Reliving Duck Duck Helicopter Bomb Bomb

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A lighter side of our trip – swimming in the Yeak Loam lake with newly made friends.

Three years ago I made a trip to Cambodia as a field coordinator for Elevyn to meet with some NGOs there. It was a bittersweet experience for me.

It was my first experience in a country where there were so many child beggers. Now, the tour books and websites all warn you about child beggars and how best to deal with them, as if were the same nuisance as dealing with bad weather. But when you’re surrounded by hungry children in rags (which many people would advise you ignore to avoid perpetuating the problem), as you head from a sightseeing tour to a nice cafe for a good meal on you holiday; it was impossible at least for me, not to be in a perpetual state of moral dilemma. To top it off was a sign in our backpacker’s room which says “no sex with children” along other nos like “no drugs” and “switch off the A/C on your way out”. Since then, I never quite looked at poverty the same again.

My 3-week long trip involved meeting many NGOs and social enterprises which were amazing to say the least. The group which hit closest to home was an indigenous Kreung community’s social enterprise. It was after our trip to meet this group through CANDO in Ratanakiri, that I spent one sleepless night in Phnom Penh, typing this story which we posted up on Elevyn’s blog, a story about the significance of a piece of craft played out by ducks, helicopters and bombs.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traveling to a Kreung village by bike. The journey was not so kind on the butt.

The main source of water in this Kreung village in Cambodia is from the water pump.

I want to bring life back to the story and memory because I was informed last week of the passing of Mr Saphork, our village host who is also a volunteer for the Kres village community-based craft enterprise. According to our NGO friend, he had passed away in his sleep. In memory of his kindness, hospitality and generosity, here’s an excerpt from that blog entry featuring the interview with Mr Saphork.

“Duck…duck……helicopter….. zero?” I read out. Looks like our indigenous people here in Cambodia are quite modern, I thought to myself as I wade through an array of scarves with traditional motifs, ducks and helicopters.

These villagers had no electricity, no television and are pretty much surrounded by thick forests – why would they weave helicopters? Guessing it was a novelty from a picture or something – I asked to affirm it.

“In memory of the Vietnam war, we were affected by it as our village is so close to the border,” explained Saphork from the Kreung village where these scarves were made.

“Those are bombs dropped from the plane,” he added pointing to the patterns that looked like ‘O’.

I must have looked quite silly looking at him with round eyes going “Wow….”

Spellbound by these hand-loomed textiles, I longed to own every single piece I got my eyes on. They came in all kinds of textures and colours; from rough to soft, from ones coloured with natural dye and those coloured by market dye.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

 (Puah Sze Ning)But I was not too sure about those with duck patterns though. I love animals and I made a personal pact not to eat farmed animals simply because of my love for them. But I’m not exactly a fan of ducks.

“What’s with the ducks?” I asked – guessing it must be for children.

“Oh, during the war we had to keep moving. So we couldn’t take our ducks with us and we had to leave them in the forest,” Saphork explained.

After a short pause he added, “We really regret it…”

I decided then that I loved ducks.

Note: Translation from Khmer and Kreung to English by CANDO team members

(View original blogpost here)

On days when I feel like I’m losing direction in what I’m doing, I remember Mr Saphork’s story and it gives me a sense of humility I hope to embody on a day to day basis.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

In memory of the late Mr Saphork and his lovely farmhouse.


Sabah: Unpublished photos

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Like most other places, the landscape in Sabah is fast changing.

A few years back I had a love affair with Sabah, a Malaysian state in the island of Borneo. It was a time when I wanted so much to fit in and be accepted, a time when I thought things had to be perfect. Like much of the photos I published online at that time, I was obsessed with getting an all encapsulating photo.

I’d say I did a lot of my “growing up” in my mid-20s in Sabah. The most important thing I think I learnt is to not take things so seriously. It is not that I care any less, but now I’m rather more focused on embracing the moment.

Although there’s a lot more I’d love to share about Sabah, in the spirit of embracing moments, here’s a short series of unpublished photos from that very special time of my life.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A lot of roads have opened up, making once hard-to-reach places now very accessible.

Growing up as a Chinese diaspora in an urban environment, I will never truly understand what it’s like to be indigenous to a certain place and have traditions and cultures so closely linked to the land. But in all the villages, no one ever held my awkwardness against me and very zealously encouraged me to find a Sabahan husband.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Day-to-day life was certainly different and everyone kept busy putting food on the table in the literal sense.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Subsistence rice fields.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Chasing away birds that will eat up the padi in the evenings with a makeshift flag.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

CAUGHT! Padi-eating birds.

In some areas, rice is still grown for subsistence use. Wild vegetables and wild game often compliment a rice meal. For really poor families living in a degraded forest, they make do with salted fish and rice. There’s even a very catchy local song about how boring it gets to be eating salted fish every day, Silaka Ikan Masin.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A fox being chopped up for the frying pan.

Wild meat went a little unappreciated on me as I was not a huge fan of meat.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Highly prized porcupine bezoar stones.

I never fell very sick in a village before, but a man once approached me to see if I wanted to buy porcupine bezoar stones which is popular and highly sought after in Chinese medicine. He said he dreamt he found a porcupine with the said stone in its stomach. Sure enough, when he went hunting the next day he had caught a porcupine with these “black gold” in it.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The smell of money smells much like sewage.

And of course, no “well to do” village is not without the stench of rubber being dried when rubber prices are high.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Merry-making nights, depending on one’s mood and alcohol tolerance, can be highly anticipated or dreaded.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A Sungai Rumanau elder (left) and woman (right).

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Carrying chickens to be slaughtered for a feast (left). Taking a nap in a government-issued house (right).

Like with most developing areas, the pressure for indigenous communities to integrate into a more organized and controlled system gets higher over time, for better or for worse. Though a lot of people find that it is very much for the worse.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Relocation project site in Sabah (Kg Gana)

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditions gone moldy?

I for one have always admired the way the people of Sabah adapt to change and foreign influence while at the same time maintaining a very strong sense of their own identity.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Murut dance.

There were many times when I felt overwhelmed by the richness in culture and diversity, only to feel a sense of lost, the lost of my own cultural identity.  Have I lost it all? Am I just part of this global, homogenized, mainstream society that drinks Starbucks and watches 12 seasons of American Idol? And is that what would become of the indigenous people? (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Rungus dance.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

All night “exchange of poems” singing during a Murut wedding celebration.

Having fun in the river. (Puah Sze Ning)

The next day after the wedding, the kids in the village dressed up like their elders using dried leaves as they were playing in the river.

With all that being said and shown, I’m so pleased and excited to also announce that I’ll be going back to Sabah for a very special photography assignment soon! I certainly anticipate it like as if I am going home.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Running home. Children at Kampung Mansiad, Sook.

Till then, I’ll just be dreaming of the chilly clear Bornean evening air.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The view from Kg Buayan.


Kelantan: Blood and sweat


Right after completing the piece on Orang Asli land rights, writer Pat Fama had roped me in for a piece he had been writing for Esquire Malaysia. The ancient art of kickboxing – better known as Muay Thai, is popularly practiced in Kelantan. Here, the locals call it Tomoi.

What made this assignment exciting was that it is a bit of an underground sport as it was banned by the Islamic state government, Kelantan, from early 90s till 2006 on the grounds of being “un-Islamic”.

Now I’ve lost count of how many 6-hours (or more) drive trips I’ve made to Kelantan in the last year, but it was another trip I looked forward to because with each trip I fall more and more infatuated with the people and culture.

It was my first boxing match and it was in a knock-out style format. What surprised me the most was how quick those boys got knocked out, certainly something which Karate Kid (1, 2 and 3), Ong Bak and all those Chuck Norris movies did not prepare me well for. Many a time I suppressed the urge to yell, “WAIT, I’ve not gotten my shot yet!” when some of the matches ended within the first round or two with one of the poor boys, reeling on the ground from a blow to the head.


Though I’m not a fan of WWE, I could certainly appreciate Tomoi as a non-mainstream sport. Having rock climbed for a few years during my undergraduate days and now actively Crossfitting, I related to the tight-knit sense of community I felt in the arena (which was very basic to say the least) and the passion from the fighters and everyone involved in the process; organizers of the event, spectators, the time keeper – everyone wanted to be there for the love of the sport.


A fighter receiving an oiled massage right before his fight.


A mix crowd watching the match which lasted till 11pm.


Mat Kudin performs a graceful wai khru ceremonial dance, in show of respect to his trainer(s), opponent and audience.


Fighters don a pre-fight ritual headgear, which is known as Mongkhon to Muay Thai practitioners.


Jasuri stared at his opponent performing the wai khru ceremonial dance impassively before taking him out within the first few minutes with a strong blow to his head.


An intense second match where the confident fighter overpowered his opponent in a series of blows.

At the end of Day 1 of the tournament, I was caught up in the showmanship, the intensity of the matches and the many different emotions each fighter brought to the ring. Most of all, I was impressed by the dedication, discipline and bravery. As I met back with Pat, my feet all caked in mud from circling the arena busily trying to capture every aspect of the event, I spat out, “Wow, did you see that?!”

Tomoi is certainly something I would say is uniquely Malaysian and beautiful, while at the same time sharing many similarities with our beloved South East Asian neighbors; much like our culture, terrain and facial features. Or as the slogan on the Thai street market t-shirts aptly puts it – Same Same But Different!

Pat Fama wrote an excellent piece on it; detailing the historical and cultural significance, the ban in the early 90s and current growing scene. A great read, so grab a copy of Esquire Malaysia from newsstands before the end of March!


In the trainings ground of The Malaysian Police Training Centre (PULAPOL), current champ Tengku Shahrizal aka Pokku Kuda Merah, building his jaw muscles so that he can take more blows to the head without being knocked out.

Workers in oil palm estates

In 2007, I was a research assistant at Wild Asia and one of my first few field trips with a DSLR camera was to oil palm estates where I assisted in social surveys.

The conversion of land into oil palm estates is rampant, badly affecting many indigneous communities who have lost much of their traditional land (and thus their livelihood) to large corporations.

Seen as a crop that will bring economic development to rural areas by the government – the expansion of oil palm plantations does not seem to be halting anytime soon despite protests from grassroot organizations and environmentalists.

With much of the workforce coming from neighboring countries, the well-being of these workers widely differ from estate to estate. In the worst cases, the conditions can be akin to modern slavery.

Below are some photos of the workers in the estate, all taken in 2007.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

They bring along sickles that are used to harvest the fruits.

A worker sweeps up loose fruits which fall from the bunches when it is harvested. (Puah Sze Ning)

While the young ones can carry the heavy fruit bunches, the older men and women collect the loose fruits on the ground.

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate. (Puah Sze Ning)

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

These markers are left by the fruits.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Fruit bunches are left by the road, awaiting collection.

An oil palm estate worker washing up. (

A worker washing up.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

(left) In estates where the workers are well taken care of, workers such as this sweet old lady have made it very much their home, so much so that the linesite (workers’ quarters) looks and feels like a kampung (village); proudly maintained and adorned with flowering plants (to compete in the annual Most Beautiful Linesite contest). Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia, migrant estate workers in Sabah have their familes with them. This lady, originally from the Philippines, has lived here for a long time but no longer works in the estate fields. Instead, her sons work for the estate, so they’ve been able to continue living here. She can’t imagine being anywhere else; as she says, “this is my home”.


River play

Children bathing in the river while the intestine of a cow, sacrificed for a feast that evening, is being washed downstream next to them. (Puah Sze Ning)

I daresay I’ve probably missed a number of opportune moments to take river shots. We go to the river to bathe in the evenings and I normally leave my camera behind out of sheer exhaustion from travelling, fear that I might slip and dunk my camera into the water and other thoughts such as making sure my sarong does not come loose and float away (we bathe in the open with a sarong wrapped tightly around).

Here are some photos from times when I brought my camera with me.

The top photo was taken during our filming of Drowned Forest and Damned Lives, a campaign documentary against the construction of the Kelau dam which would relocate two Orang Asli (indigenous minorities) communities without their free prior and informed consent. We took a bath in the Kelau river and just as we were done, some Felda settlers came fresh from slaughtering a cow and were washing parts of the cow (like the intestine in the man’s hands) in the river.

Below are some photos from Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning |

Chewong girl from Kuala Gandah leaping into the river. (

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning |

Chewong kids from Kuala Gandah having run in the river. (

These shots of the river are from Kg Mengkawago. It’s a rural village where the villagers are dependent on the rain and river for water. Unfortunately illegal logging upstream has polluted their river, jeopardizing their water source, worst felt during the drought.

The women here in Kg Mengkawago depend on the river to bath, wash their clothes as well as their cooking wares. (

Children in Kg Mengkawago bathing in the murky river, polluted by illegal logging upstream. As a result, many of them suffer from skin ailments. (