Impressions of Sister Jie Land

Guillin, China, has been a tourist hub for thousands of years. Over the Christmas break Unspun and family thought they’d try to go to somewhere cold but when we got there it was freezing at a daily average temperature of ) to 3 degrees C.

The cold notwithstanding Guilin is a fun tourist destination. Things are clean. Downtown Guilin is modern with a busy pedestrian mall that sell lots of stuff, especially outdoor clothing and gear. The food is also tasty and cheap begining with 3 Yuan (about Rp5,000) for Guilin’s national dish of noodles, some meat and vegetables. The Guilin Mifun is a very simple dish and the noodles look more like spaghetti and surprisingly very delish, especially when you come in from the cold.

There’s also lots of things to do in and around Guilin and the tourist town of  Yangshuo, four hours away by slow river cruise.

Our tour guide told us that Guilin and Yangshuo receive 15 million tourists per year. In spite of that, perhaps it was in the low season, things were not over the top commercial, you got hassled by vendors but not too much and the infrastructure makes you wish Bali would learn from them and get its act together.

In and around Guilin are several attractions. We went to Reed Flute Cave, about 20 minutes drive from the town center. It’ a huge cave complex with all sorts of limestone formation that the overworked Chinese imagination throughout the ages have identified as shapes resembling everything from lions to stage curtains and Kuan Yin. Some of the lighting was quite well done and in the main chamber we came across this:

Staglagtites reflected in a pool inside Reed Flute Cave

The highlight of the trip was a four and a half hour cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo along the river Li. There we were supposed to find one of China’s most picturesque scenery of haunting and limestone outcrops shrouded in mists, the stuff of  Chinese poems, usually inspired by bouts of drinking the local brew. The scenery is so beautiful that there is a part about 2 hours into the journey where the scenery is immortalized in the 20 Yuan note.

The scenery doesn’t disappoint and here are a few photos to share with you:

Here’s another photo:

At Yangshuo, you walk some distance to the town center, which is actually the old town restored. There are two things at least that you should do in Yangshuo. The first is taste the local dish, Beer Fish. It was good but nothing to write home about. The other is to go to see the Zhang Yimou (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) stage production of The Impressions of Sister Jie. I’m not sure if stage is an appropriate word but what do you call a spectacle whose “stage” is the river, shoe backdrop are the limestone outcrops hundreds of meters away, and a cast of hundreds of villagers including their boats, cormorants and oxen?

It was apparently the most spectacular production in China but has now been bumped to the third place after the Olympics and, if I’m not mistaken, the Asian Games opening ceremonies. Still it was something and we were lucky because it was the second last day before it closes down for winter.

It was drizzling during the show, which was in the open air, so they supplied the thousands of spectators with rain ponchos. It was bitterly cold and the plot escapes my plebeian mind but the  show was a true spectacle of lights, a cast of hundreds, beautiful costumes and imaginative choreography.

Here are other impressions of Guilin:

A journey back in time to Taiping

Time distorts, and its greatest distortion, more than 30 years after I left Taiping where I spent my childhood and teenage years,  was in the dimensions of the house I grew up in.

It had seemed so large when I was a boy. The rooms and garden that I had wandered through in the spacious idleness of youth now looks small, even toyish. Back then, time and space seemed to stretch on forever. Now, not only the space seems constricted but the passing time also seemes compressed.

Nonetheless it was a pleasure to see that the old house was still standing stolid against time. The house, on Cator Avenue, which was subsequently renamed Jalan Panglima, had been built by the British. My father was particularly proud of that fact, partly because it was British built and, I suspect, partly because he could purchase something that had been built by the Brits. It was in the early 1960s when he bought the house, and there was that strong residue of colonial admiration/antipathy in most things.

Time had also shrunk the road leading to my house, making it look narrow. My neighbors houses had also taken on different appearances since I last saw them. Some had become decrepit, others abandoned, others passed on to children or sold off to strangers. Some looked like they have had a new lease of life breathed into them through renovations, others looked sad and forlorn, marking time before inevitable decay.

Apart from that, however, the other aspects about Taiping seemed pretty much intact, with very few changes in the past three decades. The significant change is that they now have a Tesco and  a Giant supermarket . And trafffic lights. Otherwise Burmese Pool remains much as it was, bouldered with rushing water and refreshing with a smell that is a mix of water vapor and decay of the forest.

Something’s that changed, however, is Coronation Pool, at the foothill of Maxwell’s Hill. They’ve tarted up the place and it nowhas modern pools. I tried to get in to get a look but the ticket collector would not let me in unless I paid. He did give me a spiel on how it was the only pool in Malaysia with pure water from the hills that is devoid of chlorine that makes your hair difficult to manage, your eyes sore and your skin itchy. So they now have a sales pitch as well.

The spiffed up Coronation Pool. Cold green water from the hills

One institution that’s remained is Ah Lan Che’s chicken noodles. It’s now in a shoplot with the official name of Restoran Kakak on Jalan Pasar but the food and many of the waiters there still remain the same, even after four decades. It’s still one of the most popular breakfast hangouts in Taiping, harkening back to a time that is Pre-Starbucks.

The government offices, dating back to colonial times are still there. And the Lake Gardens remain pristine in its beauty (see previous post).

From Colonial times
One of the loveliest sights in Malaysia, the Taiping Lake Gardens
Even the prison reeks of history, having been built in 1879

The railway station, however, has come in for huge changes. Malaysia is in the throes of building a dual track high speed railway from north to south. Apparently the initial plan was to do away with the over a century-old railway station (that constitutes one end of the first railway line in Malaya). But after there were some protests they decided to build the new railway lines some distance behind the railway station, leaving the building intact.

This was one end of Malaya's first railway line

The Taiping market remains very much as it was when I was a boy. The century-old steel and wood building still stands, looking a bit decrepit but still serviceable. It is roomy, airy and seen much history.


One feature that still survives and is quite remarkable considering the price of things these days are the pork-seller’s stalls. Made of concrete, these stalls are unique in that they have huge solid marble slabs for tops. My sister and I could not help wonder what the marble slabs alone would cost these days.

Most expensive pork stall table tops?


My old secondary school, St George’s, has seen few changes but one major change is that it’s now all locked up in the weekends, with the only access through the main gate with a sentry. Its a testament of times and innocence lost. Once you could stroll into the school compound at will through three or four unguarded gates. Go there to meet friends, play basketball or just to wander through its storied halls. But no more. I guess they have theft, drug addicts, child predators and other ills of modern life to deal with these days.

St George's institution. You used to be able to walk in there anytime and there's be a familiar face, an old teacher

One institution nearby is Ansari’s, home to very delish cendol, pasembor (rujak to KL-ites) and  the best gandum. The cendol and pasembor are still there but unfortunately they’ve stopped serving the gandum.

Cendol and pasembor still there. Unfortunatley no more gandum.

One thing that seems to have changed, and this seems to be a common theme throughout Malaysia, is in the sense of security. Speaking to friends who still live there, you get the impression that everyone’s a little afraid for the own safety. We were treated to lots of stories of Indian gangs extorting and robbing residents. It seems that some Malaysians of Indian origin, a group has had a rough time economically in Malaysia, have  resorted to gangsterism and crime to make a living. The Indians are now apparently leading Triads and extortion rackets.

In spite of the changes, however, Taiping still remains quintessentially the small town I grew up in. Two days is too short a time to visit the place and Unspun plans to bring the wife and the Unspunlet there for a longer stay the next time. There is still the Zoo, the temple with the dometicated wild boars, Austin pool, Maxwells Hill and other favorite haunts to rediscover.

Oh yeah, there was also the oddly named store. Imagine sleeping on Simony or in the Mlay-ised spelling Simoni.

Sleep on this

Lyrical Beauty in Great Peace

Finally found some time over the Idul Adha holidays to do something that Unspun’s wanted to for a long time – revisit the town that  I grew up in: Taiping, a small town about three hours drive north from Kuala Lumpur. (Taiping comes from the Chinese characters for Great and Peace. The town was given the name after Hokkien and Cantonese triads killed each other silly because of disputes over tin mining).

I’ll post more photos and impressions of Taiping in a later posting but for now what I’d like to share is the sheer lyrical beauty of a special corner of Taiping, The Lake Gardens.

The history of it being a former tin mine that was converted into a botanical garden in 1880 (132 years ago!) is well documented and here’s an extract from Wikipedia:

The Taiping Lake Gardens was originally a mining site before it was established as gardens to the public in 1880. The idea of establishing a public garden was much devoted to Colonel Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker. The garden was later developed precisely by Charles Compton Reade (1884 – 1933), who was also responsible for planning the Kuala Lumpur garden town. The abandoned tin mine was generously donated by the prominent Chinese Capitalist of Perak and also former Perak State Council member, Mr. Chung Thye Phin (son of Mr. Chung Keng Quee) as the recreation park for the public use. In 1884, the gardens were furnished with grasses, flowers and trees, and part of the gardens was fenced, to avoid the bulls enter the gardens. This 64 hectares land was the first public gardens in Malaya and proudly declared as the most beautiful and well maintained gardens during the heyday and today

To Unspun the Lake Gardens is a mixture of divine beauty and childhood memories – of cross country runs there, dates and assignations, meditation under one of the shady trees and long strolls through its wonderful gardens. A beauty beyond telling lies in the placidity of the lakes at sunrise, the morning dew on the grass and trees and the sun rising just above the hills that surround Taiping.

Here are some photos (taken with my Ricoh GRIII because Datascript couldn’t repair my Cannon lens properly so I could not bring my 5D with me. Not that much control but the GRIII is a superb camera nonetheless and you could still  do a lot with it even though its just a full-featured point and click).

KL a damn good place to recuperate

Unspun, it would seem, has spent too many years out of Malaysia that he’s forgotten some of the better aspects of this country.

In normal times Unspun would zip in and out of the country for a short visit to the folks but this time around medical circumstances forced him and family to spend more than a month in KL. Unspun was recuperating and part of the recuperation called for Unspun to walk as much as possible to help clear his lungs of gooey stuff after a major operation.

It so happens that Unspun’s mother’s house, where Unspun runs to in times of trouble and distress is located in TTDI, That’s Taman Tun Dr Ismail, on the edge of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and bordering Petaling Jaya. What’s great about the location is that its just a stone’s throw from Taman Rekreasi Lembah Kiara a park that’s well laid out for walks.

It has two tracks, a lower one around a lake (where you can feed fish and turtles) fed by clear flowing streams where children go to catch little fish in the weekends.

In the center of the park are also common areas where senior citizens go for mass Tai Chi and other forms of exercise like traditional Chinese swordplay.

It also has a larger loop that cuts into the hill where you can work up a bit of a sweat. Both tracks are clean and well-maintained  (things that are seemingly impossible in Jakarta) and well used by a multitude of people ranging from pensioners to young children and the convalescent. This is one aspect of things that the Malaysian and the city government has done very well and they deserve praise for it.

Unspun’s been doing two to three loops of the park almost every morning and every time Unspun’s there he cannot help wondering why Jakarta cannot have something like this, or if it does the vendors and thousands of gawkers would spoil everything.

When is batik really batik?

In Bali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation? the publication takes Garuda Boss Emirsyah Satar for resorting to using ersatz batik instead of the original ones for the uniforms of its staff.

Unspun doesn’t quite get what the fuss is about, as the site’s main objection seems to be that Garuda “instead of using original hand-made batik to costume their crew, the new uniforms would be made from printed batik-like materials churned out in a modeBali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation?rn textile factory.”

Is batik genuine only when it is hand-made rather than printed. Would batik tulis be more batik than batik cetak? Where did all the cotton and ilk that is used for what is considered some of the premium traditional batik have come from?

Is Bali News’s editorial, part of Bali Discovery Tours’ website, championing Indonesian tradition or promoting neo-Luddism? You decide.

…this record of success and enormity of Garuda Indonesia mission also impose on Emirsyah special responsibilities as the man-in-charge of the state-owned carrier carrying the Indonesia flag to the far corners of the world. In this regard, it appears that someone at the airline dropped the ball with the recent launch of new uniforms for Garuda’s cabin crew. [See: Sky-High Fashions]

The Garuda Experience: What Were They Thinking?

In its commitment to improve in-flight service, Garuda made a significant misstep in the execution of new uniforms for its 1,600 flight crew. As reported by, the airline hired a team of seasoned professionals to conceptualize and design stewardesses uniforms based on Indonesia’s fabled sarong kebaya. Central to the “new look” are batik-styled sarongs incorporating an eye-catching traditional lereng motif.

So far, so good. Plaudits all round for Garuda’s decision to both upgrade passenger service and create uniforms highlighting batik – the cherished textile tradition that is both an art form and a massive handicraft industry in Central Java and other parts of the Republic.

However, citing expediency as an excuse, national press reports say that instead of using original hand-made batik to costume their crew, the new uniforms would be made from printed batik-like materials churned out in a modern textile factory.

Such a loose commitment to a national handicraft treasure is unfathomable, particularly by our National Carrier serving the same Country that took umbrage and even began to rattle its sabres when it was recently perceived that neighboring Malaysia was using traditional Balinese dances to promote their tourism product. Sadly, an equally ferocious commitment to culture was sorely lacking when someone at Garuda signed the order book for the new Garuda uniforms.

via Bali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation?.

Amazing Grace and the Balinese Gigolos

The Balinese authorities have got it all wrong where it comes to the hooha over the news documentary Cowboys in Paradise, about the Kuta Cowboys, gigolos selling their services to foreign women tourists.

Instead of getting angry with Singapore-based director Amit Virmani for allegedly besmirching the island’s reputation, they should instead thank Amit for restoring their sense of sight. If you’ve been to Bali, you have to be blind, oblivious or extremely naive not to notice the beach boys trying to solicit business. This is apparent to any tourist, let alone any long time visitor to Bali, yet has been occluded from the attention of the Balinese authorities.

Now, all of a sudden the Balinese authorities are awakened to the fact that there are “dark skinned men with good bodies” chatting up women and providing them with sexual favors, often for an exchange of money. I once was blind, but now can see...Amazing Grace! Now, isn’t that something to be thankful for rather than getting their G-strings in a knot?

Here’s a trailer of the documentary on YouTube:

Here’s The Jakarta Globe story:

Offended Bali Officials Investigating Director Of Controversial ‘Gigolo’ Documentary

Kuta. Stung by the new documentary “Cowboys in Paradise,” which examines the phenomenon of “Kuta Cowboys” — gigolos working Bali’s beaches and bars — Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika said on Tuesday that he would investigate whether the director had the necessary permits to film on the island.

The former Bali Police chief expressed disappointment at the documentary, which he claimed only focused on the negative side of the Island of the Gods.

“I thank Kuta’s residents who helped conduct raids against those they suspect of being gigolos,” Made Mangku said, referring to the questioning of 28 well-built men on the beach on Monday. “The main thing is, do not use violence.”

News of the documentary has spread across Web sites nationwide, and Bali Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Gde Sugianyar Dwi Putra confirmed that Bali Police were investigating it.

The film, completed last year after two years in production, premiered at the DMZ Documentary Film Festival in South Korea last Wednesday.

“We are still collecting some information because we have only seen part of the movie from YouTube. We haven’t seen the whole movie yet,” Sugianyar said, adding that police would coordinate with the supervisory body that issued filmmaking permits.

The film — which documents the relationships between foreign female tourists and male prostitutes, the “Kuta Cowboys” of the title — immediately touched a raw nerve, with Kuta Beach task force members raiding the beach.

via Offended Bali Officials Investigating Director Of Controversial ‘Gigolo’ Documentary – The Jakarta Globe.

Does Indonesia Suck as a tourist destination?

@anakcerdas just alerted me to this blog posting in Travel Blog with the terse and succinct message: “Memalukan yah” (Shameful, isn’t it?).

Yes, it is indeed shameful if even half of what the blogger, Mike Foster, says is true. As someone who’s adopted Jakarta and Indonesia as my home I feel duty bound to defend Jakarta and Indonesia. As have a few Indonesians who have seen the Twitter message.

I tend to agree with @crivenica and @heradiani in their Tweets that the Mike Foster does come across as an uptight tourist. Indonesia, after all, is a Third World country, only that the phrase has become unfashionable, being substituted by the more politically correct “Emerging Country” label. Foster comes across as uptight because in a city of more than 14 million people all he could see was the frightening and negative aspects of the city. He was unable for some reason, to peer beyond the negatives to see something, anything positive. perhaps his friend Andy is a really crummy tourist guide but one suspects that Foster is one who would rather whine than accept the fact that he is in a Third World country, accept the filth, contradictions, traffic congestion and contrasts as facts of life and get over it to enjoy his stay here.

Foster also makes the terrible mistake of equating Jakarta with Indonesia, which is unfortunate. Indonesia is so much, much more and different than Jakarta and if he were to go to Flores or a dozen other choice sites in Indonesia he would know what heartwrenching beauty Indonesia has in store for those who venture beyond the Big Durian.

Having said that, however, a lot of Foster’s complaints about Jakarta is legit. Us old Jakarta hands realize that Foster’s complaints are only some of the myriad aspects of the city that makes Jakarta Jakarta. Bu to a fresh pair of eyes, especially if they aren’t the adventurous types (and how many tourists are really adventurous?) Jakarta can come across as dirty, chaotic, unsafe and congested.

If Jakarta wants to attract the tourists, both to the city and to Indonesia, the authorities will have to acknowledge that the traffic, cleanliness and safety (or at least the perception of safety from a tourist’s viewpoint) are problems that need to be addressed. Like many other Twitterers, Unspun was inclined to use the argument of “but other countries are worse than Jakarta” but its a temptation best not given to as it i a false argument. So what if other countries are dirtier and worse off than us, we do not have control over what they do or do not do. We have control over, how our countries (adopted or native) functions and that’s what we should take responsibility for and try to change.


I just visited Indonesia some time ago, to visit my friend from the university. He’s an Indonesian, so during my vacation I decided to go to Indonesia for a vacation and visit him.

I must say that Indonesia is not a country worth visiting … sorry about this, Andy if you read my posting. For starter, Jakarta is very dirty, you’ll see trash and litter everywhere you go. I just can’t imagine a capital city with this poor level of cleanliness. I was fortunate to have Andy my friend to show me around Jakarta, in which rarely tourists are shown to. Areas that you may see quite clean and sophisticated are only in the downtown area. I only remembered the streets named Sudirman, Thamrin and Kuningan that are quite representative for a capital city. Any other areas you go, you’ll feel like that you’re in some third-world country with poor people and trash everywhere (I think Indonesia is still considered a third-world?)

I was lucky I have a friend in Jakarta, otherwise I wouldn’t dare goind around in public transportation. I was told to be careful when selecting cabs. I remembered there is only one company considered safe, called Blue Bird or something, with their cars painted in blue. I was told not to take just any cab since it wouldn’t be safe. I was told there are so many crimes occured involving taxi drivers. I certainly didn’t want to take the public busses. Wait until you see them yourselves, and I bet you wouldn’t want to ride in one either. The busses are so dirty, so packed with people and the vehicles themselves look as if they’re very poorly taken care of. I couldn’t even find a decent information of which bus should I take if I would want to go somewhere, and what is the fare. Those busses have someone (or sometimes two) called “conductor” hanging around in the door, collecting money from passengers. I was terrified to see them hanging like that in the door while the bus were driving quite fast. Well, yes they have now a network of public busses called TransJakarta if I’m not mistaken, but the network was not vast enough to cover the whole city.

Not to mention the streets from hell. The traffic in Jakarta beats the hell out of any traffic I’ve ever seen in the world.

Traffic jams everywhere. People driving with only one or two inches away from each other. The worse of all is the motorcycles. I even said to my friend that they are like motorcycles from hell. They squeezed their way to very small gaps between cars, sometimes even hit our rearview mirrors. They constantly cut your way, so my friend always to be extra careful with them and sometime he even had to hit the brake brutely to avoid collisions. What an experience … I must say. I sometimes jumped from my seat when suddenly a motorcycle speeding through our side of the cars with just few inches away, in a traffic jam, with their loud noises …. a hell indeed. Andy even told me that be very careful not to hit a motorcycle, since even that you’re not the one causing the collision, the car driver would be the one blamed and they could go rough on you asking for money. I said “what the hell …. what kind of people are they … we’re not living in the dark ages are we?” … and Andy could just shrugged with bitter smile.

Another important thing … be careful of the food. I got stomachache for 3 days because Andy took me to this food stall that he said very delicious. Well the food was alright … but I got diarrhea the next day. Well, if you go to this food stall, you wouldn’t be surprised why I got the diarrhea. It was a very small food stall, on a pedestrian. Just next to the pedestrian was this open sewer, and guess what … people threw away trash into that sewer. Not to mention flies everywhere and I could have sworn a saw a cockroach running around. My advice is to stick to the food from restaurants, clean restaurants. It’s a bit expensive, but at least your stomach would be safe.

I’ll continue with my experience in Indonesia …. more surprises coming from this unbelievable country … which I don’t intend to visit again, at least not in several years until they could improve to be a more civilized country.