Getting Lost in Old Tehran 

Travelling can be one road to happiness, according to neuroscientists.  When we travel , we rewire our brains because new experiences are key to building new neural pathways in the brain.  By rewiring your brain, you become more creative and  more receptive of new ideas.  The happiest people on earth are those who travel more,  suggested by Lily Herbert at  one Happiness Conference in 2016 (https://  Travel  enable us to meet  people from diverse cultures, an experience that  is eye-opening and invigorating.

My  most recent trip, although a brief one, took me on a medley of diverse destinations.   The journey took  us across three different borders  (Saudi, Iran and Turkey), the most interesting being the one between Iran and Turkey.  These three countries  possess some similarities as well as some  differences.  Although all three are Muslim countries,  Saudi and Turkey are largely  made up of Sunni Muslims while Iran is largely  made up of Shiah Muslims.  Turkey and Iran resemble one another in terms of their histories.  Iran  stand  against  the international community who tried hard to integrate it to adopt a moderate Islam.  Turkey is a reminder of the  Ottoman historical  super-power and not to be taken lightly but it is a survivor and changes its paradigm to adopt a more rational policy, in line with the world’s latest  new age, producing coherent strategies.  Of course, one similarity between both Saudi and Iran is they possess the  biggest oil reserves in the world.

On the morning of 17th May, we flew into Tehran Imam Khomenei Airport for the very first time.  The immigration officer at the arrival desk unfortunately “made a mistake” of not stamping our passports, which later caused problems at Razi Passenger Terminal when we were crossing  into Turkey.

That 17th May was a start of many surprises  on my first very first trip into Iran in general and Tehran in particular.  It was an introduction to a discovery of Iranian beauty and controversy.   “If a visitor wants to know Tehran, he or she should visit the old part of Tehran, which is now called District 12”, I was told.

District 12 is the main and historical core of the city, where the Treasury of National Jewels (where the Naderi golden throne  and the most valuable crowns from Qajar and Pahlavi kings were kept), and where the Golestan Palace and the Grand Bazaar of Tehran are located.

I didn’t expect to learn about old Tehran on the very first day we landed.  As it so happened, we got completely lost, trying to locate our budget hotel, Razzaz Hotel on Amir Kabir Street.

One quickly learned about a part of a city when one is lost in it.  One taxi driver insisted he got us to the right address…the Ariyan Hospital instead !  This confusion was understandable because Razzaz Boutique Hotel is also called The Arian Hostel.  Travelers trying to find their way around Tehran are at the mercy of taxi drivers who had no access to digital technology when it comes to site location.  But on that morning, we were too intimidated by the driver’s hostile tone and body size to insist that he had taken us to the wrong address. 

So we decided to just pay him and started walking the pavements.  We finally walked a total of about 15 kilometers, in and around its alleyways and backstreets.   From my perspective, all alleyways looked the same.  We asked locals gathered in the alleyways for help to locate the hotel, which took us even further off the track.  Most locals did not speak much English and we spoke no Farsi.  Finally, seeing the sky was darkening, we decided to go with our gut feeling and took the direction given by one young man, who was smoking in one back alley.  We finally found the Razzaz Hotel. 

(extracted from an essay from  her up-coming  book “Freedom of the Open Road” by Husna Kassim).

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Unfamiliar, Unforgettable

A Little Romance on Trans – Mongolian Express

Beijing Central station was a sea of people and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station.  It probably would take 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 queuing 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 the jostling crowd.  It was absolute chaos. I remembered Sam the Chinese van driver telling us “In Beijing there is no time to be polite”.  There was no dignity at the station that day.  Proper queuing up would have been more efficient.

As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement mounting.  After all the trip was in my bucket list.  I also felt a little hungry.  I heard that food served in the restaurant on the Chinese buffet coach was similar to hawker food found in Kuala Lumpur. And the good news was that it was halal.  On the contrary food served on the Mongolian buffet coach was rather bland, especially to a palette used to everything hot and spicy.

As I got to the buffet coach, I noticed it was nearly full. I was counting on meeting some interesting people travelling on the train. I found a quiet corner and began scribbling some half forgotten details about Beijing in my note book while sipping some green tea. Opposite to my table was a couple of bubbly middle-aged British ladies and a young male deep in conversation interspersed with giggles like two teenage girls,  sharing some jokes.  Thank God for mobile technology, I was sufficiently entertained so as not to feel completely abandoned.

After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable.  I had to refocus.  Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to initiate a little conversation with my neighbour.  I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, responded with a smile. We started talking.

They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in some hospitality services. The young male happened to be a Russian model I was told.  I recognized him while we were all waiting for the K3 train on the platform back in Beijing Central station.  I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-indulgence.

When the train reached Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours.  A big buxom lady later joined them.  The Russian lady was a teacher and even though neither she spoke any English nor I any Russian, I was able to learn through the Mongolian girl, that the Russian lady taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator.  Russian language was a second language in Mongolia just like English was to Malaysia.

The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education.  It seemed that secondary school leavers in Mongolia tend to register for college or university education in Russia. Mongolian population was about 2.4 million(in 2014) and 50% of these were women.  It was therefore understandable that Mongolia wanted to utilize their women workforce efficiently.   Women’s high level of enrolment in higher education reflected female dominance in medicine, nursing, teaching and professional child care. This same trend existed in Malaysia from as far back as ten years ago.  Unlike the concern with female purity found in southwest, south and east Asia (Malaysia included), the Mongolians preferred fertility to purity.  Mongolian women however although not shy, remained subordinate to men, as in many Asian country, I supposed.

While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon.  They were planning to take a photo on the platform at Malinsk train station. The couple were from Beijing and decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg. Taking the Trans Mongolian Express seemed to be the most romantic journey to embark for couples.

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 uncovered that 1/3 of Brits believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.  Why is it that people were more willing to chat to strangers on trains? Train journeys tend to be more enjoyable, with respect to scenery, more spacious, and trains always arrive right in town with no crazy long-line check-ins beside being more affordable.  The next time you feel like some romance, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express K3…you will never know who you meet.


“If there was one single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” says the French writer, Alphonse de Lamartine and I share his fascination with the city.  Just as Hollywood never had enough of the city, I try to visit the city every few years to reminisce and rediscover.  Hollywood shot some top 10 movies in Istanbul.  Imagine the opening scene of the movie “Skyfall” with Bond in a motorbike chase of an enemy operative on the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.  Crime fiction British Dame Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express” at a hotel in Istanbul called Pera Palas Hotel.  The novel centred on a detective, Hercule Poirot, travelling on The Orient Express train that ran between Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1883 to 1977.

Istanbul’s Historical Journey

Istanbul has been known by several different names, the most notable besides the modern Turkish name, being Byzantium,

 Constantinople and Stamboul.  The different names are associated with the different phases of its history and the different languages.  First it was the Greeks’s King Byzas who called the city by the name, Byzantium, a Greek name for city on the Bosphorus.    Then the Persians ruled it briefly after which came Alexander the Great.  Then the Romans under Emperor Septimus conquered the city after which Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of the entire Roman Empire and called it Constantinople (

Istanbul’s later history was full of besieges: by the Arabs, then by the Barbarians and later by the Crusaders who destroyed and took the wealth.  In 1453, The Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II, conquered Constantinople.  It was renamed “Islambol” (city of Islam in Turkish), the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule lasted until World War I when Istanbul was occupied by the Allied Forces.  After years of struggle led by Kemal Ataturk against the occupying forces, the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nationalist, was responsible for the birth of the Republic of Turkey.

Istanbul’s Districts

Istanbul is the largest city and a principal seaport of Turkey.  The city is made up of 39 districts with 25 districts in the European side and 14 districts in the Asian side which include some districts that we probably passed through such as Besiktas, known for Dolmabahce Palace and the internationally renowned football team; Fatih (Istanbul’s largest district & prime tourism area including Sultan Ahmet area); Bey, Beyoglu (Istanbul’s Soho with Istiklal Caddesi as the main thoroughfare, Taksim, bohemian Cihangir); Atakoy (upmarket waterfront property), etc.

The Dolmabahce Palace is located in the Besiktas, on the European coast of the Bosphorus and served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856-1887 and 1990-1922. It has 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (hammam) and 68 toilets. The palace was home to 6 sultans (up until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924) and where founder of the Turkish Republic,Kamal Ataturk died..

The bosphorus

A cruise down the scenic Bhosporus Strait is worthwhile.  The Bhosporus waterway runs between the Black Sea on the north, Marmara Sea on the south, continent of Asia to the east and Europe to the west. Lining the Bhosporus are beautiful homes of the rich and famous.  Seaside estates along the straits cost anything between 28 to 300 million Turkish Lira (according to The most expensive property was sold to a Qatari businessman Abdul Hadi Mana Al-Hajri in 2015 for a whopping US106 million.

Sultanahmet Area

The tours we took to heritage sites were mainly around Besiktas, Beyoglu and Fatih districts in Istanbul.  Sultan Ahmet area is in Fatih, where attractions like the famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar are located. The Blue Mosque  is the most important mosque in Istanbul standing next to the Byzantine Hippodrome in the old city centre.  The mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque because of its bluish tiles on the wall)was built between 1606 to 1616.

Unlike many great architectural monuments built to signify victory, the Blue Mosque was built by the 13 year old Sultan Ahmet 1, after the Turkish military was defeated by the Persians in 1600s.

In the quieter part of the Sultan Ahmet area, are shops selling beautiful colourful mosaic and pendant lamps .  And if you walked further towards Gazi Atikali Pasa Camii, you might come across a Turkish peddling prayer beads or sometimes people call them worry beads for zikir purposes .

Beautiful Turkish pendant and mosaic lamps, seen here in Anatolian colours and signified Turkish culture.  The traditional form of lamp were first used in Istanbul bathhouses, mosques, and similar places

Zikir beads or tasbih being peddled by a Turkish near Gazi Atikali Pasa Camii in Sultanahmet area. Zikir beads or prayer beads, also called, worry beads are made from kuka wood or boxwood, or semi-precious stones such as agate.

We visited the Spice Bazaar  as part of the Dolmabahce Palace & Two Continents Tour we signed up for.  The Spice Bazaar was originally named the Egyptian Bazaar, built using the revenue from the Ottoman eyelet of Egypt in 1660.  The bazaar was and still is the centre for spice trade in Istanbul but other types of shops have been added on in the recent years.  There are over 700 shops in the bazaar. Ceramic shops were some of the shops that you can find in the bazaar.  You can also find beautiful shawls and  pashminas at a bargain in the Spice Bazaar.zikir purposes .

Beautiful Turkish pendant and mosaic lamps, seen here in Anatolian colours and signified Turkish culture.  The traditional form of lamp were first used in Istanbul bathhouses, mosques, and similar places.

The Spice Bazaar, is one of the largest bazaars in the Eminonu quarter of Fatih district of Istanbul (after the Grand Bazaar). It is one of the biggest covered bazaars in Istanbul.

Taksim Square, Beyoglu

Taksim is situated in Beyoglu, the European part of Istanbul and the heart of modern Istanbul.  It is a major tourist and leisure district, famed for its restaurants, shops and hotels.  The most important monument at the Square is the Independence Monument.  Taksim Square is an important hub for public transportation, acting as the main transfer point for the municipal bus system for Istanbul.  Taksim Square promised a vibrant nightlife if pub-crawl is your thing.  It is where most festivals are held such as the recent 2017/2018 New Year celebration.  Taksim Square is also a landing for flights of doves and you can actually feed seeds to them. If you happen to be at the Square, be vigilant however, because nothing is as it seemed.  I was caught off-guard by an innovative form of begging by the Birdman

The Birdman in Taksim Square, feeding the doves.  This was where the 2017 New Year celebration was held.  Taksim Square is an important hub for public transportation, acting as the main transfer point for the municipal bus system for Istanbul.

Istiklal Street

The Taksim Square led to Istiklal Street.  If you walk down the Istiklal, you can listen to some street performers playing their music, or stop for kebab at the restaurants, or shop at the department stores, art shops and bookshops, displaying priceless Sufi books such as Shems Friedlander’s “Forgotten Messages” on the life and time of the famous Sufi, Rumi.

At the end of the Istiklal Street, you can actually sit down to have a cup of tea or cay, or a glass of pomegranate juice or sample the roasted chestnuts . Pomegranate is native to Turkey, both in the coastal as well as the mountainous areas up to altitudes of 1000 metres, mainly in the Aegian, the Mediterranean and the South western Anatolia regions.

A vendor selling roasted chestnuts on the busy Istiklal Street in Taksim. The Istiklal Avenue-Tunel nostalgic tram line starts in Taksim.

A Symphony Of Sounds and Scents

Istanbul is the place to be.  There is the Turkish cuisine, the hammam experience, excellent museums, the architecture, open-air markets and bazaars, grand imperial mosques and historic churches.  Istanbul is a symphony of sounds and scents.

The haunting call for prayer or azan by the muezzin reverberating over Istanbul five times a day, from the minarets of over 3000 mosques.   Then there is the sound of the bustling city; the street musician playing the accordion on the corner of the Istiklal; the sound of laughter; and the distant sounds of the  sky larks flying over the Bosphorus.  Then the  scents emanating from all corners of Istanbul.   The unmistakable aroma of Turkish coffee; the hookah tobacco; exotic spices and herbs at the Spice Bazaar; the heavy oriental musk perfumes on the street; the sweet smell of apple tea, not forgetting the smell of sweat on the tram on Istiklal.

Then we have the onslaught of Istanbul by tourists with an endless appetite for the exotic.  A lady tourist travelling alone on her way back to Bangladesh from Rome.  She was engaged with United Nations (UN) and currently working for the UN funding body and the Bangladesh government.  She must be doing well because the next time I caught up with her, she was ready to buy off a carpet for TL6000 without so much as a blink.  And I always thought bargaining is part of Asian culture..

And then there was the expatriate from Kerala travelling with his spouse.  He looked like a retired Hindi film star. He had been employed in Bahrain for 34 years at a time when the Bahrain Dinar was three times the value of the US Dollar.  It seemed quite a number of Indian tourists on Istanbul stop-overs were expatriates working in the Middle East.  There is another wave of tourists that landed on the shores of Istanbul….loud tourists with deep pockets from Mainland China.

Watching the Bosphorus at sunset from the grounds of the Dolmabache Palace, reminded me of a famous Napoleon Bonaparte saying : “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital”.

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Tunis in 2014

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.

About figure: Walking through the old part of Tunis, reminded me of how alleyways are typical of Middle eastern architecture so are blue windows.

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  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.

About figure: The air b&b we stayed at in Tunis was a typical Tunisian design, run by two university undergraduates. The central courtyard led to all the rooms in the house.

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) (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 . 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” ( TravelIndependent Sunday, 13th September 2008) because of its link with French musicians and artists.

About figure: Typical high-ceiling alleys in the souks of the old part of Tunis medina.

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. 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.

About figure: Design of doors would indicate the wealth within the Tunisian house but generally doors would be painted blue, yellow or brown. I found these doors in the alley ways on my way to Zaytuna Mosque, Tunis

The mosque  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.

About figure:The Great Mosque of El-Zituna, literally meaning Mosque of Olive, located in the middle of Tunis medina, is the oldest mosque in Tunisia. It is known that the mosque hosted one of the first and greatest universities in the history of Islam ( These columns in the courtyard were brought from the ruins of Carthage. 

Men-Only Cafe

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  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.

About figure: Some local children posing with my daughter in the alley way in the medina of Tunis after our visit to Zaytuna Mosque.


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.

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It’s All About People

Ulu Kedah Culinary & Hospitality

Trains are just enticing: picture windows, freedom to move around,  time to bury yourself in a book or socialize, yet moving smoothly at a speed that does not upset your cup of tea. Last month, I took the ETS to Sungai Petani, meeting up five other friends with their wives for a lesson on history, culinary and hospitality. It turned out to be a delightful three-day trip down memory lane for those born and raised in Kedah.  

For me at least, having overstayed my welcome in the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the last 46 years, and now completely retired, the trip presented the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the serenity of kampong life once more….the green paddy fields stretching as far as the eyes could see, the spectacular mountains in shades of green, the soft breeze blowing, carrying with it a rhythm of kampong chatter.

I constantly visited Kedah in the past, at least to reconnect with whatever was left of my early life: my nieces, my nephews, my cousins but largely my memories.  The migration of kampong folks to the big city seeking new opportunities, have brought with them practices and tradition peculiar to Kedah, especially the cuisines. I have tasted Laksa KedahPindang Ikan Temenung, Curry Ikan Kering, Asam Pedas Keladi, while eating out around Kuala Lumpur but I have never heard of Jeruk Mamanlet alone tasted it.  Jeruk Maman  is part of Ulu Kedah cuisine, popular among the kampong folks in the district of Baling, Sik and Kuala Nerang.

Maman plant, is a national treasure, according to a farmer growing it on a large scale in Gemencheh, Negeri Sembilan.  The maman leaves, bitter though they were, actually prevented a war with the Johorians  at one time, only because the Johorians fell in love with the maman dish served (initially, an idea as a nasty prank) (, October 2017). The scientific name for Maman plant is Cleome Gynandra and it is popularly-grown in Negeri Sembilan and Terengganu.  The name Maman most probably originated from the name of the town Kemaman in Terengganu.

Maman leaves is sometimes used to cook rendang. But it is Jeruk Maman that I am more curious about.  Jeruk Maman is prepared using young leaves or shoots, salt, water and some cooked rice.  The young maman leaves and some stems are placed in a plastic, together with some generous amount of salt and topped by a cup of cooked rice, and a cup of cold water, all placed aside to allow fermentation. They are best eaten with rice, preferably steaming hot, but sometimes made into a kind of kerabu or eaten plain with some shallots and chilli padi. It was my first time. I tasted this dish during a generous dinner spread in Kampong Bukit Pak Kuning, Kuala Ketil, courtesy of Taib’s family. Kuala Ketil is a small town about 21 kilometers from Sungai Petani by road.

The entire Taib’s family practically participated in the cooking of dinner on that particular evening, but for a family running a restaurant next door on a daily basis, cooking dinner for 16 people was no big deal. It was a dinner drawn out over two hours of eating, interspersed with endless conversations and sometimes, thunderous laughter. I remember changing seats three times just to make sure everyone were comfortable and had a good proximity to the dishes.

In Kampong Sintok Bugis , in the district of Kota Kuala Muda, we had another big spread of lunch, courtesy of Ismail’s family. The family served fried meehoon, fried kuey teownasi lemak, and many other dishes.  But the one thing I have never tried before was Nira drink. Nira (or Neera) is a sweet natural drink made from the Nipah palm or mangrove palm, native to the coastlines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its scientific name is Nypa Fruticans. It seems Nipah palm produces a sweet edible sap collected in a bottle or plastic normally fitted to the trunk. The sap can be turned into a variety of products such as gula nipah and cuka nipah or vinegar. The Nipah sap can also be fermented to produce alcohol.  Cars fueled by alcohol is not a new idea at all. For decades experimentation with alcohol and bio-fuels has been conducted.

To top it all off, was the brunch in Kampong Setar, in the district of Yan. After brunch, some of us pulled out a bike each (courtesy of Salleh’s family).  I hesitated at first.  But after a few minutes, I was able to balance myself and managed to stay comfortable on the bike in perpetual motion. With the breeze softly blowing in my face, I felt an overwhelming rush of nostalgia.  I remember visiting cousins who lived in wooden houses among paddy fields when I was young. I cycled almost everywhere in the 1960s. My initial plan was to photograph a real farmer on his rounds on the old bicycle complete with a big straw hat and a parang. But we could not find one.

If you look to the left, there is the majestic Gunong Jerai, with clouds still hanging around them like white cotton balls .  And to the right, are paddy fields half buried under irrigation water, with luscious green paddy plants sprouting from underneath.  Miles and miles of paddy fields is a common sight since Kedah is an agricultural state and the biggest producer of rice.  I can imagine Salleh’s uncle cycling around the bunds after working the fields in the early hours of the morning many many years ago.

Before the close of the evening of the second day, Ismail took us for Mee Udang (or prawn noodles) in Kampong Pulau Sayak in Kota Kuala Muda.  There are about six or seven such stalls in the kampong.  The beach-front restaurant called Yaakob made a delicious Mee Udang, using prawns from the sea .  To be fair, I didn’t try other Mee Udang stalls.  But this stall was exceptional because of the picture-perfect, fast-fading sunset, laid out in front of us, the sun casting its last colourful hues over the sea as we dined.

If you had a chance to visit Sungai Petani on your way up north towards Langkawi Island, try stopping at the Hotel Seri Malaysia, a convenient stop since it is just opposite the train station. But there is a beautiful homestay nearer to Gunong Jerai if you prefer.

“People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and Taib’s family, Ismail’s family and Salleh’s family all made us feel extremely welcome in their homes. The 2Fs: Food and Friendships, made me feel truly blessed……of course it’s not always about food, but who you eat with that matters most to me.

(*Yaakob Mee Udang Segar, Pulau Sayak, Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah, Google or call 019-542 9812 if you are lost).

2 Months of Pain Over Little Red Pills

It was a real hot, dry afternoon with no sign of relief from the rain clouds. I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my neck and elsewhere even as we sat underneath the shade of some coconut trees with the wind softly blowing from the sea (Fig 1).  Even cold, sweet pineapple juice in tall glasses could not douse our hot discussion about drug use and remand prison time with two pill kuda users.

Pil Kuda is locally referred to as methamphetamine. In Kelantan, its retail price is RM10 but in Terengganu, it is RM15 – RM20. The pills are smuggled from Thailand into Kelantan and are what some people term as a poor man’s drug. Ketamine is called pill kuda because its use was for calming horses.  Then we have syabu or pure methamphetamine, heroin, ganja (whose real medicinal value is as a pain killer), cocaine (like cocaine tooth drops to relief tooth ache) and ecstasy party pills (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). I did not realize how bad the drug problem in Terengganu was until that morning in Permaisuri.

Seated in the front row of the lower court that morning, I had an opportunity to listen to many remand cases while waiting for the specific case of interest to be mentioned.  It seemed that out of 24 remand cases mentioned that morning, 23 were drug related and all involved Malays. This is an alarming trend. One remand case I heard was a well-dressed 65 year old man with dark glasses called Cikgu (teacher in Malay). He looked more like a headmaster of some remote school than a drug user or a drug peddler.  The 65 year old drug user made an appeal for the magistrate to reduce the charge of RM6000.  He made all attempts using poetic language in his appeal  to impress the magistrate.  The magistrate, a sweet young lady with hijab and beautiful painted lips,  granted him a reduction of RM2,500. But he was far from satisfied.  As he was being led out by a policeman, I heard him swore under his breath, with a look of disgust on his face. The “headmaster-look” completely disappeared and in its place, the face of an unrepentant drug peddler.

A young drug user on remand failed to attend the lower court hearing that morning , forcing his old man to present himself at the court since he was the one who posted bail.  In Malaysia, you can pay bail to go home instead of going to jail while waiting for hearing.  The lady magistrate did not hide her disgust and threatened to take away the old man’s bail money if the son failed to attend the next hearing.  Then there was a young man about 20 years old who presented himself.  He was dressed in short-sleeved tee shirt revealing old scars on his arms indicative of intravenous drug use.   Almost all prisoners made gestures of defiance as they were being lead away. Many were young men maybe in early twenties and a few seasoned-looking hard-core drug users or drug pushers. One was a fresh-looking man in his early forties whose charges were duly dropped.   And later when we met him outside, he related to us how he tried to help my friend’s worker during a raid by ADDK.  But having watched too much American cop movies, his story made us a little skeptical. Could he be an informant?

Mezoh, a Patani who was working on my friend’s house, is a recreational drug user, resorting to pil kuda once or twice a week when he felt a physical burnout after his daily work on site. He is only 45 years old and very lean-build.  Although from Patani, he spoke little Thai. On the day he was arrested in an ADDK (Agensi Anti-Dadah Kebangsaan or National Anti-Drugs Agency) raid on a house in Permaisuri, 2 months before, he was with some friends, smoking.  The raid happened suddenly and quickly.  ADDK officers appeared out of nowhere as if an informant had a hand in it.  Mezoh suddenly found himself in jail waiting to be charged (Fig 2).   If the court decides to put you on remand, it means you will go to prison until your hearing at a magistrate’s court. Mezoh was kept in jail for two months due to investigation by the police who had to be extra-careful with cases involving foreigners.

Mezoh related how much he suffered mentally and physically while on the two-months remand in Merang.  65 prisoners were confined to a space of about 30 feet by 30 feet. Space was so tight that if he left his spot to ease himself, he would find his space “gone” by the time he got back, duly occupied by another prisoner. The same space was also used for sleeping and there were no beds.  Food was scarce. Prisoners were allowed five spoons of rice twice a day. Tea drinks were without any sugar and sometimes prisoners fight over tea. He looked like he did not lose much weight but then none of the prisoners did any physical work.  They were not even allowed to attend weekly Friday prayers.  Mezoh thought such conditions were unheard of in a Thai prison, on remand or not.

Lae, a 60 year old seasoned drug user, was constantly in and out of jail for drug use making him almost resilient. How he “got over” the drug habit was actually a result of an attachment to a tablir group during his parole years. It seemed to have straightened him out a bit, although it is anybody’s guess when he would cave in next. He had been taking drugs on and off since he was 20.  Now he seemed to show some promising signs of discipline and resolve.  He now keeps a dairy to jot down his duas and daily expenses from the little money his children gave him. This was seen as positive step towards recovery.

It made me wonder why these youngsters and even a few elderly men like Mezoh and Lae (residents of Mangkuk, resort to drug use?  According to a 2018 AADK survey of drug addicts, ( by state, showed Kelantan to have the highest number of drug addicts at 4,153 followed by Kedah at 2,693. Out of 25,267 drug cases surveyed, 82% are Malays, 6.3% are Indians, and 96% of this number are males.

Among the drug users, the top most prone to drug abuse are the unemployed (3,650), the general workers (5621) and the part time workers (8,086).  Socio-economic factors such as poverty and lack of employment opportunity are cited as some of the causes for high drug use among fishermen, according to Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF)(August 2017,

Malaysia may have the strictest drug laws in the world, but the rising trend in drug abuse may require a rethink of its drug control strategies.

(April 2019, 1222 Words)

I Have Never Flown A Kite

My mother, unschooled though she was while she was still alive, taught me one thing about life and relationships. She used to say “Being in a relationship, is like flying a kite – you pull a little, let go a little so the string won’t break”.  I am not too sure if that valuable lesson did anything to my relationships but it sure did not improve my kite flying ability.  The closest experience I ever had with kites was when my brother allowed me to hold the harness of his airborne kite very briefly when I was 7 years old.

I confess I am more into ceramics and oil painting but kite design is somehow intriguing to me.  I made a trip to Kota Bharu recently to meet two kite makers, an arrangement made by a retired Prof Abd Aziz Shuaib, who taught architectural design in UMK.  He happened to be an ardent traditional craft enthusiast. That morning when we reached his beautiful house near Pantai Cahaya Bulan, I was surprised to find a kite maker of Chinese blood in an arguably 98% Malay tradition. His name was Tan Sheng Hai.  The other artisan was supposed to be Anuar, a young man about 30 years old, son of the late legendary kite maker, Pak Shafie Jusoh, who used to launch his Wau Bulan on Pantai Geting beach on the outskirts of Tumpat.

While one has made it big commercially at such a young age of 30, with one workshop and a thriving business, selling his enormous 7 feet wide kites to Italian tourists for a neat sum of five thousand ringgit, the other remained a passionate artisan, working from the house at 53 years of age. Tan Sheng Hai is an active member of kite associations and participated in various local and international kite competitions.

Tan grew up in predominantly Malay communities throughout his life.  Growing up in Malay communities exposed him to Malay and Siamese traditions like wayang kulitdikir barat, menora, mak yong to name a few. Tan moved around a lot during childhood even staying in Tanah Merah.  He was brought up by his grandmother in Kampong Kulim Wakaf Baru, Kelantan. While he lived in Wakaf Baru, Tan was surrounded by neighbours who spoke Siamese so Tan could speak both Siamese and Malay beside his mother tongue, Hokkien.

About figure – An intricate design or pattern ready to be tebuk or cut out to be pasted onto layers of colored paper in a 4 feet wide kite frame.

He showed keen interest in kite making since school days. At 10 years old he made his first kite. At 15, he made his first big kite.  A big kite could measure as wide as 10 feet from one wing tip to the other or 4 feet as in Fig 2 above. Some of the popular traditional kites are Wau Bulan, Wau Puyuh, Wau Barat, Wau Merak, Wau Kikik, Wau Kuching, Wau Jalabudi to name a few.  Tan’s first real entry into kite competition was upon encouragement by his father who was also an active kite maker himself. Anuar , the young man in a hurry, entered the kite world at age 16.  Upon his father’s insistence (when he was in secondary school), he entered a competition but did not quite make it.

What makes kites fly? What is the science behind kites? The four forces of flight – Lift, Weight, Drag and Thrust, affect kites as they affect aeroplanes and anything else that flies (https//, Mike Hulslander, 2012). To launch the kite into the air, the force of lift must be greater than the force of weight. To keep the kite flying steady, the four forces have to be in balance.  Lift must be equal to weight while thrust must equal drag.

Lift is the upward force that pushes the kite into the air. Lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are created by air in motion over the body of the kite. The force of weight pulls the kite towards the earth.  Thrust is the forward force that propels the kite in the direction of the motion. While an aeroplane generate thrust with its engines, a kite rely on tension from the strings and moving air. Drag is the backward force that acts opposite to the direction of the motion. Drag is caused by the difference between front and back of the kite.

And to think that 7 or 8 year old boys, some of whom didn’t even know how to read, living in the kampongs during the 1960’s times of innocence, have actually crafted simple diamond kites (in the shape of Wau Kikik) using bamboo sticks and newspaper, then flew the kites and kept them flying in the air, truly amazed me now. We thought nothing of it back then.

That Saturday morning at breakfast of nasi tumpang et al, a gesture of Kelantan goodwill, Tan explained the play of factors affecting the flight of kites. He mentioned about teraju, the three strings that control the flight of a kite.  Manipulating this teraju (Fig 3) requires skill.  But the most interesting gadget was the busor.  Tan explained that a busor is a structure made of bamboo, shaped like a bow. The busor is fixed to the back of the wing of the kite. Once the kite flies, it will make a sound similar to waauuu…and that, it seemed, was how the name wau was given to our Malaysian kites.

Happy flying…and watch out for my next post when I will catch up with Anuar flying his big kite on the beach of Pantai Cahaya Bulan.

(10 January 2019)


Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular  taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips.  Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah  for umrah,  we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead.  Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening  and we were soon out of the terminal.

About figure – Women pilgrims leaving the Masjid Nabawi after prayers

Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular  taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips.  Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah  for umrah,  we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead.  Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening  and we were soon out of the terminal.

About figure – Three lorry drivers stop at R&R on Highway 15 between Makkah & Madinah

Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular  taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips.  Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah  for umrah,  we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead.  Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening  and we were soon out of the terminal.

Once out of the terminal, we went looking for a taxi.  Finding a taxi to take us to Madinah proved rather  troublesome since there were very few private taxis at the Hajj terminal.  One taxi runner quoted SAR1500 just to take us the distance of 250 kilometers away. We thought it was rather steep.  We were then directed to a private taxi presumably an arrangement of mutual benefit for both runner and taxi driver.  After the SAR1500 shocker, any lesser offer was deemed reasonable.  Later we found an even cheaper fare of SAR500, but only if taken from the international terminal.   It was already late in the night and we settled for the only taxi-driver to drive us to Madinah in his Toyota sedan for SAR1000.

The taxi-man, Muhamad, was a Bedou, for the Anglicised term “Bedouin”.  The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi which means “desert dweller”.  Badawi are nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited the deserts of North Africa, Arabic peninsula, Iraq and the Levant.  The Arabic term Bedouin was traditionally used to differentiate between nomads, who made a living  by raising livestock and those who worked on farms or lived sedentary lives in towns.

Bedouins tend to be small and thin.  One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert.  But Bedouins love freedom thus the appeal for nomadic life. The number of true nomadic Bedouins however  is dwindling.  There may be less than 3% nomads left in Iraq, Libya or Saudi Arabia.  According to Wikipedia (, there are over 10 million in Sudan, about 2 million in Algeria, some in Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya etc.

Calmness and patience are valued traits. But the one thing that struck me that particular evening was Mohamad’s Bedouin hospitality.  Bedouins, it seemed are well known for gestures like breaking bread with a stranger.  Since we wanted to reach Madinah before 2 am, we didn’t stop to have a bite to eat before boarding the taxi.  Needless to say we were grateful when Muhamad stopped along the highway and bought us cups of good strong coffee with a pinch of cardamon added. Bedouin kahwa is a strong aromatic coffee made with cardamon powder, saffron and rosewater.  Later on along the journey he again bought us bananas and juice.

Arab drivers in Saudi were not much different from Malaysian drivers.  They both have little  patience when it comes to driving.   I have seen similar mercurial drivers on highways and roads in Malaysia.  Muhamad, small built, his face brown and drawn, probably in his forties (though he did look older, maybe because of the dry desert winds), was blowing his horn ever so often when he wanted to overtake other vehicles.  He seemed like a dangerous driver, keeping to the fast lane and weaving in and out between trucks and buses while overtaking.  Even though we were exhausted from the flight and the journey, I couldn’t sleep a wink.  I was  rather anxious watching the way Muhamad drove.  I thought 75% of road accidents were caused by young Arab drivers but Muhamad was in his forties.  One driver had his headlights on and kept pressing the pedal as if saying “Get out of my way”.

It was close to midnight and Muhamad was probably very sleepy. He found many innovative ways of keeping awake while driving on the highway.  He sometimes turned on the radio way up playing traditional Bedouin music, singing and clapping loudly.  And as if he suddenly remembered we were seated behind, he would  turn down the music.  Then he would unwound his head-cloth, put on his keffiyeh and silence returned as he drove quietly on.  Sometimes he would smoke and this routine he would repeat every now and then throughout the 250 kilometers  journey.

We arrived in Madinah in the wee hours of the morning.   We had little exchanges with Muhamad since he knew absolutely no English and we do not speak Arabic.  He had no use for the GPS to locate the hotel.  All he did was stop  fellow drivers along the way. After doing this for a number of times, one driver relented to show us the way.  What a colorful character Muhamad was, reminding me of Lawrence of Arabia movie…. a Bedouin with a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver, laid across his knees, or the Arab-speaking nomads  in Hugh Kennedy’s “The Great Arab Conquests ”, who rode their horses over 200 miles a day to spread Islam. It seemed the Bedouins possess the same endurance, strength and loyalty as the Arabian horses they rode.

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Two &Half Days of Saigon Culture

When I first flew into Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, remembered fondly as Saigon, the weather was pleasantly warm-820F with some clouds.  Visiting for the very first time, I tried to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver about the city.  It struck me as revealing that taxi cab drivers I came across (at least two out of three), voiced a feeling of nostalgia for the old Saigon under American occupation.  After 30 years of independence, there is still leftover animosity towards the north when touching on the history of old Vietnam. But looking back at how Vietnam finally became a republic, I could begin to understand why.

This animosity could have stemmed mainly from differences in  ideology and geography between the old North and South Vietnam, but mainly from the brutalities of the civil war itself.   Back then, North Vietnam was essentially a socialist (Marxist-Leninist) state while the South was a non-communist state, a largely Buddhist or Confucian state.    In 1954 when the French and the American forces  were defeated, Vietnam was divided into North and South, with Ho Chi Minh (Fig 1) put in charge of the North and Emperor Bao Dai put in charge of the South.   But when Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, fell to the Communist in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and  Vietnam became a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

The North and South differ in many ways, especially topography (North more natural beauty, bordering the mountains of China), weather (winter temperatures can go down such that you would need a winter coat in the North), culinary, dressing (more subtle dressing in the North compared to the South), language etc.

I found three cultures unique to Ho Chi Minh city. One is surely the motor culture. In a city where pavements are dominated by motorcycles, a proper walking space, free of motorbikes is a welcome.  Nguyen Hue Street is busy with a different kind of crowd at night (Fig 1).  I noticed during the nights, the crowd would come here to socialize, sing, dance and ride boards. 900 meters opposite is located the Saigon River

We had a most challenging experience of our lives in an attempt to cross Ton Duc Thang Street (a main street) to get to the bank of  the Saigon River.  Street crossing is almost life threatening in Ho Chi Minh.  I agree that it was after-office hours, and probably the wrong time to cross a main street filled with endless motor cycles, cars and buses. None of the vehicles stopped and we were advised to just go with the flow with steady steps. It seemed that vehicles will naturally manoeuvre around you as you cross. But I was not about to take any chances. So I had a local help me cross the street.

About figure – The Saigon River,at dawn, as seen from the Reverie Saigon on Nguyen Hue Street. Barges ply the river carrying sand and construction materials down the river. Water taxi is a common sight on the river bank.

Then there is the scooter tour also unique to Ho Chi Minh City. The scooter tour is part night excursion and part street food adventure. Biking is the fastest way to get around the city but it is not for the faint-hearted.  Your life depends on the expertise of the scooter driver turning and snaking around the traffic on the streets of the city. I did not have the time to try one scooter tour though.

The third culture is the street food culture.  Along the alleyways, you can find blue chairs (Fig 3) lined up to sit patrons to enjoy their pho (noodle soup) or bun bo hue (beef noodle soup) or com tam, broken rice with grilled pork. Pho is cooked using fish sauce, spices, onions and ginger to give that special flavour, using either beef or chicken.  I read delicious remarks by LegalNomads recommending street food.  But knowing that these soups may have blood cubes and intestines added, I was not about to try any of it.

One of the few historical buildings we visited was the Central Post Office in District 1 (Fig 4 & 5). The post office first opened for service in 1864 but its architecture reflected those of the French colonial architecture.

A typical scene along the streets in Ho Chi Minh city. These locals, after working hours, were drinking local coffee, while seated on blue chairs along the street.  This is coffee culture.

About – figure: The Central Post Office, located close to the Notre Dame Basilica, the central cathedral. This beautiful building was constructed during French Indochina in 19th century.

About figure:  Inside the Ben Thanh Market, teeming with local products and swarming with shoppers. Caucasian tourists have learned the art of negotiation in Ben Thanh. A trader offered me a tailored suit for RM300. Now was that cheap?

Ben Thanh is very popular with the Malaysian shoppers who fly in just for a two day shopping spree. In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists.  On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.

Another historic place we visited was the War Remnants Museum in District 3.  It is a sad reminder of the atrocities of war. The museum (Fig 7) exhibited gruesome photos of war victims where the use of, among other weapons, Agent Orange which contains the deadly toxin dioxan. Exposure to dioxan cause cancers and lasting health problems . The war called the Second Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War) is also called the American War.  It lasted for 20 years from 1955 to 1975.  The Second Vietnam War is one of the 27 wars or armed conflicts America has engaged in with two still on-going.   American presidents constantly used the domino theory to rationalize their involvement in wars across the globe. With South Vietnam, it was President Eisenhower who used the theory as an argument to justify increasing American military involvement in South Vietnam.

It seemed that during the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese fled the country to migrate to countries like Australia, America etc.  After 40 years, many of the descendants of these refugees came back to Vietnam, mainly South Vietnam.  These Vietnamese are called Overseas Vietnamese or Viet Kieu (  They are mostly settled in Ho Chi Minh city.  They look Vietnamese, but speak perfect English with American or Australian accent. And with this migration, comes the American fast-food life style. In the South you can find many fast-food restaurants like KFC, Burger King and even McDonalds… American lifestyle that is creating an upward trend in obesity.  Foreigners (Japanese and Koreans mainly) working and living in Vietnam, live in the South, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City.

About figure: Schoolchildren resting next to a tank, at the War Remnants Muzeum in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

However, I was more interested to meet another group of Vietnamese while in Ho Chi Minh City….the Cham Malays. The Cham Malays is a minority ethnic group found mainly in South Vietnam. This interest stemmed mainly from the knowledge that back in Malaysia, there is a village in Terengganu where Cham Malays live. In fact later I was to find out there are many places in Malaysia where Cham Malays are found such as Jalan Bayam in Kelantan, Batu Pahat in Johor, Pekan in Pahang, Sungai Buloh in Selangor.

Dr Basiron (Fig 8) is a Cham Malay living and running a halal certification company in Ho Chi Minh city. He is 40 years old, with a PhD in Arabic studies. He studied in a Malaysian Islamic university and speaks five languages namely Vietnamese, Malay, English, Arabic and Khmer language.  He was soft spoken and spoke English fairly well. We decided to take a slow walk towards Ben Thanh market.  In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists.  On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.

About figure:  Dr Basiron, at the halal restaurant on Nguyen An Ninh Street, Ben Thanh Ward in District 1. Nguyen An Ninh is sometimes called Malaysian Street due to popular patronage by Malaysian shoppers.

Dr Basiron is one of the fortunate Cham Malays, educated and running a small business. Halal certification is important with Vietnam’s growing Muslim tourism. There are about 72,000 Muslims in Vietnam, making up 0.1% of the country’s population of 95 million.  Muslims in Vietnam are of three groups:1) Cham people; 2) inter-racial Muslims (who are offspring of mixed marriages between Vietnamese and Muslim traders) and 3) those who converted to Islam after interacting with Muslim traders (extracted from the writing by Tan Jo Hann). Ever since the French colonial rule to the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, the Cham Muslims have been victims of forced assimilation. Categorized as ethnic minority, the Cham Muslims are depicted as “poor”, “backward” and “deficient”.  Perhaps Dr Basiron represents the new generation of Cham Muslims in South Vietnam…educated and independent.

I also noticed some young locals eating while seated on the pavements. I saw this while on my way to the central Musulman mosque on Dong Du street. I was more inclined to eat at the Nyonya restaurant on Dong Du owned by a Malaysian entrepreneur and run by a Malaysian Chinese, especially their seafood char kuey teow.  Down the Dong Du street, opposite the Musulman Masjid, is the Turkish kebab shop.  I ate there once but I could not convince Dr Basiron to step inside.

Ho Chi Minh City, District 1, has unique cultures worth experiencing, without a doubt. If you are a shopper, the city is an attractive shoppers paradise.   But Hanoi would probably be more attractive to a traveller who loves nature.   Jaw dropping natural wonders would be more my thing.

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Remembering Yesterday

Yesterday When I Was Young

Someone said that if Leonardo da Vinci had to tweet five times a day, people would still be riding bicycles. But modern living with all the technology has made us empty.  We are mostly half-present with the other foot in the digital world somewhere.  Modern life has created an urban dweller who is more isolated in the big city than his ancestors were in the kampong.  Today, modern living fail me.  My astro television subscription got cut off, my attempt at online payment  failed, my mobile phone had a flat battery, and my laptop went missing.  There was no television to watch my favourite Fox movies, no mobile phone to chat on, and no internet to browse or “google” (it seemed “google” is now accepted as a verb in modern English).

About figure – Suspended umbrellas on Jonker Street, Chinese New year, Malacca town

Suddenly I had plenty of time on my hands.  My mind began to wander back to the 1960s.  Just how did yesterday’s  9 year olds lived in the 1960s and 1970s, back in the then little town of Alor Setar, with almost no technology?  We watched black & white television, and listened to only one radio channel.  People took time to communicate with each other by having real conversations and not through whatsapp.  Young people back then  took time to read print books because print media was the only way they could get any information and bask in their imagination.  I used to read a lot of  books, the  Enid Blyton Famous Five series and as I grew older,  spy thrillers,  such as “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1967.  I doubt any of my children ever heard of the book.

In the evening I would  cycle  outside on  the dusty  laterite road on my father’s bicycle twice my height.  Riding an over-sized man’s bicycle was tricky.  It required children to contort and wrap their bodies underneath the horizontal crossbar in such a way that their legs could reach both pedals, their hands could steer the handle bar while  safely remaining in almost perpetual motion.  If only a machine of perpetual motion is possible. Regardless, I landed headlong, together with my over-sized bicycle, into the green slimy  ditch when the bicycle veered to the side and the brakes failed me.

But nothing beat the experience of catching fighting fish in the dark murky swamps behind my kampong house.  It never occurred to me then that there could be a python or water snake slithering in the dark mangroves.  Now I would squirm at the sight of a rattlesnake on National Geography television.  We would be so engrossed with catching the fighting fish that we almost always hardly noticed  the setting sun.  On weekends, we  would go out to play with the morning sun and head home with the setting sun.  On one occasion, I remember a second cousin being chased around the kampong by his 80 year-old grandmother because he came home late.  He was hoping to outrun her as the chase would probably tire her out.  But with a stick waving in the air just inches above his head, he was not about to take any chances.

Back then a household would have one bread winner present to take care of the home. Parents of that period practically allowed us children to be doing our own thing. I would like to think I was much happier than  children of nowadays living in a big city like Kuala Lumpur.   Modern mothers, hovering over their children about homework, or in anticipation of some danger lurking round the corner and fathers who never were quite home is the norm nowadays.

But my father was always home at magrib.  I recall my father was a man of few words and deeply, deeply religious.  He was a chief clerk in the land office in Alor Setar, and he cycled to office everyday.  I remember I was 5 or 6 years old running around in my skirts when I joined my father for magrib prayer.  He never uttered a word as he turned around to check the saf.  His gentleness and patience encouraged us all towards prayers. He hardly laid a hand on us or caned us as far as I could remember except for that one time.  Perhaps it was to teach us some much needed discipline.  My mother on the other hand, was illiterate and not able to read except for some jawi with a little rumi.  She loved to socialize, visiting friends for long hours.

Don’t get me wrong, we children of the 1960s had our fair share of responsibilities.  We washed, starched and ironed our own school uniforms especially during secondary school days.  During those days the girls uniforms had box pleats and ironing starched box pleats was no mean feat especially if you had only coal-fired metal irons to press clothes. Coal-fired metal irons were heavy and impossible for a child to handle. But washing  school shoes on weekends was a breeze. We helped our mothers sweep the floor or buy groceries from the nearby shop run by a Chinese family.

I walked to school when I was seven years old.  When it rained heavily, the river would swell, the fragile wooden bridge would be swept away by the strong currents and we had to skip school that day because there was no way of crossing the river to the other side. Sometimes I would take off my school  shoes if it rained, at the risk of my feet getting cut by broken glass buried in the mud, only so that my shoes would remain  sparkling white when I finally get to school that morning.

School of yesterday was not as burdensome as school of nowadays.  There was no tuition classes when we were 10 years old.  But punishment was considered necessary.  Wrong answers in class would mean a painful crack on the knuckles with the corner of a blackboard duster by the teacher.  Knuckles would get swollen but we never felt the need to report back to our parents as we took punishment as part of learning.  Perhaps we were tough kids back then.

I would like to believe that the punishment paid off, turning many of  us into upstanding citizens.  We became decorated naval admiral, school teachers, scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers.  If there was anything to be proud of,  two prime ministers of Malaysia called Alor Setar home, one even returning to serve for the second time at 93 years of age.  Alor Setar was also home to the first woman deputy prime minister of Malaysia, an achievement for kampong boys and girls like us, many with parents who were unschooled and illiterate.

“Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame

The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand………………………”

Charles Asnavour

Rumi, the Sufi Saint in Konya

Among the Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is second only to Israel in terms of having the most number of biblical sites.  According to Temizel & Attar “Faith Tourism Potential of Konya in Terms of Christian Sacred Sites” (European Scientific Journal, July 2015), Konya has biblical significance for the Christian world.  It was mentioned in the New Testament that Konya was one of the cities visited by Apostle Paul.

About figure – The Konya Culture Centre contained exhibits of Rumi and all related events during his lifetime of Sufi work.

Today, however, Konya is famous for something else.  It is famous for its mosques, its theological schools and its connection with the great Sufi saint Jalaleddin Rumi (better known as Mevlana), the founder of Mehlevi order of whirling dervishes.  Rumi was a 13th century Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic.  Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions: Iranian, Tajiks, Turks, Greeks, Pashtuns and other Muslims.  Today three countries claim Rumi as their poet: Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.

About figure – This particular exhibit showed Rumi discussing with his spiritual instructor, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life forever & his manner of thinking.

Konya is about 225 km from Goreme by road.  It used to be a one-street town in 1972.  After 45 years, it transformed into a big bustling city, modern and vibrant.  We took a bus to Konya for one reason only…….to visit Mevlana Museum.  Unfortunately, the culture centre was closed by the time we got there.  A notice at the reception hall announced that a sema was supposed to be held on 17th December, the anniversary of Rumi’s birthday.

sema (according to https://turkeytravelplanner.comis a mystic religious rite.  It is an elaboration of the whirling Rumi did while lost in ecstasy on the streets of Konya in the 13th century.  A sema ceremony has seven parts symbolizing the dervishes love for God, humankind and all creation. The seven parts are: 1) praise for God, Muhammad and all prophets before him; 2) beating of kettle drum symbolizing God’s command “Be”; 3) Soulful music of the Ney symbolizing breathing of life into all creatures; 4) greeting symbol of the soul being greeted as the secret soul; 5) whirling and dropping of their black cloaks to reveal white costumes, symbolizing the casting off falsehood and  the revelation of  truth, with each dervish placing their arms on the chest to symbolize belief in  Oneness of God “the One”; 6) Prayer involving recitations from the Quran and 7) Recitation of the Al-Fatiha, first surah of the Quran.  Often Non-Muslims mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam.  Sufism is not a sect of Islam.  Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or a dimension of Islam.  Sufi orders or Tariqas can be found in Sunni, Shia etc groups.

Fortunately for us on that day, the young caretaker, Ibraheem, who saw us fiddling with door knobs trying to get the doors to open, was kind enough to open the exhibit hall just so we could have a quick visit, since we came from very far.  We went down the staircase into a hall of the Konya Culture Centre with a number of interesting exhibits on display .

It seemed Rumi used to be a religious teacher until he met Shams of Tabriz.  Shams of Tabriz completely transformed Rumi from a learned religious teacher into the world’s greatest poet of mystical love.  Shams once told Rumi:

Your preoccupation should be to know ‘Who am I, what is my essence? And to what end have I come here and where am I headed and what are my roots and what am I doing this very hour and what is my focus?

(From Shems Friedlander of “Forgotten Messages”).

Its only knowing where we come from, can we appreciate where we are going. Life is not something that just happens. We are created for a reason.  According to Ata’Illah

The purpose of the rain cloud is not to give rain; its purpose is only to bring forth fruit”.

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