A Quick Trip to Redang: Life Goes On in the Reef

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We didn’t have great visibility for most dives and the colours weren’t very good at all. Low visibility tends to tinge everything green. Still, we managed to see some interesting creatures, like this green turtle poking around in the coral.

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One morning, we were treated to a  herd of bumphead parrotfish on their morning breakfast foray. This big guy came right up to us to check if we were chompable enough. He soon realised that we weren’t yummy coral and joined the rest of his herd.

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And off they sailed, back into the murky water in search of their breakfast.

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One thing that astounded me this trip was the first time I saw pomfret underwater, and in large schools no less.

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We were minding our own business doing the usual reef tour and suddenly we came up to an alcove of sorts and found them schooling in the thousands. It was an incredible sight. I must confess that I was trying to figure out whether they were the white or silver pomfret and whether we could catch any for dinner.

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We stayed there for ages simply gawking at the sight of so many fish in the same area, marvelling that there was enough oxygen in the water to keep them going.

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My fish ID book calls them diamondfish, and the tend to school in shallow waters close to silty areas. What a bonus for diving in a low visibility period.

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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!

Smokey’s

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We saw Smokey’s one of those days wandering in the Joo Chiat area and it was a nice coincidence when Fee suggested going there for dinner. As it name hints, it specialises in smoked barbecued items. For starters, we had jalapeno poppers, those breaded and deep fried mild green chillis stuffed with sin. Oh my the cream cheese oozing out really worked, gimme more!

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Fee insisted on ordering a serving of fish and chips despite my misgivings that this was a smokehouse specialising in ribs for crying out loud! Boy was I mistaken, these are possibly the most unique fish and chips ever. They’d somehow been marinated in smoke, then battered and deep fried till almost ethereally crisp. The fish was smooth and tender, almost nostalgic in its old school fish finger-like consistency. It was the combination of smoky marinade and really great fish and chips that won me over. In fact, this to me was the best dish of the night. The fries were also good, crisp outside and fluffy inside, though they didn’t hold up once they got cold. The coleslaw was very decent, with both white and purple cabbage. I liked that the veg tasted fresh and the crunchy stuff wasn’t overwhelmed by onion. Thumbs up!

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The star of the show was meant to be the ribs. DC wanted the St Louis ribs, so a full rack it had to be.  I must admit they were well marinated and quite nice. Too bad they were rather dry, as it they’d been left on a low barbecue for too long. No doubt there was a disclaimer in the menu that the ribs here weren’t pre-cooked and therefore wouldn’t fall off the bone in tenderness. But these fellas were dry and hardly a shot from tenderness! It was a disappointment to me, especially after the fish and chips stole the show.

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Be odd. Come here for the fish and chips. Oh yes, the portions are big too. A full rack of ribs, a portion of fish and chips and the jalapeno poppers stuffed up two big eaters and two medium eaters big time.

Smokey’s
73 Joo Chiat Pl
Tel: 6345 6914

Ootoya

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Ootaya has been in Singapore for a while and they just opened a branch in Suntec City. The mains were fresh and cooked fairly healthily, tasting like home-cooked fare. Mine was a mixed bag as the pork balls with tendon just tasted a bit gristly, though still a notch above the mystery-meat balls served at economy rice stalls. I loved the onsen egg, essentially a chilled soft boiled egg, but I have a soft spot for those and this was cooked just right till the whites turned, uh, white and the yolk hadn’t yet set. Shinta and CH both enjoyed their mains and I especially liked this grilled pork dish that we shared. The pork had a layer of fat on it that charred slightly and reminded me of the reason why pork is just So Good.

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CH went for the Kyoto Uji matcha green tea mousse that came with milk ice cream, mochi and red beans. The green tea mousse was very intense and quite excellent as the bitterness of the tea comes through robustly. Much better than most insipid green tea concoctions.

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Shinta and I shared the castella parfait, a trifle made up of cake cubes, ice cream and plenty of cream. Oh I think there was jam or some kind of fruit sauce in it, but who cares? Cake cubes soaked in melted ice cream and accompanied by good quality whipped cream make my day any day.

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Ootoya
3 Temasek Boulevard
#B1-057 Suntec City Mall
Tel: 6837 3718

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.

Layang Layang: Reef Life and Macro

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Don’t think that Layang Layang is only for the pelagics. There’s plenty of macro to be found here, it’s only that sometimes the currents and the wall can be a bit challenging for finding those critters and also getting the perfect shot of that tiny little creature. There was a lot of reef life here, such as this rather surprised looking tomato grouper.

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I was also quite pleased to see one of my favourites, a juvenile black snapper with its characteristic black and white stripes and dots.

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Then there were the fish that insisting on posing for a picture, like this slightly constipated looking pennant bannerfish.

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There were also bottom dwellers like blue-spotted stingrays.

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They always seem to stare up so malevolently at us.

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There were also other fairly amusing fish, like this doublebar goatfish. They like to rest on coral and pretend that they are not there, innocently spacing out, as if if they can’t see us we can’t see them!

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Others showed off their colours beautifully against the coral, like these panda butterflyfish and peacock grouper.

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DC is obsessed with the pufferfish family, just like I’m obsessed with hawkfish. His favourite shot of the whole trip is this seal-faced puffer that he cornered in a coral niche. It’s cute, isn’t it?

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Not so cute is this giant frogfish that has its mouth open in wait for unsuspecting prey. In a split second, it’ll pounce and the prey will be in its belly.

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Far less grotesque were pretty nudibranchs slowly making their way across the coral gardens.

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They were surprisingly hard to spot among the colourful backdrop of coral, but once found, a joy to photograph.

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Far harder to photograph were the pink anemonefish, who were so skittish, this is probably the only decent one I got amongst the tens of shots I took.

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Going down to the seriously macro-level, I found some large whip gobies on a sea fan and thankfully this one wasn’t as shy as my next subject.

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The Denise pygmy seahorses were such a pain to photograph. My camera had great difficulty focussing on the tiny creatures smaller than my fingernail. This one is pregnant and had the tendency to swim to the underside of the sea fan, making it impossible to catch on camera.

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DC got this picture that’s far superior to mine, it’s so beautiful how he managed to capture the eye and its almost serene expression.

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We had some good luck on sandy patches at the house reef at night. There was a flamboyantly coloured Spanish dancer.

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There was also this strange blob of a sea slug oozing its way along.

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Much prettier was this variation of a reeftop pipefish that wiggled its pretty pink tail and didn’t seem to mind the many flashes from our cameras.

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Then there was the bizarrely shaped longhorn cowfish that seemed to have difficulty navigating its way out of this patch of seagrass.

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Back on the coral reef, there were other oddities like this leaf scorpionfish with its glassy white eye staring out at us while swaying back and forth in the water pretending to be a leaf.

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In the anemone were some porcelain crabs, which were quite shy. This one kept scuttling towards the underside of the anemone and it was really hard to keep up with it before it disappeared from sight.

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A rare sight in the coral was this peacock flounder. Normally associated with muck diving, I was thrilled to see this one swim along and then try to rather unsuccessfully camouflage itself on some maze coral. Its googly eyes and patchy colouration gave it away immediately!

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There were also quite a few shrimp and other crustaceans hiding out in crevices. Here’s DC trying to get a good snap of some shrimp.

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They were some kind of orange cleaner shrimp that I have yet to identify, very pretty though!

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Other cleaner shrimp like these commensal shrimp also hung around the same area. Both kinds would come out onto my hand and pick away at dead skin. I suppose it makes good eating for them. And round goes the circle of life!

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There were also these spiny rock lobsters in another hole. I was so tempted to pull them out by their feelers but of course resisted. It’s a pity they were so shy though!

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Back on the surface of the coral reef, we were happy to see the bigger fish thriving. There were plenty of sweetlips about, including these adult harlequin sweetlips that seemed to love giving a mirror mirage by going in pairs above and below the coral.

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Then there was this emperor angelfish that came up to pose for a picture on my last dive. Such an obliging creature!

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And last of the fish, there was this white mouth moray looking out for prey.

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Unfortunately, as this video shows, it’s a bit of FAIL because it got slapped in the face by a passing fish. So much for being a lean, mean predator.

The nicest finale to our dive was getting up close to this turtle. As we approached, the green turtle was facing us and knew full well of our approach. Somehow it didn’t swim away.

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DC got in close enough for a really macro shot of it.

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But then we noticed something odd about the way it was rocking back and forth.

We realised that it was stuck in the coral! For the sake of this turtle, I broke one of the laws of diving – don’t touch any creature – and tugged it gently out. It got free and immediately coasted up towards the surface for a good breath of fresh air.

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It was such a lovely feeling to end our successful series of dives by helping out a stranded turtle.

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:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

June in Thailand: Trekking in Karen Country

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After the first village, we headed into Karen country proper, passing through jungle tracks well-known by the locals. Here Jare and Kiat pointed out a tree that was used as a lookout to survey the surrounding environment. Having checked in with the village headman and knowing the local news of the area, there was no need to climb the tree to check things out. Anyway, we were already well forewarned that the weather for the area was set to be very wet and to be prepared for our parade to be rained upon.

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Already, the clouds were starting to roll into the valley. We walked up and down the green, green slopes, some of which were terraced to grow rice.

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Trekking involved tramping up dry slopes in the secondary forest before it started raining and when it started raining, trying not to slide back down the same, now muddy, slopes. After a hairy moment where Kiat had to push and prop me up to stop me from sliding down a good few metres,  Jare cut each of us a bamboo walking stick. By now the skies started to intermittently open on us and there were only a few moments where it was lovely enough to take photos.

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We had to climb over a few hills to get to the next village to spend the night and the view from the top down into the valleys were nothing short of beautiful. One highlight of the trek was the view: the fabulous panorama of the valley below, complete with the sight of two rivers merging into the Salawin River, clouds blowing past us as we trudged on.

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There were plenty of buffalo about. I’m still not sure whether they were wild or loosely belonged to a particular village.

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Downslopes were harder, especially in the mud when it started raining again. The good thing is that we had plastic ponchos that stopped our bums from getting too dirty. The bad thing was that the poncho also made it more slippery when we fell . One funny moment came when Tom slipped and fell on his bum, sliding forward so fast that he managed to kick me off my feet too, resulting in two people whizzing downhill. Jare and Kiat were very amused by my shriek of surprise and subsequent whingeing. At least it got us down the hill slightly faster.

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Occasionally, we halted for a break and sometimes there were little rest huts along the way. These were built for villagers to take a break from the day’s labour in the fields.

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We were very thankful to chance across one when the rain got especially heavy, and we huddled damply and very humidly there till the rain eased off.

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Still, being out in nature had its charm, especially when the clouds parted slightly…

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… and when they revealed the incredibly verdant hill range below.

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Despite the rough going and difficult terrain, we made it up there in one piece and were overjoyed to cover the last stretch that stood between us and bed.

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Not Bad Not-Chocolate at Laurent Bernard’s

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By some freak coincidence, DC and I were both at business meetings in the Portsdown area on a weekday. It was just too bad that our favourite place in the area was closed, so we plumped for Laurent Bernard Chocolatier instead. I wasn’t expecting a great deal, mainly because I’d been disappointed at its Robertson Quay branch before (rude service, not particularly great food). This place surprised me.

I went for a healthy niçoise salad, which turned out more substantial than I expected as it came with a well-toasted piece of rustic farm bread. It went beautifully with the rare seared tuna chunks and the generous portion of salad. DC found the tuna a bit fishy but I liked it that way. It’s probably the best version of niçoise I’ve had as it doesn’t have the stuff I don’t fancy (boring boiled potato and squeaky boiled string beans) and has lots of green leaves and plenty of tuna.

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DC went for the goat cheese sandwich, which turned out very similar in style to my salad! There was the same slice of toast and a fairly substantial heap of salad greens, a bit less than the stuff for my salad. The main difference was of course the grilled goat cheese, which was of course fantastically oozy and runny under a crisped up crust. He loved it.

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Dessert was where we misstepped.  I’m surprised that the dessert here didn’t fare too well. We ordered the cherry soufflé to share and had high hopes seeing as they had an extensive soufflé section in the menu. I really like Blackforest-style sour cherries and it’s hard to find a place that does it well. Our soufflé was obviously fresh from the oven as it started to quite rapidly lose height once it landed on the table.  The dessert itself wasn’t too bad, although it was a tad weepy. I think the chef overwhipped the egg whites and undercooked it slightly. Still, it was light and airy with a tender, slightly crackly top. The raspberry sauce accompaniment was rather quotidien and didn’t do very much to help the soufflé along. I liked the cherries, although there was some kind of liqueur or flavour added that gave it the typical cherry cough syrup flavour when I had more than a mouthful of it. I suppose it would suffice if one were truly craving cherry, but not otherwise.

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Laurent Bernard Chocolatier
5B Portsdown Road #01-02
Telephone: 6475 9410