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Read Part I here
Read Part II here

KUANTAN RIVER CRUISE

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.

TELUK CEMPADAK

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
SALTED FISH

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.

DOWNTOWN KL

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.

GENTING TUNNEL

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

CHERATING MONKEY
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.

GASING URI

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.

BAMBOO HANDICRAFT

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
BATIK ART
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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My postings delayed

I am on an official tour, and there is little time to blog. All I am able to do is check the mail, just in case anything urgent is demanding my attention. My tour has taken me to very interesting places and it has provided me golden opportunity to see different cultures and interact with so many people.

You must be wondering where I am now. I am very much on Earth! I Let the suspense be on! I shall post a series of travellogues along with pictures after I get back. But expect that only from the 20th.

I have just managed to type this out. Got to go now.

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Water Gate, Dungeon

The defaced notice at Water Gate.

Srirangapatna is a prime tourist spot. It’s reasonably well maintained, though there seems to be some disconnect among people who are responsible for it. That’s what one believes as one sees some areas very well maintained, while others are just left to rot. One problem could be that the monuments are scattered over a wide area. But definitely there can be one single authority in charge of taking care of them all, if there’sn’t already one.

The notice on the wall of the archway ‘Water Gate’ is hardly readable. Someone has defaced it. I guess it is: ‘At the northern end of this archway fell Tipu Sultan in May 1799.”

As one enters the archway, our mind races into an imaginative mode trying to visualise how it would all have been then. The place, obviously
under the care of Archaeological Survey of India, is sadly neglected. The walls of the fort — each stone of which will have a story to tell — are just left to the mercy of spoilers.

The banks of what must have been once an overflowing Cauvery, have been turned into a sort of ‘dhobi ghat’, a laundry. If one looks at the stones, we can see priceless engravings on them. A little away from Water Gate is a monument, much better kept, that denotes the “place where Tipu’s body was found”. It is very sad that our tourism department focuses on just a few well-known places.

Engravings on the ruins of the fort being used as laundry
Nearby is Col Bailey’s Dungeon, which seems to have got a fresh coat of poor quality whitewash: nevertheless a better place than the Water Gate. But here too someone has defaced a write-up on the historical significance of the dungeon, which was used by Tipu Sultan to imprison the British.
Each visit to a historical place, reinforces my feeling that there is so much the tourism department can do in such a diverse country like ours. The tourist promotions that we see are just a miniscule of what can actually be done. If money is the problem, it can easily be generated by introducing a token fee of something like Rs 5 or Rs 10 for admission to these places. The fee shouldn’t prohibitive that it’ll discourage visitors. Over a period of time, a good sum can be collected and ploughed back into the upkeep of these places. (Photo above: The defaced notice at the entrace to Col Bailely’s Dungeon.)

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The Gumbaz

(Continues from the previous post) After spending some time at the Sangam, we moved to the more crowded, more imposing, Gumbaz (pix on the right), which houses the mortal remains of Tipu Sultan, his father Hyder Ali and mother, situated in the midst of lovely gardens. More than the Sangam, this looks more like a tourist spot.

This is my friend’s first visit to this place, and on seeing the crowd at the Gumbaz he said he had imagined the place to be very quiet and sort of deserted. “This seems to be a very popular place for tourists,” he exclaimed. By nature, Mr Whitfield looks for places that aren’t very crowded. But the Gumbaz left him very impressed.

As we came out we saw a man selling tender coconut water. That’s absolutely irresistible for Mr Whitfield (pix on the left): “Ah… this is just out of the world… I am sure there’s no way these can be exported in bulk to New Castle!” (That’s where he stays, in north east England.)

It was around 1 pm and we headed to Hotel Mauyra, the restaurant of the Karnataka State Tourism Corporation. Often anything that’s government owed is looked at with some scepticism. So, this was truly a treat. A little under a kilometre away from the main highway, on the banks of the river Cauvery, the complex has a river-side restaurant and cottages. We preferred to dine outside under the trees with the sound of the water brushing the little rocks. The picture on the right-above shows the view from the restaurant. The waiter was extremely courteous and well-mannered. “I don’t think in Britain we have such simple, decent, quiet eateries beside nationally famous rivers.” Mr Whitfield was enjoying every bit.

The best part, the cottages (pix on the left) are very affordable: three types of Rs 500, Rs 600 and Rs 750 (air-conditioned) for 24 hours from noon to noon; Each can accommodate a family of three. Bookings can be done from the KSTDC outlets in Bangalore.

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Business at Sangam

The drive to Srirangapatna, on Wednesday the 18th, was my first on the Bangalore-Mysore road after the new one was laid. It was a relief to see such a good, smooth, wide road. It left me wondering why we take so long to get such good things. My friend, Mr Whitfield, commented: “Such scenic, lush greenery beside a main highway is a real treat!”

It’s quite a few years since I made the last trip to the 18th century capital of Tipu Sultan’s Mysore. Some 125 km from Bangalore, around 11 am, as we slowed the car down near an expansive junction, wondering which way to turn, a man came rushing in. After telling us to take a left turn, he suggested that we could have him as a guide. He showed us an identity card, which didn’t excite us much. He quoted Rs 300. That was much less interesting.

Then he pointed to the road to the right of the main highway and said the ruins of the fort, temple, etc lie on that side. “You can’t enter the road this way since it’s one way. And the fine for violation is Rs 300. I shall take you around. Give me just Rs 200.” Mr Henry Whitfield said it was better we go on our own. As I told him that we weren’t interested, the guide reduced the fee to Rs 100.

To be fair to that guy, I must credit him for being very polite and he bore no regrets, at least publicly, for having his offer turned down. “Okay sir; wish you a very good time here.”

We tured left and took the road that leads one to the Gumbaz and a little ahead of that to the Sangam. We first went to the latter. As we parked the car and made our way towards the Sangam, Mr Whitfield told us how he regards guides with some amount of caution. “My experience is that they don’t give us any more information that what we already know. The worst bit is that they hurry you though and don’t let us soak in the beauty of the tourist places. Instead I would’ve liked some literature here on this place.”

Srirangapatna, derives its name from a 1,000-year-old temple of Lord Sriranganatha, and so obviously there is some religious significance attached to it. So, not surprisingly, as one approached the Sangam, there was a notice not to have non-vegetarian food.

Sangam, or the confluence, is the place where the river Cauvery and its two tributaries, Lokapavani and Paschima Vahini, meet. The place was moderately populated, rhe rivers had a gentle flow and there was good greenery on either sides of the river.

The moment my friend saw the coracles, he immediately took a liking to it, and fancied being taken around a good stretch on the river. We checked out the rate: Rs 200 for a round around the Nandi atop a rock. We were told that one coracle can seat up to 10. When we told an operator that were just 3, he said irrespective of the number, the fare was the same. That was quite understandable, but not his reluctance to put together a group of 10 people for one trip. He expected tourists themselves to come in a group of 10.

(Left top: View from the bank; and left below: view of
the bank)

Anyway, with a little patience the fare came
Rs150, but we couldn’t find anyone to come along with us. Not wanting to waste time, we decided to pay that amount for just 3 of us. (Probably the operators know from experience that it makes better business sense this way.) And, just as we stepped onto the coracle, two 13-year-old children also got in. Wondering if they were enjoying a free trip with our Rs 150, we asked them how much they are paying: Rs 40 each. The economics was getting clearer. The guy made a total of Rs 230! And we just spent less than 10 minutes in the water.

Forget the management gurus, these illiterate people know what’s a win-win situation! At the end of it all, we had no complaints, for we had a good time.

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Nagapattinam diary 2

J Radhakrishnan, collector extraordinaire
 
When you think of reconstruction of tsunami-ravaged Nagapattinam, the name that comes uppermost in mind is that District Collector J Radhakrishnan, an IAS officer of sterling qualities. He smashes all myths about a bureaucrat being subservient to politicians. He has been instrumental in the rebuilding of Nagapattinam.
 
After the tragedy struck, relief flooded in. As the head of the district administration, he put in place a completely transparent coordination network among the NGOs. He survived the usual allegations of religious bias, conversions etc, with calmness and firmness. He has been described as the “people’s collector” and is perhaps the most well-known person in this district.
 
When we journalists shot question after question, sought details of each and everything, sought facts and figures, Radhakrishnan was cool, composed and patient; and most importantly extremely polite. Rarely you get to meet such public servants. One interaction, and he leaves an indelible feel-good impression on you.
 
May he be blessed, and may he have lots of energy to continue the great work he has been doing.

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Nagapattinam diary 1

I was back at Nagapattinam on Tuesday, 20th. Last year in January I had been there. This district — which accounted for 6,065 tsunami deaths, with 3,378 in the town alone — was the worst hit in India.
 
But as I travelled around the place, I just couldn’t believe this was the very same place I had been to last year. So much has changed. As collector J Radhakrishnan said the district was lucky to get plenty of relief material. And all that the government had to do was to coordinate the efforts of NGOs.
 
I attended a public function at which 375 families were handed over houses constructed by Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt under the guidance of IIT Madras engineers. The people got not just houses, but a fully integrated township spread across 11 acres — complete with stormwater drains, roads, effluent treatment plant, children’s play area, reading room. Wow! It’s an incredible township, and Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt is the first NGO to complete such a township for the villagers.
 
Brahmachari Abhayamrita Chaitanya said that their aim is not just to build houses, but provide all the benefits to the villagers. The social activities of mutt must be seen to be believed. In fact, in the beginning I was quite sceptical. But no longer. When tsunami struck, the first thing the mutt did was to set up a number of kitchens. Their logic: you can survive without clothes, you can survive without a roof, but not without food.
 
For the function people were in such a festive mood. They turned out in their best clothes. Streets were all decorated. For the survivors of tsunami, in a way the tragedy was a blessing in disguise. Because the district is flush with funds and dedicated NGOs; besides, an able administration is doing a fantastic work of rebuilding broken homes.
 
It’s sad that a place had to pay such a heavy price for development.

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