Starting the Day Right...

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


I have finally succumbed and bought an iPhone.  Well, if I had not I would not be able to take this picture of Ariel and Winky engaging in some playful swatting.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Sunsets and Beaches

The beach at Rasa Ria, at sunset
After my last visit to Sabah, I knew that it was one place I wanted to revisit.  We had gone to the Kinabatangan, to get a peek at animals of Borneo in their natural habitat, and spent a day or so in Kota Kinabalu.  But we had not seen the beaches which Sabah was famous for.

That was why we went back  It had been a busy few months at work and so, absolutely nothing was planned except a few leisurely days at the Shangri-la Rasa Ria.  I am glad to say that I achieved my objectives of wetting my new swimsuit, acquiring a tan, and getting more photos of young orang-utans.  There is a little nature sanctuary here where these young ones are cared for  before being sent to Sepilok when they grow older, from where they go back to the wild.

So no more talk, here are just some photos to remember this lazy lovely holiday.

Our lovely hotel room

Birds in the grounds of the hotel

By the Pool
Lounging on the day bed on our balcony

Last but not least, my favourite video of the orang utans.

More photos will be put up on Flickr, in due course.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

King of the Driveway

The cat who came to our door.
Paddy first came into our lives somewhere around  2005 or so.  We'd one cat at the time (Casey), and I suppose the news got around the neighbourhood cats that there was cat food available at a particular location.  Anyway, a hungry, meowling cat began hanging around our door.  We gave him a meal, and he decided we were worthy of his adoption.

He was a suspicious cat to begin with.  Evidently, he'd been in a fight or two because there was always a little cloudiness in one eye, even as a young cat.  He lashed out whenever we brought the food dish to him, so we really had to be very quick to whip our hand away quickly so that we didn't get scratched.  But over time, the trust built up and his instinctive response faded away.

Paddy at his overweight best.
Paddy became the king of the front driveway.  Even when other cats started coming in, it was clear that they entered his territory on sufferance. When he was younger, he was less dominant, but as he grew older he became more intolerant of the new arrivals.  His fights were aplenty and he kept on getting wounded, requiring us to nurse him. Finally we got him neutered (we did the females and young males first) and the fighting generally stopped.   He gained so much weight that some passer by once asked whether he was pregnant!

Paddy in his younger days, being fed.
Paddy was my father's special cat.  He fed Paddy every morning and every evening, and often gave him a night snack as well. Paddy came running when my father called, and would rub himself around my father's legs raising his head up to be stroked.  He loved lounging on my car roof, and would slide down the windscreen to get down - something I didn't really appreciate, but he never left a scratch.

Other cats came and went (many in traffic accidents) but Paddy seemed immortal, a cat who knew how to cross the narrow road in front of our house.  But one day, he used up all his nine lives.  On 2 July 2013, my father came home to find Paddy lying in front of our front gate.  That day, he was just not quick enough.

We miss our dear Pads, our big fat cat waddling towards us whenever the door opened, or rubbing his back against our legs to greet us when we came home.  So bye Paddy, may you have a good time in the big rat-catching dreamland where all good cats eventually go to :-)

Our battle hardened warrior taking a rest.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Near the River's End

Catholic church at Vinh Long
The Mekong River is one of the great rivers of the world, travelling through no less than six countries as it makes its way from Tibet and Yunnan in China, past Myanmar, then through Laos' ancient capital Luang Prabang.  The Mekong forms the border between Laos and Thailand and then passes into Cambodia before ending up in Vietnam.  In Laos, I stood on the river bank in Vientiane and looked into Thailand on the other side, and watched the river flow by the golden temples in Luang Prabang.  In Cambodia, I took a boat trip on the Tonle Sap, the lake swollen with the water from the Mekong in full flow.  And here in Vietnam, we visited the little town of Vinh Long in the middle of the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong delta is best done as an overnight trip (at least) from Ho Chi Minh City, rather than the day trip which we took (lazy to pack up lah).  The intent of the trip was to provide a sense of life on the river, but sadly late morning is not the best time to see the floating market of Cai Be.  And whilst I don't mind seeing how local snacks are made (food is always of interest), I have learnt through experience that no one really eats "local" snacks - my office colleagues' favourite is the the mini-Kit Kats, Twix and Aeros which I brought back from the UK one year.  We did however have a perfectly pleasant lunch followed by a short trip being rowed up the river.

Our tour group was all-Asian this time round.  A family group from Malaysia (two sisters, one son, one friend), ourselves and one gentleman from Pakistan (in HCMC on business, taking a day off before his trip back) made up our group.  Needless to say, we got on very well, in particular with one of the ladies from Malaysia with whom we chatted about shopping opportunities in HCMC, compared notes on our hotels etc etc. 

Boats at the market.  
We left the hotel early in the morning and finally arrived in the Mekong delta where we got on the boat which was to take us on our river journey.  The floating market was deserted, except for the "market boats" themselves.  We learnt that this was a wholesale market - the boats came from other branches of the river, bringing their different crops - potatoes, vegetables, fruit, etc - with them.  So the boats will stay there for a while, until their produce is all sold.  The buyers come to the boats to pick up what they want.  To make it easier to see what each boat sells, a sample of the goods is tied to the top of a tall pole on each boat.  So for a boat selling, say, pineapples, a pineapple will be tied to the pole.  Sometimes it is the boat which is for sale, in which case I think it is an oar which is tied to the pole.  In the mornings, when the buyers come by in their own little boats, it must indeed be a bustling, exciting place.
Elephant ear fish

After visiting a few small shops and seeing how some local snacks are made, we chugged across the river and made our way through a maze of islands and rivulets to our lunch venue. Now, one of the specialities of the Mekong delta is the Elephant ear fish, which is deep fried, then eaten tucked into a rice paper roll.  It so happened at one of the little tourist shop stops, there was a tank with a few of these fish inside, where I took the photo you see on your left. You'll be glad to know that (i) the fish I eventually ate was not this fish; it was in a totally different place on the river - at an eco-hostel restaurant some distance away and (ii) it was indeed a rather nice river fish - nicely fried, light and delicate flesh.

After lunch, we were supposed to go to an "ancient house" and hear some traditional music. However, due to time constraint (at least that's the reason given), the guides said that we would do a river boat ride instead, through the narrow channels created at this part of the river.  Actually, I believe that the tide was low and the larger boat we were on needed to be lightened in order for us to get through that portion of the river.  But the trip was enjoyable, and enabled us to have a better glimpse of the activities going on beside and along the river.    Boys continue to swim in the river, boats (containing tourists), manouvre up and down the narrow waterways, people continue to grow their crops and fish and live on the islands.  The old life, and the new, meld together in this warm, watery world.

For more photos of the delta, click here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Streets of Saigon

The Cathedral of Notre Dame
Saigon, the Paris of the East!  Today, the French influence still remains in the elegant boulevards, stately colonial buildings; the coffee (ca phe) houses and the French restaurants; the Notre Dame de Saigon; the thriving gallery and art scene; the shopping!

After the fall of the South Vietnamese government, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  But Saigon still remains, as a district of HCMC, which expands beyond Saigon to the surrounding areas.  We stayed at the Majestic Hotel, an old hotel right by the river.  It is a charming old hotel (with good deals on suites) on Dong Koi avenue, a short walk to the City Centre.

Dong Koi itself is a pleasant, tree-lined street with charming little shops and art galleries.  The souvenir shops are reasonably priced, and the tailoring shops guarantee 24 hour turn-around time.  Art galleries can be found up and down the street - a tour of the Vietnamese art scene all on their own. There the more expensive and upmarket galleries, with more well-known artists, but we also found one which featured the "unknowns" - original pieces selling for about US$150 rather than US$1,500. 
Technology introduced in the cathedral
We walked down Dong Koi to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for Sunday mass.  The building itself would not have been out-of-place in any European city.  The stained glass and little plaques on the walls reminded me of churches in France.  But the Cathedral had its modern touches, the screens at the columns helping us follow the mass. And as choir was singing the hymns in Vietnamese (only the responses were sung in English), it was clear that we were indeed in Vietnam.  And, of course, the priest was Vietnamese :-)  

ATMs replace phone booths
The imposing building next to the Cathedral turned out to be the Post Office. It is still a working Post Office, although half the phone booths at the walls are used as ATMs.  There are souvenir shops in one corner, quite reasonably priced ones too.  Indeed, many of these old colonial buildings dot the city.  The Opera House, the City Hall, other beautiful old Hotels, museums.  In between, newer buildings emerge - sleek office blocks, glitzy shopping centres.  But, the streets are chaotic - full of motorcycles going in all directions.  The air tends to be polluted (or at least that's how I felt before I encountered the haze).

Viet Ca Phe
Coffee houses too are everywhere.  I had a cup of potent Vietnamese coffee in one of the famous Trung Nguyen coffee chain outlets.  It is said, that Trung Nguyen reacted to Starbucks setting up shop in HCMC by opening an outlet in Seattle!  I can well imagine that the robust brews of the Vietnamese can indeed give the tepid and dilute American-style coffee a good run for their money.

The food scene in HCMC left us spoilt for choice.  We dined at old Vietnamese restaurants, in small coffee shops and one night in La Villa, Tripadvisor's top rated restaurant - a place well deserving of its top billing.  Another night was spent at a small pho eatery, which was famous for its spicy beef pho (although it appeared to be priced at a premium for the poor tourist).

Motorcycles streaming past the Opera House
All in all, HCMC is indeed an exciting and vibrant mix of old and new, of east and west. Indeed, a city of developing Asia, rising above the trials of the recent past but still working through the challenges of rapid growth.

More photos of my visit can be found here, together with the record of earlier trips to Vietnam.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Re-unification of Vietnam

Helicopter at the Reunification Palace Helipad

For me, one icon of the Vietnam War is the helicopter - yes, I'm thinking of the one in Miss Saigon with the American G.I. waiting beside it, to take the heroine to the US.  Of course, she never shows up... ... and he is forced to fly off without her.  Saigon, more than 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, is a completely different city.

The Reunification Palace is however one place where time has stood still.  In itself a result of the strife in Vietnam after WWII, the Palace was completed in 1966 after the previous Presidential Palace (the Independence Palace) was bombed and partially destroyed by two pilots who rebelled and bombed the Palace instead of the Viet Cong.  The Palace was too badly damaged to be repaired and was instead rebuilt.  However, it did not last long as the seat of power.  On 30 Apr 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the main gates of the Palace, culminating in  the dramatic "handover" of power to the North Vietnamese government.

Mahjong, anyone?
Today, the Palace remains more or less untouched from these last days.  The upper floors contain the formal reception rooms and meeting areas, including an auditorium and the Cabinet meeting room.  On the top floor, however, things get a little more interesting with the addition of a mini cinema and a gambling room.  The mahjong table is still on display.  

But what makes the Palace truly interesting is the basement, fitted out with the communications equipment and maps required for the President to keep a handle on the progress of the war.  The mood is sombre, and heavy.  A place and a government which history has left in the dust; events have moved elsewhere and the palace remains today as a museum and tourist attraction.  

A small exhibition in the basement of the Palace gives a brief pictorial history of Vietnam in the 1960s to recent days.  The events leading up to the war, the protests against the previous government are all covered.  There are still some hardware around to be seen - a helicopter rests on the helipad; replicas of the tanks which went through the gates of the Palace sit near the exit.

But the Reunification Palace as a whole is a calm and serene looking building.  No longer a seat of power, it is now a memorial to moment in time where the fate of Vietnam was decided.  Hopefully, its days of turmoil and strife, of bitter battles and last stands, are finally over.

Reunification Palace

More photos here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Re-visiting Vietnam's Tumultuous Past : Cu Chi Tunnels

The decades following WWII were tumultuous ones for South East Asia.  It was a time when the colonial powers - the British, French and Dutch - were slowly withdrawing from their colonies in South East Asia.  A time when Communism found fertile ground amidst a people who were fired with a new nationalism, and a burning desire  for Independence.  We were fortunate in Singapore and Malaysia, where the new democracies were able to withstand the Communist threat.  But the countries of IndoChina - Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, went through many  years of turmoil, war, and hardship.  The legacy of the Vietnam War was not so apparent in Hanoi, or Danang/Hoi Ann - the only other places in Vietnam I had been to previously - but here in Ho Chi Minh City, the memories and reminders of the War are still very much all around.  We visited both the Reunification Palace, and the Cu Chi Tunnels - both must see sights for visitors to HCM City.

Emerging from the tunnel
We went to Cu Chi Tunnels in a small tour group, comprising a British family (of three), a solitary Brit and three male Aussies. I did think that it would be a leetle awkward if there was an American tourist on this particular tour!  Our guide, Son, was a young man at the time of the pivotal events which led to the successful capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese forces and the reunification of Vietnam.  Now 62 years old, Son gave an authoritative tour of the tunnel system, and of how the tunnels were used.  He punctuated his narrative with warnings of potential dangers facing unwary tourists and reminded us that our task was to follow him, as he certainly would not be following us.

What do we see of the tunnels? The site itself has changed, we were informed, as during the war there were no trees or greenery covering the site.  These would have been bombed to smithereens or killed by chemical agents, by the American forces who were trying to clear the Viet Cong from the area.  Today, there are youngish trees covering the site.  Bomb craters still remain, here and there. Tunnel entrances dot the place. From their positioning, and distance from each other, we do get an impression of the labyrinth beneath our feet.  There are a few types of tunnels, we are told, ranging from the small, narrow "one-star" tunnels which presumably were just meant for the Viet Cong fighters to sneak out to attack the enemy, up to the "five-star tunnels" which were used as living quarters, and even had electricity!  A "soldier" showed us how the fighters emerged and returned into the "one-star tunnels" - indeed, with the leaves covering the earthen "lid" of the tunnel entrance, it would be difficult for any casual observer to spot the entrance.  Our guide also showed us how people lived in the tunnels. Every now and there, there were big bunkers - which formed eating/cooking/sleeping spaces.  Smoke was channeled from the bunker itself to a point some distance away, to misdirect watchers from guessing where the bunker really was. What did they eat or drink?  Obviously food was scarce.  We sampled some - tea made from pandan leaves and steamed tapioca.

Visitors also watch a documentary at the site..  Although obviously propaganda, the hardships
Visitor exploring the damaged tank
faced by the civilian population do come across clearly.  The short film includes short portrayals of the heroes and heroines of the fighting, including a farmer whose mine-laying capabilities took out numerous enemy tanks/soldiers, and a young girl who fought as fiercely as any man.   Using explosives taken from the enemy, the Viet Cong made their own mines - and used them to deadly effect.   The site also shows examples of the traps used to capture/maim the enemy.

Did we go down into the tunnels?  The answer is yes- there are a few tunnels open to visitors.  These have been widened and strengthened for the purpose.  Nonetheless, they are still quite cramped especially for larger visitors.  Small Asian girls like me, can squeeze through with ease (even though I still had to go through doubled up).  Unfortunately, I suspect that the guide leading us through got a little fed up with the bunch of tourists behind him who were complaining about hitting their heads and apparently brought us up to the surface before the trickier portion of that particular tunnel was reached.  Hmmf.  But out of the group of 9 tourists, only four (including us two Asian girls) even made it to the halfway mark.

All in all, the Cu Chi tunnels certainly served their purpose of enabling the Viet Cong to hold the land, even though the South Vietnamese and America forces may still have held the cities and towns.  But as Son reminded us at the end of the tour, war is a terrible thing. Today, the Vietnamese people want to live in peace and harmony with all.

More photos found here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Candle for St Joseph

I had written previously about the chapel of St Francis next to the busy Hynes Convention Centre in the Prudential Tower, Boston.

I have not been back to Boston since my student days there, almost 7 years ago. But somehow, when I was at the Prudential Centre, my footsteps took me almost automatically to the chapel. The first thing I saw was the statue of St Joseph. So, since my grandmother passed away on the 1st of May, just over two weeks ago, it seemed like the right thing to say a rosary for her in this serene and prayerful place and thank St Joseph for his aid in granting her a tranquil death surrounded by those she loved and who loved her.

God bless you, Grandma!

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