September in Bali: A Mucky Secret

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The other highlight of being in Permuteran was diving at Secret Bay. I don’t think it’s that big a secret anymore, but not as many divers go there. It’s a muck diving place, meaning that less of the casual divers and more of the serious divers go there. Why? Because muck diving is all about diving in places with less than white sand and very little coral. The atmosphere can be very depressing because of the low light and poor visibility conditions. Nonetheless, there are plenty of weird and wonderful creatures to see.

I strongly suspect this to be the Kodipungi lionfish, with its separated pectoral fin rays. It’s so beautiful and flamboyant against the dull grey sand.

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What surprised me next was the Banggai cardinalfish, something that is supposed to be very rare. When I’d last dived in Manado, I was told that these fish were only found at Banggai Island and the Lembeh Strait. Balderdash!

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Their blue-black colouration with the almost fluorescent white spots was mesmerising.

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There were also plenty of razorfish among the sea urchins. They were funny creatures that seemed to stand upside down on their noses to hunt for food.

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When pursued, they’d turn ninety degrees so they could make a quick getaway, but were otherwise always nose to the ground.

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Another rare find was the hispid frogfish. It was hilarious how each had a disarmingly charming white pompom on its forehead. This pompom acted like a lure to bring in prey. In a gulp, the poor fish would be gone.

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Another odd fish was the cockatoo waspfish that liked to pretend to be a leaf swaying in the water. Very strange.

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Less strange was this octopus that (for good reason) refused to budge from its hole. The best I could do was to take a blurred shot of its tentacles. Pity.

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Other inhabitants of this freakish side show include the striped puffer with its dark blotch around the base of its pectoral fins making it look recessed and mutated.

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Reflecting the green seaweed was this unidentified goby. It would’ve been difficult to spot if it was just a few inches into the seaweed.

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Easier to identify was the spotted shrimpgoby with its distinctive white iris and black markings. It was surprisingly how I managed to get close enough without startling the shrimpgoby.

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Almost completely camouflaged until it started moving was this peacock flounder with its weirdly asymmetrical eyes.

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Another well-camouflaged fish was this orange and black dragonet, its only giveaway the orange lips.

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There were more – this crocodile flathead, if left alone, would soon change colour to blend in with the sand below.

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There was also this really ugly pipefish that looked like a piece of random trash in the water. No wonder it’s called muck diving.

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Secret Bay was one of the few places where I saw full-sized seahorses, like this thorny seahorse. I was so thrilled by this find! Even though we’re told that pygmy seahorses are very rare, somehow I feel that full-sized ones are even more so because guides tend not to look out for them. What a great find.

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Another unexpected find was this whole pile of schooling catfish in the wreck of a little rowboat.

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Even more surprising was this ornate ghost pipefish floating along obliviously above the seething mass of catfish.

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Other than that, there was a truly horrifying sea centipede, another first for me (and hopefully last).

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And then there were the ubiquitous nudibranchs, though this time nothing I’ve seen before again.

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Check out this scrum of beautiful blue and yellow ones too. Lovely huh.

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And rounding things off, here’s a video of something not seen that often – a white-eye moray eel out of its hole in search of prey. Enjoy.

July in Vietnam: Quy Where?

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Quy Nhon (pronounced “wee nyon”) is a slightly industrial and not particularly pretty fishing town midway between Hoi An and my next stop, Mui Ne. It had charmless concrete buildings lining the street and not a great deal in its favour. Yet I was willing to stumble into town at 2am, taking the only available bus in. After a botched attempt at going to a place I’d booked ahead at (the people were fast asleep and no amount of doorbell ringing, door banging nor phone calling would wake them up to let me in), I managed to find a place at a hostel and not get ripped off or abandoned to die on the streets. It’s true, people did seem to get more hospitable as I went further south.

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The only interesting thing along the way to my destination was the way they sold goldfish and fighting fish in tightly shut plastic bags that sparkled in the sun. Pretty, but poor fish!

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Now the reason for going to Quy Nhon was to see the Cham ruins and how the city just built itself round them. It was so oddly out of sync how the concrete and electric wires stopped just shy of the ruins, still much inhabited by colonising plants and creepers.

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Inside one of these Cham towers was a lingam, still looking so little weathered that I wasn’t sure if it was a reconstruction or an original ruin. It was still used in active worship by the locals.

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While the main towers are further in the outskirts of the town, there was a Cham museum in the area, with rather interesting exhibits on show.

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Although the main building was closed, there were enough artifacts scattered in the courtyard to be worth a happy picture-taking session, just like this dog guarding the entrance. I really liked its toothy grimace and its pretty two-tiered decorative collar.

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Then there were these naga-like carvings that looked like they used to be part of a wall. It looked almost like a modern interpretation of Hindu art.

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And the same for this lion-like creature. I enjoyed the little details like the little whorls of hair on its head.

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The town has a nice beach with a great view of the curving bay.

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Too bad it wasn’t in any condition to swim in, the strong fishy smell put me off any notion of getting into my swim gear.

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You see, this town had part of its livelihood in fishing and there were plenty of pretty nets further out that somehow helped to net the fish. These nets were of course responsible for the stench.

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The fishermen went to and from the nets using cute little circular boats. It was a wonder they managed to get anywhere.

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It was lovely to be in this town with few tourists and no touts at all. I blended in fairly well with the locals (as long as I didn’t open my mouth) and enjoyed being on my own for a few days.

Singapore Youth Olympics Opening Ceremony

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It’s a week late in posting, but better late than never.

DC managed to get free tickets to a very special event taking place in Singapore this month –  the opening ceremony of the inaugural summer Youth Olympic Games. After seeing the fantastic opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, we knew it would be a tough act for Singapore to follow.  However, we knew that the ceremony would still feature plenty fireworks, dancing and hopefully a great party atmosphere.

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It was held at the floating platform at Marina Bay.  Knowing that there would be a huge crowd of spectators, we decided to go to there early and have dinner there first.  We were lucky enough to find a parking lot right next to the main entrance to the grandstands at Marina Square, and after having a quick dinner, we walked over to the entrance to find a large crowd already forming.  We queued up dutifully, but after a while we started to wonder why the queue was moving so slowly.  At first we thought it was because of the stringent security checks, but when we finally got to the ticketing entrance, we found to our dismay that the reason why we had queued for so long was because the ticket sensor wasn’t working properly!  For the event, the organisers had very proudly announced that the ticket would be a newfangled swipe card that also doubled as a Visa pre-paid card. It was all very good except that the ticket sensors were having trouble reading the swipes, so every ticket required several tries before they could finally be read.  This delay caused the logjam of people at the entry point.  It wasn’t a great start to the night, and we wondered what the international community would be thinking of Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency.
Things got worse when we finally got to the grandstands.  The tickets are priced in accordance with the different zones in the grandstand, with Yellow being the closest to the action (short of Red, for the VIPs).  We had the Yellow tickets, but we soon realised that this didn’t mean anything as no one was checking to see if people really did hold Yellow tickets or tickets of some other colour.  As a result, I think a lot of people were sitting in the Yellow zone without actually holding Yellow tickets.  Moreover, we were unable to find a seat for some time as the ushers seemed to be confused about where the empty seats were.  But this wasn’t the worst thing – what really annoyed us was that some people were reserving empty seats and claiming that they were waiting for their friends, but as the night wore on it became apparent that no one was turning up and said “people” were simply hogging extra seats so that they could put their bags somewhere. One woman and her young son took up five seats! So much for the Olympic spirit.
We tried not to let these events dampen our spirit – after all, it was the YOG and it was held in Singapore.  The stage was certainly beautiful.  Because it was a floating platform, the backdrop was the Marina Bay reservoir fringed by the tall skyscrapers, including the infamous “surfboard” that was the new Marina Bay Sands resort.  What was particularly interesting was that a large portion of the platform was partially submerged in the water.  We realised as that this was to allow the performers to wade through and achieve some rather stunning visual effects, such as the opening act that featured performers making Olympic rings in the shallow water.  It was all rather clever.

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The next few performances, however, were a bit dubious.  One of the acts featured the origins of Singapore.  Coming hot on the heels of our National Day celebrations the week before, it was all a little dejavu.  DC felt that we were watching the National Day celebrations part deux.  Yet another performance was labelled “Monster”, and had a huge monstrous puppet that was operated by 20 people as the centrepiece of the stage.  I think the idea was to convey how the youngsters are able to face their fears and conquer them to achieve future success, but somehow the props seemed a bit too frightening for some of the audience.  The last performance that was a bit controversial featured a young girl who was told by her mother not to play with fire, but gleefully ignored her and proceeded to set the whole stage on fire.  While this made for an excellent visual spectacle, I wonder what sort of message the organisers were trying to send here.

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Fortunately, a few other performances managed to produce a decent effect.  One example was the glowing dragon that arrived by boat and waded through the shallow water.  The dragon’s body was actually comprised of a horde of performers.  It was very impressive.

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Yet another performance that was apparently very visually appealing was the arrival of the Olympic flame on the back of a glowing boat shaped like a phoenix.  Unfortunately my vantage point was a bit off, so I didn’t manage to get a good look at the phoenix boat or the dozen dragon boats that flanked it.
Finally, it was time for both the Singapore and Olympic flags to be raised. I found it rather impressive and was even more wowed when the wind picked up such that both flags actually flew during the raising ceremony!

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And the flame being lit was of course quite something.  I think the flame tornado idea is awesome.

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And finally the Olympic torch was light and here it will burn for the rest of the games.

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Overall, the opening ceremony left me with mixed feelings.  Personally, I think some things could have been done better, such as the organisation and seating arrangements.  These are things that are absolutely essential, and we were let down.  As far as the performances were concerned, I think they were very much a matter of personal taste and while I didn’t agree with some acts, I don’t think the performers can be faulted.
I am aggrieved at one thing in particular though.  And this was the release of hundreds of helium-filled plastic doves into the air when the Olympic flame was lit.  While it was indeed a very lovely sight that elicited gasps of appreciation from the crowd, the lack of long-term perspective galled me. We were close enough to see that the plastic being released into the air was the plastic-bag variety, which will have to come down at some point and end up in the sea, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and posing a dangerous hazard to the sealife.  Great environmental message that the organisers are trying to send to the world’s youth, particularly at an event that celebrated youth and the potentious future ahead. It was simply appalling and I can’t condemn this enough.  To me, this event was ruined by one very stupid act.
Not a good start for the world’s first YOG.

Saboten: Finally a Contender for Tonkichi’s Title

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I was thwarted yet again by the long queue outside the tonkotsu ramen place at Parco Marina Bay and opted to give Saboten a go instead. This chain from Shinjuku seems like a slighter more upmarket version of Tonkichi. Bizarrely enough, its name means “cactus” and it was chosen to represent vitality of all things. Go figure.

Anyhow, the free flow of finely shredded cabbage and yummy salad dressing made me very happy from the beginning. The cabbage was fresh and the two dressings so yummy I couldn’t quite decide which was better. The black stuff was soy, vinegar and yuzu dressing and the creamy brown one a sesame-based one. I ended up mixing the two so the salty soy-yuzu one was ameliorated by the creamy sesame. What a promising start!

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I went for the curry loin. The loin came with an immense amount of rice and curry sauce. Just too bad that the curry sauce was very authentically Japanese because it was a bit too sweet for my taste. Thankfully, DC was there to save the day and he appreciatively slurped up quite a bit of it on my behalf. Now the loin was very tasty, made from fresh pork and fried to perfection. I liked how the fried panko crumb bits had some heft to it, matching the pork nicely. This is not a dish for dieters as the loin was rimmed with a fairly substantial layer of fat. It gave the meat an interesting gradation from meltingly tender near the fat to substantial and almost tough towards the outer part. All good in my book!

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DC had the oyako don and he liked it. In his words, it was sticky and sweet. The meat was tender and flavourful, just too bad that the panko crumbs were a bit soft by the time it got to him. Special mention has to be made at this point for the pickles. While they don’t come free flow, the freshness and quality really shone through. I finished them in a flash and was dismayed when the waiter apologetically told us that they had to charge for extra if we wanted more. Oh well.

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At least there was dessert to compensate: green tea ice cream in nicely chilled bowls. Not bad, though we were there for the tonkatsu, not the ice cream!

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Saboten
#P3-01 Parco Marina Bay, Millenia Walk
Tel: 6333 3432

Keisuke Ramen

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Level 3 of the newly opened Parco Marina Bay has half a floor of Japanese restaurants, with two ramen shops, a tonkatsu place, Japanese Western (that’s Ma Maison), a regular diner and a sushi deli. DC and I chose the ramen shop with no queue: Keisuke Ramen. It’s quite an interesting proposition, having prawn-based broth instead of regular tonkotsu (pork bone) stuff. Everything on the menu was prawn-something, even down to the salad. Go only if you like prawn.

The first thing DC noticed were the special chopsticks. Notice how they’re pentagonal, presumably to help hold on to the noodles better.

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On further inspection of the chopsticks, we noticed that there was a special rough finish to the bottom part, again helping to grip the noodles better. This place certainly is very serious about its noodles!

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Another special touch was the distinctive shape of the bowls. The opening is slanted, making for an oddly private viewing of the diner’s progress of the meal.

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Ordering any “special” ramen would involve the extra toppings coming on a side plate. There was pleasantly briny pickled lettuce, rather disappointingly hard-boiled egg and chilled boiled chicken. They all went decently with the ramen but did nothing to steal the show.

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Now the ramen itself is quite different. Check out the dramatic presentation, complete with pretty deep-fried chilli shreds. Aside from the regular toppings, there was also prawn wanton in the special ramen and yuzu bits. I quite liked this version, it was a vaguely Japanese yuzu-y twist on your typical hawker haemee broth. The noodles were very decent, not quite al dente but still chewy. I liked them.

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I felt that the miso prawn broth was something else altogether. The creaminess of the miso gave the broth quite a different dimension. That, added to the  special garlic oil, yuzu and earthy burdock bits, made it all quite complex and at times a bit confusing to the palate. On the other hand, it made for many changes in taste as I progressed to the bottom of the bowl.

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Keisuke Ramen
P3-02 Parco Marina Bay, Millenia Walk
Tel: 6337 7919

Diving the Similans: Beach Time

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It wasn’t all underwater action in the Similans. We stopped at two different white sand beaches there, one a rather rocky beach on a bright sunshiney day.

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This place is called Donald Duck Bay. Quite obvious from the picture eh?

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It was nice to just poke around on the beach, looking out at the view…

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… and watching startled crabs scuttle for their lives to the water.

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Another beach we spent a little time on was much more beautiful. It had the smoothest white sand that Singapore probably could never hope to import. Just too bad about the overcast weather though.

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Here we also spotted crabs, this time duelling hermit crabs.

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A Reviving Broth

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I like to cook chicken and vegetable broth because it’s so comforting and reviving. It takes a bit of time and effort to debone the chicken, but the results are well worth it. Freeze the thigh and breast meat for some other use and put only the bones into the soup. If you’re feeling lazy, you can just chuck the whole chicken in, but don’t blame me if you get dry stringy meat. Add as much or as little of the veggies as you like. If you have leeks or potatoes, feel free to add those too.

A note on the aromatics: I like the deep flavour cloves give to the broth. It somehow makes the soup extra satisfying. I stash parsley and coriander stems in the freezer each time I use the leaves, so making this broth just involves unpacking whatever there is in the fridge. Don’t worry if you don’t have it.

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Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 large onion, cut into large wedges
2 carrots, scraped and cut into rounds
4 sticks celery, cut into chunks
bones of three chickens (if lazy, just use one whole chicken)
4 cloves
a sprinkle of whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
parsley and coriander stalks

Method:

  1. In a big pot, heat the oil and the onion, carrot and celery. Stir on low heat for about 5 minutes to sweat. Make sure the vegetables don’t brown.
  2. When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken bones or whole chicken and pour water over it till covered. Add the cloves, peppercorns and bay leaf.
  3. Bring the broth to a gentle boil for about one hour. Alternately, if you have a thermopot, put it in the thermopot for about two hours.
  4. When the soup is done, lift out the bones or chicken and extract whatever meat you can. Serve on the side with the soup.

Enough for 4.