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!

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Lombok: A Trip South to a Very Different Kuta Beach

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DC and I had a rental car and we took it down south to the very sleepy Kuta Beach. We passed by lots of gentle-eyed buffaloes grazing along the road…

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… and ogled at the cute, lighter-coloured calves obliviously munching away.

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At a cafe, there was a sleepy dog that epitomised the laidback atmosphere of the beach. It lay on the trademark peppercorn sand of Kuta Beach.

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Look closely at the sand and you’ll see that the little granules are round, like miniature white peppercorns.

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We later went for a walk along the beach and found more of the peppercorn sand.

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It wasn’t a fantastic white beach, not quite even up to the (not that great) standard of Kuta Beach in Bali. But there were still great views and it was a lovely walk just before the rain started coming in.

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We walked up to a rock outcrop partway out of the beach and found some slightly macabre sights, like the remnants of a heron, perhaps…

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… and the lifelike remnants of a crab’s moult.

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Luckily, there was still some life out here, as evidenced by this cute little lizard skulking its way stealthily along the rocks.

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It was then time to make the bumpy, pot-holed trip back to Mataram. We took respite from the bad road conditions by stopping at a Sasak village to have a look round. The Sasak are the indigenous people of Lombok. They are mainly Muslim and traditionally live in huts with packed-mud floors and roofs thatched with the local long grass, alang-alang. The huts in which they lived I felt were rather nondescript, and the only structure of interest was the bale, or storage shed. Its characteristic structure is the symbol of Lombok and is replicated in concrete and wood all over the main city.

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What’s a village without chickens? This cute little chick was poking around the village grounds with its brothers and sisters, learning how to fend for itself.

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And having had our fill of sleepy beach and equally sleepy village life, we headed back to Mataram. Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended Restaurant Taliwang, a local place serving up Lombok specialties. I started off with a jumbo-sized coconut drink with honey. It was really good and such a godsend because Lombok food is very spicy!

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We ordered a whole array of dishes like deep-fried tempeh (I couldn’t get enough of it), deep-fried squid, grilled gurami and vegetable soup. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of the fiery chilli sauce made with local belacan, a kind of fermented prawn paste.

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Belacan, the smelly delight, really came into its own when turned into the local delicacy, kangkung pelecing. Here, toasted grated coconut is piled on top of toasted peanuts, and boiled beansprouts and kangkung. The kangkung is a more tender, heart-shaped leaved version of the Singaporean kangkong. Toasted belacan is worked into a spicy sauce of chilli and tomato (and probably other secret ingredients) and then poured on top of the mound of veggies. The result? An in-your-face explosion of sour, sweet, spicy and fishy that hits the taste buds with a one-two (POW!) blow. Amazing. This is one dish that I have to attempt to recreate soon.

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Rumah Makan Taliwang I
No. 20 Jalan Ade Irma Suryani
Mataram, Lombok
(Ask at Villa Sayang for exact directions)

July in Vietnam: Sand Dunes, Canyons and Fairy Springs

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Mui Ne is particularly famous for its sand dunes and there’s little question why. They are smack in the middle of seemingly nowhere, surrounded by scrub and water.

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It’s inexplicable to me how a patch of dry desert sand can rise up behind a lake full of blooming water lilies and lotuses, but such is the micro-climate of the area.

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Fine yellow sand had somehow been deposited in this area. The dunes built up somehow stayed here and only shifted their peaks from day to day in the wind.

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The wind blew ripples in the sand and soon covered up evidence of human presence.

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There were a fair number of other tourists poking around and it was a little tricky to get pictures with no one else inside. Yet, when I took these pictures, it all looked so unspoiled and untouched.

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Only the well-trodden paths showed signs of people around…

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… otherwise I was free to enjoy the company of the early morning dunes in solitude.

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The time of the day was just right to admire the play of light on the sand and against the sky.

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I can’t help but let you scroll through a few more of the pictures yourself, they speak for themselves so well.

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And then it was time to go, the sun was getting high in the sky and the lake was starting to lose its intense blue.

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Before it got too hot, I went to check out the flowers blooming in the lake.

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The lotuses were beautiful but I couldn’t get too close because of the mud and insects.

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Then it was onwards to the red canyon.

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Here, the red sand wasn’t quite as pretty as the yellow/white dunes of earlier in the day, but past rains had cut a canyon of sorts through. It made for an interesting study that I wish I’d seen when I studied physical geography in school so many years ago.

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Last stop of all was another series of dunes, this time cut through by an actual spring.

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The multi-coloured sand and earth it revealed made it quite apt to be called the Fairy Springs.

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It was a bit of a fun walk squelching my way up the fine silt, passing by dried up tributaries.

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But after a while the scenery was a little monotonous and I headed back…

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… to the beach to say my goodbyes before heading to Ho Chi Minh City.

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Diving the Similans: Beach Time

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It wasn’t all underwater action in the Similans. We stopped at two different white sand beaches there, one a rather rocky beach on a bright sunshiney day.

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This place is called Donald Duck Bay. Quite obvious from the picture eh?

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It was nice to just poke around on the beach, looking out at the view…

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… and watching startled crabs scuttle for their lives to the water.

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Another beach we spent a little time on was much more beautiful. It had the smoothest white sand that Singapore probably could never hope to import. Just too bad about the overcast weather though.

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Here we also spotted crabs, this time duelling hermit crabs.

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April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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November in China: Tangshan Hotsprings

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No pictures this post. You’ll figure out why in a bit.

After Nanjing, we headed to the hotsprings at nearby Tangshan (literally: soup mountain; I think tang could also be an old-fashioned term for hot water). When Nanjing was a capital, Tangshan was highly regarded for a place to take the waters. Apparently one of the Soong sisters, most likely Ching-ling, liked going there so much she commissioned a special road to lead there from Nanjing.

The town itself was the usual dusty nondescript so typical of minor Chinese townships. The only difference was the numerous spa resorts dotting the area. Ours was the Yishang Spring Resort, consisting of a hotel complex complete with restaurant and spa park.

At the reception, we were issued with a bead bracelet that also had an electronic locker tag. Then we were ushered to the spa park entrance that had turnstiles quite like those at amusement parks! Here was where Mum and I said bye to Dad and we separated into male and female locker rooms. We were issued with ugly mass-produced rubber slippers and tacky Hawaiian-motif happy coats. A friendly attendant grabbed us firmly by the elbow in case we slipped on the wet floor and walked us into the massive (this is China, remember?) locker room to locate our lockers.  She instructed us to change into our bathing suits and then proceed to the shower rooms for a rinse before entering the park proper.

Before entering the showers, we had to run the gauntlet of more attendants who checked if patrons were going in or out and made sure that each person was sufficient hosed down before getting a towel to proceed inside! Coming out of the park was worse, they wouldn’t give out towels till after the shower! Mum was aghast when she saw naked locals coming out from the shower dripping so that one of the attendants would wrap them in a fresh towel. She made sure to ask for a towel before going in to shower and spoke in English when they threatened to be uncooperative.

There were lots of different pools in the spa park. Most of them were hot pools. On the periphery were pools of spa water of varying temperatures, as stated on little wooden boards above. You could start from 32ºC all the way up to 45ºC. Another area had some roman-style dry baths where people could sit on the heated marble floor between a series of partitions along a marble wall. With such cold weather, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit on heated marble out in the semi-open.

There was also a heated swimming pool, though no one swam in it and also an area for getting buried in hot sand. Extra was charged for the privilege of being buried alive. Mum and I went past all these and quickly jumped into one of the 32ºC pools before we froze to death from exposure. I wanted to go straight into a 45ºC one but Mum stopped me. You have to start cooler lest you overheat!

Preliminary soak over, we proceeded inside to explore further. There was so much more! One of the highlights was a heated pool filled with lots of little nibbling fish. The trick is to find a spot to sit comfortably and where you’re covered to the chin and stay absolutely still. The fish would then come over and nibble on toes, knees and elbows . The first nip was startling and we could immediately spot the newbies from their tickled yelps and screeches. Soon I got used to it and was trying to figure out how to get more fish to turn up and also how to get them to nibble  on my fingers. None did no matter how hard I tried.

This place was pretty upmarket, with lots of little services. Waiters would serve soft drinks in plastic cups directly to people soaking in the pools. It got pretty gross when the kids would then proceed on to use the cups to catch fish. Whenever someone hacked and showed the slightest hint of spitting, we’d immediately exit and move on.

Other pools in the area had lots of exotic brews. There were pools of red wine, chrysanthemum, rose,lemon, lemongrass and pomelo-flavoured soaks. Of course there were also lots more flavours I hadn’t even seen before. It was great to pick one, lie in there for a while, feel too cool, pick a warmer one and then get too hot. After soaking for about half an hour, Mum and I would then go to an indoor area for complimentary flower tea. We’d towel off and sit for a while, watching incredulously as groups of men would sit around playing cards and smoking cigarettes (again provided free). Cigarette in mouth, they’d grab another one from the box and stick it behind their ears for later. Odd, but part of the spa experience.

If we were tired from the repeated raisin treatment, we could go inside to the clubhouse. Here there was an area full of rows and rows of soft sofas, all (surprise, surprise!) facing a TV playing the latest Chinese soaps. If not for the TV, it would be a quiet rest room. Once coming in, you could have a nap, get a foot massage or pedicure  (extra charges) or just read a book and have some refreshments. This is how people spend days there!

The best part of the spa was going there after dark. I remember lazing in one of the faux-rock pools looking up at the dark sky. I felt warm from the water, yet my face was cool from the early winter air. I was on holiday. It was the best feeling in the world.