Lombok: The Approach to Mount Rinjani

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Lombok is famous for Mount Rinjani and a lot of people spend their entire trip climbing this mountain. I hear it’s not an easy ascent because the mountain is pretty high, a lot of people who ascend too fast end up with mountain sickness. We were wusses and did nothing more strenuous than drive the car up to the highest point we could. But let me start from the beginning.

The road taking us to the mountain was winding and first sloped up one of the foothills, lending us a glimpse of the sea. It was partially hidden under the clouds and we were glad we hadn’t gone to the beach that day.

IMG_3398

As I said, the road was incredibly windy (in the winding sort of way, not the high winds sort of way). I’m glad DC drove and all I needed to do was navigate. It was quite easy for most, because there wasn’t a huge choice of roads here!

IMG_3404

We stopped occasionally, most times to admire the view, this time apparently to admire the amount of dirt that started to cake the car already!

IMG_3405

The sky was all sorts of strange menacing, so we had to get off and snap a pic of me grinning maniacally with a backdrop of steel-grey sea and rolling clouds.

IMG_3432

Then the approach to Rinjani. Here was where navigation was a bit tough as there were actually forks in the road. Sadly, I lost some of my navigation-fu and took us past our destination. Thankfully, there were plenty of friendly locals. A rather dodgy pit stop at a local house later, we finally found our way on the road to Rinjani. We were a bit annoyed that the clouds almost completely obscured the peak.

IMG_2066

At least these bright pink flowers creeping on a tree added some vibrancy to our day.

IMG_3379

We really did nothing but drive till the road stopped, get out of the car to take pictures, and then stop at the most cheerful cafe  we could find for lunch. We didn’t even go to see some waterfalls because we were afraid that we’d be rained on. (Clever me also had in mind that it was going to be a beach holiday and I only had slippers and leather flats. No good for traipsing about waterfalls or mountains! I was obviously not showing my seasoned traveller-dom here.)

Still, it was lovely to soak in the cool weather and marvel that we were still on tropical Lombok. There were still plenty of banana trees downhill from the little cafe to remind us that we weren’t anywhere temperate.

IMG_3383

And then the mist rolled in and I was cold! Here I am all huddled in my trusty shawl…

IMG_2080

… and here you can see the mist roll right in.

And then we drove back the way we came and spent the rest of the lazy day by the pool at Villa Sayang. I told you it was a relaxed holiday!

The Tanglin Tree

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The Tanglin Tree is a vaguely Australian-inspired place just at the edge of town that’s nice for a quiet dinner out. It has pretty decent food presented in an equally pretty manner. DC had the teriyaki cod skewers, I had lamb cutlets with spicy lamb sausages and we shared three sides of fries, green salad and ratatouille. The fries were done just right: crisp outside, fluffy inside and with salt bits bursting on the tongue. The green salad was well-tossed in a tasty low-key dressing, but the ratatouille was a letdown. Hardly the stuff of epiphanies and childhood memories, it was too sharp and too mushy for my taste.

IMG_1940

DC’s cod was surprisingly good and beautifully presented, as you can see from the picture. I normally steer well clear of teriyaki and cod as I’m not very fond of sweet in my savoury food and I find that cod is often too fatty for my taste. This version was deftly handled with a light touch. It helped that the cod was in small pieces so that the excess cod oil would’ve oozed out in the cooking. Lightly crisp outside and meltingly tender inside, the cod almost made me regret not ordering it…

IMG_1937

… until I ate my lamb and was well pleased. Now, it’s not earth-shatteringly good, but an extremely decently executed dish. I didn’t feel like it was lamb overkill as the portions were restrained and well-proportioned. The cutlets were done just right, again the contrast of the right textures inside and out, and the sausages were nicely spicy without being overwhelming. It also helped that my food came nicely presented too!

IMG_1939a

The most interesting thing for dessert was this flourless orange cake (goes to show how boring the dessert menu is). It was very dense, a change from the spongier norm. It was also surprisingly good as we found ourselves gobbling up it all up with the creme fraiche despite already being very full from our mains. Though not a particularly orangey cake, the interplay of dense and sweet cake with tart fruit and unctuous creme fraiche had a lot to speak for.

IMG_1942

The Tanglin Tree
56 Tanglin Road B1-01
Friven & Co Building
Tel: 6733 0992

July in Vietnam: Arguments and the Overnight Bus

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The motorbike ride didn’t end quite as I would’ve liked it to. Just as we were about to enter Cuc Phuong National Park, Hu told me that we had only a few hours left. I was taken aback because my understanding with the travel agent in Sapa was that the whole point of the trip was that Hu would take me to  Tam Coc andCuc Phuong National Park, then drop me off at Ninh Binh, a transit town a few hours south of Hanoi. However, on the second night Hu told me that there wouldn’t be time for me to do Tam Coc as well as Cuc Phuong and I opted to drop Tam Coc in favour of the monkeys.

On the day we were in Cuc Phuong, we got lost finding the right entrance and wasted about an hour going the wrong way. When we finally got to Cuc Phuong, Hu told me that we only had an hour there because he needed to get back to Hanoi to catch his train back to Sapa. I was furious because the whole point of the trip was to give me flexibility to explore the national park at leisure. If time really was tight, half day would have been fine, but an hour was pushing it. Besides, I’d made it clear while making plans with my tour agent that I’d wanted to spend time in both Tam Coc and Cuc Phuong, so the agent should have budgeted enough time even though we were delayed by an hour. I’d paid for this, and expected them to carry out their side of the agreement. After an increasingly heated phone call to Sapa, the tour agent agreed that Hu would take me round Cuc Phuong, drop me off at Ninh Binh and then his job would be done.

However, Hu waited till we finished lunch and the Big Tree visit before insisting that there wasn’t enough time and that he would have to leave me in the middle of the national park if I didn’t leave with him that instant. I adamantly held my ground, firmly told him to stop as we rolled past the Primate Centre, and got off the motorbike. Leaving my pack strapped to the bike, I stalked into the Primate Centre, and got two tickets. I figured that he might as well go in since it was also his first time in Cuc Phuong. Hu refused the ticket and sulked while I returned to the Centre, determined that my trip wouldn’t be affected by his behaviour.

I made good progress and was very soon back on the back, with Hu griping away about missing the train. I talked through his schedule with him and reasoned that he would make it with sufficient time. Even if he did miss the train, the travel agent would make sure that he would get on the next one and that there would be contacts in Hanoi that would take him in for the night. Each time, I countered his resentful complaints and persuaded him to continue the trip. The last heartstopping, frustrating moment came when he stopped again by the side of the road, this time only 3km away from Ninh Binh to say that he had to stop now and drop me off by the road so he could go home. I almost screamed but doggedly pressed him onwards.

Thankfully, mercifully, he managed to get me to Ninh Binh in one piece and scooted off after I reluctantly (my turn now) tipped him. I hope he made his train in time.

Next, I cleaned up at a guesthouse that arranged for overnight buses to Hue and got myself a very nice dinner of goat meat wraps with tree leaves! No pictures, but it was very tasty and filling. Quite special and a very unique experience eating stringy tree leaves and tasty but tough goat. Quite soon, it was time to hop on the night bus. Look how cool their utilisation of space was! It’s structured in such a way that there’s just barely enough room for a midget to lie almost prone. There’s a little cubby hole to stick your legs into that fits under the head of the person in front. Stacked up in a double decker, three columns of these beds filled up the bus. Quite a few people fit in and I found it far more comfortable than crouching at the back of a motorbike. After such a long journey, I slept quite soundly, waiting to arrive in Hue in the morning.

00110

July in Vietnam: Monkey Business

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Having been inspired by my previous Gibbon Experience sans gibbons, I figured that it would be good to at least catch a glimpse of one of these creatures on my jaunt through Southeast Asia. The entry on in Lonely Planet described a gibbon sanctuary in the middle of Cuc Phuong National Park and I knew that I had to somehow make it there. It was great that my travel agent in Sapa thought of this fantastic solution of getting me there by motorbike, giving me plenty of flexibility to linger. Or so I thought.

I started off in Cuc Phuong doing the rainforest walks. As it was mainly dense secondary rainforest, this hardly seemed any different from any other national park in the region. I’d seen this and more in Thailand and Malaysia. Nonetheless, it was a handsome patch of forest.

00096

Supposedly, no visit to Cuc Phuong is complete without paying homage to the Big Tree, a 1000 year old whopper so big that I couldn’t capture it on only one photo.

00097

00098

Having dispensed with the formalities, I hotfooted it to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. (There was a bit of a hairy moment here with Hu as he threatened to abandon me at the National Park, but more later.) Here, primates recovered from smugglers and illegal traders were rehabilitated and slowly reintroduced to the wild.  I walked past little cages full of stick insects, marvelling at how realistic their mimicry was. These were meant for the monkeys’ meals (can’t remember which particular species). They were so finicky that they had to eat the insects live, yet another reason not to keep endangered animals as pets.

First, I saw a large enclosure with Delacour’s langurs. These were the cutest monkeys with black and white coloring patterned so that it looked like a black monkey wearing furry white short pants.

00109

Photos don’t do them justice, hopefully this rather low-quality video helps a teeny bit.

And then there were the douc langurs.

00102

I’m really sorry that I couldn’t get any good pictures as they were rather shy and it was hard to get up close to them, even while they were in the enclosure. Perhaps it’s a bit disrespectful, but with their wispy white beards they look like miniature Ho Chi Minhs.

00105

And most magnificently, there were the southern white-cheeked gibbons. It’s absolutely gobsmackingly amazing how the male is pitch black and the female a creamy white. I don’t know how they camouflage themselves in the forest and how they could hide from predators. But they definitely wouldn’t have any doubt at all in mating season!

Even though I spent only half an hour or so at the Centre, it left quite an impression and the images are very much still fresh in my mind.

July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

00003

On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

00004

Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

00005

I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

00006

I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

00001

Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

00002

And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

00007

The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

00010

I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

00008

And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

00011

… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

00012

Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

00014

It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

00013

After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

00016

There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

Diving the Similans: Things in Crevices

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

There was lots of other good stuff at Koh Bon. A lot of these were crevice dwellers. Some of them were quite shy and it was fun to wait for them to emerge and observe them doing their thing. During the dive, I only saw the two white eye moray eels in the hole and spent ages trying to get a good shot. It was only when I reviewed the pictures out of the water did I notice that there was also a fimbriated eel at the back of the hole. Look carefully above the middle white eye moray’s head and you’ll see its yellow head splotched with black.

IMG_0232a

There were other oddities such as this warty orange thing. I have no idea if it’s a coral or a worm or something else, but it’s incredibly pretty nonetheless.

IMG_0235a

Then of course there are the ubiquitous Christmas tree worms. They come in lots of different colours and are invariably embedded in brown coral. When you go too close they suddenly withdraw and the entire thing retreats instantaneously into the hole.

IMG_0265

I admit the lighting in the next photo isn’t great but try to spot what’s there. Hint: it takes up quite a bit of the photo. This fella is a master of disguise.

IMG_0236

Can you see it’s a reef octopus? It’s one of the biggest specimens I’ve seen and its tentacles looking quite menacing. Needless to say, I didn’t stay longer than necessary for a few snaps.

IMG_0239

Our dive guide spotted this ornate ghost pipefish quite by chance and he was visibly pleased to be able to point it out to us.

IMG_0244a

It’s related to the seahorse and it’s such an odd fish for always being upside down. It’s one of my favourite fish because it’s so pretty and sightings of these aren’t that common.

IMG_0241a

Towards dusk, the crustaceans started coming out. Here are some durban dancing shrimp. They’re cute because they always hang out in groups and like to face the same direction.

IMG_0257

It also helps that they’re not painfully shy and are quite happy to pose for pictures. They’re such funny stripey little red things.

IMG_0258a

Then there was this lobster with the longest feelers ever. I had to resist the strong urge to pull it out of its hole by its feelers!

IMG_0309

The identity of this crevice dweller stumps me. I looked through my entire fish ID reference book and I can’t find a fish that has a head that looks like My Little Pony! I think it’s a type of blenny, anyone have any ideas?

IMG_0275a

And the last of the lot: a banded sea snake! This is probably only the third one I’ve seen and I’ve done a far number of dives. They’re supposed to be several times more poisonous than the most poisonous land snakes but aren’t aggressive. I guess that’s a good sign.

IMG_0322a

The Black Manta: Anambas Islands

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

DC and I needed a break, so we jumped at the chance when the waitlist cleared for the Black Manta. That weekend, it went to the Anambas Islands, Seven Skies Wreck and ended at Pulau Aur. It was a very relaxing weekend as the boat left on Friday evening and returned on Sunday evening from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. There was no long bus ride nor jostling with the crowds at the causeway. It was very chill as we could relax on deck or in the cabin and there were even cheap massages available, albeit not very good ones.

The boat travelled all night and delivered us to Pulau Damar, one of the southernmost of the Anambas Islands for our checkout dive. It was a nice relaxed, very easy dive with only a little current here and there. It was fun trying to catch a bit of current while trying out my brand new bright red Jetfin Revos. (Verdict? Not bad!)

There wasn’t a whole lot of life down there. We found a giant moray eel in a hole and I was glad that I didn’t have to get too close to snap this photo.

DSCF5545

I got a little bored, so started taking pictures of feather starfish, which look quite dramatic perched at the top of a lump of hard coral, especially when coupled with some cute Christmas tree worms to balance out the picture somewhat.

DSCF5546

DC had quite a bit of fun checking out his new gear and testing his buoyancy in different positions. Too bad I couldn’t signal for him to get closer to the coral for a better picture.

DSCF5551

Now this picture isn’t that bad. I really like how blue the sea looks behind it.

DSCF5553

There was also some really bizarre maze coral that I’ve not really seen much before. This is quite a cool texture shot.

DSCF5556

To top things off, we saw a pretty lionfish. This one is rather special as it’s not the usual common lionfish. It’s called the spotfin lionfish, from the pretty spots on its pectoral fins. Such a pity that I was for some reason distracted and couldn’t get a good close up shot of this fella.

DSCF5558

March in Laos: The Real Monkey Business

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Did you figure out how we got from tree house to tree house? Check out the picture below and see if you can now.

00217

There were cables strung up across different parts of the valley and also to each tree house. We were all kitted up with harnesses and a pulley and we were all set to go across the zipline. After a few zips across picturesque valleys and a couple of treks on foot, we went across the final cable to get into our tree house.

00214

It was loads of fun because of the incredibly high speeds. It was hard to appreciate the scenery while going past really fast. I think it was also less scary seeing the river coursing down the valley so far below when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll crash into a tree on the other side.

00195

But you do slow down in the end. Occasionally if you don’t build up enough momentum you end up slowing down too fast and have to climb the rest of the, thankfully, short way back to the receiving platform.

00240

There were some problems with rats at another tree house and this cat was despatched to get rid of them. Of course it didn’t have its own harness, so into a sack it went. It wasn’t too happy about the disrespectful treatment and gave its ride a good scratch when freed. At least it must’ve been in cat heaven hunting all the rats on the tree.

00186

It’s a pity I didn’t get any good pictures while on the zipline. Most of the time I was going to fast to frame the picture well, other times it was unfocussed and most time I was just having too much fun to even want to consider marring the experience by watching my camera fall hundreds of metres into the river below.

00225

Nonetheless, the dusk views from the tree houses were pretty amazing. It was good enough seeing this, it didn’t matter that we hardly saw any wildlife.

00227

Except this lizard that one of the local guides gamely displayed on his shirt.

00274 (copy)

It was a lovely two and a half days running round the forest ziplining like rabid monkeys across the cables over and over and over and over again. It was great getting to know the others in the group swapping stories by candlelight at night, then going to sleep and waking up to another day of ziplining again. It really was worth coming all this while to Laos for this.

00277

March in Laos: Tree Houses

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

As I mentioned earlier,  Siamesecat and I were up to some monkey business. We’d booked a couple nights’ stay in what was touted as a gibbon sanctuary. To cut the suspense, we didn’t see a single monkey, gibbon or not, in our three days and two nights in the forest. It was probably because we made so much noise tramping along the paths that we hardly even saw birds, let alone simians.

00190

Anyhow, it was lovely being right in the thick of nature. After being dropped off from the van that took us to Ban Toup from Huay Xai, it was a good two-hour walk from the little dot of a village to where we spied the first sign to our accommodation for the night.

00255

I’d never stayed in a tree house before and this excited me to no end. Seeing the first one looming ahead in the distance filled me with awe. It amazed me to think of how the first plank had to be hauled up to the top and painstakingly assembled, of course by hand, plank by plank and nail by nail.

00192

As we approached one by one, we were amazed by how well-made the tree house was, and how much space there was inside.

00193

The view from the top was lovely. This particular tree house had a stream running below it. It was great just leaning against the railing and doing nothing except enjoy the scenery.

00254

There was plenty of space for the six of us. The tree house turned into a bit of a tent city at night as each pair of mattresses had a thick mosquito net strung over it. We were definitely glad to put up the nets so that we could escape from the incredibly lot of insects at night. It was the jungle after all. In fact the only entertainment at night ,given that there was no electricity, was chatting in the candlelight. That until Discovery Channel came on, live mind you, as someone spied a large spider champing in its prey in one of the webbed alcoves.

00205

Meals were lovely. It was mainly plainly cooked vegetables with rice, but they were always skilfully cooked with a deft hand that I couldn’t help marvel that none of us particularly missed meat nor did anyone complain that the food was monotonous. There was plenty of fruit and occasionally one of our guides would swing by and ceremoniously cut up a pineapple or mango for us to devour.

00228

Smoking was not allowed in case of forest fires and drinking was only possible if we’d paid our guides an exorbitant sum to go out to Ban Toup for a warm beer. It was worth the hassle at all, so all the exercise in the day, healthy food and early nights going to bed soon after the sun went down, coupled with the fresh, fresh air made it feel like we were on a health camp. It was lovely.

00229

We didn’t have electricity at the tree house but we certainly did have running water. It was a bit of a pleasant shock to come into a tree house and see the sink and tap and use it to wash my hands. They’d rigged up a series of pipes and pumps to get filtered water running to each tree house. It was fantastic. There was a toilet and shower in the tree house too. Toilet paper had to be disposed of separately because it took ages to break down and having squares of toilet paper litter the ground below wouldn’t do at all in an eco-sanctuary. It was lovely taking a shower in the open concept bathroom, though standing on the slats and seeing how far one could fall was a tad frightening. However,  looking out at the valley from this height really took singing in the shower to a new level.

00203

One thing you may wonder is: if we were so high up in the tree, how did we get there? Well, we certainly didn’t climb up, that’s for sure. Believe me, nobody in their right mind would walk under a tree house with this kind of toilet system. It wasn’t quite a boot camp. Guess, I’ll tell you in my next post.

August in China: Sanxingdui Museum

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Sanxingdui Museum is a bit of an oddity in the Chinese museum scene. It’s  a spanking new and beautifully curated non-tacky place smack in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is close to where a neolithic jade piece was found by a ditch-digging peasant, and is thought to be the site of the ancient Shu capital.

This lovely reconstructed bronze sculpture and panel greeted us as Mr Bunglez and I entered the main building of the museum. Later we found that the designs were true to the originals. I was gobsmacked by how fine and sophisticated these were and how it didn’t seem in the least primitive, as would be expected for something from the neolithic age. A lot of these could possibly pass off as modern art even.

CIMG2924

No photos allowed in the dark galleries filled with awe-inspiring bronze masks with impressive motifs of all-seeing eyes. You’ll have to go there to see it for yourself. What I could get a picture of is a reproduction (the original I saw in a darkened gallery) of a fantastical bronze tree adorned with mystical birds and flowers. I stood in front of both original and reproduction for ages, simply gawping at the refinement and beauty of the sculpture.

CIMG2925

It was overcast when we emerged from the museum, but this didn’t detract from the majesty of the (reproduction of, guess where the original was?) only complete bronze human statue found at the site. The figure must’ve used to hold a sceptre of some sort. As it was Olympic season, they cleverly fashioned him holding an Olympic torch for the promotional material. I’m glad they had the sense not to put one on this permanent exhibit though!

CIMG2927

CIMG2928

Here’s a closeup of the statue. Notice how he’s got pierced earlobes. How cool is that?