Eating like a Tourist in Seoul

Korean food might not appear to be the most innovative in the world, but like the country itself, Korean food has undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades. Koreans nowadays are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines. Even kimchi is under threat from globalization and changing diet pattern. Koreans nowadays are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines, which prompted the Agriculture Ministry to try to promote a less aromic version of its national food.

Helping me navigate Seoul’s food scene was my not-quite-reliable local colleague, who introduced me to some of the most touristy joints in town, because in his mind that’s what tourist should do. He did have a point though — these places are all close to major tourist hot spots so I didn’t have to go out of my way to find them.

I have checked out a few of those places over several business trips.

Gwangjang Market

Seoul’s most famous food market and popular breakfast spot. You can get popular snacks like bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), tteokbokki (rice cake in chili sauce), gimbap (rice roll), jokbal (pork hock) and porridge for about 20% more expensive than less-heralded street stalls.

Supposedly every local has their favorite stall but I just randomly tried one. I had pumpkin porridge and bindaetteok that tasted just about the same as the stall near my hotel — former was tasteless and latter oily.

Deliciousness: 2/10
Value: 2/10
Recommendation: N/A (small sample size)
Address: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00

Noryangjin Fish Market

Watch Oldboy and you would know one of the delicacy of Korean cuisine is live octopus, and Noryangjin Fish Market is the place to be if you want to get your hands on some waggling tentacles.

Besides octopus you can get all kinds of seafood here, such as clams, shrimp, blue crab, sea cucumber, halibut, salmon and snapper. After buying your seafood on the first floor you can bring them to one of the several restaurants on the upper floor.

I can only testify to what I had — a plate of salmon and flounder sashimi bought from a random vendor. The price was USD 10 for about twenty slices of both. Quality was not the highest but fair enough given the price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 9/10
Recommendation: 8/10
Address: 688 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: open 24 hours

Myeongdong Kyoja

In 2012 Korea Tourism Organization conducted a survey with a sample size of 12,000 tourists, asking them where was their favorite destination in Seoul. Myeongdong, the capital’s prime shopping district, came out on top. This is Seoul’s Causeway Bay or Oxford Circus; locals might disdain it but invariably everyone comes here.

Taking the district’s name in stride is Myeongdong Kyoja. First opened its door in 1966, it now has two locations in the area and has established itself as one of the most frequented eateries in town by both locals and tourists. At most times patrons are queuing up for a bite of its meat sauce noodle and steamed dumpling. The former is standard stomach filler; the signature dumpling, originated from China’s Shandong province, is a juicy ball of minced pork and shredded cabbage wrapped with a thin wheat dough.

Many people find the kimchi here to be too spicy. I personally thought it was a little too sour.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-guSeoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:30 – 21:30

Jeonju Jungang (main store)

Arguably the most recognizable Korean dish for foreigners, I am of the ilk who believe all bibimbap (stone pot rice) tastes pretty much the same as most of the flavor derives from doenjang (fermented soybean paste). While bibimbap originates not from Seoul but Jeonju it is not hard to find this dish in the capital. One of the more popular outlets is Jeonju Jungang in Myeongdong. As the name suggests it emphasizes on using traditional recipe and ingredients from Jeonju.

The key to eating bibimbap is eating bibimbap is to allow the rice to cook for at least a few minutes before mixing up the ingredients. This will add some texture to the dish when the bottom layer of the rice turns crispy. Jeonju Jungang’s bibimbap is certainly beautiful to look at, a colorful composite consisted of red (kimchi), green (lettuce, cucumber, spinach), brown (mushroom), black (seaweed), white (bean sprout), yellow (egg yolk) and purple (radicchio). The taste of doenjang still dominates but not overwhelmingly as its fresh ingredients manage to stand out.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 19 Myeongdong 8na-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 8:30 – 22:30

Tosokchon

When I asked my Korean colleagues what is their favorite dish, most said barbecue. As for comfort food? Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) easily took the crown. The main ingredients are a whole young chicken, stuffed with glutinous rice, boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng and herbs like jujube fruits, gingko nuts, garlic, ginger and wolfberry. For Koreans, this dish is almost the antidote to all ailments, from hangover to common cold to restoration of energy during the dog day of summer.

My colleague strongly recommended Tosokchon near Gyeongbokgung. This is clearly a tourist institution — most tables were occupied by people carrying guidebooks. Tosokchon only serves one dish and it charges more than its competitors, but there is a good reason why it is so popular. The broth here was more flavorful and clear compared to the few samgyetang I tried near my office.

Deliciousness: 8/10
Value: 5/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:00 – 22:00

Kyochon (Dongdaemun)

Perhaps no other nations, U.S. included, indulges in fried chicken as much as South Korea. No less than eight national chains specialize in this dish, with Kyochon being perhaps the most well-known and definitely the most expensive. I tried its Dongdaemun branch and ordered the original (honey garlic) and spicy recipes. ₩17,000 for 24 pieces of chicken.

Unlike KFC, Kyochon takes a long time to prepare because they are made-to-order using fresh chicken. I waited 30 minutes for my order. The thighs and wings were crispy but the white meat was too dry. This is not your typical fast food — while quality is much higher than a typical western fast food joint, so are the waiting time and price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 6/10
Recommendation: 6/10
Address: 294 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 24 hours

Dive Report: Moalboal

November 22 – 24, 2015
Photo set on Flickr

Day 1
14:30 – Talisay Wall 

We could only fit in one dive on this day because our dive shop Turtle Bay was at full capacity with a group each from Taiwan and France, respectively. Since my buddy had only completed Open Water Diver we would be diving at no more than 18m. Our divemaster was CJ, son of Turtle Bay’s owner.

Beforehand I had a chat with both groups and heard very different opinions on the quality of diving in Moalboal. The former was disappointed with the poor visibility and the lack of diving option except for wall dive. I understood the first complaint but a quick google search would reveal the Moalboal area is one giant wall, and if that’s not your thing then just go somewhere else. The French on the hand compared Moalboal’s visibility favourably to Malapascua’s and were generally satisfied with the healthy corals and bountiful reef fishes.

Sadly, for our first dive at least, the Taiwanese were right. The visibility was around 5m, the worst I had seen in the Philippines, and the only notable marine life I saw in 50 minutes was a turtle. Back on shore the Taiwanese sarcastically wished me luck for my remaining dives.

Dive time: 44 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Pipefish, Razorfish, Starfish, Turtle

Day 2
8:30 – Basdaku Wall

Today was much quieter as the Taiwanese had gone home. Our first dive at Basdaku Wall was 10 minutes north from Turtle Bay close to the White Beach. It was like déjà vu to our last dive – poor visibility, average-quality coral and a lack of marine life variety. We did see another turtle. Hooray?

I was starting to worry what the Taiwanese said was true.

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Razorfish, Turtle

10:30 – Panasagma 1 

“When will we see the sardines?”

By this point Turtle Bay’s lack of foresight on upcoming dive schedule was starting to get under my nerve a little. I had been asking for days when would we see the whirlwind of sardines that put Moalboal on the diver map, and each time the reply was “we will see”. The divemasters were only able to decide our dive sites right before each dive. I could understand if the condition was treacherous; we were blessed with sunny weather and no current these few days. This was a reflection of Turtle Bay’s inexperience. On all my previous dive trips my dive operators would share their dive itineraries before I confirmed my bookings with an understanding that everything was subjected to the actual condition on dive day.

When the reply was again “we will make sure you see the sardines before you leave”, the French and I exerted some pressure on CJ to understand what’s the purpose of waiting? Turned out there was none and we were off to Panasagma 1, where the sardines have stayed since migrating from the nearby Pescador Island (Fisherman Island in Spanish) a few years ago. Panasagma 1 is located halfway between Turtle Bay and Basdalu Wall.

I was taken aback by how cloudy was the water, caused partly by the sardines but mainly by some construction sites by the shore. The visibility was no more than 3m and fared no better than Hong Kong’s notoriously muddy water. I knew my fellow divers were close-by but they were camouflaged into the water. Adding to the challenge was the presence of a smack of jellyfish; I decided to stay close to the wall at 10m depth and wait.

Never, as a novice, had I felt completely relaxed while submerged in the ocean. Even now, with nothing visually to focus, I was concentrating on my breathing and buoyancy, but my mind was slowly slipping into the void like a stoner watches paint dries for too long. Unaware of how much time had past, I was snapped back into consciousness when I saw, just barely, a black tornado forming in the far distance close to the surface. By the size of the blackness there should be tens of thousands of sardines, but with everything blurrier than the grainiest streaming video I couldn’t tell for sure. The only way to find out was to swim closer to the eye of the sandstorm.

I should be getting closer. I should, if my eyes could only confirm by seeing what’s hiding behind the particle-filled water. I could see the black cloud turning left, and suddenly, a beam of sunlight shone through the blackness. The sardines were actually almost within touching distance. I quickly snapped a few photos. Before I could contemplate the scale of what was in front of me, ten seconds later I was thrown back into a state of morass when the sun was covered up once again.

Dive time: 45 min
Max depth: 17 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 3 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Sardine, Grouper, Jellyfish

14:30 – Pescador Island

Pescador island, even in its current sardine-less state remains Moalboal’s most well-known dive spot, but to the locals it is not what it used to be. On our 15-minute boat ride to the island CJ tried to manage our expectation.

“Ten years ago Pescador was great. The sardines were there everyday. The reef was pristine, and sometimes we could even see thresher sharks. The quality of the reef degraded rapidly over the past few years due to fishing and hurricanes. Outsiders still flock there be there are much better spots around the area now.”

We began from the southern shore and followed the drift west. Visibility was an acceptable 15m. Immediately after I had descended to 12m I was surrounded by anthias and the most vibrant corals I had seen. This went on for the duration of my dive – I felt like swimming in a borderless aquarium.

Hearing my thought that this was the best dive I had done in the Philippines and how vastly superior Pescador was compared to Apo Island, CJ grinned sheepishly and replied, “Well that was nothing compared to ten years ago.”

It might not be. But Pescador is still a top notch dive site.

Dive time: 49 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish Idol, Black Bar Chromis, Scorpionfish, Turtle, Sea Fan

18:00 – House Reef

Night diving is mostly about seeing marine life that is more active after dark. This was a shore dive through the house reef to the wall on the southeast and then followed the drift west. Except for a few crabs, a moray eel and a sea salp we didn’t see anything different from our day-time dives, and it ended being another wall dive with limited visibility.

Dive time: 52 min
Max depth: 16 m
Water temp: 24°C
Visibility: N/A
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Goby, Lionfish, Crab, Sea urchin

Day 3
14:30 – Pescador Island

CJ suggested Tongo Point, but we were dead set on returning to Pescador for our last dive. Given we were the only divers doing an afternoon dive on this day, CJ gave his only customers what they wanted. This time we began from the south again but headed east. There was no current and the visibility was around 15m.

Pescador’s west wall was in slightly better condition; on the eastern side there was more dead coral but still provided ample of marine life sighting opportunities. On top of the usual reef fishes and turtles I saw a school of convict blenny. The dive ended on a plateau with the highest concentration of reef fishes I had seen over the two dives at Pescador.

After diving Pescador, I wondered why the Taiwanese had such a bad time in Moalboal?

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish idol, Convict blenny, Black Bar Chromis, Turtle, Sea Fan

Note: Here are two sites that help me tremendously in identifying the marine life I have come across in Moalboal.

Diving with Whale Sharks in Oslob

November 24, 2015

Getting there

We took a day trip from Moalboal to Oslob on the south-eastern tip of Cebu Island, about 30 minutes north of Liloan. This obscure, sleepy seaside town was put on the map when the UK’s Daily Mail published an article in 2011 about fishermen riding on the back of whale sharks and feeding them by hand. This caused a sensation internationally, and a few businessmen took advantage of this publicity and employed a group of fishermen to feed the whale sharks with the intention of keeping them in Oslob for as long as possible. Almost overnight Oslob was transformed into a busy tourist attraction, and the serenity of the past was thoroughly shattered in the process, replaced by tour buses and several dive resorts.

We left Moalboal at 6am. Cebu Island was mainly undeveloped outside of several small urban areas – we passed by wooden shacks, free range chickens and unsupervised kids playing curbside. At 7:30 our car made a right turn and pulled into a gravel lot next to the shore. Some people congregated on a small pier waiting to get on the boats. Whenever one was filled to its capacity of around ten passengers, it sailed out to the shallow sea where fishermen were feeding the whale sharks.

Snorkel

You could choose to either snorkel or dive – our dive shop charged ₱6,100 and ₱7,300, including transport from Moalboal, respectively. We chose to do both (₱7,300 plus a little additional fee) and we began with snorkeling. Our boat was filled with snorkelers; there were around forty in total. Once in the murky water filled with bits of brine shrimps, I immediately felt besieged from all directions; up top were boats and paddles, and my fellow snorkelers to my left and right. When I finally settled down a giant black object swan straight towards me. I quickly ducked to my right and an 8m long whale shark and its 1.5m mouth just missed me by a few centimetres. Just as I was making sense of what just happened, the whale shark made a U-turn and charged towards me again. Another two were looming in the background. In this frenzy everyone was attempting to avoid each other and the boats while concentrating on the whereabouts of the whale sharks without colliding with them.

Dive

A short break later we began our dive a few metres from the shore. The sandbar was around 10m deep and we headed northeast for five minutes until we reached the boats. Excluding my buddy, myself and our divemaster there were only three other divers. Even though we were back at the same spot the experience was entirely different – similar to finding a seat in the back of a cinema after watching half a movie on the very first row and at last being able to see the whole screen. A short while ago we were active participants to the chaos on the surface but now we had taken a back seat and observing the action from afar.

Three whale sharks were in a vertical position with their heads above the water. Much to my surprise a 10m long one was disinterested in food and was continuously circling at a depth of 5m. Along with the other divers I stayed at 7 metres for the next half hour shooting photos and videos of this gentle giant. With higher visibility, better maneuverability and much less people, unequivocally the diving experience was superior to snorkeling.

Afterthought

Seeing whale shark up close is an amazing experience, but clearly this entire enterprise is not sustainable. This practice of feeding impacts the whale sharks in a myriad of ways; adapting to an unnatural vertical stance to keep their heads constantly at the surface level; physical injuries from bumping into tourists and boats; an incomplete diet that now consists of solely brine shrimps; an alteration of migration path and a decline in survival ability in the wild. 

It is possible to see these gentle giants in the wild without the assistance of feeding, but that’s always a crapshoot. Most people I met in Oslob were fully aware of the negative impact of our collective presence, yet all of us couldn’t wait to get into the water to see the whale sharks up close. The result was one of the most exhilarating and guilt-ridden experiences I ever had while traveling.

Why the Fuss? My First Dip into the World of Aman at Amankila

September 13 – 16, 2015

In the world of travel, one brand is often alluded as a notch above the field and managed to attract a legion of dedicated fans. I am referring to Aman, “peace” in Sanskrit and often credited as the pioneer of the concept of boutique resort. Adrian Zecha, a Singaporean hotelier, founded the first Aman resort in Phuket in what was initially an attempt to build a vacation home back in the late 1980s. Since then Aman has increased its presence to 20 countries, with a rapid phase of expansion since 2014 after the selling of the resorts to a group headed by the Russian businessman Vladislav Doronin.

Aman has two main philosophies. Architectural wise all Aman resorts follow a minimalist style that accentuates on sourcing indigenous building materials and techniques. In terms of service Aman wants to create an environment of a private residence without standard hospitality practices such as front desk, lobby or bellboys.

Since I was diving in and around Padang Bai, I focused on the resorts in this area, and I ended up splitting five nights between Alila Manggis and Amankila (m. Peaceful Hill). I was excited about the latter – for $3,750 over three nights of pool villa, the Aman Break package I booked was the most I have ever paid for accommodation. I have heard about Aman for a long time, but is it really worth the hype? Specifically, does the 23-year-old Amankila justify the price tag?

Reception

Amankila

Amankila’s cliff-side location offers two distinct advantages. The long winding road leading up to the resort creates some distance from the busy main route while offers a towering vantage point over the surrounding countryside. The ascend generates a sense of anticipation and abruptly, we were there, Amankila’s iconic three-tiered infinity pool in the distance, a sharp turn after we passed through the security checkpoint. Amankila is a sprawling complex. A thatched roof hut constitutes the reception area – think of this as the ground floor. All the suites are located on the cliff above and public areas such as the dining halls and swimming pool below.

Besides the terrific view, Amankila’s rule of inducing a lasting first impression is to have the general manager greets guests upon arrival. While the GM Sandra Watermann was away on this day, I was impressed by a less symbolic but more practical gesture – my check-in was done in my suite without spending a second at the front desk. By the time my credit card was authorized I was already chilling on a daybed next to my private pool.

Room

34 stand-alone suites dot across the upper half of Amankila, with ours, no. 33, being one of the closest to the reception area. Proximity to the lobby doesn’t mean a compromise to privacy as the suite is located at the end of the path and surrounded by trees on three sides and a stone wall to the east. The pool is on the right, taken up 1/4 of the ground, and the rest is a sun lounging area and a thatched roof house.

If you were expecting a glittering interior filled with amazing gadgets, Amankila would surely disappoint. The suite, with an emphasis on space and natural lighting, follows the resort’s unassuming style. Windows facing the northeast and southwest ensure sunlight shines into the room at all time during the day. Three materials stand out – the bamboo on the roof, marble on the walls and floor, and the wooden furniture. The result is a comfortable but slightly incongruous fusion between Western and Balinese styles.

The suite is equally divided into a bedroom and a bathroom. The former has what you would expect – a king-sized bed – and not much else besides a desk. Only gadget available is an iPod plug to a dock with 10,000 classics or dated pop songs.

Perhaps to emphasize Amankila’s superior service and commitment to the privacy of its guests, the washroom, spacious and bright and generally unremarkable, has one curious quirk. Like every other area of the suite, the shower area has a large window that almost touches the floor, but this one doesn’t come with any blind. The management might have total confidence on ensuring no staff or other guests will behave inappropriately, but I would like the option of not leaving this to strangers by closing the blinds myself.

I love the private pool. The suite? No complaint there, but it doesn’t quite match the $1,250 a night price tag.

Food 

A basic version of breakfast was included to our room rate, with choices like fresh juices, bread basket, pancake, beghrir, muesli and fruit salad. After trying most of the choices on the first day, we went with banana pancakes and the bread basket the rest of the way. This carb-fest got a little tiring by the third day, but it was enough to last us through the morning dives. We didn’t try the paid-separately a la carte items.

Occasionally we ordered room service. We tried the cheese burger, seafood pizza and Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice). All dishes were hot like they were just out of the stove. We liked the thin-crust pizza and the seafood matched well with the tomato paste.

On our last night we lavished on a pool-side dinner by the second tier of the main pool. The sous chef, a Balinese lady in her late-forties, came to our suite to discuss the menu with us beforehand. We settled on an appetizer of fennel salads with parmesan, grilled tuna, lobsters and scallops with asparagus as our shared main course, and mangosteen, mango and passion fruit sorbet. The seafood was grilled just right and we were dazzled by the ice bowl used to carry the dessert.

Facilities

Probably Amankila’s weakest aspect. There is a library with a laptop which nobody ever uses, a beach club that requires a 10-minute walk down some steep stairs which nobody ever uses, and a gym with a treadmill and several dumbbells that nobody ever uses. You get the gist – there is a lack of investment on public facilities at Amankila, driven in part by the management’s belief that most guests will be content to relax in their own rooms and take advantage of the service of the excellent room-servicing staff. That’s probably a smart bet – you can hardly seen any guest anywhere.

What the resort does heavily invest in is its iconic triple-tiered pool, which to beat a dead horse is, you guess it, never in use over the four days we were there. This is partially what the exorbitant rate pays for – swimming in an empty infinity pool with multiple staff waiting to wrap a towel around you the moment you get out. It was a cool experience, like the introduction scene to the token hot chick in a Bond movie, but substitute the bikini-clad model with an Asian guy like myself and a little awkwardness starts to creep in.

Service

When Amanjunkies wave about their stays, they almost always focus singularly on Aman’s exceptional unparalleled service. The consensus is Aman provides a level of service that is unlike anywhere else. This goes beyond simply having an attentive and hospitable staff, which is to be expected, but a wholly different approach on client servicing.

Amankila’s service was as good as advertised, and it made Alila Manggis – a respectable resort in its own right – seemed like a self-servicing hostel in comparison. Exaggeration? Consider what Amankila can consistently deliver:

  1. The above-mentioned check-in procedure.
  2. All the staff knew who we were, our suite no. and our planned activity for the day.
  3. We could simply walk away from the table after meals without signing any payment slip.
  4. Staff was constantly communicating on walkie-talkie. When we left our suite the housekeeping crew was immediately notified. Our suite and pool were tidied up regularly but never once did anyone show up without prompting when we were still inside.
  5. Food delivered to our suite was hot like it was straight out of the stove.

None of this seems like a big deal, but add together it shows a commitment on Aman’s part to create an atmosphere where guests can genuinely unwind with everything being taken care of. The key thing is not perfection – we did encounter a few minor hiccups, rather it is a sense that the staff will try their best to accommodate our needs.  

What’s Amankila’s secret in achieving this? Sandra Waterman, GM of the resort, shared with me two main factors. First, Amankila has a crew of around 200, and the typical staff to guest ratio is 4:1 with the occupancy rate hovers around 30% outside of peak season. Located faraway from the main tourist hubs of Kuta and Semiyak in the remote village of Manggis on the island’s east coast, Amankila also draws a mostly quiet cliente of middle-aged European and the occasional Chinese and Japanese. Secondly most of the staff is born and raised in the surrounding area, which brews a strong sense of collective ownership towards the resort and the jobs it provides.

Overall

$1,250 a night is outrageously expensive. Let’s put it this way – that’s more than 3 times Alila Manggis’ rate. Yet after staying at Amankila I felt it was Alila that was overpriced. What Alila offered was passable for what you would expect for that price, but Amankila attained a peerless level of service and relegates the resort’s comfortable but less than stupendous infrastructure as a sidenote.

That’s probably the highest compliment I can give – Amankila is justifiable to charge such high rate, and even though I think of my stay as a once-off experience I will have no hestitation to go back again if I have the cash.

Dive Report: East Bali

Photo set on Flickr

September 12, 2015

Manta Point, Nusa Penida

For my first trip to Bali, I spurned the ever-popular Ubud and South Bali for the relatively seclusive east coast. I only wanted to accomplish two things on this trip – to relax for a few days with my wife and take in several dives. The area around Padang Bai seemed the most convenient for both, and after some searches on Scubaboard.com I contacted Geko Dive, which offered me a 3-day package with a private dive master named Kanox. He was in his early 30s and was born and bred in Padang Bai.

After a layoff of almost a year, my first dip back into the ocean was at the rather challenging Manta Point off the south coast of Nusa Penida, a stomach-turning one-hour ride on fast boat from Padang Bai. Since Geko only had Nusa Penida scheduled for this day during my stay in Bali, I had no choice but to go along and wish for the best.

Already famous for its strong current, the condition was particularly strenuous on this day, and I responded by puking uncontrollably soon after I descended to 20 ft. What remained of my diminished cognitive power I channeled all of it on focusing on Kanox’s pink fins because my life literally depended on it. As the spot of pink gradually submerged by the encompassing turquoise, all I could hear was the incessant huffing sound of my own breathing. Even pushing as hard as I could I hardly made any advance against the cold current.

That’s where professional help stepped in – Kanox saw I was lagging behind, turned back and dragged me forward like a bag of grocery. For the rest of the dive I clung to him like a koala to an eucalyptus. We saw a few mantas at a cleaning station from afar and nothing else notable.

Dive time: 33 min
Max depth: 23 m
Water temp: 22°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Manta

Buyuk, Nusa Penida

Arguably Nusa Penida’s most famous dive spot and a prime location for mola-mola sighting, Crystal Point is no joke – witness the several high profile accidents over the past few years. Facing today’s unforgiving current, we bailed out to the calmer Buyuk on the island’s northeast coast.

Kanox glued to me, the disoriented laggard, from the start this time. The condition was again quite challenging. Sadly there wasn’t much marine life to divert my attention from the cold – over the duration of the half-hour dive I kept an eye out for mola-mola but we once again came up empty. Starting to feel better, I started to play around my new toy – Sony RX100 III with underwater housing. With no clue at all, I regressed back how I was a decade ago when I first got my hands on a DSLR and indiscriminately shot at everything in sight.

Dive time: 34 min
Max depth: 27 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Razorfish, Pennant coralfish

September 13

Gili Tepekong

Our quest for mola-mola continued amid another day of uncompromising condition at Gili Tepekong, a 15-minute boat ride from Padang Bai. Several divers reported mola sighting the past few days near a cave close to the island’s northwest coast, but the current was too strong today. After drifting on our boat for almost an hour close to the shore, we cut bait and sailed to the 30 m wall to the north where the condition was more favorable.

We sank to 32 m and immediately was attracted by a large pink hard coral. As I tried to swim closer for a macro shot, Kanox frenetically knocked on his gas tank and waved ahead to catch my attention. I looked up toward where he was pointing, and after squinting my eyes hard enough I could see a dark object approaching. Could it be mola-mola?

Swimming forward as fast as I could, the dark object became increasingly discernible; round, almost bullet-like in shape with fins stretched out vertically like the wings of a jumbo jet, I knew we had hit the jackpot. Ten seconds of unadulterated joy later, the mid-sized sunfish turned around and swam off, leaving the few snapshots on my memory card the only proof of our fleeting encounter.

Lady Luck only smiled upon us that one time – we didn’t bump into another mola the rest of this dive or the next. A few patches of coral and a reef shark aside, Buyuk was not teeming with marine life, but with the trophy that’s the photos of mola in my pocket I would call this one of the more satisfying dives on my logbook.

Dive time: 25 min
Max depth: 32 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 20 m
Seen: Mola-mola, Reef shark, Hard and soft coral

September 15

USAT Liberty, Tulamben

“Everyone comes to Bali for mola-mola, but Tulamben is what people always remember back home.”

Kanox dispersed this nugget of wisdom on our way to Tulamben. With so many diving options near Padang Bai, why should anyone take the 90 min drive north to this tiny fishing village? It all traces back to the year 1942 during World War II, when the U.S. Navy cargo ship USAT Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Lombok Strait. The damaged ship was then towed to the beach of Tulamben, and 21 years later it slipped to a sand slope from the shore when Mount Agung erupted. Soft coral soon covered the wreck, and now this almost century-old relic has evolved into a unique micro ecosystem bursting with marine life.

Being Bali’s most popular dive spot, Tulamben attracts up to 300 divers during the high season. On this supposedly quiet day there were still a few dozen divers in the water at all times. It is easy to understand Tulamben’s popularity; compares to Nusa Penida the shore dive here is easy, warm and full of various species of fish and soft coral. Almost every inch of the wreck was covered by coral, and some part of the ship like the wheel and a gun were still recognizable. I saw more fish here than all of my previous dives at Nusa Penida and Tepekong combined. And it was not only fish – I also saw a turtle, a colony of Spotted garden eel, a red sea slug called Spanish dancer and a sea fan.

After two dives in Tulamben, I have to agree with Kanox. Mola-mola was the elusive photo-op that justified my trip to Bali, but turned out it was the novice-friendly Tulamben that I really enjoyed.

Here is also a special thanks to Kanox, without him I surely wouldn’t have enjoyed my dives as much as I did. The cost was around USD 320 for 6 dives – not exactly a bargain – but I recommend Geko wholeheartedly.

Dive time: 39 min
Max depth: 29 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Wreck, Hard and soft coral, Yellowbanded sweetlips, Napoleon wrasse, Midnight snapper, Clownfish, Pink anemonefish, Spanish dancer, Surgeonfish, Sand perch, Bluestrip snapper, Giant clam, Spotted garden eel, Barracuda, Turtle, Sea fan

Great Wall Day Trip? Try Mutianyu

May 17, 2013

You might think visiting the Great Wall is a straightforward task – just hop on a bus to the section closest to Beijing – which, by the way, is called Badaling, an overly-restored section where you will meet tens of thousands of tourists on package tours. Don’t make this mistake – take a look at the below map and you will find there are more than a dozen sections of the wall open to tourists near Beijing.

great-wall-map

The most scenic stretch is from Simatai to Jiankou, and you can easily spend a few days hiking along this often unrestored section of the wall. Those who has only a day to spare should focus on the easily-accessible Mutianyu (慕田峪). This 2.5km portion of the wall has two major advantages; it is well-restored yet still retains a wild, crumbled side on its northwestern section, and it doesn’t receive an overflow of tourists as most package tour groups still prefer Badaling.

The admission fee is ¥45. After passing the ticketing office you have two options to reach the wall either climb 30 minutes of steep stairs or ride a cable car directly to Tower no. 14. Round trip ticket on the cable car is ¥100. The price is the same if you intend to descend on a toboggan slide but you have to decide when you purchase the ticket.

If you visit on a clear day (a rarity in Beijing), you are supposed to see the walls stretching from west to east for as far as your eyes can see. Great Wall’s impressiveness lies upon its scale, and regrettably Beijing’s omnipresent heavy smog takes away its greatest aesthetic asset.

There are 23 watchtowers in Mutianyu, and you will be aiming for the largest-numbered one. The foundation of the wall was first laid in the mid-6th century during the Northern Qi dynasty and was rebuilt completely one millennium later, but you will be hard pressed to tell the wall’s age at Tower no. 14, which has been heavily restored in recent years. The wall is constructed mostly with granite and measures 7 – 8m tall and 4 – 5m wide.

A leisurely stroll of around 45 minutes will lead you to Tower no. 18, where the wall suddenly turns desolate. Vegetation has reclaimed large swath of the wall, and each step forward requires your full attention as the walkway is full of chuckholes. Here the once mighty walls have crumbled after decades of neglect.

Mutianyu is the perfect introduction to the Great Wall, which spans across more than 8,000km from Gansu to Liaoning in northern China. If you like the unrestored portion of the wall, you can bring a pair of sturdy boots and challenge Jiankou or Simatai on a future trip. You prefer a fully restored version? Then you have already seen the best in Mutianyu.

Beijing’s World Heritage Sites

May 17 – 20, 2013
Photo set on Flickr

Enough Beijing bashing. Let’s change the subject and talk about some of China’s most revered cultural treasures. Within Beijing’s city proper are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with more potentially on the way. The Great Wall is truly world-class, but I came away slightly disappointed on the four sites in the city’s central district. Collectively they stand as the pinnacle of ancient Chinese engineering and architecture, but in today’s Beijing they are lesser than the sum of its parts.

The main issue has less to do with each of these individual sites and everything to do with their host city. The reason why Beijing has such an eye-popping number of WHS is driven by a political will for legitimization and also from a position of weakness – what remains of the city’s heritage is segregated as World Heritage Sites that have nothing in common with the surrounding cityscape.

Beijing might be the capital of China over the past 800 years, but the city, as the political heart of the Middle Kingdom, has a run of poor luck along with the rest of the country over the past two millennia. First was a prolong period of political instability in the late Qing and early republic years followed by the war years in the 1930s – 40s. Just when things at last appeared to look up under communist rule, Mao launched his personal crusade against his political enemies, the Cultural Revolution, which brought an incalculable amount of destruction to Chinese heritage.

But even when the political scene calms down after Mao’s death and China supercharges into an economic superpower over the past three decades, demolition both tangible and intangible continues in Beijing. Expanding seemingly daily to make room for the incessant flow of migrants from the countryside looking for a better life, Beijing has grown from a population of around 9mil in 1980 to more than 21mil in 2013. Traditional neighbourhoods are cleared to make space for high-rises and roads. Gradually Beijing’s WHS become enclaves within their own city, though perhaps that’s always their destiny – they were designed and built for emperors, after all.

Forbidden Palace 故宫

The administrative centre and imperial residence for 24 Ming and Qing emperors over almost five centuries, the name Forbidden City is not a hyperbole – it literally is a city in the middle of Beijing, consisting 980 buildings over an area of 183 acres. At its peak during the late Ming era tens of thousands lived here. Fire is a constant threat and most of the current buildings are from early Qing when the complex was burned to the ground by Li Zicheng at the dask of the Ming dynasty.

As China’s second most notable cultural attraction behind the Great Wall, the Forbidden City has the potential to be one of the world’s transcendent museum, but regrettably it fails to reach such lofty height. Crowd is not the main issue; its gigantic size can easily absorb the average daily number of visitors of 38,000. Duck a few blocks from the main path and you will hardly see another person. The reason why it is so easy to get away from the crowd is because most of the buildings look identical and are not opened to public.

The Forbidden City indeed houses many amazing artefacts, but most of the very best were shipped to Taiwan by the Kuomingtang at the end of the civil war and are now under the management of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Moreover, the wooden buildings have dark interiors and limited display space, which make a poor venue for showcasing artefacts.

Also affecting the experience is the dissonance between how the authority tries to present the palace and its imperial lineage. Starting with Mao’s portrait on the southern gate Tiananmen, the official tone of describing the palace is overtly political – communism has freed China from its imperial heritage and now everyone, no matter your social standing, can come appreciate what the Chinese civilization is able to achieve. There are stories and gossips of which popular emperor or concubine did what at where, but the human element of the millions of lives who once called this place home was mostly brushed aside to avoid the appearance of glorifying the imperialistic past.

The Forbidden City is still a must-see. If short of time I would have no problem missing any of the following sites, but anyone who visits Beijing should save an afternoon for this. My tip is to stay until it closes – the compound is so vast that the staff takes a long time to clear the ground. If you time it properly you can get some photos without any people in the foreground.

Temple of Heaven 天壇

Constructed in 1420 during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle, the Temple of Heaven, located to the south of the Forbidden City, was where the monarchs of the Ming and Qing dynasties held annual offerings to deities for rain and good harvest. The compound was occupied by the Eight Nation Alliance in 1900 and much of the ceremonial artefacts were plundered. Eighteen years later, after the founding of the republic, the complex was turned into a public park.

The highlight of the complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿), a 38m tall wooden building without using any nails or purlins. The structure is supported by 12 giant pillars which represent each of the earthly branches, the ancient Chinese unit of time. The round temple is supported by a square-shaped marble platform, symbolizing the traditional Chinese belief that the universe is “round in the sky and square on earth”. The building was burned down in 1889 after being struck by lightning and was reconstructed a few years later.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is arguably Beijing’s most recognizable icon, meaning it is impossible to find a sliver of space up close among the crowd to study the architecture. This is one of those sites that you leave immediately after taking the mandatory tourist photo feeling both mission accomplished and a waste of time simultaneously.

Summer Palace 頤和園

In the mid 18th century at the peak of the Qing Dynasty’s power, the emperor Qianlong commissioned a new palace complex around Jar Hill in the northeast part of the capital to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday. The emperor, known for his deep affection of the scenery of southern China, particularly Hangzhou’s West Lake, ordered the expansion of the existing Western Lake to replicate its famous counterpart in the south. The soil dug up from the expansion works of the new lake was piled on Jar Hill, which was renamed the Longevity Hill.

This extravagant project coincided with the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s gradual yet steep decline. By the mid 19th century some sections of the palace were dismantled to save some of the sky-high maintainance costs. When the French and English armies burned down the nearby Yuanmingyuan Palace and ramsacked the Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War, it smashed all pretense that China was still a world-leading power. The sense of misery only worsen when the palace was sacked again 40 years later at the hands of the Eight Nation Alliance.

These humiliating episodes are all solidly in the past, and the Summer Palace has predictably turned into a tourist hot spot. The palace, originally designed for the pleasure of only the royal family, is now required to accommodate thousands of visitors a day, the majority of which converge in and around Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill.

Most of Summer Palace’s points of interest are not particularly interesting; the palace is in essence a collection of replicas of Qianlong’s personal favourite attractions across southern China. Most people are content to walk the length of the Long Corridor, a 728m covered walkway decorated with more than 14,000 paintings, then take a photo of the Longevity Hill and call it a day. But when throngs of tourists descend upon its gate on a day of dense smog, which is basically the majority of the time in Beijing, and the visibility is reduced to a few metres, I am sure even the palace’s biggest admirer Qianlong would want no part of it.

Shichahai 什刹海, The Grand Canal

The Sui-era Grand Canal, constructed 1,400 years ago, is one of ancient China’s most important engineering feat that links the landlocked capital to the fertile south. The section of the 1,776km canal between Hangzhou and Wuxi is one of the country’s more popular tourist attraction, and the northern section is functional rather than scenic.

Officially, the three lakes that comprise Shichahai is part of the Grand Canal WHS because it used to be the northernmost part of the canal. This has not been the case for hundreds of years as the water level of the Tonghui River is too shallow to support navigation. Nowadays the closest that ships can reach the capital is Tongzhou, 20km southeast from central Beijing.

Shichahai is a popular nightlife destination and is in close proximity to popular destinations like the Drum Tower and Yonghe Temple. The lake itself is very ordinary-looking and most people are unaware this is even a WHS. Counting this as a visit to the Grand Canal feels a little like a cheat.

Central Axis of Beijing (Tentative) 

Yongdingmen

You always hear complaints that World Heritage Site is a highly politicized campaign for states to market their attractions under the disguise of conservation. The perfect example to feed such cynicism is China’s decision to nominate the Central Axis of Beijing, an area that already includes two inscribed sites in the Forbidden Palace and the Temple of Heaven. If the Central Axis is worthy of a place on the list, why not nominate the entire area together with the two existing WHS at the very beginning?

The proposed area covers from the Drum and Bell Towers all the way south to the Yongdingmen. This 7.8km stretch is the traditional heart of the capital, spanning across palaces, temples, fortification and markets. Major attractions include the above mentioned towers, Beihai Park, Tiananmen Square and several city gates. I visited three of them:

  • Drum Tower (鼓樓): The 47m wooden tower, along with the adjacent Bell Tower, was used as time announcement up till the late Qing dynasty. Now it offers a nice view of central Beijing.
  • Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場): One of the world’s largest city square, it is home to various Communist monuments and government buildings. More than two decades after the Tiananmen Protests, the square remains one of the most policially sensitive area in China – it is heavily patrolled by soldiers and all visitors have to go through checkpoints.
  • Yongdingmen (永定門): Part of the outer section of Beijing’s city wall, the gate was knocked down to give way to the construction of new roads. It was rebuilt in 2005 and the gate tower now houses a souvenir shop.

Every visitor to Beijing will come across at least one of these sites, but none deserves to be a WHS on its own. And it is hard to think of them as a coherent unit; the destruction to the area and the presence of the communist style Tiananmen are irreversible and permanent. If this nomination ends up successful despite the presence of two existing sites within the same area, it will only make a mockery of UNESCO and the whole exercise that is the WHS.