The Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Big City With a Small-Town Feel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Travelling Japan & Korea

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

Sacred Spaces in the Garde

Figure 1Another view of the Golden Pavilion, the beautiful Kinkakuji temple

It’s common knowledge that Japanese regard religious practices of Japan as part of the nation’s culture rather than a matter of individual belief or faith. As such many Japanese observe many rites: rites of the native Shinto religion, and those of Buddhism and even some of Christianity. It is therefore not surprising for a Japanese to celebrate a local festival at a Shinto shrine, hold a wedding at a Christian church  and conduct a funeral at a Buddhist temple.

But when it comes to gardens, Buddhism shapes the way Japanese gardens are designed.  The style of a Japanese garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the anxiety of civil wars that raged throughout the country in the second half of the Heian Period (8th century to 12th century). The wars made people recognize the precariousness of life.  The incessantly altering state of the garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about impermanence of our being and the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.  People find reasons to be more sensitive to the momentary beauty of nature and the changing of the seasons – plants budding, flowering, changing of the leaf colors and magnificent blooms dropping off with the approach of autumn, and colourful foliage that fade in the bitterness of the winter.

While the Heian gardens mirror the unpredictability of life, the Muromachi rock gardens completely rejected transitory facades of the material world. Garden makers in this period stripped nature bare.  Zen gardens were created mainly out of rocks and sand in order to reveal the true substance of life and nature. During this Muromachi period, the growing influence of Zen Buddhism and its emphasis on contemplation led to a change in garden design. The purpose of the zen gardens were to provide the monks with a “place to walk and contemplate Buddha’s teachings.”  The design of the garden was supposed to promote a feeling of peace and harmony in a space.  By the 13th century, Zen gardens were heavily integrated into Japanese life and culture.

Figure 2:The aesthetic kyoko-chi pond for contemplation at the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji.

The garden in one of the most famous temple in Japan, the Kinkakuji, is an extraordinary example of a Japanese strolling garden of the Muromachi period.  A path leads around the kyoko-chi pond (Fig 2) offering great viewing access for beautiful shots of the temple.  The richly-decorated golden temple seemed to float over the pond.

The Ninna-ji temple represented a balance between aristocratic elegance and Buddhism simplicity (https//  The temple was established in 888, during the Heian period, and  is situated in north west Kyoto, a short distance from the Ryoan-ji temple.  The gardens of Ninna-ji temple became the model for many Japanese gardens.  The white sands were raked to perfection (Fig 3) to reflect waves.  Figure 4 shows the pond in the North garden.

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

When it comes to garden fencing, famous temples like the Ginkaku-ji and the Kinkaku-ji have their own styles. Traditionally materials like bamboo and wood or brushwork are used for fencing. Bamboo is is one of the most versatile, fast-growing and sustainable material.  It is an integral part of daily life in Japan and provide material for many Japanese traditional crafts. Bamboo ages gracefully over the years – the fresh green fades to a honey colored gold and ages with time to a silvery grey. Moss has also been a central element of the Japanese garden for centuries.  There are over 120 types of moss used in the Zen gardens. Figure 5 shows moss growing around a tree near the entrance to the Ginkaku-ji temple garden. Moss can keep water up to 20-30 times its own weight.

Figure 4: The Ninna-ji north garden pond with rocks, arranged together with the trees. The 5-story Pagoda formed a balance in the background.

A well-constructed Zen garden draws the visitor / viewer into a state of contemplation. The garden, usually relatively small, is meant to be seen while seated from a single view point outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo , the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery.

Reduced colors and little vegetation let the eye rest and calm the mind, giving the garden a peaceful atmosphere.  This is where a subtle, yet intriguing design feature of Japanese gardens comes into play – The carefully raked gravel patterns of rock and sand gardens. When the low morning or evening sun casts long shadows in the garden, the texture of rocks and gravel take center stage.

Figure 5:  Beautiful moss growing around a tree in Ginkaku-ji zen garden, temple of the Silver Pavilion. 

Zen stones are placed in Zen gardens to represent various elements of life (Fig 6). Stones are natural and reflect the balance between man-made structures and nature. Zen stones represent what is not actually featured in a Zen garden, such as islands and water.  Each rock shape and formation has a different name and is represented by one of the five elements- kikyaku (earth), shigyo (fire), shintai (water), taido (forest) and reisho (metal).

Reclining rocks that are placed in a Zen garden to represent the earth are called Kikyaku. This stone is often known as a root stone and is placed in the foreground to bring harmony to the garden. Shigyo represents the fire element. When placed in a Zen garden, Shigyo stones are called branching and peeing stones. Shigyo stones arch and branch out, the way a fire looks. They are placed next to other shapes in a Zen garden.  Stones which are horizontal and flat represent water in a Zen garden, and also the mind and the body. These stones called Shintai, harmonize rock groupings (Fig 7).  Stones which are vertical and tall act as high trees in the garden and are also known as body stones. Taido stones are put into the back of other rock groupings, much like a forest is the background to other scenery.  Reisho stones (also known as soul stones) represent metal. These stones are vertical and low to the ground. When placed in a Zen garden, Reisho stones are often put with tall, vertical stones such as Taido (

Figure 6: 15-rock Zen garden in Ryoan-ji temple, the famous rock garden was created by a highly respected Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu.  Only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden.  Fifteen (15) in Buddhist world denotes completeness. 

Figure 7: Totekiko garden in the east of the Ryogen-in temple is the smallest stone garden in Japan where the small traces of wave pattern remind visitors of the far-reaching ocean. 

For curious tourists, who may not be a follower of any particular faith, participating in a meditation session in Ninna-ji or any other temples under the guidance of a monk (Fig 8) should be an interesting eye-opening experience. However, one Tripadvisor member warned to not walk into the meditation room during a  session, because the monk might just give you a very unholy reprimand.

One thing that I took away from the temple garden visits in Kyoto, was one profound saying.  The saying I found in Ryoan-ji temple was as follows: “When I change, everything else changes.  Someone used this saying during a management course I attended a very long time ago, a Zen philosophy we could all use in our daily lives.

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

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A Kind of Paradise

If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok.  Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory  flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other.  On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of  Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik (Fig 1) .  The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.

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

Kampong Mangkok is a mix of old and new – kampong houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze, laden with salts; old traditional Malay houses transported from all over Terengganu, re-constructed;and new Malay and concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarina trees, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycled past. The breeze blew softly from the sea on most days.  The fine white sandy beach stretched from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles and  all kind of debris brought in by the waves, left half buried in the fine sand.

Straddled between two bodies of water, the village lends two very different kinds of  charm.  On one side, I saw two brothers fishing as a boat passed by on the Setiu river.   This part of the river exuded a kampong charm that a film producer fell in love with and decided to shoot some scenes here for the 2018 production of the film “Pulang”.  Parallel to the Setiu river is the asphalt coastal road, lined with coconut trees on one side and the sea on the other. As I cycled along this road, I chanced upon a  Malay gentleman  standing, with one hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of a coconut  tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on  top of the tree. The boy, who I later learned  was called Amin (Fig 2), aged 14 years old, selected specific bunches of coconuts, tied them with the string, and the man would hoist the bunches safely down to the ground. This the boy would do for several times until he was satisfied there were no more nice pickings.  He worked his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another three or four more coconut trees to select more bunches.

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

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

If you keep driving further down the coastal road  towards Kuala Terengganu, you would reach another village called Kampong Telaga Papan.   Kampong Telaga Papan was where I found a Malay artisan working on a boat.  You would see many boats moored (Fig 3) along the Sungai Chalok near  Pulau Besar and along one side of the river is an open-air boat-building facility, located among the mangroves.  When I first saw him, Pak Peng was busy smoothing and sanding some wood planks. He had been in the boat-building industry since he was 14 years old and his family had been at it  for as long as he remembered.  But the art of Malay boat-building is dying, Pak Peng lamented and it was sad that the young have no interest in the art,  because according to  one German Malay-boat owner, Christoph Swaboda, Malay boats built in Pulau Duyong is of high quality.

In Kampong Telaga Papan itself, you will find a small tributary flowing  from Sungai Chalok  into other parts of the mangroves.  This tributary, flowing among the mangroves, is ideal for a late morning of kayak when the ocean tide rises and the tributary is filled with water.   We have kayaked in Krabi , in clear blue waters, ending up paddling into caves and in between the small islets. But kayaking on the tributary off Sungai Chalok in Telaga Papan was a totally different experience altogether because here, the water is murky. We kayak down  this tributary a few times but after finding out from one fisherman that there was a sizeable crocodile swimming in the murky waters, we decided to give up kayaking here.

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

If you drive further south from Telaga Papan, you will arrive at Merang Jetty where you can take a boat  all the way to Pulau Redang.  I don’t snorkel but my friends love snorkeling and would spend hours swimming among the corals and the fishes. While the boat was bobbing up and down with the waves, I watched little fishes wriggling and tugging at the bread crumbs I scattered into the crystal-clear water.

Eight hundred meters before reaching Pak Peng’s place, you would have passed a small open-air kampong restaurant next to a mosque in Telaga Papan, right off the main road called Restoran Kak Zah.  It is run by a family and friends and the restaurant is a popular breakfast place for  truck drivers, tourists and locals passing by on their way to work. Fishermen spent hours exchanging stories in endless conversations, recalling their many fishing trips in the waters off  Terengganu,  while seated at a rustic wooden table in one corner, over a glass of teh-tarek.  The girls serving breakfast there are friendly and you could get almost anything for breakfast here including Malay kueh.  My own favourite breakfast is nasi dagang with fried chicken on the side.  My friends used to laugh at me, saying  the authenticity of nasi dagang is lost without gulai ikan tongkol ( tuna curry).  But then I am not one who follow rules anyway and neither am I a “foodie”.

Terengganu culinary is heavily influenced by the taste of Thailand, apart from cuisines from the three main ethnic groups. This is to be expected as Thai influence has been present since time immemorial based on the geography and the history with neighbouring Thailand. Here the food is mainly rice-based.  Some of the popular dishes are  nasi kerabu, nasi ulam, nasi dagang, nasi lemak, ikan bakar tawar, sata, otak otak and keropok lekor.

Somewhere in Kampong Mangkok, there is this beautiful kampong house  where I would spend days on end on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline and the reflections upon the sea. The tranquility in combination with the surrounding nature inspired an atmosphere of utmost creative concentration.  I would be tapping away at my keyboard for many hours, writing and rewriting perfect-sounding thoughts.  However, on one particular evening, it was the beautiful sunset over Kampong Mangkok  that captured my imagination (Fig 4).  Silhouette of endless rows of coconut trees, standing tall looking like black soldiers against the brilliant red sky was breath-taking.  It was not long after when my thoughts were interrupted by the azan call for maghrib prayers.

Figure 4: Sunset in Kampong Mangkok in Penarik, Terengganu

By night time, life  around the beach house would be completely different.  It would be dark outside with no street lights and so quiet around the house, you could only hear the sound of an old, noisy fan with rusted blades. Occasionally you could hear the waves. With no television, no phones, and no internet we were  off the grid,so to speak.  But it certainly was a much welcome respite. On these dark nights, little flickers of light, fluttering around the room would entertain you. These are the fireflies. And if you listened properly, you could hear the raucous chorus of the cicadas, and once a while, the sound of a motorcycle negotiating a corner on the asphalt in the distance,  piercing the still of the night.

A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again.  It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator.  Out on the veranda,  rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm  in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees.  Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and  the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine.  It was the beginning of a new day.

Heading back towards Kuala Lumpur after such an exhilarating  time spent in  Setiu, was to me a kind of a punishment.   Driving  the 32 year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, the Spicy Mustard, was torturous. The engine would crank up so much noise, it was impossible to carry on any conversation throughout the entire 500 kilometer-journey. But we enjoyed the trips anyway: the stops for prayers, the snacking, the dozing-off on seats that had its fair share of wear and tear and the endless possibility of exciting unplanned stops. But driving the Spicy Mustard required skills because it tended to veer to one side, and the brakes sometimes failed.  When parking the vehicle on a slope, little stops had to be placed underneath the tires to ensure the car did not roll off.  Once, while parked on a gentle slope, the car did roll off. Spicy Mustard took on a life of its own and finally ended crashing the gate of a neighbour, missing a brand new Ferrari parked just inches away.

If not for the love of writing and blogging, it is impossible for me to stay completely alone.  The box, the mobile phone, the keyboard, the 14-year old car, family and forward-looking friends, are enablers for the AAs (those aging alone). A lunch or tea and  a good laugh at the nearest coffee-shop with girlfriends every once a while, is a good break. We would talk about anything from politics, travel, anti-ageing creams, arthritis, frozen shoulders, grand children to good food. This spurt of intermission is necessary for me to stay focused on my writing. Two hours of “girlfriends-therapy” and I am once again refreshed for another session of creative concentration  in complete seclusion.

But creative concentration is not always achievable even in sedate Shah Alam.  Life in Shah Alam is generally quiet, however, during weekends, I would hear squeals of children’s laughter coming from the swimming pool below. Sometimes, hysterical screams broke the silence with  excited children racing down corridors to see who reached the door first. But late at night, it would be so quiet I could hear the sound of a drop of a coin on the floor above me.  Then there is that constant dragging and shifting of a chair  across the floor above late at night, and my creative concentration disintegrates.

But going by what the fiction writer, Stephen King advises on having  a writing target of 2000 words a day in his “On Writing- A Memoir of the Craft”, I would be happy  if I could  manage 500. Perhaps for Stephen King, who thinks that writers should have the ability to remember the story of a scar, 2000 words a day is a breeze.

Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of  beautiful Kampong Mangkok.  Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 5), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me.  How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok 

Figure 5: Pantai Penarik, Kampong Mangkok

Kampong Mangkok  has everything nature could offer – shimmering blue waters, fine white sandy beaches, sunshine on most days, swaying coconut trees, friendly kampong folks, unique habitats of Setiu Wetlands and the chorus of the cicadas. The uninterrupted tranquility  provided by nature surrounding the kampong, oozed an atmosphere of  spiritual charm, a closeness to the Creator and a heightened   creative concentration I desperately need to further explore my passion for writing and blogging.  Another month, and I might be heading back this wayagain.

Pantai Mangkok with fine white sand, and the lonely coconut

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Driving on Karakorum: Not for the faint-Hearted

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

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

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

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

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Romance on Trans Mongolian Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seafood Chowder & Tasman Valley Walk, South Island

Twizel is a handy base to explore Mt Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. It is the largest town in the Mackenzie District, in the Canterbury Region of South  Island. The town was founded in 1968 to house construction workers on the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme.  Today Twizel is a service and tourist town for visitors to the area.    

Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park is a back-packer’s place located in Twizel.  It  was not the best that I have seen in the 17 days we travelled around South Island but it was affordable. The water was cold and my tropical skin could not even manage a bath that morning or even the night before.  But the small chalet was surprisingly warm, even though a little under-facilitated.

We drove out to take the Tasman Valley Walk.  The Tasman Valley Walk or Tasman Glacier Walk was not as enjoyable as the Mt Cook Walk we took earlier.  The wind was very strong.  But the amazing views took our breath away.  Figure 1 & Figure 2 showed the environment we saw during the Walk.

Figure 1: Blue skies  and gorgeous lakes greet you during the Tasman Valley Walk.

Figure 2: It seems the colour of the water tell us of its origin. Turquoise blue water is glacial meltwater. Here, the green water is generally rain water and not from the glacier.

During the Walk, we met a Malaysian  couple   The Chinese couple in their late 60s was  friendly, like all Malaysians.  The couple stayed in the same Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park as we did.  They cook a lot of food in the common kitchen, like all Malaysians.  We Malaysians love food.

We did not have much time to get to know the Malaysian couple better because we left early the next morning.  We were on the way to  Christchurch.

On the way. we made a point to stop by Twizel High Country Salmon  farm with a cafe, recommended by this Chinese Malaysian couple. The farm is situated on the edge of the Lake Ruataniwha.  It was a popular place to stop for lunch.  I am not much of a Sushi person  so I ordered one bowl of seafood chowder.  The chowder was beautiful.  We sat at one table in the open air.  The seats were surrounded by pools of Salmon swimming and kicking about in the waters. Nice weather and nice food plus nice company.

I loved the seafood chowder so much that when I got back to Malaysia, I looked for one recipe on the internet.  The chowder recipe I tried my hand at was by the famous Ina Garten, on Food Network.  Here is the recipe I tried, minus the wine in the Stock of course….


  1. 1 lb  shrimps (peeled & deveined, save shells for seafood stock)
  2. ½ lb scallops
  3. ½ lb fresh crabmeat
  4. ¼ lb unsalted butter
  5. 1 cup peeled and diced carrots (for seafood stock)
  6. ½ cup yellow onions (1 onion)
  7. 1 cup diced celery (3 stalks) (for 1 recipe of the seafood stock)
  8. 1 cup diced potato
  9. ½ cup corn kernels
  10. ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  11. 1 recipe of Seafood stock
  12. 1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream
  13. 2 tablespoons parsley (minced)
  14. Salt and ground pepper.

Check out her recipe on Food Network. But a lot of how I cooked the seafood chowder is my version of the chowder.

The chowder is so tasteful that I could finish  half a pot in 2 days.  Of course, I don’t take any rice or noodles the entire two days.  Just toasted bread and the seafood chowder….heavenly chowder.  In fact this chowder is perhaps even tastier that the one I took in Twizel.

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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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