A Travellerspoint blog

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)

The end of the rainbow

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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I'm back on the South China Sea - first glimpsed four months ago - in Kota Kinabalu, wondering what to do next. In theory I am here to climb Mount Kinabalu. But a dodgy ankle, sustained in a pratfall off the pavement in Semporna, while embarrassingly sober, casts that into question. As the first post made clear, I haven't had a plan since arriving in Bangkok. While that affords complete flexibility, sometimes I would like to have a better idea of what I'm here for. There is a constant tension between the intensive and the extensive: should I stay in a place and try to understand it a little, or see as much as possible? At the moment the latter strategy is more attractive. Without a plan I'm also likely to criss-cross around more than I need to.

So where next? In Borneo I have been looking at animals and diving - nothing cultural at all. It has been very enjoyable. I feel like more of the same, which rules out Java for the moment. The Philippines have great diving, but it is very wet season now (most seasons are the very wet season in the Philippines). Bali and Lombok also offer good diving, but it is peak season. There is interesting diving in Sulawesi and in Timor, but I want a prescription mask first, and may not be able to get one outside of KL, Singapore and Bali. Peninsular Malaysia has KL, the Perhentians, Kota Bahru, Rendang, Rantau Abang, Tioman and Taman Negara National Park. But August is the school holidays and it's busy; and I know I'll want to go east again afterwards. And the Olympics and then Ramadan are approaching. There seem to be too many constraints. Grateful for ideas.

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There were very few Italians in Vietnam, but Sabah is full of them. In Semporna I dined and dived with Italians. It was fun trying to speak Italian (it didn't work too well, but most of them spoke even worse English). There are also a surprising number of Nordics and Scandinavians.

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This blog has had 20,000 site visits. Keep them coming.

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The short flight from Tawau to KK had plenty of interest. The area around Tawau is supposedly less logged than, say, Sandakan. But as we lifted off, oil palms stretched to the horizon. The only primary rainforest left in Sabah seems to be in protected zones, which cover only a fraction of Sabah. Around the Kinabatangan I had been wondering why they were planted square, when they could fit more in by planting hexagonally. Perhaps it's something to do with transporting the heavy palm nuts? Well, around Tawau they do plant hexagonally.

A very large proportion of the cumulus clouds on Borneo tower miles upwards, perhaps because the air at low level is so warm, which would create strong convection currents. There are a lot of thunderstorms too, of course.

I have seen the end of the rainbow, and it's just oil palms. From the plane I saw a double rainbow. One was the brightest sky-arc I have ever seen; I somehow expected to be able to see more than just the usual seven colours. The rainbows ran vertically from the ground to the clouds.

And as we came to KK, Mount Kinabalu appeared on the right. It rises sharply and majestically out of a sea of cloud. There are hills nearby, but no real mountains, so Kinabalu is a singleton, like Fuji or El Misti. It looks craggy and enormous - another reason to think twice about climbing it.

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Anyway, I have a feeling that blogs about enjoying oneself are less interesting than the converse. (At the opening of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously claimed that happy families are all alike, unhappy families unhappy in their own way. It is an impressively portentous opening sentence, but I suspect it's false.) So let's go back three months to Vietnam.

In Ninh Bình I pedalled to Bich Ðọng and Tam Coc and was couriered to Vân Long, Ðông Vân Trình and Kênh Gà.


Bich Ðọng was a pleasant surprise. It is a pagoda built within a limestone cave. Actually there are three pagodas, each on a different level. There are hordes of tourists, 99% of them Vietnamese or Chinese. There must be a lot of French people in Ninh Bình because everyone calls me ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.



Tam Coc is billed as ‘Hạ Long Bay on the rice paddies’, because the same limestone crags burst vertically out of the fields. Tourists come to Tam Coc to be rowed along the river admiring the landscape. The paddies start at the edge of the river and it is difficult to say where the river ends and the fields begin.


The river passes through three caves. The view is slightly spoiled by signs with slogans such as ‘the marvellously of mountains and rivers’ and ‘let’s protect our natural landscape’. Well, yes, you could start by not planting signs everywhere.



All tourists who visit Ninh Bình go to Tam Coc. The jetty is surrounded by tacky souvenir shops and you can’t walk a step without people shouting at you.

As such it is a good example of how to ruin a good spot. Ten years ago it would no doubt have been a lovely experience. In Vietnam many of the big tourist experiences leave a bitter taste. Those making a living from tourism at the sites cannot just give you a service, but do their best to leave you feeling shit at not setting them up for life. I thought I was lucky, at first. My rower, Hong, and I chatted a bit in Vietnofrench. I bought him a can of beer at the far end.


Like many Vietnamese men, he wore a pith helmet.



But on the way back, the hard sell began. In Tam Coc they push embroidery. Ancient women transfer from boat to boat selling to conscience-stricken tourists. Hong duly opened a box and handed me a pile of embroidery. I looked and did not like; it’s hardly my thing. I declined to buy, and then received the full story: you buy, I have family, babies, give me $10. Well, fuck off. As if it's my problem. As if no-one else in VN is in that situation. And then he asked for a tip. I gave him all the small change I had – 15,000 dong – and he paddled away looking sour.



While I walked around the paths over the paddies barking came from the water all around: frogs.

When I next parked my bike near a temple, the guy tried to charge me a dollar. I had just heard him say 5,000 dong to someone else in Vietnamese. I corrected him and paid him; then he tried to give me the wrong amount in change. This is sadly common.


After that I saw Thai Vị temple, a monument to the 14 Tran kings, beginning with the guy who defeated the Mongols at Bạch Ðâng. A nice temple beneath the outcrops, originally thirteenth century but much restored, with an old wooden bell-tower.




A Chinese-looking guy with a long wispy beard, looking like a caricature from a 1930s movie, gave me a limited explanation and received a limited donation.


The following day I visited Vân Long and Kênh Gà on the back of a motorbike driven by Cương. These are both better places to visit than Tam Coc because they have not yet been ruined. Before we set off Cương reassured me: I have been driving for two years. That’s OK then. I was worried for a second.


Vân Long is a beautiful wetland reserve with karst features. Again, the visitor is rowed around it. The boat is woven and tarred bamboo. It can be punted and rowed. The rowlocks are of rope.

Vân Long is much more peaceful than Tam Coc. The only sounds are birdsong, frogs and the splashing of oars. For the first half hour I saw one other boat.


My rower, Dung (pronounced like a psychoanalyst), is 30 and the mother of children aged 13, 8 and 4. She speaks three words of French, and tries to sell me nothing. We pass a man punting a little coracle; he is after crabs.


One border of the wetland is a main road on a dike. As I watched, a truck driver knocked a man off his overloaded bike, ran out, picked him up, got back in the truck and drove off. Presumably it happens a lot. Just down the road, an enormous belching cement factory, one of very many in Vietnam. Like its northern neighbour, Vietnam has an infinite appetite for cement.


Attached to every vertical object in the reserve are small pink lentil-like objects. They are snails’ eggs. They pop like caviar but the contents are much stickier.


The largest birds on view are white, with long beaks. They are called chim cò and are probably storks or egrets.


It began to drizzle steadily. We took refuge in a cave every bit as large as the largest at Tam Coc, and there came upon a sheltering group of Korean tourists in boats. One sang a Korean song, very loudly. He had a very good voice and we all applauded.


In the afternoon I went to Kênh Gà: chicken village. I was irritated to be asked to pay 80,000 dong for two tickets. But for that I chartered a whole boat, 25 or 30 feet long, powered by an engine, for three hours. Because of the engine, the trip was nowhere near as peaceful as Vân Long.


Despite its name, Kênh Gà is a fishing village that has turned into a town. Women occupy boats in pairs. One lounges back and rows slowly with her feet, one oar at a time. They even feather. The other repeatedly drops a basket to the riverbed and raises it again by rope. Each time a bucketful of sand and snails pours on to the floor. Again, there are snails’ eggs everywhere.


It’s productive fishing, and when they have done with that they harvest the leaves that grow in the river. Leaves play a big role in many Vietnamese dishes. They don’t cook with Thai basil very much, which is a shame, but they do use mint to great effect.


Naturally, the Hoang Long river (named after a dragon, of course) is the town’s aorta. People work in it and wash in it (it’s silty and unappetising). Children play in it, boys on one side, girls on the other.



There are also surprisingly big cargo boats on the river, eighty to hundred feet long and more. Families live on them. They can’t be transporting fish. My guess is that they’re transporting sand and aggregates in one direction and cement in another. It’s surprising that they can navigate the river when laden.

Many, if not most, villages in Vietnam specialise. One will make a certain kind of crockery, another fireworks, another paper, another silk, another ink, another embroidery. It is a demonstration of the advantages of clustering. There must be economies of scale, perhaps from spillovers of specialist skills and from distribution costs. Retailers in the cities also cluster. One street will sell only paint, another only DVDs. This is, of course, an ancient pattern: the streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are still called Silk Street, Paper Street, Coffin Street etc. If you want to find a pharmacy you have to travel.


At the far end of the trip I got out to walk a mile or so a cave, Ðông Vân Trình. A cave is a cave and I have seen a few, so I was unenthusiastic, but it turned out to be worth a walk. There are mites and tites by the score. The main cavern is perhaps 90 metres across and twenty metres high, like something dwarvish from Tolkien.



Everywhere are gothic organ pipes, fans, car radiators, melted wax, baleen. There are no guides, no railings and few lights; these long-exposure photographs exaggerate the available light.



The visit is marred (very slightly) only by the persistent attentions of a chainsmoking group of Vietnamese tourists. They don’t mean to harass, but one of them follows me around trying to communicate by repeating himself and speaking loudly –as so many Brits do when talking to Johnny Foreigner.


The bike ride back was great fun, too, as we travelled through dramatic landscape along a half-finished road. No ‘road closed’ signs, no cones, no contraflows. People just drive on the drivable bits past the workmen. And we finished with two litres of bia hơi for 20,000 dong at just about the only pleasant spot in Ninh Bình, by a lake.


Posted by Wardsan 22:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Singapore Cricket Club

semi-overcast 30 °C
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I don't have much time, so just a brief chapter today. I’m diving in Semporna. Today I saw couple of green turtles, which made my day. And a mandarinfish.

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While wandering around the colonial district of Singapore I saw cricket. The Singapore Cricket Club Social XI were playing a friends’ side first created to celebrate the skipper’s fortieth, and now convened annually.


It is a wonderful place to play cricket: on the Padang, in front of the Supreme Court and City Hall. The court handles so many cases that City Hall is now used to house the overflow. This is City Hall.


There were sports played on the Padang from the early days, but cricket became the most popular. The Singapore Cricket Club was founded in 1852, ten years after the Turf Club. Members also played bowls, tennis and billiards. Football and rugby were introduced in the 1880s and hockey in the 1890s.

All members were male Europeans. Women were admitted in 1938. Today, reflecting the city-state in which it exists, it is a multiracial club.

The present pavilion was built in 1907.


The club was used as a temporary hospital in the battle for Singapore in 1942. During the Japanese occupation it
was used as a restaurant and bar for Japanese officers. It was then used by the British Military Administration for a year before being handed back to the Club.


And outside the club is a Belisha beacon. It all made me nostalgic for home.

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

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)

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