moldova

DSCF0588

For a person who has just turned fifty and wishes to see a bit of Europe again beyond cobbled stoned cities, cheese shops and castles, Moldova can be a dream destination.

To begin with, you get to experience a rare part of Europe with no immigrants and very few tourists – close to the kind of feeling I imagine early Asian or African visitors would have felt arriving in places like Birmingham, Berlin or Brussels in the 1940s.

Part of the allure is that not many people know anything about Moldova. There is no history or guide book written on just this country alone that I know of. My friend Jerry thought it was a country in Africa when I told him I was going there. But Moldova is actually located deep in Eastern Europe, to the east of Romania landlocked away by Ukraine from Russia and the Black Sea.

Due to its location in the western end of the great steppes and plains of Eurasia (known as Scythia in 11th century BC to 2nd century AD), the region that became Moldova was settled for hundreds of years by migrating tribesmen, peasants, armies and exiles from all corners including people with blue eyes and fair hair from the north and west , olive skin and aquiline noses from the south and also black hair and high cheekbones from the east.

A land of sun-kissed fields and black chernozem soil lying between the Rivers Prut and Dniestr known as Bessarabia, Moldova has always remained as someone else’s back garden: peripheral, exploited and forever at empire’s edge.

DSCF1231 DSCF2842

From the later half of the 14th century onwards it gradually became part of Moldavia, one of three principalities which together with Wallachia and Transylvania historically make up Romania.

Bessarabia was split up and ruled intermittently as vassal provinces of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16 th century until 1812, when the defeated Turks formally signed the Treaty of Bucharest on 28 May giving the territory to Russia as a war trophy to be appended to its expanding empire.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and under pressure from the Romanian Army who had been invited in to maintain order, Bessarabia swiftly declares its independence and in 1918 entered into a political union with Romania on condition of territorial autonomy.

During WW II following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet Union on 28 June 1940 seized Bessarabia from Romania to create the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova became an independent country for the first time.

DSCF3109

Today Moldova is a nation seemingly unsure of itself and one with an image crisis partly of its own making.

Just while Moldova is often prefaced in western news as Europe’s poorest country, ordinary westerners continue to spread the image of the country as backward, crime infested and populated by beautiful women eager to marry rich foreigners or be smuggled abroad to work as prostitutes. Such simplistic depictions betray Europe’s dangerous ignorance about its own past and are clearly wrong.

Despite the unflattering statistics about low per capita income and human development, the country has a well-educated and culturally sophisticated population of 4 million that speak both Slavic and Latin-based languages, a nice capital city with good roads lined with handsome deciduous trees, affordable food that are grown from the earth including apples with a crunch and taste amazingly better than any I have ever eaten.

Moldova is rich in agriculture and human potentials. It is a country that is better than what outsiders and tragically even its own citizens believe. In my last evening in Chisinau as I stood with my new friend Eugene drinking coffee and eating his favourite hot dog in front of the city’s French School I felt a strange reluctance to leave this quiet, humbling and slightly surreal country.

S0461565 S0881990 DSCF2001 S0013215 DSCF2236 S0351436DSCF2537DSCF1503unnamedDSCF2263DSCF2855DSCF0564DSCF1768S0152435DSCF2188S0381445DSCF1287DSCF2119DSCF2330DSCF1250S0322570S0012012DSCF2299S0841952S0691839DSCF2249DSCF2079DSCF3036DSCF2397S0103242S0173270unnamedS0581728DSCF2039DSCF1249DSCF3376DSCF1528DSCF0585 S0821932 DSCF2391 DSCF2200    DSCF3015DSC_0340unnamed DSCF0590

All images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng Oct 2014

hua hin

DSCF4668

Thailand on the map is shaped like the head of an asiatic elephant with its trunk extending southwards to form the Malay Peninsula. On jumbo’s tusks you will find Hua Hin, a coastal town widely known as the beach resort of Thai kings and these days also one of Asia’s rising holiday hotspots.

Hua Hin gets the year’s nicest weather from around mid December to early February when dry northeasterly winds blow over from China cooling down Thailand’s central plains. At this time Hua Hin and the nearby beach of Cha-Am look half-populated by Europeans. The seasonal residents can be seen shopping for groceries at supermarkets or else frolicking on warm soft sand or dining al fresco on fresh seafood with friends.

Property developers have taken advantage of this influx with Russians now making up quite many of the town’s new apartment buyers. Asian visitors too have discovered the simple joys of Hua Hin. Many Taiwanese, Chinese and Malaysians follow the rich people of Bangkok in making the three-hour road trip south to shop at the factory outlets and spend time with loved ones in a beach resort wholesomely free of girlie bars and other Pattaya-styled entertainments.

How Hua Hin became a royal beach town is partly a result of Thailand’s quest at the turn of the 20th century to modernize itself to avert being swallowed up by marauding western powers.

To secure its independence, Siam (Thailand’s former name) on 10 March 1909 signed the Anglo-Siamese Treaty (aka the Treaty of Bangkok) with Great Britain, then the most powerful country in the world, giving away Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu for inclusion into British Malaya. The treaty also gave Britain the exclusive right to finance and control a railway linking Bangkok with Singapore.

The Straits Times on 28 October 1909 reported:

“ The construction of the 600 to 700 miles of railway that has been provided for in the treaty will be begun at once… This work will probably extend through several years and will be open to competent men of all nationalities. The climate is humid and the heat tropical, but the line runs its entire length along the sea-coast, and there is no reason to believe that the white man cannot, with proper care, live here with a fair degree of comfort and safety. The entire management will be under a Siamese official of British nationality, who is well acquainted with the country and the people, as well as with the region through which the line runs and who has already secured on his staff both British and German engineers”

The rail link south from the capital enabled the western educated Thai Royalty a convenient way to have a holiday home by the beach. Hua Hin’s royal connection started with Prince Chakrabongse, a son of the great Thai King Chulalongkorn. The Prince who had spent his teenage years in Russia and married a Ukrainian wife visited Hua Hin on a hunting trip with visitors from Russia. He liked the place so he built himself a villa by the beach. After him a succession of Thai Kings came to build holiday homes in Hua Hin. The most famous of these is a palace named Klai Kang Won (Thai for “far from worries”) built by King Rama VII.

DSCF4862

DSCF4459

DSCF4512

DSCF4547

DSCF4640

DSCF5040

DSCF5042

DSCF4694

DSCF5045

DSCF4663

DSCF5047

DSCF4808

DSCF4979

DSCF4989

DSCF4946

DSCF5454

DSCF5174

DSCF5530

DSCF5550

DSCF5229

DSCF5129

DSCF5375

DSCF4559

DSCF5221

DSCF5011

DSCF5506

S0104538

DSCF5287

DSCF5476

DSCF5359

DSCF5478

All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2014

karachi

DSC_4743

It is better not to read too much about Karachi before you go there. To be warned that you will be setting foot in the world’s most dangerous city that is not located officially in a war zone or one that is voted year after year as amongst the least desirable places to live not only takes away the joy and serendipity of judging the city for yourself, it is also acceptance of a view that is a little misleading and overplayed.

A long time ago before Pakistan became a country, Karachi used to be a pretty pleasant place, a salubrious port city of tidy lighted streets and swimming beaches on the Arabian Sea closer to Muscat than to Mumbai. To its original Sindhi and Baluch population were added Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsees from all across the Indian Subcontinent. In fact up to 1947, on the eve of the partition of India the majority of Karachi’s people were Hindus by faith. Today most of the Hindus have gone, mostly to India, small communities of them as well as Christians remain but they and their places of worship except for a few colonial churches are inconspicuous and not so easy to find.

Today unabated migration into the city from all across the country and from Afghanistan and its borderlands (in the 1980s) has turned Karachi into one of the most populated urban areas in the world, the city with world’s biggest Afghan population and also the largest city in the Islamic world.

Karachi is an urban planning nightmare suffering from lack of water and frequent power outages that has affected its industries and encouraged many of its factories to shut or move abroad many to Bangladesh.

Despite its reputation as an unsafe city and a fighting turf for guns and gangs, Karachi has a soft, savvy and sophisticated side with shiny shopping malls selling stylish and high quality clothes, great restaurants serving world class food and a population that donates more to help its own poor than any other big city its size in the world. Since my first visit in 2008 I have visited Karachi many times, each occasion vowing never to go again.

DSC_4654

DSC_0744

DSC_0888

DSC_0717

DSC_4641

DSC_0849

DSC_4603

DSC_4713

DSC_4729

DSC_4768

DSC_4770

DSC_4725

DSC_4701

DSC_4613

DSC_4625

DSC_4620

DSC_0900

DSC_0856

DSC_0727

DSC_0678

DSC_0733

IMG_2274

IMG_2280

DSC_4647

DSC_4755
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2008

sao paulo

DSCF1502

Less than half a century after they arrived in Asia and conquered Melaka (Malacca) the Portuguese busied themselves in another part of the world fighting off other European claimants especially the French and laying the foundation for their empire’s latest and greatest acquisition Brazil. It was in this period that Sao Paulo had its beginning when in January 1554 a Jesuit brother named Jose de Anchieta climbed over the hills from the coast and built a school around which a town soon flourished.

Sao Paulo’s pioneering years were anarchical and ruthless as the early settlers made an industry out of capturing indigenous tribes and selling them off as slaves. In those days the word “Paulistas” was one that struck terror amongst settlers on the coast and in other parts of Brazil. According to historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto the Paulistas were “big men, well nourished, and bulgingly muscular, their girth enhanced by folds of quilted armour, bristling with arms and shaded by hats of roughly woven reeds”.

There is really no reason to go half way round the world just to see Sao Paulo but if you happen to layover (like we did) then you will find at least something to like about this city of nearly 30 million souls located on a vast coffee plantation-strewn highland plateau on the same sub-tropical latitude as Rockhampton, Australia. Sao Paulo is scary but, like the rest of Brazil, indulgent, exhibitionistic and (if beans form a big part of your diet) also an interesting food destination.

Our hotel was in Itaim Bibi a district adjacent to Jardins (Gardens in Portuguese) in the upscale parts of Sao Paulo but I still felt uneasy and nervous when walking down the streets. I was afraid I might get robbed or stabbed with a knife especially if I was not alert or got momentarily distracted by a waxed brazilian beauty bending forth in tight tiny apparels. I had read about frequent crimes in Brazil’s cities and was by then in some suitable state of preparedness and paranoia.

The next day on a warm and quiet Sunday morning I walked to Parque do Ibirapuera.  On my free city map the park is located just a few streets immediately east of the hotel. There were very few cars or people outside except for a few commuters waiting at the bus stop, a lone pedestrian here and there and families riding bicycles together. I crossed the road to a mainly residential neighborhood mixed with businesses offering legal advice, diet counseling, slimming massage, dental cosmetics and other services catering to the discreet needs of the rich. All were housed in flower-festooned villas protected by high gates, electrical fences and unsmiling men with rifles. I strode past warily with my camera tucked away inside my bag pack. Arriving quickly at the park I was relieved and happy to see and sense police presence everywhere. I felt like a camera totting tourist again only this time caged inside a sylvan sanctuary where police armed with guns and anti-riot gear had been assigned to watch over legions of cyclists, joggers and couples in love.

DSC_0153

DSC_0500

DSC_0105

DSC_0083

DSC_0112

DSC_0134

DSC_0385

DSC_0069

DSC_0274

DSC_0465

DSC_0371

DSC_0086

DSC_0218

DSC_0090

DSC_0240

DSC_0104

DSC_0680

DSC_0249

DSC_0045

DSC_0182

DSC_0178

DSC_0550

DSC_0567

DSC_0126

DSC_0369

DSC_0589

DSC_0384

DSC_0103

DSC_0267

DSC_0632

DSC_0076

DSC_0673

DSC_0154

DSC_0675
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

buenos aires

DSCF8645

These days when great cities around the world all aspire to look, eat and speak like each other, Buenos Aires stands proud and apart as an icon of idiosyncrasy.

Originally a struggling Spanish colonial outpost surrounded by endless fertile  fields of grass facing an important sea, Buenos Aires grew rich exporting beef, grain and wool. People from all over Europe especially Italians came by ship settling in the port city. Millions arrived between 1880 and 1945.

Wealth, immigration and Buenos Aires’s end of the globe location helped it develop a unique character, a keen idea of cultural superiority and even its own street lingo called lunfardo.

Today Buenos Aires is a somewhat old fashioned and dignified looking place full of impressive late 19th century European urban architecture. The buildings are built of wonderful marble, wood and stones when Argentina was the fifth richest country in the world but have since been grimed by age, neglect and lots of graffiti.

Buenos Aires is beautiful in a besotting kind of way. I like Buenos Aires very much but cannot explain why. Perhaps it was the tango on dim street corners, the energetic banner and flag waving soccer fans in the plaza, generous glasses of malbec with giant beefsteaks or the most elegantly beautiful waitress I have ever laid my eyes on serving us our lunch menu of pork with Dijon sauce on chips.

Maybe it is better left expressed in the lyrics of a famous tango song by the city’s eternal hero and heartthrob, Carlos Gardel

 Mi Buenos Aires querido, cuando yo te vuelva a ver, no habra mas penas ni olvido. 

El farolito de la calle en que naci fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor, 

bajo su inquieta lucecita yo la vi a mi pebeta luminosa como un sol. 

Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver, ciudad porteña de mi unico querer

 

[ My beloved Buenos Aires, the day I see you again, 

there will be no more sorrow or forgetfulness 

The lamp of the street where I was born was witness to my promises of love, 

It was under its dim light that I saw her I saw my babe as bright as a sun. 

Today luck wants me to see you again, you my beloved port city ]

DSC_0060

DSC_0400

DSC_0509

DSC_0498

DSC_0687

DSC_1032

DSC_0095

DSC_0028

DSCF9414

DSC_0175

DSC_0773

DSC_0241

DSCF8661

DSC_0789

DSC_1115

DSC_1095

DSC_0515

DSC_0780

DSC_0706

DSC_0676

DSC_0375

DSC_0967

DSC_0550

DSC_0896

DSC_0723

DSC_0734

DSC_0639

DSC_0392

DSC_0696

DSC_0610

S0218471

DSC_1105

DSC_0779

DSC_0416

DSC_0496

DSCF9175

DSC_0756

DSC_1041

DSC_0790

S0139457

DSC_0873

DSC_0909

DSC_0304

DSC_0385

DSC_0927

DSC_0554

DSC_0859

DSC_0542

DSC_0412

DSC_0417

DSC_0866

DSC_0714

DSC_1065

DSC_0955

DSC_0946

DSC_0867

DSC_0658

S0380369

DSC_0601

DSCF9432

DSC_0216

DSC_0184

DSC_0070

DSC_0950

DSC_0277

DSC_0830

DSCF9158

S0049078

DSCF9763
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

 

missionary position

DSC_0642
Evening after work hours in the city of Posadas

Posadas is a city of around 350,000 people and serves as the administrative capital for the northeastern Argentinian province of Misiones. It sits beside the Parana River  and is linked to Paraguay by a bridge to a town called Encarnacion on the other side.  There isn’t much to see in Posadas. It looks like the kind of place you would move to at a point in life when you need to play detox catch up with your mind and body after years of  bad air, food and views. It is wonderful to watch from the car window each evening when we arrive back from upcountry many young and attractive people either jogging on the nicely paved and brightly lit riverside esplanade or sitting around sidewalk cafes for coffee and a meal. The highways into and out of the city are wide, empty and newly constructed giving  the place an air of quiet prosperity and purpose. The city seems to be there mainly to serve as a hub for the agricultural  and forested hinterland as we saw almost no heavy industry. With green surroundings and slight elevation at 350 feet above sea level, the climate of Posadas is subtropical and pleasant although locals have told us that 40 degrees heat in the January summer is common.

DSC_0648

DSC_0637

DSC_0520

DSC_0702

DSC_0680

DSC_0780

DSC_0688

DSC_0746

DSC_0769

DSC_0776

DSC_0707

DSC_0671

DSC_0523

DSC_0773

DSC_0689

DSC_0725

DSC_0755

DSC_0478

DSC_0657

DSC_0822

DSC_0645

DSC_0366

DSC_0557

DSC_0487

DSC_0813

DSC_0791

DSC_0554

DSC_0799

DSC_0763
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

pining for panambi

DSCF1057
The lights lingered for a last display of luminance as we were leaving Panambi

Our hosts Miguel Gonzalez and Maria Duarte with the rest of their companeros from la Cooperativa Agricola Rio Parana Limitada or Titrayju (spanish acronym for “land, work and justice”) as they prefer to be called, drove us in a two vehicle convoy to their yerba mate factory near the tiny remote village of Panambi east of Obera and a hop away from Brazil. It is a place you won’t find easily on a map but I saw the place signage so I know that’s the name of the place we visited.

When we arrived an almost centenarian European looking gentleman with ruddy face walked across the road to welcome us. He was accompanied by a younger person wearing a worker’s beret who could be his grandson or even great-grandson. He shook everybody’s hand and guffawed infectiously as I looked on and snapped away at the jaw-dropping view in front of us. The sun shone through the clouds giving clean soft lights to the trees and fields beyond. It was a picture perfect moment of taoist significance. Of longevity and laughter in a fecund landscape.

DSCF1066

DSCF1059

DSCF1082

DSC_0567

S0031008

DSCF0820

DSCF0988

DSCF0866

DSCF0872

DSCF0917

DSCF0885

DSCF0986

DSCF0819

DSCF0912

DSCF0919

DSCF0937

DSCF0978

DSCF0985

DSCF0963

DSC_0603

DSCF1053
All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

DSCF0660

Argentines call this region ” la Mesopotamia” ( Greek for ” land between rivers”) because two of South America’s great rivers, the Parana and Uruguay, flow here flanking its boundaries before draining into the Rio de la Plata. Three provinces make up this region. The northern-most and smallest is Misiones. Here Argentina, the world’s 8th largest country, is reduced to a thumb-shaped land the size of Belgium squeezed between Paraguay and Brazil.

To local people, Misiones is la tierra colorada–  a subtropical arcadia of red nutrient rich soil supporting an eclectic flora of rainforest trees, exotic pines, tea and the province’s principal cash crop, yerba mate.

Yerba Mate, Argentina’s national beverage is grown often alongside  tea on a plantation scale in the province. Drank as an infusion of leaves with stems ( con palo) in a gourd shaped cup ( mate) with a metal straw ( bombilla) it initially tastes mildly of dried grass and aged woodchips.

The story of yerba mate is also the story of Misiones as it was the missionary settlements (hence the name) founded by European Jesuit priests that led to the growing of yerba mate for commerce by the native Guarani people.

In the 17th century the Jesuits came to convert the area’s indigenous tribes to Catholicism. The Guarani were nomads but the Jesuits placed and protected them in settlements and taught them western agricultural methods and ways to domesticate the wild yerba mate plant. The Jesuits’ social and evangelical experiment ran against the policies of the Portuguese and Spanish governments who relied on captured Guarani slaves to work the colonial plantations. This clash led eventually to the expulsion of the Jesuit Order from the Latin American colonies and destruction and abandonment of the missions.

From 1880s onwards Misiones saw huge European immigration notably Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and other non-latin Europeans into its territory in search of farmlands and work. Today over a million people live in Misiones. Outside of Posadas, the capital, the province is a place of tiny remote settlements and small towns such as Obera, Eldorado and Apostoles, the yerba mate capital of the universe.

DSCF0805

DSCF0793

DSCF0918

DSCF0775

DSC_0438

DSC_0424

DSC_0411

DSCF0566

DSCF0559

DSCF0723

DSCF0705

DSCF0685

DSCF0676

DSCF0512

DSCF0799

DSCF0786

DSCF0510

S0440527

DSCF1193

DSCF1111

DSCF1135

DSCF1129

DSCF1153

DSCF1192

kuala lumpur au naturel

DSC_0842

Away from the shiny edifices of the Kuala Lumpur City Center driving in a general northerly direction will bring you to Kepong, a former tough guy township and now inner city suburb that shows off best the city’s authentic side. It is the twin faces of urban blight and buzz that is familiar to folks in KL except tidy expatriates and middle class families who spend most of their lives in the air-conditioned malls of Bangsar and Bandar Utama (two of the city’s more affluent suburbs). Like the barrios and favelas of Latin America, Kepong is at once menacing and reassuring. Even on an overcast and lazy Saturday morning the place fascinates more than any other part of KL I know.

DSC_0845

DSC_0854

DSC_0891

DSC_0903

DSC_0963

The streets appear disheveled but well-swept in the morning before descended upon by heat, traffic and people

DSC_0904

Off to work on a Saturday morning

DSC_0918

Chinese have traditionally been the dominant ethnic community here

DSC_0939

Immigrants from unfamiliar continents have brought their cuisine to Kepong

DSC_0972

a mobile phone shop caged behind bars- a rare sight in a city where violent crime is perceived to be low

DSC_0974

I have never fully understood why  Punjabi is officially used in Malaysia only on multi-lingual sign warning of eletrocution

DSC_0978

DSC_0992

DSC_0996

DSC_1003

DSC_1007

DSC_1017

DSC_1020

DSC_1022

DSC_1025

DSC_1036

DSC_0850

DSC_0839

DSC_1038

DSC_1062

DSC_1042

A recycling bin doubles as a community notice board

DSC_1051

securedownload_2

DSC_1066

All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng September 2013

pagoda on a hill

DSC_0467

Myanmar is a proudly and profoundly religious place. It is one of few officially Buddhist countries left in Asia – a continent that in ancient times had embraced Buddhism as its creed in the vast region stretching from the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Uzbekistan to the islands of Japan and the Malay Archipelago.   There are perhaps thousands and thousands of temples and pagodas across Myanmar. Some are magnificent monuments built by monarchs to instill reverence and awe. Others are less ostentatious and more prosaic and purposeful in their design and construction. But most if not all are coated with gold so that they glitter in the hot sun and glimmer on nights when the moon is out. For maximum special effect, many pagodas are built on elevated ground including the first one I ever spent a night in called Hpo Oo Taung near Pyay, a historically important town 5 hours north of Yangon.

During the wet season Zin Mar invited me to join her together with her husband Myo and her fortune-teller father-in-law on a pilgrimage to their family’s favorite hill top pagoda. Getting there involves a half-day car ride from Yangon, then  a one-hour boat trip from Pyay heading upstream along the western banks of the Irrawaddy to the village of Yartaya and finally a breathtaking (literally) 50-minute hike up a scenic hill.

An enthusiastic troop of children from the village at the foot of the hill come to the jetty to greet us and to help us carry our bags, luggage and provisions to the pagoda. The temple is built on a boulder on the summit.  As I gaze up at the white washed stupa from the temple hall I am reminded of the temples in Nepal.

I am not a zen devotee but joining Zin Mar and Myo in their night time meditation at the hill top shrine surrounded by swirling clouds and soothing sound of rain on the zinc canopy I feel a strange sense of silence and calm. That night as I rest my tired body on a thin mattress insulated from the cement floor of my 80 square feet guest room contemplating sleep wisp of white mist blew in through the open window.

According to online information I found after the trip, Hpo Oo Taung is actually a very significant holy site. Myanmar oral tradition has it that the Buddha visited the very hill on which the pagoda now stands and surveying the broad bend of the Irrawaddy River from up high predicted the founding of Sri Kshetra, Myanmar’s first ever capital city pre-dating Bagan by six  hundred years.

DSC_0168

DSC_0176

DSC_0201

DSC_0207

DSC_0216

DSC_0224

DSC_0217

DSC_0231

DSC_0291

DSC_0276

DSC_0307

DSC_0321

DSC_0325

DSC_0329

DSC_0337

DSC_0355

DSC_0357

DSC_0362

DSC_0408

DSC_0423

DSC_0452

DSC_0454

DSC_0460

DSC_0484

DSC_0575

DSC_0583

DSC_0594

DSC_0645

DSC_0737

DSC_0877

DSC_0974

DSC_1014

DSC_1066

DSC_0014

securedownload

DSC_0011

securedownload

securedownload

securedownload

DSC_0043

DSC_0050

DSC_0074

DSC_0075

DSC_0086

DSC_0117

All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013