Friday, 31 August 2007

The (Long) Road to Galle

"Galle remains the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia " - statement from the ICOMOS recommendation for World Heritage List No 451, dated Dec 31, 1986.

The APSA 2007 Conference Organisers gave participants two choices for a post-conference tour - to the Ancient City of Sigiriya or Colombo. Only one registered for Colombo so that was cancelled. I could not take up the trip to Sigiriya because they will be back only at about 9 pm while my flight was 10 pm. I chatted with the people organising the trips and was convinced that I should go to Galle (pronounced "Gall" not "Gallee") because it is a World Heritage site. Eventually, Angelique (originally from Kerala, now in Cardiff) and her two sons joined me on the long journey to and from Galle.

Sanjeetwani, a recent planning graduate from the University of Moratuwa and now an instructor at her alma mater, was our guide for the day. She, like most (probably all) Sri Lankans I have met are extremely polite and even-tempered. I told her my goal that day would be to make her angry. She smiled and said "yes sir". I asked her to pray for the sun to come out so that my photos will look great, and she said "I will try sir". I also said I missed my noodles and she said she will try to find me some, sir. But honestly, even the hotel staff are very polite - even then I observed an overbearing foreign tourist telling the counter staff to make some copies of documents within "the next five minutes" (he was apparently annoyed with the Internet service). The journey to Galle took longer than expected (more than 3 hours I think) but it was bearable because Angelique and I were still fresh and had the energy to chat about academic stuff (what else?). I actually first heard her presenting a paper at the Hanoi APSA 2003 but we didn't get to talk until this trip.

Along the way, the subject of toddy came up (I think it was a picture in a tourist guidebook showing ropes tied across coconut trees used for harvesting toddy). We all wanted to try, including Sanjeeni (who's father had not allowed her to try). The driver spotted a roadside vendor and we all excitedly went down to have a taste. But when we saw the condition of the wooden barrels used to store the toddy, we all decided against risking a stomach upset. The driver told us that they are all like that but getting a stomach upset is not a trivial matter when you are travelling (Terry McGee politely said "he had a reaction to the food" the morning after the Conference Dinner). Some of my fellow APSA colleagues actually travel with various medication, including for stomach upset, in their suitcases.

One of the stops we made was at a Buddhist temple. The stopover itself was not very eventful but while waiting for the van to pick us up again, we observed two interesting phenomenon. The first was a group of school boys and girls visiting the temple (see picture on left). Nothing special about that until you notice that they are all Muslims students on a school field trip. It was a very powerful image of religious tolerance in Sri Lanka.

The other interesting phenomenon was that the road in front of the temples (actually there is another temple on the other side of the road) was embedded with lots of coins. Yes, embedded into the road. It is a Buddhist tradition to give donations when asking for blessings from Buddha. So how come the coins are on the road and not in the donation box? Sanjeetwani explained that villagers travelling on buses passing the temples would throw the coins out of the bus windows because the buses won't stop for them. But the most incredible thing is that nobody else will pick them up and put them in their own pockets. I didn't even see any beggars around the temples.

Now, Galle. We didn't get to see much of it because we spent so much time travelling and then it started to rain heavily. But through Sanjeetwani's connections we managed to visit the inside of one of the houses and even talked to the Chairman of the Galle Heritage Foundation. One thing which seems to stand out is that it seems to be the only place in the World where old Dutch architecture is still standing. So, the irony is that the Dutch (Government) is pumping a lot of money to help preserve its own heritage thousands of miles of away.
Typical Dutch buildings from the 18th Century in Galle

One of the questions the Chairman of the Foundation asked us was what we thought of Galle. I said that I could see some very nice buildings but also saw that there were restoration works which appeared to be a little insensitive to the architectural heritage (in terms of materials used for instance). He defended the Foundation's position in permitting those restorations and I guess they have a legitimate right to adopt a more dynamic approach to allow changes in culture, traditions and even current construction materials. For instance, did you know that the walls were constructed with corals and sand from the nearby beaches? That's causing a lot of problem for current restoration works. Galle has also become more predominantly Muslim who prefer to have houses which are not so open. But things can get out of hand like the foreigner who was refused permission to put a swimming pool in his house but did it anyway. When the enforcement people came to demolish the pool they demolished some parts of the old heritage walls as well. Sanjeetwani can just look at the front of the building and know whether a foreigner has bought over the house and made changes out of character with the original. It seems that after the Tsunami, many foreign relief workers have taken a liking to Galle but are not too sensitive to the architectural heritage.
On the left is a house which has been restored but I felt it was not very sensitively carried out (note the gutter and sunshade and absence of a deep verandah in front)
In the middle is a rundown courtyard house

Then there's the problem of guidelines being too restrictive. We visited a house which is leaking all over the place and the wooden beams and timber floors are rotting away. The occupant (who's father operated a guest house from that building) claimed that the current owner refused to allow him to renovate or restore the house. There was also claims that the Authorities and the owner are at loggerheads, each with their own ideas of how to restore the building.
Inside of the rundown leaky courtyard house

BTW, we had Chinese fried noodles (4 or 5 huge plates) for lunch in a nice restaurant in Galle. The restaurant was nice, but the noodles ... emmph, it was a little too much and not Chinese enough. After that, we were off to some souvenir shopping. And then Sanjeetwani asked whether it was OK if she did not accompany me to the airport (her family has a house in Galle and her father is a tea farmer) - I told you they are just really polite. I said "yes, it is perfectly alright!" - what else did you think I would have said?. If the situation were reversed, I would probably have told my guest "hey, this is where take off, have a nice journey, see you again".

The journey back to Colombo was uneventful - because we were all tire out and trying to sleep, which was difficult because of the not so comfortable seats and lack of air-conditioning. By the time we reached Colombo to drop off Angelique and sons, I was quite thoroughly numb but nothing compared to the next one and half hour ride to the airport which I can only describe as noxious. My driver suddenly became a demon on the road, driving fast, zigzaging in and out of traffic and persistently beeping on the horn as though telling everyone to make way for a VVIP. When we reached the airport, he pointed to his watch to say it was 7 pm and we are at the airport. Then I understood. He must have somehow got the impression I had to reach the airport by 7 pm. Lesson learnt? People in Sri Lanka take their promises seriously.

So I spent like 7 hours (or more) on the road to spend perhaps only 2 hours in Galle. Wish I had more time to walk and absorb the streets of Galle. I slept throughout my plane ride from Colombo via Male to KL, skipping all the meals and then more sleep back home in Air Tawar.

Incidentally, did you know that Sri Lanka has 6 World Heritage Sites?

Happy 50th Birthday Malaysia

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Poya & Apo

The luscious eyes of a Sri Lankan beauty
(since you are asking, I took the photo of this traditional dancer at the Conference Dinner)

Yes, I did say I would be coming back this way. Been in Colombo since Sunday afternoon for the APSA Congress 2007 as well as the various Executive Committee meetings.

Food in Ceylon (old Sri Lanka) is not much different from back in Malaysia. In fact there was Tong Yam for dinner, nasi goreng, fried noodles, brinjals and curries, of course.

Breakfast at the hotel is more modest compared to Maldives and hotels in Malaysia but still generous except I miss my chicken porridge but than there is the "string hopper" - apparently a British name for "apo" but Malaysians will be more familiar with apom. Over here it is served in the shaped of a bowl and you can have an egg in it. Eat with chilly and curries. I would say this has been my favourite breakfast for the past 2 mornings.

So, what is "Poya", you ask? This is one day every month where alcohol is totally prohibited - during full moon. Poya is also a monthly holiday to allow the Buddhist to fulfill their religious obligations. That was yesterday (Tuesday) and the restaurants and bars (even those in the hotels) do not serve liquor - and the streets are quite deserted. This law is observed religiously. I thought it a great idea - gives people a chance to detox.

Conferences are about meeting up with old friends and meeting new ones. Nihal, Utpal and I walked the streets of Hanoi at midnight in 2003 and we continued our "tradition" again on Monday night except we now had a tour guide (Nihal was born and bred in Colombo). We try to appreciate and not be judgmental. We walked for 2 hours through tight security around the old fort area which is residence to the Prime Minister. Every street leading to the area has soldiers on the streets and in bunkers keeping a watchful eye. Vehicles are flagged down at random to look for suspicious characters. We were flagged down when we took a "toot-toot" or taxicab (those modified scooters) and our guide was "interrogated" (ok, a bit of an exaggeration here) and had his passport checked. Apparently, they leave foreigners pretty much alone. If you are wondering why all the fuss, its their way of staying vigilant against Tamil Tiger attacks. From what I see, the locals seems to take it all in their stride. I am told that other parts of the island are less stressful for travellers. I will know tomorrow when I go a day trip to Galle, an ancient World Heritage Site.

Lik Meng renewing friendships with Nihal and Utpal and making a new one.
The old gentleman (2nd from right) is Terry McGee, a household name in academic circles. He used to teach at Universiti Malaya in the 1960s or 70s.

Part of the APSA Executive Committee right after the elections yesterday evening
from left : Yukio Nishimura and Utpal Sharma (Committee Members)
Lik Meng (President); Mahanama (Vice-President) and Anthony Yeh (Secretary-General)
Missing from picture are Do Hau (Past President) and Hsia

Time to go catch some sleep. Leaving for Galle at 6 am (2 and half hour journey) and from Galle straight to the Airport for home. I have not really seen much of Colombo but the people are very friendly and the streets seems safe though full of rubbish and homeless people in some parts. At the conference I heard some animated discussions about the work being done by planners and others to improve the life of the local people. Politics however seems to be the spoiler here too.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

A Little Older, A Little Wiser

Malaysia celebrates 50 years of Nationhood in 6 day's time. Yesterday evening, we had our Merdeka Campus Walk (but without the walk) at the Sports Stadium.

The first thing I noticed when I reached the Stadium (after almost half hour of walking from my office at Korporat) was the row of familiar-looking packages of food laid out on a long table. "Not again" was my first reaction. When I got closer, I noticed that the packages were not white but brownish. Ah, we have become wiser. This time around they used EcoPaks which are totally biodegradable since they are made of palm fibre and has no wax coating. Still alot of thrash but let's take it one step at a time. Good job to the organisers of the event.
Remember my earlier post "Please, Walk on the Grass"? I am happy to report that the new pedestrian walkway at the Aman-Damai hostel area (closeby the Stadium) has been completed. They covered up the open drain and now we have walkway which is shielded from the traffic by huge beautiful christmas trees. Another great job, guys. Now let's remove the old pavement of interlocking blocks and plant more grass instead.

Below are some images from the senamrobik that evening.

University top management including
the Deputy Vice-chancellor (Student Affairs),
staff and mostly students at the senamrobik.
Hey, I still haven't got my rhythm

Now we all want to fly - the Jalur Gemilang

The ladies - making their presence felt

More ladies - old friends from HBP

Yes, we are little wiser and we are happy with that. But much more can be done. I had an earlier conversation with Anwar Fazal in my office that morning and we talked about the recent RCE Conference and what more could have been done to internalise our habits and practices, such as not handing out drinking water in disposal plastic bottles and containers. And yes, there were boxes and boxes of drinking water in plastic boxes at the senamrobik. Let's think about how we can overcome this.

I also chatted with Azman, our Registrar. And this is the second time he has surprised me with his ideas for sustainable development. At almost every event, we must have a lucky draw to attract the crowd. But why give them hampers with junk food and wrapping which ends up in the thrash? He suggested giving the lucky participants food coupons to be used in the canteen. I think that is a great idea. We could also give them vouchers to buy books from our USM bookstore or other bookstore - after all, we are a community of intellectuals, right?

The Aliens are Here!

Just attended (part) of the Seminar organised by the Malaysian Nature Society, sponsored by the Economic Planning Unit here in the lecture hall across from my office.

If you have been to Australia you would have noticed the huge signs welcoming you saying "Declare it or thrash it" and right underneath the signs are huge thrash bins. You can't bring in any meat products and other fresh produce. An alien species could wipe out their whole agricultural industry. I also remember when we were traveling by car from Washington State to California and was surprised to see a checkpoint where all they wanted to know was whether you have any fresh fruits in your car. I looked around our car, saw the plastic bag of some left over cherries (grown in California, bought in Oregon), showed it to the officer, who took it and promptly dropped it into the thrash bin.

Malaysia is full of alien species. The best known are the rubber and and oil palm trees but these have economic value so we welcome them. But did you know that the British introduced crows to control insect infestation of coffee plants (another alien) in the Klang area? Now of course crows are everywhere in Malaysia - and coffee is dead. Cats are aliens and so are many types of pets. They are pretty to look at but when their value drop or people got tired of them, what do they do with the pets? Remember the Lohan fish which was the craze just a few years ago and fetched hundreds or thousands of dollars? Well, when the market for Lohan collapsed, the owners released them into the rivers. These fish are predators - they eat up all the algae and the eggs of other fishes. Now, it seems they have become the dominant species in many rivers in the Klang Valley. So, what is the problem with that? Lost of bio-diversity and this can have severe ecological and economic consequences. Mashbor calls this biological pollution. Kumar of MNS who's office is near the Botanical Garden in Penang reports very often seeing well-meaning owners releasing their pet fish and turtles in and near the Garden, severely disrupting the local ecological system. All the hycinths plants (which are also alien and invasive but have tide and erosion control uses) are now gone, eaten by the turtles.

The beautiful angsana and flame of the forest are all aliens. In fact, all the flowering plants in Malaysia are imported; even the national flower, the hibiscus (bunya raya). Yes, we want diversity but alien species can dominate and wipe out indigenous species.

What can we do about it? Nothing - once the aliens have a foothold.

USM's Main Campus in Penang Island is a Bird Sanctuary and the scientists are quite happy about the biodiversity on campus - 130 species of plants, 17 species of mammals from 9 families, 106 species of birds from 34 families, 26 species of reptiles from 11 families and 8 species of amphibia from 4 families. Pretty impressive, don't your think?

But I think the worst invasive species are OURSELVES - the humans. It gives me a heartache whenever I pass by the two lakes near Desa Harapan (see picture below).

Sunday, 19 August 2007


Maldives (Mal-deeves) is a string of more than 1100 islands of which only about 100 are inhabitated. So, what has it got to offer? "Sun, Sea, Salt" - and I would add "Wind". The waters are crystal clear. The sky is a beautiful blue. The fishes are colourful. The corals are ... well, in some parts pretty, in other parts broken but I am not sure how much of it was caused by the tsunami and how much by snorkellers.

My wife and I spent three nights of glorious peace at the Club Med, Kani - an island 800 metres long and 200 metres wide. When you buy a vacation at Club Med, everything is paid for (unless you want extras). We arrived after midnight (partly due to the delayed departure at KLIA because some idiot checked in but did not board so they spent one hour digging through the luggage compartment to throw out his bag before we could take off) - and like most resorts checkout time is 12 noon. But guess what, guests (called Gentle Members, GM) can stay and enjoy all facilities and eat and drink until we board the boat to take us to the airport for our departure (we left the island at 10 pm). Yes, all you can eat and drink (expresso, capucino, beer and wine inclusive) throughout your stay. Snorkelling, windsurfing, kayaking, boating - all "free". If you want a Balinese massage, that's extra.

All in all, the food was fair, not excellent - we expected better for the money we paid. Sigh, we didn't see any lobster (not even big prawns) on the table but there's plenty of fish around. And even if you miss breakfast or lunch, they make sure you don't go hungry because snacks are available.

The traditional-looking huts (picture above) cost a bomb to stay in. They look lovely but that's not where we stayed. Most of the other buildings on land are rather plain looking concrete structures with metal roofing which I thought rather "ugly" given the authentic island architecture of the buildings you see in the picture above. I have no complains about the inside - modern, easy maintenance, clean and comfortable - and all have a view of the sea and beach.

Wonder how they get water and electricity? Drinking water comes from the sea (desalinated) so it tastes a little different which is why everyone goes for the bottled mineral water and that is so bad for the environment. By the time we left, the dustbin in our room was filled with empty plastic bottles. Electricity is generated on the island using diesel which is smelly and noisy (but luckily we were quite far away). The good thing is that almost every building has a solar water-heater on the roof. And where do they throw their trash? I am told that they burn it in an incinerator on a small island. Now that's not good.

The people who run the show are something else. They are called GOs or Gentle Organisers. They do everything including putting up a fantastic show. I tried to ask a few of them, "What makes a GO? What drives them?". Is it all fun and games? Carefree lifestyle? Is it because they love the sun and sea? They like meeting people? No one gave me a straight answer. But they work long hours sometimes from 8 in the morning until 12 midnight - and I am told for very low pay (compared to what, you may ask). And they are on half-year contracts and out they go if they don't measure up. Some are more friendly then others. But what I like is that there seems to be a deliberate effort to make sure the GOs come from all over the world. They have some 80 GOs and 4 of them are from Malaysia. There was even one "English" girl GO who was born in Singapore and shouted "Malaysia Boleh" when she discovered our roots.

Ah, and the highlight of our stay? Well, we were trying to catch the sunset but was quite disappointed because of the cloud cover. And along came Yuka, a GO, and the next thing we knew, we agreed to become models for the fashion show for the night. The dress Moong Nah wore cost more than a thousand Rufiyaa (that's about RM300) - see picture below. No we didn't get to keep the elegant clothes - just the memories.

Will we go back to Kani? Probably not. Will we go to another Club Med? Probably yes.

BTW, I will be going to Maldives again next week - enroute back from the APSA Congress in Colombo. Nah, I won't be stepping off the plane in Male.

p.s. Kanimoon is actually the name of a drink (it is said to have its roots in the Singapore Sling).

Saturday, 11 August 2007


Been here at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) for 2 days attending the World Innovation Forum 2007 held in conjunction with PECIPTA 2007 (an exhibition of research and inventions by local universities).

KLCC is spanking new and is like a highly oiled machine with multiple conferences, exhibitions, conventions, etc going on at the same time. The food is good, staff are courteous, well-trained and mainly locals but I hear the big boss running the show is a Mat Salleh (foreigner). I am impressed – but we (participants) also asked some probing questions about sustainability issues.

We can’t say the same for some of the hotels we are staying in, especially the one where I stayed. One participant lost her digital camera and notebook – from her locked hotel room with no signs of forced entry. A colleague (guy) reported knocking on his hotel room door at 9 pm but he was tired so he ignored the three knocks. Then he heard the electronic key being inserted and the door being opened. Fortunately he had the security latch on so the intruder went away empty-handed. Another reported lots of cockcroaches in his room. And which hotel is it? It claims to be 4-stars and located along Jalan Ipoh very close to Vistana and PTWC and a stone’s throw from the Monorail terminal at Pekeliling. Enough hints? They are not going to get any more USM business.

For this entry, I have decided to just share some of the portrait shots I took in the last 2 days at the WIF 2007.

Hamoon & Dzul - he's the man!

Anees - looking sharp

We call him Che Mat, the PRO. Where do you think the eyes are looking?

Omar & Zinaeda

Rene - then (10 years ago) and now

Aida - very pleased ... with the attention ... from my camera

Soraya & Soraya (I'm not kidding)

Tisya - radiating brilliance

Sharifa - the star attraction

note : Uploaded to the blog from MAS Golden Lounge at KLIA. Superfast wireless Internet, unlike the rest of the KLIA wireless Internet which is hopelessly slow. Ah, had Soto Ayam at the Lounge, expected cubes of rice but was given mee hoon instead but the soup is great. Will try another bowl of curry mee (hey, they give only small portions). Also had some Hokkein style fried mee at KLCC before I left just now and it was good. I am a noodles kinda guy. BTW, did I say that the food at the Penang Airport MAS Lounge really sucks? And the result? See photo below.

Omar, Shukri, Izham, Norpisah and Lik Meng
supposedly having a meeting at the cafeteria at level 2, KLIA
on arrival from Penang 2 days ago

Thursday, 9 August 2007

The Street of Harmony

This is where it all started. It seems that Francis Light founded Penang from here and the cenotaph is a tribute to him.

It is 5.55 pm and I am waiting for my flight to KL to attend the World Innovation Forum. Yes, am spending a lot of time away from home these days. But next week will be a whole just for us (me and my wife) and we are flying off to an exotic island for our honeymoon. I am not kidding! When I told my boss (the VC) yesterday, he gave me a strange look.

This morning I joined some of the participants from the RCE Conference for their heritage walk in George Town along the Street of Harmony. Here you will find temples and mosques from various religions including Islam, Christainity, Buddhism, Hinduism and what the flyer says is the "Chinese religion, which combines Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism". I have walked those streets many times, especially with other foreigner visitiors and the three batches of Australian students. I went because I especially wanted to hear what Dato Anwar Fazal had to say. We were joined by Khoos Salma who is a prolific writer on heritage and history of Penang.

And I wasn't disappointed. These are some pictures from the walk.

The minaret at the Kapitan Kling mosque. This one of my favourite places to take photos. (look at the sky)

The Kapitan Corner Nasi Kandar. A Hot favourite but a little pricely.
Harold ordered a large prawn, a piece of beef and 2 ladies finger (orca) and it cost RM8.30.

Nami and Harold enjoying nasi kandar.

The beautifully restored Teo Chew Temple which won a UNESCO prize.
Hey, did I tell you I am Teo Chew too? It seems Teo Chew people are very low profile.

Now to support local businesses. This one of our (wife and I) favourite restaurants.
Serves authentic Hokkein dishes. Famous for its 3 cup Chicken, steam tofu, oyster omellete, fried tapioca flour noodles and much more.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

An Angel made my day!

It's been a while since I have blogged. Been busy, of course.

Today, I took on the role of the Official Unofficial Photographer, again. There's an International Conference of Regional Centres of Expertise (RCE) for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) today and tomorrow and there was also a ceremony to celebrate 40 years since the laying of the foundation stone for USM. So basically, I was "running" in and out and it got hot and I got sweaty. So, when I got back to the Conference from the foundation stone ceremony, my shirt was out, my top button off, my hair plastered with sweat ... and two angels said I looked handsome. One of them actually has a name called "Angel". So, that made my day! Thank you, Angels.

Guess which one is the "Angel".
So this is the handsome me, photo taken by the Angel. The ladies told me to look macho.

Now here's the serious stuff. About 100 participants from 34 RCEs representing 15 countries are putting their heads together at the USM campus discussing ways to save the World. I was able to meet some "old" friends from my previous meetings (Ziole from Brazil who are I met in Halifax; Harold, Zinaeda and Brendan from Nayoga; and a few others) and got to know a few new ones. Am in my office waiting for the official reception/dinner at the EQ (am much cooler but not showered yet, so I hope nobody complains about me being smelly during dinner).

In the afternoon was a short ceremony to remember the laying of the foundation stone for the Penang University College (predecessor of USM) which was carried out by Tunku Abdul Rahman (first Prime Minister of Malaysia) on 7th August 1967. The foundation stone was actually layed in Sg Ara and it is still there but efforts are being made to bring it to the USM Campus. There were some interesting snippets of memories told from the people involved with the early formation of USM including the lobby from Penang people to get the current campus (which was formerly a British Military barracks) and they succeeded because Tun Abdul Razak decided that education is more important than warfare. Another juicy information was that the British sold the military camp to USM for just one dollar. And the Japanese gave a loan of 13 million dollars (big money those days) to help build USM.
This is a replica of the foundation stone (made with styrofoam) at the DTSP

Now I got to go do some more serious work.