Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Not so often I am away from blogs. As regular bloggers would admit, this online journal stuff can get addictive. The maximum duration I can stay away from blogs without any adverse effect is a week. It’s mostly more important and immediate work that keeps me away from weblogs. But, before long, the urge to find some time to blog becomes compulsive.

Last week, Mr Henry Whitfield was back with us. He is a family friend of ours who first came to India from the UK in 1968, and has been coming back quite frequently; one, to pursue his passion of climbing mountains in the Himalayan region and two, to see — not the glitzy side of India’s development but — the heritage and traditional features of the country. One of his interests is rocks and minerals.

He is easily one of my best and closest friends, for one simple reason: his attitude and approach to life, the amazing realistic view he has to everyday situations; his ability to soak in and enjoy the precious moments that life has to offer. That’s possible for him because he has loads of patience and he is in no hurry to flee the present to some unknown future.

On 25th, he reached Bangalore by the Rajdhani Express around 8.30 am, some 2 hours behind schedule. As we drove into the city, his initial comments were that traffic in Bangalore was much more organised and less chaotic than in Delhi. But the next day, Friday, his impressions changed. He discovered how it had deteriorated since the last time he was in the city a year back. We got caught in a awful jam for more than half and hour near the Ulsoor Lake. We abandoned plans to see a few places of interest and instead decided to get to shopping right away.

On Saturday, in the afternoon he made a trip to Lal Bagh alone. But it ended some disappointment: a plant that he bought from the nursery there got badly squashed in the crowded BMTC bus. In fact it was meant to be an addition to our little garden at home, but he was so upset at the way the plant got damaged in the crowd, he just dumped it by the way side. We felt quite bad about it. “It’s okay, I must understand that such things do happen, and it’s by no means the end of the world,” is what he said about the incident.

On Sunday Mr Whitfield was at the at the get-together of the alumni of Sainik School, Kazhakootam. He had taught chemistry in the school from 1968 to 1971 along with my father. In a short speech there he said how important it was for all of us to get into a routine that’s different from the usual one. “When I am back in the UK, I follow a particular routine. When I come to India, when I am at the foothills of the Himalayas, when I am climbing the mountains, when I am touring places, I follow a very different routine. It’s refreshing as much as it is educative. Such occasional changes from the normal, helps us widen our perspective.” A very profound thought.

On Monday, around 8.30 am we set off to Kolar, some 70 km east towards Chennai. The small town is known for the gold fields, which are now shut down. It was Mr Whitfield’s interest in rocks and minerals that prompted this visit. He was quite curious about the KGF, the geology of the area, the methods used to extract gold, the reasons why such a successful mine has now been closed down. He said a number of mines back in the UK had shut down simply because they ran out of the minerals and ores. We were very lucky to meet an engineer, Mr K M Diwakaran, who was very optimistic about the future. He is the president of the Bharat Gold Mines All Employees Industrial Cooperative Society Ltd that’s involved in efforts to revive the mines. His estimate is that in a year employees would be recruited and mines would reopen.

A section of the dysfunctional mine.

Another view of the mine.

Kolar Gold Fields is said to be one of the oldest mines in the world, though the modern history begins with the systematic mining by the English firm John Taylor and Sons in 1880. One of the first hydro-electric projects in Asia was built in 1902 to provide power to the mines. The Mysore government took over the mines in 1956, the government of India took over in 1962 and the mines closed down in 2003.

We visited the a portion of the mine and the mill tailing dumps called the cyanide dumps, because of the cyanide content. These expansive elevated plains of deposits are nothing but the mining waste and have accumulated over the years. The dumps which have in them gold worth crores themselves provide gold extraction work for so many years. At some places it rises to up to 30 meters. From the top one gets a good view of the town. It’s a scenic area and not surprisingly many movie shootings have taken place there. We understood that the mines closed down because of a variety of factors: lack of far-sightedness on part of the authorities, poor management methods, and the bureaucratic lethargy many public sector firms in India have become victims of.

A section of the vast cyanide dump.

Mr Whitfield, who has a keen interest in rocks and minerals, examines a piece from the dump.

On the way to the top of the dump.
A view from the top.

Kolar has plenty of interesting places to visit. Just heard about them, didn’t get time to visit. However, one wonders, why these places aren’t developed into tourist centres. For a huge country like India, the tourism potential is wasted untapped.

On our way back, at a spot some 35 km before K R Puram, we saw a large nursery, from where Mr Whitfield finally bought a plant, that bears bright reddish yellow flowers. The next day, Tuesday, we had lunch at the Tamarind Restaurant on the Ring Road near the Ramamurthy Nagar junction. “The ambiance is very pleasant. I must say this is one of the best hotels I have come across in India, and it gives, what we call, good value for money.”

After the lunch, we headed to the railway station to book his reservation for onward journey to Pune. He is going there with the hope that he would be able to see a quarry (quite unlikely since one needs to get permission, which he felt may not be easy) or at least meet someone who deals in minerals. I am yet to hear from him. Hope he has had some luck! He got a berth in the foreign tourist quota in the Udyan Express for Wednesday.

From the railway station we headed to the Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He found the spiritual and tourist side to the place quite innovative and was quite skeptical if a similar thing was possible back in his country. He felt Iskcon has been able to combine both remarkably well.

I spent a lot of time talking to Mr Whitfield: our likes, our prejudices, our cities, our nations, the world we live in, the leaders, heroes, and villains. He has the typical British understatement, and of course, what makes conversations interesting are the insights he brings into a subject.

I asked him what brings him back to India over and over again. “One, obviously the mountains and the nature in general,” he says immediately. “It’s remarkable to be in the midst of people who are extremely calm; Indians patiently work around situations that are very difficult, hardships that we in the West aren’t used to… I must say trees are a refreshing sight in Bangalore. Roads in Delhi are broader but the city isn’t as green as Bangalore. I’m sure the roads here will get better the next time I’m here.”



Last year’s visit by Mr Whitfield:

Friend from Britain
Business at Sangam
The Gumbaz

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This is the last of the tour diary pieces. Links to earlier ones and two related pieces:

* Malaysia, Truly Asia – Read here
* Shoppers head for Malaysia – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary I – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary II – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary III – Read here
* Malaysia tour diary IV – Read here

Devotees offer prayers inside the St Paul’s church, Malacca.

Most police stations typically have blue roof.


Immigration of Chinese to Malaysia goes back to the visits of Ming dynasty’s Admiral Cheng Ho to Malacca. His fist visit was in 1405-07 when he also came up to Kerala, India. One of the Ming dynasty rulers of China, eager to expand ties, is said to have sent his daughter Hang Li Po (Hang Libao) to Malacca. There is no clarity as to which emperor’s daughter was Li Po. One view that she is the daughter of Yongle is disputed. But it is known that she was married to the Malaysian sultan Mansur Shah, the great grandson of Parameswara.

This girl and about 500 others who also got married to Malay officials are considered to be the first Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. They later married among the same group and gave rise to a mixed Chinese-Malay breed called Peranakan, the male called Baba and female Nyonya. They adopted local customs like dresses and language, but largely kept their style of marriage.

A Nyonya in her typical dress

Given their ability to adapt easily, during British rule they learnt English and occupied many administrative positions. They are quite western and most of them affluent businessmen. While many nyonyas have taken to typical Malaysian dresses, their marriage customs are typically Chinese. Their language, Baba Malay, is now getting slowly extinct with only some elderly people speaking.

A Baba-Nyonya restaurant.


The Baba-Nyonya restaurants are immaculately decorated inside, food is yummy and the hosts are courteous and affable. The food is very close to the Indian style while retaining the Chinese flavour. It is, I am told, a fusion of typical Malay and Chinese cuisine. It is spicy.


This was the official residence of the Dutch governor and his officers. A typical example of Dutch architecture, it was built in 1650. The Stadthuys in Malacca was the state town hall, official functions used to be held during Dutch rule. Today it is a museum that showcases the entire Malaysian history, customs and traditions. It’s very exhaustive and takes at least two
to three hours to go around it completely and appreciate the full extent of the exhibition.

One of them (pictured above) caught my eye. In the wedding and family section, there is a replica of the bedroom where typically a Baba and Nyonya spent their night, possibly nuptial night. What struck me was beside the double bed, there is another one. Why three? No one seemed to have a clear answer, though one tourist said it could be in symbolic anticipation of the first child.


At the Stadthuys museum, there is a painting (pictured above) that shows the widely held origin of Malacca. The popular legend has it that Malacca was founded by Parameswaran, a prince who had fled Sumatra in 1377. He reached the port of Malacca around 1400. He was apparently taking rest under a tree. He noticed that one of his hunter dogs was chasing a deer. But
what he found amazing was that the deer had in fact managed to push the dog into the river. The triumph of the weak was taken by Parameswara as a good omen and decided to stay on. He later changed his name to Megat Iskandar Shah.

A prayer in progress at the Cheng Hoon temple


You thought the Chinese are all Communists and there is no religion. Wrong. Founded in mid-1600s, this is Malaysia’s oldest Chinese temple (pictured above), located at Jalan Tokong and covers 4,600 sq metres. It propagates San Chiao or the Three Doctrinal System of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. There are a number of traditional Chinese rituals. The carvings and figurines are stunningly beautiful. All the materials used in the construction were brought from China. Unlike Indian temples photography is allowed here and many tourists were seen happily clicking away. The temple has won a Unesco award for outstanding architectural restoration.

The typical house of Chinese tribesman

This water theme park (pictured above), spread over 30 acres, was once a mine! It was set up in 1993 and is a big tourist attraction in KL. There are three parts to it: Waters of Africa, Wild Wild West and World of Adventure. The last section has the world’s longest suspension pedestrian bridge of 428 m and offers a beautiful view of of the whole lagoon. Today, in celebration of tomorrow’s Independence day, a ‘My Nation’ Merdeka Countdown Party at Sunway Lagoon Theme Park.

A majestic creation outside the park

Introduced in the end of last year, these luxurious doubledecker buses (pictured above) go around 40 tourists attractions in KL. Tourists can take a ticket and use the bus to hop on and hop off at tourists spots.


This is an amazing place, a little over 10 km from KL. There are at least three caves big and small, which were discovered in 1892. The caves are of limestone 400m long and 100m high. You need to climb 272 steps to reach the caves. This comes alive in January during Thaipusam festival.
The entrance to Batu Caves complex, the steps can be seen behind the statue
Inside the first part of the cave. There is another set of steps to the second part.

A view of the entrance to the caves from inside.

The National Monument, called the Tugu Negara (pictured above), commemorates war heroes who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Malaysian freedom. This is near the parliament building. Interestingly, in 1966, when this was constructed, there was no good Malaysian sculptor, and this was designed by the renowned American sculptor Felix de Weldon.
In the nearby building, on the roof are replicas of all regiments which took part in the wars and one is from the Jalalabad, India: seen in the photo above, the one on top right.

This was once the hub of rail transport, till KL got its Metrorail and Monorail, and then the KL Sentral station came up. This one built in 1910 is a tourist spot now. Many trains do pass but not many stop. This has snack kiosks, money changing booths, souvenir shops, and rest houses.


It was here (pictured above) that exactly 50 years ago, on August 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered and Malaysian flag was hoisted. There is a 100m told flag post. Earlier, it was called Selangor Club field and for the British during those days this was a central point from where every important place could be accessed. Now, concerts, carnivals etc take place here.
On our way to Putrajaya, we looked for a place to have food. I had no doubts: I had already fallen in love with Baba-Nyonya food, and I suggested their restaurant, seen above.

This expansive capital city, around 25 km from Kuala Lumpur, spread over 4,931 hectares is still under construction, and when it is done in another 5 to 6 years, it’s going to look majestic. Already it is! A good part of it is natural, comprising lush green landscape, and lots of water bodies and wetlands. The plan to have a capital city was first mooted in 1980 and in the next decade work began. It now houses government complexes, parks, eateries, shopping complexes.
This is one of the bridges that was photographed during a river cruise in Putrajaya.

On our drive back to the airport, at the end of the week-long tour, in one area of the Expressway, I counted 12 lanes, 6 on either side!
The landscape of Malaysia bears close resemblance to that of India. But what struck me most was the amazing amount of infrastructure work that is going on. And, secondly, the warmth of the local people. The society, that is predominantly Muslim, is so diverse, but the at the same time, is a model to the whole world for its inter-racial cordiality, tolerance and broadmindedness.
Malaysia, truly Asia. It was a memorable trip there. Would love to be back in Malaysia!

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Read Part I here
Read Part II here
Read Part III here


This is modelled on the London Eye. This giant wheel comprises 42 gondolas (cabins) and during the 15-minute ride at the maximum height of 60 metres one gets a beautiful overview of Kuala Lumpur.

The Eye on Malaysia from the entrance

The laser show at Eye on Malaysia
Avoid getting on the Eye on Malaysia wheel at night, because one can’t see anything other than dots of lights. This was inaugurated on January 6 this year as part of Malaysia’s 50th year of Independence celebrations. The park is a good place to spend some time, especially watching the laser show.
There are plenty of them in Kuala Lumpur, and they come alive at night. One of them, on Doraiswamy Street in KL, is well-known for mutton soup. A very unique feature I found there was this: small plantain-leaf packets of rice and curry are kept on each table, and one can just unpack them and start eating before even ordering anything: a real blessing if one is too tired and hungry. At restaurants one is asked for “what drink?” before any dish is ordered. The practice seems to be linked to one ordering liquor before meals. So, even fruit juice or soft drinks or tea or coffee is served before ordering of meals.
A popular roadside eatery on Doraiswamy Street in KL.
The Indian restaurants, which are found in plenty, are locally called ‘Mama stalls’. Unlike Chinese, Japanese or Korean restaurants, Indian ones serve all varieties of food. One finds a mixture of all races among customers in an Indian restaurant.
We met Jebat, one of the local musicians, at a roadside eatery on Doraiswamy Street. He landed up there on a bike. And in dramatic staccato movements, took out his guitar to which a mouthorgan was attached. He pulled up a chair on which he kept a small bag for people to place their offerings, and he began playing a few very pleasant numbers with lilting rhythm.
This 36-year self-taught musician has been playing on the streets like this for 19 years and gets an average of RM 40 (Approx Rs 450) a day. He works at an office during the day.
Heading to Malacca

If Kuala Lumpur is all concrete and congestion, Malacca is steeped in history and folklore. It’s 120 km southeast of KL and 250 north of Singapore, provides an amazing glimpse of the 600-year old history that saw waves of rulers starting with Malacca sultanate, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese and the British again.

On the way, we got into a restaurant for breakfast. I found this cat there.

Strait of Malacca


Malacca has a separate enclave for people of Portuguese descent. Only such people can own land there. It’s a government initiative to recognise the Portuguese connection and ensure that they are not left out in Malaysia. The Portuguese were among the first foreign occupiers having defeated the Malacca sultanate in 1511.

A typical old house in the Portuguese settlement of Malacca.

Aloysius De Mello and his wife at their renovated house.
Aloysius De Mello and his family live in this settlement. He is about 70 years old and is a retired veterinarian. They don’t even remember from which generation they have been in Malacca, and have totally lost all contacts with their country of origin. They speak Kristang (a combination of Malay-Portuguese), English and Malay. He says the number of settlers has increased over the years and the government has built more apartments for them. Many of the traditional Portuguese-style houses have been rebuilt in modern style. The whole place was getting decked up for the St Pedro festival from June 21 to 30.

This is perhaps the most photographed monument in Malacca. Why not? A small arch is all that remains of a huge fortress that Alfonso de Albuquerque built after conquering Malacca in 1511. It’s atop a hill that overlooks the sea.
He has been atop this hill, he says, for the past 30 years sketching the history of Malacca and selling them. He has been to an art college and has seen the growth of this tourist destination. He says in the ’90s there was lot of demand for sketches, but now it has declined due to availability of photos-postcards.
(To be concluded tomorrow)

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Read Part I here
Read Part II here


It’s a good get-away from the roads in Kuantan, which is the capital city of Pahang state. It is on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, about 170 miles east of Kuala Lumpur and 215 miles north of Singapore. The cruise takes you along the lush 500-year-old mangrove forest, a swampy area of 339 hectares. There is a long walkway into the lush enclave of greenery. It’s a great feeling to there.

At the entrance to the Kuantan Esplanade
A view of the city during the river cruise

The mangrove forest

During the cruise one can see lot of boats and a fishing village. From a 40-meter tall tower one can get a good overview of the forest. There is a tourist guide who will assist the visitor during the cruise.


Perhaps the most popular beach in Kuantan, 5 km from the town. Pristine and expansive, there are many good restaurants and plenty of places to just sit or walk around and enjoy the steady breeze from the South China Sea. One can see people flying attractively designed kites. The beach is said to be a good one for surfing, sailing and jet-skiing. Nearby is a forest reserve, through which one can reach Pelindung beach.
The beach at Teluk Cempadak on the South China Sea

This is one of the specialties of Kuantan. We saw one, which was locally called Moiheong, or something to that effect. Apparently it is available only in Kuantan. One can get fried fish crackers called keropok. They are like our potato chips, both salty and non-salty and available in ready-to-eat format in packets of various sizes.

Various varieties of ready-to-eat fish-based products like crackers
The Berjaya Megamall in the heart of Kuantan.
Heading out of Kuantan on east coast back to Kuala Lumpur on west coast.

On the highway there are a number of rest houses where one can take a break.

The roads are unbeatable and the natural beauty breathtaking.


Imposing highrises, flyovers, vehicles and people: one could get claustrophobic in KL. But that’s the way all big cities are. The Petronas Towers is the world’s largest twin towers at 453 metres. Interestingly, its architecture is a mixture of Malay, Chinese, and Indian styles: quite representative of the society.

The Petronas Towers, the most famous landmark in KL.

It’s difficult to get a good pix of the twin towers in one frame on an ordinary camera.

The Kuala Lumpur City (Convention) Centre which once was a golf course. The twin towers is on one part of the KLCC.
While the twin towers are very visible, some 10-minute walk from there is a must-see underwater aquatic park could easily be missed. It is below the Suria mall at the KL Convention Centre. The park, that has anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 animals, has simulations of misty mountains, rivers, rainforests and mangroves.
But what stops you in your tracks is the 90-metre long underwater tunnel. The breathtaking encounter with some amazing water animals is otherwise possible only for underwater divers. One can see baby sharks and stingrays glide over the head. Because of lighting and lot of glass, you will need a good camera to avoid reflections and glare. There is a turtle conservation programme and one can adopt a turtle.
Jalan Petaling or the Petaling Street, commonly called the Chinese market. Everything is available but bargain well.

Just a little away is a Hindu temple, one of the oldest in KL.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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On August 31, Malaysia celebrates its golden jubilee of Independence. In the run-up to that momentous occasion, I will be posting the remaining parts of my tour diary. Though I visited this nation — that is well known for its impressive infrastructure, cultural tolerance and tourism — in mid-June, I delayed publication of the remainder of the tour account, so that I could time it with the Golden Jubilee of Independence. Read Part I of the diary here.


During our drive from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan — from west coast to east coast of the island nation — we passed through the Genting Sempah Tunnel.

A view of the Genting tunnel

It is Malaysia’s first ever highway tunnel. It’s about 900 metres long and is on the Karak Expressway. It connects Gombak in Selangor to Genting Sempah, Pahang. This tunnel was constructed between 1977 and 1979. The landscape on either sides of the highway is breathtakingly beautiful.

Driving into Kuantan town

After reaching Kuantan town we went to Cherating, about 50 km from Kuantan. It is a quiet holiday destination especially for those who love surfing. It has lot of pubs, restaurants, beach resorts and paying guest accommodation for tourists.

At Cherating, we visited a recreation and training centre run by the tourism ministry. There we saw Cherating monkeys that are unique to the area. They are of aggressive breed but are tamed by separating them from parents at an early stage. These smart short-tailed macaques are trained to spot and pluck coconuts.

On a command from the owner it climbs the coconut tree, identifies the ripe ones for plucking and drops them on to the ground.

The monkeys are rewarded with coconut water. An owner of the monkey collects on an average 50 to 100 coconuts a day and they are sold.


At the centre, we were shown this game played with gasing uri, which is nothing but spinning a top. But it’s no child’s play. A traditional folk sport of Kelantan state, it was once played by farmers after harvest.
A rope is tied around the top that is of the size of a plate and weighs at least 3 kg.

After tying the rope around the top, Ali hurls it forward as Mat is ready to scoop it up.

It is hurled forwards and as it lands on the ground, another person scoops it up with a wooden bat and transfers it on to a metal plate mounted on a wooden post.

The top keeps spinning sometimes for as long as 3 hours, depending upon how well they are carved and polished. The team that has its top spin the longest wins the game. The government is trying its best to popularise this game.


Mats made of bamboo are very common. Bamboo is first softened by scrubbing with a knife, then it is dexterously weaved into different shapes and then painted. Very simple but attractive creations they are.
Zainun Abdullah making different articles with bamboo
This is nothing new to an Indian. In fact, the art form is today global. Indonesia is considered the cradle of Batik that is over a millennium old, though some people say it came there from India. It is a relatively new entrant to Malaysia though having been popularised by Chuah Thean Teng, one of the renowned painters of Malaysia.
It’s a very intricate art work done in various ways, one of which is this: first, a rough art work is done with a pencil. Wax is then applied over it using a pen. Dye is applied. At places where the wax has seeped into the fabric, the dye does not take effect.
The wax is then removed. What gives the painting the effect is the contrast between the waxed and dyed areas. The quality of the fabric that determines how well the wax penetrates it is crucial.
Ahmea Yazid, affectionately called Ayam, displays the end product. He teaches this art in the institute.
(To be continued)

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Airavath comfort

Any service by government is presumed bad compared to private organisations. But there are so many exceptions that one wonders if those assumptions hold good.

Welcome to Airavath, air conditioned semisleeper Volvo bus of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. As I head for Thiruvananthapuram (to attend the alumni meet of the Sainik School, Kazhakootam) in an Airavath, I can say comfort level here is as good as if not better than in some private buses.

Bus looks majestic, bathed in spotless white with a dash of light red thrown in with restraint.

Inside it’s cool comfort. The conductor welcomes passengers, gives them mineral water and freshening wet tissues specially packaged for KSRTC.

The luggage racks overhead are sufficiently broad, ambience inside soothingly dim, enough leg space for passengers. At the back of each seat is a copy of Travellers Choice, the house journal of KSRTC.

This isn’t to imply you won’t find such private buses. Government buses aren’t bad.

Had dinner at Kuruparapalli. Movie Khiladi is playing …

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The Time is Now. The Place is Malaysia. Truly Asia.

That’s the tagline of Tourism Malaysia, which is promoting an industry that’s the second highest money spinner for this Southeast Asian nation. This is a small nation — 2.6 crore people across an area of 3.2 lakh sq km. It’s a very multicultural society: Malay and other indigenous making up 58%, Chinese 24%, Indian 8%, others 10%. It’s truly Asia.

This is the 50th year of Malaysia’s independence. And the government there has year-long festivities, majorly directed at tourists, both domestic and foreign.

It’s no wonder that the country is such a hot tourist destination for people from across the world. Not merely because of the impressive natural beauty, but because of the fantastic infrastructure the country has. We aren’t talking of capital Kuala Lumpur alone here, but smaller towns.

What strikes you first are the broad roads with neatly demarcated lanes. Not only are there no potholes, but there’sn’t any litter anywhere. And when you observe closely you find, part of the reason the heavy traffic moves smoothly is because of the good roads.

The size of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport dwarfs you. It’s so big that you don’t find any people in the airport! I’m sure it has been designed with some real longterm planning going into it. It is located on 10,000 hectares. After four and a half years of round the clock work, it became fully fully operational in 1998. A section of the road that leads to the airport has 12 lanes — six on each side of the road divider!

The weeklong tour of Malaysia is weighing quite heavily on me still. I am sure it will take some time for me to sift through the photos and notes. But, surely this blog will acquire quite a bit of Malaysian flavour from now on. I don’t think I can shake it off so soon.

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