dharamsala dreaming

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The Himalayan suburb of McLeod Ganj wearing an air of festivity and contemplation on a day celebrating the life, enlightenment and teachings of the Buddha.

Last year a day before Wesak I went to Dharamsala, a town in the far north of India situated at the foothills of the Himalayas.

Wesak or Buddha Purnima as it is called in the land of his birth commemorates the buddhahood or enlightenment of Siddharta Gautama on a full moon day under a fig tree two thousand five hundred and fifty years ago – almost six centuries before Jesus was born.

Once a domain of the semi-nomadic goat-herding Gaddi tribal people, the area now known as Dharamsala was annexed by the British in 1848. Enchanted by its English weather and scenery, the colonial newcomers constructed a cantonment for their Gurkha soldiers and established headquarters there for the surrounding district of Kangra.

Dharamsala soon developed into a popular hill station, attracting people of position and power including the Viceroy of India, the Earl of Elgin who on a visit in 1863 died of a heart attack while swinging across a river on a rope. He is buried in St John in the Wilderness, a small stone church just outside town.

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With its heady mix of Himalayan hill tribes, Tibetan exiles and western truth and thrill seekers Dharamsala is a fascinating place for political science studies, photography and people watching.
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Despite its conspicuous Tibetan Buddhist population the majority (70%) of people in Dharamsala are from the indigenous Hindu ethnic groups including the Gaddis and Gujjars

 

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High altitude fashion: Himalayan Couture strung up and on display by the roadside

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The name Dharamsala came from a religious term in Sanskrit loosely translated as “sanctuary”. It is an appropriate and prophetic name as Dharamsala has become a shelter of sorts for generations of disquieted humans running away from something somewhere.

The refuge seekers included Raj-era Englishmen escaping from India’s heat; Tibetans from Chinese persecution; post-conscription Israeli youths from troubles and tensions in the Middle East; and legions of spiritual tourists of every nationality from society’s contaminating influence and stress.

Perhaps I too was seeking something, tired and anguished by the condition of my then ailing late father. I was drawn to Dharamsala by stories I had heard and news I had read about the hardships and yearnings of its exiled Tibetan community and by the happy and peaceful teachings of their deeply revered leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

I got there just as the sun started to sink slowly behind the stately stands of cedar trees around McLeod Ganj, the town’s upper suburb perched scenically on the slopes of the Dhauladhar Mountains.

With its meditative monasteries, noodle and dumpling shops and high-cheeked sunbronzed faces garbed in maroon robes, McLeod Ganj exudes so much in the manner of Tibet they nostalgically nicknamed it “Little Lhasa”.

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Tibetans in Dharamsala are not as harmonious and homogenous as they appear. The community is divided by the region they come from and between the descendants of the refugees who came with the Dalai Lama in 1959 and newcomers who arrived after.
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A  proud patrician face of a Tibetan elder in resplendent red tunic
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vegetable vendor near the Dalai Lama Temple
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Colourful souvenir scarves for sale in a shop in McLeod Ganj.
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Noon crowds coming out of the Main Temple after listening to a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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Today’s young foreigners are as drawn to Dharamsala as their predecessors. Large number of Israeli youths fresh from compulsory military service now make the nearby Himalayan villages their second home. Peaceful natural environment, acceptance by the locals, cheap costs of living, and availability of marijuana have been cited as reasons.
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The image many still perceive of India
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Woman making pan fried momo, the town’s Tibetan street food of choice

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There are today around 100,000 Tibetans in India where their status is one of long-term guests of the country and not refugees. Rather than keeping their future in a limbo many young and educated Tibetans are migrating to the west. Such emigration plus the mere trickling of new arrivals from Tibet are the reasons for a potentially falling population.
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A slow walk to the hippies hamlet of Dharamkot just 4km from McLeod Ganj

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Although without citizenship rights, Tibetans have contributed greatly to the economy of Dharamsala. Their six-decade presence in India has further enhanced the country’s reputation as an accepting, welcoming and freedom-loving civilisational nation.

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Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives in Dharamsala. Like Palestine and Taiwan, the Tibet question is emotionally-charged and politically divisive. Chinese view is that Tibet is historically a part of China and that the military invasion in 1950 was to liberate the Tibetan people from medieval subjugation by a slave-owning feudal theocracy.

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sultanate of simple surprises

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Superman on a hired speed boat in Kampong Ayer. Brunei is more fun than belies its staid image as a oil rich conservative kingdom.

I won’t lie about Brunei.

It is absolutely a place worth going for a break. Many people get it wrong that there is nothing to see in Brunei. The truth is there is more to Negara Brunei Darussalam than its oil, king and islam.

For a country slightly less than twice the size of Luxembourg with a population of just over 400,000 there are surprisingly interesting things to see and enjoyable experiences to be had in Brunei.

It is not a boring place at all but visiting the Sultanate of Brunei is a bit like going on a Buddhist retreat. You’ve got to let go of all expectations, judgment and even your fear to gain amazing insights. You need to quiet down your mind and abandon your ego and all you think you might know about global travel before this lightly-touristed kingdom and its wondrously kind inhabitants open up their generous hearts to you.

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Red hat and furry pet drawing a Sunday crowd
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Music and memorabilia at a flea market on Jalan Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, the city’s main street named after the king’s father who abdicated on 5 October 1967 in favour of his eldest son.
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Brunei is a great place for raising a family. Here in the 4th richest country in the world by GDP per capita, citizens get free healthcare, tertiary education and subsidised housing
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Nasi Katok- the local take on the Malay staple of fragrant steamed rice, chilli shrimp paste, eggs, tempeh and crispy fried chicken
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Ambling along the stilted timber walkways of Kampong Ayer on a hot afternoon with the sounds of lapping water and distant sputter of boat engines brings to mind the country’s name Darussalam – Arabic for “Land of Peace”
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The kindest fruit seller in the world. Returning each morning to buy fruits from this nice woman in Kianggeh Market she gave me a free bunch of bananas and two unidentified green mango-looking fruits to bring back home with me
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Brunei’s interesting water city made up of a few dozens interconnected stilted villages has been around for nearly a thousand years. It continues to define the country’s character as an ancient Malay maritime kingdom right up to this day
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Where once half of Brunei’s population lived, today less than 14,000 people still call Kampong Ayer home.

The most unique and under-appreciated attraction in Brunei is its calm, quiet and quirky capital Bandar Seri Begawan (called Brunei Town before 1970) which is home to the largest above-the-water city built with wood in the world.

Over preceding centuries people from near and far have known Brunei as a powerful Malay kingdom. Even the name of the island of Borneo came from Brunei.

The earliest detailed description of Brunei was given by an Italian explorer who travelled in Magellan’s ship on the first voyage around the world. His name was Antonio Pigafetta. He was from Venice, a famous city also built on top of the sea.

Pigafetta wrote this in his journal in 1521:

“This city is entirely built on foundations in the salt water, except the houses of the king and some of the princes: it contains twenty-five thousand fires or families.The houses are all of wood, placed on great piles to raise them high up. When the tide rises the women go in boats through the city selling provisions and necessaries. In front of the king’s house there is a wall made of great bricks, with barbicans like forts, upon which were fifty-six bombards of metal, and six of iron. They fired many shots from them during the two days that we passed in the city.

The king to whom we presented ourselves is a Moor, and is named Raja Siripada: he is about forty years of age, and is rather corpulent. No one serves him except ladies who are the daughters of the chiefs. No one speaks to him except by means of the blow-pipe as has been described above. He has ten scribes, who write down his affairs on thin bark of trees, and are called chiritoles. He never goes out of his house except to go hunting.”

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Omar, 45 has been living all his life in Kampong Ayer. He is worried that with the Government’s plan to demolish stage by stage the water settlement his livelihood, heritage and memories will be lost forever.

 

Unlike other cities built with oil money such as Qatar, Baku and Astana with their crass consumerism and future-pretending architecture, Bandar Seri Begawan surprises many new visitors with its shabby low-rise, down-to-earth and retro seventies appearance, attitude and ambience.

The city lies along the waters of the Brunei River which spouts from its mouth into a sheltered inlet that opens out to the South China Sea. With about 200,000 people living in its urban precinct and the nearby district of Muara, Bandar Seri Begawan passes off easily as a large town in neighbouring Malaysia except here the streets are free from rubbish, the trees are taller and cars reliably stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings.

Eating and getting around is quite easy and cheap. Mini buses ply between stops around the city on 20 to 30 minutes interval charging a normal fare of B$1.00 each trip including the route that stops at the international airport 6.5 km from downtown Bandar.

For these reasons and more I like Brunei.

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After decades of free spending and easy money from oil, the country’s economy is now not in such a good shape. Income has risen this year with better oil prices but high expenses and spending on its largely unproductive citizens bears Brunei down

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Joining his friends for futsal, Kampong Ayer
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A young stall assistant catching an afternoon nap in the lazy heat

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This Kampong Ayer resident and retired school teacher laments that the Government is not doing enough to promote tourism
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Chinese make up about 10% of Brunei’s population. Despite being born in Brunei or having  parents or family who have been residing there for generations, about 85% are still not given citizenship. Bruneian Chinese as non-citizens cannot get passport. They must travel overseas with a confusing document called an “International Certificate of Identity” and apply each time for a visa to visit West Malaysia but not Singapore which allow them entry  without visa.

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Proclaimed by the present Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on the day of independence from British rule on 1 January 1984, the ideology of  Melayu Islam Beraja or Islamic Malay Kingliness permeates all aspects of Brunei life

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Despite complaints about limited freedom and lifestyle choices, Brunei is often praised as a great place for spending quality time with your loved ones
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Brunei has an growing unemployment problem. In 2017 the number of people without work stands at 7.1%

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All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2018

something about surabaya

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Honestly, it is hard to think of a city in the world with a name as sweet-sounding and redolent of a tropical bygone era as Surabaya.

But the origin of the name Surabaya that hints strongly at the bestial instincts of struggle and survival is not quite so romantic. The name, it is said, comes from two words in the local Javanese language. ‘Sura’, meaning a big shark-like fish and ‘boya’, meaning crocodile.

Surabaya  is situated on the northeastern coast of Java along a narrow straits facing the island of Madura.

Kali Mas (Golden River) which is a branch of the Brantas River flows through the centre of Surabaya from south to north. Chosen for its location, on the busy sea lanes linking multifarious waypoints in the world’s largest archipelago that is Indonesia, Surabaya has always served as a port.

Surabaya’s seagoing connection goes back more than 600 years when Java was ruled by the mighty Majapahit kings.

Around 1800, about two hundred years after the arrival of their first ships, the Dutch finally gained control of Java. They conquered Java by cunningly playing the island’s local muslim rulers off against each other and destroying those who dared to stand in their way.

True to form, the Dutch in the Age of Imperialism, were cold-hearted, efficient and bent-on-profit administrators. They cared little for the lives (much less the livelihoods) of the Javanese peasants, chieftains and noblemen over whom they governed.

Through a colonial policy introduced in 1830 known as Cultuurstelsel or Cultivation System the Dutch compelled their Javanese subjects to plant commercial crops like indigo, coffee and sugar instead of rice. Such export orientated policy brought huge profits to the colonial government, as well as to their middlemen and merchants but led to widespread misery, starvation and sickness among the population living in the coastal and central regions of Java.

Indonesia was then called ‘Hindia Belanda’ or the Dutch East Indies and Surabaya grew to become its foremost city and most important port. But by the time of the economic depression of the 1930s Surabaya’s fortune was on its way down and its position as main city had been overtaken by Jakarta (then Batavia)

Surabaya is still today Indonesia’s second biggest city, a vibrant centre of commerce, industry and an important  travel hub. Many travellers fly into Surabaya to get to somewhere else. Some of them may choose to stay a night to take in a handful of sights but Surabaya is really not yet a traveller hotspot especially for texting teenagers or tourists chasing big-ticket attractions.

For visitors looking for vestiges of the Dutch East Indies in the delapidated doorways and grunge-covered gables of a nineteenth century colonial city separated into European, Chinese, Arab and native quarters, the old city of Surabaya is an absorbing place. It is also a veritable walk-through history book and street photographers’ delight.

 

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Surabaya’s old city near Jembatan Merah or Red Bridge looking even more atmospheric after an afternoon thunderstorm
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Young mother with napping baby at the Pabean market
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‘What is your profession?’ he enquired before showing me the way to the Red Bridge behind the shop passing dried seafood stalls, sniffing rodents and smiling shopkeepers
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Fresh fish arriving at the Pabean market around lunch time
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Some of the young friends I made in Surabaya

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Afternoon pilgrims walking to the tomb of Sunan Ampel one of the nine saints or Wali Songo credited with spreading Islam to Java
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Young superheroes in the rain

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A father and daughter moment while waiting for the rain to stop
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“It is difficult to find a job here” Ahmad is a fruit seller near the Ampel Market

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Smoking bus conductor seen from my coach bound for the neighbouring Island of Madura
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“What will you promise me if I pose for you?”
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Built in 1918 Pasar Pabean is the oldest and perhaps also  the biggest market in Surabaya
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Sanaa in Surabaya
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A proud father and his newly attired son at the Ampel Market
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The population of metropolitan Surabaya which includes the neighbouring boroughs of Gresik and Sidoarjo is over 8 million making it the second largest urban area in Indonesia

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Shop front on the historic Jalan Panggung in Old Town Surabaya

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Unique among Indonesian cities, Surabaya was a multicultural place. In 1905 of the total population of 150,200 people, there were 15,000 Chinese, 8,000 European and almost 3,000 Arabs.

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Garlic galore at the Pabean Market in Old Surabaya
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2018

sun, sand and shiva

 

 

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Malaysia and many Southeast Asian places notably Java, Bali, Thailand and Cambodia owe a lot of their culture and language to an obscure historical region in India called Kalinga.

It is a fertile, fabled and forested land located a quarter way down the eastern side of the Indian Peninsula between the Bay of Bengal and an eroded broken range of mountains known as the Eastern Ghats.

The people of Kalinga were a peaceful, open-minded and artistic lot. They were also skillful with their sail boats and had good knowledge of the sea. When the wind was right they would set out south-easterly to fish for food and pearls and trade with people from distant lands.

Due to the region’s relative isolation away from the population centers of India’s Aryan north and Dravidian south, Kalinga developed its own distinct identity and an economy based on both its overland connections and maritime links.

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Wrapped up for the morning, a man begs for money at the beach in Puri. Coastal Odisha enjoys cool and pleasant weather from December to the middle of February. From March onwards the heat builds up until the rains arrive in June.
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A young female visitor writing on a boulder at the caves complex in Udayagiri, which means Sunrise Hill
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Ascetics getting their daily fix of paan in the village of Sakshigopal
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Photographer for hire, Puri
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Traffic policewoman standing in front of Biju Patnaik Signboard. In Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar many places including its airport are named after this local hero. Bijayananda or popularly Biju Patnaik was a freedom fighter, airforce pilot and two-term chief minister of Odisha. His son Naveen Patnaik is the current chief minister
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Couple having their photograph taken in front of the Sun Temple in Konark
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The beautiful Mukteswara Temple in Bhubaneswar built in the 10th century AD

Kalinga’s success soon attracted the attention and envy of its powerful neighbour.

Around 260 BC a  king named Ashoka from the Mauryan Empire sent his armies to attack and conquer Kalinga.

The people of Kalinga fought back bravely but they were no match for Ashoka’s mighty army. The scale of death and destruction occasioned by the Kalinga War at 100,000 dead and 100,000 enslaved was epic and appalling.

Just like Hiroshima two milleniums later the effect of the war caused an unprecedented show of remorse and repentance by its victor and chief perpetrator, Ashoka the emperor himself.

Ashoka turned Buddhist and proclaimed that so long as he was king he would never let such barbarity and carnage happen again. He promised to rule justly and ordered his new pacifist policy to be carved onto stone pillars near the battle sites for all to know and to guide future rulers.

After the Mauryas, Kalinga was ruled most of the time more or less as an independent country by a succession of kings and dynasties including the famous Kharavela of the Chedis, the Guptas and the Eastern Ganga.

It was during this period that Kalinga exported its custom, religion, architecture to Southeast Asia, the region the ancient Indians called Suvarnabhumi or the Golden Lands.

By the 16 th century and with the muslim invasion in 1568 and its later absorption into the Mughal Empire, Kalinga had all but disappered as a geo-political entity.

The territory of ancient Kalinga coresponds to roughly today’s Odisha, a state with a population of 42 million famous for its entrancing Odissi dance, monumental temples and indigenous tribal people.

Under British rule most of the area that was once the Kingdom of Kalinga became part of Bengal. In 1936 a separate province of Orissa was created on linguistic ground.

In 2011 Orissa became Odisha and its ancient Sanskrit-based language Oriya was renamed Odia by an Act of Parliament.

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A timeless scene under an ancient tree beside the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Flower Boy at the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar
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A  view of rural Odisha just before sunset
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Wedding reception at a village on the way to Bhubaneswar
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Crossing the bridge to the hidden village of Hirapur
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Afternoon prayer and bath at the village pond
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Kind Odia face at the Sun Temple in Konark
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Sunset over the Udayagiri Hill
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Man with colourful beanie outside a store for farm produce
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Young stall assistant, Puri

 

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Puri with its great Jagannath Temple is one of the holiest religious sites in India.
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Sex in sandstone and the climax of Kalinga architectural genius at the Sun temple of Konark
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Student couple on a motorbike outside the Sakshigopal Temple
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A famous sweet and dessert shop in Puri
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Udayagiri Caves
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Hot tea on the beach
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Greetings and smile under the hot sun in the village of Sakshigopal
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Vegetable Vendor in Dhauligiri
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Devotees outside the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Grocery shop in the precinct of the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Turquoise green and Cobalt blue are favourite colours for homes like this one in a small village on the way to Puri
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Caretaker and priest at the 9th century Chausathi Jogini Temple in Hirapur
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Women in colourful sarees at the main entrance to the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar
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Devotees at a Hindu shrine on Dhauligiri
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Beach vendor in Puri
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A foreigner’s only view of the awesome Lingaraja Temple is from a platform outside the walls. Only Hindus and Indians are allowed inside.
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Young Odissi dancers after their performance
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Young souvenir vendor in Puri
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Puri the pilgrims town also plays host to many vacationers from West Bengal in search of a holiday by the beach
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Motorbike riders in the Jagannath Temple precinct where motorcars are not allowed

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All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2018

 

postcard from porcupine river

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On the steamy swampy flats where the Landak ( porcupine ) meets the Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river, across the imaginary line that divides our earth into perfect halves is a happy, sleepy city with a creepy name.

Many stories surround Pontianak’s name which in Malay folklore is a female ghost who had died giving birth to a child

The one often told is about a seafaring Sultan who set up a kingdom here in 1771. His name was Abdurraman al Kadrie.

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Local children enjoying an afternoon swim in the Kapuas River. To the population living along the banks of Kapuas and its tributaries the river is the main provider of protein with over 300 species of fish living in its basin including the Pangasius catfish, Giant Gourami and the fast swimming Jelawat (or Sultan Fish). However, pollution and overfishing are causing the depletion and extinction of many types of fish in the river.
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With passenger fare at Rupiah 15,000 (USD1.10) each, the half hour boat ride that departs from Taman Alun Alun must be the cheapest city boat cruise in the world.
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Surveying life along the Kapuas from the boat’s deck
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The Kapuas is a great river in every sense. Originating in the Mueller Mountain Range in the heart of Borneo the river drains an area covering 67% of West Kalimantan and is navigable by large boats up to the town of Putussibau about 900 km from the mouth.

He was a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whose family had settled in these Eastern Isles from Yemen.

An outsider to these parts of Borneo, he gained political power and influence by marrying two local women from important families. One was a daughter of the Ruler of Mempawah to the north. The other was the daughter of the Sultan of Banjar on the island’s south coast.

According to legend, the site on which Pontianak now stands was once a haunt of blood-thirsty female vampires. The Sultan and his retinue spooked by the shrill eerie voices from the dark deep forests surrounding their settlement fired cannon balls towards their direction to scare off the nocturnal denizens.

The booms and blasts duly drove the spirits away. The relieved Sultan then built a mosque and palace there and gratefully named his realm after his evicted paranormal tormentors.

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Istana Kadriah the old residence of the Sultans of Pontianak located near the confluence of the Landak and Kapuas Rivers is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
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On the steps outside a Sunday church service on Jalan Gajah Made, Pontianak’s main street
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Migrants from all over Indonesia have settled in Pontianak bringing their cuisines with them including their own version of sate ayam (chicken satay).

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Thanks to Pontianak’s location in the middle of the Malay Archipelago equidistant from Singapore and Batavia ( the old name for Jakarta ), it became an important riverine port and trading station. Ships from across the sea sailed upstream filled with iron, opium and textile to trade for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of products from Borneo’s rich and vast interior.

Among the earliest visitors to the area were the Chinese. They made their seasonal journeys to Borneo by junk to procure from the Malay and indigenous Dayak people natural products that would fetch them a profit in China such as birdnests, agar wood (gaharu), and sea cucumber ( beche de mer).

They also went there, more importantly, to look for gold.

By the 18 th century the dream of striking a small fortune brought thousands of Chinese gold diggers to Pontianak and its surrounding districts.

In July 1818 the Dutch, worried that Britain’s would threaten its dominance and economic interests in the Indies, established a permanent station in Pontianak and began to exert its authority over Kalimantan.

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Modest off the main street cafes such as this one serve up a great iced cappuccino on a hot day
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Bashful but inquisitive shop assistants in a stationery cum provisions shop
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Chinese along with Malay are the largest ethnic groups in Pontianak. Although Hakka is overall the main subgroup of Chinese in the district, the Teochiu Chinese are in the majority in Pontianak city centre.

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Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017

blood, sweat and turbans

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The hairdryer heat of Amritsar gets big, serious and underway by the month of May. Amritsar is India’s most northerly city before you hit Kashmir, lying almost on the same latitude as Charleston and Shanghai. The days start early – in the morning at about five thirty.

My half drawn windows look across the view of the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road – a dawn parade beneath a concrete flyover of trucks, tractors and trotting horse carts. The brightness even in the pervading dust is intense and blinding. So that by the time I wipe my breakfast plate clean of dal makhani with roti the sun is up and ready to blaze down on this city of over a million humming human souls.

Strangely, the most uncomfortable feeling about traveling in Amritsar in the hot weather is not when you are trapped in traffic inside the narrow lanes of the old city, all your senses assaulted, as you breathe in toxic and fierce furnace air.

It is rather the sights of dark proud grimacing aquiline faces wrapped in turbans of elderly grandfathers who are reduced to skin, bones and muscles pedaling beastly loads of people and goods for a living in life-sapping heat.

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Traffic bottlenecks at the narrow lanes of Amritsar’s old city
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Morning on the GT (Grand Trunk) Road, one of the oldest  and longest highways in the world. It was built by India’s first great king Ashoka, improved by the British and spanned the width of old India. Kipling described it as “a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

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Amritsar is only 25 km from India’s blood-stained border with Pakistan. Despite its holy tourist town reputation, Amritsar has that somewhat clandestine, multiracial and more-than-meets-the-eye appearance of a frontier town.

Amritsar is in Punjab, a smallish state in north west India. The province over the border in Pakistan is also called Punjab.  Before 1947 when India and Pakistan was one country, Punjab covered a much bigger area. The Punjab region of the Indian Subcontinent is the large alluvial plain that is roughly situated between the mountains of Afghanistan and the River Ganges.

Punjab which means ” Five Waters” was named by Persian-speaking Central Asian Turks from present-day Uzbekistan who came down over the Khyber Pass to conquer and rule India in the 16th century.

The five watery expanses they referred to are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. These rivers flow and merge downstream to join the Indus – a larger and longer river that gave India its name.  The dynasty they founded was known as the Mughal  (from Mongol) for its first emperor Babur was believed to be descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. The Mughals ruled most of India for about 300 years until the British came and took over from them.

In the early decades of their rule the Mughals proved themselves to be quite capable masters. Although they were Muslims and of foreign origin they tried to blend themselves into Indian culture and tolerated to a degree local customs and religion. Babur was said to have even banned cow slaughter out of respect for his Hindu subjects. His grandson Akbar abolished the hated tax on non-Muslims (jizyah) and started a new faith (Din-i Illahi) in the hope of bringing Muslims and Hindus together. However, not all the Mughal rulers were tolerant and wise. Aurangzeb the last in the line of famous Mughals, was a pious Muslim. He forbade music, ordered the destruction of Hindu temples and put people to the sword if they refused to convert to islam.

It was in such a restive and volatile environment that a new religion and fearless race of people emerged. One that would change forever the faith, feel and face of Punjab and make the land they live in different and distinct from the rest of India.

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Sweltering crowd at one of the entrances to the Golden Temple
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The temperatures in Amritsar in May and June, its hottest months regularly exceed 40 degrees celsius in the daytime.
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A quick douse of lime juice drink at a road divider
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Although it is difficult to find anyone who speaks English, the shopkeepers of Amritsar are amongst the friendliest in the world

The Sikh religion was founded by a Guru (holy teacher) by the name of Nanak who lived in Punjab at the time when Babur was emperor. Guru Nanak taught his followers to worship only one God who was formless, eternal and invisible whose name was Truth. His disciples called themselves Sikh meaning someone who learns.

At a time when there was much violence between Hinduism and Islam, the early stage of Sikhism was a reformist movement that sought to combine the softer sides of both faiths into a kind of social and religious synthesis.

The Sikhs treat their Gurus with the highest adoration and respect as they believe the divine spirit is passed down from one Guru to the next. There has been a succession of ten Gurus starting with Guru Nanak. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more human Guru after him. He decreed that thenceforth Sikhs should look to the Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhism that contained the writings and hymns composed by various Gurus and saints some of whom were Hindus and Muslims – as their living, sovereign and eternal Guru.

Although the Sikhs were historically a minority they largely shaped Punjab and created its unique character. The Sikhs championed the use of the Punjabi language by writing, reading, learning and spreading the words of the Gurus in its special script.

The Sikhs even had their own empire once during the time when Maharaja Ranjit Singh reigned over all of the Punjab and beyond.

The greatest testament to Punjab’s spiritual glory may still be the city that grew around its golden temple surrounding a pool of elixir – Amritsar.

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The word “Singh” which means lion is appended to the name of all Sikh men
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Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple was first built in 1604 by Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru. The temple was destroyed several times by Afghan invaders and was rebuilt in marble, copper and gold during the reign (1801-39) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
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Slightly more Hindu people live in Amritsar than Sikhs who together make up nearly 98% of the city’s population. Christians (1.23%) and Muslims (0.51%) are small minority groups in Amritsar.
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A family’s reflective moment beside the sacred tank of water called the Amrita Saras (“Pool of Nectar”)
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The famous old-style midday pose of Punjab

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A family eating prasad (sweet offering) from a small bowl made of pressed leaf
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Punjab is the food basket supplying India with wheat, rice and other cereals
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Punjabi is written in its own script- Gurumukhi (” Guru’s mouth”). Standard spoken Punjabi is based on the dialect spoken in the Majha the region around the cities of Lahore and Amritsar
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A Sikh and his tractor are the stuff of legends

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Seva or selfless service is a central concept in Sikhism

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Texts and all photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2017

leftover country

 

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I got enamoured with Armenia on my way there.

My hotel in Tbilisi called me a cab right after breakfast to bring me to my pre-booked transport for Yerevan. It was a white van parked at the back of a church not far from a bus terminal. The passengers stood around as our driver in army-styled jumper and baseball cap collected our fares, assigned seats and arranged luggages into the back boot of the vehicle.

There I met Varo who was returning home with his girlfriend after a holiday. He was smoking and squinting at the sun when I stood next to him for a cigarette before we set out.

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It was a pretty pristine and perfect day for a journey that was to partly involve traversing the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The sun shone through blue autumnal skies causing the rugged volcanic landscape to present its pale palette of orange, red and yellow.

At the border I was asked to fill up a form, answer a few questions, directed to different lanes to apply and pay for my Armenian visa on arrival. As I watched the queues get shorter I imagined myself being turned back to Georgia, left stranded or worse still locked up in a mountain cell and deported for having visited enemy country Azerbaijan.

As it turned out the immigration officers in oversized soviet peak caps spoke little English but were cordial, relaxed and unfussy.

I got my visa, walked quickly into Armenia and was elated to see Varo waiting for me. He had stayed behind to lead me back to our van parked some meters away beyond a row of minivans, buses and cars.

In the van we chatted about Armenia’s tourist attractions with Tsovinar, a  skinny smiling girl with black boyish hair. She worked as a hiking guide and enthusiastically pointed out Lake Sevan to me from our car window. Tsovinar and I were the last persons to be dropped off when we finally arrived near the city centre. Knowing that I arrived with no local currency, she gave me when we parted company a one thousand Armenian Drams (RM10) note for a taxi to my hotel.

At a Yerevan metro station late that afternoon I turned to a young woman behind me for help in buying a train ticket. Shoghakat was a lecturer at the American University. She offered to pay for my ride, walked me to her favourite restaurant and then decided to skip her evening ballet class to join me for my first meal in Armenia.

These acts of kindness and countless others I encountered convinced me that Armenia is truly a very special country. I began to understand what Shoghakat meant when she told me: ‘ that Armenia still exists is proof that God exists’. It is a country that in every sense, the world very nearly lost.

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Present day Armenia is a small shrunken country of three million people located in the uplands and mountains east of Turkey and north of Iran.

You could almost place Armenia in Europe . The people speak an isolated  branch of Indo-European language, pray in thousand-year old churches, and produce award winning cognac, ballet and opera music. The capital city Yerevan is a proud and pensive post-soviet city of pink brick buildings, bust plaques and chess-played park benches.

Armenia is a beautiful and antique land with a recorded history going back over 3,500 years. It is also the world’s first Christian country. It looks western on the outside, but Armenia’s deep soul belongs not in Europe but further east. Anyone who cares to delve into the country’s real roots will discover that Hayastan ( the name Armenia calls itself ) is a true blue Middle East nation. As a political and cultural entity,  Armenia was once upon a time ten times bigger than its present size and exerted influences far beyond its borders.

Conquered by Byzantium, Arabs and later divided up between the Persians and Turks, Armenia had by the 16th century lost most of its power and freedom. As an indigenous nation of the Near East, Armenia at the beginning of the 20th century nearly went the way of Parthia, Hittite and Assyria, vanquished and vanished forever from our wall map of the world. Of this sad period after the First World War, Churchill was to write: ‘history will search in vain for the word “Armenia”‘.

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By convention and its very name, the Middle East is a place of crossings and collisions . The area is the birth place of not just some of the world’s great civilisations, monotheistic beliefs and writing scripts but is also the spawning ground for much of its absolutism, intolerance and religious violence.

In a region that continues to witness unspeakable and horrible mass murders for gold, girls, and (sadly) God, the extirpation by Turkey of its Armenian and other christian subjects by deportation and killing 101 years ago is a crime with no accused but merely broad charges. It is a subject that ignites anger and brings back excruciating memories of the more than one million men, mothers and children hacked to pieces by swords or left to starve and sear to death in the Syrian sands.

I have no wish to offend any country’s preferred version of history, but to attempt to tell the story of modern day Armenia without mentioning the Genocide is like explaining wine by just talking about the bottles but not the grapes.

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Photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2017

 

 

 

baku in azerbaijan

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The confident faces of modern and secular Azerbaijan

Sleep deprivation and the sci-fi effect of Heydar Aliyev airport gave me a psychedelic welcome to Baku at half past three in the morning on my birthday. The lady at the information kiosk tells me that a ride to the city by taxi is 25 to 30 manat but only 2 manat (about RM5.00)  if I catch the modern bus that departs in front of the terminal.

I decide to lie down first at the quiet upstairs departure lounge to wait for my phone to charge, the sky to get brighter and the rain to stop.

Outside, the wet weather and dark pseudo-London cabs make Baku look slightly more continental and serious than it actually is.

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Baku and its citizens dazzle on a clear blue sky day
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Friends enjoying a chat and coffee at a bakery
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Baku was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the late 1820s after a war against Persia. It became the fifth largest city in the Soviet Union before Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991

Baku is a bizarrely beautiful place. At 28 meters below sea level it is the lowest lying city on earth. Baku is perfectly located on a bay along the southern shore of a peninsula shaped like a falcon’s beak called Absheron ( Persian for Salty Water) that juts out to the Caspian Sea – the world’s largest lake.

The area around Baku is rich in fossil fuel. Oil has been extracted here as far back as the sixth century BC and by 1900 it became a major industrial export helping Baku become the world’s first petroleum metropolis.

Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is one of those cities that reminds you of somewhere you know but nowhere you can quite put your finger on. It is neither west nor east, European nor Middle Eastern, not fully Caucasian nor truly Central Asian despite its deep Turkic roots but something of a geopolitical galapagos. It has not been easy for experts to decide which known continent or region to place Baku that they bundle it with Transcaucasia, Caspian and lately Eurasia.

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The one description of Baku that is accurate by any account is that it is a rare, refreshing and religion-neutral muslim city. At the time of writing no city in the world where muslims make up the majority of inhabitants is as secular and modern as Baku. Not even Istanbul, Jakarta and lamentably, Kuala Lumpur come close.

Nearly all of Azerbaijan’s 10 million population (97%) profess the Islamic faith – not the Sunni version as in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Afghanistan, but Shi’a like its neighbour to the south Iran. However, religion here is not strict and plays no part in public life. Maybe the situation is different in the rural areas of the country (notably in the north near Dagestan in Russia ) but in Baku you can walk easily into a wine bar, women do not wear head scarf and call from mosques by the muezzin is rare.

It is hard to say now but as oil price continues to fall for this heavily petroleum-reliant country Islamic fundamentalism may set to rise.

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All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2016

 

 

 

high road to chalus

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Ashura which falls on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram commemorates the killing of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad SAW in Karbala (in today’s Iraq) in the year 680. It is a day of deep religious significance for Shiite Muslims. In Iran it is a day of sadness and rememberance of the tragedy, suffering and martyrdom.

On my way to Chalus on the shores of the Caspian Sea driven in darkness across the Alborz Mountains from Tehran, I discovered two things I hadn’t known beforehand. Both events as they turned out were in equal degree unforgettable and adrenaline-inducing as I was prepared mentally for neither.

The first was that the mountain drive known as the Chalus Road or Road 59 is actually a true epic mountain crossing involving numerous tunnels and switchbacks taking us five hours (more if you include the stop for soup at the highest point ) to make the 200 km journey.

The second thing was I found out I would be arriving at a seaside holiday resort just in time for the climax of the public mourning of Muharram known as Ashura, the most important and solemn religious event in the Shi’a Calendar when everything shuts down, all manner of amusement and fun are forbidden and people dress themselves in funereal attire.

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Pylons and rainclouds. The Caspian region gets a lot of rain throughout the year as compared to the rest of the country. Precipitation averages around 20 inches a year and double that amount in the western part.
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The Alborz or Elburz Mountain Range stretches 900 km along northern Iran forming a climatic wall between the desert-like landscapes of the Iranian heartland and the humid temperate forests of the Caspian Coast

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This stretch of the Caspian Sea Coast was during the reign of the Shah a popular summer resort for the wealthy and well-connected especially the city of Nowshahr which operated somewhat as the “summer capital” of Iran.

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Evening fruit juice and ice-cream

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The Caspian Sea is known in Persian as Darya-e Khazar a reference to an ancient Jewish people who between the 7th and 10th century had a large empire to the north. The Caspian  is also the world’s largest lake, equal in surface area to all of Malaysia with enough room remaining to also fit in Taiwan.

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All words and photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016

a toast to tehran

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Embracing the Diaspora. The Islamic Revolution and its aftermath sent tens of thousands Iranian away from their homeland to seek new lives abroad. Most went to the United States but also to Canada, Germany and France.

Tehran is an easy contender for the title of most misrepresented city in the world.

Partly as a result of decades long US sanctions, media sensationalism and the occasional name confusion with a war-ravaged neighbouring Arab country, the world’s image of Iran is sadly twisted, misinformed and plain wrong. Iran or, from the 1979 revolution onwards, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not what people imagine it to be.

Visitors to Iran’s huge and sprawling capital Tehran will be quickly amazed to discover a clean, beautiful and varied city that is friendly, modern and surprisingly very safe.

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Despite Iran’s famous Islamic rules on dress codes, you will find on any given street or home in Tehran, a city of 15 million people, less chadors and more fashionable and looser headscarves than in Kuala Lumpur, less or no niqab and burka compared to London and even arguably less beards than in Berlin.

Set against the timeline of Iran’s 3,000 year long and mainly glorious history, Tehran is a relatively young capital city. In 1776 Agha Mohammad Khan, a king of the Qajar Dynasty chose it as his seat of power due to Tehran’s pivotal location near to the historic Persian homelands on the Iranian Plateau and close to the new Persian dominions in the Central Asian steppes  and the Mountains of the Caucasus.

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Although Tehran is not far from the desert and has an arid climate don’t expect to find an oasis town of date palms and plodding camels. Instead it is a city of well-lit parks with statues of famous poets and broad pedestrian friendly boulevards lined with tall trees that turn lime green in spring, emerald when the days are warm, golden yellow in fall and leafless when the city is blanketed with winter snow.

Tehran is modern and appears for the most parts brown and frozen in time circa 1970s. However, amidst its mainly boxy low-rise buildings there are some fine surviving examples of fin de siecle French architecture and old houses of astonishing grace and beauty.

Tehran is a city that belongs nominally and geographically but not mentally in the Middle East. Despite deriving its religion, writing script and 40% of its vocabulary from the Arabs, Iranians are an Indo-European race whose language suffused with the poetries of Ferdowsi, Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi is believed by many to be the most beautiful-sounding and elegant in the world.

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Text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016