Batavian Rhapsody


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.

A wet vision of my weekend from the hotel window
Soto Ceker or Chicken feet soup is a popular street diners option in Jakarta.
Fresh produce in a market lane in Glodok including here at the bottom left the stinky Petai or Pete (Parkia Speciosa) bunched up and in their pods.


Jakarta’s fertility rate has fallen from 3.99 children per woman in 1980 to 2.3 in 2012. To combat poverty the Government wants to reduce the rate further with family planning but faces religious oppositions. 
The Dutch bequeathed on Indonesia not only buildings, bureaucracy, and political borders but also an ethnicity. The Betawi indigenes have their own creole language and customs moulded by centuries of mingling of peoples from across Java, the outer islands of the archipelago and beyond.


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.

The city’s waterways described in 1897 by an American visitor E.R. Scidmore as places “where small natives splash and swim, women beat the family linen, and men go to and fro in tiny boats, all in strange travesty of the solemn canals of the old country” are today clogged with all manner of rubbish and refuse. About 20% of Jakarta’s daily waste ends up in its rivers and canals contributing to recurring floods and yearly loss of lives.
Lemongrass, a key ingredient in Indonesian cooking, is sold fresh and bundled up in stalks at a morning market.
Jakarta’s unofficial symbol: the omnipresent ‘Gerobak’-  hawker carts that sell cheap, delicious, although not always hygienic food at every curb and corner (‘kaki lima’) any hour of the day.
Costumed model in Taman Fatahillah (formerly Stadhuisplein), the old administrative heart of Batavia now a theme park with painted street performers, palm-reading key-chain sellers and congregating youths.
Art and Dissent. Some may disagree but Jakarta leads Southeast Asia in its creative freedom and output, breathing truth to the saying that bad times produce good art.
I don’t yet know of any city in the world with the population and problems the size and magnitude of Jakarta that can better this place in the openness, geniality and positive spirit of its people.
Old-styled ‘Sate’ grilled patiently over smoking charcoals on the back of a bicycle before a small crowd of waiting customers.
Inundating thoughts. By the time this girl becomes a grandmother, half the area she is standing now will be under the sea. Jakarta is sinking at an alarming rate (up to 6.7 inches a year) due to over-development, population growth, and climate change.
Recent report suggests that other Asian cities like Manila and Kuala Lumpur have overtaken Jakarta in traffic nastiness but the city’s legendary ‘Macet’ should never be underestimated, even on a Sunday.
Jakarta’s fashion spillover
Delman or horse-drawn carriages at the city’s iconic Monumen Nasional (Monas). In 2018 they were once again allowed to take tourists despite complaints by animal activists of accidents, cruelty and maltreatment.
Saturday shoppers in Glodok
Young woman with face mask seated beside colourful recycling bins outside a tourist shop in Kota Tua, Jakarta’s Old City.
Batavia was built mainly by the labour and commerce supplied by the Chinese who in the early years accounted for a quarter of the entire population.
In 1740 the Dutch, fearing unrest due to low sugar prices and closure of mills, unleashed a pogrom that killed 10,000 Chinese in the city in an orgy of retributive murders and mass slaughters. A year on, Chinese were moved to a ghetto south of the city walls called Glodok that became today’s Chinatown.
Jakarta is the toughest place in the world to be a bin man where rubbish carts are pulled by human muscles.
Vihara Tanda Bhakti also known as Klenteng Tan Seng Ong was renovated in 1974 from an older structure that had stood here for 200 years. This temple is secluded behind Kali Besar, the 18th century canal built along the Ciliwung River to ship goods from the port at Tanjung Priuk to the old city of Batavia.
Success and disproportionate wealth have contributed to Indonesian hostility towards their fellow Chinese citizens. Triggered by an economic crisis, horrific violence against Chinese broke out across Indonesia in mid-May 1998. In Jakarta Chinese shops and homes were burned and 130 women, many stripped and paraded naked, were gang-raped.


After decades of discrimination, in 2000 laws banning Chinese culture and language were finally repealed and Chinese New Year or ‘Imlek’, was at last declared a national holiday in 2002.


Volunteers for an Islamic charity with donation boxes.


Hope lies with the young. In a country where religious intolerance is perceived to be on the rise, a whopping 89.1% of those aged between 20 to 35 years prefer diversity to conservatism according to the Indonesia Millennial Report in 2019.
Mindful sharing at a temple courtyard


Riesa Tan and her friend preparing for  Saturday evening mass at the Santa Maria de Fatima Catholic Church in Glodok which looks on the outside every bit like a Chinese temple. Nearly half of all Chinese-Indonesians belong to the Christian faith with Catholics making up 15.76 %. according to the 2010 census.


All pictures and texts copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2020

west timor: travels in an unwatered paradise

Fresh from the family farm: Girl selling vegetables in Fautkolen

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”.





on the way to the foot of Gunung Mutis


Batu Putih


All Photographs and Text Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2019

the road to hinsley hall

On the bridge over the River Ouse in the historic city of York.

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.

The Yorkshire countryside with brick houses like those found in children drawing books near the spa town of Harrogate.
Sheffield: a moment to pause and pose before the lunch queue
Leeds: a bracing walk with a best friend
York: More than a thousand years ago  before Cantonese became Chinese this area was a part of Britain that was ruled by Scandinavia. The ancestors of the Norwegians and Danes in the year 865 conquered Eoforwic from the Anglo-Saxons and renamed it Jorvík.
York: Reflection from an English Tea Room
York: According to the Economist the proportion of population living in England’s three northern regions (the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber) declined from 35% to 30% between 1918 and 1962. In the 50 years since it has fallen further to 25%.
Leeds: richer, tastier and less oily than the Middle Eastern original IMHO
York: Morning’s briefing by the manager.
Sheffield: Not Silicon Valley or Shenzhen but here in the cities of Northern England was where it all started – the First Industrial Revolution that made the world we know today.
The scenic route to Leeds-Bradford airport
Headingley: “I suspect this is the best place in Yorkshire”
York: Sales figures have shown that the British are drinking less traditional tea and coffee as more consumers are switching to “healthier” options such as fruit and herbal varieties.
“The Northerner has ‘grit’, he is grim, ‘dour’, plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic; the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate and lazy” – George Orwell, in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’
Sheffield: Lunch take-out crowd forming at Simon’s hummus and pita bar.
Leeds: the lady with the Tahini
York: University students make up almost 10% of the city’s population of over 200,000 people.
York: Built 800 years ago on an early Christian site, the magnificent Minster which is as tall as a 21-floor building has been for centuries the greatest gothic church in Northern Europe.
Sheffield: Recent DNA studies have shown Yorkshire to be a race apart with more blue eyes and blondes here than in the rest of Britain.
Sheffield: A smorgasbord of juicy greens and other delectables are picked by thongs and lovingly tucked into a warm hand-held pita.
The brooding literature-inspiring landscape of Yorkshire
Hinsley Hall

All Texts and Photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2019




note to my zagreb landlady


Hello Sara

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.

Boon Leng

Street vistas converge on the Neo-Gothic twin spires of the Zagreb Cathedral. A church on the site was first built in 1217. After destruction by wars, a  Mongol invasion and in 1880 by an earthquake the building was redesigned and restored to its present form.
A dignified and attractive roadside florist in army fatigue and furs. Zagreb is located in the belly of Europe and has a keen continental climate. Winters are cold averaging around zero degree celsius in January and early February.
‘‘It is full of those vast toast-coloured buildings, barracks and law courts and municipal offices, which are an invariable sign of past occupancy by the Austro-Hungarian empire: and that always means enthusiastic ingestion combined with lack of exercise in pleasant surroundings’’ -Rebecca West in ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’ on her visit to Zagreb in 1937.


Birdman of Ban Jelačić Square. Trg bana Josipa Jelačića  (or colloquially  Jelačić plac) is named after Croatia’s national hero, Count Josip Jelačić who tried to win independence for Croatia from Austrian rule by supporting the Austrian Empire against Hungary during the Revolution of 1848.
Red hair and scarf on Radićeva Street


Woman walking past a side entrance of the Croatian National Bank (Hrvatska Narodna Banka), the central bank of the Republic of Croatia. The palace-like building, designed by Victor Kovačić, once housed the Zagreb Stock Exchange. To this day many still refer to it as ‘Burza’.


A bride-to-be walking down from St Mark’s Church in Gornji Grad or Upper Town, the city’s medieval core
Late evening view of the statue of St George and the Dragon he slew near the Old Town Gate


Croatia, popular with European vacationers for the last 100 years, has of late been discovered by Asian tourists. For reasons that I am yet to find out Koreans seem to have a thing for Croatia because in 2017 nearly half of million of them made a trip there, more than citizens of any other non-Western country.


Although Croatia is a EU country it is not part of the Schengen zone and has not adopted the Euro. The country still uses its own currency the Kuna which means “marten” – a furry animal related to the weasel a reference to the use of its pelt as a mean of exchange during medieval times.


Despite being classified as a medium income country with a per capita income  below that of Malaysia, Croatia is by any meaningful yardstick an advanced country with high levels of literacy, human development and civic mindedness.


Croatia (Hrvatska) is a young nation state with very proud ancient roots. It had to endure a thousand years of foreign rule, invasions and wars before finally in 1992 being recognised as a distinct entity.



All words and pictures Copyright (c) Kerk Boon Leng March 2019

dharamsala dreaming

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.

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.
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


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


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”.

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.
A  proud patrician face of a Tibetan elder in resplendent red tunic
vegetable vendor near the Dalai Lama Temple
Colourful souvenir scarves for sale in a shop in McLeod Ganj.
Noon crowds coming out of the Main Temple after listening to a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama


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.
The image many still perceive of India
Woman making pan fried momo, the town’s Tibetan street food of choice


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.
A slow walk to the hippies hamlet of Dharamkot just 4km from McLeod Ganj


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.


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.



sultanate of simple surprises

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 need not be a boring place at all but visiting the Sultanate of Brunei is a bit like going on a spiritual 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.

Red hat and furry pet drawing a Sunday crowd
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.
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
Nasi Katok- the local take on the Malay staple of fragrant steamed rice, chilli shrimp paste, eggs, tempeh and crispy fried chicken
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”
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
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
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 has got to be 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 had come to know 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.”


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.

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


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


This Kampong Ayer resident and retired school teacher laments that the Government is not doing enough to promote tourism
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.


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


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


All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2018

something about surabaya


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.


Surabaya’s old city near Jembatan Merah or Red Bridge looking even more atmospheric after an afternoon thunderstorm
Young mother with napping baby at the Pabean market
‘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
Fresh fish arriving at the Pabean market around lunch time
Some of the young friends I made in Surabaya


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


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


Smoking bus conductor seen from my coach bound for the neighbouring Island of Madura
“What will you promise me if I pose for you?”
Built in 1918 Pasar Pabean is the oldest and perhaps also  the biggest market in Surabaya
Sanaa in Surabaya
A proud father and his newly attired son at the Ampel Market
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


Shop front on the historic Jalan Panggung in Old Town Surabaya


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.


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

sun, sand and shiva




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.

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.
A young female visitor writing on a boulder at the caves complex in Udayagiri, which means Sunrise Hill
Ascetics getting their daily fix of paan in the village of Sakshigopal
Photographer for hire, Puri
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
Couple having their photograph taken in front of the Sun Temple in Konark
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.

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


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



All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2018


postcard from porcupine river


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.

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.
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.
Surveying life along the Kapuas from the boat’s deck
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.

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.
On the steps outside a Sunday church service on Jalan Gajah Made, Pontianak’s main street
Migrants from all over Indonesia have settled in Pontianak bringing their cuisines with them including their own version of sate ayam (chicken satay).


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.

Modest off the main street cafes such as this one serve up a great iced cappuccino on a hot day
Bashful but inquisitive shop assistants in a stationery cum provisions shop
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.


Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017

blood, sweat and turbans


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.

Traffic bottlenecks at the narrow lanes of Amritsar’s old city
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”.


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.

Sweltering crowd at one of the entrances to the Golden Temple
The temperatures in Amritsar in May and June, its hottest months regularly exceed 40 degrees celsius in the daytime.
A quick douse of lime juice drink at a road divider
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.

The word “Singh” which means lion is appended to the name of all Sikh men
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.
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.
A family’s reflective moment beside the sacred tank of water called the Amrita Saras (“Pool of Nectar”)
The famous old-style midday pose of Punjab


A family eating prasad (sweet offering) from a small bowl made of pressed leaf
Punjab is the food basket supplying India with wheat, rice and other cereals
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
A Sikh and his tractor are the stuff of legends


Seva or selfless service is a central concept in Sikhism


Texts and all photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2017