhouse as one of the men is not well. ‘A bad head’, he informs me. He means the man is completely drunk.
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The drinking continues into the night and I am a little wary when two homemade guns are produced in readiness for the hunt. However, drink or no drink the Kayan are experts. The mouse deer is taken with a single shot.
Dinner - it's subdued after a day on the tuak

Dinner – it’s subdued after a day on the tuak


On our return Bruno shows me our ‘bedroom’. There are no blankets, no pillows and, of course, no bed. The floor is where the Kayan sleep and we will be sharing with Jangolin and Malacca. There is very little space. This will be a snug fit.
I place my BlackWolf backpack under my head and put on an extra top for warmth.
Within moments Bruno is snoring grotesquely loudly. Next to me Malacca begins a whiney version of the same thing. I inwardly sigh and turn onto my side. It is, unsurprisingly, not comfortable.
Thirty minutes later Malacca, whose breath I can feel on my neck, suddenly throws a leg over me. Worse still it grips tightly around my own legs. I freeze. Is he asleep or is he amorous?
Many scenarios rush through my head. None of them end well.
I manage to wriggle away and convince myself he’s just in a drunken stupor.
Thirty long minutes later the leg comes snaking around me once more. Again I am hooked tight in his clutches. Oh hell, I think he might be having a frisky dream. I’m desperately hoping I’m not in it.
Through the endless hours of the night this scenario is repeated five times. On each occasion the embrace gets more vice-like. Sometimes I push him gently away, other times I give him a jab. I’m not sure how wise this is, his hunting knife is almost within reach.
I remain planted on my right side. The idea of turning over and coming face to face or cheek to cheek with Malacca is not comforting.
Finally, dawn arrives. I am first up.
Malanca chopping fish

Malacca chopping fish


Bruno and I set off back towards Belaga. The Kayan give us the mouse deer as a gift. We give them tuak.
Once on a logging trail we hitch rides in the rear of beaten up old utes. Huge logging trucks rumble past and we are coated in thick, gritty blankets of dust.
We’re crammed in tight between boxes and bags. The only thing moving is the dead mouse deer and it slides ever closer to me. For the next 90 minutes splashes of its congealed blood rub against my backpack. Australian customs will not be happy.
After a couple of hours we reach a road and I take my leave. I hitch a long ride back to the modern world. I’m hunting a hot shower, clean clothes, a wire brush to clean my bag and, most importantly, a bed that I will share with nobody.
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Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 14 Comments

Time for some Angkor rancour

Angkor Wat. One of the most iconic buildings in the world. Star of a billion bucket lists. The dictionary has been bled dry of superlatives in homage to its grandeur.
It’s almost a heresy not to join the hallelujah chorus of adoration for the biggest religious building in the world.
But let me try.
I might be in a minority of one but here’s some Angkor rancour.
I so wanted this to be a lifetime event, an Olympian moment. And I tried, I really did. But after a couple of hours I left with a heavy heart. My Angkor Wat experience was a major disappointment.
So what was the problem? Well, there wasn’t just one, there were many. In fact there were thousands of them. Angkor was heaving and bursting with tourists.
This is an icon best enjoyed at a slow, considered pace. Quiet moments are needed to take in the vastness of the whole; time to stop and pause is crucial to appreciate the intricacies of the friezes and stone carvings.
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But it was impossible. Tourists were here, there and everywhere. And before you say it, yes, I accept I was a part of the problem, one of thousands throttling the place.
I never climbed the steps to its upper levels, the queue to get up snaked and twisted forever.
It was the same at nearby Bakheng Hill, a great place for an Angkor sunset. Unfortunately a tidal wave of humanity was making the short trek up. For some unfathomable reason I joined them, knowing in my heart of hearts that it was futile. At the top is a wooden staircase leading to the huge viewing platform. The queue was hundreds long and wasn’t moving.
I came, I saw, I conceded. Back down I went.

But this is a place of second chances. Although Angkor Wat gets top billing there are many other temples. Some are truly mesmerizing.
Ta Prohm is one such case. Like many temples here it was ignored for centuries and taken over by the jungle. Its ruination has left a stupefying spectacle.
Many are here solely because of the power of Hollywood. A scene from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raiders movie was shot At Ta Prohm. It features Angelina Jolie at the entrance of a tomb straddled by the roots of a giant tree. I haven’t seen the film but I know the scene. Here’s the entrance in all it’s glory.
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It is spectacular but whoever said the camera never lies is kidding themselves. The camera often tells monster porkies. The photo gives an impression that I had the place all to myself. That’s a long way from the truth.
And that’s what we can be guilty of with our travel photos. We sometimes beautify and idealize a moment which in reality can be a lot less than perfect.
Look at the scrum I had to wade through to get my close up shot. I had a few precious seconds to take my photo before being jostled and nudged out-of-the-way. Like Angkor Wat it was at bursting point.

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Before you slump into depression and scratch it off your wish list, there is some good news.
I went back for a second day (at least a couple are needed here) and visited more temples. They were much quieter and the experience was so much better. Many are magnificent. This, in no small part, is due to the impact the jungle had on them as they lay neglected for centuries.
It’s a shame that so many have fallen into disrepair but the creep of Mother Nature has given them an otherworldly quality. Decay and neglect have left something a little magical.
If you are thinking of going I highly recommend it. Just think of the temples as a collection rather than simply Angkor Wat. I don’t usually give travel tips but if you are planning to visit here’s a couple of thoughts. Avoid peak season (November to March) if you can, although other months can get very hot and wet. Check the local climate charts.
If you do go in the busy months, to really appreciate Angkor Wat get there early. It opens at 5am. I didn’t do it, I’m not sure why.
Visit at least half a dozen temples, the variety is breathtaking. Again, try early morning or late afternoon when most tourists head to Angkor Wat for sunset. Resist its lure and you can have the other temples to yourself.
I’m now writing this in Borneo (apologies for being a few weeks behind). A couple of days ago I met Josiane and Michel Guitard from France. They were at Angkor at almost exactly the same time in 2013 and happily told me they saw no crowds anywhere! Perhaps pot luck is all you need.
Anyway, to whet your appetite here’s some of the amazing sights that await you in the other Temples of Angkor.

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The faces of Angkor Thom

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Categories: Cambodia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

Vietnam’s Mrs Cat – wars, medals and memories

He was six years old, just a little boy. But fate had not been kind to him. He was having to learn fast, make smart decisions and grow up very quickly. There was no choice. His young life depended on it.
When the attack started he knew exactly what to do, where to go. He’d been through this before.
As the bombs fell he and the other children scattered from their games, terrified and literally running for their lives. In a rush they reached the tunnel entrances, scampering down the holes like rabbits. But the little boy had been left behind. His young legs just not fast enough. A bomb ripped into the ground, the explosion shattering everything in its path.
His mother heard the awful sound and felt the earth tremor as she huddled in fear below. She silently hoped for her child’s safety, like she’d done so often before. He’d always made it back to her. But this time was different. He didn’t return. Her little boy was gone for ever.

More than 40 years on, now in her 80s, she is telling me the story. Her face ravaged by the cruelty of time, her tiny body stick thin and frail. But the awful memory of the day her son was killed as vivid as ever.

Mrs Cat Ho had been sat in the shade near the entrance to Vinh Moc Tunnels. The two kilometre complex was dug by villagers just north of the old DMZ (demilitarised zone) on the central coast of Vietnam. It was their only way to escape the aerial and naval bombardment by American forces in the war. These days the tunnels are open to tourists. I was the only one there on a blisteringly hot afternoon.

Vinh Moc tunnels

Vinh Moc tunnels

As I’d passed by she’d raised her bony arm, pointed back at the tunnels and spoke. I was clueless. Twice more she pointed and tried to tell me something. “She says she helped build the tunnel,” my guide, Mr Thang, had come back to join me. “She helped build it and she lived there”.
Here was living history. For the next hour we sat at her feet as she told us her extraordinary story.

Mrs Ho had the good fortune to be born in a beautiful setting metres from a sparkling beach. Her misfortune was that it was close to the border between north and south Vietnam. With the start of the American War (it’s not called the Vietnam War here) US forces set about clearing everything near the DMZ. Tons of bombs were dropped. With nowhere go the villagers began digging an underground complex of tunnels and rooms. One of the volunteers was Mrs Ho.
For three years she carried sacks of soil on her slight back from the dig site to the sea, mostly in the dead of night. There she would dump it for the water to take so no trace could be seen by US reconnaissance planes. It was gruelling work.
Eventually the tunnels took shape. Initially they were 10 metres deep but when the Americans developed bombs that could penetrate underground the villagers doubled the depth.

Tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance

These days the tunnels are well ventilated, lit and dry. They give a glimpse of the hardship villagers endured in the war but it’s impossible to really grasp how it felt.
“It was very wet there. We used to have to stand with water above our ankles for a very long time. The walls were always damp. Many, many people were sick,” Mrs Ho told me.

Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels. Children had school lessons underground. Cooking and all the other daily routines of life were carried on there.
And throughout there was the bombing.
“Boom, boom, boom,” said Mrs Ho and she clutches herself tight, draws in her cheeks and shakes her head.”It was very frightening but we were safe”.

Several hundred people at a time could hide underground. None were ever killed in the tunnels. When she wasn’t’ digging Mrs Ho was helping the North Vietnamese war effort. “I took food and supplies to the soldiers. I would carry everything on my back and go right to the front lines. I would be so close I could sometimes see the Americans.” She is temporarily lost in the thought and stops a few moment before returning to the task in hand of rolling her own cigarette and reliving her memories.

Mrs Ho was awarded a medal after the war. Remarkably it was her second medal and her second war.
In 1954 Ho Chi Minh led North Vietnamese troops against the French. There was fierce fighting around the Vinh Moc area. Mrs Ho helped the soldiers, resupplying them with ammunition and rice. She would crawl through fields while the fighting raged around her, intent on doing her bit. She mimics soldiers shooting and points to a small rise where French troops had once come within metres of her as she hauled guns to the troops.

Mrs Ho is enjoying telling her story, a smile is nearly always on her face. I mention this to her. “Ever since I was a girl I have always smiled. It’s important. It helped in the war”

Mrs Cat and her infectious smile

Mrs Cat and her infectious smile

Vietnam is a forward thinking place. Nearly everybody I spoke to looks to the future not the past. The war is long over. Americans are welcome.
I asked Mrs Ho if she’d met any since the war. “No. They don’t come here. I think they are afraid.”
How does she feel about them? “I don’t like them.”
And if one came and tried to talk to her how would she feel? She pauses and then after a little internal debate and a grudging reluctance the war veteran gives way to the polite old lady. “That would be alright”.

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War cemetery

Vinh Moc isn’t easy travelling. It’s more than 100 kilometres north of Hue. I go on the back of Mr Thang’s motorbike. It’s an unusual way to do a tour but very satisfying. He is an excellent guide, knowledgeable about the war and very good company. He takes me to other DMZ landmarks, sites that are reminders of the awful cost war inflicts on all sides.

Just outside Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels. They are transport and fighting tunnels, better known and immense. I considered going until I discovered that on some tours you get to buy bullets and shoot AK 47s. It’s very popular, especially with young guys. To me it seems grotesque. Millions of men women and children died in the conflict. The idea of blasting away for fun seems to mock the terrible dread that those who were involved went through.
Hundreds of kilometres away I know a little old lady who would probably feel the same way.

***Mr Thang 0909199816 Hue Motorbike Trail.com

Categories: South East Asia, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

Uncle Ho’s Wild Ride

Saigon is a city on heat. District One its smouldering core. Full bore, full on and in your face. It’s high octane, high energy and in the backpacker area often simply high.

Not just a city that never sleeps, this place doesn’t even take a nap. Each day a hustle, every street corner a scam. Crossing the road an exercise in blind faith. Lots of smiles, millions of motorbikes. Drink, drugs, sex, all constantly offered. Personal space non-existent. Sellers, buyers, traders touch and grab. They go through a litany of services searching for your desire.
“You want massage?” No. “You want girl?” No. “You want young girl?” NO. “You want marijuana?” No. “You want sell your shoes”? WHAT! That floored me. Bizzarely it happened three times. I had two offers on my thongs and one on my trainers. I must be a fashion icon in Ho Chi Minh City, as the place is called these days.

image There is a tidal wave of people living in the fast lane. Or in District One’s case, the back lanes. A mass of compact alleyways, or hem, crisscross the backpacker area between Pham Ngau Lao and Bui Vien. No more than three paces wide they overflow with everyday living.
Whole families perched on tiny plastic stools eating, while motorbikes weave past. “More fumes on your noodles”? Kids playing, women chatting, men plotting. People fixing cycles, washing plates, making fans, mending bits of plumbing. Through them prowl the hawkers with vertical piles of books and dvds, boards full of fake designer sunglasses.
In these warrens people live life in the open. Homes don’t get shut until late night. Privacy is only an issue to trouble reserved foreigners. The dwellings are mere slithers. Rooms are often tiny. People go vertically up ladders and steps for more space.
As you pass you have a peep show on their lives. Elderly people lying on small beds that fill the rooms. People cleaning, cooking, resting from the oppressive heat and humidity.

The alleys are home to scores of little cafes, backpacker hostels and hotels. At any time of day and night stepping out from your oasis of calm into the hem is like a violent assault on your senses. Eyes, ears and nose instantly thrashed. The city has a vibrancy that is infectious. It’s hard not to be happily swept up in its swirling energy.

Nighttime in Bui Vien is party central. Hundreds of little chairs lined up across the road overflowing with backpackers. At times the two sides almost join, sending the constant blare of motorbike horns into new levels of frenzy. Booze is cheap, food a few cents above free and the commodity of fun is limitless.

Elsewhere in District One it’s a little more sedate. The area around the Opera House is very sophisticated. Uncle Ho’s statue is in a sumptuous setting that could have been transported straight from Paris. It’s a little ironic that the man whose life was dedicated to kicking out the foreign imperialists should find his memorial surrounded by grand French colonial architecture. Elegant buildings, beautiful gardens, international designer shops.
Perhaps the old revolutionary would have liked the joke, especially as he sits in front of the grandest of them all, the old Hotel De Ville, now blandly rebranded as the People’s Committee Hall.
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Even here, along with everywhere else in Saigon, there’s no escaping the traffic. Actually, the motorbikes. Two and a half to three million in Saigon, 30 million more in the rest of Vietnam, according to government figures.

But you won’t get out of breath counting private cars. Three huge taxes and seven separate fees price them off the road. A car costing $23,500 in the US would set you back a fraction under $70,000 in Vietnam……that’s 30 times the average annual salary. To misquote George Orwell, in Vietnam, “Two wheels good, four wheels bad.”

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before unification but North Vietnamese troops used to sing a song:
Bác vẫn cùng chúng cháu hành quân” – translated it means “You are still marching with us, Uncle Ho.” These days, I suspect, he’d be more likely to be with them on a motorbike.

Categories: Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 13 Comments

My drug crazed days in The Pearl Of The Orient

George Town, Penang. The fabled Pearl Of The Orient. Rich in history, layered in exoticism, a fusion of kaleidoscopic cultures. It is a thing of beauty but it has a dirty little secret. George Town was built on drugs.

The town was founded as a British trading post. Its merchant fleet used the port as a staging centre between the opium growers in India and the consumers in China. In the early nineteenth century the trade accounted for a third of all Penang’s imports and exports.
The authorities saw a further chance to swell their coffers and licensed opium farms in Penang itself. Opium dens soon followed. They were legal and loved by many, particularly the Chinese, who flourished in Malaysia. Back in their motherland it’s been estimated that at the start of the 20th century a mind-blowing 25% of adult men were literally having their minds blown by opium.
There, as in George Town, users would lay on opium beds, suck long, thin pipes full of the poppy latex, infuse their lungs with smoke and their brains with vivid and wild highs. Chasing the dragon, as it’s called.

Opium bed - Penang Museum

Opium bed – Penang Museum

A hundred years on I too find myself on a Penang bed, vague glimpses of The Pearl drift uncertainly through the window. I struggle to get images clear in my head and a numbing fog overpowers me. I feel myself lapse back into unconsciousness. I have succumbed to the drugs.
I had lost a night and a day. Gone, but God knows where. The drugs had made time meaningless. Every half an hour or so was a brief moment of consciousness. I would will myself to grip reality but nothing could overcome the overwhelming effects of my accidental overdose of cough syrup.
Don’t laugh. Or at least try and keep it to a sympathetic giggle. I’d had a rough cold and hacking cough for days and it was spreading to my chest. For $5 I was told I could see a doctor and get all the necessary drugs. What a deal. After a thorough examination the news was good, my chest was fine. I was given a prescription, went to the pharmacy and given cough syrup and a decongestant. The syrup was clearly labelled. I was to take 15mls three times day.
My first dose was just before a flight. The impact was immediate and I was instantly at the point of sleep. The remainder of the day disappeared in naps at airports, on planes and in buses. Somehow I made it to my Penang hotel. At 8 o’clock I took another dose of the syrup.

Much of the next 24 hours was lost to lapses in and out of consciousness. Every time I tried to get out of bed I fell back into a trance. Eventually through the haze came a brief moment of clarity. I finally managed to turn my Ipad on and tap in the name of the medicine. There was my answer. Take between 2.5 and 5mls three times a day. A clear warning was on the bottle, “May cause drowsiness”. Oh s**t. It should have read “may cause a coma-like state if your idiot pharmacist has accidentally trebled the maximum dose”.

George Town interactive wall art

George Town interactive wall art

Early in the afternoon I finally made it out of bed, intent on food to give me energy. I sluggishly made it to the end of the road, entered a restaurant, ordered the first thing on the menu, Wonton soup, and promptly fell asleep.
I was woken by a waitress with a worried look on her face and a bowl of soup in her hands. Here was my salvation and I began to eat. At some uncertain later point I awoke from another sleep, a tiny dew drop falling silently from my nose and sending the merest of faint ripples into the soup just one inch below my face. I had fallen asleep and almost drowned in Wonton. It’s not a heroic way to die.

Metalwork cartoon art tell the story of the town

Metalwork cartoon art tells the story of the town

As I fought off the urge to sleep again I begin to think. Was it the cough syrup or possibly something worse? Could I have picked up lalaria in Sumba? Lalaria? Do I mean malaria? Oh yes, malaria. My confused thoughts carried on in this rambling manner for a little while. But slowly on the outer edge of my consciousness, I become aware of other diners and they were all looking at me. Startled looks on their faces. I realized I hadn’t been ‘thinking’at all. I’d actually been speaking to myself, out loud. I made my excuses, paid the bill and left…..slowly.

Two days later and I am well and truly on the mend. Time to see the Pearl of the Orient. George Town turns out to be a fascinating place. The outskirts are all sky rise apartments but the town itself is UNESCO heritage listed. And quite rightly.
In the space of a couple of hundred metres is the magnificent mix of three colossal cultures. There are beautiful examples of the splendour of British colonial architecture. Symmetrical buildings in Palladian style, for the uninitiated it’s based on classical Greek and Roman temples. Smaller scale rows of collonaded homes and businesses are everywhere. Dotted around are the Chinese temples, incredibly elaborate and ornate. The embodiment of eastern architecture and rituals.
image Next comes Little India, a vibrant and heady mix of sight, sounds and spices. It teems with the energy of everyday life. Gold stores and sari shops fill the streets. All of this within the space of a few hundred metres. It’s sensory overload.
And then there are the Malays. Many heritage buildings house deep, dark caverns where they carry on every conceivable kind of business. Thrown together into the melting pot it is an intoxicating mix. Vibrant and evocative. So vivid that drugs couldn’t improve it.

Categories: Malaysia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Kek Lok Si – the temple of boom

You’re not supposed to talk ill of the dead……..but I’m sure Buddha has broad shoulders.
In his name and honour Penang hosts one of the most unforgettable temple complexes in the world, Kek Lok Si. It is magnificent yet monstrous, awe inspiring but appalling. By turns it takes your breath away and then leaves you nauseous.
From a distance it is stunning. The largest Buddhist temple in the country is presided over by an immense figure, Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. Standing a colossal 30 metres in height under a giant canopy, the bronze statue imoposes magisterial command over the area. imageIt is high atop a complex which in turn is built upon a hill. From miles around Kuan Yin dwarfs the physical world of mankind. Spiritually she has an even higher standing.
The statue forms one part of Kek Lok Si. Below, but no less imposing, is a seven story wonder called the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas. It is so spectacular that it seems almost unreal.
The base is Chinese and octagonal, the middle tiers Thai and the golden crown Burmese. It too stands over temples and ornate gardens. It is a candy-land extravaganza of colour and shapes.
Kek Si Lok translates as the Temple Of Supreme Bliss and at times the pagoda and its surrounds look like an epic piece of confectionery. It is that striking.image
The originator and first abbot of the temple was the Venerable Beow Lean. Born in the mid 19th century he left his original occupation to devote his life to the teachings of Buddhism. The abbot was originally a businessman. He and his shrewd descendants have been employing these skills ever since. Today it is a growth industry. What Beow Lean started in the late 19th has become a sprawling complex, much of it built post 2000.
The Kuan Yin statue was only opened in 2002, a reconstructed replacement for a smaller version which was fire damaged. The completion of the Guan Tong Great Hall and the Aghast Hall are all recent. A new incline lift, an air conditioned box on rails, will take you serenely uphill to the   Goddess herself.
All around is renewal. New tiles for the dazzling roofs and painting of the temples.
Kek Lok Si has always been a place which knows which side its bread is buttered. The temple houses “The Big Five”, life size sculptures of its original key benefactors. Their wealthy contributions rewarded and immortalised. The complex is a cornerstone of the Chinese community, they are  unstinting  in their generosity.image
But here’s the rub. For a place that is so handsomely bestowed there are signs that it’s losing the plot. Walking to the temple from the foot of the hill takes you up through a seemingly endless trail of narrow walkways crammed full of hawker stalls selling tat. The temple elders may have no say in this. But in the centre of the complex, at the bottom of the incline ride, is a huge and monstrous gift shop. You can buy all manner of cheap, gaudy, rubbish here. And at the top of the incline……you guessed it, almost a replica gift shop dealing in much the same.
Posters inform you that  profits go to the temple but it seems like commercial overkill. The most grotesque sights are  stalls selling the same rubbish within temples.  Who the hell this side of creation could have thought to offer a battery powered cat with moving paws in the middle of a shrine. Disrespectful or dreadful greed?
And it continues in different forms. Outside the magnificent prayer hall where hundreds are devotedly going through their rituals are instructions on donor opportunities.image
Finally, there sat piously at a stall is a monk. His role seems to be to bless some of the religious artefacts bought by the faithful. A donation was involved. Next to him are roof tiles which you can sponsor, have inscribed with your name and have the monk bless.
It is endless and it is awful. This is not a place short of a shilling or two but the pursuit of growth and renewal seems to have overcome any sense of good taste, decency and piety.
At Chinese New Year Kek Lok Si  is lit by 10,000 lights. It is apparently staggering to behold. Even better news, you can sponsor a light bulb.

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Tioman – world’s top ten scary plane landing

I knew nothing of Tiamon, not even of its anonymous existence. But in a quest to discover a beautiful and peaceful Malaysian beach its name had come up. The small island, 32 kilometres off the country’s east coast, wasn’t as picture perfect as some but it was a contender.
And then I found its X factor.
Apparently Tioman has one of the most perilous plane take off and landings in the world. It appears in numerous “top tens” for scary. That did it for me. It went from invisible to irresistible.
I found a flight with Berjaya. Not being one of aviation’s premier carriers I checked the company website. The picture of a sleek new flying machine in its shimmering livery oozed safety and quality. I knew the pilots’ abilities would be unimpeachable. There would be no greenhorns on this run.
Suitably comforted I bought a ticket and arrived at the airport carrying a backpack and a very bullish attitude. But as the flight was called and I walked onto the tarmac my bulls dropped. It was an old bucket. Looked in very dodgy health. Its engine casings a mish mash of faded colours. In some places no colour at all. The paint had peeled off. Above the cockpit were a few wild lashings of grey, the work of a Do It Yourself amateur who’d run out of time, patience and paint.image
I decided the only flight about to happen would be mine on foot in a frenzied escape from the airport. But it was too late. I was whisked up half a dozen steps and into the bowels of the beast.
The interior of the plane matched the outside. It looked old and a little tatty. The signs were not promising.
I’d checked in early to get a great view and had bagged seat 1A. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find the seat faced backwards down the plane. Everybody would be able to see the terror in my eyes and the whimpering on my lips.
I’ve seen way too many emergency briefings in my time but this one had my full attention. I even took notes, just in case. I also gave a forensic once over of the the hostie doing the drill. She had no visible scars, broken bones or nervous twitches that would have been tell tale signs of previous crash landings at Tioman.image
Briefing done it was time for takeoff. The bucket seemed ominously slow gaining height and I cursed the carrot cake I’d had at the airport. On this old dame small weight margins could mean the difference between life and death. But after an eternity we finally made it above head height and the flight was underway.

Half way through the journey I went for a nervous pee. I walked tentatively down the exact middle of the plane. My footsteps were featherlike for fear the slightest movement would unbalance the old crate. The toilet lid too was eased smoothly up and down to avoid creating turbulence. Although the way my knotted stomach was feeling I’d probably be making some of my own very soon.

Forty or so minutes into the flight the Captain gave the traditional “we’re about to start our approach speech”. This sounded rather more grave than normal and finished with the ominous words, ” I hope to see you again”. Something a little more definite would have eased my growing anxiety.
Oh dear, could I fit in a second toilet trip? I decided against. I’d made it once without bringing us down, rolling the dice a second time on this tub seemed a little risky.
Here goes. We start out descent. Very soon it mutates into a full on dive and we lose height rapidly.
Jungled hills appear. They soon begin to tower above us and fill the left hand side windows. I crane my neck trying to search for the runway ahead. Suddenly it appears, but not where I expected. It was way off to my right. A crazy angle away and we are already very, very low. How the hell?
This is a one shot deal. There is no turning around.
I grip the armrests. The trees crowd in on us, closer and closer. The water below is rising up. The angle of approach goes from extreme to bloody ridiculous. As we arrow in to a wall of jungle the bucket suddenly banks sharply right. Trees and roof tops hustle the plane for room. At the moment of imminent death the captain suddenly flips it back left. We straighten momentarily and a nano second later hit the runway. Hallelujah.image
Only after I leave the plane is the full, daunting scenario revealed and I stare frozen in astonished disbelief. The Tarmac points straight at the hillside, a steep, impenetrable wall just a brief distance away. There is no way over, only around at a right angle.
Barely out of my stupor I hear the engines roar and watch the plane hurtle headlong at the hill. It hardly leaves the ground when it wheels away in another street level 90 degrees twist.
I vow there and then to find the ferry times for the journey home.
The island turns out to be a nice relief. The film South Pacific used Tioman as Bali Hai. At its best it’s a photographer’s dream. Jungle spilling down hillsides to the sand and beautifully blue water. But a few parts, such as Air Batang Bay where I stayed, are a little careworn. It feels untidy and unloved. Salang, just a short boat ride up the coast is much easier on the eye but its suffers from the cursed sandflies. Most of the island is impassable jungle and I confess to seeing little of the place.
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One day I met Asram, a fireman at the landing strip. He assured me in the four years he’s been there Berjaya have had a flawless flying record.
However, he advises against coming during the monsoon. Lots of circling waiting for the torrential rains to ease, he says. Advice noted.
I ask him what happens if pilots have to abort a landing at the last moment. He shakes his head and says”one go only”. He may or may not have been pulling my leg but sheer hills rise up astonishingly close to each end of the runway.
I laugh nervously at Asram’s words and amble as nonchantly as possible to the ferry office to recheck the timetable for the umpteenth time.

Note 1: I found this excellent footage on Youtube. it ‘s not mine but it shows the takeoff and landing in all its terrifying glory.

Note 2: Given the madly litigious world we now live in I probably should point out that Berjaya’s planes meet all necessary aviation standards…..that I’m aware of. Their planes and pilots get the job done. And in the interest of a good yarn I have obviously exaggerated the hell out of the story……..but it is a corker of a landing.

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The Land That Time Forgot

Sumba is an island adrift, a castaway from the modern world. Here, priests predict the fates of sick children through the entrails of slaughtered chickens, colossal megaliths house the dead and headhunting is remembered by the living.

It is also a place that stuns the senses. Soaring and spectacular homes built of bamboo and grass; fascinating rituals untouched by the outside world; endless and empty white beaches. It is a rich travel experience, yet amazingly few tourists make it here. The numbers each year are counted in the hundreds.

Sumba is one of the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia. Just an hour by plane from Bali, getting here is easy, moving around is more challenging.
On my first day I travelled by motorbike. It’s hard going. Some roads are good, most aren’t, many are just rough tracks. Finding traditional villages without basic Indonesian is almost impossible. The island has five other languages, not mere dialects. A guide is crucial …….and can save your neck.
Ratenggarro in the Kodi region is the most amazing example of a traditional Sumbanese village. The homes are towering pinnacles rising almost vertically up to the sky. image Ratenggaro’s position is breathtaking. The settlement stands above a tidal inlet and the wild waves of the Indian Ocean. To its east and west are glorious but deserted beaches. Most villages were built with defence in mind.

Arrival in a Sumbanese village is a surreal experience. A journey back in time. Some children scream and wave others stand in mummified silence, slack-jawed by the rarest of sights, a western tourist.
The adults are cautious and unwelcoming, even with a guide from the region. Gifts of betel nuts, a Sumbanese favourite, are handed over to the village elder along with a few cigarettes and a little cash. Slowly, in every village, the atmosphere eased and the people became friendly and inquisitive.
Their homes are built on three levels, animals on the ground floor, humans the next and finally the Marapu, or ancestral spirits, in the cathedral like spires.
Marapu is the island’s ancient religious belief system. It is fundamental to the way they live. Ratos, village priests, read signs through dead animals or by talking to rocks. Some innocuous stones are at the heart of Marapu beliefs. Standing on these can have serious consequences. The spirits sometimes occupy corners of the buildings. Venturing too close is also not a trivial event.
(More on them in the next blog).
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The houses are based around four pillars of wood, each intricately carved. Status symbols of buffalo horns and the jaw bones of pigs line some walls.
The homes and the lives of the villagers are defined by the dark. Little light penetrates the bamboo walls. In the centre of the houses are open fireplaces for cooking. The smell of smoke infects everything. Bedrooms are small, semi-partioned with a basic rush mat on the uneven bamboo floors for sleeping. Food and water are often short and government aid is crucial. Malnutrition and malaria are both fatal here. It is Bronze Age living.
Outside the homes are the megaliths. Mammoth rocks weighing many tons which are mausoleums for the dead, new and old. Each carries carvings of spiritual symbols. In ancient days when members of the royal families died servants would be sacrificed as well to continue their roles in the afterlife. They are immense and it is not uncommon for more than a hundred men to be required to haul them into position. image
Villages also feature an andung, ceremonial trees where the heads of enemies were hung. Headhunting officially ceased about 50 years ago, although some darkly suggest 30 years is more accurate. Violence between clans does still erupt and can be fierce. Just over a decade ago 3000 men stormed one town in a dispute and dozens of people died horrific deaths. image

In traditional areas most Sumbanese men still carry long sword-like knives. Essentially for working in crop fields they are also lethal weapons. Arguments which end in extreme violence do still happen. Land disputes are a particular problem. But for tourists Sumba is safe. Beyond that is is also a unique place that offers a window into a distant past. imageimage

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Harry The Crocodile – Ladykiller

It’s a slow night in paradise and the prospects aren’t looking good. So poor in fact that the waiter gives up, sits down at my table and starts to talk.
He is young, fit and has the smile and swagger of a loveable rogue.
I ask about his job. He is 28 years old and has been a waiter for seven years. When I learn he earns just $80 a month I give him my number one sympathetic look.
The rogue dismissively waves it away. He tells me that he is doing fine, courtesy of his “other work.”

Harry The Crocodile

Harry The Crocodile

I give him a questioning look and he leans in a little towards me, drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and tells me, “I am a crocodile.”
He pronounces it trocodile but when he uses his arms to mimic the closing jaws of a croc I get his meaning, although I am still non the wiser.
Seeing my perplexed look he smiles, drops his voice still further and proudly says to me, “You call it gigolo.”

Harry, the name he uses for the ladies, begins his story.
He was born and raised here on Gili Air, one of three small islands off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. As a young guy he realized many female tourists were looking for a holiday romance and were happy to splash the cash on local guys who made them feel good.
Harry saw a chance to improve his lot and undertook two years of what he calls self training. “I had to learn to speak good English, develop my body and work out how to treat the ladies in a special way.” Since then his income has rocketed.
“They pay for everything. Food, drink, parties and we have a very good time. When their holiday is finished they never leave without giving me something.”
“Never?” I ask. “Never,” he insists and his chest thrusts out with male pride. One thousand Euros is his best gift and he assures me that “gift” is the correct word. He never demands money. Doesn’t need too. That’s for the amateurs.

When night falls crocodiles come out to play

When night falls crocodiles come out to play

“I give them lots of fun. I say very special things to them and it makes them feel great. They are always grateful.”
He has his rules. No girls in their early 20s, “they have no money.” Late 20s sometimes but women in their 30s and 40s are the best.
I ask how he meets them. He calls it “fishing”. He does a slow fisherman’s cast into the restaurant and his eyes work the room. This is his territory and he oozes confidence. He will spend hours flirting. If any ladies take his bait he tells them to meet him at midnight, when his restaurant work is done, and he will take them to see turtles.

Does that line really work? I am a little doubtful.  Harry repeats his strongest clamping  jaws action shouts SNAP and let’s out his roguish laugh.
But he’s not alone. He tells me there are 25 crocodiles on the island. Competition is strong and he points out two other crocs in his restaurant with a couple of 30-something American women.
I decide, in the interests of research you understand, to delve into murky waters. I ask Harry if he  sleeps with many of the women? He snorts at my innocence and says all of them.

I can’t resist and ask him for numbers. Heading toward 30 this year, he tells me. I am stunned and highly skeptical. But later I see the evidence before my very eyes. The American women are leaving but their crocs stay by the bar. “Will you please come and dance with me later? Please,” implores one of the girls. “For you I will try to move the moon”, is the reply. In that brief exchange is all the proof I need.
It’s far from clear whether the women Harry meets are part of a growing trend of female sex tourism, or just travellers merely open to a holiday romance and happy at the end to show their gratitude. I ask The Crocodile about their intent and he rocks his shoulders in a “bit of both” kind of answer.
Just over the water in Bali a 2010 documentary film called Cowboys In Paradise followed the so-called “Kuta cowboys”, young guys who make a living through female sex tourism. The authorities were angered and embarrassed by the movie and arrested 28 of the beach boys, although all were later released. In Bali it is a sizeable and growing business.

Back in the restaurantP1000457 Harry The Crocodile is in full flow. He takes me through his repertoire. Flowers and massages are high on his list. Then comes the gigolo’s pearls of wisdom. “Take it slow. Start at number ten and work your way very slowly to number one. No rushing. That’s why young men are no good. Too quick.”

Wham, bang, thank you ma’am, I ask him? He doesn’t know the phrase but he likes it and repeats it mantra style. I point out that he is saying “man” instead of ma’am and that does make rather a difference. He is shocked when he realizes the implication of his misused language.

I eventually thank Harry for the most unexpected night of my journey so far. I also apologise for keeping him talking for an hour and hope he hasn’t missed a catch. “No good tonight. I don’t feel strong. You have to be strong for the ladies.” In the interest of taste and decency I don’t ask him to elaborate.
Travel throws up many amazing characters. This encounter is high up on the memorable list. It will be a long time before I forget how I got up close and very personal with  the awesome power of  Harry the Crocodile.

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Staring Death In The Face

In death we are all equal. But there is a place in northern Bali where what follows sets it apart from the world. A dark place, home to an ancient people with an equally dark reputation, where you can literally stare death in the face.
In Trunyan there is neither burial nor cremation. The dead are taken from the village by boat to a small clearing around the cove. Bodies are partially covered with a thin white cloth, placed under a fragile bamboo cage and simply left. The cadaver is at the mercy of nature and the elements. It is ravaged, rots and decomposes until just the skeleton remains.
Only 11 bodies can lay there. When the space is needed skulls are removed and placed trophy-like on stone shelves. The rest of the bones are discarded, often just casually tossed on the fringes of the clearing. To the Bali Aga, or Original Balinese, all that matters is the soul and that has long since departed.
The people are the aborigines of Bali. Now they account for only two percent of the population. They were usurped by the Hindu-Javanese who came to the island in the 13th century and flourished. The Bali Aga retreated physically and mentally into isolated communities and remain a breed apart. P1000235c
Trunyan itself sits on the eastern side of a mighty crater lake across from Mount Batur, an active volcano. A rock wall rises sheer behind the village. Beyond that is Mount Agung, Bali’s highest mountain and a home to the Gods.
The Batur caldera is understandably popular with tourists but only a sparse few venture around the lake to Trunyan. The village’s contradiction is to have an ugly reputation while all around is great natural beauty.
Until compartively recently the only way in was to hire oarsmen to row you across the lake. There are legendary tales of the boatmen stopping half way and threatening startled tourists if they didn’t pay a hugely inflated price. For those that made it to Trunyan they were often confronted by aggressive begging, exorbitant prices and an intimidating atmosphere.
A couple of years ago a narrow, potholed and twisting road was opened around the lake. The Bali Aga asked the Indonesian tourism authorities for help in promoting the village to tourists. Strict promises to change their ways were demanded in return. Prices were to be fixed and transparent and visitors were not to be harmed.
So it was I rode my motorbike along the “road” to the village and met Daro, a young man with good English and a desperate desire to promote his birthplace. He explained that Trunyan actually has three cemeteries. The first, Sema Bantas, is for people who died unnatural deaths. Here, bodies are buried in unmarked shallow graves but without ceremony. The second was the “baby cemetery”, Sema Nguda. A place for the young and the unmarried of any age. Finally, Sema Wayah, the cemetery for which Trunyan is known.P1000294c
I am shown the price list for the boat to the main cemetery, proof that everything is now open and above board. At more than $20 it is very expensive for Bali. I pay and am immediately told I must now make a “donation” for the cemetery. There is no option. The oarsman set off on a quiet journey and soon point out the path leading into dense growth, darkness and my date with the dead.
The cemetery is in a small clearing, quietness is all pervasive. I am alone and take a few reverential paces towards the bamboo tombs. I peer cautiously inside the first and there above a decaying tangle of cloth is a skull. It lies mouth wide open in a kind of petrified trance. No other bones are visible. There is a similar sight in the next couple of bamboo chambers. But at the far end is the latest body. It has been there three months. Time has already taken its toll. The flesh has mercifully gone. Only a few parts of the skeleton are visible and nearest to me the sandals that once were on feet.
Mounds of rubbish lie on the fringes of the main cemetery and here and there a bone or two. It sounds unsettling but for the Bali Aga the body is nothing. Sentimentality is for the soul.P1000301c
For all the expectation of what the cemetery experience would be like the anticipation was more disturbing than the reality. I have a surprisingly odd feeling of almost indifference. This may be down to an acceptance of the villagers’ belief in animism.
The absence of a new corpse with flesh also helped. As did the remarkable fact that the cemetery never has the smell of death. A giant Taru Menyan tree, from which the village takes its name, stands in the corner, its sweet fragrance and its thick, spreading roots are believed to counter the odours. Around the cove the “baby cemetery” is not blessed with a similar tree. I am told I cannot see it.”We do not go ourselves except to take bodies,” Daro had told me. “The smell is terrible. It is too much”.
After 15 minutes I am rowed back to the village and I begin to comprehend my ambiguity. The Bali Aga in their understandable wish to earn the tourist dollar are clumsily trying to create what marketeers would call “an experience”.
The old rickety cemetery landing stage has been replaced by a new structure which includes a toilet block and a couple of other rooms. As I am being rowed in, on cue, a villager began playing some traditional but bizzarely upbeat music. At the cemetery skulls had been placed on either side of the entrance and for some unfathomable reason cigarettes placed around them. And while bones are discarded with rubbish around the edges of the graveyard the most prominent are a pair of femurs nicely laid out so tourists can’t miss them.P1000316

Trunyan is a fascinating place and the Bali Aga are truly different. But I’m left with a sense that their ancient culture is now being melded into the early makings of a tourist show. The villagers of Trunyan have realised that their traditions play directly to our Western fears of death and the macabre. They know we are fearful yet intrigued. But in their naivety there is a danger that they will turn Trunyan into a kind of Disney of death.

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My Day As A Hindu

I am sat cross legged in awed and silent contemplation. Only the soft rhythms of a Holy Man’s handbell filter through the silence. When the ringing stops I clasp my hands prayer like and raise them slowly above my head. In my palms I gently rub flower petals and make my humble gesture to the Gods.

The Holy Man makes his way through the faithful gathered in the temple and stops before me. His stern eyes bore down on me and take in my sarong, sash and the udeng on my head. With somber purpose he drops sacred water in my hands and commands me to drink. More water is splashed on my head and as the trickles ease down my face the Holy Man places rice on my damp forehead. Grains are also placed in my hands and I am told to eat. With that he turns and walks away. This is the signal that the ceremony is over and with it my day as a Hindu.

P1000055a The invitation to the Full Moon Ceremony came from a Balinese family. I had been staying with them a few days. The home stay was just $20 a night for room and breakfast. The early signs had not been encouraging. Their village, like many in Bali, was pockmarked by mounds of  rubbish tossed mindlessly and at random. The Balinese are not enthusiastic about waste management. You’ll never see the recycling bin outside on a Tuesday……or any other day for that matter. But driving into the family compound was like entering a new world. Everything meticulously clean, nothing out of place. My quarters were newly built with incredibly ornate doors and beautiful tiles. It was pristine.

Over four days the two brothers, their wives, their two children and other friends and relations took me into their family and I took them into my heart. Their English was limited but they were desperate to improve. At nights we would gather on my verandah, all of us sat on the floor passing away easy hours with attempted talk and much laughter. They loved my iPad, particularly the camera and the “Speak Indonesian” App. There would be howls of laughter whenever I pointed to myself and then played the pronunciations of  “I am 30” and “Do you have an English menu”. Through the course of these evenings other people would come and go, some practising their English others just sitting and being part of a gentle family evening in the warm caress of a Bali night. The generosity and kindness of their collective embrace touched me deeply.

The family invited me to return for the full moon ceremony, purnama, one of their favourites. So a few days later  I was back.

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I was given traditional Balinese dress to wear which I was told was compulsory. There was a choice of sarongs, a sash for my waist, an udeng for my head and a shirt. I fiddled around for a while, checked myself in the mirror and was pleasantly surprised with the results. I knew the whole extended family was waiting outside my room so out I went and strutted myself catwalk style.

The screams and shrieks almost burst my eardrums. The women in particular were almost in hysterics. It was clear I was the new village idiot in a clown costume. After a minute or two Made came to my rescue, took me inside and dressed me properly in Balinese style. It turns out the choice of sarongs wasn’t actually a choice at all, both were to be worn and in a very specific way. The sash I used as a cumberbund around my waist should have been folded in half and worn under the shirt. As for the udeng it’s best nothing more is said.

Suitably re-arranged we set off for the ceremony. An hour later we are at Tampak Siring Temple, 30 minutes north of Ubud and one of only two holy water spring temples in Bali. We joined a throng at a small gate waiting to enter the cleansing area. Finally we were in. I stood on the edge while the family, young and old, entered the cool water and joined hundreds of others in semi orderly lines  snaking to a line of spouts to purify themselves. After thirty minutes  they were tightly packed in a heaving

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mass of bodies. The children and elderly often disappear from view. The intensity increases as they inch towards the gushing water. It looks frantic but as each finally reaches their goal and submerge themselves they reappear with profound joy on their faces. Their spirits immediately purified and their souls alight with happiness. It is an amazing spectacle. Two more smaller pools follow to complete the process and the family finally leave the water, cold but exuberant.

After drying and changing into their finest clothes we go to the temple. The few tourists wearing temporary sarongs are stood just behind a rope where a sign reads “Prayers only allowed beyond here”. I dutifully stop and observe. Moments later Agung and Made return, guide me past the rope and into the inner prayer area. The women and children are already kneeling along with sixty or so others. The men join them and the Holy P1000177Man begins ringing his bell. Prayers have started. I stand solemnly and respectfully at the back. Shortly Puta and Ari turn and beckon me. At first I pretend not to notice them but they are insistent. I move with a little trepidation and sit behind them in the third row of the faithful. Moments later the women and daughter Ita part and signal me to move forward. I am frozen to the spot until the men also make space and move me forward. I am now sat cross legged on my own at the very front. The Holy Man begins his prayer instructions. I am at a loss with nobody ahead or besides to follow. Balinese Hindus have a range of deities and at this moment I am in dread that up in suarga, their heaven, they will not be best happy with me. Sensing and seeing my difficulties Agung and Isma move to join me at the front and guide me through the ceremony.

I place a petal behind my ear and more in my palms. I offer up my hands to the Gods and I say a silent prayer for the family. I follow that with an earnest wish that the Holy Man, who is now heading towards me, is not about to punish my heresy and cast me down to bhur, or hell, where the demons live and Hindus believe our spirits go as punishment for misdeeds on earth.

P1000219Of course, the Holy Man does nothing of the kind. I simply follow his instructions and with that the ceremony ends.

Many strict Hindus will fast on purnama, full moon day. My family don’t and we head off for a Balinese picnic by the river. We sit around in our fineries, eat simple food and delight in the day and each other. I quietly watch them. I see their ease with each other, their contentment with the world and I pray that the Gods send them every ounce of health and happiness they have to spare, and a little bit more.

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It was only a matter of time….

You can’t expect to travel the world without some bumps along the way. But even by my own accident prone standards this one is a record. Just eighteen hours after arriving in Bali disaster struck.

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The pink beast

I had rented a scooter for $5 a day. A bargain, even if the beast was painted in wild pink  and emblazoned with the name B***tard! My public humiliation was complete when they handed me a helmet that Biggles would have happily sported in the First World War.

An hour later I was on a narrow stretch of potholed bitumen crammed with other bikers. Suddenly an oncoming scooter wobbled wickedly on the far side of the road, lurched violently right and crashed to the ground. Myself and another rider tried to swerve, but it was too late. I slid 10 metres along the floor on my knees, arms and elbows before coming to a rest with the pink b***tard on top of me.

All hell broke lose. Wobbly, who turned out to be a young Aussie girl 10 minutes into her first ever scooter ride, was in hysterics. The Balinese rider was threatening Armageddon and I sat there painting the road red with my blood. Well, not quite, but large chunks of skin were hideously grazed and bloody. My machine was badly scratched along its front and right hand side.

But in adversity you find the best in humanity. A United Nations of people set about putting me back together again.

Back at my hotel I’d met Debbie and Paul, an English couple from Port Sunlight on Merseyside.

Debbie - The angel of mercy

Debbie – The angel of mercy

Debbie is a nurse. She did an examination and prescribed lots of good advice. Two more examinations have followed. Tang Xiaowen and Chu Qung from Singapore offered sympathy, their emails and an invitation to hook up whenever I am over there.
Next came Norina from Uma Karan, the fabulous boutique hotel I am staying at in Seminyak. Although I now had several creams and sprays from the local pharmacy Norina was still concerned. She went and bought me a Chinese healing potion. She paid for it out of her own pocket and absolutely refused to take a cent for it.
Now it was time to front up to Bali Radiance bike hire company, to confess my sins. Norina had offered to call and negotiate damage costs but I decided to do my own dirty work.

At first there were frowns and shaking heads. A price of 500,000 Rps ($50) was proposed with an accompanying sheepish grin. I counter offered and after a series of friendly and smiling exchanges we agreed on 120,000 Rps or $12. They were happy and so was I. Could you imagine Mr Hertz or Mrs Avis being so accommodating? Bali Radiance will forever be my scooter hire company of choice in Seminyak!

And finally there was Marie. Originally from Mauritius, she arrived in Bali via Australia in the mid 2000s and runs her own very successful hair and beauty business here. I had been given her name by my hairdresser Debbie back in Noosa. Over some fantastic food and drink, some of it given to us free of charge by the Greek manager and French restaurant owner, she painted a picture of Bali for me. It was a wonderful night to cap off a memorable 24 hours.

It looks worse than it is

It looks worse than it is

So here I am. A little battered and bruised, short of some skin, but so happy and so grateful to be in the caring company of strangers from all over the world.
With the Boston bombings, threats of nuclear wars and all manner of depressing issues in the news this week, it’s easy to forget our planet is full of the most amazingly decent and kind people.

Anyway, time to scoot. The pink b***tard is all revved up and ready to roll again.

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