September in Bali: Menjangan Island

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I was in Permuteran to dive two very different locations. The first was Menjangan Island, also known as the island of the deer. To get there, we had to abide by a whole bunch of rules. I like multi-coloured signs like this and I especially liked the rather paternalistic exhortation to make sure all your diving equipment was attached securely to your body.

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While the diving at Menjangan Island wasn’t quite as spectacular as the other places I’d dived for this trip, it was very relaxing as there weren’t any challenging currents. The water was beautifully blue as usual and while there weren’t as many pelagics, there was still the odd gem or two. This yellow-spotted trevally was one of them.

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Here also was the second time in my diving career I saw a school of squid in broad daylight. The last time I saw a school of squid, it was my first dive. It took more than a hundred dives to see them again.

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Closer to the reef were plenty of longfin batfish. Here, they seemed almost excessively friendly, changing quickly from their day colours…

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… to night colours as they came in close, as they did when wanting to be cleaned.

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For some really odd reason, one of them swam right up to me, as if it was expecting me to do the cleaning honours for it.

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There were plenty of parrotfish around. I’m surprised how little photographed these fish are. I think it’s something to do with how shy they are and how they just don’t stay put in one place.

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There were others like this grouper that I can’t find in my fish ID book…

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… and more familiar ones like this Indian doublebar goatfish hovering over some coral.

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Some of the fish came in schools, like the two-spot snappers in their brownish grey raiment.

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Others were more solitary, like one of my all-time favourites, the juvenile harlequin sweetlips. I can’t get enough of its unique polka dot pattern.

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Some fish lived in crevices, like this yellowbarred jawfish emerging in search of prey.

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Others like this fire dartfish seemed to simply hover in one place posing for the camera.

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There were other fish that lived in crevices, and some of these you won’t want to get too close to. This fimbriated moray eel is one good example.

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Some were small and really difficult to get close to, like the goby. I can’t tell for sure whether this is a common ghostgoby.

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I think this is a large (!) whip goby but as usual, I can’t be sure.

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Other fish are much more easily identified, like these panda clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemonefish. They were so at home among the stinging anemones…

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… as was this anemone shrimp.

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Rather camera-shy was this hermit crab, which hid its face swiftly under its shell as the camera clicked.

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And then the ones that didn’t seem shy at all – the nudibranchs. I saw a white flabellina that seemed to mimic the coral it was on.

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There were others that were even more unidentifiable, like this strange blue one with an orange and white strip outlined by deep blue running down the middle.

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I tried to take some nudibranch portraits, some not quite coming out as I’d like as the flash refused to fire.

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And others came out much better, with a pensive, slightly lonesome feel that seems quite at odds with the experience of being a nudibranch, perhaps.

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Layang Layang: First Approach

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We flew to Layang Layang via Kota Kinabalu by chartered plane. It was a cute little propeller plane and in much better condition than the ones I flew in The Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless, we still had to go a bit snap-happy!

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We could see the pilots very clearly through the open cabin and were very amused watching them go through their pre-flight checks and put on their own seat belts.

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We flew over the beautiful outlying islands off KK…

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… flying low enough to see our own shadow in the pretty turquoise waters below.

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It was then followed by nothing but blue water for a while, until the pilots announced that we’d reached Layang Layang and that they would bank the plane to let us have a good view of the atoll island. It was great flying a chartered plane! Not only were they patient enough to wait for us to finish the touristy photo-taking before takeoff, they also gave us a good few turns of the island to take pictures to our hearts content.

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You can just about see the shape of the atoll in this picture, together with the lagoon formed in the middle.

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The resort is on this thick bit of the atoll that has definitely been reclaimed. There’s the air strip, the resort and the Malaysian air base and nothing else.

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The rest of the atoll isn’t really much of an island, with quite a lot of it underwater most times of the day.

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It was a lovely place smack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but sea and sky stretching out as far as the eye could see.

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It was especially beautiful at sunset with wide panaromas of coloured sky throwing their colours onto white clouds…

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… as well as casuarinas and hardy tropical pines silhouetted beautifully against the setting sun.

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We went on sunset walks before dinner when we weren’t completely knackered from the diving to take in as much as we could.

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Inside the very charming resort, we found different sea creatures in the room. Some days we had angelfish, other days a turtle, and on one special day, we had a pair of manta rays come visit!

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And on the last day of diving, a hammerhead came to visit us. It was so sweet of the resort staff to put in special touches like these to make our day even better.

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More to come soon on the diving!

Diving the Similans: The Black Manta

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It’s a pity, my computer still isn’t fixed so the posts from previous trips are still on hold. At least I still go places occasionally now, so here’s a series of my recent trip to Similan Islands in Thailand.

Get ready for a whole load of blue! What else but diving is there to do when you’re on a boat in the middle of the sea? DC and I liked the Black Manta when we were last at Seven Skies. In fact he was so impressed that practically the next week he’d looked up all the available trips and before I knew it we were booked six months ahead.

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We had days with lovely weather, although some evening showers and the edge of a storm caught us. Some of the dives didn’t have the greatest visibility because of bad weather the day before, but it was still great to get away and be uncontactable for a while.

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It’s a lovely boat from all angles isn’t it? I like how spacious it is. All the cabins have aircon and most are ensuite.  They have a water maker on board so there’s no need to ration water and you can shower as many times a day you like and even rinse your gear with fresh water every day! The food is great (Thai crew) and it’s got a big diving deck so it isn’t at all congested before or after a dive.

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And what did we see below the water? More next post!

April in The Philippines: Malapascua

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Malapascua is a beautiful little island north of Cebu. I met up with Omar at Cebu city’s northern bus terminal for the 4 hour bus ride up. Following that was a short 15 minute boat road across and then this idyllic sight met us.

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We spent a good few days diving with Sea Explorers, a very good scuba outfit that took really good care of us. The board below shows Malapascua (right below the tresher shark) and the types of wildlife you can see there. It’s most famous of course for the thresher shark, but there’s lots of other stuff to see there too, like mandarinfish (mating ones at that!), blue ring octopi (which I didn’t spot), lots of other types of sharks and unusual stuff like hairy frogfish and harlequin shrimp.

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It was pretty fun except for the early morning dives, the earliest of which requiring us to be awake at 4.30am. These were to catch the thresher sharks as they came out early to the cleaning stations when the water was cooler. Here’s one of me and the dive guides at sunrise. I look uncharacteristically cheerful in this picture.

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So did we see any threshers? Yup, just one for a couple of seconds out of maybe four hours underwater for the dives we were down there. It was a pity but the rest of the diving made up for it. Omar’s blogged about the trip here and I think he’s done a better (and far faster) job of it.

April in The Philippines: My First Propeller Plane Ride

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My time in Puerto Princesa very quickly came to an end. The main problem was finding accommodation. It was impossible to find an empty bed at the time as there was a regional sports meet in addition in the city in addition to the bible dedication.  After the dedication was over, I felt that I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. After coming back from the morning at Honda Bay, I knew I had to bring my plans forward and head out of Puerto Princesa, and fast.  The next leg of the trip involved heading north to Coron to dive the famous WWII wrecks. I thought I’d splurge on a 1 hour plane ride instead of taking a bumpy and unpredictable ride that could take 24 hours via various public buses and ferries. The only problem was that the flight was leaving in two hours and I still hadn’t a ticket.

Michael took me on what was a mini version of The Amazing Race and sped me round town first looking for the travel agent and then finding that they were out on their lunch break, straight to the airport. I managed to get past airport security without a plane ticket by waving my Singapore passport at the nice guard at the door. To cut the long story short, I managed to get on the plane, but not all the way to Coron. Instead I was to stop at El Nido even though the plane was heading there and had empty seats. Why? Because there was only sufficient fuel to carry 36 kg more of payload! Dismayed that I wasn’t an anorexic teenager, I resigned myself to stopping in El Nido first. At least I made it on the plane.

When I saw the plane on the tarmac I realised why they had to be so precise in their fuel measurements. It was the smallest plane I’d ever been on!

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Of course I had to take a picture with it!

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This baby could take a grand total of 11 passengers and had no aircrew. To my great surprise, I was flying with the mayors (or some sort of official-type) of Coron and El Nido. They were very friendly and of course astonished that I would travel on my own like this.

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I wasn’t too impressed by the level of safety for the pilots here. I was seated right behind one of the pilots and throughout the flight I enjoyed the lovely view of half of the back of his head.

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This flight made me realise the sheer delight of flying. Forget jumbo liners, the scenery from lower flying propeller planes is what you want. First, you get the clouds…

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… then as the clouds clear, you see the islands. Darkest green against the deepening blue, they faded out into further distant islands fringed by pale yellow sand beaches.

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It was utterly captivating just to watch the play of colours across the landscape. For once, I put away my books and note-taking, simply sitting back to take it all in.

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It looked like one of those pictures that appear only on travel brochures.

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It was only too soon that the journey ended at the smallest airport I’ve set eyes on. More of that later, but not without first taking a picture of the cockpit…

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… and charming one of the pilots into a photo with me!

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August in China: An Odd Collection of Bronze Statues

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Shamian Island was leased to foreigners as they were not allowed into the city gates. The British and French shared this tiny strip of land and it’s amazing how they managed not to mix at all, staying in their separate buildings and places of worship. Today’s Shamian Island is something of a quiet escape from the frenetic and rather in-your-face Guangzhou city proper. The shady trees and quiet roads seemed to transport me out of China for a while.

There’s nothing much here except the quiet and a collection of amusing bronze sculptures that do not quite qualify as art. Here’s one of a gaggle of schoolchildren following behind their music teacher. Most of the kids are hanging on and following just fine. The last kid is the problem one. He can’t or won’t follow and is bawling at the back for attention, distracting the last boy in the chain. I wonder what this sculpture is saying. The first of the good girls in front tilts her face up adoringly at the teacher while the boys behind are acting out. Interesting description of gender roles in contemporary Chinese society.

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I quite liked this avid photographer. I felt a delicious sense of contrast taking a picture of this photographer in action.

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Of course I liked him even better from this angle. So confrontational, so bold: The real life person as mirror to the sculpture.

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And last of all was this statue on the Guangzhou-proper side. It wasn’t meant to be whimsical at all. It was a symbol of the strength of communism, represented by the powerful worker and his hammer in action. Too bad it was so ugly and too bad power isn’t really in the hands of the workers anymore.

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A Faux-Chichi Night of Whisky

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There was cheese — a pecorino and a Manchego. Check. There were olives — a mix of marinated black and green ones, of which some were the Kalamata variety. Check. There was whisky — a Dalmore 15, a Talisker 10 years and a Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Check. There was even a Partagas cigar. We were all set for a chichi tasting session.

In contrast, we weren’t particularly chi ourselves. And a good thing for we had loads of fun chatting about all sorts of, um, odds and ends. Evidence is here.

This was my first time doing a serious whisky tasting complete with notes. First was the Dalmore 15, (40%) a Highland single malt. The deer stag logo was quite scary. Would probably give you a fright if you lift your drunken head off the table and suddenly its bloodshot eyes staring accusingly at you.

The whisky itself was sweet and smooth. After the sharp blast of alcohol passed, I detected notes of vanilla and caramel but none of the “aromatic cloves, cinnamon and ginger, Seville oranges, lemons and limes” of the accompanying literature. Neither did I get any clues from tasting it that it had been aged in “100% sherry casks — Matusalem, apostoles, amoroso.” Employing my great powers of imagination, I thought there was a hint of orange on first whiff but nothing more. It went well with the creamy pecorino. Otherwise, it seemed rather closed, like a wine awaiting maturity. I can’t figure this one out. Further educational sessions are clearly in order.

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Next came the Talisker 10 years (45.8%), an Island Single Malt. It comes from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. It had a very complex nose. Despite the lower alcohol content compared to the Laphroaig, it need a lot more water for it to open up. There was something rather elusive about this whisky, I can’t quite find the words to describe it. The nose is a bit salty, somewhat reminiscent of the sea. After the initial alcoholic blast on the tongue, it takes off with lots of vanilla and malt, then the smoke asserts itself, finally leaving the peat to linger on the tongue. Very pleasing, especially with the Manchego. I think the salt crystals in the cheese emphasised the salt in the whisky.

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Last and best was the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (48%), an Islay single malt. According to Wikipedia, the Quarter Cask is made to taste like the whisky made 100 years ago. The nose wasn’t as complex as the Talisker but there was something restrained and more refined about it. In the mouth, it started off with caramel and vanilla. Before long, the smoke emerged and left a long peaty finish. I enjoyed that greatly.

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It was a close fight, but the Laphroaig won this tasting session. We truly did save the best for last. (More because the owner turned up later.) I’m looking forward to more tasting sessions ahead.

The Hike That Became a Food Trail

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I was in Hong Kong at the end of November and having eaten far too much good food, I insisted that Tortoise take me to the islands for a hike. To lose weight. And feel healthy.

We went to Lamma Island where there’s a trail between two ferry points, a good three hours walk. It was the season for lovely weather and this view of the old-fashioned fishing town greeted us on arrival.

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It reminded me of 1980s scenes and also vaguely of cheesy HK flicks starring Samo Hung and gang. My mum loved watching those.

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I knew that my calorie-burning quest was doomed the moment my friend started rhapsodising on the nibbles she had on her last visit. My interest piqued, I immediately perked up when she mentioned satay of some sort. Up the alley just past the sea-front restaurants, the stall had chicken parts and cuttlefish on sticks. No close-up pictures because I was too busy devouring the spicy morsel. Even though HKers generally aren’t very good with chilli, this one was pretty darn hot and my mouth was on fire.

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Tortoise promised succour in the form of taufa (tofu pudding) a bit further down the path. I think I kept whining “are we there yet?” and “can we eat at this stall instead?” as my tongue kept burning. Not long later, we saw this crowd under the tarp. It’s all so charmingly makeshift even the poster advertising its numerous media appearances looks like a primary school project.

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Tortoise and I happily sat down to our taufa and wolfed down the silken custard. I contemplated having seconds but desisted because Tortoise reminded me that there was really good pigeon down the road.

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True enough, there were plenty of signs on the way beckoning us off the straight and narrow. The hike was not to be.

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After turning off the main path, the sign became more explicit. Without a doubt, we were getting warm.

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Pigeon… Preciouuusssssssssssssss…

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After several false turns,  including one where we found ourselves in someone’s backyard and another where we were followed by someone’s overprotective dog, we finally found the place and got our roast pigeon. It was tender, flavourful and had the crispest skin ever. I would have cried tears of joy if I wasn’t wolfing down my half of the bird. Even though it was 2.30 pm, there were loads of people still coming in. One group of expats ordered a huge mound of at least six pigeons for three people!

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We rounded off the afternoon tea session with wak dan ha yun (prawns in lightly scrambled eggs) and ha cheong kai lan (Chinese kale in fermented prawn paste, a specialty of the fishing village). Even though we were quite full from our itinerant snacking, the food was to die for.  My inner Chinawoman would have been delighted to have some rice with the dishes if it were lunch, but we quite craftily saved on calories by skipping it.

We made it to the beach in just under two hours, rather than the 20 minutes we anticipated. Considering the beautiful beaches I’d been to in the past year, this one hardly counted. Some stretches of East Coast Beach in Singapore might possibly be nicer, but it was lovely to (finally) get here just before the sun started setting. Besides, the blue sky, greenery and boats out in the distance formed a pretty setting.

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We mucked about for a short while taking photos and complaining how full we were and then decided that it was too late to attempt making for the other ferry terminal.  You see, we had to meet another friend in HK for, um, tea.

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We turned back quickly, not because there wasn’t time to catch the ferry, but to get even more food. On the way back we took away a piece of tofu cheesecake and some local sweets. The glutinous rice-based sweets weren’t great, but we nibbled on some anyway. On (literally) the other hand, the tofu cheesecake was really good! Light, yet full of cheese flavour. Of course we devoured that on the ferry, and it was all gone by the time we reached HK. We then hotfooted it to Central to meet our friend for virtuous smoothies at Mix, one of those places so peppy it almost gives you a headache.

A bad day for calorie expenditure but another great day for good food.