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On gratitude for creature comforts

Baluran guesthouse

I am writing this from my bed at the airport hotel in Surabaya, Indonesia. The sheets are crisp and spotless; the room is a soothing palette of white, lime green and wooden surfaces coloured a gentle cinnamon brown. Read more

Going basic in Banyuwangi

Banyuwangi_1

Overwhelmed. That is the feeling I get on arrival at the guesthouse on the outskirts of Banyuwangi. We have just finished a six and a half hour train ride from Surabaya, and the owner tells us we can get a better deal on a hike to Ijen if we decide to go that night – which means leaving at 1:00am. Read more

My first Idul Fitri

Idul Fitri_1

Indonesian TV stations these days have been peppering their news broadcasts with “suka-duka Idul Fitri”, a round-up of the positives (suka) and negatives (duka) over the long weekend. It has been a privilege to spend Idul Fitri, or Eid, with Bama’s family, and experience the celebrations firsthand. For me, the similarities between our home cultures have been brought into sharp focus – I now realise that this festival is a lot like Chinese New Year. Read more

Fasting for Ramadan, or “puasa”

Puasa Ramadan_1

Just before 5:30pm, we find ourselves in the middle of a restaurant packed with patrons. At the next table, more than 15 university students load up on white rice and a rich assortment of main dishes. Some stir their ice-cold drinks in anticipation of the coming feast. It is the perfect representation of a scene that my father described from the days before I was born, when my parents lived in Kuala Lumpur. Read more

Why we travel

Kelimutu Flores

“Where are you going to play this summer?”

It sounds strange in English, but in Cantonese, those are the exact words people ask this time of year. The phrase seems innocuous enough, although part of me wonders at the implication that travel is merely entertainment. Have we reduced it to little more than something we consume? Perhaps a temporary escape from the drudgery of our daily routine? Read more

The origins of Singapore

Singapore origins_1

Before the ‘Lion City’ evolved into a global financial centre, the humble Singapore River was its lifeblood. Today it is bereft of the bumboats that once clogged its waters, ferrying goods between warehouses and larger vessels anchored offshore. Echoes of that storied past exist only in the sculptures of naked boys plunging into the river, Indian and Chinese coolies loading sacks onto a bullock cart, and other bronzes scattered along the waterway. Read more

Impossible City

HK rain shower

A poem for Hong Kong, inspired by Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”. Read more

Bogor: the palace in the park

Bogor_1

In 1744, in the fertile heartland of West Java, a grand colonial mansion was taking shape. Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, had commissioned it as his summer residence, a refuge from the stifling heat and the threat of disease in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). Read more

Hungry in Palembang

Palembang Cuisine_1

Shortly before my trip to Palembang, a curious coworker asked me why I wanted to go there. At first I struggled to come up with a decent answer. I could have mentioned the city’s long history, and how it was once the capital of a powerful maritime empire. Or I might have told her about the traditional textiles known as songket, woven with delicate strands of shimmering gold thread. Instead I latched onto something she could relate to as a Hong Konger: “The fishballs [fishcakes] there are very famous,” I replied. Read more

Indonesia’s denial of mercy

Labuan Bajo Sunset

Just after midnight on April 29, eight convicted drug offenders faced an Indonesian firing squad. Two were Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the heroin smuggling ring known as the ‘Bali Nine’. In the past year the international media has had widespread coverage of their successful rehabilitation and reform, and how they served and cared for their fellow inmates in Bali’s Kerobokan prison. Read more