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The Man who Mistook his Capital for a Cat

20 Jul

Astana, the fortress-like state residence of the Governor of Sarawak, illuminated at night, reflecting in the Sarawak River. Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia.[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]This is Astana, the little place which James Brooke, the first “White Rajah” of Sarawak, built for himself in his capital, Kuching (“Cat”).

A Victorian adventurer somewhat in the mould of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, James Brooke spent his inheritance on a schooner, The Royalist. He stuffed it with cannons; crewed it with sailors who didn’t think he was insane (or weren’t that fussy); and headed to Borneo to remake the fortune he’d spent on the boat.

Continue reading

Putting the Graphic into Ethnographic

9 Jun

As you can probably tell from the picture the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi offers infinitely more fun than the rather cumbersome title would suggest. (It’s slightly shorter in Vietnamese. But not much.)

sexual wood carving of man and woman on tribal tomb, Museum of Ethnography, Hanoi, Vietnam.

'Your wife, you say? No, no, sir, that is definitely not your wife.'

This depicts, believe it or not, a traditional tribal tomb.

Can you imagine what the funeral was like?! I mean, seriously. Continue reading

Round Halong Bay by Junk

2 Jun

Junk moored on beach of Monkey Island, near Halong Bay, Vietnam

Our junk moored on the beach at Monkey Island, near Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay, North Vietnam, is one of the most dramatic seascapes the planet has to offer. Five hundred million years in the making, twenty million in the shaping, and still evolving before your eyes, it’s a rare chance to see geology in action.

Pillars of limestone, once the supports of vast underground caves, spike surreally out of nowhere. Fissured cliffs slide vertiginously into the jade green sea. Magical vistas of pyramid hills appear fleetingly between rocky gateways, flawless beaches peek through low archways, dark, low, caves lead through to marine valleys carved by underground rivers over millions of years, while brand new islets, ominous overhangs and decaying rock bridges indicate the shape of landscapes yet to come.

Seen from the deck of a classic junk? Amazing. By night, with sheet lightning flashing between surrealist outcrops, fengkong karsts shedding pyramidal shadows over smooth, dark water, as you lie on the basketwork roof of a gently-swaying junk watching the storm through the rigging? Words begin to fail. Continue reading

Summer in Hanoi

28 May

Trees and reflecting pool in the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

Reflecting pool: the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi turns one thousand years old this year, and the city’s just on the cusp of summer. The point where the heat begins to turn from velvety to steamy, the rainstorms open up, the Red River starts to rise and turn burnt orange with silt, and the fields which still surround this turbo-charged city turn as green as the cottage gardens which flourish on islands in the stream.

Hanoi is a city of lakes. Hoan Kiem, at the heart of the old quarter, where balloons hang over the medieval pagoda, and an embalmed tortoise in a scarlet temple commemorates the sacred turtle — an incongruous fourth partner to the more obviously sacred trio of dragon, unicorn and phoenix that were emblems of old Tongking — which rose to give King Le Thai To his personal Excalibur long ago.

There’s Ho Tay, or West Lake, the gargantuan freshwater expanse around whose borders young couples promenade and pet on scooters, as steadily hooting taxis forge their way through, where drinker sup the cheap draft beer, bia hoi, at kindergarten tables, and the high-rise condos of the Western expats sit sealed behind their grandiose gates. Continue reading

The Museum of Doctor Rizal

21 May

Manila is not a spiritual city. It’s one of those big, dirty, urban sprawls, expanding organically, growing without control, the beating heart of an archipelago, maybe, but a cancered one at that.

12 million? 15 million? Honestly, who’s counting?

Manila long ago outgrew its natural ties to earth: the river and the Bay. Before its roadways are completed, they are already too narrow for its needs.

High-rise condos with names like Knightsbridge and Gramercy spring up cheek-by-jowl with squatter camps where families fresh from the countryside learn that, unless you’re educated, connected, local and (most often) lucky, the streets of the big city are paved with shit, not gold. Volunteer fire brigades wail down canyons of mouldering concrete to fires that can burn for days.

It’s a maze. A consumerist maze. From the delis to the junkfood to the sari sari store.

Emo ergo sum.

But if the city has a soul – and I’m not sure my own city does — I guess it flits and murmurs through the mirrored shadows of the Rizal Museum, in Fort Santiago, the old colonial core. Continue reading

Here Comes the Rain…

28 Apr

View from the Puerto Princesa Underground River, Palawan, Philippines: jagged rock and turquoise water.

Not, actually, a waterfall. Just the rain beginning....

Maybe it’s El Nino. Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe we’ve brought the English summer with us. But it feels like the rains have come early this year. And Z is overjoyed.

We walked to the Puerto Princesa underground river yesterday — supposedly the world’s longest navigable river — under heavy skies and dripping leaves. And as we emerged from the darkness of the cathedral cave into the green of the coastal forest where the river meets the sea, the rain fell in great sheets, ruffling the waters and throwing up spray. It felt, for a moment, as if we were paddling out into a waterfall.

There was a thunderstorm last night. There is a thunderstorm now, with bugs sheltering from the raindrops and flooding the lights, the grass a vivid green, the streams swelling already, gouts of water pouring from the nipa thatch, and a blessed coolness in the air. There will be thunderstorms tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that.

Three days ago, this was the view from our beach hut. Continue reading

Desert Island Caveboy

28 Apr

View of caves on Lipuun Point, Palawan, the Philippines

Home sweet home for almost 50,000 years

Even with my spawn noisily constructing a hand-axe from fossil coral and driftwood and a six-year-old channelling his inner T-Rex, there’s something about caves that speak irresistibly of mortality.

More than 200 limestone caverns burrow deep into the rock of Lipuun Point, a protected peninsula of mangroves and scrubby dipterocarp forests half an hour’s boat ride from the little town of Quezon, Palawan. 90% or so remain unexplored, and excavations continue, apparently at random, exposing deep layers of peach, cream and dusty bronze.

In one of the largest, a tumble-down cathedral over 40 metres long and perhaps half that in height, they found the skull of Tabon “Man”, which some date to as old as 47,000 years.

It was hard not to wonder, as small modern children played noisily in the shafts of light between waterfall stalactites and tumbling vines, how different they are from the kids who played before them, almost 50,000 years ago, and the unknown man or woman whose bones miraculously survived that long. Continue reading

Under the Volcano

10 Apr

View of the crater lake, with island, Taal Volcano, Philippines

An island within a lake, within an island, within a lake, within an island in the South China Sea.

“You can’t swim in the crater now,” says Michael, our guide, as we negotiate the bangka across Lake Taal to the serene, petite volcano at its heart. “Taal Volcano is Alert Level 1, going to stage 3. You heard about Mount Mayon?”

We have heard about Mount Mayon. A few hundred kilometres north of here, on the island of Luzon, the Philippines, it’s been sufficiently active for folk to be evacuated, with vulcanologists on red alert.

“Mount Mayon is Alert Level Five, now, but going to stage 1,” he says. “And they say that Taal Volcano is Mount Mayon’s daughter. When Mount Mayon acts, the Taal Volcano follows. They are connected, below the ground. Taal erupts, they say, every two years.” Continue reading

The Long Good Friday…

3 Apr

Float of a saint progressing in the Moriones Festival, Marinduque, The Philippines

100% Pope-approved. Moriones, Marinduque, Philippines.

Throughout history, and prehistory, festivals have provided the opportunity for misrule, orgies and drunkenness. And smart missionaries, whether Brahmans, Jesuits or Theravada Buddhists have always been fast to latch onto old-school pagan festivals and reskin them for the new religion.

But the Moriones, in Marinduque, the Philippines, provides a rare chance to see this process pretty close to the source. The Moriones, at its simplest, is a feast where spear-carrying men dress up in masks and helmets, paint or scarify their bodies, and pursue a scapegoat around the island before putting him (symbolically) to death.

So far, so Golden Bough. But back in 1807 some smart Jesuit clocked that the original festival refused to die, and pegged it onto Easter, and the legend not only of the crucifixion, but the centurion Longinus, murdered for his conversion to Christianity. And now, to the old mix, is added a procession of saintly floats. Continue reading

Palanquins and Kings

25 Mar

The generational differences between me and Z never cease to amaze me. We went to the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos, yesterday, former home of the kings of Laos.

We were pacing down a corridor in our bare feet, trying to work out the sense of the legend of the Lao prince who became a hermit and gave away everything — most challengingly, his two children to a slave-taking Brahmin. We were talking about Abraham and Isaac when Z stopped dead in absolute horror. Continue reading