Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Courtly Chamber of Fairy Cave

"The Dwarves tell no tale; but even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane."

The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J. R. R. Tolkien

I learned about the Fairy Cave in the nearby town of Bau in my first year of working in Kuching but it wasn't until April 18 earlier this year that I could find the opportunity to see it for myself. The locals have named it Gua Pari with "gua" meaning "cave" and "pari" denoting "fairy". Pari can also mean "stingray", but I seriously doubt that that's the case here. The site is officially a natural reserve so a small fee is collected from every visitor for custodial maintenance.

The cave entrance was about 4 to 5-storeys up a sheer limestone cliff face and could only be accessed via a ugly free-standing concrete stairwell in dire need of a new coat of paint. On my ascent, I noticed that a smaller set of stairs was running closely to the rocks which I presumed was how tourists used to reach the cave mouth in the past. 

Fairy Cave 01 Stair Tower

Fairy Cave 02 Old Stairs
Safety? Is that some kind of small mammal?

The Fairy Cave got its name because of its association to a Bidayuh local legend that tells of a village not too far away which once held a festival. Two orphans, drawn to the celebration and revelry, wanted to participate but the villagers made fun of them before chasing them away. For their heartless treatment of these orphans, it was said that they were struck with a curse that turned them all into stone figures.

That's what some of the more humanoid cave formations in the Fairy Cave were suppose to be - petrified jerkasses.

Fairy Cave 03 Antechamber
The cave entrance.

Fairy Cave 04 Down the Rabbit Hole
After climbing some wet stairs through a dark tunnel, you get the first glimpse of something greater.

Fairy Cave 05 Towering Staglamite
Towering monolithic staglamites taller than houses and covered in vegetation nourished by the skylight.

The tiny tunnel that formed the antechamber of the Fairy Cave could not prepare me for what awaits me at the end of the darkness. It was a very well-lit gargantuan chamber with soaring ceilings that disappear into shadows far above, giving me a religious awe that surpasses that of any cathedral. The incessant chittering of leather-winged chiropterans were audible but barely, emanating from the whatever lightless recesses the water-carved cavern conceal from sight. My later visits to the even more majestic caves in Mulu National Park would dwarf this experience but at this time, it was the largest cave I've ever seen. In fact, aside from the faint stench of guano flavouring the air, it was hard to believe that I was standing inside the hollow heart of the mountain. There was a very Lost World vibe to it.

Fairy Cave 06 Limestone Cathedral
The main chamber of Fairy Cave.

Fairy Cave 08 Whole Cave from Massive Skylight (3 Pics)
View of the cave chamber from where the skylight is.

Fairy Cave 19 Last View
View of the massive, Eye-of-Sauron-shaped skylight.

Fairy Cave 11 Bench with Giant Robed Figure
A solitary bench near the back of the cave chamber.

Fairy Cave 17 Deeper In
A concrete path leading into the darkness of the deeper chambers.

Fairy Cave 18 Darkness
The end of the concrete path. The tunnels go deeper but they were closed to visitors.

Right at the centre of a cave, someone have placed the statue of an uncanny childlike figure adjacent to a huge rock. A white cap was placed on its head, a black robe was draped over its shoulders and a red sash encircled its waist. I have no idea what it is suppose to represent but I really didn't like the way it stares at me with its pupil-less, empty stone eyes. Near it was a green plaque embedded right into the rock. It read "Titisan Air Fairy", meaning Fairy Water Drops or Fairy Tears. My imagination started playing a vague weeping noise that seemed to dance just outside of the audible frequency. Quit spooking me, brain!

Fairy Cave 16 Weeping Angel
"Can I come home with you?"

I didn't see any of the fabled fairies but I did spot a troll sucking greedily at his cigarette and letting his cancerous breaths waft about in the still cave air to find their way into the lungs of the young children who were also exploring the cave. After he was finished, he his cigarette butt nonchalantly into a pile of limestone formations. What is it with cigarette smokers that they can't even display the merest sense of consideration for other people?

Fairy Cave 07 Cave Troll
A smelly, ugly troll.

Unlike the caves at Mulu which were preserved in pristine conditions by the stringent rules the park authorities have laid down, the cave formations in Fairy Cave were unguarded and unprotected. Vandals can freely lay their grubby fingers on them, climb them or even pee on them, thoughtlessly disfiguring speleothems that took hundreds of thousands of years to form in just seconds. Some superstitious Chinese visitors even worships some of the humanoid-shaped stalagmites as the burnt out stems of joss sticks lying thickly at their bases can attest. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with people?

Fairy Cave 10 Staglamite and Staglatite Worship
Like a throat with a uvula dangling from the roof.

Fairy Cave 12 Easter Island Head in Sarawak
A huge stalagmite that resembles the head of Shou (壽) with its high, domed forehead and beard. Shou is the Chinese deity of longevity.

Fairy Cave 14 Creepy Man Shaped Staglamite
I call this one Damocles and His Sword.

Fairy Cave 13 Tall Slender Staglamite with Torso
I don't even know what this looks like but let's worship it too, just in case.

Concrete paths and steps, and its well-lit interior made Fairy Cave an easy hole to explore - no torches are necessary. It is only about 30 minutes from Kuching (by driving, not by walking or riding a slow donkey) in a southwesterly direction. Finding it should be a cinch as many signboards point the way, and visitors often do the less famous Wind Cave at the same time - which I also visited but that's another blog post.

Fairy Cave 20 Free Cave
Overhanding mountainside near the Fairy Cave.

k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it sure makes the rest of you lonely."

Charles M. Schulz

After our success with street food in Vang Vieng, we had grown bold. We relaxed our guards and started eating at any roadside stall that draws a crowd. To be honest, I am never particularly careful with what I eat because I reckon that after spending almost 3 years in India, my gastrointestinal tract must have cultivated a fortitude that can rival the digestive capacity of some species of pigs. My lady, on the other hand, have spent most of her adult life in Singapore, a city state that in which garbage is considered an endangered species.

Here's where we had dinner on our first full day in the city of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang Roadside Food

Cheryl spotted this roadside all-you-can-carry-away-in-one-plate buffet at the mouth of an alleyway leading away from the Handicraft Night Market. At just 10,000 kip (1.25 USD or a little above 4 ringgit) per pop, it was real easy on my wallet.

Luang Prabang Before Diarrhoea
Cheryl sealing her doom.

Little did she know, she would came to regret this meal as it would make a reappearance later that night through the same orifice it went in. Cheryl, it seemed, had fallen for that commonest of calamities befalling travellers - food poisoning. The illness would go on to incapacitate her for the entirety of the following day, putting a crimp in our plans. Me? My burps tasted a little funny that morning but otherwise, all gears and cylinders were operating in pretty much the same way they always have.

As soon as day broke, I left our guesthouse to hunt for another place as our room was already booked other guests. Thinking that the room rates would be cheaper if I look outside of the central area, I headed out to Manomai Road where we passed many guesthouses on our arrival night. I saw that some street vendors there were hawking a fare familiar to me, so I had some.

Luang Prabang Rice Noodle Roll (Lao-style Chee Cheong Fun)
Rice noodle sheet cooking on a hot plate.

Luang Prabang Rice Noodle Roll (Lao-style Chee Cheong Fun) Topped with Crispy Fried Onions

The vendor I bought my breakfast from couldn't not speak or understand English and my mastery of the Lao language begins at "sabaidee" and ends at "khawp jai", I did not find out what the Lao call it - but where I'm from, it's known as chee cheong fun. It's a kind of steamed rice noodle roll that's stuffed with minced meat or shrimp and is usually eaten with soy sauce. The one I had here was served with some sweet, fragrant oil with an overkill of fried onion garnish. It tasted amazing.

Luang Prabang Dog in Sweater
No matter where you are from, the desire to put silly clothes on your pets is universal.

I finally found a place called P. P. Guesthouse that was situated right across the road from Wat Manorom which have an almost exclusively Lao clientèle. They also charge about 3 times cheaper than where we've been putting up our legs at in the previous two nights, in spite providing the same amenities (if not the same aesthetics). I immediately paid up for two nights and headed back to my ailing spouse at the Tha Heua Me Guesthouse to see if she was still alive (she was). With a bit of encouragement, I got her out of that her bed into a new bed across town, where she curled up to rest some more.

Not wanting to waste the day, I started exploring the area surrounding our new accommodation. As Wat Manorom was just opposite, I went to see to pay that a visit. While it is a well known local monument, it being situated far outside the the central tourist Disneyland meant that I did not have to pay an admission fee to enter.

Luang Prabang Wat Manorom 02 Front of Temple
The front of Wat Manorom.

I can talk about it being being founded in the 14th century or about how it houses the oldest large Buddha statue in the city, but the most interesting I saw there was this monk leaning on a motorbike, smoking a cigarette.

Luang Prabang Wat Manorom 01 Smoking Monk
So much for relinquishing earthly desires.

Speaking of less than materialistic Buddhist monks, here's one playing with his phone while chilling out in the courtyard of Wat That Luang, a temple near Wat Manorom.

Luang Prabang Wat That Luang
According to some Buddhist sects, playing Centipede is mindless enough to be considered meditation.

Situated behind our new guesthouse is the UXO Lao Information Centre.  

Luang Prabang UXO Visitors Centre 01 Bombshells
Sure screams welcome to me.

UXO stands for Unexploded Ordnance, and UXO Lao is the national bomb clearance operator that works to clean bomb contaminated lands to free them for agriculture, development and community purposes (schools, hospitals, temples, water supply, and so on). They also conduct educational risk-reduction programmes for the affected communities.

A stark information board right outside the Visitors Centre reveals some sobering statistics. More than 40 years after the Laotian Civil War, there are still casualties that resulted directly from the bombs that was dropped by the US and Laotian Air Forces. In the past 10 years, 29 people were killed while 36 were injured from live UXO's and chances are, the actual numbers may be higher as there are a lot of remote communities living far away from civilisation in this country.

Luang Prabang UXO Visitors Centre 02 More Bombshells
It's mostly bombs inside.

The flipside of those stats is how much good UXO Laos is doing for the people as they have cleared more than 29 million square metres of land, benefiting an estimate of half a million civilians since 1998. The exhibits at UXO Lao Visitors Centre were simple, blunt and filled with unconcealed resentment towards the US imperialists who turned their foreseeable future into a massive nationwide game of Minesweeper. I think it makes for a great double feature with the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane.

Adjacent to the UXO Lao Information Centre is a small park that featured a statue of the Red Prince, giving applause to shrubbery. The park was pretty devoid of people.

Luang Prabang Monument du President Souphanouvong
"Here, have an invisible burger."

The Red Prince is the nickname given to Prince Souphanouvong, the son of the last vice-king of Laos. He was also the figurehead leader of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and later, when they seized power, was made the first President of Laos.

In another part of town right beside Pothisalath Avenue, you'll find a bust of the first Prime Minister of Laos who then succeeded Souphanouvong as the second President of the communist republic.

Luang Prabang Monument du President Kaysone Phom Vihane
Monument du President Kaysone Phom Vihane.

Walking along the Mekong in a southwesterly direction on Pothisalath Avenue, you'll find a side road to your right leading to some place with the unlikely name of Ock Pop Tock. It's right after you pass the Phosy Market.

Luang Prabang Ock Pop Tock 01 Living Crafts Centre
Welcome to Ock Pop Tock.

To be precise, it is the Living Crafts Centre belonging to the textile and weaving enterprise based in Luang Prabang called Ock Pop Tock and here in its beautifully manicured grounds, they have their weaving and dyeing studio and craft school where if you like (and have a lot of loose change), you can learn how to make amateurishly created versions of the scarves and shawls you can buy at the Handicraft Night Market by paying less. If you have serious cash on hand, you can even stay in one of their four guest rooms, each decorated according to the aesthetics belonging to different indigenous tribes in Laos - the Katu, Hmong, Tai and Hill tribe people.

There are suppose to be free tours there but in my first visit there and my second visit the next day with Cheryl, we were told different excuses as to why the tours didn't happen according to schedule. I suspect it was because we didn't look like we were going to buy any of their overpriced merchandise.

Luang Prabang Ock Pop Tock 02 Weaver
Some of the in-house artisans, working a loom.

Luang Prabang Ock Pop Tock 04 Large Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa sp.)
A massive carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) which was stuck in the indigo dye exhibit above the cafe at Ock Pop Tock that was almost two inches in length.

Luang Prabang Ock Pop Tock 05 Dead Domesticated Silkmoth (Bombyx mori) with Silk Cocoons
Dead domesticated silkmoths (Bombyx mori) with raw silk cocoons on display.

Luang Prabang Ock Pop Tock 03 VIew of Mekong Lady with Umbrella
A lady walking on a sand bar by the Mekong, as seen from the cafe at Ock Pop Tock.

I went back briefly to our guesthouse after my visit to the Ock Pop Tock Living Crafts Centre to check up on how my lady love was holding up and to bring her lunch. After showering and taking a nap, I headed out again in evening to hunt for dinner food. On my walk, I dropped in on Wat Wisunarat, a temple build in 1513 during the reign of its namesake but it was already closed when I got there. The original was crafted from wood but after it was burnt to cinders by the Black Haw raiders who stormed Luang Prabang in 1887 so they learned their lesson and rebuilt one from stone.

Luang Prabang Wat Wisunarat 01 Back of Temple
Streamers on bamboo poles at the back of Wat Wisunarat.

One of the most distinctive installations at Wat Wisunarat is the That Pathum which is more popularly known as That Makmo, or the "Watermelon Stupa" for obvious reasons.

Luang Prabang Wat Wisunarat 01 That Makmo (Watermelon Stupa), Properly Known as That Pathum
That Pathum or That Makmo at Wat Wisunarat.

Luang Prabang Funny Sign Noodle Zoup and Fired Noodle
Fun with Engrish.

And thus concludes my brief day of exploration of the B-list attractions that the city of Luang Prabang has to offer. When we return, you will be reading about the two most unforgettable experiences we had in our last two days there.

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: Tubing Down the Nam Song
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning MarketsSabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng Thong

Immune to diarrhoea,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Third Hundred Days of Baby Darwin

"When I ask how old your toddler is, I don't need to hear '27 months.' 'He's two' will do just fine. He's not a cheese. And I didn't really care in the first place."

George Carlin

Because trilogies are de rigueur for epic stories, here is the third instalment of Darwin's hundred days - this time spanning the 25th of March to the 2nd of July, 2014 documenting my little pup's growth from 201 days old to the 300th day of his life and following his growth from a drooling, faeculent, flatulent baby into a more mobile, larger and heavier drooling, faeculent, flatulent baby.

He spent most of this period in Penang at his maternal grandparent's place so most of the pictures and videos here were captured using her Samsung Galaxy SIII phone camera, the screen of which he recently cracked. Ain't no Gorilla Glass tough enough for this baby!

202 Days Old - Posing on Foam Playmat
Day 202 of life: Look at them thighs.

210 Days Old - Crawling After Toy
Day 210 of life: Darwin's first crawl (with actual forward motion) after being on all fours and rocking to-and-fro for the longest time.

211 Days Old - Darwin in Baby Chair Cosy
Day 211 of life: Darwin drools so much that his mom decided to get him a baby chair cosy (or whatever those things are really called) that covers his immediate surroundings in entirety.

212 Days Old - Darwin Watching Isobel Get Shorn
Day 212 of life: Darwin crawled to the glass door and watched as his grandmother shave Isobel.

220 Days Old - Darwin Stading For First Time to Look at His Grandmother's Laptop
Day 220 of life: Darwin standing up for the first time while trying to peek at what his grandmother's doing on the laptop.

221 Days Old - Darwin in Superman Outfit
Day 221 of life: Darwin in a Superman outfit.

221 Days Old - Superman Stealing Food from Senior Citizen
Day 221 of life: Superman stealing food from senior citizen.

226 Days Old - Darwin Meets Himmat and Arvinder Singh and Had a Racist Outburst
Day 226 of life: Darwin meets Himmat and Arvinder Singh. He bawled because he is racist like that.

Day 227 of life: Darwin learning how to handle cats from his mother with assistance from Isobel the Ragdoll.

Day 229 of life: Darwin feeling up his first pop-up book, a gorgeous copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, gifted by his mom's buddy, Amy. He is, however, treating it like a scratch-and-sniff and gets upset when no one flips the pages for him.

240 Days Old - With Spoon at Kim Gary
Day 240 of life: I flew to Penang to visit Darwin. We had lunch at Kim Gary at Queensbay Mall right after I landed.

241 Days Old - Prim Darwin at Kim Gary
Day 241 of life: Darwin and I spending some father-son time together at the Gurney Plaza Kim Gary while his mom and my mother-in-law watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

241 Days Old - Darwin Swimming
Day 241 of life: Cheryl taught Darwin how to swim splash about in the pool.

244 Days Old - Darwin with Cheryl in Her Old Singapore Airlines Cabin Crew Uniform
Day 244 of life: Cheryl using Darwin as an accessory while modelling her old Singapore Airlines uniform. Va va voom!

245 Days Old - Darwin in Bathtub with Rubber Duckies
Day 245 of life: In the bathtub with rubber duckies.

246 Days Old - Darwin Begging Eyes
Day 246 of life: Look into my eyes and obey, parent.

251 Days Old - Darwin Holding and Eating Cookie
Day 251 of life: The first and last time Darwin was photographed putting food into his own mouth on his own. He figured that it is easier to just keep his mouth open until one of his parents shove edibles into it.

254 Days Old - Darwin in Paddle Pool with Cousin
Day 254 of life: Darwin being watered by his cousin in the paddling pool to help his sparse peach fuzz grow faster.

Day 258 of life: This is the first time that Darwin was caught cruising on camera while holding on to a couch. His motivation was to look at a smartphone's screen (what else?). You can see him changing the direction of his cruise when the phone was moved.

262 Days Old - Darwin Sucking Thumb While Sleeping
Day 262 of life: [Narrated by David Attenborough] And here we have a common human infant sleeping in nest of cotton gathered by its mother. We have to be very quiet so as to not startle it from its hibernation. You can see that the little hominin have one thumb planted in its mouth as a simulation of the comforting taste of his mother's nipple...

266 Days Old - Darwin Going on a Safari
Day 266 of life: There is no toy quite like a simple box for young children.

273 Days Old - Brushing Teeth
Day 273 of life: I don't know how Cheryl did it, but Darwin's trained to open his mouth to let us brush his 4 little front teeth whenever we bring his toothbrush near his mouth.

Day 281 of life: Darwin developed a nasty habit of biting his parents and he would do it so hard that his little jaw will tremble from the exertion. In this video, Cheryl scolds Darwin for being a cannibalistic little jerk and he cried some of the most ridiculous crocodilian tears I have ever seen.

286 Days Old - Darwin's First Day at Daycare
Day 286 of life: The day after he returned to Kuching, we started him in a daycare which he took to surprisingly well. Here he is, in his first day there.

295 Days Old - Darwin Chasing Sophie's Tail
Day 295 of life: Because of the shedding and heat, we shaved our cats. Here is a newly-shorn Sophie trapped in Darwin's newly converted playroom.

300 Days Old - Darwin Blowing Raspberry in Walker
Day 300 of life: Another annoying habit Darwin picked up - blowing raspberries, thus turning his drool into projectile weaponry.

In case you missed it the first time, all the pictures in this post have alternate captions in the hover texts which you can reveal by moving your mouse cursor over them and waiting for a beat.

A Hundred Days of Baby Darwin
The Second Hundred Days of Baby Darwin

Chief captioner of Darwin's photos,
k0k s3n w4i