Thursday, January 24, 2008

Entering the dragon’s belly

Can you, in your wildest dreams picture me strutting around like the late Bruce Lee, kicking up more than just a few storms with a trail of dead bodies behind me? For a while I thought I could. Growing up in the 70s, you cannot help but have Bruce Lee as your icon. Those days kung fu was actually the in thing. And the in thing was to walk with the swagger and gait of Bruce Lee. There was even a song which said everybody loves kung fu fighting. Think of kung fu or specifically think of Bruce Lee and the dragon comes to mind. After all he gave us The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon.

But there must be something about the dragon that fascinates not just people of old but also modern men. While we can only make a wild guess about whether it ever existed, the closest one can ever come to dragons are dinosaurs. What is certain, however, is that if dragons had ever existed at all, it must have gone the way of T-Rex and company. And sadly not a single fossil were left for us to marvel at its size nor a shred of DNA so we may try and piece together at least one such being, if for nothing else then at least for posterity sake. Our own Jurassic Park or Dragon’s Lair, if you like. After all there would be many who would think nothing of posing for a photograph beside a dragon spewing fire from its mouth and nostrils provided it is on a leash with a handler beside it to keep a watchful eye.

Being born in the year of the Rooster, I am, say Chinese geomancy experts, would be most compatible with those born in the year of the Dragon. Yeah, right. I suppose I would love nothing better than to go home to a dragon lady every might. Suffice to say that me being the chicken and she being the dragon with fire flaring from her nostrils under most circumstances, there is every likelihood that I would be roasted or grilled daily. Of course, the other two compatible animals with me are the Snake and the Ox. But again I think this is not the column and place to discuss feng shui. So we would leave that to the experts of the earth, wind and fire and move to more familiar grounds, i.e. travel.

Just over a 100km to the north of Hat Yai is the province of Trang, where you find a cave called
Tham Le Khao Kop, situated in Huai Yot County, about 7 km off the office building of the county administration. The cave has a stream running through it and the only way to get inside is by taking a boat so you can visit the cavern consisting of some fifteen caves. The caves differ from one another in shape and sizes and the highlight is Tham Lot or Thong Mangkon (the dragon's stomach). To explore this cave, you have to lie down on your back in the boat along the 100-metre waterway. Minimum of movement is required. You move your head up and your nose would get bruised by the many jutting rocks making up the dragon’s belly. It is not a journey for those who are claustrophobic because your mind tend to tell you that there is not enough oxygen. It is certainly one sure way to get your adrenaline flowing and you will automatically hold your breath when the boat passes sharp-pointed stalactites that are only a few inches away from your belly. A round trip takes about an hour. Being occasionally cheeky, I find that this is about the only time I can lie in a girl’s lap for 15 minutes without getting accused of sexual harassment. You have to try and visit when the tide is out because during the rainy season the cave expedition is not possible due to the high tide. It is about the only time when those with lots of fat seemed to be welcomed because the extra weight helps make the boat sink lower in the water, thereby giving more room in the dragon’s long belly. Opening hours is from 8am to 6pm.

The river that makes up Tham Le Khao Kop flows from the Banthat Mountain Range and is divided into three waterways upon reaching Khao Kop. Two go around the mountain while one flows through the cave under the mountain. In addition the cave itself looks like a high and steep cliff with layers of rocks and stalactites and stalagmites magnificently decorating the cave for a distance of approximately 4km. One of the caverns is called a bridal chamber. Presumably in the days of old it must be where virgins are sacrificed to the dragon lord. Currently, the Khao Kop Tambon Administration Organization provides rowboats to facilitate visitors explorations of the cave. In addition, eco-tourism and light-adventure activities are provided by the locals. The boat ride costs 200 bahts for 7 persons, or 30 baht per person.

Incidentally the reason Bruce Lee is associated with dragons is that he was born in the Year of the Dragon in San Francisco in 1940. His father was Chinese while his mother was half Chinese and half German. Considered the most consummate martial artist, he was responsible for popularising kung fu not just in the west but in most parts of Asia. Most people who knew him personally, me not included, said that had he taken up boxing competitively, he would have been a world champion a few times over. To illustrate a point, most of those who trained under him such as Chuck Norris and James Kelly went on to become world champions in martial arts.

To illustrate the point further, it is said that Lee's striking speed from three feet with his hands down by his side reached five hundredths of a second and he could spring a 235lb opponent 15 feet away with a one inch punch. His combat movements were at times too fast to be captured on film at 24 frames per second, so many scenes were shot in 32 frames per second to put Lee in slow motion. Normally martial arts films are sped up. In a speed demonstration, Lee could snatch a dime off a person's open palm before they could close it, and leave a penny behind. He could also perform push ups using only his thumbs and would hold an elevated v-sit position for 30 minutes or longer. Another demonstration of his speed was he could throw grains of rice up into the air and then catch them in mid-flight using chopsticks.

If those were not enough proof, Bruce Lee could perform one-hand push-ups using only the thumb and index finger as well as 50 one-arm chin-ups. From a standing position, he could hold a 125lb barbell straight out and break wooden boards six inches thick (not at the same time of course). He once performed a side kick while training with James Coburn and broke a 150-pound punching bag, and could cause a 300-lb bag to fly towards and thump the ceiling with a sidekick. In a move that has been dubbed "Dragon Flag", Lee could perform leg lifts with only his shoulder blades resting on the edge of a bench and suspend his legs and torso perfectly horizontal mid-air. He could thrust his fingers through unopened steel cans of soft drinks, back in the days when soft drink cans were made of harder aluminium metal. And Lee would use one finger to leave dramatic indentations on pine wood.

In the words of the master, "Be formless... shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, and it can crash. Be like water….”

I will try and remember that the next time I face a 300lb bully. And I hoped being like the water means more than just wetting my pants.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Cuti-cuti Malaysia

Being away from home for about two weeks every month means I have always looked forward to weekends when I could just laze in front of the TV set all day long. And when I laze in front of the TV set, most often than not it’s the TV that ends up watching me instead of the other way around.

Or if I am up to it, then I would probably take up the irresistible offer to go play golf and most often than not get thrashed soundly by one group of friends or other. It does not matter which group, I seem to always end up losing. I have this sneaky feeling that when they run out of grocery money they will call me to save the trouble of going to an ATM machine.

This September, however was a little different. I was away in Pattaya for two rounds of golf, all part of official duty, of course. And back home, it was more golf but mostly on TV, i.e. the FedEx Cup and the President’s Cup. Trying desperately to pick up pointers from the likes of Tiger Woods and his “merry men”. And with it being fasting month, all my Muslim friends were extra charitable and decided to give me a break.

So on a weekend towards the end of the month I decided to have a cuti-cuti in
Malaysia instead, but one with a slight difference. It was a close friend’s birthday. Rather than organise it at home, in a club or a posh restaurant, she and her husband decided that it would be nice to go spend her birthday with some recovering and fully-recovered HIV patients instead. So we got into our cars and drove a few kilometres out of Kuala Lumpur to a place in Batu Arang.

The inmates of the home seemed glad to see us as they helped to carry the food for the birthday party into the kitchen of the house. A wooden house surrounded by vegetable plots and some fruit tree, it is home to some 28 inmates who are waiting to go home. Some have homes to go back to and for those who do not, this was now home. Some have gone to work as mechanics at a workshop nearby. They seemed glad to interact with those from the outside world and most are jovial and friendly to visitors. Everybody sang a birthday song and the food was served.

Most of those living in the home were unable to secure family support or have lost contact with their families. For them the home had devised a Positive Living Community Programme whereby small groups of sufficiently recovered patients are provided with a rented house equipped with basic facilities and an overseer to enable them to continue leading a healthy lifestyle.

They are given opportunities to engage in some productive work opportunities to acquire vocational and living skills through various forms of therapeutic activities. Currently there are two such homes with a total of 20 residents in Batu Arang.

In addition, residents with the necessary aptitudes and abilities were also selected to participate in peer educators training organised by the Malaysian AIDS Council and coaching camps by volunteer professionals. Once sufficiently trained, their services would be made available to other NGOs, schools, community groups and faith based groups to conduct awareness programmes in a creative and interactive way.

The objective in running the above programmes is to come up with models that can be duplicated by other NGOs or faith based groups and so on. The home welcomes any organisation to send people to be trained as caregivers or to live in and learn about its other programmes.

A few kilometres from the half-way house stands a bigger facility. Run by Project Co-ordinator, Mr Alex Arokiam, it survives on charity and donations from non-governmental organisations and individuals. It had been around since October 1997 as a community-based facility to cater for 15 patients but has since grown due to demands. It now houses up to 34 patients of all race and religion regardless of their ability to pay for their stay.

Most were referred by hospitals and drop-in centres managed by NGOs from various parts of the country. More than a hundred have been provided with palliative care and subsequently died. The home has been gazetted as a private drug rehabilitation centre with a sick bay for residents who have developed AIDS. While the home started merely as response to the cry for shelter for people living on the streets who had contracted AIDS, over the years it had continuously improved its knowledge and skills in providing appropriate holistic approach to caring that deals with the mind, body and soul of the person.

A total of 14 staff members comprising a project co-ordinator, office administrator, full-time nurse, caregivers, hospital liaison officer, driver, helpers and cook provide individualised care for up to 34 patients. Up to 12 of the patients suffer from various forms of permanent or temporary disabilities and are in need of nursing care.

The Welcome Community Home functions as an after care home for up to 30 residents at a time where they will be assisted to recover physically and psychologically. It has earned affiliation with the Malaysian AIDS Council and is confident of obtaining sufficient funds for the continued operation and improvement of its services as of January 2008.

At the same time the home fully realises the futility of its services in the current situation whereby the continued ignorance and attitude of families and society as a whole and the indifference of relevant government agencies will continue to produce more and more persons with HIV/AIDS who are homeless.

As a first time visitor to both homes, and much as I try to hide my earlier discomforts I could not help but be impressed by their new found courage. Some of them took the wrong route and ended up with a drug addiction. Unhygienic use of drug paraphernalia had resulted in them contracting HIV. But it sure took hell of a lot of courage for them to pull themselves out of the mess. For that I wish them all the luck.

They have also tried to make the shelter their call home as normal as possible. There is even a band and a drama company consisting of eight residents who had been trained by a theatre director from the UK. The company had even staged a play at the Actors Studio in Bangsar.

I have to admit that like most people I also suffer from a phobia, thinking that by being close or breathing the same air with the HIV sufferers I would be susceptible too. But after not only sharing the same air, but the same food and shaking hands with them, I have not succumbed to the disease. HIV and AIDS do not spread by touch. You are more likely to contract the disease through certain unprotected nocturnal activities. When I shook their hands before heading home I did so a little shamefacedly remembering my earlier prejudice.

But at least now I know where I would be spending my next birthday. The address is Welfare Community Homes, D-1224, Lorong SU 4, Off Jalan DPP, 48100 Batu Arang, Selangor. The date is May 25 which happens to be a Sunday. All are welcome. No RSVP necessary.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden

Long before I took up the game, I read somewhere that if you play in all the golf courses in Thailand, you would have walked the same distance from Mae Sai at the northernmost tip of Thailand to Sungai Golok, the southernmost tip. Now presumably the distance would be even farther because more golf courses have been opened since then. That is quite a long walk by any standards even if you bear in mind that most golfers do not mind walking uphill and downhill on a golf course but moan and groan if they have to walk from their house to the sundry shop a hundred metres away. The bet is that more than 90 per cent would rather get in their cars and drive there although most could do with the exercise.

Long before I took up the game, I also read somewhere that the word golf actually came from the phrase Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden. Like most things in the old days, men seemed to make it a point of excluding the female of their species from the fun. They prefer instead to relegate the women folks to less strenuous pursuits like needlework, knitting, gardening and tending to the children. Such behaviour in Scotland of old, the original home of golf, and most other parts of the world, I am happy to say, has ended. So has discrimination against women in all kinds of other sports. And not a moment too soon, I might add. Otherwise we would be deprived of admiring the attributes and other talents of such marvellous female sports personalities like Michele Wie, Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova.

Where golf is concerned, I for one, am not going to belittle the ability of ladies. I was paired with one lady, all five foot of her, who among the Thai circle in Kuala Lumpur is known as The Pro. Well, at least I am one of those who call her that. One fine day she decided to play from the men’s tee instead of the ladies tee against me. Not only did she out-drive me, she was also sinking putts from more than 10 feet. Needless to say I was soundly trounced. If that was not insult enough, her two female companions (though both were playing from the ladies tee) also managed to beat me by more than 10 strokes. That is the last time I ever want to be paired up with them again. That was also the last time they invited me for a game. I think they must be playing rather well and no longer need to beat me to a pulp just to bolster their egos.

Although so far I have only limited my exploits to golf courses in Malaysia and Thailand since taking up the game more than five years ago, I must say I have played at some of the most beautiful and challenging courses in both countries. Actually most courses are challenging to me and the fact that no human, bird, other small animals or insects were killed during the course of any game would count as a good day for me. This fact had always touched a bit of raw nerve with me.

You could say the first time I played was a baptism of fire of sorts. It was with His Excellency the Thai Ambassador to Malaysia. We were nearing the end of the game when my ball landed in the bunker near the green. Golf instructors will tell you to take sand wedge or any other club of your preference provided you know how to use it well, and hit the sand just behind the ball. This would allow the ball to ride out of the bunker on the sand. Having hardly learned the rudiments of the game at that time as opposed to being a pro now, I took my sand wedge and gave it a solid whack. More than one way to skin a cat, they say. In fact it worked too well. The ball flew out of the bunker like a bullet and was heading straight for Mr Ambassador himself. Luckily both he and the lady caddie from Indonesia ducked in time. Otherwise either one of them could have landed in hospital if not worse.

My knees actually went soft because I thought Mr Ambassador was going to take his driver and whack me on the head with it or at least give me a ticking off. But to his credit he did no such thing. To this day I still shudder to think that I almost had to go before the Thai Foreign Ministry and explain how the Thai Government ended up being one ambassador short. Or explaining to the Indonesian Government that it was all an accident and that I did not mistake the caddie for a maid and had not abused one of her citizens. For a few months after that a number of friends had a great time poking fun at me every time I had a golf game. They would ask whether anybody got killed when they know I have just returned from a round of golf. Another friend would ask, “How many under today?” From the first time I played, it had always been about six or seven under. I am of course not talking about pars but I seemed to have this ability of hitting my ball into the water, under the trees, into the bushes, etc. Thus I would lose an average of six or seven balls a game.

Of course, there were some great moments as well, such as playing at the Blue Canyon Golf & Country Club in Phuket. In fact I have played there twice. This course was made famous by a certain Mr Woods, who still holds the amateur course record there when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic several years ago. Both times that I played there I actually came close to breaking his course record. I was just off by about 40 or 50 strokes, which was not too bad at all by my standards, considering he is Mr Woods and I always end up getting the wooden spoon at most tournaments.

At another time I was invited for a tournament in Johore. I had the distinction of coming in last again and winning a hair dryer for my effort. The organisers were very kind in recognising that somebody need to be in the last position. But I was quick to point out to my friends that in marketing this is what is called positioning. Either you come in first or come in last. That is the only way to be remembered. You are not worth a mention at all if you come in at 22 from a group of 72. Nobody remembers you. But come in at 72 out of a field of 72 and you get star-billing and is as famous as the champion.

While not belittling the golf courses in Malaysia, most people I think find golfing in Thailand more enjoyable for a number of reasons. I was told it is because of the more relaxed attitude of Thai golfers and the golf clubs in their approach to the game. In addition, you always get to stop for a drink after every three holes. Best of all you get your own caddie where as in Malaysia you tend to have to share your caddie. In Thailand you can even have three caddies, one to carry your golf clubs, one to carry your umbrella and one to hold your whiskey glass, should you so desire. Best of all most can actually read the greens very well. What more can one ask for? After all most of us are not trying to win the British Open. Beats going shopping with the wife during the weekends. Not that I ever had to do this either. But you know what I mean.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Holidays can be fun or disastrous

It may seem like childish advice and stating the obvious. Said advice being not losing your essential documents and most especially when you are travelling abroad.

Anyway it must be one of the most distressing things you can ever feel when arriving at a foreign airport for an international flight and realising that you have lost your tickets. Well, make that the second most distressing thing since the most distressing would be to have lost your passports. To have lost both while travelling abroad would be absolutely disastrous.

Losing your travel documents can be downright troublesome even when one is not travelling abroad. Getting a replacement can be quite a hellish experience because whether or not you do get a new passport depended very much on the Immigration Department.

“Atas budi bicara Ketua Pengarah Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia.” Well, the poor Director-General always gets to shoulder the blame whether or not he is personally involved in the decision to give you a replacement passport or not. My guess is that somebody else decides beforehand whether you deserve a new travel document and if you do whether it has some form of restriction or other attached to it before the documents reached the DG’s desk for his signature.

Which is why it would help a whole lot if you look honest. I mean, try and paint a picture to the immigration officer handling your case that you do not have the kind of face which belongs to a person who is likely to sell his or her passport on the black market and then go apply for a new one, thereby doing a roaring business. This is in fact one of the reasons getting a replacement passport after you have lost one is hell. In case you did not know, Malaysian and Singaporean passports are said to be the most valuable and expensive travel documents in the world on the black market. I say this not through personal experience. What I am quoting is just hearsay as I have never actually lost my passport. Touch wood. But I was told the reason our passports are so expensive has something to do with our diverse ethnicity. As to why this is so, please go figure. Suffice to say that the Malaysian authorities do not take very kindly to your losing travel documents, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

But back to our lost ticket story. Thank goodness that these days most airlines have gone electronic. For those still not in the know, you can actually travel paperless these days. Just do your bookings and jot down your booking reference code. Even if you have forgotten your reference code, just handing in your passport at the check-in counter will suffice as the staff attending to you would be able to confirm your flight and issue you your boarding pass. Just try to remember your flying date, time and flight number. Easy as that.

This, however, works only if you are travelling on one sector. Should it involve different sectors, say flying to Bangkok then on to Tokyo then you still could not go paperless just yet. Which is when problems like losing your tickets sometimes arise. Imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach on arriving at the airport and discovering that you have no tickets to travel with.

Some months ago I arrived at Suwarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok’s spanking new terminal, and managed to catch the tail end of a verbal exchange between a couple. Well, it was actually one-sided. A couple had alighted from a taxi just a minute or so before I did when they realised that their air tickets were still in the taxi. And the taxi had already left the airport area.

The man, about a hundred kilos of him and who must be in his late 40s or early 50s, sounded very Italian. The wife, a petite young thing who could not be more than 25, and carrying a baby who must be a few months old to boot, just stood pale-faced and defenceless against the verbal onslaughts of her husband. Although I have not met that many Italians in my life, I have met a few, which I must say is more than enough for me to form an opinion that Italian men by nature are very passionate and excitable people. A normal conversation can often sound like an argument. So you can imagine what can come out of his mouth when he is in such a state.

In that instance, his English may be peppered with Italian, but he certainly was making his feelings understood not just by his wife but everybody who was in the vicinity of the drop-off area at the airport. Indeed, the adjectives he used, and there were quite a few mind you, to describe his wife’s state of mind at that moment and thereby her overall intellect, were some of the most colourful I have heard. If anybody had had their doubts before that, after his tirade it was clear he never married her for her brains. Nuclear physicist, she was certainly not. In the bedroom and in the heat of passion you may be excused for using some of the words but certainly it was in very poor taste when uttered for complete strangers to hear in a very public place.

Much as I would like to step in and help, I have lived a long and relatively peaceful life. And one of the things I have learned if you want to continue living a long and relatively peaceful life is not step in between an irate Italian and his Thai wife. In fact one should never step in between any man and his wife when they are in the middle of a heated exchange, even if they are your closest friends. Worst still if they are not. You may just end up with a black eye for your effort instead of words of gratitude from either party. While the Italian and his wife were still at it, I decided to let them figure out for themselves what they were supposed to do and went to check in for my flight back to Kuala Lumpur.

In fact if he had not been in such a state, he would have realised that should you ever lose your tickets all you need to do is go pay for new tickets and upon returning home file a claim for lost tickets with your insurance agent. Which is why it is essential that when you travel you first buy travel insurance. If you did not then there is nothing that can be done except bear the losses and be more careful with your travel documents and flight tickets the next time you go for a trip.

It is the difference between a completely beautiful holiday and a disastrous one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sick away from home

In April I had a chosen an unusually wet morning to call a taxi and head for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. For a while I was wondering if I would make it in time for my flight. The rain was pouring relentlessly along the KL-Seremban Highway and you can only just make out the rear ends of the vehicles in front. Credit to the taxi driver though, a veteran of more than 20 years on roads and routes in the Klang Valley, who drove at a reasonable speed considering the circumstances and got me to the airport ahead of time.

My clothes were slightly damp and it was cold all the way during the flight from KL to Bangkok. But out of the cool confines of Suwarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand’s latest state-of-the-art airport, reputed to be the most modern in Asia, it had to be the hottest day recorded in Bangkok so far this year at 40 degrees Celsius. April may be known as the hottest month in Thailand and it was after the Songkran or water festival and all that. But even by Bangkok standards it was stinging hot and I mean that in the most literal way. My skin was feeling a bit prickly during the taxi ride to the hotel. Such extreme change in the weather and temperatures, coupled with a lack of sleep on the previous night ensured that by evening I was down with a fever and I had to spend most of the day in my hotel room sleeping.

The room overlooked the swimming pool and from four floors up I was entertained by a bevy of several nationalities showing off their prowess in a variety of swimming styles. Of particular interest were two girls who were demonstrating more than just the usual camaraderie among travelling companions. This was a bit more than your usual female bonding to trade gossips about the latest fashion. Even to the casual observer, and I consider myself to be that, they were showing just a little too much interest in each other’s anatomy for my comfort. Their swimming style was of course the breast stroke and one of them was a good swimmer at that while the other rode piggy back.

Tsk! Tsk! Forgive me for being a prude. But I come from the state of Kelantan, where men and women do not share the same trishaws or pay for goods in the supermarket at the same check out counters. Come to think of it the two ladies would have had no problems at all if they were in Kelantan. They would have had fit in nicely so long as they shed their bikinis for shorts and t-shirts before entering the hotel swimming pool. After all in Kelantan these days same sex dancing is now not just the in thing but is widely encouraged. I am not all that familiar with the subject of psychology, but I can bet Freud would have said this is encouraging a split personality among the girls. Anyway I suppose what the two ladies were doing was as close as it can ever get to synchronised swimming in a hotel pool.

If these were not problems enough I had to be up early the next morning to catch another flight, this time to Hanoi. By that time my fever was threatening to get out of control. But nothing some self medication could not take care of, so I just stepped into the first pharmacy I saw at the airport. It was another two hours flight or so from Bangkok to Vietnam’s capital city. If Bangkok was scorching hot then Hanoi was about 18 degrees Celsius, which again was cold by my standards and absolutely dreadful when you are down with a fever.

Even the pretty nice looking immigration officer waiting to assist people at the airport failed to interest me. I was told things had improved tremendously of late and you no longer have to stand for hours waiting for your passport to be stamped. Vietnam after all had come of age and is marching furiously into the future embracing all kinds of technology – from the latest mobile phones from China to the most up-to-date computers. Technology can only do so much of course. The way their civil servants do things say a lot about their attitude. For example I am still trying to make sense of the fact that after my boarding card had been issued at the airport why would an immigration officer want to see my return ticket. Or the fact that you had to fill up the arrival and departure cards. The arrival card was taken when you arrive but the departure was just for me to take as a souvenir back to Kuala Lumpur.

Immigration aside, one thing you do not ever want to do is fall sick while on a trip to a place you have never been to before. Kind of put a damper on your sight seeing plans. After lunch and a shot of antibiotics and cough syrup I just decided to sleep it off and declined the offer to go for a tour of the city. Thereby I lost my chance to visit a local market and see skinned dog meat on display. The shock could have either cured me instantly or make me sicker.

The sleep refreshed me somewhat and I woke up at about 2am feeling a whole lot better. I may have opted out of the tour earlier in the day but had no intention of missing dinner. But miss it I already did. I looked out the window of the hotel room and the streets were practically empty. The city also seemed to have grown darker as houses and buildings have switched off their lights. Shops had closed for the night and there was nothing much I can do about the gnawing hunger. I had a dislike for room service because it reminded me of hospital rooms. How I suddenly miss having a 24-hour mamak stall around the corner and popping over for some coffee and roti canai.

Luckily there was an electric kettle in the hotel room to boil water and make coffee. Complimentary from the hotel. In the fridge were also some chocolates. Chargeable of course. There was this small bar of chocolate which is quite popular in Malaysian shops which you can pick up for about RM1.50 or so. Much as I also dislike consuming food from hotel mini-bars I was left with very little choice. I had a little snack hoping to avoid dying of starvation before the breakfast buffet opens in the morning. Three days later when I was checking out of the hotel I was slapped with a bill of some US$5 for the bar of chocolate. That was the most expensive packet of Kit Kat I ever paid for and is likely ever to pay for.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hot dog, anyone?

Vietnamese women are built very much like their houses. Tall and slim with just a touch of French flavour. Well, this is the case in Hanoi (or Hanot as the locals pronounce the capital city) at least.

The buildings are built that way because land in Hanoi is scarce and the population is over four million. So there is a need to have as small a base as possible with the houses rising up a minimum of three storeys. The land mostly belongs to the government which gives them out to individuals to build their houses. I must add here that land in Vietnam is non-hereditary except if it is ancestral land. The women got that way presumably because of the bicycling they used to do. Not anymore, though, because everybody seemed to be moving around on motorbikes which have become the new preferred form of transport. The more affluent in fact whiz around in Japanese-made cars. Therefore the women must have remained slim because of the several flights of stairs they have to climb daily in their homes.

Another reason could be because the Vietnamese, I was told, were not great eaters. They just eat the three main meals and do not snack in between. And they love to exercise and keep fit. Looking out of my hotel room window eight floors up I could spot a man in white shorts and t-shirt exercising furiously in front our hotel in the wee hours of the morning. But upon closer inspection, I realised that it was not a Vietnamese man I was looking at. It was one of my bosses from Bangkok. He is a health freak whose daily regiment includes a run a few times round the block in whatever city he may be followed by lots of raw vegetables and fruits for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is one step ahead of the Vietnamese, I must say, in the art of keeping healthy.

Anyway I keep digressing. A friend actually pointed out that Vietnamese women looked slimmer than their Asian counterparts because of optical illusion which he attributed to the dress most of them wear. Called au yai, it consists of a mid-calf (or what in the 1970s we used to call midis as opposed to minis) or maxis (ankle-length) cheongsam with slits on both sides running up to the waist. These are made from either silk or cotton. Of course they still wore long pants under the skirts. Otherwise it would have become totally x-rated instead of being a most elegant and beautiful national costume. The au yai without the pants would have caused terrible accidents on the roads all over Vietnam and reduced the number of males further. As it is out of the 80 million people or so, more than 50 per cent are women.

Coupled with that, the motorbikes also travel at speeds that make you stand rooted for a long time by the side of the road before crossing. The first time I tried crossing a road I must have stood there for five minutes before mustering up enough courage to make an attempt. I was waiting for the number of bikes to lessen. No such luck, so as calmly as possible I walk across with a few motorbikes coming at me at breakneck speed. Wonder of all wonders without even slowing down one bit they somehow managed to avoid running me over. If you think that is bad enough, try doing it on a road where the traffic comes at you from both sides with a couple of horns blaring at the same time. The pace used to be much slower when bicycles ruled the roads, I was told. Now the bikes have taken over and all other vehicles, from cars to lorries must give way to them. I can understand that in the days of bicycles this must have been an act of deference to the proletariat class or something like that. But now I think the drivers of other vehicles are just afraid the Hanoi Mat Rempet will team up and beat them senseless in the event one of their brethren is run over. It did not matter whether it was night or day. The number of motorbikes did not seem to decrease very much, at least up until midnight or so.

Which actually mean you need nerves of steel and should not let your mind wonder too much when crossing roads. Worse of all do not let your eyes wander at all to the girls clad in au yai standing across the road. I must say that in the four days I was there, several times I was moved considerably to consider ending my bachelorhood if not for one tiny fact. I was rather afraid for my neighbour’s dogs. Call me picky but I would still rather have beef in my hotdog. To be fair Vietnamese do not eat dog meat all the time. Only during the second half of the month. They consider eating dog meat during the first 15 days to be bad luck. I would say the first half of the month is good luck for the dogs, which are reared specially for food. In one part of Hanoi, I was told, there are 60 restaurants all selling dog meat cuisine. I took their word for it and turned down the offer to go for an inspection.

In fact if I had wanted to have a look I need not have gone that far. Some of my colleagues went for a walk at the wet market beside the hotel we were staying and saw freshly slaughtered and skinned dogs on display. So they whipped out their cameras and started clicking away. This had offended the dog meat seller, but when they gave her a two-dollar tip, out came the heads as well. And this time she even smiled broadly for the cameras.

I think most people find the idea of eating dog meat rather unsettling, revolting in fact, because we were brought up with the notion that dogs are a man’s best friend, in some parts of the world at least. And the idea of slaughtering and eating dogs upset both Muslim and non-Muslim friends of mine alike.

By the way, guess what is more expensive than dog meat? That’s right, cat meat. And not even Persian or Siamese cats, mind you. Our guide was quick to try and absolve this with an excuse that the Vietnamese had been through a 30-year war. And scarcity of food then had meant that any animal that can be slaughtered and eaten would be. Well good enough an excuse.

Somehow I also find it ironic that we would get on our high horse and try to impose our opinion about this when most of us do not blink an eye at the idea of cattle or chicken being killed for food. And I must say I do feel a little kind of guilty for taking a dig at the Vietnamese for their dog eating habits.

Something that I find in common with quite a number of Vietnamese was Manchester United. They love MU in this part of the world. I managed to catch a game on big screen TV at the airport between MU and Everton while waiting for my flight to Bangkok. And wonder of all wonders, there was nobody who wanted to watch Akademi Fantasia to fight with. A few days after returning to KL, MU was again playing but I ended up having to watch Astro’s premier entertainment programme instead. It was a segment where a student of the academy was voted off the show. And for the briefest of moments I could not decide which was the more cruel. SMS voting to judge a participant’s talent or killing dogs for food.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Was that Singa or Singgah?

I have flown there. I have driven there. I have ridden there on a bike. I have taken a train there. So it was about time I take a bus there. And that was how I happened to end up at the second link immigration checkpoint taking me into Singapore. The bus ride was truly great as the brochure advertised. Enough food, coffee and fruits were handed out by the pretty hostess on the bus to make it a comfortable enough five-hour journey.

Just before handing over my passport to the Singapore Immigration Officer, it was a lucky thing that I chanced upon a sign saying no more than an opened packet of cigarette may be taken by Malaysians into the republic. They have changed the rule while I was not looking, obviously. After all I only go there once every three years to attend our regional meeting. Good thing too that I headed straight for the Customs Office to declare my five packets of cigarette. Sitting inside the Customs Office were a couple from Indonesia who had the same brand of cigarette I did. Having failed to declare two unopened packets they had walked through the scanner and were found out real quick by the ever diligent officer on duty. Now they were awaiting a hefty fine being worked out in addition to confiscation of the said contraband items. In the meantime their bus had left without them. Singapore punctuality and all that, you know.

I, on the other hand, having judiciously declared my cigarettes were more respectfully treated. Of course I was handed a bill amounting to more than S$70 which worked out to nearly RM150. For four packets? Dear me, that was a whole lot of money going up in smoke. Those were the most expensive 80 sticks of cigarettes I have ever smoked or likely ever to smoke ever. But it is our civic duty when visiting the island republic to help pay for its upkeep. So I dutifully handed over my credit card because that was the preferred mode of payment, said the Customs Officer. They do not like handling cash, only plastic money. And luckily I never leave home without it. I don’t have that much paper money but lots of plastic money. So what the hell, eh? There was no way I was going to ditch my cigarettes either. Just like quite a number of people I know could never ever ditch their spouses even though they were causing them quite a bit of breathing discomfort and misery.

Naturally I was given a lot of stick by my boss and Marketing Manager about it. And silly me too, because the brand of cigarette I smoke can be found in Singapore. But then I am one of those who carry Indonesian cigarettes while visiting Indonesia just so that I would not run out. Still it was a lot of money just to satisfy a craving. Serves me right, said my non-smoking friends. Poor you, said those who themselves could not last an hour without lighting up.

It would be quite a while before I visit the Lion City again and certainly not with that many cigarettes on me. Lion City, eh? How did they get the name anyway? Fable had it that one Sang Nila Utama who discovered the island of Temasik saw a lion and that was how the name came about? Now really, are Singaporeans that gullible? They, our much learned and sophisticated cousins across the Causeway believe that there were lions on the island several millinium ago? And yet there are so many Oxbridge scholars among their kin?

As far as my limited knowledge of the animal kingdom is concerned, lions are only found in Africa. Well, okay, in the zoo in Singapore as well, but that was at a very much later stage of history. I stand corrected, of course, but to me it was very unlikely that a lion was ever sighted. The name Singapura never came from the word singa or lion. More likely it was from the word singgah (visit or stop for a while). And since it was a city even in days of old and sort of a half-way house for the merchants plying the China-India trade route, the two words singgah and pura (city) got combined. From Singgahpura it became Singapura and the Anglicised Singapore.

Of course the Singapore authorities were more than happy to let the charade continue. After all if Malaysia want to have a tiger as its national symbol, Singapore must go one up and have the king of the animal kingdom, the lion, as the national symbol. But as I say, I stand corrected. For all you know there could be a well-preserved carcass of a pre-historic lion lying in some underground vault in the republic. But then again you also have to understand that the founder of Singapore, Sang Nila Utama himself, was no ordinary being, having come forth from the saliva of a holy cow. So a lion could very well have travelled from the Savanah, through Africa, much of Central Asia to Southeast Asia. Finding itself in Tanjong Pelepas, it decided to give cross-strait swimming a try and while drying its lustrous fur on the sandy beach of Jurong was sighted by Sang Nila Utama and his band of merry men.

Well, enough of history lesson for the moment. Still I must say if there is one thing I love about Singapore, it is their bookshops. They seemed to be better stocked than those in Kuala Lumpur. Even the second hand bookshops. My favourite used to be located on the second floor of Bukit Timah Shopping Complex and I used to make regular trips there while living in Johor Bahru. One day while making my way to the second hand bookshop I was accosted at the top of the escalator by a salesgirl who wanted to sell me a new brand of face cream. I do not even use the old brand of face cream, so what would I do with a new brand and told her so.

“No wonder you’re so ugly,” she retorted. I thought I noticed another salesgirl cringe after hearing her co-worker’s sales pitch.

Well, I was certainly quite bewildered. That was in fact a first for me. I have been called many names before and most are often not terribly complimentary. But UGLY? That was the first time. Several weeks after that incident I was again in Bukit Timah, this time riding pillion on a friend’s motorbike. On our way back to Johore Baru via Woodlands, we were almost sandwiched between a lorry and a car. Just when I thought my mother would have been deprived of her only child this Mat Rempet (oh, yes we also had them in the good old days, they just go by another name) friend of mine managed to avoid going under the lorry by swerving in front of the car at breakneck speed. I never rode a bike in Singapore again after that, pillion or otherwise. I could hear my friend commenting that that was what you deserve for insulting Sang Nila Utama and the spirit of Singapore’s mythical lion.