For the first time in a very long time, I felt my journey towards self-actualization is almost achievable. As long as I can remember, I love to write. The third week of September 2019, had been a promising one. It was a continuous meeting of minds…..the minds of the travelers, the story tellers and the poets. First it was the Jasmina Awards 2019 ceremony at The Intermark Mall, and then it was the ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention at the Sheraton Imperial. Two meetings that couldn’t have been more different, with respect to objective, pomposity and attendance but both gave me a push in the right direction with respect to my writing potential.
Firstly, there was the Jasmina Awards2019 ceremony, held for the first time in conjunction with the celebration of the Malaysia Day. It was presented by Diversecity KL, targeted to bring out the Malaysian writers and poets among the above sixties. According to Tan Sri Vincent Tan, founder of Berjaya Corporation, the general English proficiency of the baby-boomer generation was without doubt superior to the later generations. This of course was a result of Malaysian government educational policy at that time with respect to the use of the English language in schools.
The event was low key and attended by a small group of family members and supporters of winners for the three categories, held in one cosy corner of the third floor of the Intermark Mall. The three categories were My Malaysian Story, Love and Journey, for both stories and poetry sections. Dr Jasmina Kuka of WISE (Working on Impact & Social Empowerment) founder of the Jasmina Awards, together with Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar, Festival Director of Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival (KLIAF) were responsible for the realization of the Jasmina Awards.
Despite the impression of being sedate and low key, it boosted the morale of retirees like me who won awards for our story writing and poetry at a ripe age of over 60s. Suddenly, these story writers and poets, found at last a recognition and dared to celebrate a merit well-deserved. There was no prizes to be won but at the award ceremony, excerpts of winning stories and winning poems were read.
The Sheraton Imperial ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention was a vibrant event attended by mostly young women from travel-related community. There were a few of us oldies aged between 61 till 69 years old among the attendees. Some were writers, journalists, bloggers, photographers, owners of travel-related businesses and some were still deciding whether travel writing was anything they wanted to do. It was well-organized and well sponsored by big names like Air Asia, Astro Awani, Uniclo, Sheraton etc.
But having attended both events, I must concede that no poem was better read than the one recited by Sheena Baharuddin (Fig 1). Her rendition of two poems, namely Apax and Moles at the convention was a superb read with heightened animation. The event was graced by many exceptional speakers on the 21st September. Among the first to speak was of course the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Hannah Yeoh in conversation with the Chairman, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. Hannah Yeoh is young and refreshing. I must admit there was no pretense with this young minister and is, by her own admission, “shallow” because she prefers shopping malls to museums wherever she travelled.
Figure 1: Sheena Baharuddin, “Every body is a poem”.
One exceptional speaker was a young lady who completed the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the likes of the Everest all over the world in 20 years and 112 days. Her name was Marin Minamaya, a Guinness World Record holder. Her courage and determination from as young as 15 years old was admirable. Alena Murang (Fig 2), the sape musician and cultural artist, made an impact with her singing and sape strumming. The sape is a lute instrument famous among the Kayan and Kenyah tribes of Central Borneo. There were many other exceptional speakers like Nila Tanzil, Deborah Chan, Deborah Henry, Suzanne Ling, who have given a lot of themselves towards the betterment of the less fortunate.
But it was the travel writing workshop held at the end of the day that I enjoyed most. It was conducted by the editor of Zafigo. Eliza Thomas was exceptional at conducting the workshop on travel writing and she left a lasting impression on how interesting a travel writer’s job could be. We attendees were promised an opportunity to be published if we would submit a 1,200 word winning travel article. On top of that we would be paid RM100 each. Getting paid is any writers dream even if for RM100.
I must admit I had to look long and hard at the speaker during the travel writing workshop. Eliza Thomas, the editor, standing right there in front of the class next to the whiteboard, was unrecognizable. I would have to take the good advice of Deputy Minister, Hannah Yeoh, “Use your best, young photo if you want to have an online presence, because these photos live forever”. I suspect many famous people, Eliza Thomas included, subscribe to this philosophy.
The Jasmina Award ceremony on 16 September 2019, Intermark Hall
Category: My Malaysian Story
“ A Kind of Paradise”
The Award Winners at the Jasmina Award Ceremony (me standing 3rd from the left)
If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok. Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other. On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik. The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.
A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again. It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator. Out on the veranda, rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze, commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine. It was the beginning of a new day.
Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of beautiful Kampong Mangkok. Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 4), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me. How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok .
Beijing Central station was a sea of people that morning and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station. It probably would have taken an hour or so just to get inside the station, judging by the size of the crowd building up. I have never seen so many lines of people queuing up to buy train tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building with luggage bags in tow, was no mean feat given the pushing and the jostling crowd. It was absolute chaos that morning. I remember the van driver Sam, advising us “There is no time to be polite in Beijing”. We finally managed to get to the platform after going through security checks and ticket verification. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the K3 train finally arrived. Like excited school-girls, we quickly made our way up the steps and through the corridors looking for our cabin, a 2nd class hard sleeper with four berths.
As the K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement building up. After all, K3 was a rail journey of a lifetime, a tick off my bucket-list; a 7,622 kilometer-journey from Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan Bator. The train crosses three large countries and five time zones. There are fourteen stops (Fig 1) on K3 between Beijing and Moscow, with a border check and a rail gauge change at Erlian. Imagination ran wild as the wheels turned and pulled, the whooshing and the hissing sound of the engine shrieking a promise of adventure. And as you sit by the window, you discover the beauty in the changing landscapes. Horses running wild on the grassland, the sun peeping in between the trees, the endless glimpses of the beautiful Lake Baikal and the fleeting images of the mountains as the train chugged along. Inside the train, you sometimes meet complete strangers who share a story a two about their own life’s journey. The Trans Mongolian, like the Trans Siberian, is a journey that had captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. It is a dream adventure.
Long-distance train travel has captured the likes of travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first in a series of books dedicated to train journeys, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”. What is it about long-distance train journeys that is so mesmerizing?
For a start, the train is perhaps the most comfortable way of travelling long distances, despite the fact that a hard-sleeper meant six straight days of life in a cubicle, 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of other contentious travel mates. The freedom of movement along the endless corridors allows a sense of space, so you don’t feel trapped as in an aeroplane.
Standing by a window of a corridor (Fig 2) for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes, I was spellbound. The steppes, populated mainly by the world’s last wild horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia, at one time, land of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horses.
Once the train was well on the way, passengers headed for the buffet coach (Fig 3). Even though I was counting on meeting some interesting people in the buffet coach, I desperately needed some time to gather my own thoughts and make notes. I finally found a table opposite a couple of middle-aged British ladies. In the company of the two ladies, who sometimes giggled like two star-struck teenagers, was a young male, a Russian model. I recognized him while we were waiting on the platform back in Beijing Central station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-importance.
After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable. I decided to put away my mobile and initiate a little conversation with the two ladies instead. I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, reciprocated with a hello and a broad smile. They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in hospitality services.
When the K3 train arrived at Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours. The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education. A big buxom Russian lady later joined them. The Russian lady was a teacher who taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator, I was later informed. Russian is a second language in Mongolia just like English is to Malaysia.
While walking down the K3 corridor one morning, I met a young Chinese couple in their late twenties in one of the First Class coach. The couple were from Beijing and were on their honeymoon. They were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station (two stops before Novosibirsk station). They decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. I thought it was most romantic to start a honeymoon by traveling on the Trans Mongolian Express.
This surprising encounter on K3 triggered a whimsical notion that there is something undeniably romantic about train travel. James Blunt in his song “You’re beautiful” dealt with fleeting moments of aching, unrequited longing experienced on a train journey. A study by East Coast Trains to mark National “I Love Trains” Week, uncovered that one third of British people believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.
Finding “the one” may not be the reason travelers throw caution to the wind and chat to strangers. But trains do inspire an atmosphere of impulse, stimulating travelers to connect with strangers. For me, taking a train anywhere evoke a feeling of nostalgia and the Trans Mongolian Express trip was unforgettable in so many ways. The rhythm of “tchjk”, “tchjk” as the metal wheels hit the rail track, linger on long after the trip.
The next time you feel a need for some adventure or romance, try spending six days on the Trans Mongolian Express. You will never know who you meet. You might even meet “the one”…..
(I received this newspaper clipping way back in 2014 from my daughter who studied, lives and works in London. I just thought it is hilarious)
Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.
We support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS, but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him.
We don’t like Iran but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
If the people we want to defeat are defeated they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.
If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok. Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other. On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik (Fig 1) . The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.
Kampong Mangkok is a mix of old and new – kampong houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze, laden with salts; old traditional Malay houses transported from all over Terengganu, re-constructed;and new Malay and concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarina trees, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycled past. The breeze blew softly from the sea on most days. The fine white sandy beach stretched from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles and all kind of debris brought in by the waves, left half buried in the fine sand.
Straddled between two bodies of water, the village lends two very different kinds of charm. On one side, I saw two brothers fishing as a boat passed by on the Setiu river. This part of the river exuded a kampong charm that a film producer fell in love with and decided to shoot some scenes here for the 2018 production of the film “Pulang”. Parallel to the Setiu river is the asphalt coastal road, lined with coconut trees on one side and the sea on the other. As I cycled along this road, I chanced upon a Malay gentleman standing, with one hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of a coconut tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on top of the tree. The boy, who I later learned was called Amin (Fig 2), aged 14 years old, selected specific bunches of coconuts, tied them with the string, and the man would hoist the bunches safely down to the ground. This the boy would do for several times until he was satisfied there were no more nice pickings. He worked his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another three or four more coconut trees to select more bunches.
It was hard work getting the coconuts off the trees, some reaching to more than 60 or 70 feet high. In coconut farms in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, coconut farmers use macaque monkeys to pick coconuts. Thailand took coconut plucking to the next level by having a Buddhist-inspired school in Surat Thani to train monkeys. The school it seemed was funded to teach monkeys how to pick coconuts without use of force or violence. The practice of using pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts started since around 400 years ago (https://www.npr.org Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (news.com.au, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts. For Amin, unschooled and living at poverty level, climbing coconut trees was the only means of earning a few ringgit a day. But plucking coconuts is certainly not for the faint-hearted ..…..
If you keep driving further down the coastal road towards Kuala Terengganu, you would reach another village called Kampong Telaga Papan. Kampong Telaga Papan was where I found a Malay artisan working on a boat. You would see many boats moored (Fig 3) along the Sungai Chalok near Pulau Besar and along one side of the river is an open-air boat-building facility, located among the mangroves. When I first saw him, Pak Peng was busy smoothing and sanding some wood planks. He had been in the boat-building industry since he was 14 years old and his family had been at it for as long as he remembered. But the art of Malay boat-building is dying, Pak Peng lamented and it was sad that the young have no interest in the art, because according to one German Malay-boat owner, Christoph Swaboda, Malay boats built in Pulau Duyong is of high quality.
In Kampong Telaga Papan itself, you will find a small tributary flowing from Sungai Chalok into other parts of the mangroves. This tributary, flowing among the mangroves, is ideal for a late morning of kayak when the ocean tide rises and the tributary is filled with water. We have kayaked in Krabi , in clear blue waters, ending up paddling into caves and in between the small islets. But kayaking on the tributary off Sungai Chalok in Telaga Papan was a totally different experience altogether because here, the water is murky. We kayak down this tributary a few times but after finding out from one fisherman that there was a sizeable crocodile swimming in the murky waters, we decided to give up kayaking here.
If you drive further south from Telaga Papan, you will arrive at Merang Jetty where you can take a boat all the way to Pulau Redang. I don’t snorkel but my friends love snorkeling and would spend hours swimming among the corals and the fishes. While the boat was bobbing up and down with the waves, I watched little fishes wriggling and tugging at the bread crumbs I scattered into the crystal-clear water.
Eight hundred meters before reaching Pak Peng’s place, you would have passed a small open-air kampong restaurant next to a mosque in Telaga Papan, right off the main road called Restoran Kak Zah. It is run by a family and friends and the restaurant is a popular breakfast place for truck drivers, tourists and locals passing by on their way to work. Fishermen spent hours exchanging stories in endless conversations, recalling their many fishing trips in the waters off Terengganu, while seated at a rustic wooden table in one corner, over a glass of teh-tarek. The girls serving breakfast there are friendly and you could get almost anything for breakfast here including Malay kueh. My own favourite breakfast is nasi dagang with fried chicken on the side. My friends used to laugh at me, saying the authenticity of nasi dagang is lost without gulai ikan tongkol ( tuna curry). But then I am not one who follow rules anyway and neither am I a “foodie”.
Terengganu culinary is heavily influenced by the taste of Thailand, apart from cuisines from the three main ethnic groups. This is to be expected as Thai influence has been present since time immemorial based on the geography and the history with neighbouring Thailand. Here the food is mainly rice-based. Some of the popular dishes are nasi kerabu, nasi ulam, nasi dagang, nasi lemak, ikan bakar tawar, sata, otak otak and keropok lekor.
Somewhere in Kampong Mangkok, there is this beautiful kampong house where I would spend days on end on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline and the reflections upon the sea. The tranquility in combination with the surrounding nature inspired an atmosphere of utmost creative concentration. I would be tapping away at my keyboard for many hours, writing and rewriting perfect-sounding thoughts. However, on one particular evening, it was the beautiful sunset over Kampong Mangkok that captured my imagination (Fig 4). Silhouette of endless rows of coconut trees, standing tall looking like black soldiers against the brilliant red sky was breath-taking. It was not long after when my thoughts were interrupted by the azan call for maghrib prayers.
By night time, life around the beach house would be completely different. It would be dark outside with no street lights and so quiet around the house, you could only hear the sound of an old, noisy fan with rusted blades. Occasionally you could hear the waves. With no television, no phones, and no internet we were off the grid,so to speak. But it certainly was a much welcome respite. On these dark nights, little flickers of light, fluttering around the room would entertain you. These are the fireflies. And if you listened properly, you could hear the raucous chorus of the cicadas, and once a while, the sound of a motorcycle negotiating a corner on the asphalt in the distance, piercing the still of the night.
A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again. It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator. Out on the veranda, rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine. It was the beginning of a new day.
Heading back towards Kuala Lumpur after such an exhilarating time spent in Setiu, was to me a kind of a punishment. Driving the 32 year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, the Spicy Mustard, was torturous. The engine would crank up so much noise, it was impossible to carry on any conversation throughout the entire 500 kilometer-journey. But we enjoyed the trips anyway: the stops for prayers, the snacking, the dozing-off on seats that had its fair share of wear and tear and the endless possibility of exciting unplanned stops. But driving the Spicy Mustard required skills because it tended to veer to one side, and the brakes sometimes failed. When parking the vehicle on a slope, little stops had to be placed underneath the tires to ensure the car did not roll off. Once, while parked on a gentle slope, the car did roll off. Spicy Mustard took on a life of its own and finally ended crashing the gate of a neighbour, missing a brand new Ferrari parked just inches away.
If not for the love of writing and blogging, it is impossible for me to stay completely alone. The box, the mobile phone, the keyboard, the 14-year old car, family and forward-looking friends, are enablers for the AAs (those aging alone). A lunch or tea and a good laugh at the nearest coffee-shop with girlfriends every once a while, is a good break. We would talk about anything from politics, travel, anti-ageing creams, arthritis, frozen shoulders, grand children to good food. This spurt of intermission is necessary for me to stay focused on my writing. Two hours of “girlfriends-therapy” and I am once again refreshed for another session of creative concentration in complete seclusion.
But creative concentration is not always achievable even in sedate Shah Alam. Life in Shah Alam is generally quiet, however, during weekends, I would hear squeals of children’s laughter coming from the swimming pool below. Sometimes, hysterical screams broke the silence with excited children racing down corridors to see who reached the door first. But late at night, it would be so quiet I could hear the sound of a drop of a coin on the floor above me. Then there is that constant dragging and shifting of a chair across the floor above late at night, and my creative concentration disintegrates.
But going by what the fiction writer, Stephen King advises on having a writing target of 2000 words a day in his “On Writing- A Memoir of the Craft”, I would be happy if I could manage 500. Perhaps for Stephen King, who thinks that writers should have the ability to remember the story of a scar, 2000 words a day is a breeze.
Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of beautiful Kampong Mangkok. Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 5), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me. How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok .
Kampong Mangkok has everything nature could offer – shimmering blue waters, fine white sandy beaches, sunshine on most days, swaying coconut trees, friendly kampong folks, unique habitats of Setiu Wetlands and the chorus of the cicadas. The uninterrupted tranquility provided by nature surrounding the kampong, oozed an atmosphere of spiritual charm, a closeness to the Creator and a heightened creative concentration I desperately need to further explore my passion for writing and blogging. Another month, and I might be heading back this wayagain.
(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.