shaxi: yunnan’s last surviving ancient market town

The Bai minorities live in the surrounding mountainous areas, and hike about three hours to get to Shaxi.JPG

the women walk in silence, briskly, with their heads slightly bowed from the weight on their backs. the rattan baskets strapped to their waists and heads are filled to the brim with forest harvests, vegetables from their home gardens, chinese medicinal herbs and homemade specialty items. these ladies are from the bai ethnic group, the second largest minority in yunnan. in shaxi, they inhabit the mountainous areas and maintain a matriarchal way of life in which children take on their mothers’ family names. they make their way towards the valley town of sideng every friday where a street market bustles from the crack of dawn. there, they lay their offerings on tarpaulin sheets on the ground and join local vendors in plying their goods.

from the familiar and expected (breakfast on fluffy mantou steamed freshly on the spot, the ubiquitous soup noodles topped with dollops of chilli and coriander) to the exotic (dried rattlesnakes and tortoise carapace at the herb medicine stall) and downright absurd (coils of human hair for wig-making and cushion stuffing, apparently), nothing is off limits here.

the best spot to hang around is the poultry section, where young chicks and ducklings chirp and quack noisily inside wire or rattan containers while sellers cradle fat hens under their arms, parading their prized produce to lure customers. the buying and selling of chickens is a truly lively affair as fierce haggling ensues between vendor and customer while the bird in question is closely scrutinised before a decision is made. the chook is then weighed and then the final price is named.

Chicken buying is a lively, noisy event at the weekly market.JPG
Vintage-style Chinese crockery are among the goods on sale at the market.JPG
Exotic surprises await at the herbs and medicine stall.JPG
Vendors at the market handmaking jute ropes.JPG

by late afternoon, the market comes to a close and the bai ladies retrace their steps home. their rattan baskets, emptied of the produce they had brought to sell, are full once again with raw ingredients and household items they pick up at the market. it’s a routine they carry out dutifully, chatting cheerfully along even though it’s a journey of at least several hours each way. they hike past verdant fields of rice and wheat, and 16 sleepy villages that spread out across the himalayan foothills in north-west yunnan. it’s worth renting a bicycle from the shops in sideng to explore this scenic countryside on two wheels.

the market is not only a weekly highlight for the villagers, but is also significant of shaxi’s place in history: it was an important stop on the ancient tea and horse caravan trail that stretched from tibet to myanmar, and predates the silk road by 300 years. in those days, horses and animal furs were valuable currencies that merchants traded with for tea, salt and medicine.

the friday bazaar is held along the main street of sideng, whereas the original shaxi market site is now known as sideng square and remains the focal point of the town. the square is encircled by a complex of buildings that served the needs of those ancient merchants, and included guest houses, horse stables, a temple and a theatre stage where performances were held for their entertainment.

Sideng Square, the main gathering point in Shaxi.JPG
Quiet and bucolic, Shaxi is still much of a hidden travel gem.JPG

the shaxi market is considered the most complete surviving example of a trading town along the trail and for that reason, in 2002, the world monuments fund placed it on their watch list of 100 most endangered sites. the acknowledgement saved shaxi market from crumbling into oblivion, and the funding that came with it (usd1.3 million) has been put to good use. led by swiss conservationist jacques feiner, the shaxi rehabilitation project set about restoring the buildings as well as the defence gates that protected the village.

feiner’s approach focuses on fortifying the existing structures, returning them to their former glory while retaining their original forms. the revived sideng square thus has all the authenticity of a centuries-old market town, complete with ancient architecture, cobblestone walkways and a towering tree that’s believed to be three centuries old.

the idyllic old world vibe permeates across town, seen not only in the buildings and willow tree-lined roads but also in the people. it is also not uncommon to see a man walking his goat or horse around town, or bai ladies out and about clad in their elaborate traditional ensembles. surrounding and within the vicinity of the square, what used to be shelters and resting posts now house a mix of eateries, specialty shops and artisans’ studios where goods are still painstakingly made by hand the old-fashioned way.

the revived sideng square thus has all the authenticity of a centuries-old market town, complete with ancient architecture, cobblestone walkways and a towering tree that’s believed to be three centuries old

at the old town shoe shop, an elderly mr lee sits patiently in front of a vintage sewing machine facing the open window that looks out to the square. he has since passed the business on to his daughter, he says, but steps in to help out when she’s away. inside the tiny shop, racks display traditional embroidered shoes embellished with chinoiserie. the shoes come in several combinations of bold colours and styles that include sandals, mary janes, wedges and boots, and you can customise a pair to your liking.

next door, a family of young silversmiths are hard at work, melting, welding and knocking late into the night as they rush to build up a stockpile of designs. the approaching golden week holidays promise to bring a deluge of travellers to shaxi, and they want to ensure they have enough goods to cash in on the rush.

Shaxi's perfectly preserved ancient architecture makes for postcard-perfect moments.JPG
Wood Fish offers an East meets West menu.JPG
Works of art - handmade canvas shoes embellished with chinoiserie.JPG
Old Tree Cafe was the first Western-style bar to open in Shaxi.JPG

diagonally opposite, old street is a laidback bar with tatami-style seating upstairs and a picnic table outside if you prefer to people watch over ice cold beer or their homemade fruit wines. next door, you can buy a variety of mushrooms – a yunnan specialty – including the very aromatic, truffle-like song rong (pine mushrooms, or matsutake tricholoma) that’s highly prized by the japanese.

further up from old street, the tiny wood fish cafe seats only six and everything is made fresh upon order. on the small menu are easy favourites like burgers, sandwiches, fried rice and homemade breads. more substantial offerings can be had at karma cafe, where local and western dishes can be enjoyed with a selection of bai and tibetan delights, served fine dining style within a casual atmosphere. the food is of excellent quality, featuring the freshest locally sourced ingredients, as is the service. the cafe is actually part of the laomadian guesthouse, a heritage boutique accommodation in a 150-year-old courtyard building that was originally a caravanserai. rooms are tastefully dressed in a mix of modern amenities and traditional furnishings. owner a fang, a taiwanese who speaks fluent english, welcomes guests warmly and will sit down for a chat if she’s not busy running around. she splits her time between shaxi and lijiang, where she operates a second outlet of karma cafe and laomadian.

on the same row as karma towards the east gate end is hungry buddha cafe, owned by italian chef maurino anzideo and his chinese wife ai xin, and specialising in organic vegetarian fare. everything is made from scratch with ingredients from the friday market – including cheese, made using local milk. their specialty is thin crust pizza, delightfully crispy with well-balanced flavours. hungry has limited bar stool seating, so it’s best to grab your pizza and pasta to go. walk through the east gate and you will arrive at the heihui riverside promenade which, on a balmy evening and looking out towards the huazhong mountain range, makes for the perfect picnic cum vantage spot.

most of shaxi’s eateries close early, with old tree cafe among the few exceptions. the first western-style cafe to open here, in 2005, it is run by an elderly couple who relocated from shandong in search of a restful retirement. the warm and homey interiors are as inviting as the food, a mix of chinese favourites and western classics. espresso-based coffee drinks are served along with beer, juices and fresh homemade yogurt.

you can sip your choice of night cap at the outdoor seating area, which looks out to the centuries-old scholar tree that inspired the cafe’s name. it’s just the place to be to wind down while soaking in the serenity of the old market square before retiring for the night.

a few doors away is one of sideng’s most popular accommodations, the hostel-style horse pen 46, which occupies a traditional bai courtyard home built in the ‘sanfang yizhaobi’ architectural style that translates into ‘three houses, one front wall’. its name and room types – named foal, pony or mustang stalls – are a nod to shaxi’s market town era.

those days may be long gone, but on-going preservation efforts ensure that shaxi’s legacy continues, its bucolic charm further protected by the languid pace and ‘time stands still’ spirit that envelops life here. still largely hidden from the typical yunnan tourist trail – most travellers bypass shaxi for dali and lijiang – those who do find their way here could well find themselves drawn to visit again and again, not unlike the tea-trading merchants who once journeyed here by horse caravans.


 this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail












terengganu's mainland attractions

terengganu’s islands are undoubtedly the east coast state’s biggest tourist draw, but its mainland is not lacking in attractions either. here are 10 essential experiences worth staying an extra day or two for in kuala terengganu after your sun-and-sea getaway.

1. relive, and live amidst history at terrapuri

combining luxury living with cultural conservation, terrapuri heritage village is a unique resort of 29 centennial malay stilt houses that were sourced from all over terengganu over two decades. of those, 20 were refurbished with modern comforts for accommodation while others make up the sesayap courtyard (comprising a library, dining pavilion, lobby and meeting rooms) and a spa offering traditional malay urut. 

in maintaining their respective history, the 20 villas are named after their places of origin and the spaces below the houses serve as galleries displaying a variety of antiquated tools such as stone mills, grinders and even old fishing boats. owner alex lee and his team even went as far as to note down the blessing rituals that the original occupants had carried out when the structures were first built, and re-enacted them when the houses were transported here. 

terrapuri is thus steeped in history, and there is a regal link to its own story: its moniker means the land of palaces and correspondingly, the resort’s layout is modelled after a 17th-century istana.

kampung mangkuk, setiu tel +609 624 5020


2. have a beach to yourself

right in front of terrapuri is pantai penarik, a crescent-shaped beach hugged by coconut trees as far as the eyes can see. strong waves and high tides mean that swimming in the waters is out of the question, which is why you won’t find sun worshippers here. nor are there street vendors of any kind as there is simply no crowd – which makes it perfect for whiling away time doing next to nothing. quiet and idyllic, it’s a slice of paradise that invites you to lay back and sink your toes into the soft sand while the waves lull you into serenity.


3. take a ‘celup tepung’ afternoon tea break

you wouldn’t think you could ever tear yourself away from pantai penarik but at some point, your rumbling tummy would say otherwise. the must-try food in kampung mangkuk is what locals call ‘celup tepung’ and that’s exactly what it is: dipped in flour. specifically, a variety of seafood that’s battered and deep fried, eaten from lunch all the way to dinner.

along the main road that leads to terrapuri are several ‘celup tepung’ stalls, usually occupying wooden village houses. try the one right across from caltex, unnamed but hard to miss as its facade is painted a vibrant pink and its signage is flanked by a giant prawn and a giant squid. their ‘celup tepung’ offerings are placed in large trays under colourful plastic cloches, and you can also order stir-fried noodles to complement the fritters. order a fresh young coconut or creamy coconut milkshake to go with them, and dine al fresco under the shade of coconut trees.


4. watch kites soar

strong winds, blue skies, powdery beach – pantai batu buruk has all the makings of the perfect kite-flying spot, and it is. kite sellers brighten up the pristine sand with their goods, strung across simple wooden frames tacked to the sand. they come in a myriad vibrant designs, from the basic diamond frames to more elaborate animal shapes with long tails and every trendy cartoon character.

on weekends, a festive mood prevails in the late afternoons as the colourful panels speckle the skies while volleyball and football matches play to cheering supporters on the beach. hunt down food trucks in the vicinity to try snacks like chewy disc-shaped fish satay, and stringy squid that’s flattened through a handheld roller before  lled.

5. shop at pasar payang

shelves packed to the rafters with folded batik in every colour, bags and baskets brimming with dried seafood, trays of sweet and savoury cakes… browse and shop a smorgasbord of terengganu products at pasar besar kedai payang, a two-storey complex that houses a wet market downstairs and a bazaar of small shops upstairs. this is also a good place to get familiar with the fresh produce that feature in the local cuisine. when you’re done with your shopping, hop on board one of the many colourful trishaws that await by the main entrance and go for a sightseeing ride around town.


6. learn about the terengganu peranakans

a short walk from pasar payang will place you in pekan cina, kuala terengganu’s chinatown that was the site where the earliest chinese settlers first built their homes. like their fellow settlers in melaka and penang back in the day, they adapted and fused chinese traditions with local malay customs, forming a subculture that became known as peranakan. while their numbers are far lower than the population in the straits states, terengganu’s peranakan community is keeping their unique identity very much alive.

sample their authentic cuisine at madam bee’s kitchen, then step next door to visit the terengganu peranakan gallery. a small archive of black and white photographs documents the pekan cina of yore while the premise itself, a two-storey centennial shophouse, gives a glimpse into their traditional lifestyles.

7. visit a peranakan village

at a glance, kampung tiruk looks no different from many other bucolic enclaves found on the outskirts of kuala terengganu, its wooden houses similar to those of the malay villages. what sets it apart can often be seen on the front door of these traditional homes: bright red paper scrolls inscribed with chinese characters, known as tui lien.

these are the homes of terengganu peranakans, generations of mek and awang – the affectionate terms that refer to the ladies and men, respectively – from about 50 families. their language is that unique mixture of hokkien and malay; their food a flavourful blend of both cultures, and leans heavily on spices and fish. some of the elderly mek are still most comfortable in their baju pendek and sarong ensemble, and there’s a senior awang who is fluent in arabic.

you can visit one of the homes in this village, where the host will not only let you wander through their ancestral house but also prepare a feast of authentic terengganu peranakan dishes for lunch.

8. pay respects to admiral cheng ho

admiral cheng ho’s voyage to melaka is well documented, with many history books detailing his journey and subsequent adventures. before he and his fleet of more than 160 vessels arrived at the historical state, however, records show that they made a stop in terengganu to refuel. the year was 1414, and the admiral was said to have landed in kampung jeram, where some of his ships got stranded at the rocky coast.

a big tree that stood at that spot became a sacred emblem to the local chinese, who would journey there by boat to pay homage to the admiral who had helped improve their lives in many ways, including introducing agricultural techniques that produced better yield. in 1942, a temple was built near that site and named after him. today, the sampohkong keramat cheng ho is still an important landmark and pilgrim point, and stands out as a chinese temple in the heart of a malay village.

9. spot wildlife on a river cruise

retrace the steps of the devotees by taking a boat cruise along sungai jeram, the same waterway they travelled on to get to kampung jeram. it used to be an all-day journey to get there and back, taking four hours each way. on board, the passengers would play card games to pass the time and parents who brought their babies would let them rest in swings fashioned out of sarongs. 

these days, motorised penambang boats cut the travel time to one hour, affording various photo opportunities along the way as they cruise past mangrove swamps, rustic riverside scenes and several landmark mosques. it’s as common to see local children playing by the river and anglers on moored sampans as it is to spot wildlife such as otters, eagles and monitor lizards.

> the cruise leaves from shahbandar jetty, jalan sultan zainal abidin (a short walk from pekan cina)

> the river cruise plus visits to sam poh kong temple and kampung tiruk can be arranged through ping anchorage travel & tours, under their terengganu peranakan heritage trail package and are also offered as bespoke tours.


10. buy freshly made keropok lekor

terengganu’s best known snack is the kerepok lekor, widely sold at roadside stalls where fish paste – usually a mixture of ikan parang, selayang or kembong, and sago flour – is rolled into long cylinders and boiled. the rolls are then sliced diagonally, deep fried, and eaten dipped in chilli sauce.

you can also buy the boiled rolls and fry them at home. locals recommend keropok lekor bayu, located along the main road leading to merang jetty, which is run by several cheerful malay ladies who make light work of this savoury specialty.

standing around a square vat filled with boiling water, they scoop fresh fish paste onto a flour-dusted wooden board and shape them by hand into small logs. the rolls are then thrown into the water and fished out several minutes later. customers usually haul them home by the bagfuls, and you can also buy freshly fried ones here. take a bite and immediately you’ll know why bayu is so popular: the keropok tastes of pure fish, with a delightfully crumbly texture.

> lot 318, kampung baru merang, setiu (across from the entrance to aryani resort and next to petronas station)








an organic farmstay in the highlands

photos courtesy of song yan

photos courtesy of song yan

danny chan picks out a piece of ginger from a huge pile in a rattan basket. it’s knobby, with easily 20 stumps extending from it, and covered in a thin layer of soil. danny holds it in both hands. “this should be about 1kg,” he reckons as he stands on the ginger patch from where his farm workers just harvested the spice. it’s one of several agricultural plots at song yan eco-leisure village, a farmstay that danny constructed on a former durian plantation four years ago. he named it after the chinese term for boulders and pine trees, both of which are aplenty on the property – structures are built around existing rocks and danny has planted some 200 of his favourite pine trees.

at a regular market, that piece of spice would be considered a mutant. ginger just doesn’t grow to that size, one should think, unless it’s been pumped with chemicals. but at song yan, they are grown organically, feeding on the naturally fertile soil of bukit tinggi, pahang and boosted by a healthy combo of homemade compost, enzymes and mountain water. the crisp climate, with temperatures that dip to the mid-20s late afternoon, and generous rainfall complete the recipe for agricultural success.

ginger is a specialty in this area although it’s widely marketed as hailing from nearby bentong. you don’t find many farms growing it organically, which makes the ones at song yan even more valuable. it is one of many crops that they grow alongside local vegetables, herbs and fruit trees such as pisang berangan, passionfruit and mulberries. flowering shrubs dot the garden in between guest lodgings that look out towards a lap pool, and a freeform fish pond where an uncountable number of tilapia swim leisurely.

guests stay in cabins that fit four to five people, while big groups can bunk in the dormitory. there’s also a wooden kampung house and a couple of smaller cabins that can fit two. all the beddings are tatami style and rooms are basic, but comfortable and adequate for the restful getaway that song yan was conceptualised to be. none of these, however, were danny’s original plan. “i was looking to build a holiday home for my family. my property agent brought me here, and i fell in love with the view,” danny reveals, sweeping his hand toward the surrounding pockets of green and the mountain ranges in the distance.

semi-retired from the construction industry, he had previously invested in an organic shop and restaurant. one of his former business partners, jessie lee, came to visit and was drawn to the serenity. inspired by the farmstays in taiwan and a keen advocate of back-to-basics living, she suggested the idea of a health retreat, a space where people could rest and relax or indulge in activities that nourish the body and mind. most of all, jessie was keen to encourage and build awareness on the benefits of an organic diet.

“do you know that our daily diet should include 30 percent raw food?,” jessie points out. “in china, the oldest living folks start their day with porridge and sweet potatoes – that’s what we serve for breakfast here.” cooked from brown rice and mixed vegetables, the porridge is served with an aromatic homemade salted radish.

a space where people could rest and relax or indulge in activities that nourish the body and mind

all meals at song yan are served at their barn owl diner on the ground floor of their main building, a modern three-storey structure with an event space upstairs and private living quarters on the top floor. a meat-free farm-to-table restaurant, practically everything that’s served at barn owl comes straight from the vegetable patches and fruit trees that grow on premise. crops are planted on-demand basis, depending on the meals they need to cater for.

in fact, the farm exists primarily to cater to in-house needs, particularly large groups that descend upon song yan for meditation getaways, school groups, corporate team-building sessions, yoga camps and other educational or spiritual retreats. they have also hosted weddings and are popular with families.

barn owl’s signature is their personal hot pot, an individual serving of a radish-based soup with mixed local vegetables and vermicelli. there are three highlights that come with the wholesome meal: homemade tofu, farm-fresh bird’s eye chillies that are more potent than the usual and have an aromatic kick to them, and a spicy ginger-garlic mince that can be added to the soup or eaten as a dip. 

staying guests can also choose from a menu of pizzas, wholemeal pastas, ginger mee sua and sundried tomato fried brown rice, aside from a selection of teas, juices and organic australian drip coffee. pasta sauces are made from scratch, breads and pizza bases are baked freshly, the juices are as fresh as sticking a straw into the fruits on the vines. the must-try teas are the ginger molasses, made from their organic ginger, and the wild chrysanthemum that’s steeped from tiny blooms that grow sporadically on their grounds.

they even make their own tofu, using soy beans from china’s heilongjiang province. the final result may be little more than simple white squares, but have taken jessie and her kitchen team countless trials and errors – and a lot of beans! – to perfect. another specialty is their ginger enzyme, a syrupy probiotic that is extremely high in nutrients as the fermentation process rids it of everything that’s not needed. it’s served at breakfast along with an organic apple as a starter to the porridge.


while song yan grows everything without pesticides or chemicals, they stop short of calling themselves an organic farm – but only because they have not applied for the official certification. jessie prefers to call what they do natural farming. that is, to grow what the land can support and rotate the crops so that the soil has time to rest in between harvests. keeping the soil healthy is key, and theirs has been tested and recorded the optimum ph level of 6.3. “when the soil is strong, the plants have good ‘immunity’ and are less prone to bug attacks,” jessie explains, adding that fertilisers are their best friends where that is concerned and at song yan, they use three different types.

there’s compost that they build from kitchen wastes, garden weeds, chicken dung and coffee grounds sourced from the nearby kopitiams. the mixture lays on the ground under plastic sheets, and must be turned over once a week in order to activate the enzymes and regulate the temperature. it takes three months for the fermentation process to be completed. they also make a liquid enzyme as well as fish compost, buying up to one tonne of fish each time and fermenting them with molasses and water in large plastic tanks. 

making and feeding the soil with these ‘vitamins’ is just one part of the work that’s needed to keep the farm in shape. everything is done manually, including weeding, so it’s very labour intensive and hence, high cost. song yan is therefore not interested in selling their vegetables even though many have asked. “there is no yield,” danny admits, “for every piece of vegetable we sell, we lose five!” they do make an exception for staying guests if they have any left after serving barn owl’s needs.

clearly song yan was not set up with profit in mind, but borne out of and led by passion. both danny and jessie have personally benefited from turning their lives around through proper nutrition, clean eating and healthy living. through song yan, the duo aim to share and spread the goodness. their philosophy extends into the smallest details: bedsheets are made of organic indian cotton; instead of detergent, they wash everything with homemade enzyme; their swimming pool is chlorine-free, fed with water that’s piped directly from the mountains. equally laudable is song yan’s commitment to educational efforts as well as local communities, supporting projects that help foster relationships among the area’s residents. last year, they sponsored a karaoke competition and are in the midst of organising a badminton tournament for students.

for visitors, song yan is a sanctuary to recharge weary souls and rejuvenate strained bodies. staying guests are given a tour of the farm, and are welcome to help out if they want to learn about farming. jessie has also designed a 2d/1n detox retreat that promises to give your system an overhaul. so it has turned out to be a good thing that danny’s initial idea did not materialise as he now has something even better. “i have the best of two worlds – a place to get away to when i need, and the chance to meet new people all the time,” he muses.

> song yan is open to families and groups, while their barn owl diner accepts reservations for hot pot lunch and dinner. to book, e-mail or call +6017 300 6280/+6017 300 8206 (9am-5pm daily)


this story first appeared in crave/sunday mail and the malay mail online