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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: SE Asia

Vietnamese Boat People

Karyn Planett

The Flotsam Of War

The term boat people has come to refer to illegal immigrants and asylum seekers sailing from such diverse countries as Cuba, Haiti, Morocco, Indonesia, even Albania. Curiously, affluent Chinese immigrating to Canada and the U.S. have even been referred to, in a somewhat cruel parody, as yacht people. 

Nonetheless the term came into common use in the 1970s with the mass exodus of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia following the Second Indochinese War (known in the US as the Vietnam War). These desperate souls put their lives at risk from unscrupulous operators, unseaworthy vessels, treacherous weather, rapacious pirates, and uncaring countries of asylum in order to escape the retribution of the victorious communist forces after the fall of Saigon in 1975. 

Re-education Camps 

The new communist government in South Vietnam imprisoned an estimated one million people who’d been loyal to the old leadership. Often these were educated, white-collar families who were thought to be intractable or even subversive to the new order. The threat of the camps and the poverty that swept the country after the war led millions to flee. Their escape routes were varied but the dangers were universal. 

Danang became an exit point for middle class refugees from Saigon. With forged IDs they boarded any decrepit boat that would take them into international waters. There they hoped to be “rescued” by a commercial vessel headed for Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines—anywhere safe. 

These desperate attempts continued into the 1990s and beyond. There was another wave after the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 when ethnic Chinese in North Vietnam fled what they felt was an unsympathetic regime looking for revenge. The Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia resulted in millions of dead and thousands more escapees. Sometimes their only crime was having uncalloused hands unlike those of the peasants, farmers and ordinary workmen. Soon the victims of war were joined by people from other Southeast Asian countries simply seeking a better life. But the perils they endured were not always rewarded by the nations where they sought asylum. 

The Pacific Solution 

Many boat people found their only sanctuary in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. These camps were in a few cases little better than the horrors or hardships they had fled. Inmates in Thai camps, some of whom had escaped by land across the Cambodian and Thai borders, suffered rough treatment by camp guards. Generous aid money rarely found its way to those who needed it most. 

Ethnic Chinese from North Vietnam headed for Hong Kong and were considerably better treated by their Chinese cousins. In fact, Hong Kong later indicated a willingness to take the remaining people still in refugee camps though many declined. 

By the end of the 1990s, boat people were actually traveling from as far away as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. A Norwegian cargo ship, MV Tampa, rescued 439 Afghans from a sinking fishing boat. Indonesia wanted to have the survivors brought to their port of Merak (exactly why they wanted 439 Afghans is an open question). Citing International Maritime Law, the Afghans wanted to be taken instead to the nearest port offering medical treatment, which happened to be nearby Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. There they would have been allowed to ask asylum from the Australian government. Australia refused and as a result of the Tampa Affair the government established a policy, called the Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers were intercepted and taken to detention camps on small islands like Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru, a Micronesian state so small it has no capital city. Once there, their refugee status was decided before actually being admitted to Australia or sent elsewhere.            

The Orderly Departure Program 

In 1980, the United States established an office in Bangkok to facilitate the immigration of Vietnamese refugees to the US. These included former South Vietnamese government workers, South Vietnamese employed by the US, and children of US servicemen. This last category resulted in an unfortunate practice whereby some wealthy Vietnamese paid to “adopt” these half American children from their often illiterate, sometimes former prostitute mothers, then apply for immigration status. The Orderly Departure Program eventually helped nearly half a million Vietnamese resettle in the US. 

In an odd coda to this humanitarian story, many refugees who languished for years in detention camps throughout Southeast Asia would have been accepted as citizens in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, yet refused. We can only speculate on their hesitation. Eventually, political and social reforms, a new economic resurgence, financial incentives and perhaps plain old homesickness convinced many former boat people to voluntarily return to Vietnam in the 1990s. Only then did their sad and desperate journey come to a close. 

Surabaya, Indonesia

Karyn Planett

East To Java 

Java. So, so far from the familiarity of home. So mysterious. So exotic, like something out of a 1940s black and white film where the handsome leading man with a penciled mustache singlehandedly fends off an attack by the rampaging hordes of deranged machete-wielding islanders while the pale, frail damsel is distressed. 

Meanwhile, back to reality, we learn about the true history of Surabaya beginning with the real hordes not those from a Hollywood backlot. They came. And, for centuries, the island of Java was always approached from west to east by every significant migration. Java is, therefore, the most populated as well as one of the biggest of the 17,000 or so islands that make up Indonesia. Surabaya, where you visit next, is its capital. 

Java Man

In 1892, a Darwinist by the name of Eugene Dubois discovered teeth and bone fragments on Java that the scientific community eventually accepted as the “missing link” between apes and humans. Named homo erectus by the learned, he became more popularly known as “Java Man”. This fellow, although gender was never determined, was the first migrant of a species that probably originated in Africa and slogged all the way to Java via a land bridge some 1.7 million years ago. You, good friend, arrive on a luxury ship. Anyway, his skullcap indicated a brain of 900cc—approximately two-thirds the size of modern man’s and probably one-tenth the size of Stephen Hawking’s. 


The next significant migration came with Arab traders starting in the 8th century. It was the arrival of one of the world’s great religions and today Indonesia is the largest Muslim country on earth. Over 85% of the population is Muslim represented by two main groups. Modernist Muslims adhere to the orthodox faith while supporting contemporary advances and education. Traditionalist Muslims more often follow local religious leaders. 

But Indonesia is not an Islamic state. It’s a democracy, and has been in one form or another since independence following World War II. On a visit to Indonesia in 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia”. 


While Europeans are often cited as “discoverers” of the rest of the known world, they were clearly not first to be drawn to Indonesia. True, the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s but failed to establish a defensible presence and were displaced by the Dutch later in that century. The Dutch East India Company—one of the first international corporations—established bases in the “Spice Islands” and eventually monopolized the spice trade with Europe. The company operated as a de facto government, and was given license to build forts, raise armies, and make treaties. 

The Dutch East India Company existed until the early 1800s when Napoleon and then the British claimed temporary dominion, but Dutch control of Indonesia lasted until the Japanese wrested the islands away in World War II. 


As World War II drew to a close and the Japanese were vanquished, the victorious British attempted to return Indonesia to Dutch control. But long years of fighting the Japanese had created a nationalistic culture and a desire for independence among the Indonesian people. Former resistance fighters formed a revolutionary group known as Republicans that successfully rallied popular support for the independence movement.

In November 1945, a decisive battle took place. Known as the “Battle of Surabaya”, it galvanized international support for the rebels and led eventually to convincing both the British and the Dutch to support Indonesia’s claim for independence. The Dutch formally transferred sovereignty in 1949 and a parliamentary democracy was established led by President Sukarno, a Surabaya native and former Japanese sympathizer. He was not an auspicious choice. 


Despite Sukarno’s focus on “affairs” of state (women), presidential “audiences” (parties), and political maneuvering, Indonesia prospered and made significant social gains. Sukarno was hailed as the “Great Leader of the Revolution” and, Castro-like, enjoyed the unbridled support of his people. But by 1956, he was finding true democracy too time consuming to deal with so he dissolved parliament and declared “Guided Democracy” to be the new political structure. It was, however, essentially a dictatorship. 

In 1965, a coup attempt led by a group of military conspirators calling themselves the “September 30th Movement” was forcefully put down by the loyal Jakarta garrison under the command of General Suharto. This all provided the background for the film A Year Of Living Dangerously. The result was a purge of the military, a slaughter of the communist leadership, and the ascendancy of Suharto who eventually succeeded Sukarno then reinstalled the country’s parliamentary system of government. 


For its central role in the independence movement, Surabaya is known as “the city of heroes”. For its role as the commercial hub of Indonesia, it’s an international city lying on the major east-west shipping route between Asia and Europe. For its incredible array of shopping malls, it’s known as the city where Indonesia shops. But perhaps most importantly to its citizens and its visitors, it’s the current titleholder of something called the Adipura Kencana Award. 

At the millennium, Surabaya was a dry, dirty city. Then, in 2005, Tri Rismaharini became head of the Cleaning and Park Layout Commission. Prior to that she’d been known only to her family and a few friends. She served until 2008 at which time she took over the Surabaya City Planning Commission. In 2010, “Risma” became Surabaya’s first female mayor and she’s transformed this city into a greenbelt of parks and playgrounds for the populace. 

This, by the way, is exactly why Surabaya is now known as “the Singapore of Indonesia”. 

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Karyn Planett

Three decades ago, a dark chapter in human history unfolded before our eyes. From the steaming jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, correspondents banned from Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Pol Pot, cried out. Their words, however, failed to truly describe the bloody terror raining down on Cambodians by that maniacal despot bent on breaking the back of this once proud land. 

The Khmer Rouge’s genocidal brutality from 1975 to 1979 almost totally obscured a fascinating history and left us with few enduring images of this rich civilization. Almost. Yet the world outside never forget Cambodia’s days of glory. And you’re here now to discover this for yourself. Though most remnants from this cultured past are found inland, their reality will be your journey’s reward.

Before The Killing Fields 

From the 11th to the 14th centuries, the Hindu and Buddhist Khmer Empire was a dominant civilization in the Indochinese Peninsula. To memorialize their supremacy, they constructed such extraordinary sites as Angkor Wat, “wat” meaning “temple or monastery.” The community of Ankor was then not only the nucleus of this empire but its geographical center, as well, far from unfriendly neighbors. 

Ankor Wat, part of a temple complex from the early 12th century, was once the capital city of King Suryavarman II. It’s the only temple in this complex in continuous use since it was built, originally as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu then converted to a Buddhist temple. Sacked by the Chams in 1177, then abandoned around 1450, it was soon swallowed by vines and banyan trees. Centuries of neglect followed.

Frenchman Henri Mouhot “discovered” Angkor Wat while in the region from 1859-1861. He wrote, "One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged." Unfortunately, Cambodia’s modern history demonstrates very little has changed. 

Painstaking restoration began in the 20th century. Thankfully, the complex received little damage during the 1970s and 1980s and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992. The image of Angkor Wat, replicating the profile of Mt. Meru, has appeared on every Cambodian flag since 1863 reaffirming the peoples’ emotional attachment to it. Riots even erupted in Phnom Penh not long ago when a Thai actress claimed the temple might actually belong to Thailand. 

The Killing Fields

In 1432, Ankor was indeed sacked by the Thai resulting in a long period of decline until 1863 when King Norodom allowed the country to become a French protectorate. Cambodia was therefore administered as part of French Indochina. 

Following independence in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk attempted to maintain neutrality during the Cold War and even the “hot” war in neighboring Vietnam. Then, in 1970, Sihanouk was ousted in a military coup. From exile he aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge rebels committed to overthrowing the pro-US government in Phnom Penh. 

Cambodia, an undeclared theater of war, suffered the same devastation as Vietnam and, in 1975, faced widespread famine. That year, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, seized control of the country, and installed a regime led by Pol Pot.

What followed was genocide. Widespread, horrific genocide. In a country half the size of California somewhere between one and three million (out of eight million) of Cambodia’s more accomplished citizens were rounded up and perished, many executed, in an attempt to destroy any vestige of modern western civilization, returning the country to an 11th-century agrarian model. Towns were emptied, religion banned, land confiscated, intellectuals murdered, children forced into labor camps, embassies closed, money forbidden, media silenced, health care eliminated. Pol Pot declared, “This is Year Zero” based on Mao’s agrarian utopia. For many, it was their last.

This doomed experiment was finally stopped in 1978 when Vietnam invaded, presumably to curtail incursions into their territory. Vietnam’s running battle with the Khmer Rouge was finally ended by treaty in 1991.

After The Killing Fields 

In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters. When commercial extraction begins in 2011, oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia's economy as well as Sihanoukville’s character. This city was founded only in 1964 as the country’s only deep-water port and primary tourist gateway. Direct flights to Siem Reap facilitate visits to the Ankor temples. But if they’re not on your itinerary, perhaps a local laid-back beach will be. In contrast to her more developed Southeast Asian neighbors, some resort-free escapes can still be found here like Sokha Beach and Occheuteal Beach. Balance this with the tranquility of Wat Lu (Lower Pagoda) or Wat Krom where monks can be seen in prayer. Merchants are on view at Psar Lu Market where fresh local produce is for sale. A drive to Phnom Penh is essential to visit the Royal Palace dating to 1868 and the Tuol Sleng Museum with its haunting photographs of those who perished under Pol Pot.

Coming back to today’s reality, you might try tasting a local delicacy, Amok trei. It’s fish coated in a thick coconut milk with kroeung—a paste of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, galangal, rhizome, shallots, garlic and red chilies—steamed or baked in a banana leaf cup then finished with Chinese ginger and leaves from the noni tree. Foreign travelers sampling this traditional Khmer dish have coined the term “running amok”... for obvious reasons. 

Cambodia is high on most travelers’ “exotic destinations” list, but not for long. Though the late bloomer among Southeast Asian countries, the stars are now aligned for a rapid acceleration of the tourism infrastructure. In a few years it’ll be you telling friends, “I remember the old Cambodia”.

Malacca, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

Choke Point

“Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”

So wrote a gentleman named Tomé Pires, a Portuguese apothecary who lived in Malacca from 1512 to 1515. He wiled away the steamy afternoons putting pen to paper and creating a masterpiece about Asian trade. Entitled Suma Oriental Que Trata do Mar Roxo até aos Chins, it contained his impressions from his travels about the region. Translated to mean, “Summa of the East, from the Red Sea up to the Chinese”, you must admit this fellow did get around. The “Summa Oriental”, as it’s also known, is considered a masterpiece by many as it covers a range of topics about the area not least of which is Islam in Indonesia in that period. 

What’s really quite curious, though, is that this extraordinary work was supposedly lost until 1944 then “discovered” in some dusty archive. Pires’ account of the very early days of Europe’s interest and involvement in Southeast Asia is an historic treasure. 

It’s All In The Spelling 

If you look on one map, this place is spelled “M-a-l-a-c-c-a”. On another, “M-e-l-a-k-a”. So, pick your poison, choose a spelling. Just know it’s found in Malaysia’s Southern Peninsula, identified as the southernmost region of continental Asia. With the waters from the narrow Strait of Malacca washing its shores, this city has kept a watchful eye on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for centuries. 

Consider the story of its origins when the exiled Hindu Sumatran Prince Parameswara founded Malacca in 1400. According to legend, it was he who named the city for a melaka tree that grew nearby.  

But its geography literally put Melaka on the map. Hundreds of years ago, creaky wooden ships cast off with cargo holds laden with goods, calling in ports the world over. If you look on a globe you’ll discover Melaka is nearly mid-way between India and China making it a strategic east-meets-west gem. Through these waters passed a treasury of slaves, opium, gold, silk, even tea, each with a priceless price tag. Indonesia’s spice islands were also important in Melaka’s success. 

Early on, an interesting chapter in history began to unfold. Locals feared their enemies from Siam and called upon the Chinese for help. In the opening days of the 15th century a representative from the court of a Chinese Ming emperor sailed in, offering protection. He was a Chinese Muslim Admiral named Cheng Ho. An influx of Chinese came aboard more vessels and set down their own roots. Over time, these “Straits Chinese” intermarried with locals and the population grew. This growth, the geography, and the influence of this area were soon known far and wide. Within 50 years the official religion of this trading state was Islam and the world’s eyes were upon it. 

The lure of lucrative spices and such brought the Portuguese whose mission it was to introduce the influence of the Catholic Church. The Dutch wrote their chapter in Melaka’s history and ruled over the area for one and a half centuries, also leaving their mark. 

Next, the British were to have their say following a brief stint by the French. All the while, neighboring Singapore and Penang, Melaka’s partners in something called the Straits Settlement, flourished and ultimately overtook Melaka’s trading importance. 

That was then, this is now. Melaka has once again caught the eye of world travelers who come to discover exactly why the city’s Chinatown was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. 

Baba and Nyonya 

Also known as “Peranakan” and “Straits Chinese”, the Baba and Nyonya (or Baba-Nyonya) are descendants of and a handsome blend of Chinese traders, Malay and, as you’ll read later, others including Indians. Some interpretations of their ethnic identity are put forth but it’s fair to say these people are often descendants of migrants who arrived in the region in the early 16th Century, some as early as the 12th Century. There’s even a popular love story that traces them back to a Chinese princess who married a local prince. Just know that the Malay and Indonesian term “anak” means “child” and refers to those who are “locally-born descendants.” So there are Straits Chinese Peranakans, Peranakan Jawi, Peranakan Chitty and others. 

Their distinct touch is all around. In fact, the terms themselves are respectful names of honor given to Straits-born gentlemen (Baba) and Straits-born ladies (Nyonya). From trading families, their wealth was often displayed in several ancestral homes, called rumah abu, some open to the public today. Perhaps one of the most interesting features is the thia gelap, or dark hall, where Peranakan women peered through inlaid mother-of-pearl screens while men chatted about their booming businesses and lucrative empires. Their wealth came from such commodities as gambier, a type of plant used for medicinal purposes, and rubber grown to meet the needs of an industrializing world. They even spoke in their own unique language, which was called Baba-Malay. 

You’ll hear more of these and other stories while exploring Malacca and its surrounds.

Makassar, Indonesia

Karyn Planett

Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, you’ve somehow found your way to Makassar, Indonesia. This is a destination one could aptly describe as the port not visited, well at least not very much. Most world travelers don’t make it to Sulawesi should they get to Indonesia at all. Business travelers get to Jakarta. Honeymooners and backpackers do Bali. You, on the other hand, are here. So why not discover a bit about it. 

What’s In A Name? 

Well, until 1999 Makassar was called Ujung Padang so maybe you have been here before and didn’t realize it. It’s found on the southern portion of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Sulawesi is found straddling the Equator and surrounded by a number of seas you’ve probably never heard of including the Celebes, the Maluku, the Banda, the Flores, and so on. 

When you do find your way to the island of Sulawesi you’ll discover that it’s shaped like a dancing giraffe with its neck tossed back over his hindquarters. Makassar is found on his left front hoof. Keep that image with you as you travel about and you’ll never get lost.

Some Important Details 

The island is massive, sculpted with bays and inlets and coves. All this drama is ringed with tempting sandy beaches. Offshore are colorful reefs and rainbows of tropical fish. Inland are jagged peaks, dark and steamy jungles, pockets of peoples whose culture has evolved relatively undisturbed for generations. That isolation has allowed them to hold on to traditions associated with such things as funerals and temple worship, and to create a cuisine that is quite alien to outsiders. An oft-avoided-by-visitors example is stewed forest rat. However, those who’ve been brave (or hungry) enough to sample it claim this delicacy is an “acquired taste” that is “similar to chicken”. So is a sneaker, if you’re hungry. 

Who Are These People? 

Scientists and researchers love this area because of its unique type of isolation. The rugged inland areas sheltered people from outside influences for a long time, protecting their way of life until recent history. At least well into the 20th century. Among the many groups of people living on Sulawesi, there are three groups who claim the greatest membership. First, the Makassarese. They, along with another group called the Bugis, make their homes in the southwestern portion of the island. This is the peninsula that would be, in our illustration, the giraffe’s forelegs. Inhabiting what would be our giraffe’s tossed-back neck and head, hence the north, are the Christian Minihasans. It’s also claimed that the Bugis number approximately two-thirds of the island’s population. They form Sulawesi’s largest group. South Sulawesi’s landlocked interior is where the Toraja people reside and it’s their colorful lifestyle that lures visitors from abroad. 

And, speaking of isolation, there’s something called the “Wallace Line”. It all goes back to an adventurous English lad by the name of Alfred Russell Wallace. In the mid-19th century, he set about surveying this island as well as that of Borneo. He established communication with Charles Darwin, detailing for him his ideas about the flora and fauna that were distinct and unique to Sulawesi, thus completely different from Borneo despite their geographical proximity. Evidently that sparked some further thought by Darwin who, himself, began detailing the same type of data from his research. Like Darwin, Wallace gained notoriety regarding his findings on the Indonesian Archipelago. His imaginary boundary became known as the “Wallace Line”, and it defined the demarcation of fauna. That invisible barrier runs between Borneo and Bali, as well as between Lombok and Sulawesi where you now are. 

Where Are You? 

Well, Makassar is quite a lively place when compared to much of the rest of the island. With more than 1.5 million people, it’s busy and bustling, an active port that is, frankly, big city-ish. There are large malls as well as storefront vendors offering everything from dyed fabrics to sacks of rice harvested from the inland terraces. It’s those rice terraces most visitors come to see by really getting out of Makassar. Before they do, however, they visit Fort Rotterdam. Built atop the foundation of a previous fort, the 1545 Gowanese fort, it today houses the I La Galigo Museum that exhibits artifacts, daily household items, various costumes and coins, musical instruments and scale models, as well as implements used in everyday life.

And, speaking of costumes and musical instruments, visitors often take home these items as mementos of their trip to Makassar. Souvenirs are basically our lifeblood. Might we suggest, however, as a little reminder of your visit you purchase something useful like Makassar brassware or pottery. Then perhaps you could whip up some Indonesian specialties (not the rat dish), invite friends over for an evening of fun, and show them photos of your trip to this part of the world, to the port not often visited.

Langkawi, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

The “Jewel of Kedah”

Langkawi is no longer a well-kept secret. In fact, the word’s been out for a while about this tiny island, one of 100 or so in the Langkawi Archipelago, that’s plunked right into the clear waters where the Andaman Sea greets the Strait of Melaka*. For so long it was little more than a haven for pirates, darting in and out of protected coves to escape capture. That all changed for a few reasons not least of which was the declaration of Langkawi as a duty-free destination in 1987. This unfettered buying opportunity became the icing on the travelers’ cake for visitors looking for yet another island get-away with gentle waves, swaying palms, tropical sunsets, and beaches crying out for string bikinis. Some 65,000 people live here, the majority Muslim. Many practice their faith at the Ah-Hana Mosque in Kuah, the largest of the island’s towns. 

The story about the island’s centuries of obscurity follows later. 

What’s In a Name? 

The “Kedah” in “Jewel of Kedah” is the name of the Malaysian state that’s home to Langkawi as well as territory on the mainland, 20 miles away, that forms the border with Thailand. And “Langkawi” is a combination of two local terms. “Lang” means something like “brown eagle.” And “Kawi” is a type of manganese stone found locally. This translation literally comes to life at Eagle Square with its 39-foot-tall eagle statue perched atop a base representing a 5-sided star. The complex is called Dataran Helang. 

But that’s not the only “wildlife” found in the area. There is the Bat Cave where literally hundreds of these animals form a pulsating canopy in a 196-foot-long cave. On land, there are curious macaque monkeys who actually love the water and swim happily about. Other swimmers include a critter called a hairy-nosed otter. Add to that the sluggish, thuggish prehistoric-looking monitor lizards and you’ve got a proper natural menagerie that’s complemented with stingrays, turtles and sharks at the Aquarium. I guess this suggests why UNESCO viewed this favorably and designated the tropical rainforest area a “World Geopark”.  

Mausoleum, Museum, Marine Park 

Some say this 185-square-mile island was once cursed. A legend tells us of a beautiful princess of long ago, Maksuri, who married a chieftain’s son Mat Darus. He left to do battle with the Siamese and, while gone, her family invited a traveling musician from Malacca* to stay in their home. Rumors swept through the kampong, village. The princess was falsely accused of adultery by her in-laws and was sentenced to “death by stabbing” by the elders. She was tied to a post and stabbed with a traditional kris. The blood she shed was white, not red, bearing witness of her innocence for all to see. With her dying breath, she cast a curse over the island for the next seven generations. Since these events occurred some 200 years ago, Langkawi has awakened from this dark chapter only recently. 

Today the princesses’ crypt, in the village of Mawat, attracts visitors from afar. And, it’s claimed that her grieving husband fled with their son to Phuket and their descendants, three dozen or so, live there to this day. Remember, though, this is but one of more than a dozen versions of her story. 

A cheerier tale is told at the Prime Minister’s Museum, called Galeria Perdana, the former home of the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Within the Islamic-inspired rooms are some 2500 items that are part of the collection of state gifts and awards he amassed during his tenure from 1981 to 2003. His Malaysian name is Dato Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad but he’s also called Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. The Prime Minister believed these magnificent items belonged to the people and displayed them here for their enjoyment. 

But the wonder underwaterworld is what beckons many. Swimmers take to the Payar Island Marine Park rich with coral gardens and a vibrant, lively reef. Those not wanting to get their hair wet step inside the Aquarium where large tanks house everything from stingrays and sharks to turtles and penguins. Yes, penguins… in a specialized environment that suits these little creatures. 

A Walk In The Clouds 

Well, a swing then a walk. On a cable car, a gondola, up Machingang Mountain (also spelled Mount Mat Cincang) at a 42 degree incline. To the top, 2300 feet up. Over almost 1.5 miles past gaping chasms, towering cliffs, in view of waterfalls. The destination, the Langkawi Sky Bridge, built in 2003. Hanging from a single pylon measuring 300 feet, it is technically a 410-foot “cable-stayed” bridge. This bridge is an architectural / engineering dream and an acrophobiac’s nightmare. But if you want to experience something so unique, you must say, “right, I’m doing this” and start singing that tune from the King and I about no-one suspecting you’re afraid.   

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

Who’s The Tallest Of Them All?

Admit it. Until they got into the skyscraper sweepstakes, Kuala Lumpur was just another thriving business center among the “Asian Tigers”, right? Then their Petronas Towers rose and suddenly an identity began to take shape.

Now, tall buildings are a serious element of civic ego and not to be taken casually. In fact, there’s an organization called, I’m not kidding, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat that acts as judge and jury over all “world’s tallest” claims. Recently they decreed that spires (like the Empire State Building’s) were structural components and would count in the measurement, but antennas (like the ones atop Chicago’s Sears Tower) would not. That really shook up the standings and allowed the Petronas Towers to claim the title until Taipei 101 came along in 2004. It will, in turn, be surpassed by Burg Dubai as soon as it’s completed. But, phew, Petronas will retain the title of world’s tallest twin towers… for now.

A Chinese Enclave 

“Muddy Estuary” is the rather unceremonious English translation of the words “Kuala Lumpur” that identify the spot where the Klang and Gombak Rivers meet. This location was the birthplace of Kuala Lumpur, the place where a band of rugged and ragged prospectors set up camp while mining for tin. Scores followed, settling here with tin in their eyes and visions of untold wealth in their heads. Instead, they were ravaged by malaria and tropical fevers, pelted with torrential rains, and felled by relentless heat. But they came in droves and carved out a boomtown overflowing with rowdy and raucous miners. 

Enter a character named “Kapitan China,” the moniker given him by a local Malaysian sultan. Given, too, was the mandate to clean up this lawless community, a task the captain took very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that more than one miner received a nasty thump on his head when he stepped too far out of line. 

But prosperity blossomed. Fortunes were made. And the few truly blessed were flush with their newfound wealth. They settled, built rambling estates, and developed a community complete with schools, a rail and road system plus shops that catered to the needs of the nouveau rich. 

This jumbled canvas blends old with new, east with west, Chinese immigrant with Indian merchant, Malay born with the new arrival. Today, KL prospers. 

Don’t Forget To Look Down       

If you can lower your point of view from the stratospheric towers K.L., as Kuala Lumpur is called, is a sightseer’s dream. City planners have created manmade landmarks that serve as guides for visitors. In fact, a 275-foot-tall flagpole in the center of Merdeka Square, near the confluence of the two rivers, is one of the best. Residents literally rally ‘round this flagpole for public holidays and parades. And wicked cricket matches are still played by lean cricketers in crisp whites, a civilized remnant from Malaysia’s colonial past. 

Mementos of the early tin-rush days are visible in Chinatown where Chinese laborers, shipped here by the boatloads, lived. Narrow streets are still lined with aromatic noodle shops, competent herbalists, and the clatter of historic, tight quarters. A walk here inevitably leads to the Central Market, a jumble of art dealers and craft merchants. 

Many temples are scattered throughout the city. Two of note are the 1906 See Shu Yuen Temple in Chinatown and the century-plus-old Sri Mahariamman Temple where Hindus come to pray and view the silver chariot housed within, a gift to Lord Murga. 

Somehow, It All Works 

The National Mosque (Masjid Negara) is Southeast Asia’s largest mosque, so large in fact it can accommodate 8,000 faithful at once. Respectful and properly dressed visitors are welcome when the faithful are not in prayer. Do ask before entering. 

K.L.’s fanciful Railway Station is one of the city’s most curious sights. It’s a whimsical compilation of colorful cupolas, spires, towers, and Moorish minarets all tossed together by serendipitous colonists in 1911. 

A more somber mood is reflected by the powerful bronze figures of the National Monument, in the Lake Gardens, dedicated to fighters who perished in Malaysia’s conflict with local terrorists. The same artist created both this monument in 1966 and the Iwo Jima Monument in Washington D.C. 

The bustling city of Kuala Lumpur is the unmistakable capital of Malaysia. It’s an interesting mixture of colonial remnants that speak of privilege and personality blended with a modern push into the 21st century with high-rises and superhighways. The irony to this is that it all works. In fact, it works rather well. Kuala Lumpur is a city of success. 

Komodo Dragons

Karyn Planett

Make no mistake about it... you’re here for just one thing. One thing, and that’s it. It’s not like Paris where some travelers spend long afternoons in open-air bistros recreating Hemingway’s “Movable Feast”. Or, New York with one museum after another to fill your days. Not even Hong Kong with its boutiques and tailors, temples to eyewear and jewelry stores that cater to your designer whims late into the night.

Nope. You’re here to see the biggest baddest lizard on the whole darn planet. You’ve come halfway ‘round the world to lay eyes on the Komodo Dragon. And, he’s coming outta the forest to see you, too.

How Big Is The Biggest?

Well here are some amazing facts and stats about our pal, the Komodo:

·               Weighs up to 300 pounds.

·               Measures up to 11 feet long; average length 8 feet.

·               Can run 11 miles per hour, as fast as a dog.

·               Eats 80% of his body weight in one feeding (like us).

·               Lives 30 or more years in the wild.

·               Is a carnivore and a cannibal.

·               Is solitary except during mating season (like teenagers).

·               The female lays up to 30 eggs.

·               Hatchlings are 15 inches long and live in trees.

·               Adults often live in burrows.

·               In favorable winds, he can detect carrion 5 miles away.

·               Also on his menu: pig, deer, smaller dragons, water buffalo, even humans.

·               It’s believed he lived during the Jurassic Age.

·               His scientific name is Varanus Komodoensis.

·               He’s the heaviest lizard on earth.

·               Though rarely bred in captivity, there has been some success.

·               His 60 serrated teeth are shark-like and are frequently replaced.

·               His strong jaw can bite a goat in half.

·               Estimates vary between 300 and 5,000 Komodos in existence making him a member of the Endangered Species Gang.

·               Komodo dragons live only on Komodo, Gila, Motang, Rinca, Padar and Flores Islands within 1,000 square kilometers. 

·               And, here’s the scary part – he can swim and climb trees. You can run but you truly cannot hide from this reptilian Sherman tank with an attitude.

There’s something called “parthenogenesis”. This is not the latest craze in designer jeans – though close. It’s a virgin birth. Now, what that means in the scientific community is that a female of a species can actually, ahem, fertilize her own eggs if there is no male present. Pause. In fact, this has been accomplished in captivity much to the delight of people who care about these sorts of things. So, if you were thinking about humming a few bars of Dinah Shore’s “It’s So Nice To Have A Man Around The House”, you needn’t bother while tromping through the Komodo forest. 

And here’s something else you’ll find fascinating. Komodo Dragons don’t need to actually kill their prey. These log-like, stubby-legged, pounds of trouble also have toxic saliva. As if their bite wasn’t enough, they can kill you with their drool. Isn’t that attractive! Somehow, someone has discovered that Komodo dragon saliva contains 50 strains of bacteria. The PBS guys called it a “foul cocktail of virulent bacterial that changes a bite into a festering wound.” The bitten animal, if it survives the attack, will die within 24 hours from blood poisoning. My, my, my.

Surprised Visitors

You can understand what a fright these stomping, bow-legged, tongue-flicking camo-creatures gave the unsuspecting visitors to these islands... folks who didn’t know about the dragons. It’s been reported that the first sighting from an “outsider” came in World War I when a downed pilot swam to Komodo Island. What a shock! Until then, scientists thought they were extinct. 

And, how about those five scuba divers profiled on CBS in 2008 who got washed away from their dive boat only to land on Komodo Island and run smack into the dragons. 

But, you’ll be safe. Tourism authorities want to keep you happy so you’ll actually be protected from these creatures by fences yet afforded the opportunity to get a good look at them in their habitat (unless they’ve wandered off as animals can’t always do exactly what you want them to especially in the wild). 

You are fortunate to be here as the Komodo dragons, seriously, are in a bit of peril. Their habitat is threatened. Volcanic activity and natural disasters have added their own type of drama. Poachers do harm, as well. And fire has destroyed some of the land here in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands. So, have your cameras at the ready to witness and record one of Mother Nature’s cast of creatures that has stalked this earth since time virtually began. 

Jakarta, Indonesia

Karyn Planett

Mandalay, Timbuktu, Jaipur, Katmandu. Names once known only to half-crazed explorers and rogue entrepreneurs. Each an exotic destination armchair travelers could discover only in the bound pages of such great authors as W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling. With eyes closed, recall their words and imagery of powerful plantation owners in frumpled linen suits, gin and tonics in hand. Of rubber tree tappers padding through dark forests in a cadence with candles strapped to their foreheads, shadowed by monkeys overhead. Of smoky tiffen houses with traders swapping spice cargoes for sketches of uncharted seas. Of rickshaw pullers delivering a rainbow of orchids for the verandah. And of delicate ladies suffering the afternoon’s suffocating heat with mint teas and tiny parlor servants rhythmically tugging on the overhead paddle fans.           

The name “Jakarta” wafts on the cigar smoke of gentleman’s clubs and ranks among the world’s most storied colonial outposts, entrepôts, and escapes. 

Batik, Bling and Designer Handbags 

That was then, and this is truly now. 

Greater Jakarta today is home to, and this is the government’s best estimate, 23 million people ranking it among the world’s biggest cities. It stands as a compromise, a blend of west and east in architecture and lifestyle. Within the city proper there are 8.5 million people who scurry off daily to the national stock exchange, designer boutiques, sports facilities to train for the Asian Games, and noodle shops to ready the mid-day meal. They also practice their faith in mosques dotted about the country that boasts an 86% Muslim population.

Jakarta by any other name is… Sunda Kelapa, as it was known from 397 to 1527; Jayakarta till 1619; Batavia until 1942; and Jakarta for the next 30 years bearing the name given it by the Japanese. Whatever you call it, this city is rich in offerings to visitors who want history, culture, cuisine or bling. 

History buffs will have much to fill their touring plate. The National Museum, also known as the Elephant Museum, houses 140,000 collections of everything from pre-historic to colonial times highlighting the multicultural, multi-faith diversity. Jakarta, for the record, has 22 different languages. Visitors could easily spend the entire day in the museum but other sites beckon like the National Monument, known by the Indonesian people as Monas. It recognizes the country’s heroes who fought against colonialism. This enormous monument also functions as one of the city’s dramatic landmarks. The flame, a beacon of national pride, atop the 450-foot-tall pillar is decorated with more than 75 pounds of gold plate. 

More history plays out in Fatahillah Square. Its imposing buildings speak of a time in the 18th century when the Dutch colonial powers held sway here. Local people call this area “Kota Tua,” which means “old city” or Old Batavia. Alive with activity, the square is also home to the Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum, the Jakarta History Museum, and the Puppet Museum. 

Puppets, Patterns and Pewter 

Indonesian puppets do not resemble the puppets we know… remember Snap, Crackle, and Pop? They’re “shadow” puppets and date back some two centuries. Experts aren’t certain if this art form was introduced to Java from India or if it originated here. What is known is that these 2-dimensional wayang kulit puppets are manipulated by a lone puppeteer who also narrates the story while providing chants and song for punctuation. The puppets’ shadows are cast upon a backlit screen and often tell stories about good triumphing over evil. They are works of art, crafted from leather and water buffalo hide, and are ideal souvenirs for they’re light, packable, and unique mementos from this part of the world. 

Batik is the same. This fabric dying process is said to have originated in Java many centuries ago. Artists either drip wax free form onto undyed material or stamp on patters from wooden blocks dipped into hot wax. It’s then submerged into dye vats, retrieved, dried, and the process is repeated, perhaps with a different color subject to the artist’s whim. 

Pewter and silver are also Indonesian specialties. The former was fashioned into jewelry, figurines, and household items. Silver, on the other hand, served the more important role of indicating the owner’s wealth or status in the community. Personal jewelry and silver adornment for furnishings were and are mere examples of how this precious metal belongs to those with the means to purchase it. 

But today, nothing says more about one’s place in society than his or her latest, hottest designer handbag or piece of luggage. Jakarta’s merchants stand at the ready to answer their contemporary prayers. This is retail heaven. Beware, though, for there are fine knock-offs for sale that are either a fabulous bargain or a trademark theft… let your conscience (and the authorities) be your guide. 

All too soon it will be time to retreat to the ship in a harbor far sleeker and visitor-friendly than the old Sunda Kelapa. This waterfront bastion has been operating since the 12th century. Today it’s home to ships, fishing boats, ferries, even phinisi schooners with their colorful sails and traditional design. Their image, silhouetted against the backdrop of the Java Sea, should set the tone for an afternoon in a wicker lounge, a dog-eared copy of some steamy colonial novel in hand, a Pimms Cup just out of reach. Instead of a year of living dangerously, you’ll enjoy an afternoon of lounging comfortably. Yes. Yes. 

Chan May, Vietnam

Karyn Planett

Gateway to the Past

Historians can wax poetic about this veritable wonderland of a thousand, no… more, years of warlords and dynasties, temples and treasures as delicate as a butterfly’s wing.           

But, in direct contrast to this illustrious past marches a youthful population of Vietnamese teenagers who giggle and wiggle to the hottest new boy band. To them anyone older than, say, Tom Cruise is ancient history. Old news. Not a part of the Nike / DKNY / cell phone scene catapulting this nation into the present at warp speed. And it’s this youthful cadre (60% of the population is under 25) that will usher Vietnam out of the pages of the history books onto the world’s economic scene, their faces fixed on the future. Their destiny in the firm grip of their hands for they’re the first generation in too many that has not known war.           

We being a tich older than, oh, Britney Spears may already be knowledgeable about this sliver of land that has factored into many of our own private histories. And even if our nation’s call didn’t personally bring us here almost a lifetime ago, we probably have an interest in and curiosity about such important sites as Hue, Marble Mountain, China Beach, and Da Nang anyway.           

Chan May, therefore, is the ideal gateway to these destinations. We simply need to pass through for our own personal exploration. 

The Ancient City Of Hue 

Timeless. Imperial. Hue whispers of a time when nobles ruled this land from the South China Sea to the distant mountains. In 1601, nobleman Nguyen Hoang proclaimed that this would serve as his capital ordering the construction of the Phu Xuan citadel. In time the Nguyen lords battled with rivals from the Trinh family. The Nguyen’s feudal warlords ultimately won and ruled from Hue for 200 years. In 1802, a Nguyen proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long taking the first step down a 143-year journey for the Nguyen Dynasty that lasted till 1945.           

Occupying foreigners followed. First the French, then the Japanese, finally the Americans. Hue ultimately became part of South Vietnam following the UN’s division of the country. Old newsreels captured the anti-Buddhist movement that followed with protests by local monks who set themselves ablaze for the world to witness. That was 1963. Five years later, with the Tet Offensive under way, the imperial city and citadel of Hue suffered massive damage. The scars of battle are still visible though much of the original stone and tile work, temples and flower gardens, red lacquer and gold inlay, bronze urns and painted bridges remain to dazzle the visitor including the Imperial Enclosure, the Esplanade of Grand Salutation, and the Palace of Supreme Harmony.           

Other sites of interest in the area include the Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda with its seven tiers, one for each reincarnation of Buddha. Tu Duc’s tomb was built in 1864 to resemble a miniature royal palace with pagodas, pavilions and stone statuary. Minh Mang’s tomb, a bit further on, was completed in 1843. This emperor’s mausoleum features graceful stone work and tranquil lakes laced with colorful lotus flowers.           

A visit to Hue wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Dong Ba market with its wizened vendors hawking rice and spices, fruits and vegetables, even chickens ready for the pot. 

Da Nang 

The city of Da Nang lies midway between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi. The Cham civilization flourished in this area. In fact, a Cham king presented Da Nang as a wedding gift to princess Huyen Tran in the 14th century. Beats steak knives, wouldn’t you say! 

The Spanish and French also had an interest in Da Nang because of its safe harbor and commercial opportunities. In 1954, the French withdrew from the country and the Geneva Accord plunked Da Nang into the hands of the South Vietnamese. It literally became the dividing line between the South and North factions and was smack in the crosshairs of the conflict that raged between the US and Allied troops with the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong and the Northern military. In 1975, the city fell to the V.C., a signal that their victory was won. 

Visitors to Da Nang today can explore the Cham Museum, which features 300 sandstone and terra cotta sculptures from the 4th-14th centuries plus other important artifacts. 

Nearby Marble Mountain is really five mountains named for the elements – earth, fire, metal, water and wood. A 153-step climb affords you a great view of Da Nang, the vast Pacific Ocean and China Beach, the backdrop for GI’s R&R as well as film and TV productions.

Hoi An       

The ancient city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a maze of tiny streets that wend past well-preserved homes, temples, and meeting halls. The architecture speaks to the Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese merchants who were based here selling fish and silk, spices and such. For many centuries, Hoi An served as one of Southeast Asia’s most important trading ports incorporating the cultures of the Westerners who did business here. Today, the city’s old quarter has been lovingly restored with carved wooden doors preserved, and tile roofs polished. Many gracious residents will invite you inside their homes for a closer look. 

As your day draws to a close in Chan May, sip a cup of ca phe phin coffee and reflect on this area’s rich heritage, one you’ll have shared today. 

Belawan, Indonesia

Karyn Planett

Sumatran Hub

‘This is the island of hope,’ said an official of the provincial government who received us. ‘It has only 10 million inhabitants, and already it produces nearly half the revenue of the Indonesian Republic.’

                   Arnold Toynbee, East to West, 1958 

That was more than one-half century ago and the rupiah just keep rolling in. Geography dealt Belawan a good hand by placing it right between the productive Indonesian interior countryside and the Deli River where it connects to the Strait of Malacca. This famous waterway has long been in the crosshairs of traders and others who knew of its importance. Connecting the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) with the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean), this 500-mile-long waterway even found its way into the reports of travelers exactly 500 years ago. 

“Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” 

Tomé Pires, in Armando Cortesao (ed). The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, 1944 – written 1512-1515. 

For the record, the Strait of Malacca is recognized as the shortest sea route between China and India, making it also one of the world’s most heavily traveled shipping channels. It also brings visitors from the world over interested in the Sumatran culture, economic importance, sights, and more. Also of note, Sumatra is the sixth* largest island in the world and, today, is home to some 50 million people. 

The Culture 

The people of Sumatra are linked to the land through agriculture. Scattered across the land are distinct groups of people who practice their own faith, have their own dress, and celebrate a culture unique unto them. Though Belawan is a thriving city with contemporary architecture and all services a city of this size requires, the people in the countryside live a far simpler life. Volcanoes, jungles, and forests carpet the landscape that also boats Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Lake Toba. National parks are home to such animals as Sumatran rhinos, elephants, orangutans, tigers, monkeys and gibbons. Smaller villages feature traditional houses, some with distinctively high pointy roofs, with sometimes as many as eight families living together. Many villagers still weave traditional cloth by hand, which becomes sarongs and ceremonial mantles. 

In addition to the indigenous people, the island is also home to large Indian and Chinese populations, many brought in as laborers, which have introduced their traditions, cuisine and culture.

Economic Importance 

History tells us that the port of Belawan grew in importance in the late 1800s when it became the transfer point of the tobacco grown inland. In addition to tobacco, other products became lucrative commodities including rubber, palm oil, minerals, coffee and tea. This trade made for very wealthy locals who built fabulous houses, many now government offices. The local people, instead, traded from their rickety, tiny shophouses. This all added up to Belawan becoming Indonesia’s busiest port except for Java. Today, approximately 20% of the country’s exports pass through Belawan. Foreign and domestic investment grows. Experts believe that South Sumatra may become one of the world’s most important coal regions. It’s said that some 60% of Indonesia’s production emanates from Sumatra. 

A Look At The Sights 

Most visitors want to explore the city of Medan, dating back to its early days as a trading hub in 1682, rather than stay in Belawan. (The distance and driving conditions from the port to Medan suggest that the best way to visit is on an organized shore excursion.) Medan was then a regional capital administered by the Dutch. They left behind a distinctive architecture, language and cuisine. In addition, Indonesia’s biggest Chinese population is found in Medan leaving their mark, as well. 

Medan’s Great Mosque is a graceful yet powerful structure that is of interest to most visitors. The faithful go to pray there daily. It was constructed by Sultan Makmun Al Rasyid in 1906 and features a restful turquoise façade, black domes, and materials from as far away as Italy. It is considered North Sumatra’s largest mosque. 

Maimoon Palace (also spelled Maimum Palace) is only 200 meters from the Mosque. Together, with the Great Mosque, these structures are considered “Sultan Deli’s legacies”. Completed in 1888 to the designs of an Italian architect, the palace’s 40 rooms were richly decorated, except for the prison in the basement which was not. It is a blend of both European influence, including terrazzo and marble flooring, with Islamic tradition. It is considered an istana, which means it’s the royal palace of the Sultanate of Deli. 

Before you leave this region, you might be interested in some local treasures that make great souvenirs from Sumatra including distinctive woodcarvings, textiles and batiks so important to Indonesia, and colorful puppets that are fashioned from locally-harvested cassava leaves. This is the same plant that gives us tapioca. 

All too soon, it’s time to climb up the gangway and sail off into open seas as so many have before you. This time, though, you’ll enjoy the luxury those who came before you were denied. 

Ao Dai

Karyn Planett

Flowing Like A Summer Breeze 

With the regularity of a rising tide, a cloak of heat descends across much of Southeast Asia. Westerners, businessmen and visitors who’ve come to discover its exotic life and hypnotic landscape wilt in the afternoon sun, searching for an escape. No simple paper fan or frosted minty drink is enough to keep the cloying heat at bay. And a lazy ceiling fan only stirs the thick, moist air. 

This is the one time you must walk in the shoes of those who call this region home. Don their attire, mimic their actions, adapt their pace and lifestyle. And, for the women, that means slipping into what many consider to be the most feminine, flattering, flowing gown (though worn over long wide-legged trousers) of all time.. the Vietnamese áo dài. Its story follows. 

North And South 

Let’s start with how you pronounce the name of this absolutely lovely garment. In the northern part of Vietnam, the pronunciation is “ao zai” while in the south, local people say “ao yai”. No matter which way you pronounce it, just know this traditional long-sleeved, high-necked fitted tunic with slits on both sides is drop-dead gorgeous. Gorgeous! And, one can be yours as a souvenir of your visit to Vietnam, should you choose. So, it’s best you learn a bit about this traditional garb because everyone back home will need an explanation from you. So, here goes. 

Well, first off, no one actually agrees on the origin of the áo dài. But, this is an oft-told version of what the truth may be. Its probable predecessor was worn one thousand years ago, give or take. What is known is that China held sway over some parts of this area until the 16th century. Someone named Nguyen Phuc Khoái came along dictating that the southern people should wear something to distinguish themselves from their northern rivals, the Trinh Lords. Thus, the áo dài was born. 

In the early days, in this case the 18th century, the áo dài was worn by the beautiful women at the Nguyen Court. From its origins in Hue, its popularity grew and the design changed to a 5-paneled gown that was popular with noblemen and members of society’s highest social classes. Fabric was expensive and multiple layers were a visual testimony to the wearer’s wealth. 

That all changed in the 1920s when contemporary designers put pencil to sketchpad, pin to silk, and created a more fashionable look that eventually caught the eye of couturiers in Paris. They made it less blousy and much more slinky. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, young women still wore áo dàis to school (the colors indicated which school though white is still quite common), or for important celebrations like Tet and weddings, for beauty pageants, or in their professional life. 

Then, in 1947, Vietnam gained its independence and many people in the north cast off this garment per the March 20, 1947 edict from Ho Chi Minh. It reflected western capitalistic ideals, wasted too much fabric, and impeded people’s ability to work. Some experts say the style became unfashionable in 1954 in the north, then in 1975 in the south. 

What’s In A Color? What’s In A Design? 

Little girls wear white áo dàis to signify purity, while pastel colors are more popular with teenagers today (probably to match their iPhone covers and Shellac manicures) as well as women who have yet to marry. Following their weddings, married women often wear brightly colored áo dài tunics over either black or white pants that literally sweep the floor. Today, though, many women choose a more comfortable style and have their tailors make their outfits with the tops reaching to only just below the knees. It seems, though, that the billowing pants remain the norm. 

The collar design is changing, as well, yet the sleeve cut seems to remain as it has always been, much like a raglan sleeve. Traditionally, the bodice is absolutely formfitting and the slits in the tunic can go up even higher than the wee-wisp of a waist for a little peek-a-boo flash of flesh to please the viewer. Remember, though, the Vietnamese people are quite conservative.    

If you want an áo dài made, you’ll need to think about all the design components and consider all the following options. Should your garment include long-sleeves or butterfly sleeves? A mandarin-style collar or a low-cut décolleté? Should it include hand-painted imagery, beading, lace, and embroidery? Should the fabric be synthetic or silk, sheer, clear, patterned, satiny, or matching that of your man’s outfit? Should it be jeweled, velvety, or brocaded? Do you want it backless? Whatever it is, it can be saucy, sexy, sweet, or sophisticated but it will definitely be flattering and feminine. And it can be worn with a matching hat that, to the untrained eye and with all due respect, resembles a… hubcap. 

Today, as you’ll observe, many young Vietnamese women prefer DKNY jeans under their áo dài tunics. Their outfits will then be accessorized with Louis Vuitton handbags, Prada shoes and Fendi sunglasses. Or they leave their áo dàis hanging in the hall closet and just wear the jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana top. That’s progress. 

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Karyn Planett

It’s all About the Beach

Well, not totally because a lot of history played out here but many of today’s travelers come to Nha Trang mainly for the sun, the sand, the sea, and the scene. Some spend their entire holiday right here, hunkered down in the golden-sand shade of a grass umbrella while others visit important destinations like Ho Chi Minh City, some 200 miles away. It’s a great jumping-off point because Nha Trang lies right on the country’s central coast. Perhaps that’s why the players of the Champa Dynasty selected it as the center of their power. During this period it was called Kauthara.

Power players and more call Nha Trang home today as the population grows at an uncountable rate annually. The city is also the capital of the Khánh Hòa Province. Tourism is a hot industry and many people come to participate in its growth. Hotels and entertainment venues line the three-mile-long crescent-shaped beach that nestles up against a backdrop of hills and rocky outcroppings. Some estimates are that the population, at the moment, is hovering near the half-million mark with continued growth projected for the near future. And this number doesn’t even count the backpackers, ship passengers, vacation package travelers and the very fashionable jet-abouts who spend time in the luxury resorts.

Among these visitors are American history buffs, as well as Vietnam veterans, who remember that neighboring My Keah Beach was once known as China Beach, a famous recreational base for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

Time to Explore

Travelers must plan their time wisely because there is much to see, not so much time to see it in, and traffic can be an issue when trying to move about and make deadlines. Nonetheless, you’ve come halfway around the world to be here so select those sites that suit your interests. Among them is the Ponagar Pagoda (also spelled Po Nagar). It’s an important destination dating back to the 2nd-century AD, though references vary widely on this with same marking 781 A.D. as an important date in the construction of the complex. The brick temple rises above the sea, on Mt. Cu Lao and draws both ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists who come to worship and make offerings. As the Cham people ruled the country for about ten centuries, their temples and architectural style is visible across the land. Some experts believe their roots are based in Indian Buddhism; hence some design consistencies between Po Nagar and Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. The temple features views of the surrounding area and the Cai River. Should you choose to visit, you will probably be asked to remove your shoes.

Another place of note is the Long Son Pagoda, built in 1886 just at the base of Trai Truy Mountain. After a powerful cyclone in 1900, the pagoda was actually relocated. Here, you’ll find a towering white Buddha figure up a climb of 250 steps. Standing 70 feet tall, the statue keeps a watchful eye on the surrounding area.

One chapter of this country’s important history is tied to the French. Their influence is felt in the cuisine, the lifestyle, the architecture and the language. The Nha Tho Nui Cathedral is known by many names such as the Stone Cathedral, King Cathedral, Nha Trang Church, Nui (Mountain) Church or Sga Sau Church. Whatever you call it, know its origins date back to a priest named Louis Vallet and it features stained glass windows, a bell tower and a graceful exterior.

Other Places to See

Many cities revolve around bustling marketplaces and Nha Trang’s market is one such venue. Among the many curiosities on offer include an exotic display of fruits and vegetables unfamiliar to most of us.  In addition, there will be a variety of fresh seafood plucked from the sea, often that very morning. Hand-embroidered silk clothing, conical hats (also known as non la leaf hats), ao dai, the tradition national costume, sand pictures, wooden clogs called gyoc moc, and a range of musical instruments that have been played in this countryside for generations. Bamboo flutes are fun and easy to pack, certainly much easier than the conical hat.

Before it’s time to leave Nha Trang behind, reflect on the events of the past that occurred here yet affected many nations thousands of miles away. Pause, remember, but do engage the people of Nha Trang, especially the young who are bent on making the best lives for themselves that they can. See their elders fishing at the Xom Bong pier perhaps also thinking of the past yet looking to the future. This is an historic city with a vibrant future and you are witness to it all.

Special note:  There are several spellings for many sites. Ask someone to write in Vietnamese the name of the place you wish to visit if you are sightseeing independently. Additionally, allow extra time to move about, as traffic can be quite heavy.


Karyn Planett

All that Glitters Comes from Black Gold

Dubai.  Monaco.  Brunei.  Each of these exotic destinations conjures up images of chauffeured Rolls-Royce Phaetons, Sunseeker yachts, and sapphires the size of cherries.  Designer accoutrements to drape and adorn everything from the top of one’s highlighted locks to the tip of her expertly-manicured toes are there for the charging.  And while there may be strong similarities between Brunei and other capitalistic world capitals, it is really quite unique.

The Facts, M’am.  Just the Facts

Since many world travelers have yet to step foot ashore in this minuscule country, it seems only fitting that we recap a few of the facts and stats so you’ll have a better picture of what you’re in store for.

Let’s start with the name.  Officially, this nation is called the State Of Brunei, Abode of Peace.  That’s the English translation of the Malay words Negara Brunei Darussalam.  Since both English and Malay are considered official languages, that seems to make a great deal of sense, doesn’t it.  The capital is Bandar Seri Begawan and the entire country covers a mere 2,228 square miles.  Within its borders live some 325,000 people the majority of whom are Malay. Well, approximately 65%.  The Chinese population accounts for another 20%.

The nation is proud to boast a literacy rate of 88%, which ranks quite high in the world.  So, too, the per capita income that is pegged at close to $15,000.

Nearly two-thirds of the Bruneian people are Muslim.  Buddhists account for approximately 15%, while Christianity is represented by only 8% of the people.

It probably comes as no surprise to practically every visitor that oil and gas are the major industries in this tiny nation.  In fact, since only 15% of the land is cultivated, some 80% of all food must be imported.  This doesn’t seem to be a big problem for Brunei’s citizens.  They are considered among the luckiest people on earth because their nation is blessed with astounding wealth affording them a tax-free government-supported society that provides subsidized food and housing as well as free medical care, even extended to rural areas by an airborne team of medical personnel.  Education is free.

Money Makes this World Go Around

Let’s discuss the topic of this business success story.  It really all began in 1929 with the discovery of oil in the Sultanate of Brunei.  Natural gas was then discovered in 1965.  Today, Brunei’s economy is financially funded almost entirely by the revenues received from exporting natural gas and oil.  In fact, these sales account for over 40% of the gross domestic product.  The crude oil finds its way to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, even the U.S.

According to the 1959 constitution, Brunei had been a British-protected Islamic Sultanate.  In 1984, Brunei gained full sovereignty and independence.  Today, it is an Islamic Sultanate.

The Sultan’s name is Sultan Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah.  It is reported that he is perhaps the richest man in the world.  And, as one might expect, a gentleman of his stature deserves a proper abode, so the Sultan built one of the world’s most luxurious palaces.  Its 1,788 rooms cover some 50 acres and cost a mere $400,000,000 to build though rumor has it that, as with all construction projects, it ran a bit over budget.  Never mind.  For the record, it is called Istana Nurul Iman and is open to the public only at the end of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting.

Bandar Seri Begawan

That mouthful is the name of the nation’s capital and is often referred to as BSB or even Brunei Town.  Some 60,000 people live there, as it really is Brunei’s only sizeable city.  BSB is modern, efficient, and welcoming to visitors from afar.  Many of these guests take in the sights, usually beginning with the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.  Built in 1958, it is recognized by its massive gold dome.  You’ll find it near the banks of the Brunei River.

Jerudong Park is another destination, but this time for invited guests only.  Complete with polo field, golf course, croquet greens, and a host of other sporting venues, this huge complex is a playground for the elite.  Others find their way to the Jerudong Playground amusement park for fun and games or Jerudong Beach for sun and fish.

Those more interested in nature make their way to Pulau Ranggu found near Istana Nurul Iman in the middle of the river.  It is here that one can observe the proboscis monkeys that leap here and there and literally hang about in the verdant forests.

And speaking of hanging about, there’s no need, really.  It can be said that the streets virtually roll up at 9pm.  Why, you ask?  Well, there is, in truth, little or no nightlife in BSB as the citizens are encouraged to engage in activities other than clubbing and such.  And, while we’re on the subject, there has been a stricter dress code enforced since 1991 hence visitors are asked to respect this practice.  That said, do enjoy your stay in the exotic gotta-visit-someday destination.

Bangkok, Thailand

Karyn Planett

Temples and Waterways

Long before the first ray of morning light addresses the fading night sky, Buddhist monks are already deep in prayer.  Meanwhile, hotel staff members are finalizing details, checking the crisp linen and polished silver once again.  Office workers are preparing for long commutes from the outer areas.  And tiny women are sweeping the marble walkways of the shimmering temples with handmade brooms.

Bangkok awakens.  Though this city has changed with the times, it too has remained as it was when travelers arrived from afar only by rail or by steamship.

Temples to the Sky

Bangkok’s hazy skyline is dotted with temples, or wats as they are known in Thai, resembling a giant chessboard with gilded pieces.  Housed within these ornate holy places are saffron-robed monks and the few remaining white-robed nuns, all with their heads shaved.  These monks greet the dawn by wandering side streets accepting offerings in their lacquer ware bowls for they own few material possessions or food.  Those making these offerings of food do so, so that they and their deceased ancestors will be granted spiritual rewards.

A few of Bangkok’s more important wats include the Wat Phra Keo, built on the Grand Palace grounds by King Rama I in 1782.  Within its ornate walls is the Phra Keo, or Emerald Buddha, which is the single most sacred treasure in all of Thailand.  The king no longer inhabits the Grand Palace.  Instead, it is the site of official receptions, traditional ceremonies, and the like.

Wat Pho is reputed to be the oldest Thai temple.  Thailand’s largest Reclining Buddha, a massive golden figure measuring 50 feet high and 150 feet long, lies inside in silent repose.

Looming on the banks of the Chao Phaya River is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.  While not as immediately impressive as other temples, this wat boasts an interesting porcelain-decorated prang (or tower) which glitters in the midday sun.

Life Along the Klongs

This Chao Phaya River is Bangkok’s lifeblood.  It provides the people with a transportation route, a means of shipping goods from place to place, a source for food, and a focal point for interest and activities.

Many Thai people still live along this river’s tributary canals, or klongs.  Their stilt houses are often more modern than their earlier counterparts.  No longer only simple wooden lean-to’s, many of today’s klong houses feature electricity, public water and sewer connections, trash removal, and mail delivery.  Nonetheless, naked children still splash about in the tepid waters, women still wash clothing and dishes on their watery front steps, and dogs still bark at passing boats rowed by young girls offering everything from ripe bananas to Tupperware.

Houses along the narrower backwater channels, no wider than a canoe, are much as they were long ago when they lacked all modern conveniences.  Accessible only by small boat, they often still have a small plot of farmed land or a pen of water buffalo attached.

As the afternoon sun causes your pace to slow a step or two, it’s time to retreat into one of the fine hotels flanking the banks of the Chao Phaya.  A server, as gracious as a princess, will bring you a frosty iced tea and adjust the oversized umbrella perfectly so you are safe in the shade.  Turn your chair so you can focus on the passing parade of rice barges, speedy boats, and cross-river ferries plying this busy river.  From this spotless terrace vantage point, you’ll capture images of Bangkok you’ll savor long after your visit has ended.