A Travellerspoint blog


That's affirmative

sunny 30 °C
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As in Singapore, commercial activities in Malaysia have always been dominated by the ethnic Chinese. Ever since independence in 1957, the Malaysian government has operated pro-Malay (in principle but not always in practice, pro-bumiputra), pro-Muslim policies. Another way to put it is that there are anti-Chinese and to a certain extent anti-Indian policies. Bumis are supposed to enjoy a discount when buying real property; it is easier for them to get into university and to obtain government posts; at least in Sabah, there are financial incentives to convert back to Islam; and as I mentioned before, Muslim Filipino immigrants are tacitly tolerated because of their religion.

Malays may have been economically underprivileged fifty years ago, and the orang asli still are. But surely a state with pretensions to modernity – as symbolised in Warisan 2020 - should, like Singapore, ignore the religious beliefs and ethnic origin of its citizens and offer colour-blind assistance to those in need. When a government officially regards a portion of its citizenry as being of less worth than another portion, private citizens are free to follow.

Oh, and Israeli passport holders are not permitted to enter Malaysia. Or, more strictly, Israeli citizens are required to apply for special approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs to enter. This places Malaysia with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan. Reciprocally, Israel does not recognise Malaysian passports. Perhaps there is a sound reason for this of which I am unaware, but it seems disgraceful.

In Malaysia sodomy is a criminal offence, for which there is no right of bail upon arrest, punishable upon conviction by up to twenty years in custody. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, spent six years in prison for sodomy; everyone knows that this was a politically-motivated conviction, sodomy merely being the convenient accusation (he was convicted of corruption at about the same time, but the conviction was quashed on appeal several years later). And he has recently been arrested and charged again; again, it’s convenient, since his opposition coalition has won 49% of parliamentary seats and could take power if there were a few defections.

Malaysia has been governed by the Alliance/Barisan Nasional since independence, so it is a Japanese-style non-democracy democracy. It may be an industrialised high-middle income country, but it has the politics of a banana republic.

Prosecutions are also used as a political tactic in Thailand. There, the best way to get rid of a troublesome foe is to bring a prosecution for lèse majesté. Since the king is revered, this is a very serious offence. The fact that the king himself has said clearly that he is not above criticism doesn’t stop the prosecutions.

And while we’re talking buggery, it’s no real surprise that homosexuality is very common here. The same phenomenon exists throughout the Middle East, where women are at least as unavailable (although they enjoy far greater civil rights in Malaysia except in the field of family law, where Muslims fall within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts). And (although it’s not the same thing) I have met more people here of whose gender I am completely uncertain than in Thailand, land of the ladyboy.

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At last I have a plan, although I don’t yet know whether it’s feasible. I have a reasonable idea how I want to spend the next six weeks. To that end I have spent most of the day at the Indonesian Embassy. Visa sections around the world share the property of being the most inefficient agencies conceivable. It’s as if all the telephone receptionists from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have come alive. Giggling cretins sit there stroking their little hard-ons at the vast power they wield. They demand three photocopies of your last-but-one tax bill, two of your appendix. Nowhere are the requirements set out; you have to intuit them before arriving. Payment in cash; the Indonesian government does not possess a bank account it seems; that would be one reason why, despite its natural resources, the country is poor.

I spent the time between embassy visits at the post office sending parcels in an effort to reduce the weight I’m carrying. It is fairly cheap, but it took even longer than it did in Vietnam. And I have had a haircut, so it really has been a day full of things I don’t like much.

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One of my objectives is to eat interesting things, and for the last month or so I have failed. I just haven’t seen enough unusual stuff in Malaysia. Yesterday I had dim sum: fish maw dumpling; steamed shrimp dumpling; dried oyster dumpling; carrot cake and red bean pudding and that was probably the most unusual. Pathetic. Hopefully there will be interesting things in Indonesia.

But there are good things here. Belacan is a kind of chilli and shrimp paste. Sambal is a chilli paste. The curries are good. Nyonya food is excellent. And the salted broad beans are fantastic.

And how can you tell a shrimp from a prawn, by the way? Answer at the bottom of the page.

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In Vietnam they eat noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vietnamese cooking has plenty of variety, but every day phở, or variants of it, comprises at least half of the meals eaten in Vietnam. I found it particularly unpalatable for breakfast, and would be happy never to eat it again. (A truly delicious exception is cau lầu in Hội An. The rice for the square-sectioned noodles is soaked in water from the Bá Lễ well and lye made from the ashes of the tro tree from nearby Cham island. You can’t make them anywhere else. You make stock from pork bones and add char siu, pork crackling, garlicky croutons, bean sprouts, water mint, coriander and chives.)

I can’t remember what they eat for breakfast in Thailand. In Malaysia I’ve been hooked on roti canai: roti with a spicy dal dip. But the classic breakfast dish is nasi lemak. It’s a pile of rice, with peanuts, ikan bilis, spicy potato, boiled egg and spicy meat. (Ikan bilis is spicy dried anchovy.) It’s eclectic, but it works. Presumably it was invented when someone got home after a bibulous evening and put everything he had in the house on his plate. I’ve invented some nauseating dishes that way.

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I recently read that the grilled critters on sale in Bangkok are farmed in Isaan. Isaan is the poorest region of Thailand – the best career option for Isaan women is prostitution – and insect protein forms a significant fraction of protein in the diet; cricket contains more protein than the equivalent weight of beef or chicken. The insects are transported to the Klong Toey market in Bangkok, where the trolley-cooks buy them. The price at the market is 140 baht for a kilo of silkworms, 350 baht for a kilo of grasshoppers and 2,000 baht for 500 beetles.

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When you are in a shop in Malaysia, a shop assistant follows you around. Perhaps they’re just being polite, but I find the attention burdensome, as if being followed by a store detective. They don’t exactly assist.

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In the interests of research, I bought a packet of Bornean cigarillos. I tried one and it tasted horrible. But then I don’t smoke, so this is not an informed review.

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A shrimp has two pairs of claws and no rostrum.

Posted by Wardsan 19:01 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

KL Bird Park

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I have not yet found a good place to stay in Kota Kinabalu, but the Summer Lodge is the best I have tried so far. Its only flaw is that it sits opposite an open-air bar with a stage. Until last night I thought that the nightly noise pollution was karaoke. (I'm no Pavarotti, but the singing is effing ineffably bad.) But no: they are making a living missing every note by a quartertone. It's exquisitely painful. Nearly as painful as my thighs: I don't think I've experienced such soreness since first running around St James's Park at the age of twelve.

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In Kuala Lumpur, within the grounds of the Lake Gardens, is a bird park. It claims to be the world's largest, and the claim is credible; certainly the netting seems to cover acres. It is supposed to hold over two hundred species. Most are behind bars, some wander ad libitum within the netting. I was there for three or four hours and it wasn't enough.

Here is the first batch of photos. Indian ring-necked parakeet.


Great hornbill.


White-crowned hornbill.


Spotted wood owl.


Fischer's love bird.


Rainbow lories.


Yellow-streaked lories.


Sun conure.



Western-crowned pigeon.


Blue peacock.


Posted by Wardsan 22:07 Archived in Malaysia Comments (3)


all seasons in one day 34 °C
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I’m just back from climbing Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095 metres the highest mountain in, well, all of Borneo actually. (That's not such a mean statistic: Borneo is the third-largest island.) There are three higher mountains in southeast Asia.

The ascent was hard, the descent harder. I have no idea why I did this thing; I thought I’d grown out of peak-bagging. Today I am stiff as a stiff and have a horror of stairs.

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In Semporna I stayed at the Dragon Inn, also called the Floating Hotel. It doesn’t float, but it is built on barnacle-encrusted stilts in the shallow sea. (Barnacles are crustaceans, by the way, not molluscs. The only way to tell is to observe their larvae.) It is in effect a small water village, of which there are many in Sabah. Some are quite large and have their own mosques.

It is entertaining to take a shower and watch the water drain through the gaps in the planks into the sea. My room was at the end of a pier and kingfishers hung around and argued noisily.


In the shallow water below, clouds of needlefish.


And every now and again the call to prayer floats over the water.


The seafood is fresh.


While in Semporna I dived in the Celebes Sea at Sibuan, Mabul, and twice at Sipadan, while qualifying as an advanced open water diver. That doesn’t make me a good diver.


The weather was not great, and excepting Sibuan the visibility was not very good. But the diversity of marine life at Mabul and Sipadan compensated.

At Mabul’s artificial reef we saw painted frogfish, giant frogfish, lionfish, trumpetfish, scorpionfish, spadefish and nudibranchs, as well as metallic jackfish schooling in large numbers.


The frogfish are also known as anglerfish. They are usually immobile and always hideous.


The red and white common lionfish has large spiny dorsal and pectoral fins, and some of the spines are venomous.


Nudibranchs are hermaphroditic sea slugs with external gills, hence the name.


At Awas we saw a cuttlefish, cleaner shrimp, another lionfish, a hermit crab and a black-finned snake eel half-buried in the sand.



The cleaner shrimp run the crustacean equivalent of a car wash. Fish stop at the station and the shrimp emerge to pick parasites off them. Groupers love them. (Cleaners are essential: when the cleaner wrasse disappear, so do the fish on the reef, presumably because the incidence of disease becomes too great.) So we stopped off for a manicure and some free dental hygiene.


Groupers, incidentally, are born female. They become male later in life. A bit like the ancient Greeks.

We also saw a couple of green turtles, a moray eel and a great barracuda (huge), and the deeply weird crocodile flathead. The last sits latex-lipped on the sandy floor and watches the world with swivelling bulbous eyes.


At Froggy Lair we saw another crocodile fish, a green turtle and a hawksbill turtle. Everywhere we saw, among others, angelfish, butterflyfish, snappers and seaperch, squirrelfish, boxfish, goatfish, filefish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, groupers, pufferfish, bannerfish, razorfish, trumpetfish, unicornfish, spadefish, parrotfish. Among invertebrates, nudibranchs, sea squirts, sponges, anemones, hydroids, echinoderms and corals soft and hard. Reefs host an abundance and diversity of animal species that even rainforests cannot match. This is the xanthic (yellow) form of a flutemouth.


I rented a camera for the day, which is why I have photos of some of these. It’s not easy to float absolutely motionless: when taking a photo I naturally hold my breath to concentrate, and if you do this underwater you shoot upwards. I also did a fish identification option on the course, but still haven’t a clue what I am seeing most of the time. This is but one of many examples. [Actually I think it's a juvenile snapper.]


This, however, is a black-saddled toby.


Sipadan, Malaysia’s only true oceanic island, rises 600 metres vertically from the ocean floor. Mushroom-shaped, it is topped with coral reefs. So you dive to the sand at five metres or so, and then step off into an abysm that is for practical purposes endless. It’s quite a thrill: like stepping out of a plane or abseiling over a cliff, except with neutral buoyancy. Looking up the wall from the deep, past schools of fish, is also a buzz.

Sipadan is well known for the abundance of larger creatures: turtles, barracuda and sharks. Numbers of divers are limited and you have to pay for a permit.


At Sipadan we dived to 30 metres and used a lot of air to see absolutely nothing. At Barracuda Point, where there are strong currents, we did a drift dive and saw a white-tipped shark, about seven feet long, several green and hawksbill turtles, and an enormous school of chevron barracuda, each a four-foot-long dead-eyed predator. As I held on to a rock against the current, the barracuda swam very slowly past and just above me against the current, barely moving a muscle. The closest came within about six feet, and it was very exciting. I stopped trying to count; there were several hundred of them.

On the last dive we saw a very large pufferfish, some comical unicornfish, and huge numbers of turtles, some very large. Sipadan is said to have one of the largest populations of turtles in the world. Unlike at Mabul, they seem to be used to divers, and you can get close to them. They find themselves turtle-sized niches in the cliff wall and lie there to rest. Green turtles are larger; they reach a respectable speed simply by waving their forelimbs very slowly in the water.

This is a hawksbill.


We also saw three white-tipped sharks. Two dozed on the sand. White-tips can pump water over their gills while stationary.

Most of Sipadan is a military base, off limits to civilians. On the short stretch of accessible beach the sand is made of shells and lumps of dead coral. The shells move; they are occupied by small hermit crabs. Their left front claws are bigger than their right. If you pick them up they will eventually come partly out of the shell and pick at your fingers. If the front claw grasps the epidermis, it is difficult to get them off.

They have to switch shells as they get bigger; perhaps they will grow into stalk-eyed monsters like this.


While we had a packed lunch on the island a soldier in fatigues struggled to stay awake next to his mounted machine gun. The soldiers may be there to protect against pirates; some divers were kidnapped from Sipadan a few years ago, and there have always been pirates in these waters.


Posted by Wardsan 17:37 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Turtle Island

sunny 31 °C
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Selingan Island, along with two others in the archipelago, is a turtle reserve. The Malaysian and Philippine navies cooperate to enforce it. The other islands in the archipelago belong to the Philippines.

The only island on which tourists can stay is Selingan, aka Turtle Island. Tourist places are limited to 60 a night. The place is wholly owned and managed by Crystal Quest, which accordingly charges monopoly prices. I rang Crystal Quest only to be told that they were booked up until the end of October, the end of the peak breeding season, and also for much of next year. But many of the places have been block-booked by travel agencies. The first agency I tried said that they had no spaces all month; but after a phone call they said that there was a space on the 15th. This was exactly the night I wanted; an immense stroke of luck.

It is nearly an hour by fast boat from Sandakan. The boat is powered by twin 200hp engines which throw up huge sprays. They retail for 48,000 ringgit each in Sandakan - about £8,000. There are ten of us: two Brits from Wilmslow, and seven others speaking a barbarous Gothic derivate. We arrive in time for lunch and have the afternoon free before the turtles arrive.


The beach is cratered like the DMZ in Vietnam. But a pair of bilaterally symmetrical tracks leads to and from each crater.


Some of the tracks lead for 100 metres. Each crater is an egg pit.

I hang in a hammock for a couple of hours immersed in another Patrick O’Brian, happily found in KL. The island is crawling with monitors. When you are motionless they don’t see you, and several wander on to my little patch of grass.


There three species of monitor in Sabah and 61 in all, all of the genus Varanus. The largest is V. komodoensis, the Komodo dragon. The second-largest is the water monitor, V. salvator, which is the most common in Sabah. The other two species in Sabah are Dumeril’s monitor and the rough-neck monitor.

They have narrow heads like snakes, and they flick forked purple tongues in a serpentine manner, and like snakes they swallow their prey whole. They have long tails: a four-foot monitor is about half tail, and is probably a juvenile. The juveniles often have a pattern of light yellow spots, like a leopard in negative. Water monitors can grow up to over two metres and weigh 25kg, and we saw some large ones in Melaka. Like smaller lizards (other than geckos) they possess elongated phalanges, and long claws for climbing the trees in which they spend most of their time. Between tip and tail hangs a proud belly, bulging like a half-inflated balloon. Their front legs rotate with elbows high, like tortoises’, and their hind legs rotate around the hips like those of a just-walking toddler.


According to the Qlders on the Imaginative tour to Singapore, the instinctive response of a frightened monitor is to climb the nearest tree; failing that, the nearest vertical human will do. That would smart.

Afterwards I went for a snorkel in the shallow water above a reef. There was very little clearance and I had to float as if spatchcocked to avoid the coral.


From 6.30 we were imprisoned inside the restaurant. The turtles arrive at any time after sunset, when it is cooler and safer. The green turtles favour Selingan; the smaller hawksbills neighbouring Gulisan. Four rangers patrol the beaches, radioing in each landed turtle. They work all night and live a nocturnal life.

At 7.30 we are briefed upstairs. It’s staggeringly hot and I’m not well, so I leave rather than measure my length on the floor like a guardsman.

We are split into two groups and once one of the turtles has dug her cavity in the sand and begun laying, we are summoned by the words ‘turtle time’ and told to hurry. As we hurry by the light of the full moon, a couple of us nearly trip over a large metallic nodule: another turtle. We are required to stand in an arc behind the chosen turtle, to avoid disturbing her, although she seems to be in something of a trance anyway. A single torch is shone straight at her ovipositor.


After five minutes she starts thrashing her hind legs, covering up the pit. Unknown to her – she’s like a truck without wingmirrors - a ranger has taken all 89 eggs and put them in a bucket to be transferred to the hatchery.


Without flash, in the dark and with a moving target, it is impossible to take a usable photo. Another time I would not bother trying – it detracts from the moment – but I am enjoying playing with my new camera.

Green turtles usually lay in batches of 50 to 80, although 150 is not unknown. (In all, 29 turtles were to lay 2,045 eggs that night.) The eggs are fairly large, and flexible, not apt to shatter. The turtles expel 5 or 6 at a time, at which point the ranger collects. She will lay four or five times each season before heading back to the feeding grounds.

After she has finished laying they measure her length and width across the dome: about a metre each way. Green turtles are surprisingly large, and adults usually weigh 130 to 150 kg. They may begin to breed at eight years in captivity, but in the wild it is more probably 25 or 30 years before they start. She is tagged if not previously pierced.

Then we follow the ranger to the hatchery. Here all the eggs laid on Selingan are collected and protected. A pit has already been laid, around 70 cm deep. The ranger takes the eggs, puts them in, inserts a protective mesh and covers the pit with sand. (There is nothing the monitors and eagles would like more than a few turtle eggs.) He labels a stick with the date and number of eggs, and the ID number of the mother. The hatchlings will leave their shells in 50 to 60 days. A couple of nights after, they will swim upwards through the sand.

Like crocodiles, their sex is not determined by sex chromosomes. If left uncovered, the pits produce mostly female hatchlings. If covered, and therefore cooler, they will produce males. A difference of 5 degrees C is enough to swing the balance.

Then we go to another pit where the hatchlings have surfaced. A ranger puts them in a bucket – each is tiny, perhaps three inches long - and we follow him to the beach. Hatchlings will head towards the brightest object they can see – usually the sea. So we are instructed to extinguish torches – redundant anyway in the lunar glow – and about three-quarters of them head in the right direction, wiggling their tiny limbs furiously like hilarious clockwork toys or Duracell bunnies. The rest we pick up and turn round and eventually all make it.


About 1-2% will survive to maturity and they will probably return here to breed. They have magnetic crystals in their heads which allows them to navigate and also to recognise locations by virtue of the magnetic variations on the ocean floor.


Posted by Wardsan 14:20 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

In Sandakan

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Sabah is even more ethnically mixed than peninsular Malaysia. No ethnic group makes up more than a fifth of the population. Just largest are the Kadazan Dusun, at 18%; most of them converted to Christianity in the 1930s, when Sabah was run by the British North Borneo Corporation. The next are Bajau at 17%. There are also Chinese, Filipino, Malay, Murut... The most powerful political party is run by Christian Kadazans, and it has often been a thorn in the side of the pro-Malay and pro-Islamic federal government.

Sandakan is more Muslim. The mu’adhdhin’s amplified allahu akbar rings out across town; most women are in headscarves. Yet at the same time illegal Filipino immigrants hugely outnumber Malaysians here. (The Philippines are 17 miles away.) Contrary to expectation, the Malaysians are largely Christian and the immigrants from the Philippines – one of the most populous Christian nations – are Muslim. (So the federal government is not keen to remove them.)

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Night safari

The Night Safari at Singapore Zoo is not a safari, but the animals are in fenceless enclosures. There is a ‘tram’ ride that gives the impression (for children) that the animals are wandering free. (Actually it’s a train, since a train does not need a track.) But the commentary gives little information and is probably not worth it unless you are a child. The trip did nothing to help the Singapore money-dysentery. I went there to play with my new camera and got no usable pictures at all of animals, flash being understandably prohibited.

The best things were the enclosed bat tent - huge flying foxes roosting right above; smaller bats flying all around - and the howling noises. I hadn’t seen hyenas before either.

The only usable snap was of a hut at the entrance.


I believe they're kulits, puppets made of dried buffalo skin, used in wayang kulit.

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Since I started travelling I've been getting a lot of spam. A lot of it is headed ‘you are moron’. A strange message. Am I right not to take it personally?

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Agnes Keith was interned with her son in a prisoner of war camp near Sandakan during the Japanese occupation. (The Borneo Death March, which killed more Australians than the Burma railway, also began in Sandakan.) She kept a diary and hid it piecemeal in tin cans buried outside the hut, and in the linings of the toys she made for her son. The diary was published after the war as And Three Came Back, and was made into a film starring Claudette Colbert.

She lived in Sandakan for nearly twenty years with her husband Harry Keith, who was Conservator of Forests for North Borneo. They lived in a beautiful wooden house on the hill, which was destroyed in the war and then rebuilt to the same design afterwards. It was renovated and turned into a museum in the 1990s. I had never heard of the couple until a few days ago, but I enjoyed the house and the photos.

Anyhow Agnes Keith complained that she was given endless amounts of an ‘inedible’ spinach-like substance called kang kong. It’s morning glory, I believe, and I eat it whenever I can get hold of it. No doubt she didn’t get to eat it with sambal and garlic. I feel in danger of scurvy here because the typical meal is chicken and rice or beef and rice.

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I'm actually in Sepilok today. I've been seeing orang utans for the last couple of days, fulfilling a decades-old desire. I phoned ahead and booked a place at the Sepilok Jungle Resort for three nights. The man on the phone went so far as to get me to spell my name. Then he went and wrote it on bog roll or tattooed it on his arse or something - anywhere but in the hotel diary. They gave me a room for a night and didn't apologise. I've moved to the Sepilok B&B where the proprietor actually wrote my name in the book when I called and has been sincerely friendly since I arrived, and where my room is better than that at the Jungle Resort at about half the price.

Posted by Wardsan 08:16 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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