A Quick Trip to Redang: Night Dive

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Our night dive was where I finally figured out how my strobe and camera worked together and I very merrily went round taking a tonne of photos. Sadly, not a great deal of them turned out well as I didn’t have the chance to linger. We had a big group with us and it was tough to stay in one spot undisturbed by other divers for a while. We revisited the black-finned snake eel from the last time, but didn’t manage to get in a better shot.

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There was a pretty little juvenile raggy scorpionfish, not quite so well camouflaged amongst the coral. I spotted it easily from its eyes – they look so much like Starlight mint sweets.

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Next up were the crustaceans that tend to only come out at night. Can you spot the transparent shrimp here?

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Then there was this uncooperative coral crab saying “look Ma, no hands!” It refused to come out and show itself topside up.

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And finally, after much frustrated snapping, I have a picture of a very shy saron shrimp. Isn’t it beautiful?

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For a dive trip to a place full of coral bleaching, and with general low visibility, this trip to Redang was pretty fruitful!

Guest Post: DC Dives Redang – Night Dive

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The PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course comprises several specialty dives, but the main reason why people take it is to dive deeper than 18 metres (up to 40 metres for a qualified advanced diver) and to do night dives. I love night dives. Once you get past the spookiness of utter blackness surrounding the nimbus of your torch, you get to enjoy a whole multitude of sealife that you can’t ordinarily see during the daytime, as well as a whole set of different behavioural patterns. Because of the pitch-black nature of the surroundings, camera flashes also fire at maximum efficacy, which makes for very beautiful photos. For my first night dive, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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See how the flash brings out the beautiful purple highlights of the anemone? Another example of the vibrant purple can be seen in this picture of a flibonella.

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WS also uncovered a cute false clownfish that was outside its protective anemone home.

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The poor little critter soon realised that it was attracting unwanted attention, and ducked into its home for cover…

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… until it was completely covered by the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

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Nighttime also brings out the ambush predators, such as this spiny scorpionfish. The sharp spines on its back contain a poisonous toxin that can really hurt.

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We also saw this beautiful, and aptly-named twinspot lionfish.

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Overall, this was a great introduction to night diving.

June in Thailand: Chiang Mai Street Scenes

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After getting the obligatory temple sightseeing out of the way, I felt freer to poke around and enjoy the little sights and sounds that make a city special. Here was an imaginatively vandalised street sign that to me seemed to add to the sign rather than turn it into a nuisance.

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The monkey head was cute, but I also liked how the authorities didn’t do anything to clean up the sign, leaving pop culture to do its thang here.

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Then there were the curiously well-meaning signs like the “Dangerous Zone” one below. There really wasn’t much to that area except that a pipe had probably been recently cemented over, creating probably the tiniest bump ever on the road. Exactly why it was a dangerous zone, I’d never know.

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Now more interesting was the famous night market down one of the main streets of Chiang Mai. There was of course a huge variety of items on sale, but the most exciting thing for me were the stall selling deep fried creepy crawlies.

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There was an incredible selection of the stuff from bamboo worms to crickets to scorpions, sold either loose by weight or in pre-packed portions.

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Erico was completely game for the variety fun pack that had crickets, bamboo worms and I can’t quite remember what other insects inside. They were all deep fried to a crisp and tasted of not much else aside from oil, really. Still, I couldn’t handle it and only barely managed to swallow the crunchy bits of bamboo worm. There wasn’t much to it except that bits of the carapace got stuck in my throat. Erico quite happily ate the rest and wasn’t too impressed by the taste of the frying oil. Seems like none of the insects tasted of anything much at all!

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Fear factor over, on other days we had the famous Chiang Mai noodles, khao soi, which were completely different from the Lao version of the same name. It was a sort of chicken curry with yellow noodles, except that the broth was more thin soup than thick curry, and was served with herbs, salted preserved vegetables (yum!) and topped with deep fried crispy shredded wanton skin.

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Chiang Mai is also home to the world-renown mango sticky rice. Here, it was both cheap and very, very good. No matter where you go in Thailand and especially Chiang ,Mai the rice is always perfectly steamed till just past al dente and the mango always sweet and perfumey.

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March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.

August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

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I flew from Xian in the central north to Xiamen at the southern coast. The weather immediately became much more humid like at home. Even the people on the streets looked a lot more like Chinese Singaporeans, not surprising seeing as a majority of Chinese Singaporeans are from the Fujian area.

My first stop was at Gulangyu, an islet famous for its pretty colonial architecture. I crossed over in the evening by ferry. Not sure why, but it was free in the evenings. A local guy told me not to bother paying so I paid by admiring the view.

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The dusk view was rather pretty as there was a nice contrast between the colonial houses on Gulangyu…

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… and the bright neon lights of the office buildings opposite in Xiamen itself.

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I had a bit of a problem getting a bed initially as the most popular place on the island was fully booked. There was a bit of a red herring moment when a “friendly local” showed me a dingy room and wanted to charge way over my budget for it. Thankfully I found another less popular but still clean and decent place that fit my budget nicely. Lesson learned: always google accommodation beforehand and get the phone number of the place, it’s not always easy to find a place from its address alone. The locals aren’t always the most informative and building numbers can be jumbled.

The next morning I had a little wander around the island. There was lots of pretty though not particularly memorable architecture…

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… and a glimpse of the most famous site on the island.

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Domestic tourists like to trek up to the top of the rock where on a clear day one can see Taiwan, or more accurately, the Jinmen Islands. It had been especially popular in the past when no one at all from the mainland could set foot on Taiwan. Having lived in Taipei for two years, of course I didn’t want to crowd with the rest of the people and was content to watch from afar.

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After a little sojourn around the islet, I headed for the famous Gulangyu fishballs stuffed with minced pork. It was a little anti-climactic though, the fishball wasn’t bouncy and the meat not very flavourful. I much preferred the Singaporean version. I think us immigrants did far better at improving on the recipe. Oh well.

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August in China: Cormorant Fishing

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In Yangshuo, there’s nothing much to do after dark except to go cormorant fishing. We started off at the boat landing and got into a rickety wooden boat. Thankfully there was shelter as it soon started to rain. It was far too dark to take decent photos. (At that point my point and shoot camera was one of the crappier models.)

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Our cormorant fisherman came up on his bamboo raft, feathery helpers in tow. The poor fellow had to put on waterproofs because of the drizzle. He unhooked each of his five cormorants from its perch on the raft and tossed them into the water. They went racing underwater and all bets were off for which side of the boat a bird would next pop up from.

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Upon surfacing, a bird would often have a fish or two in its mouth. It would attempt to swallow them whole but a ring around its neck prevented the fish from sliding down. This was when the fishermen would skilfully hook the bird by the foot, grab it and turn it upside down to empty the cormorant of fish. After that, the bird was tossed back into the water to continue its quest. It was a rather odd sight!

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When the show was over, the fisherman caught each bird and put them back in place on the raft. They were so well-trained that they just stood there and made no attempt to go back in the water. All this one did was to show off by flapping its wings open. I suppose they need to dry out somehow!

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Here’s the rather meagre catch of the evening. I suppose they’ll go to the cormorants for their supper! Nobody fishes for the fish here, it’s all for the tourist dollar. Just as well, so the cormorants won’t go too hungry. I asked the fisherman whether it took a lot of skill to fish this way. It was quite funny the way he pooh-poohed the idea, saying that anyone could learn very easily. I’d probably fall off the raft trying to hook a cormorant!

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At the end, we posed for pictures with the nicest cormorant. The fisherman said that this was his best bird and that it was very guai (literally: well-behaved) and that it didn’t bite or steal things. Still, it was a bit intimidating to have a big bird flap its wings open on my shoulder!

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