Tag Archives: Travel


This post is a follow on from the last post on the topic of body scars.

This year, the 9th of February so happens to be Thaipusam which is a very special Hindu festival which is especially celebrated by the Tamil peoples throughout the world. It is celebrated on the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai. Pusam refers to a star that reaches its highest elevation in the sky during the festival. The festival honours the birthday of the Lord Murugam and his acquisition of the spear that would enable him to triumph over the evil demon Soorapadman.

Today, the festival has been celebrated in India and nearly every other part of the world where there is a sizeable Tamil community. There are major celebrations in Malaysia and in Singapore. The main site of the celebration in Kuala Lumpur is at the massive limestone outcrop called Batu Caves where today, more than 1.3 million devotees and tourists converged.

One major component of the festival is the carrying of the kavadi. Devotees who have asked favours from or prayed to the Lord Murugam often make pledges to carry the kavadi. The simplest form of the kavadi is a semi-circular frame with a wooden rod which is placed across the shoulders of the devotee. Other forms include piercing the skin and supporting the kavadi with metal spokes or spears. Another variant involves using hooks embedded into the skin to carry heavy objects or to pull a chariot. Other devotees may pass a skewer through their cheeks. Basically, the more pain you endure, the more merit you score.

Kavadi Carrier, Thaipusam Festival, Penang

However, devotees go through a strict purification ritual which includes prayers and specific diets. Special powders are applied and prayers chanted. As a result, most devotees enter a trance-like state where they seem to feel no pain from their self-inflicted wounds.

Dude, do you know you have a bunch of hooks in your back?

These kavadis may be carried along a procession route but in Kuala lumpur, they end up at Batu Caves where they will be carrried up these 272 steps leading to the cave temple complex.

its a long way up, imagine doing this with the spiked kavadi for thaipusam
Another aspect which is very much identified with the festival is the smashing of coconuts as offerings after their prayers. This results in a sea of smashed coconuts which is entusiastically welcomed by resident monkeys but less so by the cleaning crews the next day.
Smashing the coconut

This squirrel has been to Batu Caves a number of times and it certainly worth a visit if you are ever in Kuala Lumpur. However, this squirrel is also smart enough not to be there in the mad crush of 1.3 million people in the equatorial heat and humidity.

That is all for now from this squirrel, reporting from a safe and comfortable distance from the Batu Caves.

Choosing Seven Natural Wonders

Almost two years ago, I posted on the effort to declare the New Seven (Man-Made) Wonders of the World through an unprecedented global internet voting process which led to the results announced here in 2007. At that time, four of my choices made it into the final seven; they were Machu Picchu (Peru), Taj Mahal (India), Petra (Jordan) and Great Wall (China).

I recently discovered that there is now an attempt to identify the New Seven Wonders of Nature through the same global internet voting process. In this preliminary stage, you are allowed to nominate up to seven candidate sites or vote for seven candidate sites already nominated or any combination in between. The top 77 sites from this voting process will then be shortlisted and then the final round of voting will allow voters to select the top seven from that list. Those with the most votes at the end of that round will be declared the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

Currently as of 5th July 2008, the top 10 on the list are;

  1. Cox’s Bazar Beach (Bangladesh)
  2. Ha Long Bay (Vietnam)
  3. Ganges River (Bangladesh/India)
  4. Tubbataha Reef (Philippines)
  5. Chocolate Hills (Philippines)
  6. Mount Everest (Nepal)
  7. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Philippines)
  8. Mayon Volcano (Philippines)
  9. Amazon River/Forest (South America)
  10. Mount Fuji (Japan)

It is early days yet but the top runners are surprisingly almost all from Asia with the Philippines having a high number or percentage of nominees. If you disagree, do please join in and vote.

Below are my seven choices;

1. Banff National Park (Canada)

My personal vision of paradise is closely represented by Banff with its forests rich in wildlife, stunning turquoise lakes, glaciers and mountains. I have visited Banff and it was beyond my expectation. I could live there quite happily. It’s a pity about the seasonal hordes of tourists but there is still sufficient wilderness to get lost in.

2. Auyantepui Mountain (Venezuela)

The Devil’s Mountain, in the native tongue of the Pemon peoples, it rises like other tepuis, almost vertically from the jungle floor and has a flat plateau like top. Tepuis are often referred to as islands in the clouds. Auyantepui rises to a height of almost 3,000 m and the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls, cascades off its plateau. It is rich in rare and unusual plant life. A wet and wold place.

3. Hardangerfjiord (Norway)

I have always been fascinated by the scenery of fjords and the geological power of the glaciers that it often represents. I visited here more than 25 years ago but was blown away by the grandeur even then. I would love to revisit this place of haunting and reflective beauty.

4. Milford Sound (New Zealand)

This is the Antipodean reply to the Norwegian fjords and beautiful and lush with its own wealth of flora and fauna. I have been on the cruise and have seen the unusual darkwater corals but would one day like to hike the spectacularly wet Milford Track.

5. Plitvice Lakes (Croatia)

Another place that I have visited that has captured my imagination ever since. This rates very high on my personal list because of its fairly unique nature and because I just love the landscape of waterfalls and crystal clear lakes linked by cascades and streams. It was just beautiful water everywhere and i just love water. The limestone outcrops and caves are added attractions.

6. Mulu Caves (Malaysia)

I know that this is in my own backyard but I have not visited it (relatively costly for me). However, I could not leave out from this list the world’s largest cave system and largest single cave chamber. Other special caves are also found in this system with individual characteristics. The large bat population is an attraction too as is the rich forest life surrounding the caves.

7. Pamukkale Springs (Turkey)

I have never been here but the thought of its rather special and delicate attractions gives me goosebumps. I would love to soak in its hot-springs.

Don’t miss out on casting a vote for your picks for the new Seven Wonders of Nature.

Langkawi in Pictures

Langkawi is considered a mystical place. Amongst its islands are white sandy beaches while in some places it is dark volcanic sand. It is one of very few places in the world that has mangroves growing over limestone. It has a mysterious field that keeps coming up with burnt rice from the ground and an enchanted lake which legend claims will cure infertility for those that bath in it. It has some of the oldest rock formations in South East Asia and on its western side, evidence of massive tectonic uplifting is visible. For these reasons and more, it was recently declared a UNESCO Geo Park.

It has 99 magical islands and in another mystery, the authorities decided it wasn’t enough and built two more for a small marina and for a small micro-light airport. This was done at some considerable degradation of the surrounding environment but at least we now have 101 islands!

Langkawi’s name is also interesting. The tourism office has created this romantic notion which it tells visitors that the name consists of Lang and Kawi. Lang is a version of the name of the sea eagles that are abundant in the islands and Kawi refers to limestone which is also a strong characteristic of parts of the island, hence Langkawi. I actually prefer a more scholarly explanation which to me is equally romantic. This explanation dates the name to about the 13th century when there were already trade boats plying between India and China. Langkawi is likely the landmark for sailors to set off sailing along the latitudinal line which will lead them directly to Sri Lanka. Therefore Langkawi means “the way to Sri Lanka”.

Anyway, here are photos of the beaches on my recent trip. All photos by LGS. Note the local attire worn by many local Muslim girls for the beach. Also the fishing catch has deteriorated due to destructive development in some places.

Conquering the Bridge

Photocredit: Bridgeclimb
My wife is afraid of caves. As far as phobias go, this is a relatively good phobia to have. It does not interfere much with daily living. After all, few of us today need to enter a cave in daily life. I imagine she would have had a lot of trouble if she was born during the last ice-age when caves were the “in” thing but it’s no inconvenience at all today. I don’t get any opportunity to tease her about it cause she just steers clear of caves. Her phobia does extend to tunnels which provides the only opportunity for me to rib her a little when we drive through a long road tunnel. Strangely and sadly, when I try to convince her that shopping malls are very similar to long, covered tunnels, it has no effect on her at all.

I, on the other hand, am afraid of heights (acrophobia) and this gives my wife ample opportunities for merry-making at my expense. Invariably, I find myself trying to conquer my fear on suspension bridges, mountain gondolas, helicopters, fun fairs and mountain climbing. I would be sweating buckets to the sound of my wife’s jovial and unsympathetic laughter.

One of her long time desires and my long-term source of panic is to climb Sydney Harbour Bridge. This last week, an opportunity arose and I bit the bullet and got us registered to do the climb. Well, actually, my brother got us registered for the climb and I just whimpered my agreement when he suggested it.

Ah, the things that love makes us do. Well, on the 17th of October 2007, I risked falling to my death, heart attack and/or catatonia and actually climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Now that I have done the climb, I can say with pride that it was a “piece of cake”, “a walk in the park”. “The 3.5 hour ordeal is nothing.” you’ll hear me say through clenched teeth. Why, it is a mere 503 meters long and a trifling 134 meters high at it’s peak. That’s a 134 meters asl. which stands for “above sea level” or as us acrophobics prefer, “above splat level”.

As the tour operators will tell you, the first and last 15 minutes of the climb are the worst. You have to physically climb up on scant and shaky ladders and stairs, walk on flimsy, catwalks suspended under the bridge and over both roaring road traffic and the waters of Sydney Harbour. There’s also the little bit where you have to climb up between two lanes of the busy bridge road. If you can make it this far, the rest of the climb is indeed a pleasant and exhilarating experience. Walking the arch of the bridge is a wonderful experience which is rewarded by a beautiful panorama.

I recommend going for their dusk climb. You get to see Sydney in daylight, at sunset and after twilight. Beautiful. It also makes the return trip easier as you can no longer see how far above ground that you are. A big advantage to acrophobics.

I believe that climbing the bridge has earned me some bragging rights. So, what did you do last week? Heh, heh, heh.

The Witness Protection Agency presents Mr. Jacko Lantern and Ms. Cherry 

The Masked Lone Grey Squirrel and Mrs. Squirrel; “Hand over all your nuts.”

Squirrel’s Secret Spot No: 6 (Canals of England and Wales)

1.The Crew of the Oliver Cromwell sans Photographer; 2. Lowering the boat in a lock; 3. Raising the boat through a lock and James’ shoes about to get soaking wet 30 seconds later; 4. Have you heard of Hot Cross Buns? It originated here in Banbury and this is the Banbury Cross; 5. This farm dog taught us how to play fetch with it; 6. Hotel Canal Boats; 7. learning about Industrial History; 8. Making friends along the way; 9. Ah, the peace and solitude at night. (Photocredit: All by LGS except No:9 which is a postcard).

For a long time when I should have been studying for my second year exams, I was actually looking at travel brochures and day-dreaming about having a holiday on a long, narrow canal boat. I wanted a lazy, relaxing holiday with the wonderful company of close friends and to enjoy the clean air and to bask in the sun and a canal boat holiday seemed to fit the bill.

While juggling my exams, I managed to organize the holiday on a canal boat called the Oliver Cromwell on the Oxford Canal. I had hand picked James, Katherine and Julie to be my crewmates as the close confines of a canal boat is one that you wish to share only with people you got on well together.

We picked up the boat on Lower Heyworth with great excitement. Spent an exciting hour learning how to handle the boat and then we were off. Within 5 minutes we were having a great big argument. On a canal that only runs north and south, the crew were split on whether to go north or south! It appeared as if the cramp quarters had already made everyone snappy and crabby. The decision was finally made on the call of a coin toss and we headed north.

Ah, soon the bickering was forgotten as we cruised along at 4 miles per hour. The anticipation of the next 7 days intoxicated us even more than the beers in our hands. It was as I had imagined. This illusion, however, only lasted until we reached the first lock. We had been briefed about locks which are the means by which canal boats can be raised or lowered between sections of the canal which are at different heights. Locks are fascinating bits of engineering history. They can also be back-breakingly hard to operate. First you have to maneuver these heavy wooden gates and then you have to use a key to open the paddles that control the water levels. Did I think this was going to be a lazy holiday? It was hard work. A Good Samaritan who witnessed our pitiful efforts of trying to push the gates open and close, advised us that it was actually easier to sit on the beams of the gates and to push with our legs. Bouncing on the beams on our behinds also helped if the gates were stucked. We tried it and it worked like a charm and we happily operated several gates that first day, only to discover in the evening that our buttocks had turned blue-black and was covered with painful wooden splinters!

My other illusions about the canal trip were similarly exposed before long. Clean fresh air was replaced by miles of farmland reeking of cow dung. Basking in the sun? Did I forget this was England where rain is like a friend that drops in unannounced all the time and often outstays his welcome. And when night came, so did the mosquitoes.

Yet despite all these setbacks, it was one of the most enjoyable holiday I have ever had. The fun was in the people that you met along the way; the fellow novices, the old salts and the local characters. There was freedom in deciding where to go and when to stop. The historical pubs along the way were great places to stop and sample local hospitality, food and beer. It was away to learn about the history of the country especially around the period of the Industrial Revolution for which these canals were built to serve by bringing coal from the Midlands to London.

It was the surprises that awaited you at every bend. A water vole. A heron. It is waking up in the morning to the sound of cow bells in the adjacent farm or sleeping with visions of the stars and the sound of the crickets. It was having picnics on the boat or in the fields with close friends. It was terrific.

In the end, the holiday came to an end too quickly and I have been enamored with canal boats, their history and associated crafts and culture ever since. The Oxford Canal is not even one of the more interesting canals. I would love to go on the Llangollen Canal with its Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in which the canal boat would glide across the valley more than 40 m above the Dee River and to glide into Llangollen town during their celebration of Celtic culture in music, poetry and dance, the Eisteddfod Festival. That would be so wonderful.

Last Post From Borneo

This will be the last post on my recent trip to Sabah on the island of Borneo. For me personally, the highlight of my trip was the visit that the conference delegates paid to a remote interior village located within the Crocker Range Park.

It was the village of Ulu Senagang Keningau. The name approximately means the settlement in the upper reaches of the river named after the odd shaped rock which is inhabited by the Keningau clan of the Murut tribe. This village is about 4 hours from the city of Kota Kinabalu by car and maybe an hour from the nearest neighbouring settlement. It is not the most remote village by far as some villages require a few days walking to get to. The village though is however located within a community use zone of Crocker Range Park.

The Park was formed to protect a very important watershed area. However, the villagers were already there before the formation of the park and part of their farms and fruit orchards now lie within the Park boundary. Rather than forcing them to abandon their homes, the Park authorities are trying to develop a community management of the affected area that allows certain activities to continue as long as the Park’s objectives of conservation are not compromised.

Part of the welcome line. (LGS)

The villagers were told that a bunch of visitors from all over ASEAN were going to visit and they went out of their way to prepare for the visit. When we arrived, we could see a long line of villagers, from the old to the young, patiently waiting to greet us and shake our hands. It took quite a while for the 40 odd visitors to shake the over 100 waiting hands. This hand-shaking ceremony was delayed also because for many of the 40 visitors, arrival at the village meant the first chance of a toilet break in 3 hours.

Milling around outside the toilets (LGS)

Wewere then ushered into their school building and regaled with speeches and a dance. After that we were treated to tea and coffee and a selection of staples such as tapioca, sweet potato and sago that had been steamed in banana leaves. Very nice though starchy in consistancy. Later, we had an opportunity to look at and purchase some of their traditional handicrafts.

The people were wonderfully warm. They were not shy or self-conscious which is the experience I have had with the First Peoples in Peninsular Malaysia. Instead, they were very self assured and openly friendly. We had a good time interacting with the young to the old. The children were very happy to see themselves on the playback screen of digital cameras.

Spirits of the Dance (LGS)
The handicraft were in stunning colours with black, red and yellow predominating. On display were baskets, food covers, fish traps and also photo frames custom made for tourists.

I had one very interesting experience. At the entrance to the village was an old hand pump. It was part of a Canadian-University of Malaya project to install and test handpumps which could be easily repaired by local villagers. This project took place in the 1980’s and was in fact part of my very first job. I never came to Sabah to install any handpump but this was clearly part of the same project. The handpump has now been motorised but clearly the well shaft was still in use. It was interesting to see something from the start of my working career.

Handicrafts (LGS)

Blast from the Past (LGS)


Jungle Stream and Mahua Falls

Mahua Sub-station, Crocker Range Park (LGS)
During my recent trip to Borneo, I made a visit to the Crocker Range Park. The Crocker Range is a range runs parallel to the western coast of Sabah. It is located about 2.5 hours from the town of Kota Kinabalu. At the north end of Crocker lies Mount Kinabalu which is the tallest mountain in South East Asia. The entire mountain range consists of sedimentary rocks laid out in layers of sandstone and shale which have been uplifted.
The Crocker Range Park was formed to protect the pristine forest and many endangered plants and animals but its primary function is to protect important watersheds to ensure a continued supply of clean, fresh water.
One of the stops was made to the Mahua Sub-station. From here, a short trail leads to the 50 foot high Mahua Falls.
Juvenile Cicada (LGS)
Mahua Stream (LGS)

Sedimentary Rock Layers at base of Mahua Falls (LGS)
Mahua Falls (LGS)