Issue 35: Festival Layang-Layang

After a couple weeks of working with my good friend Troy Gunn I was ecstatic to find out we’d made the list of invited fliers for the 9th annual Festival Layang-Layang… I’d heard great things from others who had visited before, and was eager to run into some of my international friends who I’d met for the first time at Uttarayan (India) in January.

Catching an early morning flight from Portland OR, I was delayed on the runway for about an hour due to fog in San Francisco where I was scheduled to connect for my next flight… By the time we took off we were too far behind for me to catch the one Singapore flight scheduled each day.

Frustration aside, there isn’t much you can do in these situations.  So, I stayed cool and expectantly requested some complimentary vouchers for a hotel and dinner from the airline’s customer service desk.  After leaving messages at Troy’s room in Malaysia advising him of the delay it was off to the hotel shuttle… Well, might as well catch up with some old friends from the Bay Area.

After a steak dinner, good conversation and a comfortable night’s rest, I took off from SFO around noon for my 14 hour journey to Hong Kong, then to Singapore where I had been scheduled to be picked up the day before… I took United for this festival, only $647 round trip with fairly regular meals and movies throughout each flight.

Arriving in Singapore around one in the morning, I was met by two smiling faces with signs bearing the event logo and calling me by name… What other Americans would drop into Singapore at one in the morning with a five-foot nylon kite bag over one shoulder?

Getting some help with my luggage, we waited 5-10 minutes for their van to come around a loaded everything in… After so many hours airborne, I was quite content to doze off and on for the hour and a half drive to our hotel for the event.

By the time we arrived at the hotel even the bar was empty so I was escorted to my room where I was greeted by a sleepy-eyed Troy Gunn… He said that everyone had been out flying on the field earlier in the day, but that I had not missed anything major.

Troy and I met way back when I started flying in 1990, and we always have a great deal to reminisce about… I looked up some time later, and as the clock struck 7am we gave up the idea of sleeping and headed down to use our breakfast tickets in the hotel restaurant instead.

The provided buffet consisted of spicy Malaysian noodles, links, cereal, toast, juice and coffee… I really enjoyed the fact that there was nearly always that window from 7am to 10am where kitefliers and the occasional guest could leisurely talk shop… With winds consistantly in the 10-15mph range, one could fly anytime during throughout the day.

The two main announcers were already at work, doing what seemed like an excellent job of tag teaming the audience with information and entertainment in their native Malay tongue… The spirit was certainly clear, I impressed with the spirit of it all, and they kept it up during their shorter summations in English.  Hats off to those guys, as they were supportive of everyone there and generally provided a good environment to work in.

With festivities building up from 9am to 11am, participants had sufficient time to set up all their very best under the long event tents provided to us… With tons of room for the 150+ people from 19 countries.

As I opened my eyes too the scene around me I could not help being overwhelmed by the amount of huge inflatable kites already aloft, most of which were thanks to a very present Peter Lynn and assistants, as well as some I had never seen before such as a manatee, unique squid, and an awesome shark complete with tons of sucker fish.

Huge kudos to the ample ground crew provided by the event for handling these airborne giants.  My best guess has most of the 30 or so (?) helpers aged from 18 to 22, on loan from a college not too far away, and very good with English… Many of the ones I spoke with were studying tourism and related industries, sensible since the Johor Department of Tourism appears to be the bonding proponent in this festival.

The second thing I noticed was a huge scaffold, about 20 feet high or so… One of the local specialties is giant “Wau” kites, as tall as 50 feet in years past from what I understand and have seen in photos, although I didn’t catch any this time around.

Dedicated to kiteflying, the field would easily fit a few football fields and features a very cool kite museum off to the side… The museum building itself is some sort of windmill which moves water through nearby channels.  Taking off you shoes as you enter, you come to a desk where the general public pays admission (festival invitees get in free).  In the center of this building is a spiral staircase, with exhibits in space around it on each floor, with one level above and one below as you walk in the front door… Making for a grand total three floors of kiting history, displays and educational materials (look for the photo gallery in this issue).

After playing for a good part of the day in 85-90 degree weather I was thankful for the many cases of bottled water left in the tents by event organizers… In such tropical weather it is all too crucial to stay hydrated!

One of my favorite things from this event was Michael Alvarez’s candy drop for the kids… He’s got it rigged so that each piece of candy (lollipops I think) has a little parachute.  Using various stuffed animals (including a Koala complete with candy pouch) to scatter goodies in a nice wide area… The young ones still stampede, but more kids end up getting candy and the anticipation is longer watching them float down to earth as kids go scattering across the field.

Other invitees included Otto Vossen from Holland, Gadis Widiyati from Singapore, Masami Takakuwa from Japan, Angela and Jonathon Wu and Mr. Lin from Taiwan, Mr. Kim Yoon Sik and his giant squid, just to name a handful… Also, Asghar Belim and his associates from India brought their own unique variety of kites.

On two separate days we were graced by the Sultan of Johor presiding over the festival, shaking hands with every guest during the opening ceremonies and later watched the performances no more than 100 feet away from his seat… Each visiting country presented him with gifts, he in turn gave us each a nice little pewter medallion bearing the 2004 Festival Layang-Layang logo.

It was a challenging scene for sport kite performances on the demo field, flying on a large brick arena and surrounded by single lines on nearly every side… On the multiple kite spectrum there was Troy Gunn from Texas and a gentleman from China, both of whom flew very well given the small amount of clear sky available to them.  Along with a few other people, I also managed to fly both dual and quad line ballet routines for the spectators and the honorable Sultan.

While I’d say that we saw over one hundred thousand spectators during the week’s festivities, most were drawn by the kites… Others came to explore the incredible number of stalls selling various goods, collectibles, snacks and food.

There were two or three pairs teams present from Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere, some of whom combined to fly team with six members off on one end of the field where there was more room… There aren’t many teams in Asia from what I understand, but these guys did better than okay with their High Performance Edge kites.

After such long days on the field, the hot dinner buffets back at the hotel were right up my alley… Featuring a fair variety of items, I was satisfied with the fare for my entire visit.

Evenings were spent in the dining room chatting with other fliers, and as the nights progressed we found ourselves in the Korean group’s room drinking and singing songs… There we seven countries or so, with quite a language barrier, but the kinship shared through kiting and song overcame all and led us into the wee hours of the morning,

On the final event day each country was given Malay kites with their country name on them for a massive Malaysian kite battle… Hijinks, cuts and tangles ensued for over 30 minutes, finally finishing with a 10-way draw.

As the festival was coming to a close we all gathered together for the main awards banquet at a local soccer stadium… We were greeted like royalty at the door by a number of people in traditional dress, all of them beautiful, some of them simply stunning!  While we dined on a delicious selection of native cuisine we were treated to ethic dance and music by various performers.

Earlier I mentioned “Wau” kites… These guys are serious about their kiting!  Just in the different aspects of making and flying them, I saw easily over 20 awards handed out… Many of the recipients were quite young, but not all.

With only two days left in Malaysia, we boarded buses the next morning and took a two hour drive to the Sibu Island ferry… A well known resort in Malaysia, many of the festival’s guests came along to further sample the experience of the country.

I’ve made sure to include quite a few more pictures in the gallery elsewhere in this issue, as the trip was quite memorable… Disembarking from our shuttle boat with luggage in one hand, we found glasses of pineapple juice in the other and seashell Leis around our necks.  After cooling off in the room for a few minutes another outstanding lunch was provided at the restaurant near the pool side.

After sating our appetite, Troy Gunn and I took off to explore a bit… Sibu Island is a dedicated resort, and takes no more than three hours to circle the whole thing if you can navigate a couple of rock fissures and tide pools.  If if not, there is still a great deal accessible to anyone as we found out on our walk half way around the island’s shores.

Later we rented some snorkel gear from the beach cabana and headed out into the blue waters… While too late in the day for great visibility or sea life, we did catch a view of long spined sea urchins and a few other colorful creatures.  It was simply nice to relax on the beach, feeling the sea and unwinding from an active week of kite flying as the sunset washed over me.

Evening festivities included native dance, … Ben from Australia even caught a “Long Tom”, something like a carp… Apparently an uncommon fish to catch and good eating, the chef grilled it up for them along with the rest of dinner which included lamb, beef, chicken and shrimp amid a variety of excellent Malaysian dishes.

In addition to two beautiful singers, we were also treated to a wide selection of international dances, martial arts, and more… Quite a few of the “kitists” went up on the small stage to sing, demonstrate odd skills, and entertain us with some great hijinks.

Another highlight of the evening was when Michael Alvarez hooked lights onto a cellular kite, then ran back and forth down the beach lofting the blinking creature into the night… As the kite and lights found their way back to the main area, I took a look up and became lost in the star filled, clear black sky for several minutes.

A bit more food and carousing, then off to bed for an early departure the next morning… Upon wakening, the only sounds I could hear were tropical birds singing away, and then as I sat there for a few minutes several deer came trotting through!  Boy, I really hated to leave… No doubt I’ll stay a couple extra days I go again next year.

Once back to the mainland hotel we saw off many of the people going home that evening, then wandered across the street to find some last minute gifts at the local shopping center as well as checking my email at the internet cafe.

After a restless night, Troy and myself had the same flight back to SFO and were shuttled back to the Singapore airport where we spent a couple hours waiting for the ticket counters to open.  It was mighty quiet at 3am, just us and a couple other early birds… Oh, and don’t forget the military patrol spread out across the entrances to our terminal just looking out into the night with their brand new sub-machine guns and scopes… I don’t think there was any unusual alert going on, but it was definitely impressive and interesting to observe.

The trip home was uneventful, although it was very strange landing in San Francisco two hours before I left Singapore… Heck of a time difference!

Our very deepest thanks to thank organizers and staff of Festival Layang-Layang… If ever you get the chance, I certainly recommend you take a trip to Malaysia.  Pasir Gudang at least, as I haven’t really seen much aside from there and Sibu Island.

For more festival info, you can also visit the Festival Layang-Layang home page.

Thanks for reading,

John Barresi