Padang is on the west coast of Sumatra. It is a city that generally attracts two kinds of overseas visitors : Malay families who come to search for their deep roots; and Westerners arriving, in small groups, in pairs or often solitarily, to look for tall waves. For other intrepid types, this rain-soaked, creaky former Dutch colonial port town does hold a certain off-beat allure as I discovered almost a fortnight ago when I dropped by over the Chinese New Year which in these parts is called Imlek.
I went to Padang for four nights and five days, keeping close to the city, traveling south to Teluk Bungus and north to Lubok Minturun, triumphantly resisting (thanks mostly to the wet weather) the magic and temptation of the Minangkabau Highlands and offshore islands despite powerful pitching by Erison – a newly-made friend who drove and guided me through the potholed and puddled lanes of Padang on his butt-punishing scooter.
Copyright (c) Kerk Boon Leng 5 February 2023 All Rights Reserved
Around 1342, when Western seafarers were swapping alehouse stories about mermaids and sea monsters, the famous North African adventurer Ibn Battuta sailed into Maldives and described it as one of the wonders of the world.
He seemingly spent two years on the islands where he made friends and acquaintances of important members of society and royalty, dispensed advice on religion and gained position as an Islamic jurist. Although he complained about his frustration in trying to get the stubborn females on the islands to cover up their nubile forms, the journal of his wandering lifestyle as a slave-owning expat male cum casual polygamist may stir unintended social media outrage in today’s woke-sensitized readers.
"On the 2nd of the month of Shawwal I agreed with the vezir Sulaiman Manayak to marry his daughter. Then I sent word to the grand vezir Jamal-ud-din with a request that the nuptials should take place in the palace in his presence. He gave his consent, and in accordance with the custom, betel as well as sandalwood was brought. The people assembled but vezir Sulaiman delayed. He was called but he did not come and when called a second time he excused himself on the ground that his daughter was ill. The grand vezir, however, said to me secretly, ' His daughter refuses to marry and she is absolutely free to have her own way. But since the people are now assembled, would you like to marry the step-mother of the sultana, the wife of her father—that is, the lady whose daughter was married to the vezir’s son. 'Yes', I answered. Then the qazi and witnesses were summoned, and the marriage was solemnized and the grand vezir paid the dower. After a few days she was brought to me. She was one of the best women and her society was delightful to such an extent that whenever I married another woman she showed the sweetness of her disposition still by anointing me with perfumed ointment and scenting my clothes, smiling all the time and betraying no ill humour. After this marriage the grand vezir Jamal-ud-din compelled me against my will to accept the qazi’s post."
From The Travels (الرحلة, Rihla) or A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling (تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار, Tuḥfat an-Nuẓẓār fī Gharāʾib al-Amṣār wa ʿAjāʾib al-Asfār)
With a bit of sailor’s luck, a present day castaway may find himself washed ashore, to one of its 1,190 islands and lagoons (only about 30% are inhabited) if he is shipwrecked halfway between the coasts of Sumatra and Somalia. The chains of coral reefs running two-by-two, that form the islands of Maldive are actually the tops of a giant undersea ridge that runs north from the Lakshadweep Islands off India’s Malabar Coast, to south at the Chagos Archipelago deep in the Indian Ocean.
The Maldives are like the tiniest ticks off the giant continental body of Asia. The physical size of all the 26 Maldivian atolls combined is a shade smaller than even Penang, but these fantasy islands sparkle and shine, like sprinkled glitter dust, scattered across a dreamy blue expanse of waters the area of Portugal.
Maldives is world-famous but a latecomer in tourism. The first tourists were Italians who came fifty years ago in 1972. Now almost everyone dreams of Maldives as a paradise of blue waters, white sands and romantic celebrity-type getaways. This image is true to a large degree, but Maldives is not just a cluster of luxury resorts but a real and authentic country. It is a nation of oceanic people with a unique history, culture and language called Dhivehi.
For a full and true taste of Maldives, staying and spending time on local inhabited islands is recommended. If you do, even a romantic and comfortable trip for two to Maldives can be fairly affordable with some planning.
To find cheaper accommodation (from $60 a night) go off-season during the months of choppier sea and cloudier skies from April to October. Island-hopping will significantly inflate costs, unless you travel within one to two atolls (there are 26 atolls in total spreading over 800 km north to south) using the slow and infrequent service of local ferries. You will need to travel by the more flexible and faster private speedboats at least once or twice during the trip but pop a seasick pill 30 minutes before the ride if the sea is rougher than 22 knots.
Download the traveller declaration Imuga before you arrive at Velana Airport to save time, hassle and avoid paying extortion roaming charges.
Maldives is a jaw-droppingly beautiful and amazingly friendly country. To experience this, dress sensibly, show humility and respect local customs, as you would anywhere. It is simply the best sea paradise there is, even for non-beach lovers (I am talking about me here). The time for Maldives is now, go sooner before the crowd gets bigger, when people fully and finally wake up to the truth about the pandemic flu.
In our trip we stayed at these lovely accommodations:
I have all but lost my way lugging my worldly belongings to the Mosaic Home Hostel by Google map when Jessica calls me on Whats App. I tell her my location – a quiet restaurant with a bar and half its tables and chairs outdoor under an awning.
While we wait for our lunch to share, of roast wild boar with potatoes, Jessica pulls out a wonderful surprise of presents for me and the family! Mine is an expensive book we browsed in the bookstore at Skanderbeg Square last night on Enver Hoxha – the communist dictator who ruled Albania and locked her people away from the rest of the world for 40 odd years.
And once again Albania cowered in a hut
In her dark mythological nights
And on the strings of a lute strove to express something
Of her incomprehensible soul,
Of the inner voices
That echoed mutely from the depths of the epic earth.
She strove to express something
But what could three strings
Beneath five fingers trembling with hunger express?
It would have taken hundreds of miles of strings
And millions of fingers
To express the soul of Albania!
Ismail Kadare, “What are these Mountains thinking About”
Of the countries in Europe, including former feudal statelets known by their postage stamps and large new nations that arose from the collapse of Communism, none is as mystifying and hard to get your head around as Albania.
On my first visit, to the southern city of Sarande sixteen years ago by boat from Corfu, I was warned that Albania was a dangerous place full of criminals and crazy people. Today although Albania’s fortune and standing have vastly improved, its oddball image remains tangled up with its lingering badass reputation
Everything about Albania marks it out as an oddity. It is Europe’s only officially atheist, muslim majority, ex-socialist, now staunchly pro-American country which once only friend and close ally was Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Albanians, or Shqiptare as they call themselves, claim to be the most ancient people in the region and are the direct descendants of the first humans in the Balkans. Their language is obscure and fabulously unique being the sole member of an isolated branch of the Indo-Aryan family that has survived the influence and onslaught of Greek, Latin, and Slavic.
Jessica’s family comes from Kukës, a picturesque lakeside town surrounded by mountains in the country’s northeast. Home for them is now Tirana – a city where she was born and brought up. Jessica sacrifices time to show me her city; supplementing my bookish knowledge with stories about her proud, wonderful but historically traumatised country.
Tribal geography, blood honour coupled with centuries of subjugation, neglect and misrule have gone into creating today’s Albania : a marginal and poor land that is disproportionately abundant, welcoming and generous in human spirit and possibility.
My three nights in Tirana have been tantalisingly short – barely sufficient time to scratch beneath the city’s surface to uncover its hidden past and apprehend its overt idiosyncrasies. But I am closer now to understanding the true meaning of Buk’ e krip’ e zemër (bread, salt and our hearts) – the old Albanian offering to any guest who comes purely and in peace.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXTS COPYRIGHT KERK BOON LENG ALL RIGHTS RESERVED FEBRUARY 2022.
Bang Bang! My talkative driver suddenly sounded out, gesturing his finger gun at an unremarkable bridge in the dark across the road on the right hand side of our Mercedes Benz taxi. We were getting to my hotel in the Austro-Hungarian city of Sarajevo at night time, just a minute or so before approaching the narrowing streets of its sixteenth century oriental Ottoman quarter called Baščaršija.
For most of the people in the West, Sarajevo is something of a civilisational outlier – a product of 400 years of conquest of their Christian continent by an alien culture and religion. A hybrid city that is essentially but inadequately European. I saw third world highways and vaguely Middle Eastern shopfronts in their ambience and signage blend smoothly with stately Habsburg edifices. Saudi-built shopping mall and buildings in glass and concrete with giant LED screens juxtaposed with drab and bomb damaged Yugoslav communist era apartments. Catholic cathedrals and Orthodox churches that had stood for centuries next to and opposite neon-lit mosques with tall sharp minarets.
My mind quickly recalibrated to this change in mood, environment and scenery. I had just flown in from Ukraine with barely an hour of breath-catching transit through Istanbul’s large and confusing airport.
I was charged 20 Euro for the 10 km trip from the airport. Fleeced but happy that I arrived, I was literally a stone’s throw away from Sebilj -the wooden cylindrically-shaped Ottoman fountain that is the postcard symbol of Sarajevo. My lodging, Hotel Villa Orient was a two-storey mansion defined by soft yellow tavern lights with a pizza restaurant next door and a quiet traditional kafana beside the entrance. It was a view that reminded me of a homely chalet of a ski resort. Sarajevo lies around 2,000 feet above sea level – defended and surrounded by the mountains of West Balkans known by an appropriate and evocative name – the Dinaric Alps.
It was cold but not unpleasant, with lumps of snow lingering on roofs and pavements like leftover unkneaded flour on a kitchen table. I stood with my luggage for a while at the roadside for a last cigarette, wondering if the nice kind girl, Lejla who had helped me just now on the phone was still on duty at the reception; and whether it was destiny or decision that had brought me here.
On a lead-coloured January morning this year, precisely six weeks before America and Russia went to war over Ukraine, I arrived in its capital Kiev to spend five weeks in that country. The Ukrainian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had narrowly but helpfully, two days prior to the departure date, issued me my visa.
It was the dead of winter in Ukraine. Perhaps not the ideal season but I had timed my visit there for the Orthodox Christmas Day and Eve which sadly I would now miss by just a couple of days according to the Julian Calendar. Anyhow, as I luckily found out, the carolling mood and yuletide spirit would still go on till the end of month past Epiphany.
Kiev is a sizeable metropolis. With 3 million people, it ranks amongst Europe’s ten largest cities.
Although it is hard to tell from the city’s mainly 19th century façades and 20th century soviet structures, Kiev is a pretty ancient place that is anchored to a long lost past.
According to a twelfth-century Russian chronicle, Kiev was founded by three brothers – Kiy, Shchek and Khoriv who built on the site a settlement each on three separate hills. A town soon flourished around those hills and was named after the eldest.
Putting aside nationalistic legends and slavonic myths, the real history of Kiev according to archeology goes back nearly two thousand years, maybe even longer. Records tell us that it was settled in the 6th or 7th century by the Polyanians, an East Slavic tribe who roamed the northern grasslands and woods of the Dnieper basin.
Called the ”Mother City of Rus”, Kiev is where it all started – the site where Russia was born eleven centuries ago .
My friend Tatiana warned me about Kiev’s airport touts so I rehearse my basic Russian and haul my luggage up the airport marshrutka (taxi bus) number 322. I pay the 100 Hrivna fare to the driver, a good-natured and pleasant man about sixty and he issues me an old-fashioned printed ticket. We wait for about 30 minutes for more passengers then depart on the one-hour long journey from Boryspil on the left bank to the city centre on the right crossing one of the bridges over the Dnieper.
Along the way, tall, bare and twiggy roadside trees intersperse with housing and commercial blocks alternate and dominate the view in various shades of grey.
We are disgorged finally at a stop that looks like a back entrance to a large station. Golden domes of a new cathedral glisten in the frosty sunlight, snowflakes fall sharply on naked faces and commuters wrapped up in overcoats and hats stand waiting, stamping their boots in the cold.
I was exhilarated and shivering. Like the feeling after downing a glass of fine frosted vodka – instant, intense and head swirlingly unforgettable.
Roughly around the time of Chinese New Year this year, Jakarta leapt to my mind spontaneously. The spectre of a gargantuan city that is a poster child for cataclysmic third world dysfunction played continuously in my head like a kafkaesque daydream.
I needed an excuse to go to Jakarta for a weekend, to get it out of my system. I reasoned that I could take a closer look at this city which author and film-maker Andre Vltchek describes as “the most depressing city on earth” to try to imagine how life must be for majority of its estimated 11 million inhabitants who have to eke out a daily existence in its desperate, polluted and collapsing urban environment. **
[ ** Jakarta combined with its satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi known by its threat-sounding acronym ‘Jabodetabek’ has a population of more than 32 million making the city the second largest in the world after Tokyo]
The ideal time to go was I reckoned between January and March – the season of lead-coloured skies and unrelenting rainfall, when the rivers, canals and drains in Jakarta bloat and often overflow. I also needed to make this trip before the coronavirus closes in, shutting off as it has done now all air travel and borders.
The old Chinese area of Glodok is not far from my hotel which is located close to the corner of Jalan Gajah Mada – 2.2 km away according to Waze. I decided to walk there under a looming sky after a hearty buffet breakfast. Keeping to a northerly direction on the sidewalk, I looped gingerly around puddles, hawker carts, and helmeted Gojek delivery boys on their shiny scooters; now and then darting between shop awnings, dripping tree canopies and tarpaulin banners to avoid the rain.
History books recount the city’s origin as the Hindu-Buddhist port of Sunda Kelapa. To its harbour ships arrived from near and far to trade including during the 16th century fleets from Portugal that were fitted with cannons and guns. To stop the Christian Portuguese from gaining a foothold in Java, Fatahillah a part-Arab military commander sent by neighbouring Demak burned and captured Sunda Kelapa. The town was renamed Jayakarta and became part of the Banten Sultanate.
Despite the official commemoration of Fatahillah’s victory on 22 June 1527 as the city’s birth date, in truth it is to the Dutch that Jakarta to this day still owes most of its history, architecture and cultural melange.
In 1619 the ambitious Dutch governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen seized Jayakarta from its muslim rulers. He razed the town to the ground, evicted its native inhabitants and built on the site a capital and home port for the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).
The new harbour’s strategic location on the northern coast of Java between South China Sea and the Indian Ocean would help the Netherlands gain a dominant position in the valuable Indies trade.
Coen wanted to call the settlement Nieuw Hoorn after his birthplace. But the Board of VOC who represented powerful shareholders known as de Heeren XVII (the lords seventeen) vetoed his plan. Instead the Directors decided to name it Batavia after an ancestral Germanic tribe from their boggy windswept estuarine homeland in Europe – Batavieren or Batavi as they were referred to during the Roman period.
The city kept its Dutch-given name for over 320 years until 1942 when the Japanese Imperial Army rolled in during WWII and took over. The lightning speed at which the Japanese went about destroying and dismantling Europe’s empires in the East convinced them of their divine destiny not just to become the new masters of Asia but also its liberators in freeing Asian people from the subservience and mental grip of centuries of white men’s rule.
Japan restored back the name Fatahillah gave to the city in a move to win over the hearts and minds of native Indonesians and in doing so inspire and embolden them to rise up against their former colonial overlords.
All pictures and texts copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2020
Wifi-ed and waiting without dinner plans at the lobby of the Victory Hotel in Kefamenanu, a major town in inland West Timor, I struck up a conversation with a man I knew was Chinese-Malaysian by the way he spoke Bahasa with the reception. He told me he was in town to mass recruit workers for his oil palm plantations in Sarawak. “What are you doing here?” Mr Hong enquired of me in Mandarin. He said he had never before in his many visits to West Timor spanning over ten years met a person from Malaysia, especially one who was there with no specific reason or mercantile purpose.
Aside from sourcing for discounted labour, he was there also for lizards. Timorese catchers supply him with geckos when they can. These spotty arboreal reptiles with specimens up to a foot long, are sold for boiling with ginseng and herbs into a kind of Chinese witch soup. The geckos (tokek in Indonesian) are now hard to come by because much of their homes in the forests have given way to mining and agriculture.
“I don’t know what brings you here. There are no places to visit or things to do; no nice food, no KTVs or women to enjoy. Last time there were a few places that had ladies from Java but nowadays not anymore” he lamented before excusing himself to go upstairs to his room. A male middle-age outcall masseur the hotel had arranged for him had just checked-in at the front desk.
I had my reasons to be there. October is three-quarter period through the long dry season, a time of thirsty fields and half-empty stomachs in West Timor. Even so fuzzy-haired children in school uniforms and skinny villagers with Afro-Malay faces outside their thatched huts wave to our passing car with welcoming looks of cheerful stoicism in an immense landscape of bereft and desolate beauty.
Timor is an island (almost equal to Taiwan in size) located at the far side of Indonesia, a mere 300-mile hop over a cerulean sea from Australia.
Geographically, it is the most easterly of the Lesser Sundas – a necklace of volcanic islands strung across the eight to nine degrees latitude south of the Equator which begins with Bali to the west. The Indonesians call these parts Nusa Tenggara. Of this group of isles, Timor’s history is the most interesting and complex.
Divided since the early age of the spice trade by vying European empires, the west of the island fell to the Dutch and the east to the Portuguese.
Today West Timor is a part of the Republic of Indonesia; and East Timor, after a torturous and bloody struggle, is now the independent nation of Timor Leste.
The fate and fortune of Timor has been inextricably linked to the aromatic sandalwood tree (Santalum album). In the 14th century Chinese merchants, followed by Arab traders, were lured to Timor by this fragrant and precious commodity.
Not long after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea passage to India by rounding the bottom of Africa, the Portuguese raced to conquer Malacca, expanded to the Moluccas and set up base on the coasts of the Oecusse-Ambeno Kingdom (now the autonomous Timor Leste enclave of Oecusse) making themselves the dominant player in the export of this rare wood, later to be supplanted by the Dutch.
Despite the depletion of its forests by the heedless harvesting of sandalwood and territorial bisection of the island for commerce and Christian conversion, the interior of Timor was not so long ago still a place of petty kings, tribal warriors and betel nut chewing headhunters practising their traditional lifestyles and beliefs .
A British handbook prepared and printed in 1920 by His Majesty’s Foreign Office provided readers living in the early age of motorcars and cameras with a Marco Polo-like description of then Dutch (West) Timor:
“The future of the colony depends entirely upon the successful pacification of the native tribes or ‘kingdoms’. Of these there are about forty, usually in a state of enmity with each other. There are certain number of nominal Christians among the natives, but the bulk of both the Timorese, in the south-west of the island, and the Belonese, in the centre, are pagans, and most of them are dangerous and vindictive savages. The most troublesome people on the island are the black Christians, descendants of Portuguese half-breeds: they are proud, treacherous and cruel. The mountainous interior is not likely to be law-abiding for many years to come. The native hate strangers, and mostly live in small hill kampongs of a dozen huts.
The numerous Rajahs are constantly fighting amongst themselves, and, although most of them are pledged not to buy or sell slaves and to refrain from torturing and mutilating their subjects, such pledges are in most cases unfulfilled. These Rajahs are nearly all blood-thirsty tyrants. Even the tractable Rajah of Kupang claims to be closely related to the crocodiles in Kupang Bay, and till a few years ago virgins used to be flung to them, so that the family ties might be maintained”.
All Photographs and Text Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2019
The English North is in many ways England at its truest. Here in a land of strong tea, strange-sounding dialects and scenic rain-soaked cities a foreign visitor will readily find most of the things that can turn many dye-in-the-wool followers and fans of Great Britain misty-eyed with nostalgia.
I went there for the first time this year, dispatched by a client to hunt for hummus – the humble chickpea spread created centuries ago by the Arabs that has now become, like croissant and curry, part of mainstream British cuisine.
My Yorkshire Journey was made possible by the friendship, generosity and kindness of Simon Philips, an ex-Southerner originally from London. He rose very early in Leeds on a cold Saturday morning in March to pick me up from the airport in Manchester, the North’s leading city located an hour’s drive away on the other side of the Pennines.
All Texts and Photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2019
I am reluctantly checking out of your apartment this morning to catch the 10 o’clock bus to Ljubljana. I have enjoyed my three nights stay very much.
Your place is truly an astonishing airbnb property. Everything about it from the white and baby blue furnishings to the soft scent of the face flannels and towels exudes a rare sense of class, passion and thoughtfulness.
The house is nicely located above Hocus Pocus cafe – a local rendezvous where quiet streets intersect next to a small park lined with beautiful bald trees. In the evenings the deflected glow from the cafe downstairs afford the bedroom a feeling of snuggly solitude tempered with a safe dose of drowsy distractions.
Reading your whatsapp text now I realised that there is so much of Zagreb that I missed, for there is far more to Zagreb than I imagined.
Travel Guides unwittingly paint a wrong picture of Zagreb as just another mid-level Mitteleuropa metropolis munificently bequeathed with Austro-Hungarian architecture – a smaller, poorer and duller copy of Vienna that thanks to history is fortuitously situated within the southeastern limits of western Christendom !
Truth is Zagreb as the capital of the recently famous country of Croatia is a well-deserved destination in its own right. Maybe not in the same global league as London, Rome or Paris but definitely worth a 12-hour flight to get there and a stay of four or five nights to soak in the sights and sounds.
Admittedly, I was rather taken with Zagreb. I found the local food agreeable to my Southeast Asian palate, the buildings attractive with more authentic atmosphere compared to Vienna or Prague and the people especially those in the tourist trade kinder and more honest than Budapest.
And Zagreb has the best cafès in Europe in my opinion. They are also the most ideal places to retreat to on a cold February morning. The coffee is always strong, cheap and good. It is served to you while you are comfortably seated, a dark solid wooden table away from a regular patron contemplating on her steaming cup and lighted cigarette to a background of smooth jazz.
Thank you once again for being such a kind host to me.
One day I will return to see the rest of Zagreb and Croatia and if I am lucky to find your apartment available I hope I can stay there again.
All words and pictures Copyright (c) Kerk Boon Leng March 2019
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.
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”.