A Kind of Paradise

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It was hard work getting the coconuts off the trees, some reaching to more than 60 or 70 feet high. In coconut farms in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, coconut farmers use macaque monkeys to pick coconuts. Thailand took coconut plucking to the next level by having a Buddhist-inspired school in Surat Thani to train monkeys.  The school it seemed was funded to teach monkeys how to pick coconuts without use of force or violence.  The practice of using  pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts started since around 400 years ago (https://www.npr.org Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (news.com.au, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts.  For Amin, unschooled and living at poverty level, climbing coconut trees was the only means of earning a few ringgit a day.  But plucking coconuts is certainly not for the faint-hearted ..…..

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 way again.

Pantai Mangkok with fine white sand, and the lonely coconut

SUN, SEA, SAND & COCONUTS

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

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…

 

The Sanctuary

Fig 1: The fishermen’s boat getting a push out to sea to the waiting fishing vessels
Fig 2: If you’re an avid rider, Telaga Papan will give you hours of riding pleasure

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).

 

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.