"Travelling – it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller" Ibn Battuta
I am a chemist by training, a writer and photographer by passion. I have written my first travel book "A Train To Catch" published in 2016 by Partridge Singapore. I just completed my second travel book in October 2018 but it has yet to be published. You can find extracts of the book on my travel blog storiesfromtheeast.com.
(Its a mini travel guide on Putrajaya; in August 2019 Issue of Going Places, MAS in-flight magazine; edited version below ).
GP Aug’19 MY
Guide Head: Smart City
Standfirst: From administrative centre with architectural masterpieces to a vibrant neighbourhood of strong cultural and recreational activities, Putrajaya promises a spectrum of experiences only a smart city could provide.
Words: Husna Kassim
“I would like to think that a century from now people would know they are in Putrajaya because of the uniqueness of the city architecturally.”
These are the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he first unveiled Putrajaya, his brain-child and the country’s federal administrative centre, in 1999. Today, Putrajaya is a beautiful city, where 37 percent of the land comprise of parks and open spaces with man-made wetlands and lakes.
Persiaran Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah is the main thoroughfare in Putrajaya. Known as the world’s largest roundabout with a diameter of 3.5 kilometres, it is named after the eleventh king of Malaysia. Located on a hill within the roundabout is Istana Melawati, the second royal palace of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, also known as the Supreme Head or the King of Malaysia.
Opposite the palace is the 93 hectare tropical botanical garden, Taman Botani, where more than 700 species of plants from over 90 countries vie for space along with cycling trails. Entrance to the park is free. Within the garden is the Moroccan Pavilion, a replica of a palace in Marrakesh in Morocco, and a popular spot for pre-wedding photography. With its Islamic calligraphy and intricate carvings, it reportedly took 80 artisans from Morocco more than eight months to build the Pavilion as a cultural exchange between the two countries.
If you drive further along the roundabout and take a slip road, you would arrive at Dataran Putra. The majestic green-domed Perdana Putra, the Prime Minister’s office, is located at the edge of the area. A few minutes’ walk away is the iconic Putra Mosque, which takes inspiration from Middle Eastern, Malay and indigenous architectural aspects in its design. Its pink dome is made with rose coloured granite and the prayer hall can accommodate 15,000 worshipers. The mosque sits on the edge of the scenic Putrajaya Lake, and would make a charming picture postcard at sunset.
The nearby Putrajaya Boulevard links Perdana Putra to other government buildings, and is distinctive in its design modelled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris. This boulevard measures 100 meters wide and four kilometers long and links five core precincts and passes through four squares, including the majestic Palace of Justice and the three-tiered Iranian-inspired Putra Bridge. The 435-metre concrete bridge with four minaret-type piers and observation decks overlooks the Putrajaya Lake.
FUN AND FESTIVITIES
Like everywhere else in Malaysia, festivals in Putrajaya are a celebration of diversity. The Festival of Light and Motion Putrajaya (LAMPU), one of the biggest events in Putrajaya, held annually at the end of the year showcases concerts by local artistes and New Year countdown traditionally attended by the Prime Minister. The event’s crowd-puller is the Projection Mapping show, where the façade of the grand Palace of Justice is transformed into a colossal background for the display of lively multimedia effects. Entrance is free and it is advisable to bring a portable chair. The Royal Floria Putrajaya is Malaysia’s annual flower and garden festival. The theme this year is Orchid & Bonsai and will be held from 30 August till 8 September. Last year, the festival featured 61 garden lots with 43 international participants from 23 countries.
Putrajaya Lake Cruise is a top tourist attraction and for good reason. You get the perfect opportunity to take photos of the many bridges you pass cruising down the lake. But for thrill seekers, fly-boarding, hovering and dolphin dives at the Marina Putrajaya in Precinct 5 comes highly recommended. The Putrajaya Water Sports Complex in Precinct 6 is probably the best place for those who love the active lifestyle. This complex has been used to host local and international sports events. Alternatively, you can rent a boat and choose from different sets of activities at the lake such as wake-boarding, water skiing and banana boating.
Putrajaya Wetlands Park is the first man-made freshwater wetland in the tropics and a sanctuary for marshland wildlife and water birds. Grab your binoculars and go bird-watching here in the Wetlands, recognised by UNESCO as an eco-hydrology demonstration site. Skyrides Festivals Park, located on the edge of the Perdana Lake, in Precinct 2, offers thrilling experience of hot air balloon rides.
With plenty of greens and beautiful lakes, dedicated cycle paths and fresh, clean air, Putrajaya is a haven for cyclists and joggers. There are plenty of places to stop for a picnic, too. You can bring your own bicycles or rent one from Taman Botani. There are also walking tours in Putrajaya, organised by various companies. There is also the Putrajaya Night Tour and the Symphony Walk which consist of waterfront walks. If you prefer not to work up a sweat, book a tour with Planet Scooters. They offer two and three hour programmes and is the perfect way for families to tour the city together.
SOMETHING FOR THE TUMMY
There are plenty of restaurants and fast food outlets in Alamanda Mall but locals prefer Dataran Putra. If there is one thing in Malaysia you can count on, its hawker food. At Selera Putra Food Court at Dataran Putra, visitors will find a varied spread, from Indian curries, Middle Eastern kebabs, American fast food to the quintessential Malaysian dessert, durian cendol.
There are five types of bus services operating from Putrajaya Sentral in Precinct 7. NadiPutra Bus, a commuter bus service, offers the most comprehensive bus routes coverage within the city.
The KLIA Transit train service from KL Sentral station to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport stops at Putrajaya. It takes about 20 minutes.
Taxis are plentiful though try to avoid flagging one down in front of train stations or bus terminals or be prepared to be ripped off. Alternatively, use ride-hailing service Grab to get around
When the idea of a Mediterranean holiday was first mooted in 2014, Morocco was our destination of choice. Despite having made preparations to obtain a visa, the London Moroccan embassy did not approve mine. To obtain a Moroccan travel visa, one had to apply from home country… which was not quite what was related to us when we first called the embassy. So my daughter and I decided to visit Tunisia instead.
Tunisia…? A Tripadvisor forum once posted a question by four ladies (probably from Europe) looking for a relaxing sunny holiday in October 2014. They wanted to decide between Morocco and Tunisia, which was the better destination with respect to sunshine, safety, food, hassle-free for women travelers in their late 30s and best accommodation. Surprisingly, Tunisia came highly recommended for best value with respect to local restaurants and colourful local life, other aspects being almost equal. Tunisia was also the choice as a safer destination especially for women travelers back in 2014. It seemed that crime levels in Morocco (ranked 13th) ) was worse than in Tunisia (ranked 46th), (according to https://www.nationmaster.com). Murder rate in Morocco was four times more than in Tunisia.
For my daughter, the pull was the film Star Wars and planet Tataouine as some of the scenes in the film were shot in Tunisia. Star Wars was not the only Hollywood film to be shot in Tunisia. The 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, action adventure film; “The English Patient”, a 1996 romantic war drama film; “Pirates”, a 1986 film shot in the Port of El Khantoui in the city of Sousse were some of a long list of 25 or so films shot in Tunisia. Whatever the pull factor, I was ready to be immersed in some desert fantasy myself. Besides, this trip was a time for reconciliation and bonding for two family members living 10,000 kilometers apart.
Rue de Pacha & Old Tunis
When we first landed at Tunis Carthage airport, it was well past midnight. We were swarmed by a band of very loud taxi drivers, talking each other down in Arabic and some French, to decide who best to take us to our destination. Both languages were foreign to me. I might have read the entire quran when I was 14 but I did not speak any Arabic. French was totally foreign to me. Finally it was decided on the one taxi that would take us to Rue du Pacha.
When we were finally dropped off at a small, dimly lit, cobbled street, in the old part of Tunis at midnight, I felt a little apprehensive. Here we were in the middle of nowhere. I could not even make out the street name Rue de Pacha and there was no sign of Taieb. It was another 15 minutes before he suddenly appeared out of the shadows. Taieb (the Airbnb host) (Fig 2) mumbled an introduction as he walked towards us. Taieb was about 5 foot 6 with a typical Middle Eastern beard. I was relieved. I felt we were taking our safety for granted in this strange continent and at such late hour of the night. This feeling of insecurity however evaporated with time.
Taieb walked us through the unlit alleyways towards his place. It reminded me of a scene from Jack the Ripper film. The entrance was a heavy wooden door. It seemed Tunisian homes, rich or poor, are built around a courtyard, which served as a family workspace, well hidden from public scrutiny. Taieb was a university undergraduate. He was rather quiet, I suspect because of his barrier with the English language. His co-host also a university student was more bubbly, chatting with my daughter at breakfast in a muddle of English. Breakfast was typical Tunisian with pastry, bread, fruits and some cheeses.
The morning saw us walking through the nooks and alleys of the medina in the old part of Tunis (Fig 1 & Fig 3). In cosmopolitan Tunis, we found that elements of Tunisian culture are diverse and unique. This mix of culture can be experienced in museums (such as the Bardot Museum), contrast and diversity of city architecture (as reflected by SidiBou Said, named after the ancient Sufi scholar), medina of Tunis, cheeses and French croissants, music reflecting Andalusian and Ottoman influences, religion, arts and crafts. According to Linda Cockson, Tunis is termed as “surrogate Paris” ( Travel, Independent Sunday, 13th September 2008) because of its link with French musicians and artists.
We picked our way slowly through the cobbled streets, soaking in all the intrigue, while heading towards the train station to purchase tickets for Sousse. One thing that struck us as very distinctive and iconic, were the alleys and the doors. Doors were huge and heavy and almost always studded with motifs of crescents, minarets and stars. Design of doors would hint at the wealth within the Tunisian house. Generally doors would be painted blue but sometimes they could be painted yellow or brown (Fig 4). Doors of mausoleums of scholars of the Quran are often painted red.
The Great Mosque of El-Zituna
Getting lost in the souks was a great way to discover Tunis. We found the famous El-Zituna mosque or fondly called the Zaytuna mosque after making our way through the souks, worn out from bargaining for crafts, scarves and beautiful handbags from Turkey. One thing we learned was to refrain from showing interest in items you don’t intend to purchase in the first place.
The mosque (Fig 5) was built in 79 AH and Wali of Africa, Abullah Ibn Habhab completed the construction in 116 AH. The mosque has preserved its scholarly value, graduating many luminaries of Islamic thought. The ancient Zaytuna mosque in Tunis has maintained its position as an incubator of political and social activity for 13 centuries according to Al-Monitor. The concourse of the mosque was filled with pigeons, some would eat out of your hands, if you allow them.
We met two groups of people while in the ancient Zaytuna mosque. First was Marwa, a local undergraduate at the Ez-Zitouna University in Montfleury, Tunis. While chatting with Marwa, we met an Algerian family in the foyer of the mosque. The Algerian woman, who later introduced herself as Khairah, was visibly surprised to discover I was a Muslim. It was probably my attire that struck her as non-compliant. I was wearing denim jeans even though I had a head scarf on. She was however impressed when I rattled off the ayatul qudsi from the Holy Quran by heart.
Our exchanges, even though rather choppy, were in English and I learned that she was a school teacher. Her daughter and son joined us after their prayers to exchange email and facebook addresses with my daughter so we could keep in touch. She made us promise that should we visit Algeria, we should stay in their house. The Tunisians and Algerian people we met were very friendly indeed.
Even though many Tunisians we met in Tunis were very friendly people, this friendly nature could turn unpleasant, leading to harassment and uninvited physical contact especially for women tourists, if they were not careful. Friendliness especially with Tunisian men must be regarded with caution because many Tunisian men were rather old-fashioned in their outlook.
As we left Zaytuna Mosque, we scoured the area for a restaurant to have a much-needed drink and perhaps, lunch. We found a number of cafes and restaurants that are for men only, forbidding women patronage. These men-only cafes are popular among Tunisian men. This kind of cafes form an integral part of Tunisian traditional lifestyle, almost like a community centre where men gather to discuss politics, sports and everyday subjects. Women complain that stares and verbal harassment kept them out of these male-dominated cafes. In a society where the national unemployment rate was about 15%, these cafes form an outlet for ‘letting off steam’. They serve a similar function as the “coffee-shop” back in Malaysia except in Malaysia, women (even in hijab) can sit down and have a teh-tarik without stares or harassment.
Since our thirst became unbearable from the endless walks around the souks, we decided to take our chances and walked into one men-only café to buy two bottles of coke. We greeted the bartender with an Assalamualaikum and ordered two bottles of cokes to take away, fully conscious of the penetrating stares from the entire ‘flock’ of men, some seated and others standing , looking on in complete disbelief at our trespass. We were lucky to be spared the embarrassment of being ignored. The bartender obliged us our drinks. We paid him and left the premise. As we left the men-only cafe, we wondered if being foreign women, made all the difference in their tolerance.
After the embarrassing trespass of the men-only cafe, we discovered the most delicious pizza joint in Tunis. It seemed in Tunis, pizza is a staple food and is easily available. A Four-cheese pizza, regular size and two drinks cost only nine Tunisian Dollar, approximately £3!
But Tunisian women like Marwa, and some friendly local children (Fig 6) who we met, erased any initial negative feelings I had about Tunisian men….until we got to Djerba.
Sidi Bou Said
On the second last day, we took a train to Sidi Bou Said. SidiBou Said is a town to the north of Tunis. It was named after an ancient Sufi scholar. The town is located on top of a steep cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The view from Sidi Bou Said was exceptional. The town was overflowing with flowers and vines creeping from every wall and doorways. It was so beautiful that many European artists took up residence in the town. It struck me as a town for artists in the midst of blue-white specks. Rue Dr Habib is a bazaar in SidiBou Said , lined with small shops, studios and galleries selling works and reprints by artists and painters from late 19th& 20th Century. I bought one reprint by an Italian artist, Soro La Turco for 25 Tunisian Dollars. I have always loved oil painting so a reprint is always a good souvenir wherever I go.
Carthage is Tunis exclusive suburbs. Its about 15 kilometers from Tunis city centre. We visited The Musee de Carthage briefly.
Villa 78 & Arab Spring
Villa78 was an interesting Airbnb located on the main street at No 78, Avenue Muhammad V in Tunis. It had a garden in the backyard where guests could chat over tea. I looked forward to breakfast or tea in the garden foyer because of the beautiful garden and the cool Mediterranean weather. We stayed here during the last leg of our journey before flying out to London.
I noticed some reflections of activism pasted on the wall of the breakfast room of Villa78. It made me wonder if one breakfast meeting on one morning in the garden foyer of the Airbnb was anything related to this movement. Many protests sprouted from all over Tunisia in 2011. Oppressive regimes and low standard of living makes a deadly combination, and with social media as the driving force, the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia in 2011, spread like wildfire across the Middle East. By 18 August 2014, there was a warning by the UK government advice to keep to essential travel only, declaring south and east Tunisia a “red flag”. When the La Italia airplane we took from London flew into Carthage airport on 20 May 2014, I must admit we were unaware of the brewing unrest started by a young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire. In fact on 27 May 2014, just a week after we flew in, there was an attack on a house belonging to the Minister of Interior in Kasserine.
Tunisia experienced unprecedented political and social changes since the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in 2011. Two political assassinations in February and July 2013 led to public protests throughout the country calling for the government and the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to be dissolved resulting in the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Ali Laarayedh. A new Constitution, which enshrines fundamental freedoms, civil rights and gender equality was approved by the NCA in January 2014 .
Despite the uprising brewing in Tunis around the time we were in Tunisia, I never for once felt any aggression. Ignorance is bliss. I might visit Tunis again if I get another chance. The lure of Sidi Bou Said, the town for artists, affordable food and accommodation, and the Mediterranean weather, would see me heading this way again……insyallah.
The image on the home page is of a beach near Telaga Papan, in Terengganu. Its a place I love to spend hours reminiscing, reflecting about my life and those around me. Sometimes I catch glimpses of fishermen bring in their catch of the day. But wait for the sunset. Its fantastic mix of colors.
Storiesfromtheeast.com this time brings forth a story about my trip to Tunisia with my eldest daughter. We flew from London after abandoning our initial plan to travel to Morocco.
Check out my article “Tunis in 2014” under Tunisia. It is about a trip we took to Tunisia, way back in May 2014. The Mediterranean weather and Sidi Bou Said will lure me back to Tunis and Tunisia someday in the future. The simplicity of life…
“…….As we left Zaytuna Mosque, we scoured the area for a restaurant to have a much-needed drink and perhaps, lunch. We found a number of cafes and restaurants that are for men only, forbidding women patronage. These men-only cafes are popular among Tunisian men. This kind of cafes form an integral part of Tunisian traditional lifestyle, almost like a community centre where men gather to discuss politics, sports and everyday subjects. Women complain that stares and verbal harassment kept them out of these male-dominated cafes. In a society where the national unemployment rate was about 15%, these cafes form an outlet for ‘letting off steam’. They serve a similar function as the “coffee-shop” back in Malaysia except in Malaysia, women (even in hijab) can sit down and have a teh-tarik without stares or harassment.
Since our thirst became unbearable from the endless walks around the souks, we decided to take our chances and walked into one men-only café to buy two bottles of coke. We greeted the bartender with an Assalamualaikum and ordered two bottles of cokes to take away, fully conscious of the penetrating stares from the entire ‘flock’ of men, some seated and others standing , looking on in complete disbelief at our trespass. We were lucky to be spared the embarrassment of being ignored. The bartender obliged us our drinks. We paid him and left the premise. As we left the men-only cafe, we wondered if being foreign women, made all the difference in their tolerance.”……..
Tell me what you think…..have you readers had the same experience in Tunis?
It was a real hot, dry afternoon with no sign of relief from the rain clouds. I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my neck and elsewhere even as we sat underneath the shade of some coconut trees with the wind softly blowing from the sea (Fig 1). Even cold, sweet pineapple juice in tall glasses could not douse our hot discussion about drug use and remand prison time with two pill kuda users.
Pil Kuda is locally referred to as methamphetamine. In Kelantan, its retail price is RM10 but in Terengganu, it is RM15 – RM20. The pills are smuggled from Thailand into Kelantan and are what some people term as a poor man’s drug. Ketamine is called pill kuda because its use was for calming horses. Then we have syabu or pure methamphetamine, heroin, ganja (whose real medicinal value is as a pain killer), cocaine (like cocaine tooth drops to relief tooth ache) and ecstasy party pills (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). I did not realize how bad the drug problem in Terengganu was until that morning in Permaisuri.
Seated in the front row of the lower court that morning, I had an opportunity to listen to many remand cases while waiting for the specific case of interest to be mentioned. It seemed that out of 24 remand cases mentioned that morning, 23 were drug related and all involved Malays. This is an alarming trend. One remand case I heard was a well-dressed 65 year old man with dark glasses called Cikgu (teacher in Malay). He looked more like a headmaster of some remote school than a drug user or a drug peddler. The 65 year old drug user made an appeal for the magistrate to reduce the charge of RM6000. He made all attempts using poetic language in his appeal to impress the magistrate. The magistrate, a sweet young lady with hijab and beautiful painted lips, granted him a reduction of RM2,500. But he was far from satisfied. As he was being led out by a policeman, I heard him swore under his breath, with a look of disgust on his face. The “headmaster-look” completely disappeared and in its place, the face of an unrepentant drug peddler.
A young drug user on remand failed to attend the lower court hearing that morning , forcing his old man to present himself at the court since he was the one who posted bail. In Malaysia, you can pay bail to go home instead of going to jail while waiting for hearing. The lady magistrate did not hide her disgust and threatened to take away the old man’s bail money if the son failed to attend the next hearing. Then there was a young man about 20 years old who presented himself. He was dressed in short-sleeved tee shirt revealing old scars on his arms indicative of intravenous drug use. Almost all prisoners made gestures of defiance as they were being lead away. Many were young men maybe in early twenties and a few seasoned-looking hard-core drug users or drug pushers. One was a fresh-looking man in his early forties whose charges were duly dropped. And later when we met him outside, he related to us how he tried to help my friend’s worker during a raid by ADDK. But having watched too much American cop movies, his story made us a little skeptical. Could he be an informant?
Mezoh, a Patani who was working on my friend’s house, is a recreational drug user, resorting to pil kuda once or twice a week when he felt a physical burnout after his daily work on site. He is only 45 years old and very lean-build. Although from Patani, he spoke little Thai. On the day he was arrested in an ADDK (Agensi Anti-Dadah Kebangsaan or National Anti-Drugs Agency) raid on a house in Permaisuri, 2 months before, he was with some friends, smoking. The raid happened suddenly and quickly. ADDK officers appeared out of nowhere as if an informant had a hand in it. Mezoh suddenly found himself in jail waiting to be charged (Fig 2). If the court decides to put you on remand, it means you will go to prison until your hearing at a magistrate’s court. Mezoh was kept in jail for two months due to investigation by the police who had to be extra-careful with cases involving foreigners.
Mezoh related how much he suffered mentally and physically while on the two-months remand in Merang. 65 prisoners were confined to a space of about 30 feet by 30 feet. Space was so tight that if he left his spot to ease himself, he would find his space “gone” by the time he got back, duly occupied by another prisoner. The same space was also used for sleeping and there were no beds. Food was scarce. Prisoners were allowed five spoons of rice twice a day. Tea drinks were without any sugar and sometimes prisoners fight over tea. He looked like he did not lose much weight but then none of the prisoners did any physical work. They were not even allowed to attend weekly Friday prayers. Mezoh thought such conditions were unheard of in a Thai prison, on remand or not.
Lae, a 60 year old seasoned drug user, was constantly in and out of jail for drug use making him almost resilient. How he “got over” the drug habit was actually a result of an attachment to a tablir group during his parole years. It seemed to have straightened him out a bit, although it is anybody’s guess when he would cave in next. He had been taking drugs on and off since he was 20. Now he seemed to show some promising signs of discipline and resolve. He now keeps a dairy to jot down his duas and daily expenses from the little money his children gave him. This was seen as positive step towards recovery.
Figure 3: A peaceful, beautiful place in Mangkuk, Terengganu.
It made me wonder why these youngsters and even a few elderly men like Mezoh and Lae (residents of Mangkuk, Fig 3), resort to drug use? According to a 2018 AADK survey of drug addicts, (https://www.adk.gov.my) by state, showed Kelantan to have the highest number of drug addicts at 4,153 followed by Kedah at 2,693. Out of 25,267 drug cases surveyed, 82% are Malays, 6.3% are Indians, and 96% of this number are males. Among the drug users, the top most prone to drug abuse are the unemployed (3,650), the general workers (5621) and the part time workers (8,086). Socio-economic factors such as poverty and lack of employment opportunity are cited as some of the causes for high drug use among fishermen, according to Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF)(August 2017,nst.com.my).
Malaysia may have the strictest drug laws in the world, but the rising trend in drug abuse may require a rethink of its drug control strategies.
Some say dreams are made of sun, sea , sand and coconuts, while some think a coconut is a definition of a taste of paradise. But where ever you are, the coconut has the ability to transport you to some beautiful tropical coastline in your mind. It is as if you were lying on some fine white sandy beach, sipping coconut water in beautiful Terengganu.
But do you know how much work goes into your coconut drink? And I don’t mean the sweat behind preparing some exotic coconut water cocktails in the bar or in the kitchen of a restaurant. I mean the hard work behind 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 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 is 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.
But while travelling around Terengganu one morning, I came across a young man (not a macaque monkey) picking coconuts off a tree on a beach in Mangkuk (Fig 1). Mangkuk is a peaceful paradise, situated in between the Setiu River and the blue South China Sea. It is a mix of old and new – traditional Malay houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze laden with salts and resort-like concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarinas, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycles past. The fine white sandy beach stretches from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles. The breeze blows softly from the sea on most days. The monsoon months however (between November to February), bring endless rain, strong winds and raging seas (Fig 2). During the monsoons, the raging seas would mean fishermen would have to look for alternative source of income.
Figure 2: The angry sea during the monsoons, raging on the beaches in Kampong Telaga Papan, Chalok
I met a Malay gentleman, his hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of one coconut tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on top of the tree. The boy would select specific bunches, tie them with the string, and the man on the ground 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 would work his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another two or three coconut trees to select more bunches of coconuts. It seemed that even though the coconut trees grow in land belonging to some land owner in the kampong, coconut plucking from these trees are a gesture of charity by the land owner.
I remember some 50 years ago, seeing one Indian man climbing a coconut tree in my own kampong. He would use a ring made from plant fibre, attached around his ankles before he started the climb. This ring would really hasten his climbing speed. But this Malay boy Amin did not use any gadget on his feet nor a safety harness on his body. Amin, probably 15 or 16 years old, was slim, with an athletic build and long limbs, browned by the tropical sun. He was fearless. He had been plucking coconuts since he was 14 years old, learning the art from his grandfather.
Figure 3: Amin picked coconuts off the trees in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu
Figure 4: Amin happily climbing down the coconut tree with no harness of any kind.
It seemed a monkey can pick about 1,600 coconuts a day in Thailand, and about 800 coconuts a day in Malaysia. A boy like Amin probably could pluck about 80 coconuts a day. But the difference is in the delivery and the target market. Monkeys throw down coconuts from the top of the tree, which could break the fruits. But climbers like Amin would deliver beautiful green coconuts safely in one piece, perhaps more for tourists like me to savour the coconut water.
But would you pluck coconuts for the money? Maybe, if it is the only means of earning a few ringgit a day. But plucking coconuts may not be for the faint-hearted though…
When I first flew into Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, remembered fondly as Saigon, the weather was pleasantly warm-820F with some clouds. Visiting for the very first time, I tried to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver about the city. It struck me as revealing that taxi cab drivers I came across (at least two out of three), voiced a feeling of nostalgia for the old Saigon under American occupation. After 30 years of independence, there is still leftover animosity towards the north when touching on the history of old Vietnam. But looking back at how Vietnam finally became a republic, I could begin to understand why.
This animosity could have stemmed mainly from differences in ideology and geography between the old North and South Vietnam, but mainly from the brutalities of the civil war itself. Back then, North Vietnam was essentially a socialist (Marxist-Leninist) state while the South was a non-communist state, a largely Buddhist or Confucian state. In 1954 when the French and the American forces were defeated, Vietnam was divided into North and South, with Ho Chi Minh (Fig 1) put in charge of the North and Emperor Bao Dai put in charge of the South. But when Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, fell to the Communist in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam became a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.
The North and South differ in many ways, especially topography (North more natural beauty, bordering the mountains of China), weather (winter temperatures can go down such that you would need a winter coat in the North), culinary, dressing (more subtle dressing in the North compared to the South), language etc.
I found three cultures unique to Ho Chi Minh city. One is surely the motor culture. In a city where pavements are dominated by motorcycles, a proper walking space, free of motorbikes is a welcome. Nguyen Hue Street is busy with a different kind of crowd at night (Fig 1). I noticed during the nights, the crowd would come here to socialize, sing, dance and ride boards. 900 meters opposite is located the Saigon River (Fig 2).
We had a most challenging experience of our lives in an attempt to cross Ton Duc Thang Street (a main street) to get to the bank of the Saigon River. Street crossing is almost life threatening in Ho Chi Minh. I agree that it was after-office hours, and probably the wrong time to cross a main street filled with endless motor cycles, cars and buses. None of the vehicles stopped and we were advised to just go with the flow with steady steps. It seemed that vehicles will naturally manoeuvre around you as you cross. But I was not about to take any chances. So I had a local help me cross the street.
Then there is the scooter tour also unique to Ho Chi Minh City. The scooter tour is part night excursion and part street food adventure. Biking is the fastest way to get around the city but it is not for the faint-hearted. Your life depends on the expertise of the scooter driver turning and snaking around the traffic on the streets of the city. I did not have the time to try one scooter tour though.
The third culture is the street food culture. Along the alleyways, you can find blue chairs (Fig 3) lined up to sit patrons to enjoy their pho (noodle soup) or bun bo hue (beef noodle soup) or com tam, broken rice with grilled pork. Pho is cooked using fish sauce, spices, onions and ginger to give that special flavour, using either beef or chicken. I read delicious remarks by LegalNomads recommending street food. But knowing that these soups may have blood cubes and intestines added, I was not about to try any of it.
One of the few historical buildings we visited was the Central Post Office in District 1 (Fig 4 & 5). The post office first opened for service in 1864 but its architecture reflected those of the French colonial architecture.
Figure 3: A typical scene along the streets in Ho Chi Minh city. These locals, after working hours, were drinking local coffee, while seated on blue chairs along the street. This is coffee culture.
Figure 5: The inside of the Central Post Office is impressive for its interior architecture. The building is large and spacious and counter tops on the side looked more like those in train stations in Europe (m.vovworld.vn).
Figure 6: Inside the Ben Thanh Market, teeming with local products and swarming with shoppers. Caucasian tourists have learned the art of negotiation in Ben Thanh. A trader offered me a tailored suit for RM300. Now was that cheap?
Ben Thanh is very popular with the Malaysian shoppers who fly in just for a two day shopping spree. In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists. On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.
Another historic place we visited was the War Remnants Museum in District 3. It is a sad reminder of the atrocities of war. The museum (Fig 7) exhibited gruesome photos of war victims where the use of, among other weapons, Agent Orange which contains the deadly toxin dioxan. Exposure to dioxan cause cancers and lasting health problems . The war called the Second Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War) is also called the American War. It lasted for 20 years from 1955 to 1975. The Second Vietnam War is one of the 27 wars or armed conflicts America has engaged in with two still on-going. American presidents constantly used the domino theory to rationalize their involvement in wars across the globe. With South Vietnam, it was President Eisenhower who used the theory as an argument to justify increasing American military involvement in South Vietnam.
Figure 7: Schoolchildren resting next to a tank, at the War Remnants Muzeum in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
It seemed that during the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese fled the country to migrate to countries like Australia, America etc. After 40 years, many of the descendants of these refugees came back to Vietnam, mainly South Vietnam. These Vietnamese are called Overseas Vietnamese or Viet Kieu (https://culturetrip.com). They are mostly settled in Ho Chi Minh city. They look Vietnamese, but speak perfect English with American or Australian accent. And with this migration, comes the American fast-food life style. In the South you can find many fast-food restaurants like KFC, Burger King and even McDonalds…..an American lifestyle that is creating an upward trend in obesity. Foreigners (Japanese and Koreans mainly) working and living in Vietnam, live in the South, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City.
However, I was more interested to meet another group of Vietnamese while in Ho Chi Minh City….the Cham Malays. The Cham Malays is a minority ethnic group found mainly in South Vietnam. This interest stemmed mainly from the knowledge that back in Malaysia, there is a village in Terengganu where Cham Malays live. In fact later I was to find out there are many places in Malaysia where Cham Malays are found such as Jalan Bayam in Kelantan, Batu Pahat in Johor, Pekan in Pahang, Sungai Buloh in Selangor.
Dr Basiron (Fig 8) is a Cham Malay living and running a halal certification company in Ho Chi Minh city. He is 40 years old, with a PhD in Arabic studies. He studied in a Malaysian Islamic university and speaks five languages namely Vietnamese, Malay, English, Arabic and Khmer language. He was soft spoken and spoke English fairly well. We decided to take a slow walk towards Ben Thanh market. In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists. On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.
Dr Basiron is one of the fortunate Cham Malays, educated and running a small business. Halal certification is important with Vietnam’s growing Muslim tourism. There are about 72,000 Muslims in Vietnam, making up 0.1% of the country’s population of 95 million. Muslims in Vietnam are of three groups:1) Cham people; 2) inter-racial Muslims (who are offspring of mixed marriages between Vietnamese and Muslim traders) and 3) those who converted to Islam after interacting with Muslim traders (extracted from the writing by Tan Jo Hann). Ever since the French colonial rule to the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, the Cham Muslims have been victims of forced assimilation. Categorized as ethnic minority, the Cham Muslims are depicted as “poor”, “backward” and “deficient”. Perhaps Dr Basiron represents the new generation of Cham Muslims in South Vietnam…educated and independent.
I also noticed some young locals eating while seated on the pavements. I saw this while on my way to the central Musulman mosque on Dong Du street. I was more inclined to eat at the Nyonya restaurant on Dong Du owned by a Malaysian entrepreneur and run by a Malaysian Chinese, especially their seafood char kuey teow. Down the Dong Du street, opposite the Musulman Masjid, is the Turkish kebab shop. I ate there once but I could not convince Dr Basiron to step inside.
Ho Chi Minh City, District 1, has unique cultures worth experiencing, without a doubt. If you are a shopper, the city is an attractive shoppers paradise. But Hanoi would probably be more attractive to a traveller who loves nature. Jaw dropping natural wonders would be more my thing.
Figure 1: Another view of the Golden Pavilion, the beautiful Kinkakuji temple
It’s common knowledge that Japanese regard religious practices of Japan as part of the nation’s culture rather than a matter of individual belief or faith. As such many Japanese observe many rites: rites of the native Shinto religion, and those of Buddhism and even some of Christianity. It is therefore not surprising for a Japanese to celebrate a local festival at a Shinto shrine, hold a wedding at a Christian church and conduct a funeral at a Buddhist temple.
But when it comes to gardens, Buddhism shapes the way Japanese gardens are designed. The style of a Japanese garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the anxiety of civil wars that raged throughout the country in the second half of the Heian Period (8th century to 12th century). The wars made people recognize the precariousness of life. The incessantly altering state of the garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about impermanence of our being and the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. People find reasons to be more sensitive to the momentary beauty of nature and the changing of the seasons – plants budding, flowering, changing of the leaf colors and magnificent blooms dropping off with the approach of autumn, and colourful foliage that fade in the bitterness of the winter.
While the Heian gardens mirror the unpredictability of life, the Muromachi rock gardens completely rejected transitory facades of the material world. Garden makers in this period stripped nature bare. Zen gardens were created mainly out of rocks and sand in order to reveal the true substance of life and nature. During this Muromachi period, the growing influence of Zen Buddhism and its emphasis on contemplation led to a change in garden design. The purpose of the zen gardens were to provide the monks with a “place to walk and contemplate Buddha’s teachings.” The design of the garden was supposed to promote a feeling of peace and harmony in a space. By the 13th century, Zen gardens were heavily integrated into Japanese life and culture.
Figure 2:The aesthetic kyoko-chi pond for contemplation at the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji.
The garden in one of the most famous temple in Japan, the Kinkakuji, is an extraordinary example of a Japanese strolling garden of the Muromachi period. A path leads around the kyoko-chi pond (Fig 2) offering great viewing access for beautiful shots of the temple. The richly-decorated golden temple seemed to float over the pond.
The Ninna-ji temple represented a balance between aristocratic elegance and Buddhism simplicity (https//jal.japantravel.com). The temple was established in 888, during the Heian period, and is situated in north west Kyoto, a short distance from the Ryoan-ji temple. The gardens of Ninna-ji temple became the model for many Japanese gardens. The white sands were raked to perfection (Fig 3) to reflect waves. Figure 4 shows the pond in the North garden.
When it comes to garden fencing, famous temples like the Ginkaku-ji and the Kinkaku-ji have their own styles. Traditionally materials like bamboo and wood or brushwork are used for fencing. Bamboo is is one of the most versatile, fast-growing and sustainable material. It is an integral part of daily life in Japan and provide material for many Japanese traditional crafts. Bamboo ages gracefully over the years – the fresh green fades to a honey colored gold and ages with time to a silvery grey. Moss has also been a central element of the Japanese garden for centuries. There are over 120 types of moss used in the Zen gardens. Figure 5 shows moss growing around a tree near the entrance to the Ginkaku-ji temple garden. Moss can keep water up to 20-30 times its own weight.
Figure 4: The Ninna-ji north garden pond with rocks, arranged together with the trees. The 5-story Pagoda formed a balance in the background.
A well-constructed Zen garden draws the visitor / viewer into a state of contemplation. The garden, usually relatively small, is meant to be seen while seated from a single view point outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo , the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery.
Reduced colors and little vegetation let the eye rest and calm the mind, giving the garden a peaceful atmosphere. This is where a subtle, yet intriguing design feature of Japanese gardens comes into play – The carefully raked gravel patterns of rock and sand gardens. When the low morning or evening sun casts long shadows in the garden, the texture of rocks and gravel take center stage.
Figure 5:Beautiful moss growing around a tree in Ginkaku-ji zen garden, temple of the Silver Pavilion.
Zen stones are placed in Zen gardens to represent various elements of life (Fig 6). Stones are natural and reflect the balance between man-made structures and nature. Zen stones represent what is not actually featured in a Zen garden, such as islands and water. Each rock shape and formation has a different name and is represented by one of the five elements- kikyaku (earth), shigyo (fire), shintai (water), taido (forest) and reisho (metal).
Reclining rocks that are placed in a Zen garden to represent the earth are called Kikyaku. This stone is often known as a root stone and is placed in the foreground to bring harmony to the garden. Shigyo represents the fire element. When placed in a Zen garden, Shigyo stones are called branching and peeing stones. Shigyo stones arch and branch out, the way a fire looks. They are placed next to other shapes in a Zen garden. Stones which are horizontal and flat represent water in a Zen garden, and also the mind and the body. These stones called Shintai, harmonize rock groupings (Fig 7). Stones which are vertical and tall act as high trees in the garden and are also known as body stones. Taido stones are put into the back of other rock groupings, much like a forest is the background to other scenery. Reisho stones (also known as soul stones) represent metal. These stones are vertical and low to the ground. When placed in a Zen garden, Reisho stones are often put with tall, vertical stones such as Taido (www.sciencing.com).
Figure 6:15-rock Zen garden in Ryoan-ji temple, the famous rock garden was created by a highly respected Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu. Only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden. Fifteen (15) in Buddhist world denotes completeness.
Figure 7:Totekiko garden in the east of the Ryogen-in temple is the smallest stone garden in Japan where the small traces of wave pattern remind visitors of the far-reaching ocean.
For curious tourists, who may not be a follower of any particular faith, participating in a meditation session in Ninna-ji or any other temples under the guidance of a monk (Fig 8) should be an interesting eye-opening experience. However, one Tripadvisor member warned to not walk into the meditation room during a session, because the monk might just give you a very unholy reprimand.
One thing that I took away from the temple garden visits in Kyoto, was one profound saying. The saying I found in Ryoan-ji temple was as follows: “When I change, everything else changes”. Someone used this saying during a management course I attended a very long time ago, a Zen philosophy we could all use in our daily lives.