"Travelling – it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller" Ibn Battuta
Husna, has an MSc in Analytical Chemistry with 32 years in research and development work, 20 of which were in oil&gas. She is retired, loves writing ( wrote a book "A Train To Catch" in 2016) and travels widely. Check out her travel blog https://www.storiesfromtheeast.com.
Turquoise blue waters, fine sandy beaches, swaying coconut trees, relentless waves, stunning sunsets and sunrise, scooter rides in bermuda shorts with wind blowing in your hair, cruising down empty roads surrounded by endless green prominence, night markets, hawker food at almost any time of the day or night and a laid-back atmosphere of peace ..………Langkawi is truly a gem of an island.
Langkawi is a cluster of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea. It is located in the state of Kedah, in the north west of Peninsular Malaysia. Langkawi is one of the four populated islands of the 99 islands (besides Pulau Tuba, Pulau Dayang Bunting and Pulau Rebak). There are daily ferries from both Kuala Perlis and Kuala Kedah on the mainland to Langkawi’s Kuah jetty. Dailylocalflights bring visitors from the mainland to the island while international flights land daily at the Langkawi International Airport in Padang Matsirat. 2018 brought 3.63 million visitors, an increase in the number of foreign tourists, even though a slight dip in the number of local visitors. Langkawi island is definitely on any traveler’s wish list.
Visitors come from countries like neighbouring Thailand, Singapore, India, Korea, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. It is perhaps more popular than the Terengganu islands such as Redang on the east coast for several reasons. Langkawi is bigger than Redang, with more variety in terms of resorts (ranging from backpacker to super luxury) and many more sightseeing potential (Tripadvisor.com). Ultimately the choice depends on what kind of holiday a visitor is looking for: a luxury yacht experience or a five-star hotel pampering or a wholesome laid-back local experience….all on Langkawi Island.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the island of Langkawi for a weekend break. Since one of our travel members was crazy about boats, we decided to try the Langkawi Yacht Club(Fig 1) in Kuah, a 3-star, 44-room hotel. It is located in the south-east corner of Langkawi, just a five-minute walk to the Jetty where duty-free shops, banks, post-office, restaurants and scooter rentals are located; and a 10 minute-walk to the Dataran Helang.
Most patrons of the Club are understandably boat, catamaran or yacht owners, many are Caucasian. The Langkawi Yacht Club(Fig 1) has an award-winning 250-berths marina able to accommodate mega-yachts up to 90 meters long. For those interested in luxury yacht and sporty luxury experience in sea travel, there are a number of companies with headquarters in Langkawi which offer a variety of cruises around the island for a skippered or bare boat charter. There are options for holding weddings or exclusive meetings (hgroupmarine.com; dreamyachtcharter.com; or the langkawiyachtclub.com) or private dinners or to disconnect completely, travelling at a pace set by the winds. Of course some prefer the traditional, no frills, more affordable boat charter.
Facilities at the Club are limited to a swimming pool and a coffee house serving Asian and Western breakfast but there are restaurants and a bar located next door to the Club (Fig 2). Renting a car or a scooter is probably the best way to see the town of Kuah but certain sights are best seen from a boat (Fig 3). There are many boat tours and cruises around Langkawi. And tour operators are more than willing to pick-up and drop-off visitors from their hotels.
One of the most popular tours in Langkawi is probably the Fauna and Flora Eco Mangrove Boat Cruise of Kilim Geoforest Park, one of the 3 top UNESCO sites in Langkawi. The mangrove forests of Langkawi is home to an incredible variety of wildlife. It is a four (4) hour tour around the mangroves, in an open boat, costing close to RM200 per person (faunafloraeco.com). It was one of the best mangrove tours I ever experienced.
The tour is a trip into the diversified mangroves on the north-eastern part of Langkawi. The nature guide is licensed and very knowledgeable, giving a very thorough run of the entire trip especially the wildlife in the Kilim forest. If you are lucky, you get to sit next to the boatman who would gladly give you his life story and his boating experience in his thick local accent, while skilfully steering the boat around the turquoise blue waters at speeds that kicked up a water splash. The water splash will deposit tiny salt crystals on your forehead.
The tour covers visits to the floating fish farm where visitors have the option of a local lunch, eagle-watching, bat cave (Fig 4), crocodile cave (Fig 5 & Fig 6) , monkey watching (Fig 7), beach stop on Tanjung Rhu, ending in a simple lunch.
Figure 7 below shows the crab-eating monkey species which not only can swim but can dive too.
There is an alternative to taking the boat in Kilim. If you have a strong back, and feel a need to physically challenge yourself while enjoying the sights, try kayaking around the Kilim mangrove river. There are many guided kayak tour if you feel less confident to kayak alone.
By the time you return to the Yacht Club in the late afternoon, you are probably too exhausted to go far for dinner. But around the Club, at the Fisherman’s Wharf complex, there are restaurants like Jake’s for a good steak and an all-night chat. Charlie’s Bar & Grills is another interesting place to dine. The bar was named “Charlie” after the founder of the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, the late Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah who was fondly known as “Charlie” among his friends.
But if you fancy dinner in a posh restaurant in a five-star luxury hotel, you need to drive past the Langkawi Yacht Club, all the way down the almost deserted road called Jalan Teluk Datai towards the Datai Bay, where a one-night stay at The Datai in Padang Matsirat costs about RM3,400 or RM4,700 at the Ritz-Carlton. And where the security is so tight that the guard would grill your curiosity to death before ever allowing you to have a look-around.
Trains are just enticing: picture windows, freedom to move around, time to bury yourself in a book or socialize, yet moving smoothly at a speed that does not upset your cup of tea. Last month, I took the ETS to Sungai Petani, meeting up five other friends with their wives for a lesson on history, culinary and hospitality. It turned out to be a delightful three-day trip down memory lane for those born and raised in Kedah. For me at least, having overstayed my welcome in the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the last 46 years, and now completely retired, the trip presented the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the serenity of kampong life once more….the green paddy fields stretching as far as the eyes could see, the spectacular mountains in shades of green, the soft breeze blowing, carrying with it a rhythm of kampong chatter.
I constantly visited Kedah in the past, at least to reconnect with whatever was left of my early life: my nieces, my nephews, my cousins but largely my memories. The migration of kampong folks to the big city seeking new opportunities, have brought with them practices and tradition peculiar to Kedah, especially the cuisines. I have tasted Laksa Kedah, Pindang Ikan Temenung, Curry Ikan Kering, Asam Pedas Keladi, while eating out around Kuala Lumpur but I have never heard ofJeruk Maman, let alone tasted it. JerukMaman is part of Ulu Kedah cuisine, popular among the kampong folks in the district of Baling, Sik and Kuala Nerang.
Maman plant, is a national treasure, according to a farmer growing it on a large scale in Gemencheh, Negeri Sembilan. The maman leaves, bitter though they were, actually prevented a war with the Johorians at one time, only because the Johorians fell in love with the maman dish served (initially, an idea as a nasty prank) (http://www.straitstimes.com, October 2017). The scientific name for Maman plant is Cleome Gynandra and it is popularly-grown in Negeri Sembilan and Terengganu. The name Maman most probably originated from the name of the town Kemaman in Terengganu.
Maman leaves is sometimes used to cook rendang. But it is Jeruk Maman that I am more curious about.Jeruk Maman (Fig 1) is prepared using young leaves or shoots, salt, water and some cooked rice. The young maman leaves and some stems are placed in a plastic, together with some generous amount of salt and topped by a cup of cooked rice, and a cup of cold water, all placed aside to allow fermentation. They are best eaten with rice, preferably steaming hot, but sometimes made into a kind of kerabu or eaten plain with some shallots and chilli padi. It was my first time. I tasted this dish during a generous dinner spread in Kampong Bukit Pak Kuning, Kuala Ketil, courtesy of Taib’s family. Kuala Ketil is a small town about 21 kilometers from Sungai Petani by road.
The entire Taib’s family practically participated in the cooking of dinner on that particular evening, but for a family running a restaurant next door on a daily basis, cooking dinner for 16 people was no big deal. It was a dinner drawn out over two hours of eating, interspersed with endless conversations and sometimes, thunderous laughter. I remember changing seats three times just to make sure everyone were comfortable and had a good proximity to the dishes.
In Kampong Sintok Bugis, (Fig 2) in the district of Kota Kuala Muda, we had another big spread of lunch, courtesy of Ismail’s family. The family served fried meehoon, fried kuey teow, nasi lemak, and many other dishes. But the one thing I have never tried before was Nira drink. Nira (or Neera) is a sweet natural drink made from the Nipah palm or mangrove palm, native to the coastlines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its scientific name is Nypa Fruticans. It seems Nipah palm produces a sweet edible sap collected in a bottle or plastic normally fitted to the trunk. The sap can be turned into a variety of products such as gula nipah and cuka nipah or vinegar. The Nipah sap can also be fermented to produce alcohol. Cars fueled by alcohol is not a new idea at all. For decades experimentation with alcohol and bio-fuels has been conducted.
To top it all off, was the brunch in Kampong Setar, in the district of Yan. After brunch (Fig 3), some of us pulled out a bike each (courtesy of Salleh’s family). I hesitated at first. But after a few minutes, I was able to balance myself and managed to stay comfortable on the bike in perpetual motion. With the breeze softly blowing in my face, I felt an overwhelming rush of nostalgia. I remember visiting cousins who lived in wooden houses among paddy fields when I was young. I cycled almost everywhere in the 1960s. My initial plan was to photograph a real farmer on his rounds on the old bicycle complete with a big straw hat and a parang. But we could not find one.
If you look to the left, there is the majestic Gunong Jerai, with clouds still hanging around them like white cotton balls (Fig 4). And to the right, are paddy fields half buried under irrigation water, with luscious green paddy plants sprouting from underneath. Miles and miles of paddy fields is a common sight since Kedah is an agricultural state and the biggest producer of rice. I can imagine Salleh’s uncle cycling around the bunds after working the fields in the early hours of the morning many many years ago.
Before the close of the evening of the second day, Ismail took us for Mee Udang (or prawn noodles) in Kampong Pulau Sayak in Kota Kuala Muda. There are about six or seven such stalls in the kampong. The beach-front restaurant called Yaakob made a delicious Mee Udang, using prawns from the sea (Fig 5). To be fair, I didn’t try other Mee Udang stalls. But this stall was exceptional because of the picture-perfect, fast-fading sunset, laid out in front of us, the sun casting its last colourful hues over the sea as we dined.
If you had a chance to visit Sungai Petani on your way up north towards Langkawi Island, try stopping at the Hotel Seri Malaysia, a convenient stop since it is just opposite the train station. But there is a beautiful homestay nearer to Gunong Jerai if you prefer.
Figure 5: Kampong Pulau Sayak where we had Mee Udang
“People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and Taib’s family, Ismail’s family and Salleh’s family all made us feel extremely welcome in their homes. The 2Fs: Food and Friendships, made me feel truly blessed……of course it’s not always about food, but who you eat with that matters most to me.
(*Yaakob Mee Udang Segar, Pulau Sayak, Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah, Google or call 019-542 9812 if you are lost).
For the first time in a very long time, I felt my journey towards self-actualization is almost achievable. As long as I can remember, I love to write. The third week of September 2019, had been a promising one. It was a continuous meeting of minds…..the minds of the travelers, the story tellers and the poets. First it was the Jasmina Awards 2019 ceremony at The Intermark Mall, and then it was the ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention at the Sheraton Imperial. Two meetings that couldn’t have been more different, with respect to objective, pomposity and attendance but both gave me a push in the right direction with respect to my writing potential.
Firstly, there was the Jasmina Awards2019 ceremony, held for the first time in conjunction with the celebration of the Malaysia Day. It was presented by Diversecity KL, targeted to bring out the Malaysian writers and poets among the above sixties. According to Tan Sri Vincent Tan, founder of Berjaya Corporation, the general English proficiency of the baby-boomer generation was without doubt superior to the later generations. This of course was a result of Malaysian government educational policy at that time with respect to the use of the English language in schools.
The event was low key and attended by a small group of family members and supporters of winners for the three categories, held in one cosy corner of the third floor of the Intermark Mall. The three categories were My Malaysian Story, Love and Journey, for both stories and poetry sections. Dr Jasmina Kuka of WISE (Working on Impact & Social Empowerment) founder of the Jasmina Awards, together with Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar, Festival Director of Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival (KLIAF) were responsible for the realization of the Jasmina Awards.
Despite the impression of being sedate and low key, it boosted the morale of retirees like me who won awards for our story writing and poetry at a ripe age of over 60s. Suddenly, these story writers and poets, found at last a recognition and dared to celebrate a merit well-deserved. There was no prizes to be won but at the award ceremony, excerpts of winning stories and winning poems were read.
The Sheraton Imperial ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention was a vibrant event attended by mostly young women from travel-related community. There were a few of us oldies aged between 61 till 69 years old among the attendees. Some were writers, journalists, bloggers, photographers, owners of travel-related businesses and some were still deciding whether travel writing was anything they wanted to do. It was well-organized and well sponsored by big names like Air Asia, Astro Awani, Uniclo, Sheraton etc.
But having attended both events, I must concede that no poem was better read than the one recited by Sheena Baharuddin (Fig 1). Her rendition of two poems, namely Apax and Moles at the convention was a superb read with heightened animation. The event was graced by many exceptional speakers on the 21st September. Among the first to speak was of course the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Hannah Yeoh in conversation with the Chairman, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. Hannah Yeoh is young and refreshing. I must admit there was no pretense with this young minister and is, by her own admission, “shallow” because she prefers shopping malls to museums wherever she travelled.
Figure 1: Sheena Baharuddin, “Every body is a poem”.
One exceptional speaker was a young lady who completed the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the likes of the Everest all over the world in 20 years and 112 days. Her name was Marin Minamaya, a Guinness World Record holder. Her courage and determination from as young as 15 years old was admirable. Alena Murang (Fig 2), the sape musician and cultural artist, made an impact with her singing and sape strumming. The sape is a lute instrument famous among the Kayan and Kenyah tribes of Central Borneo. There were many other exceptional speakers like Nila Tanzil, Deborah Chan, Deborah Henry, Suzanne Ling, who have given a lot of themselves towards the betterment of the less fortunate.
But it was the travel writing workshop held at the end of the day that I enjoyed most. It was conducted by the editor of Zafigo. Eliza Thomas was exceptional at conducting the workshop on travel writing and she left a lasting impression on how interesting a travel writer’s job could be. We attendees were promised an opportunity to be published if we would submit a 1,200 word winning travel article. On top of that we would be paid RM100 each. Getting paid is any writers dream even if for RM100.
I must admit I had to look long and hard at the speaker during the travel writing workshop. Eliza Thomas, the editor, standing right there in front of the class next to the whiteboard, was unrecognizable. I would have to take the good advice of Deputy Minister, Hannah Yeoh, “Use your best, young photo if you want to have an online presence, because these photos live forever”. I suspect many famous people, Eliza Thomas included, subscribe to this philosophy.
The Jasmina Award ceremony on 16 September 2019, Intermark Hall
Category: My Malaysian Story
“ A Kind of Paradise”
The Award Winners at the Jasmina Award Ceremony (me standing 3rd from the left)
If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok. Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other. On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik. The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.
A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again. It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator. Out on the veranda, rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze, commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine. It was the beginning of a new day.
Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of beautiful Kampong Mangkok. Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 4), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me. How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok .
Beijing Central station was a sea of people that morning and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station. It probably would have taken an hour or so just to get inside the station, judging by the size of the crowd building up. I have never seen so many lines of people queuing up to buy train tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building with luggage bags in tow, was no mean feat given the pushing and the jostling crowd. It was absolute chaos that morning. I remember the van driver Sam, advising us “There is no time to be polite in Beijing”. We finally managed to get to the platform after going through security checks and ticket verification. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the K3 train finally arrived. Like excited school-girls, we quickly made our way up the steps and through the corridors looking for our cabin, a 2nd class hard sleeper with four berths.
As the K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement building up. After all, K3 was a rail journey of a lifetime, a tick off my bucket-list; a 7,622 kilometer-journey from Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan Bator. The train crosses three large countries and five time zones. There are fourteen stops (Fig 1) on K3 between Beijing and Moscow, with a border check and a rail gauge change at Erlian. Imagination ran wild as the wheels turned and pulled, the whooshing and the hissing sound of the engine shrieking a promise of adventure. And as you sit by the window, you discover the beauty in the changing landscapes. Horses running wild on the grassland, the sun peeping in between the trees, the endless glimpses of the beautiful Lake Baikal and the fleeting images of the mountains as the train chugged along. Inside the train, you sometimes meet complete strangers who share a story a two about their own life’s journey. The Trans Mongolian, like the Trans Siberian, is a journey that had captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. It is a dream adventure.
Long-distance train travel has captured the likes of travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first in a series of books dedicated to train journeys, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”. What is it about long-distance train journeys that is so mesmerizing?
For a start, the train is perhaps the most comfortable way of travelling long distances, despite the fact that a hard-sleeper meant six straight days of life in a cubicle, 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of other contentious travel mates. The freedom of movement along the endless corridors allows a sense of space, so you don’t feel trapped as in an aeroplane.
Standing by a window of a corridor (Fig 2) for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes, I was spellbound. The steppes, populated mainly by the world’s last wild horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia, at one time, land of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horses.
Once the train was well on the way, passengers headed for the buffet coach (Fig 3). Even though I was counting on meeting some interesting people in the buffet coach, I desperately needed some time to gather my own thoughts and make notes. I finally found a table opposite a couple of middle-aged British ladies. In the company of the two ladies, who sometimes giggled like two star-struck teenagers, was a young male, a Russian model. I recognized him while we were waiting on the platform back in Beijing Central station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-importance.
After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable. I decided to put away my mobile and initiate a little conversation with the two ladies instead. I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, reciprocated with a hello and a broad smile. They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in hospitality services.
When the K3 train arrived at Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours. The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education. A big buxom Russian lady later joined them. The Russian lady was a teacher who taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator, I was later informed. Russian is a second language in Mongolia just like English is to Malaysia.
While walking down the K3 corridor one morning, I met a young Chinese couple in their late twenties in one of the First Class coach. The couple were from Beijing and were on their honeymoon. They were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station (two stops before Novosibirsk station). They decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. I thought it was most romantic to start a honeymoon by traveling on the Trans Mongolian Express.
This surprising encounter on K3 triggered a whimsical notion that there is something undeniably romantic about train travel. James Blunt in his song “You’re beautiful” dealt with fleeting moments of aching, unrequited longing experienced on a train journey. A study by East Coast Trains to mark National “I Love Trains” Week, uncovered that one third of British people believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.
Finding “the one” may not be the reason travelers throw caution to the wind and chat to strangers. But trains do inspire an atmosphere of impulse, stimulating travelers to connect with strangers. For me, taking a train anywhere evoke a feeling of nostalgia and the Trans Mongolian Express trip was unforgettable in so many ways. The rhythm of “tchjk”, “tchjk” as the metal wheels hit the rail track, linger on long after the trip.
The next time you feel a need for some adventure or romance, try spending six days on the Trans Mongolian Express. You will never know who you meet. You might even meet “the one”…..
(I received this newspaper clipping way back in 2014 from my daughter who studied, lives and works in London. I just thought it is hilarious)
Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.
We support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS, but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him.
We don’t like Iran but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
If the people we want to defeat are defeated they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.
If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok. Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other. On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik (Fig 1) . The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.
Kampong Mangkok is a mix of old and new – kampong houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze, laden with salts; old traditional Malay houses transported from all over Terengganu, re-constructed;and new Malay and concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarina trees, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycled past. The breeze blew softly from the sea on most days. The fine white sandy beach stretched from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles and all kind of debris brought in by the waves, left half buried in the fine sand.
Straddled between two bodies of water, the village lends two very different kinds of charm. On one side, I saw two brothers fishing as a boat passed by on the Setiu river. This part of the river exuded a kampong charm that a film producer fell in love with and decided to shoot some scenes here for the 2018 production of the film “Pulang”. Parallel to the Setiu river is the asphalt coastal road, lined with coconut trees on one side and the sea on the other. As I cycled along this road, I chanced upon a Malay gentleman standing, with one hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of a coconut tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on top of the tree. The boy, who I later learned was called Amin (Fig 2), aged 14 years old, selected specific bunches of coconuts, tied them with the string, and the man would hoist the bunches safely down to the ground. This the boy would do for several times until he was satisfied there were no more nice pickings. He worked his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another three or four more coconut trees to select more bunches.
It was hard work getting the coconuts off the trees, some reaching to more than 60 or 70 feet high. In coconut farms in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, coconut farmers use macaque monkeys to pick coconuts. Thailand took coconut plucking to the next level by having a Buddhist-inspired school in Surat Thani to train monkeys. The school it seemed was funded to teach monkeys how to pick coconuts without use of force or violence. The practice of using pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts started since around 400 years ago (https://www.npr.org Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (news.com.au, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts. For Amin, unschooled and living at poverty level, climbing coconut trees was the only means of earning a few ringgit a day. But plucking coconuts is certainly not for the faint-hearted ..…..
If you keep driving further down the coastal road towards Kuala Terengganu, you would reach another village called Kampong Telaga Papan. Kampong Telaga Papan was where I found a Malay artisan working on a boat. You would see many boats moored (Fig 3) along the Sungai Chalok near Pulau Besar and along one side of the river is an open-air boat-building facility, located among the mangroves. When I first saw him, Pak Peng was busy smoothing and sanding some wood planks. He had been in the boat-building industry since he was 14 years old and his family had been at it for as long as he remembered. But the art of Malay boat-building is dying, Pak Peng lamented and it was sad that the young have no interest in the art, because according to one German Malay-boat owner, Christoph Swaboda, Malay boats built in Pulau Duyong is of high quality.
In Kampong Telaga Papan itself, you will find a small tributary flowing from Sungai Chalok into other parts of the mangroves. This tributary, flowing among the mangroves, is ideal for a late morning of kayak when the ocean tide rises and the tributary is filled with water. We have kayaked in Krabi , in clear blue waters, ending up paddling into caves and in between the small islets. But kayaking on the tributary off Sungai Chalok in Telaga Papan was a totally different experience altogether because here, the water is murky. We kayak down this tributary a few times but after finding out from one fisherman that there was a sizeable crocodile swimming in the murky waters, we decided to give up kayaking here.
If you drive further south from Telaga Papan, you will arrive at Merang Jetty where you can take a boat all the way to Pulau Redang. I don’t snorkel but my friends love snorkeling and would spend hours swimming among the corals and the fishes. While the boat was bobbing up and down with the waves, I watched little fishes wriggling and tugging at the bread crumbs I scattered into the crystal-clear water.
Eight hundred meters before reaching Pak Peng’s place, you would have passed a small open-air kampong restaurant next to a mosque in Telaga Papan, right off the main road called Restoran Kak Zah. It is run by a family and friends and the restaurant is a popular breakfast place for truck drivers, tourists and locals passing by on their way to work. Fishermen spent hours exchanging stories in endless conversations, recalling their many fishing trips in the waters off Terengganu, while seated at a rustic wooden table in one corner, over a glass of teh-tarek. The girls serving breakfast there are friendly and you could get almost anything for breakfast here including Malay kueh. My own favourite breakfast is nasi dagang with fried chicken on the side. My friends used to laugh at me, saying the authenticity of nasi dagang is lost without gulai ikan tongkol ( tuna curry). But then I am not one who follow rules anyway and neither am I a “foodie”.
Terengganu culinary is heavily influenced by the taste of Thailand, apart from cuisines from the three main ethnic groups. This is to be expected as Thai influence has been present since time immemorial based on the geography and the history with neighbouring Thailand. Here the food is mainly rice-based. Some of the popular dishes are nasi kerabu, nasi ulam, nasi dagang, nasi lemak, ikan bakar tawar, sata, otak otak and keropok lekor.
Somewhere in Kampong Mangkok, there is this beautiful kampong house where I would spend days on end on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline and the reflections upon the sea. The tranquility in combination with the surrounding nature inspired an atmosphere of utmost creative concentration. I would be tapping away at my keyboard for many hours, writing and rewriting perfect-sounding thoughts. However, on one particular evening, it was the beautiful sunset over Kampong Mangkok that captured my imagination (Fig 4). Silhouette of endless rows of coconut trees, standing tall looking like black soldiers against the brilliant red sky was breath-taking. It was not long after when my thoughts were interrupted by the azan call for maghrib prayers.
By night time, life around the beach house would be completely different. It would be dark outside with no street lights and so quiet around the house, you could only hear the sound of an old, noisy fan with rusted blades. Occasionally you could hear the waves. With no television, no phones, and no internet we were off the grid,so to speak. But it certainly was a much welcome respite. On these dark nights, little flickers of light, fluttering around the room would entertain you. These are the fireflies. And if you listened properly, you could hear the raucous chorus of the cicadas, and once a while, the sound of a motorcycle negotiating a corner on the asphalt in the distance, piercing the still of the night.
A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again. It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator. Out on the veranda, rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine. It was the beginning of a new day.
Heading back towards Kuala Lumpur after such an exhilarating time spent in Setiu, was to me a kind of a punishment. Driving the 32 year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, the Spicy Mustard, was torturous. The engine would crank up so much noise, it was impossible to carry on any conversation throughout the entire 500 kilometer-journey. But we enjoyed the trips anyway: the stops for prayers, the snacking, the dozing-off on seats that had its fair share of wear and tear and the endless possibility of exciting unplanned stops. But driving the Spicy Mustard required skills because it tended to veer to one side, and the brakes sometimes failed. When parking the vehicle on a slope, little stops had to be placed underneath the tires to ensure the car did not roll off. Once, while parked on a gentle slope, the car did roll off. Spicy Mustard took on a life of its own and finally ended crashing the gate of a neighbour, missing a brand new Ferrari parked just inches away.
If not for the love of writing and blogging, it is impossible for me to stay completely alone. The box, the mobile phone, the keyboard, the 14-year old car, family and forward-looking friends, are enablers for the AAs (those aging alone). A lunch or tea and a good laugh at the nearest coffee-shop with girlfriends every once a while, is a good break. We would talk about anything from politics, travel, anti-ageing creams, arthritis, frozen shoulders, grand children to good food. This spurt of intermission is necessary for me to stay focused on my writing. Two hours of “girlfriends-therapy” and I am once again refreshed for another session of creative concentration in complete seclusion.
But creative concentration is not always achievable even in sedate Shah Alam. Life in Shah Alam is generally quiet, however, during weekends, I would hear squeals of children’s laughter coming from the swimming pool below. Sometimes, hysterical screams broke the silence with excited children racing down corridors to see who reached the door first. But late at night, it would be so quiet I could hear the sound of a drop of a coin on the floor above me. Then there is that constant dragging and shifting of a chair across the floor above late at night, and my creative concentration disintegrates.
But going by what the fiction writer, Stephen King advises on having a writing target of 2000 words a day in his “On Writing- A Memoir of the Craft”, I would be happy if I could manage 500. Perhaps for Stephen King, who thinks that writers should have the ability to remember the story of a scar, 2000 words a day is a breeze.
Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of beautiful Kampong Mangkok. Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 5), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me. How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok .
Kampong Mangkok has everything nature could offer – shimmering blue waters, fine white sandy beaches, sunshine on most days, swaying coconut trees, friendly kampong folks, unique habitats of Setiu Wetlands and the chorus of the cicadas. The uninterrupted tranquility provided by nature surrounding the kampong, oozed an atmosphere of spiritual charm, a closeness to the Creator and a heightened creative concentration I desperately need to further explore my passion for writing and blogging. Another month, and I might be heading back this wayagain.