Many moons ago, at the height of rainy season, I left the office in the middle of a howling storm. The lashing rain was blown almost horizontally in the wind, and my umbrella, now turned inside-out, was practically useless. This was, I thought, almost like the typhoons I had grown up experiencing in Hong Kong. Much of the usual route home was covered with murky, ankle-deep water; in nine months of walking from work, I had never encountered this much flooding. Read more
Two summers ago, while exploring the Central Javanese highlands of Dieng at the start of our six-month Spice Odyssey, Bama and I came upon an illustrated timeline inside a museum. It charted the evolution and development of the candi (pronounced “chaan-dee”), a catch-all Indonesian term for the ancient Hindu and/or Buddhist ruins scattered across the island of Java, and to a lesser extent, Sumatra. The great majority are quarried from volcanic andesite – whose color varies from tan to slate grey – with the most prominent examples being the UNESCO-listed temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Bama had been to both icons several times, but as he traced his finger over depictions of their smaller and lesser-known counterparts further east, he declared with a sigh, “I’ve always wanted to visit these temples in East Java.” Read more
“I’ve never seen an Indonesian working so fast,” Bama says.
Night has fallen in Malang, East Java’s second-largest city, and we’ve joined a small crowd of hungry customers at Puthu Lanang, a portable stall at the covered entrance to a street just wide enough for motorbikes. A five-person assembly line is churning out traditional sweets at lightning speed, led by the mustachioed vendor who takes orders, gives change, heaps the morsels on banana leaf before dousing them in palm sugar syrup, and wraps it all while we look on in amazement. Read more
It towers above the neon signs and drab concrete blocks of modern-day Japan, a gleaming monument to an age when shoguns and samurai didn’t just exist in the imagination. From its hilltop perch, Himeji Castle dominates its namesake city, marking one end of the tree-lined boulevard leading to the busy train station. Read more
“So, do you want to be Auntie Dhani’s son?”
Bama and I are at the table with his affectionate mom, Auntie Dhani, in the open-air dining room of his parents’ house. For the third consecutive year, I’ve joined Bama on his annual trip home for Lebaran, the week-long holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I’d considered flying back to Hong Kong to visit my own family, but by the time I looked up the flights, ticket prices had already gone through the roof. Semarang, a city of less than two million perched midway along the northern coast of Java, was an obvious alternative – not least because of Auntie Dhani’s home cooking and the warm welcome I would receive as an adopted member of the family. Read more
Standing on a pedestrian walkway by the Thu Bon River, Bama and I drink in the view of a sublime architectural gem. It rests on a succession of stone piers, the timber frame bearing traces of maroon paint, faded and stripped away by years of exposure to the elements. Above the rafters, delicate blue-and-white porcelain bowls are set into the edges of the tiled roof, itself crowned by florid, dragon-like finials. It was this famous structure – the Japanese covered bridge – that had brought us to the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. When I read last August that the 400-year-old landmark would eventually be dismantled for restoration, I knew it was high time to go. Read more
Inside a high-ceilinged, unfussy diner in central Vietnam, I waited hungrily for my lunch at a small table by the window. Nguyen Thi Loc – the 80-year-old “Banh Mi Queen” of Hoi An – was carefully preparing the next batch of made-to-order sandwiches with her daughter at a stand by the entrance. I’d made the pilgrimage to Nguyen’s stall outside the UNESCO-listed old town after reading a host of favorable reviews. Most recently, a childhood friend had paid a visit while on his honeymoon and raved about her banh mi. Read more
Once again, Indonesia has found itself in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor – an ethnic Chinese Christian and a rare exception in a sea of corrupt politicians – has been found guilty of “blasphemy” against Islam and jailed for the next two years.
I do not think the negative coverage thus far amounts to fear-mongering, nor is the global backlash entirely undeserved. I’ve watched with alarm over the past few months, as bigots and powerful opportunists have successfully manipulated large segments of the populace under the guise of religion, blending their agenda with a toxic cocktail of racism and hatred. Indonesia may have gained its hard-won independence seven decades ago, but we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology imported from Saudi Arabia.
“You want to see Lady Buddha? How ‘bout Marble Mountain? The trees here are 100 years old, but there, one thousand years old!”
Outside the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a single-story French colonial building flanked by noble banyans and gnarled frangipani trees, a local tout in a worn-out cap makes his pitch. The man is presumably in his sixties, and he speaks American English with a distinctive nasal twang and a Southern-style drawl.
“There’s not a lot to see here in Da Nang,” the man says. “You’ll spend maybe half an hour at this museum. It’s small.” Read more
Not long after that very first trip to Switzerland in the summer of 2000, my father showed me a picture book on the natural and man-made wonders of the Alpine country. One of the photos that stood out to me most was taken in the medieval heart of Bern, showing a cobbled street that led to the Zytglogge, a whimsical yet stately clock tower capped by a curving pyramidal roof and spire. Read more