2008: The Conclusion

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It’s just about three years to the date I quit my job and trotted off round the region for some major travelling. I’ve come back, snagged a new job, started dating the guy who would be my husband and finally, finally finished blogging about each trip. It’s been a big project: first taking a year and a good chunk of my savings to go travelling, then documenting all of it – some of it before I started work again and most of it while juggling a new and challenging job.

Friends asked if I’d write a book and I seriously considered it for a month or so. After writing a few drafts on gmail, I realised that I had neither the vision nor the perseverance to turn it into a book. I already have another personal blog and figured why not just blog it. After all, I wasn’t out to make money with publishing a book. (Neither did it help that I didn’t want to spend even more of my savings on what I feel is a vanity project – I simply didn’t know what to say, aside from “look at me, look what I did!”) So I started this blog and plonked in the first gmail drafts as a start.

The biggest thing I learned from this project was that I could make things happen. I had the resources and capacity to step right out and do what had been pent up within me for a while. I came from the point of being burnt out and exhausted from my previous job, full of resentment at the system. I needed a time of calm, of being by myself and of doing what I wanted whenever I wanted for a few good months. I needed this break, and I made it happen.

I eased into gradually. Don’t ask me how things came together, but they did. I started off in Laos with the really chill and laidback Siamesecat for two weeks. We sat in neverending bus rides, stumbled into bus stations at ungodly hours in the morning and swung like monkeys from tree to tree. We explored various food options, flirted with other travellers and got really comfortable being on the road together. She was the calm to my uptightness, she stayed awake while I passed out and slept at the Ungodly Hour bus station at 4am. All I needed to do was navigate (running joke between us that she’d never get anywhere without me) and occasionally communicate with sign language, grunts and shy smiles with the locals.

Then I went to the Philippines. I strung several trips into one, starting out diving with a bunch from my usual dive group and going snorkelling with the whalesharks with them, followed by a visit to a community that my church had been sponsoring, some time travelling independently, then more diving with another friend. The stretches of independent travel interspersed with fully planned activities helped me ease further into independent travel.

The next jaunt was to Thailand. I was fortunate to have the lovely and ever hospitable Dee open her home to me as a (very swanky) base in Bangkok. From there, I went to Kanchanaburi and suddenly found myself, for once, truly on my own with no particular aim nor date to return by. Again, the stars aligned and I fell in with Tom. We travelled the rest of my Thailand trip together and again he was the laidback foil to my go-getterness and pretty much went with the flow of whatever caught my fancy.

Vietnam was the rude shock to my system. I was well and truly alone, not having any long-term travel companion. It was there that I toughened up, practised being super assertive and learning to protect myself. I think I matured as a traveller then, doing all sorts out risky things like stand up for myself to an exortionist bully in a dark street at midnight, fend for myself in all sorts of odd situations, and learn to deal with the crap travelling threw at me (like being knocked over – ever so gently – by a motorbike while crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City and jumping right back up cussing at the hapless, wide-eyed rider).

And that was pretty much the learning curve for me. Following that, China was incredibly, unbelievably smooth sailing and eye-opening. It exceeded my expectations tremendously and delivered none of the negative stuff I thought might come following my Vietnam experience. Then it was Bali and Komodo for some of the best diving I’ve ever done and experiences with incredibly warm people.

All in all, I think I did pretty well: getting through it all in one piece. I watched out for myself and also learned when to let go, relax and trust people. I soaked up little tricks like keeping exact change in hand beforehand so that I could close negotiations quickly, and counting the number of bags I had whenever I left a bus or train or plane. I learned how to assess situations and get out of them, like how I avoided the prophylactic-wielding tour guide or  knowing that having several very strong drinks with a bunch of friendly Canadians on Canada Day is cool, but going to their room to smoke pot for the first time while high on said strong drinks isn’t.

After 200 days of travelling in 8 countries and 3 years of documenting it here, I’ve achieved the goal I set out in the travel section of this blog.

September in Bali: Nusa Lembongan

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Just off the southeast of Bali is a little island called Nusa Penida and off Nusa Penida is the even littler island of Nusa Lembongan. This littler island was my next stop. It was an idyllic little place blessed with lots of sunshine and blue, blue sea while I was there.

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Every morning we’d go out diving and the water was always clear and blue, as was invariably the sky.

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We dived mainly along the sheltered west-facing side of Nusa Penida, which meant that most times upon surfacing, the majestic Gunung Agung rose from the horizon. It was lovely to see this familiar site accompany me on my Bali sojourn.

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Sometimes on coming back from diving, we passed surfers catching the waves. I made friends with an Australian couple there. The wife dived most days while the husband surfed.

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It was very relaxed diving compared to Tulamben. We did two dives a day compared to the hectic four previously. It gave me time to chill out on the beach, watching the occasional parasurfer go by.

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There were lots of pretty villas along the main stretch, hugging the hill round its curves.

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I stayed at Pondok Baruna, almost at the far end. It set in a beautiful traditional Balinese garden, a perfect place to unwind after a hard day’s dive.

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From here I could observe the goings on at sundown, the locals taking in their boats…

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… and the sun starting to send streaks of orange-pink across the sky.

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Every evening there was a spectacular sunset…

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… where the flaming ball of fire reflected itself on the calm sea…

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… and finally extinguished itself in the water.

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September in Bali: USAT Liberty Wreck

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I realised that I hadn’t really posted much about the wreck itself. Getting there was very convenient. It required a short walk to the beach from the dive centre. We didn’t even need to take our full gear with us, just fins and mask, as the porters would carry our tanks and BCDs out to the beach. On the pebble beach itself, we put on our BCDs then waded into the sea to a suitable depth before leaning back and putting on our fins. When we were all ready, it was time to descend and fin out slowly to the wreck, just a few tens of metres away. Even though the focal point was the wreck, there was still plenty to see along the way. Some days we saw the resident barracuda swim past, other days we saw large schools of fish gathering till they formed a group large enough to provide safety in numbers, like these yellow streak fusiliers. There were so many of them that they cast a dark shadow over the pebbles below.

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There wasn’t a great deal of actual wreck to see. Most of the ship is so broken up that it’s hard to find an end, let alone tell which end is bow and which stern. The best I saw was a gun turret sticking out from under a mess of plates overgrown with coral.

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At other parts, the wreck simply formed a pretty frame for the coral to grow on. It was obvious that no natural scape would look like this, overrun with coral or not. It was lovely to catch a poor of moorish idols swimming idyllically through the crevices.

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Before leaving, we had to take a group shot. There’s Wayan next to me, then Janine and Howard, the couple from Australia; and Gordon, the Scottish photographer who spend a month a Tulamben just to take award-winning photos. Hard core.

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Then it was time to say goodbye and head to my next spot in Bali.

September in Bali: Crustaceans at Tulamben

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You may have noticed that I didn’t have anything about crustaceans in my last post. This one is dedicated purely to the group of incredibly diverse and fascinating creatures. Tulamben is home to many crustaceans that, a hundred dives on, I still haven’t seen in such abundance, and in some cases never again since. Case in point is the soft coral crab below. It’s amazing how it just blends in with the coral. Look carefully at the centre of the photo and you’ll see it.

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Again, it was thanks to Wayan’s amazing eyesight that I managed to capture these shots.

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Then there was the delicate hairy purple crab that lived on barrel sponges.

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And there was the typical porcelain anemone crab that showed up fearlessly in broad daylight.

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Harder to spot was yet another weird species of crab, the wispy looking orange utan crab.

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Then there were the lobsters, like this one living on feather stars.

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And yet more living on sea pens, like these squat lobsters.

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And there was this tiny bizarre-looking lobster that lived on sea whips.

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Next on the list were the mantis shrimps. The larger ones were the smashing mantis shrimps that carried sudden attacks to catch unsuspecting fish that passed by its hole.

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Prettier was the peacock mantis shrimp that came out to hunt in its full regalia of colourful armour.

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In the shrimp family were Coleman shrimp that sat pretty on thorny sea urchins. They made space for themselves by snipping off bits of sea urchin spines, forming a clearing of sorts for their home.

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There were little shrimp that lived on bubble coral.

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And others that lived on anemones.

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There were also plenty of cleaner shrimp. Put your hand close enough and they’ll clean your fingernails for you. Put your mouth close enough and they’ll clean your teeth for you. Here’s Wayan demonstrating.

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And here’s one of my dive buddies showing off the new trick too. Cool eh.

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September in Bali: Underwater Macro

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Bali as a dive destination really surprised me with the sheer variety and quantity of wildlife to be seen. The rich coral life supported many species that were rare at other more famous dive areas in the region. I could choose no better place than Tulamben to start taking underwater photos. There were lots of  Nemos to shoot, though some were shyer than others, like these false anemonefish or clownfish.

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The pink anemonefish flashed a bright pink against the brilliant green of their protective homes. Even so, they sulked at the camera rather disagreeably.

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It was this panda clownfish that finally posed nicely for me while guarding his pink eggs at the base of the anemone.

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Next up, the challenge was to spot and shoot the pygmy seahorses. My task was made far easier with the world’s best dive guide ever, Wayan. It was amazing how he could spot the little creatures so easily and point them out carefully. Here, you can see how tiny a pygmy seahorses is.

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Here’s the Denise pygmy seahorse up close, looking so elegant and fragile.

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Less delicate looking was the regular Gorgonian pygmy seahorse, though this male is very obviously pregnant. For seahorses, the males carry the eggs while the females swim free. What a great arrangement.

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Other rare fish included this longnose hawkfish, a very pretty fish that started my subsequent fascination with hawkfishes of all shapes and sizes.

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Then there was the jawfish that burrowed in the sea bottom, only revealing its face and yellow eyebrows to the surface.

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And there was the funny-looking ribbon eel that showed off its striped blue body and brilliant yellow mouth, looking like it had a tragicomic accident with a fluorescent yellow marker pen.

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Another interesting find was the robust ghost pipefish that looked remarkably like leaves gliding along in the current.

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Here’s a video with a pregnant one, you can just about spot its eggs in between its ventral fin parts right at the end of the video.

There were also other creatures like this pretty little cuttlefish so well camouflaged against some stinging coral.

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And then there were the pretty nudibranchs, also unglamourously known as sea slugs. There were pink ones with yellow trimmings…

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… black and white ones with orange trimmings…

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… purely blue ones…

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… and even pairs with pinkish brown splotches on them. I bet these fellas must be poisonous, otherwise they’d be way too easy to be spotted and gobbled up!

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September in Bali: Tulamben

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This is the last of my 2008 escapade series.

It was my first trip to Bali and I was to spend several weeks there mainly diving, with occasional sojourns on land. My first stop was Tulamben, site of the famous Liberty Wreck in northeast Bali. The wreck was originally pulled up to the beach after being torpedoed by the Japanese in World War 2. The Americans didn’t have time to salvage the ship as the Japanese forces were arriving and the Liberty lay on the beach for many years till the 1963 eruption of Mount Agung. Lava from the eruption pushed the wreck back into the water, breaking it up into several pieces. It makes for beautiful diving today and is special in that no one died in this wreck, making for much less of a spooky dive.

It was here that I first started underwater photography. Many pictures weren’t of top quality, but later as you’ll see some were very beautiful, all thanks to my trusty Fuji F100 camera. The wreck somehow attracted many schooling fish that formed spectacular tornadoes. I spent several days just diving the wreck and the surrounding sites on a fairly hardcore routine of four dives a day. It really was nothing but diving…

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… and relaxing on the volcanic sand and shingle beach during the surface intervals.

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We either enjoyed the sun and the sea on the beach…

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… or ventured into shelter to have yummy nasi campur for lunch.

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And at night, again to enjoy the calm sea, this time lit by a bright full moon.

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Those were great diving times.

July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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July in Vietnam: The Infamous Cu Chi Tunnels AKA Where I Shot an AK-47

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A trip to Vietnam somehow didn’t quite seem complete without a look at some sights to do with the War. Much as I dislike seeing signs of war and suffering (a previous trip to Auschwitz had me depressed for days), I thought I’d educate myself by at least going to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was where the Viet Cong resistance dug out a complex series of narrow tunnels in which they hid during the day and from which they carried out guerrilla attacks on the Americans.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the middle of some nondescript secondary forest.

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Even more unsurprisingly, this forest housed some bad ass mosquitoes that attacked in no time, giving me huge bites even on my hand.

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We filed past the usual war relics like this abandoned tank that was later infested by tourists hanging off every inch of the bedraggled scrap, trying for a good angle for a photo.

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We then got to the tunnels proper, where our guide demonstrated how he managed to get down into entrance of this tiny tunnel.

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Slim as he was, he had to do some good wriggling before he managed to squirm free of the tunnel.

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And then it was our turn to go in. Here, the tunnels were already enlarged for tourists and I was a little spooked by the close darkness even in that short length.

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We were also shown some nasty booby traps where a false floor swung away to reveal wooden spikes. We were told that these spikes were often smeared with excrement, causing wounds to fester and the victim to eventually suffer a prolonged and painful death. It was a way of inflicting as much fear and dread as possible on the enemy.

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I was glad to finish up on the info gathering and whizzed quickly round the mock up of living conditions of the Viet Cong resistance. It was time for some experiential learning and I got that by shooting an AK-47. For about US$7, I bought myself five rounds. I held them gingerly, fearing that they would explode if I squeezed too hard.

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The nice man in combat fatigues showed me how to hold the gun and plopped the ear muffs on my head. (Don’t laugh, I know it’s all wrong.) And then I fired off the rounds one by one, not knowing whether they hit the target or not. The nice man just smiled and gave me the thumbs up sign when I asked how I did. He was obviously lying. At least he was nice enough not to hurt my pride.

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And of course he completed his nice man gig by helping me take some cool pictures of me holding a gun. Woohoo.

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July in Vietnam: The Cao Dai Holy See

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From Mui Ne, I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City and almost immediately found myself on a tour out to the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in Tay Ninh province near Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th Century. It’s a fusion of eastern and western religions and, according to Lonely Planet, incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualism and Islam. Services are held four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm. It was one of these services that my tour took me to see.

The architecture of the temple, just like the religion, had a mishmash of influences. The outlying pagodas had a pastel wedding cake feel so typical of western fairy tale castle architecture yet were unmistakeably shaped like  Chinese pagodas.

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The main temple building was much the same, where a Muslim-inspired dome that sat on Chinese-style tiled roofs was detailed with vaguely Baroque styling and topped with a Chinese qilin (unicorn).

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The oddly disjointed design was somehow unified by the pastel colour scheme.

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Worshippers in long white gowns were starting to stream in, a stark contrast to the colourful temple. Outside, venerated saints looked benevolently down from the pastel blue sky dotted with fuzzy clouds.

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I couldn’t help my amusement at how the real weather was fair more threatening than the one painted on the walls, giving the temple an even more surreal feel.

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And just inside the temple was a large mural with Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Viet poet Nguyen Binh Khiem writing out God and Humanity, Love and Justice in French and Chinese. My mind boggled trying to figure out the link between them.

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The tourists then herded onto the balconies along the main sanctuaries, gawking at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds on the ceiling and the dragons plastered on the pastel pink pillars.

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To my delight, the priests were dressed in stark primary colours, standing out brightly from the white-garbed laypeople. Each colour represented a different branch of Cao Dai.

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The service commenced with lots of bowing, chanting and singing.

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I very much enjoyed admiring the blocks of different colours and how they contrasted beautifully with the very cool floor tiles.

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Too soon, the signal was given for tourists to leave, and we headed out of the temple past the choir singing dreamily, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments.

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The time for the surreal was over, now it was time for war tunnels and Cu Chi.

July in Vietnam: Sand Dunes, Canyons and Fairy Springs

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Mui Ne is particularly famous for its sand dunes and there’s little question why. They are smack in the middle of seemingly nowhere, surrounded by scrub and water.

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It’s inexplicable to me how a patch of dry desert sand can rise up behind a lake full of blooming water lilies and lotuses, but such is the micro-climate of the area.

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Fine yellow sand had somehow been deposited in this area. The dunes built up somehow stayed here and only shifted their peaks from day to day in the wind.

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The wind blew ripples in the sand and soon covered up evidence of human presence.

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There were a fair number of other tourists poking around and it was a little tricky to get pictures with no one else inside. Yet, when I took these pictures, it all looked so unspoiled and untouched.

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Only the well-trodden paths showed signs of people around…

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… otherwise I was free to enjoy the company of the early morning dunes in solitude.

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The time of the day was just right to admire the play of light on the sand and against the sky.

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I can’t help but let you scroll through a few more of the pictures yourself, they speak for themselves so well.

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And then it was time to go, the sun was getting high in the sky and the lake was starting to lose its intense blue.

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Before it got too hot, I went to check out the flowers blooming in the lake.

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The lotuses were beautiful but I couldn’t get too close because of the mud and insects.

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Then it was onwards to the red canyon.

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Here, the red sand wasn’t quite as pretty as the yellow/white dunes of earlier in the day, but past rains had cut a canyon of sorts through. It made for an interesting study that I wish I’d seen when I studied physical geography in school so many years ago.

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Last stop of all was another series of dunes, this time cut through by an actual spring.

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The multi-coloured sand and earth it revealed made it quite apt to be called the Fairy Springs.

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It was a bit of a fun walk squelching my way up the fine silt, passing by dried up tributaries.

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But after a while the scenery was a little monotonous and I headed back…

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… to the beach to say my goodbyes before heading to Ho Chi Minh City.

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