Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Visiting a Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) in Kuala Lumpur

When we saw that the Malaysian Cultural Group (MCG) had organized a tour of a Sikh Temple  we jumped at the chance. The particular tour was open only to members. What to do? Join.

The  Gurdwara Tatta Khalsa Diwan is located on 2 acres in Chow Kit - a section of the city we had heard about but never visited. As we walked through Chow Kit knew that this was a  place to take visitors, at least the ones who don't mind visiting a grittier part of urban Asia. Chow Kit has the city's largest market, but at night the area becomes seriously sketchy.
Fruits at the market
Prior to the tour we received a memo with dress directions. No shoes, modest clothing, and a head covering for men and women. A temple member helped the men with their head coverings. The tour began with Mr. Singh, the temple president, giving us a history of Sikhs in Malaysia. (Sihks originally came to serve in the colonial army and police. Currently there are roughly 100,000 Sihks in Malaysia and 150 gurdwara.) Before the tour I knew was that: Sikh men had the last name "Singh," but all Sikh males are Singhs but not all Singhs are Sikhs;" Sikhs didn't cut their hair; and they wear turbans. I now know much more. Some of which we will share here. Of course, any errors are mine alone

Mr. Singh in his office
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. Its temples have no statues, idols, or sacred pictures. The Guru Granth Sahib, its sacred book, is the focus of a gurdwara and the community; it is not worshiped but respected. It has writings from other religions including Islam.Mr. Singh's major project has been amassing 8 kilograms of gold to cover the altar that contains the Guru Granth Sahib.

We were visiting on the first of a three day celebration of the birth of Guru Nanak, Sikhism's founder. Temple members take turns in a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. In the prayer room a few men and women were seated. Men on one side and women on the other, but equidistant from the altar. The prayer room can be opened up and accommodate for than 1000 devotees. The gurdwara has multiple prayer rooms that enable members to hold rituals, such as, weddings, at the same time.
Close up of an altar; Guru Granth Sahib under the gold cover
A view into the prayer

We entered a room the contains multiple copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. Members may take a copy for their own use at home. The room was seriously cold. There is a space to the side where Mr. Singh retreats to rest and think. As is true of other places in the temple - the room is not Mr. Singh's private retreat; others can use it as well.

Copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are under the white cover
We asked about Sikh baptisms and funerals. Mature persons who are ready to maintain a Sikh life style may be baptized. Sikhs respect all religions and do not proselytize. Still a person may ask if s/he can join the Sikh community and be baptized. A MSG member and member of the community said that when her mother died her body was kept at the house for prayers then she was cremated. The temple provides a hearse and clothes and other materials needed for a funeral.

We sat down for a vegetarian lunch. A gurdwara serves vegetarian meals three times a day. (Our neighbor from India said that from time to time when she was a student she and her friends would go to a Sikh temple to eat.) We were asked to only ask for as much as we would eat (seconds allowed). Lunch was tasty - worth a revisit.

 After lunch we went to the kitchen and met the chef. Virtually all the kitchen workers are volunteers as are the row of women preparing the vegetables. (Doug just read that in addition to tithing Sihks are expected to give time to volunteer at the temple.) Members also drop off food. Meals are prepared from purchased food and donations.

Menu for the week

Preparing Vegetables
The kitchen: Old fashion, huge pots and burners
As we left we saw a white board containing the verse of the day (my term). When a child is born and her/his family visits the temple they will give their child a name that begins with the first letter of the verse.

The gurdwara is open, welcomes visitors (and diners), photography is allowed. On a typical weekday it is just a series of open, empty rooms. We were told not to hesitate to drop in if a wedding was going on. I wish that I had known this when I saw the temple door entrance pictured below.

Wedding invitation (?) in Chennai
We were happy that we joined the Malaysian Cultural Group. We had a chance to broaden our knowledge of Malaysia and SE Asia and met others with similar interests.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Day in Balik Pulau, Penang

Lina suggested that we visit a popular laksa place in Balik Pualu  - a promise of laksa is a sure way to get me to agree to anything. Armed with the Penang Heritage Trails brochure "Discover Balik Puala: The Other Side of the Island" we set out to explore the town. The brochure lists 39 sites. Ten can be covered in a short walk in the town center; others require a bicycle or as in our case, car.

The attractive map was primarily conceptual It wasn't to scale and it did not include all crossroads. To get from here to there required patience, a sense of humor, and a willingness to ask locals for directions. We thoroughly explored Balik Pulau as we drove through the same area more than once.

The compass at the left top corner does not have North at the top.
The top two points are "East" and  "South"
Before heading into Balik Pulau we stopped at Anjung Indah, a rest area on Jalan Tun Sardon, for a panoramic view of the town. In 2008 I stopped at Anjung Indah, but didn't see much then because of the haze and smoke from Sumatra.
View of Balik Pualu through the trees
As soon as we reached town we stopped at the market. Lina, who had worked on a project in Balik Pulau, said that it had moved from its central location and was far less busy (a source of concern). It had stalls selling dry goods and typical displays of produce, although one stall had large bags of cloves for RM10 (< USD3), which tempted Lina. In our travels we have seen busy central markets with much social interaction as buying and selling. In Taiping, for example, the food stalls adjacent to the market are filled with retirees, local business owners, shoppers, and families (on weekends). In KL we walk to a weekly night market early to beat the crowds. On the other hand in Kuching the market which has moved out of center city was almost deserted.

In the town center on Jalan Besar (big road or Main Street) we walked by rows of shop houses. It reminded me of Malaysian towns that I had visited in the 70s & 80s - small stores selling useful things. No boutiques. No row of cafes. A big breakfast and rain kept us from wandering, snacking or taking pictures. We decided to head out of town to find a shop selling kuih bahulu (kuih is Malaysian for cake). We assumed if it sold cakes it might also serve drinks. Kuih bahulu are cakes cooked in a small mold. The brochure describes them as a vanilla-flavored sponge cake.They tasted like a softer version of addictive Stella D'or's products. The shop was open, but it doesn't on Saturday or serve drinks on any day.
The shop on Jalan Bharu

In our search for coffee we stopped at a small fishing village. Boats were gathered in the harbor - no sign of fishing on Saturday. The cafe was small and non-descript, but oh the smells. I am not sure what soup/stew was cooking, perhaps it was a laksa. In any case the smells were tantalizing. I didn'torder a bowl, since we planned on a late lunch at Laksa Janggus. I regret the decision, but I will be back.

At Pantai Pasir Panjang (Long Sandy Beach) we had a chance to enjoy the beach - rocks to sit on and few other people.

Rocky view of beach
Sandy view of the beach
As we headed toward Laksa Janggus we saw a sign for a nutmeg factory. Beyond the sign was a steep hill going down. We debated whether the factory was open and if not, how hard it would be to turn around and get back up. With nothing to lose we headed down. We were relieved to see a row of parked cars and people walking around or sitting in the small cafe. We were at Ghee Hup Nutmeg Factory. The factory owners are a family who trace its Malaysian roots back to 1888. We were greeted by the owner/founder and his son. His daughter took us in hand and explained the production of different nutmeg products. We learned that if a female seed is planted the tree produces nutmegs. If a male seed is planted no nutmegs. The factory buys its nutmegs from local farmers. When the factory needs temporary laborers it brings in former employees. Some of these "temporary workers" may ask to work when they can view a favorite television programs as they work.

A short lesson on nutmegs and nutmeg products
Before we left a group of young people whom we had met at the beach arrived. We asked them if their stop at the goat farm was worthwhile. Their enthusiastic "yes" encouraged to again delay our laksa lunch. The goat farm was the highlight of a day of small delights. Finding the farm was a bit of a challenge - by carefully looking for signs we found one that directed us to "visitor parking." Beside the parking lot was a long hill. We walked up the hill and asked at a guard house how to get to the goat farm - the guard told us we continue walking up the hill (a long walk) or drive up the hill and keep to until we reached the farm.  At Saanen Goat farm we were met by a personable, well informed young woman (finishing secondary school) who is the daughter of the owner; she served as our guide.

The goat pens seemed less oppressive than the dairy farm stalls I had seen in Sri Lanka; being smallish and cute has its advantages. When we arrived the farmer/owner was talking to school children about the goats and giving each child a chance to try his/her hand at milking The children then walked over to the pens and were given stalks of grass to feed the goats. Adults also get grass stalks - you don't have to be child to enjoy feeding a goat. Currently the farm produces milk and a yogurt drink that are only sold in Penang. If they add products it will most likely be mozzarella; I hope that goat milk cheese comes along as well.

Farmer showing children how to milk a goat
Lina with the "pet" baby goat. Age is catching up
with the goat; she may soon lose her status as a favorite
Mural on rest room wall (suggested to us
behind it were attractive rest rooms)
Finally our laksa at Laksa Janggus

A prelude to our Balik Pulau adventure was our Friday night dinner at Al Shami Restaurant (Bukit Jumbiuer, Ivory Plaza, near USM). It is a Syrian restaurant. I ordered a lamb dish - the piece of lamb was large and juice. Large enough that I passed a piece along to Lina. Lina in turn gave me some of her chicken. We also had hummus that I devoured.With dreams of finding a source of hummus I asked the waiter where they purchased it. Syria! (We can get hummus in KL but at a price). The food was satisfying and the owners were so welcoming that I wish I could eat their often.

Staff at Al Shami Restaurant - come in an meet them

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Travelling in Sri Lanka with a travel agent

In December 2012 we booked a September trip to Sri Lanka. As the months went by we realized that our trip would be far easier if we relied on a travel agency. First step - we checked websites looking for local (Sri Lanka) agencies. Second step - we contacted Sri Lanka Vacation Tours to inquire if it would arrange a 2 person, 15 night tour staying at budget hotels. We didn't hesitate to book when we received a USD1742 proposal. It included: airport pick up and drop off; 15 nights at 2 & 3 star hotels, all breakfasts and dinners, and (most important) an English speaker driver. (Sri Lanka Vacation Tours can also arrange more upmarket accommodations.)

Damitha (driver), new car, and Mr. Mahesh (owner)
Mr. Mahesh, the agency owner, met us at the airport. We were surprised; he was quite young (23 years old). In hindsight his age was a definite advantage. He was accommodating and went out of his way to make sure that we had a good experience. He faithfully checked our itinerary to make sure that we saw everything listed. Some days we were more than willing to say "we can skip that." We didn't and we were the richer for it.

Where we stayed: The tour agency chose the 8 hotels we stayed at. Our favorites were Thilaka Lake Resort in Anuradhapura, Travel House in Sigriya, and Jagabay Resort in Weligama. What made these places stand out? Their food. At Thilaka Lake Resort and Travel House we had local breakfasts (a curry at the former and hoppers at the latter) and outstanding rice and curry. I would go out of my way to have their curries again. At Jagabay Bay we had a fresh fish one night and at one breakfast I had a grilled vegetable sandwich. It was good and I welcomed the change. When we arrived at travel we recalled the Adi Yasa in Denpasar in 1974. It was just as relaxed, but everyone seemed to have a place to go during the day. Also better housekeeping, hot water, a great cook, and in-room free wifi (at most of the other places we had to go into the lobby), At Jagabay we could take long walks on the beach, and there was a good fish restaurant a few kilometers down the road. All the hotels, including the ones not mentioned, had friendly staff who went out of their way to make us feel welcome and the meals were filling and well prepared.

Fishermen along the beach at Weligama

Sunset Weligama
Where we went: Our tour had three major components - the cultural triangle, wildlife parks, and the beach. We have covered the cultural triangle and wildlife parks in other posts. We did not note that each site and park have hefty admissions fees for foreigners (Sri Lanka Vacation provided us a list before we left Malaysia. We paid in local currency as we traveled). We aren't "beach people,' but we thought that we should experience the beaches. While staying on a island it seems insane not to see the surrounding seas. The beach was, as expected, totally relaxing - good for walking, reading, and eating.

Mahesh, an obvious scholar in tourist complaints, made every stop included in our  itinerary. One "oh we can skip this" stop was at the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project. A staff member described the process from the time of obtaining the eggs ("rescued" from the beach or bought from locals) through to their release. The demise of sea turtles resonates with us. In 1974 on a single night we saw at least 40 Ridley turtles lay their eggs on a Malaysian beach, in 1984 we saw three. Now we hear that it has been years since any have shown up.
Looking for hatched turtles

Just hatched - scheduled to be released at night (to avoid predators) 

A few hatchlings get to develop their "sea legs" before release
Along the way we stopped to take pictures. On the way to Galle fisherman balance on stakes to fish. I am sure that they now earn far more from tourist tip than from fish.

Unscheduled stops: We made some unscheduled stops, including the previously discussed produce market at Drambulla produce market and the New Zealand Dairy Farm. In Columbo we stopped at the Gangramaya Buddhist Temple. The first statue I saw was of Ganesha. At times Hinduism and Buddhism seem blended. A pooja had performed for our car, because it was new and we were the first people using it for a tour.

Ganesha at Gangramaya Temple

A Buddha at the temple

Another Buddha

A lot of Buddhas!
As we went through the temple we skirted around a wedding party. As we walked past we heard the unmistakable ringing of a Nokia phone - I guess that the bride forgot to tell the wedding party to turn off their cell phones.

What would we change? Hardly anything. We can highly recommend Sri Lanka Vacation Tours and the driver, Dametha. We weren't used to having the tour agent on the trip, but it was okay. It gave them a chance to share information about what to see along the way and to answer our many questions about Sri Lanka and its people. (We have been concerned about the civil war and its repercussions people were not included to talk about it.) Mahesh booked guides at the cultural sites. I am convinced that tourist agencies scoop up the best guides. The ones we had were excellent and each brought a different perspective to what he was showing up.

Since many tourists are Westerns the food can lack spices. I learned that asking "can you make it spicy" worked well especially when we told them we were from Malaysia. We did buy tabasco sauce for those occasions where I could not get chili sauce to liven my eggs. We only had one dinner buffet - one buffet in 15 dinners is a definite positive. In India and Bhutan we had more buffets. If a restaurant serves serves tour groups our experience is that buffet food is bland and not hot enough. We prefer a la carte as much as possible. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Parks, Elephants, and Hikes

So far regarding our trip to Sri Lanka, we have discussed the amazing cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, and the delectable food to be found here.  I will now look at the national parks, animals, and hiking in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has at least 24 national parks, numerous botanical gardens, fascinating marine resources, beaches, and wildlife.  We spent several days in and around three national parks: Minneriya National Park, Horton's Plains National Park, and Uda Walawe National Park (we were scheduled to visit Yala National Park but it was closed due to drought conditions in September 2013).  We visited the Ho-o-maniya Blowhole east of Matara, and a private turtle sanctuary on the west coast.
Elephant herd in Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park was our first introduction to elephants in the wild.  The park, in the midst of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, is located near Habarana.   Several hundred wild elephants converge on this park near the Minneriya reservoir/lake during the dry season (August - September).  The elephants travel through the wildlife corridors connecting many of the main national parks.  This allows migratory elephants to live in harmony with the agricultural villages of central Sri Lanka.  The elephants gather, not for the water, but for the tender new growth of grasses growing on the exposed shoreline of the reservoir as it shrinks during the dry season.  Leopards and sloth bears also live in the park but we saw neither. What we did see were three major herds of elephants: one of 11 elephants along a river bank, another of 40-50 among the scrub trees set back from the lake, and another of 80 near the lakeside grasslands.  A solitary male elephant could be seen roaming at a distance on a peninsula across the lake.  Other male elephants were occasionally seen on the edges of the main herd, but they did not join the herd.

A larger herd at Minneriya National Park
The main problem we observed in Minneriya park was the uncontrolled access of 4 wheel drive to the plains surrounding the lake.  As Mr. Chundanu, our guide, observed, each new car track reduces the amount of land the elephants can graze on.  Besides, it is unsightly.  A new park superintendent had recently been appointed and was attempting to impose some order on the jeep drivers.  It will be interesting to see how this works in the future.

Damage created by 4-wheel drive vehicles
The best part of our visit was Mr. Chundanu, He is a local villager, he was knowledgeable about bird, mammals and reptiles, and the local vegetation.  He was sanguine in his comments on the role of tourism, and ecology with the national park.  He said..."without the park [and tourists], the local towns simply would not exist".

Elephants grazing on cut fodder at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

The next elephant related park, was the Pinnewala Elephant  Orphanage located in a small town about 40 km east of Kandy.  This park is designed for the casual tourist.  People come to the town three times a day for the elephant feeding sessions.  The main attraction is the ability to get up close and touch elephants.  With visitors in a amphitheater, baby elephants are brought in and attached to concrete pillars.  With assistance of handlers, visitors who have paid the supplemental feeding fee, are handed bottles of a milk formula which the baby elephants almost inhale in 15 to 20 seconds and consume a liter of milk.

Doug feeding the baby elephant a bottle of milk
After the elephant feeding it was time for feeding the visitors.  We all trouped down through town restaurants on the river bank.  While our food was being prepared, I noticed local shop keepers closing gates to protect their shops.  Shortly 30 or so elephants came down the narrow street and entered the river to bath. Several mahouts went swimming with the elephants, mainly to keep them from crossing the river and roaming uncontrolled.
Our driver Damith and his son@ the elephant orphanage
Our final elephant experience was to be at Yala National Park on the southern coast of Sri Lanks.  Our guide had told us the park was closed due to an ongoing drought.  We suggested going to the Uda Walawe National Park, located about 1.5 hours from Yala.  It was open, and guides were available.  Upon arrival, before entering the park, you have to negotiate a deal with a driver, about 6K Sri Lanka rupee.  After boarding the vehicle, you enter the park and go to park hq where a guide is assigned.  The park is crisscrossed with jeep trails.  The park is dry almost semi arid.  Almost immediately we began to see wildlife, water buffalo, cattle, and elephants.  The guide pointed out iguana-like reptiles clinging to the side of trees, and various birds.  While there are many 4-wheel drive vehicles in the park, you really don't notice them until you get to the lakes and watering holes.  At the watering holes we saw small herds of elephants, larger herds of mixed domestic/wild water buffalo, wading birds, raptors, cattle egret, and crocodiles.  After parking near the lake we sat and watched.  Slowly we began to see the crocodiles (3-4 meters in length), sunning on the banks with their mouths wide open (to keep cool).  The longer we sat and watched, the more crocodiles we saw.  Two eyes peering out on the surface of the water was the clue that danger lurked below the surface.  All in all we saw 15 to 20 crocodiles, most lurking in the water waiting for a meal to swim by.

Mom and baby at Uda Walawe

Crocodiles can be found on dry land

Water Buffalo (domestic variety) in the park

A note: at different parks different rules apply to remuneration of the drivers.  At Minneriya National Park, you hire the vehicle directly from the driver and it appears he is the owner.  At Uda Walawe the 4-wheel drive vehicles are owned by a concessionaire and the fee is not negotiable.  At the end of the trip you must tip the driver as he is not paid by the owner of the vehicles.  In both parks a tip to the guide is appropriate.  They are the ones who can see the animals you have no hope of seeing on your own.

A young solitary male

The final park we visited was Horton's Plains and a visit to World's End.  Horton's Plains is located 30 km from Nuwara Eliya.  If you are an early riser you can visit for sunrise, but we chose to leave our hotel at 6:30 am for the hour drive.  Once we arrived (it was crisp in a humid climate at 2000 meters elevation) we stopped at a rustic shop for a spot of tea and local breads.  Once fortified we walked to the entrance to the hike.  Much to our surprise, our plastic water bottles were confiscated... to prevent liter.
Scenery at Horton's Plain
Horton's Plains

We walked across rolling hills along bubbling brooks (filled with trout brought by the English). The trails are suffering from overuse and are being severely eroded by water and foot traffic.  On the advice of our guide and driver we chose to go to the waterfall first (the mists rise later in the morning to allow us to see the views at Worlds End).
Liz with our driver Damith and guide Manesh  
It was a steep unsteady climb down to the viewing point for the waterfall.  Initially I was not going to walk down, but it was well worth it.  The climb back up seemed much shorter than the descent.  Afterwards we continued our walk across semi-arid  terrain for several km.  Finally we crossed over to the view point at World's End.  It was an escarpment with 880 meter drop off.  On a clear day, according to the signboard, you can see the Indian Ocean.

The view from Land's End
Walking back to the park entrance, we passed through a tropical cloud forest.  In the morning, the mist and fog rise from the plains below and are caught in the trees along the ridge.  The trees capture the mist, and the cloud leave their moisture behind.  Wild orchids abound as do many bird species.

An interesting fungus growing on a tree.