Hari Raya 2017

After several years of balik kampung, we’re celebrating Hari Raya in Kuching.  Opah spent Ramadan with us. Hopefully it will be our last Raya before the house is torn down and rebuilt.  Same building, exciting new structural integrity.  Amin ya rabb.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: Review

A meditation on migration of every sort. As a muslim migrant who has chosen life outside The West I feel like Hamid is chronicling the particular world I inhabit more than any other writer I can name. The major story arc is a refugee couple from a country that could be anywhere succumbing to war, interspersed with vignettes of migrant workers, immigrants, displaced people, wanderers and various other peoples on the move. I liked it best when Hamid was working in the aloof anonymous anywhere-land that Get Filthy Rich inhabits.  When the refugees land in real places with real names the book feels outdone by the equally fantastical events that are transpiring around us in real life, while the magic isn’t compelling enough to envelop in an alternate timeline.  The magic black doors allowed for quick scene changes, letting the book move at Hamid’s usual brisk pace, but were just too obvious as metaphors to be interesting.  Although I didn’t care for the foray into magical realism, the characters, the human insight, the wild careening prose that goes from distant sardonic humor to intimate, even painful observations in a sentence are as wonderful as in his last book.

we murder from our lives those we leave behind
Exit West on GoodReads

My general rule in reading is to alternate fiction and non-fiction. After Exit West it made the most sense to me to tackle Graves of Tarim next.

Shah Alam Botanical Garden

Not ten minutes drive from downtown Shah Alam is the Shah Alam Botanical Garden. An enormous green space gazetted on Bukit Cerakah, the gardens range from open lawns to jungle trails, from ornamental plant collections to a mini zoo. For Malaysians looking for something truly exotic, there is even a four-seasons exhibit. I had to pass on that one.

Instead we made our way through the lovely entry buildings that look out onto paddy fields.

Ornate Javanese Chair
Ornate Javanese Chair

We hiked up the hill towards the ornamental landscape installations. The slope is pretty gentle really but if you get tired I’d recommend bringing a sister along to ride when you’re flagging.

Sistermobile aka Becak Kakak
Sistermobile aka Becak Kakak

We made it to the whimsical landscapery, with topiary and hedge mazes and a massive folly of a tree-house. Built around some impressive specimens, the ferro-cement castle rises several stories till you’re given a commanding view of the gardens. A perfect tower for all my princesses.

Tree House Shah Alam
Tree House Shah Alam

My father, wife and I waxed nostalgic when we realized we had been here nearly 20 years ago. After my marriage in the US, we honeymooned in Malaysia and brought my father along (how’s that for filial piety!).

Taman Botani Shah Alam 1997
Taman Botani Shah Alam 1997

Although it had changed some, I’m pretty sure this section of garden is exactly where we had come.

Taman Botani Shah Alam 1997
The padi fields back in 1997

Our day at Bukit Cerakah was cut short by some rapidly approaching rain clouds, but luckily the park has it’s own bus/trolley thingamajig that picked us up and ferried us back for free. There is a whole lot there left to see but it will have to wait till next time which is hopefully not another 20 years hence.

Vista with rainclouds
Vista with rainclouds



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Shah Alam Botanical Park is open 7.30AM to 5PM every day except Mondays. RM3 for adults, slightly more for non-Malaysians.

Thinking about a visit? Come stay at our place.

Just outside of downtown Shah Alam
Just outside of downtown Shah Alam

Inggeris Pantun for Princess Santubong

Stuck in traffic day by day
Clouds wrap ’round Mount Santubong
Try’s I might, try as I may
English pantuns come out wrong

So steep her slopes, so tall her trees
Morning mists around her clung
Our band set out, yes just us three
Son, Dad, myself, up Santubong

Fairies dance upon yon mount
Legend that’s been put to song
Dad ripped his toe: on that account
We could not crest fair Santubong

Raised above my commute each day
Face freshly painted: Santubong
My son and I couldn’t stay away
Try ‘gain out with some guys we hung

Full of strength, bright handsome face
My pride, my sun, anak sulong
Son at my side we walked apace
We reached the top of Santubong

English Pantun? S’pose you could
But Malay words kena tolong
‘Cause nothing rhymes so very good
When faced with Princess Santubong

Kitty Caught in Tree: Tropical Edition

A kitten adopted us this Ramadan. I wasn’t eager to take in another cat but one should feed a hungry guest, what more during the fasting month.

Once Winnie ingratiated herself with our cat Oyen it was decided she could stay.

One fine Saturday morning AbangChu wakes me with the news that Winnie was stuck in a tree.  The coconut tree.  Oyen had been chasing her around the yard and up up up she went. Now, it is a minor miracle that when God gave the tropics coconuts, He gave it bamboo too.  A length of bamboo, a bucket and a ball of twine and I had an improvised rescue apparatus.  Winnie was unimpressed with an empty bucket so:

The whole time Abang Oyen hovered anxiously nearby.

I tried cat food. I tried tuna fish.  In the end, it took a nice piece of Ibu’s fried chicken to get her in the bucket.


Datuk Hj Ibrahim and the Isle of Lakei

An old friend dropped by for Raya.  After the usual pleasantries he disclosed his purpose: a side quest to Pulau Lakei, the final resting place of the fabled Datuk Hajji Ibrahim.  Of course I said yes.  Pulau Lakei!  The lone island at the far tip of Bako peninsula.  Reaching Bako National Park requires a boat ride from Kampung Bako; Pulau Lakei is half again as far as the park base camp.  Pulau Lakei!  We gathered under the dome of Masjid Jamek the next day and set off together.

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Bakau, the Malay word for Mangrove, is where the small fishing village and enormous national park get their names.  A variety of bakau species grow naturally along the coasts and river mouths of the area.  One is used for pilings in building houses, a decent choice as long as the pilings are submerged below the water table. When the water table inevitably drops with development, bakau rots in the dry soil leading to serious structural problems in homes thus affected.  Ask me how I know.

Bakau swamps also provide a number of ecosystem services to the area, like flood control, erosion protection and breeding ground for seafood like prawns.  Species other than the house-piling variety are protected by law and so it was reassuring to see stands of them growing here and there as our boat pulled out of Kampung Bako and made its way to the bay.  Before long, the chiseled cliffs of Bako National Park were rising up on our right.

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The bay was calm. Within an hour we had wrapped around the outer edge of the bay, left the Park ferry boats behind and come upon a small island with a tall bluff to the seaward side.  The bluff tapered down to the lee side where a well-weathered fishing boat anchored off shore marked the approach to a small beach.  A decrepit set of wooden cabins, charred pier and collapsed signboard testified to a lack of visitors. The owner of the fishing boat was ashore resting and hailed us, but he hadn’t been off the beach and couldn’t tell us what to expect.  Steep flights of overgrown stairs lead up the bluff. Up we went, stepping over the missing or spongy treads on the way.

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There it was:  The Maqam of Datuk Hajji Ibrahim, the hermit of Lakei.

Legend has it that Hajji Ibrahim was a local of the area who lived around 300 years ago.  He was drawn to worship of Allah and so he withdrew to the island of Lakei for suluk, or seclusion from the world.  There he lived, drawing sustenance from land and sea and fresh water from the river that flowed on the island.  Yes, despite the small size of the island, it has a river that flows fresh year-round, and collects in a series of seven rocky pools on its way to the shore. The first and largest pool is known as Kolam Salamun, after the verse in Surah Ya Sin (Q36:58):


“Peace!  A word from the Lord Most Merciful.”

Although it may not look it, the water was clear, fresh and tasty. The red-brown color comes from tannins leached out of the leaves that fall in the stream and is harmless.  There at the head of the pool are a series of inscriptions said to have been carved into the rock by the very finger of Hajji Ibrahim, for along with his piety he is also said to have been blessed with tremendous strength. What he inscribed is perhaps more mysterious than how: the same theme repeated several times, in jawi, more a glyph or charm than a simple word or sentence.  Some see “wapaq”. I see a long “HU” with smaller HU’s crossing it at a right angle, HU being a holy name of Allah describing His unknowable essence.  The stream washes over the inscriptions before falling into the pool.  In times gone by, local people would come to the pool to collect water for spiritual benefit or healing purposes.


Hajji Ibrahim was also said to have built a great boat himself out of wood on the island, perhaps on top of the cliffs, felling the trees with his great strength, fashioning them into useable timbers, and then sailing that boat alone across the high seas to Mecca to perform his Hajj.  And Allah alone knows the truth of it.

The maqam was dilapidated but the yellow cloth, the Malay color of royalty, was fresh and clean.  The head and foot of the grave were marked with cylinders of tree trunks rather than stone, wrapped in yellow cloth as well.  After sweeping out the space, our party was just able to squeeze in and we took a moment to read Ya Sin for the soul buried there, for whatever the truth of the stories told about him today, he was surely one of God’s creatures and an ancestor of the people of the area who to this day preserve the faith upon which he lived and died.

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Having paid our respects, we cast about the area.  The leader of our party recalled a path to a lookout from years before but the trailhead was nowhere to be found. A fire had swept over the island some years ago, killing the nibong palms but stimulating the growth of great woody ferns that now choked our way.  At last I found a set of flagstones leading in the general direction.  Luckily one our party had thought to bring a parang, and so it fell to me to hack our way through the undergrowth.  The effort was worth it! The trail emerged at the cliffs we had seen on our approach.  We looked out over the South China Sea, across the bay to Mount Santubong resplendent in profile, and down the sheer face to the surf breaking on the rocks below.

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A fork in the trail led to another ferny thicket, but time was not on our side. Leaving that for the next time, we returned to the beach for a saltwater wudu.  After offering up our asr prayers we left Datuk Hajji Ibrahim and the Isle of Lakei in the golden light of the late afternoon.

Biawak Hunting

Four days after moving into my home in Kuching, I met my first biawak, lounging on my front porch. Over the last 12 years, they have been a constant presence, stalking kittens and slaughtering chickens from the littlest chicks to the largest hens.  (Well, perhaps not so large: I’ve been raising ayam katik.)

Not without resistance!

I have given chase, struck blows, saved lives. On one terrible occasion I could not prevent a biawak from clipping a chick’s leg clean off, but I denied it the meal. I would scare them off but I couldn’t keep them away.  Before long I’d see one sunning himself by the biawak superhighway – a.k.a. the [tooltip text=”monsoon drain” trigger=”hover”]longkang[/tooltip].

But this time!  This time, victory was mine.  The day was won when the biawak took a wrong turn through the gate. It’s head got through but it’s legs were stuck. Pinned there, I was able to deliver the blow.  Several blows. More blows than I could possibly have imagined.  They are miniature dragons is what they are and my cangkul just could not cut through the tough scaly hide. I had to bludgeon it to death, sadly.

I’m no hunter. I took no pleasure in the kill.  But after feeding it a steady supply of chicken all these years I did feel justified.

I tried finding a buyer for the meat but no luck. Instead I buried it near my new ketapang. With bio-biawak fertilizer the tree has been growing very well since.


After all that effort, you would hope to achieve a deterrent effect on the remaining biawak population. I spotted another one in the yard not three days later.