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By this Author: Wardsan

The Wallace Line

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It’s Remembrance Sunday. It’s also my birthday, and I think this is the hundredth post on this blog. It has been a better year than most, but then I have spent nine months of it abroad. This morning I pottered about eating Pringles and listening to saved-up BBC Radio 4 podcasts: Law In Action, In Our Time, Material World, Thinking Allowed. After a quick trip to Fort Rotterdam, where I was again the tourist attraction (photographs and interviews granted), and an excellent sashimi lunch, it started raining hard and I came to the mall to surf. Quantum of Solace is on at the cinema here – but only in Indonesian, chiz. I have some bread and babybel and Lindeman’s red wine to consume this evening as a treat.

Here is a cheese on toast frog at Fort Rotterdam.


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To be employed as a ‘Front Liner’ at Bread Talk, a bakery chain, you must be between 18 and 22 years old. If male, you must be between 165 cm and 175 cm in height, and in proportion (doesn’t say where); if female, between 158 cm and 170 cm and in proportion. You must not have tattoos. It is a long time since employers could lawfully be so choosy in the UK.

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I have mentioned Alfred Russel Wallace a few times and I shall mention him again. I read most of The Malay Archipelago, by Wallace, in a nice edition from Periplus. I looked for it for months before finding it in Bali, and read it at slowly as I could bear. I lost it, though, a few days ago, so all comments have to be from memory.

From 1854 Wallace spent eight years travelling around what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, and in that time he formulated a theory of evolution by variation and natural selection. In fact he did so in the northern Moluccas, while prostrate with malaria. In 1858 he wrote to Charles Darwin from Ternate about his conclusions. Darwin had independently come to the same conclusions twenty years before, but had not published his findings, fearing the reaction. Both had been inspired by reading the Essay on Population by Thomas Malthus (first published in 1798). The point of the essay that stimulated both was hyperbundance: the tendency of species to produce more young than can surive given the resources available, and the consequent competition between members of the same species.

James Hooker and Charles Lyell, who knew of Darwin's earlier work, arranged that Darwin and Wallace should publish papers in the same edition of the Transactions of the Linnaean Society, and both papers were read out at the same meeting of the Society.

There was no competition between the two; each man admired the other. Wallace dedicated The Malay Archipelago to Darwin, and throughout his long life modestly referred to the theory of evolution by natural selection as ‘Darwinism’. [Darwin wrote to Wallace a decade after the Linnaean Society meeting: "I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect... that we have never felt any jealousy toward the other, though in one sense rivals."]

They came from different backgrounds: Darwin the son of a vicar, of independent means; Wallace an autodidact from Monmouthshire who had to pay his way. Wallace financed his travels by collecting animals and selling them to private collectors (including Darwin) and to museums. From his Asian trip he brought back 125,000 animal specimens, of which half were the beetles that obsessed him. Many were new species – at least 900 Longicorn beetles alone. In his twenties he had travelled for four years in the Amazon, but he brought back nothing from that trip: as he travelled home his ship caught fire and he was shipwrecked, losing everything.

In the book, which is a journal rather than a learned paper, he comes across as a thoroughly engaging figure – fiercely intelligent, kind and possessed of boundless curiosity and stamina. He travelled to places that no European had visited. He did have quinine and a mosquito net, but was nevertheless often very ill for weeks in the middle of nowhere. When he got ill he was on his own; it must have taken great courage to continue to travel in the face of such a high probability of expiry. The book records his travels, with a strong bent towards geography, geology, ethnography and ecology. You do want to be interested in animals, but it is a great pleasure to read, and all the more so while travelling around the same region.

I described the Wallace Line in a previously post as a climatic line running from north to south. Wallace indeed noted that the climate becomes drier from the eastern third of Java onwards, and attributed this to the influence of the Australian continent. But his line is much cleverer than that. It is a geological hypothesis based on the modern distribution of animal species and genera.

Wallace observed that, ignoring the most far-ranging birds (whose origin cannot be surmised), species of Asian origin become progressively less common as you go east. Conversely, birds of Australasian type, such as cockatoos and parrots, become more common, and appear first in Lombok. In general, birds and butterflies become sparser as you go east.

Furthermore, most of the species of Asian origin are also found on the Asian mainland; only a minority of species east of Bali are not also found in Thailand or India. For the birds of Australasian origin, however, only the genera are common to both places; within each genus, the species tend to be unique.

Wallace also found that there were almost no Asian or Australasian mammalia in the islands east of Bali. He assumed that those that are found, such cats, dogs and deer, and possibly horses, water buffalo and pigs, had been introduced by humans (dogs and pigs were probably introduced during the Austronesian expansion, 3,500 years ago).

He also noted that, while the seas are relatively shallow around the islands, there are deep channels between Bali and Lombok and between Australia and Timor. The 100 fathom line encompasses Borneo, Java, Bali, Sumatra and Asia on the one hand, and Australia, New Guinea and Timor on the other. (He was not sure about Sulawesi.) If the sea fell 100 fathoms, there would still be a gap of twenty miles between Timor and Australia.

Hence he concluded that Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali had once formed part of the Asian mainland. But the islands between Lombok and Timor were truly oceanic, having been attached to Australia, if at all, only in the very distant past. Animals from Australia had got there first, crossing the twenty mile gap to Timor, and had had time to evolve into new species. Those from Asia had arrived more recently and had not had time to evolve much.

[Post script. Darwin was not the son of a vicar. His father, Robert, was a physician; and his father, Erasmus, was also a physician. Erasmus also believed that species were not immutable, and published his argument in verse. Darwin was initially supposed to be a physician, and trained for a year at Edinburgh. But he did not get on with it - he did not like blood, for one thing - and he quit after a year and a half. He did learn taxidermy, though, from a freed Guyanese slave, which later proved very useful. Eventually he and his father agreed that he should go to Cambridge University, with the intention of becoming a vicar (as the majority of Cambridge graduates still did). No entrance exams in those days: his father simply arranged for him to go up to Christ's College. When he set off on his voyage on The Beagle he still intended to enter holy orders on his return. For that and other reasons, Robert initially vetoed Charles's journey. It took Charles's maternal uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, to argue him round.

Darwin spent most of his time at Cambridge collecting beetles, hunting, and going on walks with J S Henslow, the professor of botany. He was very modest about his academic achivements at school and university. But he knuckled down to work hard in the last few months, and, despite his later modesty about his academic achievements, he came tenth out of 178. (He was examined in Classics, moral philosophy, maths, physics and astronomy.) In fact his result was much like that of John Maynard Keynes, who was equally uninterested in what he was supposed to be studying, but still managed to get a reasonable First.]

Posted by Wardsan 17:32 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


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There were eight of us on the trek in the Baliem Valley, and about 11 porters. Some carried food, other carried our bags. It is the first time, I think, that I have been portered [nope - we had porters in Lombok], and it was very welcome. I did not learn the names of all our porters, but one name that I and everyone else knew was Iblis. ‘Iblis’, as I have mentioned before, means ‘Devil’ in Arabic and in Indonesian. So it is a nickname; I believe his real name is Paolo.

It might have been that his name was given because of his face. He looks dangerous and packs a lot of muscle.


In fact, we were given to understand in broken English, the nickname was given because he is a pyromaniac. Certainly, Iblis delighted in starting fires en route, even when not at all necessary. And wherever there was a fire, there was Iblis, entranced and grinning manically.

Iblis wore a leather jacket with a yellow Suzuki on the back. At one point he sat more or less in a bonfire, and the jacket protected him from the flames.

Appearances were deceptive. All our porters were wonderful; they would do absolutely anything for you, and would try to anticipate all your needs, even when they weren’t needs at all. They helped us all over the Peak District stiles and slippery log bridges. They pulled members of our party for miles up and down the treacherous paths. They supported us and even carried us across rivers.


But Iblis went even further. With all his might, he twisted the water from our wet laundry, including even Dirk’s socks, so redolent of Danish cheese. He washed Maurits’s feet. A truly sweet man.


When we left at the airport, I told Iblis in Indonesian that I thought he was a good man, and he grinned with his betel-stained teeth and shook my hand for about a minute. It was a tad moving.



Posted by Wardsan 17:11 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Back in Bali

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Well, I'm back in Bali, at the south end of Sanur this time. Most of the other tourists here are thirty years older than me. The tour of Papua finished yesterday upon arrival at Denpasar airport. As always just after a tour, there is a lull in motivation and mood. Next stop is likely to be Nusa Lembongan, off Bali, or Sulawesi. But really I need to sit around for a few days, eating western food, watching DVDs and deleting photos. Moving every night becomes enervating after a while.

We flew from Biak via Makassar. Biak is on the Pacific Ocean. Very few places in south east Asia are on the Pacific. You have to go to the Philippines to see it - or to Papua, if you count it as part of Asia. We flew over Ambon, Holland's old clove island, and then across the Banda Sea. Just off Sulawesi we saw a string of atolls, which are very unusual in southeast Asia, where almost all reefs are fringing reefs.

(PS as you might expect, there are few internet connections in Papua. The only one I got to use was in Biak, and it was too slow to blog on. I have seen almost no news in the last six weeks, although the news that some guy called Obama has won some election or other has reached Bali. The world sighs with relief.)

Posted by Wardsan 16:27 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


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In July I spent a few happy days in the Kinabatangan valley in eastern Sabah. About 20,000 hectares of the valley is a wildlife sanctuary.

Everyone knows that much of Borneo is rainforest. But most of it has previously been logged. There is very little primary forest left in Borneo, and much of the rest of the land is used for agriculture.


Until recently cocoa – although first planted commercially only in the 1950s - was the dominant product. As cocoa prices fell through the floor (Bornean cocoa being markedly inferior to Ghanaian), most farmers switched to the African oil palm, although cocoa remains the fourth largest crop in Sabah. Rubber and copra are the other two important agricultural products.

About a third of arable land in Sabah is planted with oil palms, so the oil palm is everywhere. It took several hours to get from Sandakan to Bilit, our base in the Kinabatangan, and we passed endless Cordoban Mezquitas of squat palms touching crown to crown.

Between the branches grows a very large fruit, red-black like a blackberry but 10,000 times larger; it weighs up to 50 kg. It is picked with a sharp instrument on the end of a pole. It is a specialist job: get it wrong and the fruit kills you as it plummets towards the Earth’s centre of mass.

Oil is extracted from the pulp and from the kernel. A hectare can yield 10 tonnes of fruit. The pulp (pericarp) oil is the most popular edible oil in the world. It is used mainly to make margarine and processed foods. The kernel oil is used to make soap and detergent. Some palm oil is nowadays used to make biodiesel. Malaysia is the biggest exporter of palm oil, but Indonesia is planning to double its production in the next few years, blithely saying goodbye to its forests and to the animal species that live in them.

The Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve is classed as secondary forest because it has been subject to logging, but not for a long time, and the forest seems (to a man from Lambeth) healthy with a wide variety of species. Two thirds of the animal and plant species of the world live in rainforests.


The reserve is a mixed dipterocarp forest, an evergreen lowland forest. Dipterocarp is the predominant tree type in tropical rainforest, and most of the timber produced in Borneo is dipterocarp, including the hardwood. As its name implies, its fruit has wings. Most species have two, but some have more.

Dipterocarps are tall trees. Some grow to 60 metres or more. Typically they have a reddish bark, and buttresses supporting the lower trunk. Their root systems are wide but very shallow, and the buttresses provide some added stability.

Once we got to Bilit we took a little boat across the river and arrived at the lodge, a constellation of twenty-odd bamboo stilt huts together with two larger stilt buildings. There is a rolling guest list. Most stay for two nights, some for one night. A Japanese lady was staying for a week. I stayed for three nights, I think. I wanted to see proboscis monkeys and Bornean pygmy elephants and was lucky enough to see both.

The routine was the same every day. Up at dawn for a two-hour cruise in small motorised canoes, accompanied by a sharp-eyed guide a morning walk to a nearby oxbow lake; an afternoon off, an evening cruise along the river and a night-time walk. It did not become monotonous because you see different things each time.



Here is a stick insect at the oxbow lake.


Lines of sight along the river are much greater than in the forest, so it is easy to see birds. The oriental darter, a big bird with a long neck, large wings and a sharp beak, dives for up to a minute. It often surfaces slowly, puts its head up like a periscope, and then sinks again. Then it looks a lot like a water snake.


Malaysia has fifteen species of kingfisher; Europe has one. Posted at regular intervals along the bank is the stork-billed kingfisher. Malaysia’s largest, it grows over a foot tall. It is territorial and will attack any other bird. They eat anything that moves, including crabs, lizards, frogs and spiders.


The Brahminy kite, which grows to 45 cm, is found from India to the Solomon Islands. It lives along the rivers, and especially along the coasts.

The crested serpent eagle, which grows to 48 cm, lives in almost every environment in Sabah from the coasts to the mountains. They eat reptiles, large birds, rodents and large invertebrates. They are common along the river.


Also very common along the banks are dollar birds. Here and there secure nests with small entrances are constructed on vertical shaft sticking out of the river itself; these are black and red broadbills, with a bold azure bill.

Storm’s stork is a very rare bird. Birdwatchers travel to the Kinabatangan to see it. There are only 500 or so left. It’s a handsome black and white stork with a red bill.


Great egrets line the banks, probably the most numerous bird. They fly with their necks folded back.

On our first river cruise we saw a large male orang utan with cheek pouches, sitting in the fork of a tree, picking and eating figs very slowly. There are twenty species of fig in Kinabatangan, five hundred in Borneo. Ficus rasemosa is especially important, since all the arboreal animals eat the fruit and/or the leaves. Even the pigs get to benefit, since the long-tail macaques are messy eaters.


Occasionally we would see proboscis monkeys, Nasalis larvatus. Endemic to Borneo, they live along river banks, in mangroves and in peatswamp forests. Being arboreal, they are losing places to live; there may be only 8,000 of them left. But they are easy to see because they like to collect in trees by the riverbank.


They must be one of the weirdest-looking mammals. They are orange-red over most of the body but the limbs, tail and collar are silvery-white, and they seem to be wearing white nappies. Young proboscis monkeys have dark blue faces. A local name for them is orang Belanda: Dutchmen.

They also have incongruous tellytubby bellies. They live on unripe fruit, seeds, and leaves. Some of this diet is poisonous. They have two stomachs: the first contains special flora to digest the toxins, and the second acts as a normal gut. A side-effect of this digestive set-up is that they cannot digest ripe fruit. It also produces gas in volume, hence the beer gut.


Despite their build they are extremely agile, and they leap great distances from tree to tree. They are also good swimmers, sometimes swimming in the open sea. They walk upright when wading, with the females carrying infants on their hips. Other than humans, only proboscis monkeys, gibbons and pangolins are known to walk bipedally for any length of time.


And then there is the nose. There are various theories about its function, but if the proboscis were purely functional there would be little or no difference between the sexes. As it is, the males have the big schnozzles, the females little retroussé numbers. Older males even have to lift the nose out of the way to eat, so it is certainly a hindrance. It must be sexual selection: the girls like big noses, so they get them, and they have sons with big noses and daughters with the genes for big noses. The nose also turns red when the possessor is excited or angry.

There are two groups of proboscis monkeys in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. One is a harem, with a dominant male, several females and their offspring. The other is a group of sexually mature bachelor males who sometimes try to sneak into the other group for hit-and-run quickies. When a bachelor male successfully challenges the dominant male and takes over mating rights, he will kill all the existing offspring. From the perspective of the selfish gene it is adaptive behaviour.


Since the one who can beat up the rest takes all, the males grow to be much larger than the females, weighing up to 24 kg. Females weigh half that. The males are priapic. It is difficult not to notice, since their skinny carrot-shaped monkeyhoods are bubble-gum pink.


We saw some squabbling in one group and it was horrible. Along with a lot of loud screaming we saw a monkey fall twenty feet or so through the trees.

The other primates of Borneo include apes (the Bornean gibbon and Homo sapiens); other monkeys (the langurs and macaques); and prosimians (the western tarsier and slow loris).

The leaf monkeys, or langurs, look somewhat like macaques, but their tails are longer, and so is their fur. They eat leaves alone. There are four species in Sabah. They live in harems of five to eight. The commonest two species are silver and maroon.

You don’t get to see gibbons – they are very shy – but you can hear them. Around six in the morning they whoop loudly. They are badly affected by logging, since they are entirely arboreal.

You don’t get to see tarsiers or lorises either, since they are nocturnal. Both have huge eyes. The western tarsier lives in small groups. It is tiny and jumps from tree to tree like a frog. It eats insects. They say it has the ears of a bat, the eye of an owl and the tail of a rat. Lorises are unbelievably slow, like sloths, although they hunt insects as well as eating fruit. They just wait for prey to approach before grabbing it. They have short tails and are the size of cats.


Another animal in deep trouble in Borneo is the Sumatran rhinoceros, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. The rhinos stand 120 to 135 cm high and weigh up to 730 kg. There are thought to be between 250 and 400 in the wild, in Borneo, Sumatra, peninsular Malaysia and perhaps Burma. We didn’t see any. There may be only thirty of the Bornean sub-species left in the wild. There are several in captivity at Sepilok and at Cincinnati Zoo. At Sepilok the male and female are kept apart except when the female is in oestrus. They have never bred successfully in captivity; the females get pregnant all right, but they always miscarry.


As its Linnaean name implies, it has two horns. The horn of the Sumatran rhino fetches huge prices among those who believe that this lump of keratin – the same substance as hair or fingernail - will stiffen their marshmallows. The Asian product can sell for as much as $60,000 a kilo. African rhino horn is much less sought after.

Hornbills, on the other hand, don’t have horns, but solid casques instead. There are 57 varieties, and eight in Borneo. They tend to be black or brown, with long tails, and they are big birds. In the Kinabatangan we saw plenty of oriental pied hornbills (Anthrococeros coronatus), which grow to 75 cm.


Their eyes appear to be glued on, like the eyes of soft toys. We saw some sitting near an eagle, and they were larger than their neighbour.


Hornbills nest in tree holes. When the female is about to lay, the male walls her in, leaving only a slit. She stays there with her chicks until they are ready to fly. The male feeds them through the slit.


Our various excellent guides – Kai, Luis, and the lovely Nelly - spotted about five crocodiles. I only saw one, because they lie almost entirely submerged, and the remainder disappears as the boat approaches. They are estuarine crocs, also known as saltwater crocs, and in Australia they are known as vicious bastards and fast. But here, like the eagles, they mainly subsist on small animals, only occasionally attacking humans. Borneo is in fact right in the middle of their notional range, although sightings are now very rare in Thailand and Indochina. In New Guinea and Australia their populations have recovered to precolonial health, and they are also common in Orissa, in northeast India. Naturally, there are monitors too, usually resting on branches.


On one river cruise we saw a mangrove snake coiled in a branch overhanging the water. These are poisonous, but very lazy, or so it appeared.


Kai is an orang sungai – from a river tribe. Partly because his teeth are filed, his face has an air of gleeful piratical wickedness, at odds with his character. As in, say, Papua, the river people speak a lot of different dialects and cannot understand each other. But they are all counted as Dusun, and all nominally Muslim.


The commonest monkey in the sanctuary is the long-tailed macaque, Macaca fascicularis. It eats shoots and leaves (sic). It also eats small animals, and in the mangroves it eats crabs. It does so by inserting its tail into a crab hole, waiting for the crab to grab, slowly withdrawing the tail, and then dashing the crab against a rock. It lives in large groups and is highly sociable. It used to be a favourite subject of animal experiments. I have seen them all over the place in Asia and have grown to dislike the thieving hooligans.




Each evening after supper we would go for a walk with torches. It was very creepy. But for the torches, darkness is absolute. My LED torch is fine for reading but inadequate for walking, especially with steamed-up glasses. It is still very hot and humid at night, and walking is very sweaty work. On the first couple of walks we saw plenty of elephant dung but no elephants (more on the elephants another time). All we saw was a couple of large scorpions. It was very muddy – you had to be careful not to leave shoes behind.

Each time we walk we wear leech socks. These are not recognisably socks, but canvas Christmas stockings instead. The leeches are smaller than I expected, about an inch long, more like inchworms than slugs. They sit on trunks and leaves and stretch out when they sense traffic passing. They look like the letter-forming aliens from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

On one night walk we found a kingfisher sleeping on a branch. It was not disturbed by the torches or by the noise. It may be a stork-billed kingfisher, but I am guessing it is a black-capped kingfisher, because of its smaller stature and shorter tail.


After each night walk we head straight to bed, no hanging around the bar swapping war stories. We are up for a dawn boat ride at six each morning. Inside the hut, a million ants and mosquitoes and the odd gecko. From my hut at night I could hear jungle noises, which often seemed to be nearby. There are Chihuahua barks and growls outside. It’s not a Chihuahua. A frog? A monkey? No idea. And in the morning, you wake to the melodious song of tailor birds.


This is a millipede commonly found in the area, a kind of pill millipede.


If disturbed it rolls up into a ball for a few minutes. Threatened millipedes curl up; threatened centipedes run away, because they are much faster. (They only have one pair of legs per body segment, while millipedes have two.) Centipedes can run, proportionately to body length, faster than cheetahs.


A leaf beetle.


Posted by Wardsan 16:50 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Touchdown in Bali

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I'm briefly in Bali. Tonight I fly to Jayapura in Papua, as the Indonesian half of New Guinea is now called. In a few days I'll be trekking in the Baliem valley. I'm not excited, because I have a cold and don't feel like walking. There probably won't be much internet access in Papua, so the frequency of posts will remain low.

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Petrol is 6,000 Rp a litre on the Indonesian forecourt. That’s about 30p. This is absurdly cheap from a European perspective, but it is not a huge discount on the retail price in the US.

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I ate at a Hong Kong style restaurant a couple of days ago. It looks out from the Times Square mall, where I have been searching for wet weather gear for Papua, towards Hang Tuah. Two hundred yards away is a prison, complete with barbed wire and watchtowers. A nice central spot for the prisoners, like Strangeways. I have walked past it and to its walls are affixed posters warning about the penalty for drug offences: death.

On the drinks list: yin-ying. The waitress said it was a mixture of coffee and tea. Homo economicus, who prefers a mix of things, probably drinks yin-ying with Coke. I had tea.

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A very cross man next to me in a cafe, phoning an internet helpline: “People are laughing at me, lah.” In KL and Singapore every other sentence ends in lah. In Indonesia not at all. To be polite when giving or receiving something (like change), a Malaysian will pass or receive with the right hand, and grasp the right wrist with the left hand. An Indonesian won't.

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In Yogya I went to see a performance of wayang kulit, the shadow-puppet theatre. It was the section of the Ramayana in which Kumbakarna heroically goes to his death fighting on behalf of his evil brother.

I knew the story, but recognised almost none of it. The dalang (puppeteer - not to be confused with palang) voices and sings in Javanese, which is distinct from Indonesian, so I could not understand a word. After an hour it became a bit tedious, especially the comic interlude with the clowns.

It was possible, however, to admire the immense skill displayed by the dalang. As well as voicing, he manipulates the puppets, directs the gamelan orchestra, and performs percussion with his feet. They must also possess extraordinary stamina: a traditional performance lasts all night, without breaks.


The orchestra consists of the men who play the instruments and the women who sing. All are traditionally dressed, the men in brown sarongs, sky-blue batik shirts and batik Javanese hats, the women in peacock blue shirts with shocking pink sashes.


All wayangs have very long arms, and the hands are folded back, like Javanese dancers’. The kulit (leather) puppets are in profile, and the faces have very long noses. The good guys, like Rama, are thin, and their faces humbly point down. Some of the bad guys are muscular and hairy. The style also influences Javanese and Balinese art, and it is very distinctive. I love it, and cannot think why I did not buy some puppets.

The puppets are painted on both sides. Men sit on the side of the dalang, and they see the painted puppet and the orchestra.


Traditionally, women sit on the other side, and see only the silhouettes of the puppets. Like a ladyboy in Thailand, I got to experience both sides. It is perhaps better on the women’s side.


Posted by Wardsan 00:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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