Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.

I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”

China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.

Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).

Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.

Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.

The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.

I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Malaysia travel- Malacca

This year 2017 is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, while I don’t regard this regional multilateral organization as too useful, I do like the region a lot. I’ve visited several Southeast Asian countries before 2017 and I made my first visit to Malaysia earlier this year.

Malaysia is well-known for its food, its multicultural society, and places like the former colonial straits settlements of Penang and Malacca, and the towering 4,000m+ Mt Kinabalu. Its capital Kuala Lumpur is also well-known for the Petronas Towers, giant skyscraper twins that used to be the tallest building in the world. As I visited Malaysia during the Spring Festival, my modest itinerary was Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.

The port city of Malacca, for which the adjacent strait is named after, has a very mixed background. It used to be a powerful sultanate that was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, who in turn were defeated by the Dutch in 1641. In the early 19th century, the British took Malacca from the Dutch (mirroring the fates of South Africa’s Cape Town and Galle in Sri Lanka) and Malacca became a Straits Settlement. After the British gave up its Malay holdings, Malacca became part of the Federation of Malaya, which became Malaysia.

As such, Malacca’s main historical colonial sights are Dutch, such as the distinguished Stadthuys and the Christ Church, both of which dominate the Red Square and are painted in red. Malacca also has several streets filled with historical buildings and a small lively Chinatown, also known as Jonkers street. Malacca isn’t very big and the main sights are concentrated in Red Square and the adjacent streets so one or two days is quite enough. I was even thinking of doing a daytrip from Kuala Lumpur but I decided to stay overnight instead, which turned out to be a good decision.

Red Square features Christ Church and a distinctive red clock tower alongside the Stadthuys, a long, elegant building that was built by the Dutch in 1650 as the governor’s administrative building, then became a school under the British but now houses Malacca’s history museum. Further up from the Stadthuys on a very small hill are small museums highlighting Malaysian literature and democracy as well as the former house of the Dutch governor (all covered by the). At the top of the hill is the ruins of St Paul’s Church, which still features the graves of several European settlers. The shell of the church remains intact but the roof is missing. Built by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch, the church was abandoned after the Dutch built Christ Church in Red Square. On the other side of the small hill is a surviving gate of A Formosa, a 16th century Portuguese fortress that was torn down by the British.

Jonkers Street is across from Red Square, on the other side of the canal. It’s filled with old buildings, temples, and stores. It was especially festive when I went as it was during Chinese New Year, with Chinese lanterns and umbrellas strung up over the street, but the buildings are the main attraction. Another good street is Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street, which also has a lot of historic buildings, including the Baba & Nyonya Museum and mansions. Baba & Nyonya refers to the community of mixed Chinese-Malays, also known as Peranakan, in Malaysia and Singapore and who have distinct culture and even language. This street is parallel to Jonkers Street and a little less quieter with less restaurants but grander buildings such as the Chee Ancestral Mansion (see below).

In the surrounding streets, there are also Chinese and Hindu temples and mosques, signifying the diverse nature of the city. Near the canal before you reach the bridge to cross to Red Square, there are some huge murals on the side of some buildings, like in the first photo in this post. There are more historical and cultural sights such as the Malay Sultanate Palace museum and Maritime museum so if you have time, check those out too. While my time in Malacca was brief, it was a good introduction to Malaysia with its attractive colonial buildings and laidback (but not dowdy or boring) nature.

Chee Ancestral Mansion
Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Malacca”

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.


The Harmony Silk Factory- book review

The Harmony Silk Factory is the story of a man told through the different perspectives of three characters who were each close to him. Johnny Lim is a wealthy Malaysian-Chinese merchant with a checkered and mysterious past who was the father of the first narrator, the husband of the second, and the best friend of the third. To each, he was a different person – his son saw him as a dark, evil man; to his wife Johnny Lim was distant and timid, his best friend considered him a sensitive and insecure soul – which is sometimes true for us in life as well, and the book challenges readers to decide what kind of person Johnny Lim, who has just passed away at the end of the first part, was.

The book starts off strong as the son’s recollection of his father and description of what is supposedly a dull part of Malaysia are filled with intrigue that leaves you rushing to find out what happens next. The writing is smooth and flows well, but the problem is the plot lags a little in the second part which is the man’s wife’s lengthy recollection of a boat trip honeymoon gone awry. It is not helped that the woman, a local beauty called Snow who has her fair share of suitors, comes across as whimsical and not one to arouse any sympathy. The book picks up in the final part and becomes more lively with the jaunty and artistically-inclined Englishman who was Johnny Lim’s best and only real friend, up until the sobering conclusion.

The novel is set completely in the author’s native Malaysia, specifically the Kinta Valley, during the British colonial period before and during World War II. The author Tash Aw does well in presenting a backdrop rich in geographical detail and the life of colonial and local societies. It’s the first book I’ve read from Aw who has a very diverse background – born in Taipei, Taiwan to Malaysian-Chinese parents, raised in Malaysia, and based in London.


Out of action

It’s no fun being forced to miss work for more than a day or two, as I’ve had to do. I came down with a nasty illness last week that has made me miss several days of work and pay an exorbitant amount for medical treatment and medicine at an international clinic. You’ve probably heard about sticker shock well this was bill shock. I swear I will not get sick again, or at least the next time, I will go to a local clinic and brave whatever chaos or crowds there is. The weird thing is that I had been feeling tired and having mild but annoying headaches in the past two weeks and then just like that I developed a facial rash and an itch in my eye that turned into swelling. When the rash started to spread and redden, the eye swelling got bad enough it made my coworker ask me if somebody hit me and the headache savage enough to feel as my skull was being shattered, I knew it was time to go to the doctor. For a couple of days, just to go to the clinic and the supermarket, I went out with bandages on my face and my cap pulled low whilst steadfastly avoiding looking at people, getting a brief taste of how it must feel to be a fugitive  or a shady character in a movie.

The Malaysia Airlines missing plane saga continues, with the relatives of Chinese passengers traveling to Malaysia to try to force some answers from authorities there, including the prime minister himself. Even though Malaysia officially announced the plane crashed into the ocean without any survivors, many Chinese relatives are not satisfied with this answer and demand actual proof. It’s tough because the Malaysians made this judgement based on calculations using satellite data, and an ongoing search has still not yielded any debris from the plane. I’m of two minds on this – I sympathize with the relatives because Malaysia hasn’t been very forthright in the past few weeks, for instance waiting a whole week to tell the world it had known the plane had changed course. However I think the relatives have been resorting to some unreasonable tactics such as marching on the Malaysian embassy in Beijing en masse, angrily confronting Malaysian officials, and then arriving in Malaysia with a large China flag. I’m not sure there’s no official encouragement with these actions, and this article states some unflattering details about China’s efforts during the search. It’s unfortunate that regional rivalries and mistrust have come to the fore during what seemed like a purposeful multilateral venture, but also that China’s limitations, both in physical capabilities and relationships, are being seen.


Troubles arise over the missing flight

It’s coming close to two weeks and the missing Malaysia Airlines plane is still missing. There’ve been more developments during this week, such as Malaysia announcing that the plane was definitely hijacked (which is just a theory despite what they said) and that it flew west from Malaysia, away from its intended flight path. The most recent development is an ongoing search for large pieces of debris that were spotted in the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

The disappearance has been a big puzzle to much of the public and heartbreak for the families of the missing, not to mention a boon to the media and so-called experts and analysts. It’s also a sign that despite all the high-tech devices and the Internet and news and connectivity that we constantly surround ourselves with, it doesn’t mean beans at times. I also feel the same way about the situation in the Ukraine with Russia having basically annexed Crimea right in front of the world, and other crises in Venezuela and Syria. It feels weird and surreal to be able to read and watch so much news about a crisis as it’s happening and yet none of this has an effect on Russia, which has acted with such impunity. The US has responded with sanctions against Russia, which seems like a puny response but probably the most practical option given a military war isn’t appealing (at least to the West).

I’d lauded the multilateral cooperation on the search as a positive thing, but the opposite seems to be true as well. The lack of competence, cooperation, and trust has aggravated regional and neighborly tensions. This is in spite of the fact that Malaysia and its neighbors are members of ASEAN, the longstanding Southeast Asian regional body. China, as a big nation and regional power, should be taking a major part in the search, as most of the missing passengers are Chinese, but then again, few of its neighbors truly trust China, and China doesn’t necessarily have the outright capability to send naval and air search so far out beyond its shores. It’s also unfortunately a sign that Asia isn’t quite the future power sphere that many folks in media, academic and political circles claim it is.


The ongoing strange, sad saga of missing flight MH370

It’s been a crazy week in terms of news for China. There was the mass killing spree by suspected Xinjiang terrorists in Kunming two weeks ago, then the annual two sessions (China’s version of a parliament) started last week. But by now, surely many of you must have heard of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing last Saturday (supposedly) in waters between Malaysia and Vietnam while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It’s gone from tragic to bizarre to absurd to suspicious. The flight had 239 people on board with over 150 being Chinese, so it’s apparent why it matters so much to China. Nerves are increasingly fraying in Beijing as hundreds of relatives desperately await news of the flight and their missing loved ones. The sudden disappearance of the plane, and the fact it’s still missing after 6 days of searching by dozens of planes and ships from at least 10 nations has been strange, to say the least.

Unfortunately it’s been compounded by a series of strange, confusing or suspicious developments including:
-the fact two travelers boarded the flight using stolen passports (Mario Balotelli was mentioned, really), leading to speculation about terrorists and hijackers, but apparently using stolen passports to fly, especially in SE Asia, isn’t uncommon
-the claims that the plane may have turned westwards, in the opposite direction of its flight path, and that the Malaysian military might have tracked it after it first went missing, which the air force head later denied
-another claim that the plane might have continued to fly for hours after all contact was lost, which Malaysia then denied
-a report about pieces of debris pictured by Chinese satellites, which Malaysia also denied was the plane
-another report that Taiwan received a warning March 4 that Beijing’s airport might be hit by a terrorist attack
-another report that the copilot of the missing flight invited teen girls into the cockpit during a flight two years ago
-the performance of a ritual by a Malaysian shaman at the Kuala Lumpur airport to find the plane (not surprisingly, most Chinese are not amused)

However, here’s a surprisingly levelheaded article explaining why it’s not that farfetched for a plane to disappear.
The US thinks the plane did fly westwards and for several hours after its last reported sighting on radar, so it will start search attempts in the Indian Ocean. It’s fair to say that the chances aren’t good that the plane didn’t crash, but at the least hopefully it will be found soon. Malaysia isn’t looking very good as the search goes on, and as can be seen from the news and the above links, there’ve been a lot of confusion and mixups going on. The only good thing from this tragedy is the multilateral help and cooperation involving several SE Asian nations, China, the US, India and Australia and New Zealand.