Malaysia

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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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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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.

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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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