A Walk in the Black Forest …

… no, not that Black Forest – this one was only black because it was dark, very dark.

It was a night walk held at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, and our volunteer guide was a self-confessed snake addict.  Here he is holding his special snake stick –

– I thought it was for prodding and beating snakes to keep them away, but it’s actually for catching snakes so that you can hold them, caress them, and lovingly take endless photos of them – as we soon discovered.

We saw quite a few creatures on our walk, but what we saw most of that night were leeches.  They were everywhere, dropping from trees onto us, clambering up over our shoes from ground level, determined to take a juicy bite.  When we shone a torch onto the ground the whole surface was moving like a bubbling pot – it was covered in writhing leeches.  As a result, we all became very twitchy, constantly brushing any exposed flesh to check for leeches, suddenly flicking a leg to the side to dislodge any potential blood-sucker, and prancing up and down on the spot whever the group stopped, trying to keep as little contact with the ground as possible.  I’m sure we all looked mentally disturbed as we wriggled, flicked and leapt in the air while we made our way around the forest.

Apart from leeches, we saw quite a few other animals, and I was impressed by our guide’s ability to spot a tiny creature in the dark and identify it immediately.

Like this spotted litter frog –

– which just looked like a stone on the ground until he picked it up and put it on a leaf for us to see.

Then I learnt all about eyeshine, which is fascinating.  To identify night creatures by eyeshine, you hold a bright torch under your dominant eye and look around.  If you see a small twinkling light reflected from your torch it’s a spider, and if you see a steady pale light, it’s a reptile.  Predators have red eye shine, and so does the slow loris, which was the only mammal we saw, hiding high up in a tree.  The quick loris had obviously scarpered as soon as it heard us approaching …

One of my favourites was the Malayan horned frog –

– which is also the symbol of the Malaysian Nature Society and featured on our guide’s t-shirt –

Although I have to say that the horned frog we saw looked a lot less pissed off than the one on the t-shirt.

Another favourite was Malaysia’s most poisonous frog, the poisonous rock frog –

– and this one has a cataract, as our guide noticed immediately.

Being a snake lover, he got very excited about this brown whip snake –

and the oriental vine snake –

– which he fearlessly patted from side to side to keep it on the leaf.

The walk finally ended at 1.50 a.m., while our guide was showing us this huge gecko –

– and he invited us all to feel the sticky pads on its feet that enable it to climb up vertical surfaces

Then he ended the walk with the unforgettable words, “I’ll have to put this gecko down now, I think I’ve got a leech in my pants.”

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A quandary …

What do you do when your guide on a walking tour turns out to be an obsessive nose-picker –

– and then, when you get to a steep step down onto a narrow path between two rice paddies –

– he offers you his hand?

Do you … a) say breezily, ‘no thank you, I’m fine’, confidently jump down, and risk toppling straight over into the flooded rice paddy?

or … b) decide that touching his mucus-crusted hand is the lesser of the two misfortunes, and take hold of it with gritted teeth?

I chose option b, so I remained dry, but spent the rest of the walk wiping my hand surreptitiously on my clothes.

The rice terraces in Bali are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  But then so is pretty much everywhere in the world it seems – apart from anywhere I’ve ever lived. UNESCO has never shown any interest in Kuala Lumpur, Bedford or Tooting Broadway, as far as I’m aware.

But the rice terraces are spectacular –

At the moment they’re a brilliant green, as the rice isn’t ripe yet,

and men in conical hats work away in the water –

… no idea what they’re doing, but they look very picturesque.

The raised paths between them are just wide enough for two people to pass comfortably, and we saw plenty of people along the way, and my guide seemed to know all of them –

I thought this man had a bag of rice on his head –

– but it turns out that it’s rice straw, to feed his cattle.  Even if it’s not as heavy as rice, it’s still given him amazing abs for his age … and I don’t think he was breathing in for the camera.

In fact, most people in Bali look pretty damn fab … even with a basket on their head –

or half a ton of metal –

or even a whole ton of metal –

The only exception to this rule of fabulousness was a group of women I saw in one of the temples, and I have to admit that I became slightly obsessed with them –

There were six women, working in two groups of three, moving this huge pile of earth, basket by basket, from the bottom of the steps to a site at the top.  They worked in complete silence, digging, filling the basket, lifting it and carrying it –

They were as rhythmical as clockwork,with the two groups meeting and passing at the top of the stairs every time, and they were all hefting large sticks, in a way that made me think of Old Testament prophets

I wondered if this was some Sisyphus-like punishment, and when they had moved the whole pile to the top, they would then start to move it back to the bottom again.

But then I realised that it was lunchtime, and that was quite enough fanciful wondering for one day, so I left them to it.





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Bali Highs and Bali Lows

After a 3-day weekend with a jaunt to Java last week, I had a 4-day weekend this week … gotta love the Malaysian public holidays!

I decided to make the most of my time off with a trip to Bali, as it’s just a hop and a skip from KL on Air Asia, and a return flight is only about £100.

I was given plenty of warnings before I left … what Magaluf is to young, boozy Brits, Bali is to young, boozy Australians, so you have to choose your destination carefully.  I chose Ubud, which is known for being artsy-crafty, with beautiful architecture and its own Royal Family.

Everything in Bali is beautiful … they have no truck with plywood doors from the DIY shop –

and no plain, flat, utilitarian brick walls for them either –

And anything that really needs to be plain and flat, for health and safety reasons, can always be decorated with fresh flowers –

As far as I could see, every single statue is also decorated with fresh flowers every day – our hotel had a member of staff whose job was to collect flowers from the garden and put them on each stutue.  His approach was rather unimaginative, I have to say –

I preferred those who went for the coquettish look –

or even raffish –

And if your head’s not actually attached to your body, it doesn’t mean you can’t embellish it florally –

There are beautiful gardens everywhere, and this was the view from my balcony –

I even had my own bat, which roosted on a nearby tree every day, and didn’t mind in the least if I walked up close to take a picture –

I’m assuming it’s a flying fox, and I’ve never seen a creature of such extremes before –  one half cute, furry mammal, and the other half emissary of Satan.

On the Bali downside … the Balinese monkeys are much worse behaved than the Malaysian ones –

This poor chap was in danger of having his backpack ransacked.

And I will never complain about the pavements in KL again.  In Ubud the narrow pavements have huge holes hacked into them every few metres, exposing what looks like a filthy sewer down below –

As the town is so full of traffic and pedestrians, at every step you risk toppling or being shoved down a hole, or if you step sideways into the road you run the risk of getting flattened by a speeding car or motorbike.  But on the plus side, I’m sure they rush over and strew flowers on you as you lie stunned and bleeding in the road.


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Me and you and a cat named Lou

If there’s one thing you have to do in Java, it’s indulge in a cup of coffee –

And I decided to try coffee luwak, or civet coffee as it’s called in English.

Civet coffee is the foie gras of Asia … some people are willing to pay up to £60 for a cup, while others think it’s a cruel practice and should be outlawed.

I was assured that the civets that had predigested my coffee (to put it politely)  were free range and lived in the coffee plantations, foraging freely and not kept in cages and force-fed coffee beans.  But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The civets I saw all seemed very tame and happy. People think they’re a type of cat, but they are actually a totally different species, although they seem very docile, just like cats.  They aren’t kept in cages; they  just doze away in the sunshine and each coffee luwak house has its own civets as pets to show the visitors –

And I bonded instantly with this one –

Do you know what this is?

It’s civet poo … full of coffee beans that are full-flavoured but much less acidic than coffee beans that haven’t been harvested from the faeces of a small mammal.

I tried the coffee –

– and it was very good.  Would I pay £60 a cup for it?  No, it wasn’t that good.  I willingly forked out £2.50  for a small cup, but balked at paying £20 for a small packet to take home and treat my friends to coffee luwak.  So … sorry folks, if you want a cup of civet poo coffee, you’ll have to come to Java and buy your own.

Java is also famous for shadow puppets, so I went to a workshop where they were making them for a performance at the Sultan’s palace on Sunday.

The puppet maker explained that they make them out of the leather from sacred buffaloes kept at temples for religious purposes –

– because the problem with working buffaloes is that farmers hit them with sticks which damages the hide.

He was keen to show me the tools he uses to make the puppets –

– which are all crafted from motorbike wheel spokes.

It takes a week to make one puppet –

– and when you I look at the detail, you can see why –

I had to leave before the performance (work getting in the way of pleasure, yet again) so the puppet maker gave me an impromptu performance, holding a fabric screen up underneath a ceiling light –

– I now have another skill on my wish list … to become a shadow puppeteer.

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The Triangle of Life

I’ve seen The Lion King, so I’m up to speed on the Circle of Life but, never having lived in an earthquake zone, the Triangle of Life was new to me.  Luckily my hotel room in Yogyakarta, Java last weekend had a very helpful guide –

Unfortunately there was no large chair or sofa in my room, so I was wondering whether I’d have time to dash to Ikea and buy one in the event of an earthquake warning, but then I turned over the page –

and was relieved to learn that there is also a Triangle of Life next to the bed or … in extremis, I could prostrate myself in the corridor next to the lift – presumably once I’d realised there was no time to get to Ikea after all, but had locked myself out in my rush to equip myself with a Triangle of Life.

After reading all that, I felt very grateful that Malaysia has no earthquakes and no volcanoes either – its neighbour, Indonesia, has taken one for the team, and has both in spades.

In January alone, 44 earthquakes were recorded in Indonesia, and there are 127 active volcanoes.  I booked a trip to visit a volcano near Yogyakarta called Mount Merapi, and then found out that it is one of the most active of all, and has been named a decade volcano because of its nasty habit of erupting every ten years or so.  The last minor eruption was on May 11 this year, but they’ll be due for another biggie quite soon.

I have to say that it was an extremely uncomfortable experience, being jolted along extremely dusty roads in a knackered old jeep, which the driver stopped and started by pulling wires that were dangling down under the dashboard.

The fine gritty volcanic ash and soil gets everywhere –

and the whole landscape is bleak in the extreme –

There’s a museum showing some of the casualties of the last major eruption in 2010 when nearly 400 people died –

So next, I decided to go the the Sultan’s Palace for an altogether less depressing visit  –

This is the entrance to the Sultan’s baths, where he and his wives and his 150 children would go for a dip in strictly segregated areas –

I had a few problems in the Palace because, unlike Malaysia, English is not the lingua franca in Indonesia, so I was often left guessing what everything on display actually meant.

This portrait of the Sultan –

– was obviously painted while he was going through his elvish phase.

And this poor woman seems to have issues –

– I’m just not too sure what they are.

But I did understand, after overhearing a tour guide who was taking a group around, that the Sultan had to choreograph a dance as part of his coronation.  I felt that this made it sound more like a game show than a solemn ceremony, but here is a photo of the performance of his dance –

The palace guards might look a bit sissy in their long skirts –

but they all have a lethal-looking knife tucked into the back –

which they don’t have to leave behind in the armoury when they go home in the evening –

I travelled around in a pedal-powered tuk-tuk

– which was moderately terrifying as he puffed and wheezed his way through major junctions and down the wrong side of dual carriageways with cars and lorries hurtling towards me.

But I have to admit that they look much more picturesque than taxis –

– and I did make it back to the hotel in one piece every evening.




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