west timor: travels in an unwatered paradise

fullsizeoutput_18818
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.

fullsizeoutput_1890a
Fatumnasi

fullsizeoutput_1854afullsizeoutput_1855cfullsizeoutput_183e5

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.

fullsizeoutput_18357fullsizeoutput_18615DSCF4243unnamed

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 had conquered 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”.

 

 

fullsizeoutput_18685DSCF2978DSCF2183fullsizeoutput_18914fullsizeoutput_187f9fullsizeoutput_18517fullsizeoutput_18719fullsizeoutput_18395fullsizeoutput_18704unnamedfullsizeoutput_18694fullsizeoutput_18515DSCF2124fullsizeoutput_18567fullsizeoutput_18734DSCF3623fullsizeoutput_1860ffullsizeoutput_18910fullsizeoutput_18616unnamedunnamed

fullsizeoutput_1838ffullsizeoutput_1856dfullsizeoutput_18906

DSCF3079
Soe
unnamed
on the way to the foot of Gunung Mutis

DSCF4250fullsizeoutput_183b8fullsizeoutput_1881bfullsizeoutput_18849fullsizeoutput_18909fullsizeoutput_183af

fullsizeoutput_1832a
Batu Putih

unnamed

fullsizeoutput_18583
Azowaki
All Photographs and Text Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2019

something about surabaya

fullsizeoutput_16bdb

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.

 

S0881467
Surabaya’s old city near Jembatan Merah or Red Bridge looking even more atmospheric after an afternoon thunderstorm
fullsizeoutput_16aff
Young mother with napping baby at the Pabean market
S0141058
‘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
fullsizeoutput_16e5c
Fresh fish arriving at the Pabean market around lunch time
fullsizeoutput_16c78
Some of the young friends I made in Surabaya

fullsizeoutput_16cf4S0861455fullsizeoutput_16cd1fullsizeoutput_16cc4

fullsizeoutput_16d59
Afternoon pilgrims walking to the tomb of Sunan Ampel one of the nine saints or Wali Songo credited with spreading Islam to Java
fullsizeoutput_16b8d
Young superheroes in the rain

fullsizeoutput_16e61

fullsizeoutput_16ccd
A father and daughter moment while waiting for the rain to stop
S0382203
“It is difficult to find a job here” Ahmad is a fruit seller near the Ampel Market

fullsizeoutput_16cc9

fullsizeoutput_1698c
Smoking bus conductor seen from my coach bound for the neighbouring Island of Madura
fullsizeoutput_16b29
“What will you promise me if I pose for you?”
fullsizeoutput_16b03
Built in 1918 Pasar Pabean is the oldest and perhaps also  the biggest market in Surabaya
fullsizeoutput_16e5f
Sanaa in Surabaya
fullsizeoutput_16db9
A proud father and his newly attired son at the Ampel Market
fullsizeoutput_16c05
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

fullsizeoutput_16e65fullsizeoutput_16b7afullsizeoutput_16e05fullsizeoutput_16b96fullsizeoutput_16c01

fullsizeoutput_16b73
Shop front on the historic Jalan Panggung in Old Town Surabaya

S0931494

fullsizeoutput_16dfc
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.

S0522282unnamedunnamed

fullsizeoutput_16b25
Garlic galore at the Pabean Market in Old Surabaya
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2018

postcard from porcupine river

fullsizeoutput_15ff0

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.

fullsizeoutput_15fd0
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.
fullsizeoutput_15ff8
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.
fullsizeoutput_15fe7
Surveying life along the Kapuas from the boat’s deck
fullsizeoutput_161d5
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.

fullsizeoutput_1608f
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.
fullsizeoutput_160d4
On the steps outside a Sunday church service on Jalan Gajah Made, Pontianak’s main street
fullsizeoutput_160ed
Migrants from all over Indonesia have settled in Pontianak bringing their cuisines with them including their own version of sate ayam (chicken satay).

fullsizeoutput_1603eS0752533fullsizeoutput_16103fullsizeoutput_160f0

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.

fullsizeoutput_15fb8
Modest off the main street cafes such as this one serve up a great iced cappuccino on a hot day
fullsizeoutput_1606a
Bashful but inquisitive shop assistants in a stationery cum provisions shop
fullsizeoutput_161fa
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.

S0074041fullsizeoutput_161dcfullsizeoutput_1603ffullsizeoutput_160d5fullsizeoutput_161c6S0683526fullsizeoutput_161d4

Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017

DSC_0766

Reading my western guidebooks I arrived in Bandung expecting a congested Indonesian metropolis (the country’s third largest) with slightly more bearable heat, high humidity and lots of garment shops and pollution. I was quite wrong.

Bandung may be long past its glamorous colonial heyday as “Parijs van Java” but it is no high altitude version of Jakarta or Medan either. For a start, the city is clean with many large western style buildings (some Dutch) along wide roads lined with tall trees. Located on a highland plateau at an average height of around 730 metres, the climate is a sure pleaser if you have flown in from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. In mid June with daylong temperatures in the upper 20s tempered by a gentle southerly breeze and average humidity it is perfect T-shirt and sandals weather for sitting out and an after-meal saunter.

Founded by the Dutch in 1810 as a military headquarter and later proposed as a capital of their East Indies empire, Bandung is today the throbbing heart and soul of Sundaland. Cihampelas, Ciumbuleuit, Cipaganti and Cibaduyut: street names and districts of Bandung reveal the city’s proud Sundanese heritage.

DSC_0021

DSC_1032

DSC_0549

DSC_0634

DSC_0625

securedownload

DSC_0194

DSC_0308

 

DSC_0321

DSC_0337

DSC_0285

DSC_0605

DSC_0281

DSC_0259

DSC_0323

DSC_0269

DSC_0274

DSC_0241

DSC_0244

DSC_1002

DSC_0532

DSC_0959

DSC_0716

DSC_0346

DSC_0240

DSC_0890
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng June 2013

palembang : malay capital on the mighty musi

DSC_0850
Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

The Musi River (525 km) in southern Sumatra is the second longest river in maritime South East Asia. It rises near Gunung Kaba (1,937 m) in the Barisan Range and divides the city of Palembang into halves (Ilir and Ulu) before flowing finally into the Bangka Strait.

DSC_0879

DSC_0988

DSC_0983

DSC_0952

DSC_0996

DSC_0908

DSC_1627

DSC_0967

DSC_0895

palembang

DSC_0943
Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

The city of Palembang is largely unknown to foreign tourists. Even to its closest foreign neighbours across the Strait, Palembang is just a place they remember from school textbooks as the hometown of Parameswara the legendary founder of the Malaccan Sultanate.  This once capital of the mysterious Malay Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya (that ruled the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula from 7th to 14 th century) has  not a lot to entice internet holiday makers but for the intrepid traveler wanting to see Malay culture in its natural setting and meet some of the friendliest urban inhabitants on this planet Palembang and its hinterland province of Sumatera Selatan (South Sumatra) are unmissable.

DSC_0993

DSC_1611

DSC_0901

DSC_0880

DSC_0924

DSC_0902

DSC_0914

DSC_0915

DSC_0916

DSC_0842
All pictures copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

manado (sulawesi)

all pictures copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2009

Tangkoko at the northern finger tip of the Island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) is  the place in the daytime to hire a boat to sail, snorkel and swim in the black sand coves around its coast.  In the evening the nearby Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve is one of the best places to see the world’s smallest monkeys known as tarsiers. When the sun sets these gremlin-like critters hop out from their tree homes to exercise their large eyes and feed on grasshoppers.