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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Popping up to Penang

I’ve learnt that when chums visit you have to stop lolling around on the sofa and go off and do a bit of sightseeing.  So when Caroline came to stay, once we’d exhausted the possibilities KL has to offer, we popped up to Penang for a couple of days.

We found the most wonderful cake shop in the whole world –

and this was only half of their selection!

In Singapore celebrities get orchids named after them, but in Penang internationally renowned cake-eaters are honoured in a much more fitting way  –


We went to see the beautiful Blue Mansion which was built in the Nineteenth Century by Cheong Fatt Tze – popularly referred to in his time as the Rockefeller of the East –

We were told that he started life as a dirt-poor Chinese immigrant, working as a water carrier, but was fortunate enough to marry the boss’s daughter, and his father-in-law then bankrolled his business ventures.  This sounded about as likely as a Downton Abbey storyline to me – especially since the guide told us that Cheong’s only interest in his own daughters was the alliances he could make by marrying them off to his associates.

But he did own a house that was recognised as being Feng Shui Perfect by the experts.  They came and did a feng shui survey of the property, using this …

… which is a feng shui compass.  Seeing how archaic it looks, and thinking that it must be similar to reading runes or consulting the oracle at Delphi, I googled it to see how people would have used it – only to learn that there is a feng shui compass app that you can download onto your phone …  not quite so archaic, after all.

Travelling with an artist, I have learnt to wait patiently while artistic photographs are taken, both indoors –

and outdoors –

and to admire all sorts of artistic creations, including …

… a cappuccino in the shape of a rabbit.

And to have beautiful batik creations drying on the clothes rack –


I did try to join in, by sketching a self-portrait on the tablecloth with the kiddies’ crayons –

– but it didn’t get the recognition I felt it deserved.

Oh well, I shall go back to the cake-eating, as that’s what I really do best.





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We are not amused …

Malaysians are outraged.

Why? You might ask – they’re pretty placid people on the whole.

Well, there’s a general election coming up, and the ruling party has been busy changing the electoral boundaries to ensure that there’s a majority of Muslims in every catchment area, so that the National Party gets back into power.

The same party has been in power, in one form or another, since Malaysia gained  independence in the 1950s.  The current prime minister, who is also the finance minister, is the son of one of the previous prime ministers, and has been PM since 2009.  The country is ready for a change, but he’s doing everything he can to make sure they don’t get one.

So is this why Malaysians are outraged?  No, it isn’t.

Malaysians are outraged because a contestant on Master Chef was criticised for not making crispy rendang – everyone is talking about it. Even Najib, the Prime Minister, has been tweeting about it –

– and you’d think he’d have more important things to think about in the run-up to an election.  But perhaps currying favour is at the top of his agenda …

Ikea has jumped on the bandwagon this week –

And even my local coffee shop had a sign on the wall –

Oh, well – my father was very fond of saying that people get the government they deserve.  So perhaps it’s fitting that the Malaysians have a Prime Minister who’s more concerned with chicken rendang than with corruption.

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Releasing my inner Miss Trunchbull

I do love being unkind to children … I think that must be why I decided to go into teaching in the first place.  This was my April Fools’ Day prank –

I stuck this notice on the door and then hid, along with the first three children who’d arrived to class.  They hid under the tables, but I felt that it would be slightly undignified for me to be seen scrambling out from underneath a table, so I hid in a corner.

We then waited for anxious faces to peer around the door, wondering what on earth was going on, so that we could shout ‘April Fool!’ and laugh at them. A thoroughly enjoyable experience, managing to disguise mean-spirited mocking as cultural enrichment.

One boy brought along the timetable for his boxing tournament this weekend –

and I was interested to see that, even when you’re beating seven kinds of crap out of someone, you still stop halfway through and pray.  Presumably you either pray for victory or for mercy, depending on the way the fight’s going.

My other big moment this week was an appearance as a retired French supermodel in a 1970’s murder mystery –

and I have to say that I really nailed that role –

disappointingly, I didn’t turn out to be the murderer, but I did manage to murder a few vowels along the way, with my utterly convincing, thick French accent.


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Do not wail against the flow

As I was reading the regulations on the escalators which link the hilly districts of Hong Kong Island –

I realised that this is where I’ve been going wrong all my life … too much wailing against the flow.

Taking this advice to heart, I declined a trip on a junk at dusk –

– on the basis that there was far too much flow, and it was going up and down in an alarmingly nausea-inducing way.

So, I decided to stay with the flow and wait for nightfall on terra firma, where it was just as picturesque, and much more stable.

Then, on a trip to the History Museum, I learnt that a terrible accident might have been averted if only people had realised that buns flow downwards … at least they do on Earth, where gravity means that all buns are pulled down towards the Earth, unless the buns in question happen to be larger than the Earth, if I’ve understood my science lessons correctly.  So, climbing a ten-metre high bun-tower definitely counts as wailing against the flow, and during the 1978 Annual bun scramble on Cheung Chau Island, a bun tower collapsed and caused many injuries.

Ironically, the buns have the word ‘longevity’ stamped on them,  and are said to bring protection and good fortune … but obviously not to those who topple ten metres down a wonky pole in an attempt to grab one.

Still going with the flow, we got the funicular to the top of the peak –

– and I then hurled myself down in a daring bungee jump, all the way to the bottom –

and, as if that wasn’t exhausting enough, I then flowed fearlessly towards my adversary –

– as I starred in my own comic strip.

The flow was most definitely going in the right direction when we came across the Craft Gin and Cocktail Bar, where I discovered my new favourite cocktail –

– the gin sour: two for the price of one in happy hour … even more flow going in the right direction.

So I’m now anticipating a very smooth journey as I skip along life’s formerly rugged path, always remembering not to wail against the flow.


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You’d be bonkers not to go via Honkers …


… as the old Aussie advertisement for Cathay Pacific used to go.

So, to confirm my sanity, I decided to spend the spring break in Hong Kong, which is only a hop and a skip and £150 return from KL.

The harbour views are fantastic

and the crew on the Star Ferry have the cutest uniforms –

 But as Hong Kong is all  about the food, we took a food tour and discovered my new favourite food – crispy egg waffles- 

Not so sure about the vegetarian pork though –

We saw this decidedly flat duck in the market-

— and he was looking fairly pissed off with life in general.  Luckily the roast goose we ate arrived ready sliced –

– so we were spared the lugubrious expression.

These cakes are all for dogs …

because everyone buys their dog a birthday cake, don’t they?  Or a bone shaped biscuit at the very least?

We walked past multiple agencies offering maids for hire –

– and our guide explained that the most important thing to find out about a prospective maid is their Chinese horoscope animal and their zodiac sign –

– and the next most important thing is their position within their own family

… and to hell with whether they can wield an iron or boil a dumpling.

The logic behind this is  that all maids send cash home to their family in Indonesia or the Philippines, and  elder children are more likely to feel a sense of responsibility to their younger siblings at home and be obedient to their employers and eager to please.

They earn about £90 a week, and on their days off, sit under bridges or on staircases chatting with their friends – not much of a life.

But these two looked cheery enough when I took a photo.

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You know you’re in Singapore when …


… the water features at the airport –

look more like the installations you’d find in a five star hotel anywhere else.

… you can get a glass of perfectly chilled Piper Heidsieck –

at the theatre –

rather than a can of tepid 7-Up, which tends to be the classy beverage of choice in Malaysia.

… when the most heinous crime committed –

wouldn’t even rate a mention in most other countries.

… when their national ‘dish’ –

is a fruity and frivolous cocktail.

… and when nobody finds names of pawnshops extremely funny –

except me – and possibly any visiting Scousers.



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Teacher, how do you spell ‘turd’?

I was surprised when a child asked me this the other day.  What on earth is she writing about, I wondered, given that the title of the story was supposed to be ‘My First Day at Pirate School’.

I obviously looked puzzled, so she elaborated, ‘I can spell first and second but I don’t know how to spell turd.

That’s one of the problems here – only the most competent linguists can pronounce ‘th’, and whilst you can understand the meaning most of the time, there are occasional moments of bewilderment/hilarity.  So ‘tree rabbits’ turned out to be Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, and not some new arboreal species, and ‘The Tin Man’ was emaciated and not straight out of the Wizard of Oz.

Equally, some words are just plain ridiculous without the ‘th’, such as ‘he fell to the ground with a tud’, ‘cars today have an electronic trottle’ or ‘he offered his tanks to everyone’.

So we spend a lot of time practising – sticking our tongues out between our teeth and then breathing out and making a lisping, hissing sound, like a nest of angry cobras.

I have two new children joining my classes this week.  I don’t know why, but this name makes me laugh every time I look at it –

– imagine being called Jayvis Moo, and expecting to be taken seriously.

At the other end of the spectrum is a name I shall be taking very seriously –

No surname, just Azlan.  Am considering suggesting that we nip into the wardrobe together – although, on second thoughts, I left England to get away from the land of eternal winter, so perhaps I’ll keep the wardrobe door firmly closed … just in case.



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Chatting up a monk

When I saw the sign, I couldn’t resist –

I’ve always wanted to chat a monk up, so I dashed over to the monk assignation area.

My monk was called Claim, and he told me all about his life in the monastery and at the university attached to the monastery, where he studies Pali, which is a language similar to Sanskrit.

He’s an urban monk, and so he wears orange robes.  Urban monks get up at 5 am, pray and then meditate for an hour, before going out into town to collect donations of food in exchange for blessings.  He explained that the brown-robed monks are the rural monks, who get up at 4 am and meditate for 5 hours a day …  so they’ve definitely drawn the short straw.  Although, thinking about it, there’s probably not much else to do out in rural Thailand.

Rather endearingly he told me that he wanted to learn English because he’d enjoyed Harry Potter so much.  I can’t imagine many Christian monks embracing witchcraft and wizardry with such enthusiasm.

After the monk chat session, I went to look around the temple, where the urban monks seemed to be having a jolly game of musical chairs.

Presumably the rural monks had all gone back to the jungle for some more meditation.

The monks’ garden was full of words of wisdom, hanging from trees, and I was rather taken with this one –

I imagine some poor, homely-looking monk painstakingly writing it out, whilst looking enviously over his shoulder at the monastery pin-up boys, flexing their biceps as they stride confidently across the courtyard for a bit of monk chat.

I didn’t just visit monks while I was in Chiang Mai, I also went on a trip to the Karen tribe, who live up in the hills outside the town.

This poor woman was having a lot of problems with her itchy woollen stockings

She was rubbing half a lime up and down her legs – I wasn’t sure if it was a tradional cure, or whether she was just a little strange.

The Karen grow coffee, and I tasted my first fresh coffee berry

I was surprised that it was really sweet and I suppose that’s why the weasels like them so much.  But I decided against making my own version of weasel coffee, and spat my coffee bean out –

The flowers in Northern Thailand are beautiful.  There are lots of cherry trees, which were a gift from Japan –

and they look stunning against the brilliant blue sky.

I also saw rhododendrons in their native habitat –

– they are apparently native to the Himalayas, and the highest mountain in Thailand is the easternmost peak of the Himalayas.

Bizarrely, there is a huge garden halfway up the mountain which is full of dahlias, snapdragons, delphiniums and all sorts of other plants that I have in my garden in England.  It’s a temperate garden project which was started by the last king to encourage the locals to grow something other than opium.

I did spot a few poppies –

but presumably they are not of the hallucinogenic variety.  And with the drug penalty being what it is in Thailand, I didn’t much fancy giving them a try.



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First, coat your elephant liberally with mud …

Have just returned from a few days in Chiang Mai, where I learnt two very useful new skills  – firstly, how to give an elephant a mud bath, and secondly, how to wash the mud off again.

The elephants at the rescue centre have been rescued from performance venues in Thailand – all except the baby, who is three months old and was born there –

– he’s absolutely adorable.

First, we had to feed the elephants with pieces of chopped up bamboo … and that was when I felt something long, sinewy and warm snaking around my waist …

… they have no qualms at all about invading your personal space if there’s food involved.

Then we took them to the mud pool and covered them in the gooiest mud I’ve ever come across.

The elephants loved it, but I wasn’t quite so keen; mud wrestling has never been high on my list of possible hobbies.

After the mud, we washed them in the most beautiful clear water – well, it was clear before the elephant washing began – in the pool beneath a waterfall.  The water was freezing –

and the elephants – sneaky rotters – kept sucking up trunkfuls and spraying it all over us –

I was not amused …

But I managed to get my own back by feeding them their medicine –

which they weren’t too keen on – even though he does look as though he’s smiling in this photo.

After that it was a quick shower with a bar of soap under the power-shower waterfall to try and get rid of the worst of the mud

and then back into town, upskilled and upbeat. What a great day!


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What do Donald Trump, the Prince of Wales and three ugly-looking ladies have in common?

The answer could well be that they all have names that I find easy to remember – which is a definite bonus these days.

The new school year has brought with it a whole set of new name problems for me … and I used to think I was good with names.

Having finally got to grips last year with the unfamiliar Chinese names, and got accustomed to the retro British names, I now find myself back to square one.

For a start, I have a whole set of names that haven’t been seen in a school register in England since the 1950s.  In one class there’s Valerie and Clive, who sound more like veterans of the golf club than nine-year-old children.  Then there’s Muriel, who is always referred to as Unfortunate Muriel, for a variety of unfortunate reasons.  Marvin and Mervyn sound like a couple of second-hand car dealers, while Audrey must be the mad maiden aunt who’s probably into spiritualism.

Bryan is still the single most popular name in the school, and I have at least one per class.  Then there’s Dim Keith, Fat Ian, and Kayleb, whose parents are obviously into phonetic spelling.  Cherbelle and Crystalbelle sound so like Disney characters that I wasn’t surprised when a boy accidentally referred to Crystalbelle as Tinkerbell one day, much to his embarrassment once he realised his mistake.

Then we come to the Chinese names, and I seem to be beset with Xs and Ys this year, with a few Js thrown in just to add to the confusion.  In one class there’s Yu Xin, Xin Hui, Xin Yen, Hao Yen, Ya Jing – and in another there’s Chui Yi, Jia Yi, Shu Yi, Jian Jie and Jia Min.  I just call out a name and try not to look as though I have no idea which child I’m talking to.

Another difficulty with Chinese names is that there seems to be no way of distinguishing between boys’ names and girls’ names – so Li-Ann is a girl, but Lian-Ann is a boy – and what’s more he’s a boy who I accidentally called Denise one day, because he and Denise have the same surname … oh dear!

And finally – what do Donald Trump, the Prince of Wales and three ugly-looking ladies have in common?

The answer is, of course, that they have all been unmasked as robbers and are now banged up in prison for the next ten years – what an interesting thought.



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You can wear any colour you like … as long as it’s red

Things are hotting up for Chinese New Year next week.  Interestingly, it’s always called Chinese New Year, or CNY, even by the Chinese.  In our usual imperialist way, the West seems to have commandeered the term ‘New Year’ for 1 January – so perhaps we should embrace diversity, acknowledge that other New Years exist and start calling our celebration Gregorian New Year?  Just a thought.

CNY is a bit like Christmas is for us, and the celebrations start weeks ahead.  Last week I managed to gatecrash the KL Senior Citizens’ Karaoke Club CNY Lunch

and a jolly fine time we had too.

There are decorations everywhere – my local mall has gone for the Japan-in-the-Springtime look, with blossom-laden trees

and a bridge which Monet would have happily given gardenroom, I feel sure –

plus the ubiquitous Chinese lanterns, of course.  I’ve lost count of how many of those I’ve seen over the past few weeks.

Even Marks and Spencer is offering CNY hampers

and has a fetching display of cardboard lanterns in the entrance –

The local market has gone for dragons and lanterns –

with individually wrapped CNY mandarins –

or – more impressively – apples with a festive greeting branded onto them –

Children are given money in small red envelopes called ang pau, and the local Chinese restaurant has gone all artistic and tied them to their trees

So let’s hope it doesn’t rain between now and next Friday.


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There’s something about Tuesday …

I was in the midddle of explaining an activity in my phonics class yesterday when a five-year-old boy looked up, pointed to my head and asked, ‘Is that a wig?’

I was astonished.  Does he really think that I’d pay for a wig that looked like this?

If I buy a wig it’ll be long, straight and glossy, and will ripple seductively down my back as I shake my head – there’s nothing glamorous about looking as though you’ve just stepped out of a wind tunnel, in my opinion.

But as I was pondering the strange nature of his question, I realised that it was Tuesday, and strange things happen on Tuesdays …

Last Tuesday, I was followed by a stalker on my way home.

I contemplated hitting him with the baking tray I’d just bought –

but decided that I’d be safer dashing to the nearest security post, where security guards man the barriers for entry into private roads.  The guards gave me the number to call the police, and I rang them.

‘Are you Chinese?’ the police receptionist asked.

‘No!’  I said indignantly.  ‘I’m English!’

I don’t know whether my nationality had anything to do with it, but within five minutes three police cars, all with flashing blue lights, had arrived.

The stalker had disappeared, but I was given a lift home in a police car, still with its blue light flashing …

… so that’s something ticked off my bucket list.

Another strange Tuesday experience this month was a cake, baked by an Irish poet who has started a writing circle in my condo.

It looked relatively normal from the outside, but when she cut into it, there were strange green lumps and bits of stringy stuff inside, and it had a solid, yet squidgy consistency –

– if you imagine khaki playdough, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

‘What sort of cake is it?’ someone asked trepidatiously.

‘Okra and chilli relish,’ came the reply.

If you are ever offered cake by an Irish poet, I recommend that you decline politely.

Next Tuesday I’m thinking of staying in bed.

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