Rabu, 21 September 2011

TRAVEL DIARIES: Malaysia-Tanjung Pinang-Bali

Published in Now! Jakarta, October 2011


Malaysia’s larget Buddha statue, outside the Chin Swee Caves Temple.

In 1969, the late Malaysian businessman Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong had a dream that he would build 10,000 hotel rooms and six casinos in the cool hills outside Kuala Lumpur.

With the help of the nation’s first Prime Minister, Tenku Abdul Razak, his dream was realized. To thank the gods he built a magnificent temple on the approach road to the casino, dedicated to the Chinese Thunder God Lei Kung.

Even if you don’t like losing money hand over foot in a circus setting, the Genting Highlands is well worth the detour from Kuala Lumpur. There are 100 restaurants (Gamblers have huge appetites) and Asia’s best less-sugar moon cakes for sale, and lots of invigorating mountain air.

I had come from a gastronomic tour of Surabaya — where warung-themed cafes are all the rage in the new mega-malls — so was well-primed for Asian-dining experiences in a Las Vegas setting.

LEFT: Pagoda at the Chin Swee Caves Temple in the verdant valley east of Genting Highland Resort.
RIGHT: The altar to the God of Thunder, Lei Kung, which sits in a large prayer hall adjacent the pagoda.

From Kuala Lumpur I went to Bintan Island, the ancient capital of Malay culture, to cover Independence Day for Alam TV.

Like nearby Belitung and Bangka, Tanjung Pinang is an old Hokkien and Hakkah Chinese trade entrepot. Here the Chinese have been completely assimilated into the Malay/Indonesian culture (readers should remember that the cradle of Malay language and culture is actually in South Sumatra and Riau, and not in Malaysia, although the Sultan of Johore did control Pulau Penyengat, near Tanjung Pinang, for 200 years before Raffles moved in).

Sadly, the Sultan of Johore’s palaces of the 18th and 19th century are all gone: just a few tantalizing pavilion bases and mausoleums, and the old mosque remain.

View of the Genting Highlands Resort from the approach road.

The real charm of the port, and the nearby islands, are its people — a mix of Melayu, Sumatran, Javanese and Malay Straites Chinese. The food available is equally ‘cosmopolitan’.

One reaches Pulau Penyengat Island from a jetty in the main port — “Alim’s” seafood restaurant and the Pasar Baru ‘floating’ morning market nearby are not to be missed — where one can charter a cigar boat for Rp.150.000 for the return trip, and the boat will wait for an hour or two at Penyengat jetty.

Once on Penyengat island, tuk-tuk auto-rickshaws are waiting at the wharf; for Rp. 50,000 one gets a quick spin around the island. In an hour one can experience the unique ambience of this historical Malay settlement.

The Chinese quarter is still intact as are the perma-smiles on the faces of the friendly islanders.
After the gamblers’ faces of the Genting Highlands it’s a welcome contrast!

See my Independence Day video on Tanjung Pinang video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nEaJCQRrOw

LEFT: The 10th century Masjid Raya Sultan Riau on Pulau Penyengat, Bintan.
RIGHT: Gateway to a Royal Tomb (for members of the Johor Royal family), Pulau Penyengat.

18th August 2011: To an Indonesian culture free-zone
Form Tanjung Pinang I drive 90 minutes through some charming rural country side to the Bintan Resort Development zone, which is a gated community.

Inside there is no sign of life as we know it but the road verges are well maintained and everything drains perfectly.

All prices at all retail outlets are in Singapore dollars.

A generic tourism mall rises from the sand on Lagoi Beach.

Giant animal cut-outs are applied to high voltage electricity towers.

The beaches: stunning with large boulders are scattered everywhere, with the occasional Jurrasic-era cycad growing in between.

I am designing an ASEAN architecture-inspired hotel on Lagoi Beach and have collected a gang of local merry men to assist me.

Rinto is my Padangese driver with six inch fingernails: he rules the night market at Puja Selera, a little patch of Indonesia with a local life style (messy, vibrant, warm and friendly). Kerabat is my one-eyed bulldozer operator from Central Java: he is the project hottie. I have twenty bushmen with machetes, from Papua: they can clear scrub like nobody’s business.

At my home base, the Nirwana Garden Resort, a team of ‘nancy-boys’ in the coffee shop keep me amused with island gossip.

LEFT: Revellers in regional costumes for the Independence Day celebrations at the Gedong Daerah, Tanjung Pinang.
RIGHT: A member of the elite Bintan honour guard before the raising of the flag ceremony at the Gedong Daerah, Tanjung Pinang.

One feels that this Singaporean government-backed tourism solution — a solution with its own harbor and jetty to Singapore service, and its own immigration (and soon to have its own international airport) — will be a huge success, particularly for Singaporean tourists scared of real Indonesian.

One has to experience the Emerald Class on the Bintan Resort Ferry service to believe it! It’s seamless, from kerb to kerb, with Tom and Jerry cartoons all the way.

The island offers banana boat rides, mangrove tours, jungle trekking and, for the truly intrepid, ‘Heritage Tours’ are available to deepest, darkest Indonesia, outside the gates.

Helmets, tazers and mosquito sprays are ‘issued’ at the gates but many teenage girls return with carved souvenirs, jungle fever, and hickies on their necks.

An attentive Batavia Air steward.

Batavia and Sriwijaya fly direct to Tanjung Pinang which is just outside Tanjung Pinang town.

The Bintan Resort experience is easier to access via the ferry service from Tanah Merah Singapore.

Surabaya’s most famous food stall ‘Si Mbok’ at Central Mall.

30th August 2011, Idul Fitri: To Batujimbar, Sanur, for Halal Bihalal at Tatie Waworuntu’s dream home

Bali is 50% Muslim, but only part of the time.

Just before Lebaran the island’s mostly Javanese Muslims return home for two weeks ‘home leave’.

The island becomes eerily quiet, but just for three days. On the fourth day the island fills up; domestic tourists arrive en mass, having fled their servant-depleted homes because they can’t find the air conditioning switches, or can’t get foot massages on demand.

Kika, Annisha and Nanda Waworuntu at their grandmother Tatie Waworuntu’s’s Halal Bihalal.

Every year, on Lebaran, Bali’s most glamorous Javanese lady, Tatie Waworuntu traditionally holds a Halal Bihalal open house for her large family, and for her Bali friends.

As doyenne of Bali’s now burgeoning community of Jakartans, Tatie is the hostess with the mostess. No-other matriarch can compete with the Indonesian treats that grace her table, and her exquisite garden.

This year there is a bouquet of daughters, daughter-in-laws and granddaughters flittering around Tatie Waworuntu’s garden like exotic butterflies.