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!

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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July in Vietnam: The Madcap Motorbiking Adventure

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Maybe my hide had been toughened by the experiences of the last week, maybe my sense of reckless adventure got the better of me, but still I don’t know what got into me. After being harangued for my previous experience, the travel agent suggested I take a motorbike ride down to my next stop, the Cuc Phuong National Park, where I was up to more monkey business. He assured me that the motorbike driver, Hu, was absolutely proper and wouldn’t even try to touch me. Excellent that we got that sorted out and we were off.

Our route took us past the spectacular Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) where I spent ages gawking and trying to figure out whether the water droplets falling on me were from the drizzle or the splash of the waterfall.

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It was a steep but very scenic walk up to the top…

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… and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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We went past Tram Ton Pass which, according to Lonely Planet, divided the warmest and coldest places in Vietnam, Lai Chau and Sapa. As expected, when hot and cold met, you really could see air. It was mistily beautiful and mysterious, one of those places that has to be seen while you’re there. I couldn’t get any pictures because my camera was hopelessly fogged up. As we headed downslope, the mist cleared up slightly and I managed to catch some of the amazing scenery in pixels.

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Some parts of the hills gave way to little pockets of land flat enough for padi. It was the first harvest season and villagers were working hard to dry their harvest along the road, …

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… and subsequently thresh it by hand.

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It was tough work in the fields and it was also tough work staying on the bike. It was my first time for long at the back of the bike. Astride behind Hu, I had to hold myself straight and not grab onto him for propriety’s sake. It meant a mean day-long workout for my abs and thighs. When my abs were tired, I stood up slightly on my knees and when my knees were going to give way, I held my abs in to straighten up. The only alternative to this tough workout was to slump with my face against Hu’s back and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Boy was it tough going. I was so glad to get off the motorbike when we came up to a river crossing.

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Here, there were geese on the banks waiting for us. They must have thrived on the grass growing along the muddy banks.

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After waiting for enough customers at a little shop/tea-shack and chatting with the proprietor to pass the time, we got on board the little boat to get across.

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And after a short two-hour ride more, we were at a village homestay where the pigs very enthusiastically greeted us in the dusk.

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It was also where I very enthusiastically tackled my food (yes, the portion in the picture is only for two!) after a long day’s workout and passed out in the roomy common room of the stilt house.

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More next post.

Layang Layang: Pelagics and the Star of the Show – Hammerhead Sharks

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The reason why we were at Layang Layang was really for hammerhead sharks and the pelagics that were so famous in that area. The whole area was just wall diving with corals dropping off from zero metres all the way to 2000 metres into an oceanic trench! We were under strict instructions to secure things to ourselves because anything that fell into the abyss certainly would never be retrieved.

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Our first couple of attempts to find hammerheads drew a blank. We saw other animals instead, like pretty green turtles…

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… who were quite friendly and didn’t spook too easily when we got close.

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We had to go further out into the blue, away from the coral walls, to get a better chance of seeing hammerheads. Sometimes, all we saw was each other in the blue…

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… and nothing but bubbles rising. We normally had to go pretty deep as hammerheads are very shy and never get used to divers because as migratory animals they pass by Layang Layang only occasionally in the year.

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Sometimes we got so bored that we’d take pictures of anything in sight, such as this jellyfish relative that join up to form a rope-like organism floating in the water.

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Yet our persistence paid off. On three different occasions we saw hammerheads, and mostly in threes and fours. They were generally pretty deep and hard to capture on camera. This is the best picture I have, where you can clearly see its scalloped head. On another occasion, we saw a few outlines appearing out and down and as we descended lower, just about reaching the 40m limit, more and more shapes appeared in the blue gloom and the dim shapes with high pectoral fin and just barely discernible odd-shaped heads filled in the entire field of vision. It was truly an awe-inspiring vision seeing that school.

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There certainly were other pelagics that were much less shy, such as this dogtooth tuna that I certainly didn’t want to get any closer.

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Thankfully, it swam over my head and off to find smaller prey instead of taking revenge for my penchant for otoro sashimi!

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We saw quite a few reef sharks, including this white tip reef shark that swam away before I could get in any closer for a better picture, and an even shyer thresher shark that I saw for a few seconds before it swam off.

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The friendlier creatures were the manta rays, which we saw quite a few of.  One of them came in at quite shallow depths and sailed past majestically.

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Others were quite deep and some were in flocks and flitted like birds, disappearing before we could react to take photos. There’s something about how they fearlessly continue on their way, not bothering to hide themselves, that really impresses me about this beautiful creature. I don’t think I could ever get sick of seeing them.

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Other pelagics included many members of the trevally family, including schooling big eye trevally, like below.

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And them turning this way and that to form a tornado.

It was another of those amazing sights, and quite mind-boggling, to see these silvery masses of fish turning round and round, probably to trap prey within.

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Other big fish include this bumphead parrotfish that was curious enough to check us out instead of the other way round!

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I’m glad to report that its ferocious-looking beak is used for chomping down on coral and not on divers!

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And before long, our dive time was up and we had to head back to the surface.

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June in Thailand: Minor Temples in Ayutthaya

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The rest of Ayutthaya was a blur of temple after temple. Some of them were still in use as places of worship such as the one here undergoing renovation works while still having devotees throng the area. The Buddha images were completely wrapped in orange gauze to protect them from the reno works. 

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Bizarrely enough, some warranted even more protection, such as this shrink-wrapped Buddha image.

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Tom and I got off the island and took a boat trip to the outer temple ruins where there were some pretty impressive pagodas…

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… more ruins, this time of the same era of the ones on the island…

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… and more weather-beaten Buddha images.

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Tom and I were lucky to get this photo. The boat took us to the bank and we didn’t realise that the boat ride covered, well, only the boat road and not admission charges. Thankfully no one noticed us till we’d taken the picture. After being discovered, we had to take a circuitous route back to the boat to avoid paying the fees!

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The last stop was the former Royal Palace, a lovely building quite austere in contrast with other royal palaces I’d seen.

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Before going in to see the giant golden Buddha, we had to put our shoes in the lacks.

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Only after noticing the lacks were we able to view the golden Buddha in all its majesty.

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June in Thailand: Doing Good the Muddy Way

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My computer is finally fixed and I bring you yet another instalment of my Southeast Asian jaunt, now a good two years ago. This time, I spent a month in Thailand doing only land activities. I started in Bangkok and bunked in with Dee. The weekend I arrived, she had a company charity activity to which she very kindly invited me. It was a trip to the swampy river delta south of Bangkok to replant mangroves.

It started off with a briefing that went right over my head since it was in Thai, but there was a sign in English that basically said don’t stand up in the longtail boat or you’ll fall over.

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We headed down the very muddy distributory of the Chao Phraya with the offboard motor chugging away.

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Soon we pulled out of the hamlet of shacks lining the muddy stream and ended up in the mangrove area. The prop roots stuck out from the mud, forming a rather odd sort of undergrowth.

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We soon spied the monkeys emerging from the mangrove trees.

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They were all rather bedraggled from the mud and were lured out by the combs of bananas brought by the boatman. Odd, because I thought we were there to regrow the mangroves, not feed the monkeys living in them!

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The monkeys were quite aggressive, baring their teeth and fighting each other for the fruit. I was quite glad that we kept our distance. Sometimes the bananas fell into the edge of the stream, but this hardly deterred the monkeys at all. One of them simply washed off the excess mud and then gobbled up the delicacy.

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Soon we ran out of bananas and headed out into the delta proper. Here, the stream disappeared. It merged into the mud and we were doing nothing but float over it.

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It wasn’t until we saw the other boat in the distance that we realised exactly how much mud we were into. The propeller spattered mud high in the air as it travelled across the area.

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It wasn’t quite your usual seaside scenery, but was nonetheless rather impressive.

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The beautiful clouds and vast expanse of mud-sea was surprisingly lovely.

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We passed by some mussel farms. Now I know why bad mussels are full of muddy grit.

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There were also oyster farms, which I’m glad to report supplied mainly to oyster sauce factories and weren’t meant for direct consumption.

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Before long, we stopped at an attap house and retired there from the heat of the day.

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We hadn’t done any work yet but were treated to a very sumptuous local meal, featuring plenty of fish and yes, mussels. The food was as amazing as expected…

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… and we soon fell asleep in anticipation of our hard labour ahead.

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After the siesta, it was time to get muddy.

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Don’t ask me why everyone else got right into the mud and started flinging the stuff everywhere. It wasn’t that we really were required to get into the mud. What we did was to get shuttled out to the nursery of mangrove saplings out here and tie each sapling to a little bamboo support. Each person got about 20 bits of string and was shuttled out by one of the locals on a little wooden board.

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It was quite amusing that we came this far just to tie a few pieces of string round some saplings, but I guess we brought some money to the local economy and encouraged them to conserve their mangroves. The subsequent mudskiing (it’s exactly what it sounds like) was a lot more fun. Too bad that for obvious reasons I have no pictures to show for it.

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It was a lovely day out just hanging with Dee and her colleagues. While not a particular authentic experience, it was nice to see what Bangkokites got up to when they wanted to make a little difference to their part of the world.

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April in The Philippines: Downtime in El Nido

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Morning at El Nido was a slice of tranquility compared to the hectic rush and relative bustle of Puerto Princesa. It was nice to wake up in a room of my own and not have anything in particular to do nor anywhere in particularly to go to. Except of course for a morning walk by the beach…

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… and breakfast in the company of this funny fella. According to my guesthouse owner, he bought the monkey from a rice farmer who was about to kill it. Monkeys are apparently pests in this area, especially to the padi fields in the area. All the monkey did was mooch about doing its own thing until it realised that breakfast was coming, then it screamed and got so incredibly excited about its plastic box of water and rice that it almost strangled itself  in the process. When I approached to take pictures, it was so defensive and afraid that I’d steal its breakfast that it was almost funny.

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After breakfast I went into town and wandered around. Deciding that a boat trip was in order, I headed into Art Cafe to make arrangements. If I wasn’t already convinced I was relaxing on holiday, the view from the cafe would do the trick.

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And then off on a boat it was!

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