Friday, 30 January 2015

Sunrise right on cue

My wife and I woke up at five o'clock this morning. We had a morning appointment with a friend to climb up the Bukit Mertajam hill at Cherok Tokun. Reason was to catch the first rays of sunrise.

So we arrived at the foothills at 6.05a.m. and immediately, we set off for that little observation post about three quarters of the way up the hill which overlooks the Mengkuang Dam. Tiring walk in the dark; took us slightly over an hour to reach there. But what a reward once we got there. Magnificent view. To our right, we could already see streaks of orange to deep red light through the breaks in the cloud cover.

At first we thought our climb up the hill would be disappointing because of the thick cover of clouds but suddenly, a golden pinpoint of light broke through the clouds. A wonderful sight. Mesmerised, the three of us started clicking furiously with our cameras to capture the rare moment of the sun bursting through. But all too soon, it hid behind more cloud cover. The magical moment had come and gone. But we caught it, all right.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Andy Murray's gonna freeball

Generally, I don't read the newspapers anymore but yesterday, while waiting for my wife at her former office, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, I had nothing to do except to pick up the copy of The Star which was lying around the lobby.

Turning from one page to another, my eyes rested on a small story about tennis professional Andy Murray's forthcoming marriage later in the year. Actually, I don't know what caught my eye first: was it the grey background colour of the story or was it the heading?

Here's what it reads:

"When Andy Murray marries his long-time girlfriend Kim Sears later this year he is likely to wear a kilt." Okay, fair enough, Murray is a Scot where the kilt is Scotland's national attire.

"Kilts are generally worn with nothing underneath and the proud Scot will follow protocol." That, by the way, has always been a curious matter. Do they, or don't they?

"I think I'm going to have both options and see what I feel like in the morning," he said when coaxed into talking about whether he will wear a suit or kilt by an on-court interviewer. Personally, I would want him to wear a kilt. That's their heritage, it should be followed!

"When the interviewer probed further, he said: "Obviously proper kilt, yeah, freeballing," before quickly saying: "I've got a match to play in a couple of days, can I go now."

Freeballing. Oh yeah, Any Murray will be freeballing at his wedding. And what's freeballing? It's going about without wearing underwear. Letting all hang loose, balls and penis. And I tell you, it's the freest form of motion expression open to men.

Ao Nang sunset

When I bought the holiday package in Ao Nang way back in November, I had deliberately timed it such that my wife and I could take our holiday right after she had resigned from the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM).

This was an organisation that she had worked in for almost 21 years, rising to the position of the branch manager. She decided to leave because she wanted to take things easy, especially since our children were all grown up, independent and working.

We had promised each other that for once, our holiday would not be such a rush. No, we would not be pressured into squeezing every bit of activity into the confines of a 24-hour day. No, unlike our previous overseas holidays, we shall make time to relax. And that is why I had refused to do much homework to decide the where, what, how and when to do anything.

The day of our arrival in Ao Nang, right after lunch, we spent the afternoon resting in the hotel room. It was not until late afternoon that we ventured out into the streets, walking to the beach front, because we wanted to watch the sunset. So there we were, taking a relaxing walk and then sitting down by the beach side, enjoying the sea breeze, people watching, and casting our eyes out towards the horizon. The changing colours of thelate afternoon, changing into a glowing golden hue before dimming into a dusky grey. The setting sun turning red and slowly creeping behind the far, distant islands....

This was our schedule repeated for the next two nights. For three consecutive nights, we made our way to the beach front just to watch the sun setting before turning our thoughts to dinner. We only missed the spectacular sunset once and that would be on our final night in Ao Nang because we decided to go off to Krabi town and enjoy their weekend night market.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Holiday package in Ao Nang

I've just realised that contrary to what I wrote a few days' ago, our recent holiday in Ao Nang wasn't planned just some five months ago. It was actually mooted some five years ago, at a time when my son was still planning to enter college after his Form Five. We had bought some hotel coupons for a Krabi stay through Groupon but at the last minute, we decided to give it to his friends. So yes, my wife and I had been thinking about Krabi for quite a while.

And this didn't materialise until September last year when Firefly introduced a new Penang-Krabi route to their itinerary. I picked up some cheap fares fairly quickly.

Then came the search for hotel rooms two months later. I looked through Groupon but there weren't any deals available. This forced me to look at other sources.

There was an attractive offer of a 4D3N stay at the Aonang Cliff Beach Resort which I booked subsequently after reading the favourable reviews on the hotel. However, it left me still having to find another night's accommodation as our inward and outward Krabi flights were five days apart.

At first, I toyed with the idea about staying in Krabi town itself but somehow, after reading through the comments on TripAdvisor, I decided that perhaps staying all five days in Ao Nang would be less of a problem of moving our luggage around. I was glad to have made that decision. For that additional night's stay, I plumbed for the newly opened Ibis Styles Hotel.

But it was the Aonang Cliff Beach Resort that provided us with such good services. We were picked up from the Krabi international airport and driven directly to Ibis Styles. The next day, their transportation came to transfer us from the Ibis Styles to the Aonang Cliff Beach Hotel. And when we checked out five days later, the hotel brought us back to the airport. What a wonderful arrangement!

I should also mention here that when we checked into the Aonang Cliff Beach Resort, the hotel decided to upgrade us from their standard room to the deluxe room. As part of the package, the hotel provided us with a complimentary full-day four-island hopping tour. On top of that, we were also given the option of either a free dinner or a one-hour session at their Infinity Spa. Tell me, what more could we have asked for? Fabulous!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sinfully unhealthy

Somehow, I found myself back at the Seng Thor coffee shop at the junction of Carnarvon Street and Kimberley Street in George Town, Penang, at lunch time today. Well, not exactly lunch time but a little past lunch hour, in fact. Anyway, never mind.

While I was eating my bowl of noodle soup, I noticed the man selling oyster omelette was just opening his stall. I've written in the past how unhealthy his plate of oyster omelette could be, but I never got the opportunity to video him do the cooking.

Today, I was placed strategically at the table behind his stall and thus, had an unhindered view of his frying technique. Here's what I saw:

Would you countenance buying a plate of fried oysters from this hawker, knowing that possibly tons of lard had gone into the frying?

When this video started, the hawker had already poured a ladle of the omelette flour mixture into the pan. A second ladle of flour mixture was then quickly added, followed by some eggs. Then came a huge bowl of lard oil. And afterwards, after some five minutes of frying over an intense flame, the excess lard oil was scooped back into the bowl.

You can imagine how much lard oil had gone into the six minutes of preparation. Tastes good, but think of the cholesterol and the problems that go with it from excessive consumption. Be warned.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ao Nang food adventure

The last two weeks have been pretty busy for me and my wife. First, it was a last-minute trip to Seremban and Malacca, and then there was this short holiday in Ao Nang, Thailand that we had planned for since September last year.

Having just returned yesterday, there's no time for me to write anything about our holiday yet but here, at least, is a collage of the variety of food that we sampled in the streets and restaurants in Ao Nang. It is well and good to be carried away and enthuse about Thai food but mind you, not all were up to my expectations.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Nyonya cakes, peranakan kueh-mueh

It took me a while to hunt down Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop. Firstly, I couldn't locate it properly on Google Maps. Secondly, when I keyed the co-ordinates into my GPS, it led me round and round and round. It was only after a painstaking search of Tengkera Road on the GPS that I finally managed to see the cake shop as a point of interest.

But once you know where to look, locating the shop became very easy. The only possible big danger was to scrape the side of the car on the road kerb when negotiating into the narrow lane. Apart from that, once in the lane, you must realise that further in, the lane would become impossibly narrow for a car to pass through and it was necessary to park it in the open space nearby and walk to the shop.

Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop is actually housed in a small wooden hut. Inside, Baba Charlie's family and staff were busily making nyonya cakes. All sorts of traditional nyonya cakes. And the cooked cakes were all on display in an adjoining room, waiting for buyers who came in droves when my wife and I were there.

My first impression was that there weren't much difference between the nyonya cakes in Penang from those available in Malacca. There are a great deal of similarities but of course, there are nyonya cakes that are unique to Malacca only. Or made in a slightly different way.

One of the unique nyonya cakes is the kueh bongkong. I've never come across this in Penang before. We bought a packet to try and we found it simple yet delicious. Maybe a tad too sweet for our tastebuds as well, but hey, practically all nyonya cakes would actually require you to have a sweet tooth!

I don't normally find tapai (fermented glutinous rice) sold by the nyonya community in Penang, only by the Malays, and so, I was very happy to see this delicacy available at Baba Charlie's. We bought six packets, brought them back to the hotel, and happily enjoyed them all the way to Kuala Lumpur.

We couldn't possibly buy a piece of everything in the shop and so, we had to be very selective of the cakes that we bought. One of them was a nyonya popiah. I had noticed that in a corner of the kitchen, a lady was making the popiah skin in several frying pans. That was so unlike the way the popiah skins are made in Penang. The Penang version can be paper thin and it is an art in itself to making the skin. In Malacca, the popiah skin tend to be thicker.

My second impression was that Malacca nyonya cakes tend to use a lot of the clitoria flower. The locals call it bunga telang but its actual scientific name is clitoria ternatea. The clitoria is blue and it is a natural colouring agent for many of the nyonya cakes in Malacca.

Almost all the nyonya cakes I saw in Baba Charlie's shop had a tinge of blue in it. Elsewhere, I know that the clitoria blue is also used as a whitening agent when washing white-coloured clothes. Lam chneh was how my mother called it.

And my final impression was the quality control at Baba Charlie's nyonya cake shop. While we were there, all the packets of ondek-ondek were suddenly swept away from the counter. Even the packets that had been bought by their customers were asked back from them. I asked them why, and Baba Charlie's son said that the batch had been rejected. Somehow, there was not enough gula melaka inside the ondek-ondek. It wouldn't be sweet enough, he said, and customers had complained in the past when the nyonya cakes lacked enough sweetness.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Durian chendol, not!

Fact: Much of Jonker Street is dead during weekdays. Fact: much of Jonker Street is a tourist trap with exorbitant prices.

There is nothing like a gullible tourist to part with this money. Foremost among these tourist traps is a small shop called Bibik House. When my wife and I walked past the shopfront during our recent trip to Malacca, our eyes latched onto a sign touting durian chendol.

Many of my friends would know that usually, I cannot resist the calling of a durian. "Smell me, eat me, taste me," the durian would call out to me and I, like a zombie, would throw caution to the wind and buy the fruit.

Only this time, there was no fruit. But there was the word durian displayed prominently on signboards outside and inside the shop. So with high expectations, we ordered a bowl of chendol and I asked the lady at the counter to include durian in it.

The first sign of danger was that she opened a plastic container and scooped up some miserable portion of frozen durian flesh - I do hope it was durian flesh and not durian ice-cream - and placed it in the bowl of chendol. Then she pushed the bowl to me and said, "RM6." I dutifully paid up, brought it to my wife and we tucked into the bowl.

Let me say that the chendol was nothing like what we expected. Hardly any taste of durian at all. Just a sickly sweetness from an overly liberal dash of gula melaka. Great disappointment, to say the very least. And to pay RM6 for it was a great injustice to our pockets.

At any time, let me just say categorically that the two Penang Road chendol stalls in Penang are miles ahead of this Bibik House when it comes to serving quality chendol, without durian. Elsewhere along Jonker Street, other stalls were selling chendol at RM3.50 to RM4 per bowl. Of course, they were without durian pulp but hey, what a world of a difference in the price.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Sun sets over Malacca

Malacca wasn't in my original schedule. After our visit to Seremban, my initial plan was to travel to Kuala Lumpur and stay there for a night. But my wife had different ideas. Since Seremban is so close to Malacca, she suggested, why don't we go there instead?

Frankly, this was a spiffingly good idea. Immediately, I booked ourselves into the Hotel Puri, which is one of Malacca's better-known boutique hotels. And immediately after that, I had second thoughts whether a single two-day, one-night stay in Malacca was enough. Without any further hesitation, I booked for a second night's stay there.

Let me say that it wasn't a bad decision to stay three days in this old former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony. It gave us more leeway to do whatever we wanted to do. And I did tell my wife, let's try to make this a food trip. But when we arrived in Malacca, we were wondering whether we should go all out on a makan spree. We've already had crabs in Seremban the day before and we were mindful of our cholesterol level going out of control at our age.

But visiting the Portuguese settlement in Malacca had always been in our plans and we know that there are restaurant there, and a very popular item on the menu are the crabs cooked in whatever way we wanted. How to avoid crabs when this crustacean keeps popping up everywhere in menus? In the end we succumbed to temptation and we did order one large crab cooked with salted egg (double danger for cholesterol: crab and salted duck egg).

Apart from the food at the Portuguese settlement - or more accurately, Portuguese Square - we had a little bonus in watching a very glorious sunset. Here is a series of pictures I took, all within five minutes, between 7.10p.m. and 7.15p.m. Pretty dramatic, don't you think so?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Chasing after food in Seremban

Luckily I had someone to show me around Seremban when my wife and I visited the place earlier this week. And nothing is more important, actually, than to go on a food trail with someone who is familiar with the place. Ask me to go there on my own and I will probably end up eating the worst of the worst food, but a foodie guide changes all perspective on filling the stomach properly!

Take for example, the night we were there. We were taken to the Sin Yit Sing Restaurant which, I am told, served one of the best soup noodles and marmite crabs around. Here is the interior of the shop. Very typically a Chinese restaurant. What's important is the food and its quality. Nothing else would matter.

And this is one of their signature dishes: a soup noodle with chunks of fried fish head cooked in a broth containing ginger and pepper. Boy, was it spicy! I almost choked at one point when the spices flared up in my throat.

Here's how it looked like when scooped into your own personal bowl.

Another of the restaurant's signature dishes, which is marmite crab. There were other flavours but we decided on their most popular one. We ordered two crabs.

And finally, there was this fried pork knuckles done in the Filipino style. The skin was crispy enough but I would say that the frying was overdone and the meat turned out tougher than expected. Total damage to the pockets was around RM160.

Who haven't tasted Seremban siew pau before? We were told that when the original Seremban siew pau maker passed away, his business was continued by the son. However, he had two daughters too who opened their own separate siew pau outlets. We visited one of the sisters' shop in Temiang, called Kedai Siew Pau Asia. But the shop's more commonly known as the Siew Pau Master.

When we arrived, many of the pastries had just been removed from the oven. Wafts of fragrant aroma filled the air. As usual, my wife was thrilled to see so many pastries in the shop.

We bought one siew pau each for tea, and then headed to the Seremban central market in search of their famous hakka mee. There are several places serving hakka mee but we were told that this stall in the market's hawker centre was just about as original as we can get. It sells only in the morning. Interestingly, the hawker's brother has his own stall elsewhere that opens from the afternoon. They cater to different crowds of people.

Markets are very vibrant places. Usually very colourful too. The Seremban central market wasn't any different from large markets elsewhere in the country.

And here it is, the Tow Kee Hakka Mee outlet in the hawker centre. Curiously, we did not see droves of people lining up to order. I think to the locals, this was just one of several hawkers operating here. And nothing much to excite tourists too, which is good, because too much fame can cause food quality to deteriorate fast.

Finally, the hakka mee came. At first glance, it looked like Singapore bak cho mee, but I preferred this version for its simplicity and authenticity. It may not look attractive but the taste was delicious.

For lunch, we went to the Silver Dragon Restaurant somewhere in Seremban2. This is supposedly one of the biggest Chinese restaurant in Seremban with a seating capacity of 2,000 people. We had arrived early and were the first patrons. The place was empty but because of the size of the hall, I could well imagine how busy it would be when filled with people. We selected from the set menu and had fried prawns, vegetables and steamed tilapia.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Old friend Kumar

There I was, deciding to have a bowl of hokkien mee at a coffee shop in Pulau Tikus - you know, the one at the corner of Burmah Road and Bangkok Lane - and sitting down at any empty table when my ears picked up the end of a conversation at a table next to mine. Not that I was eavesdropping or anything like that, but when the person was speaking loud enough into a mobile it would be almost impossible not to overhear the conversation.

Anyway, it was the end of his conversation and his last few words into his mobile were "old frees association." If you are, like me, a member of The Old Frees' Association, would you not turn your head? That was what I did and what did I see? Three Indians having a mee goreng breakfast. I looked at the Indian guy in the middle, the one who had just ended his conversation. He looked at me. We sort of recognised one another.

"Kumaraveloo," I called out to him. "Seng Sun," he called out to me. Well, well, well, here was someone that I hadn't met in something like 42 years. Old friends, indeed. We were classmates at the Penang Free School but we had known one another even longer: since primary schooldays at Westlands School.

And fancy meeting him in a coffee shop in Penang when all the time, I knew him to be living in Kuala Lumpur. He is a freelance film director and was in town to search for locations for his next project. He had to run for an appointment but we agreed to meet up at the OFA later for some drinks. That's how this picture came about...

Overnight trip to Seremban

This week has been pretty busy and interesting. On Sunday, my wife and I took a long, leisurely drive down to Seremban and after an overnight there, we drove to Malacca for a two-night's stay. From Malacca, we proceeded back to Penang but not before breaking our journey in Kuala Lumpur for one night. All in, we were away from home for five days.

Why Seremban, people may ask. Well, why not? I haven't been back to Seremban since the mid-1990s when I was in the Seremban outskirts of Ampangan to set up an automated teller machine at the Ban Hin Lee Bank branch there. I don't know what has become of the branch, much less to know the fate of that ATM.  Didn't bother to find out.

Anyway, while in Seremban, we had a most interesting time meeting up with a few people. The Sivanesan family heard we would be in town and invited us to their home. And that's how we were introduced to their two talented children, Subramanian and Nithyalakshmi.

Both Subra and Nithya had been playing in the national junior chess championship in Kota Kinabalu last December and had returned home as the respective champions in the boys' and girls' events. It is quite unprecedented in Malaysian chess that a brother and sister had won the individual national junior championships in the same year and at the same time. I was pretty impressed when they trotted out the gleaming trophies and placed them before me.

Subra is 17 years old this year, going to Form Five, and his sister is younger than him by two years. The boy started playing chess 10 years ago and his sister began playing soon afterwards.

Later, we went to the Seremban2 city park, developed by IJMLand, and walked around its man-made lake.

Lots of people there on a Sunday late afternoon: a bunch of them were exercising but mostly, people were either strolling everywhere or watching other people watching them.

We crossed the bridge and looked down into the water. Was surprised that hundreds of hungry carp and catfish - a few measuring maybe four feet long - waiting for people to feed them. And when they threw bread into the water, the fish swarmed round to gobble down the food.

The next morning, my wife and I visited the Then Sze Koon temple on Centipede Hill in the Temiang area of the old Seremban town.

Possibly, a huge centipede had taken up residence in the hill a long time ago and that's how this creature lent its name to the place. Anyhow, we didn't see any live centipede there.

We spent quite some time there exploring the temple grounds and basically gawking at the life-sized statues of Chinese mythology figures.

After a hearty breakfast at the old Seremban market, we visited the IJMLand office in Seremban2 to meet with a few folks. They have a CSR project under development right now but I'm in no position to say anything else at the present moment. But trust me, this project is chess-related (ahha, now you know why I was in Seremban!) and it's going to be interesting.

The meeting over, we drove to their hill park for a breath-taking 360-degree view of the whole Seremban2 development. If you are unfit, it may take a little bit of effort to climb up to the highest point in the park but it would be quite worthwhile to look down below on the resident houses that dotted the foothills. The houses here were all beautifully designed and pretty impressive. Needless to say, so were their selling prices as IJMLand had targeted the development here for the high-end market.

I should also add that the hill park complemented the city park. One was on flatland with a picturesque lake as its central feature, the other was on a hill with an excellent good view of the whole Seremban2 township. Just climb on any of the six small pavillions there and you can see miles and miles of rolling country.

The hill park has no lake but it had something else: a realistic enough dinosaur park as an attraction. Small but educational, and it brought out the kid in me. When I was very much younger, dinosaurs had interested me a lot and I do remember visiting libraries to pour over their reference books on these long extinct creatures. I should also add that when Jurassic Park came out, I had made a beeline to watch the film in the local cinema.