Archive for the ‘Destination’ Category

44 sunsets in Labuan.

July 14, 2009

Labuan is the shape of a shark’s fin that broke off the body and left floating by the coast of the Borneo Island. It is so small, that when the sun sets, the red orange glow can be seen at practically all corners of the island. For some reason, the situation reminded me of a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince:

But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need to do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…

“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty-four times!”

And a little later you added:

“You know–one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…”

“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty-four sunsets?”

But the little prince made no reply.

Barely promoted, Labuan is a perfect place to see the sunset over the South China Sea, especially along the consecutive stretch of Batu Manikar Beach, Pancur Hitam Beach and Pohon Batu Beach, which has been awarded the cleanest beach in the 2008 United Nation Environment Program.

Perhaps the beach cleanup was last week, because when I was there, blankets of dead seaweeds and shards of dead seashells have washed up to shore, creating a barricade between land and ocean as far as the beach runs. As if protecting the sea from earthly harms. Driftwoods polluted the beach further away from the great wall of seaweeds, like intruding army waiting for an attack that will  never come.

When the sun sets in Labuan, the clouds form an impenetrable formation. The look like badly resized pictures; too big of a head for too small a body. The colours that bathe the sky that cannot seem to mix into different hues like oil with water.

Right about this time, a majority of the Labuan population would gather at the beach. Lovers would drive their cars as close to the shore as they could, parked facing the panorama. Workers would have clocked out of their office, as so the fishermen, kicking back after a hard day’s work, awarding themselves with God’s natural gift of beauty. Photographers would find perfect spots for the perfect shots, opening up the three legged stands and place their cameras in position. Waiting.

When it happens, it happens quick. It is like the earth craves for the sun like a lover’s touch, getting impatiently selfish at the last few seconds as gravity pulls it towards the horizon. Father Sun has been basking us with rosy-cheeked love for too long a day; Mother Earth misses him.

I guess, it was around this time when I finally saw what Labuan’s dubbed “Pearl of Borneo” meant. When the sun sets, he was like a fiery ball of pearl returning to his home in the sea. He sat perched on the silhouette of an island, beaming in his own glory for a minute of your attention. Admire me, he said.

And then he is gone. Leaving only traces of his allure behind saturated across the sky. Till the same time tomorrow, have a nice evening.

Remember, remember, the 11th of November.

June 8, 2009

Also guest blogging at Backseat Radio: So, who’s gonna watch you die?


We had just landed in Labuan on the first day, and I was still sulky over the jetlag when the van stopped in front of the WWII Memorial along Jalan Tanjung Batu. Inside the cemetery the air was still. The tooting motorcycles and zooming cars that pass by indifferently sounded so distant in the vicinity, like there was an invisible bubble keeping the noises out from the yard so the weary ones could sleep another eternity.

Surrounding me were 3,908 soldiers in perfectly squared platoons, much like how they would stand in salutation when they were alive. The Cross of Sacrifice gravitating them around it like the sun holding the solar system together. These soldiers were from all over: Australia, Great Britain, India, New Zealand and even Malaysia.

The island of Labuan, strategically located in the South China Sea and bloated with oil supplies, quickly became a must-have location to the Japanese during World War II. With immediate effect, the Imperial Japanese Army set out to conquer the island, obtaining it on January 1, 1942.

During the Japanese ruling, a POW camp (Prisoner-of-War camp) in Sandakan, Sabah, some 2,500 captives made up of Indonesian civilians and Australian and British war prisoners shipped in from Java, Indonesia, were forced to construct an airstrip at gunpoint. They were often beaten out of spite and left with little food and medical treatment.

When the Allied Forces advanced in 1945, the Japanese Army were forced to flee. Thus, began the Sandakan Death March. The remaining 1,900 prisoners were moved – in sickness or in health – towards the mountains of Ranau some 260KM from the Sandakan POW camp. 300 who were in bad health were left behind in the camp to perish, while the others either died on the way because of starvation and serious illness, or shot dead for slowing down the March.

The Dead Marches occurred from January to June 1945, the population of each March getting lesser and lesser. By the time they reached Ranau, less than 40 POWs survived, all of which were too weak to work for the Japanese Army and were shot dead anyway. Out of the 2,500 POWs, only six managed to escape the iron fist of the Imperial Army. They were helped by local people, who fed them, nursed them and hid then from the Japanese Army, before eventually being saved by the Allied Forces.

On June 10, 1945, Operation Oboe Six commenced with amphibious landings of the Australian 9th Division. Their objectives were to secure the Brunei Bay for the Allied naval base, and to re-capture the oilfields and rubber plantations from the enemies. A fierce battle began in a swampy area in the jungle known by the Australians as ‘The Pocket’, where the Japanese ambushed the Australian army. The fight went on till the end of World War II on August 15, 1945. 114 of the Australian 9th Division perished, while more than half of the supposed 2,000-strong Japanese Imperial Army died in battle.

Today, the POWs of Sandakan, the perished war heroes of the Australian 7th and 9th Divisions, as well as those of the Punjab Signal Corp and a few locals were all buried here today at the WWII Memorial in Labuan. Most of the bodies were shipped in from Sabah, some with their military tags still glimmering around their mangled necks.

They were all given a white headstone each with their names, military positions and death ages engraved on it. Poignant messages from their family members still resonate today with heavy heartaches that would dwell tears in the eyes. Of the 3,908, 2,000 of them were unidentified, and they were merely given a similar engrave of ‘Known unto God’ – while their bravery may not be known of on earth, it is not forgotten in the eyes of God.

When I strolled through the Memorial, my heart twisted at the messages their family members wrote for the fallen. While some seemed to have made peace of their loss, others seemed to be holding onto a grudge that echoed in every engraved letter on the tombstone: Sgt Isherwood: “In this foreign grave his body was lain, He died for us but was it in vain”; Driver Cheesman: “Memories are treasures none can steal, deaths are heartaches none can heal”; Cpl Lavender: “Thinking of you over there, far away, wondering why it must be”.

When I came upon Gunner Wicks’ tombstone, it got to me. The epitaph his wife wrote, I did not know why, but it got to me. Somehow, the thought of a foreigner fighting for the love of a land that was not even his, seemed as heroic and heartbreaking as ever. And especially the ones who were unknown. They gave their lives for a foreign land, but yet they could not be remembered on their own tombstones. Just like that, their heroic names ceased to exist forever in this earth.

But these are all decades ago. Like another lifetime. As I knelt down in front of a stranger’s grave, I paid a silent moment to the 3,908-strong bravery around me, taking in the comfort that at least the loved ones who had wept at their graves and written such gripping epitaphs are with them now. Nothing is lost.

On the first Sunday of November every year is Remembrance Day, or ‘Poppy Day’. War veterans from Australia as well as locals and visitors from all over would gather in the WWII Memorial to pay tribute to the brave souls of yesteryear.

They would wear a red poppy on their chest, a universal symbol for Remembrance Day that is in reference to the famous poem written during World War I, In Flanders Field, where the red poppies grow abundantly, and where war casualties were buried in France. It was written by a Lieutenant Colonel named John McCrae in 1915, after witnessing the death of his 22-year-old friend during war.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– Lt-Col John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

Make peace, not war.

Don’t think, just shoot.

November 21, 2008

We were hanging around the Orang Asli village, still drying up our asses from the rapids shooting up the Tembeling River earlier, when a great kingdom of rain clouds started moving towards our direction. As we tried to speed up the tour, the wind grew stronger and rustled the trees around us. We had all just escaped into our boats, ready to head back to our resort when the rain started to fall like big teardrops.

It was like a race as we tried to speed back down the river bends without actually overturning the boats at the rapid areas. The boats were roofless, and everyone was scrambling to shelter themselves under soaked towels and pathetic deflated cushions. And all I could think of was, I have spent all my life running away from rain and keeping myself dry in the car during traffic jams, why should it be the same now?

Ah, what the heck, I thought, as I unveiled the towel over my head and felt the heavy rain soaked me inside out instantly. I was already wet from the water activity earlier, and it would be futile anyway to hide from the rain with nothing concrete as a shelter, so why even try? It is not everyday one gets to be covered in rain within the premises of a rainforest, so why not just embrace it all now?

I saw the rain lasering down to the river, and remembered a scene from Forrest Gump, where he talked about the raindrops coming from all sides of him: front, back, downwards and even those shooting upwards. I saw elderly trees watching us on both sides of the river, with branches of leaves cascading down on us like a girl drying her hair off her shoulders. The world beyond the lush green borders fell away, and I smelt the great outdoors of green and blue.

I felt a sense of freedom as I looked up at the sky raining down on me. The feeling of the cool raindrops caressing my face like happy tears streaking my cheeks, and the feeling of not having to worry about things that were supposed to happen and just going with the flow. Growing up, I have never been one who would leave my life up to fate, but that day, amidst the rainforest, it was liberating to just throw all cautions in the air and embrace what Mother Nature has given to me.

I could not help smiling towards the sky.

The rain had slowed down when our boats kissed the dock. We walked back to our rooms with squishy slippers and drenched forms. I took a hot shower the moment I peeled my clothes off of me like a second skin, and afterwards, buried myself under the sheets and felt this sense of comfort and cuddle that would lull me to sleep dreaming of flying with clouds.

I would not trade that with anything else in the world.

Mutiara Taman Negara Resort
Kuala Tahan
27000 Jerantut
Pahang Darul Makmur
T: +6 09 266 3500 / +6 09 266 2200

A wasteland for your disposal.

November 12, 2008

The tide was low as the boat pushed up the coastline of the Bako National Park. Far off the distance, some 6.3 metres away was the entrance sign, where the king tides would reach every six hours. Guarding the coastline were hard, porous rock formation known as sandstones that is a making of 23 millions of years. As everyone made their way to the park headquarter, I stayed back a little waiting for Yusman to photograph the sandstones, as I played with the jelly-like mud mixed with sand. (What can I say, I like cheap thrills). I looked around me and thought to myself there is something unusual about this place. All I ever know of a national park is lush greens of a bloated jungle. Seeing the faces of the rock formations, I believe there is a lot more about the great outdoors that I still need to learn of.

We were barely in the park for an hour and already I hated the sun. Mind you, I have never done any serious outdoor trekking and would probably always not look forward to the ones to come. God knows what I will run into in the jungle, and I will always have this perpetuous fear of leeches. (Kind of not helping whenever you colleagues come back from the jungle complaining about their leech-bites). The sun was unkind that day and every move I made felt like a thousand tonnes, and already I was whining mentally to go back to the city.

I was barely paying attention as the tour guide stopped every once too often to talk about the vegetation lining the trail, and as the tourists in front blocked the path talking gazillion shots of the Proboscis Monkeys. All I could think about was the cosy bed in my city hotel room and how much more sleep I could help myself to if I were there.

Suddenly, the scenery around me changed. The ambiance fell off as the trees stopped their stroll with us down the trail. It was like the curtains opened and I was face with something beyond the cloth in front of me. The canopying trees opened up to a clearing and my breath was taken away. My thoughts of the city just disappeared as suddenly as the scene before me emerged.

The first thing I thought of was “The Blasted Lands”. Blame it on the book I was reading then: Stephen King’s The Talisman. It was like a wasteland that stretched for miles. Broken tree trunks littered the muddy ground and everything was flattened out to connect to the waters miles away. Bald fig trees stood like crooked soldiers further off on the trail saluting you with their fractured limbs. Roots planted unsteadily on the dry soil beneath, as if trying to drink from the pathetic stream in front of them. The hills behind the setting seemed rocky and about to tumble down on us due to the dry weather.

We set foot along the creaking boardwalk with nothing over our heads. The sun glared down on us, threatening to burn us flat like the land around us. Short shadows imprinted their blacks on the soil that is peppered with Fidelious Crabs, tinting the sand with their inappropriately striking blue, crawling about drunkenly with their oversized claw. Half of me was drowsy from the heat, but another half of me could not believe the sight in front of me. How could a piece of land like this exist in my side of the world?

While everyone was taking interest in the Proboscis Monkeys basking in the sun, I was staring about at the fig trees, as if it were from a bad nightmare and at any moment now, one was going to reach forward, grab me and tear me to pieces. There was an eerie atmosphere hanging around that I could not get enough of.

It was not so fun anymore when we return to the mangrove forest later in the afternoon. The tide came up and the army of fig trees finally had their dips of sea water. The wasteland was no more, water filling in the empty space that it was supposed to be. The place seemed more alive. Even the Long-tailed Macaques came out to play, stealing food from the boatmen’s lunchboxes and crossing path with us on the bridge as if it were a normal affair.

I found a favourite spot in Sarawak as I sat in one of the porches waiting for our boat to bring us back to the city. Well, at least a favourite spot thus far.

Although Bako National Park is one of the smallest in Sarawak, it is still one of the oldeest, and its treasures are abundant from what I have read about it. With its rainforest housing interesting flora and fauna, an extensive network of trekking trails leading to jungle streams and waterfalls, secluded beaches with a panoramic rocky shoreline… if Mother Nature were to seat herself on the coastline of Borneo, Bako would probably be her womb. What I have seen then was probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps, I thought, it was not so bad throwing myself in the wilderness like that. It would definitely be nice to return to Bako and try out one of their 18 trails and who knows, I might come out a converted.

Also seen on VM @ Travel Talk.

Bako National Park
Opens daily @ 8AM-5.15PM
National Parks Booking Office
Visitors Information Centre
Jalan Tun Abang Haji openg
93000 Kuching
T: +6 082 248 088


November 4, 2008

Here’s a kitty.

There’s a kitty.

And a whole lot of kitties when you walk through this entrance.

I thought it was ridiculous at first. Of all things you can make a museum out of, a Cat Museum. Now I have seen everything. Heh. And I would at least say it is cool if there are live cats in the museum, but sadly, all they have is some 2,000 exhibits of anything and everything about the felines from around the world.

But, how can I say no to something as cute as this?

I mean, just look at it! How could you say no? It would be a sin to overlook this house of the felines when they are looking like that.

I have to give it to them for coming up with the time to go out there and find everything that they could about cats. Whatever cats you have encountered throughout your years on this fair Earth, you can see them once again shelved up in this museum to go down in history.

There are figurines.

There are pop-up books. Although this looks more like a horror story than a bedtime story. Giant kitties attacking baby cribs is not something one would recommend reading to your kids before bed.

There are framed posters and pictures. I especially love the serial ones here. Definitely something I would like decorating my walls. Simple yet adorable.

And these cute ones peeking out at you at the turn of the corner.

And also the more popular ones you have seen growing up. My childhood favourite, Tom & Jerry, which is still something nice to watch on the Cartoon Network from time to time. From the purple Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, to the black kitty in Pinocchio, to the fat and lazy orange cat who loves lasagna – Garfield, to the itty-bitty kitties in The Aristocats.

Also, the Japanese future wonder Doraemon.

And who could forget the unexplainable phenomena that is Hello Kitty. Taking the world by storm in any form of memoriabilia from school bags and water tumblers to fans and balloons. Merely looking at it gives me the creeps.

The praise-worthy Maneki Neko for good fortune.

Not forgetting mascots like Sawasdee for the 1995 SEA Games and Kuching’s own yellow cat mascot that comes out to greet everyone during the Kuching Festival in August.

Back in the old days of 1788, people puffed – or purred – up a storm with the Black Cat.

And the not-so-cute ones: some figurines made out of seashells or pistachio shells or something. And these cat teapots that looks as if they were asking for more milk.

And a gravestone ala Stephen King’s 1983 Pet Sematary. Or not. Looks more like a comedy rather than horror. Heh.

It is not really a place I would put on top of my list when visiting Kuching and/or Sarawak. But, it would be a fun trip to just be in the middle of it all. It is, after all, the first and only Cat Museum available. Ever. And you do not have to worry about coming out with cat hair all over you. However, I would not recommend it to you if you were a ailurophobe. It might give you nightmares for life.

Cat Museum
Bukit Siol, Jalan Semariang
Petra Jaya
93050 Kuching
Opens Tuesday to Sunday @ 9AM – 5PM

T: +6 082 446 688 ext. 805

Becoming legends.

July 22, 2008

Heritage is a fickle thing. It will die along with the old if it is not passed on to the next generation.

In this new world, what is in the past is unlikely to survive. Look around you. Kids do not play traditional games anymore; they would rather spend time on their computers and PS3s and Wii’s. Kids do not wear what their parents used to wear anymore; boys pretend to be black in Americanised fashion and girls pretend to be cute in Taiwanese outfits. Kids do not take up what their parents live on anymore; why be an accountant or a lame business manager when you can travel the world or be an entrepreneur.

But it is a different story in places like Terengganu. A place built upon the pillars of traditions and heritage. What will become of it when the time comes for the past to dissolve and become nothing but the fake display in the deserted museum.

I thought I saw a flicker of sadness in the makcik and pakcik‘s eyes whenever we asked them if they have children taking up what they have been doing since young. They would shrug and say, “Ah, what can you do? Kids have better things to look forward to these days. They don’t need these.” But judging from the downhearted tone in their voices, you know they would still hope their children would continue on the family business. When the time comes, they could die a happy man/woman knowing what they have lived their life on will still be alive when they are long gone.

What they do, is something that involves the entire family. No child, boy or girl, big or small, is ever left behind in this affair. Like the families making Keropok Lekor, Sata and Otak-Otak, famous tidbits in Terengganu made mainly from fish paste.

For Keropok Lekor, it is an industry. While one family goes out to sea to catch fishes, another will await the catch of the day. While one family grinds the fish to paste, another shapes them to boil. These food staples are so famous they got families – lots of them – making it. Every street you go down on, there will be at least one stall set up selling Keropok Lekor. In this case, such heritage is hard to die. Because it has become more than a heritage. It has become a breathing entity.

Modernisation is a two-edged sword when it comes to prevailing a heritage. Some may embrace it, bringing their industry to greater heights. Some will frown at it, seeing it as a threat to kill what they have known their entire life.

There is this makcik who wakes up at 3 in the morning since she was a young girl to make kuih akak, another famous Malay food in Terengganu, and selling them to fixed shops who in turn sell them to the public. The day has come and gone when modernisation came a-knocking and introduced an oven to help better their baking process. But the makcik would rather stick to the traditional way. She would still make the kuihs cooked on charcoals and covered under layers and layers of coconut shells. The old skool kind of oven, as the tour guide put it. It is something you do not see everyday.

But what amazed me more than seeing this makcik still living in the olden days, is seeing kids no older than I taking up the family legacy.

There is a famous wau-maker, who makes traditional Malay kites to professional wau-flyers. And he has got these guys, who would swing by to help carve the colour papers to perfection and cut the bamboos to make the kite frames.

And there is this girl, who is just a year older than me, and she spends every day of her life under her family’s house and by the songket-weaving machine. From 9 to 5 every day, perhaps an hour or two’s break, but every day, just sitting by the machine, memorising the torpedo’s count and weaving the silky patterns onto the cloth. And it’s not like an entire piece could be done in a day; she could only manage a few inches of it in a day and most songkets take roughly a month to finish. There is no manual or directory to teach her how to operate the machine, or what kind of pattern to take up. She grew up watching her mother doing this, and just like that, she knows. It is like the threads are weaved into her blood veins.

And there are these kids who would rather play gasing during their spare time, instead of video games. The kampung leader takes great pride in them little ones because they win awards with their favourite toy. Boys and girls dressed up in traditional Malay wears greeted us with their gasing-playing tactics. Watching them spinning the top on their thumbs, and throwing it from one player to another. Not to mention, they are good at it too.

I am a Chinese who grew up in the city, so it was an eye-opening trip to go into the depths of a Malay village and watch children and elderly breathe to life the traditions I have only read about in primary school textbooks. And as a city-dweller, it was a journey to rediscover simplicity and humility.

You don’t see things like these anymore. Even the people we visit, they are the sole makers left. In a kampung that used to have families making brassware or Keropok Lekor, today there are only a handful of them left. It makes me wonder what will become of these legendary heritage in ten years’ time. But somehow, after seeing the little ones living up to the traditions, I know it will not just disappear one day. If it were to go down in flames one day, they will let it burn bright red all the way.

Also seen on VM @ Travel Talk.