Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Racism and Hypocrisy at Mount Singai

"They are not all saints who use holy water."

English Proverb

To begin my story again, on the 5th of April, a Saturday of no great distinction, I decided to hike up to the summit of Mount Singai which is historically the ancestral grounds of the BiSingai Bidayuh people. I arrived early and parked my car right at the feet of a tall, stainless steel, art deco Jesus. Then, carrying my backpack and camera tripod with me, I accidentally started my trek in the wrong direction.

Mount Singai Art Deco Jesus
A Jesus sculpture made out of pipes and metal sheets.

That had me walking past a random shophouse in the local village and the Bidayuh shopkeeper minding the establishment gave me a once-over before asking in Malay,

"Climbing Singai?"

It sounded nothing like a question, of course. In fact, I had the distinct impression that he was pronouncing some judgement upon my person. Regardless, I smiled at him and answered in the affirmative.

Glancing at my oblong bag containing my tripod, he asked another severe non-question,

"Going to take a lot of pictures?"

He was nodding sarcastically with wide mocking eyes as he was saying this, so my hackles began rising in response. I know hostility when I see it and having just exited my car not one minute ago, I was sure I could not have given him cause for it yet. So, I responded with silence.

"Why don't you go climb a mountain with a Tua Pek Kong on it instead?" he remarked sarcastically. No smile. No laughter. There was naked hatred in his voice.

I just walked away at this point. Tua Pek Kong literally means "Grand Uncle" in the Hokkien dialect and is one of the local deities worshipped by the Malaysian Chinese community. That racist nut-bag had assumed that I worship Tua Pek Kong just because I happened to be ethnically Chinese and apparently, he also thought that Tua Pek Kong worshippers should not climb a mountain that has a Catholic church on it. Doesn't he know that Chinese people can be Catholics too instead of assuming that I wasn't? Did it somehow escape his notice that the Bishop of the Kuching Archdiocese who officially blessed the place when it was completed in 1995 was a Chinese guy called Peter Chung? And that his local mitre-wearing head honcho, the Kuching Archbishop, is yet another Chinaman named John Ha?

For a minute, I considered returning back to Kuching or go visit another local attraction since my morning had been soured by that odious pot-bellied man, but that would mean letting racism win the day - and I would never let prejudice and bigotry win my day. So, I parked my car at a different location (in case that prejudiced prick thought to do something nasty to it) and continued with my plan of climbing the mountain.

Now, the road to the peak of Singai is divvied into two unequal portions: the easy 30-minute ascent to the Catholic Memorial Pilgrimage Centre (CMPC) using the wooden boardwalks and stairs, and the 2-hour climb on the jungle trail from CMPC to the top. At the very beginning of the jungle trek, a large yellow sign had been erected there bearing this message:

Mount Singai CMPC Notice
Look, they even had it translated to Chinese.


It is our desire to allow all to enjoy the beauty of God's creation so that, despite numerous complaints of visitors removing fruits and plants, we have not stopped you from climbing this mountain.

But some visitors have recently gone so far to abuse our generosity by erecting 'Tua Pekong' on the summit, thereby showing grave disrespect to the Singai Bidayuh for whom Mount Singai is not only their ancestral home but a place where local Catholics trace their Christian root.

Mount Singai must be maintained as a sacred and holy mountain.

All attempts to introduce idols and deities are strictly prohibited.

TAKE NOTICE that passage to the summit will be closed upon any further abuse.

Vincent Eddy ak Sireng
CMPC Mt Singai, Bau.

21st August 2004

Oh ho ho, now that racist shopkeeper's rude remarks made sense to me (racism doesn't really make sense to me, but you know what I'm getting at). How dare these Tua Pek Kong worshipping chinks bring their blasphemous idols to the summit of Singai! The Catholics abhor idolatry! I mean, just look at Exodus 20:4-5 of the Catholic Edition of the New Revised Standard Bible! It is part of commandment number one!

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them."

And Catholics would never ever make themselves idols...

Mount Singai CMPC Jesus Idol
Jesus on a stick in the Christ the King Church at CMPC.

... in the form of anything that is in heaven above...

Mount Singai CMPC Mary's Idol
The allegedly virginal Mary at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at CMPC.

... or that is on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

Mount Singai CMPC Idol Army
A roomful of merchandised porcelain Jesuses, Marys, and various saints at CMPC which they sell to devotees.

And good Catholics will absolutely never bow down or worship these graven idols, no sirree!

Mount Singai CMPC Boy Jumping
Catholics in the act of not bowing down and worshipping Mary's statue at the CMPC's Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto.

And remember folks, "all attempts to introduce idols and deities are strictly prohibited". Unless your deity or idol is Catholic - in which case, introduce away!

Historically, the Bidayuh of Singai practiced a form of ancestral worship called Adat Gawai and in 1885, a young Dutch Roman Catholic priest called Father Felix Westerwoudt came to Sarawak and settled amongst the local tribespeople. For 13 years, he lived with the BiSingai, learned their language and culture and even travelled from village to village to persuade the Bidayuh people to convert to Christianity - but he was largely unsuccessful as they held on to their pagan religion. At the time of Westerwoudt's death at the age of 37 after taking ill, only seven Singai families have embraced Jesus.

Of course, with further persistent attempts at supplanting the local beliefs, Westerwoudt's successors eventually realised their missionary efforts. Now that Christianity have put out roots in the local community, the mountain that previously held pagan significance to the forefathers of the BiSingai were converted into a Catholic pilgrimage site - which brings to my mind a rather interesting question.

Would the long-dead original settlers of Mount Singai who practiced animism be offended by the idols and deities introduced by the Catholics here?

RELATED POST: An Atheist on a Christian Mountain

Actually keeps the "no idols" commandment,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, April 26, 2014

An Atheist on a Christian Mountain

"But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it."

Micah 4:1

On the 5th of April, a Saturday of no particular note, I decided to check out a mountain near Kuching on the recommendation of one of my patients who once tried to commit suicide by swallowing a lot of over-the-counter flu meds. She's a Christian and she regularly makes pilgrimages to a church there. The mountain, called Singai, is located in the neighbouring town of Bau and on a clear day, it is visible from my apartment (and from the hospital I work in). If you are looking for it, it's that little flat-topped peak to the west standing beside the sprawling and towering mountain range that houses Mount Serapi and the Kubah National Park.

Mount Singai from Sarawak General Hospital
Shot from the 9th floor of the main block of the Sarawak General in the same day after I got down from it.
Mount Singai is that volcano-shaped protuberance to the left of the large mountain range on the right.

I cannot find any official figures on Singai's height but the number that comes up most frequently is 562 metres - and it is also the number that makes most sense when we compare it visually to the 911 metres Serapi standing right beside it. To get to it, I had to drive about 30 clicks from Kuching and I deliberately chose a Saturday to make my ascent to avoid the Sunday throng of worshippers.

The climb up to the church (known as CMPC or the Catholic Memorial Pilgrimage Centre) is a short 30 minutes to 1 hour stroll through a long series of boardwalks and wooden stairs that was punctuated at regular intervals by more than a dozen crucifix-shaped shrines in which bronze plaques with bas-reliefs depicting the Passion of Jesus were embedded. They covered the moment of Jesus's condemnation to his death on the cross and finally his interment, but (for some reason) no further. I approved of it.

Mount Singai Trek Boardwalk
The way up to CMPC.

Mount Singai Trek Glimpse of View
Glimpses of neighbouring mountains on the way up.

The CMPC is nestled on a plateau midway up the mountain and consists of a series of wooden structures including the baruk-style Church of Christ the King (which is in actuality a glorified gazebo), the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a retreat house, a 10-door longhouse, a chalet, a mess hall, a hostel, the caretaker's abode and even an "mini-amphitheatre" (which structurally speaking, is really just a regular theatre). I am not a churchgoer but I must admit that the CMPC has a sort of rustic charm to it. However, I must question the wisdom of building a church that requires an hour of mountain-climbing to get to when Catholic church attendance is at an all time low.

A sign by the Gazebo of Christ the King had the following message embossed on it in all-caps:

This Catholic Memorial & Pilgrimage Centre Mt Singai, Bau was officially declared open jointly by Most Rev. Datuk Peter Chung, DD, DCL, PNBS and Y.B. Peter Mansian, ADUN Tasik Biru, Bau. Blessed and dedicated to Christ the King and as a centre for pilgrimages during the Jubilee Year 2000 by Most Rev. Datuk Peter Chung DD, DCL, PNBS on 21-11-1999 (Feast of Christ the King). May all who come to this centre know the presence of Christ, experience the joy of his friendship and grow in his love.

CMPC was also built through the voluntary efforts of its congregation in carrying lumber, sand, bricks, cement and other construction materials up the mountain every time they make a pilgrimage. Faith may not actually move mountains (Matthew 17:20) but it sure can get you loads of free labour. On my way down later, I actually encountered a pair of youths lugging a length of two-by-four on their shoulders uphill. I think it is meant to be a metaphorical act simulating Christ's Procession to Calvary in which he had to carry his own gruesome torture-slash-execution device.

Mount Singai CMPC Christ the King Church
Gazebo of Christ the King.

Mount Singai CMPC Mary's Grotto
Grotto of Their Lady of Lourdes.

Mount Singai CMPC Amphitheatre
The theatre that calls itself a mini amphitheatre.

You'd notice that the middle seats of theatre had been refashioned using new wood because in September last year, an Act of God™ have toppled a mango tree right onto it.

Anyway, the CMPC was not the destination I had in mind so after pottering about for a few minutes, I continued my trek up to the summit of Mount Singai. Finding the trail posed a bit of a challenge but I finally located it by the "retreat house" marked by a faded yellow signboard. From here onwards, there were no more boardwalks and stairs - just stones, moss, roots, leaf litters and earth.

If you are interested in that sort of thing, Singai is an excellent repository of bugs and I was fortunate enough to come cross a fair share on my way up.

Mount Singai Long Legged Spider
A very tiny, highly-caffeinated harvestman I spotted right the start of the summit trail.

Mount Singai Spider Under Leaf
An unidentified spider (probably Nephila sp.) taking refuge under a leaf when I disturbed its web.

Mount Singai Lacessititermes
Termites from either the genus Hospitalitermes or Lacessititermes.

Mount Singai Dew Drinking Butterfly
A Dark Glassy Tiger (Parantica agleoides) suspended upside down, drinking from a single drop of dew.

Mount Singai Round Bodied Coloured Legs Millipede
A large black round-bodied millipede with bright pink and yellow legs.

Mount Singai Polydesmid
A savage looking millipede from the order Polydesmida.

Mount Singai Tailed Butterfly
A Common Imperial (Cheritra freja) near the summit of Mount Singai that I managed to get very close to.

Mount Singai Gasteracantha on Leaf
An brightly-yellow freaky-looking orb-weaving spider from the genus Gasteracantha. It looks like Gasteracantha hasselti (Hasselt's spiny spider) but its lateral-most spines seem to preceded by a knob. Maybe it is a Bornean subspecies.

Mount Singai Gasteracantha
Another specimen of the same Gasteracantha spider. I accidentally knocked this one down to the forest floor.

Mount Singai Gasteracantha Spinnerette
Interestingly, it seemed to retract its limbs like a tortoise when I prod it a few times. Note the spinneret at the end of the abdomen.

Aside from arthropods, I also came across many different species of mushrooms, none of which I am capable of identifying, exposing yet another gaping hole in my own knowledge to me.

Mount Singai Large Red Mushrooms Cluster
Some unhealthy looking red bolete mushrooms.

Mount Singai Single White Mushroom
A solitary white mushroom.

Mount Singai Small Blue Mushrooms Cluster
A cluster of grey-blue caps.

Mount Singai Small Brown Mushrooms Cluster
A group of flesh-coloured mushrooms.

The trail itself was broadly divided into two phases. The first part was a gentle 10 to 20° uphill climb with abandoned makeshift structures made out of bamboo littered the wayside (I figured they might have been erected by scout troops). There were some false trails I accidentally took twice (going up and coming down) which forced me to backtrack so if you are attempting a hike up to the summit of Singai without a guide, pay attention to which paths you take. On the way back to the CMPC, all you need to do is follow the sound of unanswered prayers, and you'll find your way just fine.

The second half of the climb is a 30 to 45° slope that is far more challenging but helpful ropes were provided to aid you through the hardest spans (so bring gloves if you value the skin covering the palms of your hands). I am not losing a lot of weight since I started hiking in late January this year, but I have made noticeable inroads into improving my stamina and even managed to overtake some of the other hikers I ran into on my way up to Singai's top.

Mount Singai Single Split Rock
A huge split rock you'll encounter on the second (steeper) part of the climb up.

Mount Singai Top Rock
A massive boulder you'll encounter very, very near the summit.

Near the very top of the climb, you'll come across a large two-storey tall boulder that will loom right over your trail. There are even crude seats build on top of it but don't be fooled into thinking that this is the summit (thought it is a great shady spot to rest). At this point, you should take the path to the left of the rock and continue till you reach an unshaded spot which offers you an unobstructed view of the plains below. I mention this because I took the path to the right of it and wandered some distance along the ridge of the mountaintop before that trail sort of faded.

I had to retrace my step back to the huge stone to take the correct path to the summit proper.

Mount Singai Summit (watermarked)
The real summit of Mount Singai.

Mount Singai Summit Panorama (watermarked)
A panoramic photograph taken of the view from Singai's summit. Do click to embiggen.

I looked at the clock on my phone and calculated that I took about two hours to reach the summit from the church grounds, which wasn't too bad considering that I spent quite some time on wild goose chases down ghost paths. It was pleasantly overcast at the time so I need not suffer the midday heat either - which was good because I only brought a 500ml bottle of water with me and there was only about a mouthful left in it.

After taking in my fill of the scenery, I decided to go rest on top of the gigantic boulder I passed earlier and eat some of the chocolates I brought with me on the hike, but it was already occupied by the two hikers I overtook earlier.

And you wouldn't believe it - one of them was smoking a cigarette. No wonder I overtook him so easily.

Mount Singai Summit Smoker
Just look at how retarded his face is.

Just this year, I climbed Santubong, Serapi and Pha Ngeun in Laos, and at the top of all those peaks, I had to suffer the noxious presence of smokers poisoning and polluting the fresh mountain air. I seriously don't think these people deserve to live. If I see one of them dying of a heart attack or something when I'm on a hike, I'll just move him or her off the trail into the undergrowth and cover them with dead leaves before going on my merry way just to ensure that one else can come along and rescue them.

So instead of relaxing after my climb, I was forced to make my descent thanks to that cigarette-chomping son-of-a-bitch because I sure as heck don't want to breath in any more of his fumes than I already did.

The journey down was quite a task and I had to rely on the ropes for most of the way giving my hands a bit of a rope burn in the process because I left my gloves in my car. In about one hour, I found myself in CMPC again and there seemed to be a crowd of people there already. Some churchy stuff was about to begin but I wasn't at all inclined to stick around and find out what.

Mount Singai CMPC Boy Jumping
A boy leaping from bench to bench in front of the Grotto of Their Lady of Lourdes.

Some drinks were laid out in the mess hall and failing to find anyone to ask, I helped myself to one of their water dispensers and filled my bottle before descending the rest of the way down to the bottom of the mountain where vendors hawk soft drinks and coconuts. Have you ever had an ice-cold can of 100PLUS after an entire morning's worth of exertion? Now that's a religious experience right there. Gatorade just can't compare, if you ask me.

Anyway, this piece represented just half the story of my climb up Mount Singai. There was so much commentary I would like to make about the racism and hypocrisy I encountered along the way that I think I need to write another article just to address that. Stay tuned for the next one, aye? And it's done.

RELATED POST: Racism and Hypocrisy at Mount Singai

Trespassed into a kingdom of God,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Tubing Down the Nam Song

"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience."

Eleanor Roosevelt

One of the most memorable experiences Cheryl and I had in Vang Vieng (or in our entire Laos trip) was tubing down the Nam Song. The basic idea was to ride a tuk-tuk about 3.5 kilometres north of town to a drop-off point and recline on a huge inner tube of a tractor tyre as the gentle currents of the Nam Song carry us back to whence we came. En route, there are a few ramshackle bars situated by the banks of the Nam Song which you can stop at for drinks, food and partying - and most of them offer free shots of cheap lao-Lao (Laotian rice whiskey) to entice you to moor your tube and tarry in their establishments for awhile to deposit some of your money and barf. Before the crackdown in 2012, there were more than two dozen "entertainment venues" along the tubing route where drug dealers openly advertise their wares and there were rope swings, water slides and ziplines conveying high or drunk (or both) revellers into the river at the Darwinian speed of stupidity and the merciless acceleration of gravity. Understandably, there were lots of injuries and deaths.

I counted three riverside bars when Cheryl and I tubed down the Nam Song on February 9 earlier this year, so sanity and moderation seem to have triumphed over Bacchus in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng Tubing 09 Stunning Scenery
The view you get as you tube down the river.

Anyway, to back up on my story a little, Cheryl and I went and signed up for a tubing trip in the middle of town in the afternoon. A single cartel seems to be running the tube rental business and it cost 55,000 kip (about 7 USD or 27 ringgit) per tube. There is also a 60,000 kip deposit just in case you want to steal and take a giant honking tractor tube out of the country and you might also partially forfeit your deposit if you fail to return it by 6PM. The fee also covered a ride to the drop-off point and apparently, a life-jacket as for every tuber (as stipulated by the authorities) - a hypothetical life-jacket which, at no point in time, was offered to Cheryl or I. Luckily, Cheryl knows the ancient mystical art of moving through water without drowning swimming and I am an expert at lying on the surface of the water and not sinking while doing it, so we did not miss it.

We started at 2:30PM and the cold, refreshing water was immensely welcoming in the late noon heat. Like most rivers in mountainous regions, the Nam Song's water was very clear and it was possible to see the riverbed in many parts - particularly in the dry season when the water level is low (which was the time of the year we did this). And as expected, tubing was a lot of fun! For the most part, you are subject to the whims of the river currents but you can navigate to a small degree just by paddling about using your arms and legs as oars.

Vang Vieng Tubing 01 Drop Point
The tubing drop-off point 3.5 km north of town.

Vang Vieng Tubing 02 First Bar
The first bar.

As you pass the bars, you'll only need to wave your hand at an obliging attendant and he will toss you rope that you can grab a hold of as he reels you in. Cheryl had cleverly hooked her feet on my tube to prevent us from drifting apart, leaving my hands free to take photographs on our journey down the Nam Song (most pictures in this post was taken when I was floating on a tube down a river, in case you are wondering). Now, I lost a camera to an early watery death in 2008 so clearly, I have not learned to stop taking my picture-making devices with me when traversing bodies of water. This time, I brought a waterproof plastic bag with me that has six(!) strong groove-seals with a Velcro fastener to keep the camera in when I was not using it. You can get one in most shops in town and the one I bought was pretty reliable.

We skipped the first bar and headed for the second bar (which unimaginatively calls itself "Second Bar").

Vang Vieng Tubing 03 Cheryl Heading to Second Bar
Cheryl drifts ahead of me towards the second bar.

Vang Vieng Tubing 04 Second Bar
The second bar.

Vang Vieng Tubing 05 Second Bar's Backdrop
What good is a basketball hoop board that sprays water onto the court? For breaking necks?

Vang Vieng Tubing 06 Second Bar's Party Crowd
That lone brown guy eating a plate of fried rice there made me laugh.

We didn't linger because the music was deafening and there were far too many skimpily attired overweight people jiggling about for my comfort. Cheryl left with a can of Pepsi and I with a jumbo can of Beerlao. By this time, the sun was starting to retreat behind the limestone mountains in the west, casting a pleasant shade on the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing 07 Cheryl With Pepsi
Cheryl swigging Pepsi while floating down a river. Now that's relaxation.

Tubing Down Nam Song
They say don't drink and drive, but they never said anything about drinking and tubing.

Vang Vieng Tubing 08 Scenic
A bridge over the river.

Not very long after that, we drifted into a fast-flowing portion of the river where the rocks lay in wait right below the water surface. Cheryl, lithe and light, cruise unimpeded over them while I get snagged every few feet and making us spin chaotically like a binary star system gone mad. Finally, we were forced to let go of one another and Cheryl raced ahead. She disappeared downstream soon after.

It wasn't as much fun tubing alone but I amused myself by taking pictures of everything I saw. I also asked passing kayakers for the time every so often in case I was running late on the clock.

Vang Vieng Tubing 11 Fording the Nam Song with a Bicycle
Two local guys standing in the river with a bicycle.

Vang Vieng Tubing 10 Crossing Nam Song with a Bicycle
Turns out they were just waiting for the kayaks and row boats to pass before fording the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing 12 Nam Song Swimmer
Some guy doing the butterfly stroke.

Vang Vieng Tubing 13 Moon Over Nam Song
The moon appears.

Vang Vieng Tubing 14 Pushcart on Bamboo Bridge Over Nam Song
Something tells me that this footbridge never had a safety inspection done on it before.

Vang Vieng Tubing 15 Local Kids Swimming in Nam Song
Local kids swimming.

As the daylight died by increments, I began to wonder if I would ever make it back in time to claim my deposit, and I can see other tubers thinking the same thing. Some of them have even started paddling in order to hasten their meandering progress down the Nam Song, while others headed for the shore to walk back. I removed my flip-flops from my feet and used them like oars by wearing them on my hands and suddenly, my relaxing ride down an idyllic river turned into a hobo boat race.

By the time I hit the landing "beach", it was twilight (and not in a sparkly vampires sense). On a sidenote, I think we humans have declined as a race when the first two fucking pages of a Google search for "twilight" showed only Stephenie Meyer's insult to romance and literature. Anyway, I quickly hauled my massive tube with me up to town where the tubing cartel have their tube depot - and I made it.

Vang Vieng Tubing 16 End Point
Someone had laid out a barbecue dinner by the river for the rich Chinese tourists that have taken to Vang Vieng recently.

I found that Cheryl already had a post-tubing snack of a large baguette sandwich (a popular fare in Laos given their ex-French colony heritage) that she bought with the deposit money. In fact, by the time I got back, she already showered and changed. Just how fast did she go?

Vang Vieng Tubing 17 Barbecue
Some barbecued local sausage and a strip of unidentified meat I had later that evening.

Vang Vieng Tubing 18 Cheryl
Cheryl at a restaurant waiting for dinner after tubing.

I think anyone who visits Laos and happens to pass through Vang Vieng on the overland route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang should seriously try tubing out. I mean, floating down a nice, clean mountain-fed river reclining on a huge rubber tube with a cold beer in hand while surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery that Southeast Asia has to offer? That's the recipe for an awesome vacation right there, bro.

Vive La Vientiane: Part One
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town 
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Solo Mountain Biking Trip to Kaeng Nyui Waterfall 
Veni, Vidi, Vang VIeng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning Markets
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng Thong 
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City 

Slow floater,
k0k s3n w4i