Lush and lovely spot in Penang

Quiet, lush and teeming with plant varieties from around the globe – and monkeys – Penang’s 29-hectare Botanical Gardens are worth going out of your way to visit; no other such well-stocked public gardens exist in Malaysia.

The gardens lie in a valley about eight kms outside Georgetown, Penang’s capital. They were established in 1884 on the site of a former granite quarry by Charles Curtis, who moved massive boulders and paved roads to give the gardens the spacious layout that persists until today.

At the head of the valley lies a waterfall whose stream flows through the gardens. When the island was first settled as a colony, passing ships stopped regularly at Georgetown’s harbour to collect fresh water from this stream; bullock carts were used, but it nevertheless would have been quite a hike to collect it. Today the waterfall lies in an area controlled by the Penang Water Authority, so permission needs to be sought if you’d like to view it.

In fact, the existence of the waterfall nearly spelled the demise of the gardens in 1910 when they were handed over to the Georgetown authorities for the express purpose of building a water reservoir within their grounds. The plans were eventually scaled back, and a smaller reservoir lying just outside the gardens was constructed. Nevertheless the gates to the gardens remained firmly locked until 1921, and many species were reportedly lost.

The gardens were also used by the Japanese for military purposes during their occupation of Penang from 1941 to 1945. The trees’ canopies provided camuflage which allowed the storing of ammunition and the assembling of torpedo bombs underneath them to safely take place – a network of underground tunnels was also built beneath the gardens. Again, plants were neglected and many were lost over these years.

Although the scientific attraction of the gardens might be strong for a certain portion of the population today, Penangites generally head there as it’s a lovely spot to exercise or just take a stroll.

The monkeys are thickest along Waterfall Rd, on which the main entrance is situated, with the signs warning visitors that it’s forbidden to feed the cheeky animals largely ignored by those keen to see them up close.

Despite the stifling heat when I visit in the middle of the day, there are plenty of people wandering around, although most seem to be seeking refuge in the shade of trees.

A stop off at "Botanika", the shop and information centre, to pick up a guidebook and a map is a good way to get your bearings before seeking out whatever horticultural delights take your fancy.

There are two main routes recommended to the visitor: one for ambitious heat-resistant souls known as the Upper Circular Route, and the other for lazy-bones like myself called the "Lower Circular Route". I try the Upper and find a short cut to take me back to the Lower when I have had enough.

Near the entrance is a tree whose name catches my attention: Cannon Ball tree (Courupita guianensis). The tree is a native of South America, and the fruit it bears resembles a cannon ball (clearly it got in before the coconut.) The trees on this side of the globe tend to flower without bearing fruit, but the cup-like flower is brilliant red and impressive enough on its own.

As I head up the hill past the palms collection, I pause to take a photograph of a Yellow Saraca tree (Saraca Thaipingensis), which my guidebook tells me is rarely in full bloom. There are plenty of flowers on this one, so I must be here at the right time.

I hear a stifled yelp and turn to see a man standing a few metres away, beckoning me to come look. An almost-black scorpion the length of an adult’s hand is crawling patiently along the gutter lining the asphalt road, oblivious to our interest. The man is quite excited as he tells me it could very well kill me. He grabs a stick to prod its deathly tail into action, and sure enough it curls viciously around in an attempt to sting the stick that’s just bugged it’s afternoon stroll.

I make a note of my open sandals and decide to conscientously keep an eye on where I’m walking.

Besides the main paths, there’s the occasional track you can wander along in denser brush. There are also various cages housing particular types of plants, such as the Bougainvillea House, the Orchidarium and the Fern House. These are open limited hours during the day.

As I’m heading to take a peak in the Sun Rockery section, a gardener named Ahmad Rahman strikes up a conversation with me. It turns out he has worked in the gardens for more than 32 years. His grandfather, he tells me, also worked in the gardens and assisted Charles Curtin in collecting plant specimens.

His specialties are orchids, ferns and ginger, and he looks disparagingly at my guidebook.

"I see you have the new guidebook," he says. The one I have is published in 1989, and I tell him so. "Yes, that’s the new one. You should have tried to get the old one. It’s much better. You can’t find it very easily anymore, but I have a copy. If I’d known you were coming…"

He has to head off to lunch, but agrees to pose for a photo in front of some ferns he planted many years ago. "I planted these, but I don’t look after them now – the boys took over, but they have to come and ask me what the names of them are," he says, shaking his head.

I wander on, and find that he’s right about the guidebook – I’m soon quite confused about directions. Many plants are labelled, however, so it’s not essential to carry a guide, but a good one would definitely be an asset.

It’s a shame that Ahmad doesn’t write one himself.

An Equal Music

By Vikram Seth
Michael is a violinist in a string quartet in London. He lives a quiet life with music being his greatest joy – he simply can’t forget the woman he loved and abandoned while he was a student in Vienna ten years ago. A chance sighting of Julia on a distant London bus brings the memories tumbling back; she eventually turns up at one of his concerts, and from there they salvage a friendship and their love. But two major events have happened to Julia between their meetings – marriage, and Seth masterfully reveals exactly what else just when the reader is beginning to think either Julia or the author is a little mad. The intimate and almost incestuous world of classical musicians is captured beautifully in this novel. The character of Julia, however, is perhaps not sufficiently developed to make the reader empathise with Michael’s obsessive love for her. Ultimately, however, the book is a success with Seth crafting a careful, intriguing tale of lives structured so tightly around music that little else except love – and often even that secondarily – exists.

Spiritual moves

Yoga has been around for longer than any archaeological records; by its very nature, it leaves nothing behind to point to its existence except for tales of the amazing powers possessed by some of the best yogis.

In Bangkok, yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism.

The first evidence of yoga’s practice is provided by Indian stone seals showing figures in yogic postures dated around 3000BC. In text, yoga is first mentioned in a collection of scriptures known as the Vedas, written five hundred years later. But it wasn’t until the sixth century BC, when the epic poem Mahabharata was published that things spread more widely. The poem contained the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famed of all yogic-related scriptures.

Hatha yoga, the generic term for most yoga practised in modern times, is based on a later text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which describes the various yoga postures still practised today.

Although things here in Bangkok may have been slow to kick off, today more and more Thais, along with expats, are becoming interested in yoga. “I don’t know if it’s a fad or what,” says Hilary Fedderson, who teaches her own blend of yoga several times a week here, “but people are certainly picking up on it now.”

Even a new Iyengar yoga studio has opened to deal with increasing demand for knowledge of, and a space to practice, this ancient tradition.

Hilary points out that the idea of yoga was never merely to exercise. “The idea of yoga was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually,” she explains. If the body was more flexible and strong, sitting meditations would be easier. “It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body.”

And you don’t need to be flexible to start doing yoga – you’ll feel the benefits immediately regardless. “The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways,” Hilary says.

The word yoga in fact literally means “joining”. Essentially, five principles can be identified as making up complete yogic practice (although various schools may have slightly differing theories). These are: proper relaxation, proper exercise (that is, yoga’s physical postures, or asanas), proper breathing (that is, the practice of pranayama), a proper vegetarian diet, and meditation.

“I don’t teach everybody pranayama,” says Chomchuen Sidthivech, also known as Khun Noo to the many students she teaches from her Bangkok home. “It’s very difficult compared to the postures – it’s inside. The postures are outside. Before you progress to pranayama you should concentrate on your breathing in your asanas. When you practise pranayama every day, it’s easy to progress to meditation.”

Many people start yoga initially because they’re suffering from a specific problem, or they are simply looking to maintain their health. Khun Noo started practising yoga because she suffered severely from allergies, regular colds and period pain.

“I found out about yoga from a magazine,” she says. She read an interview with the man who would eventually become her guru – and her father-in-law. “I wanted to help myself – I don’t like taking medicine.”

She soon began practising every day. “I was very stiff and not strong at all. After about three months, my menstrual problems cleared up, which made me very happy. It took one year for my body to really change. After that I improved quickly.”

Her guru had been suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, and weight problems, so he studied at the renowned Sivananda Ashram in Rishikeh, north India, when he went to India as part of his job as a journalist. He returned after several years of study to open a yoga school here in Bangkok located on Soi Wattanayothin – that was around forty years ago.

Khun Noo studied with him for around three years before she too began teaching at his school. Eventually they moved the school to Khun Noo’s current house, where they taught together for around eight years. Her guru died around eleven years ago, and she now teaches alone, although she is training her youngest sister to assist her. One group of around ten women have been coming to her for more than ten years. “A lot of my students are like my sisters or my cousins,” she says, smiling.

The Sivananda school of yoga that she teaches emphasises gracefulness, with no jerking, a trait that can sometimes be observed in other schools, such as Ashthanga which is becoming popular in the US. “Sivananda is smooth, gentle, slow,” she says. “It’s quite different.”

She is emphatic about the benefits of practising yoga. “If you practise every day, you learn how to breathe and move in a complementary way – it makes you become happy,” she says. “After a while, if you miss a day, you start to feel bad.”

American Justin Herold, who recently opened Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio, undertook yoga seriously when he found it offered him better all-round health than running, his previous method of maintaining fitness. He eventually took a teacher training course in Los Angeles, taught at the Los Angeles Iyengar school for three years and spent time studying with BKS Iyengar, the school’s founder, and his family at their institute in Pune, India. He arrived in Bangkok around eight years ago, where he has been teaching since.

“I go back in yoga around twenty years,” he says. “And the people who went back say ten or fifteen years prior to me were really on the cutting edge in terms of learning yoga in America. When they started, they were kind of like the real weirdos – the people you most associated them with were like beatniks, the flower children. It was something from the East, and it was something that was really – you know, maybe communist-rooted or something like that!”

He chose the Iyengar school of yoga, which emphasises body alignment and uses props such as blocks, ropes, belts, blankets and bolsters to help students get into poses. As he has a background in construction, he says this sort of approach to yoga appealed to him. “You find things that you grasp, that you can understand. Building and foundation make a lot of sense to me because I’ve seen it through the work I do.”

Justin points out that one of the main things with yoga is finding both a school and a teacher you like. “The end results are pretty much the same. Some people like Ashtanga yoga, where you go through a series of postures, and it gets really rigorous. It’s subjective, and that’s why I get people here – because some people like the way I teach.”

So if you’re looking for a way to maintain your health or you’ve been suffering from chronic pain or illness, and you’re prepared to give an ancient, highly-reputed therapy a go, Bangkok is now a good place to be. Invest in some casual exercise clothes and you’re set: you just need to find the teacher and the school right for you.

Hilary Fedderson teaches several classes weekly in the Sukhumvit area. She can be contact via email at [email protected] Khun Noo teaches Monday to Saturday at her home on Ekamai Soi 16. Justin Herold takes classes at set times every day except Friday at the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.

Walking tall

Around the globe there are a whole lot of fitness-freaks slowly coming to their senses. These are the people who maybe started aerobics in the ‘80s but have now had it with jumping around interminably on carpets stinking of sweat; or they’re the joggers of the ‘90s who are tired of being injured or just sick of mindlessly pounding the pavement.

They’re discovering Pilates, an exercise system developed by German-born Jospeh Pilates earlier this century. While in a British internment camp during World War I, Pilates, who was proficient in gymnastics, boxing and body-building, became a nurse. He rigged up a machine to help patients rehabilitate while still lying on their backs, and also trained other interns in physical fitness. This was the beginning of something big.

He moved to New York City in 1926 where, with wife Clara, he opened up an exercise studio. By the ‘40s, Pilates was well known and respected in the dance community. In 1956, Dance magazine wrote that “At some time or other, virtually every dancer in New York… has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates.” By the ‘60s, Pilates was teaching ballerinas at the New York City ballet, and the Pilates method was slowly becoming popular outside New York as well.

But what is this system? Its basic aim is to create a balance in the body. While many forms of exercise promote a tightening of certain muscles and an overstretching others, Pilates works to correct this imbalance, with weak muscles being strengthened and bulky muscles being elongated. The system promotes efficient movement of the body, while improving postural alignment, breathing, and mind/body control. The idea is that a few well-designed movements, properly executed in a sensible sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy exercises without thought.

It may have taken some time, but Pilates has finally reached Thailand. Deborah Jackson, the Sukhothai’s Health Club manager, has recently started teaching classes in floorwork Pilates at the Sukhothai (there are also Pilates machines – not yet in Thailand – which look a bit fearsome and require further qualifications to instruct). With a background in fitness instruction, Deborah has always been interested in improving people’s postures as a start towards getting them fit, so it’s only natural that she’s come to be interested in Pilates – as in fact much of the industry has.

“Over the last ten years, we in the fitness world have been taught always to support our back, and always make sure it’s well protected,” Deborah says. “Then the question arose as to why there were suddenly more people with more back problems and injuries. That’s where Pilates has come in. It’s more corrective. It’s basically strengthening, encouraging you to use those muscles and let your body support itself. Pilates is reintroducing the use of what we call fixator muscles, muscles that fix and support the body in a postural position.”

Deborah describes Pilates as a mixture of ancient martial art forms, Tai Chi and yoga, with ‘fitness’ moves thrown in as well. “It’s almost like – if you can remember going back to school and the teacher used to get you to lie flat on the floor and do sit ups and touch your toes a hundred times. Very basically, it’s going back to that,” she says.

I must look a bit unimpressed at that, for the next thing I know we’re heading down to the gym and Deborah’s showing me a few of the 34 basic floor moves. “I’ve had ten or 15 years of jumping around doing aerobics and high-energy stuff, and this is a good alternative for me,” she says. “The strength is still there. I can understand the benefits, I can feel the benefits. It’s so strong – it’s probably just as hard as running ten miles on a tread-mill, but in a relaxed and soothing way.” I’m sure I’m perspiring after trying just one move.

Although it’s early days yet for Thailand, things could be looking up: Deborah is planning on bringing Michael King, a Pilates instructors’ instructor, to Thailand within the next few months to run an instruction course in floorwork for those in the fitness industry.

“A lot of people residing in Thailand are not aware of Pilates yet,” she says. “In the States and even in Europe, it’s huge. It’s just taken the whole place by storm. The results of Pilates are fantastic – I don’t think anyone who has gone and done Pilates can’t feel the difference in their body posture.”

Alas, there’s bad news for those of us who want to toss away our runners for good. While Pilates is excellent for lots of reasons, it won’t maintain your cardiovascular fitness – you’re going to have to do something else regularly to get your heart rate up. But Pilates will substantially help your body’s ability to deal with aerobics on sweaty carpets or pavement-pounding. With the body awareness it creates, it might even make you enjoy it.

There are three fifty-minute Pilates classes a week at the Sukhothai. Health Club membership is required. Deborah Jackson can be contacted by phoning the Sukhothai on 287 0222.

Vang Vieng awakes

In 1994 the Song river flowed sedately through Vang Vieng, a small village-town just off Route 13 in Vientiane province, Lao PDR. Local women washed their hair in the river’s shallow waters, men pushed their bicycles across the smooth pebbles lining its bed and children pointed and cried when they saw some of the first western backpackers arrive to visit.

By 1998 the Nam Song Hotel had been open for some time on the river’s banks. Trucks occasionally ferried materials from quarries on the outskirts of town across the river to the Chinese-owned concrete company on the other. Backpackers getting off the daily buses from Vientiane or Luang Prabang elbowed each other to snare a cheap bed at a guesthouse.

By 2000, it seems that every second building in Vang Vieng is a guesthouse. Restaurants present English-language menus offering fruitshakes, pancakes and baguettes. A rickety bamboo bridge spans the Song – or most of it, anyway – and pedestrians are charged a 500 kip toll for its use. The concrete trucks are still ploughing their way across, but in ever-increasing numbers: a second factory is due to open soon.

While the town itself might be changing quickly, the essential geographical wonder of Vang Vieng remains. Nestled under immutable limestone karsts lining one side of the Song, Vang Vieng is the Lao equivalent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Thailand’s Pha Nga Bay – but blessed with a river instead.

My sunset arrival in the middle of an out-of-season downpour is not auspicious. While I hang around the bus station waiting for the rain to ease, I am approached by a Lao man asking me if I am looking for somewhere to stay. I mumble something in reply, thinking he is a tout.

“I am looking for somewhere to stay myself,” he says, in near-perfect English. “I have never been here before.” It turns out that my fellow traveller is a Lao student making a getaway from the capital, Vientiane, for a few days to write a paper. The approximately four-hour trip from the capital makes Vang Vieng a reasonably convenient getaway – by Lao standards, at least – for Vientiane’s inhabitants.

Eventually a real tout approaches us both. He tells us his guesthouse is just on the other side of the market, itself adjacent to the bus station. We follow him through the rain to the two-storey Saysong Guesthouse, which, our host tells us, has only been open since November last year. Rooms are clean and cheap at 15,000 kip per night. It’s difficult to not stay somewhere central in Vang Vieng as there are only a few streets making up the town, so we take rooms there.

Food is one of Vang Vieng’s great pleasures, and it’s truly difficult to go wrong with any choice. From the upmarket Le Pavrot, offering French wine, steaks and souffles to the generous guesthouse curries and local noodle soups, the choice is outstanding. I opt for one of the local curry soups with a generous serving of pumpkin and potato for my first meal (2,000 kip).

Early the next day, my new friend and I take a walk to the Vang Vieng Resort, a large tract of land featuring a network of caves, a panorama of Vang Vieng’s surrounds and peaceful walks along a stretch of the Song. A small entry fee is charged both to enter the Resort grounds, and then to access the steps leading to the caves.

My companion noticeably gathers some courage to ask me a few questions about foreigners.

“Why do so many foreigners – put things here and here?” he asks, indicating his nose and his eyebrow. Body piercings. I manage a reply about individualism and fashion. He seems unconvinced.

“And why do they make their hair look like muu daet diow (sun-dried pork)?” he queries. Dreadlocks. Same response. He commends me for not looking like a typical foreigner, and casually points out a snake slithering past our feet.

The resort rents bungalows for US$20 a night, and the receptionist who shows me one tells me that most of their guests are Laos from Vientiane. I don’t ask whether they are snake-proof.

I spend the rest of my time in Vang Vieng exploring on my own. Activities available include hiring an inner tube to float down the river for a couple of peaceful hours, or hiring a bike (of reasonable quality for around 7,000 kip a day) and exploring the surrounding caves. I’m told there are still many to be discovered . You can try an invigorating Lao massage (20,000 kip per hour) or take a Lao language lesson (15,000 kip per hour), both at a local English teacher’s home located on the main road leading to Vang Vieng Resort.

I take yet another option, and negotiate in Thai with a local boat pilot to hire his vessel and skill at navigating the river for an hour at 30,000 kip. The pilot has no watch, and tells me I will need to tell him when I want to turn back.

We commence our outing at the river crossing, flanked on either side by tourist accommodation.

The first, the Nam Song Hotel, is ideally located for sunset and is well established as the most expensive place to stay (US$32 to 36). Next door, however, the aptly name Sunset Bungalows has been offering very small longhouse rooms for US$10-15 dollars, and exactly the same view, since November 1999.

Or, if you eschew water views and just want to catch the sun dipping behind the karsts, wander down to Sunset’s restaurant for a Bia Lao as dusk begins.

But we leave the hotels and the tourists behind as the fragile wooden boat gains speed and manoeuvres deftly around sharp rocks – whose peaks are barely below the surface. I feel my life is in the pilot’s hands and it probably is. I’m soon past caring however, and gaze in awe at the magnificent sheer limestone cliffs towering above us. Except for the soft putter of our engine, there is complete silence, and the air, crisp at this time of year, is clean and refreshing.

The pilot points out a half-built collection of bungalows, which he says have stood incomplete since the owners ran out money three years ago. They certainly had foresight, though: had these bungalows been complete, there is little doubt they would now be a roaring success.

Getting There
Buses leave Vientiane bus station at 1:30pm daily. The return trip leaves Vang Vieng at 1:00pm.
Vang Vieng Resort, telephone + 856 23 511 050
Hotel Nam Song, Vang Vieng, telephone: +856 23 511 016
US$1=7,600 kip
It seems best to carry dollars (for larger hotel bills), baht (often accepted at cheaper guesthouses) and kip (sometimes the only currency accepted for small purchases).

The Good Cook

Edited by Richard Olney

This finely-photographed book is food pornography at its most sophisticated. It’s both more and less than a true cook book, with theoretical and practical information taking up the bulk of the book, and a recipe section with directions that need a good reading through before you start as they can be a bit cursory. You’ll find in this book all you could possibly want to know about peeling chestnuts, larding beef, preparing polenta, filleting fish, and truly everything in between. Absolutely not for the vegetarian – that v-word isn’t even in the index, and the photos of flesh are quite graphic. The downer buying it in Thailand is its Eurocentrism – it’s not exactly useful to know when to hunt red deer here, for instance – but on the other hand after one too many pad thais the voyeurism its glossy pages invite becomes that much more delicious, and there are plenty of recipes you can still give a go. The aim of the book is to “give wings to the reader”: indeed browsing through is enough to make you toss in your electric wok and make a beeline to the nearest stove store.