Phinisi- The Indonesian Art of Boat Building


The phinisi, a maritime icon of South Sulawesi & of the Indonesian seas, is a traditional & wooden boat, with two masts & seven sails. She is long & slender in style with an elegantly upward reaching prow. Also known by some as a ‘bugis boat’, the phinisi boat building craft is historically centered in the Bulukumba Regency of South Sulawesi, the residents being mainly of Buginese and Makassarese descent. They are still used for coastal & inter-island cargo transportation & fishing. More recently the phinisi have been adapted for use as ‘liveaboard” cruise charter boats in the dive and slow travel tourism sector, particularly in the remote Eastern islands of Indonesia.


Voyage by phinisi is by far, one of the most satisfying ways to travel through these remote places. The experience takes you back in time & to a pace of travel so opposite to what we have in the ‘modern’ world today. Travel on these phinisi makes you realise that life is more than being bound to technology & a fast stressful life. It immerses you into the natural elements, reviving sleepy & forgotten instincts between your human spirit & the sea, weather & the land. As you sit on the bowsprit of one of these vessels, you fill with a real sense of anticipation as you approach land, & realise the vastness, strength & life within our seas.

In December 2017, I was thrilled at the designation by UNESCO, of Phinisi boatbuilding as an Indonesian ‘Masterpiece of Oral & Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. This is a wonderful acknowledgment of not only the beauty & sea worthiness of this all wooden boat, but a huge appreciation of the skill of the craftsmen who have built her on beaches in South Sulawesi for centuries. The skill has traditionally been passed down from generation to generation.


Fewer & fewer phinisi craftsmen are working on the coconut fringed sands of Bulukumba today & there is concern that this maritime tradition will fade as less interest is shown by the younger generation. Raw materials in the form of specialized timber is also a challenge. There are legal issues over the importation & sustainability of the timber from other regions, namely Southeast Sulawesi, Maluku, Kalimantan & Papua. The timber used has to be mature & of good size in order to carve out the keels, prows & ribs of these boats. Hopefully, this listing will ensure that phinisi will live on as a tangible form of sea trade & travel, & will encourage the younger generations of craftsmen to continue building these craft on the beaches of South Sulawesi.


In 2007, whilst based in Jakarta, my husband & I, with another family as partners, decided to build a phinisi on Bira Beach. We designed Tiger Blue as a liveaboard phinisi & we wanted to embark on voyages of discovery & adventure with lots of diving, around the islands of Eastern Indonesia. Our idea was to design her so that she would accommodate our families & guests, cater to mixed age groups, a range of activities & to provide spaces more than just an all dive boat. We wanted plenty of deck space, large deck beds, a great big dining table & areas so that people could spread out & do their own thing whilst voyaging on her. The master builder in Bira,  Haji Abdullah took a year to complete the build.

The basic aesthetics of Tiger Blue was designed by my husband David Wilkinson & the late Wouter van den Houten. We’d met Wouter when we had chartered a trip on his own phinisi ‘Majestic’ before making the decision to build Tiger Blue. After the eight day charter with Wouter, we shook hands as friends & he then managed the whole build for us in Bira. Wouter specialised in the mechanical, engineering & maritime elements of Tiger Blue. He was a great sailor & it was brilliant to have had his expertise & passion for Indonesia, its boats & its islands with us as we all went through the process of building Tiger Blue. We couldn’t have done this project without Wouter. However, every step we took we did in collaboration with Haji Abdullah. His skill & spirit as the phinisi maker, was obvious right from start. He somehow breathed the life into the timbers of Tiger Blue. A real project of passion & camaraderie, we really did create a very beautiful ship, steady & strong & in love with the sea.


Haji Abdullah, at the final stage of Tiger Blue being winched down the beach into the sea, announced that the whole build had been extremely smooth. It had been one of his best experiences with no hitches & that all through it he said, Tiger Blue, she seemed impatient to get into the sea. It was a wonderful way to describe her incarnation from a specially chosen keel timber on the sand to her completed hull being launched into the sea from the beach in Bira.


Haji Abdullah has retired from commercial phinisi building but is still working on special boat building projects in Bira. It would be a real loss to this masterful art of boatbuilding if he retired completely. There would be one less phinisi master craftman working to keep these skills alive.

It has been a real privilege to have been part of this collaboration & it will forever be forged in my mind & memories. The building of Tiger Blue was personally, one of my most life changing experiences. I was terrified of the sea before, not a strong swimmer & with no control over my instincts & fear of it. I have in most part, come to terms with these fears mainly because the voyages around Eastern Indonesian can only be described as magical. Its good to have fear, it keeps you alert but life is a journey of learning & tolerance, & where one should occasionally be thrown out of one’s own comfort zone. It is also a journey where we should take every opportunity to soak in what is around us in this world. We can’t do everything, but with a phinisi, we can marvel at the archipelago that is Indonesia, its myriad seas, its people & natural beauty.

At the most important stages of the build there are rituals, incantations, ceremony & the calling up of spirits. The laying down of the keel timber is the first stage. We went specially to Bira for the ceremony of the laying of the keel timber.


Haji Abdullah was there to greet us, as were all the boatbuilders working on Tiger blue, with their families. Offerings of food had been made & laid out on the long keel timber. We all waited for the bomoh to arrive. He brought with him a very fine cockeral. Too fine to be sacrificed we hoped. It was tied by its leg to one of the pieces of wood while proceedings took place.

The blessing of the keel timber was important. It ensures a good build, safety for all involved in the life of the boat, & later, for her safety on the sea.

With the food offerings all displayed, the tools used by all the craftsmen were also placed together on the keel. These comprised of a pile of axes, adzes & a couple of electrical drills & tools. They would all be blessed with good luck & prayers.

The bomoh & Haji Abdullah then took their positions. They squatted & kneeled, one on each side of the keel. The bomoh then lit incense & whispered prayers to the spirits. The cockerel was then brought forward & a little nick made in its comb with a knife. A tiny drop of its blood was dripped into the smoking incense charcoals. He was then held nearby to watch until the end of the proceedings. We all noted that it must have done this many times. The cockerel stood by with such confident poise as if it knew its position & importance in this ceremony.

Haji Abdullah then placed his hand on the end of one of the keel timbers, & the bomoh marked out a section on the end with a chisel & a wooden hammer. He marked a line & then sawed off the end of the whole beam. The bomoh then took this piece of wood, walked down to the beach & whilst uttering more prayers threw the piece of wood into the sea, a sacrifice to the spirits of the sea.


The bomoh returned to the front end of the keel & chiseled off the edge of the beam. A spoonful of food( a delicious coconut & palm sugar delicacy) was then placed on the end to feed the spirit of the keel. A pot of tea was then brought, blessed & Haji Abdullah poured tea over the timber. Once this feeding of the keel was complete, it was the turn of everyone else to eat & the ladies of the families came forward to distribute food to all of us. We took the plates & fruit from the keel & joined in the happy & chatty atmosphere. The blessing was complete.


The cockerel was tied back up while the bomoh ate his meal & then was unceremoniously grabbed by his feet & dangled off the hand of the bomoh for the walk home. His job done, it was back to being an ordinary cockerel until the next ceremony!


After the meal was finished everyone got back to work & the prow timber was winched & maneuvered into its place on the end of the keel.


Those builders not directly involved in the winching of the prow beam, sat aside with a log of the caulking timber, chopping into it & pulling out the strands of this fibrous wood, ready to start caulking the internal planks of the hull.


Tiger Blue’s keel, ribs & hull are of iron wood. There is a particular method in building a phinisi. They are built from the outside in. Once the keel timber is down, the hull timbers & planks are all set in place. Once the outer ‘skin’ of the phinisi is formed & shaped, the ribs are then added on the inside. This part of the build is fascinating because the builders almost ‘massage’ the ‘skin’ to fit against the ribs. At this stage the vessel looks like a great body with the internal cavern of a whale. Caulking is done with a particular tree bark. The internal structures are then added, & above it the decks & superstructure of are teak.

At the time, as I walked down the beach at Bira viewing these enormous craft being formed on the sands, I remember very clearly feeling that they were more than inanimate objects. They were being crafted & imbued with an ancient sense of strength, calm & serenity. As I wandered here, I really did think of ‘arks’, rather than ‘boats’. An ‘ark’ brings up such a different image in your head, & on the beach in Bira, ‘ark’ was more appropriate.


Tiger Blue took two months to be hand winched, inch by inch, down the beach into the water. The craftsmen & carpenters worked on her as she slowly went down the beach.

It was a wonderful day seeing her afloat for the first time.


The boat builders continued working on her until she was floating completely on her own, getting used to the water. She was then towed into Bira Harbour where worked continued.

Here the engine room was fitted out & on the day the engine was brought in, a goat was slaughtered in the engine room, a sacrifice to ensure that Tiger Blue voyages safely with all who travel on her. Afterwards, one of the goats legs was tied to the underside of the dive platform. It remained here until it fell away into the sea about a year later.



From Bira Harbour, we motored Tiger Blue to Makassar, where all the finishing, the electrics, plumbing, interiors were all finished off. It was here in Makassar that we also filled her with huge chunks of marble, her ballast.

Our whole family joined her on this sail from Bira to Makassar. We had dolphins at the bowsprit & it was a lovely sail. It took a couple more months of finishing before we were ready for the first charter. The few nights before the start, the crew, Wouter & I worked around the clock to get her ready for guests.


On the last evening I took out the various offerings I was advised to offer to the sea by the local fishermen on Pangkor Island, where we lived in Malaysia. Kneeling, I was to tie a red cloth tightly around the front most rigging on the bow sprit. I then had to make a small display & offering of food, cheroots, betel nut & incense & flowers. I was to then say a prayer to the sea, wishing to keep Tiger Blue & all on her safe from harm. May she voyage well & strong. I was to let the incense burn out & then throw all the offerings in as many directions as possible from the bow sprit. I did all this as our Indonesian crew watched, an extra ritual to keep them safe. Remnants of the red cloth stayed on the rigging up to just a couple of years ago.

Tiger Blue feels totally ‘alive’ on the sea, her spirit keeping us safe & steady through all sorts of weather, a great testimony to the men who crafted her on the beach in Bira. She is 10 years old this year & she continues to exude great spirit & energy to all the voyages we take on her. I love that every time I board her, I feel her come alive. Its an exhilarating & quite emotional connection.

Tiger Blue remains true & strong & in June this year, she will undergo a big maintenance schedule & a new major fit out that will see the cabins & bathrooms upgraded, ready for the next season of charters & voyages of discovery along the Spice & Wallace Routes.

Join a voyage of discovery with Tiger Blue.

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Note: If in Jakarta take the time to go to Sunda Kelapa where you can still view the traditional ‘working’ phinisi, in both the ‘lamba’ (straight stern) & “palari’(curved stern) styles. Here in these busy docks, the phinis are unloaded & loaded with goods that will be trans-shipped all around the Indonesian archipelago. The scene is reminiscent of an olden day harbour, busy with men hauling sacks & large packages boxes on shoulders, running up gang planks onto decks & disappearing into the large holds of the boats.


In Search of Birds of Paradise

I’m on the beautiful traditional adventure liveaboard Tiger Blue. We are traveling along the Alfred Wallace routes here from Raja Ampat, to the clove island of Ternate. We are anchored off the village of Bessir on the island of Waigeo in Raja Ampat, West Papua. Its a 4am wake up call & its raining. We have cups of coffee or tea & hope for the rain to subside. There’s only this one chance on this trip to try to find the birds of paradise. Some of us don’t have rain gear, its dreary but then we decide to go for it anyway.

We start off from Tiger Blue in the tender in the dark. It stops raining heavily. Our local guide from the village of Bessir is with us at the front of the tender & in the drizzle we land in the shallows & with torches on, we wade to the narrow beach under the heavy dark canopy of the rain sodden trees growing thick on the shoreline.


Everything is wet. We rinse our feet of sand & put on our shoes. Then with our guide in the lead with a torch we start the hike up through this forest in single file. It belongs to his family. The guide walks slowly & makes no sound as he pads up the slope & over stones, rocks & logs. He is in no hurry & we all have to deliberately slow down to adjust to his pace. Along the way he stops to clear leaves, fronds & cuts away branches that have fallen during the storm. It is not a particularly difficult hike but it is uphill with a couple of steep parts to negotiate. There’s also a few fallen trees to climb over. The crude hand rails made a while ago with tree branches, are quite rotten & one falls away as someone puts too much weight on it as they pull themselves up the slope.

The jungle starts to light up a bit & its easier to see our way. After about 20 minutes we climb a steep wooden ladder up a slope & arrive at the hide, a crude canvas lean-to hut with a bench inside. It is all damp & steamy. There are holes through which you can view the display trees used by Paradisaea rubra for their courtship displays. We wait in silence, just the odd cough to give us away. A male bird of paradise calls & our guide mimics the call in order to encourage other males to join the tree. There are 2 high up in the branches. We catch a glimpse of them. There is a flurry of excited whispers & movement in the hide as we shuffle around to give each other a turn to look up into the branches. A couple of females come in but not much happens. There isn’t enough competition.

Our guide patiently mimics more calls, some very tentative, waiting for a reply. He calls more enthusiastically if he gets a response. It’s not easy. We watch him press a finger to his nose as he squeaks out the call that gets the competitive male birds excited. There is some movement in the trees as the birds half heartedly begin a courting display. We take turns to look through the open holes in the canvas & some of us get a better look at the birds than others.

We continue our patient & silent watch for about an hour but the mosquitoes have found us and there is a little boredom setting in. Our guide has one last go at calling. Two females fly high into a nearby tree & wait to see if there will be any male action this morning. The wet rain has upset the atmosphere & put a damper on everything so most of the males have stayed away from the display tree.

Bird watching is not an exciting past time. Most times it is about having the stubborn patience to wait for the bird to just show up. You have to constantly think past the feeling of being hard done by & disappointment. At best, there will be no rain & your hide is comfortable. Ah well, maybe next time.

The dawn chorus of birds in the jungle as we make our way back down the hill in the morning light, makes up for the lack of visuals on the birds of paradise. The act of getting on a little tender, wading in the shallows & starting the hike in the dark is exciting. Silencing yourself while you listen to the sounds of the morning rising in the steamy damp jungle is something we should try to do more often. It reconnects ones whole being to the natural elements, taking you a little out of your own comfort zone. The calls of the butcher birds & other unknown birds, the blurred vision of white cockatoos as they fly through the trees, their caws heard all over the islands. And then there was the wonderful sighting of the black cockatoo with its red crest, Burung Kakak Tua Raja Hitam. That is definitely one for the bird list!

I’ve been lucky enough to have trekked up to this location in Bessir a few times now & only once can I describe the end game as magnificent. 8 birds in full, crazy, noisy display. I say that has been great odds. It is more likely that you have to be content to have caught just a glimpse of the Red Birds of Paradise. We are all lucky that they are still around for us to get excited enough to go look for them. Their numbers are very much threatened & it is likely that soon, their numbers will dwindle to just above none. This is a very sad prospect.

Alfred Russel Wallace was fascinated by them & he desperately wanted many of the birds of paradise in his collection. He struggled to find them, shoot them, collect them from the locals. He found it difficult to keep them alive. All of the ones he tried to keep died within just a few days, despite eating well & greedily. He was completely at a quandary over this. Wallace was also constantly at the mercy & competition from the Sultan of Ternate who had everyone on his side when it came to the procurement of these birds, so coveted for their magnificent feathers. During Victorian times, their feathers were in any fashionable persons hat, the trade in feathers so huge that numbers of these birds were forever affected & unable to recover from the fall.

Today they are at risk, not so much from the collection of feathers, but from the destruction of their natural environment. It is hard to expect the people of the villages on these remote islands to wave away prosperity & modernity gained from tourism & other related businesses. As health & housing improves, as modern gadgets become more affordable, as tourism increases, these villages will prosper & expand, & the impact on their immediate environment, no matter how small, will be marked.

This village of Bessir  was where Alfred Wallace himself had a house. He stayed here with the firm goal of collecting the Red Bird of Paradise. When you are standing in the village looking out towards the water, you do get the feeling that it has not changed that much. It is here, in this tiny area, that these birds were exclusively found & they still are today. For now that slow, dogged patience & determined silence required of a small but avid birdwatching community, most often dismissed as boring by other kind of adventure types, ensures that these birds have a chance to regroup & stay amongst us in this world. Paradisaea rubra cannot withstand a frenzy of excited activity around them. A glimpse of them on a wet damp day is satisfaction enough to make me feel happy knowing that they are still with us on this earth.


Get on a bucket list trip like this:
Let Tiger Blue take you on a voyage of exploration & discovery along the Wallace route. There are various itineraries, that can be customized to your interests, available beginning in Sorong, West Sorong taking in his journeys around the islands of Raja Ampat, his journey from Raja Ampat to Gag & Ternate, as well as sailing south Passing through the islands around Misool (which eluded him completely despite his desire to explore there), to the Banda Islands & Ambon. These trips take place in season at certain times of the year.

Go to <> for more information. Contact <> for general enquiries.

Check out the Tiger Blue Instagram page: @sailtigerblue

& our Facebook page: Tiger Blue, Voyage Indonesia

Activities are all included and you can expect to dive, snorkel, hike, kayak, waterski, paddle board, walk around villages & markets, hang out on the beach.

What to bring:
Swimsuits, a rasher top (against sunburn & jellies), leggings (against sunburn & jellies), good walking shoes or a pair of hiking sandals that are easier to dry after wet weather, a rain poncho or lightweight raincoat, sarong, small selection of clothes, a light colored set of walking pants & top (better against mosquitoes), a sweatshirt (mainly for the airconditioned flights around Indonesia), your own special medications. There is a selection of wetsuits, rasher tops, all dive & snorkeling equipment on board.

Inspiration and Knowledge


What inspiration…?

People always ask me “What are you inspired by?”. My immediate gut answer has always been, and always will be, ‘Malaysia’. The beautiful natural environment & cultures of my country are always on my mind. I love it. It is what I have grown up with, always close to the jungle, outdoors, free to roam around the plantations in which I grew up, mixing with people of all races, watching festivals and ways of life in little towns.

Parents and knowledge….

Through the years, as an adult,  my inspirations are being drawn from a much wider range of countries visited through my travels. However, my strongest inspirations still come down to the world’s environment and cultures. As a child, my parents made us observe nature, make things, draw things we saw. They encouraged artwork, an interest in natural history, and they encouraged general knowledge. The volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica was always on hand and out on the big work table in my fathers study.

The inspiration of a teacher….

At school I developed an interest in art and pattern, anthropology, archaeology, natural history and art history. At boarding school in Dorset, UK doing my A levels, I took part in a new activity that was being offered, ‘Weaving’. It was there in the wonderful ‘weaving shack’ created by the totally inspiring textile artist Wendy Barber, I found the exact thing that allowed me to combine all my favorite interests; woven and printed textiles. I couldn’t get enough and there was never enough time in the day to keep working at creating and trying out ideas on the loom, block printing, dying natural colors, spinning wools, and learning about textiles from around the world. My short time living with Wendy Barber and her partner, the late artist John Hinchcliffe, after school before going to New York, has been fundamentally vital to my growth as an artist today.

On my own….

I carried all of this with me to New York and Parsons School of Design where I studied Print & Surface Design. Here I could mix up all the ideas I’d learnt from studying cultures around the world and found my own ‘hand’ and ‘colour sense’. It was here I was told “Stick with your own ideas and never be afraid of acting on them.” And so I managed to focus it all down to pattern, color, nature and culture. I took this back to Malaysia when I finished and set up Owen Rebecca Designs with my future husband specializing in prints that promoted the environment & culture of Malaysia.

Decide on a lifestyle….

That was 30 years ago and since then my ‘work’ has morphed into a ‘lifestyle choice’ of art, hospitality and activism highlighting Malaysia, nature, heritage and culture. Whilst living full time on Pangkor Island, I was all about the jungle. In George Town within the UNESCO heritage zone, I was all about what I saw on the street, intangible heritage, old trades and customs and a moral inkling to want to preserve some of that for the future. Still in Penang, as I watch the steady destruction of the islands fantastic natural environment & hills, my interest has swung again to nature: its patterns, colours and my own gut reaction to it.

Support a cause….

My participation in the recent ‘Save Our Hills’ campaign by the Penang Forum has pulled my focus out of the urban mess, into the hills of Penang and once again I’m fascinated by everything most people just simply dismiss as they go about their lives. The shapes of leaves, the colors of their veins, the patterns in bark, the types of birds that flit in and out of our view, the amazing blooms on our trees, the way the sunlight plays on the jungle canopy. Once you stop and start looking, you can find extraordinary things in the most ordinary places. I find this very uplifting and recently I have started to translate these daily ‘visual memories’ or ‘visual imprints’ into quick paintings.


These quite large paintings on paper have stemmed from an exercise I started some time ago to create what I call ‘A travelling artists diary’. There have always been certain images that have stayed with me through time and my travels, visual memories that I have taken in. Instead of just leaving them be in my head, I started to translate and draw them in a sketchbook, filling the whole page with an ink drawing and pattern. Once started, I made myself complete the page even if I felt that I’d made a mistake or ‘didn’t like it’ along the way. I wanted to create a routine for myself by starting and then making sure I completed the page whilst working through the mistakes in order to make the image ‘whole’. I didn’t want to give up on that particular ‘visual imprint’.

Work to create….

I use the same technique with my quick paintings. There is no sketching or thought. I just start painting and work through it all with layers of color and pattern until I feel its complete. I have really enjoyed this process and the amount of work I have been able to produce in this way has been so very satisfying. Part of this focus is also because I’ve reached a stage in life where the kids are all grown up and I suddenly have time to give myself. I’ve also inherited a certain ‘work ethic’ from my parents, my father in particular, that does not allow me to be idle for too long. I’m throughly enjoying my ability to spontaneously produce these ‘visual diaries’, a collection of pattern and colour. That is to me, the essence of my art, a visual record of things that I see on a daily basis, often ‘ordinary’ but absolutely not!

The essence of my work….

I am a ‘hoarder’ and I love producing a collection of work rather than individual pieces. My ideas and inspirations then have a ‘story’ and together I feel the works make more sense. The ‘collection’ relays my thoughts and emotions during the space of time in which I produced them.

Stop and look….the importance of Knowledge….

I always have my camera with me and I take many many photographs to use for ideas and to look at again for inspiration. However, most important, when I’m out, I take the time to look at things and inspect how they are formed. A flower for example is not just a four petaled thing. It has been designed specifically to be pollinated by its chosen creature or element. It may be designed to shake in the wind, float on a river, be rubbed by the back of a beetle, to be entered by the long tongue of a moth or be fluttered by the wings of little tiny bat. These shapes look disjointed and strange but as soon as you understand how nature has interconnected everything, ones ability to draw and put marks on paper becomes all the more easy and fluid. Ultimately, it is this ‘Knowledge’, that I find incredibly inspiring.

My Artwork:

Harking back to my childhood:

A Traveling Artists Diary: For you to colour in!

Hinchcliffe and Barber today:

Go for a walk in the Penang Botanic Gardens

Support this cause:

Birdwatching on Gurney Drive

Please stop and watch the birds on Gurney Drive….


Gurney Drive is the main point where the public can visually connect and meet the sea, here on Penang Island. It is here that you can view Kedah Peak on the mainland, an often ethereal and hazy shadow of a mountain that floats on the view. All the early voyagers to Penang made reference to Mount Kedah. It marks the entry by sea into Penang Island.

The promenade (originally called New Coast Road & completed in 1936) was renamed in 1952 after Sir Henry Gurney the British colonial Administrator, was assassinated on route to the hill station Frasers Hill on Oct 6th 1951, by communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency. Thousands of people attended his funeral at Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur. The Rolls Royce in which he was assassinated is displayed at the Penang State Museum.

Wake up early….

I walk on Gurney Drive, with lots of other people, early morning at least 5 times a week. I always aim for sunrise. It is a stunning introduction to each day. I’m always surprised by the beauty of it all. The Drive is approximately 2.5kms in length and most times, there is too much traffic, noise and fumes. Where the drains discharge, and especially around the seafood restaurants, your nostrils will smart in protest at the sharp scent of ammonia and rotten food. It is at times unpleasant, but if you walk with purpose, or run, past these points, you’ll get over it. I smile at each municipal street cleaner as I walk by, acutely aware of the fact that without them thanklessly sweeping everyday, the pavements and the beaches here, would be a tip.

I started walking here for exercise, a routine I wanted to keep to. A minimum of 10,000 steps a day!  What a change this has made to my mind, body and mood, despite fumes and nasty smells. It has now become a bit of an addictive passion and I carry both my big Nikon camera & my iPhone6 with me each day.


I look forward to the sunrises each day, but it is the birdlife that has really got me gripped here. In particular, the very beautiful, small colony of white egrets that fish so elegantly along the shore line. There are also little herons, redshanks, waders and at night, a change of guard with larger night herons, standing still as sentries, where the island water discharges at the main drains out to the sea.

Otters, dolphins, monitor lizards, mud skippers, bats, crows and pigeons add to the mix. Everyday there is something different. You cannot come to Penang and miss a walk along Gurney Drive. With reclamation for more development about to start, the line of the shore, the mudflats, the bird colonies and wildlife,  are all at risk. Before it all disappears, sunrise or sunset, get your steps in now and take a moment to look out, up and around. Stop and watch the birds!

For me they are an inspiration for my artwork, and their elegance and calm resilience, a call to become more aware of what the natural environment means to me. I do not wish for them to disappear.

How to get there….

From China Tiger, our apartments on China Street in the centre of the UNESCO heritage zone of George Town, take the Rapid Bus 101 from Weld Quay. Bring your camera! Ask to get off in front of Gurney Plaza. Walk the length and back, from the ‘Sunrise’ Apartments roundabout to the collection of fishing boats on the end. It is here you can wait for the sun to rise above the hills. The egrets are fishing all day long, shining bright white in the sun, moving position with the tides.

Get savvy….

Pepper Cake

Image 4

Pepper is probably the most well known spice. Its historical value was such that it was treated like gold. It was used as currency in the Middle Ages and used to pay rent and taxes. The term ‘peppercorn rent’ indicated ‘payment in full’, but today the term has become to mean ‘a nominal amount’.

Peper nigrum, a vine grown on tall stakes in a wigwam shape, is indigenous to the Malabar Coast, India, but was taken to Java by the wave of Hindu traders and colonists. It spread throughout the Far East. In Malaysia it was grown widely in the past here in Penang, but Sarawak is now best known for its wonderful quality pepper. Black peppercorns are green berries dried and raked until they shrink and wrinkle. White peppercorns are red and orange berries, packed in sacks, then soaked in slowly running water until the outer husks rot and can be sloughed off.  Green peppercorns are fresh, often freeze-dried or pickled in brine or vinegar.

Pepper is extremely versatile and is used at all stages of the cooking process, as well as a table condiment. Pepper enhances flavours and can be happily, often surprisingly, paired with sweet ingredients: try it ground on strawberries or pineapple. This tastes great! Specks of ground black pepper add interest to otherwise pale sauces.

Pepper stimulates the appetite, is thought to help in the preservation of cooked food when used in larger quantities, and if consumed in copious amounts, is also thought to help your body repel mosquitoes.


Christmas is coming….

Spices have always traditionally been used at Christmas time to decorate and add flavour to the feast of food. Spiced tea and mulled wine are traditional cold weather drinks and here in the tropics, a heavily spiced chai tea is not only stimulating for the body but a good way to keep off colds and sinus troubles.

The Recipe….

Here is a good easy recipe for a heavy current cake, very copiously spiced with ground pepper. I always get asked the recipe when I serve it and at last…. here it is!

It can easily replace the traditional sweet Christmas cake and in fact, I much prefer it. You could ice it with sugar and marzipan. I don’t, and wrapped in wide Christmas coloured ribbons or fabric, it looks an honest part of the festive table. When I make this cake, I make several in different sizes all at once. They can keep for months in the fridge & longer in the freezer. Fresh out of the oven, they are crumbly and served hot or cool, excellent with a dollop of good quality butter and a good citrusy homemade marmalade. Every time I make them, they disappear fast, brilliant with an afternoon cup of strong tea. It is a real energy giving food.

I’m afraid that I’m not good at using measures when I cook and in this recipe, no matter how much pepper I add ( and you start with a lot) the cake seems to be able to cope with the spice and it never seems too much. I do not use sugar in these cakes but some people do prefer them sweeter, in which case add a couple of spoonfuls of dark sugar. I find the raisins well sweet enough, and I use proper full cream butter, NOT margarine. I use eye and texture more than anything to gage if my mixture is right, so please do experiment a couple of times. You will find your ideal way of making this cake. This recipe will yield me two bigger and two smaller cakes, but you can divide the batter up into any size cake you like.

You will need…

About 1 kilo + – of currents or raisins. I like using a mix of black & golden but either or, is fine too.

4 eggs

1 good sized bar of unsalted butter- 250 grams


Self raising flour

Several heaped tablespoonfuls of pepper (I prefer black but I have mixed black and white before)- between 3 to 5 depending on amount of flavour in the pepper

1 small stick of real cinnamon

3 cloves


When you pound all the spices above together, the cloves and cinnamon need to be totally powdered, but the pepper left still a little ‘gritty’. You may have to do this in batches if your pestle & mortar set is small. The pounding really releases the flavour, but you can also put the spices in a grinder and whizz them.


-Put all your raisins in a big pot, pour in enough water so that the water level is just below the level of the raisins & currents in the pot. Add the lump of butter on top, cover & put on low heat until it boils. Take the lid off and let it all simmer nicely, the currents soften and the liquid is ‘creamy’ and opaque looking. Stir occasionally to make sure the butter is well mixed into the final liquid. About 45 minutes. Do not let it continue at a rolling boil as this will make the currents mushy.

-Grind and pound your spices while you wait for this.


-Prepare your cake tins. Butter the bases and sides well. Put on the oven (mine is electric) to 180 degrees C.

-Once your currents have simmered, the pot should look a bit like this in the  photo below. The liquid is definitely there but is not overwhelming the currents. The currents look plumped but are not soggy. Throw in all your ground pepper and stir in well. Let the pot cool but make sure there is some considerable heat left for the next stage.


And this is the weird part of this recipe. I find the texture of the cake is much better when this part of the recipe is done as fast as possible with the mixture still hot. Be aware that  the eggs could get ‘cooked’ as you mix them into the hot batter, so make sure your tins are prepared at hand & ready to put in the oven.

-Transfer the whole contents of your pot of currents into a large mixing bowl.


-In a separate mixing bowl, beat your eggs together & add enough self raising flour so that you have a thickish batter.


-Sprinkle a little flour over the top of your hot currents, stir into the mixture.


-Then as fast as possible, dump the egg and flour batter over the top of your currents and stir in as fast as your arm is able. The batter is very heavy & its hard to work the wooden spoon through everything…but you need to do this as soon as possible, mixing properly, stirring up all the warm liquid at the bottom of the bowl.


You end up with a thick mixture, heavy & gloopy. The batter is there just to keep the currents ‘locked’ together as it cooks. I have found, making these cakes many many times, that they will be good, even if you make the mixture slightly runnier. If it is runnier, you need to make sure there’s more batter in proportion to the currents, or else your finished cakes won’t have an even amount of peppery ‘binding’ throughout. They will be nicely ‘bound’ at the bottom of the cake but just loosely ‘current’y’ at the top.


-Divide your batter between your tins, knock them heavily on your kitchen table to help level out the batter, and get them into the oven ASAP. On cooking they do not rise very much so make sure you are happy with their depth in the tins.

-As they cook keep a little watch as the exposed currents on top can get singed a little. You can adjust the heat down a little if you like. Once done, a knife put through the centre should come out clean. About 40 mins depending on the size of your cakes.


-Let the cakes cool before you knock them out of the tins. To keep them in the fridge or freezer, wrap them tightly  in baking paper, then waxed paper, & store.

Note: Hot out of the oven, they are also great with good quality ice cream as a dessert.

Check Out….

Go check out the pepper vines at The Tropical Spice Garden, Teluk Bahang Penang and learn a lot more about what other spices Penang is known for. You can buy fresh pepper at their retail outlet at the Tropical Spice Garden itself, or at Tropical Spice Garden In The City at 29 China Street in the heart of George Town, Penang. They are also the only outlet selling real cinnamon in Penang, imported directly from Sri Lanka. Its a whole different ballgame to cassia, which is commonly and widely sold and packaged as ‘cinnamon’.