September in Komodo: The Star Attraction

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Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

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But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

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We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

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Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

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I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

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Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

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Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

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And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

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Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

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This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

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… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

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As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

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And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

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… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

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But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

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It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

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We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

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… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

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When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

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But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

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… just like in this video.

Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


Single Malt Appreciation Club: Highlanders and a New Islay

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It was yet another overdue meeting of the newly renamed Single Malt Appreciation Club. In addition to our mainstays of Lagavulin 16 and Laphroaig Quarter Cask, we had a Highland Park12, a Macallan Whisky Maker’s Edition and a Kilchoman. Tricia brought the Highland Park from a sojourn to Batam and the Kilchoman from whisky trip to Scotland. Hypodermically and Jam somehow found the Macallan sitting at home.

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It was up to Tricia, the resident whisky expert to line them up for tasting. Her usual impeccable taste was spot-on! The Highland Park first then the other Highland Macallan, followed by the Islay with the youngest Kilchoman first, then the restrained and elegant Lagavulin and last the brash, in-your-face Laphroaig.

I must admit upfront my bias against Highland malts. I’m not so keen on sweet and spicy without the peaty as I find it quite flat and not a great deal different from other liquors. What makes whisky special for me is the complexity that peat brings into the picture. With that, I dismissed the Highland Park 12 (40%) quickly by taking a quick whiff and sip of Tricia’s dram. As expected, it was nothing but sweet honey and fairly one-dimensional.

The Macallan (42.8%), as a Speysider, fared a bit better. I think I’ll enjoy drinking it on off nights where somehow an Islay would be too much work for me. The honey was rounded with spice and orange peel, quite the thing to put in a fruit cake and then enjoy with said cake. The tasting notes mentioned toffee but I didn’t get any, probably because I was still recovering from a bout of flu. Definitely one to try again.

The Kilchoman (pronounced “kil-ho-man”) Spring 2010 Release (46%) was a strange hybrid of honey and peaty smoke. There was something rough and unfinished about it,  I guess that indicates that it would benefit greatly from more ageing. Nonetheless, it was full of promise and I’m definitely looking forward to a later release. Just too bad it isn’t available in Singapore yet.

A Healthy Picnic Lunch

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DC and I went to check out St John’s Island over the weekend. We hopped over from Marina South Pier by ferry. The 45 minutes ferry ride was comfortable and painless compared to the earlier hassle of finding parking at the ferry terminal. It was one of those incredibly hot yet lovely days and it showed off the island beautifully.

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The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy white and the thick growth of trees a deep lively green.

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There wasn’t a great deal to the island, only a research centre for marine studies and a holiday camp. The rest of the island that was accessible to visitors was pretty much a little park, probably equivalent to a zone or two of East Coast beach.

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Still, it was a lovely walk and surprisingly not quite as hot as we expected as most of the way was pretty shady especially a bit further from the beach. It was a lovely little bit of Singapore that was a nicely contradictory combination of well-kept park and forgotten bucolism.

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There were some mangroves along the coast standing upright in the water that was so clean it was almost clear. Only the sand clouded it up slightly.

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We spent a while peering at the little fish darting amongst the stilt roots of the mangroves.

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While there obviously weren’t any roses here, coming here was a good opportunity to stop and smell and observe. And of course test out the macro feature of my new camera!

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There were also cats on the island. Here’s a pretty one watching out warily both for us…

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… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

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Then we adjourned to a shady park bench for a very refreshing Thai-inspired salad redolent of mint and lemongrass. The ever-enterprising DC whipped out cold drinks from a little styrofoam box and it completed our meal very nicely. All we needed to do next was head back to the ferry and home, wash up and have an afternoon nap. Bliss.

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Thai-inspired chicken pasta salad

Ingredients:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive or peanut oil (optional)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup pasta, cooked
2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls mint leaves
2 heads baby butterhead lettuce
10 cherry tomatoes, halved

Method:

  1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, stirring to dissolve. I use pellets of palm sugar bought from Myanmar and leave it overnight in the fridge to give the sugar time to dissolve. Taste if you dare at this point to test for balance. It should be incredibly salty, fishy and sour all at the same time. Add more sugar to temper the sourness slightly and more fish sauce or soy sauce if it’s not fishy-salty enough. Don’t worry too much at this stage, you can tweak later too.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, shredded chicken and pasta, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the dressing. Now toss in the lemongrass, chilli and shallot and keep stirring till well combined.
  3. Tear the mint and lettuce leaves into the salad and keep tossing. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Spoon into a plastic box for storage and keep as cool as possible for your picnic.

Serves 2.

June in Thailand: Si Satchanalai’s Main Complex

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We followed the track from Chaliang to the main complex at Si Satchanalai, passing by some private houses and a gate post that stuck to the theme of the area.

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Si Satchanalai was more park than ruin, with lovely paths leading here and there, plus some formidable flights of stairs that took so much out of us that we couldn’t do photos. At the top of one such hill was a temple ruin. The Buddha image looked like it used to be housed under a roof and still had pillars surrounding it. Even though there was a brick stairway leading up here, the trees growing thickly round made it feel like a chance finding.

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Again, the Buddha image was much venerated despite its age and exposure to the elements. The cloth draping seemed to have been recently changed.

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Further along from the first image, the trees thinned out somewhat and we came across a stupa and the forlorn remains of a little  temple.

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There were some very badly weathered Buddha images, some still venerated fairly recently as seen from the scraps of faded now dun-coloured cloth still clinging on to the image.

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Others were in even worse off shape and looked like they’d been in retirement for a hundred years at least.

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We stopped for a while to marvel how such a temple with two stupas could be built at the top of the steep hill. It must have taken lots of hard labour for the stones to be carted up and assembled to form such grand structures.

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Standing right at the top, we took in the lovely greenery below: of trees and the occasional stupa poking out in between. It was such a peaceful and serene sight.

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Back on lower ground, there were much more extensive structures, this time more of a holy city than simple temple. This one below had a Buddha image flanked by great serpents, which I liked a lot. There was something somewhat contradictory about the serenity of Buddha and the venomous snake juxtaposed that appealed to me.

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In these ruins, we noticed that new inhabitants had replaced the ancient humans. These brothers were rather shy.

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But one of them was braver than the other…

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… and came right up to check us out. He allowed Tom just one quick pat.

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And one pat was all. They allowed us a celebrity photo of them posing nicely.

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And then we were left to ponder the ancients on our own.

June in Thailand: Erawan Falls

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Another stop on my day tour was the Erawan Falls,  a lovely series of seven waterfalls in a nature reserve.

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The first waterfall had a wide plunge area and was so beautiful that there was a photo shoot there. If you look carefully, you’ll see some reflectors and an unnaturally bright area above the waterfall.

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This was where Jess and David, two friends I met on the tour, had a great idea of taking pictures with the number of each waterfall. So here’s me and number one.

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Number two I felt was far prettier because we could get much closer to the waterfall and also because the cascades were far wider and more “trickly”.

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There were also fish that we were warned nibble at people, so not to swim there. We weren’t that hot yet anyway.

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Nonetheless, we appreciated the signs to be careful while swimming lest we got cramps. That was super kind of them.

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We also liked the friendly Fun With English reminder to beware of a monkey stealing a belonging.

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Next up, number three was a slimmer version of number two and no less pretty.

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We slogged up further to number four, which was then deserted. It was a small waterfall flowing over a smooth rock into a deep plunge pool. We didn’t think much of it and pressed on…

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… past shamanistic sites where locals appeased the spirits of nature by wrapping them with cloth and offering up clothes to them.

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Then waterfall number five, consisting of many shallow pools. We had to clamber over them, getting our shoes wet, to get to the next level of the falls.

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Number six was a bit of a dud as it was hidden behind some fairly thick undergrowth. It was quite hard to get a good shot, but Jess and David were excellent company and that kept the spirits up despite the growing heat of the day.

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Even duds have their own beauty. Number six showed how pristine it could be up here, it was almost as if too many people gave up and headed back after the first five falls. I like how there was this feeling of stumbling across number six for the first time, it was so hidden behind the trees.

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Finally we made it to number seven together, as evidenced by Jess and David below.

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This topmost waterfall had lovely pools to swim in…

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… so after discovering the end of the trail and not being adventurous enough to go off-trail hiking…

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… we contented ourselves in a lovely dip in one of these pools. It was a great way to cool off after the hot and sweaty hike up.

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On our way down, there were lots of people at number four.

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As it turned out, the smooth rock and deep plunge pool were perfect for sliding down. I did it three ways: solo sitting up, solo face down and with a group.

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It was loads of fun splashing about!

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We just had to be careful of wardrobe malfunctions, which thankfully I didn’t have.

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And down we went, back to revisit number one again.

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What a lovely trek!

So-so Park Hyatt Seoul: Potential to be Better

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I stayed at the Park Hyatt when I was in Seoul for business a couple months back. The room was lovely and I was very pleased the first night in. The room was big and very comfortable, with good views overlooking the city.

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The bathroom was huge, with separate shower and toilet areas, plus a vanity area. I liked how the wardrobe opened on both sides: one side facing the bed and the other facing the vanity area.

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The shower area came complete with separate rainshower and deep bathtub. Plus, it all came with Aesop toiletries which I like but think are horribly overpriced. They made for a happy me since I essentially got a set of toiletries thrown in with the hotel stay.

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So the room was great, but the service left quite a bit to be desired. I had a sense that while everyone was trying desperately hard to do his or her job, there was invariably something lost in translation. This not just because of the language barrier, but also because the different departments of the hotel didn’t seem to communicate well with each other. Some of our luggage took ages to be sent to the rooms, even though specific instructions and descriptions were given to the hotel rep in charge of our rooms. One of them didn’t get sent to one of our higher-ups because he accepted an upgrade from the hotel and word hadn’t been sent to the bellhops. His luggage sat outside the old pre-assigned room for four hours even though he had been upgraded (by the hotel mind you) to another room. Subsequently, a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine were sent to his room, but bearing no sign saying that they were complimentary, both remained untouched.

If you’re on business and anticipate having to rush in and out of the hotel, the Park Hyatt Seoul probably isn’t your best bet. The lifts have the oddest configuration ever. There are 5 lifts in total, but only 3 serve the ground floor entrance. When entering for the first time, my party was taken up to the top floor where the lobby was. Here was where we realised that 2 more lifts served the room floors. In essence, the middle lift shaft served all floors from ground to rooms to lobby, while the pair on the right served only rooms to lobby, and the pair on the left served only ground to 2nd floor restaurant to lobby (and not the rooms). It was a bit mind-boggling and it took ages for us to wait for the one middle lift serving the 4th floor breakfast area and the rooms. Such a difficult system for busy people on work trips.

Other little annoyances? The lack of thought in housekeeping. The first night, I knocked over a bottle of water. Nothing was done to get rid of the huge wet patch on the rug. I’m guessing that by now the rug would have gone mouldy since no one bothered to replace it in my three nights there. (The damp grey spot was still there when I checked out.) Occasionally, housekeeping would stash the complimentary water in a drawer together with the mini-bar snacks. It didn’t help that the bottles weren’t labelled “Complimentary” and only had the hotel label on it. Not friendly. My room package included complimentary in-room internet access, but it didn’t come on automatically. We all had to select the “one day” option which would be charged to the account and then removed on checkout. It was ridiculous because almost all of us dialed 0 to check with the reception. What was worse was that we had to be vigilant on checkout to make sure that we were mistakenly charged for complimentary stuff (I had to get them to reverse one day’s internet fees. Ridiculous.) Last grouse? On the final night, the turn down people didn’t bring down the blinds properly. Somehow the automated function jammed and I had to climb up and pull the blind down myself. Such a simple thing as doing a last all round check that the room was OK wasn’t done.

There was also another major no-no that involved promises made but not met. Let’s just say that insufficient followup and service recovery came from this. They had lovely rooms and a lovely hotel, but as always: the devil is in the details.

Park Hyatt Seoul
Korea Seoul
995-14, Daechi3-Dong
02-2016-1234

November in China: Nanjing’s Zijing Shan

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In the grounds of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, there lies the Open Air Music Hall. It’s a charming garden where tourists go to relax and not feel like they have to do any serious work appreciating historical figures. Here, there is just a fountain, patches of grass and space to sit around and enjoy the white pigeons.

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This being China, lots of vendors were on hand selling grain for the birds. Crowds of feathery white surrounded the ones who splurged the most on pigeon food!

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The feathery fellas were quite fearless and of course their feeders were quite happy to be clambered upon.

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Of course, there was much photo-taking to be done and many poses  and rigid smiles all round.

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Mum didn’t fancy it much: she was worried about bird flu.