Contrary to popular belief, being a travel writer isn’t as hyped up or as glamorous as other people make it out to be. Like any other writing profession, whether you are writing about the latest celebrity gossip, or whether you’re reviewing food at a high class gourmet restaurant, there are always things you want to do, and things you have to do. So when my editor assigned me to cover the 16th Annual Pasir Gudang International Kite Festival in Johor the other day, I just barely managed to hide that slight raise of the eyebrow quickly enough to replace it with a smile and an enthusiastic “Yes, boss!” whilst secretly thinking, Kite-flying? Really?
But to be honest, the assignment really wasn’t that bad. I was intrigued by the practice; I had always pegged kite flying as a child’s activity, something that you did as a child and outgrew, like having leftover pizza for breakfast, or playing video games. Although now when I come to think of it, I still do these things, so I suppose in comparison, kite-flying was the lesser of many pre-pubescent sins.
After a five-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur City Centre, we arrived at Bukit Layang-Layang in Pasir Gudang, Johor, the southernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia. Bukit Layang-Layang is an open field exposed to the strong seasonal monsoon winds, which makes it perfect for kite flying, and the Pasir Gudang International Kite Festival is invariably held here every year. This year marks the 16th time the festival is held since its inception in 1995, and every year hordes of these kite-wielding, adult men and women take part with their latest invention.
This year proved no different; throngs of people crowded the open field, and makeshift stalls popped up like mushrooms to cater to the visitors. Vendors sold a variety of items, mostly food, but there were also items of clothing, wau (the traditional Malaysian kite) paraphernalia, and plenty of other souvenir trinkets, cheap things with almost no practical use except to show how much you love your wife/girlfriend/ colleagues back home (Hint: I love you less than $1).
This year, the festival intended to make its mark on the Malaysia Book of Records by flying the most numbers of kites simultaneously, so the organizers gathered several thousand school children together on the field in an attempt to fly three thousand kites at once. As the green field became flooded with the ecstatic mob of kite-wielding, dangerously carefree children running in all directions, I decided that I’d had a good 26 years of living, and suicide by trampling from a happy mob of children seemed like a good way to go as any
Into the thick of the mob I dived, and was immediately assaulted by a relentless barrage of screaming children who were dragging along their kites behind them. Surprisingly, the kids manoeuvred expertly around me, and I was able to walk peacefully through this throng of colourful chaos.
I couldn’t help but grin – the children looked so happy with their toys, that I contemplated conning one of them out of their kites, just so I could run along and pretend to be a 10-year-old again. After careful consideration however, I thought better of it. Prison food simply lacked the personal touch of room service, and after all, I had a job to do; I had to watch grown-ups fly kites.
So I made my exit to watch the big boys and their toys. This year’s theme was “Colouring the Sky,” so naturally the big boys brought out their biggest, most fabulously coloured kites to fly, and an eerie image of the hippie movement in the sixties crossed my mind. More than 200 participants from over 30 countries came to re-live their childhood, and so began a flurry of rainbow coloured kites being hauled up and blown into the air. The situation was so festive, I half-expected to see a Volkswagen type-2 van to pull up, full of youths with bad clothing, dirty hair and dubious cigarettes in hand.
Hippie as it may be, I suppose that is the particular charm of the kite festival. It was the chance to indulge in childish wonder, the idea that even as grown-ups, we still enjoy seeing colourful things take off into the air for no obvious reason. Sure, as adults we understand that it is the consequence of lift and force, of wind movements and aerodynamics; but the child in us still wants to believe it’s the work of magic.
There were a multitude of kites, each as varied as the people who flew them. A team from Japan, dressed in a costume adorned with the tako-e, or kite paintings, brought a simple kite with them, which had the traditional print of a male Japanese character on the kite. They were a friendly couple, occasionally approaching the spectators at the sidelines to let them handle their kite. Others had more elaborate designs; Ibu Liannawati from Indonesia, for example, created Upin and Ipin kites, Malaysian cartoon characters that are beloved in Indonesia, and also a peacock kite, a simple design with a daring mix of purple, green, red, yellow and blue.
Some were grand, like the giant squid kite from the Germans, which required the assistance of a pilot kite – a smaller, lighter kite that’s used to help lift the bigger kite off the ground to higher altitudes where the wind currents are stronger. Others were not quite as easy to lift, like the dragon kite by the Chinese team. True to its name, the dragon kite consisted of a series of little kites strung together to form a giant kite that stretched to 250 metres! The handling of the kite was almost a nuisance – the fragile kite had to be fully laid out on the ground carefully, and lifted at different sections before it could be airborne. Nevertheless, it was impressive to see the it breeze through the skies, with the tail end oscillating in the wind; it did look like a real dragon.
There were other events at the festival, like the lollypop drop, where mini parachutes bearing candies were released from airborne kites. Children were momentarily allowed into the kiter’s field to catch these “candies from the sky” and one occasionally found the odd adult among the kids. I had a wrestling match with a 10-year-old over a bar of chocolate strapped to a parachute, and it was brutal – on one hand, I had the advantage of being bigger and stronger than he was, but on the other, he had far less appreciation for the sensitivity of the area between my thighs. Needless to say, he won.
After licking my wounds and crying over lost candy, I went to observe another event – the Rokkaku event, where kite pilots battle it out, gladiator-style. The objective of the Rokkaku is simple; crash the enemy’s kite using your own fighter kite. This is done by cutting the enemy’s kite line by rubbing your own kite line against the enemy’s. The kite lines, when rubbed against each other, would cut the kite line (depending on who was on the offensive) with the heat generated from friction. Once the enemy kite is cut, the winner may look on smugly as his/her opponent’s kite comes crashing down.
In this event, a team consists of three participants, a pilot and two co-pilots handling a hexagonal Rokkaku kite. The real challenge of the Rokkaku is coordination; teams must synchronize their movements in order to effectively manoeuvre the Rokkaku kite, which requires a lot of teamwork and practice. This year there was one female participant in the Corporate Rokkaku league, a bold entry in a world usually dominated by the male, and although she lost, it was still a very impressive performance.
At the end of the festival, I could honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Despite my differences with the children there over the ownership of kites and candy, it was an experience to see huge inflatable toys flying through the air. After the trip, my editor greeted me with a smile and asked me “how was it?” I proudly showed her my photographs and signed up for next year’s festival.
The kite flying festival happens annually at Bukit Layang-Layang at Pasir Gudang, Johor, usually during the month of February. Being the southernmost tip of Peninsular Malaysia, it isn’t hard to find, although it may take some time getting there. If you are travelling by road, from Kuala Lumpur, drive southwards to Johor via the North South Expressway (PLUS highway) and head to Johor Bahru. Once there, look for buses that go to the Pasir Gudang Bus Terminal. From there, take a metered taxi to Bukit Layang-Layang.
If you are travelling from Singapore, Johor Bahru is accessible via the Johor-Singapore Causeway or the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link (Tuas Second Link).
The most convenient long distance transportation there is by air. Johor’s Sultan Ismail Airport in Senai is 32 kilometres from Johor Bahru. The major air carriers like Malaysia Airlines, FireFly* and AirAsia, fly there from Kuala Lumpur and most other capital cities like Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and Kuala Terengganu.
* Kuala Lumpur has three airports, i.e. KLIA, LCCT and Subang Skypark Terminal (Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang) served by different airlines; please check your tickets to see which airport to depart from.
Johor is also accessible by sea via the Johor Bahru International Ferry Terminal in the Johor Bahru district. From there, proceed to Bukit Layang-Layang by bus or metered taxi.
Mr. Anuar Bin Abdul Ghani
Tel: +607-2547777 or +607-2513720 / 21 / 22