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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Being Intrepid – some successes and a failure

A perfect night to head off into the jungle to see fireflies –

“In a minute, you will see like Christmas tree,” our guide said.  And she wasn’t wrong – all the mangrove trees lining the river were filled with tiny twinkling lights.

I tried to photograph them, but just got a completely black picture.

Then, a man sitting cross-legged at the front of the boat began waving a lamp, making complicated patterns in the air which mimic the queen, apparently.  And all the fireflies left their trees and flew across the water like a cloud of tiny stars, towards our boat.

If you manage to catch a firefly, you can hold it in your hand and make a wish before letting it go.  Obviously I can’t reveal my wish, but do come and visit me at my villa on Lake Como once I’ve won the lottery.

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in SE Asia, but it was romantically shrouded in mist the day I went trekking there –

In the National Park surrounding the mountain I saw the world’s smallest orchid –

I was rather surprised when I saw it, as it’s only the flower that’s small and not the leaves – I was expecting a sort of dolls’ house orchid.

Then at the other end of the scale we saw the world’s largest flower – the rafflesia.  But I was rather underwhelmed by it –

– it didn’t look much like a flower at all.  I thought it looked a lot better in the advertising material, where it had made a bit more of an effort to scrub up for the photos –

But being an exotic bloom called Keith is enough to make anyone stop caring, I suppose.

I had two fruit-related successes on my trip.

Firstly, I saw red pomelo in the market and wanted to buy one to try it.  But how could I peel it if I bought it, as the skin is as thick as rhinoceros hide?

This is the sort of knife the professionals use to tackle the job –

And my hotel had no restaurant, so I couldn’t even borrow a knife.

Well, I have to report that it is perfectly possible to peel a pomelo using a pair of nail scissors –

– and it was delicious, definitely worth the struggle.

I also ate my first proper durian, fresh from the pod, not just a tiny shrink-wrapped piece sold to tourists who want to show how fearless they are, in central KL.

I bought it at the Sunday market, and the stallholder assured me it was a small one, perfect for one person

She removed all the seeds and put them onto a tray –

– and I carried them around as if I was holding a time bomb, very aware of the terrible smell emanating from the bag.  Finally, I found a secluded bench –

– where I sat and ate it – having asked for an extra plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to touch the fruit – the smell can linger for days, so I’m told.

The verdict?

… I do like durian, but a whole one – even a small one – is a bit too much.

The waters of the South China Sea are beautifully clear and full of tropical fish, so perfect for an intrepid snorkelling expedition.

I went out on a trip to a remote bay –

With beautiful clear water –

– and I’m happy to be able to reassure you that Nemo is alive and well and living with hundreds of his relatives in the coral reefs off the coast of Borneo.

Not my photo – bizarrely, I found this pic on the wall of the ladies’ loo at KL airport.

My failure to be intrepid involved yet another attempt to complete a circuit along a treetop walkway without sweats and palpitations and an urge to whimper pathetically all the way round.

Here I am, clinging on in terror as I’m about to launch off onto a swaying plank forty metres in the air, with only a bit of netting on each side as a barrier between me and instant death –

The blurb says you can “enjoy the spectacular wildness of Borneo’s ancient rainforest”, but I can truthfully say that I didn’t enjoy a single second of it.

I’m determined to carry on being intrepid and expanding my comfort zone, but from now on I’ll concentrate on expanding it horizontally rather than vertically.

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When my heart nearly stopped in Borneo

I’ve been on a jungle trekking expedition in Sabah – the furthest outpost of Malaysia, way out on the eastern edge of Borneo.

We spent our time either cruising down the river looking for wildlife, or manfully hacking our way through the jungle on what was euphemistically termed ‘jungle walks’.  I managed to rip two pairs of trousers to shreds and slide down a jungle-covered slope at high speed, rather than the slow and dignified descent that I’d planned.

The river cuts through the jungle with wildlife coming right up to the water’s edge, and we soon got to know the drill – when you see another boat that’s stopped, with everyone looking and pointing in the same direction –

– make a beeline for them, barge their boat out of the way and try to see what they’ve spotted.

Using this method, along with the phenomenal spotting skills of our cool dude guide –

– we managed to see proboscis monkeys, hornbills, pig-tailed macaques –

– not as elegant as the long-tailed macaques, but then they don’t seem to have the same thuggish tendencies either.

We saw a civet feeding in a tree on a night cruise, and even spotted a couple of wild orang utans, who are notoriously shy and difficult to see.  But one of them was apparently building a nest high up in a tree, so I think it must have been having an identity crisis – or else there’s a chronic housing shortage in the jungle.

It’s rather difficult to photograph the animals as they’re small and keep moving, but I did take a picture of a blue-eared kingfisher, as it was fast asleep  just a metre or so from our boat.

The sky changed constantly … from blue and serene –

to romantic –

to downright dramatic –

– I half expected the Angel Gabriel to appear from this cloud, wreathed in fire.  And if he had appeared, I would have sent him off to deal with a boatload of Russians, rocking precariously on the edges of their boat as they sat and smoked, ignoring the seats, which obviously weren’t macho enough for them, and who launched a drone at an orang utan.  Then when they were told it wasn’t allowed, they sent it whizzing off at top speed down the river, frightening everything within earshot.  If Gabriel had hurled fire and brimstone down on the drone and its owners, singeing them around their pot-bellied edges, justice would have been served.

This huge crocodile swam alongside our boat for a while –

– it’s apparently a caiman, and according to my new American friend Blyth, they make excellent handbags.

On our night hike the guide caught a firefly and it sat quite happily on my hand, glowing away –

It’s a female, I learnt, as it was flashing twice a second, whilst males only flash once a second.  Typical, I thought, the women working twice as hard as the men, but just getting on with it with no fuss.

And now to my heart-stopping moment, which didn’t involve crocodiles, poisonous millipedes or any of the other venomous creatures we came across.  It happened when I got out of bed in my little jungle cabin yesterday morning.  I was just adjusting to being vertical, when I noticed an ominous brown shape on the sheet where I’d been lying –

I shrieked and leapt into the farthest corner of the room.  How long had it been there?  Had I slept with a cockroach in my bed all night?

I knew I’d have to trap it before I did anything else – I draw the line at having free-range cockroaches in my bedroom.  I inched forwards with a cup to slam over it, but ready to take off like a gazelle again if need be … those things can really move.

But as I got within cup slamming distance, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t a cockroach after all … it was in fact an Australian smoked almond –

I thought almonds had all kinds of health-giving properties designed to prevent heart attacks – but now I’m not so sure.

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East is East …

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …

… Well, Rudyard Kipling had obviously never been to Malaysia, is all I can say.

One of the things I shall miss most – OK, the one thing that I will miss the most – when I leave KL is the food.  There is everything here – not just the Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines of the local population – but anything else you could wish for too, and East most definitely met West for me last week.

On Sunday we went to a celebrity chef’s restaurant.  Chef Ismail has a Malay restaurant in town, and there are videos of his TV programmes on a constant loop outside the dining room –

So, of course I recognised him instantly when I saw him in the dining room, and asked for a photo for my blog –

Rather excitingly, the co-owner of the restaurant is Malaysia’s first astronaut, a very handsome man who is also an orthopedic surgeon –

Disappointingly, he wasn’t at the restaurant, he was probably in orbit or saving the life of a small child in an operating theatre somewhere.

Malay food is delicious, but it’s all fried and not very healthy.  This woman is making roti jala, a sort of lacy pancake that you eat with curry –

and there’s a plate of popia – Malaysian spring rolls covered in a sweet and spicy sauce – on the table too.  We also ate the best satay I’ve had so far, and an amazing beef rendang where you could really taste the fresh lemongrass and all the other spices.

Conseqently, we had to breathe in for our photo opportunity with Chef Ismail after dinner –

And then yesterday – about 100 metres from work – I came across this …

– a Swiss restaurant serving genuine raclette – and I was very excited –

For me, Malaysia is the ultimate example of East and West living side by side in perfect culinary harmony.

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On a journey to enlightenment, also involving chicken feet

One astonishing fact about Malaysia is that there’s only one place in the whole country where it’s legal to gamble.  It’s astonishing because this is a country with 6.6 million Chinese inhabitants, and the Chinese love to gamble.  So why the government isn’t cashing in on this and setting up casinos in every town, I don’t know – but it may have something to do with the fact that gambling is banned for Muslims, so they can’t be seen to be actively promoting something which is prohibited for over 50% of the population.

Malaysia’s Las Vegas, as it’s known informally, is the Genting Highlands, and it’s about an hour’s drive from KL – high up in the wonderfully-named Titiwangsa Mountains, where the temperature is a refreshing 15 degrees; a world away from the 30-plus degrees of stickiness of the lowlands.

The cable car takes you up through the clouds

with some beautiful jungle views on the way up –

until you reach the summit, which is an area of built-up hideousness, with ugly hotels –

and an unfinished 20th Century Fox theme park, which has been 12 years in the building already, and is still nowhere near finished –

The whole place is intended to be appreciated from indoors rather than outdoors, and the windowless casinos, hotels and shopping malls all lead into each other with no walking trails to enjoy the views (‘eat can, gamble can, walk cannot’ as the locals say).

I’ve never been a gambler – I feel that I have enough vices already, without acquiring another one – so just enjoyed the understated decor inside the casino hotels, where you can see leopards –

and snakes –

dangling from fairy-lit trees – presumably to give the illusion of being outdoors, without any of the inconvenience of actually having to go outdoors.

Far more interesting was the Chinese temple, halfway up the mountain, where I went on a journey of enlightenment to learn about the Ten Courts, or Chambers, of Hell in Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.

The temple has a spectacular setting –

with all the views that are missing at the top of the mountain –

The Ten Courts of Hell are similar to Dante’s Circles of Hell, and ironically the Second Court includes all the gamblers, who are frozen into blocks of ice for eternity –

– obviously not a very effective deterrent in these parts.

There is also a special Court, or chamber, in Hell for children who show disrepect for their parents –

These ungrateful offspring are wedged inside a couple of giant stones and squashed –

– like a non-vegetarian Bourbon biscuit.

I shall be sharing these images with my children, to serve as a dire warning.

The second phase of my enlightenment that day took place at lunchtime, when I decided to try my first ever chicken feet –

– and I acquired the wisdom to understand that these gelatinous, bony extremities are not the most palatable part of the chicken.  When the Cockneys decided to refer to feet as ‘plates of meat’ they obviously didn’t have chicken feet in mind.


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A week of firsts …

After a while, once you get used to your new surroundings, even somewhere as different as Malaysia can seem a bit same-old, same-old.  So it was very exciting last week to do a whole host of new things.

For starters, I went into Chinatown and had my first ever frog porridge –

I have to admit that I was a little trepidatious – but more about the porridge than the frog – we francophiles don’t blanch at the thought of snarfing down an amphibian or two.

It was jolly delicious, and I am now a convert to Chinese rice porridge, which I have avoided for ever, because I loathe English porridge so much.

See – I was even smiling afterwards.

I also tried hot tofu with sugar syrup for the first time, from a little man with a cart, next to the fake designer handbags –

I’ve been converted to this, too – Chinatown seems to be my personal road to Damascus at the moment.

We went to visit the famous duck stall, which has been in the market for decades, and I was surprised to see that it was really just a glorified trolley –

But the queue was huge and the duck was amazing –


And then, I’m proud to say, I cooked my very first Malaysian supper party, with an authentic Peranakan recipe, from the Straits Chinese repertoire, called Pongteh.  It’s a kind of chicken stew, so off I went to the special shop for more Mozart Listening Chicken – I like to think I’m dealing with cultured poultry when I’m cooking.

And here it is –

– all brown and ambrosial – with the roast duck in the foreground, reheated to prefection.  It’s just a pity that I don’t have any serving dishes, so it looks like a meal from the soup kitchen.

My next delicious first was Yuzu – a citrus liqueur that is so much nicer than limoncello –

And after the second glass, I sat murmuring ‘where have yuzu been all my life?’

Then, after pongteh came gula’pong.  I’m not sure what ‘pong’ means in Bahasa, I tried putting it into google translate, and it told me that it also means ‘pong’ in English, but I’m sure that can’t be right.  If it was, durian would be called pong, and it isn’t.

I was delighted to learn that although gula’pong is made from a type of palm sugar and cream, it is a healthy dessert –

with extra sugar poured over the top … just to make it even healthier –

And then to round off my food-related firsts this week, I was trapped in the lift with a trolleyful of durian yesterday –

The young chap was very apologetic about the smell, and explained that he was holding a durian-eating competition later that evening for his friends.  I was very glad that he got out of the lift a good ten floors below me – I felt pretty sure the pong wouldn’t carry that far.

The only negative side to my week of firsts has been Mr Toad’s very strange behaviour ever since the frog porridge –

I’ve tried telling him that nobody eats toad porridge, but he just stares lugubriously at me.  I had no idea that toads were prone to such attention-seeking behaviour.



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Updates from the chalkface

And another riveting English lesson gets under way …

I was rather disappointed that my new pupil, Gladys, didn’t turn up for class on Saturday.  I pictured her with her hair in rollers and a mop in her hand, looking rather out of place amongst the eight-year-olds in the class. And then she didn’t even show up – but perhaps she had an emergency floor to mop.

I’m rather enjoying my new EFL class, for children with virtually no English, which started this week.  It makes a change from the usual near-fluent kids we have and gives me a lot of amusement.

Me: So, let’s practise our basic numbers again.  Ten plus ten equals …?

Student: Tuesday!

Me:  OK – let’s try another one.  Ten plus two equals …?

Student: Tissue!

Me: Hmmm.  Let’s try colours instead.

As I say, it makes a change from our usual children, who put me in my place quite regularly.  Last week a six-year-old asked me, ‘Miss Louise, why do you talk all the time?’

Now in my natural milieu, with teenagers, I would have shot back with something like, ‘because I’m the teacher, and you won’t learn much if we all sit here in silence.’

But I’m not used to six-year-olds and don’t want a lesson filled with howling and snivelling, so I responded very politely with, ‘Oh, do I talk too much?’

‘Yes,’  she said.

‘Shall I stop talking, then?’

‘Well, you can say something …. just don’t say too much.’

So that was me put in my place.

And then this week, the same child asked if we could sing a song, so I agreed and started off with Old Macdonald.

‘Oh my God!’ she said.  ‘You’re singing kids’ songs.’

‘Don’t you like kids’ songs?’ I asked (bad move, in retrospect).

‘No, I like sexy songs and sad songs.  My favourite is Ariana Grande.  Can we sing I’m into you?’

So we did – and she was word perfect.

Six-year-olds are a whole new breed nowadays.


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A handbag?

Mahathir, Malaysia’s new prime minister, turned 93 this week, while his wife is a sprightly 92. But his impending century has not lessened his determination to expose the corruption of his predecessor, Najib, and Najib’s extremely unpopular wife, Rosmah.

The whole country has been agog at the details emerging during the search of their home.

So far, 116.7 million Ringgits has been found in cash, which is nearly £22 million – a lot of it stuffed into handbags … and what handbags!

This woman has 272 Hermes Birkin bags alone, worth over £10 million. Apparently they were all gifts from well-wishers, although whether they were already stuffed with money when she received them, or whether she stuffed them herself at a later date is unclear.

But Hermes bags are cheap compared with Bijan bags (the yellow one on the right in this picture), as I’ve learnt from the newspapers. I’d never heard of them before, but now I know that they’re so exclusive that their shop is ‘by invitation only’ and the diamond-encrusted bags are upwards of $100,000 (US). But I expect that Rosmah only has one for sentimental reasons … Bijan is Najib spelt backwards.

And it doesn’t stop at handbags –

– and if a diamond-encrusted watch doesn’t do it for you, how about some diamonds without the watch –

Anyway, my thinking is that they’ll need to sell all this booty to recoup some of the government money that disappeared into Najib’s personal bank account, so I shall be scouring Chinatown for a sale of cheap, second-hand Hermes bags.

So, would anyone else like one while I’m there?

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Shopping … Malaysian-style

Shopping in Malaysia can be a frustrating experience; customer service is an unknown concept, and it’s not unusual to be ignored in a shop while the many, many assistants all stand around glued to their phones.  I’m afraid that this attitude brings out the Mem Sahib in me, and I march up to one of them and say, ‘Excuse me, is this shop actually open for business?’ in ringing tones.

In a restaurant recently I asked the waitress about one of the dishes on the menu.  She went into great detail about the way it was cooked, the size of the portion, suitable side dishes, and then said, ‘finish already’.

‘Finish already’ is a favourite phrase, meaning ‘we’ve sold out of whatever it is you want, and we don’t know – or care – whether we’ll ever get any more stock in.  And what’s more, we don’t care if we stand around all day and don’t sell a thing – we don’t own the company.’

So, I was surprised to hear a shop assistant in a shoe shop really going the extra mile with the customer service last week:

Customer: I think I’ll take two pairs.

Assistant: Two pairs, Madam?  So, do you mean left and right and left and right?

Customer: Well, … yes.

There are some rather unusual things for sale here too.  For example – how about having your breast milk made into soap?

Just the thing for the Aunties at Christmas.

And my local deli sells Mozart Listening Chicken –

I was intrigued and googled the company, to discover that it’s quite well-known and has featured on the Smithsonian website –

I read about their philosophy –

– so Mozart leads to happier, less smelly chickens.

But I just imagine them all on death row squawking, ‘Oh no, not yet!  Please can I just listen to the end of Eine Kleine Nacht -‘



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Katy Perry warmed the seat for me

It’s a wonderful thing when your children become independent, start to lead more interesting lives than yours ever was, and then invite you to tag along from time to time.

That’s how Anthony and I got ourselves invited to a wine-tasting at Berry Brothers and Rudd last Friday – to be tutored by Olivia – and so we hotfooted it to St James’s, in our role as proud parents.

We were greeted by our hostess and a glass of fizz –

and then swilled, sniffed, slurped and chewed (yes, chewed) seven different wines –

– and by the end of the evening I had a series of  interesting notes: smoky bacon, cats’ pee, leather, tobacco.  I’m just hoping those weren’t the actual ingredients.

Then we had a tour around the shop, and for those who don’t know, it’s been there for over 250 years – and when you look at a photo, you can see why it’s been called the Hogwarts of the wine world –

– definitely looks like a corner of the Leaky Cauldron.

It’s full of intriguing little staircases –

– and of course, there’s wine everywhere ….

… even in the ladies loo –

Here’s a close-up of the wall –

– top marks for appropriately-themed wallpaper here.

In the shop there’s a huge, ancient set of scales, which was originally purchased to weigh coffee, but then became famous as one of the few places where a person could be weighed in Eighteenth Century London – and all sorts of people had their weights recorded in a series of ledgers –

Lord Byron’s records show that he lost a lot of weight when he contracted some nasty disease (best not to ask exactly what, I felt), and William Pitt, Beau Brummel, Nellie Melba and the Aga Khan were all regulars … what a fascinating piece of social history.

But it’s not just a piece of history; the scales are still being sat on nowadays.  Matt Damon recently had a weigh-in and I was assured that the last bottom to grace the seat before mine, was Katy Perry’s last week …

… thanks, Katy – you warmed it beautifully.

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You know you’re in England when …

… a story about criminal damage to an artichoke patch –

– is not from a Wallace and Gromit film, but is actually on the BBC –

I popped home to England for a brief visit last week for the first time in a year, and revelled in the things that are so different to life in Malaysia.

My sister-in-law went off to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, looking glam and gorgeous (not that I was jealous, you understand) –

Meanwhile these two ladies were on the tube at 11 a.m. enjoying a cheeky G&T –

note to self: flamingo straws definitely add a touch of class in this scenario.

The roses in Regent’s Park were beautiful –

and my own climbing rose wasn’t too bad either, and definitely enhanced by the wonderfully sunny weather –

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy was wacky and flamboyant, as you might expect from something put together by Grayson Perry.

The elongated Pink Panther is entitled ‘Infinity’

and this sculpture has no title –

– but covering an ironing board in papier-mâché is the best thing to do with it, in my opinion.

I was rather taken with this bear rug in reverse –

and the guardian of the gate, made of nails –

He wouldn’t look out of place outside a Wat in Thailand.



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On the trail of the headhunters in Sarawak

How about this for the entrance to a national park?

We arrived by boat, and waded from the shallows up to the beach in gloriously warm water

I couldn’t understand why nobody was swimming, until our guide explained that the waters here are home to crocodiles – and the saltwater crocodile is the largest living reptile and most aggressive of all crocodiles.  Suddenly I understood very clearly why all the beautiful little bays along the coast-

– are utterly deserted.

There are some amazing rock formations.  This one is the snakeshead rock –

which looks as though it’s been created by some giant who’s heavily into the latest stone balancing craze.

And this one looked just like a giant piece of driftwood –

– well, it looked like that to me, anyway.

There are more than forty indigenous ethnic groups in Sarawak, including the Iban, who were the original headhunters of Borneo.  Our guide was an Iban –

– and he was a formidable animal and plant hunter, but luckily showed no interest in detaching anyone’s head from their shoulders.

The Iban and several of the other tribes live in longhouses and the Sarawak cultural village has brought a whole variety of them together.

Some are short –

– note the staircase, made of a single tree trunk, which can be pulled up into the house if invaders threaten.

Some are tall –

– the narrow, single-trunk staircase up to this one was terrifyingly tortuous to climb.

And some are round and rather gloomy inside –


They all seem to be full of beautiful girls

who obviously have access to modern dentistry.

These two are engaged in the traditional age-old practices –

– of embroidery and texting.

The witch doctor has a surgery in one of the longhouses –

If you’re ill, he takes your illness and transfers it to one of the dolls –

which is then floated down the river in a special boat –

We were warned never to touch one of the dolls or one of the boats, if we see them on a river somewhere.  Apparently the illness will transfer to you if you touch it … scary stuff.

The village puts on performances of traditional dances, but unfortunately the dance of their fearless warriors put me in mind of Widow Twanky –

and I couldn’t take them seriously at all.



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Exploring Sarawak

I’ve always seen myself as an urban creature; like the town mouse I prefer a life of feasting and uncertainty to dull simplicity.  Whilst a brisk walk in the countryside is lovely on a sunny day, I’ve never been one for nature-spotting – I’m quite happy to leave that to twitchers, whale watchers and David Attenborough.  So I was quite surprised by my enthusiasm for going orang utan spotting in Sarawak this week.  It was explained to us that we might not see any, as this is the ‘timber fruit season’, whatever that means, so they don’t usually come out of the jungle and down to the feeding station.  But even so, I was determined to go.

Tramping doggedly through the jungle, there was so much high-pitched chirruping, whistling and ringing that I thought I’d developed tinnitus –


I asked what it was, and it’s a cicada – but so much louder than the European ones.  How can something as small as a cicada make so much noise?  I suppose if I’d watched a few more nature documentaries I’d know the answer to that.

But it was worth all the tramping and ear-ringing – we saw two orang utans, a mother and a baby, and I wished I had a camera with a decent zoom instead of just my phone –

-as the baby twirled balletically on the rope while its mother scoffed bananas

and smashed coconuts against a tree.

Give that baby a spangly leotard and it would go down a storm at the circus.

Encouraged by my success, I signed up for a full day of animal spotting in the Bako national park.

We saw – in fact almost brushed against – a pit viper –

– the second most deadly snake in Borneo.  Luckily our guide was a bit more in tune with his surroudings than the rest of us, and dragged a woman away from the tree just as she was about to rest her arm on it.  He then gave us a useful tip on how to tell if a snake is venomous – look at its eyes.  If the eyes are slits, it’s venomous, and if they’re rounded, it’s not.  Personally, I wasn’t convinced by this; if you’re close enough to a snake to see that its eyes are not reassuringly rounded, then what do you do?  I prefer my friend Gordon’s advice – if you see a snake, scream and run away, and then pay some fearless locals to go and retrieve your abandoned bicycle.

The bearded wild pig was bizarre –

– the beard looks as though it’s made of shredded wheat, and it snuffled and rooted next to the path and took no notice of us at all.

The park is famous for monkeys – especially the proboscis monkey, which is apparently only found in Borneo.  We saw one swinging through the trees and heard a lot of others, but they’re very shy, so I couldn’t take a picture.

This is what they look like – apparently the females find the big nose alluring.

They live in harems or bachelor groups – no bachelorette groups for the emancipated females … nature is very backward when it comes to gender equality.

The silverleaf monkeys are very shy too, and were high up in the trees, so I had to resort to the internet again to find a decent photo –

They’re known locally as the David Beckham monkey, due to their upwardly swept hairstyle.  The babies are bright orange so that they can be easily seen and snatched away from danger by their parents.  What a great idea – it made me wish my babies had been turquoise or emerald, instead of boring old flesh-coloured.

We saw lots of long-tailed macaques – known as the mafia – and learnt some useful tips for dealing with them, as they can be a menace, both here and in KL.

Rule number one: don’t make eye contact, or he’ll think you’re challenging him.  So we carefully averted our eyes as if we were in the presence of some demanding A-lister.

Rule number two: don’t let them see your teeth, or they’ll see that you don’t have sharp teeth and come over and bite you.

Rule number three: never eat anything in their presence, or they’ll come over and snatch it … and bite you too, just for the hell of it.

Rule number four: if you obey all these rules and they come for you anyway, defend yourself by lunging fearlessly at them with a water bottle.

So – after an exhausting day of animal spotting, I spent the evening seeking out a few more –

This is nature at its best –

– hot, fresh and utterly delicious.


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It’s that time of year again

Ramadan is here again.  If you hadn’t realised, you’d soon find out when you tried to get anywhere on the roads from 5 – 7 pm and found them all jammed solid, as people dash home to get ready to break their fast at the appointed time –

7.21 pm today in KL, after an early meal this morning which must have finished by 5.30 am – so that’s nearly 14 hours without food or, more importantly, water in this heat, which must be torture.  It’s apparently a contributing factor to the huge number of Malaysians with chronic kidney disease (9% of the population), which has led to  the country having the 7th highest number of dialysis patients in the world.

The Ramadan market takes place every afternoon and evening on the road by the school, and is absolutely rammed with people –

buying up all the delicious treats to take home and eat, just as soon as the clock strikes 7.21 pm.

These roti are delicious fried breads –

and here are yet more delicious fried things –

and some beautifully vibrant “Barbie Juice” …

Fried durian anyone …?

So it’s not exactly a health-fest once you do get to eat something in the evening … it’s no wonder that the Malays tend to be a tad on the rotund side.

There was an interesting article in the newspaper yesterday about Ramadan etiquette.

I learnt that it’s not acceptable to shout at someone on a station platform who’s eating a curry puff, just because you’re fasting and can’t have one.  I’m glad I found that out, so that I can shout back and tell them that I know my rights, if I happen to get the urge to scoff a curry puff in public this month.

You are also not allowed to whine, harangue, queue jump or lynch people –

which I’m definitely in favour of at all times of the year, not just Ramadan.

But I’m not so keen on the idea of the religious authorities arresting you, if you eat during the daytime –

and you’re “of a certain skin tone”.

Food-shaming is one thing, but a prison sentence takes it to a whole new level.





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Happy Birthday to me …

I had a jolly spiffing birthday yesterday –

Although there was one rather strange moment at work where we all sang Happy Birthday and had cake.

What’s so strange about that?

Well, it wasn’t for me, it was for some other people at work … whose birthdays were four weeks ago –

So I found myself singing Happy Birthday to someone whose birthday it wasn’t, and eating their cake, on MY birthday!

Oh well, that’s just the way we do things in Malaysia … temporal specificity is such a Western concept.

I had an Italian-themed supper party in the evening –

catered by the wonderful Katie (the Katerer) –

While I did my mixologist routine, cracking out the Aperol spritz –

and making a hideous mess.

The food was delicious –

– and there was even a lasagne which takes five whole days to make!  But it disappeared so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to take a picture.

It was lovely to celebrate with all my KL chums.

These are my walking chums –

these are my dining chums –

And these are the party animals –

Quick, Asian photo fingers, everyone!

I wonder where I’ll be for my next birthday?

Hopefully somewhere with less humidity, where my hair will finally look sleek and sophisticated and I won’t look like this any more –

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Showers of Owls

Yesterday was an extraordinary day in Malaysia; the ruling party was finally toppled after running the country for 61 years, ever since it became an independent country.  The corrupt Prime Minister, who recently rejigged all the electoral boundaries to try to ensure another victory, has been ousted.

I woke to a text from our head teacher saying, ‘History is being made as we speak’, and all day there have been happy smiling people everywhere, talking excitedly in groups.  The atmosphere is euphoric, with none of the violence predicted by the press.  A local friend sent a text, ‘Never thought I’d cry for Malaysia’, and my smiling taxi driver last night said, ‘I’m so happy.  I never thought this day would come in Malaysia.’

All evening we could hear spontaneous cheering, whistling and party-blowers tooting from bars and restaurants, and I kept getting a strange feeling of deja-vu, but couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then I suddenly realised that it reminded me of Harry Potter, and the wizarding world’s reaction to Voldemort’s disappearance.  There were no strange men in emerald cloaks here or showers of owls, but there was the same air of joy, relief and excitement about a future they hadn’t dared hope for, that has suddenly appeared in front of them.

The new Prime Minister is 92 years old, but looks jolly sprightly when I compare him to my 91-year-old father.

And I finally understood why they need a public holiday on election day.  People have to queue – routinely for up to three hours in the heat – to cast their vote.

According to the news, three people died during the voting process – two waiting in queues and one election official.  Apparently voters are taken one by one into a room to have their details checked at snail’s pace, and then move into the voting room, where their finger is indelibly inked as a precaution, should they feel moved to queue up again for another go … quite a few people have been known to rise from the dead to cast their vote during previous elections.

The black finger is like an exclusive club membership at the moment, with restaurants offering discounts or even free food in some cases.

There were so many warnings of potential unrest, violence, rioting etc, that we played it safe and celebrated election day with a pool party

Can you see me?


And now … two more Public Holidays to celebrate the opposition’s win.  So that’s three in a row … oh, and the one last week, and another one at the end of May, and yet another one on 2 June.

Go, Malaysia – Public Holiday Capital of the World!



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Cakes and Holidays

Elections in Malaysia are positively biblical – you have to return to your home town to vote; you can’t vote in the town where you currently live.  I don’t think you actually have to travel there on the back of a donkey, but it’s still a pretty archaic system for the 21st Century.

The General Election, or GE14 as it’s being called, is on Wednesday, and the entire country is covered in flags and banners – most supporting the ruling party.

There are at least a thousand flags between my condo and the school, so I can’t begin to imagine how many there are covering the entire country.

Unlike the UK, there are no flags in people’s gardens or front windows, showing an individual’s support for a particular party.  All the flags here are on public streets, fences, railings, lamp-posts, covering every square inch of non-private land.  The local paper reported that they were put up by party-faithful ‘thugs’ and I wonder if they’ll bother to take them down again afterwards, or just leave them to fester and rot in the heat and the rain.

I’ve already been warned by  several locals not to go out on Wednesday or Thursday, in case there are riots.  However, other people I’ve spoken to have scoffed at the idea of riots, on the grounds that the Malaysians are far too lazy to riot.

Then I received a text last Wednesday not only warning me to stay at home, but teling me what colours to avoid wearing –

So I’ve decided to dress entirely in black for the whole of next week, just to be on the safe side.

There’s a lot at stake in this election – especially for the current Prime Minister, who’s been embroiled in a lot of unsavoury scandals recently. And the leader of the main opposition party is 94 years old, so I imagine this will be his last crack at the top job.  But Malaysia being Malaysia, it’s actually all about cake and public holidays.

Wednesday has been declared a public holiday because it’s election day (of course) and the ruling party has promised that if they win, they will declare Thursday a public holiday too.  However, if the main opposition party win, they have said that they will declare Thursday AND Friday as public holidays … so they definitely get my vote.

And the most popular way of showing your support is by buying cakes decorated with the logo and colours of your preferred party –

eat your way to victory – and to hell with the fact that 17.5% of the population here has diabetes.

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Hooray for another public holiday!

One of the best things about being based in KL – apart from the ridiculous number of public holidays – is the huge number of places you can get to very cheaply, because it’s the hub for Air Asia: cheap, cheerful and very rarely on time.

So, for £72 return and an hour and a quarter’s flight, I decided to make the most of a three-day break – thanks to yet another Public Holiday – and fly up to Phuket for some serious r&r …

I left work at 5 pm and leapt on a train, then leapt on a plane and finally leapt into a taxi and had arrived at my hotel by 9.45 pm.

After an exhausting day, looking at the view from beneath my beach umbrella –

I decided that I should really be more writerly in my approach to my blog, so I transformed the porch outside my bungalow –

into a verdant outdoor studio –

– and felt very professional as I sat there, typing away.

Tropical beaches do a very good line in sunsets, I’ve discovered –

– and dinner at a beachfront restaurant, with the waves swooshing gently in the background –

– is the ultimate de-stresser.

But even in this tropical paradise there are people living just metres from the beach in the shell of an old building.  They’ve built walls from corrugated steel with doors cut into them –

and what I found most poignant was the number painted on the outside of each unit – a demonstration of aspiration in the face of the harshest poverty.

I feel sure that in Europe these people would have been moved away from the beach, to somewhere less scenic where they wouldn’t spoil the experience for the holiday makers – but I was glad they were there, and I decided to be a little more generous to the itinerant beach sellers from now on, and not view them as a bit of a nuisance; they’re just earning a living like the rest of us.

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The perils of mispronunication

This week I learned that the words for ‘late’ and ‘sodomy’ in Bahasa are practically indistinguishable to the non-native speaker.  So, it’s a good idea for all foreigners to be extremely punctual, thus  avoiding the danger of accidentally confessing to a crime and ending up with a twenty-year prison sentence.

And then I had an alarming conversation with a waiter this weekend, when I was trying to pay for the meal I’d just eaten.


I tried to remember the name of the Indonesian dish I’d ordered, and decided that it was called Penet.

‘Penis?’ asked the waiter.

‘No!’ I said, fairy confident that penis had not been one of the options on the menu.  ‘Penet, defininitely penet.’

‘OK.  Penis.  I go check.’  And he promptly disappeared.

I decided it would be far easier to go to the till and pay directly, where the very helpful cashier told me that the dish was actually called Penyet … not too far from my attempt at pronunciation, I felt.

Having paid, I was just about to leave, when the original waiter came rushing out of the kitchen calling ‘Madam, Madam’ and holding a bowl up in front of him with both hands, as though it contained some sort of sacrificial offering.

Oh no, I thought, surely this isn’t a freshly severed phallus, foraged from one of the kitchen staff?

He stopped in front of me and held out the bowl reverentially.  I looked down apprehensively … and have never been so relieved to see a bowl of peanuts in my life.


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