A visit to a charcoal factory

23 06 2016

The business of charcoal making, which in the region makes use of wood from the abundant mangrove forests, has long ceased in Singapore. The last factory, on the evidence of a 1972 Straits Times article, was possibly on Pulau Tekong and it only is in some of our neighbouring countries that the production of what some may consider to be black gold can be found.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

One production centre that I had the opportunity to visit is the factory at Kuala Sepetang, located along the northern Perak coastline, just 15 kilometres from the charming old mining town of Taiping. The factory, operated by a Mr. Chuah Chow Aun, has a reputation for the best charcoal in Asia and does a thriving trade in meeting the demand from the large Japanese market.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war. The logs with barks stripped from them, are ready for the kilns.

The factory is well worth a visit just for the setting it finds itself in. Its long zinc roofed wooden sheds against which stacks of bakau wood logs are arranged, against the backdrop of the beautiful Matang mangrove forest on the banks of the Sungai Kapal Changkol, makes the scene it presents one that somehow looks like one that could well belong in a good old Western movie.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

The sheds are where the main process of turning the wood is carried out. In them one finds rows of smoking kilns, in which the wood is heated and not, as is popularly believed, burnt, with the aim of removing water – which makes up the bulk of its weight when harvested, from the logs. It is a long, tedious and rather labour intensive process that is employed, which starts with the unloading of logs harvested primarily from 30 year old bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata) trees for which a sapling is planted for every tree that is harvested. The logs, which measure up to 5 inches in diameter, are prepared for the kilns by stripping their barks before they are stacked against the kilns before being moved in.

Logs of various diameters.

Logs of various diameters.

I was rather surprised to hear that it was in fact the Japanese that brought in the charcoal making techniques that are employed at Kuala Sepetang during the occupation. This process, involves the heating of the kilns – in which logs are positioned vertically on blocks of clay to keep them off the ground before the opening is reduced sufficiently in size to serve as a firing box, for a period of about 10 days. At this stage the temperature within the kilns is raised about 85° C. After this comes a second stage of heating for which the opening is reduced further, for another 12 days during which temperatures are raised to about  220° C. The kiln is left to cool for another week or so before the cured wood can be taken out.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

Logs are arranged vertically on clay blocks.

An example of how logs are vertically arranged and the clay blocks on which they are made to stand on.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

Experience plays an important part in the process and is monitored only through observation of the vapour that billows out of an opening in the kiln. From 1500 logs or about 40 to 50 tonnes of wood that is placed in the kilns before the start of firing, only 10 tonnes of is left as charcoal – the rest of the weight having been expelled as vapour. The vapour however does not go to waste and is in its condensed form, sold as mangrove wood vinegar, which is said to repel mosquitoes and cure common skin problems.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

A kiln in use.

A kiln in use.

The factory, Khay Hor Holdings Sdn. Bhd. or more commonly referred to as the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory, is open for visits. Arrangements can be made for guided tours by contacting Mr. Chuah at +60 12 5739563. More information is available at the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory Facebook Page and at this link: The Charcoal Factory.

Vapour coming out of a kiln - the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

Vapour coming out of a kiln – the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

The entrance to the factory.

The entrance to the factory.



Green fields and purple waters

2 01 2016

A veritable feast of colour awaits the visitor to Sekinchan. A seemingly laid back town along the northern Selangor coast, it has, in the time since it featured in the 2011 TV series “The Seeds of Life”, become popular as a destination for an excursion with the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur less than an hour and a half’s drive away. Set in the midst of vibrant green paddy fields and boasting of a riverine harbour painted by a substantial fleet of fishing boats, wooden jetties and the river’s brown, almost purple waters, Sekinchan is a destination that is especially popular with photographers.


The river mouth near Pantai Redang, Sekinchan

There are two very distinct sides to Sekinchan, each set on either side of Malaysian Federal Route 5. The main thoroughfare that brings the busloads of visitors into the town, also divides it into a landward side on the east in which most of the town’s agricultural activities take place, and a seaward side in the west where its harbour and its fishing related activities are concentrated in. The rather picturesque paddy fields in the east, said to be among the highest yielding in the country, are also amongst the country’s most photographed.

The paddy fields.

The paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

The western side, with its crowd of boats and jetties in what is known locally as Ang Mo Kang or Red Hair Harbour, also provides many opportunities for the photographer, as does the nearby Pantai Redang (Redang Beach). It is just south of Pantai Redang that the river which plays host to the fishing harbour spills into the sea, providing the observer with a seascape at low tide coloured by a rare mix of hues:  the purple of the river, the mud brown of the tidal flats, the grey of the shallow waters of the sea, all against the blue of the sky.

The fishing harbour.

The fishing harbour.

The purple stream.

The purple stream spilling into the sea close to Pantai Redang.

Fish being sorted out for sale.

Fish being sorted out.

Pantai Redang, is also where the colour red features rather prominently. It is where the wishing tree stands, painted almost  red by thousands of ribbons on the hopes and wishes of many have been penned. In the shadow of the tree stands the equally red Datuk Kong (拿督公) temple from which one can obtain the weighted red ribbons that must be thrown up to the tree after one’s wishes are inscribed.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The Datuk Kong temple.

The Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

Besides the many attractions (there are many more) the visitor should pay a visit to – should one have the time, a visit to one of the many seafood restaurants in town offering the freshest of catches for a meal is a must before hitting the road. A quick visit to the old parts of town on the eastern side is also recommended for its quaint looking shops, as is a stop at one of the fruit stalls lining the road out of town for what must surely be Sekinchan’s best offering – its sweet and extremely juicy large green mangoes.

A seafood restaurant.

A seafood restaurant.

A shopfront in the old town.

A shopfront in the old town.

An old kopitiam.

An old kopitiam.

A temple.

A temple.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall – fruits – especially the delicious huge juicy mangoes seen on the top, are recommended buys from Sekinchan.


Fairy Cave

19 06 2013

An amazing sight close to Kuching in Sarawak not far from the Bau gold mining area is this huge cave opening into Fairy Cave. It does take a bit of effort getting up the flight of 200 steps to the entrance to the cave, but it is certainly all worth the effort …


The other road named after the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner

1 01 2011

Just as Spooner Road in Singapore is a world apart from the rest of Singapore in many ways, I recently discovered that the other road that was named after Charles Edwin Spooner that still exists is a world apart in many ways from the rest of the city it is set in. This Spooner Road, or Jalan Spooner as it is now known as, together with the Spooner Road in Singapore, were two out of three Spooner Roads that were named after Spooner who was the first General Manager of the FMS Railways (FMSR) who began his career in the Public Wokrs Department in Selangor before his appointment to the FMSR in 1901 (the third on Federal Hill in Kuala Lumpur I discovered had been renamed as Jalan Cenderawasih). It was during his time at the PWD in Selangor that he oversaw and influenced some of the Moorish styled architectural masterpieces of Kuala Lumpur, swaying the style from the Neo Classical Renaissance style that was a standard of British government architecture in the colonies towards one that was influence by Islamic elements for the Malaysian capital.

Spooner Road or Jalan Spooner in Ipoh is another named after the first General Manager of the FMS Railways, C. E. Spooner, and associated with housing for railway workers, as is the Spooner Road in Singapore.

With some time to spare after a stroll through parts of old Ipoh, where I was reacquainted with the genius of Arthur Benison Hubback in the form of the wonderful Railway Station and Town Hall on New Year’s Eve, I decided to take a drive with the help of an Asus Garmin A10 GPS mobile phone that I am reviewing over to a quieter part of town where Jalan Spooner was located. Jalan Spooner is a road that has in its past been long associated with housing railway workers as the Spooner Road in Singapore is, and it was for that that I had sought to find evidence on. Taking a right turn as directed correctly by the GPS off Jalan Sungai Pari not far from the railway tracks, it was a road sign and a sign that indicated the existence of a village “Kampung Spooner” that greeted me, followed by a sense of extreme desolation. For some reason I had that feeling that I was driving into the fifth dimension which might have well been accompanied by the theme music from the TV Series “The Twilight Zone”, as the I stared through my windscreen towards a the eerily silent stretch of road that lay ahead surrounded by the greenery that lined both sides of the narrow country-like road. The road ahead seemed even more eerie when the sight of a lone woman walking down the road up ahead came into view. She looked as if she was almost floating as she made her way up the long and lonely road that lay ahead.

As is the Spooner Road in Singapore, the one in Ipoh looks as if time has left it behind.

As it is with Singapore’s Spooner Road, driving down the road also gave an impression that it was a place where time had stood still, particularly when the first few signs of civilisation down the road came into view. A few wooden houses stood on the right, with a few signs of life: a boy wearing a clinical mask playing outside his home and a barking dog up the metalled driveway of the road that led to another house. On the right there was an old wooden shophouse that was shuttered, and a motor workshop with a few motorcycles parked in front.

Housing around Jalan Spooner.

A resident of Jalan Spooner.

A shophouse at Jalan Spooner.

A motor workshop along Jalan Spooner.

It was on the right of the road that a cluster of dilapidated buildings came into view – the style of which was similar to the many railway buildings that are found on the tracts of land along the railway corridor in Singapore, particularly around some of the level crossings such as the ones in the Bukit Timah and Kranji areas – probably a testament to the period of the Malayan Railway’s development when they were built. Close inspection of a red sign that was posted in front of one row of buildings naming the “Perbandanan Aset Keretapi” (Railway Assets Corporation) giving evidence of their previous use. There it was – the evidence that I was looking for – and with that I had established the connection between the two Spooner Roads, separated not just by the creation of two very different nations out of the British administered Malayan States and the former colony of Singapore, but also by a distance of some 600 kilometres along the railway track, and unified by its association with not just the illustrious C. E. Spooner, but also with providing housing for the workers of the Malayan Railway.

The former railway workers' quarters at Jalan Spooner - now in dilapidated state.

A sign providing evidence of the ownership of the land on which the dilapidated buildings stand, naming the Railway Assets Corporation (Perbadanan Aset Keretapi) as the land title holder and warning that trespassers would be prosecuted.

More dilapidated buildings that once housed Railway workers.

Another view of Jalan Spooner.

A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: destination Gemas

8 12 2010

On what could be a final train journey out of Tanjong Pagar before the big move of the terminal station to Woodlands by 1 July 2011 for my friends and me, we decided on the sleepy town of Gemas as a destination possibly for two reasons. The first was that it was probably apt that feeling nostalgic for the railway line which has run through Singapore for more than a century, the bulk of what we see today being a result of a Railway Deviation that gave us that quaint old station at Bukit Timah and the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar, we explore what is the main railway junction on the Malayan Peninsula at Gemas from where the northbound lines branch off to the east and west. Gemas has in fact always been a town that has long been associated with the railway, with its station for a long time boasting an old steam locomotive, the 56 class MR No. 564.36 “Temerloh” which we had thought was still there. The second was of course that it was probably the furthest point on the railway that a day trip afforded, being approximately four hours from Singapore, allowing us to catch the 0800 Ekspress Rakyat out, arriving around noon, and the evening 1705 Ekspress Rakyat back into Singapore, leaving us with five hours or so to explore the sleepy town and maybe visit the World War II heritage site where Australian Forces had ambushed invading Japanese forces at a bridge over the Gemencheh River.

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line and probably the furthest point which could fit into a daytrip.

Gemas is a sleepy town built around the Railway Junction which is made up mainly of pre-war shophouses.

Arriving at the station, a little worn and a lot hungry from the journey which took one and a half hours longer than what was scheduled I guess the first thing was to head for a bite. We did just that, stopping at a coffee shop where we had not so quick and not so tasty a bite. From that it was on to the site of the Gemencheh Bridge – what is known as the Sungai Kelamah Memorial some 11 kilometres fron the station before heading back into town where we had a little over and hour to walk around.

Arriving at Gemas Station ...

A kilometre marker (what we might once have called a milestone), indicating the centre of Gemas town close to the Railway Station.

Where we had lunch ...

Old style bamboo blinds.

Naturally, our first stop after getting back into town was the train station, where we were disappointed to discover that the Termeloh had found a new home – having moved to the Railway Museum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year as part of the 125 anniversary of KTMB. Still it was worth paying the station a visit – with another old locomotive and some railway relics from the past adding a feel of the old world station that Gemas once was. It was nice to observe the comings and goings as well … realising that passengers would rather cross over the tracks than use the overhead bridge that provided safe access to the platforms across from the main station building. A funny moment occurred when one of us had decided to venture up into the cabin of a working locomotive – where in trying to take a few photographs, he somehow blasted the horn, sending the station master scrambling out (probably awakening him from his mid-afternoon slumber) of the station control room.

The station was the first stop after getting back ...

The working locomotive on which one of my friends had inadvertently blasted the horn waking the station master from his mid-afternoon slumber.

Views around the station.

The town itself isn’t too interesting – most of the main part of town which can be covered by a ten minute walk, comprising of pre-war shop houses and that being a Sunday, most of the shops were shuttered. Still it was worth a walk around, the attraction I guess being two old Peranakan houses which I had somehow missed which some of my friends found. Being a hot day, we decided on the next best thing with there being not much to keep us occupied – sitting in the only air-conditioned premises in town – the town’s only fast food restaurant KFC – which was just a stone’s throw away from the station.

More views around Gemas Station.

A pre-war shophouse near the station.

More of the sleepy town that Gemas is ...

A resident of Gemas ...

Back at the station, it was time to stock up on a few conical shaped packets of the famous Gemas Railway Station Nasi Lemak, but not before being distracted by a couple deck out in their finery, having wedding photographs taken. Waiting on the platform, with packets of Nasi Lemak – one Ringgit each and in each warm paper packet that was warm to touch, inside it an old style simple serving of sambal ikan bilis, a quarter of a boiled egg and a slice of cucumber – just nice for a snack rather than a meal, there was much besides the wedding couple to observe. As anticipated the train was late getting in – arriving half and hour later than scheduled. Once onboard we could settle down at last – first was to taste the much talked about coconut laden rice waiting in the brown paper packets … the only thing can probably describe it is “Shiok!” – maybe that was brought about by the monotony and tiredness of the end of a journey that came with the end of the day. Dozing off regularly to the gentle cajoling of the train in the gentle swaying motion that comes as it rode over the tracks, we soon found ourselves back across the causeway and soon in Singapore, where the familiar sights of cars stopping at Choa Chu Kang Road for the train and then the glow of the steeple of St. Joseph’s Church along Bukit Timah Road told us we were home. Once at Tanjong Pagar station (an hour late) – where in my previous journeys it would have meant a rush to get through immigration, we could now stroll towards the station hall with us clearing immigration at the CIQ complex in Woodlands. Before we made our way home – it was a customary stop for food – we had satay. The station had always for me been a place that was synonymous with food … from my early days when the lights of the many hawkers in the carpark illuminated the grey building to the days when we could sit by the station building along Spottiswoode Park Road and dine al-fresco over satay … Then, with a quick final goodbye … it was back home … with fond memories of the many train journeys from the grand old station to carry with us.

A couple having wedding photographs taken at the station ...

Running for his bride ...

Around Gemas Station while waiting for the train to arrive ...

Passengers crossing the tracks ...

Gemas Station is as sleepy as the town ...

The wedding couple making their way down the platform ...

Boarding the train back ....

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Aromatherapy and storks on the shores of northern Perak

2 07 2010

One of the smells I was never far from in my childhood was that of fermented shrimp. I suppose its strong and somewhat pungent smell may be displeasing or even offensive to many who have not grown up with it. It is a smell that is in fact common in the preparation of much of the cuisine of South East Asia, manifesting itself in a compressed dried form of belacan (or similar), or as a sauce or paste such as in fish sauce that is common in Indochina or hae ko from Penang, or as a condiment such as in cincalok which has its origins from the geragok (or krill) fishermen of Malacca (relatively darker skinned descendants of Portuguese who intermarried with the local population and who are often referred to as “Geragok“). It is for me, a smell that I take delight in, as it accompanies the preparation of some of my favourite dishes. In the form of belacan, which has somehow been likened to cheese, it is found on the shelves of the sundry shop or supermarket, in a block of a flat circular or a rectangular section. It is used widely in the preparation of many dishes in Singapore and Malaysia, and as an ingredient in sambal belacan which I somehow can’t do without (I always kept a bottle in my locker with me during my National Service days to make the cookhouse food a lot more palatable).

Fishing villages on the coast of Peninsula Malaysia offer a sniff into the making of various forms of shrimp paste.

While to many of us who live in this part of the world do enjoy the rich strong flavour that belacan or other forms of fermented shrimp imparts on the food that we eat, some would probably not want to see how the various forms are prepared, let alone try a hand at the preparation. But my maternal grandmother did attempt to do just that, pitting herself against the sealed jars of fermenting rice and krill that was meant to become cincalok, and after that experience, decided it was a lot more convenient to buy it off the shelf. That attempt was marked by an almighty boom from the kitchen one evening, where a few sealed jars of brine, rice and krill had stood in a late stage of fermentation. Rushing into the kitchen, she was to discover that one of the jars that held the concoction had blown its top, seeming forcefully dispensing its foul smelling contents over the walls and ceiling, and whatever had stood in the path of the eruption. Cleaning up somehow didn’t seem as bad as having to bear with the smell that seemed to linger on for an eternity.

Not an uncommon sight in a fishing village such as this one in northern Perak, Kuala Gula, fermented shrimp paste being dried in the sun.

The making of belacan itself is probably something that won’t win over any fans to it as well. This is something that we in Singapore probably don’t have much of a chance to see anymore. There are however, many of the coastal fishing villages of the Peninsula where you will be greeted not just by the sight of belacan laid on sheets on the ground being dried in the sun, but also by the unmistakeable smell of fermenting shrimp paste. The process of making belacan dictates that the shrimp is salted upon their arrival ashore and partially dried in the sun before being pounded and the slightly moist mash is placed in a sealed container for about a week for fermentation. The fermented pasty mix is then dried, following which it is mashed and stored for a few more days before being compressed into cakes, which can then be packed and transported to the supermarket shelves. The quality and texture of belacan can vary depending on the moisture content and the length of fermentation. A longer fermentation results in a more aromatic (as I would see it) block of belacan and the strongest smelling ones often have a richer taste. While it isn’t quite a breath of fresh air, breathing in the smell of fermented shrimp somehow does wonders to my day.

A close up of the fermented paste that would be eventually compressed into the blocks that we know of as belacan.

Since, I have introduced Kuala Gula, I should maybe add a few words and images of Kuala Gula. Kuala Gula is located in an area of Perak not far from to the land border with the state of Penang in what is the large Matang mangrove forest. The area is fairly isolated and the mangrove forest and mud flats attract a multitude of birds including the endangered Milky Stork. The area is also devoted to a bird sanctuary, the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary and a Water Bird Conservation Centre which runs a Milky Stork Rehabilitation Programme. Besides the bird sanctuary, the area also has two fishing villages, the smaller Kuala Gula, in which most of the villagers are involved in prawn and shrimp fishing and in the processing of prawns and shrimp into belacan and dried shrimp. The main industry of larger village, Kuala Kurau, as the name suggests, is in fishing and in processing salted fish. More information on the area can be obtained from the Tourism Malaysia website.

Much of life in Kuala Gula revolves around prawn and shrimp fishing and processing.

Besides belacan, dried shrimp is also processed in Kuala Gula, the pre-processing of which is seen in this photograph.

Kuala Gula is a fishing community in a remote part of northern Perak.

Another view of Kuala Gula.

Kuala Gula is also well known for its bird sanctuary and the Milky Stork conservation programme.

A milky stork undergoing rehabilitation.

A crested serpent eagle seen in the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary.