In the month of February 2024, I took a train up north, just to pick up ten packs of comfort food. It seemed a trivial effort and a waste of time, having to travel 440 kilometers just to pick up a pastry that cost RM80, while travelling on a train ticket that cost RM300.

But I did it for the love of the taste and the flavor of the filling in the pastry. Taste and flavor are biologically wired to form strong memories. The ‘karipap’ triggered childhood memories of days spent with my sister in law cooking the filling for the pastry using fennel and black pepper besides the usual potatoes. Of course I had nothing better to do that February. Or so I thought, until I reached Alor Setar itself. What I thought to be trivial suddenly became an unforgettable nostalgia after meeting up with some friends in a nice cafe.

Alor Setar, a fascinating town in the state of Kedah, a PAS ‘country’, not the Party of Action and Solidarity (as per Moldovan version) but Parti Angkatan Se-Islam of Malaysia, was where I grew up. Kedah has many credits to its name. If you drive along any roads to anywhere, you will be greeted by vast, golden yellow padi fields stretching as far as the eyes could see (Figure 1). With the help of the Wan Mat Saman irrigation canal, Kedah became the biggest rice producer, earning the title, the rice bowl of Malaysia.

Right in the middle of Alor Setar itself is the fourth most beautiful mosque in the world, after Masjid Nabawi in Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Masjid Zahir, built in 1912 (Figure 2).Alor Setar is also the birthplace of two prime ministers of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the founding father of the nation and Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the longest serving Prime Minister of 24 years. Figure 3 shows the birth home of Tun Dr Mahathir at No 18, Lorong Kilang Ais Sekolah Kebangsaan Jalan Pegawai, Alor Setar.

But being back in Alor Setar stirred long-forgotten feelings, a longing for days past, when time had no meaning and not a care in the world then. Playing in the swamp behind the kampong house in Lorong Kilang Papan; catching little fishes swimming in the swamp, quite oblivious of any hissing snakes around; flying kites in the football field; playing from dusk till dawn. Back then, life was a total bliss.

Walking down Jalan Tunku Ibrahim once again, brought back memories…..Pekan Rabu, the bridge, the old bus station, now completely overtaken by fancy retailers. Then there was that train station on Jalan Kolam Air.

On the morning I arrived at the train station from Kuala Lumpur, I was greeted by a touch of humanity. It has been awhile since I was ever approached for help by total strangers. People move fast in Kuala Lumpur. Here in Alor Setar, the pace is slower. While waiting for my taxi at the train station, an old woman, 95 years old I was later told, approached me to ask for help. The old woman needed help to step down the pavement to her transport. Six inches step-down would have been effortless for a younger person. But not for the aged; she was very fragile and was afraid of a possible misstep and a fall. She was hardly 4 foot tall, so thin the wind could have blown her off, and with her mask on, it was difficult for me to see her full face. I held her fragile arm, careful not to exert too strong a grip less I break it. While hanging on to me, the old lady carefully took her step down and walked the pavement towards the car. As the son drove off, multiple hand waves left me feeling warm inside. I helped someone that day.

Meeting people makes all the experience especially memorable. The reason I wanted to write about my visit to Alor Setar that day in February, was to remember my friends. Before I left Alor Setar I had a wonderful lunch with a few old friends from a secondary school, St Nicholas Convent, at a café called Café Diem. Cafe Diem had an interesting Chinese celebration dining room upstairs, with walls covered in paintings and images of its clientele. It used to be, at one time, the haunt of two Prime Ministers (Figure 4).

While having lunch, I could not help but remember friendships that went as far back as 55 years ago (Figure 5). Helping that old lady down the 6-inches of step made me realize she came from a generation when bias was almost non-existent. At least I was unconscious of it. We did not differentiate by race or beliefs. My friends and I cycled together to visit friends to celebrate Hari Raya or Chinese New Year almost every year. Whatever happened to those days……what changed?

There are friends, there is family; and then there are friends that become family”. (16th February 2024)

Figure 1: Padi fields, miles and miles of it

Figure 2: Masjid Zahir, 4th most beautiful mosque after Masjid Nabawi

Figure 3: Inside Tun Mahathir’s birth home in Alor Setar

Figure 4: Cafe Diem, Alor Setar

Figure 5: Childhood friends at the museum- (Back)Hamidah, Lean Looi, Suat Hwa, Poe Su, Miew Siew, (fore-ground) Za Nuzwir.


The Bridge

Back in the 1950s, the only way for me to get to my school was to cross a canal called Wan Mat Saman Canal.  The canal connects Sungai Kedah in Alor Setar to Gurun  in the south, a distance of 36 kilometers.  36 kilometers may not seem impressive by today’s standards.  However it must be remembered that this canal was constructed between 1885 – 1896, using simple tools during its construction.  Initial diggings were done at night, guided by rows of traditional torches made of dried coconut leaves tied together, and lighted up in a straight line, called “jamung” so as to ensure the canal ran straight.  The structure enabled Kedah to boost its rice production, earning the title of the Rice Bowl of Malaysia. The  force behind the construction of the canal was Wan Mat Saman, the Mentri Besar of Kedah at that time. 

Today, the canal remains as part of the state’s landscape.  Malay houses, Chinese houses, some traditional ones, some new ones, new schools, shops, mosques and cemeteries lined the canal but the remaining part in Tandop have been covered for purpose of  road-widening efforts.  Several bridges are laid across the canal to enable people to cross over to the other side of town.  One such bridge was the one  I used daily to get to school located in Sungai Korok. 

During one rainy season, the canal became swollen with rain water.  The wooden bridge was bobbing up and down, swaying precariously from side to side in tempo with the wind.  Some planks got dislodged from the intense shaking leaving gaps in the bridge.  These gaps revealed torrential waters flowing underneath and a horrifying reminder of   possibility of drowning……at least to an eight-year old.

8 year  olds like me were too scared to cross to the other side to get to school.  So I decided to give up the idea of going to school that day.  Beyond the bridge was another hurdle to cross..the stilt-platform that lay between the bridge and the school.  The stilt platform were constructed low in the midst of  the mangrove swamp and easily ‘lost’ in the floods.

In those days school-going children at 7 or 8 years old, did not get chaperoned to school even if crossing the flimsy bridge was deemed dangerous.  We were raised to be quite independent. We did not have parents marching into class-rooms to reprimand a teacher for punishing their daughter. We were raised to make our own decisions and to be responsible at a very young age. 

The  next morning, I was up and about quite early, strutting in my white-washed canvas shoes and my starched-stiff  school uniform.  I was ready for school.  I picked up my rattan school bag and made my way towards the bridge. I walked slowly towards the bridge, picking my way carefully so as not to get my white-washed shoes soaked in the puddles of mud.

As I reached the bridge, I noticed it was completely gone.  The flimsy bridge, hanging precariously over the swollen canal the day before was gone.  The bridge that was supposed to take me across the canal has disappeared completely.  How am I supposed to go to school?

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A Big City With a Small-Town Feel

Kyoto is synonymous with incredible temples, cherry blossoms, parks, markets, serene gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokan and craftsmanship.  It was once the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years and the finest gardens have been developed over centuries by many levels of society  namely the aristocrats and the monks.  It is no wonder that Kyoto was voted by travelers as the world’s best city, twice.

Figure 1: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)Temple is a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf.

Learning that Kyoto was nearly bombed during World War II, was shocking .  Kyoto was the first target proposed to test out the capability of a nuclear bomb, the Little Boy, if the military brass had its way.  The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have included Kyoto as well.  On that fateful day in April 1945, when a meeting in Pentagon was held, the Target Committee decided to play God and met to discuss the selection of targets for nuclear bombing (according to Alex Wellerstein on  Had it not been for the personal intervention by Henry L Stimson, the then US Secretary of War, Kyoto would have been  nuclear-bombed, its gardens  destroyed and buried under a sea of rubble.

It took us about two hours by limousine bus over a distance of about 100 kilometers from Kansai International Airport to reach Kyoto bus station. Our first destination was the air b&b accommodation, Mountain Retreat.  Mountain Retreat was  neatly tucked in the quiet neighbourhood in the periphery of the mountains in Kinugasa Akasakacho Kyoto-shi, in the Prefecture of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan.  Kinugasa Hills was a convenient choice because museums such as the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts and the Kyoto Museum for World Peace were within walking distance.  Located at the foot of the gently-sloping Kinugasa Hills is the famous temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (Fig: 1).  Taking a bus from  Kinkakuji temple, would bring us to the Central Bus Station in downtown Kyoto.

Kinukake-no-michi Road runs between Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion Temple and Arashiyama. Along the way it passed through many of the famous world-heritage sites such as the Ryoan-ji temple (famous 15-rock Zen garden), Ninna-ji temple (Fig: 2) in Omuro and Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama, also campus of the University Ritsumeikan, Museum of Fine Arts of Insho Domoto and the Museum for World Peace.

Figure 2: Kyoko-chi pond in Ninnaji temple with the pagoda called the Kondo Hall,  in the background.

Koji and his son were already waiting to greet us when we reached Mountain Retreat that morning.  Koji was a slight built man of about 37 years of age. He and his partner were tinkering with plants in his greenhouse.  Growing the plants was by no means a mere passion but one that paid him well. Koji spoke very little English but was always ready with a smile. I later found out that a little greeting of “sumimasen” or “ohio” and a slight bow will get you attention and possibly answers in English.

I was excited to be able to get a feel for traditional Japanese style accommodation. Tourists can experience staying in a washitsu (Fig: 3) in a ryokan or a temple to get a feel for Japanese living. The room called a washitsu, came with tatami mats and a futon mattress.  This futon mattress can be folded and stored away during daytime thus giving the room an impression of space.  The tatami mat is made of dried, woven rushes which are then wrapped around and sewn to a core.  Traditionally, the core consisted of rice straw, though now it is often synthetic material.  The washitsu room was introduced during the Muromachi period and was used by the nobles as a study room.

The washitsu came with a low table for us to eat from and a low, legless chair called zaisu tatami chair.  I may be Asian and used to sitting on the floor with folded legs but having to sit in a zaisu tatami chair to eat was tricky even for me.  There was no sliding door, thank goodness for that.  The downside to this accommodation was that the bathroom was located outside, some four flights of steps below our room.

Figure 3: A typical washitsu in one of the temples we visited in Kyoto.

The next thing we did was rent bicycles from Koji at ¥500 each.  Cycling around  Kyoto is a must.  It allows a more intimate look at the regular Japanese going about their life.  We did not manage to cycle through the oldest streets of Kyoto i.e Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka  but as we made our way back to Mountain Retreat, we did see traditional wooden shop houses like this one below (Fig:4).

Figure 4: A traditional wooden shop-house, on the street we took to get back to Mountain Retreat.

For most locals, cycling is a normal mode of transport. I saw mothers packing their little ones in baskets, the small one in the front basket while the bigger one was seated behind.  I also saw an old lady, in the  80s, effortlessly paddling on the road.  Her stamina would put you and me to shame.

Kyoto is voted to be one of the best bicycle cities in Asia for so many reasons.  The city is relatively  flat, the roads are well maintained and more importantly, Kyoto drivers are sane and patient.  There were also plenty of places where you can easily rent a bicycle. Besides, there were  ample parking spaces for bicycles in the grounds of the temples and museums.  And the Japanese in Kyoto were so honest that you could actually leave your bicycles unlocked.  Visiting the city in May would be perfect for cycling.

Among the stops we made while cycling, was the Kyoto Museum for Peace.  It is the world’s first peace museum, established after  two world wars and tens of millions of lives lost.  It was established by the Ritsumeikan University, as a social responsibility to reflect upon history and promote the development of a peaceful society it thought was necessary to build a peaceful world.  The museum was located far down the road parallel to the Ritsumeikan University campus that you could almost miss it, if you were not careful.  After going through the two floors of the museum for about two hours, I came to appreciate  how going through natural disasters and the World War II have conditioned the Japanese into a resilient, tolerant and disciplined people.  And more importantly, they were  able to draw on a sense of social order, unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans. There was little anger or looting amongst the Japanese, according to report, following the aftermath of such natural disasters like tsunami, earthquake in 2011, 2014 etc.

The first day we cycled a total distance of 15 kilometers, with some stops in between, mainly for a gasp of air.  We visited at least two temples (namely Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji). Another stop we made while cycling around Kyoto was for vanilla ice cream at an ice cream parlor on Nishioji Street. The cafe made beautiful concoctions of fresh fruits and ice cream. The second day we cycled another 12 kilometers to Ninnaji temple and the two museums.  On other days we took buses and trains.

Cycling along the streets of  Kyoto gave me a sense of being in the midst of an ancient centre of Japanese culture.  Kyoto’s history is tangible and accessible on many levels.  Going about in Kyoto means coming face-to-face with that heritage on a daily basis.  While walking on the street towards a bus stop, glimpses of that traditional  life surfaces – an old wooden entrance gate; a sweeping temple roof; a tree-covered mountain;  a traditional wooden shophouse (Fig4) ; ladies in  kimono walking on the streets (Fig:5); a zen monk wearing a traditional kasa straw hat walking past (Fig: 6); and a traditional hand-pulled rickshaw (Fig: 7).  Kinugasa Hills in north western Kyoto was perfect, being completely surrounded by nature.  The nature, the old buildings, the surrounding mountains and a population density almost 3.5 times lower than that of the Tokyo metropolis, all convey a small-town feel to Kyoto.

I love Kyoto….the big city with a small-town feel.

Figure 5: Korean tourists clad in traditional kimono walking towards the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple, Arashiyama.

Figure 6: A Zen monk (?) in traditional Japanese robes and kasa straw hat walking past. I did not notice any straw sandals.

Figure 7: A traditional hand-pulled rickshaw, in Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama…a muscular young man tucking the ladies in the pulled rickshaw.

Cherry blossoms painted on a hand-fan symbolizes richness and good luck.

A Big City With a Small-Town Feel Read More »

Travelling Japan & Korea

Kyoto is synonymous with incredible temples, cherry blossoms, parks, markets, serene gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokan and craftsmanship. It was once the imperial capital of Japan with the finest gardens developed over centuries by many levels of society namely the aristocrats and the monks. Kyoto was voted by travelers as the world’s best city, twice. Seoul, SK is another thrilling city to visit

Sacred Spaces in the Garde

Figure 1Another 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//  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.

Figure 3: Neatly-raked sand at Ninna-ji temple to reflect waves.

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 (

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.

Figure 8: Student monks I met at the front gate of Ninna-ji entrance. These student monks were trained on various areas such as tea-ceremony, meditation, etc.

Travelling Japan & Korea Read More »

The Sanctuary

I was suddenly awakened by the cold breeze sweeping through the tent.  The  morning was so still  I could  hear the thud of a tiny casuarina seed on the roof of the tent.  The entire stretch of the beach suddenly came alive with squid rigging.  A local boy strutted past happily with his meagre catch of four squids. As I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering  carpet of calm sea in the first blush of the sun.

Fig 1: The fishermen’s boat getting a push out to sea to the waiting fishing vessels

I was suddenly awakened by the cold breeze sweeping through the tent.  The  morning was so still  I could  hear the thud of a tiny casuarina seed on the roof of the tent.  The entire stretch of the beach suddenly came alive with squid rigging.  A local boy strutted past happily with his meagre catch of four squids. As I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering  carpet of calm sea in the first blush of the sun.

The azan rang clear, breaking the silence.  The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. A shoal of tiny fishes jump in and out of the water in chorus, fleeing the relentless pursuit of predator fishes.  A small boat was chugging by, with the fisherman standing  stoic on the bow, a posture reminiscent of a warrior in anticipation.  It was the break of dawn.  The sun was bursting through the myriad of pink and orange clouds, like cotton candies suspended in the horizon.  It was truly a sight to behold.  Telaga Papan was the perfect setting for one seeking spiritual inspiration and closeness to god through endless hours of zikir, dua and night prayer.  But for me, I was just grateful to be a temporary guest of utopia (Fig 1&2).

Fig 2: If you’re an avid rider, Telaga Papan will give you hours of riding pleasure

Telaga Papan is no longer the exclusive enclave it once was planned to be.  It was targeted to be a high-end development project of a serene, quiet beach resort for the rich by the Terengganu state.  The estate development was designed to be large, wooden resort-like beach houses.  Unfortunately many were built too far out to sea.  The sea had been fiercely eroding the beach-front, uprooting the casuarinas, washing away the sand and depositing it elsewhere.  A few of the resort houses were laid to waste by the relentless sea and the state development project was duly abandoned.

Telaga Papan is now a hive of activity, although of a different kind. The fishermen have invaded the exclusive beach.  They found the beach rather convenient, bringing in their fishing boats (Fig 3) and selling off their catch of the day on-site.  It has lately become a routine for the village people, coming to Telaga Papan on their motorcycles or lorries, armed with baskets, waiting for the fishing boats to come ashore with their catch. But of late the fishes have gotten smaller. The bigger ones have been netted off by the big fishing trawlers belonging to Thai nationals.

The monsoons will be coming again this year.  For four months a year, from end of October till February of the following year, there will be a lot of rain and little sunshine.  But the other eight months more than make up for it, promising beautiful dawns, exceptional sunsets, clear skies and memorable riding experiences on the beach of Telaga Papan. Then there is the fresh fish……bakar tawar, where little spice is used.  Its delightful flavor is derived entirely from the freshness of the fish  and the hot black chilli dip.

The Sanctuary Read More »


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. Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts.

Figure 1: Sun, Sea, Sand and Coconuts in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu

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

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.

Figure 4: Amin happily climbing down the coconut tree with no harness of any kind.

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…


A Kind of Paradise

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.

Figure 1: Kampong Mangkok, facing Pantai Penarik and the blue waters of South China Sea.

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 ( Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (, 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 ..…..

Figure 2: Amin, agile as a monkey, as if “walking” up the coconut tree in Kampong Mangkok without using any safety harness or gadget.

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.

Figure 3Boats moored in the boat-building facility around Kampong Telaga Papan.

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.

Figure 4: Sunset in Kampong Mangkok in Penarik, Terengganu

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 

Figure 5: Pantai Penarik, 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.

Pantai Mangkok with fine white sand, and the lonely coconut

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Driving on Karakorum: Not for the faint-Hearted

Imagine huge brown boulders hanging over your head on one side and a ravine that dropped all the way down 200 feet or so, on the other.   Imagine all you have at your disposal is a mere one foot of space to maneuver your vehicle in-between oncoming traffic.  Slow, decorated lorries laden with goods, as high as the sky, bound for the Pakistan-China borders and impatient tour buses, honking endlessly behind you could send your heart missing a beat or two. 

Driving along the Karakorum to get to Hunza Valley, landslides normally happened at least twice a day during that 350 kilometers drive.  Chances are you will find yourself stopped in your tracks by a landslide or two.  But local machinery are on-site to clear the landslide which required you to wait for an hour or so.  Tiny fragments of rocks raining down on you is a sure  indication of an on-coming landside.  KKH runs across the Karakorum Range and through the Khunjerab Pass at the Pakistan-China border.  In Pakistan it runs from Abbotabad to the border through the provinces of Kyber- Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Balchistan.  The KKH is formerly known as China-Pakistan Friendship Highway.  It required the work of 24,000 workers to complete it.

But the views along the KKH are to die for.  Towering mountains all around, rushing waters in rivers below, hanging bridges connecting  the small towns  below the highway,  locals walking along the highway since walking was the only means of getting to places while some locals used to hitch for free rides from  passing vehicles.  Then there is the tunnel after tunnel along the way called Pakistan-China Friendship Tunnel……….

(extracted from an upcoming book “From Middle-East to the Far-East to the South”

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Romance on Trans Mongolian Express

(extract from my book“People & Places: Walk My Journey” )

Almost everyone I know dream of going on the Trans Siberian journey.  This iconic trip has captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers.  Steeped in history, writers still discuss the Trans Siberian railway at length, while travelers still include it in their bucket list.  The railway track  that was built in 1916 by the Russians, said to be “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars” has travelers romanticizing  the journey.

The Trans Siberian Railway network covers over 9,288 kilometers with international trains (K3/K4 & K19/K20) running between Beijing and Moscow and K23 / K24 running between Beijing and Ulan Bator.  The network spans 2 continents and crosses 7 time zones.  This makes it the longest journey one can make on a single train.

“While travelling on the Trans Mongolian Express in 2015, I remember standing by the window of the K3 coach for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the Steppes.  The Steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands, some time dotted by one or two white felt yurts  or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.

Some travelers (like Paul Thereaux), love being on a perpetually moving train, watching the changing sceneries, or spying on some back-yard on-goings, interspersed with getting up for a cup of coffee or chatting with strangers in the corridors, or simply being lulled to sleep by the  gentle rumbling of the moving train.  It is the immense freedom  of movement on a moving train and being left alone to immerse  in your own thoughts while staring out that large window of the ever-changing  scenery of mountains, trees and farms that I love about long-distance train travel.

I recall the mad rush that early morning of 2nd September, trying to get everyone onto the tour van heading towards  Central Train Station in Dongcheng District to board the Trans Mongolian Express.  The Beijing Central Train Station was a sea of people.  I have never seen so many lines lining up to buy tickets before.  There were at least 30 lines that morning.  Getting into the main building was no mean feat, given the pushing and jostling crowd.  It was absolute madness.  I remember Sam, the van driver, telling us “In Beijing, there is no time to be polite”.

As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started rumbling and pulling out of the station, I felt a tingle of excitement.  Our cabin was the 2nd class, hard sleeper that was slightly less comfortable since the berth was narrower.  Furthermore there was no bathroom, only a toilet at the end of the carriage.  Going 6 days without a bath was simply unthinkable for me.  With a little ingenuity and a lot of patience, I managed to take a bath, leaving a wet toilet  and an angry train guard.

The next morning, we all headed for the buffet coach.  I  managed to find a quiet corner, sipping some green tea.  I began scribbling some half-forgotten details about Beijing into my note book.  After some 30 minutes on my mobile phone, my text neck  left me stiff and uncomfortable so I decided to refocus.  In front of me were two white  ladies, in their early 50s, maybe.  I decided to say hello and they reciprocated.  They were from UK , accompanied by one young male, a Russian model I was told.  I had noticed him back on the platform in the train station.  I could tell he was a model by his gait and his polished air of self-importance.

While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach, I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon.  In their early 30s, the couple had just been married in Beijing and were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station.

Without doubt, there is something undeniably romantic about train travel. 

Why are people more  willing to chat to strangers on trains?  Is it because train journeys tend to be more relaxed? Unhurried? Un-cluttered; and pleasurable with the changing scenery thus allowing freedom and time to interact?  The next time you feel like indulging in some romantic ambience, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express….you will never know who you meet !

Figure 1: Travellers taking a breather on the platform of the Malinsk station.

Figure 2: The Chinese couple  (who got married in Beijing,)  was taking the Trans Mongolian  Express to  St Petersburg for their honeymoon..

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Interview with Author Husna Kassim: Discussing her Book People & Places and Other Stories from Life

Husna Kassim is a chemist by discipline with an MSc in Analytical Chemistry & Instrumentation from Loughborough University of Technology, UK.  She has an overall work experience of 32 years in various fields.  She spent 29 years in Research &Development (R&D) work in the field of agriculture and oil & gas.

Her biodiesel research on palm oil methyl ester resulted in an article being written about her as a pioneer researcher in Petronas Resource magazine in 2002. She is now doing what she loves most – travelling and writing.  Husna’s experience in R&D work has kept her well-grounded for her non-fiction writing stint. Her first travel book “A Train to Catch”, based on her Trans Mongolian / Balkan trip was published by Partridge Singapore in 2016.  Since then, she has been actively blogging and writing articles for magazines.  She won third place for Jasmina Awards 2019, for My Malaysia category for her article “A Kind of Paradise.”  She is a member of the editorial team and contributed essays for the book “Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives,” published in January 2021.

SHE speaks to NEWS WORLD INC about her book: People & Places, writing aspirations, upcoming books, life memories and much more.

NWI: What was the concept behind penning down the book People & Places?

Husna: When I first decided to put down my travel experiences in the form of the book “People & Places: Walk My Journey”, my idea was to ‘transport’ the reader to  the places that I have been , as if the reader was there herself, travelling with me.  The hope was to inspire others to explore new cultures and experience  the journey itself in the way I have done.  Taking a bus around Taurus Mountains in winter in Turkey was my kind of unique travel experience. 

NWI: Would you like to throw some light on the second part of the book:We Crossed Paths?

Husna : The book is a collection of essays about physical / geographical journeys and inner journeys.  “We crossed Paths” is the collection of inner journeys, mostly a reflection of  emotional journeys that I went through while growing  up and a home I left,  and people who I met while travelling like the Bedouin in Saudi or the Turk in the mosque in Goreme, allowing me to get close to locals and appreciate their innermost thoughts about everyday life.

NWI: How is it different from any typical travel memoir book?

Husna “People & Places: Walk My Journey” is a travel memoir.  It involved  two parallel journeys : a physical / geographical  journey and an emotional / inner journey.  But what differs for  this travel memoir to another  is the takeaways.  This particular book tries to highlight that the best way to know a destination is to explore  the people in it through conversations and interactions such as the ones I had with the Turks in the mosque in Goreme  and in Istanbul.   From conversations, I got  to know how most Turks revere Kamal Ataturk  and what they think of Erdogan.  Explored this way, I almost felt like I was a ‘journalist’.

NWI: Was there any bizarre/unique travel experience that you missed in the book?

Husna:I am not too sure what exactly you mean.  I take it to mean the unique travel experience I remember most and greatly missed?  The one particular experience was travelling in Southern Tunisia,  enjoying a campfire in the desert near Douz under the sparkling stars of the Sahara.  I think this is the most memorable night for me being among new friends,  one being Mohamad, and burying my legs in the warm sand to keep out the cold.  That night we were all Bedouins, eating pre-prepared Mandi meat and dates.

NWI: Did you try promoting the Malaysian tourism?

Husna:  There are a number of essays which narrate certain destinations in Malaysia.  These narratives reflect  cultures of Malaysia like kite-flying in Kelantan (“Flying Wau Over Pantai Cahaya Bulan”); “A Paradise of Sorts” is about two beautiful beach-front kampong called Kampong Mangkuk and Kampong Telaga Papan on the east coast of the state of Terengganu in Peninsula Malaysia; “Backpacking inLangkawi”, another beautiful island on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia.

NWI: Will you share your UK experience in any of the upcoming book?

Husna:  Ireland is definitely on the plate for 2023 or 2024.  I am inspired by the movie “Wild Mountain Thyme” and I love the countryside.  But South Island of New Zealand will definitely be in my next travel book.  It is  heaven on earth  with the mix of blue skies, winding roads, snow-capped mountains, electric blue lakes, gorges, beautiful rivers with water rushing over pebbles and stones, birds chirping, colony of seals etc . I will definitely write about the nature walks  in my next travel book including my conversations with Repika, the 18 year old Maori girl I met while in Kaikoura.

NWI: What is the major life theme in your book, other than travel stories?

Husna:  We all go through life, quietly observing the on-goings around us.  What happened to us becomes a source of inspiration.  But inspiration is never about one thing.  It could come from the many experiences we go through:   a divorce, a death, a long-drawn illness,  the sadness from loss of a loved one, betrayal by a loved one; etc.  The world around us, all affect us one way or another. My major life theme is  stories around  my  inner journeys and the will to carry on.

NWI: What do you aspire as an author?

Husna:   As an Author I hope to be able to share my experiences with readers through story-telling.  I aspire to be able to write and make my mark as a non-native English author like  Arundhaty Roy in the “The God of Small Things”.  Of course she writes fiction, but  I will stick to Creative Non-fiction since by  training, I am  a research  scientist / chemist.  But Fiction is where authors make money.  I  hope that one day  one of my books will  become a best-seller.

NWI: What are you working on next, any book in near future?

Husna:  My next book is not  a travel book.  The upcoming book  “The Push till the Last Mile” will be a collection of essays of how life experiences shaped the person you have become.  It will be out in late February or early March 2023.  It is a book of life stories: inspirational stories of a winning mentality with accounts  of endurance, perseverance and courage; stories of how the cycle of poverty was broken through education; and stories of the unfortunate ones who fell through the cracks.  These stories are about paths taken by people who go the extra mile to achieve their dreams. One essay is an interview with Malaysian 7th Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, a 97 year old statesman  who led Malaysia for over 22 years.

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