A Whirlwind Trip: Getting into Milan

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I went for a work trip in July last year and was lucky enough that it involved a whirlwind trip of the shopping capitals of Europe, with the first stop being Milan. We took the red-eye flight which meant that we got off the plane early enough to have breakfast at a bar just before our first meeting. We were thankful for the Italian custom of drinking espresso like water and helped ourselves to copious amounts of the brew to keep us awake in the business discussions.

One of the companies we met was very hospitable and brought us to Trattoria Del Drago for a very welcome lunch. The trattoria was set in a little garden and there was a lovely relaxed vibe to it. We had a lovely white wine to go with our lunch, the Picol 2008 (14%). It was a light and crisp sauvignon blanc with a lime flower nose and plenty of slate in the finish. It was a lovely accompaniment to our appetiser.

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And what an appetiser it was! A typically Milanese starter of seafood carpaccio, this is Italy’s answer to sashimi. There was impossibly fresh salmon, tuna and white fish with two types of prawns. It was all dressed lightly in olive oil and was wonderfully tasty, each bite bursting with the sweetness of the sea. I would definitely go back there just for this dish, far away as it may be from the touristy areas of Milan.

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My main was an orecchiette in a tomato cream sauce and a meat I cannot recall, probably chicken. Sadly, it wasn’t mindblowing and it was forgettable in my seafood-dazed, jetlagged stomach.

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Trattoria Del Drago
Via Pusiano, 63, 20132 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 2720 9849 ‎

Our last meeting was, curiously, in an old Roman building that housed the Milanese headquarters of a high tech company . We got through that aided with plenty of hot espresso from thermos flasks, drunk by the shot in tiny plastic cups. We thankfully sank into Hotel Spadari al Duomo, probably the most reasonably priced 4-star hotel of that standard in the area. It was a lovely and very modern hotel, with large enough and very comfortable rooms. 

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In contrast to the Duomo just around the corner, even the artwork on the walls was modern. I liked how the minibar was included in the price of the room (non-alcoholic drinks only), so I didn’t have to worry about finding a convenience store for water. It was a lovely touch especially coming in on a hot day.

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But the feature I liked best was the shower. There were three showerheads in there: a regular handheld shower head (not shown), a rain shower and a waterfall shower! It was fantastic standing under a wall of warm water after a long, long day simply enjoying the pressure of water against skin.

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It was a great hotel with very prompt and excellent service, from emailing for reservations to getting our excellent breakfast every morning to making reservations to depart for the airport. Well worth it!

Hotel Spadari al Duomo
Via Spadari 11 20123 Milano
Tel: +39.02.72002371
Email: reservation@spadarihotel.com

But no rest for the greedy. Before long, we had to regroup for dinner. We went for an early dinner nearby so that we could head back to crash out. An institution and therefore tourist hangout in the area was Trattoria Milanese, a pretty down home type place with unfortunately less down home prices. Still, it was considered reasonable for the area.

We started off with a mix of appetisers. On my plate are parma with melon; tomato with mozzarella and basil; and half a perfectly ripe, luscious summer fig. While not super fantastically good, I think the ingredients travelled far less than it would have if we had the meal back home in Singapore, making it fresher and tastier somehow.

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I made the classic glutton’s mistake of ordering osso bucco with risotto. Mind you, it was yummy and very well made, especially the osso bucco with its unctuous marrow just begging to be sucked dry. The risotto was no slacker either, al dente and richly aromatic. I managed to finish about a third of the plate and tried to parcel as much away to my dining companions as possible. It was such a pity that I couldn’t take away any for later.

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Full to bursting as I was, my greed yet again overreached and I found myself not simply ordering apple sorbet for dessert, but also nodding amicably when the waiter asked if I wanted it doused in Calvados. Unfortunately, the sorbet wasn’t at all tart and was a bit flat on taste, and the apple liqueur was more bitter than aromatic. Still, it sozzled me nicely and at the end of the meal I had to walk carefully so that I wouldn’t stumble on the cobblestones and fall flat on my face in front of the highest ranking person in my organisation.

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Trattoria Milanese
Via Santa Marta, 11, 20123 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8645 1991 ‎

Thankfully, I made it back to the hotel in one jetlagged, sleep-deprived, espresso-ed out, stuffed-to-the-gills and pretty much sozzled piece. Another lovely waterfall shower later, and I was fast asleep, dreaming of my weekend to follow.

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)

Candlenut Kitchen

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Misa and I were overdue for a catchup and we chose Candlenut Kitchen for that. We were sad that Trish and Adele couldn’t join us, maybe a little because we missed their company, but mainly because we were severely limited in how much we could eat! It was very gutting (pun intended) that we only had space for two mains and a dessert. We had to choose our dishes wisely and started with Misa’s perennial favourite: assam fish ($16.80). I thought it a very good version, though not quite as rich in flavour as I’d like. While flavourful from the assam and laksa leaves, I found the gravy a little watered down. It would not go well in DC’s house (he’s Peranakan). Still, a decent rendition – good for desperate times when you can’t get the home-cooked version.

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I read good reviews about yeye’s curry ($12.80), a white curry made with white pepper instead of the usual chilli rempah. On first chew, I thought it very similar to a mild version of Thai green curry and was a bit let down. The texture of the gravy certainly was very similar as it was very thick and lemak. It went really well with the chunks of chicken thigh. After a few more bites, the subtlety of the dish starts to come through and the magic of the pepper starts to weave its spell. It’s spicy yet gentle in its kick, with a level of complexity that’s hard to describe. I’ve been remiss in my posts and this dinner was had slightly more than a month ago before Christmas. My mouth still waters as I write this, it’s worth the trip just for this one dish.

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For dessert, we had the Christmas special dessert which is sadly off the menu now. It was a bombe Alaska of sorts, with chestnut, banana and chocolate. While we both thought it a bit too sweet with the honey drizzled on top, the banana and chestnut combination was pretty addictive.

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This is a restaurant with very good potential. I’m already plotting my next trip back!

Candlenut Kitchen
25 Neil Road
Tel: 6226 2506

September in Komodo: Blue, Blue Oceans

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I flew to Flores from Bali, landing at Labuan Bajo, the staging point for Komodo. Komodo itself is a small island off Flores and is home to the famous Komodo dragon. I wasn’t here just to see the dragons, but also to experience the famed diving in the area. Diving here is challenging with the strong currents but very rewarding as it is very much an untouched area with an incredible amount of fish.

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Every dive I had was so blue and full of fish. There were trevally in great abundance and in greater abundance were the fusiliers and other smaller fish that made their prey.

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It was always a fish soup experience each dive.

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Famous here are the pelagics, otherwise known as big fish that swim in the blue, like the ominous looking giant trevally.

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They get pretty big, though not quite as big as a diver!

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It was almost shocking to me how often we saw Napolean wrasse. These are rare in other waters but seeing two or three in one dive was almost the norm here.

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They weren’t too shy and often swam round us in large circles, as if to mark out territory.

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Some of them were not yet in the terminal phase and had lighter markings on their smaller bodies. It was wonderful to see these majestic creatures cruise round us.

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Other creatures were more fearsome than majestic, like the dogtooth tuna. From afar they looked fine…

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… but up closer their rows of teeth and rather unfriendly expression made me think of how eagerly they would take revenge on me – all for my penchant for tuna sashimi.

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There were some slightly dangerous fish in the water. Here’s probably the most dangerous – the titan triggerfish. It’s been known to attack divers and to grave consequence. Thankfully it wasn’t nesting season when they tended to be very aggressive and territorial. This one just cruised past without taking any notice of us.

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Even though they have a reputation for being deadly, sharks are generally pretty harmless. There were lots of white tip sharks in the area. It is obvious how they got their name and it’s marvellous how the white tips are almost luminous in the water.

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These creatures were quite shy and it wasn’t easy to get a photo. It doesn’t help that they tend to be quite small, generally being about one to two metres long.

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Some of them came in right onto the reef but quickly shied away from the avid photographers.

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The closest we got was when there was a white tip shark hiding in a cave, oblivious to the fact that its tail was sticking out for all to admire.

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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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July in Vietnam: Eating My Way Through Hoi An

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Back in Hoi An, a great deal of colour and eating beckoned. The colourful Chinese lanterns dotting the streets and the relaxed way of life really charmed me. Here, there were few motorcycles and a lot of people got around either on foot or by bicycle.

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I spotted some amusing sights on the way, like this couple trying very hard to relax for their wedding photo shoot…

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… while their costumed wedding party awaited.

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And just before dinner I spotted this restaurateur picking his nose outside his very empty joint. I wonder why no one patronised his cafe.

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I headed on towards the market where lots of yummy sights and smells awaited. The sheer variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs made me yearn for a kitchen to whip up some food inspired by the local produce.

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I settled with having their local snacks instead. First, there were these odd little pancakes, reminiscent of the Indian appom. The tiny cakes were small enough to pop into the mouth whole and were crispy. The greasiness was countered by the shredded vegetables and herbs and the whole ensemble completed with a spamstick and a mystery-meat ball. It was a very satisfying starter.

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A short wander away was this version of bun. The thick rice noodles were bespattered with thick sweet sauce a bit like the stuff at home that’s put on yong tau fu, just quite a bit more savoury. It was much nicer with the hot sauce and the hotter yellow chillis.

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Yet another odd dish was this plate of assorted steamed dumplings. I wasn’t particularly impressed even though the guide book said something about “white rose” which was supposed to be shrimp encased in rice paper of sorts and steamed. It was more like soon kueh with slightly drier skin. Not bad when hot but not much more than not bad.

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Wandering away from the market, I ducked into an alley along the quaint streets…

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… and found myself in a little porch with a bowl of cau lau in front of me. This is a Hoi An specialty that involves flat yellow noodles being smothered with braised pork and topped with lime juice and the usual herbage. It’s finished off with crispy fried rice paper bits and tastes really yummy, though very much reminding of what I do at home with leftover braised pork.

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The best dish I had in Hoi An was the chicken rice, thankfully not featured in the guide but chanced upon on the street. The rice was cooked with chicken stock, just like Hainanese chicken rice at home. Unlike the stuff at home, it was topped with a whole variety of oddities like boiled pork, beansprouts and herbs. Not to mention, the chicken was just the shredded type torn apart with fingers. The flavour was amazing. It was an epiphany to have incredibly aromatic, chickeny rice matched with herbs like coriander and laksa leaves. It was definitely a step up from Hainanese chicken rice.

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I’m sure some of you must be wondering why I hadn’t mentioned Vietnam’s national drink yet. The coffee here is thick, strong and incredibly sweet and milky with added condensed milk. And that’s the only way you should have it. Ask for ca phe sua da and you get a tall glass of ice to cool it all down with. It’s wonderful on a hot day. When you’re done, chase it down with the green tea provided gratis.

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I first noticed this coffee place because of the many men perched on red plastic chairs watching TV in the morning. They disappeared by midday and I only ventured there in the afternoon to get a mobile plan top up card and a glass of coffee. After the first sip, I was hooked. I spent every afternoon there enjoying my ca phe sua da, playing with the very cute puppy called Remain, and chatting with the proprietress about Hoi An, Vietnam and Singapore.

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July in Vietnam: Monkey Business

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

And then there were the douc langurs.

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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.

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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.