The Philippines and Its Muslim Neighbors
December 24, 2017-January 9,2018
Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Kuching, Penang, Brunei, Langkawi, Yogyakarta, Borobudur, Bali, Ubud, Sanur
When I did a grand tour of Mainland Southeast Asia in 2012, visiting Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, predominantly Buddhist countries, I purposely left out these Island Muslim countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, for another time. In December the opportunity presented itself. My UPCM Class 1967 would be celebrating its Golden Jubilee, and I would be in Manila for a grand Alumni Homecoming, and reunion with my classmates.
I almost did not make this trip. Having missed the class reunion at Malarayat already due to my nephew’s wedding on the same date and later, the dedication ceremony and the Manila bay cruise, due to the international date line adding a day to travel, I was anxious to at least make the parade, but alas, I overslept from travel fatigue. I had rerouted my flight from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport to Birmingham, AL, due to closure of Atlanta after a total power failure lasting eleven hours and cancellation of over 2000 flights. I was en-route to the airport when the news broke out, and I quickly decided to rebook my flight to the nearest airport, which is Birmingham, 2 hours west of Atlanta. However in order to arrive on the 19th, my itinerary had to be rerouted to Chicago, Beijing, Manila, which is total 18 hours airtime, and with departure the next day at 7:26 am, which means I will have to leave Atlanta no later than 3 am. I had moved to Virginia, and had sold my Atlanta condo, so either I proceed to Birmingham that evening, book an airport hotel or stay with a friend and leave at 3 am. Either way I had to get me to Birmingham. One way car rental was out of the question, off airport car rentals were closed, and airport rentals were shut down. Construction crew accidentally hit a major power station line, and it created a fire which prevented rescue access, which resulted in overheating the second power station, and other redundant power back ups. It was pandemonium at the airport. Elevators and doors were inoperable, the whole place was completely dark. People were using their cell phones to find their way. Police were all over, rerouting incoming cars and those already in were trapped. My decision was propitious, because if I had proceeded to the airport I would not have been able to book my flight before everyone else, because wifi and cellular signals were also down at Hartsfield. So how to get to Birmingham. Everyone would be working, no way I could ask someone to forfeit a day to drive me. So I scheduled a pick up with Uber. Had a brief panic when the bitch who took the scheduled ride refused when she realized the ride would take her 4-hours round trip. But the strong pull of making it to the reunion brought me the next driver, who was articulate, well-informed, and with humor, had me engaged in the most fascinating conversation I’ve had in a long time. I made it to Birmingham with time to spare, but this prelude and the long flight took its toll, and so I overslept and missed the parade because nobody read my email about waking me up. Lynn did later and sent Rhoti with the van to pick me up, but no one woke me up. Why did I not ask the hotel concierge or set my alarm? At 3 am when I checked into Manila Hotel, I was tired and hungry, and all I could do was to drop dead in bed.
Anyway, I made the gala, and had a great time with my classmates, even if briefly, because, I had to leave for my trip to Muslandia on Christmas eve.
These Muslim Island countries , Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, are the Philippines’ neighbors, and frankly I knew very little about them. I became interested in exploring these places in depth after viewing the Ayala Museum’s fabulous collection of precolonial gold artifacts and pottery and studying its sixty handcrafted dioramas that chronicle Philippine history.
I had been aware of similarities, between us, such as our physical appearance, and language. Indeed we shared genetic material with Taiwan aborigines and absorbed the culture of the Austronesian speaking people from maritime southeast Asia, Oceania, Easter Island, Sri Lanka, and all the way to Madagascar and East Africa. Our ancestors have sailed between these oceans and knew how to navigate the seas, by the stars, long before Europeans learned about and coveted the spices that grew from these Islands. By way of the Silk Road, traders from the Middle East, India, and China, exerted their influence. It was exciting for me to discover on this trip all the interlocking events in ancient history that help understand our differences and similarities.
I arrived in the evening with brief downpour on the drive from the airport to the hotel. I had a slight headache and was coming down with a cold, not the best way to start my tour, however Kuala Lumpur is impressive. The airport is huge, ultra-modern and efficient. There’s an express rail to the city , but a driver from the travel agency met me for the forty-five minute drive. The eight-lane highway is lined with palms and high rise residential towers, and four toll booths later we slowed down to exit to the city center traffic and the twin Petronas towers shimmered in the night, and nearby, a still taller skyscraper was rising to house Four Seasons Hotel, offices, residences and yet another mall. Ordered room service and slept and felt better the next morning, though not 100%. And I had to remember that the driving is on the wrong side here, after the British
The British colonial regime is visible in the splendid buildings at Merdeka Square, and the multicultural influence in the British-built Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Jamad Mosque, at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers where Kuala Lumpur (muddy confluence) derived its name. The Royal Palace at Jin Duta is impressive, with gold dome and gates and guards like in London’s Buckingham Palace, and visited by Muslim tourists in whose hijab attire, I could tell from which countries they came from. The Middle East Muslim women wore black loose robes, and a shayla or khimar, scarves that leave the face uncovered, and those from Saudi Arabia or Iran, fully covered in niqab, or the intimidating burka with just slits or mesh for eyes. Indonesians wore flowered long sleeved tunic over pants or long dresses with colored matching hijabs. The Hindus wore jewel-colored saris with bare midriffs. Western tourists went around in jeans or shorts and sundresses, and donned a chador (cloak) when visiting the Mosques. Buddhists are unidentifiable based of what they wore.
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Christmas day. In hotels and shopping malls, there is commercial celebration with holiday sales to promote gifting, and decorated with Christmas tree and lights, Santa Claus, artificial snow and Christmas music, without Jesus. At St. John Cathedral in Bukit Nanas, which is kept alive by Filipino overseas workers, I was told, I stopped by for mass. A long line of refugees from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka was forming for dinner. In the evening, I had a drink at the Skybar, at the Trader’s Hotel, where there is a pool, funky music, a dance floor, a full view of the twin Petronas Towers, and a 360 degree panorama of the Kuala Lumpur Skyline, a modern megapolis of 7.25 M and 1.76 M in its city center.
My driver picked me up early the next day for the two-hour drive to Malacca.
I had an image of Malacca in my mind based on its pre-colonial history of Sultans and traders and pirates, so where was the sea? I had visited the UNESCO heritage city center, the Portuguese enclave all festooned with holiday lights and plastic fir swags with illuminated plastic Santas driving reindeers on the low rooftops of bungalows, and a not yet fully installed not as big replica image of Rio’s Cristo Redentor with its outstretched arms filling the square, still littered with the remains of yesterday’s Christmas festivities. I had admired the restored Malacca Square encased by its Big Ben replica, Queen Victoria’s fountain, the Christ Church, and the Love sculpture where there was a long line for picture-taking, where nearby I strolled to the river bank and watched boats cruise by carrying tourists shooting with phone cameras at us bystanders. I walked the crowded shopping streets of Jonkers and Harmony Street where a Buddhist Monastery, a Hindu Shrine and a Mosque stood side by side and whose devotees could worship freely. I admired colorful saris displayed in Little India and browsed trinkets and amulets in Chinatown. I slowly drifted from the city center and stumbled on the Dutch Graveyard and by this time I had lost my bearings but carried on exploring anyway. I found St Francis Statue and the church and the Sacred Heart Canossian Convent and its school. It was midday and hot and the heat was beginning to get to me. I wanted to return to the meeting point with my driver at Malacca Square, but after three the-helpful locals gave me directions but did not get me to where I wanted, I found myself at the remains of the old fort, A Famosa where the Portuguese immediately built a fortress to secure their victory at Malacca after defeating the Sultan. The English destroyed the fort when they took over after the Dutch who threw out the Portuguese, because the fort was so formidable that if it fell to another power it would be difficult for the English to retake it. The only part that survived was the gate, porta do Santiago. There were so many interesting things to see and learn around this including going up the hill where more historical markers were noted but I decided to forego the climb as it was hot and I was much too late for my rendezvous with my driver and our meeting place was some distance from where I was. I didn’t feel like walking anymore and I could hire one of those colorful pedal pushers but I didn’t have any money on me. I only had my smart phone for the camera in it. I hired the kid anyway hoping that my driver would be at the meeting point waiting still after several hours past our agreed time. Of course he wasn’t there, but thankfully I was able to reach him and my pedal taxi got paid and happy with a tip.
But where was the sea?
I was looking for a waterfront with restaurants and shops and ships docked at port. So showered and rested I ventured out again with plans to watch the Sunset and have dinner by the water. First I had the idea that the multicolored row houses I glimpsed briefly while driving back to the hotel was in this direction. Twenty minutes later when I estimated I should be coming up to it, it did not appear, but I saw a sign to Harbor City, so I abandoned following the crayola houses and headed for the harbor. The way was very new and the bridge spanning a body of water was operational but not completed yet. There were few cars and occasional pedestrians along the way. It was dark by this time and so I missed my sunset cocktail already, but there was dinner to look forward to. Over the roof of high rises and behind them I glimpsed lighted cranes that looked like those in ports that load container ships so I followed that direction. I still was looking for the harbor and the sea, but what I arrived at was construction area with deafening machine noise of the building cranes on high rise construction above and nobody was around. I was curious so I explored anyway and saw a lighted storefront at the end of one street with some people milling about. I approached planning to call for a taxi and to ask how and to know where I was. After asking a couple of the men one finally was brave enough to try to speak English, who told me that no taxis came there. I decided to call my driver, who fortunately was staying overnight to take me very early to the airport the next day. I let him talk to the guy for directions, and he came to get me. So forget my dinner by the water, but where was the harbor? He drove me to a tiny dark dock where the traditional boat ferries took passengers to the islands. Malacca’s glory is past, it’s port have been exchanged for Penang and Klang and Singapore is inching to dominate. So the huge development I stumbled upon will take on upstart Singapore and will be huge and cost billions with China partnership and controversial. The Melaka Gateway will be built on three artificial islands and on one natural Island, Pulau and will have a deep sea port, cruise ship terminal, a shopping complex with aquarium walkways, entertainment, restaurants, hotels, residences, theme park, iconic architecture, boardwalk, bridges, the works, the project will take years to complete with first phase to open in 2019. Coordinating projects will be high speed rail to Singapore, and airport improvements, etc. The doubters believe China has military designs in deepening the ports and in the transportation linkages. So I was exhilarated by uncovering this information by my misadventure. Me, got lost? Nah!
We ate at one of the restaurants near the hotel and we had crab in black pepper sauce, pandan chicken and kangkong in garlic and shrimp paste.
My driver picked me up very early again, to drive to KLIA, for my flight to Kuching, in Sarawak, Borneo’
KUCHING, SARAWAK, BORNEO
Borneo, my neighbor to the South of the Philippines, is so close we could get to it from the Sulu archipelago in a banca. I knew very little about it, except that in precolonial days, Southern Philippines, which is predominantly Muslim, was then part of the Sultanate of Brunei. and had resisted Christianization, Americanization, and Filipinization, and today, is still trying to secede from the Philippines. If the Portuguese who were in Malacca in 1511, and who must have known about the Philippines, took an interest, our history would have taken a very different course. Magellan, who was Portuguese and denied funding by Portugal, sought patronage from the Spanish crown to fund an expedition to the Spice Islands. He failed to reach the Spice Islands but stumbled on the Southern Philippine Islands of Samar and Homonhon, Leyte, then Cebu in 1521 and claimed the archipelago for Spain. He was killed by Lapu-Lapu in Mactan and failed to establish settlements. Phillip II, for whom the Philippines was named, subsequently sent colonizing expeditions, through the viceroyalty of New Spain,Mexico. Legaspi was the most successful in establishing settlements and also discovered the return route to Mexico via the Pacific which brought forth the Acapulco-Manila Gallon trade from 1565-1815. Spanish soldiers and adventurers from Mexico, Peru, the Spanish Caribbean, settled in the archipelago, subsequently subjugating Manila, a puppet state of Brunei. The Philippines was ruled from Mexico until its independence in 1821, after which rule came directly from Spain, until the Spanish-American War in 1898, where after the Treaty of Paris, the Philippines, together with Puerto Rico, Cuba, Samoa, Guam, Marianas, St. John and St Thomas in the Caribbean, was ceded by Spain to America for $20 M The colonial rulers of these Southeast Asian Island countries, and religion, shaped the culture and identity of the people. The Philippines at the time of Spanish colonization, was a part of Borneo, and ruled by disparate warring tribes and sultanates.Its religion was indigenous. It was not a nation, unlike its neighbors, who had been a nation under Muslim rule since the 14th century. Because of Spanish colonization from 1521-1898, the Philippines is Catholic, and because of American occupation from 1898-1946, it is westernized, which makes the Philippines an alien in Southeast Asia, among its Buddhist and Muslim neighbors and an alien in America and Europe, because of its Malay culture and physical features.
Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, is fascinating. Borneo is three countries, The Kingdom State of Brunei, in the middle of Malaysian Borneo, and Indonesian Borneo, which is 73% of the Island, with its capital in Kalimantan. Malaysia as a whole has a history that is complex, and has racial relations that is multilayered. Singapore and Brunei separated from the Federation of Malaysia, to become sovereign states, after independence from the British. In Kuching with a significant Chinese population, who are Christians or Buddhists, and who are successful business men, there is political tension with the Muslim sector, who are Malays. To manage this there are two city mayors, North Kuching has a Muslim Mayor and South Kuching, Chinese. Malays are the native population who are also Muslims. There is a discriminatory affirmative action program to benefit Malays that is a very sore point with the Chinese, who had been imported by the British together with the Indians, to provide labor in the tin mines and rubber plantations, during their two centuries of occupation. As I write this , I am also listening to the State of the Union address by Trump and the rebuttal by Joe Kennedy, Jr. There is a great deal of similarity in the policies adopted by Trump, with the colonial policy of the British in India and in Southeast Asia; exploitation of the natural resources for maximum yield, with little regard for the environment, resulting in short term profits concentrated in the powerful few, who engage in protectionist policies to maintain control, and drive the business, and limiting access to social benefits to the privileged group. It is a good policy if one is in the ruling class, but eventually, it is not sustainable and leads to poverty in the lower classes.
Anyway, I digress, so back to Borneo. Did you know that Sarawak, was ruled by a British White Rajah, who established the Brooke Family Dynasty from 1841-1946? An extraordinary story that is waiting for Hollywood to discover.
Kuching, the Cat City, lying on the banks of Sarawak River, and with a waterfront promenade lined with food stalls, gardens and art, it charms for a stroll and to watch the sky burst into oranges and reds at sunset. Home to the orangutan, I was lucky to see one emerge from the wilds, responding to a feeding call from the ranger. It swung and preened, then took the banana, and nonchalantly peed on a tourist who failed to heed the caution not to be caught beneath it.
In Penang, I had a very chatty Chinese guide who gave me an education about Baba Nyonyas, clans, jettys, peranakans, Malays and Bumiputras. Penang, was one of the British Straits Settlements and together with Molucca, and Singapore. controlled shipping and trade in the region for two centuries. It is a melting pot of cultures and religion and completely tolerant. Myanmar and Thailand Buddhist coexist with Taoists and Hindu temples, and with Mosques and Churches. Georgetown, the colonial center, is very cosmopolitan, and is a Unesco Heritage site, and the infrastructure with the port and bridge connections to the mainland, is impressive. Bridge #2 rivals the CBBT (Chesapeke Bay Bridge Tunnel) at 15 miles long. Its high end coastline at Batu Feringgi is dotted with luxury resorts and spas.
I’ve heard first about Brunei while visiting California, at a Filipino party. They were discussing the scandal about a prince who would invite beauty pageant candidates, regale them with luxurious surroundings and gifts but kept them confined in the palace like prisoners and were expected to participate in sexual acts. Since then, I’ve learned too that the Sultan was an absolute ruler and that he was very petroleum oil rich. Many Filipinos worked there, in the early years of development, so I had to fly from Penang to Brunei to see for myself what this kingdom looked like. Well, the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, has opulent monuments to showcase the wealth of the kingdom, very glitzy, very much like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But the King is benevolent, if one qualifies, i.e., must be a native and Muslim. The country is very conservative , and the King presides in the observance of Muslim tenets, and the people are happy. They cannot criticize the King but are well taken care of, with jobs, free education up to the university level, and free health care. I was there on New Year’s Eve, and had dinner at the plush Empire Hotel and Country Club, but I could not order wine to go with the superb continental cuisine. The rest of the evening was quiet, no fireworks or partying to count the year down, no champagne or Auld Lang Syne. I missed Johnny terribly.
I only needed a day to explore, Brunei, so on Air Asia again to Langkawi, a resort Island off mainland Malaysia, in the north near the Thai border, one of many Islands in the Andaman Sea.
I checked into one of these resorts with individual chalets on stilts over water. I listened to the gentle waves underneath as I fell asleep, and woke to the sun rising slowly behind the mountains and illuminating the sea in silvery glow, before revealing the tranquil scene of water, around uninhabited islands, and the crescent beach. I’ve been crisscrossing on Air Asia for a week now, with lengthy layovers at KLIA, so this is the perfect respite for me to take it easy. Enjoyed a transporting oriental massage at a spa up the hill with a panoramic ocean view, had lunch at the opulent St Regis Resort, hired a taxi for four hours to drive me around the Island and check on the beaches, and at night, dinner at Phan Thai restaurant, with wine, Yes!
Now off to the Island of Java, Indonesia. Indonesia is huge and its territory far flung. It is the largest archipelago with 18,000 Islands, and the 4th most populous in the world with 265 M people, and is the largest Muslim country. Its main populated islands are Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, New Guinea Timor, Maluku, Kalimantan (Borneo). It is the home of the Orangutan, the giant stinking flower, Rafflesia, and the Komodo dragon.
I chose to visit the ancient city of Yogyakarta, not too far from the bustle and traffic and chaos of Jakarta, which I am skipping. Here is where I got to taste the Indonesia of regular folks, visiting a farm village on a dokar (horse-drawn buggy), and meeting small farmers raising subsistence crops. I stopped by a group of women resting for lunch, at a peanut harvest. They were so welcoming and chatty, they couldn’t believe I was traveling solo, and had so many things to talk about it was difficult to tear myself away. My guide, a young woman who laments that she’s in her 30’s and has no prospect for marriage yet, is hoping that being a tour guide would give her other options. Tourism revenue helps the farmers of the village raise some cash. The country side reminds me of the Philippines.
I checked into a boutique hotel near the Unesco World Heritage site of Borobudur, as the itinerary calls for a sunrise visit to this 9th Century Buddhist temple, the largest in the world. Arriving at my hotel in a light drizzle, I entered a magical place illuminated with the soft glow of candle light, where the reception lobby is an open lanai, with flowers floating on shallow bowls, Buddha icons, and incense. There was a strange fruit to accompany my welcome pandan refreshment; acorn-shaped, sized like kiwi, with woody bronze snake-like skin that you peel, to get the not-too-sweet, chewy to cucumber crispy pulp delicacy, that has a lychee hint to its taste. The pulp covers a big seed, and there may be a couple in a fruit. It is called Salak, or snake fruit, so apropos. My village guide showed me the plant, a prickly palm, and the fruit grows in clusters at the base. My room is a casita with an enclosed patio and courtyard garden, and reached by a meandering stone path across a garden of statues, water fountains, and flowers blooming on vines or niches or lining the path. The drizzle continued, but the air was warm, and the dinner prepared by the in-house chef was divine and presented just as artfully as the garden. The chef does the daily fresh floating flower bowl arrangement.
My guide apologized for the rain ruining the sunrise viewing of Borobudur, but the drizzle against the cloud-filtered light silhouetted the stupas in a mesmerizing haze, and the muffled chants of Imams from distant mosques brought real spirituality to the scene. Borobudur is a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Two other temples in the Borobudur complex at Pawon and Mendut, and the Hindu temple complex at Prambanan, filled me with awe all day.
I have seen with my own eyes these wonders of the ancients, at Angkor Wat, Bagan, and Borobudur, and nothing modern compares in majesty and ingenuity.
Arriving at Ngura Rai International Airport at Denpasar, Bali, I read the sign, Welcome, to Bali, The last paradise on earth. Hmm, I muse.The sign is flanked by two grotesque toothless figures draped in black and white checkered cloth. I am told by my guide that this is called sapot poleng, and is symbolic of the quest for harmony or balance of opposing forces, good and evil, happy and sad, light and dark, hot and cold, love and hate, etc, the yin and yang. Bali is predominantly Hindu, compared to the rest of Muslim Indonesia. Daily life is permeated by rituals, the daily offering to the gods is visible everywhere. Putting together the offerings is a chore assigned to a family member, and is taken seriously. Prepared offerings is a cottage industry, together with the growing of marigold flowers that is a mainstay in the packet. These offerings arranged in pretty baskets or plates can be found anywhere, in front of statues, at doorsteps, store window, lining paths, in cars, in restaurants, spas, on the road, by the water faucet, etc. I am reminded of my trip to India, where these offerings are also ubiquitous. As well, monkeys are everywhere, draped over stone fences, crossing the road, climbing on trees, they are adorable and playful, but can quickly turn to nasty, or thieves.The cow is sacred, but they eat pork and lamb, and there is no prohibition of alcohol. At breakfast, I had bacon and ham, and wine with dinner. I’m in heaven again. Is this paradise yet?
Bali is so commercialized in the capital, at Denpasar, and the famous Kuta beach is noisy with the vroom of scooters and car traffic and crowded with young people intent on partying. Shopping malls abound. I stayed away from here and booked a resort in the hills, at Ubud. Resorts are garden like, with spectacular views of the rice paddies, and farmland, and distant mountains. My guide Suwin was so accommodating with my wishes. I learned that Barack and Michelle visited recently to Pura Mengening, the 11th century sacred water temple at Tampaksiring. I visited just after the rains, and the river was swollen and cascading down in big waterfalls, the ruins of the temple embedded in the tropical jungle, and the Hindu gods, and other icons carved impressively on rocks that serve as water spouts for the baths. And then he took me to Ketut Liyer’s compound, the medicine man, and palm reader, who was Gilbert’s (Eat, Pray, Love) Balinese spiritual mentor. The healer has died at age 100 years in 2016, and his son has taken over, and it looks like he has transformed the enterprise profitably. A guest house is rising next door, and the compound is strewn with photos of Julia Roberts, and Gilbert’s book is displayed in the one-room cottage where the author stayed. Julia stayed at the Four Season’s while filming, so I followed her trail there, and had a very expensive dinner on my last night in Ubud. I also asked to be taken to a Luwak coffee plantation (the $150/kilo civet coffee, which became a sought after item here after the film, Bucket List), then to a Batik atelier, where I gifted myself with a luxurious silk scarf/sarong. I also bought two acrylics by an upcoming painter, then finished my shopping with a silver cuff bracelet encrusted with a huge rose quartz.
Then feeling triumphant with my purchases I had lunch at a fabulous location where one could see in the distance the volcano that recently erupted near Bali.
Before coming down the mountain to the beach in Sanur the next day, I had a leisurely morning, immersing myself in the village, where I visited a family and learned how to weave coconut fronds to make baskets for the daily offerings, then walked under the hot sun in the paddy fields, and watched a farmer knee-deep in the mud behind a plow and cow, then helped harvest flowers for the offering market, and observed how the village processed rice, from preparing the field to husking the grain, familiar scenario from the Philippines. I was taken to the family garden where vegetables are grown for family use, and had a boy climb a coconut tree to fetch young coconut for a refreshing drink. I had a home-cooked lunch with music played from a bamboo xylophone. On the way to Sanur we viewed the 2000-years-old Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which did not impress me much since the Batad Ifugao Rice Terraces, a similar Unesco Heritage site in the Mountain Province of the Philippines, has panoramic grandeur and majesty. But it impressed me that our rice culture is so similar, and village life, and the hospitality of the people are the same.
I woke up at dawn to walk the beach and wishing to be the first to greet sunrise, in solitude.The resort is walled off from the nearby fishing village, but I could get access from the water, and it was low tide.
So how do I sum up this trip?
An eye opener, and a learning experience.