September in Komodo: Cute Little Fellas

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Despite the currents at Komodo, I managed to catch some pictures of cute little critters that are pretty shy and hard to photograph. One of them is this little blenny with its somewhat unsuccessful attempt at pretending to be a shadow in some bright orange coral. It darted about, emerging cautiously from various crevices in the coral when it thought the coast was clear.

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Its squat, square face reminded me a lot of a particular cartoon character and I christened it the Homer Simpson fish.

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Another really hard one to spot let alone photograph was the juvenile bicolour parrotfish.

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This little guy was tiny and incredibly hard to get close to.

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Luckily, I managed to spot two at separate occasions and caught a fairly decent shot of this fella’s orange half-mask.

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One thing that surprised me about Komodo was that there were mandarin fish in their true habitat. In most places like Lembeh and Malapascua, mandarin fish are generally found in areas with broken coral. If you think about it, in its most pristine conditions, no fish would live in broken coral as its most  favoured habitat. I suspect the coral could have ended up broken from all the masses of divers swooping in trying to get a good shot.

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Here, the little fellas were out in broad daylight and not in the evening as is typically the case elsewhere. While they were pretty shy, it wasn’t as difficult to get a good shot through the staghorn coral in bright daylight.

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Another amazing thing that I caught was a yellow-barred jawfish out of its hole. Typically, these fellas have their heads protruding from their holes at best. This one came right out in search of prey, and right in front of my lens at that!

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Last of the cuties was this dragonet that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I suspect it’s the Morrison’s dragonet but can’t be sure.

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While trying to photograph the adult, I noticed a juvenile in the same area and to my delight, this photo turned out fairly in focus. I found its bulbous starlight mint eyes and tiny sharp mouth enchanting.

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September in Bali: Underwater

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The diving at Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida was nothing short of beautiful.

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There was plenty of very healthy coral and every single dive was full of beautiful coral scapes, quite different from the black volcanic sands of Tulamben.

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I loved how blue the water was and how colourful the fish were. They were everywhere the eye could see, with the tiny brightly-hued anemonefish hovering on the roof, the slightly bigger ones like the butterflyfish close to the reef and the large ones like the trevally hunting a few metres from the reef.

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It wasn’t all blue underwater. Featherstars like these gave bursts of colour along the way. These creatures are relatives of the starfish and can walk themselves to convenient places to feed. I like how they congregated on this coral to pose for a picture.

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The fish closest to the reef are generally the smallest and naturally the most skittish because they are food for most other bigger fish. I had a hard time getting a picture of these two-tone dartfish that always come in pairs. I love how they look like they’re wearing frilly dark clown pants!

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Another skittish fish was this adorable juvenile yellow boxfish that was almost impossible to catch on camera without being a spotted yellow blur.

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Bigger and less shy, yet still hard to capture was the emperor angelfish. It had this knack of sailing off in a huffy imperial manner away from the camera.

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Also adopting a regal manner was the spotted soapfish. Again, I kept capturing the tails of these fellas till this one though no doubt it’s angled away in retreat.

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Less skittish fish are those that laze along the bottom of the reef, like this hexagon grouper. It perched itself on the coral and anemones, keeping a careful eye on nearby divers and moving away on if they got too close for comfort.

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Others didn’t bat an eyelid even when we got close for a shot, like this giant frogfish. All it did was occasionally shift its foot-like ventral fins to get to a more comfortable position.

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One fish that we daren’t get too close too was the scorpionfish. This specimen is probably either a tasseled or Poss’s scorpionfish, with its well developed skin tassels along its chin and jaw.

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Other things hardly moved at all, like this egg cowrie. Its black mantle covered most its smooth white shell whilst it fed on soft coral.

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Some creatures were actively out hunting, like this very cute snowflake moray eel. It had a most sheepish expression on its face that amused me to no end.

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There was also the banded sea snake, a highly venomous reptile that we steered clear off. From a distance, I admired its pretty bands of alternating black and pale blue, its smooth rounded head and its rudder-like tail that was well adapted to propelling itself in search of prey.

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Last of all was this pretty pink  nudibranch with an orange flower on its back. It’s actually a pink dorid and the flower is its branchial plume through which it breathes. I wonder why it was doubled over though.

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Even without the fish I was after, seeing the variety of life here was rewarding in its own right. More to come in my next post!

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: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

Quick Roasted Vegetable Couscous

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Some evenings I go for a post-work run and want to come back to something quick and good. One night I popped some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes into the oven and went out. By the time I got back, the tomatoes were on the verge of drying out and the mushrooms prettied much burnt in the toms’ charred juice. Do as I say, not as I do: only leave the vegetables in the oven for max 15 minutes! I suppose you can try this with any other non-leafy vegetable. Think eggplant, courgettes, peppers and the like.

The couscous was very easily done: some vegetable stock (I use an organic no-msg stock powder) and a quick buzz in the microwave, then top with chopped basil and the grilled vegetables and it’s good to go. If you feel like you can’t do vegetarian, try adding a chopped anchovy or top with a grilled chicken breast. Quick and cheerful for a weekday dinner.

This recipe of course has way too much couscous. Keep the rest for another meal.

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Ingredients:

handful mushrooms, I used oyster mushrooms in this recipe
as many cherry tomatoes as you like, I used yellow ones here
olive oil

¾ cup vegetable stock
½ cup cous cous
handful basil leaves, finely chopped
1 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
1 wedge lemon

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a roasting tin with foil and set the mushrooms and tomatoes on. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 10 minutes or until the vegetables just start to brown.
  2. Heat up the vegetable stock and pour over the couscous. Microwave for 2 minutes on high. Set aside for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.
  3. When the vegetables are done roasting, pour it and any pan juices onto the couscous. Stir in together with the basil and add salt and pepper to taste. If you’re using chopped anchovies, add them here too.
  4. Top with the lemon wedge and serve.

For 1.