Monthly Archives: January 2014

Adventures in Bako

Bako National Park occupies a peninsula that stretches into the South China Sea to the North of Kuching. The distance to Bako from Kuching is only 37 km, and Lonely Planet promised that getting there by public transport “is a cinch”. Without thinking much of it, we caught a regular bus not far from our hotel on a central Kuching street. The bus though grew to be somewhat particular: the air conditioning block had a leakage which created a sort of an internal rain, so a few rows were uninhabitable. Overall it was a sort of a village transport, stopping often and flexible in terms of route.

After one hour of jumping up and down in the bus we finally got to the so-called Bako Market, which is the entrance of the National Park whence the boats part. It is impossible to get there on land – there is simply no road in the jungle. At the entrance of the park a nice surprise awaited: the lady flatly told us that we came too late (it was midday) as the low tide would not let us reach the park’s Visitor Centre. It seemed a great pity to return at this point, particularly since the next bus would be in an hour and there was absolutely nothing to undertake in this geographical point bathed in midday heat. We circled the place for a bit and finally stroke up a conversation with the boatmen who assured us that the tide was not yet at its strongest and we could pass through if we rushed. We resolved to take the risk.

Bako Market is by the river, close to its mouth. The boat leaves from the Market and sails down the river, then on through the widening gulf, circling the peninsula from the West to finally arrive in one of the bays on the Western shore where the Visitor Centre is located. You could even stay there for the night, but it was not advised due to the poor quality of accommodation. The brown waters of the river (a peculiar detailed about them to be revealed at the end of the post):

First we head West, and so the Santubong mountain (not actually inside Bako NP) is in front of us:

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Kuching gourmet

As the plane approaches Kuching, its panorama appears somewhat unreal. Brownish serpentine rivers running their parallel ways, as if painted by a mad artist on the emerald jungle. Slowly they enter the city, the brownish zigzags still cutting it into pieces. You get out of the plane, touch the ground with your feet and repeat to yourself in disbelief: this is Borneo, Borneo!!!

Due to the abundance of budget airlines it is amazingly easy to hop around South East Asia. Particularly if you buy the tickets a little in advance, the prices may match or beat Ryanair. Hence from Penang we made a plane hop to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Sarawak is no sultanate due to the fact that before WWII it was ruled by the so-called White Raja dynasty. These were (white) descendants of a British adventure seeker James Brooke, who got the title of a Raja from the Sultan of Brunei in 1842 in murky circumstances, mostly as a thanks for military help. WWII changed it all, after the Japanese occupation Sarawak was incorporated into the British Crown colonies and later moved into the Malaysian Federation as it was formed.

As you can see, it is an Airbus:

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Malaysia is an unusual country. It is a mosaic made up of regions and sultanates that still keep some aspects of self-governance. Even the head of state is rotating – each of the nine sultans becomes a head of state in accordance with a strictly defined order. Geographically Malaysia is comprised of two parts, West Malaysia, or Malaya, which is the long peninsula reminding of a paw of South East Asia, as well as East Malaysia, occupying the North of the island of Borneo.

When the European colonies gained independence like a domino after the Second World War, it was not at all obvious that Malaysia would exist in the form that it does today. Malaya was the first to obtain independence, in 1957. For Malaya to unite with the British colonies of North Borneo as well as with Singapore, it took the iron will and persuasion ability of its founder and first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, as well as Britain’s keen interest in the existence of the new federation, seen as a bulwark against the dominos falling into the Communist hands.

Initially it was foreseen that Brunei and Singapore would both be a part of the fledgling Federation too. But at the eleventh hour Brunei withdrew from participation and remained a British colony until much later. The explanation was that historically the Brunei sultan had the highest rank among all the regional sultans, a number of other dynasties actually being descendants of the Brunei dynasty, and he could not accept the rotation principle for the head of state of Malaysia, which suggests equal rank. Additionally, already then it was clear that Brunei had won the lottery in terms of large oil deposits.

Singapore on the other hand initially agreed to take part in the Federation. However, Singapore included, the proportion of the Chinese in the population reached 40%. The conflict between the Chinese and the Malays within the Federation became so strong that two years later Singapore was expulsed from the Federation and became independent. The separation happened to be in the interests of both Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malay leader, as well as Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore Chinese leader, so essentially it was a civilised divorce. Tunku Abdul Rahman drastically cut the number of the Chinese within Malaysia and gained his goal of Malay dominance; Lee Kuan Yew removed all limit on his power and obtained independence for Singapore.

Nevertheless the Chinese still play a major role within Malaysia, along with the third major ethnic group – the Indians. In every Malaysian city there is always a Chinatown and a Little India, and inevitably they rank among the top tourist attractions.

The main tourist magnets of West Malaysia, listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, are the town of Melaka and the town of Georgetown, the latter also known as Penang after the island-state where it is located. We had time to visit only one of the two, and we chose Penang, as the more remote and the less cheaply touristic one.

Penang is an island near the Western coast of Malaya, to the South of Phuket and Krabi. From Kuala Lumpuer we took a very comfortable bus to Penang, the journey takes about five hours. You arrive in the middle of the island, some 11 km from Georgetown, and need to take a taxi to get there – a surprisingly hassle-free process. Malaysia generally left me with the impression of being very well organised and sort of chilled out. The roads in Malaysia are in wonderful condition, and Penang is linked to the mainland with enormous bridges. I must say that I was overall pleasantly surprised by the development level of Malaysia, the quality of the local infrastructure exceeds say that of Thailand. I guess the uber successful Singapore next door must be a good stimulus.

The historical destiny of Penang is parallel to that of Singapore. Until the middle ages the island was uninhabited. Later it was superficially occupied by several coloniser waves, and each regime favoured the settlement of the merchant Chinese. The growing Chinese population over the centuries soaked in the local culture so that eventually a particular identity has been created, referred to as Peranakan Chinese or alternatively as Baba-Nyonya. Our guide in the Blue House, a local Chinese lady, told us that her Hakka language, spoken in her family, includes such a number of local expressions and vocabulary that it is no longer mutually intelligible with the Hakka speakers in China, which she found out first hand when visiting her ancestral land.

Much like in Hoi An, in Penang the Chinese settlers formed clans in accordance with their origin in particular places in China. There were five such large clans in Penang. The most proud of their clanhouses is for sure Khoo Kongsi. It is practically a small city within a city, walled off from the rest of Georgetown. This is the temple inside the Khoo Kongsi enclave.

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Kuala Lumpur

The next station after Saigon was Kuala Lumpur. Martin joined me in Kuala Lumpur and we celebrated the New Year there. KL covered us with unreal heat and humidity. A twenty minute walk outside necessitated an hour long recovery in an air conditioned café. Consequently I don’t have many photos from KL.

Kuala Lumpur’s urban tissue is quite unusual – it is a city on many levels, with many skyscraper-like tall buildings, and yet it is not built up very densely. It seems generally conceived with cars in mind, but surprisingly you can also walk in the central business district. Of course in Chinatown the streets are very narrow and walking is literally the way to go!

Kuala Lumpur from the top of Menara Kuala Lumpur – a tall communications tower in the centre. You get a 360 degree view of the whole city, including the landmark Petronas Towers. They are smack in the middle of this photo.

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20 most powerful experiences of the trip in 2013

My trip around the world kicked off on 5 July 2013. In half a year on the road I have crossed two oceans, visited 17 countries and gone through thousands of kilometres on a plane, on a boat, on a bus and on foot. And it’s only the beginning! Right now I am in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where I am doing my annual review for the year 2013 and making my plans for 2014. Here are the 20 brightest experiences of the journey so far.

20. A football match at 3850 metres
Only the most particular circumstances can force a lifelong tennis fan to take part in a football match. Such circumstances transpired on the island of Amantaní on Lake Titicaca, at 3850 metres of altitude. When having run just a couple of metres you feel like your throat has been scorched with fire. And we won that match against a team of young Brits!

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The city that Ho Chi Minh conquered

I flew to Saigon from Hoi An. Already on the way to the Hoi An airport I got acquainted with Pieter, a Dutchman taking the same plane. I call it the traveller’s syndrome – ­when a person tells all their life to a total stranger met accidentally on the road. You do that because you know that we will certainly never see each other again. In the first hour Pieter told me all his life, including numerous wives of different races as well as salacious adventures on every continent. He turned out to be 52, but he looks fifteen years younger – ­there is definitely something to learn from these Dutch! On arrival in Saigon we settled in the same hotel and went to discover this crazy place together, with the condition that on the next morning we would move in the opposite directions. Saigon by night… A kaleidoscope of subcultures, crazy local food, heat, all-permissiveness… From an eatery hidden in a hole in the wall we moved to a bar full of randy Europeans hunting money girls to a bikers’ bar filled of pot spirits and so on.

This evening included, I had 1.5 days for Saigon. Which is nothing. And in general, nine days for Vietnam is a crime. This country is so rich in history, impressions, cultural diversity, that I felt like I barely scratched the surface during tats time. I am definitely coming back.

Saigon’s official name is Ho Chi Minh City. Which is often shortened to HCMC. Where are you going? To HCMC! It got this name in 1976, when the North definitively defeated the South. Uncle Ho himself died seven years prior, at the height of the war. When he passed away, there is no way he could have been certain of the war’s outcome. So there is a historical irony that Saigon would get his name. But I like the word “Saigon” – ­not because I am into revisionism, but simply because Saigon invokes some special Indo-Chinese exotic, a particular spicy hot Asian spirit.

Saigon by night:

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Fairytale Hoi An

Fellow travellers showered effusive praise on Hoi An, a little town in Central Vietnam known to be a tourist magnet. A diametrical opposite of entropy filled Hanoi, Hoi An is a quiet, calm, sophisticated place living in practice for and because of tourists. It was a commercial centre of Vietnam once, receiving ships from far and wide. Eventually the river that connected it to the sea became stilted, and just like in Brugge this allowed Hoi An to remain conserved in time. As it was a key port, many a Chinese merchant opted to live there. As a result, the cultural heritage of Hoi An is painted in Chinese colours. The main attractions are Chinese temples, houses of Chinese merchants and the so-called Assembly Halls – ­community houses of various Chinese provinces.

Hoi An’s old quarters are grouped around the river, which served as the main commercial channel. The water of the colour of earth and the grey fog surrounding the city reminded me of my visit to Mandalay in 2012. In the evening though Hoi An suddenly flowers with a kaleidoscope of light, turning its streets into fairytale channels piercing the darkness.

Lamps on the river:

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A Christmas meditation in Halong

I decided to spend the Catholic Christmas on the boat in the bay of Halong. Halong (Hạ Long Bay, to be precise) means “descending dragon”. The dragon descended from its mountainous lair and ambushed the landscape with its mighty tail and that’s where these incredible islands piercing the sea and the sky come from (cf. legend). Islands are indeed a myriad, there are several thousand of them, and this natural spectacle occupies 1000 square kilometres. It is the main tourist attraction of Northern Vietnam and all tourists visit it from Hanoi. I opted for a two day excursion, with a night on the boat.

A company car picked me up from the hotel early in the morning. It took us about 4 hours on a microbus to get to the port of Halong and to board our vessel. It is always a fascinating moment to discover on a tour like that who would be your co-travellers. This time I shared the boat with a German backpacker Lukas and two large French expat families, living in Singapore and UAE. As the Frenchmen travelled together, most of the time I was talking to Lukas. Yet when the time for the Christmas dinner came, we all found ourselves behind a common Christmas table, which naturally progressed into French champagne drinking and some rather crazy dancing on the upper deck of the boat. Quite unexpectedly even I received a Christmas present – a Tiger! What a pleasant surprise.

The port of Halong

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