September in Bali: A Quiet Little Island

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One of the reasons why we did so few dives a day was because the waters here was less sheltered. The other reason was that the locals were very religious and often had to go for evening prayers. This gave me plenty of time to wander around the village, checking out the sights and sounds of the place. One  of the first things I noticed about this island was their fanaticism for fighting cocks. I didn’t get a chance to witness a fight myself but almost every house kept prized roosters and men would fuss over them in the evenings, getting them ready for the big fight by attaching spurs to their talons. The cocks were then placed under small baskets and left in formation till the fight began.

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The locals were far less concerned about their motorbikes. It wasn’t a big deal at all if a bike didn’t have a proper seat.

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The most spectacular thing in the evening was to witness the locals at their evening festivals as the sun starting setting over the village, causing the temple towers to glow orange.

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We entered the temple grounds through imposing stone gates…

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… and watch discreetly from outside the temple wall.

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All the worshippers were decked out in their finery, the equivalent of their Sunday best. They sat on mats on the ground while waiting for the priests to  spoon out their share of the holy water (or was it holy milk?)

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All waited quietly in the ceremony, including the young children. I was surprised at how quiet the children were as I got bored with the ceremony where there only seemed to be chanting and holy water distribution.

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I soon wandered back to the beach to enjoy the sunset.

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September in Bali: Nusa Lembongan

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Just off the southeast of Bali is a little island called Nusa Penida and off Nusa Penida is the even littler island of Nusa Lembongan. This littler island was my next stop. It was an idyllic little place blessed with lots of sunshine and blue, blue sea while I was there.

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Every morning we’d go out diving and the water was always clear and blue, as was invariably the sky.

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We dived mainly along the sheltered west-facing side of Nusa Penida, which meant that most times upon surfacing, the majestic Gunung Agung rose from the horizon. It was lovely to see this familiar site accompany me on my Bali sojourn.

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Sometimes on coming back from diving, we passed surfers catching the waves. I made friends with an Australian couple there. The wife dived most days while the husband surfed.

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It was very relaxed diving compared to Tulamben. We did two dives a day compared to the hectic four previously. It gave me time to chill out on the beach, watching the occasional parasurfer go by.

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There were lots of pretty villas along the main stretch, hugging the hill round its curves.

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I stayed at Pondok Baruna, almost at the far end. It set in a beautiful traditional Balinese garden, a perfect place to unwind after a hard day’s dive.

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From here I could observe the goings on at sundown, the locals taking in their boats…

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… and the sun starting to send streaks of orange-pink across the sky.

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Every evening there was a spectacular sunset…

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… where the flaming ball of fire reflected itself on the calm sea…

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… and finally extinguished itself in the water.

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July in Vietnam: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.

The Hottest Chicken Wings in Singapore

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One Friday evening, DC and I headed out to Seletar to have a cosy little night out at Sunset Grill, famed for having the hottest dish in Singapore: its buffalo wings. I remember reading an article in The Sunday Times about an intrepid reporter hunting down the hottest dish in Singapore and the Level 30 chicken wings landed her in hospital! I was so chicken (!) that I asked the waiter whether they’d serve me Level 0.5 wings. He obligingly let me have two regular wings and four Level 1 wings in our order of half dozen.

The regular wings were pretty good as they were, well seasoned by pepper and they came hot and crispy. I’d definitely eat these without the chilli again.

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I realised that the hot chicken wings were painted with chilli sauce and I suppose the level goes up according to the number of times the spicy, slightly vinegary sauce was painted on. This made the chicken less crispy, but still good. I couldn’t eat two at one go and ended up alternating between that and the plain ones. It was just spicy enough for me to handle without gasping for water, a good start to dinner.

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I chose pork chops for the main course and found them a little bit dry, especially away from the bone. I liked the canned apple sauce that came with it, but the rest of it wasn’t remarkable at all.

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DC went for the special of the day, deepfried tenderloin steak with potato and vegetable. It was surprisingly well done as the steak wasn’t greasy but slightly crisp on the outside and still very rare on the inside. I liked that the meaty taste came out nice and clean. Thumbs up!

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I’d definitely return for the lovely ambience as the place is practically in the middle of nowhere. It’s next to the Singapore Youth Flying Club and overlooks the runway, so you’ll see the occasional plane landing or taking off. The sun sets directly in front of the place and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a spectacular sunset. We weren’t as it was a bit cloudy that evening, but it was still lovely sitting under the one large raintree in the area and after that going for a stroll to walk off the worst of dinner.

Sunset Grill and Pub
140B Piccadilly
Singapore Flying Club
Tel: 6482 0244

Holiday from the Holiday: Stop-over in Kota Kinabalu

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After six days of doing nothing but diving, eating and sleeping, it was time to take a break from the stresses of it all and unwind at a nice resort. We checked in at the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort to relax and wash our gear. Yes, you saw it right, we like to unwind in a place where we can wash and dry our gear in peace so that we don’t have to deal with it when we get home. It’s nice to really chill out and do nothing while waiting for our wet suits to dry. Here’s the lovely view of the bay from our room.

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We had very decent weather the whole time, with hot, clear days (ideal for drying our stuff) and clouds rolling in only in the evenings. It was lovely how a rainbow hovered over the resort just as we were strolling round checking out places to eat.

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There were two casual dining places at the resort, one was al fresco and only served barbecues, and the other was the cafe where the sumptuous buffet breakfast was served. Lunch here was pretty decent too, with a good selection of western and local favourites. My Sarawak laksa was very decent. Not having been to Sarawak, I wouldn’t know whether it was authentic or not, but I enjoyed what tasted like a cross between curry and mee soto. A winner in my books!

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Sunset here was very beautiful. The resort was built on a shallow bay and the curves dotted with coconut trees looked lovely silhouetted against the evening sun…

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… as did this wader looking out for fish.

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We sat under some coconut trees for happy hour drinks, waiting for sunset to arrive.

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It was lovely to put up our feet and sip our cocktails.

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Post-cocktail shishas and more drinks didn’t hurt either! It was fun messing about blowing out vanilla-scented smoke through our nostrils. No incriminating pictures here though, sorry!

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What a lovely end to our holiday.

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!

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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