A Travellerspoint blog

August 2008


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A couple of days ago I managed to eat snake at last. I had failed to find the place on my own the previous night, so got a becak driver to show me. It was a typical warung - an ill-lit outdoor stall serving food - but there was a sign saying Sate Kobra.

As I walked in there was a cobra coiled on the floor. I said I wanted to eat, so they got a much smaller one for me. I took a photo and then into a sack it went. A few minutes later I am presented with a smallish glass of dark red liquid: snake blood and Red Bull. There was a long thin white object coiled up in the glass. I swallowed it all in a gulp. I do not know what the white object was, but given the extreme bitterness of the concoction I think it may have been the bile duct.

A few minutes later I am handed a plate with half a dozen skewers of charcoal-grilled meat. It is chewy, like crocodile. As to the taste of its flesh, I still do not know: the sate is served in a black pepper sauce that is also sweet, as if made with molasses. I suspect the snake itself tasted of little.

Some people do not want to eat an animal that they have seen alive, but I have no qualms. Eat meat, fish or mollusc, and an animal has been killed for food. Here and now, or earlier and elsewhere. Not that I want to see it being killed.


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The man who took me for that spot of herpetophagy was a Protestant. His sons are called Ezra and Jonathan. There are a few Hindus in the east of the island, but I am surprised to find Christians here. (Papua, on the other hand, is officially 99% Christian.) And next to me on the minibus coming to Yogyakarta, a Catholic nun.

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Indonesia is less wired than any of the other countries I have been to on this trip bar Laos, and I have had a news and communications blackout for several days. In Malaysia the Olympics were on everywhere; in Indonesia I did not see any.

Along with the rest of the population of Malaysia I watched the men’s singles badminton final between Lee Chong Wei, of Malaysia and Lin Dan of China, second and first seed respectively. Lee was on a one million ringgit win bonus. But, to national disappointment, he lost: Lin Dan wiped the floor with him. Every aspect of Lin’s play was superior: smashing (particularly), net work, mobility, precision. Lee did not help himself by lifting to Lin’s forehand all the time.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, you only use one name – the first one. Many people only have one name. I am therefore addressed as Mr Jonathan. I like it, except when there is another Jonathan staying at the hotel and I am given the keys to his room.

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Jakarta has a bad reputation. I spent two days there and can pronounce it not bad. Perhaps because it is not so touristy as Yogyakarta, the people are very friendly, and there are none of the parasites, manipulators and liars of Yogya. It might have got higher marks had I not fallen straight through the pavement into a drain thirty inches below. The flagstone revolved around its middle like Bruce Wayne’s bookshelf and I was badly bruised and half-flayed. Everything goes septic in the tropics, so I was very fortunate not to acquire an infection even after applying so much iodine it looked as though I had been bathing in blood.

Indonesia is much poorer than Malaysia – about a quarter of the income per head – but the centre of Jakarta looks much the same as Kuala Lumpur. The centre is vertical and vitreous, there are middle-class suburbs with trendy bars, and beautiful people with beautiful Apple laptops. (Wealth seems to be flaunted in Jakarta more than in KL, say.) In fact there are far more bars than KL: West Java is predominantly Muslim, but it is not ‘more Muslim than thou’ in the way that much of Malaysia is. There are plenty of decent restaurants and life as an expat might be pretty good, although it would be spent in a taxi.

(What is the country with the largest Muslim population? Easy: Indonesia. And the second-largest? Respect if you said India. It has 150 million Muslims.)

Wander slightly off the path, though, and it’s a shanty of zinc and breezeblock shacks. The docks in any city are insalubrious. But the docks in Jakarta – like Bristol, Rotterdam, Baltimore – were the whole point of the city for most of its history.

Before the Dutch came, the Hindu Sundanese kingdom had a port called Kelapa. In 1522 the Portuguese, who had recently conquered Melaka, obtained from the king the right to establish a trading post at Sunda Kelapa. The king, based in Pajajaran, wanted allies against the Sultan of Demak. But the Sultan defeated the Sundanese king in 1527 and renamed the port Jayakarta: total victory.

Nearly a century later the VOC, under Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, obtained permission from the Sultan of Banten to build a trading post in Jayakarta. They built a fort as well. By this time the British wanted to play, and they besieged the fortress with the Jayakartans. Dutch reinforcements conquered and burned the town in 1619. They whimsically renamed it Batavia after an ancient Belgic tribe.

The walled city of Batavia became the capital of the VOC’s activities, which shows just how important the spice trade was: Batavia was on the way to the Moluccas, but surely out of the way if you wanted to go to China or Vietnam. (Melaka is much better positioned for that, but the Dutch only kicked the Portuguese out in 1641, by which time Batavia was established as the centre of operations.)

The VOC, like its later English facsimile, was not initially interested in land, just trade. In the seventeenth century it was fantastically successful, and brought vast wealth back to Holland. Chief among the spices were nutmeg and mace, from Banda in the Spice Islands, and cinnamon, black pepper and cloves. Nutmeg was fabulously expensive, but cloves were valuable too: at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a sack of cloves could buy a large house. And pepper is still a byword for expense in Dutch. The VOC behaved in time-honoured manner of a monopoly defending its market: when it found plantations of nutmeg elsewhere than on Banda, it burned them. And in his pursuit of a spice monopoly on behalf of the VOC Coen deliberately wiped out almost the entire population of Banda in the Moluccas. In Nathaniel’s Nutmeg he comes across as a pantomime villain.

While most of the goods went to Holland, the VOC also traded widely in the region. Each year it imported 6 million lb of spices back to Holland and sold 3 million lb in China, as well as pewter from Melaka. It sold Japanese copper in India, Javanese sugar in Persia, and took Indian textiles back to Melaka.

The port at Jakarta is still the busiest in Indonesia, although it is now at Tanjung Priok, a couple of miles east of Sunda Kelapa. The Dutch started building Tanjung Priok in 1883.

Sunda Kelapa is still where the phunisi, schooners from western Sulawesi, load and unload. Each ship has at least two masts, which appear to be functional. Sail-powered? I could not believe my eyes. Sure enough, they are the last sail-powered commercial fleet in the world. They have very high bows and sterns, are usually around 20-30 metres long, five or six metres in the beam. The two-masted versions can carry up to 150 tons, the three–masted up to 200. Surprisingly, though – given the outlandish collections of sails common in this part of the world, lateens everywhere – they look like conventionally rigged schooners, (gaff) rigged fore and aft, with three jibs.


The area is still heavily maritime. The people who live here are mainly Buginese and Makassarese sailors and fishermen. A lot of the shops are chandlers.


And, although banned from the main roads of the city, becak (three-wheeled rickshaws) are still to be found here. There is no limit to the numbers they can carry.


(I should probably explain the term bajaj in a previous post. They are like the result of miscegenation between the BMW C1 scooter and the Reliant Robin. Three wheeled, pointing down at the nose, with space for two behind the driver, spewing poison gas.)


While it is possible to use a boom as a crane, most of the loading still appears to be done by hand and back. Given the numbers of people available, it must be possible to load a ton in a few minutes.



Near the docks is a maritime museum, situated in a building used by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a warehouse, and built from 1652 onwards.


Apparently, when the Dutch took over they built canals; if so, it was a truly fatuous idea. Even by the standards of the tropics, Batavia was pestilential. Malaria and yellow jack carried off Dutch by the score. Eventually Daendel decided to build a new town south of the mephitic vapours, in a slightly healthier location at Weltevreden.

The old town hall, which now houses the History Museum, was built in 1627. In front of it is a pleasant square, the Taman Fatahillah. Also on the square is the wayang (puppet) museum, which has an interesting collection of wayang kulit (leather puppets, used for shadow puppetry) and wayang golek (wooden puppets). In western Java, wayang golek predominates. Both types are used for puppet theatre, where traditional stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are recounted to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra. In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed Indonesian puppets Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a thoroughly Soviet title.


Gamelan is performed by an orchestra of xylophones, kettle drums and gongs, together with a flute, harp and rebab (two-stringed violin). The word gamelan comes from gamel, hammer, and it is very old: it is depicted at Borobudur. I first heard of it watching a programme by Simon Rattle (then a mere citizen of the realm) about Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. I have just listened to it again and Turangalîla really does not sound like gamelan at all, but was apparently inspired by it. The instruments can be tuned to five notes to the octave, or to seven, but it is not pentatonic in any Greek sense; the scale does not correspond to any of the Greek orders. In fact it is not easy to identify any melody; it is a wall of sound in quadruple or duple time, with slow chord progressions. I like it but find it a bit soporific. It is better as an accompaniment to ballet.

The wayang museum building itself would not be out of place in a square in the Low Countries, but in fact it was built only in 1912 on the site of the Dutch church, which held amongst others the remains of psycho Jan.


Also on the square, its second-oldest building, is the Café Batavia, redecorated in the 1930s, with an upper deck entirely of teak, white tablecloths, a good view of the square, and big band swing in the air. An atmospheric place, which could serve as a location for the game Mafia.


Another place well worth at least one visit is the National Museum. This was founded as a private collection of ethnographic objects in the mid-eighteenth century, and moved to its current location in 1868. It is known as the Elephant Building because of the statue of the elephant in front of it, given by King Chulalongkorn of Siam. He gave them to all his neighbours; this is perhaps the fourth I have seen. The bajaj driver did not know where the National Museum was; incredibly, he did not know where Independence Square was either. This is like not knowing where Trafalgar Square is.

The old building has a collection much as it has always been, I imagine. It is at its heart an old-fashioned but interesting museum with an extraordinary ethnographic collection, an aggregate of several Dutch private collections; the museum has 140,000 objects, of which only 5% are on display. Then there is a new wing, opened by Megawati in 2003. Upstairs is a floor of treasure, from two Javanese finds made in the last ten years, really well presented in a modern manner. The museum goes straight in at number two on the hit list, below the History Museum in Singapore and above the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. Both of these get high marks for the presentation; Jakarta gets them for content. [I forgot to mention the Islamic Arts Museum in KL, which is also on the podium somewhere.]

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You see the Union Flag everywhere in Seasia. I believe it is not, on the whole, an expression of love for the UK, although it is not the worst nationality to possess around here (except in Surabaya, where British troops massacred the locals in 1945 in a bizarre attempt to prolong Dutch sovereignty). I think it is simply that the design goes well on clothes, bags, bajaj, scarves and lorries. We have the best flag and the worst anthem.


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I forgot to mention that after several months of flirting with it, I crossed the Line on the way to Java. For the fifth time, so no initiation ceremonies needed.

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Another book I saw on sale in Malaysia: Make Millions by Farming Swiftlets.

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I spent about six weeks in Malaysia and spoke no Malay at all other than the occasional terima kasih (thank you). There is no need; everyone speaks some English and some speak it very fluently, albeit incomprehensibly.

An hour after landing on Java and I am bargaining in Indonesian. What a facility for languages! Actually Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are almost identical, aside from a few lexical and typographic differences. Shop is kedai in Malay and toko in Indonesian. Spelling differences include teksi/taksi, stesen/stasion, polis/polisi, masjid/mesjid; ogos/augustus, muzium/museum; bas/bis. So the difference seems to be comparable to that between English and Lallans.

Tom Harrisson says that Malay is the easiest language in the world, and so it may be. There are no cases, no gender, no plural and no tenses; the order is usually subject + verb + object + adverb; the script is roman; there are thousands of English loan words. It is not unlike the most famous English pidgin, but even in that it is necessary to add bilong to indicate possession; in Malay you place the pronoun after the noun possessed and that is all, eg nama saya, literally ‘name I’, means ‘my name’.

Here (in Malay) are some loan words: poskod, transmigrasi, konferensi, korupsi, toleransi, manajemen, bisnis, terapi, eksekutif, teksi, bas, kek, farmasi, sains sosial, optometris, asma, kaunter, tiket, botol, strawberi, epal, kopi, karipap, sukses, coklat.

Some words in Indonesian look as though they might be Dutch, or at least not English: halte (bus stop); apotek; kue (cake); rokok (cigarette); roda (wheel); kamar (room); sabun (soap); gratis (free).

Islamic terms, naturally, come from Arabic: masjid, Allah, Rasul, mihrab, madrassa, mimbar, syaria, kiblat, idulfitr.

Furthermore, pronunciation is easy and it is blessedly atonal. Vietnamese sounds like Chinese interleaved with a lot of glottal stops and Homeresque dohs. Half of every word is swallowed. In Malay, almost every letter is pronounced, and it sounds a bit like Italian and a bit like Catalan, so it is easy on the ear. It also means that I’m getting L2/L3 interference from Italian, saying things like “Ya, giusto.”

As with all languages in this part of the world, the complexity arises with the pronouns. And, as in Thai and Vietnamese, there are lots of ‘classifiers’, which you have to use when counting anything. The nearest equivalent would be ‘three sheets of paper’ or ‘two pairs of trousers’ rather than three papers or two trousers.

I have had ten hours of lessons in Yogya and the only difficulty is acquiring vocabulary. Aside from the loan words, there is nothing to hang on to when remembering the word, and no relation to familiar words. A lot of the words have 'men' or ber' in them, and most of them are long. 'Difficult' might be sulit, sutil, silut. Which is it? So it is difficult to remember more than ten new words a day; it will take a long time to acquire a useful vocabulary at that rate.

Posted by Wardsan 17:27 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)


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Well, yes, I am travelling solo, of course, and am getting tired of it. While it guarantees intelligent conversation, I am getting a bit Steppenwolf. The Indonesians are baffled by solo travel: where is your family?

But Solo is also where I am posting from, the former capital of one of the several kingdoms of central Java. Indeed I am posting from an Italian restaurant called O Solo Mio (geddit?). I am happy eating rice for every meal, but I miss cheese terribly, and so enter every Italian restaurant I see. Java, like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, is rice country. They can grow two or three crops a year, year after year, without exhausting the soil, hence the very high population density. Running north-south between Borneo and Sulawesi, and between Bali and Lombok, is the Wallace Line. To the west the climate is wet, to the east dry and even arid. This is reflected in the flora and fauna and in the diet. East of Bali the staples are cassava and sago, which I am not particularly looking forward to. But I have discovered a wonderful way to eat cassava: sweetened, with coconut milk, as a pudding.

Like Yogyakarta, Solo is a royal city, founded by Pakubuwono II in 1742. The current king is Pakubuwono XIII (the family has even less imagination when it comes to names than the Danes), and he lives in a large kraton, or palace, in the middle of the city. Since the Dutch took over the king has had no political power and his duties are ceremonial. ‘Like your queen,’ said the other bloke on the guided tour, an Aussie. ‘Yours too, last time I heard.’ He is the oldest male of 36 children; he has an older sister but a Salic Law holds here. His father had six wives. Pakubuwono X had over thirty wives, and he did his duty, producing over a hundred children.

Another branch of the family has a palace in town. The museums have the same rhythm: reception pavilion with an ornate roof and lots of pillars; collection of gamelan sets, wayang, dancing gear, silver, gold and crystal. It's nice, but it's all the same, and one day I would like to be shown round by a guide who speaks English so I can ask questions.

Solo is also politically unstable. There were terrible riots here in 1998 after Suharto was forced out. And a cleric and suspected terrorist, Abu Bakr Ba’asyir, was arrested here in 2002. (Remember that both Jakarta and Bali have been bombed by Islamist groups.)

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I went to Bandung because of an article I read in an in-flight magazine that said Bandung had 500 buildings from the 1920s and 1930s. (The reason most people come to Bandung is to shop at the outlet stores.) So I had a vision of a concentrated area of Art Deco. In reality it is a city of two million people – two Birminghams - and the buildings are spread out.

It is quite difficult to get around cities in this part of the world, and I still have not learned the limits: half a day spent walking around in the morning produces prostration in the afternoon; walking half a mile takes for ever because every street is a crowded market (among the junk on sale: a 2003 Italian football magazine in Indonesian with Roberto Baggio on the cover) and the pavements are not for walking on; the traffic is terrible and the transport takes you to places you do not want to go. So, for instance, I wanted to go and see the Bandung Institute of Technology, Soekarno’s alma mater, but although it was only a mile or two down the road it was a sizable expedition and I just could not be bothered.

I saw a few buildings in Art Deco or International Style but they are all in dismal condition and have aged badly. It may well be that I have missed the highlights. In reasonable condition is the Museum Konperensi, dedicated to the 1955 Africa-Asia Conference when Soekarno got to chat to Chou En Lai, Ho Chi Minh et al.


This is Caesar’s Palace. Inside was a computer sales fair. This looks like a Kala – a Hindu symbol in a very Muslim city. Javanese Islam is quite different from the Middle Eastern version. It acknowledges the reality of spirits, for example, and saints – just as people did in Java before Islamic came.


There are a lot of beggars in Bandung, many of whom are cripples born or made. This impinged on my consciousness because there are few beggars in Malaysia. Indonesian unemployment is officially 8%, but the economy is growing at about 7% a year and I doubt there is a structural excess supply of labour. But the urban population is increasing (30% or so of the population, much more in Java) and there is clearly no public safety net.

(There used to be a programme on British television called the Bandung File. It was for ‘minorities’. Being a child, I had no idea what the title meant, and I remember it as deadly serious and boring, because it was on just before something I wanted to watch like Captain Pugwash. I suspect it really was deadly boring though.)

I had a good day when I got out of Bandung. Bandung is 750 metres above sea level and the land to the north is higher. Judging by the food stalls they grow strawberries, pumpkins, maize, broccoli, cauliflowers, avocados. I took an angkot (a vintage Mitsubishi Colt minibus with two benches down the back) to Lembang and another angkot to a 2,000 metre high volcano called Pangkuban Perahu, or overturned boat. It is dormant, having last erupted in 1969, but there are a few fumaroles and sulphurous smells everywhere.

It is hugely touristy – memories of the Perfume Pagoda – and a snake of souvenir stalls lies along an arc of the crater. They are selling not quite as tatty tat as at the Perfume Pagoda: t-shirts, hats and scarves, miniature guitars, ashtrays made of a local palm, mineral rocks.



Most of the tourists are Indonesian, but there are others from Japan and Korea. The Japanese, among others, regard it as obligatory to make ‘V’ signs (‘peace’) when being photographed.


It is harmless, of course, but I find it offensively ovine. (I’m not keen on marches or wristbands ‘against poverty’, either. No-one is marching for poverty, actually, so the only interesting question is: what do you think should be done about it? Marching makes people feel smug while achieving nothing. Poverty, meanwhile, is reduced or increased at the WTO in Geneva, and in the capitals of the world. Its prime cause is kleptocracy and civil war. It is also, to a much lesser extent, affected by other countries’ trade policies, especially in agriculture and textiles. There is a trade deal available that would be good for most of Africa but, last I heard, it was blocked by China and India.)

My portrait pose is obviously much better.


It has twelve craters, of which two are large: Kawah Ratu (queen crater) and Kawah Upas (poison crater). Kawah Ratu is about 700 metres across and 100m deep. It has a flat, sandy floor.


So does Kawah Upas. Lots of people have ignored its name to leave their mark on the floor.


To walk around the craters you have to hire a guide, but I could not be bothered with that and so struck off on my own. This was perhaps not sensible, but not wholly irresponsible, since the path was obvious most of the time. The rim of Kawah Ratu is at roughly 1,800 metres and the peak is at only 2,000 metres, but it is a tricky and stressful climb up the path, coated yellow by, I think, hydrogen sulphide. (Incidentally, this coating is a sublimate: it has passed from the gaseous state to the solid without passing through the liquid.)


On the path I caught up with Arjen, a Dutch guy who went to school in Papua (his parents being missionaries) and speaks Indonesian. He is also the first person I have met in a month who has heard of Nottingham Forest. We visited another crater: Kawah Komas. This is a small area of pools, bubbling madly as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide come out of solution. Some are superheated to 120º C. Others are pleasantly warm.



An enterprising guy nearby is selling eggs – for boiling in the waters – and bottled black mud, saying it is good for the skin. I doubt it, but tourists from Jakarta sitting in the pools are covering themselves with mud.



Afterwards I took ojeks (motorbike taxis) to Lembang and then to Miribaya. A fast-flowing river runs down a ravine from Miribaya to Dago, a northern suburb of Bandung. It is also a park and you can walk the six km or so between them. The path is paved with brick, and every couple of hundred yards an ojek rider offers you his services; in fact I saw no-one else walking. There were a couple of mildly diverting waterfalls, and a couple of tunnel systems built by the Dutch in 1919 and the Japanese in 1942.



Posted by Wardsan 17:01 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

No, she went by herself

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Kuala Terengganu, capital of the state of almost the same name, is another highly Islamic City. I liked it a lot more than Kota Bahru, although that may just be the effect of chance. The people seemed as friendly and helpful as anywhere in Malaysia.

I saw 23 mosques in one day. This is the central mosque.


Admittedly 21 of the 23 were miniature versions of famous mosques, at the Islam Edutainment Park. They ranged from modern ones in southeast Asia to the Dome of the Rock “in Palestine”. The least successful reproduction is the ziggurat in Samarra, Iraq, the most successful the Dome of the Rock itself.





On the edge of the same island in the river is one of many new mosques in the state, the Masjid Kristal. Strangely, it is built to almost exactly the same design as St Basil’s in Red Square, except that it is covered in reflective glass panels.


“Do you like it?” asked another tourist, a doctor from Singapore. “I love it”, I replied, of course. “Too gaudy”, he pronounced. I told him he sounded like a Protestant.


One thing that is wearing rather thin is the constant azans, or to be precise, the dawn call to to prayer. In Kuala Terengganu it began shortly after five, which seems a bit excessive, when dawn itself occurs around seven. From there I have added easting to the longitude, while subtracting an hour from the time zone, so dawn is earlier here. The azan began at twenty to five today.


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Yesterday I arrived head-first back in the third world. Hiring a bajaj or tuk-tuk from the station, it took forty-five minutes to get two kilometres. I had arrived at the butt-end of the carnival celebrating independence, which arrived for Indonesia on 17 August 1945.

Immediately noticeable, as in Vietnam, were the large numbers of motorbikes and scooters on the roads. In contrast to Vietnam, where everyone wears open Tommy or Jerry helmets, here most people wear large enclosed smoked-glass motorbike helmets. The tuk-tuk stalled in the middle of the main road. The driver got out, took the cushions off his seat, poured some petrol in the tank, pulled a cord as on an outboard motor, and off we putt-putted for a couple of minutes before it all began again. (They drive on the left, incidentally, which is a bit odd.)

And, as in Vietnam, the hassle begins: hawkers, hustlers, hookers, non-navigable pavements, impassable roads, motorcycles driving on the pavements, nutters screaming in the street (London has the last). Malaysia seems dull in comparison.

Dinner was fun, though: a stew of marinated unripe jackfruit; chicken marinated in soy sauce; beef skin stir-fried with beans, bay leaf and coriander seeds and coconut milk; marinated tofu and soyabean cake in palm ginger; hard boiled egg in shallot skin; some kind of crackers. A rijstaffel by any other name. A bit free with the sugar, but pretty good, so I’m returning to the same place, Lara Djonggrang, right now. (Java claims to make the best tofu in the world. I wouldn't boast about this.)

Today I took four forms of transport - taxi, bajaj, becak, train - and the first three all took me to the wrong destination. Wherever you go, people say 'Hello, Mister'. Here in the centre, it is because they live off tourists and want your attention. Elsewhere, it is because they are excited to see a white face and shout a little English. ("How are you?" invariably follows from the relatively fluent.) As in Vietnam, the kids just light up when you greet them back.

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Take the populations of the UK, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands and it roughly equals that of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Over half of the population lives on Java, which has a population density four times that of the UK.

In Malaysia you fly over jungle or palm plantation. Landing in Java, on the other hand – Krakatau just over the horizon to the west – we flew over small rectangular fields. Most were brown and some were smoking – burning rice stubble, I suppose. The landscape was largely urban and suburban, though, so it was not unlike flying over Surrey.

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Two frightening books were on sale in an ordinary bookshop at the airport at KL: Future Forward: The Zionist Anglo-American War Cabal’s Global Agenda by Matthias Chang, a former political adviser to Mahathir. The book claims in all seriousness that Jews started both World Wars and that international finance is run by British Jews. The book is a bestseller.

Also on sale: The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, published under the name of Henry Ford, who believed that the Lusitania was sunk at the behest of bankers to get the US into the First World War (but didn't write the book). The book contains a reprint of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was published by Ford’s Dearborn Independent newspaper and read by Hitler. The latter are known throughout the western world – and were known in the 1920s - to be a particularly vile forgery, first published in Russia in 1903. In the Muslim world lots of ordinary people believe they are real.

As Chang shows, it is perfectly respectable around here to be rabidly anti-Semitic and to believe in global Jewish conspiracies.

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Do people from Nornireland compete for the ‘Great Britain’ team at the Olympics? (They certainly did in 1972, when Mary Peters won.) If so, why is it not the UK team?

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One thing I learnt at the Islamic Arts Museum in KL was the origin of the swirly bodhi-leaf pattern known as Paisley. Paisley became a centre for the production of Kashmir (cashmere) scarves, a craze for which spread the country in the nineteenth century.

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It’s common to see a gecko in your room in Seasia, even more common to hear them in any open building. I generally like lizards, not least because of their insectivorous proclivities, but the most common geckos are rather hideous: snot-green, flat and rubbery, with bulbous pinkish phalanges. This fellow is a little less ugly.


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On the reading list recently:

    Tales, Brothers Grimm
    The Collected Raffles, E W Hornung
    Tyrant, Valerio Massimo Manfredi – utter, utter drivel
    Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow
    Thirty-three Teeth, Colin Cotterill
    The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad – chilling, nasty, tragic
    The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
    Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
    HMS Surprise, Patrick O’Brian
    The Honorary Consul, Graham Greene
    Marine Life in the South China Sea, Margaret Gremli
    Marine Fishes, Gerry Allen
    The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies
    World Within: A Borneo Story, Tom Harrisson
    Royal Flash, George Macdonald Fraser
    The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount, Italo Calvino

World Within was so badly proofread in a Malaysian edition as to be incomprehensible in parts. Tom Harrisson was a zoologist and anthropologist who became curator of the Sarawak Museum after the Second World War. During the war, as a member of SOE, he parachuted into the interior of Sarawak to set up a base and recruit local tribes to harass the occupying (and then retreating) Japanese forces. In the first part of the book he talks about the Kelabit people, and in the second he recounts the story of his war.

Posted by Wardsan 19:25 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Domes and spires

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There are very few buildings over two hundred years old in Malaysia, and most of the surviving nineteenth century buildings are commercial premises. So Malaysia has very little indigenous Islamic architectural tradition to speak of. This gives architects a licence to pilfer from a broader tradition while creating a modern Malaysian Islamic architecture for purposes both religious and profane.

Pilfer is what the Masjid Negara does. It is a beautiful building, built in 1965. The architect was Datuk Baharuddin Kassim, who had studied at Manchester University and was an admirer of Le Corbusier, inter alios.

Its plan is along traditional lines, with a central dome of reinforced concrete, 60 metres wide, a huge verhandah, and an independent minaret. The bright blue ‘dome’, though, is not curved; it is a nearly-unfurled umbrella or a generalised Phillips screwdriver with 18 points. (Umbrellas are a symbol of royalty in this part of the world.) The mosque was refurbished in 1987; before that, the roof was pink.


Inside it is decorated with blue Italian glass mosaic thulus khat calligraphy. There are triangular glass windows inscribed with the names of God and Mohammed.


The mihrab has a Moorish horseshoe arch and the surrounding walls are decorated with Moroccan tiles. The inside wall of the mihrab has a muqarnas decoration.


The minaret, 70 metres tall, is white, sharp and shaped like a furled umbrella. There is a lift for the muezzin.


The mosque can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, the prayer hall itself 3,000. The verandah, where the other 12,000 would be, is decorated with blue and grey mosaic from Japan. The rosette of the dome is a copy of the rosette in the Blue Mosque.

The king worships here on state occasions. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, but an unusual one. Most of its states are headed by sultans. One of their number is the ‘king’. Each king is appointed for five years, after which another sultan gets the job.

The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, opposite the national mosque, is another very successful example of modern Islamic architecture. It opened ten years ago. It is well-known for the flat turquoise domes on the roof, copied from the Safavid Shah mosque in Isfahan, but it is also a very successful exhibition space, with 30,000 square metres and virtually no walls, so that light gets everywhere.


The interior, like that of many mosques, is cool, reflective marble.


There is a permanent collection and a temporary exhibition space. There are sections on architecture, ceramics, silverware, textiles, calligraphy. To someone used to the British Museum collections, the collection is probably most notable for its Chinese items (and Malaysian, naturally), although its quality is extensive rather than intensive; the good stuff is at the Met and the British Museum (and probably the Louvre, or did we nick everything oriental after the Battle of the Nile?).


On my second visit an interesting temporary exhibition was entitled ‘Beyond Orientalism: How the West Was Won Over by Islamic Art’. And finally, the museum has an absolutely brilliant shop, stuffed with things I would like to own. This is the inside of one of the domes.



(Incidentally, KL, like so many cities in North America, is hostile to pedestrians. I walked only a short distance from KL Sentral to the museum, but it took me an hour and I had to cross motorways to do it.)


Before the Masjid Negara was built, the state mosque was the Masjid Jamek, built 99 years ago to a design by A B Hubbock. It is on the confluence of the two rivers that gives Kuala Lumpur its unpoetic name: Muddymouth. It is built of white stucco, with granite floors. It is a good place to sleep in the afternoon, if you’re a Muslim; infidels have no licence to enter. It has Mughal domes and a pair of minarets.



Hubbock, who had previously worked in India, was the official architect for Selangor State, so he got all the plum commissions. He designed the central railway station (built in 1910) and the railway company (KLT) headquarters (built in 1917).


All the Hubbock buildings share a penchant for Mughal onion domes and arches, and they work well, particularly the station, which seems more distinguished than the railway headquarters by virtue of its albinism.


The station building is now a hotel. Inside, the station looks like a Victorian station in Britain (think of York or St Pancras).

There are also modern mosques in Kota Kinabalu. To the north of KK is the KK Mosque, and to the south is the Masjid Sabah, built in 1975. Malaysia’s second-biggest mosque, it’s an attractive grey and gold dome - not bad at all, although not a patch on the Masjid Negara.


The two oldest mosques in Malaysia are thought to be 300 years old, although they could well be much older. I visited one, just south of Kota Bharu (the other, Masjid Kampong Kling, is in Melaka, and was built in 1748). It is called the Kampong Laut mosque, because that is where it used to be. It was moved to Nilam Puri in 1968 after a flood of the Kelantan river had caused the verandah of the mosque to be washed away.

Kampong Laut mosque is built without nails, but with wooden dowels. It was greatly expanded in the nineteenth century – the number of pillars rose from four to twenty - so it is difficult to know what might be original.


It’s made of cengal, a hard wood, and built on stilts. The design is said to be similar to the Masjid Jemak in Java, which was built in 1401. The story goes that it was built by Islamic scholars who used to travel between Champa, Pattani in Thailand, and Java. They were shipwrecked at Kampong Laut, and built a mosque to give thanks.

It does not look like a mosque. Nor need it; after all, the first mosque in Yathrib, the model for all others in the Arabian peninsula, was Mohammed’s house. And the first mosques in China were architecturally identical to Buddhist temples, although orientated along an east-west axis.

It looks like a large wooden Malay house. It has a double roof, with a gap for ventilation in the middle. Several of the palaces in KB have the same style; I do not know whether they are following a local style, like the mosque, or directly aping the mosque itself.

  • **

Back to KL, and the Dayabumi Complex is also a pretty building, faced with screens echoing the window-screens of traditional Islamic homes, decorated with eight-pointed stars. (In the foreground is Merdeka Square and the tallest flagpole in the world.)




(Less successful are the minangkabau buffalo horns topping modern blocks all over Sabah. It’s banal; sticking a couple of horns on the top doesn’t change the fact that it’s a modern concrete block.)

The KL tower, a telecommunications tower owned by Telekom Malaysia, is 421 metres tall including the antenna. The observation platform is at 271 metres, and from there you can see the whole city.


The KL Tower charges for entry. Access to Petronas Towers, on the other hand, is free. The twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world when built, until 2003. The roof is at 379 metres, and the spire at 452 metres. Now the tallest building is Taipei 101, which tops out at 509 metres. The Burj Dubai will officially become the tallest building when capable of occupation. (The rules for the ‘tallest’ building allow spires but disallow antennae. The Petronas Towers and Taipei 101 take advantage of those rules; the Sears Tower is still the biggest building when you look at it.)


The top floors are not open to the public, but the double-decker bridge connecting the two towers is. The problem is that access is free, so, inevitably the number of people wanting to go up exceeds the spaces available. This leads to what economists call non-price rationing and others call a queue or line; or in most parts of the world, a scrum. 1,700 permits become available at nine each morning. I arrived at 8.30 to find an entire hall filled with several hundred people queuing. Over an hour later, I had a ticket, timed for 1.30 pm. So I had to return at lunchtime, which severely restricted what I could do with the day. The number of hours wasted is in the thousands every day. Far more efficient would be to charge a price to visit that would allow those willing to pay the price to visit the skybridge immediately.


Before visiting the skybridge, you must endure a tedious 3D propaganda video for Petronas. It contains all the usual corporate claptrap, implying that every employee of Petronas is a hero, and oil is green. It manages to claim that the towers “inspire children to realise their potential and take on the world”. Not likely.

Then you go up in a service lift to the 41st floor, at 170 metres (100m below the observation deck of KL Tower), and have ten minutes at the connecting bridge. You can’t see some interesting areas of Kuala Lumpur because one of the towers is in the way, and I’ve been to the 44th floor even in London of all places. So it’s okay, but nothing special. If you want to go, use the market mechanism properly: pay someone to queue for you and stay in bed.


The Petronas Towers, designed by Cesar Pelli, are worth a visit in any case because they are surely the most distinguished skyscrapers of the modern era. Their elevation is unique and pleasing, avoiding the dull loudspeakerness of most skyscrapers, and I have admired the plan ever since I first saw it when they were built. Take a square; superimpose another of the same size, rotated by 45 degrees; and you get an eight-pointed star (a rub el hizb). In each of the eight involutions, add the arc of a smaller circle as infill. It is a beautiful, recognisably Islamic plan, which also achieves a commercially acceptable ratio of office space to wall.


Another reason to visit the Petronas Towers is the 40-acre shopping centre underneath it, Suria KLCC.


Shopping centres are very important in Malaysia (nearly as important as in Singapore, essentially a large mall where shopping is the state religion); a large part of life is lived there. They are where people go of an evening, not just to shop but to meet, eat, see a film and drink something sugary. Some are very impressive, far better than anything I have seen in England: Suria KLCC, Pavilion, Times Square. It is easy to lose a whole day at any of these, even without actually shopping. At Times Square there is an indoor amusement park with a rollercoaster. You go upside down three times in the space of 800 metres.


Posted by Wardsan 21:31 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Eastern peninsula

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I have been diving and snorkelling off the coast of northeast Malaysia. I stayed for two nights at Flora Bay on Perhentian Besar; there was no alcohol and people went to bed early, but it was a very pleasant spot. This is the sort of thing you see at dawn.


Flora Bay has a reef a few cables off the shore, so that at low tide the inner part of the bay is effectively a lagoon, full of blennies and black sea cucumbers. I also saw an octopus on the way out. It was not pleased to see me and squeezed back into its coral home.

I snorkelled twice at Shark Point, a brilliant place to snorkel. I saw two hawksbill turtles, resting at three metres and five metres. The first had two remoras attached. The site was also notable for its numerous parrotfish. Most are psychedelically coloured, often combining pink, purple and iridescent green. They have mouths like a parrot’s beak, with fused teeth, and they eat by scraping away at rock or coral; when you are snorkelling you can hear every mouthful they take. Every now and then they spit out a mouthful of chewed-up rock. Fish follow them to search through the rejected aggregates. I also saw (perhaps) a bumphead parrotfish – blue, very large and very odd-looking. And on every dive in these Malaysian islands I have seen squirrelfish and checkered seaperch, which look as though they have already been barbequed.

I also saw something you don’t want to see at all: a crown of thorns starfish. Not only are these ugly and extremely venomous, they can eat their way very rapidly through entire reefs. Divers kill them as pests, but they are difficult to kill: you must either carry them back to land and bury them, or inject each leg with the contents of the starfish's stomach. Miss a leg and the animal survives; and they have up to twenty of them.

Best of all, seven black-tipped reef sharks swimming along the reef beds, one at a time. The first time I saw one it was a bit of a shock, but I knew that they are not aggressive unless cornered. One of them circled around me as if on a four-yard rope. These sharks are blue-grey and grow up to about six feet in length.

Diving at the Pinnacle (Tokong Laut), we saw a school of squid, a blue-spotted stingray, a small yellow-margined moray eel (they look fearsome, but they aren’t), a small nurse shark, a million fluted oysters (with zigzag edges like Jack Pumpkinhead’s mouth), triggerfish, a lot of parrotfish and a lot of dendronephthya soft coral.


Relaxing afterwards I noticed for the first time a lot of Christmas tree worms. They are tube worms, and each pair of trees is the respiratory organs of a single individual. They grow in bright primary colours. As soon as anything approaches the ferny spirals are withdrawn at great speed.


We also dived at the Sugar Wreck, where an 80 metre long boat lies on its side. The currents were strong and we spent a lot of time fighting them. I found it difficult to work out what was what on the boat, but the massive propeller and rudder were unmissable. There was less marine life, other than millions of barnacles and molluscs, but we saw a school of juvenile chevron barracuda, each individual only about a foot long; five jackfish in a group; batfish; a big hermit crab; a couple of porcupinefish; and a starry pufferfish, over two feet long, which came right up to me and had a close look. Pufferfish are famously poisonous: the delicacy fugu is prepared from pufferfish. They also have the smallest genomes known among the vertebrates.

In fact almost everything underwater is venomous. Half of the fish carry poisons in their spines or their flesh; anemones, corals and hydroids carry nematocysts, as do jellyfish; and some starfish and octopuses are venomous. I am carrying the marks of a sea nettle, an anemone and a jellyfish, and the marks are not likely to disappear soon. The jellyfish, which stung me today on the neck on the hand, gave me the the most painful sting I've ever had.

Snorkelling again, with fantastic visibility, I saw about fifty longtoms varying from 18 inches to four feet in length. The immature longtoms were schooling, the adults on their own. They very long and thin, silver, with blue tails. They move very slowly, wiggling their hind parts and tails. They have a very long, narrow snout, with visible teeth. This time I saw eight black-tipped reef sharks and three titan triggerfish. They are large fish, two feet long or more, hideous, and they swim by waving their dorsal and anal fins. They are docile most of the time, but the females are known to attack divers when they have young.

I dived at Sea Bell, a coral reef around a lighthouse. This is a shallow dive with plenty to see. I saw a nudibranch (Phyllidia varicosa), several blue-ringed angelfish, a stripy lizardfish, several blue-spotted stingrays and beautiful bug-eyed blue-spotted fantail rays, a couple of razorfish, a big crocodile longtom, a couple of big tomato anemonefish – one guarding an anemone of the same lovely colour – and an attractive black and white sea cucumber with black feeding parts. (If you find these lists boring, skip them. This is primarily a record for me.)


This is a blue-banded angelfish.


I also snorkelled at Long Beach, on Perhentian Kecil, which was nowhere near as interesting as Shark Point, but there were still a lot of parrotfish, lyrefish and wrasse to watch. In the shallows there were also a lot of very curious sergeants and sergeant majors; highly territorial, they tend to swarm all around, coming within a couple of inches of the mask.

This is an anemone curled up in a defensive position.


Another thing worth mentioning is the hundreds of giant clams seen on every dive and snorkel trip. As often as not their shells have been incorporated into the local coral or otherwise encrusted; all that is visible is the colourful mantle. The mantle is colourful because they host symbiotic algae, which donate photosynthesised energy to their hosts. This is why they grow so big. The mantles come in various beautiful hues, always variegated: chocolate, green, bright blue, Native American turquoise. When something approches the mantles withdraws, but the shell seldom actually closes.

Tonight I’m at Redang Kalong Resort, which seems a really nice place. The Olympics are on – I’ve watched as much as I can – but of course, this being Malaysia, it’s tuned to the badminton. The Badminton World Federation is based in Kuala Lumpur, which hosted the world championships earlier this year. Many of the best players, particularly in the women’s game, are from southeast and east Asia. Badminton is an excellent sport but the swimming is on another channel right now…

  • **

I spent too long in Kota Bharu, because I could not get the booking I wanted on Perhentian. Kelantan, the state of which KB is the capital, is known for its crafts: batik, songket, silverware, wooden carving, woven rattan/bamboo/pandang.

There is a cultural centre, which hosts displays of kite-flying, drumming, wayang kulit etc. I was keen to see the shadow puppets, but the centre was closed, except when it opened to host a travel expo. The tourist information office was closed. Everything else was closed on Friday – which in Malaysia is only true of Kelantan and its neighbouring state Terengganu.

I mentioned that Kota Bahru calls itself bandar raya Islam - Islamic City. Even the street decorations bear the name of God or his Messenger.


Other than the Chinese and the tourists, every woman in Kota Bahru weirs a headscarf and a two-piece dress. More often than not the headscarf is plain and pale, on top of a darker dress. The younger women often look like Catholic nuns.



I had an idea of buying some batik or songket. There is a complex opposite the central market which specialises in batik, and there are lots of fine batik silk shirts on sale for £40 or so. Batik is merely a technique, and there is no limit in principle to the variety of design. The problem is that when it comes down to it, I can admire the batik shirt but I cannot imagine wearing it, unless in an attempt (which would unquestionably succeed) to win the lary shirt contest at my cricket club. It’s wildly garish, and works well on women, who dress like birds of paradise, and well enough on Malaysian and Indonesian men, but just makes a pasty-faced westerner look like a prat, I suspect.

KB is on a river – huge, slow, brown, like every other river I have seen in Malaysia - but has turned its back on it. That ought to change when the Pelangi mall opens.


I've included some pictures of nice buildings along the way, which is misleading. Most urban buildings in Malaysia have been built within the last forty years or so, in concrete. Kota Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan basically looked like this.


Both the batik centre and the central market are right by the central mosque, and there are loudspeakers in both locations, and elsewhere in the town, carrying the voice of the imam whenever there are prayers. Including the dawn prayers. The central mosque, built in 1925, is nothing like as interesting as some of the mosques I have seen in Malaysia - more on that another time.


The central market is a wet market: on view, lots of fish that I have seen under water recently (and squid at RM7 a kilo), and the usual fly-ridden carcasses of chicken. At the centre, fruit, vegetable, tuber and legume. The colourful marketers blend in with the colourful fruit.


There is a ‘cultural village’ of traditional Malay wooden buildings, with an exhibition of Kelentan crafts on the upper floor. It’s mildly diverting; there are shops around the village selling said crafts, but they are selling goods of low quality at low prices; far more interesting would be, for example, proper gold-woven kain songket. But I did not see any.


There is also a war museum. The Japanese army, which invaded the Malay peninsula on 8 December 1941, attacked Kota Bharu first. There isn’t really much else to know, except that the four northern states of Malaysia came under Thai military control from 1943 until September 1945. The Japanese gave them, in effect, to the fascist government of Thailand as a favour for letting them invade through Thai territory. This is not as weird as it sounds: although it is a Sultanate, Kelantan was under Siamese influence until the British by gunboat diplomacy forced the Thais to cede it in the nineteenth century. This is one of several reasons why the border between Thailand and Malaysia is culturally fuzzy. There are also lots of Muslims in southern Thailand who would rather be part of Malaysia.

So I got pretty bored. KB is not a lively place. As is usually the way, I became so obsessed with the relative dearth of alcohol that I actually drank more than I have in most of the rest of Malaysia: two large bottles of beer a night, which costs far more than the food.

The best place I found in KB was a kek shop: a good place to try mysterious cakes and sponges and watch the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremony, with a Cantonese commentary, in a Chinese restaurant. There was a lot of excitement. Without David Coleman reading a prepared script, it was easier just to concentrate on the visual aspect of the opening, and I thought it was marvellous in the main, particularly the drumming, the martial arts and the imaginative use of calligraphy. (I did not care for the interludes with unnaturally well-behaved schoolchildren, but you get that kind of Hello-Kitty kitsch everywhere in east and southeast Asia.) I thought the lighting was fantastic.

Posted by Wardsan 20:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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