As mentioned in the previous entry, we find it hard to move beyond Tuk Tuk.
At last, we rent a scooter from our guesthouse. (One of our guesthouses – we move between two, to spread our business. The other one is the Sibigo.)
This street sign in Batak script piques our linguistic interest. This script pre-dates the arrival of Europeans.
We can’t get enough of these traditional Batak houses.
After a few more days of idleness, we travel around the island clockwise.
Lake Toba from the heights of Samosir Island looks almost Scandinavian.
We’ll miss this place when we leave. The people are very musical. Lots of singing going on.
In one of our guesthouses, everyone in the family is musically talented. It’s like staying with the Partridge Family.
We stop for a lunch of instant noodles at a roadside stand.
Another similarity with Madagascar – terraced rice cultivation.
Sight or Insight of the Day – beyond Tuk Tuk
When in Madagascar a few years ago, we learn that that island was populated -fairly recently – by people from this part of the world (that is, the Malay Archipelago). Among other things that may have an origin here are unusual funeral customs.
In Madagascar, they have parties for the deceased after a few years, give them gifts like new clothes, then rebury them.
In the Lake Toba area, people dig up the deceased, throw them a bash, wash their bones, then place the bones in little buildings called ‘tugus’.
We come across this unique structure below. The sign says:
‘The monument and the grave of Ompu Landit Simanihuruk and all of his offspring.’
A Google search turns up nothing.
The interior contains hundreds of niches, presumably for the bones of generations yet to come.
Mr. Ompu must be optimistic about the continuation of his line; only a dozen or so niches at the top are filled, leaving over 700 for the future.
Note the crosses. People here are nominally Christian, but we suspect it’s a case of Christianity grafted onto traditional beliefs. Like many places subjected to foreign missionaries.
We had never heard of this place until a few days ago. It is staggeringly beautiful. Squint your eyes and you could be on Lake Como.
We can’t understand why people aren’t thronging to this place. Its level of laid-backness is off the charts.
It’s apparently the largest volcanic lake in the world. When Toba exploded 75,000 years ago, catastrophe followed. Bad news for contemporary cavemen, good news for the modern holiday-maker. The Singapore-sized Samosir Island that now takes up most of the lake is a joy to hang out in.
The inhabitants are Batak. Batak people around here are non-muslim, which we’re sure contributes to the serene, relaxed atmosphere.
It’s so mellow, we’ve been here for four days and haven’t managed to move beyond Tuk Tuk, the little village where the ferry from Parapat arrives. It’s like the land of the lotus-eaters.
There are scores of tidy, well-kept accommodation options here. The food is excellent. The tiny four-room guesthouse where we first stay serves the best satay – the signature dish of Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia – I have ever tasted anywhere.
We regularly spend time in the restaurant of the Carolina Hotel for its great WiFi . It is so clean, charming, and comfortable that I would gladly check in my own mother here. And that’s a ringing endorsement, believe us.
(For a cost of about $CAD35.00 a day. The place we stay is much cheaper.)
We don’t say people should fly around the planet to spend a week in Lake Toba. But we would definitely target urban dwellers in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore – intensely urban environments with high-pressure employment – to jump on a plane for an hour or two and decompress here. At a fraction of Singapore prices.
Also, the temperature is perfect. The altitude and location in the middle of the lake keep things comfortably cool. Especially after the hothouse atmosphere of Medan.
It’s a lake, not a beach. But it’s still delightful.
It’s a shame to see guesthouse after guesthouse – lawns trimmed, gardens watered, well-dressed friendly staff waiting to serve you – standing empty, when there are so many overdeveloped and exploitative places elsewhere in SE Asia that attract capacity crowds.
The only things that disturb the tranquility here are the boats that go from dock to dock. They announce their presence with loud, nonstop music blaring out at ear-splitting volume.
Maria usually rounds off the afternoons doing yoga at the waterfront.
This is the waterfront area of our current hotel. There are about four guests. It has about 35 rooms.
Who knows, we might even make it out of Tuk Tuk one of these days.
So if anyone within a 500 kilometre radius happens to read this, try to make it to Lake Toba. You’ll like it.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Lake Toba
The bus trip to Lake Toba is, um, interesting. We travel on the Sejahtera Line, which travels direct from Medan to Parapat. A five-and-a-half hour journey for the princely sum of CAD4.00 each.
This is the bus station in Medan. We’re a long way from the spotless terminals of Thailand and Malaysia.
Our bus has no air conditioning or other modern conveniences.
Having said that, we arrive at our destination in one piece and on schedule – which has not always been the case, even with fancier buses in SE Asia.
We enjoy an entire week in Singapore and make plans to go to Medan, the 4th-largest city in Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra.
A good friend gifted us with some cash to enjoy a cocktail on arrival in Bangkok. Instead, we have been saving this to order a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, where they were invented. Unfortunately, the hotel is completely closed for a total renovation.
Accommodation is expensive in Singapore. We stay in a ‘capsule hotel’ in the Kampung Glam neighbourhood.
This is a room about the size of a large bread oven. Good thing we spend all our time outdoors anyway.
Singapore would’ve been a great place to exploit the hefty IBM hotel discount – there are scores of snazzy hotels that I’m sure offer a steep discount to IBM people. Didn’t feel like pestering currently-employed IBMers for the list of applicable hotels.
We make it out to Tiger Balm Gardens, one of three started by the brothers responsible for the Tiger Balm empire.
It features concrete sculptures meant to inculcate good Chinese values by reference to folktales and traditional stories. Many of these are utterly bizarre to the uninitiated.
Some have explanatory plaques in several languages for background information. Many don’t, and leave us scratching our heads.
We comment on the rarity of dogs in Singapore. They are so rare that this pair of professional dog-walkers draws a crowd simply because they have half a dozen mutts in tow.
As we depart by boat from Singapore to Batam – a nearby island in Indonesia – we pass more buildings that look like they’re about to cave in.
After about an hour of travel through the thousand ships that lie in Singapore’s harbour – this is not an exaggeration – we arrive in Batam Island, where we catch a flight to Medan.
In Medan, we visit the Tjong a Fie Mansion. Tjong a Fie was a local Chinese businessman/philanthropist.
Across the street from here, we enjoy the best soto ayam in Medan.
Our guesthouse is down the street from the Medan Mosque.
The palace of the Sultan of Deli. (Not Delhi.)
This place is popular with locals. They can dress up in period costumes and have their photos taken.
A group of schoolkids arrives for a visit. The colour of their uniform reminds us of watermelons.
On the grounds is the cutest stray kitten. His piteous mewing attracts our attention. We hope his mamma is around. If we could, we’d bring all of these homeless creatures in and give them the life they deserve.
We finally find a museum we’ve been searching for.
Medan is not the most charming city in the world. We have a specific reason for our sojourn here.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Medan
We are plunged into the deep end of third-world conditions once more. Thailand is visibly more developed than its neighbours. Malaysia is essentially a developed country. And Singapore is like a city of the future, where you could safely perform brain surgery on its sidewalks.
Instantly, we are back in insane traffic, crumbling cities, chaos, and open drains running thick with a noisome, viscous, disease-laden stew of God-knows-what.
People are very kind to us here. But the physical environment takes some adjustment.
We’re back to where the sidewalks are unusable because they either don’t exist or serve primarily as parking lots for motorbikes or someone’s cottage industry.
Is there anything they aren’t fantastic at in Singapore, we wonder?
We take an international bus from Malacca to get here.
Below is the Marina Bay Sands. Looks like Noah’s Ark come to rest on top of three tower blocks.
Great things we love about Singapore – it’s clean. REALLY clean. It is cutting-edge modern. (Makes Toronto look like a Duckburg. Sorry, Toronto.) Its public transport is top notch. Its infrastructure is fresh-out-of-the-box new and up to date, unlike a lot of the West’s ’70s-era stuff that is definitely showing its age. There are flowers and greenery everywhere. Did we mention that it’s clean?
(Example – we take the metro out to Changi. On an exterior stretch, we pass a vista of a community square with broad, tree-lined avenues, snazzy modern apartments, and groups of well-dressed people striding purposefully down the wide, clean sidewalk. It strikes us both that it looks like an ‘artist’s conception’ rendering of a future project. In reality, the original ‘artist’s conception’ is usually missing the unconscious crackhead passed out on the sidewalk and the overflowing trash bins outside the fast food joint.)
This is where someone chimes in about Singapore as ‘that place where chewing gum is illegal’, or ‘that place that still uses corporal punishment on social offenders’. If the result is an urban environment as idyllic as Singapore, I’d happily wield the lash against litterbugs myself.
Spectacular buildings are everywhere. The eye-popping Singapore JW Marriott, by Foster and Partners.
We make our way out to visit Changi Museum. It may seem as if we visit a lot of scenes of WWII Japanese atrocities. This isn’t deliberate on our part. It’s simply that every place Japan occupied is the scene of egregious acts of brutality. Go figure.
(Most of the visitors to Changi are old people. Evidently, WWII joins the ranks of the American Civil War, the Seven-Years War, the Crusades, and the Punic Wars: as ancient history.
I’ve always seen WWII as the pivotal event of the 20th century: WWI and the Great Depression lead up to it; the end of colonialism, the Cold War and much of Western social and technological advance are the result of it. But then again – the 20th century has been over for 18 years.)
Because we’re already in the neighbourhood, we visit Changi Airport. It keeps winning ‘World’s Best Airport’ awards, and we’re not sure yet if we’ll be leaving through here.
Singaporeans love to congregate by the waterside.
This is the Sultan Mosque, as seen from outside our guesthouse. The 5:15 AM call to prayer wakes me up every morning.
(On the journey, I catch up on episodes of the Walking Dead. I worry about possibly missing the scenery, but every time I raise my head, all I see are oil palm plantations. They carpet the peninsula from coast to coast. )
We stay in the Apa Kaba guesthouse, a family-run traditional Malacca house.
The wooden construction makes it feel like staying at somebody’s cottage. In a good way.
Malacca is an old trading centre. Through the centuries, it’s been run by Malay sultans, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.
Wherever there’s commerce, there’s always a large Chinese community. There are lots of Chinese shophouses, that combine a shop and store-room downstairs with living quarters upstairs (and wherever else there is space.)
The river is the heart of town.
A local Nonya specialty intrigues us: a fiery chicken curry baked inside a loaf of bread. We have to try it.
The loaf opens to reveal a foil-wrapped generous portion of spicy chicken goodness. It’s messy to eat – this is NOT first-date food.
Strolling through the town, we come across the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy.
Maria falls into an open drain while taking this photo, so maybe the Goddess isn’t feeling so merciful this day.
We come across the self-styled Buddhist Relics Museum.
Maria purchases a bracelet. Neither of us fall into a drain for the rest of the day, so the lucky charm must be effective.
The streets are still full of red lanterns left over from Chinese New Year celebrations.
Malacca is another recognised UNESCO landmark, like Georgetown.
Beside the Maritime Museum is a full-scale replica of a nau, the Portuguese version of a carrack.
Atop St. Paul’s Hill are the remains of this church.
St. Francis Xavier , the co-founder of the Jesuit Order, was briefly buried here before being moved on to Goa in India.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Malacca
This is another place I visited 30 years ago. The chief attraction for me was its rich history.
Fewer people must’ve had an interest in history at that time, because it was nothing like the Disneyfied circus that is modern-day Malacca.
Like Kanchanaburi, Malacca has discovered tourism with a vengeance. A large part is probably that all Asians have a lot more extra money than they did thirty years ago, so every tourist attraction is turning into Niagara Falls. Can’t really complain about that. (Asians having a lot of extra money, that is.)
When we see these trishaws covered in stuffed Hello Kitty figures and Disney movie characters, we don’t think it can get any worse. But at night, they pulsate with flashing LED lights. And wait – there’s more: they also blast out painfully loud, distorted music as well
This turns out to be an extremely difficult place to get to on this particular day. Taxi drivers have no idea where it is. We are dropped off in the wrong location. Twice. A gaggle of taxi drivers argue among themselves about its whereabouts. In each circumstance, we place under their noses the exact address of this place helpfully displaying on our phone. They ignore it. Utterly. Not a glance. We chalk it up to the bizarre absence of reason and logic different way of looking at things we notice from time to time in this part of the world.
In the end, we walk the last couple of kilometres.
♫…you don’t know how lucky you are, boy – back in Kuala, back in Kuala, back in Kuala LumpUR-ur-ur! ♪
Sorry, just had the tune of ‘Back in the USSR’ stuck in my head.
We return on the last day of Chinese New Year and are welcomed with a thunderous cannonade of fireworks in town.
Back in ‘the Big Durian’, as we name it. Staying at the Rainforest bed and breakfast again.
We’re city people at heart. We like the cornucopia of food available here. We enjoy the drool-inducing shawarmas at Shawarma Al-siddiq and indulge in delicacies at the nearby Hakka restaurant.
We finally make it to the Petronas Towers.
What follows are mostly views from the tower.
Roberto Burle Marx also designed the famous walkways on Copacabana Beach in Rio (after originals in Lisbon.)
You can buy a 1,115 square foot, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom unit in these condos for CAD$300,000.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Back in Kuala Lumpur
We visit the National Museum. A good background to Malaysian history, well presented, but we notice it really lambastes the British colonial period and soft-pedals the Japanese occupation, which was as brutal here as elsewhere. We suspect it’s a case of ‘the West bad, Asia good.’ So it goes.
That’s gratitude for you. Britain messily but successfully put down a communist insurgency from 1948 to 1958, thus sparing Malaysia from the dumpster fire of communist rule as in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. (Not to mention China.) And laying the groundwork for the peace and prosperity Malaysia enjoys today. At least until it declares itself an Islamic republic.
(I remember reading somewhere that the Americans were convinced they could overcome a communist urgency in Vietnam because the British had done so in Malaysia.)
We do an overnight trip to Ulu Temburong National Park, which has one of the most pristine rainforest environments left in Borneo.
Brunei’s territory is curiously separated by a slice of Malaysia. To get to Ulu Temburong involves a high-speed water journey of 45 minutes, through a network of rivers and channels and dense mangrove islands to Bangar.
We are met in Bangar by Brian, who works for Borneo Guide – the company we book the trip with – and driven to Batang Duri.
Batang Duri is a longhouse village of Iban people, who used to be keen headhunters. And by that, we don’t mean they worked for human resources.
We stay at the Sumbiling Eco Village.
This is the cleanest river we’ve seen in Asia. Watching the river for three hours, we see one single plastic water bottle. That’s it. No people = no garbage.
The park’s claim to fame is an elevated walkway above the forest canopy.
We get a great view.
The structure itself is impressive. It’s standard scaffolding (well, probably better-than-standard) from an Irish company, Instant UpRight.
An interesting observation – every piece is specifically designed to be safe from inception. In much of Asia – indeed, much of the third world – someone may come up with a similar idea, build an ad hoc structure, and through trial and error, eventually come up with something that’s not too fatal.
This reminds me – when we were in Angkor Wat, one of the ancient bridges is being restored. In the meantime, the army of visitors crosses over a sea of plastic docking made by Candock, a Canadian company. We say ‘Candock should use this in their publicity material’. Sure enough, we click on their website and – voila! – one splash screen features the Angkor Wat job, with an accompanying video.
Our guide took this photo as we walk back to the longboat. She thought we were cute.
The best part is racing up and down this shallow, twisty, fast-moving river in the longboat. It’s like whitewater canoeing in reverse.
It’s not Maria’s favourite part, however.
To amuse ourselves in the evening, we do rock painting. I was trying to do a proboscis monkey.
My monkey looks like it has a shiner.
This butterfly is about the size of a handspan.
Returning to Bandar Seri Begawan, we stay one night before catching the boat the next morning to Labuan, which serves as the Las Vegas of northwest Borneo. A duty-free zone, it offers cheap booze and tobacco, gambling, and probably other vices. From there, we have another three-hour boat trip back to Kota Kinabalu.
The boat has video entertainment. Among other films. we’re treated to Wolf Warrior 2. This a Chinese movie of such astounding propagandistic proportions, I’m left speechless. In brief:
The Chinese are the good guys, providing hospitals and employment-rich opportunities in a fictional African country, protecting the widows and orphans when they are endangered by…
…a horde of murderous rebels, staffed largely by merciless, cruel, barbaric Western mercenaries…
…who are opposed by a cutting-edge, modern Chinese fleet off the coast and an unstoppable, bulletproof lone-wolf hero who saves the day single-handedly.
The production values are as high as anything produced in Hollywood.
Memorable scene: hero is driving in a jeep with rescued American nurse. She calls the American embassy on her phone. Chuckling, the hero asks ‘You really think the US Marines are the best, don’t you?’ ‘Of course!’, she replies, before getting a recorded message that the US embassy is closed. Implication: the Americans have run off with their tail between their legs in the face of this rabble of a rebel army, unlike the stouthearted Chinese.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Ulu Temburong
On arrival in KK, we both breathe easier in the more sinful atmosphere of this vibrant, noisy, lively town after spending five days in Brunei.
Brunei and Bruneians are nice, but let’s face it – there’s a sort of pall of joylessness that hangs over most places that take their religion too seriously.
We look forward to our flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
We fly from Sandakan back to Kota Kinabalu, planning to take a fast ferry to Labuan Island (still Malaysia) then another boat to Bandar Seri Begawan (in Brunei).
One of the many things we like about Malaysia – you can take a photo at the airport without some jabbering moron sticking an AK-47 in your guts, declaring that the crappy airport of their moribund failed state is a ‘strategic military asset’.
(Historical footnote: Sandakan airport is the original site of an airstrip that the Japanese built with the slave labour of Allied POWs before murdering them.)
As it happens, in KK the boat tickets are sold out. We fly instead.
On arrival, we don’t see any money exchange. This is the first airport we’ve ever seen that doesn’t have ATMs and a dozen prominent money-change places vying for business.
They have a nice mosque, though.
Luckily, we changed money in KK, so have funds for a taxi into town. Someone tells us later that there is a money exchange ‘upstairs’.
This seems to be a theme in Brunei – it can be difficult to find out simple things. We plan to take the boat back to KK, but can’t find information about purchasing advance tickets. So we spend an hour travelling out to the ferry terminal. Which is closed.
Fortunately, a young (Chinese-) Bruneian woman kindly offers us a lift back to town. She’s very chatty. She spent four years in London studying petroleum engineering and now works for Shell. (Shell seems to have a monopoly on the extraction and retailing of oil & gas in Brunei.)
Brunei is a pocket-sized, oil-rich sultanate. It’s very orderly. They have sharia law here.
It’s prosperous, but not ludicrously so. (We’re looking at you, Gulf states.)
It feels as if some small, decent-but-dull town won the lottery. Everyone is doing OK. But it’s still, well, decent and dull.
We like this café sign, featuring a proboscis monkey. Note the road sign in Roman characters and Jawi, a form of Arabic script for writing Malay.
Speaking of non-alcoholic beverages, we are abstaining from our daily sundowner while here. (Not out of virtue – we have no choice because Brunei is an alcohol-free country.)
How well-off is Brunei? A personal anecdote – in Ottawa, the embassy of Belgium (population 11,350,000, headquarters of the European Union) moved from 395 Laurier St. East because it was ‘too expensive to maintain.’
The property was then taken over by the High Commission of Brunei (population 423,196).
Everyone drives here. Gas is cheap. Surprisingly, taxis are expensive, especially by Asian standards.
It’s safe and unthreatening. Everywhere are affirmations of loyalty to the Sultan. He’s fairly benevolent, for an absolute muslim monarch. Not like his brother Jefri.
Distributed throughout the broad avenues and modern buildings are old-school wooden houses common in Borneo. They probably date from the pre-oil wealth days.
You’re never far from a mosque in Brunei.
We visit Kampong Air, the water village that lies across the Brunei River.
It’s supposed to be the largest in the world.
The fare to cross the river is one Brunei dollar. A Brunei dollar is approximately one Canadian dollar.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Bandar Seri Begawan
As mentioned, we originally plan on taking the speedy ferry to Brunei. The ferry is sold out. Same for the next day. We have an upcoming return flight to Kuala Lumpur, so time is important.
We buy an air ticket for the same day. Royal Brunei airlines offers the cheapest available seats.
When we check in at KK airport, we discover that our seats are business class. We enjoy the amenities of the first class lounge at the airport and wide, comfy seats on the plane.
Thanks, Royal Brunei airlines! Too bad the flight is only 25 minutes. A trans-Pacific flight at this level of luxury would’ve been awesome.