Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Diving Manado 27 Sep 2009


You will not believe that I booked this diving holiday one year ago. Since then, I had done the most thorough research on the critters I expected to see. The dive sites not only meet the high-rank reputation, but exceed my imagination. Simply blow away my sane mind. Lembeh Straits underneath is a place for aliens, you will agree after looking at the shots I snapped underwater. Yup, I finally indulged in the hell of underwater photography which will slowly gnaw away my precious money and time. My toy is Canon G10, equipped with underwater casing, Sea & Sea YS-110 alpha Strobe and wet macro lens. Taking pictures underwater is a big WOW in difficulty and technicality. I was like an apprentice all over again. Imagine the multitask, checking everything at once - air consumption, depth, no deco time, buoyancy, any nasty triggerfish around (another story later), any leakage of camera casing, current, torch, coral … Alright, I stop the babbling and here comes my diving experience in Bunaken and Lembeh Straits.

I did 2 diving days at Bunaken (5 dives) and 3 diving days at Lembeh Straits (12 dives). I know I am crazy. I took the unlimited diving package in Lembeh, where I could dive until my knee buckled and my neck strained.


Talk about Bunaken first. Mostly wall dives with some current. Really not much to mention as the wall dives were very similar. Having to dive Sipadan before, wall dives at other dive sites seem to lose their colour. I also did some house reef dives where I spotted my first Ambon Scorpionfish and Harlequin Shrimp. Also, during one safety stop, I spotted a gigantic jellyfish, as big as my head!

Lembeh Straits had tons of story to talk about. The dive sites were pretty much the same – murky, dark sand bottom, rubble and rubbish. The critters were, though, abundant and lively. Definitely worth to revisit. The trademark of Lembeh are frogfish, scorpionfish, octopus and other macros. Since the dive sites were featureless, I might as well write this section referring to the critters I spotted.

Paddle Flap Scorpionfish, Ambon Scorpionfish and Weedy Scorpionfish
Scorpionfish were stunning creature. They had the meanest look and poisonous spikes but when they flapped their wing, the beauty hidden would certainly drop your jaw. I spotted three different species. Both had their unique characteristic but the arrogant Ambon Scorpionfish’s expression won this round.

Spider Crab, Mud Crab, Urchin Crab, Porcelain Crab
Alien resemblance creatures. You could easily overlook this critters as they were so good in disguise. Meeting with Urchin Crab was so much fun. It carried the thorny urchin on its back while moving, so that the predators dared not attack them. Porcelain Crab were common neighbor with clown fish. They were very photogenic, with the beautiful soft coral as background.

Pygmy Seahorse, Denise Pygmy Seahorse, Pygmy Seadragon
Pygmy Seahorse was simply adorable. It was tiny but full of facial expression. It lived on the sea fan for the rest of their life. During dawn, they mated passionately and spent the rest of the day clinging on the sea fan. Pygmy Seadragon was the new species discovered in Lembeh. It was so much insignificant unless you knew their habitat.

Painted Frogfish, Hairy Frogfish, Sargassum Frogfish
These creatures had amazing characteristics! They could be as big as football size or as small as thumb size. Ambushing skill was phenomenal. Their mouth could stretch twice the normal size. They were abundant in Lembeh Straits. Well, I spotted 3 Sargassum Frogfish swam until the shore of the resort. This species was a bit special as they liked to float on the surface for food searching.


Mandarin Fish
I did a dawn dive at the house reef. Wow, this was madness. In the rumble, practically, more than 50 mandarin fish came out for mating. They were everywhere! Once they were happy with their sighting, they rubbed each other and disposed the eggs and sperms simultaneously. It was extremely hard to photograph although there were virtually hundreds of them swimming around me.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Coconut Octopus, Mimic Octopus
There was one dives that I spotted at least 5 flamboyant cuttlefish! Their gland were strikingly beautiful. When they were stressed, they showed amazing warning colour. Also, I spotted one of them sticking out their tongue to catch the prey, a blink of your eyes and the fishy was gone. The other highlight was the Coconut Octopus. It fled from a shell when my dive master found it. I followed it step-by-step, it was “walking” rather than jetting in the water, super adorable! Occasionally, it peeped at me and other photographers while searching for the hidden place. Mimic Octopus, sigh… I had 5 seconds spotting before it escaped to its hole.

Zebra Lionfish, Shortfin Lionfish, Spinny Devilfish, Painted Stingfish
Again, the sea floor were full of these creatures. I love lionfish. They were always the love of photographer. They liked to stretch their impressive wing, making it looked like underwater butterfly. Painted Stingfish, you got to have some luck to spot them as they only appeared at night. Spinny Devilfish was as cool and nasty as scorpionfish.


Harlequin Shrimp, Crinoid Shrimp, Bubble Coral Shrimp, Cleaner Shrimp, Squat Lobster
Shrimp was my favourite subject. They were candies of eyes. Crinoid shrimp had the best disguise while Harlequin Shrimp had the lavish colour and pattern. Squat lobster was strikingly pink while bubble coral shrimp and cleaner shrimp could be transparent!


Electric Clamp, Banggai Cardinalfish, Banded Seasnake
These were special creature. Electric clamp emitted electric ray to scare off the predator. Banggai Cardinalfish were endemic to this region. Spotting both of them were so much delightful but not the Banded Seasnake. Banded Seasnake is the world most poisonous animal and definitely not a joke I could afford.

Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Robust Ghost Pipefish, Ring Pipefish, Stick Pipefish
Ghost Pipefish were beauty to behold. They normally existed in pair, hovering above the crinoids or feather stars. The female was larger, with pelvic pouch for eggs. Their slender body always appeared to be frozen and easy to be photographed.

Last but not least, how could one overlook nudibranch, the gem of underwater. Lembeh Straits had the diverse species of nudibranch. The most attractive one was skirt nudibranch, whereby it earned their name by flapping their rim gracefully.

I booked the unlimited dive package with Diver Lodge Lembeh ( This was the best diving resort I had been. The diving boat was comfortable, spacious and modern. As it was family run, the service was warming, considerate and well-rounded. Staff were polite, helpful and friendly. I did not have the chance to carry my dive equipment since they fetched me from Bunaken. Food and drink was also unlimited. Dinner was nicely set up and the Dutch owner family dined with the divers every night. Apparently, Rob the owner was contributing himself for the good sake of Lembeh Straits. There are many plans in the future to make Lembeh Straits a better and cleaner diving location. Good faith for Lembeh Straits.

Lembeh Straits is truly a macro heaven where photographer can not afford to miss. It stole my heart and it is now left 20 ft underneath the murky ocean. I would have to retrieve it someday, sometime….


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Travel Hanoi @ 29 April 2009

Pampered with luxurious tours, I had long forgotten the feeling of backpacking. To revive its spirit, I travelled with 4 other friends in semi-backpacking style to Hanoi and Sapa, Vietnam. Vietnam is always an icon of postwar, hardship and suburban. Though mentally prepared, we were still awe struck by the scent, the view, the culture and the people of Vietnam. We definitely had mixed feeling with Vietnam. We were both impressed and, at the same time, surprised. Due to the compacted schedule, we had yet to have chance visiting Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and French Quarter. The following were something that impressed us, at least myself, very much:

The landmark Ho Kiam Lake located right in the middle of Hanoi.

Old Quarter 36 Streets, Hanoi
After an eye-opening journey from airport to our hotel (the driving attitude), we started exploring the famous Old Quarter of Hanoi city. Ho Kiam Lake was the landmark for every location. Ho Kiam Lake was translated as Sword-Returning Lake, depicting the legend of sword returning to a gigantic tortoise after a victorious war between Vietnam and China. Rather disappointed with the Ho Kiam Lake view, we ventured into Old Quarter 36 streets. To impress you, each street was selling the same goods in grandeur – shoes, silks, silver, incense, tomb carving, cloths, spices, souvenirs etc. You name it they have it. My first impression was, well, being a Vietnamese woman was difficult. Most of them did the hardwork and ‘run’ the family. Salute….

Lucky snapshot of a beautiful couple in front of St Joseph Church.

Water Puppet Show
The status was rather similar to our Wayang Kulit but their puppets were more animated and colourful, performing on a water stage. It appeared to be quite interesting for awhile and the show was later paled by the recurrent lyric which sleepened most of us. There were different folklores portraying the daily lives of Vietnamese, legends and mythologies (dragon, phoenix, unicorns etc.). My votes went to fire-spitting dragon dance and marriage story. Nonetheless, it was still something we had never watched before.

St Joseph Church is the best place to capture daily local life.
Vietnamese Vs French Cuisine
It was unbelievable that the best French restaurant – The Green Tangerine, was actually located in Hanoi. The excitement started right after we stepped into the restaurant. The setting was beyond elegant and we could not help to jaw-drop with the food selection, of course the price as well. I was rather shocked when my food arrived. I made a mistake of ordering a plate of raw beef and surprises came one after the other. The raw beef was unexpectedly delicious and I could hardly felt the rawness, no doubt a world-class cuisine. Cha Ca La Vong was another famous local restaurant. They had only one menu, which was fried fish and rice noodles. It was rather embarrassing if you visited Hanoi and not trying the local specialties. We tried some tasty Vietnamese breakfast – rice noodles, sticky rice, Vietnamese coffee etc., sitting along the street side just like locals. Thumb up!

Spring roll in Hanoi style, dining in Green Tangerine, the best French restaurant.
Vietnamese Coffee
Out of nowhere, we bumped into a coffee stall accidentally that was highly recommended by forumers. The boss not only spoke fluent Cantonese, but also generous enough to treat us his coffee. The price was reasonable and the quality of coffee was top notch! To enjoy Vietnamese coffee fully, you need to prepare it in Vietnamese way – to filter the coffee with special filter and to add in dense and viscous milk. Exquisite taste it was! Having drinking coffee from Brazil and Italy, Vietnamese coffee definitely deserves the same level of excellence.

Lantern shop nearby St Joseph Church.
Traffic, Vietnamese National Day and Labour Day
Jackpot for the most peaking holiday in Vietnam, it was a nightmare for us. During our excursion to Tam Coc, we experienced the worst jam of all. We trapped inside the traffic for almost 4 hours. Unmovable and bored, it was the best moment to observe the locals because even the motorists were trapped on the road. If you think there are too many motorists in Malaysia, well, think again. We saw a sea of motorists packing with their family and heading back home for their national holiday. You got to amaze on their driving skills too. Honking and foul language exchange were not uncommon.

Trishaw along Old Quarter 36 Street.
Tam Coc
After gruesome 6 hours on the road in total, we finally arrived Tam Coc. This place was often called as land Halong Bay due to its landscape. Boating on the winding river through grottos, I had a wonderful time. The scenery was pleasant and greeny, very typical rural view of Vietnam.

Flower Hmong lady absorbed in processing their colourful embroidery. Man smoking local pipes.
Cat Cat Village, Sapa
It took us 8-hour night train and 2-hour bus to reach Sapa, the most northern part of Vietnam. The train journey was disastrous and excruciating but, well, that was the beauty of backpacking – to experience the unexpected and unimaginable. The reason of visiting Sapa was to catch a glimpse and to visit the residency of minority groups in Vietnam. There were many tribes but mainly from Hmong, i.e. Black, Green, Red, White, Flower Hmong etc. It was a rainy day and we had to trek through the mountain to reach Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat meant for waterfall in Hmong language and this village was occupied mainly by Black Hmong. The word ‘Black’ was symbolized from the indigo colour of their dress. It was indeed an eye-opening experience for us. Their costume, embroidery, residency, terrace rice field, food, herbal drink etc. kept amazing us. Buffalos were walking freely and abundantly across the waterfall and rice field – peaceful and scenic views that every photographers craves for.

Scenic Cat Cat Village.
Bac Ha Market
Sunday morning, Flower Hmong tribal people will gather in Bac Ha to buy their daily necessities, to socialize, to exchange goods, to gossip, to wander around etc. The moment we stepped down the bus, our eyes were filled with colours. Flower Hmong’s costume was amongst the most colourful costume I had ever seen. They were unique, striking and unimaginably bright – each sending signals to my camera to snap them. Frantically, we snapped and snapped while squeezing into the market. It was such a frenzy of snapshot, everywhere we saw photography enthusiasts like us taking pictures, squatting or telephotoing. There was an animal market too, where they sold ducks, horse, buffalos, pigs, dogs, birds etc. Laughter, bargaining, gossiping, children bearing…."Wow!”. that was exactly the word crossed in my mind at that moment, definitely worth a long journey to be here. We also spotted a scene that mind-blowed everyone – a 60++ year old women bore a pig, probably heavier than me, on her back. Full respect!

Colourful Bac Ha Sunday Market, where many Hmong people socialize.
Halong Bay
It was quite a let down to us. We were getting very bored with the monotonous view. The food was rather uncreative and pale. The stalagmites were even not as impressive as those in Ipoh. Perhaps, we should apply World Heritage ownership for Gua Tempurung. In fact, we decided to play Mahjong on the boat. Yup, you heard it right, we brought our Mahjong tiles along to Halong Bay! Wish you were there...

The famous Halong Bay and the caves.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Travel Mexico City @ 23 March 2009

A business symposium brought me to the amazing Mexico City. As usual, the flight and transit time were excruciatingly painful, about 30 hours in total one-way, but it was worthy. It was my first exploration in Central America region. It struck me that this city shared many similarities to Rio de Janeiro, which I visited not long ago. Both of the cities are huge in population (Mexico City has a population of 20 Million), presence of slum areas, Latin America and soft spoken (yup, that surprised me or perhaps Spanish are just too loud). Though I did not stay too long, I still manage to squeeze some spare time to explore some exotic attractions this city offered – The Basilica of Guadalupe, Teotihuacan Pyramids and Anthropology Museum.

The whole City is full of these trees with purple flowers. Awkwardly similar to sakura!

The city night view from my hotel room.

Majority of Mexicans are Catholic which had been incorporated with local beliefs and cultures. The interesting fact is that Mexicans still celebrate some festivals which were rather contradictory to Catholicism, such as Festival of Dead which glorifies the return of dead souls. Lady Guadalupe is the most worshipable saint throughout Mexico. She has an equivalent status to virgin Mary but her skin colour is black. According to the local history, Lady Guadalupe showed her miracle image to the priests in a poncho, a type of Mexican costume. The original copy was exhibited in Basilica of Guadalupe. According to the tour guide, many parts of Mexico City are currently suffering sinking problem, Basilica of Guadalupe is one of the examples. Tracing back to the geological history, Mexico City was built in the midst of five lakes. To prevent the further sinking, many buildings have been undergone the structural strengthening.

The Basilica of Guadalupe, which suffers from sinking problem.


The miraculous puncho shown by Lady Guadalupe.

Mexico is popular with its exotic civilizations, such as Aztec, Maya, Teotihuacan etc. This was indeed the first time I had the chance to study these civilizations. They were indeed equally stunning, striking and different from Egyptian civilization that we are all accustomed to. They built step pyramids which were solely deployed for ritual scarification. Their pyramids were normally solidified whereas Egyptian pyramids were purposely compartmentalized to store mummies and artifacts. One similarity was that the priests sat at highest hierarchy in the social status after the God or King. Teotihuacan was a blood-thirsty nation whereby they believed God could only be appeased by blood offering. Therefore, people would poke (finger, arm, penis!) or even sacrifice themselves to squeeze the blood out of their body for God. Teotihuacan was a parallel civilization with Maya, interesting enough, both of the civilizations disrupted in the same period. The most probable cause might be the lack of water and food resources. The alien theory was considered as the lamest and most ridiculous one, from the despicable tone of our tour guide.

Teotihuacan Pyramids which glorified human sacrifies. Citizen were sacred if their blood was sacrified to God. The above is Pyramid of Sun.

Before visiting Teotihuacan Pyramids, our tour guide brought us to a Mexican Indian corporation shop. My first thought was that it must be an usual trick of our cheeky tour guide. I had to apologize for that thought as the corporation was really genuinely local and his explanation of tequila and artisans definitely deserved my purchase. This region was famous for obsidian, quartz, jade and other mineral rocks. Obsidians rock is extremely rigid, a black solid which glows with various stunning colours (gold, silver, rainbowish etc.) under the sunlight. In the ancient time, Teotihuacan conquered the trade of obsidians in the adjacent area as it could be used to produce decorations as well as weapons. Besides, we were shown how to produce a local drink known as Pucke, a similar drink to tequila. Jokingly, Pucke is also known as Mexican viagra. It was milky and has a strong fermented smell. I still preferred my tequila with limau and salt.

Tequila, a blasting drink with the twist of lime of salt. Pucke, a milky white fermented drink which was known as local viagra. Tried both myself, tequila beat the hell out of pucke.

Obsidian rock with glowing gold colour under sunrays.

Colourful costumes of Mexican culture.

Teotihuacan (as exotic as it sounds) pyramids – The Pyramid of Sun and Moon, was known as “The City of God” by translation. Apparently, it was the place where men could turn to God. The base area was same as the Giza Pyramid in Egypt but the height was only half of that. It was windy with scorching sun but I enjoyed the scenic view very much. The steps were numerous but having experience of climbing the unimaginable Angkor Wat, this was just ABC. Vertigo was always my phobia but strangely enough, I have no problem with deep diving which involves great height underwater.

Pyramid of Moon in Teotihuacan.

I spent 3 good hours in Anthropology Museum, having my foot sore so much but worthy. It was the finest museum of its kind in the world. I was awed with the varieties, quantities and qualities of the exhibitions. Extremely impressive, it gave you the best perception of Central America history. The only drawback was that the descriptions were mostly in Spanish. Chronologically, the style and nature of the exhibitions altered but equally awesome. On the second floor, the Mexican costumes were well presented, such a colourful race! Outside the museum, I witnessed a very typical and interesting ritual, whereby four local Indians hung their foot upside down and spinning from top to down, stun show! See the picture and look at the height! It supposed to spin 52 repetitions to represent one year cycle and to cast away misfortune, accompanying with indigenous music and chanting.

Mexican locals who performed stunning ritual shows.

In conclusion, Mexico city surprised me. I did not expect too much prior to the trip but its rich culture and uniqueness caught me off guard. I wish I had more time to seek for more surprises.

Some of the amazing collections from world-class Anthropology Museum.