September in Komodo: The Star Attraction

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Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

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But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

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We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

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Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

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I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

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Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

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Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

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And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

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Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

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This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

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… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

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As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

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And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

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… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

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But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

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It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

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We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

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… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

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When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

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But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

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… just like in this video.

Quick Eats: Teochew at Havelock

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DC and I ducked into Mu Liang Zai Liang Kee Restaurant for a quick lunch one hot day. We needed something quick and not too heaty, ordering an oyster omelette and stir-fried baby spinach to accompany some porridge. The oyster omelette was perfectly cooked, crisp at the edges and very fluffy on the inside. The oysters were lightly cooked and coated with a very moreish sambal sauce. It was ambrosial with the porridge, I’d eat that in a flash anytime!

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The stir-fried baby spinach was expertly done with just the right tenderness and a light touch of wok hei. We asked for less oil to make it a slightly healthier meal and they obliged. It’s not the kind of place where food only tastes good if done with too much oil. The only issue was that the porridge was a bit too mushy, definitely not the clean tasting Teochew style porridge with intact rice grains. This was just run-of-the-mill. Maybe we’ll order rice next time.

Mu Liang Zai Liang Kee Restaurant
719 Havelock Road
Tel: 6272 3182

Crab of My Childhood

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I’ve been eating at Hua Yu Wee for years. My parents love this place and it was a natural place to have a birthday celebration for my father (yes, a second time, we always find excuses to eat good food).

We started off with the deep fried baby squid. Here, it’s done to perfection because it’s incredibly crispy even after sitting for a while. It’s the right blend of sweet, spicy and peppery. ‘Nuff said.

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The sambal dua tao are one of the few good renditions on the market. Here the sambal is spicy and not overly sweet with plenty of dried shrimp in the mix. I liked how the plump mussels were incredibly fresh and full of clean flavour. Thumbs up.

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The chicken was probably the weak link for the dinner. While the chicken was nicely browned and crisp, it wasn’t particularly flavourful and the green chilli sauce didn’t do much to lift it. Definitely not a re-order.

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Fish at this place was faultless as usual. The live seabass was steamed till just done and lightly seasoned with soy sauce and coriander. The smooth texture and good flavour of the fish was excellent as usual. Good with rice.

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Then came the stars of the show: the crab. Note how they’ve changed the presentation so people get to the good bits quick instead of having to turn over the shell first. The crab here is always sweet and meaty, and the chilli crab sauce is thick and spicy. I’m not such a big fan of chilli crab but the sauce is great with the deep fried mantou.

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My favourite type of crab here is the pepper crab. I like how it’s deeply spicy without being overwhelmed by peppery-ness. It’s got plenty of the depth of flavour of pepper and the top notes that quickly fade when pepper gets stale. This version is my favourite, I guess it’s hard to describe it well when the taste is so familiar. Just go have some and tell me what you think!

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Hua Yu Wee
462 Upper East Coast Road
Tel: 6241 1709

August in China: Giant Panda Mania

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Chengdu is probably most famous for its giant pandas. The furry black-and-white mascot is plastered all over the tourist shops it’s surprising that people don’t get sick of them. One evening, Mr Bunglez and I dropped into a youth hostel to book a  half-day panda tour for ¥80. They gave us each a plush panda key chain which is so big I don’t know what to do with it!

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To round off the evening, Mr Bunglez insisted on taking me to a panda shop, obviously selling all things panda. I couldn’t resist taking the enamoured panda fan-girl shot outside its window display. After gawking at panda apparel, panda shoulder bags, panda plushes and other room accessories, I settled for a stack of panda postcards. After some persuasion from Mr Bunglez (for cheaper than an equivalent stack of postcards, I get 52 different panda pictures), I also got a deck of panda poker cards.

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We were picked up far too early the next morning and snoozed all the way to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where I took more cheesy photos.

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It was a short walk into what was really a small zoo specialising in pandas.  I’d not seen pandas before this, only the ones on San Diego Zoo’s panda cam, so I’m not very embarrassed to say that I went completely gaga over my first sighting. It’s almost funny that I was so pleased by the sight of this lazy fella nosing away at some bamboo, musing over its plans for the day: to eat, poop or sleep some more. After snapping this picture, we stared at it for a while and then realised with great dismay that it was really going to sit there for the whole day.

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Moving rapidly on, we found some slightly more energetic pandas posing cutely in the trees. (This shot is taken with zoom using my crappy old camera so pardon the graininess.)

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After a while, we realised that pandas are a very lazy bunch and do nothing but lie around. What a life!

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Soon our guide took us round to the juvenile panda enclosure where the one-year-old teenagers romped. Here, they were slightly more energetic, though you can hardly tell the difference from the photos!

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Still, they are far cuter than the adults. As we avidly watched the pandas, Mr Bunglez couldn’t help but get slightly annoyed as I kept exclaiming sotto voce “Pandaaa! Pandaaa! Paaan! Daaa!” over and over again.

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The most fun bit was watching the keeper come out into the enclosure. These young fellas were really attached to him and gamboled around him, wanting to play. It was quite amusing when he wanted to leave the enclosure as he had to leg it to the exit faster than the teenage pandas and get to the door before them.

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After the keeper left, the young ones seemed a bit sad.

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Soon, they recovered their high spirits and went on with their panda play. One of them got so carried away playing with a car tire he clumsily fell down the steep side of the enclosure into the ditch below. Dazedly, he looked around, then continued pawing at the tire for a while before crawling back up the slope to the main enclosure.

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After this enclosure, we went on to see the infant incubation centre where tiny newborns were showcased. No photos allowed here so as not to disturb them. They were rather ugly anyway, the hairless and helpless pink creatures. They definitely weren’t as cute as the grownups! It’s only much later that the characteristic black bands appear on the skin, after which the white fur turns black at the right spots.

[Next up: Red pandas]

Ubin Seafood

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DC and I pretended that we went to Pulau Ubin because we needed some fresh air and exercise and not really because we wanted to eat seafood. (Don’t tell anyone but we took a taxi from the jetty to Chek Jawa. Ssssh.) We headed to the one next to the little temple. It was the most crowded and the food looked pretty good.

We started off with sotong kia (crispy baby squid). Even though the sotong wasn’t very kia, they made it very well. It stayed crispy for quite a while despite the wet weather and it was very peppery and not too sweet.

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I really liked the sambal chilli lala (mussels in chilli sauce). Very few places do it well anymore. Here, the sauce is not too thick, not too sweet and just the right fieriness. The mussels were fresh and tasted of the sea and the gravy was sublime with rice.

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We opted for lobster instead of crayfish because of the cheap lobster promotion. It was done butter-style. The lobster wasn’t too bad with rather sweet flesh and wasn’t too tough. While the butter-batter was quite good, it wasn’t that memorable. I suspect it would have gone better with prawn instead.

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All in, the damage done was about $20 per person, not bad for lobster, squid and mussels. Yum.

August in China: Festival Day in Dong Country

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Mrs Lu invited us to a baby’s first month celebration. Half the village was going, so as their guests we had to go too. I didn’t get the logic, so I don’t expect you to either! As expected, the celebration was by the river. We got there a bit early as preparations were clearly still under way.

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This place would be a food inspector’s nightmare. The meat was chopped up right in the shallows of the river, while bowls were washed nearby in the same river water. It was all part of a day’s work.

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Next, the meat was cooked in a massive wok with plenty of river weed, wood ear mushroom and preserved vegetables.

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While waiting, most people milled around gossiping, Mrs Lu chatting with the rest about me. Others were more industrious, like this lady pounding her cloth with a mallet. Dong cloth is famous for its indigo cloth and in Zhaoxing, especially prized is the maroon shade achieved by adding chicken blood to the dye. A woman’s worth is measured by the quality of cloth she produces and the cloth has to be pounded to make it soft and easy on the skin.

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It seemed to be a multi-purpose festival day. There was a separate celebration for a teacher’s retirement just a few paces down the main street. They set off round upon round of firecrackers, filling the street with an almighty din and a screen of smoke. We stood and stared while waiting for our celebration to start.

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Finally, it was time. The children seemed to heed an invisible signal and rushed forward. Mr Lu barreled past, grabbing Willy along with him. He was to join the men to eat and drink the local moonshine. I joined the women.

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We each grabbed a pair of bamboo chopsticks and reached into a large wicker basket for a handful of glutinous rice. Next, we headed to an empty slot at a low table and started digging in. It went like this: if you’re an elder, sit on a low stool, if not squat. Pick a morsel of food from any of the bowls, followed by a mouthful of glutinous rice. Keep eating. Try not to pass out from the pain of squatting for an eternity. (It was probably only about half an hour.)

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The food was delicious! There was pork boiled with some kind of river kelp and wintermelon, vegetables in very spicy chilli and some preserves. All were very excellent and everyone happily dug in with gusto. There was plenty to go round.

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I stood up periodically, ostensibly to take pictures but really to rest my poor legs. The best part about the whole festival was that I never saw the first-month baby, the closest I got to one was to this friendly mother and toddler. Mrs Lu told me that it wasn’t necessary to see the baby and she was vague about how they were related, so we headed back to her house for tea.

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