Issue 54: Festival Layang-Layang

This trip to Malaysia’s premiere International kite festival was my fourth year in a row, and every year I travel there the festival brings new surprises, and this year was no exception! I started my long 34 hour journey in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is my home city, then drove 2 hours to Oklahoma City, waited for a 2 hour delayed flight to Chicago, in which the flight attendant forgot to order the drinks, snacks, and food boxes for the flight, yet blamed the mishap on maintenance crews that had just finished giving the airplane it’s annual maintenance overhaul. The flight didn’t even have coffee for it’s passengers, and this was an early morning flight! Once in Chicago, I go outside to load up on my nicotine intake before the long 14 hour connecting flight to Tokyo, Japan. Chicago was experiencing a extremely cold week, with outside temperatures of minus 10° F that morning! I go into the terminal and meet up with Jon Trennepohl whom I had invited to go with me on this trip. Jon had flown to Chicago from Detroit, Michigan, and wouldn’t you know it, our flight to Tokyo, Japan was delayed by 2 hours too, so by the time we reached our other connecting flight in Tokyo, we had missed our connecting flight to Singapore.

United Airlines is starting to develop a bad reputation for delayed flights, and rude older flight attendants on the international flights. Because it was United’s fault that we missed our connecting flight from Tokyo to Singapore, they put us on a flight with one of their Star Alliance partners airlines, which turned out to be Singapore Airlines. I highly recommend Singapore Airlines, as the 7 hour flight that we took was clean, the flight attendants were sharply dressed, friendly, and very beautiful! It was almost worth the flight delay, well sort of.

Of course after our 7 hour flight to Singapore on a different airline, we were once again, over two hours late arriving to Singapore than what we were originally scheduled to arrive. This created another major problem, in that the kite festival people that were assigned to meet us at the airport thought that we weren’t coming after we didn’t show up at our scheduled time, or with our scheduled airline, or at our scheduled airport terminal. Do they left and drove back 2 hours to our hotel in Pasir Gudang, Malaysia. Somehow, Jon and I had both forgotten our festival contact’s phone number, so we had to beg employees of Singapore airlines to phone for the number to our hotel, because we had also forgot the hotel contact info. We finally get in contact with Ismail Mat Taib, who is the main contact person to the International kite flyers, at the hotel at about 2:00 am, and wake him up to tell him what happened. Ismail, then sends the same two guys back to Singapore to pick us up. They arrive back to the airport at 3:30 am, then we drive to our hotel, which takes over two hours, because we have to exit Singapore’s customs, and then go thru customs a few minutes later to enter Malaysia. We arrive at the hotel at about 5:45 am on Wednesday morning Malaysia time. I had left my house at 3:00 am Monday morning US Central time (14 hours time zone difference).

Jon and I decide it would work better to beat jet lag if we just unpack our things, eat breakfast, drink a few litres of coffee, and then go to the kite festival field and fly kites all day. By the way, we went from -10° F with low humidity to 90° F and high humidity in just two days. We finally slept at about midnight Wednesday night, after over two days without sleep and enduring the first day’s festival heat! Jon and I both slept good!

Every year that I have attended this wonderful kite festival, I have brought a different, accomplished kite flyer with me that could perform sport kite demos throughout the week and more importantly, for the opening ceremonies, where the Sultan of Johor Malaysia always attends with his wife, relatives, other dignitaries, and of course his royal military guard band.

In previous years of attending this event, I’ve brought John Barresi (2004), Kelly Reed (2005), Brian Champie, and Miguel Rodriguez (2006), whom are all good kite flyers. This year was no exception. As I mentioned earlier, I had invited Jon Trennepohl to travel with me. Jon has been around the sport kite scene since the late 80’s and is owner of several well known kite manufacturing and retail businesses, including Skyburner Sport Kites, Skyshark Custom Kite Tubes, Kites and Fun Things retail store, and the north American distributorship of Icarex kite sail cloth, and of Level One kites. Jon not only flew nice routines, he brought a large amount of Skyshark tubes, Skyburner sport kites, and a lot of parts that are difficult to get in Malaysia without spending and arm and a leg for shipping cost and import fees. Many Malaysian kiters contacted Jon and I in advance and made their kite and parts orders with us well before we even left for Malaysia, so basically we were just hand delivering their orders. Jon also was able to sell a lot of parts to one of the Malaysian kite stores which saved the store owner a lot of ringgit (money) on shipping cost. Good stuff Jon!

Jon proved worthy of his invitation and was very popular with the locals. Asians always compare the international kite flyers by the way they look in comparison to movie stars or other TV celebrities they have seen on TV. I heard several say that they thought that Jon looked like actor Richard Geer, who co-stared with Julia Roberts in the movie “Pretty Woman”. I’m not quite sure which actor I resemble, but one Indonesian woman kite flyer said that I look like an Arab! I didn’t really know if that was a good thing or bad thing, until she said that she thinks Arab men are all very handsome (blush)! I guess that’s a good thing, but I really don’t ever remember seeing any overweight Arabs that look like me, wearing a New Tech Kites T-shirt, that say “How ya’ll doin?” (grin).

What makes this festival so very special is it’s relaxing atmosphere and the wide variety of kites that are flown! Each day the festival activities kick off at about 8:30 am, but for international flyers, it is not absolutely mandatory that they arrive at the flying field that early. Kite flyers are given time to eat a nice buffet breakfast and chat with other kite flying friends at the host hotel, before boarding one of many buses or vans and driving a short 5 minutes to the flying field. The host hotel is a nice 3 star hotel named Hotel Selesa, and it is where all of the invited 175 kite flyers stay each year during the length of the festival. Between last year and this year, the hotel owners renovated the hotel and added fresh paint, carpet, bed linens, and newly remodelled bathroom showers in each room, which was a nice surprise to see when we arrived! The only remaining problem that needed fixed at the hotel was the sewer drains. Our bathroom floor flooded everyday after the second person would take a normal length shower, because of backed up drains that obviously were partly clogged somewhere several floors down from us. I know this, because a few others that I had mentioned this to, stated that their bathroom floors also flooded after taking showers. Everything else in the hotel was top notch and the hotel staff was superb!

The hotel has a nice outdoor swimming pool, which is the place for kite flyers to gather most every evening after returning to the hotel after a long day of kite flying out in the hot sun and high humidity. Kite flyers could be found at the pool with snacks and various adult beverages every evening, just before dinner. The swimming pool is one of the social hot spots for many kite flyers during the week, because it gives us a chance to cool off, share kite flying stories, and play the wave game. What is the wave game? Well, the wave game usual starts after everyone has consumed a bit of alcohol, then an empty beer can is used, and we would position the empty beer can at the water’s edge of the pool, just next to the water. This pool’s water level is even with the sides of the pool, with a slotted drain directly next to the water. The idea of the game is to take turns jumping into the pool any way you can to create a large wave, then the wave will travel like a tidal wave to the pool’s edge, and move the can a little bit. Whoever moves the can the furthest from the pools edge with their wave, is the winner! The winner receives a hearty “Gombai” (which means drink up) from everyone. But everyone wins because everyone drinks up at that time! The winners this year was none other than Clyde Cook and Craig Hansen who travel to the festival every year from New Zealand, with Peter Lynn. Clyde and Craig both created the biggest wave by executing the perfect gut busting belly flop into the water, which created a huge wave that sent the beer can floating a good 8 meters from the pools edge! Most others were barely even able to move the can a few centimeters with their body splash waves. It doesn’t pay to be a thin fellow during this game <grin>! I unfortunately can’t ever participate in this fun activity because of 3 tumor removal ear surgeries since 2000, and the risk of infection in my ear from swimming pool water. Can you imagine me doing a belly flop, gut buster into the pool! LOL

The festival has many things to do for the kite flyers and spectators when they arrive each day. Among those things are a visit to the Wind Mill Kite Museum that was first opened in 2003. The entrance of the museum takes you into the 1st floor where a complete history of the traditional Malaysian “Wau Bulan” kites are prominently displayed everywhere. The spiral staircase takes you up to the second floor where you will see many other kites from around the world that have been donated to the museum by international kite flyers. On the way up the stairs to the 2nd floor, you can’t help but notice a 7 to 8 meter tall rokkaku kite that rests against the museum wall. Next year the museum will also house a giant 8 meter tall Korean fighter kite that was built by the Korean team at this year’s festival, and was signed by all kite flyers that were at the festival.

The festival also has dozens of vendors of various varieties, such as food vendors, kite vendors, hand craft vendors, etc…. You can even treat yourself to a fresh coconut drink in which the top of the coconut is cut off, and a straw is placed inside the coconut. Or how about thin sliced squid jerky that looks like the potato chips in shape and thickness, and is marinated in a sweet teriyaki style marinade (yum)! Or minced prawns with spicy seasoning, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked over an open fire.

Speaking of food vendors, two of the festival sponsors that furnished lunches for the kite flyers each day at the festival field were KFC and Pizza Hut. They were a big hit with many of the kiters from western countries that needed a change of variety from the traditional Malaysian food that was served each day at the hotel.

The kite flying field is split into two parts. The east end is for traditional Malaysian Wau Bulan kite flying competitions, and is also used for domestic kite clubs to fly. The west end is for all of the invited International kite flyers to fly. The middle of the field is marked off with a long row of sponsor signs that separate the domestic flying area from the International flying area. Peter Lynn and his crew of Clyde Cook and Craig Hansen are furnished with two back hoes to use as anchors for securing the large inflatable kites that they make and fly. It’s not uncommon for PL to attach 4 to 5 large kites of various styles onto one line, therefore the large anchors are necessary to prevent an accident. The rest of the field is filled everyday with a large variety of single line kites, stunt kites, fighter kites, and even few buggies by Roger Martin of Australia.

The International kiters end of the field had two rows of tent awnings, where each country represented had their own space to assemble kites and sit and relax out of the sun in chairs that were provided. Some countries such as Indonesia, Japan, and Korea brought large groups of kite flyers and their families and had separate awnings for themselves, whereas some countries with fewer representatives, shared an awning space. Every awning was marked with signs with each representing country’s name on it. USA, which consisted of just Jon Trennepohl and myself, shared a space with 2 people from Switzerland. I think we saw them 2 times during the week. Most of the time our awning space was more like a kite parts store, because everyday kite flyers would swarm Jon and I asking if we had any parts or kites for sale. We also stayed busy helping people repair their sport kites. I always come prepared with a good variety of parts and repair tools.

Because of limited air space, I spend most of each day flying and entertaining the spectators with Revolution kites, while Jon Trennepohl flew some of his Skyburner kites on short lines. Jon and I both allowed people to share and demo our kites, while many of the other stunt kiters also let us demo their kites.

Of special interest to all of you quad line fanatics out there, there was a new quad line sport kite design made with quality sail material, skyshark spars, and excellent craftsmanship, made and designed by Malaysian kite flyer and kite builder, Leong Chee Wan from Kuala Lumpur. Leong and I have been friends for many years and he amazes me every time I see him because of all the great single line kites he builds! He is also an accomplished sport kite flier and buggier too! His craftsmanship is on par with the best kite makers anywhere! Leong Chee Wan and Jon Trennepohl have made an agreement to produce the new quad line kite. Look for it to be available in the near future in America! If you are an experienced and accomplished quad line flyer, give Jon a call and he may just let you test fly one of the prototypes. I’ve flown the kite, and not only does it fly great, it also has very cool looking sail panel design and frame configuration to it too!

The event always has a great high wattage sound system and the sound system engineers are some of the best I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with, in regards to keeping the spectators informed of the day’s events, and keeping a steady flow of great festival music playing. This festival even has it’s own professionally recorded kite song, in which the lyrics of the song are all about the festival name and the traditional Malaysian Wau Bulan kites. The song is played dozens of times during the week. I think I even flew a mystery ballet demo to the song. The main guy running the sound equipment and doing the announcements, also walked the field with cordless microphones and interviewed several kite flyers each day.

Media of all types are everywhere each day, taking photos, interviewing kiters, and even flying a kite or two.

The kite festival is a very much a big culture-sharing event each year in Malaysia, and the Malaysians go out of their way to make guest feel welcome and to show us their beautiful country and to show us their various traditions.

During the day, the flying festival field has strict security staff that keep the spectators behind security fences and off of the flying field for obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, this festival has the best security to protect the kiters and their kites of any asian festival that I’ve had the pleasure of attending!

Every night starting at about 5:30 pm, the kite festival field’s security would open up the field to the general public. After the kiters have most of their kites stowed away for the day in an on-site secured building, the public could get their chance to meet many of the invited kite flyers. The field is about 20 acres in size, and in the evening when the public is allowed to walk onto the field, it is like a sea of people. There are 10’s of thousands of people every evening that show up after work and school is out! Each night on the festival field, the people are treated with live performances of traditional Malaysian dancers and singers. It’s one huge party atmosphere each night, and this takes place each and every night during the 7 day festival!

On Saturday, day six of the festival, is the official opening ceremonies for the festival. This is the most important day for the festival for the kite flyers, the organizers, and for the spectators, because this is the day that the Sultan of Johor, all of his royal family, and high ranking government officials come to the festival, and when the Sultan of Johor declares the festival, officially open! This day is the one time of year where normal civilians get a chance to actually see the Sultan and his family. Of course it’s also a real honor and pleasure for the International kite flyers to be able to meet the Sultan too! Kite flyers are instructed to line up and stand behind signs that have their own country’s names on the signs, as they wait for the Sultan to arrive. After the arrival of the Sultan, a muslim prayer is read over the sound system for all to hear, then a proclamation is read by the Sultan, officially declaring the festival to begin. The Sultan then walks down in front of the long row of signs signifying each country in attendance, greeting the team leader of each country, one by one, and also presenting a special souvenir trophy to the kite team leader of each country. At this point, media and kite flyers alike are taking photos, as if it were the red carpet event before the academy awards. The spectators are numbered at about 75,000, all standing in lines behind the lines of military security staff members.

After the formal greetings from the Sultan, several countries are on a pre-selected schedule to show or demonstrate their kites or kite flying expertise for the Sultan, his family, the attending dignitaries, and the thousands of spectators. Jon flew a nice light wind routine, and I flew a multi-kite routine to music. Afterwards, the Sultan’s wife was so impressed with our choices of music that she asked the sound system manager to burn a CD copy of our music for her to keep. We were both honored that she liked our music choice!

Later that night, all of the international kite flyers were treated to a dinner at a remote seafood restaurant on a river that was about 30 minutes south of Pasir Gudang. I had been there 3 times before in previous years, but for some kite flyers, this unique dinner experience was their first visit. The restaurant isn’t fancy, but it’s setting is what makes the experience so special. The restaurant sits on a large riverbank dock, and fresh seafood is brought in by local fisherman everyday and stored in large underwater nets where visitors can openly see the fish, crabs, etc… The seating area is in an open air area on the dock right on the water. The serving style is family style, where one or two courses at a time are brought to each table, then the customers (us) serve ourselves. Each table has a large supply of paper napkins because the seafood is prepared with lots of spices, similar to what Americans would find in Louisiana Cajun food. This meant a lot of eating and prying crab shells with your fingers and making a mess! Entres included spicy blackened whole crabs, whole white fish, spicy seasoned prawns, fried rice, vegetables, seafood soup, and many things that I have no idea what it was. It was all excellent, including the many, many litres of Tiger beer that we all consumed!

Sunday was the last day of the festival, but definitely not the end of the activities. After the official flying was complete and we all packed away our kites for the week, we headed back to the hotel and cleaned up so that we could attend the grand awards ceremonies and banquet dinner, which takes place every year at a large indoor stadium in Pasir Gudang. During this night, awards are given to the top three place winners of each of the traditional Wau kite contests, and a grand champion kite award is given to the best overall Wau Bulan kite. During the banquet dinner, the stadium is filled with hundreds of kite flyers, festival organizers, dignitaries, and city government officials. Everyone is treated to entertainment by traditional Malaysian dancers and singers, throughout the meal. This is something that very few festivals anywhere take the time to organize, strictly for the enjoyment of the invited kite flyers to see.

After the banquet and awards dinner, we head back to the hotel and packrd a few clothes and kites, because the next day (Monday) is tour-day, in which international kite flyers were treated with a special overnight trip to a wonderful beach resort, that was about 3 hours drive north east of Pasir Gudang along the straight of Melacca.

We arrive at the beach resort and are greeted by the resort staff, whom are dressed in traditional native attire. Each one of the four male staff members, performed a warrior type of dance. We checked into our hotel rooms and head out to check out this small resort. A small beach offered swimming, digging for crabs, and fishing out on a long dock. A couple people flew some single line kites, including Jon’s custom made four foot tall rokkaku. Oh, by the way, during the festival Jon had and flew a train of about 10 of those custom rokkakus that were simply awesome against the bright sunshine! I also failed to mention that just two weeks before arriving to this festival, I had suffered a severe compression fracture to my back, between my shoulder blades, and I really wasn’t suppose to travel, let alone fly Jon’s big stack of rokkakus! I did anyway, without thinking about my back, and what a mistake that was because I was in even more pain the rest of the week. Thank goodness for prescription pain meds! ; )

Anyway, back to the beach resort. Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent playing beach volleyball by those that didn’t have spine injuries. Yeah, I missed out on the volleyball fun! Later that night, the resort staff treated everyone with a fabulous barbeque dinner and entertainment complete with dancers, singers, and special interactive games that we could participate in. Afterwards, CD music was played and people were encouraged to dance the night away.

The next morning, we all ate breakfast and then headed back to our hotel in Pasir Gudang for our last day in Malaysia.

Some kite flyers said their farewells because they had flights back home that afternoon, but the rest of us that had flights home Wednesday morning, took advantage of the remainder of the day to do some souvenir shopping. Fortunately, there is a large shopping mall next door. The mall has a little bit of most everything, including several restaurants, and an excellent atrium that is big enough to fly some indoor sport kites. Jon Trennepohl, myself, and many others spent at least one night during the previous week flying indoors in the mall’s atrium.

Later that night, Michael Alvarez brought us to a fresh seafood and produce market, and because Malaysia would celebrate the Chinese New Year a week or two after we were to leave, the market was stocking up on some of the best fruit that you’ll ever see or taste! We walked through and tried samples of fresh mangos, papayas, pineapple, bananas, melons, and other fruits I’d never seen or tried before. It was a real treat! In our group that night were Michael Alvarez, Otto Vossen, Jon Trennepohl, Leong Chee Wan, and myself. The seafood at this popular market was so fresh that one giant grouper fish’s gills were still trying to take in oxygen. They had fresh squid, octopus, crabs, white fish, and even sting ray.

After touring the market we became hungry, so we all headed to a favorite hangout a few km away, that serves traditional chinese food, and beer. Since it was almost the start of the Chinese New Year celebration, it was recommended that we eat the traditional good luck dinner that is normally eaten during the New Year celebration. It consisted of a variety of things all mixed together by us all tossing and mixing the food together, then eating it all! And at the same time we toasted each other’s successes at the kite festival and future kite festivals.

We head back to the hotel, say our farewells, and turn in early, because Jon and I had to leave for Singapore to get to the airport by 5:30 the next morning for a 7:30 am flight home.

As always, the highlight of any international festival is seeing and spending time with other kite flying friends that sometimes you only get to see once every year or two.

I’d like to thank Ismail Mat Taib for inviting Jon and I to the festival, and thanks to Haji Hussin Haron for doing such an excellent job with Ismail Mat Taib in organizing the festival! Thanks to Mr. Lee Poi for his behind-the-scenes efforts with helping keep the festival alive. And thanks to all of the other festival staff, helpers, sponsors, and hotel Selesa staff for making everyone feel welcome!

It was a pleasure seeing friends like Lantree and his team “Current Chasing” from Shen Zhen, China, Otto Vossen from Netherlands, the New Zealand gang of Peter Lynn, Clyde Cook and Craig Hansen, Ms. Sim Sarak from Cambodia, Jack Kachithong from Thailand, Danny from Kuala Lumpur, Roger Martin and his son from Australia, Kim and others from South Korea, the Japan team, Frederic from France, Orlando Ongkingo from the Philippines, Team KP3 from Malaysia, Gadis Widiyati from Singapore, Bo from Weifang China, The Indonesian team. And, to all of the many other friends from all over the world, thanks for making this festival special, with all of your great kites, your friendship, and your generosity!

Troy Gunn