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The floating fortress of my soul

I like the sound of the words “Kota Kinabalu” when I pronounce them, it somewhat exhales an exotic flavour – well maybe not to Malaysians or those who know the etymology (one version is that it means the “revered place of the dead”) but it was certainly alluring to me when imagining this city on the Malaysian side of Borneo island, a city I had never heard of. And although it hosts Malaysia’s second busiest airport, Kota Kinabalu is a fairly small city of half a million people, gaining “city” status (by law) in the year 2000. What was most striking to me was the contrast in the city centre between the relatively few high-end hotels and posh restaurants and the relative deterioration of the pavement and the buildings, the slight segregation with distinctive Filipino market and food stalls (while there are many more ethnic groups in the city: Chinese, Bajau,  Kadazandusun, Bumiputras, etc.), and the evident poverty of some of the city’s inhabitants – more obvious than in the other cities I visited in Malaysia.

KK, as Malaysians call the city, is a melting pot of religions, with Islam probably being the most worshipped religion like in the rest of the country. On roughly either end of the city which extends along the coast are two impressive mosques – very visible ones, and certainly more traditional than the very peculiar underground one I had visited in Yogyakarta ( One of them is the state mosque built forty years ago and really looks like a green fortress with golden domes. I do prefer the other one though, KK’s city mosque, nicknamed the “floating mosque” since it’s sitting on an artificial lake – well, technically it’s a lagoon since I think it’s connected to the South China Sea just on the other side of the road where I took my pictures from. It may not seem like it but the building can fit in twelve thousand worshippers.

I had struggled to find the public bus leading to the floating mosque from the city centre – I’m sometimes too stubborn to bother negotiating a taxi fare when I’m not necessarily in a hurry. In addition, the daily afternoon rain didn’t give me much hope of taking great pictures. Perseverance paid off, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun popped out from beneath the clouds right before setting, shining a strong warm orange light on the façade of the building and reflecting it beautifully on the water. A few minutes later, the night covered the mosque with its dark blue mantle: the minaret sported pretty green and yellow colours, while the blue and gold Arabic-style dome disappeared into the darkness. “Arabic-style” do I say? In fact, the design of the mosque is supposedly based on the Nabawi mosque located in Medina in Saudi Arabia… another religious building I’ll never get to see ( since Medina’s city centre is forbidden to non-Muslims, alas.

The practice of charity, called “zakat”, is inscribed in Islam, the most well-off having to give zakat to get salvation and avoid damnation by not doing so. I am however not sure anyone needs any promise of reward nor fear of punishment to feel compelled to help someone in need… even if I do myself often feel too guilty or shy to be able to do anything. Wouldn’t being helpful make one feel humbly good about oneself, perhaps even a bit happy or rawly human, thus truly not requiring the use of a paternalistic carrot and stick approach?

Yes, my heart wrenches at the sight of homeless people, always making me wonder if I could teach some skills for them to get back on their feet. I can’t forget that woman sitting against the closed market building of KK, half-protecting herself under cardboard pieces from the cold of the night. As I approached, I distinguished the shape of a small boy asleep further inside the makeshift cardboard tent. Feeling too timid, I asked my accompanying partner to hand over the restaurant food leftovers we hadn’t touched (I knew we’d find someone to give them to). The woman seemed really grateful, although this wasn’t much of a gesture at all (they were leftovers after all, I almost felt bad), especially in comparison to all those I saw a bit everywhere around the globe pulling out and giving groceries they had just bought for themselves – or in comparison to those simply striking a conversation, still better than doing nothing even if it may not change much at the end of the day.

I cannot end this post without sharing with you the first few verses of one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice delivered by the beautiful and smart Portia in Act IV, scene 1. I always had some affinity for Shakespeare’s plays (and sometimes for his cheeky sonnets too), however difficult it is to sometimes understand his expressions without taking the time to analyse the double meaning of words and appreciate the beauty of the rhymes. While Portia’s speech emphasises the themes of mercy and forgiveness, qualities held in high esteem by Shakespeare, I still find the verses to have a nice ring to them and applicable to any act of generosity towards fellow human beings:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

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KK mosques, Borneo
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Attack of the wilderness: carnivorous reptiles – part 3 of 3

This is part 3 of a story started a few days ago (part 1:, part 2: as I meandered into the jungle on the eastern side of Borneo.

I was resting with my arms on the wooden railing, recovering a little from previous scares and also happy I had been able to capture some nice shots of monkeys and orang-utans despite my initial annoyance at my lens being covered with condensation. And because of orang-utans are just so cute, I’m adding some more shots of them in this current album, so there.

I closed my eyes to pay attention to the sounds of the jungle, which seemed quiet again – breathing slowly, my sense of hearing heightened. A bird was chirping in the distance, leaves were rustling in the wind, the sound of cracked twigs could also be faintly heard, as well as a hissing sound...

Hissing?! I abruptly opened my eyes, suddenly woken up from my daydreaming: a cobra was sitting on the intermediate level of the wooden railing I was leaning on. It had spread its neck ribs to form that widened hood typical of threatening cobras about to attack. Yikes! I leapt backwards, scared by this cobra which thankfully wasn’t very big (I now affectionately call it “my baby cobra”... from the safety and comfort of my swivel chair in my home office!).

Other guinea pigs (read: careless tourists) then approached it as I was taking photos from a distance with my telephoto lens. I only read afterwards that cobras display their threatening hood when they are disturbed – otherwise they’re really just cute pets ;-). How could I have known that this little fellow was using precisely the same railing as I was resting my arms on, seriously…

Did you know that cobras can live up to 20 years? And despite only being found from Africa through southern Asia, the name “cobra” comes from Portuguese, dating back all the way from the times – around the fifteenth century – when Portuguese explorers traveled around the world.  The full name is actually cobra de capello which literally means grass snake (“cobra”) with a hood (“capello”). And of course the nasty thing about them is their venom which can kill a man in two to ten hours, the neurotoxin it contains ending up blocking respiratory muscles (among others)… Yummy.

So here we are at the end of my tale on attacks from the wilderness. I’ll finish with an Egyptian proverb which I’ll try to remember next time I think I’m safe: “Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion”. I’ve been warned.

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Sepilok, Borneo, part 3 of 3
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Attack of the wilderness: distant cousins – part 2 of 3

This is part 2 of a story started a few days ago ( as I meandered into the jungle on the eastern side of Borneo.

Moments after I had avoided an attack by monkeys, I noticed a lone orang-utan which made me laugh as it was napping lazily on branches, before standing up to eat some leaves and then resting again on the wooden railing. It rolled itself up in a ball, in a hilarious slumped posture; its gentle eyes and constant smile could not but just bring a smile to my face. I particularly like that photo of the ape hung up at the top of a vertical branch and covering its mouth with its hand, as if to hide its own hysterical laughter at having noticed me taking pictures.

About 20% of the world’s orang-utans live in Borneo, that’s about forty thousand of them – did you know that those apes share more than 96% of their genes with us humans? More than their genetic proximity, the intense look in their eyes seemed wanting to say something. I couldn’t help but be touched by this distant long-haired cousin. Was it thinking something as it was looking back at me?

The first time I had seen orang-utans was the year before, in the Singapore zoo ( I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of seeing animals out in the wild as opposed to simply seeing them in a zoo. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against it but I wouldn’t necessarily travel and pay a lot of money for the uncertain probability of seeing them (I’m thinking of some safaris in Africa). Heck, paying “too much” even with the certainty of seeing animals is generally something that would lure me away (this makes me dream a little bit more, although it’s outrageously expensive). I guess I can live with little, having been raised not to throw money around (maybe limiting my ability to spend for myself at times?), and I also like to investigate and organise things on my own without going through intermediaries whose professionalism has rarely impressed me. On that topic, I’d also quote that witty remark expressed by a character in Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera: "Rich I am not, he said. I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing”. Digressing again (but who reads my stuff anyway?), let’s go back to my orang-utan.

It then started raining. I had stashed my small – red – umbrella into my lens bag. It’s only when I realised that the ape was attracted to the umbrella that I understood why accessories and bags had to be left in lockers at the entrance of the reserve. But it was too late and as the orang-utan started accelerating towards me, I started running too – and this time, I was the one who overtook a couple of older Frenchmen who didn’t realise yet what was happening. I didn’t look back and let them handle the situation, mwhahaha.

Once again did I make it safe. But things always come in threes, don’t they? I would decidedly have to be always on my guard as the next type of attack generally leaves ten percent of its victims dead cold. Shivers.

To be continued in part 3 ( Stay tuned.

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Sepilok, Borneo, part 2 of 3
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Attack of the wilderness: silver primates – part 1 of 3

I survived... but not without high-frequency heartbeats – although that’s always better than bruises, torn limbs or poisoned blood. I only had it close.

I initially thought I wouldn’t see more than the few orang-utans which emerged from the rainforest to collect food distributed at regular hours in the sanctuary of Sepilok, a jungle on the Malaysian side of Borneo island (which is otherwise split with Indonesia and the small sultanate of Brunei). The humidity in the middle of that thick leech-filled rainforest (and with other weird insects like the red and black one the size of a table tennis ball) caught me off guard: my camera lens was immediately covered with condensation, despite having travelled in a non-air-conditioned bus the previous hour. It made me fairly annoyed as I had also forgotten to carry along a soft cloth to wipe the condensation off. My T-shirt would obviously do but I’m who I am and still was upset at myself!

Silver monkeys were playfully stealing some of the food intended for the orang-utans and sometimes aggressively trying to snatch what their fellow species had managed to grab. I was no longer in utter awe at seeing so many freely-wandering monkeys: the first time I had seen so many was in Rajasthan, in India, four years ago, and then in the city of Phetchaburi in Thailand (where tourists are warned of monkey attacks:, and of course in Indonesia as well. But I am still always fascinated by those almost-human-faced animals (to the point that Google+ asked me to type in the name of a monkey on one picture, thinking it was a human being!), so sneaky and so agile – and how can those babies clinging to their mothers’ bellies not be cute?

I knew I had to be careful of course, not only because I could see those monkeys sometimes being aggressive to one another (yep, you can clearly see those sharp canines on one picture towards the end of my shared album). There are however other silly animals – humans for that matter – that don’t seem to get that those monkeys are wild animals, especially when you find them in the jungle. At first, it was a bit terrifying to hear a shriek in the middle of the jungle, and numerous monkey growls and cries immediately after. But then, I couldn’t resist to smile (okay – I’ll admit it – even smirk) when I saw a tearful German blonde running back towards civilisation out of the jungle, after having had four monkeys jump on her and probably pull her hair. In case you were wondering, there are indeed a few rangers patrolling but they obviously can’t be everywhere in the jungle. So when you’re in the jungle, you’re on your own, no joke.

I laughed less when four Brits in their twenties started to “play” with monkeys – which obviously started attacking again, the Brits darting off, not apologetic at all of bumping into me. And then I started running too (duh!). Thanks to my avid practice (not) of Temple Run (a popular game on Android,, I knew how to run on – what am I saying, gracefully jump and slide along – the wooden walkway, at times glancing behind me to check how quickly the “demonic” monkeys were catching up on me.

I made it safe but the respite was only brief.

To be continued in part 2 ( Stay tuned.

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Sepilok, Borneo, part 1 of 3
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Ephemeral reality – and imagination

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 ominously flew over the densely-populated island of Penang three weeks ago – but eventually carried on flying towards the south Indian ocean. The hypotheses and speculations on the disappearance of that flight have captivated me – I have been reading every single bit of available “information” every single day, strangely fascinated by this ongoing mystery.

My theory is that a fire on the plane – possibly caused by the 200 kilograms of lithium batteries it was carrying or by blown-up tires – forced the pilots to shut down electrical components, therefore possibly affecting communications means, in order to try and contain the fire. Maybe they even tried to gain altitude to starve off the fire from oxygen? And then they would have dialed in flight coordinates to land on the nearest long-enough landing strip, possibly Langkawi? But by that time the fire could possibly have spread, smoke intoxicating the cabin and the cockpit, and for whatever reason, the pilots imagined they’d never land safely and preferred to leave the autopilot on to get the aircraft to crash where nobody would be hurt on ground – i.e. heading towards the Indian ocean – not crashing right away so as to let satellites detect its trajectory… Or maybe a pilot just went crazy, who knows... will we ever even know if no debris are found? I would think that this story makes good fodder for a film – I’d be possibly inspired to write a thriller novel inspired from the speculation and the facts around all this.

I digress, as usual, although the common theme beyond showing you pictures of Penang in Malaysia – and George Town specifically, its capital – is imagination and how it goes by definition beyond reality, how imagination feeds itself from artifacts and tidbits in our lives. And what better way to showcase a town than to let artists express their imagination directly onto the walls of the town. In the case of George Town, some pieces were actually commissioned, some as part of a festival two years ago, while others sprung up freely, inspired by the lively and often humourous murals and steel rod caricatures. Boyish-looking but internationally-renowned Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic is one of those artists whose works I photographed, such as the (real) bicycle with the two (painted) children. Louis Gan is another, the artist behind the (painted) brother and sister on a (real) swing – I really like this blending of real-life objects and drawings, with passer-bys clinging to those objects when posing for pictures.

Of course, it’s not without posing challenges when art is considered too controversial or possibly damaging to historical facades, or when those new art pieces are themselves being vandalised or gradually fade away with time. The somehow ephemeral nature of that funny street art – string-ball or painted or ‘kung-fued’ cats, minions on a pole, a painted boy on a real motorcycle – truly resonated with me and I’m sure with many others too. Take a look for yourself – in my album or in person (here’s a Google map with the location of some of those art pieces:

One thing that's certain is that flight MH370 didn’t eventually crash on Penang. The flight’s most likely crash – symbolically represented on that last photo in my album – could indeed be considered a one-off event, a blip on the radar screen of sad world events. But I gather the mystery still shrouding many aspects of what should be an ordinary journey that many ordinary people could have taken has kept me intrigued, perhaps hypnotised or even entertained, even if it’s mixed with a tint of dread. I can thus relate to words by George Bernard Shaw in his only science-fiction 5-play opus called Back to Methuselah (full text:, the last play of which, As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920, is accordingly set thirty thousand years in the future when great longevity is the norm (I wish!): “without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable”.

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Street art, George Town, Malaysia
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Gliding on the Kinabatangan river in Borneo

Light rain was constantly whipping my face. Once more, my China-bought rain cape was making its wonders, protecting me and my photography gear. We were about a dozen on that simple boat, on the lookout for animals on the sides of Kinabatangan river, in the middle of the rainforest in Borneo. The wide muddy-coloured river was uninviting – after all, crocodiles were roaming even if I didn't get to see them.

The grey clouds didn't offer much chance for the sunlight to shine on the rainforest, making it harder to spot the animals often located high up in the trees and even more difficult to take any good-quality pictures. To give you a sense of what that river safari looked like, here’s a brief eight-times accelerated video montage: Fair enough the montage is not as amazing as that GoPro ad I love – and which music usually wakes me up in the morning – ( but what do you want!

The boat guide was unsurprisingly a keen observer. Without him, I’d never have been able to spot half of the animals I eventually saw. Each of the three two-hour rides would grant me with good opportunities to shoot different animal species with my camera: pygmy elephants (, kingfishers (, proboscis monkeys (, but also lizards, purple and white herons, orang-utans and many silver monkeys.

I couldn’t however help but associate together the last two pictures of my album: the ominous smoke-puffing chimneys above the palm tree plantations that I noticed as I was leaving the ever-shrinking rainforest and going back to “civilisation” versus that sad monkey seemingly waving back at me...

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Kinabatangan River, Borneo
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”If I had such a nose, I'd amputate it!”

It’s impossible not to recognise Borneo’s long-nosed reddish-brown monkeys once I caught sight of them up in the trees on the banks of the Kinabatangan river. They’re fairly good swimmers but they spend most of their time leaping in trees. That habitat is unfortunately being destroyed, their population numbers consequently severely decreasing, just like those of kingfishers ( and pygmy elephants ( That’s for the sad part of the story.

Sexual dimorphism is particularly pronounced among those monkeys (hang on, I talked about dimorphism, don’t stop at the very first word of my sentence although we’ll get to that side too): males are a bit bigger in size, and its undoubtedly their large nose (also known as “proboscis” – that’s still an easier word than my surname) that distinguishes them from females (which by the way still have pretty large noses for primates).

Those monkeys turn out to be endemic to Borneo: that means they can’t be found anywhere else in the world, except in zoos obviously… or in the Netherlands, because proboscis monkeys are also known as monyet belanda or orang belanda in Bahasa which means the “Dutch monkey” and the “Dutchman” respectively, as Indonesians had observed that their Dutch colonisers had similar large bellies and noses (I won’t comment).

In case you didn’t get it, the title of my story is a quote extracted from a well-known soliloquy declaimed by Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in response to his opponent’s mockery, simplistically describing Cyrano’s nose as “big”. You won’t regret it if you are a lover of words: take a minute to pay attention to, enjoy and laugh at the carefully crafted words and rhymes of that “nose” tirade – although the original text is in French (, the English version is not bad at all and quite faithful to the French text:

You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: 'Sir, if I had such a nose
I'd amputate it!' Friendly: 'When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!'
Descriptive: ''Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
-- A cape, forsooth! 'Tis a peninsular!'
Curious: 'How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?'
Gracious: 'You love the little birds, I think?
I see you've managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!'
Truculent: 'When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose --
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: "The chimney is afire"?'
Considerate: 'Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o'er heels you go!'
Tender: 'Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!'
Pedantic: 'That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead's bump!'
Cavalier: 'The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? 'Tis a useful crook!'
Emphatic: 'No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give thee cold! save when the mistral blows!'
Dramatic: 'When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!'
Admiring: 'Sign for a perfumery!'
Lyric: 'Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?'
Simple: 'When is the monument on view?'
Rustic: 'That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
'Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!'
Military: 'Point against cavalry!'
Practical: 'Put it in a lottery!
Assuredly 't would be the biggest prize!'
Or. . .parodying Pyramus' sighs. . .
'Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master's phiz! blushing its treachery!'
– Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act I scene 4 (

If you want to see how it goes in French, here’s Gérard Depardieu (whose nose is also recognisable – probably not a coincidence) at it, some twenty-four years ago (that is before he went a little bit bonkers):

Oh and there’s another distinctive “red” trait that makes male proboscis monkeys unmistakable, ahem: take a look at a couple of my pictures again… Let’s just say that proboscis monkeys are known to enjoy sex even with no reproductive purpose… which is obviously the case when mounting their same-sex counterparts which they apparently also do. And since the Olympic games are currently taking place at Sochi: ;-).

Teaser: in my next post, we’ll head to a small island located southeast of Bali, home to a completely-manual aqua-cultural industry that started off 350 years ago in Japan. Can you guess which one I’m talking about?

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Proboscis monkeys, Borneo
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Pygmy elephants in Borneo

Word had circulated among boat drivers that elephants could be seen not far off from the shore, somewhere close to a makeshift pontoon of the Kinabatangan river, in eastern Borneo. We – the dozen of us on that elongated canoe-style motorised boat – accosted, walked a bit on a trail and, fair enough, a horde of elephants were calmly eating leaves in the distance.

An atmosphere of adventure could be felt in the air. Here we were, tourists, a guide and a boat driver, all on foot, sixty metres away from the elephants. Everyone knew we had to keep our distance, especially as one of the mother elephants was clearly staring at us, positioning herself towards us as if ready to charge. But still, it was very tempting to always inch closer, closer to those baby elephants playing with mud, throwing it in the air onto their backs, oblivious to the potential human threat.

They were so-called pygmy elephants – but that didn’t actually mean they were small. In fact, the adult ones are similar in height to their counterparts in southeast Asia. It is believed that they were introduced by the Sultan of Sulu in the eighteenth century, initially held captive and then released into the jungle – which may explain why they are considered to be remarkably passive. It also makes them genetically distinct from other elephant species.

There are however only about two thousand elephants left in the Sabah province of Borneo, perhaps less than there are kingfishers (  – deforestation on behalf of palm tree plantations surely not helping – thus making them one of the highest priority populations for Asian elephant conservation.

Speaking of elephants, and considering my usual attempt to end my posts with a punch line, let me share a riddle with you (I would sometimes entertain conference audiences with such riddles). But before that, did you know that the elephant jokes date back to the early 1960s in the US? They are often constructed in a sequence of one another, ending up with incongruous and absurd but logical answers. Here goes: how do you know a (pygmy) elephant is under your blanket? Come on, take a guess before I give you the answer. Stop reading! Close your eyes! Okay then. Here’s the answer: because when you get in your bed your nose touches the ceiling. Ha. Haha. Sorry.

Teaser: in my next post, we’ll be heading once more to Bali to discover another one of the seven sea temples, a temple invaded by aggressive monkeys. Had you checked out the pictures I had previously shared of Tanah Lot and the delightful sunset light that shrouded the temple and illuminated the sea ?

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Pygmy elephants, Borneo
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Kingfishers in Borneo

A shutter click and it was gone, flying off to another branch. Our motorised boat glided on the mud-coloured river towards the latest landing spot of that kingfisher.

It was raining a little, the weather was grey, the boat was moving, so it wasn’t that easy to take good shots of a rapidly-moving bird about thirty metres away despite my expensive camera equipment. Out of about a hundred shots only remain about ten or so which are okay-ish – blame it on the amateur skills of the photographer.

I particularly like the tiny kingfisher on the pole sticking out of the water: zoom in on the picture, you’ll see it remains relatively sharp. I had not shown that picture to my grandfather yet ( that he remembered a similar kingfisher from his younger days, it was funny.

The kingfisher in flight is not too bad as well: do you notice the reflection of its bright colours on the water surface?

Kingfishers are represented by close to a hundred different species spread across – interestingly, to me at least – all continents, absent only from the polar regions (I mean, who really wants to live there, right?). And while all have a large head with a pointed bill, as well as short legs below a stubby body, they range from the tiny 10-gram 10-cm African ones to the heavy 450-gram 45-cm Australian ones. For some ethnic tribes In Borneo in particular, some kingfisher species are alternatively considered ill or good omen. I was certainly happy to spot the birds – let's just hope they were the ones of good omen!

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Kingfishers, Borneo
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And the Oscar of the best decorated rickshaws goes to…

How could I not be fascinated by motor-powered or man-pedaled tricycles? Wherever I go on the planet, they are always different, often funny, certainly interesting, systematically coming in different shapes and colours: from Thailand’s samurai-shaped tuk-tuks (here are my pictures:, Peru’s “Formula 1” mototaxis ( and Indonesia’s tall becaks (

I have to say the ones I saw in Malacca, one of Malaysia’s most culturally-diverse city a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur by bus, win the decoration contest – by very far. Hello Kitties, red flowers and pink hearts, LED lights blinking at night, butterfly roofs, spiral-decorated wheels, you name it. Some of them even came mounted with loudspeakers, blasting out the latest pop songs at full volume.

It was fun to take pictures of those cycle rickshaws – not sure I wouldn’t have felt a bit ashamed to be transported in one of them though. Gotta take care of my reputation after all! And since I love digressions, here’s a quote by George Bernard Shaw which makes me laugh: “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

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Tricycles, Malacca
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