MELAKA — “Fun” is a subjective concept, as is the even more nebulous “culture.” As for “heritage,” it is a debatable term too, but can be more or less quantified by the range and antiquity of buildings and monuments that make up a place. But how about cruising through a UNESCO World Heritage site in a garish Pokemon or Hello Kitty-decor trishaw, a speaker blaring Taylor Swift from the roof and exhorting passers-by to “Shake It Off,” as a wizened driver struggles to pedal a cartload of tourists along a cobbled street toward the ruins of a 16th century church? Fun?
GEORGE TOWN – Haja Mohideen is the last of his kind, the sole fashioner of the traditional Malaysian hat called songkok melayu who is still working on Penang island. With that impending finality on his mind, the 69 year old milliner sits at his street-side desk for 11-12 hours a day, cutting and stitching the 5 or 6 hats that make up his daily output. “Most of the orders come when there are ceremonies, holidays,” Haja said.
BALI – As ground zero for Bali’s beach and booze crowd, Kuta has no literary pretensions beyond the bawdy car stickers and smutty T-shirts hawked along the main drag. Wading through the tat, it is hard to believe that this is the same island where literary luminaries such as Amitav Ghosh and Tash Aw enchant crowds with exquisite exegeses of exile, loss, memory and tacky women on the make, as they did recently at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Ubud, a hillside town of Hindu temples and wind-chimes in Bali’s heart, is a magnet for dreadlocked, tie-dyed Westerners who seem to subsist on little more than quinoa and squirrel droppings and bits of tree bark.
YANGON – Rip-Off Rangoon, where a plate of Lok Lak about half as good as you’d get in Phnom Penh costs US$10. Where a handful of veneered restaurants and bars slap on an extra couple thousand kyat, every few months, for diminishing portions of an exponentially-depreciating quality of fare. Refusing to join the race to the bottom is The Phayre’s Gastrobar a new restaurant with nighthawk aspirations next door to the famous Pansodan Gallery.
SOLO/YOGYAKARTA – Inside the Vredeberg, kids lined up to take out Dutch soldiers occupying late 1940’s Jogja – all rendered in 1990’s Nintendo-vintage graphics. Jilbab-wearing students tapping furiously on the screen, avenging colonial wrongs in a sort of a digitised bowdlerisation of Franz Fanon.
BANDA ACEH – It was just after 7 pm on a Saturday evening, and the manager of the new King’O coffee and doughnuts outlet in Banda Aceh was lamenting a slow night’s business. Henry, who would only give one name, said he opened the shop on May 17 this year in response to what he called a gap in the market. “Any time I fly back to Banda Aceh from Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya, I see people bringing big boxes of doughnuts – Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, local brands,” he said. With no such outlet in Aceh’s regional capital, Henry and some fellow Chinese-Indonesians set about filling a niche. “Business was great for the first few weeks, every evening the place was full,” he said, rattling his knuckles on the top of a gleaming new Italian coffee machine. But during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting season, King’O was forced to close during fasting hours, along with all the other restaurants in town
NUWARA ELIYA, Sri Lanka — K. Sagunthaladavi, 36, has spent half her life among the waist-high bushes that cover the verdurous slopes of Sri Lanka’s tea country, plucking hundreds of thousands of the green leaves used to make one of the world’s oldest and most popular drinks.