A Travellerspoint blog

August 2008


Eating our way through multi-cultural Kuching

overcast 29 °C
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If there is a country on Earth that rivals the United States for its delicious ethnic stew of cultures, Malaysia would be a top contender. Straddling the South China Sea on the Malay pennisula and the north coast of the island of Borneo, Malaysia boasts large populations of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, as well as native Dayaks in Borneo. It is a rapidly modernizing nation that is just a short step from joining the developed world, and an easy and rewarding place to visit. Our two-hour flight from Bali took us to Kuching, the capitol of Sarawak province in northwestern Borneo.

Kuching from across the Sarawak River

The modern state of Malaysia was granted independence by the British 50 years ago after a century of crown rule. But Sarawak was a unique case; it had never been an official part of British Malaya. In the early 1800s, the British adventurer James Brooke helped the Sultan of nearby Brunei put down a rebellion, and was given Sarawak as his own personal kingdom. He and his descendants benevolently ruled Sarawak as the White Rajas, including tribal leaders in their government and discouraging European exploitation, until the Japanese invaded. Following the war, Sarawak was integrated into greater Malaysia, with Kuching as the state capitol.

The largest ethnic group in Kuching is the Chinese, and we are staying with Jee Kiun “Barry” Chong, a Chinese chef who runs a food court with several partners.

Barry Chong, our host in Kuching

His ancestors, who come from southern China, have lived in Kuching for generations. The Chinese were invited to Sarawak by the Brookes to work in mining and agriculture, and over time they have come to dominate the economy. And certainly the restaurant industry -- there are enough Chinese markets, food stalls, and restaurants here to feed all of Beijing, I would think.

Chinese shops in Kuching

The night we arrived, Barry took us to the Kuching Food Festival, which runs for three weeks every August.

The Kuching Food Festival in full swing

It’s an outdoor park of food stands, full of Malaysians happily munching their way through the country’s multi-ethnic cuisines.

Meat on a stick -- it’s the univeral culinary language

In the past, Barry and his friends have run a stall selling doughnut-like desserts, but this year they decided not to due to the cost of the stall and the increased price of flour. We walked around, sampling various goodies like fried squid balls with a sweet sauce, as well as, umm, stranger things...

Tastes like chicken!

In the morning, Barry took us to his food court, where we breakfasted on roti, Indian fried flatbread.

Barry’s food court

Breakfast with Barry

Most of the people there were having Sarawak’s culinary obsession: laksa.

The breakfast of champions, Sarawak-style

This is a bowl of noodles, bean sprouts, shredded chicken, and shrimp, all swimming in a bubbling red hell-broth of coconut milk and chili paste. And yes, they eat this for breakfast.

Mmmmm... Laksaaaaaah...

I had a bowl for dinner at the food fair, and while it was delicious, it left me requiring some intimate time with the thunder bucket the next day. I can’t imagine what it would do to my guts first thing in the morning!

Speaking of which, it is worth a quick detour to mention that we are now solidly in the land of the Asian squat toilet.

Watch your sneakers...

Think what you want about it, but there is something to be said for this toilet architecture. The position it puts you in is actually quite physiologically advantageous for the task at hand. And it has additional bonus features: we have noticed that most Asians have really beautifully toned thigh muscles, and if you are a habitual bathroom reader, you will find that you have noticably more time in your day for other pursuits.

We spent the rest of the morning walking around Kuching, which has a lovely waterfront promenade and a beautiful colonial area.

The gate to the market

Notice the sign on the right: “Tan Heng Thai: Speical [sic] Maker For Fancy Coffins”

Kuching means “cat” in Malay, and the city fathers have built statues of cats all around the city. There’s even a cat museum. It’s kind of corny, but rather endearing as well. Assuming you’re not a mouse, I suppose.

Meow, welcome to Kuching, meow meow.

But the highlight of the day was unquestionably a trip for the afternoon feeding at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center, where they rehabilitate orangutans and reintroduce them to jungle life. Of all the meals we experienced in Kuching, theirs was definitely the most memorable.


One other memorable thing we experienced in Kuching with Barry: we got to visit with a group of Chinese theatre people. Barry is part of the Cicada Drama Company, the first Chinese Buddhist theatre company in Kuching, founded by Taiwanese movie director Tsai Ming Liang, whose movies have received some international acclaim (I’ve never heard of them, but I don’t follow Chinese cinema much). Barry was very excited to find out that we were theatre people, so our final night with him, he invited his friends over and we talked theatre -- running a company, communicating to audiences, etc.

Talking shop with Barry and Sheau Fen “Jean” Lai

We watched a video of a recent performance of theirs, an original play called “I Want To Fly Away Into The Sky,” which was about dealing with terminal illness. It was quite interesting to watch even though we didn’t understand the dialogue, and had some very touching moments.

It was a fun night, and an unexpected treat at the end of our long taste of Kuching.

Posted by Bwinky 21:04 Archived in Malaysia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

Love Wins

Celebrating Galungan in Bali

sunny 23 °C
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It’s a big world
We’re hoping for a big change
We’re broken
In the fading light of a dying sun
We cry for redemption
There is hope...

Keep on dreaming of the day when it all will change
Believe in the end that love wins
If you’re waiting for the time when your sun will shine
Look above, for love wins

-- Robbie Seay

According to a Balinese legend, many years ago there was a king of Bali who was pig-headed (figuratively -- and literally, apparently, though I don’t quite understand that part). In his arrogance, the king declared himself divine, offending the gods. Shiva, the god in the Hindu trinity who represents destruction in the universe’s endless cycle of renewal, sent his lieutenant to bring justice, and after a mighty battle the evil king was overthrown. Good had triumphed over evil, and every year this victory is celebrated in Bali as the holiday Galungan -- one of the two most sacred celebrations in Balinese Hinduism.

After several days of rain that had hampered our plans to strike out into the Balinese countryside, the sun broke through just in time for Wednesday’s celebration of Galungan.

Holiday revellers

All over Ubud, people flooded the streets in their best traditional costumes with a few grains of rice stuck to their foreheads, carrying offerings to the temples and baskets of goodies for their friends and family.

I wouldn’t think a lace blouse over a bustier was “traditional,” but it’s what all the Balinese women were wearing... *shrug*

There were parades of children with noisemakers and dancing dragons. All kinds of hullaballoo.

Kids and noise -- a universal combination

And, of course, tourists doing their best to fit in by wearing their batik sarongs so they could enter the temples.

”Honey, does this sarong make my butt look fat?” “No; do these sneakers make me look like I have chicken legs?”

We had the honor of being invited into the home of the family who ran the restaurant across the street from our hotel. We were welcomed with a banana leaf bowl of wine-soaked rice, and I Wayan Darta, the father, told us the story behind the holiday and invited us into their family shrine to learn how they worship.

Darta and family

Offerings were placed on the altar, and then we were invited to bow five times with our hands held palms together before our heads: once in thanksgiving, once in prayer to the supreme god, once to the sun, once to all the gods, and then once more in thanksgiving.

Bowing in prayer

Now you can debate all day about the theology of general versus unique revelation, blah-blah-blah, but it’s an honor to be invited into someone’s home for a holiday, and the triumph of good over evil is a truth that I believe is universally revealed. And bowing in prayer three times has a nice symmetry with our own beliefs, so this worked out rather nicely for us.

Galungan is also the day for celebration of the marriage of everyone who has wed in the past year, and Darta invited us down the street to meet his nephew Ketut and his bride Komar.

The newlyweds, Ketut and Komar

We spent some time visiting with them, and all the while friends and neighbors were pouring in with baskets of food. Within an hour, the table was ready to collapse.

After a brief walk through the rice fields, we left Ubud in the afternoon for Kuta, wishing that we could stay longer and experience more of this beautiful part of Bali -- Kuta is definitely the ugly side.

Dudes -- surf’s up and our boards are losin’ wax!

This is Indonesia’s answer to Daytona: a nice enough beach despoiled by tattoo parlors and swimwear stores, bars and nightclubs, highrises and sleazy hotels, and more drunk Australians than you can shake a surfboard at.

”I just know there’s a beach around here somewhere...”

But it was close to the airport for the next day’s flight, and it was worth seeing for an evening of slumming.

At the busiest intersection in town is the Memorial Wall to the 2002 bombings that took the lives of over 200 vacationers.

Memories of October 12, 2002

A sobering reminder that while love does win in the end, we are still in the battle to get there.

‘Til then, we’ll keep looking above.

Posted by Bwinky 04:59 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

And now for something completely different

Follow the travels of Flat Shunshi

In case you are interested, I have started a second blog. It follows the travels of Flat Shunshi, the Japanese cousin of the American boy Flat Stanley. This is a book that many grade school age children read, and my nephew Josiah is doing it as a school project. Flat Stanley travels around and people take pictures of him.


We made Flat Shunshi together, and he lives in our backpack and sees a few of the sights around Asia with us. He now has his own page, and you can check it out if you like.


Posted by Bwinky 04:53 Comments (2)

"How Green Was My Bali"

Rain in the land of fun-in-the-sun

rain 21 °C
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In the Hindu religion there is a concept called Rwa Bineda, or interdependent duality. This is sort of like the yin and yang idea -- for everything there is an equal and necessary opposite: light and darkness, life and death, pleasure and pain, etc. Nowhere have I seen this more played out, fittingly, than in Bali, the primarily Hindu island just off the east coast of Muslim Java.

Bali is world-renowned for its lush natural beauty and its incredibly complex and varied artistic culture. It is equally well-known as party central for surfers and young Australians, and of course it holds a place in our memories for the 2002 bomb blasts in the resort town of Kuta that killed hundreds.

We arrived here three days ago after an excruciating overnight bus trip from Gunung Bromo. It's been cloudy and gray the whole time we've been here, and raining for a lot of it, which is disappointing considering this is such a "vacation paradise." But still, you can't help but be struck by the beauty of the place; it's just incredibly green and nature looks ready to take over any given space at any moment. We are staying in a place called Gusti's Garden Bungalows, set in a river valley full of water gardens. It's spectacular.

Gusti's Garden Bungalows

The town we are staying in, Ubud, is the cultural capitol of the island, and has been a center for painters, sculptors, weavers, dancers and musicians for over a century. It's a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples built with orange plaster that really stands out against the sky, and ornate gray stonework and sculptures of Hindu gods and monsters.

Pura Taman Saraswati, the water temple

Sacred monster statue

On any night of the week, you have your choice of a dozen cultural events -- sacred Legong dance with graceful dancers in fantastic costumes moving to the frenetic beat of gamelan, an orchestra of percussion, or Wayang Kulit, Hindu epic stories played out with ornate leather shadow puppets lit with candles behind a screen.

Legong dancer at the Ubud Palace

The Hindu religion pervades life here in Bali in a fashion that is pretty unique. Every home has a little shrine, and the people make offerings there every morning. They seem to build a shrine everywhere something significant has happened, it seems.

Making an offering

Tomorrow is the Hindu festival Galungan. It celebrates the victory of good over evil, and it's one of the major holidays here, so the whole city is preparing. In each home and all up and down every street, families are building big towers called penjors from a long bamboo branch, wrapped with palm leaf decorations and heads of rice hanging down the length of it. When they're finished, they stand them up in the ground so they hang, lantern-like, in front of their doorways.


Preparing for Galungan

You can't step out your door without almost stepping on little ceremonial offerings left everywhere -- usually a little banana leaf basket with some rice, a flower, and a burning stick of incense. In fact, I bumped into one when jumping out the way of a passing car and burned a hole in the back of the leg of my rather expensive mosquito-repelling travel pants, which would hack me off if it wasn't so funny. I regret that some profane expletives escaped my lips, which is ironic considering it was a sacred object that caused it.

And that kind of sums up the experience here, actually. The hawkers here are more persistant even than in Yogya, and you can't walk down the street without being accosted with offers of taxi rides, motorbike rentals, and batik sarongs. Bali is incredibly beautiful, and it's incredibly for sale. The sacred and the profane, karma and capitalism, beauty and rain.


Posted by Bwinky 23:57 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


Freezing our tushes off . . . on the equator!

sunny 4 °C
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We are leaving Milwaukee because we are just sick to death of being cold. We just can’t take it any more! It’s a fact: we both love being hot. One of the reasons we are loving being in Asia is because it’s so warm here.

Most of the time. Sunrise at the top of an Indonesian mountain, however, is most definitely NOT one of those times!

We left Yogya yesterday morning on a tourist minivan service direct to Gunung Bromo, the famous volcano in the eastern part of Java. We spent 12 hours in a van with six other travellers -- and mind you, this is a trip of only about 400-500km. There is no such thing as a freeway in Java once you get outside of the Jakarta region, and the majority of the trip was on two-lane road.

However, don’t think for minute that a two-lane road means two orderly lines of cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes. Oh no, my friend. We’re in Asia now, and two lanes is plenty for passing -- in both directions -- plus a motorbike lane or two. Our driver, a haggard 60-ish Indonesian guy with a couple of teeth perpetually clenching a kretek (clove cigarette), felt it was his moral duty to overtake any other vehicle brazen enough to get in his way, and make every single passing/passed vehicle (and pedestrian, for that matter) aware of his presence by sounding the horn, not just for a moment, but for as long as they were in the same time zone.

This was, in every sense of the word, an exhausting journey. When we pulled over at a road-side eatery for some nasi goreng (fried rice, which you can get to go in a plastic bag), David and Elise, the very nice French couple who had been sitting next to him in the front seat, said, “We haff to ask eef we can please rotate seats every sree hours or so? We can no longer take seeting up zere weeth him, eet ees too scary!”

But we eventually did make it in one piece to the hotel on the edge of Mount Bromo. Of course, by that time it was dark so we had no idea where exactly we were; we grabbed some dinner and headed to bed, because the wake-up knock would come at 3:30am for the jeep ride up to the top of the next mountain to see the sunrise over the crater.

Getting up at that ungodly hour is tough any time, and especially after a day like that, but throw in a temperature of 40°, and it was pretty hellacious. Or more accurately, arctic, since I think lack of sleep probably intensifies the chill. Let’s just say we’re really glad that we stopped at REI in Houston and picked up some fleece sweaters!

But of course, it was well worth it. Gunung Bromo is a smoking crater resting in a sea of sand and ash in the caldera of a big ancient volcano, with yet an even larger volcano sending out puffs of steam behind it for good measure. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of the scene as the sun rose over the edge of the valley.

Sunrise over Gunung Bromo

Of course, it would be incredible to experience it alone with the beauty of God’s creation, but that’s not remotely possible. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty popular tourist destination, and we hardly had the place to ourselves. There were probably 500 other travellers packed together up at the peak, standing around waiting for the sunrise and jockeying for the best photo position at the rail.

Ah, to be alone...

After the sunrise, we took our jeep down to the bottom of the caldera to hike up to the top of the crater. The scenery on the way down is amazing; you would actually swear you were in Switzerland, not the tropics.

Yodels, anyone?

Once you get to the bottom it’s a moderately challenging hike through the ashy sand and up a steep stairway cut in the rock to get to the top.

Hiking across the sea of volcanic sand

The extremely challenging part is negotiating your way through the hundreds of guys at the bottom wanting to sell you a ride up on their horse. This is a feature at every big tourist site in Indonesia (and probably everywhere else we will be): hawkers. They want to sell you something, anything. It gets really annoying after a while because they are incredibly persistant. No matter how many times you try to politely smile and say ”Tarima kasi, no thank you,” they just keep on following you until they spot another possible mark. I don’t blame them, of course, since I’m a died-in-the-wool capitalist, but it does take the edge off the beauty you’re trying to experience.

Every beautiful thing comes with a price, I guess. You just need to mentally put on your fleece to insulate yourself against the unpleasant part.

Posted by Bwinky 21:40 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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