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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

I read the book “The Gift” for the first time in the Starbucks section of a bookshop in Bangkok somewhere back in November 2009. I remember tearing up at the end of the book and going out of the shop with a lump in my throat. This is the second time I’ve read the book and it still has exactly the same effect.

The Slog Reviews: 8.5/10. The story in short is about a man, Lou, who is a very busy man trying to do two things simultaneously at every single moment. 1 of the two things is always work-related where he is trying to get ahead. “Lou had spent so many years moving so quickly through the minutes, hours and days, through the moments, that he’d stopped noticing life. The looks, gestures and emotions of other people had since stopped being important or visible to him. Passion had driven him at first, and then, while on his way to the somewhere he wanted to be, he’d left it behind.” Anyway, on impulse, he gives a job to a “man” named Gabe who is homeless. Through Gabe, he learns how to make time for his family and slow down just a bit. Gabe also gives him a pill which is supposed to allow him to be in two places at a time. Anyway, Lou dies in the end in a car crash, but is given the last of the pill by a police-woman who arrives at the scene which allows him to be with his family for one last night where he asks for forgiveness and tells them how much they mean to him.

I like these parts of the book:

1. The lesson of the story. Appreciating your loved ones. Acknowledging all the special people in your life. Concentrate on what’s important.

2 Time is more precious than money, more precious than anything. Because you can never earn more time. Once an hour goes by, a week, a month, a year, you’ll never get them back. Lou was running out of time and Gabe gave him more, to help tie things up, to finish things properly. That’s the gift. So we should fix things before it’s too late.

3. One thing of great importance can affect a small number of people Equally so, a thing of little importance can affect a multitude. Either way, a happening – big or small – can affect an entire string of people. Occurrences can join us all together. You see, we’ll all made up of the same stuff. When something happens, it triggers something inside us that connects us to a situation, connects us to other people…A lesson finds the common denominator and links us all together like a chain. AT the end of that chain dangles a clock…enough time leaves us warm; when our time is gone, it too leaves us cold.

4. Time is more precious than gold, more precious than diamonds, more precious than oil or valuable treasures. It is time we do not have enough of, it is time that causes the war within our hearts, and so we must spend it wisely. Time can’t be given. But it can be shared.

Have a little faith by Mitch Albom

Reading this book made me ask myself some pretty hard questions about my own life, questions which I would not have otherwise asked. Some parts of the book gave me hope, some parts made me sad about the state of things as they stand now. I guess how one reacts to a book is largely dependent on one’s state of life/mind. While the story is simple (the author is asked to do the eulogy for his rabbi and the author gets involved in a church set up by an ex-con), it captures the author’s search for what he feels truly matters in life. The Slog Reviews: 8.5/10. You won’t feel that the short time taken to read this book is wasted and it is likely that the reflections of the author in the book will stay with you after you have turned the last page.

Some parts of the book which I liked:

1. (Part of a sermon by the Rabbi) “My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of I could have and I should have. We can sleep in a storm and when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.

2. Much of what we called “depression” was really dissatisfaction, a result of setting a bar impossibly high or expecting treasures that we weren’t willing to work for. I knew people whose unbearable source of misery was their weight, their baldness, their lack of advancement in the workplace, or their inability to find the perfect mate, even if they themselves did not behave like one. To these people, unhappiness was a condition, an intolerable state of affairs. If pills could help, pills were taken. But pills were not going to change the fundamental problem in the construction. Wanting what you can’t have. Looking for self-worth in the mirror. Layering work on top of work and still wondering why you weren’t satisfied – before working some more.

3. He loved to smile. He avoided anger. He was never haunted by “Why am I here?” He knew why he was here, he said: to give to others, to celebrate God and to enjoy and honor the world he was put in. His morning prayers began with “Thank you Lord, for returning my soul to me” When you start that way, the rest of the day is a bonus.

4. Having more does not keep you from wanting more. When a baby comes into the world, its hands are clenched…because a baby, not knowing any better, wants to grab everything to say “The whole world is mine” But when an old person dies, how does he do so? With his hands open. Why? Because he has learnt the lesson... “We can take nothing with us.

5. The secret of happiness. Be satisfied. Be grateful. For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you. That’s it.

6. Can you predict which marriages will survive? Sometimes. If they’re communicating well, they have a good chance. If they have a similar belief system, similar values, they have a good chance. Love they should always have. But love changes. A love is proven through actions, not words. The kind (of love) you realise you already have by the life you’ve created together – that’s the kind of love that lasts.

7. The Reb once did a sermon on how the same things in life can be good or evil, depending on what, with free will, we do with them…But nowhere in the story of Creation, do we read the word “bad”. God did not create bad things. God leaves it to us…Why doesn’t he eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive? Because, from the beginning, God said, I’m going to put this world into your hands. If I run everything, then that’s not you. So we were created with a piece of divinity inside us, but with this thing called free will.

8. (Casey). But it’s not me against the other guy. It’s God measuring you against you. Maybe all you get are chances to do good, and what little bad you do ain’t much bad at all. But because God has put you in the position where you can always do good, when you do something bad, it’s like you let God down. And maybe people who only get chances to do bad, always around bad things, like us, when they finally make something good out of it. God’s happy.

9. (Reb to Mitch). It does no good to be angry or carry grudges. It churns you up inside. It does you more harm than the object of your anger. Let it go or don’t let it get started in the first place…Nothing haunts like the things we don’t say.

Korean Garden Club Restaurant at Johor Bahru

A few months ago, I was introduced to the Korean Garden Club Restaurant which is situated en route to the Danga Bay area along the road parallel to the Johor Straits. The restaurant is on the right side of the road if you are travelling towards Danga Bay from City Square at Pusat Bandaraya/customs area so one has to look out for its large red signboard to turn in (across traffic in the opposite direction) and go up a small slope to a white bungalow where the restaurant is situated. Parking is free on the bungalow's premises and there is indoor (there is a tv and air-conditioning) and outdoor (one can see the waters of the straits) seating. The address is No. 20, Jalan Skudai, Straits View, Johor Bahru, Johor 80200 Tel: 07-2244733 and the restaurant is opened from 12noon to 11pm.

This time round when I went back, I opted for the set meal for 2-3person priced at RM110. As with most Korean meals, the complimentary side dishes came first. There were 9 side dishes ranging from kimchi, cockles, bean sprouts, mashed potato salad, mushrooms, seaweed, anchoives, green veg and boiled eggs in brown sauce. We could find absolutely no fault with any of the 9 simple side dishes.

There is a cooking area in the middle of each table where the meat is cooked in front of one's eyes by the servers in the restaurants (no, this is not a diy restaurant). And, the meat isn't cooked by the conventional gas flames but by the flames from a charcoal pot. The bottom of the steel pan can be removed and a pot of lit charcoal is placed in the hollow. The picture below is of the first main course we had which was sliced ox tongue. Each piece was so thin and delicate and the server cooking the meat for us cooked each slice to perfection despite the roaring flames from the charcoal pot below.

The second main course we had was the marinated short ribs beef. The steel pan with the ox tongue was removed and replaced with a steel pan containing the short ribs. There are no bones to this thing by the way - it's a large slab of absolutely mouth-wateringly orgasmic slab of beef meat. The server cooked the meat again to just the right tenderness and sliced it into bite-sized portions which he put on a vegetable leaf for us to eat at leisure from.

The next 2 items on the set meal which we ordered were stonepot rice and toufu soup. Another server brought over the two items which came in the black traditional korean stonepots and set it on a foldable table next to our table. Both items were sizzling hot and she mixed/stirred both items in front of us before distributing it evenly in the two bowls.

A close up picture of the toufu soup and stonepot rice in the picture below. The toufu soup was so good that we drained the bowl to the last drop. It was full of veg, mushrooms and soft fresh toufu. The soft toufu contrasted nicely with the heat of the spicy soup in one's mouth and it was a most satisfying soup which did not leave one feeling thirsty. The stonepot rice was so-so.

The Slog Reviews: 9/10. If you are in Johor and if you want to enjoy a good meal of bbq korean food, this should be the place to go. Good customer service, clean premises and a beef lover's delight. For all of the above and 2 cups of aloe vera juice (1 cup is RM4), the bill came to RM 130+ (SGD 50+) only.

Bishan Prawn Fishing at Sin Ming Avenue

I had some sort of a course on Friday afternoon at bishan area which ended early about 5pm so I decided to check out the popular prawn fishing place at Sin Ming Ave. The prawn fishing place is next to the golf academy and parking at the open-air carpark is free. There are two ponds of similar size - the picture below is of one of the ponds whcih I took from where I was sitting.

As usual, I did not pay to go prawn fishing right away but asked for permission to sit and observe the catch-rate, bite-rate, crowd, facilities, rods etc. The counter was manned by a youngish Chinese-speaking lady who was friendly enough and the rods for rent were decent enough. There are a couple of vending machines for drinks on the premises and the connecting hawker centre sells beer and food like satay and chicken wings (someone walks around taking orders) to the pp prawn fishing. Unlike Ebi Culture which catered for the English-speaking crowd, this place is for the Chinese-speaking crowd. What would have been a nice peaceful silence is filled instead with loud Chinese songs (love ones esp) and bustling ah sohs, aunties, ah peks and uncles all speaking at the top of their voices in dialect and Chinese. There are also resident cats and dogs on the premises which is rather clean. The catch rate and bite rate were pretty decent. About 2 bites every 15 mins or so and the prawns ranged from decent-sized to rather large specimens. I was very tempted to rent a rod and go prawning myself :D

The Slog Reviews: 8/10. A good enough place to go prawning if there is one. Can't compare with my beloved ebi culture of course which played English music, had a younger crowd, and was quiet enough (not so many pp) but beats punggol prawn fishing hands down.

Update in March 2010: Click here to read about my experience prawn fishing at Bishan Prawn Fishing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thanks for the memories by Cecelia Ahern

I finished reading "Thanks for the memories" by Cecelia Ahern some 2 weeks odd ago along with my weekly Time magazine and I just haven't had time to update at all.

Anyway, this book is about a woman age 34 who has been married for some time, finally gets pregnant, rushes to answer a telephone call (from the video rental shop reminding her to return the dvd she borrowed) falls down the stairs and receives a blood transfusion in the hospital. She lost her baby in the fall, and she decides to separate from her husband because the love has long gone out of the marriage. Moves back in with her elderly dad (her mother died sometime back) and starts dreaming again and again of a little girl and a red-haired woman. She also starts learning how to speak in a language she has never learnt and to find out she knows stuff now that she never knew before. Her path starts crossing with a divorced gentleman from the States but somehow or other, they keep missing the chance to really know each other. Turns out that this gentleman had donated blood and she was the receipient of his blood.

The Slog Reviews: 7.5/10. Plot was simple and makes for a light entertaining read.

Some parts of the book worth remembering:

1. Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim (Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you)

2. It occurs to me how happiness and sadness are so closely knitted together. Such a thin line, a threadlike divide. In the midst of emotions, it trembles, blurring the territory of exact opposites. The movement is minute, like the thin string of a spider's web that quivers under a raindrop....at your weakest, you end up showing more strength; at your lowest, you are suddenly lifted higher than you've ever been. They all border one another, these opposites, and show how quickly we can be altered. Despair can be altered by one simple smile offered by a stranger...everything is on the verge, always brimming the surface, with only a slight shake or tremble to send things toppling.

3. A veil hangs between the two opposites, a mere slip of a thing too transparent to warn us or comfort us. You hate now, but look through this veil and see the possibility of love; you're said, but look through to the other side and see happiness. Absolute composure shifting to a complete mess - it happens so quickly, all in the blink of an eye.

Arashi Shabu Shabu Restaurant at Jusco Tebrau City

I had lunch at Arashi Shabu Shabu Japanese Restaurant at Johor Bahru's Jusco Tebrau City some time ago. The restaurant is fairly new and it is evident that a lot of thought has gone into the decor of the place to make it look more upmarket.

According to the materials on each table, what makes Arashi unique is its sauce bar which a customer having a shabu shabu meal can help oneself to (or pay RM2 if one isn't having a shabu shabu meal). The customer can mix and match the various types of sauces which consist of satay sauce, special sauce, devil sauce, sesame sauce, chinese parsley, tonkatsu sauce, teriyaki sauce, mala sauce and miso sauce.

The cost of a shabu shabu meal starts from RM 16.90 and one has a choice of miso broth or japanese broth. To have the kimuchi or tom yam broth, one would have to add a further RM2. There are no refills for the broth. The types of shabu shabu meals are ostrich meat, beef, seafood scallop, tempura etc. If one does not want shabu shabu, one can choose from the set meal page. The prices for the set meals from RM 19.90 to RM 28.90. We shared one ostrich meat shabu shabu ramen set and one beef shabu shabu ramen set with 2 cups of iced green tea which came in total to about RM 43.

The Slog Reviews: 7.5/10. While the ambiance of the restaurant and service level were above average, the portion of the food served for the price paid could be a tad too little - especially for a restaurant which isn't considered fine-dining. The sauces at the sauce bar are also far from exceptional save for the variety which is more than the norm and the ability for one to mix and match the sauces to a combination that one might enjoy.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Invictus (2009) movie and Lao Goh Teochew Fried Carrot Cake

Nothing beats watching a movie in gold class with an unlimited supply of food and drinks from the menu, all for free. If I had the $, I would watch every single movie I've watched in the soft plush gold class recliner seats all snuggled up in a blanket. As it is, I estimate that this wonderful experience has been limited to 20 or so movies...ah well, such is the life of a slog.

Anyhow, it was a company event that I had been invited to. There was some really good food provided to the guests at the gold class lounge and I had only one round because everyone else was standing around busy networking near the buffet table. To get to the food again, I would have to break through the little groups of people and that would not be very nice given that everyone else was not eating.

So, the movie, Invictus. A good plot summary of the movie can be found here. The Slog Reviews: 8.5/10. The acting by Morgan Freeman (esp) and Matt Damon was superb. And it was brilliant that a sport could bring together, and to its feet, a nation torn apart for years by racism and poverty. Invictus is the name of a poem and the last 2 lines in particular are easy to remember - "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." According to Mandela in the movie, this poem inspired him to stand when all he wanted to do was to lie down - 27 years in a prison cell Mandela spent, freedom, privacy, human contact/bonding all stripped from him. I would be tempted to lie down too if I had to spent a great part of my life like that.

For starters, I wouldn't be able to have, as I did after watching Invictus, a plate of sinful fried carrot cake from Lau Goh Teochew Chye Thow Kway at #01-26 Zion Rd Riverside Food Centre.

The Slog Reviews: 9/10. This stall is THE stall in Singapore to have chye thow kway
from. It deserves all the rave reviews that it has gotten so far and I am hard-pressed to think of another stall that sells better fried carrot cake than this one.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Al Borgo Italian Restaurant

My friend whom I hadn't met for over a year introduced me to an Italian restaurant named Al Borgo Italian Restaurant where we had our dinner tonight. Al Borgo is located at 383 Bukit Timah Road #01-92 Alocassia Apartments which is on Robin Lane just off Bukit Timah Road. For a weekday night (Wed night), there were quite a number of diners (mostly caucasians) and the seating capacity of the restaurant isn't very large (say about 50max). Therefore, one is advised to make reservations. The telephone number for Al Borgo is 6737 3546.

Al Borgo has quite a comprehensive wine list and offers everything italian from pasta dishes to pizzas to rissotto to meat (veal, beef etc) and seafood (crayfish) main courses. There is of course a range of italian dessert and drinks (coffee, hot chocolate, juices etc) The appetisers (cold and hot) alone take up two pages of the menu. Iced/warm water as well as bread and the bread's olive oil dip is complimentary and served shortly after the menu is provided to a diner. One should note that it is wise to ask the service staff for recommendations as there are dishes which are not listed on the menu.

My friend and I had one hot appetiser - a cheesy something (the names of the dishes are in Italian with the descriptions of the fishes in English). The Slog Reviews: 8/10. The cost of this dish was more than SGD 10 and there were only 3 pieces of the cheesy stufff. I mean, there were 2 of us and it would have been nicer if they had served 4 pieces of the bite-sized cheesy portions instead (given the price and the size of each portion, that shouldn't have been a problem). The stuff in the middle is mushrooms.

We also decided to share a cold appetiser - parma ham with melon. The cost of this dish was SGD 16.50. The Slog Reviews: 8/10. The ham was "saltishly" good but again, there were only 3 pieces to be shared by 2 pp. The melon was very sweet and went well with the parma ham. Definitely worth trying but I'll say the price is really steep for 3 thin pieces of parma ham only.

I ordered the risotto with mushrooms and cheese. This is how the dish looked like - not very impressive for SGD 22.50. The Slog Reviews: 7/10. I had risotto at La Braceria about a month back and that was really good stuff. What I had tonight I am afraid, doesn't come close. If you like eating hard individual grains of rice, then maybe you might like this dish.

I ended the meal with the lava chocolate cake for dessert.The cake in a dish is set in front of you, some sort of fluid poured over the top of the cake and the waiter lights up the same with a lighter. The result: a flaming (the blue flames flare up pretty high) chocolate cake. The fire goes out after a min and the cake becames a molten oozing chocolate mass beneath a fine crust of chocolate The Slog Reviews:8/10. This dessert was SGD 9+ which was pretty reasonable.
I heard from my friend that Al Borgo doesn't advertise itself much but depends on regulars and word-of-mouth business. Judging from the crowd (which appeared to be very well-heeled from the luxury cars they were driving) that night, this restaurant appears to be doing pretty well catering to those with deeper pockets and a taste for finer dining. The head waiter is really friendly and keeps coming around to ask how the dishes are. We are of course polite and tell them everything is great because he appears sincerely concerned about our dining experience. The italian chef himself came out to ask us how the food was too. Well worth a visit at least once for the superb service and wide selection of genuine italian food cooked by italian chefs.

Freshwater Pond Fishing in Shenzhen on 25 Oct 09

One Sunday in October 09, while in Shenzhen for work on a trip that spanned the weekend, I went fishing with 1 of my colleagues and our local partners there. This is the second time that we have fished together at the same spot which is next to a popular frog-themed resort park (they have statues of frogs everywhere) about an hour's drive from our regular hotelon Hua Qiang Bei Lu. I am afraid I can't give directions there (one should use the highway that much I know) but here's a picture which I hope will prove useful if you wish to go to the Waterlands Resort (Hai Shang Tian Yuan) in Shenzhen. I haven't been in the resort and haven't a clue what goes on in there (I spend all the time at the fishing pond) but it's quite popular amongst tourists and locals.

This is how the fishing freshwater pond looks like (as of October 09 at least). As you can see, it is relatively primitive and undeveloped and one can fish from any spot along the banks or from the wooden structure house overlooking the pond. Although it is far more challenging to land a fish from the wooden house which stands on stilts, you are likely to catch more fish fishing from that house than from the edge of the pond based on my observations. The wooden house used to house the fishing operator (they were there in April 09 when I went there for the first time) but they have since moved out and the house is deserted. One is therefore advised to bring one's own rods, reels, hooks and bait. The fish here are fed on bread mix and take small hooks.

In April 09, we didn't require any license whatsoever to fish but in Oct 09, we were required to get fishing permits before we could fish. The picture below is of 1 of my local partner's daughter with the permit around her neck. The fishing permits are easily obtained (well, at least our local partners got them for us without any problems) from a white house with a blue roof located near the ponds (not the wooden house as per the picture below) and I think there is a very nominal cost for each permit. The fish that she is holding appears to be a baby tilapia and one should be warned that there are many of these critters in the pond which eat one's bait meant for bigger fishes. Therefore, one should check one's bait frequently and rebaiting more than 4 times every half hour is to be expected.

This is a picture of me and the first fish I caught, a small red-bellied pacu. I understand from my local partners that these fishes were recently introduced to the pond (they certainly weren't there in April 09) and one should be careful of their very sharp teeth. In fact, I lost almost 5 small hooks to pacus. One is therefore advised to use wired leader. I had been fishing from 10am to 12.30pm without a bite from the wooden house (the picture below shows the platform of the wooden house overlooking the pond) when my colleague at the other end of the platform yelled he had a bite. I ran over to him with my line trailing in the water when I felt a jerk and pull. I struck and after some furious splashing (pacus are great fighters especially on light line), I landed my first red-bellied pacu. Oh, I should mention that we were all pole-fishing in Shenzhen ie fishing without a reel - the line is tied to the end of an extendable pole, pretty much like prawn fishing. There were only a couple of other people at the pond using spinning reels but most other folks in China do pole fishing. Luring apparently remains unpopular in Shenzhen. Pole fishing can be far more challenging than fishing with a reel (the marvels of technology) and yes, it takes a certain technique to strike and land a fish with just a pole and a line that one cannot retrieve (as with a reel) to bring a fish in. A picture of my rented pole behind me.

This fishing trip I caught about 4 red-bellied carps and 3 grass carps. 1 of the grass carps was the largest fish caught amongst all the fishes we caught. The picture below is of that large carp next to a men's size 11 sandal to give you an idea of its size. The memory of catching this carp is one of the best memories I have. :) Just a word of caution though, the last fishing trip I saw a man's pole break into half due to the sheer weight of the carp on the other end - these carps can grow to quite a nice size. That is one of the pitfalls of using a rented pole to fish (as opposed to fishing with expensive rods and reels).

Our party fished from 10am to about 6pm when the sun went down. I caught 7 fishes in all out of the 21. The fishes were kept alive in a net which we left in the pond under careful supervision. Better to be safe than sorry. The picture below is of our fishing party and our haul (you can see my large reddish grass carp at the top hehe).

Our local partners took us to a seafood restaurant about 5 mins away from the fishing ponds which is built on stilts over water. The restaurant owner was more than happy to cook the fishes we caught (probably because our local partners ordered moutai which is about 50% alcohol and the most expensive type of alcohol in China). We decided to have the largest carp that I caught (it's at the top of the pic) and two pacus (bottom left of the pic). The pacus make terrible table food with all its bones and little meat. The carp while fleshy had a muddy taste. Of course, as it was hairy crab season, we had hairy crabs too and I had two of 'em because my colleague let me have his. Hairy crabs are amongst the more expensive food, even in China. I would have taken more pics of the food (and the hairy crabs opened with their eggy insides) but for formal dinners, if you know what I mean, it is almost impossible to take pictures of food without atttracting stares or even worse, glares from the bosses :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Legion (2010) Movie

I watched the movie Legion today which was a bad mistake. It was either that or the Tooth Fairy movie and since both movies had winged entities, I figured the one with more action would give me more bang for the buck. Well, it sure did. In fact, I am banging myself up for my sheer stupidity because I paid good money to scare myself again. I told you before, I don't like horror movies and now I'll probably get nightmares from the scenes in Legion.

The Slog Reviews: 5/10 because of the weak story plot which can be summarised easily as per the link above. Paul Bettany is hot though here - he looks much slimmer and fitter than he did in the Da Vinci Code movie (but then again he was sneaking around in a loose cossack). I thought it was tragic that everyone in the diner was killed save for Jeep and Charlie (and her baby of course). And the three most terrifying characters were, the ice-cream man when his limbs became elongated and he scuttled about like a spider, Gladys, when she climbed up the ceiling and saving the best for the last, the little boy who pretended to be trapped in the car and killed Kyle. That was quite terrifying, when Kyle realised the little boy was in fact one of the possessed (the little boy in his arms started humming a tune before biting his neck) and when the little boy left bloody handprints on the ceiling before attacking Charlie. Ugh. The only good stuff I remember about from the movie is near the end when Michael tells Gabriel about showing mercy.

Ho Chi Minh City on 16 Jan 2010

Pho (pronounced as "Fur") is one of the most well-known and popular Vietnamese dishes. I have eaten Pho at five star hotels in Vietnam, from street-side hawkers for 20,000 VND (less than SGD 2), at fast-food chain outlets in Ho Chi Minh and even tried home-cooked Pho. I love Pho, a simple yet tasty and filling dish consisting of white rice noodles (kway teoh) and beef/chicken. What marks a good bowl of Pho is the quality of its soup and meat.

On my second visit to Ho Chi Minh (the last visit was in Oct 06) on 16 Jan 2010, the very first meal I had there was Pho Bong (beef noodles) from a coffeeshop. As you can see from the picture below, a bowl of pho is always served with sides like beansprouts (the white vegetable on the left of the pic) which one can add as much of as one wants to the soup which gives the meal more bite (bean sprouts are crunchy). One can also add a dash of lime and chili to give the soup more taste.

I had a room at The Park Hyatt Saigon facing the Opera House. The room was far nicer than the one at Kota Kinabalu, complete with a LCD TV, reclining couch by the window, a wash basin area with a large mirror, a bath-tub and a rain shower. The location at District 1 is superb ( close to shopping centers and to LV, Gucci etc) and the hotel is new with a very nice swimming pool (small cascading waterfall). The Slog Reviews: 9/10. If I had to foot the bill, I would be USD 280 x (no. of nights) poorer. More of an indulgence than necessity to stay at this hotel. Sheraton which is within walking distance to The Park Hyatt appears to be more popular with travellers because of its lower rates.

A picture of myself at the Park Hyatt's reception area. Mirrors are about the only way to get a picture of myself when I am not travelling for leisure.

1 of us had a brilliant idea and connections of some sort so guess where I had lunch...the casino at Sheraton (Park Hyatt does not have a casino within its premises). And, the complimentary steak which I had was mighty good too - thick and juicy. However, we had to have our meals on a foldup make-shift table next to the jackpot machines as there was only one dining area with just one table. I saw some other punters having pizza and pho but I would think that the steak is the best value. The currency used at the casino is USD.

Below is a picture of the entrance of the city's famous Ben Thanh market. I'd been inside before in 2006 and had no wish to revisit the place again (although it is immensely popular with tourists, esp those who like bargaining). There is an extremely cheap (30,000 VND only) public bus 152 right outside the airport departure gates which takes one from the airport to the south side of this market. From there, one can hail a metered cap to get anywhere in the city. Contrast this to my experience of paying USD 8 for a taxi to Park Hyatt from the hotel (I got a cab from the airport taxi counters outside the departure lounge).

Vietnam has lots of rice paddy fields so it's no surprise that many stalls sell rice. The picture below is my favourite picture of the trip which I took in a market (not Ben Thanh). I am not sure how one can tell the different grades of rice apart really.

I also took the picture below in the same market. A friend of mine posed a very good question - how would ladies be able to try on the undergarments before buying? To that, I have no answer at all. To us, it would look like the female seller is wearing her pyjamas in the day but that is the dressing of the common Vietnamese people during the day. My mother tells me that this was how Singaporeans dressed in the 60s to 70s.

It is common to see scenes like the one below on the streets of Vietnam - women wearing the traditional cone-shaped hats and selling fruits (mangos, bananas etc) on the pavements of the dusty streets. I was told that most Vietnamese men are usually unemployed, drink, smoke and beat their wives while the women go out to work. I have no idea how true that is but indeed there were many women selling all sorts of stuff from fruits to bags to shoes under the hot sun along the road sides. We don't have scenes like that in clean green Singapore. When I go to the less developed countries, I am reminded of how good I have it compared to so many others out there who find each day a challenge to put food on the table for their children.

Most of the streets in Ho Chi Minh look like the one below. There are telephone/electricity wires strung above the ground and the most common form of transport is a scooter/bike/moped. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh is crazy - I usually rent a car/motorbike when holidaying overseas but the safest and easiest way for a tourist to get around Ho Chi Minh is by taxi. Trust me on this - just get a taxi for the first day and observe the sheer madness of the bikes cutting right and left and the cars not following the faded white lane lines on the road. Crossing the road as a pedestrian is a challenge too but a smaller challenger than riding around - all one has to do is to inch forward cautiously when there isn't so much traffic (there will always be traffic) and the bikes will avoid you as best as they can. I wouldn't recommend jaywalking though, especially in Ho Chi Minh - one of the cases I had before was a personal injury case where a motorbike slammed into a woman's legs and broke the bones. Although this happened in Singapore with its first/world class health care, the damage to her legs was ugly and lasting.

I'll end this entry with a picture of a home-cooked meal I had at Ho Chi Minh. The rice sesame cracker (pic on the top left) is eaten with the small clams (pic on the top right) as an appetiser. The main course was pho of course (no one can ever get enough of pho :D) and we had home-made coconut jellies for dessert which tasted pretty much like what you can get in Singapore. It isn't often that one can have a home-cooked meal in a foreign land and despite one of my friends putting it as "From Hyatt to Hovel", I would say that it was a privilege for me part-take and experience in this meal.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Grey Hound Racing and Seafood in Vietnam (Vung Tau) on 17 Jan 2010

With some time to spare in the late afternoon, we caught a ferry to Vung Tau. Apparently, it is wise to buy the tickets from Vina Express in advance (the last ferry from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau is at 4.30pm) because we saw some unfortunate souls who were unable to buy their tickets. Luckily, we had asked the concierge at our hotel, Park Hyatt, to call Vina Express to reserve the tickets for us. Each ticket has a seat number (the seats on the boat are numbered too) so one is assured of a seat on board and a complimentary bottle of water and wet napkin. The journey from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau by ferry is one and a half hours. There is a television on board but unless you understand Vietnamese, there is pretty nothing much else to do or even see on board because the windows are dirty. The only way to get a view would be to stand outside the cabin of the very long ferry but the wind is awfully strong and the view, nothing to shout about. Do note though that each ferry departs on the dot (they don't wait for all late-comers) and the seats are narrow and set very close to each other. The price of a one way ticket is 160,000VND for an adult.

Vung Tau is popular amongst the locals for its beaches. This is a picture I took of one of Vung Tau's beaches from the 9th floor of a Dic Star Hotel. The color of the sea is a dull light grey and the beaches are not made powdery white but a dull shade. Nothing like the beaches of the Tungku Abdul Rahman Marine Park's islands. There weren't any tourists sunbathing at any of the deckchairs put out near the beaches but there were many locals playing ball games on the beaches or dipping in the sea. I didn't see any lifeguards on duty so I guess it is a case of swim-at-your-own-peril. The sea water is rather dirty because right after I got out, my legs started itching. I never had that happen before.

We had dinner at this seafood restaurant on Vung Tau which is immensely popular with indoor and outdooor seaside dining (although you can see only the inky darkness of the sea in the night). The restaurant is rather large indeed and despite most tables being filled, we had no problems at all getting a table and being served quickly.

There were various types of live seafood kept in ponds in the restaurant such as lobster, fish and crabs. I would have liked to order more (and I mean, much more) food that night but as I was a guest, I had no say in what was ordered at all. Here are some of the items that I got to try: boiled prawns (the waitress brought the live prawns to our table for us to inspect first), white clams (these were really good), crab done in chilli (bottom right pic) and pieces of fish in a mixture of salty gravy in a claypot. The Slog Reviews: 8.5/10. Everything was so fresh, so cheap and cooked just right. The white clams and fish dishes especially are unique dishes (I have never had these dishes cooked this way in Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand) which I think are worth a try if you are in Vietnam.

We also had this vegetable dish which I'd never eaten before - pumpkin leaves. I didn't really like the soggy wet taste of the bud but the stems were okay. Wouldn't recommend this dish if one isn't a vegetable-lover.

After dinner, we took a cab to the greyhound racing track, which is the only race course for greyhounds in Vietnam. The track is located at 15 Le Loi Street and the entrance fee for any one over 10 years of age is 25,000 VND for grandstand tickets and 55,000 VND for VIP tickets. From what I understand, there are 12 races every Saturday night starting from 7.15pm until 10.30pm.

Right after we walked through the gate (per the above picture), we saw a dog handler with one of the hounds. He let us take photos of the hound and even with the hound (one needs to hold tight to the collar though) free of charge (he refused to take any tips). The hound as you can see, has a steel muzzle over its mouth so I think children should be fairly safe around the hound.

Here is a picture of the grandstand (which was filled but not packed) and the dog handlers bringing the hounds out onto the track before the race.

Below is a picture of the same scene (dog handlers taking the hounds out before a race) from a different angle. Under blue sign are the numbered pens from which each hound will start the race from. There are different colors for each number on the door of each pen and the hounds will be dressed in the respective colors and numbers from the door they will burst out from.

The dog handlers must be pretty used to having their photos taken together with the hounds because I, like everyone else, was jostling to get a good shot of them with the hounds. In fact, I would advise that one should take a chance to observe each dog before the race when it is brought out, especially if one is intent on betting. One can observe which dog looks tired, drags its legs, acts disinterested or is particularly alert (trotting along, looking very keenly ahead and not distracted by the crowd) before one goes to the counter and places one's bet.

I tried to get a really good picture of the dogs bursting out of their pens at the start of the race but this was the best I could do with my point-and-shoot canon powershot. The race starts with a fake noisy super-fast hare-like contraception making one/half round around the inner-track railings and as it passes the pens, the pen doors open and the hounds rush out chasing after the contraception.

My view is that dogs, much less hounds, aren't that dumb to be fooled again and again by a "fake metal with a red bit of cloth contraception" and the hounds have probaby wisened up a long time ago to the fact that what they are chasing isn't the least bit alive. They probably are running their hearts out to emerge the winner - dogs can get competitive too, no? And below, is one of 'em hounds bounding past the crowd (note the rails on the inner track)...I so need a better camera :)

Gangnaroo Korean Restaurant at Circular Road

I had dinner today at Gangnaroo Korean Restaurant which is located at 35 Circular Road. As we went there late (about 8pm) on a Mon night, the restaurant was mostly empty but if one wants to make reservations to be safe, the tel no is (+65)6538 2837.

The restaurant is run by a Korean couple who are able to speak some English. The menu is in English with pictures so there shouldn't be any problem ordering. The price of the dishes range from SGD 13 to 45 and juices are priced at SGD 3. This restaurant isn't a fine dining establishment and most of the dishes are noodles, soups and stone-pot rice. Unlike most Korean restaurants, there is no BBQ or BBQ items here and the emphasis seems to be on their soups. Currently, there are no promotions with any credit cards so one should be prepared to pay the full price without any discount.

I wanted to have the ginseng herbal chicken soup priced at SGD 22 but it was sold out. So I ordered the Kimchi vegetable soup with rice instead (SGD 13). The Slog Reviews: 8/10. The meal came with 6 different complimentary korean appetisers ranging from bean sprouts to pickled kimchi to beancurd.The kimchi veg soup I had was served piping hot and was spicy in itself. Perfect for a rainy day or if one is feeling cold. I am not a korean food fan so I have no basis for comparison but I'll say that there were plenty of ingredients in the soup and the soup gave me a nice warm burning sensation in my tummy after the meal. I need to go back to this place for the ginseng herbal chicken soup!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Restoran / restaurant Kim Rock at Bukit Indah, JB

We had dinner today at Restaurant Kim Rock which is located near Jusco Aeon Bukit Indah, Johor Bahru. The last time I ate here was about half a year ago (which should tell you something). The reason for choosing this restaurant is because it has air-conditioning and two TVs in the air-conditioned area with Singapore channels. My mother unfortunately, is quite addicted to the Taiwanese drama serial "Love" which has been going on a darn long time every weekend at 7pm and is not willing to miss a single episode of the series. Therefore, when we drive in to JB for dinner, this is the only place which will meet all her needs and my sister's craving for some decent cheap seafood.

Dinner (as was lunch at tea garden which I will write about another time) consisted of 6 dishes: Sambal kangkong (you can see a bit of it at the bottom right pic), claypot seafood (bottom right) at RM30, 1 crab cooked in black pepper (top right) at RM 25, 1 crab cooked in herbs (bottom left) at RM 25, shrimp omelette at RM 10 and the restaurant's speciality, the marinated pork ribs (top left) at RM 22. The cost of all of the dishes, 2 plates of rice and 5 cans of soft drinks was RM 135.

The Slog Reviews: 6.5/10. The standard of cooking definitely has fallen since half a year back. The kangkong was not hot (rather bland in fact) despite our request to make it spicy, the crabs while fresh (we handpicked them from the tank) were not succulent or sweet and the pork ribs were too hard and chewy for our liking. The sauce it was marinated in was neither too sweet or sour, resulting in most of the dish left untouched. The only dishes really worth their price were the shrimp omelette and the claypot seafood which had plenty of mushrooms (that isn't a seafood hmmm), sea cucumber, fish maw and shrimps. The gravy was thick and marginally tasty. As for the service, the food was served quickly, and the staff were very friendly and polite.

Of course, no trip to JB is complete without durians. We polished off two durians in Malaysia and bought back another 3 for RM12/kg. Total cost of the five D24 durians: RM90. The Slog Reviews: 8/10. Good creamy durians but nothing, and I mean, nothing compares to the durians which I had at Sakil last year. I think I shall write about that durian road trip next.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chinatown Chinese New Year LightUp Opening Ceremony 2010 and Chinatown Chinese New Year Decorations for 2009 and 2010

I was at the official light-up and opening ceremony for our Chinatown Chinese New Year 2010 Celebrations today. These adorable tiger robots (tiger because it is the year of the tiger for 2010) which are controlled via remote control (like for toy planes and cars) are not only able to move about, but are also able to sing, call out Chinese New Year greetings, introduce themselves and unfurl/keep the red banner with auspicious greetings. I think I must have spent a good 10mins watching the 4 robots which were located near the start of Eu Tong Sen Street interacting with the crowd.

To keep the crowd (which had started packing in as early as 5pm) entertained, there was also a fire-juggler and an inflated God of Fortune mascot. Here is a picture I took of the mascot walking by. The emcees had encouraged the crowd to reach out and stroke its tummy for good luck and it certainly wasn't easy for the mascot to make its way along.

The ceremony started about 7.30pm when the guest of honor arrived. I was seated behind the main stage (which is where the crowd is allowed to gather) as you can see from the photo below. The photo below is of the ministers (and probably some other VIPs) on the stage just before the launch of the light-up ceremony in Chinatown. To mark the moment when all the decorations for CNY would light up, pink balloons were released by the ministers. You can see the balloons drifting up in the sky near the roof the building in the picture. As for the flags and people in the foreground, these belong to the lion dance teams from various countries like Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Apparently there was a lion dance competition the day before and the winners were announced today. Third place went to a team from Malaysia, second place to a team from China and first place to a team from Singapore. Go Singapore!

The fireworks at Chinatown went off about 9.20pm. According to the news, there will be fireworks for the next three Saturdays at the Singapore River near Clarke Quay. Most people left after the fireworks. Here is a picture of the start of the Chinese New Year lightup at Chinatown for 2010. The two creatures at the top are tigers of course!

I managed to take some photos of this year (2010)'s Chinatown Chinese New Year decorations from my car. The decorations are all along Eu Tong Sen Street. The decorations starts here.

As you can see from the picture below, theme this year is Spring, hence the many fake Cherry Blossom plants lining the road.

I thought I'll also show some pictures from last year (2009)'s Chinatown Chinese New Year decorations (which were oranges instead of cherry blossoms) and light up too for comparison sake. Instead of the two tigers for 2010 (above pic), we had this large Chinese character in red instead (Chun2) which means Spring in chinese. The animal for 2009 is an ox, hence the cow statues under the word (Chun2). If you are wondering about the two rats next to the cow, the rat is the animal for the outgoing year 2008. Between the two decorations, I think last year's is nicer :)

This is a picture we took of the giant inflatable God of Fortune erected along Eu Tong Sen Street last year. From the opening ceremony today, it looks like it has been blown up once more and is standing proudly along the same street and in the same spot as last year! However, I couldn't get a picture from where I did last year (to get this picture) as certain parts of Chinatown (in particular, access to bridges) were blocked off tonight because of the VIPs coming for the opening ceremony.

The picture below was taken by my friend from KL whom I had brought to soak in the atmosphere at Chinatown. For visitors, I'll say that coming to Singapore during the Chinese New Year period is certainly one of the best times of the year to visit Singapore because of the decorations and various celebrations going on, especially in Chinatown, and on the eve of Chinese New Year at Chinatown.