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A visit to the northernmost tip of Borneo

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

 The huge island of Borneo consists of Sabah and Sarawak which are both part of Malaysia, the independent oil rich country of Brunei and Kalimantan, which is part of Indonesia. 

Last week I was in Sabah, and finding some time, took a drive to Kudat, the largest town at the nothernmost tip of Borneo. The tip has been marked out as latitude 7 deg N and longtitude 116 degrees E.  The drive was very pleasant, as Sabah is still largely a richly forested State. We passed through the town of Kota Belud, a town famed for its once yearly mother of all “tamu’s”.  

Kudat is about 100 kilometres from Kota Belud and we have to take a turning just before Kudat town to go to the place called Tanjung Simpang Mengayau. This means lingering junction as this is where the South China Sea meets the Sulu Sea. 

This spot has been marked by the Sabah Tourism Authorities with a giant bronze sphere and is also marketed as an important sight to visitors coming to Sabah. Though I have been to Sabah many times, I never knew that this spot was worth visiting. Shows how changed my mindset is these days! 

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The globe marking the spot!

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An enlarged view

We did not wait to see the sunset as we had to get back to Kota Kinabalu before dark. The view from the viewing galleries was spectacular and the sky was at its prettiest and clearest blue.  The beach was a stretch of clear waters meeting pure sand, any family’s dream of a picnic spot. Unfortunately at the time we visited the beach was deserted.

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The fantastic beach where the South China Sea meets the shores of Sabah

There was also a marine police beat base, as the some of the islands of the Philippines are very near. I guess the marine police base is supposed to keep an eye out for illegal migrants. 

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I suppose the tip of this rock outcrop must be “THE TIP”

I enjoyed the visit, more as a “I have been there kind of notch”. Still I would like to make another visit one of these days and perhaps try out the very inviting beach.

A visit to Kundasang, the foothills of South East Asia’s highest mountain

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Now that I am “retired”, I am trying to see as much as possible of my country. So last week, whilst in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, we decided to take a drive to Kundasang, a smallish village at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia. 

The drive to Kundasang from Kota Kinabalu (about 90 odd kms) is a really scenic mountain one. The road is good and is one of the main arterial road to other major towns. It offers spectacular views of hills and valleys including one big waterfall that we saw from a distance.  

Along the way, we stopped by a roadside mushroom farm, a project by the local village development board.   

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A close up shot of the mushrooms

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The mushrooms in various stages of growth

Kundasang is known for its vegetable market, where fresh vegetables are sold 7 days a week. Now even people from Brunei drive all the way up to buy vegetables. So for the people of KK this is THE PLACE for fresh and very reasonably priced vegetables. 

Kundasang is also known for its spectacular views of Mount Kinabalu. I was not lucky. Actually to be honest, I was not well prepared, I should have come much earlier in the day. So by the time we arrived, dense fog had clouded the peak, so we only managed to get a fleeting glimpse of the peak.

Still the view of the mountain is breathtaking.   

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A view of Mount Kinabalu by me, a not too accomplished photographer. The little dot that you see on top of the clouds is the peak.

It’s a distant dream for me to climb this mountain one day. My brother in law, (who was with me) has climbed it before when he was stationed in Sabah with the Royal Malaysian Air Force. He told me that whilst the fitter people make it up within a few hours, the lesser fit ones, including some elderly people make their way up quite regularly.  

You can read here about a fellow Malaysian’s climb up the hill in 1990

I used to love trekking and hiking whilst in school. This activity sort of faded out as I started University and working life. I tried to get back into it again by joining the Malaysian Nature Society which organised jungle treks for its members once in a while. I remember participating in one (which the MNS described as a walk in the park), and believe me, it was no walk in the park. Not for me at least. And that ended my short relationship with the MNS. Maybe I should restart the relationship. 

Anyway, now that I have a lot more time on my hands, getting a lot fitter is high on the list of priorities. And hopefully a climb up Mount Kinabalu may not be that far fetched.     

Buildings and structures that have really moved me – Masjidil Haram, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Friday, September 12th, 2008

It is in 1988, when a friend, Jamal suggested that I should perform the Umrah or minor pilgrimage. At that time, I was not exactly a religious person. I remember wondering about whether I could continue doing my, shall we just say, non Islamic activities should I perform the Umrah. 

Jamal made it very easy for me. I handed him my passport, paid the relevant amounts and he made all the arrangements for us to perform the Umrah, arranged by the Malaysian Pilgrimage Fund, or Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji (LUTH).  

I kept my thoughts to myself, but I was a little concerned when I boarded the flight to Jeddah that fateful day in 1988. I mean, I was on my way to visit the holiest place in Islam, as a guest of the All Mighty. I had heard stories of people who never made it despite all their efforts. They might have fallen terribly sick etc., and stuff like that. I wondered if such a calamity would befall me. 

Anyway, the flight was uneventful and we landed in Jeddah on time. I feel that I got my first sign when we were being herded into a mini bus by the LUTH representatives to a nearby hotel for freshening up. The bus was full and there were still two of us left. The LUTH representative made some calls and told us a car would be coming to pick us up and a car did come. 

Boy, what a car! It was a stretch limo, the type that we see pop or movie stars use. My first time in such a car!  

From Jeddah, we flew to Medina first and spent a few days there, praying at the Prophet’s pbuh mosque (the 2nd most holiest place in Islam). We then flew back to Jeddah (dressed in ihram and having taken the niat or intention to perform the Umrah) and were then taken in a bus to Mecca. We unloaded our bags at our hotel and were taken by our guide to the Grand Mosque.  

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 Some pilgrims in Ihram

I remember walking into the Mosque, following our guide and silently reading the various prayers that we were recommended to read.  Masjidil Haram or the Grand Mosque in Mecca is the holiest mosque for all Muslims, where a prayer done is equivalent to 100,000 prayers done in any other mosque.

This mosque is built around the Ka’abah, towards which the entire Muslim population faces whilst performing prayers.  We reached the sunken part of the Grand Mosque which has the Ka’abah at its centre.

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A pic of the Masjidil Haram. The Ka’abah is the black cube that we see in the centre. Credit: Google

It was slightly after midday, and for the first time in my life, I say the Ka’abah in all its splendour. I suppose I must have stared at it for a while perhaps with my mouth open!Hundreds of people were performing the tawaf, an Islamic ritual where we walk 7 times around the Ka’abah. 

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The Ka’abah.  

I broke down and cried. Not sobbing or anything like that, but just cried. I don’t know why. It just happened. Tears flowed down my cheeks and I remember not being bothered about whether others were looking at me.  

Insya’Allah, the Umrah that I performed that day, was accepted.  

As part of the trip, we were taken for a guided tour around Mecca and our guide explained to us the various events that had taken place in Islamic history at each of the places that we stopped.

Other than this, we spent most of our time in Mecca in the Grand Mosque.  Each and every time, I entered the Mosque and saw the Ka’abah for the first time that particular time, I felt moved.  

Since that fateful day, my wife and I have performed the Haj and I have been back a number of times to perform the Umrah. Each and everytime, I have been moved. I don’t know if the Ka’abah is called a building, but no structure or building has ever moved me as much as this building has done.    

Buildings and structures that have really moved me – The Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Egypt

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

I missed an opportunity in 2002, when we flew back from Accra to Malaysia via Cairo and our plan was to spend a couple of nights in Cairo and visit the famous Egyptian National Museum and the pyramids. Unfortunately I had to fly back early as my boss wanted me back in Kuala Lumpur. 

I had another opportunity in 2006, when I had some business in Cairo and the trip straddled an Egyptian weekend.  

Giza is not too far from Cairo. I can’t remember how long the taxi ride took, but the whole excursion was over in about 3 – 4 hours. We had to buy some tickets to explore the site and it was hot and dusty.            

I have, of course, read about the pyramids, seen plenty of pictures, seen documentaries, and am also an avid fan of the Mummy series.  But nothing of what I had read, seen or heard about this wonder of the world had prepared me for what I was about to see.  

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Man! The pyramids are huge! Huge may not exactly do justice. I mean, they were really huge! Wikipedia mentions that the present height is 138.8 metres, after erosion had taken away some of its original 146.6 metres. Assuming a normal floor height of about 10 feet or 3 metres, this would make it a building of about 46 stories or so. No wonder, it is one of the wonders of the world and the tallest structure on the earth for over 3,800 years! 

Not only that, these gigantic structures were built to a precision that present day nano technologists would be proud of. Looking at it from a distance, seeing other visitors swarming around the base like ants, the size feels really magnified. 

Makes one really ponder about how on earth a structure like this could ever have been built in an era without tower cranes, hydraulic lifts, those gigantic Transformer like trucks and the like.  Yeah, it may be easy to just say that it took 20 years and God knows how many tens of thousands of workers. Still, a structure of 46 stories, made up of those huge stone blocks found miles and miles away from the site! 

Maybe there is some truth in Erick von Daniken’s theory of these structures having been built by beings from other planets.  

This Grand Pyramid of Giza left in indelible mark in my mind. The verse in the Quran about how the people of our past were far stronger and greater than the present generations came to my mind again. 

It also made me wonder why these once mighty Pharaohs chose the shape of a pyramid. Why not a block, a spiral or even a pentagon or something else? And the pyramid shape must be special. Similar shaped ancient buildings have been found in many other parts of the world, including, it seems, a submerged Japanese city.  

I’ll never ever forget my first sight of the Grand Pyramid. 

Buildings and structures that have really moved me – The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Monday, September 8th, 2008

As one of the seven wonders of the world, almost everyone has heard of the Taj Mahal. And I, too, had heard about it and read about it as part of our history lessons whilst in school.

It was in October 2005 or so that I finally got to see the Taj Mahal. My contract in India was coming to an end and together with a friend we drove up to Agra from Delhi.  The drive was quite uneventful. I remember that we had to park the car some distance away and use either horse carts or an electric shuttle to be taken to the Taj’s grounds.  

  

I can never ever forget the feelings I had when I saw the Taj for the first time. Quite simply, it was about the most beautiful and exquisite building I had ever seen.     

I shall not talk about the history or the intricate designs of the Taj here. There are far better write ups done including one by Wikipedia.

It’s also said that the Taj shows different views depending on the time of day and day of the year. We were unlucky not to have gotten either the rising or the setting sun view.  

Still as I sat and gazed at the Taj Mahal, the building that took so many years to complete, many thoughts swirled through my mind. The ultimate symbol of love ever built. Unfortunately Mumtaz Mahal, the object of this love never got to see it. 

In a cruel twist of fate, Emperor Shah Jahan was deposed by one of his sons, Aurangzeb and kept under house imprisonment in a room in the Agra Fort. The room had a view of the Taj Mahal and many believe that the once mighty king finally died of a broken heart. 

Well, Shah Jahan, Mumtaz, Aurangzeb, the architects, designers, craftsmen and workers are all now long gone. And perhaps no one will ever be able to truly understand and appreciate the enormity of the task of building the Taj Mahal. 

But the exquisite building still stands. Still mesmerising as many with its beauty now as then.      

Note:

A Boy from India has written about the Taj and a “duplicate copy” built by the grandson of Shah Jahan in memory of his mother. I did not know about this. The picture of the Taj is also from this blog.

Buildings and structures that have really moved me – Amber Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

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From: The Rajasthan Government Tourism Website

I first visited this fort in 2001. I was in India for a visit to our Indian Operations (I had not yet been assigned to India as yet) and the visit straddled a weekend. Our office was in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi and from there it was about 3 hours or so by car to Jaipur.  

The fort is perhaps much like any of the fortified castles of England and Europe. High walls, chambers and chambers, halls, pools and all the assortment of luxuries the kings of old had built for themselves.  The Rajashthan Government’s tourism website has a complete write up on the Fort which was built in 1592. And Calicatras has put up a video tour of the fort on YouTube.  

We spent about an hour or so walking through the complex. I did not feel anything extraordinary whilst touring the fort, though it must be quite a feat to administer this huge complex without walkie talkies and CCTV. 

The feeling came when we left the buildings. We were on the road back and we stopped for a last look at the fort. The fort was built on a hill of rugged rocks and the perimeter walls were stretching as far as the eye could see.  This was when it hit me. The Maharaja who built the fort must have used thousands and thousands of workers and must have wielded enormous influence and power. And yet he was now dead and gone.   

What struck me then, was a verse from our holy book, the Quran. I am not sure of the exact translation but it goes something like this: 

“If you think you are great, go back into history and see the countless others far greater and stronger than you who are dead and gone.” 

I suppose this verse could have referred to people like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt who considered themselves as God to their people.  And I am sure as walls go, there are many other walls, like the Great Wall of China, against which the wall of the Amber Fort may look like a plaything.

Still, it was the walls of the Amber Fort that made me reflect deeply on this particular verse.  

I have since then visited the fort once again with my family. I could not and did not get the same feeling this time, but I’ll never ever forget the feeling I got that fateful day in 2001 when I looked up at the never ending walls of Fort Amber, Jaipur.  

Buildings and structures that have really moved me – Elmina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana

Friday, August 29th, 2008

You might know the feeling.

You turn a corner and there it is. The building or structure or natural wonder that everyone has talked about. And you see it for the first time. In all it’s splendour.  

Maybe a gasp comes out. Maybe a small lump forms in your throat. You feel your heart beating a little faster. The sight has left an indelible mark on you. And you never ever forget this feeling.  

I have had this feeling the first time I saw six particular buildings. (I am only referring to buildings or structures here.) 

The first time I visited Elmina Castle which is in the city of Cape Coast, Ghana was in 1998. It was during my second trip to Ghana. By then we already had some staff in Ghana who had started survey works, and had hence become fairly knowledgeable about local travel.    

Not being a history buff, I did not know much about the infamous slave trade. Though my friends told me a little about this, I thought the trip would be just a normal sightseeing one. And being my first trip outside Accra, the capital, I looked forward to enjoying the ride.

 A little about the Castle.  

Quote 

The Portuguese built the castle in 1482, originally established as a trading post for goods bartered for local gold and valuable gem. However, as the demand for slaves increased in the Americas and Caribbean, the castle became strategic in the perpetuation of this abhorrent human cargo trade. The storerooms of the castle were converted into dungeons, and the ownership of the castle changed hands several times, eventually ending up being seized by the British in 1872. By this time, slavery had been abolished. The British didn’t use Elmina to house slaves; they used Cape Coast Castle for that.                                                                                                                                                       

Unquote: From the Ontario Black History Society’s website

The view of the Castle from the outside was not too impressive, at least not in the sense of the title of this post. But I was not in the least prepared for what I saw and felt inside.  

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This picture is also from the Ontario Black History Society website.

The feeling hit me like a ton of bricks when I entered one of the dungeons. The dungeons used to house the slaves before they were moved through the “Door of No Return” and shipped off to those far off countries. It was a dark gloomy dungeon. Devoid of any windows expect for one slit like opening high up.  

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Female Dungeon 

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/bdinphoenix

I felt as if I was transported back into time. Standing there and seeing the slaves who were chained to the floor, in rows. Much like the way supermarkets stack their goods. Stripped of their honour and dignity, having no idea where they would end up, having no idea if they would ever see their loved ones again. Eyes haggard, spirits broken.   

I remember standing there for a while, feeling a sense of immense sorrow passing through me, on the unspeakable misery and cruelty inflicted upon humans by fellow humans in the name of commerce.  Not in the name of war or strife, but just pure commerce. Profit and loss! 

As a Malaysian and having never had any views, much less feelings about the slave trade, I was surprised at the intensity of the feeling that I had.  

Later the guide told me that such feelings were common. They often had to keep some of the tour groups separated as feelings often spilled over into perhaps exchanges of words etc.  

Some time later I visited the Ghanaian National Museum and got to learn a little more about those miserable times. There were even some copies of old sales posters on slave auctions and stuff like that. 

I thank God that this period is now history. And I pray that mankind had learnt and progressed enough to never ever repeat these kind of deeds. 

Now as I write this piece, I feel again the same sense of sorrow pass through me.  Not of that same intensity, but still “feelable”.

I must see a lot more of Malaysia. It’s the only country I have.

Monday, August 18th, 2008

I have been “unemployed” since the 31st of July. Maybe not unemployed, but doing my own thing. This sounds a lot better. For the first time in my life, I do not have to dress up, face the traffic and turn up at some office at a particular time every working day. 

So in theory, I should have lots of time on my hands. (It doesn’t seem so, but that is another story). And I should be doing lots of travelling. Isn’t this what people out of the rat race do? 

And I do want to travel. I just love the country side. Streams, lakes, mountains, the sea, islands, new places, the list can go on and on. And of course, now more than ever, I have to be frugal in my travelling. So I have struck Paris and Monte Carlo and Venice from my list.  

My plan is to see as much of my country as I can, after all, Malaysia is truly blessed and well varied in its offerings to anyone who is interested.

A good friend of mine, who also got out of the rat race a while ago, does his sight seeing / travelling through his love of cycling. ARZ (aka Rambo) was once a biker, but an accident put paid to those plans. It’s now pedal power all the way. He has cycled almost all over Malaysia and is now extending his reach to Thailand and Indonesia. And practicing frugality all the way.  

Over lunch lately, I told him about my recent trip to the Malaysia -   Thailand border town of Betong. (Rambo, of course, had already been there and not only that, had cycled all the way deep into Thailand. He reeled off names of southern Thai towns like some geography expert).   

I am not a cycling enthusiast like Rambo, so I am going to make do with driving trips. After all I am now in the enviable position of being able to plan my trips when the prices are cheapest.  

For starters, I’ll cover my State of Negeri Sembilan. It looks like the Government website does quite do justice to the many places that are well worth seeing

Though not in my State, Betong was the first of the outings since the 31st July. I am looking forward to the many more trips that are in store.   

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The entrance to the tunnels dug by the Communist insurgents. The tunnels have a number of exits and even rooms for working and sleeping.  I was told that the tunnels end up on the Malaysian side, though the route we took went round and brought us back to almost the same spot.

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The “front office and lobby” of the hotel I stayed in Betong. The owner (a Malaysian by the way), told me that the building was probably more than a 100 years old. They had some lovely chalets nested against the forest, but they were full that night. So I had to make do with the normal rooms.

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These two chairs had some seriously intricate carvings. The previous owner of the hotel was an antique collector and these chairs were part of his collection.

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