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Friday, March 31, 2006

A FAREWELL TO PARADISE

Friday, March 31.

It's our last night in Malaysia. Tomorrow morning we board the plane for the long, long flight home via L.A. with a 5 hour stop-over. We won't arrive in Vancouver til evening (the same day we left here. Amazing!) but we're staying at an airport hotel until Sunday to rest up.

We got to Kuala Lumpur around noon today after a quick and easy flight from Langkawi. It's a beautiful country to fly over and especially today when it was clear most of the way. You look down as see all those emerald islands in the blue Adaman Sea, with their edges all white with sand. Then, over the mainland, the acres and acres of grids of palm-oil palms; the orange patches of wet soil where padi fields are, and all the other shades of green foliage.

Our driver was waiting on schedule at the K.L. airport. We are so impressed with the efficiency and well-organized tour operators here. Not one glitch! And all so courteous and helpful.
We got wisked back the 1 hr. drive to the city and deposited like arriving royalty at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Oh my! We are so spoiled and pampered! This is the most fabulous place and everyone goes out of their way to be pleasant and helpful. It was like a homecoming as they mostly all recognized us from last week and greeted us warmly.

We went next door to the mall for lunch. By this time it was around 1 pm and we were very hungry. This was our first glitch...the cafe service was so slow. We waited nearly an hour before we finally got our order and we were not impressed. This was the first time it has happened on this trip. I actually think the young waitress forgot to place our order but every time we asked her she brushed us off. This was certainly not the usual type of behavior here and we got very cross (besides being starving).

Then we went to the mall (this is the big fancy expensive one) to shop. I wanted one of those pirate t-shirts and picked up a couple of last minute items (forgot some) and back to the hotel for an afternoon swim in the pool at the edge of the sky. Yes. The pool is on the third floor and the water is level with the edge of the building so it looks like you are going to swim off into space. Quite incredible. And very beautiful. We managed a couple of swims and then the storm clouds rolled in and it began to rain quite heavily so that ended our pool day.

While we were sitting there contemplating all our adventures and enjoying the magnificent view of Kuala Lumpur, I was tyring to process everything, realized I'd have lots more stories to tell when I get home. For one thing, this city is a wonder. The architecture, the lovely parks, the friendliness of the people...And one unique thing is sitting there by the poolside and suddenly hearing the Muezzin's call to prayer. Quite a magical and captivating sound. You hear it several times a day but from the rooftop it is clearer. We both agreed it was one thing we wouldn't forget about this city. It reminded us both of Istanbul in that respect.

So tonight, for our extravaganza farewell we dressed up in our fancy duds and went downstairs to one of the fine restaurants in this hotel. We had decided to make it a real treat, and it was.
Here's a sample of the menu: I had sorrel salad, radichio, young artichokes in a walnut balsamic dressing; tasmanian salmon with yuzu, sea urchin sauce, broad beans mouseline and seared crocant (?); My friend Ruth had crab meat cappucino w/saffron, tomato and shark fin and forest mushrooms with sage and aubergine jus, and tomato lasagna and we had sauteed mushrooms for appetizers; glasses of wine; coffee served with little sweets on the side; and a wine glass with various chocolates for a treat. Mmmm delicious! And of course the service was exquisite! Of course this cost us, but it was worth it. Around $65 a piece but believe me it was an unforgettable experience. And since we get the room paid for thanks to Malaysian Tourism, why not splurge, eh?

That was our memorable last day in Malaysia. This has been truly the experience of a lifetime and for sure I won't forget it soon and will always feel so grateful to the Malay people and Malaysian Tourism for giving me this opportunity. There ought to be quite a few good stories out of it too. And many more tales to tell.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A LAZY DAY IN THE TROPICAL SUN

March 30/06

Our last day on Langkawi. The pool was open today (at last!) and the sun was shining except for a brief time in the morning when there was a sudden strong wind blowing up white-caps on the lagoon, and sending the flocks of birds flapping out of the palms. Big black storm clouds were scudding across the sky but fortunately the wind blew them right over and the sun broke through again so our pool day wasn't spoiled after all.

In the morning, first thing, we took a cab into Kuah to the bank and Praise the Lord! that nice little ATM machine spit out all kinds of ringits for me, replacing what we'd spent the other night on that extravagent lobster dinner!

So this evening, after our pool day, own personal taxi driver, Hasbullah, picked us up promptly at seven to take us for dinner. We had asked him to suggest a good place to eat. He suggested either Chinese or Malay but of course we chose Malay. He drove us to this beautiful traditional style restaraunt called the Matahari Malay Restaurant. It's like a little compound of traditional Malay buildings with gardens, palms, flowering shrubs, cobbled pathways lit by little lamps,
and bird baths full of flowers and tiny frogs. Just charming! We were greeted at the entrance by a bevy of lovely young Malay women who escorted us in with the usual happy smiles.

It looks to be a very expensive place but is actually quite reasonable. For our dinner we chose
Sayur Masaic Loder which was vegetables cooked in coconut milk, vermicelli and bean curb. (5 ringits = $2.50) Ayam Gulai Kampung: chicken cooked in a clay pot with shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, curry leaf, lemon leaf, tumeric and coconut milk (15 ringits= $5.) a plate of rice ( 5R), cocktails were 10 R = $3.50 and beer 6 R = $2. Each dish was attractively garnished with a darling little red pepper cut into flower petals with green leaves. I took some photos it was so beautiful so I hope they turn out!

Traditional Malay music played while we ate and the service was superb. (Unlike the other restaraunt where we had to infamous lobster dinner, there were NO bugs flying around at all even though there were lily ponds and little fountains splashing around us.)

After dinner we looked around. I was amazed when I went into the washroom which not only had Malay decor but sprays of fragrant white egg-flowers (like plumeria) and there were even some floating in the toilets!

There's another restaurant that is part of the complex called The Sun Village Sea Food. (We should have had our lobster there!) and little individual dining rooms decorated with Malay furnishings, cushions etc. So attractive!

We were very grateful to our driver to taking us there and I must say he was the most gracious fellow, so kind, gentle and considerate, waiting for us each time he drove us out for dinner. And the cab drivers here don't rip you off like elsewhere. In fact tonight he charged us less than usual. Of course we have been tipping him generously for his kindness.

As this was our last night here. After we got back we went to the Beach Bistro but there was no music tonight. So we had a beer (the boys put on the salsa music for us) and then ordered a Hennessy brandy to take up to our room. (Expensive at 24 ringits for a hefty shot: $7.50)
But worth it for our last celebration.

Up early tomorrow for our 55 minute flight into Kuala Lumpur. Then we'll spend the day lounging at the pool in the sky and browsing around that fabulous shopping mall. There's a pirate T-shirt there I am determined to buy and fortunately I am still rich enough to do so!

It's been a memorable holiday. There will be many more stories to tell once I've processed it all. And hopefully the photos will all turn out (in particular the rolls of slide film).

See you all next week in Vancouver!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

THE MANGROVE FOREST

WEDNESDAY, March 29/06

Today we took a boat trip from a Malay fishing village up the Kilim River through the mangrove forest. It reminded me a lot of the bayous in Louisianna except there the trees are Cypress and there are alligators in the swamps. The forest is dense and swampy here and there are many species of wild life such as pythons, minoter lizards, small crocs and of course the monkeys. We even saw some 'mangrove' dogs, (Malay dingos), a small russet- coloured dog that can run about in the muck and mire without sinking.

One of our first stops was to a rocky island (Flying Fox Island) to see the hundreds of huge bats (called flying foxes or flying dogs) who inhabit it. There were dozens of them hanging from the trees. Their wing span can reach 1.2 meters. They prey on the lizards and other smaller wild life on the island and in turn they are preyed upon by the eagles who we saw hovering around.

Before we entered the river delta, we stopped at a place where you could feed the eagles. Langkawi means "brown eagle", the symbol of the island. These are the white-bellied sea eagles and there were also brahamian (brown) kites -- hundreds of them who circle the boats coming down to feed. The guide explained they only give them tid-bits so as not to disrupt the natural habits of the birds and make them dependant on hand-outs from the tourist boats.

Journeying up the river was an adventure. There are so many shades of green, even the river is green, and the jungle and mangrove forest is thick and lush. The mangrove trees grow right down into the water, their roots sometimes exposed at low tide. They are many species of wild life here and we saw a small croc swimming across the river (about the size of a caymen) and also moniter lizards. The mangrove trees have been used for the production of charcoal and we visited an abandoned charcoal 'factory' with the kiln and houses where workers lived. Now this mangrove forest is protected by the ecologists and forestry service so the mangrove charcoal factory here has been closed.

Farther up the river, we stopped at a fish farm -- not one for commecial use, but one where tourists can view the various fishes. We teetered along the wooden plank floats and watched our guide feed various species of fish including a manta ray ("sexy lips") a barracuda, and sea bass as well as others. We had stopped along our cruise to feed a school of colorful yellow and black stripped zebra fish cracker crumbs but that was the only fish-feeding I did myself this day. We could hold the horseshoe crabs if we wanted and he tried to pick up the slippery polka-dotted moray eel but it preferred to hide in it's pipe hideaway.

Before lunch we stopped at the bat caves. This it the habitat of the fruit bat, a small bat which we saw clinging by the hundreds to the ceiling of the caves. There are also colourful stalagtites in the cave. We'd been warned about the smell but the bat guano wasn't too stinky.

Our lunch was a buffet at a unique restaurant, The Barn Thai, which was a big wooden building built like the traditional Thai and Malay houses. We shared a table with a friendly Welsh couple who were part of our tour group. They came from a town near Caerphilly where my Dad came from and my cousins live so it was fun talking to them. After lunch we cruised back down the river to the Adaman Sea and along the rugged coast to a beautiful white-sand beach, Tanjung Ruh, where we stopped for a most refreshing swim!

Today the weather was hot and sunny, about 33C or more with a very high humidity. It's the first day since we arrived that it hasn't rained at some point so we were grateful for all that sunshine although it was far to hot to be out in it for long.

Tonight we opted to go to the Beach Bistro. Of course we went at 7 pm and had a light meal, with Tiger beer which is cheap and good (not that extravaganza of last night!) The music starts at 8, the duo who sings there are very good and sing a lot of old familiar and excellent songs, and have beautiful voices. We were the only audience but probably because it was so early. Left there before the first set finished though I would have liked to linger longer. Back to the hotel. Brandy and a nice talk on the balcony (steamy hot out there) and that's it for the night. By 9 I'm in the computer room -- a regular guest here these days. We have one more night here - tomorrow. Hopefully the pool will be open so we can spend most of it swimming and sunning. We've asked our taxi driver to pick us up by seven to go for a specail dinner (his suggestion of a restaurant). Then on Friday we're heading back to Kuala Lumpur. It's been a simply wonderful visit here...fulfilling a life's dream of lazing on a tropical island. I'm grateful for every moment of it and have a supply of stories to entertain my friends with for some time to come.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

MANGO GROVES, SHOPPING MALLS AND THE BIG LOBSTER FIASCO

MARCH 28, Tuesday (We are so discombobulated I can never remember what day it is!)

As the pool is still closed, this morning we decided to swim in the lagoon. The tide was right and the water very warm, though murkey. But on second dip I discovered these critters that looked like jelly fish lining the shore -- perhaps the kind that give you a nasty sting. And a Swiss tourist told us he'd seen a small shark lurking out there yesterday, following the fish boats in. So I didn't go back in. (I realized later those jelly things might have been cuttle-fish and therefore harmless.)

Our personal taxi driver Hasbullah, picked us up at noon (promptly) and drove us into Kuah (Kwa) for our day of shopping. He's such a congenial fellow and takes time to point out sights along the way. Today we saw lots of herds of water buffaloes in the fields. And he showed us the rubber plantations (they tap the trees only in the sunshine and get 3 ringits a litre for the rubber. That's about $1.) The countryside here is lush and beautiful with trees and vegetations. We drove past the padi fields, and fruit orchards: mango groves, and orchards of guava and star fruit. There was one fruit farm with greenhouses.

In Kuah we went first to the bank to change traveler's cheques and then on to the mall. Hasbullah waited for us to do our transactions. But at the mall we told him not to wait as we planned to shop til we dropped. And we did. Shopping here is fantastic as the prices are so low and some shops also had 20% discounts! Examples: souvenier t-shirts for 4 R ($1.50); Lovely Indian cotton shirts for 50 R. ($16.50) a bottle of French brandy (duty free) for only 32 R ($10)
Needless to say we shopped til we could not carry another item and in all that extravaganza I think I only spent about $160.

Then re retreated to a cafe for a cold Tiger beer (4 R a glass. $1.50)

Tonight Hasbaullah picked us up promptly at 7 to drive us to a seafood restaurant. It costs 20 R each way to town (about $6.50) or to the cafe we went to. It's about 22 kilometer into town.

Here's were we met with our one and only spending disaster. This was a very attractive restaurant, The Tang Lung Seafood Restaurant. We were quite impressed when we went there -- everything red and Chinese with bonzai trees around and cute little waitresses. We came especially for lobster which was advertised as 22 R. per 100 grams. We were asked to choose a live lobster from the tank so we took the largest as there were two of us. Little did we realize they weigh the thing shell and all. We had the lobsster which wasn't that great as it was breaded and not any more than 100 grams of meat somewhere in the breading, two plates of bok choy in garlic and some spring rolls, wine and beer. Meanwhile, the music was horrible and played over and over and over again this medely of old-time favorites with canned accompaniment. And then the bugs descended swarming around the lights and landing on us and our food. One light fixture had several small lizards inside having a feast of their own.

I must add that the lobster was a very large handsome fellow. I think he swelled with the cooking and took up the whole platter with his feelers upright looking very regal. We had our picture taken with him. But then the bill came. We were astounded (and lucky for us we scraped together the money or we'd probably be in a Malay jail right now!) The bill totalled 343.20 R
(with 7 R tip each, divided by two it cost ust 174.4o R. each which amounts to about $60 a piece. Both of us were financially wiped out and hopefully I'll get the bank machine to work on Thursday when we go into town (hadn't planned on it, wanted to spend the whole day by the pool, but it's necessary now!)

Anyway, we got home okay as our driver was waiting for us. We tipped him generously too and then both of us were broke except for the money we need for our mangrove forest tour tomorrow. Well, it was our mistake and I guess we can count it as an experience. And after all so much of this marvelous trip has been paid for.

Hasbullah is going to pick us up on Thursday evening and we asked him to suggest a good restaurant to take us to. Tomorrow we go on the mangrove forest boat trip and that includes lunch. Don't worry, we aren't about to starve or get stranded yet!

So tune in tomorrow for more of our adventures!

Monday, March 27, 2006

THE LEGEND OF MAKRAN MAHSURI

March 27
We woke to a tropical rainstorm -- raining frogs and lizards -- but very steamy hot. We were scheduled for a round-the-island tour but delayed because of car trouble. The very congenial and informative young driver, Shoon, picked us up by noon with many appologise for the delay.
Then we headed off through the Langkawi countryside -- the padi fields with water buffalo wallowing in the mud accompanied by their ever-present friends the white egrets who willingly pluck the leeches and bugs off their backs. Our first stop (after picking two other passengers who were a very interesting couple from England) was to a Batik Craft bazaar. There we were shown the technique of batiks and even got to try out some for ourselves. It's such an interesting art form and so peaceful to do that I wouldn't mind trying my hand at it. The Malay batiks are exquisite, with the pattern on both sides of the cloth. I bought a couple of little pieces for table clothes.

The next stop was at a place that has a great significance in the island's history and legends. The burial site of Makran Mahsuri. It's a complicated and tragic story which I will try to condense here. This beautiful young maiden came here from Thailand (Siam) with her family and settled on Langkawi in around the mid 1800's. She married the son of the tribal chief and was well respected and loved by everyone who knew her not only for her beauty of countenance but of spirit. Unfortunatly, her mother-in-law, wife of the chief was horrible jealous of her. and when Mahsuri's husband left to accompany his father on tribal business, she set about a plan to destroy Mahsuri. She noticed Mahsuri talking to a traveling merchant and concocted a story that accused Mahsuri of adultery. She was arrested and tied to a tree, left for days int the heat and the rain while the verdict was decided. Accused of adultery, she was sentenced to death by imapling. The sentence was carried out despite her pleas of innocence. But no matter how many times they stabbed her she did not die. Finally, she conceded to death but said she would only die by the knife of her own father. And she said that to prove her innocence her blood would be white. She was eventually stabbed and white blood sprang out, never touching the ground but as she died she cursed the island and said that for seven generations the island would not prosper.

For years Langkawi was ignored by traders who sailed south to Penang, and beset by long wars against Siam. All the padi fields were burned so that the Siamese would not take them and to this day they say that after heavy rains the smell of the burnt padis can be detected.

Although part of this story is legend, a lot is true and there are newspaper reports posted in the museum as well as photos of the geneology of Matsuri's family, her husband and her son (who was an infant at her death and was spiritied away to another place).

Langkawi has not prospered until 1987 when things began to pick up (the movie "Anna and the King" with Jodie Foster was filmed here) and tourism is starting to take hold. Mainly the islanders survived on fishing, rubber plantations and padi fields. Most of the island is still rural areas with farming including some cattle.

After that very interesting and informative tour of the Mahsuri Mausoleum we went to the main town of Kuah and saw the giant brown eagle that guards the harbour, symbol of Langkawi.
Then a stop at the mall for lunch and shopping. Went to the duty free liquor store where you can get brandy for $15 (top brand) and other amazing bargains.

Tonight we went by cab to the Padi Cuisine Cafe for a delicious Malay dinner, right by the padi fields. So unique. The taxi driver offered to wait for us. Again, we were touched by the hospitality and kindness of these people. I'm sure I'll feel very sad when I leave here next weekend. This has been the most unique experience!

Tomorrow: Shop til you Drop!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

MONKEYING AROUND ON THE ISLANDS


March 26. Today we went island hopping. Pulau Lankawi is the island where we are staying, the largest of a cluster of 99 islands. We boarded a small tour boat with several young Chinese couples and our guide and headed out into the sparkling sea toward the many small jewel-green islands that surround Langkawi. The islands are renowned for their legends and our first stop was Pulau Dayang Bunting. We were greeted by swarms of monkeys who live up their their name as mischief-makers and saucy little characters fearless and rather pesky. When my friend left her bags unattended one of the girl monkeys went into them, and tossed everything out, searching for trinkets or food!

Fifteen minutes through the jungle we arrived at a crystal clear emerald coloured lake. This is the legendary Lake of the Pregnant Maiden. According to legend, a celestial princess married a mortal prince and gave birth to a baby which died soon after its birth. She was so heartbroken she buried the baby in the lake. And when she returned to her celestial home, she blessed the lake so that any maiden who wished to conceive who bathed in the lake would become pregnant. (It ain't gonna happen to us but we sure enjoyed the swim!)

While we were waiting for stragglers at the jetty, the tour guide, Freddie, told us about the day of the tsumani. He had just brought a group back from the lake and they noticed all the water had been sucked out of the bay. Not knowing what was happening, thinking it was just an unusual low tide, they were all taking photos and then the water started to rush back in. They all ran for the higher ground and the water came back in, rising up above the pathways and little bridge. Fortunately nobody was hurt or worse. And in fact, by some miracle, Malaysia suffered little damage and loss of life from the tsunami. He said only 1 person in Langkawi was killed although several fishing villages were destroyed.

We boarded the little boat again and cruised out between the islands to a place where the eagles come to feed on fish. There were dozens of beautiful bronze-coloured eagles surrounding the boat, diving and soaring around us. Quite a sight!

Then we continued our cruise on the very calm sea, passing by many of the small, jungle-covered islands that are not much more than rocks covered with trees jutting out of the turquoise sea. Others, like Pulau Beras Basah have beautiful white sand beaches. This island, known as "The Isle of Wet Rice" was our stop for an hour's swim. The sea here is so warm, like a bath, and clean, clear with soft sandy bottom. There are not many shells on the beaches, and only a few pieces of coral from the reefs. Looking down from the jetty, the water is so clear you can see schools of little yellow and black striped fish swimming. These islands are great for scuba divers and snorkeling. And there are other water sports provided like riding the 'banana boat', towed behind a speed boat. Great fun!

More monkey business at Pulau Beras Basah. They are mainly the long-tailed macaque and dusty langur monkeys. You see the old grumpy grandpa monks, the over-protective dads, the mothers with their new babies held securly against their breasts, the young ones and teen-agers. Whole monkey families. Quite a sight! We took lots of photos. It was so fascinating watching them in their own natural environment. And getting up close and personal with them!

Tomorrow we have a half-day island tour. More legendary sites and a look at the padi fields as well as other sights. This is truly a unique advanture and one I'll remember for some time to come.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

THE SILENCE THAT SURROUNDS US

"Those who sleep close to the water find tranquility." legendary Hawaiian belief

We arrived here in Langkawi island yesterday after a 55 minute flight from K.L. There was an hour delay at K.L. We had boarded the plane and were waiting to take off when we were suddenly told to deplane and go to another boarding gate for a new plane. Some problem with overloading or something. Anyway it all worked out okay and in spite of the rain storm at the time we arrive safely on the island.

The Langkawi Lagoon Resort is about 10 mins from the airport. Our efficient driver was there to pick us up and deliver us. The setting has a backdrop of green jungle-covered hills and low mountains and the surrounding lagoon with a beach of white sand by the Andaman Sea. There is a cluster of traditional fishermen's type Malay houses on stilts on the edge of the lagoon which can be rented as units but we are staying in the hotel itself. We have a very nice room with a view of the lagoon and hills. After the ultra posh Mandarin Oriental, we've become a little spoiled, but realize island life is different, not as sophisticated as in Kuala Lumpur. And this little enclave seems to be very Muslim. The restaurant bar by the pool serves "mocktails" and no alcoholic beverages are listed on the menu. It is possible to get the boy to bring drinks from elsewhere however. And there is a little bistro bar on the beach where you can get drinks and enjoy some live music in the evenings.

I wanted very much to go there last night but after our early dinner at the seafood restaurant (also a part of the enclave) my friend wanted to retire. She's used to going to bed at 9 pm and I haven't done so since I was about 10 years old. I am so used to solo traveling, just making up my own plans and being spontaneous, so this really threw me. I wanted very much to go out to the bistro, but observing that this is a very Muslim area I didn't feel comfortable doing that. Even in liberal Turkey women don't go out unescorted after 9 pm. So I just sat on the balcony and listened to my music. I listened first to the CD William had made me and felt Anibal close to me last night. I played all the music I know he liked and sat there all alone for a few hours. The stars came out and I knew if Susan were there she'd be naming the constellations and we'd be dancing on the balcony. I wondered how I would sort out this dilemma because I didn't come all this way to go to bed early at night and not have any fun once dinner was over. That just isn't my style and why should I do that now?

I woke up early this morning to the sound of cheerful birdsong. There is a serenity here. Everything is so still and if it weren't for the humming of the airconditioning fans, it would only be the sound of the birds and at night the frogs in the nearby river.

We went for breakfast early and then for a refreshingly long swim in the pool. Unfortunately we've been informed that the pool will be closed for maintenance the next four days. And you can't swim in the lagoon unless the tide is up which isn't til evening. I tested the water yesterday and it was warmer than the pool! So we might just splash around in it anyway.

The tour agent came to see us and made arrangements for our half-day tour and pickup for the airport next weekend. And we organized some other tours. Tomorrow we are going island hoppping. We found we couldn't get to Penang in just one day so that's out. And another day we have another excellent tour to the Mangrove Forest. Meanwhile, tonight we took a taxi into the nearest town Kuhau (Kwa) . We meant to go to the night market but instead found an excellent mall where there were all sorts of shops with good stuff to buy for ridiculously low prices so we went on a shopping spree. Even bought a bottle of brandy at the duty-free shop. Had dinner and then came back to the hotel. Ruth suggested we go to the bistro so we did and enjoyed the music for a little while. I'd not have minded spending more time there but wanted to write the blog and so here I am. But at least it won't be 9 pm when I go to bed!!!

Tomorrow I'll report on the island hopping tour which will include a swim at one of the beautiful beaches.

"Things are not as they seem -- nor are they otherwise," Lankavatra Sutra

Thursday, March 23, 2006

BOTANICAL GARDENS AND SHADY AVENUES


Wednesday, March 23

The driver picked us up early this morning for a 40 min. drive out into the country to a private estate known as Rimbun Dahan. (I've written about this in detail previously). We were met by Angela Hijjas, the wife of the architect who owns the estate. She greeted us warmly and, accompanied by the newest artist-in-residence there we were taken on an extensive and very educational tour of the botanical gardens. The young couple, Zoe and David, had just arrived from Melbourne and will be the artists in residence at Rimbun for the next year. The Hijjas family pays for everything by way of thanking Australia for their support to the family.

Rimbun Dahan was originally a fruit orchard that is now the centre for architecture, the creative arts and nature conservations. There's a 14 acre compound planted with indigenous S. Asian species, four studios for visual artists, a large dance studio, a restored village house, an underground art gallery, artists' accomodation, a class car garage (Hijjas collects old Rolls Royces and there were around 9 of them on display), and the Hijjas famlyhome and staff quarters. The compound is a residence for artists and writers and students of architecture and ecology.

Angela is a lovely woman and extremely knowlegable about the flora and fauna. It was certainly a bonus tour with lots of chances to ask questions and learn many new things. We saw everything from the nutmeg trees, cashews, various herbs and spices and even a couple of highly poisonous plants. ("One bit of this mixed in your tea and you're a goner!" says Angela.)

The beautiful old traditional village house was a highlight of the tour. It was moved here from its original location in Perak, and restored. It was built originally in 1901 and was possibly the home of a Malay historical figure Maharaja Lela. The house represents a unique blend of Chinese decoration and Malay architecture and demonstrates the objectives of the Rimbun Dahan programme to appreciate the rich experiences that emerge from bridging cultural differences.

There are various wild animals roaming about the estate and I happened to see one (from afar) a very large - maybe 4 ft. moniter lizard. Eek! There are monkeys and wild pigs too but we didn't see any today. After the tour around Angela served us ice lemonade in her house and answered more of our questions. I've taped most of the tour around the gardens and hopefully will glean enough notes to write a good article about Rimbun Dahan.

Forgot to mention, one highlight is the art gallery which is underground. Each artist in residence contributes two paintings to the permanenet collection. These are mainly Malay and Australian artists.

After we returned to the city, we walked over to the Menara Kuala Lumpur which is a communications tower similiar to the one in Toronto. It's 421 meteres high and is the fourth tallest telecommunication tower in the wrold after the CN Tower. The view was magnificent and I got lots of photos although the afternoon was overcast.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped in a sidewalk bar for a cold beer, just in time as suddenly there was a fierce tropical storm: very loud thunder, lightening and teaming rain.
We waited in the shelter of the bar until the storm passed, then carried on back to the hotel.
The temperature has been steamy hot but not unbearable, but we were more than ready for a long refreshing swim in the pool. And later we had dinner by the pool. I had a mai tai with an orchid in it. MMM good!

So it's off to the airport very early tomorrow morning for our flight to Langkawi.
Next report will be from the Island just as soon as I locate an internet connection.

We're having an amazing time! Still pinching myself to see if it's really all truly happening!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

LIVING IT UP IN K.L.


To have right understanding means to view the world exactly as it presents itself to the eye. That means seeing without imposing any preconceived notions upon what you see..."

March 22, Wed. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It was a smooth trip all the way, no hassles at all, right the way from Vancouver. L.A. airport isn't too pleasant b ut we found our way over to the international terminal with no problems. (Our luggage was checked straight through to K.L. so that was good!) After our five hour lay-over we boarded Malaysian
Airlines and from the minute we got on board we were pleasantly greeted by the lovely crew -- the girls in their blue patterened Malaysian dress, the stewards in blue jackets.
Everyone with big smiles, so gracious and cheerful. The long, long flight passed by quite quickly and somehow we managed to sleep for most of it. Arrived at Taipei for a refuelling stop (1 hr) and were allowed into the terminal to look around. The first thing you see is a big sign warning that drug trafficking is punishable by capital punishment. The airport in Taipai is impressive but nothing compared to the airport in Kuala Lumpur which is a space-age creation. We were awestruck! We found our driver, no problem. People are so helpful and friendly. It's an hour's drive into the city along a pleasant boulevard lined with palm-oil palms and flowering shrubs. The countryside is lush and beautiful. From a distance we saw the spires of the twin towers arising in the mist and the other tall tower that's like a larger version of the Seattle space needle.

Entering the city we saw many beautiful buildings, some exceptional architecture, some modern, ultra modern, others of a unique colonial design. The city is one of the most spectacular that I've ever seen. We just kept ooing and ahing like two kids in Wonderland.

Then the hotel: the Mandarin Oriental. Holy Moley! Talk about posh! The door men are dressed in white and gold traditional costumes, the other young men wear red sarongs and hats, the women are stylish in their traditional or modern clothing. Everyone here has been blessed with such beauty and serenity of character.
We agreed we'd probably have smiles plastered permanently on our own faces reflecting the hospitality and cheerfulness of the Malay people. (And it's genuine!)

We spent our first afternoon and evening just walking around the vicinity of our hotel and gawking at everying in amazement. There is an extravagant shopping mall next door between our hotel and the Twin Towers, the Suria KLCC. Every designer known has a shop there and it's real, not copies. (We even found some well-known brands such as Bata shoes, and The Gap alongside Versace and Gucci.) By late afternoon a tropical storm complete with thunder and lightening and torrential rain spoiled our plans for a swim in the hotel pool. We opted to stay indoor and enjoy the many varieties of things there are to offer in the hotel, and went to bed early -- by 8 a.m.! *(note: this hotel, the Mandarin Orientlal, ought to be called "the Royal Mandarin Orientlal" as it's like a palace and you are treated royally!)

Today, Wednesday, up early (6 a.m) and down for a buffet breakfast that offered everything from varieties of fruits, waffles, pancakcs to Asian, Chinese, Indian and Japanese food. Then we went and attempted to line up for tickets to go up in the Petrona Towers but were out of luck as our ride was coming at 9. Right on time too!

We went on a half-day tour of the city first passing the origins of K.L, where the two muddy rivers converge (see my previous blog on the history) and all around it are the first of the colonial building built in the mid 1800's including the law courts. Here in Malaysia, drug trafficking, murder and possession of illegal weapons are punishable by death. They don't pussy foot around with criminals. Hence the country is very safe and serene. Then off to see the King's palace, a sumptuous yellow building that was once the home of a wealthy Chinese man who had seven wives. (yellow is the royal colour and once upon a time you were shot if you wore yellow!)

They have an interesting governmental structure here. The country is divided into states so there are 9 sultans and 5 governors. Out of these a king is chosen, rotated every 5 years. The govenrment is elected every 5 years but as it is so satisfactory it's always the same. Everything here is subsidised by the government including education, care of the elderly, medical and homes for the needy. We drove by some shanty towns were squatters have built shacks on government land. The government has now begun to build high-rise apartments, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms for these people which they can purchase for a very low price (affordable) and will be able to own. They have a lifetime to pay.
These new housing units will be ready for use in the near future. The system here works. No wonder everyone is happy! Only 3.9% unemployment. And you can ride public transit anywhere all day for just a few cents.

Past the palace we drove by the large Lake Gardens Park which is where the original settlement started. In this huge park is the world's largest covered bird and butterfuly sanctuaries. After this we toured the
world's largest pewter factory, the Royal Selangor. We watched the workers demostrate how the pewter is made. Pewter is composed of tin, antimony and copper. The first pewter objects were found in Egypt dating to 1500 BC. After this we visited a famous jewelers and were shown how they make gold rings (by a wax moulding process. Fascinating!) Then we drove to a place for a photo op of the Twin Towers.

These amazing towers, the Petrona Towers (owned by Petrona petrolium company) were designed by an Argentinian who also designed the Cannary Wharf Towers in London Eng. They were built by Korean workers who took only 4 days to construct 1 floor. The towers were completed in 2 years. They are built of steel and glass and stand 452 meters high, each tower connected to the other by a bridge mid-way up. They used to be the world's largest towers but now Taipei has built one to exceed that height.

Our hotel is right next door, so we left the tour then and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at pool side. The pool is on the third floor of the hotel with an amazing city view. Even at the pool you are treated with great attention, given ice water, towels, spritzer for cooling off. We had lunch pool side and a refreshingly long swim. The temperature is hot and steamy althought not unbearable.

After our swim we went for a leisurely walk around the plaza and park behind the hotel, and then to cool off into the air-conditioned shopping mall for another look around, drooling at all the shops. It's a shoppers paradise. Expensive though! (**Note: my Pentax camera is definitely broken. I am relying on the old Richoh for slide photos and had to buy some throw-aways. Digitals are cheap here but I'd prefer to wait and get one at home where i'm sure of a warranty. so keep your fingers crossed that my photos turn out! This has been the only bummer so far!)

Tonight we had cockatails in the hotel lounge and tried out another of the hotels many dining fascilities, the Wasabi Cafe (Japanese) but it was very pricey and we had a laugh at the tiny portions when we had thought we were getting a 'dinner'. So here it is now still mid evening and probably we'll retire early. Tomorrow another early day and the special trip to Rimbun Dahan.

There's so much to see here. Three days is barely touching on it, just giving us a little taste. It's an incredible city, full of amazing sights, and so pleasant to be here. (No pan-handlers, beggars or street-people, just a lot of gorgeous people wearing lovely costumes and smiling at you or stopping to chat and greet you in a most hospitable and earnest way!) And clean! My gosh is this city clean!


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

LANGKAWI: Islands of Legends

Wednesday, March 15. *four more sleeps and we're off!

Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated with pirates. Beginning with my introduction to Capt. Hook in Peter Pan, the motely crew of Treasure Island and many others who I related to in a big way having an over-ripe imagination, I've studied about the pirates of the Caribbean (including a couple of notorious women pirates); cruised around in the waterways where pirates lurked in the Mediterranean and now, it's the pirates of the Adaman Sea in south Asia. So: Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! (or maybe a mai tai or two) Ahoy, matey! Avast ye land-lubbers! Come join my friend Ruth and me on our excellent island adventure!

There are 104 islands lying off the north west coast of Malaysia in the Adaman Sea. These islands, situated along a major trade route, have a long history as a refuge of pirates. Now they have become internationally known as a resort destination, ideal for a tranquil romantic holiday. With soft power-sand beaches, misty limestone hills and the age-old emeral green jungle forest as a back-drop, these islands are irrestistable.

Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 tropical islands. Historically, Langkawi, the largest of the island group, has attracted seafarers throughout the ages because it is located on the tradtiioanl spice route. Early references date to charts of the 15th C. when renowned seafarere Admiral Cheng Ho from China visited enroute to Malacca in 1405. Pepper and rice were the main produce of Langkawi then. The French General Augustus De Beaulieu, in the service of King Louis XIV of France, arrived in 1621 to trade in pepper.

The Langkawi Islands are also noted for their many legends. One of the most famous is that of Mahsuri, a lovely maiden married to the Chieftain's son. She was wrongfully accused of adultery with a wandering troubador and executed. As she lay dying she put a curse on the island -- that Langkawi would be barren for seven generations. Soon after, the Siamese (now Thailand) attacked the island and ravaged it. As evidently the seven generations have passed, now the island is a lush paradise with an abundance of flora and fauna. There is a mausoleum near the town of Kuah named for the unfortunate maiden.

Another of the many legends is centered in the main town of Pulau Langkawi (Kuah, meaning "gravy") . It is said that two giants spilled a pot of gravy (I wonder what kind of gravy?) at the spot where the town is located. The island's two highest mountains Mat Cincang and Mat Raya are named after the giants.

There are many quaint fishing villages on the islands, and mystical coves, caves and myth-haunted lakes as well as pristine beaches for the traveller who wants to just relax on a white-sandy shore. The water is ideal for snorkeling and diving where sloping reefs harbour an abundance of marine life or sunken wrecks to explore. Yachts and charter boats sail in the calm turquoise waters and you can go island hopping to some of the other islands, each with its own charm. The sea teams with fish so fishing trips can be arranged. There are many scenic destinations to explore too, including hot springs, rubber estates, padi fields where buffalos wallow lazily in the mud, rustic Malay kampongs. There's a crocodile farm at Geluk Datai where there are over 1000 crocs including several rare species, and alligators. There is also an abundance of birds and butterflies not found anywhere else in the world.

We will be staying on Langkawi Island for seven glorious days, lots of time for exploring or just relaxing in the sun on one of those beautiful white-sand beaches. If we can, we'll take a ferry trip to the island of Penang which is 100 K. south of Langkawi. It's known as Malaysia's "Pearl of the Orient" and was the first British trading post in the Far East. It's capital, Georgetown, has a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures. Penang also boasts some famous beaches and coconut groves.

So, think of my travel buddy and me in a week's time, lazing in the tropical sunshine on these beautiful islands.
And watch for more stories and legends as we embark on this remarkable adventure!

I wonder why the tunes from The Pirates of Penzance keep running through my head?

Friday, March 10, 2006

RIMBUN DAHAN: A Tropical Garden Paradise


Friday, March 10/06
Nine more days and we're on our way! Today I fit everything into the suitcase and there was room to spare (for the shopping I plan to do!) Just a few more last-minute details to take care off before our departure.

The latest exciting news is the prospect of a special tour to a tropical garden paradise called Rimbun Dahan. I was told about this place by an on-line friend who is a botanist. He told me to check out their website, which I did: www.rimbundahan.org/about and he suggested I try and see the place. So I owe a big thanks to you, John. Otherwise I might have missed out!

I was immediately captivated by the photos of this beautiful 14 acre estate, located 27 miles outside of Kuala Lumpur. The compound of Rimbun Dahan is a center for developing traditional and contempoaray art forms. The buildings are designed by the Malaysian architect Hijjas Kasturi. As well there is a 19th C. traditional Malay house relocated from Perak and restored.
The main house merges modern and traditional materials and design that reflects the Malay house on stilts. The traditional house (rumah uda manap) features hardwood carvings by Chinese artists.

A 14 acre garden surrounds the houses using Malaysian style landscaping with indigenous plants, fruit trees, forest trees, herbs, spices and vegetable gardens, palms, orchids, as well as medicinal and fragrant plants. Angela Hijjas writes for the Malaysian Nature Society's magazine The Malaysian Naturalist based on her experiences with her garden. Within the garden compound there are various species of wild-life including many bird species, two types of monkeys: the ubiquitous long-tailed macaque and the dusky lanjur who like to hang out in the rambutan trees eating the fruit. There are also many lizards (some that grow quite large!) and occsionally wild pigs that appear after the rains.

The Rimbun Dahan Residency Programme is a token of appreciation to Malaysia and Australia
for the opportunities that have been provided for the architect's family. It is a program available to both Australian and international artists.

When I read about this garden paradise, I thought what a wonderful story it would make, so I requested a tour , and the Malaysian Tourism has offered us a special trip to Rimbun Dahan in return for me writing about it. I feel really privileged by this opportunity. It still seems almost unreal that I am actually going to Malaysia. This trip, which I won as a door prize at a B.C. Association of Travel Writer's gala, is a fantastic 'gift' to me. In exchange for this wonderful opportunity I want to write some special stories about this exotic country and all the marvelous adventures that await us. So stay in touch, because this is only the beginning of a truly amazing adventure.

Monday, March 06, 2006

MALAYSIA: The People and Customs

March 6/06
Two weeks from today we'll be landing in Kuala Lumpur after a very long flight from L.A. via Taipei (20 hrs. 40 mins with only a short stop at Taipei to change planes). Because of my interest in history, I've been reading up on the people and customs of Malaysia. What a fascinating country! One thing that intrigues me is the blending of the different cultures there and how the people live together harmoniously.

Historically, people have been meeting and mixing in Malaysia for more than 1500 years when the first traders of silk and gold came from China and India, arriving in the Bujang Valley. With the traders, Buddhism and Hindusim came to Malaysia. A thousand years later, Arab traders came to Malacca bringing the principles and practices of Islam. Later the Portugese, Dutch and British traders came.

The Malay are the largest ethnic group, accounting for over half the population and national language. Along with the oldest indigenous people, they form a group called bumiputer ("Sons" or "Princes of the soil." ) Almost all the Malays are Muslims. The traditional culture centres around the Kumpung (village) though now many Malays live in the cities.

The Chinese traded with Malaysia for centuries and began to settle there in the 19th century. They form about 35% of the population. Some began as miners or railway construction workers but today are regarded as Malaysia's buisnessmen. Most are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their homeland.

The Indians have been visiting Malaysia for over 2,000 years but didn't settle in large numbers there until the 19th C. 10% of Malaysia is Indian. Their culture,with Hindu temples, cuisine and colourful garments is visible throughout the land.

The oldest inhabitants are the tribal peoples, making up 5% of the total population. They represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah. They are known as Orang Asli (The Original People) and prefer to be catagorized in individual tribes (Kadazan). All of the Malay tribal people share a strong spiritual tie to the rain forest.

Malaysians enjoy meeting people from other countries and are known for their engaging charm and traditional hospitality.

There are certain formalities to observe, in particular greetings, but a friendly smile and polite nod of the head when being introduced is acceptable. The salam is the Muslim equivalent of a handshake (a young person clasps the hand of the elder) followed by the verbal greeting of "Assalamualaikum" ("Peace be upon you"). Physical contact beween opposite sexes isdiscouraged. After a salam, Malays touch the left side of the chest and then place their hand over the heart symbolising sincerity.

When dining, food is placed in the mouth with the fingers of the right hand. (the Left hand is taboos as it's used for toileting).

To say "thank you" say terima kasih (ter-ee-ma kah-say) or terima kasih banyak-banyak ("thank you very much) "Selamat" means "wish you a safe..." as in English "good")
selamat pagi - good morning.
selamat Petang - good afternoon/evening
selamat Malan - good evening/night
selamat Tingaal or Selamat Jolan - Have a good trip, goodbye.

Just as Canadians are known to tack on 'eh" as a suffix, Malaysians use "lah" and it's been absorbed into the English speaking culture of Malaysia as well, such as "relax-lah" ('chill out! calm down!) Sorry-lah, enough-lah, Dowan-lah (don't want to...)

There is also certain etiquette to be observed such as removing shoes when entering homes or places of worship; dress neatly in suitable attire which covers arms and legs when visiting places of worship; don't point your foot at someone; when giving or receiving money gifts to/from a Malaysia, do so with your right hand.

So, armed with this basic knowlege of the country and its people and customs, we wait with great anticipation for this remarkable adventure to begin.

Friday, March 03, 2006

KUALA LUMPUR: THE GARDEN CITY OF LIGHT


Two more weeks and we're off to the Garden City of Light, Kuala Lumpur. I feel like Dorothy about to embark on her magical journey to Oz. Trip plans are all coming together and I just spent some time browsing an interesting Malaysian website, gleaning lots of background info and other goodies as I prepare for the trip, part of which will be a travel writing 'assignment'.

So here's some historical background about the fabulous Garden City of Light, K.L.

The population of Kuala Lumpur is 1.4 million (yr 2000 stats). It rose from nothing to a bustling modern city that began when 87 Chinese men in search of tin came up the River Klang and landed at a murky intersection between the Klang and Gombak Rivers. The name "Kuala Lumpur" means "muddy confluence."

The would-be miners found their fortune several miles East in a place now known as Ampang. However when the mines began to thrive, merchants brought supplies up the Klang River could only go as far as this muddy intersection so a town developed which is now Kuala Lumpur.

More than half those 87 pioneers died of malaria, but more prospectors came to K.L. and soon clans emerged leading to rivalries and claim disputes. (Sound like the Klondike?) In 1868 a man named Yap Ah Loy was elected "Kapitan China", leader of the Chinese community. He is popularly known as the founding father of Kuala Lumpur.

When a rift developed between Selangor's royal family over tin-mining profits, the British were asked to intervene. Under British rule, K.L. expanded and became the capital of Selangor in 1880 and in 1896 was made capital of the British protectorate Federated Malay States. The first town plan of K.L. was drawn up by Sir Frank Swettenham, a British resident. Some successful miners and merchants began to build bungalows along Jalan Ampay and when construction on the K.L.- Port Klang Railway began, the city never looked back.

Malaysia gained independance from the British on August 31, 1957 and K.L. was named the country's capital. K.L. is a cultural, racial and national melting pot. In 1998 it became the first Asian city to host the Commonwealth Games.

Because of it's beautiful parks, gardens and brilliantly lit ultra modern buildings it is known as the Garden City of Lights.

Next: social customs and other interesting facts about Malaysia.