leftover country



I got enamoured with Armenia on my way there.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2017




baku in azerbaijan

The confident faces of modern and secular Azerbaijan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2016




high road to chalus

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

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

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

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

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


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


Evening fruit juice and ice-cream


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


All words and photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016

a toast to tehran

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016

sleepless in saigon



Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in July 1976 – a year after armies from the North took over the South, drove the Americans out and remade Vietnam as one. Hundreds of thousands refugees perhaps millions fled communism by sea. Many were drown, robbed or raped by pirates trying to reach Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Today 40 years on, Vietnam is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. However, red banners, logos and slogans and a grand post office that sells colorful postage stamps are the only signs of socialism overseas visitors will encounter in Vietnam’s largest city. The experience of Ho Chi Minh for many will surely be one of capitalism, near naked and on steroids.


Ho Chi Minh City is brash, animated and intensely money-minded.

Quan Am Temple in Cholon in District 5 was built in 19th century by migrants from China
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s economic and financial hub.


Vietnam despite impressive economic growth remains  a poor country with minimum wages at around USD150 per month


As a tourist you can perhaps get better food, coffee and massages in neighbouring cities but you cannot afford to skip Saigon (as locals still call the city) if you want to understand the hunger and relentless energy that drives success and entrepreneurship in this part of Asia.


There is really no season to avoid when you plan to visit Ho Chi Minh City. The weather reports say June to September is rainy season but I find Ho Chi Minh City pleasant at this time of the year with slightly reduced heat and fresh balmy breeze at night, conducive for roof top club music and a cocktail.


Phuc Long Coffee is well known for its ice peach tea served with slices of real canned peace


Late afternoon shoppers at the popular Ben Thanh Market
The Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon was built between 1877 and 1883 using entirely materials from France including the characteristic red bricks shipped from Marseilles


The market for luxury cars sees strong growth with car sales in 2015 for Mercedes Benz and BMW respectively increased by 50% and 40% from the previous year


Motorcyclists on Le Loi Boulevard. Ho Chi Minh City has 7.4 million motorbikes.


One of the classified reasons why foreign armies lost the war in Vietnam
Vietnam’s population grows by a million people annually and will soon reach 95 million by 2017. The population is young with a quarter of Vietnamese below 15 years old.

jewel in kraków


Kraków (or Cracow) is a real European Jewel.

For centuries Kraków was Poland’s most important city –  a  place of artists, scholars and kings. Its magnificent town square, atmospheric cobbled-stone streets, ancient buildings and medieval castle on a hill replete with stories of a resident dragon are stuff on which Gothic fantasies are dreamt up.

Kraków is also a lucky city. It could easily have ended up after the Second World War like Warsaw, Poznan and Gdansk – Polish cities that were vandalised, mutilated and destroyed either by the Nazi occupiers on their way out or the Soviet invaders on their way in.

Some historians say that in January 1945 Konev the Soviet Commander purposefully liberated Kraków in time to save it. Most people now believe that, in truth, the Nazis were simply just too busy running for their lives to have time to lay a dynamite in every house.

Whether by dint of fate or a miracle, Kraków was left unharmed. The beautiful city you see today is authentically old and original.

Sadly not everything about Kraków survived the German Occupation. Kraków’s large and important Jewish population did not. It was entirely wiped out. The Jewish citizens of Kraków were herded like cattles and taken to concentration camps and killing factories in  Bełżec, Plaszow and nearby Auschwitz to be murdered on an industrial scale.

The genuinely eccentric Krakowian charm
Beautiful Olga at her coffee kiosk
Poland has a population of about 38.6 million. The population growth rate stands at a paltry 0.02% a year but at least, unlike most of Eastern Europe, it is not falling by much despite high emigration.
Striding past a traditional Polish restaurant
At a park in Krakow
Krakow has a tradition of learning. Young people from all over the country come to study at the Jagiellonian University, the second oldest in Eastern Europe, founded on 12 May 1364 by Casimir the Great


Youthful commuters at a tram stop
In 2013 Krakow was made a UNESCO City of Literature in recognition of the city’s reading and scholarship tradition. Other cities awarded around the world include Edinburgh (2004) and Baghdad (2015)


Although Poland in November 2010 finally followed Europe in banning smoking in public areas, the country remains moderately smoker-friendly.


The Krakow Barbican built around 1498 is the remnant of a system of fortifications and defences that once encircled the city


Ci, co wiedzieli
o co tutaj szło,
musza ustąpić miejsca tym,
co wiedzą mało.
I mniej niż mało.
I wreszcie tyle co nic.

W trawie, która porosła
przyczyny i skutki,
musi ktoś sobie leżeć
z kłosem w zębach
i gapić się na chmury.



Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.


From “The End and the Beginning” by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trezeciak


Graffitied-shop front in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz


Electric trams were introduced in 1901 when Krakow was part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.
Polish comfort food – pork fat spread or smalec on crusty bread
Club owner cum jazz saxophonist piping before the gig

Words and Pictures Copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2016


the view from stary pudłów


Measured by percentage of population, Poland is less rural than at least a dozen other countries in Europe. Richer countries like Finland and Ireland have proportionately more people living out in the countryside, yet the cherubic image of Poland as a pastoral land of priests and peasants lives on, often in a powerful, magical and romantic way.

When Pawel asked if I would like to spend a weekend with his family at their home on a farm about 40 km from Łódź I jumped at the opportunity and quickly said yes to the invitation. It was for me a rare chance as a stranger from Asia to get close and personal to the real soul of an important and resurgent nation at the very heart of Europe.


As a nation, Poland is an authentic European hybrid.

Despite being Western in culture, religion and politics, Poland is by geography and recent history an Eastern European country with a language that sounds like a rustling swishing variety of Russian but written in Latin alphabets like French and English.

Present day Poland may not be rich or even stylishly influential in world affairs but with its homogenous society rooted in a decisive role in history and Roman Catholic tradition, the country has pressing lessons for a Europe facing a crisis of divided societies fractured by the issue of mass mainly male muslim migration.



The first lesson learnt is in the heart-melting kindness felt by travellers, including non-white people, to Poland. Such experiences are signs of a people largely at peace with their identity, faith and conscience. They also prove that Poland unlike Western Europe with its  history of colonisation and slavery see no need to give out residency or passports on a huge scale to nationalities of people of different skin colours in order to be nice, tolerant and respectful of them and their cultures. After all, to cherish ones own heritage and wanting to protect it from a deluge by migrants of a different religion after centuries of foreign domination and subjugation does not equal racism or exclusion.

Indeed if Europe is today honest about defending what it considers to be its inalienable and inherent secular liberal values from the twin threats of terrorism and rising intolerance, then those values must also necessarily and urgently be enlarged to include Poland’s right to remain Catholic and Polish without being branded superstitious or regressive.

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All images and words Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2016

Łódź in the middle


Getting lost in Łódź (pronounced “wootsh”) is an entirely easy thing to do. Although Łódź is strategically situated in the middle of Poland where long distance railways and roads intersect, the city does not have a central railway station or one within walking distance of its urban heart.

Long distance trains use the Łódź Kaliska or the Łódź Widzew stations. Both stations are in non-descript surroundings looking more like suburban stations of a college campus than a transport hub for the country’s third largest city. I remember arriving south from Krakow in one of the stations and departing north to Warsaw from another.

Łódź was actually at one time a great industrial centre in Eastern Europe famous for its textile factories. Like Manchester half a century before,Łódź’s textile industry  declined and workers lost their jobs and purpose, pushed out of the market by cheaper imported clothes when communism ended in 1989 and Poland turned expectantly to Western-styled capitalism.

These days Łódź is taking steps to polish up its rust belt image of empty mills and silent chimneys. The old architecture has been spring-cleaned, refurbished and given a new use.

S0223089S0343124S0924221S0065023S0533177S0443153S0804185S0043011S0954229S0383137S0914213S0864198S0784180S0884204All pictures and words Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2016






warsaw surprising


Not yet a prime tourist destination Warsaw is already a pretty famous spot on earth. The city gave its name to an international air carriage treaty, a Marxist military alliance and a romantic musical composition. But it is with less gleeful things and greyness in general that Warsaw seems to have a lingering association.

Warsaw’s tragic history is the result of its tensile geography. The city is a cream blot in the middle of a giant Polish pancake, part of the Great European Plains that stretch the entire extent of the continent from the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic shores. With no towering range or wide seas as shield against invaders, the lands where Poland has been were fought over and owned back and forth between two of Europe’s nastiest neighbours – Germany and Russia. 


For most of last century, fate has dealt Poland a particularly bad hand. Warsaw witnessed repeated wars, extermination and annihilation. Yet the city with its motto Contemnit Procellas (to defy the storm), seemed to had refused to just give up and die.

The Polish capital is remembered for not one but two large and ill-fated uprisings against German occupation in World War 2. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place in 1943 was the single largest Jewish revolt against the Nazis followed a year later in 1944 by the Warsaw Uprising that went into history books as the largest military operation by a resistance movement in Europe during the war.

These historical episodes and their aftermaths not only proved that Warsaw was solely the city in occupied Europe that had the balls to defy the Nazis in large scale open outnumbered and outgunned rebellion, they also testified to the city’s desperate heroism and its indestructibility.

In fact, the Polish people’s defiance and unbreakable will to survive so pissed Hitler off that he ordered their capital Warsaw to be razed to the ground. By the time the war ended in 1945 almost 90% of Warsaw’s buildings had been reduced to rubble and its population either murdered, expelled or both.


The story of Warsaw’s resurrection is epic.

While the world has seen many war damaged cities rise from their ashes none had been so deliberately, completely and systematically destroyed yet meticulously and painstakingly put back together to be an exact copy of the original as Warsaw and its beautiful old city. 

This, to me is reason enough to want to see Warsaw.


All images and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2015

phnom penh please!


As 2015 makes way for 2016 the people of the Kingdom of Cambodia have really a lot to smile about. Already enjoying more economic, political and social freedom than any other country in South East Asia, Cambodia is now the fresh hot destination for tourists, foodies and property investors.

After three trips in two months (Christmas, Chinese New Year and one in between) I am almost convinced that Phnom Penh is one of the most pleasant cities in the world.

Here are three tips for a great trip:

  1. Accommodation: The branded hotel chains have not yet made it to Phnom Penh. Around  USD60 will get you a clean and comfortable boutique room with breakfast. Avoid the riverfront area (Sisowath Quay) instead stay in the quiet, central and upscale districts near BKK ( Boeung Keng Kang) and Tonle Bassac.
  2. Dining: Eating well in Phnom Penh is easy especially if like me you like fish, seafood and vegetables (try the spinach). No need to consult your guide book or trip advisor just eat where the food looks fresh and clean. Food (especially Chinese) is good in Phnom Penh although eating out is a tad pricier than Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia due to the “local” currency the US Dollar.
  3. Transport: Although PP is not a huge city, the heat and often humidity rule out walking to where you want to go. The transportation of choice for most tourists is the remork moto (tuktuk). Find an honest-looking driver and book him on a daily or half daily rate for the rest of the trip. Between USD10 to USD15 for a 6 -hour day is fair.


Santa Claus at the Sorya Mall, one of the city’s pioneer shopping mall
Sugar cane vendor outside a house in the south eastern township of Boeung Tumpun
African woman on Street 271
Clean luck on the second day of Chinese New Year
Phnom Penh is a great place for beer drinkers. Happy Hour price for draught beer is 50 US Cents per pint in many bars
Mr Kao Vanarinn who escaped from the Khmer Rouge at age 14 by making his way on foot across the country to a refugee camp in Thailand exemplifies the steely spirit of Cambodians of his generation
One benefit of not wearing a helmet
Riding friends at a traffic lights
masked and moped
Angkorian motif outside a walled villa in the upmarket Boueng Keng Kong area


All images and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2016