Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Tag: Off the beaten track

Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm

“You went to a prison while on holiday?” the expression is one of disbelief tinged with curiosity. Here’s where I chance on the opportunity to tell the story of my…

“You went to a prison while on holiday?” the expression is one of disbelief tinged with curiosity. Here’s where I chance on the opportunity to tell the story of my visit to the Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa (PP). Evidently prison visits are not top of the list attractions for most destinations, but in PP there is enough reason to visit when I learned that this was a “free” prison.

Passing through lush olive paddy fields dense villages while trying not to inhale dust kicked up from the dirt covered road, I sat in my tricycle wondering how I should greet the prisoners. Would I dare look them in the eye? Surveying my outfit for the day I couldn’t help but wonder if my shorts, buttoned shirt and flip flops was an appropriate choice. Anyway, it was too late to turn back, if the guards stopped me at the gate, I would just have to use my shawl and wrapped around as a sarong.


The huge sign with the words ‘Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm’ beckoned us as we approached the compound. A guard armed with a long rifle motioned us to him and made a quick check before waving us in. It was another five kilometers to the prison hub where the prisoners live. The weather was perfect for a field day with clear skies dotted with cotton clouds and monstrous hills as the backdrop. The view was as far as the eye can see; paddy fields, fish farms, veggie plots and organic gardens.


We arrived at the souvenir shop, an elevated big wooden building with two large stairways leading up to it. Upon entering the building, a man dressed in regular clothes enthusiastically ushered me in and immediately went into ‘selling mode’ showing me wood carvings, key chains, baskets, t-shirts and pearl earrings. It felt a lot like walking into a market with constant harassing from hagglers, but after firmly declining with a, “No thank you, I will just have a look”, they eased off.


I was eager to learn who the prisoners were when suddenly without warning, music started to play. A group of men in yellow shirts leaped into position showing off a fairly impressive dance routine laced with quirky self-induced moves. I noticed all their t-shirts had the letter “P” print at back; I turned around and asked the same guy who tried to sell me stuff if they were prisoners. He said, “Yes ma’am, they are prisoners. And so am I”. At this point I was in quiet disbelief while watching the dance. I had just spoken to a prisoner thinking he was a guard!


He introduced himself as Oliver and showed me his tag and proudly explained that he is ranked a corporal – by prison standards that mean he gets to oversee other inmates. Oliver has a kind looking expression plastered on his face and his tan face had many deep wrinkles inscribed on it, perhaps from the many untold stories of living in prison.

I went on an interview spree with Oliver asking him about life in Iwahig. From where we were standing, he pointed to the high security building where prisoner are kept in a lock up 24/7. “What about the ‘free’ prisoners?” I asked. To that he said, “85% of prisoners here are free. They work in farms, grow vegetables, feed fish and make souvenirs. They come back in the evening to sleep in the quarters”. Prisoners are not handcuffed or chained; they walk freely sharing the 200 acre compound with 3000 inmates. Quite a blissful life, one might think, but when I asked Oliver if he was happy in Iwahig, he stared deeply into my eyes and with such sadness in his voice he said, “Ma’am, no one is ever happy in prison”.


Oliver committed a dreadful murder at 22 years old and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Now at 45 years old he shared with me his longing to see his family. At 22, he left his wife and daughters (ages 2 and 4) in Baguio to live behind bars in Bilibid prison in Manila. At that time, he brought with him photos of his family as memorabilia knowing that it would be impossible for them to visit him as it would cost too much. When Oliver was later transferred to Iwahig Prison, the photos were confiscated from him and to date; he has no tangible proof of his family except for what is etched in his memory and the deep lines on his pleasant face.

With a smile stretched across his face, he day-dreamingly said, “Now my daughters are adults”, I couldn’t help but question, would his daughters even know their father is here? Oliver has never written a letter or communicated to anyone since his imprisonment. Each letter requires six stamps costing about 120pesos (MYR 9) and the fact is, although it is a free prison, there is no way of earning any money here.

Slightly more well off inmates who have some financial support from their family would bribe the prison guards for the use of their cellphones. Others those who can’t bear isolation from the outside world would eventually try to escape hiding in hillsides and paddy fields for days and weeks. Oliver tells me tales of prison escapes but he said, “Not many are successful, but a few have escaped”.


We walked around the building and stopped at a large window overlooking the prison canteen. Clearly there weren’t any scrawny looking prisoners in sight and that is because food rationing at Iwahig is pretty decent. Each person is given a week’s supply of 4.5kg of rice, 2 packs of rice noodles, 7 tins of sardines, 2 eggs, 6 pieces of dried fish and 4 pieces of fresh water fish. Veggies are given only if there is a harvest from the garden. To that, Oliver has little to complain about.

With decent food supply, freedom to roam vast plains and the opportunity to meet tourists from different countries, Iwahig seems like paradise to prisoners, but because the Philippines is a country of many islands separated by seas, transportation and communication is a problem. Given the fact that most prisoners come from financially deprived families and squalor conditions, every prisoner knows that once he is sentenced, there is no turning back. They leave behind everything that meant something to them. Their world is a prison, whether free or not.


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The Secret World Of Banyumulek Where Potters Reside

Exploring Lombok on a motorbike is perhaps the best way to get around. Weaving through traffic in Mataram, bee lining through small lanes and stumbling upon a treasure trove of…

Exploring Lombok on a motorbike is perhaps the best way to get around. Weaving through traffic in Mataram, bee lining through small lanes and stumbling upon a treasure trove of a quiet pottery making village – Banyumulek. Located north of Mataram, the city center in Lombok, Banyumulek is lined with shops selling terracotta and clay pottery. Venturing further in, away from the shops, we found the ‘heart of the workshop’ – ladies sitting in their verandahs busy molding, shaping and forming pots and vases. A parade of vases and pots lined the narrow roads sunbathing in the glorious warmth.


Men bicycling down tiny lanes with stacks of pottery tied at the back heading toward the smoking furnace of haystacks where the pots and vases are fired. Children help their mothers strap on stacks of wood for the furnace. Ladies at the furnace keep their eye on the heating pots occasionally flipping the haystacks to release the heat. Others squat around exchanging stories around the neighbourhood.


Villagers eyed us from a distance as we exchanged courtesy smiles. It was pretty evident that we were visitors and they were villagers. Perhaps not much tourists have ventured that far beyond the row of pottery shops. I chuckled under my breath because this would be an ideal a scene of “desperate housewives” in an Indonesian village setting. Everyone had their chores, each to its own work, and each shared a bond – a bond that comes from being part of Banyumulek, the quiet pottery village.


We made our exit back to the shops to hunt for a pottery or two and gladly settled for four instead! We compared prices at different shops and realized that everything was cheap. Just as we thought it wouldn’t get any cheaper, Annan Pottery came along – a wholesale shop with a wide range of displays in a spacious warehouse. They even had a range of cookware from pots to kualis to tagines! I’ve been scouting around for a tagine ever since I watched the episode of Kylie Kwong where she whipped up a Moroccan meal for friends. And who would have thought I’d fine a tagine in Lombok, Indonesia?! I was squirming with excitement and proceed to ask how much it was. The lady explained that it is a fast selling item and it is slightly more expensive. I pressed on to ask her to reveal the price and she replied – 24,000 Indonesian rupiah for the small one and 30,000 Indonesian rupiah for the big one. My jaw dropped! That’s only RM8 and RM10 individually! Beyond my wildest dreams that I found a tagine in Lombok that costs close to nothing!

From then on, it was a shopping spree. We chatted up with the lady, she introduced us to her sons who were hard at work decorating pottery pieces. We drank coffee, picked up two more pottery pieces, exchange a few travel stories and a big hug. She told us to keep in touch and said that if we ever saw a piece of pottery we liked in a store or magazine; take a picture of it and send it to her, as she makes customized pieces as well. What a find!


[info]If you are in Lombok, this is a place not to be missed. If you hire a guide, insist that he takes you here instead of other designated pottery shops where they make a big commission from your sales.

Annan Pottery (Wholesale Center)
Jalan Raya Banyumulek Kedin
Lombok Barat – NTB 83362
LA Akhsan Tel: 08175760337
Nanik Tel: 081803628480

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Balinese Letter Writer In Tenganan

An old shrunken man with a crown of grey hair peers through his glasses and regarded our presence. He quickly returned to his newspapers as we lingered on in his…

An old shrunken man with a crown of grey hair peers through his glasses and regarded our presence. He quickly returned to his newspapers as we lingered on in his front yard fascinated by the wooded washed out signboard that read “Special Balinese Letter Writer”.

I walked up the steps to where he was sitting with his newspapers still in hand. I quickly greeted him “Selamat Soreh Pak” (Good afternoon Uncle). He instantly broke into a welcoming smile inviting us in. Dusting the bamboo lashed seats, he invited us to sit and he stowed away his newspapers and offered us some drinks. Once again, genuine Balinese hospitality astounded us.

Balinese Letter Writer

Pakcik (Uncle) Wayan is perhaps the oldest Balinese inscriber in Tenganan, east of Bali. A vanishing craft of carving the ancient tales and the famous Ramayana story in Sanskrit on lontar leaves (from rontal trees). Long rectangular leaves about 25cm in length are dried, cleaned and naturally treated to prevent the leaves from breaking and wrinkling. The leaves are in a shade of yellowish beige giving it a rustic look.

Balinese Letter Writer

Beaming with pride, he uncovers booklets of lontar sheets are bound with vine and wrapped in newspapers. Prized art antiques, he explains that these booklets are passed down through generations and would never leave his family lineage despite extravagant offers from eyeing buyers. He unwraps a booklet and starts reading the story of Ramayana in a deep lyrical tune. The notes resonated in the air and my eyes caught sight of his overgrown nails curling up like ancient relic. Surely this man could pass for a character who stepped out an Asian folktale. He takes a breath and continues his rhythmic read. For a moment, time warped back and my hairs stood on ends.

Balinese Letter Writer Balinese Letter Writer

This dying trade fortunately has been passed down to his daughter who continues to share and promote the craft in Ubud, Bali. Not only is it a tedious and meticulous craft, each leave takes about two days to complete and is sold for 1 million Indonesian Rupiah each (approximately RM300). Each booklet contains approximately 50-60 sheets and he has orders enough to keep him busy till the end of the year. Most of his buyers are from Europe with a love for antique art pieces.

Hopefully the next time I’m in Bali, Pakcik Wayan will still be sitting on his verandah with newspapers in hand ready to welcome us back to his amiable house, and if he wills to have another apprentice under his wings.

[info]Interested traditional art collectors can get in touch with Pakcik I Wayan Muditadhnana at 036341178. His house is in Tenganan Village, off Candidasa.[/info]
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Sifnos Island

Sifnos is a largely unassuming island part of the Cyclades, a group of islands on the Agean Sea. It is much smaller than Santorini, the famous Mama Mia island or…

Sifnos (1)

Sifnos is a largely unassuming island part of the Cyclades, a group of islands on the Agean Sea. It is much smaller than Santorini, the famous Mama Mia island or Mykonos, the luxury island visited by celebrities. Small was ideal since we were looking for a break (from a break!).

Quiet in nature and frequently flocked by Greek vacationers in the summer, Sifnos was a hush when we arrived. Small shops lined the bay, a few cars dotted the tiny streets and the ferry waved us goodbye. This tranquil state was to be continued for the next 2 days. We rented a bike and scooted ed around the rugged and abrupt rocky landscape, tiptoes the quiet beaches, squinted at the immense whiteness of buildings on the island and Robinson Crusoe’d on this petite island.

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The narrow pedestrian cobbled streets wind around the blocks of white square houses, twisting and turning with a view of the sea to offer at every corner. The view from the wide expanse of the Aegean Sea is punctuated by the little churches with blue domed roofs.

While the coastal outline of Sifnos is typically barren, within this tiny island is amazingly lush with greens and vegetation. Animals dotted the humble olive groves and veggie patches – from goats to sheep to donkeys.

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Being off season allowed us experience the Greek way of life – watching mothers hang out the clothes, children walking to school and men immersed in their construction and rebuilding of the properties. We learned that people on the island worked only 8 months a year, the other 4 months were spend repairing and reconstructing hotels, restaurants and making more pottery in time for the summer crowd.

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Sifnos Island – Famed For Pottery

It is not hard to tell that Sifnos is an island famous for the unique pottery art that decorate the gardens and balconies giving colour to the homes. After peeking…

It is not hard to tell that Sifnos is an island famous for the unique pottery art that decorate the gardens and balconies giving colour to the homes. After peeking into many shops that remained closed for the winter, we chanced upon a shop that seemed closed from the outside, but the owner peered out and waved for us to come in. He hollered, “I need to call the Guiness Book of Records, because you are the first tourists to come in 2010!”. We chuckled a laugh as he led us into his workshop. Busy at painting the clay bowls he had shaped a few days ago, he invites us to look around the shop and immediately engages us in conversation. Antoine is his name, and apparently in Australia they called him the ‘Greek Picasso’ as he made a visit there several years ago to demonstrate the art of Greek pottery. He chimes enthusiastically about pottery making whilst keeping a steady hand at the brush.

Sifnos Island - Pottery Sifnos Island - Pottery Sifnos Island - Pottery

It’s time for you to meet Antoine now…

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