Monday, June 28, 2010

Ba'kelalan - The Land Where Rainbows End.

Images by: Seth Peli of Seth Photography
Fahmi Aziz

The 45-minutes flight on MasWings twin otter plane from Miri provided a mesmerizing view of the long stretch of green terrain below with miles of lush tropical rainforest painting the landscape of Miri. Deeply lost in my own thoughts as I sat there gazing at the scenery below, I knew we were nearing our destination as the plane started to descend and stretches of paddy fields can be seen dotting the village of Ba’kelalan.

Coined as the Heart of the Borneo escapade, Ba’kelalan is situated about 3000 feet above sea level, and 4km from Kalimantan, Indonesia. The charming and rustic rural village of Ba’kelalan comprises of 9 other small villages and is home to about 1500 Lun Bawang people.

Three beautiful Lun Bawang girls, heads adorned with yellow strings of beads and dressed in their traditional black costume which set a startling contrast against the azure blue sky of Ba’kelalan greeted me as I stepped down from the small aircraft
The welcoming ceremony did not stop there. As I headed towards the Apple Lodge, which will be home for the next four days and also literally situated right next to the airport, I was greeted by the melodious voices of the people of Ba’kelalan, young and old, singing the tunes of “Ba’kelalan My Home Sweet Home”, a reflection of the harmonious culture in Ba’kelalan. Tapping my feet to the uplifting beat of the song, I felt myself feeling at home amidst the the sun shiny warmth of Ba’kelalan.

Only in Ba’kelalan

Ba’kelalan is well known because of its apples. Yes, only in Ba’kelalan are you able to find locally grown apples. The cool and refreshing highland air makes Ba’kelalan the ideal, and in fact, the only place where apples are cultivated in Malaysia. The Ba’kelalan apple story began some time back in the 1960’s, when Andrew Balang Paran brought back 50 apple seedlings from Kalimantan, Indonesia. It was only 5 years ago back in 2007 when Pak Tagal and his family decided that it was high time Ba’kelalan has its own Apple Fiesta. Held yearly from 6-8 May, the Ba’kelalan Apple Fiesta brings about a festive air throughout the normally quiet and peaceful village. It is during this 3 day fiesta that the villagers will get a chance to showcase their talents at singing, dancing and even demonstrating on how to make apple pie from scratch. This is also an opportunity to visit the apple orchard and be fascinated at the apples wonderful colors of green and red. Consisting of four varieties with names such as Rome Beauty, Manalagi, Ba’kelalan and Cherry, bite into any of these apples and you will find yourself wanting more of the juicy sweetness and soft crunch of Ba’kelalan apples.

Apples and a bit of adventure

But apples aren’t the only main attractions in Ba’kelalan. To me, what defines Ba’kelalan is the endless warmth and genuine smiles of the people. Wherever you go, either taking a leisurely stroll along the paddy fields in the warmth of the evening sun, or sweating it out and hiking to Bukit Sarui to take in the wonderful sights of Ba’kelalan, you will always be greeted with a toothy smile and sometimes toothless grins (depending on the age) of the villagers, and if you’re lucky enough, after a few curious glances and smiles, you will have your own personal entourage of kids from various ages, showing you the sights and sounds of the village.

Breathing in the fresh air and watching the kids playfully chase each other around the paddy field; there is an element of serenity surrounding the village. However, don’t be fooled by the quiet tranquillity of Ba’kelalan. Adventurers in search of the beaten track can expect for the challenging terrain here to live up to its expectations especially during tropical rainy season. The Borneo Jungle Safari (BJS) offers an adventure trail package which promises to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. This would be a good opportunity for you to test your off-road driving skills. If you are up for a roller-coaster ride in a 4WD, you can enter Ba’kelalan from Lawas, where the off road journey would take a good 5-6 hours, depending on the road conditions. Be prepared to camp out if the roads get treacherous especially during those heavy rainy seasons. If you’re an avid tracker, a five hour trekking expedition through the jungles of Borneo will lead you to the border of Malaysia-Kalimantan.


While the images of mud tracks and rivers are appealing, I very much preferred a less strenuous activity. Spending a whole day visiting 3 villages around Ba’kelalan, I took the opportunity to learn more about the people of Ba’kelalan and immerse myself in the Ba’kelalan culture and lifestyle. I was even lucky enough to witness a Lun Bawang marriage ceremony. There was relentless teasing from the crowds as the mock bride and grooms shyly took their designated place as husband and place at the front of the room. What is a wedding celebration without a traditional dance routine? All the guests and myself included was then dragged to dance along to one of their traditional dances done at every wedding ceremony. I could see from the smiling faces on everyone present that they were having fun and a little bit drowsy perhaps from the endless cups of rice coffee served to us at every village, but that’s Lun Bawang hospitality for you. Serving the guests the best of what they have to offer.


The thing that I love most about Ba’kelalan is the passion of its people. The passion that they have for the land they call home. I could hear it in their voice, see it in their expression what Ba’kelalan means to them. Over a steaming cup of tea on my last night in Ba’kelalan, Mutang and his band of brothers circled me and began narrating stories of Ba’kelalan from years gone passed down from generation to generation. It was a story of their people; their tribe. They began their story saying that hundreds of years ago, many tribes in Sarawak were head hunters. Tribal fights occurred because of revenge and the power over territory. When a warrior is victorious, a ritual dance would take place around the perimeter of a crocodile or “Buaya Ulong” erected from earth. The warriors would then be chanting incantations relaying the story of the fights and how they were victorious. It gave me the goose bumps, listening to his story while in my mind I was imagining a warrior, looking down at me from a hill, challenging me. I was shaken from my reverie when told that there are still a few sites of these Buaya Ulong intact around the village. I didn’t need to twist anyone’s arm when I asked to be taken to one of these sites the next morning. Mutang was very much eager to show me around, proud and very passionate of sharing the story of his people.

Rural golfing anyone?

My late night conversation with Mutang also led me to the discovery of a 9-hole natural golf course right there in rural Ba’kelalan. I challenge those golf enthusiasts to have a go at Ba’kelalan’s Highland golf course as it is made even more challenging with natural hazards such as rivers, paddy fields and jungles. Don’t expect a club house or buggies to be made available here, but you will find yourself loyal spectators in the form of buffaloes. Yes, buffaloes but fret not, these buffaloes will be herded away from the course if there are any players on the green. Granted, buffalo dungs will be scattered here and there and if your ball goes into the dung, the good thing is that you get to take a free lift! A plus point of playing on this natural gold course is that you will be able to take in the beautiful scenery of Ba’kelalan as you play. If you are interested and up for the challenge, a two weeks notice is needed by BJS in order for them to prepare the green and fairway.

Where rainbows end

No one is a stranger here in Ba’kelalan. I was constantly greeted and smiled at and not forgetting the centre of constant friendly bantering and teasing from Kading and Lisa, two locals who made sure that I had a comfortable stay there at the Apple Lodge. Ba’kelalan may not be able to offer a luxurious five star retreat, but what it does offer is a simple lodging with basic amenities.

I have always wondered where rainbows end, what amazing things can be found at the end of such beauty. As I was flying out of Ba’kelalan towards Miri, gazing out the window, looking at the twin peaks of Mulu and wondering when will I ever come back to the warmth of Ba’kelalan, I saw a beautiful rainbow across the blue sky, I did not scramble to take out my trusted camera as I just wanted to take in all the beauty of Ba’kelalan one more time before I go home. As cliché as it may sound, I left my heart back in Ba’kelalan, bits and pieces of it with Mutang, Bulan, Kenny, Edwin, Sultan, Freddie and all the wonderful people.

A few days after, back in busy Kuala Lumpur, I thought of Ba’kelalan. I sent a text message to Freddie back in the village, telling him how much I miss the people that have now become my friends and family. His simple reply made me ache more to go back. He simply said “come home”. I found where my rainbow ends, and it’s in the land of warmth and sunshine – the land of Ba’kelalan.


Maswings flies to Ba’kelalan four (4) times a week.
Monday – Lawas
Wednesday – Miri
Thursday – Lawas
Saturday – Lawas

In support of the Apple Fiesta, MASwings increased their direct flights from Miri from once a week every Wednesday to three times a day, four days a week.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

People in Glass Houses

There is a proverb that goes "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones"

The proverb has been traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde' (1385).

It implies that you shouldn't be over critical of someone since you, yourself, could be open to the same sort of criticism.Those who are vulnerable should not attack others. And I, am definately vulnerable when it comes to criticism. I don't like throwing stones anyway. Bad memory involving stones when I was a kid. Kena piat dengan dengan my mom with I threw a stone at my kid sister just because I felt like throwing a stone at her. But I do like the idea of a glass house. Kinky thoughts are crossing my mind right now.

But I'm not gonna write on criticism and vulnerability today. I'm going to save that for another day.
Instead, I want to share this tranquil place where I escaped to one weekend late in January.

I went away on a weekend retreat to a secluded place nestled and tucked secretly away about 30 Km from the hustle and bustle of the city that I heart so much.

I found this sanctuary while browsing online. Purely by accident about a few years back. Plan finally became an action somewhere in late January. I rounded up my sisters and friends and a photographer for the 2 days 1 night stay.

Trust me when I say, never ever attempt to reach this place without a proper map from someone who has actually been there. From the mainroad, don't count on seeing any signboards leading you in. Don't bother with GPS as it's not located on it.

Don't bother turning your cellphones on, there isn't reception or network coverage to begin with. It's just me and my friends acquainting ourselves with the sounds of nature.

So there we were, after several wrong turns, and a few "wei, masuk sini la" we finally made it to a place with a very unique name, Sekeping Serendah which in English would literally translate into 'a piece of Serendah'. Beautiful isn't it. It's a piece of heaven which can only be found to those who want it bad enough and look for it hard enough.

While my sisters and friends were happily jumping and diving into the pool, I chose a quiet corner in the house where the sunlight streamed through the glass wall, switched my Ipod on and read a book. It was bliss. everywhere I looked throughout the house, all I saw were the leaves and the trees. All I heard was the sound of the stream somewhere near the glass house and the birds chirping.

I took walks alone along the path, stopped at the stream, dipped my feet in and just stood around looking in wonder and awe at god's creation. It was a significant moment for me personally. I took the quiet time alone to just be with me. A moment of reflection. I made a few decisions and hoped that I won't regret them...and I haven't.
So there we were, 3 sisters and friends, no tv, no cell coverage, no radio...the only thing to do was to spend time with each other.

It was a weekend worth spent away from the city that I heart so much, late in January. I will come back. To pause and reflect once again.

Rockin in Penang

I was giddy with excitement when a friend texted with a message stating that we’ll be staying at the Hard Rock Hotel Penang (HRH-Pen) for our weekend getaway on the island. Well, it wasn’t actually a getaway; I was planning on being on the lookout for materials to write a feature on. It was a work/fun weekend getaway rolled into one.

Ok so to be fair, HRH-Pen is a colourful and bustling hive of activities for everyone. If you plan on immersing yourself on the Hard Rock culture of rock music and some noise, then this is the place to be. One will never sun short of things to do here. Either jumping into the pool, strolling down the beach, or maybe some pampering moments at their spa, this is one hotel that will keep you on the move.

First, what I love most about the hotel is the pool, a huge free form pool stretching from one end to the other. The best thing areas of the pool are definitely the more secluded and quieter corners where it’s surrounded by lush green garden plants. Kids would love the children’s pool area as it is equipped with water slides and other what nots that I don’t even know the names for it. The pool area is also the perfect place to people watch as the ladies will be in their bikinis and swimsuits and the lifeguards..well, let's just say that I had a good time people watching.  

Fancy a horse ride? No problem, there are independent operators along the beach of Hard Rock that offers horse rides, banana boat rides, jet-ski and paragliding, with a price of course. Only be careful when you decide to go for a swim in the sea as the jet-skiers and island tour boats will be zig-zagging on the waters every now and then. There are no strange looking objects floating on the water but it’s not crystal clear either. I’d rather swim in the pool than the sea.

HRH-Pen's hotel staff or Band Members as they are referred to here are really cool. They’ll greet you at any time of the day, from the top level management to the pakcik gardner. They make you feel like a rock star and  the breakfast spread at the hotel is yummers. I absolutely love their hash browns, golden and crispy to perfection. Their array of pastry is an absolute must try but I gotta warn you, breakfast crowd on a weekend is like rampaging through a warehouse sale. Noisy and overcrowded. So either you come in really early or really late for breakfast. Nonetheless, I loved the dining area as it was decorated in white, and it opened to a sort-of courtyard area where you can go sit under huge shades and enjoy your morning coffee.

The downside of all this, for a published rate of RM1000 or get a 48% discount on their Internet rates, my Seaview Deluxe room was nothing to shout about. Well aware of the fact that it was clearly stated in their brochures that the rooms feature a cutting edge design, I guess I was expecting more from HRH-Pen. My room was spacious, well maybe it is because of the fact that there was less furniture around. For RM500++ a night, I was at least expecting for the bathrooms to be a bit more luxurious. The bathroom was a small, dark, narrow area with no tubs (well actually not that I care but it’s nice to have options, ain’t it?) and they provided me with the very basic complimentary toiletries.

As for the international satellite TV, I have to say that HRP-Pen provides very basic satellite TV. Thank god for the DVD player, I ended up watching a Korean series which a friend brought along. Hotels in Bali and even Cambodia have better satellite channels that Hard Rock Hotel Penang.

And so, if you’re looking for a fun and chic weekend retreat with your girlfriends or a weekend of male bonding that this is the place to be. Families with kids would also love the hotel. But if a quiet, relaxing weekend is what you’re looking for, better head on down to Golden Sands down the road. I think that this hotel is more suitable as a family retreat where kids can scream their head-off without the parents getting dagger like glances from other guests of the hotel.

But then again, it’s all about one’s preference.

Will I ever come back?

Only if it’s free ;-) I’m more of the Golden Sands Hotel and Resort kind of person.

What I will remember most about my time here is the laughs I had with new friends that I made. Running around like kids on a Christmas morning, trying to find the perfect spot for a picture op and posing and pouting and acting all silly and goofy. You're allowed to act all silly and goofy here, to have fun and as they say, to just hang loose.

Like they promise in their brochures, this is the ultimate rock retreat. So Rock On!..With kids in tow.

An untold secret, Kellie's Castle

Perak, the Land of Grace is famed for its beautiful limestone mountains and caves and of course, for its food. Many would opt for a trip to Ipoh for its well known chicken rice and Mee Rebus Ramli. Many, however, would often bypass the rustic small town of Gopeng, when in fact Gopeng is Perak’s best kept secret.

Gopeng, today is well known for its heritage and eco-tourism where river bugs will have a thrill experiencing the adrenaline rush when rafting down the Kampar river. However, situated a few kilometers away from Gopeng, near Batu Gajah, stands a pre independent castle which holds untold secrets of William Kellie Smith.

History buffs will fall in love with the magic and mysteries that surrounds Kellie’s Castle. Easily visible from the Batu Gajah-Jalan Gopeng road, Kellie’s castle sits on a little knoll just by the bend of the Kinta River, commanding a clear, unobstructed view of the Kinta Valley. Its first stone foundation was laid in 1915 as a symbol of love for Kellie towards his wife and son.

Kellie Smith, a Scottish planter came to then Malaya in search of tin and rubber. As Kellie Smith prospered, he built his first mansion and named it Kella’s house. The castle which he built and is believed to be gift for his wife and son was never completed. In 1926, Kellie Smith travelled to Portugal and died on his journey from pneumonia. After his death, his heartbroken wife decided to pack up and sell the estate to a company, returning to Scotland. The house and its ruins can still be seen today next to the castle. The mansion was then bombed during the Japanese occupation and what stands today is only the structure.

The castle adjacent to his mansion was intended to be the centre of social life for the wealthy colonial planters and administrators living in the area back in the days.
I was mesmerized by the remaining ruins of what was the first mansion built by Kellie Smith. If the castle were to have been completed, it would have boasted of a ballroom, a courtyard, a library and a wine cellar.

A trip to Kellie’s castle wouldn’t be complete without hearing the stories from Mr. Tajuddin, the castle’s guide. He will take you to every corner of the castle and recount tales and histories past at the same time tickle your funny bones with his witty commentaries and jokes. What makes the tour around the castle much more interesting is simply because of the fact that Mr. Tajuddin is passionate about the castle.

As you follow in the wake of Mr. Tajuddin’s heals, you will begin to imagine what life would have been like back that. You visualize rich European tapestries that could have probably graced the walls of the mansion. You imagine elegant chandeliers hanging from the ceiling above and dark, wood carved furniture in every room.

I loved going round the castle, reading the descriptions on the wall and listening to the stories. According to Mr. Tajuddin, Kellie's castle is also believed, should it had been completed, would house Malaya's first elevator. The castle's elevator goes straight to the rooftop terrace which provides a beatiful view of the surrounding area and the long unwinding river across the castle.

One of the castle’s many dark secrets is believed to be located in a tunnel under the castle. A secret in the form of a black car. Nobody seems to know why the car is that and how it got there. Nobody is allowed to go down and until enough resources and funds can be pooled, the mystery of the tunnel and the black car shall remain.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

As I See it

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

My first travel that I remember of is a journey back to my parent’s hometown in Johor back in the early 1980’s. There were no highways yet back then, and it would take hours and hours just to get there. I remember driving in dad’s old Ford, dark brown in color, with one of those fan with the blue blades. We didn’t have air-conditioning back then. I remember passing by kampongs and miles of rubber-estates. I remember stopping at some random warung by the roadside in one of the villages and enjoying mee goreng with sirap ais but what I remember most are the stories that my dad used to tell as we passed by some villages with funny names, like kampong Sri Bunian. Well, it sounded funny to a 5 year old back then.

I love setting off on a journey. I love knowing the stories of a particular place from years gone by. I could just sit for hours and listen. I love to travel. The destination doesn’t really matter; it’s the journey that gets me to the destination that matters.

The creation of this blog is not as a directory or reference to travelling, only as a space for me to share the world as I see it.