Saturday, August 27, 2011

The month away (part 9)

In this last post of my month away in pictures, I will be sharing photos from one of the hottest shoots I have done so far. Satisfying my exhibitionistic desires to the fullest, this daring topless shoot right in the middle of Bangkok's popular shopping district gave me an experience of the city in a totally different light.

The shoot began very well from about dusk albeit the attention it was attracting (something which I LOVED). We were always looking out for authorities trying to stop us from proceeding further since Thailand is still ultimately a conservative country. About twenty minutes into the shoot when the photographer was trying to set up his tripod in the middle of a steady stream of human traffic, he was stopped by a security guard who told him that that would cause too much disruption. Without being able to set up the tripod, the long-exposure shot we were after was impossible and we had to adjourn elsewhere.

After moving to a more isolated spot, we did some shots on a bench and continued to garner lots of gawking. Then we moved to the side of a busy street where we did the rest of the shots that required me to keep perfectly still to achieve the desired effects. All in all it was a hot night (for more reasons than one). I love to work with this no-nonsense photographer who knew exactly what he wanted (I had another shoot with him showing Bangkok from another angle). He told me that I have given him one of his all-time favourites, which is on sale here.

So the documentation of my month away concludes here. It has been great sharing part of my life with you and an even greater opportunity to continue showcasing the fruits of my modelling projects.

Sizzling Silom

Monday, August 22, 2011

Musical journey (16)

Airports have always had an effect on me in the sense that instead of experiencing the joy of reunions, I feel the sadness of departures. I attribute that to my almost-seven-year long-distance relationship before I met Ision. The pain and sorrow of leaving a loved one at the airport never failed to get to me even after that relationship.

This time round at the airport when I was returning from my month-long vacation, I no longer went through that depression, not even slightly. This of course came as a no-brainer seeing that I do not have the need to cling on to that emotion anymore with a stable long-term relationship. The habitual and almost instinctive invocation of melancholy associated with airports has completely dissipated.

That is not to say I felt nothing during the one-year long-distance phase of my relationship with Ision. In fact whenever I was down like this in airports, I whipped out my trusty pen and notebook and started writing songs. This expression outlet not only calmed me down but kept me occupied throughout the long flights (as I always made sure I finished the words and tune by the end of the flight). During that year of inter-continental flights between Singapore and Sydney, I have written several songs documenting my state of mind when I had to leave Ision and this was one of them.


The sun has just revealed its face
Against the clock I start to race
The hardest thing that I can ever do
Is leaving home when I'm in your embrace

A step I took onto the train
Below my eyes I feel rain
Why does pain hit me again so soon
But I know these tears do not fall in vain cos'

Baby there is no one
There's no one worth crying for
But you are that someone and I'm willing to give it all
Just to have you touch me just once more
Baby just once more
You're worth all this and more

A step I took onto the plane
And then there is sun again
I close my eyes so I can see you
And the pain was left in the wind with its chains

I pray for the day in May
For it to come with haste
So I can be
So I can be whole again

Baby there is no one
There's no one worth dying for
But you are that someone and I'm willing to give it all
Just to let me kiss you just once more
Baby just once more
You're worth all this and more

Well that is enough negative energy for the time being. Look out for my next post (the last one on my month-long trip) for there will be some amazing pictures.... of me!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The month away (part 8)

There is a lot of Asian food here in Sydney but a lot of it is not really authentic which is totally understandable because restaurateurs need to cater to the local palate. Another thing I will never get in Australia is home-cooked food by my mum and that is something I will never stop missing. In this penultimate vacation-post, you will be able to sample a cross-section of the food I got to savour during these 31 days away. Credit goes to my trusty spreadsheet for the names of some of these dishes (and all credit for the spreadsheet goes to me!).

Gastronomical Delights

Home-cooked wanton spinach noodles. The translucence of the wanton skin showing the gentle tint of pink from the shrimps inside invites you to bite into them all the more. Coupled with the simple yet flavourful sauce, this dish is comfort food taken to exquisite levels.

Another sampling of mum-cooked fare. From top left going clockwise, we see steamed minced pork topped with salted fish and sliced ginger, shrimp omelette with a generous dose of onions (my favourite), and vermicelli stir-fried with cucumber and dried shrimps. These are some of the must-have dishes that I ask my mum to prepare during my going-home trips.

Steamed broccoli with oyster sauce with huge fresh scallops, stewed sea cucumber, and squid stir-fried with a vegetable medley—seafood offerings from the recipes plucked right of my mum’s head.

Talking about sea cucumbers, here is a tale of extreme rip-off at a Singaporean restaurant. In the top left, we see the sea cucumber dish as shown in the menu and the bottom left shows how it looked like untouched when it was served (the standard-sized Chinese tea cup beside the dish gives a good measure of the tininess of the pieces). For this miserable dish we were charged S$20! Rip-off to the n-th degree!!! The biggest picture shows from left to right a good piece of dried sea cucumber, then how it looks like when soaked in water (the standard 500ml drink bottle shows how large the soaked pieces are). This is how quality (and expensive) sea cucumber should look like. Name-and-shame time—the restaurant is “宝香绑线肉骨茶” or “Pao Xiang Bak Ku Teh” at Nex in Serangoon Central. Seeing how sky-high their prices were, mark my words—I think that rip-off joint will go out of business soon (if it has not already).

More on sea cucumbers—they can cost up to a few hundred bucks a kilo. A lot of foreigners cannot appreciate its taste and texture but my family sure can and do! In this preparation, mum wrapped marinated chicken thigh pieces along with hair-like seaweed and dried scallops in a whole large sea cucumber and stewed it for hours in low heat till the chewiness of the sea cucumber became just right—that was also when its flavour seeped into the chicken and vice versa. This dish has a very delicate and sophisticated quality to it and I am sure it can sell for at least a hundred dollars if served in a restaurant.

Culinary genius at work. You don’t need to be a master chef to know how to cook well—years and years of experience, experimenting and most importantly the genuine love of cooking and providing for the family can easily out-trump the oft-esoteric characteristic of the cooking techniques and skills of top chefs. These four pictures (clockwise from top left) show how mum's deep-fried pork balls with century egg and salted egg yolk centres were prepared. This is yet another of those must-have dishes that my mum would make for me.

The sea cucumber and pork balls were part of my farewell home-cooked dinner. Also shown in this picture are a stir-fried squid-and-cuttlefish combo with vegetables, stewed large dried shitake mushrooms as well as chicken and vegetable soup flavoured with dried anchovies. Yum factor to the max!

One of my favourite things to do with mum is a relaxing dinner-then-movie excursion. Before we watched “Priest” on this night, we dined at a Japanese restaurant called “Shin Kushiya” at a new mall near where we lived. Not too fancy yet refined enough to resemble fine-dining, we had a wonderful meal sampling the more unique dishes the eatery had to offer. From top left going clockwise: tako (cuttlefish) wasabi, pumpkin croquettes, grilled goose liver with caramelised green apple, grilled lady fingers wrapped with thinly-sliced pork and in the centre: ika kimchi (charcoal-grilled squid stuffed with kimuchi).

Continuation of the meal we had that night. From top left going clockwise: yaki onigiri & katsuoboshi (charcoal-grilled rice ball with eel), garlic rice, shisamo maki (deep-fried capelin fish topped with bacon in a sushi roll), okura mentaiko (tempura of ladies' fingers with codfish roe) and in the centre: umeshu (plum wine) tiramisu. The total bill was under S$100—not-too-bad at all!

Turtle soup. The last time I had this was eons ago when my father was still around and so I had totally forgotten how it tastes like. Well, the soup was rather heavily-spiced with Chinese medicinal herbs so I couldn’t really get to the basal taste of turtle. The most-coveted part is the skin and its texture is just like sea cucumber except that it is more collagenic and hence sticky. As for the meat, I know it is a cliché but it does taste like chicken but only chewier.

This was the breakfast I had in Taling Chan Floating Market in Bangkok. From top down: spiced minced fish with coconut milk (commonly known as “otah” in Singapore), chrysanthemum tea and palm juice, grilled giant prawns, sponge cake topped with caramelised coconut, spicy mango salad with dried fish and peanut. I also had deep-fried breaded shrimp cakes (not shown here). Feast like a king for only 235 baht (AUS$7.30—cheap as!) and we are not even including in that cost the enjoyment I got from dining amongst the friendly locals, great Chao Phraya scenery, sights and sounds wrapped in that authentic Thai flavour.

This is what you could get from Bangkok street-stalls—simple food heavy on taste and light on cost. Hot and sour shrimp and vegetable soup (not tom yum), BBQ chicken skewers and seafood fried rice for only 180 baht (AUS$5.60). Now when I look at these pictures again, I feel like planning for my next Bangkok trip already!

This is steamed frog legs doused in Brand’s Essence of Chicken which my mum and I had in a hawker centre in Johore Bahru called “Pusat Buah-Buahan Taman Sri Tebran”. It was very fresh and succulent—you should try it if you haven’t.

One of my quests in Vietnam was to have some authentic pho and I had that twice (one of which was at that chain Bill Clinton once visited). The other quintessentially-Vietnamese food item that was part of my quest was fresh rice paper rolls, which I had quite a bit of during the trip. Frankly I think the Vietnamese food in Sydney is better—it is much cleaner in taste perhaps because higher-quality ingredients and meats are used in Australia (with more sanitary food-preparation techniques I bet).

For one dinner, my friend and I decided to go to one of the most up-market restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City just for the fun of it. We originally wanted to go to a French one but it was too out of the way so instead we picked this Chinese restaurant called “Mandarine”, which boasted Condoleezaa Rice as one of its patrons. Top: spicy and sour seafood soup in coconut. Bottom: "Mandarine"-style spring roll with shrimp and pork.

The dishes at “Mandarine” were all very well-decorated and the clientele was mostly rich businessmen. The ambience was great as well with live Chinese music being played and polite and attentive service. Top: grilled fish wrapped with rice pancake. Bottom: steamed king prawn with garlic.

There is an impressive VIP room with a very well-stocked cellar on the first floor of this restaurant. I must say this was the best meal we had in Vietnam—no surprise given its total cost (2,323,000 Vietnamese dong or AUD$104). That being said, this meal will definitely cost at least twice more in Sydney. Too bad I had a toothache from the second course onwards and couldn’t even take a bite into the ice-cream dessert. Top: steamed rice in lotus leaf. Bottom: grilled chicken with cinnamon and foer dessert, fresh mango flambe with rum.

After having an abundance of cheap and good food for a month, I came back to Sydney and was greeted with this bit of irony. What bitter irony!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The month away (part 7)

Here is the final part of my Vietnam travel pictures, I hope you are enjoying them so far.

Goodbye Vietnam!

You must be quite sick of me whingeing about the high costs (with close to everything charged in US dollars) of Ho Chi Minh City but this is the last you’ll hear from me regarding this. A funny thing though—I saw a Standard & Chartered ad in the local newspapers offering an online account with a 12% p.a. interest rate! That kind of intrigued me for a while (even after reading the fine print). Should I or shouldn’t I?

Typical street scenes of the chaotic city. The only way to navigate the mayhem without worrying that you might lose your life is to get to your destination (regardless of how near it is away from your origin) in a cab. In a four-wheeled enclosed vehicle, we seriously felt like we were in an impenetrable fortress and every single one of those pesky motorbikes and scooters had to give way to the king (and they did). Just make sure you get into the right cab.

People carried all sorts of cargo on these 2-wheelers, including 2 wheels! I found a photo book capturing the amazing things people transport on the back of scooters in Vietnam and I must say it was an eye-opener.

In a city where there is one scooter for every two inhabitants, you can imagine the demand there must be for helmets (I am surprised at the level of adherence to traffic rules in this regard). With high demand comes great supply and an advanced evolution of fashionable designs. Shops selling nothing but helmets were a commonplace and the top picture shows helmets sold in a place as unlikely as a supermarket.

In the top picture, you can see some unique Vietnamese infrastructure. From the left to right, there is accommodation for larger motor vehicles, smaller motorbikes and scooters and then for pedestrians. It was not uncommon to see users of the middle lane switch over to the either sides as if they were the sole users of the roads and pavements. In the bottom picture you will find one of the VERY rare sights of Ho Chi Minh City—a traffic light!

This shot was taken atop the highest floor of the Reunification Palace. The long road that stretched to the horizon was the infamous route the tanks took as they tore down the gate and charged into the premise (the then presidential palace) heralding the end of the Vietnam War.

You would think that as an armoured infantry section commander in the army who sometimes drove these things, I would be so sick of tanks right? Yes I am but I also like photo ops (especially illegal ones where you were not allowed to climb onto display vehicles. Hehe). It has been such a LONG time since I had to go back to the army now that I live overseas so I think my abhorrence of these armoured monstrosities has dropped somewhat. Being at the War Remnants Museum where I got a taste of military technology and strategies circa 1960 - 1970, I finally got the proof I have lacked for many years that the Singapore army is still using (and very proud of) the same technology ie. one that is way past its prime. Singapore does try to develop its own armoured vehicles though so I should at least give them some credit.

Compare the second item and the last item in this beverage menu.

When you travel in a tour group, you will have to accept the fact that you will be brought to tourist traps against your will. However I did not regret visiting this one where victims of the Vietnam War (including those in the generation after the War due to the mutagenic effects of Agent Orange—see the bottom left picture) worked in an assembly line of sorts (crushing, fitting, cutting, washing, polishing, etc) creating works of art from crushed shells of eggs and shellfish (of seriously-minute sizes). The very detailed and meticulous effort put into the intricate pieces amidst the harsh working conditions really impressed me.

Me at the Mekong Delta having one of the many boat rides (ranging from rowing- to motor-types). As for the traditional hats that scream Vietnamese, I finally understood their significance—you got to have them in this heat!

The torture techniques used during the Vietnam War—gruesome and graphic. The War Remnants Museum was originally named Museum of American War Crimes but was changed so as not to hurt American tourists’ sensibilities. Well for what they have done, I think we are kind of comparing apples with elephants. WARNING: the next picture might be a little too much for some.

Together with the captions, you will very quickly get past the self-righteous, sugar-coated warm-and-fuzzy messages warmongers inevitably spew trying to rationalise what they are doing and be overcome with the actual severity of war, the collateral damage then, now and in the future. There can never be a justification for this. Never, period. It was a solemn time in the war crime exhibit in the War Remnants Museum—everyone was engrossed with what they were looking at which first filled them with repugnance and then sadness. This was the first time ever that I have read every single caption of every single item being displayed in a museum.

The biggest atrocity of the Vietnam War was the use of the defoliant called Agent Orange in order to destroy the canopies and vegetation hiding the Viet Cong guerrillas. No one knew exactly at that time how far down the human life cycle the adverse effects would linger but they deployed the chemical anyhow. If Americans could unleash such hell with 1960-technology, do you seriously think that they have not already created monster agents of chemical- and biological-warfare with the technology of this century? It sends a shudder down my spine to think that a repeat of this episode is allowed today and can indeed happen again.

During the boat ride at the Mekong Delta shown in the clip below, I was given the oar by the boatman I guess to allow me to fully-immerse myself in the tourist attraction. I did feel that the other reason could be to spare him some of the paddling effort (it was a very tough job—I did row for a while only to give up about a minute into it).

The video below sums up my trip—“pandemonium at its best”. I couldn’t understand how without any traffic lights could the vehicles from four directions co-ordinate their timings. That being said, there were many junctions where four directions go off all at the same time! Also on the bottom right you could see something reminiscent of a zebra crossing—they might as well save the money painting and maintaining them because they were practically treated as invisible by motorists (in this regard they will actually do more harm than good if pedestrians (especially tourists) think that they are supposed to work)!

Well, there you have it—Ho Chi Minh City in a series of pictures. To be honest, this city is not one I will visit for a long time or maybe ever again. But like all things in life, we need to try them at least once before making a judgement. My friends told me Hanoi is much better but I don’t think I will take that chance anytime soon.

This is not the end of my vacation-blogging, stay tuned for a little bit more.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The month away (part 6)

Let me continue from where I left off a few days ago… Now where was I? Right, my adventures in Ho Chi Minh City. One thing that was sorely lacking there was good shopping—other than high-end stuff, there wasn’t really much street-shopping, night markets and cheap unique indie labels like in Bangkok—yet things are more expensive than in Thailand. How could that be?

By the way in Vietnam, Facebook is officially banned from being allowed to pass through all ISPs’ internet filters. I was told the reasons but it was not very straightforward and now I have forgotten what they were. But like all things IT, if it is on a network, it can be hacked and there were tons of ways to get around this “ban”. We were also upgraded from a twin room to a family unit (because of a (good) mistake) that had a Internet-enabled computer in it which made it really convenient.

The Poor-Yet-Expensive City

I have never seen a jackfruit tree with SO many fruits hanging so lowly. That ground must be super-fertile!

There is Singlish in Singapore and Japlish in Japan. So I guess this is Vietlish. Actually it's not that bad—the signs in China are much worse.

Have you seen a taxi meter that is more complicated than that? Having to compute back and forth between Vietnamese dong, US dollars and Australian dollars was already hard enough and now this! By the way we were taken on a joyride by a cabbie one day and on a separate occasion hopped on to a cab with a rigged meter that started off at an amount lower than other taxis but jumped in much bigger intervals. Here is a piece of golden advice to would-be Vietnam-travellers—always take taxis from the “Vinasun” company.

Communist posters, flags and banner galore in Ho Chin Minh City, not surprisingly so of course. In the top picture, somehow something important was going to happen on 22nd May 2011 but alas I don’t read Vietnamese. It could be some major election of some kind but that did not make sense at all—democracy in a communist country?

Truly a bicycle built for two... or three or even an entire family of two parents and four small kids—that was the record number of people I saw travelling on a single motorbike in Vietnam during my four-day trip. Simply amazing!

Animal encounter #2—it was actually quite heavy. Just think of wrapping a very long, spirally and sinewy handbag around your body and you will know how it feels like.

Vietnam is a very conservative country. Even in the bloody heat somewhere in the wilderness called Mekong Delta, we were told to put on our shirts at the table during lunch at the restaurant (I use the word "restaurant" very loosely here). Urgh. This guy in the picture was told to do so too—how unbelievably-ignorant of how he looked could he be?

There are two things I would like to point out here in this menu from a café called Highlands Coffee (this café was everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City—like Gloria Jean’s of Australia and USA’s Starbucks). First look at the prices of standard soft drinks sold at this run-of-the-mill café (34,000 Vietnamese dong = US$1.70). This is a third-world country yet it sells soft drinks at such prices, isn’t that seriously unbelievable? The second thing to point out is the sale of cigarettes at the café (indoor smoking is EVERYWHERE and it took me quite a while to get used to it) and look at the prices of a pack of cigarettes in comparison with soft drinks!!!

Street-eating in the most literal sense. On the left you can see people actually sitting by the side of the road eating food bought from a nearby vendor peddling on a motorbike. And what’s with the very low stools? The picture on the left was of a proper restaurant—surely that can’t be that comfortable right?

Night-life and night recreational activities in the city. Motorbikes and scooters doubled up as seats in a park as countless couples lined the lanes enjoying some cool (polluted, but still cool—compared only to daytime) air. Using a park is an extremely economical way of spending one’s leisure time and I am sure that was the reason why that really caught on there. The bottom picture was a little strange to me because this woman was playing badminton by the roadside with no lights and no net with I think was her husband. Mighty strange indeed.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels where guerrilla warfare at its finest was unleashed upon the Americans in the Vietnam War. As our tour group was large, the guide did not give us each the chance to get into the small little hole in the ground in the top picture (I so wanted to do that!) but we had a chance to walk through a narrow tunnel of 100m or so (the bottom picture shows me emerging at the other end). We were told the tunnels were increased in width by 50% twice to accommodate the fatter (read: obese) tourists—I already felt rather crammed (and extremely hot and bothered) in it, I really cannot imagine what the Viet Congs went through when the width of the real tunnels was a fraction of what I experienced.

These were the various traps the National Liberal Front used to ensnare its enemies. It is easy to look at them now as museum pieces but if you tried to imagine how they must have been effectively put to use, it does get kind of disturbing.

I have always thought that only those foreigners who did not go through army training can get so caught up and fascinated with guns and gun-firing. Big freaking deal! I have fired 25mm cannons and all sorts of small to heavy arms including RPGs and grenade launchers and I can no longer see them as nothing more than a chore to carry, install, maintain and store. But still hordes and hordes of silly tourists forked out great sums of money (US$2 for a single bullet!) at the Cu Chi Tunnels to fire a handful of weapons that were being offered. And don’t even get me started on America’s view of an example of a basic human right a.k.a. the right to bear arms.

The video below shows part of my 100m tunnel-walk and how claustrophobic and uncomfortable it was. Imagine having to carry weapons and army gear and still managing to traverse at light speeds in them—what a feat!

The last installment of my time in Vietnam will be posted in another few days’ time and I must say it can get quite taxing blogging vacation pictures especially when you must select the more interesting ones, edit them and think of witty captions!