Bali and Beyond: A Quick Stop-Over at Kuta

It was time for a dive trip after staying dry for so long. We wanted to tick off our bucket list and chose Wakatobi, a resort in South Sulawesi. Getting there involved taking a chartered plane from Bali, so we were more than happy to spend the night before somewhere near the airport. I chose Quest Hotel Tuban, just 5 minutes away from the airport and newly opened in Mar 2012. Its opening offer was USD57 (S$75) for a standard double room. I thought we might as well take a chance on it since we’d only be spending one night there.

We were pleasantly surprised when we got there because they gave us a free upgrade to a deluxe room. It was nicely furnished with modern though rather flimsy furniture, but at that price, I’m not complaining.

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The service at the hotel was great, from the friendly faces at the complimentary hotel pickup to reception and masseuses. We ordered an in-room massage at no extra cost over the in-house spa price and paid about IDR 150,000 (S$21) for a 45 minute full body massage while DC had his foot reflexology (IDR 100,000 or S$14) while watching TV.

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The room had plenty of space for all our dive junk to quite easily spread out, plus several cable channels on TV.

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The toilet was decent, just don’t expect a bathtub. One problem with the shower was that it tended to get really hot, it had a cycle of being cool and then getting hotter and hotter and then back to cool again. So you have to set it so the hottest point is about manageable. It takes some getting used to. Also, the finishings really are quite flimsy and the place is already starting to show signs of wear. The doors, in particular, are rather thin, so bring earplugs and hope that your neighbours don’t talk too loudly at night. We were there just two months after opening and the door stopper in the bathroom was starting to show signs of rust. A lot of the finishings were rather poor, for example plastering not done flush to the ceiling or to the floor skirting (we’ve been noticing these things since we’re in the midst of renovation work for our own place at the moment). I suggest going now when the hotel is still new and definitely not a year later.

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And the rest of the hotel? It’s small but decent. The pool looks quite big. It may be cold though, because it’s in the shade much of the day. There’s also a buffet breakfast with the room charge with a decent enough selection of Indonesian and western selections, from American-style items complete with egg station to chicken porridge with local toppings. Unfortunately, the chicken porridge had so much msg that it gave me a headache. I suggest taking more from the fruit selection instead.

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Quest Hotel Tuban
Jl. Kediri No. 9
Tuban 80361, Bali, Indonesia
Tel: +62 361 764009
Email: TubanInfo@Quest-Hotels.Com

We took the complimentary hotel shuttle to the beach to have a walk and look around. Kuta beach is the same as it’s always been – plenty of folks sitting around on the dull brown sand. Maybe it was because we went at dusk, but there was a slightly depressing atmosphere about the place, especially as the street vendors half-heartedly pushed trinkets and hawked cold Bintang beers in our general direction.

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Maybe it was the omnipresent MacDonald’s sign that reminded me what Kuta represented – mass market consumption – that made it that way.

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So we ducked in a mall to look for some reprieve. (Yeah right, we were just hungry, that’s all.) The most promising place was a rustically decorated restaurant overlooking the beach, Segara Seafood. Seeing that the area was so touristy, we were worried that it would have awful food, but it was surprisingly good! DC had a decent rendition of sop buntut (oxtail soup) with very tender oxtail in a generous portion together with carrot and potato. It was nicely flavoured with a touch of spice and there was a reasonably spicy chilli paste to go along.

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I went for the gurame goreng (deep-fried whole freshwater fish) that came with awesome chilli sauce. It’s not as hot as the one for ayam penyet, but was along the same lines of flavour – lightly cooked chilli paste with belacan and tomato. The deep-fried fish itself was excellently done – crispy enough to eat the tail and the fins, yet tender and juicy inside. I liked the side of plenty of raw vegetables as they lent themselves well to mopping up the yummy sambal. In the background is a generous side of pelecing kangkung, essentially boiled “water spinach” topped with more of the excellent chilli-tomato-belacan sambal.

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Overall, it was a great choice. The food was good and generally priced at about IDR 70,000 (S$10) onwards for the Indonesian dishes. Drinks were reasonably priced too, and my coconut was massive. We enjoyed watching the sky darken over Kuta beach from our little perch. It was a nice place to chill out and go back for an early night to catch an early flight out.

Segara Restaurant
Discovery Shopping Mall (Beach Front)
Jl. Kartika Plaza (80361), Kuta
Bali, Indonesia
Tel: +62 361 769613

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Lombok: The Beach

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We finally got round to seeing the beach, going southeast to a different set of Gili islands from the usual Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan. These Gilis were called Gili Nanggu and Gili Sudak. We drove about 2 hours down, following the winding road till we found the beach at Sekotong and rented a boat for the day. The boatmen took us in turn to each island, stopping first at the smallest one, a mere splodge of sand fringing the coast.

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It was a beautiful splodge of proper white sand, albeit rather coarse. This was a far cry from the brown beaches of Senggigi – I didn’t even bother writing about that. We circled the island, found a nice spot and enjoyed the water for a bit.

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Then it was off to the next island, Gili Sudak, where we took a walk along the beach, thinking it wasn’t such a big islet. By the time we got round to the edge of the island, we realised that it might be bigger than we thought. For a moment, we wondered whether we’d starve by the time we got back to the little cafe for lunch.

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But it wasn’t too bad. After crossing round to the back of the island, there wasn’t a great deal more to go and we again sat and enjoyed the beach. The waves were a little too strong for us to venture into the sea, so we saved that for the next island. We headed to our cafe for a simple lunch of nasi goreng and vegetable soup made with a chicken stock cube.

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Then it was more lying around on Gili Nanggu. We wanted to go snorkelling, but the conditions weren’t good enough. Close to the beach, the waves churned up too much sand and further away, the waves seemed a little too aggressive.

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We ventured into the island and found a little turtle conservation area. There was lots of little pools of  turtles of different ages. I think this little fella is a green turtle. We gawked for a while and then gave a little donation at the centre.

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Then we lounged under some casuarina trees for a nap and headed back to Lombok.

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Our final meal in Lombok was this fantastic sop buntut, also known as oxtail soup. Again, Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended this place. It was sop buntut as I’ve never known before. The place was someone’s front sitting room converted into an eating house. It appeared that there was only one dish served here. Everyone had generous portions of tender oxtail in a thick, almost stew-like broth. They’d obviously spent ages gently cooking the oxtail as the soup was immensely flavourful and unctuous with collagen. The flavour was so intense that the were lime wedges provided to cut through the richness. I also liked the very spicy chilli sauce accompaniment – alternating mouthfuls of soup, chilli-spiced oxtail and plain rice was enough variety that I didn’t even think of having other dishes for our meal. They were very generous with the oxtail as well: plenty of soft meat that couldn’t help but be flavourful, and almost melted tendon. I think I’d return to Lombok just for this amazing dish. It was definitely the best sop buntut I’ve had.

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And with that marvellous meal, we ended our relaxing trip to Lombok. I think I enjoyed the eating far more than any other activity there!

Lombok: A Trip South to a Very Different Kuta Beach

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DC and I had a rental car and we took it down south to the very sleepy Kuta Beach. We passed by lots of gentle-eyed buffaloes grazing along the road…

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… and ogled at the cute, lighter-coloured calves obliviously munching away.

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At a cafe, there was a sleepy dog that epitomised the laidback atmosphere of the beach. It lay on the trademark peppercorn sand of Kuta Beach.

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Look closely at the sand and you’ll see that the little granules are round, like miniature white peppercorns.

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We later went for a walk along the beach and found more of the peppercorn sand.

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It wasn’t a fantastic white beach, not quite even up to the (not that great) standard of Kuta Beach in Bali. But there were still great views and it was a lovely walk just before the rain started coming in.

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We walked up to a rock outcrop partway out of the beach and found some slightly macabre sights, like the remnants of a heron, perhaps…

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… and the lifelike remnants of a crab’s moult.

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Luckily, there was still some life out here, as evidenced by this cute little lizard skulking its way stealthily along the rocks.

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It was then time to make the bumpy, pot-holed trip back to Mataram. We took respite from the bad road conditions by stopping at a Sasak village to have a look round. The Sasak are the indigenous people of Lombok. They are mainly Muslim and traditionally live in huts with packed-mud floors and roofs thatched with the local long grass, alang-alang. The huts in which they lived I felt were rather nondescript, and the only structure of interest was the bale, or storage shed. Its characteristic structure is the symbol of Lombok and is replicated in concrete and wood all over the main city.

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What’s a village without chickens? This cute little chick was poking around the village grounds with its brothers and sisters, learning how to fend for itself.

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And having had our fill of sleepy beach and equally sleepy village life, we headed back to Mataram. Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended Restaurant Taliwang, a local place serving up Lombok specialties. I started off with a jumbo-sized coconut drink with honey. It was really good and such a godsend because Lombok food is very spicy!

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We ordered a whole array of dishes like deep-fried tempeh (I couldn’t get enough of it), deep-fried squid, grilled gurami and vegetable soup. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of the fiery chilli sauce made with local belacan, a kind of fermented prawn paste.

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Belacan, the smelly delight, really came into its own when turned into the local delicacy, kangkung pelecing. Here, toasted grated coconut is piled on top of toasted peanuts, and boiled beansprouts and kangkung. The kangkung is a more tender, heart-shaped leaved version of the Singaporean kangkong. Toasted belacan is worked into a spicy sauce of chilli and tomato (and probably other secret ingredients) and then poured on top of the mound of veggies. The result? An in-your-face explosion of sour, sweet, spicy and fishy that hits the taste buds with a one-two (POW!) blow. Amazing. This is one dish that I have to attempt to recreate soon.

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Rumah Makan Taliwang I
No. 20 Jalan Ade Irma Suryani
Mataram, Lombok
(Ask at Villa Sayang for exact directions)

September in Bali: A Quiet Little Island

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One of the reasons why we did so few dives a day was because the waters here was less sheltered. The other reason was that the locals were very religious and often had to go for evening prayers. This gave me plenty of time to wander around the village, checking out the sights and sounds of the place. One  of the first things I noticed about this island was their fanaticism for fighting cocks. I didn’t get a chance to witness a fight myself but almost every house kept prized roosters and men would fuss over them in the evenings, getting them ready for the big fight by attaching spurs to their talons. The cocks were then placed under small baskets and left in formation till the fight began.

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The locals were far less concerned about their motorbikes. It wasn’t a big deal at all if a bike didn’t have a proper seat.

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The most spectacular thing in the evening was to witness the locals at their evening festivals as the sun starting setting over the village, causing the temple towers to glow orange.

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We entered the temple grounds through imposing stone gates…

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… and watch discreetly from outside the temple wall.

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All the worshippers were decked out in their finery, the equivalent of their Sunday best. They sat on mats on the ground while waiting for the priests to  spoon out their share of the holy water (or was it holy milk?)

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All waited quietly in the ceremony, including the young children. I was surprised at how quiet the children were as I got bored with the ceremony where there only seemed to be chanting and holy water distribution.

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I soon wandered back to the beach to enjoy the sunset.

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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: 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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July in Vietnam: The Fishing Village of Mui Ne

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I moved on from Quy Nhon to Mui Ne, bypassing Nha Trang because I wasn’t up to much partying after Hue (I chose not to post about celebrating Canada Day because of that awful, awful hangover) and I heard the diving there wasn’t very much different from Hoi An (with which I wasn’t impressed, that’s a story for another day). Mui Ne didn’t disappoint. I arrived as dusk fell and the idyllic coconut-trees-swaying-in-the-wind setting immediately started working its charm.

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Daytime augmented the coconut-tree charm and I soon found myself on the back of a motorcycle off to a nearby fishing village.

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Early in the morning, fishing boats return from the night’s work and the flotilla waits in the shallows for the coracles to come out to unload the cargo.

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The coracles are unique circular little fellas that are nimble enough to float on mere inches of water to bring in the catch.

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By the time this tourist arrived, most of the activity was tapering off and people were starting to relax after sorting and selling their wares.

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Many of them were still milling around the main bartering areas, leaving their little boats on the beach out of reach of the waves.

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The highlight of this visit really was getting up close to these boats. I’d not seen them anywhere else in the world and was very intrigued by how they managed to get anywhere. I imagine myself just going round and round in circles if I had to captain one of these! These boats were really just waterproofed baskets, no wonder they were simply left unguarded all over the beach. If one goes missing, just weave a replacement, easy!

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Coracles aside, there were other interesting things going on at the beach. There were bullock carts hauling fresh catch or selling breakfast treats.

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There were baskets upon baskets of fish on sale, mainly small to medium ones.

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And there were plenty of locals in the characteristic conical hats negotiating good prices for crates of silvery fish.

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Some areas of the beach were strewn with open shells. Here, plenty of sorting had taken place earlier in the morning where I’m guessing workers went through thousands of scallops, extracting the meat to be dried for export.

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Near the beach, fish were being salted and laid out to dry in the already fierce morning sun.

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And off I went to my next adventure, admiring how the sun glinted off the sea in waves of silver as my motorbike whizzed past.

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It was also a wonder how we got anywhere, considering that the bike’s speedometer needle didn’t move past zero! More to come next post.

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