Category Archives: General

Sanggar Ranu Mareh Mabuan – dance troupe

Photos of dancers from the ‘Sanggar Ranu Mareh Mabuan‘ – a Dayak Ma’anyan dance studio based in Buntok, Barito Selatan, Central Kalimantan. We had the pleasure of watching them perform at the wedding of Dini and Xavier in Palangkaraya.

These young performers were fabulous – tightly choreographed, exciting, professional, colourful, tireless, amazingly agile – and with some of the nicest smiles you’re likely to find anywhere…

 

Toraja hats

Hats off to Toraja! Celebrating some of the diversity of headwear on show in this very special part of Sulawesi.

These faces exude great depth of character, so no further adornment or comment is needed.

Toraja coffee

Coffee was first brought to Indonesia by the Dutch around 1700, and now Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer. Since we first arrived in Indonesia in 2009, we’ve enjoyed a range of distinctive regional coffees – from Bali, Papua, Java, Sumatra, and – especially – from the highland region of Toraja in South Sulawesi.

Toraja coffee is special in several ways. It’s almost all of the Arabica variety, whereas the majority of Indonesian coffee is Robusta. 95% of it is produced by smallholders rather than on commercial plantations. And the harvested fruit is processed differently – often just dry-processed, or using the “giling basah” technique (‘wet hulling’). Both techniques are much quicker and simpler than the standard ‘wet processing method (great detailed explanation here).

There’s been coffee grown in Toraja since about 1850, and production has really accelerated over the past 30 years or so. Coffee buffs describe Toraja coffee as having a smooth, full-bodied caramel flavour, spicy overtones (cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper) and a soft clean aftertaste. Whatever… it tastes good.

We had the opportunity to get a closer look at coffee production while we were trekking and touring around North Toraja last month. Coffee could be seen growing beside the trails and roads just about everywhere we went.

The first really surprising thing for us was the flowers, as we had no idea that coffee flowers are so pretty, or that they have a powerful sweet smell, almost like jasmine.

The flowers only last a couple of days, and it’s not long before green berries develop, each with the germ of a coffee bean inside.

The ripe fruit is plum red or orange, and ready for harvest. All Toraja coffee is hand-picked.

We didn’t witness the ‘giling basah’ processing technique (in which the fruit and husks are removed mechanically). We only saw the even more basic dry processing. Harvested fruit is laid out to dry (weather permitting) on woven mats, and then de-husked by hand.

The raw coffee beans are then further dried in the sun, at which point they are ready for sale, or roasting and consumption.

Bigger production houses will use kilns to roast the coffee beans. Some months ago in Jakarta we saw a huge shiny stainless steel roaster – with computer-controlled temperature, humidity, timers and agitation. In the simpler environs of Torajan village, the process is a little more rudimentary – but no less effective.

The beans are simply heated in a pan over a small fire until they acquire the appropriate colour and scent.

Allow to cool, and… it’s all done. The roasted coffee beans are a rich purplish-chocolate colour, with a nice sheen.

I like the intense flavour and crunch that results from biting on a fresh-roasted coffee bean – like these ones at the Pasar Bolu in Rantepao.

Grind the beans, and the air fills with the unmistakeable aroma of coffee. Ready to infuse and drink…

Buffalo fighting in Toraja

Water buffalo generally give the appearance of being placid – slow dull gentle giants. Bovine, even. 500+ kilos of docility.


But when they fight, they reveal quite a different dimension.

There’s a loud clashing of heads, a locking of horns, and then they use their thick muscular necks to try and overwhelm their opponents. And those phenomenal horns can (and do) inflict serious wounds.


It can go on for some minutes, with mud (and maybe some blood) flying as they collide.

Eventually one triumphs, and the vanquished buffalo runs away, closely pursued by the victor.

Any humans in the vicinity had best get out of the way!

At Sa’adan Ulusalu, Toraja Utara, Sulawesi Selatan

 

Play, pray, or chase the buffalo?

Last year we visited villages in the Krayan district of North Kalimantan, a remote highland area close to the border with Sabah (Malaysia). We were fortunate to be invited to a Dayak Lundayeh wedding ceremony in the village of Terang Baru, near Long Bawan. These days the villagers are devout adherents of Protestant Christianity, but they continue to observe many of the unique cultural practices of their ancestors.

A lot of the rituals of the wedding entailed the exchange of gifts between the bride’s and groom’s families – in addition to giving countless practical household gifts to the happy couple. There were hand-plaited baskets, hats and sleeping mats, crockery, cooking pots and furniture, food and clothing.

But the biggest – and most valuable – gift was that of a large kerbau (buffalo), which the groom handed over to his new wife. Everyone from the village was there, watching the exchange with great interest – none more so than a young boy and girl who were enthralled by the buffalo.

As the traditional part of the ceremony was concluding, and the congregation prepared for Christian prayers, the buffalo was led away to pasture – with the two children following in close pursuit. You can imagine the excited conversation between them:

“Hurry up, let’s follow the buffalo and see where it goes!”

She: “Hang on, the prayers have started. We’d better stop.”

He: “Do we REALLY have to stop? The buffalo’s getting away!”

“OK then, let’s pray. The buffalo will just have to wait till we’ve finished!”

Karen, along with her colleague Paulus Kadok from Yayasan Mahakam Lestari, has written a wonderful article about the ‘Bridewealth of the Dayak Lundayeh‘, which was published late last year in Garland Magazine. Do have a look; it’s a really interesting read. Nice photographs, too…

 

 

Anzac Day in Balikpapan

This morning we attended the Anzac Day dawn service at Pasir Ridge here in Balikpapan. And it was every bit as interesting as we had expected it to be. The event did however involve some measure of culture shock, as we listened to the unaccustomed tones of Australian voices in Balikpapan, and (a recording of) a Scottish pipe band playing ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ and ‘Along the road to Gundagai’… repeatedly.

The Anzac Day dawn service is a well-established annual event here, one of only four locations in Indonesia where the day is officially commemorated. Balikpapan is also home to a well-maintained Australian War Memorial (the Tugu Australia) which sits in the middle of a roundabout down on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman.

Balikpapan was the site, on 1 July 1945, of the last major land operation of the Second World War, and the Australian Army’s largest ever amphibious landing. 21,000 Australian troops, supported by artillery and Dutch, British and American air and naval forces, overwhelmed the Japanese occupying force of just 3,900 soldiers. By that time, the Japanese had occupied the island of Borneo for three years.

However many historians, and even many military leaders at the time, have said that the operation served no worthwhile strategic purpose. The oil refineries, port facilities and most of the military fortifications had already been destroyed by months of artillery and aerial bombardment (comprising some 23,000 shells). The Japanese forces in Indonesia were already close to collapse, and (as it happened) the end of the war was only six weeks away.

Nonetheless, 229 Australians died in the ‘Battle of Balikpapan’, and 634 were wounded. Pasir Ridge, where today’s service was held, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting.

Around 1800 Japanese soldiers were also killed in the battle (nearly half of their total number), and just 63 were taken prisoner. Near the site of the Australian memorials on Pasir Ridge is an unmarked and unremarkable mound of earth, where a number of Japanese casualties were buried in a mass grave.

Despite the early hour, we were keen to attend the commemoration. In part this was because my father was here on that day, almost 73 years ago. He was on board the landing ship HMAS Kanimbla – though happily he was was not sent ashore, and his ship returned to Moratai the next day.

The (hopefully not apocryphal) story goes that General Blamey addressed the soldiers of the 2/9th Battalion aboard the Kanimbla, en route to Balikpapan, trying to gee them up in preparation for the imminent massive battle. “I know that the 2/9th will want to be in the thick of it!” he proclaimed. At which point one of the ‘Diggers’ interjected loudly: “Pig’s arse! Aren’t you coming with us?!”

All up, around 100 people attended the dawn service at Pasir Ridge, which is on land now held by the oil company Chevron Indonesia. There were, amongst others: representatives of provincial and city governments, Chevron, senior staff (including military personnel) from the Australian Embassy, officers and rank-and-file from the Indonesian military (TNI), veterans and war widows, as well as a number of Australian expats resident in Indonesia.

It was a nicely inter-cultural, Indonesian-Australian event, with all speeches and prayers delivered in both Bahasa Indonesia and (Australian) English language.

Adjacent flagpoles flew the Indonesian flag (the ‘Merah putih’) and the Australian flag – at half mast. In front of the flagpoles, an Indonesian honour guard stood at attention throughout the service.

About a dozen large wreaths, each marked with the words “Lest we forget” were laid, by both Indonesian and Australians, on a memorial formed from parts of a wrecked Australian tank.

As is traditional, the service concluded with (a recording of) The Last Post, a minute of silence, and Reveille. The Australian flag was raised from the half mast position up to the level of the adjacent Indonesian flag.

And then (of course!) there was an extended block of time set aside for group photographs, with almost every possible permutation of people assembled and photographed in front of the tank memorial. 

Yes, including us! (Seen here with Fleur Davies, Matthew Campbell and Richard Swaby from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta).

 

Then the ceremony was over, and we all decamped, boarding the two provided buses to take us down the hill to the Novotel Hotel for a buffet breakfast and warm conversation. But no beer and two-up…

Thanks to the Organising Committee for our invitation to attend, and for planning and hosting such a memorable and professionally-run event. Lest we forget.

For more on the Battle of Balikpapan:

 

Temples of Chiang Mai

The Buddhist temples (wat) of Thailand are beautiful and fascinating places. We recently had a too-brief (5-day) visit to Chiang Mai in the Central North of the country, and visited some of the many many wat that dot the landscape. Just inside the relatively small area of the old walled city there are 3 dozen active temples. Across the entire city there are, depending on which source you consult, more than 200 or 300. Suffice it to say that there are a whole lotta wat.

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Each wat has a character, a history and an atmosphere unique to itself, but each one is an oasis of calm and elegant style in the midst of a bustling city of 960,000 people living in the metro area.

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We first visited Wat Phan Tao, which is just over the road from where we were staying in the Old City. The old (late 14th century) viharn (assembly hall) is constructed entirely out of teak wood.

There were hundreds of blue flags flying around the grounds at the time we visited, blue being the colour of the revered Queen Sirikit – whose 84th birthday was about to be celebrated. The flags almost obscured the view of the chedi (stupa) which stands behind the viharn.

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The wat was originally built as a palace for one of the early rulers of the Lan Na Kingdom. A carved panel over the entrance still displays an ornate peacock, the symbol of the monarchy, standing astride a dog – which is the zodiac symbol for his date of birth.

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Large heavy bells stand in a row in the garden outside.

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Inside the viharn, a large Buddha sits in blissful meditation with smaller statues in front. On either side of the Buddha figure are suspended two large naga (snake/dragons). They protect the Buddha. There is a story of Buddha, meditating under the bodhi tree after attaining enlightenment, when a severe story erupted. A huge cobra snake came and shielded him from the rain with his big hood.

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Next door, in front of the very much larger Wat Chedi Luang, is a small but richly decorated shrine for the Sao Inthakin (City Pillar) of Chiang Mai. Such shrines are found in cities across Thailand, and it is considered that the prosperity and safety of the city is dependant on the city spirit deity (Chao Pho Lak Mueang) who resides there. Women are not permitted inside.

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There is also a very large Dipterocarpus alatus tree standing beside the shrine. There is a widespread belief that a disaster of some sort will result if this tree should every fall. (But a disaster is already occurring – as these magnificent trees have almost entirely disappeared from the forests of Southeast Asia.)

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Wat Chedi Luang is so named because of the stupa located there, behind the (much newer) viharn. This massive structure was first erected in 1391, to house remains of the father of the king (Saen Muang Ma). Construction continued for nearly a century, by which time it was some 85 metres tall! For a time it housed the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha statue in Thailand, before it was moved (first to Luang Prabang in Laos, and then to its current home at the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok).

In 1545, an earthquake caused extensive damage to the chedi, and at least the top third was lost. There were partial restoration works conducted in the 1990s. It’s still very impressive!

The main assembly hall (viharn) was built in 1928, and is itself rather impressive – especially so when the monks (Wat Chedi Luang is an active monastery) assemble for evening prayers.

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One stray temple dog wandered in and out during the prayers, which appears to be a regular occurrence, as no-one seemed overly concerned. One monk made a half-hearted attempt to expel the intruder – who then simply re-entered through another door!

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Speaking of temple dogs… at the Wat Chiang Man there were many resident dogs, including this lordly creature who looked like he was holding audience on his throne.

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Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1296, when the city was founded. The chedi here is quite different to the one at Wat Chedi Luang, fully intact and quite elegant in form. The top, gilded part of the chedi contains relics – of the Buddha, or of some auspicious monk.

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The main viharn was renovated almost 100 years ago. Behind the large Buddha (and not visible in the photo above) is another Buddha, standing and holding an alms bowl, which is the oldest Buddha in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1465.

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There are a limited and prescribed number of standard Buddha poses – standing, sitting, walking, reclining – and also a number of specific gestural variations. I particularly like the ‘calming the ocean’ pose. The depiction must be executed correctly, if the Buddha is to have power.

The Reclining Buddha shows the Buddha lying on his right side, close to death and about to enter into the state of paranirvana. We encountered this Buddha at a Wat (not sure of the name!), east of Chiang Mai, while on a bicycling tour.

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Some of the statues in this new wat were very colourful and, with the sunglasses as above, perhaps not quite as seriously reverential as we saw elsewhere.

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Another reclining Buddha, this time in repose at the Wat Phra Singh. You may be able to see Karen standing by his feet.

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This large and stunning wat dates back to 1345. It got its current name in 1367, when the famous statue of Phra Singh Buddha was brought to the temple, and housed in the all-teak Viharn Lai Kham. The Phra Singh Buddha is reputedly from Sri Lanka – though there is also evidence that it was actually made in Chiang Mai. Another story tells that the head of this Buddha was stolen in 1922, and that the statue now sports a substitute head. This statue is greatly revered, and is carried through the streets during songkram festival is April.

The wall behind the Phra Singh Buddha is red lacquer, decorated with patterns of gold leaf.

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The other three walls inside the Viharn Lai Kham were decorated with mural during the 1820s. These detailed murals depict stories from Buddhist mythology as well as from Chiang Mai day-to-day life, and are amazingly detailed – though fading in places after nearly 200 years.

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The complex of buildings has been extensively restored on several occasions, including in 1782, 1920 and 2002. The very shiny golden chedi (known as the Phrathatluang), with a golden elephant emerging from each of its four sides, is dazzling, and almost too bright to look at when the sun is shining.

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The wat houses a large number of monks (all male), ranging from the very young to elderly and wheelchair-bound. All gather several times a day for prayers at different locations around the complex – including afternoon prayers here under a breezy sala (pavillion).

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After prayers, the monks head off in single file, hands clasped in front of them in the classic wai gesture. (The wai is so common in Thailand, and so routinely used for greetings, that even the Ronald McDonald statues in Thailand stand in that pose!)

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The monks make three clockwise circumambulations around the chedi, chanting quietly in unison as they walk.

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We saw this quite firm instruction near a reclining Buddha figure at the Wat Chiang Man. We were of course disappointed, but we dutifully refrained from take wedding photo there.

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Singapore: My camera loves mirrors

Now that we’ve left Kalimantan (at least for the time being), it’s an opportunity to catch up up some photos from other places. So I’ve been (finally) processing photographs taken in Singapore last December, when we were there on a ‘visa run’.

What struck me about the images is that most of them were composed to feature reflected light and/or odd perspectives. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I hadn’t even noticed it until I started processing the photos. Perhaps it was the contrast with Kalimantan, where there are fewer opportunities for that kind of image – or perhaps I was just feeling obtuse…

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Here’s Karen and I (and other diners) having lunch in the ’Smoke and Mirrors’ bar at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore, housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings. The Gallery is a SG$450,000,000 blend of colonial and highly contemporary architecture, which (often) works really well.

The bar is constructed with a single huge curvy piece of stainless steel – which is said to weigh 400kg. It makes a great way to feature the panoramic view across The Padang to the Singapore waterfront and the unique Marina Bay Sands resort.

We had fish and chips.

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Here’s a more conventional perspective on that same view – from the same place.

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A fisheye mirror on a bend in a pedestrian laneway, with a construction site behind, made for an interesting (though perhaps unoriginal) composition. Did you spot Karen over my right shoulder in a green blouse, also making photos?

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Another, quote different, circle. Looking down into the entrance hall of the National Museum of Singapore from a balcony on the next level up.

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And from the same position, a third circle (actually a hemisphere!), looking up into the magnificent dome. The original building dates back to 1887, when it was built as the Raffles Library and Museum. Recent extensions have more than doubled the floor area of the Museum, but the very modern new parts have been (almost) entirely concealed when viewing the building from outside.

The stained glass in the rotunda was painstakingly restored in 2004-5. All 50 of the curved glass panels were removed, and glass, lead and joints were replaced or rectified as needed. The result is beautiful.

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As Singapore transformed into the modernistic glass-and-steel metropolis that it is today, it has been moderately successful in preserving some of the better architectural examples from its colonial past. This juxtaposition of past and present can be seen everywhere.

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Entering the new National Gallery feels like being invited back to a more ordered, graciously elegant past.

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But once inside, it turns into a futuristic, techno-organic world. Very different, and the contrast is a bit overwhelming at times!

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The joins between the two architectural ages are interesting – but not entirely seamless.

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I think I most liked some of the classical-looking parts of the building, where you couldn’t be sure whether it was very new or really old.

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There are some quite dramatic, and sometimes confusing, perspectives when looking down from high up in the atrium spaces. It’s a bit Escher-esque at times.

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Strong railings and high glass walls help to dispel the vertigo!

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In front of the Gallery main entrance, and leading across Coleman Street, through the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral toward North Bridge Road, is wonderful covered walkway. The high ceiling of the walkway is fully mirrored.

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I found it difficult to walk along there without tipping my head backwards to marvel at the kaleidoscope of fractured reflections above.

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My camera loves mirrors.

More of my Singapore photographs can be seen on my website by clicking on this link.