Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Across Thailand, thousands of small craft villages dot the landscape. Each one specializes in the manufacture of a particular handicraft. Especially in northern Thailand, the choices seem endless. In tiny Ban Ton Pao in northern Thailand, everyone in the villages is involved in the production of handmade paper from Mulberry bark. In nearby Baan Tawai, the focus is on handmade furniture. Other villages produce lacquerware, silk clothing and linens, indigo dyed material, hand-woven baskets, hammered silver, jewelry, and more. But my all-time favorite is the village of Bo Sang, which specializes in handmade paper parasols.

Artist paints a giant handmade paper umbrella at the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival

Artist paints a giant handmade paper umbrella at the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival

I had an up-close view of the process during this year’s Umbrella Festival, held every year during the third weekend of January. For three days, local artisans demonstrated every step of the process, from shaving down bamboo strips for the ribs of the umbrellas to painting the parasol tops. In addition to umbrella making classes and demonstrations, bicycle parades featured elegant Thai women in traditional attire, each holding a gorgeous parasol aloft as they pedaled down the main street. The town was decked out as well. Multicolored parasols decorated the facades of buildings. Riotous umbrella arches spanned the streets. Even mosaic murals created from mini-parasols were scattered around town. Read More

Each year during the third weekend in January, the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival is held in the craft village of Bo Sang, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On April 3, 2019, the Sultan of Brunei imposed Islamic sharia law on all residents of the country, including the 30% of the population who are not Muslims. In a nutshell, this means that people will be whipped or stoned to death for gay sex, adultery, sodomy, and rape, and the crime of theft will require a hand and a foot to be cut off. This is an escalation of previous laws, which carried a sentence of 10 years in prison for anyone caught in the act of same-sex relations. Normally, I avoid such discussions on this blog, as it deals with travel – not politics. However, in light of the current environment in Brunei, I felt it important to address this situation. Brunei is NOT currently a safe destination for LGBTQ travelers.

Some will undoubtedly criticize me for even publishing a story about Brunei, insisting that the country should be boycotted by tourists. I have never agreed with this thinking. Quite the opposite, I feel it is very important for people to continue to visit Brunei. Citizens of the country need continued exposure to outsiders so they can see and hear first hand how horrifically the situation is being regarded around the world. Rather than avoiding travel to the country, I believe we can have much more impact by boycotting hotels around the world that are owned by Brunei, as celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John, and Ellen DeGeneres advise in this article. I say “hit ’em in the pocketbook, where it really hurts.” Having said that, however, the following is my assessment of Brunei, which I visited at the beginning of this year.

Brunei is not a country I’d go out of my way to visit. Located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, the country is split into two parts, both of which are surrounded by the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Its widest point on the South China Sea is less than 100 miles long. Most who have written about what to do in Brunei describe it as a boring destination. But since I was already on Borneo to see the orangutans, sun bears, and proboscis monkeys, I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Long oval-shaped fountain in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan represents an oil tanker

Long oval-shaped fountain in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan represents an oil tanker

If I had to pick one thing that defined Brunei for me, it would be the fountain in the city center. At first glance it was attractive enough. A single row of water spouts danced down its long oval shape, ending at a red, black, and yellow backdrop that resembled a giant Lego structure. Upon closer examination, I realized the backdrop represented the superstructure of an immense oil tanker, while the water spouts were emblematic of gushing oil wells. I was amused that a country would represent itself with the symbol of an oil tanker, but in the case of Brunei it couldn’t be more appropriate. Literally 90% of the country’s economy derives from petroleum and natural gas.

Read More

When asked what to do in Brunei, many will say there is nothing to do. But I found it wasn\'t nearly as boring as everyone says it is.

Mirror image of the Kota Kinabalu City Mosque

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque was the highlight of my half-day tour of Kota Kinabalu (KK), capital of the Malaysian State of Sabah on the island of Borneo. The mirror image of the mosque reflected in its surrounding lagoon has earned it the nickname “floating mosque.” Knowing my tour would include a stop at an important Islamic religious site, I had dressed respectfully in long pants and short-sleeved T-shirt. Upon arrival, however, I found I had not dressed conservatively enough. Women are required to cover their arms from shoulder to wrist as well.

The issue of appropriate dress has recently been a hot topic of debate in Malaysian Borneo. In 2015 the Muslim community was enraged by a group of Brit, Canadian, and Dutch tourists who stripped naked and posed atop sacred Mount Kinabalu. In June, 2018, two Chinese tourists dressed in Read More

Solo orangutan in Borneo rain forest, in the Malaysian state of Sabah

It had been a day of firsts for me at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. I’d attended two live feedings in the jungle, where dozens of macaque monkeys and at least six orangutans had emerged from the jungle canopy to avail themselves of the fresh fruit. But the best experience of all occurred after the final feeding ended and everyone else had left the viewing platform. I rested on a wooden bench, listening to the raucous bird calls from every direction, trying to spot birds in the dense canopy. A brief flash of orange crossed my vision as I scanned the foliage. Had I imagined it? No, something was there.

I walked slowly forward, hoping for a better view. Suddenly, the jungle opened up and there he was. A solo orangutan, sitting placidly on a branch. With mouth half open and unfocused gaze, he seemed to be deep in contemplation. I wondered what he was thinking. I wondered if he even knew Read More

Not only is Borneo one of the few places in the world to see orangutans in the wild, it’s also fantastic for seeing endangered Sun Bears, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, and monitor lizards, among other wild species. I saw them all and more in the Malaysian State of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, and managed to capture video of them all, despite having to shoot from a rocking boat some of the time.

Read More

Leaves of the Borneo Giant Upright Elephant Ears plant

The island of Borneo, located just south of the tip of mainland Malaysia, is a natural wonderland. Most visitors come to dive or see the island’s unique wildlife, but the flora has a lot to offer too. During my stay at Sepiilok Nature Resort in the Malaysian State of Sabah, I spent one afternoon exploring the boardwalks that border the lake and marshes around the resort. One of my finds were enormous leaves of this Borneo Giant Elephant Ear that stood taller than me. They rippled in the sunlight like waves on a green ocean. I was mesmerized. Read More