Jeli Eels

I was driving in Kelantan recently on the way to a north Malaysian town called Jeli when I noticed some unusual items being sold at the roadside.

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On closer inspection they turned out to be eels, still alive and writhing around in plastic bags. I believe Ikan Keli translates as catfish but they looked like eels to me. Maybe the blue plastic container at the foot of the photo is for catfish.

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The vendor told me that he caught the eels in the lake next to the road.

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He should consider opening a Japanese grilled eel restaurant here to improve his profit margins.

Later the same day I spotted another slithery thing draped over a milestone.

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Presumably this unfortunate snake (python perhaps?) had been run over while trying to cross the road.

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Not something you see every day, even in Malaysia!

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Enrique, Magellan & Lapu Lapu

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While in Cebu recently I took the opportunity to visit the Mactan Shrine, the spot where the explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in 1521 during a skirmish with the local chieftain, Lapu Lapu.

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There are two monuments at this site.  The oldest is the Magellan Monument which was erected by the Spaniards in 1866 to commemorate their hero.

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The newer one, erected after the Philippines achieved independence, is a bronze statue of Lapu Lapu, who is regarded as a national hero for resisting Spanish aggression.

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Lapu Lapu may have won the battle but he lost the war because the Spanish were soon back in force heralding over 300 years of Spanish colonisation and spreading Christianity to much of the archipelago.

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Ferdinand Magellan (or Fernao de Magalhaes in his native Portuguese) is often thought of as the first person to sail around the world and he was leading that circumnavigation expedition at the time of  his death. He had earlier made another journey eastwards as far as Sabah, Borneo so it could be argued that he had been around the world, apart from the relatively small gap between Cebu and Borneo.

However another person can be credited with being the first to achieve a full circumnavigation and that was Magellan’s servant/slave and interpreter, known as Enrique.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s voyage, Enrique was a Malay slave, originally from Sumatra, who was acquired by Magellan during the conquest of Malacca in 1511. Perhaps he was one of the slaves from the Sultan of Melaka’s household. Magellan had him baptised with the name Enrique and he was taken back to Portugal and accompanied Magellan on all his subsequent trips and took part in the Mactan battle where Magellan met his fate.

Three days after Magellan’s death, Enrique went ashore as interpreter with a party of Spaniards to meet another chieftain but they were attacked and only one survivor made it back to ship, witnessing that all were killed except the interpreter. Some have claimed that Enrique helped plan this attack as he was bitter that the Spaniards were not going to grant him his liberty as Magellan had intended and specified in his will. It is not known what happened to Enrique after the attack but, if he did survive, it is quite possible that he made it back to Malacca, or even Sumatra, thus completing his circumnavigation, and that this took place long before Magellan’s surviving crew made it back to Spain.

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I have a light-hearted children’s book at home called First Around the Globe – The Story of Enrique, which claims that Enrique was in fact a Filipino from Cebu and that the reason he was found by Magellan in Malacca was because he was kidnapped by a band of pirates while out fishing. They took him to Jolo where he was sold to the slave trade in Malacca. The authors argue that Enrique could speak Cebuano which is how he was able to interpret for Magellan when he reached Cebu. Filipinos add that it is appropriate that the first person to have been around the world should have been Filipino because modern day balikbayan are such great travellers. 

Malaysians and Indonesians however would argue that Enrique was a Malay from Sumatra as evidenced by Pigafetta and he was able to communicate with the Cebu chiefs because Malay was the lingua franca among the ruling classes in the Visayas at that time. And Malays are famed for their seamanship skills.

Well, I don’t think I want to take sides in that argument but the possibility that this former Malaccan slave might have been the first person ever to sail around the world is certainly intriguing but I guess we will never know for sure.

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Temple of Leah, Cebu

I was in Cebu, Philippines last week for a short family holiday (yes, even travel bloggers need holidays).

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One of the more recent tourist attractions on the island is The Temple of Leah located in the cool, green hills of Busay overlooking Cebu City.

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This extraordinary building in classical Greco-Roman style looks totally out of place in tropical Philippines but that is what makes it unique.

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Like the Taj Mahal, this temple is one man’s extravagant expression of love for his late wife. The owner is wealthy businessman Mr. Teodorico Soriano Adarna and he explains his reason for building the temple as follows:

“Constructed as a symbol of my undying love for and ceaseless devotion to Leah Villa Albino-Adarna, my wife of 53 years.  All her lifetime collections are showcased in the 24 chambers of the Temple.”

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According to the roman numerals, construction started in 2011 but it is still a work in progress and the 24 chambers are not yet finished and visitors are confined to the marbled entrance lobby and the massive outdoor terrace enjoying fine views of the city.

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Though still a construction site, it is open to the public and the entrance fee of P 50 per person no doubt assists with defraying some of the ongoing building costs.

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This place may not be to everyone’s taste but it is worth going for the view alone and to experience the cooler mountain air.

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With a thunderstorm approaching we adjourned to the nearby Lantaw Native Restaurant for some tasty dishes while waiting for the rain to ease. It was a good trip.

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Dazaifu

Dazaifu is a small town just 15km from Fukuoka and a popular half-day destination for visitors to this part of Kyushu.

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The town’s main highlight is its Tenman-gu Shrine, dedicated to a ninth century scholar, poet and court official named Michizane who was exiled to Dazaifu from Kyoto after falling victim to court intrigues. He died here in 903, in misery, and the shrine was built on his grave, although the current building is a more recent construction dating from 1591.

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Among other things Michizane, or Tenjin, to use his deified name, is said to be a Shinto deity of education and today high school students (and their ambitious mothers) come to pray for good examination results and leave their hopes and wishes attached to trees in the shrine garden.

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The gardens are beautiful though rather crowded with coach loads of Chinese tourists on the day of our visit. To avoid the crowds we walked up a small hill where a procession of red torii gates leads up to a small shrine and cave-like altar.

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Elsewhere in the shrine grounds is a lake with an island spanned by two gracefully curved bridges. There are 6,000 plum trees here which burst into colour in early Spring.

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Other attractions in Dazaifu include the Komyozenji temple with a dry stone Zen garden and a tree-planted moss garden renowned for its autumn colours.

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There are also a couple of museums here including the ultra modern Kyushu National Museum.

The street leading from the railway station is lined with interesting shops selling souvenirs, snack foods and, a family favourite, Totoro merchandise.

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Dazaifu is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not sitting for your exams.

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Selangor’s Steepest Bridge?

Bridge Linking Pulau Carey and Pulau IndahAn optical illusion, enhanced by a touch of zoom lens, makes this bridge linking Pulau Carey and Pulau Indah seem much steeper than it is in reality. The actual gradient is 4%, which is steep enough to require runaway truck ramps to be provided at both ends of the bridge.

The bridge is known as the Selat Lumut-SKVE Bridge and it crosses one of the mouths of the Klang River just outside Klang port.

This stretch of the South Klang Valley Expressway was opened on 1 October 2013.

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Quarrying at Niah National Park

A couple of months ago I visited Niah Caves near Miri in Sarawak. You can read about my trip on my Malaysia Traveller website.

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This cave complex is one of Malaysia’s most impressive natural wonders and it was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, though it has not yet achieved that honour.

The caves and some 3100 hectares of the surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were gazetted as Niah National Park in 1974, meaning they should be preserved in pristine condition in perpetuity.

The national park is managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation which describes Niah as follows:

Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest criss-crossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life – all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.

Given the importance of the site for tourism you would think that everything possible would be done to protect this valuable, fragile and irreplaceable asset. However, on my recent visit, it was disappointing, but sadly not surprising, to see that the area is under threat from quarrying.

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Quarrying near Niah Caves

This Google Maps image shows extensive quarrying is already encroaching on the edges of the National Park and some of the limestone cliffs have been broken up and trucked away.

Is this area inside or outside the National Park borders? This map shows the approximate borders of the park:

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National Park area shown in green. Compare this with the Google image below and it would appear that the quarrying is nibbling away at the edges of the park.

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Since the National Park was intended to protect all the surrounding limestone hills it is possible that quarrying is already taking place inside the National Park, which would be illegal.

This street level image shows the dirt road turn-off leading towards the quarry, busy with lorries.

Niah is not the only national park in Malaysia under threat. Illegal logging is reported in and around forest reserve areas across the country. Sarawak Forestry and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks should introduce buffer zones surrounding national parks within which certain activities, such as logging and quarrying, are prohibited. Access to these areas by trucks and diggers should be controlled. Strict enforcement and heavy penalties are needed otherwise Malaysia’s natural wonders will not be around for much longer.

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Huis Ten Bosch

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It is the summer holiday season and the family wanted to go somewhere with a European flavour so I opted for this place, Huis Ten Bosch.

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At Huis Ten Bosch’s main entrance is a carbon copy of Kastel Nijenroode (original in Utrecht). Inside is a teddy bear museum.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is in the Netherlands but it is actually a Dutch-themed resort park near Sasebo City on the island of Kyushu, Japan.

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Domtoren tower is 105m high and dominates the park. It is a replica of Domtoren in Utrecht.

Huis Ten Bosch was conceived during the bubble period when Japan’s economy seemed unstoppable. It was a hugely ambitious project built at vast expense, intended to be not just a theme park but the hub of a whole new city to be created on scenic Omura Bay. Timing was poor however and it opened in 1992, just as the Japanese economy was entering its post-bubble recession from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.

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Huis Ten Bosch’s creators intended to attract 5 million visitors annually (13000 per day) but it never reached that level and on our trip the number of visitors probably numbered in the hundreds or low thousands.

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Great attention to detail gives a real Dutch feel to Huis Ten Bosch’s streets.

The park was loss making from the start and by 2003 it filed for bankruptcy with debts exceeding US$2 billion. But somehow it has survived, perhaps too big and too expensive to fail, and new backers have been found to keep it going.

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Cafes and bars sell authentic Dutch beer alongside Japanese beers. Unlike some parts of Amsterdam, there are no legal drugs on sale.

By 2010 the park was starting to look desolate but since then new investment from H.I.S., a travel agency company, has seen a revival of fortunes, and now it appears to be in good repair and most of the attractions are operating, albeit well below capacity.

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This Limited Express train takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to complete the journey from Hakata station in Fukuoka to Huis Ten Bosch station.

The park’s remote location on the western extreme of Japan has been another handicap. It is two hours by train from Fukuoka and a whopping 960km from Tokyo (nearly 8 hours by train). Since the park is closer to Seoul or Shanghai than it is to Tokyo the park’s operators are hoping that Korean and Chinese tourists will help to fill the void. However the recent strong Yen might deter foreign visitors – I paid US$100 per person for two-day admission tickets which includes free access to most attractions.

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In springtime Huis Ten Bosch displays thousands of tulips but this July it was filled with fragrant lilies.

Lack of visitors might be bad for the investors but it was good for us since it felt at times as though we had this huge theme park to ourselves.

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View from the 85m high Domtoren Observatory Platform.

The original concept was to create a theme park for adults, with beautiful gardens, museums, fine food and authentic Dutch architecture. While this is fine for older tourists like me, the lack of thrill rides and amusements did not really draw in the crowds so a lot more attractions have since been added such as a zip line, bungee jumping, a water park, haunted house type exhibits, virtual reality games, hologram theatre and much more.

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We were almost the only people in the Hologram Theatre. Impressive 3D technology made us feel as though the performers were appearing live on stage. J-Pop though is really not my thing!

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Full sized replica of de Liefde, the first Dutch ship to reach Japan in 1600, running aground near Usiki City on the eastern coast of Kyushu, about 250km from Huis Ten Bosch. The ship’s pilot was William Adams, on whom James Clavell’s book Shogun was based.

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The porcelain museum displays 17th – 19th century Imari porcelain and other treasures in a room based on a German palace.

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The level of detail of the architecture is superb, faithfully reproducing typical Dutch townscapes when viewed at street level.

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Only when seen from above is it obvious that the buildings are all modern fakes and that behind their accurate facades they are mostly shells containing the park’s attractions together with shops and restaurants.

What they have created is a Japanese idealised version of Europe, specifically Holland. It is like old Amsterdam minus all the grubby bits. So there are clogs, canals, windmills, cheeses and Dutch gable houses but no traffic, litter or impolite foreigners who can’t speak Japanese.

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These windmills look authentic but their sails are electric powered.

The management wanted some European faces at Huis Ten Bosch to add authenticity to the visitor experience. When the park first opened it employed 100 Dutch staff to entertain and dress up in Dutch costumes. Due to cost constraints they have since been let go but there are still a few western singers and dancers who appear to be from Romania and presumably cost less. They were good musicians.

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There is plenty of scary stuff for thrill lovers. This virtual reality-based horror attraction is supposed to be the world’s first. I didn’t fancy it but my adult son confirmed it was very scary.

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Henn-na Hotel staffed by robots.

There are four hotels within the park, including Palace Huis Ten Bosch which is a copy of a Dutch royal palace. Just outside the park perimeter are another three official hotels, the most recent of which is the Henn-na Hotel, the world’s first robotised hotel where most of the staff are robots. I considered staying there but with my fear of technology I envisaged being locked in my room forever and unable to communicate with Japanese robots. I needn’t have worried, the dinosaur robot speaks English.

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You can even live at HuisTen Bosch. The residential community of Wassenaar (red roof tops in the middle distance of this photo) comprises 130 traditional Dutch style houses and 10 apartment blocks lining the banks of a network of canals. They look very nice and are not too expensive by Japanese standards. They are mostly second homes for weekend use and are popular with boat owners who can moor their yachts in front of their houses. The only problem that I can see is that residents would have to put up with the constant replaying of Huis Ten Bosch’s Disney-like theme tune which would be clearly audible from the houses and would be likely to cause insanity after a few days of residence.

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The Game museum contains consoles and games from the earliest days of computer games. What’s more you can play them for free.

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One of a whole street full of haunted houses. At night a 3D mapping show is illuminated on its facade.

I’ve been to a lot of theme parks over the past few decades. I find them rather tiring with far too much queuing. Huis Ten Bosch is different. There was no queuing at all. It may lack roller coasters and other thrill rides but there is plenty to do for the whole family. I would recommend it.

 

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