I Finally Played Assassin’s Creed – Here Are My Thoughts

The Assassin’s Creed series is one of the most popular games in the world, with 11 installments under its belt and over 140 million copies sold. While I have heard many good things about the game, I never had the chance to play it until recently. Steam was having a sale on all AC titles, some of which were going at half price – and after looking up reviews, I settled on AC: Origins.

Only regret? I should have started playing sooner.

AC Origins is set in the last days of the Ptolemaic dynasty in ancient Egypt, and follows Bayek of Siwa, a Medjay whose duty is to protect the people – sort of like a modern day sheriff of sorts. A dangerous job begets dangerous enemies, and Bayek and his son Khemu are captured by mysterious masked figures from The Order of the Ancients. They demand Bayek open the Siwa Vault, but Bayek was actually oblivious to the vault’s existence, a fact the Order of the Ancients refused to believe. In the ensuing scuffle, Khemu is accidentally murdered by his own father. 

The story picks up one year later, with Bayek returning to Siwa after successfully killing The Heron, one of the Order. Bayek and his wife Aya are hell-bent on revenge, and they have a list of targets from which they intend to eliminate. However, the more Bayek investigates, the more he realizes that toppling the order isn’t simply about assassinating a few men, as the organisation is not only firmly entrenched in society and politics, but also wields enormous influence. They also discover that the Order is actually after powerful relics – which is why they wanted access to Siwa Vault – and use these powers to subjugate the population and bring peace and order to the world. 

To counter this, Bayek and Aya found The Hidden Ones, the precursor to the modern Assassins. Like the modern version, the Hidden Ones are meant to represent peace through freedom, whereas the Order of Ancients – a forerunner to the modern Templars in other AC games, represent peace through order. These two secret societies will battle each other through the ages: one determined to seek out relics for power, the other to prevent the subjugation of mankind. 

The Story and Characters 

If you’re a fan of historical fiction (like Dan Brown), you’ll love how the story weaves Bayek and the Hidden Ones into real-life events in history. There’s even a mission where you help sneak Cleopatra into Ptolemy’s palace, so that she can meet Julius Caesar. The main story isn’t all that long, but there are plenty of side missions to keep you occupied. Some have interesting plots and add to the overall story; others are mundane and involve things like fetching items. As much as I like the game, I found the side missions tedious and repetitive after awhile, but kept going because I’m *hangs head in shame* a completionist and it bugs me when there’s an incomplete mark on the map lol. 

Bayek as a character is quite likeable, albeit a little naive (he often takes what people say at face value, then (insert Pikachu face meme here) is shocked when they betray him. Bayek’s guilt at Khemu’s murder ,his helplessness at being unable to protect his son and family, is also well written and portrayed through small side missions, like the one where you can complete puzzles and be rewarded with some dialogue about how Bayek and Khemu used to go star gazing.

I also think that the theme of revenge is conveyed really well. Bayek feels that by killing the people responsible for his son’s death, as well as those who have wronged Egypt and oppressed its people, he will be able to feel at peace. We see that this is not the case. 

Whenever Bayek makes a kill, the player is transported to a dark space where Bayek has a conversation with his victim and passes judgement for their sins, before they are sent to the afterlife. But as the player observes, Bayek is not always happy, even after his vengeance is complete, because deep down he knows that like Hydra in Greek mythology, cut off one head and another appears. There will always be oppressors, just as how there will always be the oppressed. It isn’t until he realises this and finds a greater calling – to protect the people through the Hidden Ones and leave a legacy that lasts beyond his own life – that he truly finds purpose. 

Graphics and Setting 

Image via Ubisoft

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egyptian history (one of my dreams as a kid was to go see the Pyramids of Giza), and AC Origins delivers with breathtaking visuals. It’s one of the prettiest games that I’ve played, aside from Detroit Become Human. 

The immersion is wonderful; at times I felt like I was actually exploring ancient Egypt in Bayek’s shoes, checking out tiny details on the buildings and statues,soaking in the culture and colourful tales of their gods and myths. The costumes are amazingly detailed and reflect the different stations of its characters, from the everyday people and the priestesses, to soldiers, merchants and nobility. You also get a nice mix of Egyptian, Greek and Roman culture, as during the Ptolemaic period these three were intertwined (Rome invaded Egypt in 30BC, ending Cleopatra’s rule and the ancient Egyptian dynasty). As Bayek, you visit important cities such as Alexandria, Krokodiliopolis, Thebes and Memphis, each with their own unique architecture.

Gameplay 

I have to admit – I was rather miffed at the lack of a ‘jump’ command when I first started playing, because it seemed like such a basic move that players won’t be able to do at will. Instead, you vault over obstacles when Bayek’s avatar is close – but you kind of get used to it as the game progresses. As the AC series is all about stealth, you’re not supposed to be running through hordes of enemies hacking and slashing, relying instead on hiding yourself in bushes, around pillars and timing your attacks so that enemies won’t raise the alarm. Overall, the gameplay feels smooth, even though sometimes I would accidentally release myself from a ledge and watch as Bayek falls to his doom wtf haha. That being said, the game allows you to move and climb virtually anywhere. The use of your hawk Senu to hone in on hidden treasure and enemies is a nice touch, and is apparently a hallmark of the AC games (can’t compare because I’ve never played the other ones). 

I feel that it is a good thing that I started with AC: Origins. Not only does it start in the ‘correct’ chronological order ie how the Assassins came to be, thus giving the player plenty of backstory, it’s also touted as one of the best AC games of all time. Because I had so much fun, I purchased AC: Odyssey, which is the latest one in the franchise and will be checking it out as soon as I have more time – and I’m planning to get some of the older games too.The thing about that, though, is that the new games tend to be improvements over old ones, so you just can’t get into them once you’ve played the new (case in point: I played Witcher 3 first, and Witcher 2 just sucked in comparison. Same case with Borderlands 2). 

Have you played any of the Assassin’s Creed games? Which one is your favourite? 

4 Historical Spots To Visit While In Melaka

Melaka is one of Southeast Asia’s most historically rich sites. Founded by a Javanese Hindu prince in the 1400s, it thrived as a port and welcomed traders from as far as China, Arab and India. It was then conquered by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English for hundreds of years. Naturally, old structures and the influence of various cultures remain, making Melaka a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For first-timers in the city, there’s no running away from visiting four important historical hotspots. They’re all within walking distance of each other, so getting to each is just a matter of legwork. Just ready the sunscreen, shades, an umbrella and lots of water – Melaka is scorching at most times of the year.

THE RUINS OF ST PAUL’S CHURCH @ ST PAUL’S HILL 

20191201_113220

The heart of Melaka is centred around a hill (now known as St Paul’s Hill), since the high vantage point affordsgood views of the coastline (ergo, important back then to see ships + invading forces).

Perched on top of this hill are the ruins of St Paul’s Church, a Roman Catholic church built in 1521 by the Portuguese nobleman Duarte Coelho. Originally called the Nossa Senhora da Annunciada (Our Lady of the Annunciation), it was dedicated to St Mary. The church was later deeded to a Jesuit missionary called Francis Xavier, who used it as a base for his missionary trips around Southeast Asia. After his death and ascension to sainthood, his body was interred for a while at the church, before it was sent to Goa. A burial vault was also opened in the 1590s, and many Portuguese nobles and people of distinction were buried here.

20191201_113250

After the Dutch invaded in 1641, the church was re-designated as St Paul’s Church under the Dutch Reformed denomination. For a while, the Dutch community in Melaka used it as their main church, but left it abandoned after the new Christ Church was completed in 1753. Parts of the building were also taken down to help fortify defense structures around Melaka. The church building fell further into disrepair during English occupation, when it was used as a gunpowder depot.

20191201_113426

View of the Straits of Melaka from St Paul’s Hill

20191201_113719

There was a church event going on at the ruins during our visit.

The building itself is just a shell of its former self – four walls, no roof and exposed red brick, lined with elaborately carved stone grave markers. One wonders how it must have been like in its heyday, when both the Portuguese and then later the Dutch came to pray and attend religious sermons and events.

20191201_113820

20191201_114113

The stage was set up for a play later in the evening, while the open grave where St Francis Xavier’s body was once interred was littered with flower petals.

PORTA DE SANTIAGO @ A FAMOSA 

20191201_115736

When the Portuguese invaded Melaka in 1511, they established their base at the hill (now St Paul’s Hill), built a fort around it, and called it “The Famous”. The Dutch continued to use it during their occupation, but when the British came, they destroyed almost all but this last gate called the Porta de Santiago. Visitors who visit the site today will find little more than a simple gate, its brick facade blackened and weathered. Over the archway is an inscription, Anno 1670, as well as the logo of the East India Company – both additions by the Dutch. While there isn’t much by way of sights, the historical significance itself makes this place worth a visit. It is, after all, the oldest surviving European remains in Southeast Asia.

MALACCA SULTANATE PALACE MUSEUM 

20191201_120746

Just steps away from the Porta de Santiago is the Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum, a reconstruction of the old palace based on written accounts in the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals. The old palace was said to have sat on the hill where St Paul’s Church is now located, but it was destroyed when Portuguese forces invaded. This modern version tries to stay as true as possible to descriptions from the Malay Annals, and was built with timber wood without the use of nails.

20191201_121630

Inside, visitors will find various exhibits detailing the history of the sultanate, as well as cultural and historical artefacts. Only the main hall is air conditioned; it is very stuffy upstairs and at the outer verandah, so it’s best to visit at a cooler time of day.

20191201_121757

The story of Hang Tuah is told here through a series of paintings.

Hang Tuah is the OG of Malay warriors and features prominently throughout Malay legends and literature, although whether or not he truly existed remains highly debated. He was apparently highly skilled in the martial arts (silat) and was an extraordinary warrior, second to none.

One of the most famous tales is the one where some ministers of the court, jealous of Hang Tuah’s standing with the Sultan, spread slander and lies about him, to which the Sultan ordered him executed. The chief minister who was tasked with this knew that Hang Tuah was innocent and instead hid him in a cave. Hearing of unjust done to his childhood friend, Hang Jebat – who after Hang Tuah was the best fighter in the land – ran amok, seeking to avenge him.

20191201_121944

It was then that the Chief Minister revealed that Hang Tuah was in fact, alive – much to the relief of the Sultan. Jebat was happy that Hang Tuah was alive, but Hang Tuah berated his friend for rebelling against the Sultan. A fight ensued that lasted for seven days, and Tuah emerged the winner after killing his friend. He continued serving Melaka, going on numerous other adventures. Yes, a rather grim ending for Jebat who was only thinking of avenging a friend whom an unjust ruler wronged – but hey, loyalty to the Sultan was paramount to anything else back in the day, even childhood friends whom you grew up with.

20191201_122241

A diorama of the Balairong Seri, or the audience reception hall where the Sultan received political dignitaries, guests and his advisors.

20191201_122542

Costumes worn by the different classes in Malaccan society, including royalty, as well as accessories and jewellery such as hair pins, brooches, belts, etc.

20191201_122610

Another diorama, this one of the Sultan’s bedchamber.

The Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum is open daily from 9AM to 5PM. Entrance is RM3 for Malaysians and RM5 for foreigners.

RED SQUARE / STADTHUYS/ CHRISTCHURCH 

20191201_112352

Last but not least, make your way to the Red Square, where you will find fire-red buildings which include a clocktower, the 18th century Dutch founded Christ Church, and the Stadthuys, which was once used as an administration building and residence for the Dutch Governor and now houses a museum of History and Ethnography. The square is a colourful place, filled with loud and gaudy-looking trishaws that blast techno music and are decorated with pop culture characters. Once the main mode of transportation around Melaka, you can now take a ride around town for a hefty RM25.

20191201_130031

If the Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum detailed the history of the ancient Malay kingdom, the Stadthuys is more focused on the period between the landing of the Portuguese up until Japanese occupation in the days of World War II. Exhibits include a selection of weaponry, including swords, sabres, guns and armour, plus items from trade such as pottery, crystal glasses, silverware and the like.

20191201_130336

20191201_130532

20191201_131034

Melaka’s four conquering forces – the Portuguese (1511 – 1641), the Dutch (1641 – 1825), the British (1826 – 1942) and the Japanese (1942 – 1945).

20191201_132422

A diorama of Melaka during the Portuguese occupation. notice how the fort was still completely intact, surrounding the city.

20191201_133030

A painting depicting the captain of the Portuguese guard surrendering the keys to the city to the Dutch after the defeat of Portuguese forces.

20191201_135221

Aside from colonial history, the museum also houses exhibits on local culture and practices of the community. Pictured is a diorama of a traditional Malay-Melakan wedding. The bersanding ceremony, where the bride and groom sits on a raised dias, draws from Hindu cultural influences.

The Stadthuys is open from 9.30AM – 5.30PM daily. Entrance is RM5 for Malaysians and RM10 for foreigners.

If there’s one thing Melaka isn’t short of, it’s museums – although I can’t say they’re all impressive. If you like museum-hopping, also worth visiting is the Melaka Maritime Museum (housed in a replica of the Portuguese galleon Flor del Mar), the People’s Museum, the Stamp Museum and the Submarine Museum (housed in a decommissioned submarine by the coast), to name a few.

FOLLOW ME ON SOCIAL MEDIA 

Thanks for reading! I’m trying to grow my social media, so any likes and follows will be appreciated! You’ll also be updated on what I’m up to on a daily basis. 🙂

facebook.com/erisgoesto 

twitter.com/erisgoesto 

instagram.com/erisgoesto

Uncovering Melbourne’s History @ The Old Treasury Building

 ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’ – Winston Churchill

Melburnians are a blessed lot. Not only do they have a vibrant culinary arts scene (one of Australia’s best – plus great coffee!), there are also no shortage of things to do within the city, with a festival of some sort every other week, beautiful parks and nature, seaside and beaches perfect for surfing, as well as museums and art galleries at every corner.

But how did it all come to be?

20190213_113027

A great place to learn about Melbourne’s history and its roots is at the Old Treasury Building along Spring Street. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the Victorian-era structure was once home to the Treasury Department of the Government of Victoria, and now houses a museum chronicling the city’s history.

Melbourne as a city grew exponentially during the Victorian Gold Rush, when settlers flocked to the area in search of gold. As such, the building was originally built not only to act as treasury offices, but also to house the state’s gold vaults.

20190213_113537

The building’s interior exudes an austere Victorian charm, with thick wooden doors, dimly lit corridors and antique chandeliers. The museum’s permanent exhibition, “Melbourne: Foundations of a City” takes visitors through the city’s early days as a settlement by the Yarra River, its heydays in the Gold Rush, and later on during the World War. Most of the exhibits relate to the socio, economic and political development of Melbourne, told through important documents, letters or even decrees preserved to this day.

20190213_113853

Bust of Sir Edward Macarthur, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Australia from 1855.

20190213_113949

20190213_114139

An interesting exhibit on criminals, including female felons. There was a display of their mugshots along with their names, and their respective offences recorded in a book. These ranged from petty crime and disorderly conduct, to more serious offences such as murder.

20190213_114631

During World War I, Australians were faced with a choice – on whether their men should be conscripted to fight overseas. A Nation Divided: The Great War and Conscription tells the story of this time in Australian history. Some historians have described the debates resulting from the issue as being the most bitter, divisive and violent to ever consume the nation, splitting up families, communities and political parties.

 

20190213_114553

The exhibition covers material both for and against, showcasing impassioned posters, comics, poetry, speeches and many more. In the end, despite a huge government campaign, Australians voted against conscription – although many Australian soldiers still volunteered to participate in the war.

20190213_115020

What was it like living in 1920s Melbourne? Venture downstairs for an insight into the lives of the Maynard family, who lived in the basement of the Old Treasury Building.

20190213_115139

Mr Maynard was the superintendent of the building, in charge of security, maintenance and the cleaning staff, while Mrs Maynard took care of their eight children, whilst also preparing morning and afternoon tea for the Governor’s meetings upstairs. The family squeezed into five rooms, and you can see items and furniture perfectly preserved as they were in the old days. There’s even one of those old metal bathtubs on display!

20190213_115242

The basement is also where you will find the gold vaults, with real (?) gold bars encased behind glass, and this replica of a real-life giant gold nugget found in the area during the Gold Rush.

The museum is not very large, but it’s great for an hour or two of delving deeper into Melbourne’s history. Entrance is free.

OLD TREASURY BUILDING 

20 Spring St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia

Open : 10 AM – 4PM (closed Saturdays)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Shin Kee Beef Noodles @ Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

20190914_113820

When it comes to good food in Kuala Lumpur, Shin Kee Beef Noodles is practically an institution. Tucked in an old colonial-style building in Chinatown, the establishment has been run by the Koon family for over 80 years. That’s basically older than Malaysia as a country. And for something to have been around for that long, you best believe they’ve got a recipe to their success.

The kitchen is at the restaurant’s entrance, so you can watch the chef in action as he boils and tosses the noodles, ladles pieces of beef and soup into each bowl, or tops off the dry noodles with a smattering of savoury minced meat.

20190914_113723

The restaurant space is cramped, so expect table sharing when it gets busy. There is also a small room at the back which is non-air conditioned, so it can get pretty warm. This is a strictly eat-and-go kinda place.

20190914_111622

20190914_112554

The lady boss comes to your table to take your orders, and you pay once food arrives. Diners get a choice of three types of noodles – bihun, yellow mee or kueyteow – in either soup or dry form. We opted for the dry. N had beef soup, while I had the beef + meatballs. You can also get tripe. The ‘small’ (which was not very small at all) costs RM9: a fair price in the heart of KL.

20190914_112602

Verdict: A solid bowl of beef noodles, and I can see why people have been flocking to the place for decades. It’s hearty, it’s comforting, and it’s substantial. Most impressive were the beef balls, which were so springy you can practically use them as ping pong balls – not a trace of tendon or whatnot left.  The noodles were al dente and slathered in the savoury meat sauce.

Shin Kee fans might crucify me, but in my humble opinion, the best bowl of beef noodles still goes to another iconic decades-old beef noodle spot – Soong Kee. I simply prefer their version of meat sauce and the thinner noodles. N, however, said he liked Shin Kee better, so it’s all a matter of preference.

Better yet, try both!

SHIN KEE BEEF NOODLES 

7a, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 50000 Kuala Lumpur

Telephone: 012 673 7318

Opening hours: 10.30am – 7pm (closed Wednesdays)

Exploring Phuket’s Historical Old Town District

Phuket may be known for its beautiful sandy beaches and party scene, but if you’re into culture and heritage, then Phuket Old Town is a definite must visit. Comprising several roads including Dibuk (Thai for ‘tin’), Thalang and the narrow but extremely popular alleyway called Soi Romanee, the area is a haven of old shops and hipster cafes, selling everything from artisan ice cream and drinks to cheap clothing, accessories and jewelry.

20190411_145459

Before it became a popular island destination, Phuket’s riches were founded in tin, and in the late 18th century, Hokkien Chinese immigrants made their way to its shores, establishing themselves in the trade centres which would later become bustling towns. As such, the architecture is reminiscent of regions in Southeast Asia with a similar ethnic heritage and past, such as Penang in Malaysia as well as Singapore. The architecture style, dubbed Sino-Portuguese, features colourful facades and elaborate decorations, blending both traditional Chinese /local elements with European touches.

20190411_145501

While small and narrow, Soi Romanee is perhaps the area’s most popular (and Instagrammable) street, flanked on both sides by cafes, hole-in-the-wall eateries and boutique inns.

20190411_145734

20190411_155752

Apparently a great place to get ice cream (especially in Phuket’s scorching weather!) is this ice cream parlour called Torry’s.

20190411_145744

20190411_152936

Also like Penang and Singapore, the area has been spruced up with large and colourful murals adorning the sides of several buildings – bringing together the old and the new.

20190411_153057

Crossing over to Thalang Road, which boasts the same neat and colourful buildings with shaded five-foot walkways.

20190411_154245

Parts of the walkway are occupied by pop up stalls selling clothing and jewellery. If you’re a fashionista, this would be a great place to get some unique pieces that you won’t be able to find back home – and at cheap prices to boot.

20190411_154251

20190411_155340

20190411_155021

Reflecting its Chinese heritage (Thailand has the largest population of overseas Chinese in the world), many of the shops here have been running for generations and still carry Chinese names. Next to swanky cafes and cool eateries sit generation-old businesses such as gold shops, optical shops and traditional medicine stores.

20190411_155006

There’s actually plenty to do in the area but we were pressed for time and missed out on alot of places.

Some notable spots for a half-day tour include the Thavorn Hotel Museum (as the name suggests, an old hotel turned museum), The Memory at On On Hotel (where they filmed The Beach starring Leonardo di Caprio), Thai Hua Musuem ( a museum on Chinese heritage in Phuket/Thailand), Jui Tui Shrine (a Chinese temple), Blue Elephant (where you can have cooking classes), and many more.

 

Teratak Za’ba, Negeri Sembilan – In Memory Of A National Scholar

We learn of him in history books, but ask many young Malaysians and they probably can’t tell you who Za’ba was. Which is a shame, because the contributions he made to the country and the Malay language are phenomenal.

Born Zainal Abidin Ahmad in 1895, young Za’ba displayed an affinity for languages and knowledge from a tender age. He became the first Malay to pass the Senior Cambridge test in 1915, when Malaya was still under British colonial rule. Through the years, he played the role of scholar and educator, teaching at various schools whilst writing essays. He wrote the Pelita Bahasa – a series of monographs which became the basis of the modern Malay language that we use today – and his social commentaries in newspapers and magazines contributed to the rise of nationalism, subtly influencing the way to independence. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed.

20181017_112929

Za’ba was born in Batu Kikir in Negeri Sembilan. Teratak Za’ba – a museum and monument to his legacy – was opened here in 2001, to honour his memory and contributions. The museum is done to resemble a traditional Negeri Sembilan Malay house, the likes of which are difficult to find today, and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area – if not for the history then the architecture.

20181017_113016

The slightly curving roof hearkens to the state’s Minangkabau roots. The building sits on stilts and is made of chengal, a type of hardwood tree that is resistant to rot and weather.

20181017_113334

20181017_113731

Entering the house, it feels cool, even with the scorching heat outside. Our guide explains that the first section of the home – a spacious corridor – was basically the men’s quarters, where they would eat, sleep and convene. The inner quarters were for the women, and men were not allowed in.

20181017_113740

Photos of Za’ba through the years – family portraits, at work, snapshots of a life well lived.

20181017_113837

The museum is home to some of his personal possessions, such as his trademark round glasses, watches and clocks.

20181017_113803

Old typewriters, phones and a dressing table complete with mirror. What has it seen?

20181017_113909

I will not sully these beautiful words with translation.

20181017_113926

Books written by Za’ba.

Although small, Teratak Za’ba is worth a visit for those who like history. It also offers a glimpse into the life of a great scholar and writer, whose writing paved the way for a better future, for the nation and its people.

TERATAK ZA’BA 

Kampong Bukit Kerdas, 72100 Batu Kikir, Negeri Sembilan

Opening hours: 9AM – 6PM

Admission is free.

Travelogue Yogyakarta: Taman Sari Water Castle

Most visitors to Yogyakarta in Indonesia will no doubt make a beeline for the ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples of Borobudur and Prambanan – but there is a lesser known attraction within the city that is well worth a visit. Located just a stone’s throw away from the Kraton (palace), Taman Sari (literally, beautiful garden) is an 18th century royal garden – once the leisure grounds for the old Sultanate of Yogyakarta.

20180719_093858

Spread across a large area, Taman Sari was also called the Water Castle, as its main complex featured a man-made lake – complete with artificial islands and buildings, which the royal family could reach via boat. The water has since been drained, and replaced with clusters of homes.

The East entrance (where you pay a fee for entry) might not seem very impressive, but venture in and you’ll discover meandering pathways, secret underground chambers, defensive structures and a well-preserved central bathing complex called Umbul Pasiraman, which is very popular with tourists.

Marriott Yogyakarta-Destinations_019

… and for good reason.

The story goes that the complex was used by the palace concubines and serving women, where they would bathe and frolic in the pools.  The Sultan would be up in the tower, observing, and if one caught his fancy, he would pick her as a companion for the night.

It’s easy to imagine how the scene would have looked like back in the day – the turqoise pools, the calming stone and greenery, the blue sky reflected in the water, the beautiful maidens.

20180719_094722

20180719_095636

Moving on, we ventured past the West gate, which is more intricate than the east, decorated with floral motifs, foliage and birds.

**From this point on, it is highly recommended you get a guide from the village (which is within the chateau grounds), as the layout is extremely confusing. You might just end up wandering into dead ends, on a roof, or someone’s backyard lol. The guides are ‘volunteers’, and you’ll find many of them loitering around the area. They have a minimum fee (can’t remember how much exactly but I think it was like RM20-30) but you can pay more if you’re satisfied with your guide.

20180719_100219

Your guide will most probably take you through Kampung Taman, which are settlements within the royal gardens. There are about 2,700 residents living within the grounds. The narrow alleyways often feature colourful graffiti with a local flavour, like these Javanese characters.

20180719_102553

Some of the structures are already in ruins. Our guide led us up to a vantage point where we could see over the roofs of the settlements, which stretched out a fair distance.

20180719_101119

Traversing the labyrinthian complex through underground passages, we search for another photogenic area – the Sumur Gumuling underground mosque. Natural sunlight filtered in through strategic gaps, illuminating the otherwise dark tunnels.

Marriott Yogyakarta-Destinations_020

The mosque is, imo, one of the most unique areas of Taman Sari. A circular one-storeyed structure, it used to sit on an artificial island (before the lake was drained), and could only be reached via an underwater tunnel. The building was open in the middle, similar to a well (hence the name ‘Sumur’ (well in the Javanese language) and featured an elevated platform with four staircases, as well as various ‘windows’ surrounding it. The imam (religious leader) would stand in the center to give sermons. There is also a pool on the ground floor which was used for ritual ablution.

 

It is entirely possible to explore Taman Sari without a guide, if you like wandering and discovering things on your own – but the mosque area is notoriously difficult to find. We certainly would have missed it if not for our guide.

Entrance to Taman Sari is a cheap IDR 15,000 (USD 1.50 – RM6).

Address: Wisata Taman Sari, Jl. Tamanan, Patehan, Kraton, Kota Yogyakarta, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55133, Indonesia

Opening hours: (Daily) 9AM – 6PM

Visiting a Former Communist Hideout: The Piyamit Tunnels of Betong, Thailand

I’m too young to have lived through the height of Communism, but there was a time when the ideology swept the world, dividing nations and sparking the Cold War.

In Malaysia, communism gained a foothold during the Japanese invasion. The British colonials were taken by surprise, losing state after  state as they retreated to Singapore (they eventually lost that as well). It was the communists, comprising mostly first and second generation Chinese immigrants, who took up arms and fought the Japs, guerrilla-style.

image credit: psywar.org

After their surrender and while the Brits were still in a weakened state, the communists seized the chance to establish rule in Malaya – which resulted in the Malayan Emergency that lasted for many years. They were largely supported by the rural ethnic Chinese population, who were often farmers with little to no economic and political power due to racial policies.(which was why the idea of an equal society was appealing to them)

The Malayan Communist Party eventually surrendered in 1960, but several years later, party leader Chin Peng renewed the insurgency, which lasted into the 80s. He finally fled in exile to Thailand, bringing with him a number of supporters loyal to the cause.

The town of Betong in Southern Thailand is one of these places that became ‘home’ to the exiled communists fleeing from pursuit. Deep within the tropical jungles, a large group made base camp, digging tunnels as a bomb shelter against attacks by combined Malayan and Thai forces. Today, the Piyamit Tunnels is a popular tourist attraction, offering modern day visitors a fascinating insight into the communist life of yesteryears.

It was a quiet Saturday morning when we pulled up to the place, a scenic half hour’s drive from Betong town. It isn’t hard to get to now coz the road is nicely paved, but what a trek it must have been through the jungle back in the days! The entrance was nicely landscaped with cascading water features, shrubberies and trees, and the weather was cool from its high elevation.

The construction is decidedly Chinese: a typical arched gateway with Chinese characters welcomes visitors.

Upon entering is a small garden, replete with pond and bridge lined with statues of the 12 Chinese zodiacs, a deity and guardian Foo dogs.

Visitors pay a fee of RM7 (about 70baht) to enter. (Above) Self explanatory.

Woe is me, the quintessential city girl whose experience with the ‘outdoors’ is her local park. To get to the actual entrance of the tunnels, visitors walk through a long elevated wooden platform path that cuts through the jungle, over quaint little streams and creeks. Huffing and puffing aside, the view was beautiful, with dense foliage on both sides and the air thick with the smell of jungle.

Modern piping laid out across a stream with crystal clear waters

Tropical plants form a multi-layered canopy

Our first ‘stop’ was the kitchen area, where there was a huge walk-in ‘oven’ or sorts, with niches for firewood and cooking utensils to be placed. It was apparently fashioned in such a way to avoid smoke from rising and risking detection by the authorities.

This shack would be the equivalent of a modern-day laundromat: as sunlight couldn’t reach the forest floor due to the thick foliage, the communists who stayed here had to dry their clothes using heat. Again, smoke had to be avoided.

Nearing the tunnels! There was a ramshackle guard post where lookouts would have been stationed to warn the group of intruders.

Communist propaganda posters demonstrating how chill it was underground, safe from bombardment.. although I’m sure reality was a very different thing. Exposed to the elements in the jungles, worrying about food and shelter with no proper sanitation must have been a nightmare.

Just before the first entrance to the tunnel (there are nine entry/exit points, ending uphill) was a hall area with several exhibits. There we met an elderly Chinese man (probably in his late 60s) who was a former communist (!) He shared with us on how life was at the camp back in the 70s, and how men (and women) had to dig the tunnel out of solid earth, sometimes with their bare hands (not sure if exaggerating but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true, what with their limited resources and being cut off from the rest of the world).

In a wistful tone, he recalled how he had a brother in Kajang, Malaysia.  I’m pretty sure these former communists have been blacklisted by the Malaysian gov such that they can’t ever return and I wondered if any cause was worth never seeing your family and friends again.

Yes, there were also female communists at the camp. They even had a hall next to a cleared field where wedding ceremonies could be held.

The guy advised us to visit the Museum first before venturing into the tunnels, so we stopped by the small single-storey building next to it. The walls were painted over with communist propaganda and murals, and there were also a few statues in uniform.

Inside the museum was a showcase of more communist propaganda materials and historical items: leaflets, booklets, documents, newspaper cuttings. These were mostly written in Chinese as the material was brought in from China.

Medical supplies. Imagine being injured in the jungle and all they had were rusty operating tools and no way to sterilise them properly… *shudder*

Photos of training exercises, parades, group activities and candid pictures provided snapshots into the lives of the people who lived, and some who died, here. There were happy photos: a recruit doing the gunny sack race like ones we did for school sports day, members enjoying a tug-of-war, laughing with comrades.. moments captured forever in a still. I wondered about the stories that happened in between.

Bombs, mines and weapons used by the guerrilla fighters on display.

And finally, into the tunnels we went…

Stretching 1km long, there are nine entry and exit points so that the communists could run for cover (and escape) quickly.  Definitely not for the claustrophobic: passages were narrow and cramped, and the ceiling was low to the point that we had to stoop  in some places. Lights were placed at intervals all along the tunnel, but it was really impossible to tell if it was night or day in there.

The walls of the tunnel were smooth and plastered over, but in its original state, it was just exposed earth and could collapse at any moment. There were a few nooks and crannies where people could sleep but they were few and far between. I could just imagine the immense claustrophobia and lack of air that might cause some to panic.

Moo and Pops retreated to the outdoors but the bro and I decided to walk a few hundred metres to emerge uphill before going back down to the museum area again. Some of the steps are really steep so watch your footing!

It was nice to breathe fresh air again. We made our way back down to the entrance, passing through the jungle. We saw and heard small wildlife, such as birds and squirrels.

Right before exiting, look out for the ‘chin leen shu’ (thousand year old tree). Not sure if it’s really a thousand years, but it is really, really old and absolutely massive. It reminded me of the trees that grow over Angkor Wat’s ancient structures in Cambodia.

A last look at one of the many streams in the area. The water was so clear it looked good enough to bathe in.

The Piyamit Tunnels is a must-visit if ever in Betong: it’s educational, you’ll be able to see a different side of history you don’t usually read in mainstream books, and hear it from the ex-communists who live here. The nature is lovely as well.

GETTING THERE

From Betong town, turn into Highway 410 and head to Ban Charp Parai Village, where you’ll pass by the Betong Hot Springs. From there it’s another 4 more kilometres to the tunnel, with ample signboards telling you where to turn. Alternatively, Waze.

PIYAMIT TUNNELS

Ban Piyamit 1, Tambon Tano Mae Ro

Opening hours: 8AM- 4.30PM