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Tag: Heritage

Preserving Fading Cultures & Trades

If you’re exploring Peninsular Malaysia and nearby stopovers destinations while transiting in the capital Kuala Lumpur, then put Malacca (Melaka) on the list. It’s only a two-hour drive from Kuala…

If you’re exploring Peninsular Malaysia and nearby stopovers destinations while transiting in the capital Kuala Lumpur, then put Malacca (Melaka) on the list. It’s only a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and is brimming with culture, rich heritage and an abundance of good food. Since young, Malacca has been one of the places I frequented for short family getaways, aside from the equally charming state of Penang and nature-rich Pahang.

Malacca’s history holds great intrigue, a city once ruled by Portuguese, Dutch and British leaders. The Straits of Malacca was a strategic waterway and as a result, the city played host to Chinese, Indian and European merchants who brought with them spices, silks, ornamental carvings, porcelains – and of course, cultural influences to the local people. The traces of Malacca’s rich history can today be seen in the design of the shophouses, its cuisine, existing (but slowly fading) businesses and religious centres.

z2The best way to explore the city is by foot – so I joined the free walk tour hosted by the Majestic Malacca for her guests. We meandered through tiny lanes exploring small shophouses, some dating back 100 years and lasting through four generations. We watched tinsmiths, prints-men, barbers, goldsmith, Chinese tea sellers and tailors busy at work, unperturbed at the speed of the day, but drumming to their own carefree rhythm.

Old barber

We stopped at a century-old bar where the owner is thought to have extraordinary knowledge in concocting healing medicine laced with alcohol. We stopped by a wood carvers workstation, thought to be the only wood carver in Malacca that made Chinese signboards by hand. I revelled in the skill and patience of the carver – attentively chiselling away from the wooden plank.

Chinese caligraphy

Then we stopped at a shophouse where skilful shoemakers with perfect vision sat attentively stitching small micro-beads to make beautiful beaded shoes for ladies. It takes up to a month to complete a pair of shoes and they retail for a few hundred ringgits, but every cent spent on a masterpiece like this is worth it, because these skills are slowly fading, one generation at a time.


The gruesome foot binding practice which originated in China was also introduced to Malacca during the fusion merchants boom. Apparently, there were several shoe makers who specialised in foot binding, but only one remains today in Malacca. The practice, however, has been put to a stop due to the inhuman implications on young ladies who failed to walk or even perform day-to-day activities without falling over or aided with a walking stick. I held a shoe in my palm and was baffled at a how a foot can fit in – it was smaller than the pair of shoes my almost three-year-old wore. The shop still makes these minute shoes for keepsakes.

Shoe bindsTour guide

Beelining past busy Jonker Street where activity is abuzz, we stepped into Masjid Kampung Kling. The mosque, built in 1872 resembles a Chinese temple at first glance, with the minaret resembling a pagoda instead of a dome. The interiors of the temple are decked with wooden wall carvings and hanging chandeliers, with its structure held up by Roman pillars.


When the mosque was restored in 2013, craftsmen replaced old and missing tiles by replicating the design of old tiles. Our guide told us to look closely at the tiles to spot the difference. The new tiles were stamped with the year ‘2013’ while the old tiles remained as is. This interesting observation applies for many other restored shophouses and buildings within Malacca.


The refurbishment of these old buildings, shophouses and religious centres have much to be celebrated. I returned from my three-hour walk tour and stood in awe of Majestic Malacca, once an old mansion owned by a wealthy businessman with four wives who tragically died from tuberculosis and whose sons squandered his fortune leaving the beautiful structure to waste. Many years on, the mansion was bought over by a hotelier who found the house too big for his family and so he converted the first floor to a simple hotel with single bedrooms and shared toilets. On the ground floor, his family lived in four spacious rooms and he built bar and reception which still remains today in the modern-heritage Majestic Malacca.


The hotel survived 20 dark years of abandonment after it failed to fly with the rise of larger hotel chains. It also faced the threat of being torn down – but hope arose when YTL Hotels bought it over and delicately restored it to its former beauty. Today, the unsuspecting mansion still stands, sandwiched between a towering hospital and some shophouses while overlooking the glistening Malacca River.

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Naadam Festival In Ulaanbaatar

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from…

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from 11 – 13th July annually with a grand opening ceremony on the first day. Over 35 thousand wrestlers, 40 thousand horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in Naadam’s competitions.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city will be jam packed with cars and shopping malls and streets are filled with people. Locals tell me that the people from the countryside drive into the city to join in the celebration. Hotels are fully booked and the opening ceremony tickets are usually sold out a week prior to the event.

Our hostel would only sell us tickets if we signed up for a full day Naadam tour with them. So we opted out. We decided to walk to the Central Stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony. The streets were eerily empty and we imagined everyone was at the stadium. Nearing the stadium, a carnival mood could already be felt – street vendors parked on the side of the road selling drinks, candy floss, helium balloons, stick-on tattoos, sun glasses, and Mongolian flags. Kebabs sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty road. It was an upbeat day and our hearts thumped to the music coming from the stadium.

No Tickets For The Opening, Until…

When we got to the stadium’s gate, we asked if we could go in. The gate attendant, a young lady (a volunteer, presumably) asked for our tickets. We told her we didn’t have one. A little disheartened at first, we backed off and tried to peek in. After a few minutes, Terence approached her again, this time he worked his manly charm. He pointed at me, with Seth in the sack – I gave her a weak smile and mouthed, ‘Please’ and a few seconds later, she waved us in. Terence’s ’have-some-pity-on-us’ plea worked! I was grinning from ear-to-ear and I clambered up the steps, gently pushed my way into the standing crowd and found a seat – it’s always good to have a child with you!

Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s very own Olympic Games. The opening ceremony is imposing and grand. We saw a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called ‘del’ and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers, monks, traditional throat singers, pop dancers and bands. The atmosphere was eclectic. The costume details are unbelievable and for that few hours it felt like I was transported back in time during the Genghis Khan era. Naadam is very significant to Mongolia and in 2010, it was added into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The festival’s local Mongolian name, “eriin gurvan naadam,” is translated as the “three games of men.” That is, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Whereas horse racing and archery competitions have gradually incorporated women participants over the years, wrestling continues to be a highly male-dominated sport. Today, knuckle bone shooting is also part of the competition.

Here are some photos from the day.

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Maori Culture: Surviving Another Generation

New Zealand is not only blessed with breath taking landscapes, the country’s rich history is deeply embedded in the lives of indigenous communities, who till date still practice traditional rituals…

New Zealand is not only blessed with breath taking landscapes, the country’s rich history is deeply embedded in the lives of indigenous communities, who till date still practice traditional rituals passed on from generations. Shrouded with mystery and often times represented as ghastly warriors made famous by the Hakka, the Maori culture is one of honour, love and respect for Mother Nature. It’s no wonder New Zealand is ranked one of the best eco destinations as it is largely untouched and tourism operates within the boundaries of environmental respect.

I had a chance to spend a morning with a Maori family and was deeply touched by their hospitality and fierce love for their people and the country. Maurice Manawatu, is from the hapu and iwi tribe, a people group living and thriving in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Maurice together with little Miharo journeyed with me through Kaikoura showing me sights and telling me stories of bygone years – stories of civil wars, traditions of the Maori people, gods and warriors at sea, and stories entrenched in the deep island forest.Maori Kaikoura_Ardent Traveler (3)Dating back 450 years, the Maori people had largely inhabited the South Island and it was not until then that they first made the move to the North Island. The great migration sparked tribal wars as people fought to claim land in the North Island.

I was ushered to a wide open plan overlooking the great sea and Maurice told me stories of how the warriors build trenches and fortresses to protect their people. Miharo chanted us in, a spiritual act to clear the pathway before we entered the sacred plain. We then introduced ourselves verbally as an acknowledgement to the spirits and nature that surrounded us. I was given a Maori name, Wha (pronounced as “fah”) which means four.
Maori Kaikoura_Ardent Traveler (2)
A huge part of the Maori culture involves establishing relationships. The warmth of the people is demonstrated in an act called the ‘hongi’. Liken to handshakes or kisses, the hongi is performed as an act of sharing life and a symbol of peace. Standing face-to-face, eyes closed, they touch nose-to-nose, forehead to forehead, the two embrace in a traditional greeting. Having perform the hongi, although initially a bit intimidating, I was deeply touched at how a simple act of peculiar embrace immediately established a connection and I understood how the hongi represents a symbol of peace and community.
Maori Kaikoura_Ardent Traveler (1)
We continued to explore Kaikoura where Maurice brought me to the Puhi Puhi Forest Reserve, a dense forest with a fairy-tale vibe. I was told to be careful of my steps and to avoid stepping on the roots of trees as a sign of respect to the guardians of the forest. Maurice pointed out the New Zealand flax plant that was traditionally harvested to make clothes, ropes and bags. Almost every plant in the forest had an intrinsic value, either used as medicine, deodorant, food or shelter. We stood beneath the towering 900 year old Rimu tree, its bark peeling away and sang Maori songs as praise to nature. The act was deeply spiritual and refreshing to the soul. Maurice explained that many of the stories and knowledge about his tribe would not have survived if his grandmother had not written them in manuscript. In those days, stories were passed down verbally and the written word was uncommon.
Maori Kaikoura_Ardent Traveler (6)Maori Kaikoura_Ardent Traveler (5)
At the end of our journey, Maurice brought me back to his family home where we shared food and drink together and sang more songs in his cosy living room. I’m deeply touched and enchanted at the survival of the Maori culture. We, as a modern society have a lot to learn from these tribe of people. Their values I would gladly pass on to my children; to honour people and relationships, to care and respect the environment and to take pride of tradition and culture lest it ebbs away with modern day distractions.

Watch this heartwarming video of Maurice & his family singing.

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Syok! Penang: For The Flashpacker

In an ever changing face of travel, a new type of traveler has surfaced making his presence felt globally – challenging accommodation operators to fill the gap between budget backpacker…

In an ever changing face of travel, a new type of traveler has surfaced making his presence felt globally – challenging accommodation operators to fill the gap between budget backpacker and the mid-range traveler. They are flashpackers.

Independent travelers looking something more than the run-of-the-mill cheap hostels, with a little more than 30 dollars to spare for a night and ultimately seeking a unique, comfortable place to lay their head. From my observation, most flashpackers are young professionals in their late 20s and 30s who are majorly savvy with technology… so if they’ve found a great place to stay, they will shout about it!

And that’s what I’m about to do…

Introducing Syok! @ Chulia, a slightly up-market hostel with distinct offerings suited for the flashpacker who’s looking for a chic recluse yet within walking distance to the happening Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Street). The refurbished 3-storey corner shoplot recently made its debut in February 2013 and have experienced promising success. This is no surprise because it ticks off everything a flashpacker is looking for:

  • Clean, oversized single beds
  • Female only dorms for solo travelers
  • Personal lockers that fit massive suitcases
  • A really cool, hip and oh-so-comfy upper lounge to chill and relax – with DVDs, cable tv, board games and pool table for your entertainment
  • Beanbags! Yes, the quintessential lounge poofs for all hostels to laze away…
  • Free WIFI – There is no denying that flashpackers & connectivity go hand-in-hand
  • All-day free coffee and tea (how nice!) & water dispensers for free water refills
  • Laundry service at a very minimal fee, but you can also choose to DIY
  • Simple eat-all-you-can breakfast to kick start your day

Mega Plusses:

  • Free toiletries (which hostel gives you that?!)
  • Towels, hair dryer and daily housekeeping – what luxury!
  • Friendly staff that makes Syok! a cosy den

Syok chulia

Behind the louvered windows and thick door frames lies a quirky history – as with most shoplots in the heritage Georgetown square. It was once a leather shop, a shoe shop, a hawker place and a fortune teller’s lair before Syok! made its mark. Lavished with such history, the interior of Syok! seem to resonate the same kind of fun, eccentric history it has experienced. The bright orange and lively green hues, a colourful mural of Georgetown and amusing wall art gives Syok! a modern touch blending into existing brown cobbled brick walls.

Syok at Chulia_Ardent Traveler_2Syok at Chulia_Ardent Traveler_1

The same fun & chic interior translates into simple activities for guests. The ‘Before I Die’ chalkboard wall in the upper lounge was inspired by Candy Chang, a Vietnamese designer-artist and urban planner who through her work prods people to ponder on their aspirations in hope to gather collective wisdom to improve communities.

Syok at Chulia_Penang

Another fun activity also inspired by Chang is the ‘Confession Wall’ found in the common toilet area, a bright orange wall filled with brown post-it sized cards scribbled with pencil drawings of serious confessions to down-right funny ones. What better way to pass time while answering nature’s call. It’s no wonder the team at Syok found inspiration through Chang’s works, because holidays are ideal for pondering, reflecting and moving on.

Syok at Chulia_toilet_ardenttraveler

Quite rarely do I feel such attachment to a hostel, but with Syok!, it’s a different story. It’s not just an ordinary hostel with a clean bed to sleep on. Its comfort goes beyond the dormitory walls. The feeling of comfort is what sticks. Being a frequent traveler, I’ve bunked into a fair share of hostels and when I find a comfortable den that I can return to after hours of exploring; it’s like returning home to cosiness you can count on.

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Secret Sanctuary A Stone’s Throw Away From KL

Janda Baik is known to be one of the more popular natural getaways for local KL and PJ urbanites. With umpteen crisscrossing streams flowing through the area, it is a…

Janda Baik is known to be one of the more popular natural getaways for local KL and PJ urbanites. With umpteen crisscrossing streams flowing through the area, it is a popular site for weekend picnickers and small corporate group meetings. Over the recent years, Janda Baik has soared in popularity with new signposts emerging along the winding road leading into the area. From kampung style homestays to conference-type resorts, Janda Baik offers a variety of lodging options.

However, the option of private estates is rare, especially if you are looking for pure exclusivity and excellent hospitality. Aman Rimba was an excellent find. Situated within Kampung Janda Baik, this three acre private estate houses six villas, four of which embodies the Malay kampung (village) style built up. The six villas, Sireh (betel), Serai (lemongrass), Kantan (ginger flower), Halia (Ginger) and Kunyit (Tumeric) named after Malaysian typical well-loved herbs is able to comfortably accommodate up to 25 people, ideal for small corporate groups or large family retreats.

Aman Rimba

I made my way to Aman Rimba on a weekday afternoon in time for lunch. Ashari Shuib, the resort manager greeted me as the sturdy wooden picket door opened into the estate. Cobbled staircase led up to Selasih, an open air pavilion where I was offered a glass of cucumber and lemon house blend. I was immediately drawn to the surrounding garden, an amalgamation of manicured landscaping and rugged kampung lawn. Heliconias, hibiscus, wild orchids, Ixoras and lilies are just a few of the many blooms speckled around the estate.

Aman Rimba_Exterior_Ardent Traveler_2013

I ventured further into Sireh, the first kampung house built on the estate, as Ashari unravelled the story of how Aman Rimba came about. Owned by Sabri Rahman and his wife Wati, Aman Rimba initially started off as a family weekend getaway hideout. “It literally started off with a park table, some chairs and a platform next to the river in front of the resort,” says Ashari. Then Sireh was built and that was the weekend home for Sabri and Wati. Years went by and the couple received many requests for the place to be rented out and eventually, another kampung house came into being, and then another, and finally in 2009, Aman Rimba was open to the public.

The organic growth of Aman Rimba is one of the secret ingredients of why it has retained its homey feel. Leading up to Sireh, the family home, is a large living room area with comfy plush sofas, a selection of good reads, a coffee table and hand-picked furniture and fixtures dating all the way back to the 1950s. One can imagine the spacious living room used as a family space for tea time chats and children playing congkak, a traditional Malaysian game using marbles. Sireh has only one bedroom with a massive four poster bed drabbed with silky linen cloth and a sizable bathroom with a glass ceiling above the shower area.

Aman Rimba Villa Interior_Aman Rimba_Ardent Traveler_2013Bathroom_Aman Rimba_Ardent traveler_2013

Halia, Kunyit and Serai are slightly modern kampung houses with beautifully crafted wooden door frames leading into the house. There is so much attention to detail when it comes to the interior and exterior design of these houses. Every tile, sculpture, bed frame and lamp is hand-picked and each kampung house is different aesthetically, although the layout may be similar.

Villa_Aman Rimba_Ardent traveler_2013

A particular highlight in the estate are the newest units; Kantan I and II, a modern and lux dash to kampung living. Kantan features a grand sense of space with a high timber ceiling living area overlooking a pond with bobbing ducks and black swans. The unit offers modern day comforts such as high definition flat screen tv, air condition, power jet Jacuzzi, semi-open air shower area, a massive four-poster bed, unlimited supply of coffee, tea and milo, and a small day-bed cushioned with plush embroidered pillows ideal for daytime lounging. It does get better… as the tall wooden vertical glass windows open up to an outdoor verandah overlooking the entire estate.

Aman  Rimba Villa Aman Rimba Villa Daybed_Aman Rimba_Ardent Traveler_2013

However, at Aman Rimba, the most utilized space is D’Pandan, the common dining area. This is where all the chatter happens and delightful meals are served. Breakfast is thrown in if you stay a night at Aman Rimba, but one will not be satisfied with just breakfast given the selection of local dishes to choose from. From a variety of grilled meats marinated with Malaysian spices to slow cooked curries, from Chinese steamboat options to a blend of western-fusion offerings to soothe your palate, nothing is too difficult for a whip up at Aman Rimba. Ashari jokes, “Sometimes our guest jovially ‘blames’ us for the extra kilos they put on after a stay here.”

D Pandan

I was treated to a generous spread of nasi campur (mix rice) with choice of grilled ikan keli (fresh water fish), ayam goreng berempah (fried spiced chicken), ulam (local herbs), sup tulang (peppery meat soup) and pajeri (slow cooked brinjal) to pick from. Ashari explains that some dishes are cooked in their small in-house kitchen, while other local favourites are bought from the local stalls in Kampung Janda Baik. “We have a select few vendors that we often patronize. It’s our way of giving back to the community,” says Ashari. He adds that some “fresh herbs are plucked from our small herb garden.”

Food_Aman Rimba_Ardent Traveler_a2013

A mere mention of durian after lunch sent Ashari hunting for the king of fruits. Lo and behold, durian pulut (durian served with glutinous rice) was served for tea. Swimming in a bed of creamy durian santan gravy is block of puffy pulut and golden plump durian. The dish gave new meaning to the king of fruits as the flavours of sweet, salty and decadently pungent merged into a perfect dessert blend.

Durian Pulut

As if there was not enough feasting! Dinner was a huge platter of fresh meats and veggies over a steaming pot of clear broth. After tea, we made our way to the local farmers market in Bukit Tinggi to shop for fresh veggies that will be consumed for dinner. Much to my amazement, the selection was aplenty, with uncommon fresh herbs, veggies and edible flowers to choose from.


Aman Rimba is designed for families in mind; however it is also ideally suited for corporate groups. With facilities such as a swimming pool, games room, small gazebos sprawled over the estate for small group discussions or quiet contemplation and bicycles for bee lining around the estate, both children and adults will appreciate this place with the exclusivity it promises.

Before I bid farewell, Ashari and I took a walk to Kampung Janda Baik, taking in all that this destination had to offer. Meandering into small gravel dirt lanes, Ashari introduced me to Kampung Janda Baik where wild farms grow uninhibited and cattle roam free. Janda Baik is after all a haven to weekend urbanites, but really, at the heart of it, it is home to local kampung folks – and it is best kept that way.

Chilli Farm - Janda Baik - Ardent Traveler

And so, I left Aman Rimba with a lingering memory that will one day lure me back. Its authenticity of culture and sincerity in service has left an indelible mark of what a top-class Malaysian retreat can be. And what’s not to like? With such good food (that’s the Malaysian in me speaking), I dived into a hearty bowl of mee rebus before bidding farewell.

Food_Aman Rimba_Ardent traveler_2013


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