Tom (too) Yum Goong Soup and salt tinged fresh air

This is my view as I sit here writing this to you, those are my funny looking feet at the bottom there ...
What’s that you can see? Nothing you say? That’s right. Absolutely nothing but a wide expanse of deep blue ocean, a light blue almost cloudless sky and sunshine. These are the kinds of wide open spaces I crave, that I miss from Australia and that I don’t get in Singapore. Just one of the many reasons I love my diving weekends.

Imagine spending two days on a luxurious, Thai, long range diving vessel breathing in fresh air (no humidity!) tinged with salt with the sun on your face. Looking out into a vast and mostly blue expanse, dotted with the occasional island or rickety old Malaysian fishing boat chugging by.

You hear the steady humdrum of the boats motor in the background and feel the gentle swaying motion as it glides through the water taking you to your destination. You turn your mind off. Finally. Think you could handle it?

I have been diving with the crew at White Manta since 2008. I usually do the weekend trips from Friday night to Sunday night as it doesn’t require me to take any time off work. You are only gone for 2 days but you come back feeling like you have had a 2 week break. It is amazing what fresh air and no phone reception can do for a girl!

The crew on the boat are some of the sweetest people I have had the opportunity to meet since living in Asia. Mostly a Thai crew (so you can just imagine the food I am treated to, we will get to that shortly) and headed up by the lovely Chris. Chris is a Dive Master extraordinaire and marine life enthusiast with the best arsenal of “What's That Fish?” books I have had the privilege of rifling through! I love meeting people that are passionate and all consumed by that they do for a living, and that is Chris. It is hard not to get wrapped up in the magic of diving when you are with him.

Then there is the actual diving. On this trip we went to dive sites around Tioman Island in Malaysia. We dived Chebeh, Labasa, Palau Jahat and Jack Rock. We got 6 dives in over the last two days spending a total of 4 hours and 15 minutes underwater yesterday and 2 hours today. The photo below is us stopped in at the actual Tioman Island getting our passports stamped out on Saturday morning …

My favourite time of day to dive is first thing in the morning at sunrise or late in the afternoon coming into evening. 

Speaking of sunrise, this is what we woke up to this morning …

I love the process of being woken up early by one of the crew ringing the hand held brass bell. Coming out to the main deck to get an espresso (another reason I love this boat, I can get a decent coffee in the morning). Waiting for the other divers to emerge for the dive briefing, bleary eyed and slowly waking up as the sun comes up over the horizon.

We are briefed on the conditions to expect under water and the best way to conduct the dive is suggested by Chris. We “suit up” and then head down underwater with our dive groups. It is hard to describe the feeling of stepping off the back of the dive platform knowing you are going to spend the next hour at 25m or so below the surface of the ocean. The cold refreshing water envelopes you and if you were not properly awake before, you are right at that moment!

Beneath the surface it is calm, serene, and magical. You start the slow decent beneath the water and are all of a sudden alone with your own thoughts. There's only the sound of your breathing through the regulator and a faint popping and crackling sound. I call it the “sound underwater makes”, if you have been diving before you will know what I mean.

It is a visual and sensory overload under there! Pockets of sunshine stream through the water highlighting coral and glinting off the scales of schools of fish circling you. The marine life is going about its daily business, getting ready to feed, be cleaned, set up a nest, they too have orderly schedules to keep.

One of my favourite sights are the cleaning stations which seem to be more active in the mornings. Labroides dimidiatus (Cleaner Wrasse) are tiny fish found in these parts (about 10-12cm) whose main task is to maintain the health of the fish community (and also get fed in the process) by picking parasites embedded in under the skin of larger fish with their tweezer-like teeth.  

They often set up relatively permanent cleaning stations under rock boulders and operate their “business”, solo or in pairs. The larger fish know where to come for their cleaning and sometimes the service at a particularly good cleaning station can be in such high demand you see fish seeming to “queue”, waiting patiently for their turn. If you extend an arm or a leg close to a cleaning station they will often try and give you the once over as well!

When I first started diving I didn’t like to look up. Sort of like if you are afraid of heights you don’t look down. Well I didn’t like to look up as it would bring on strong claustrophobic feelings as I thought to myself “wow, that is a whole lot of water between me and air, if this air stops flowing …”. But like all other things,  your confidence grows the more experienced you become.

Now one of my favourite diving positions is on my back looking up gently finning along, especially if I am near a sheer wall or boulder that is covered in marine life. The site is breath taking. The stunning colors of the marine life, sunshine streaming through the water catching on particles, watching the bubbles you breathed out drifting slowly to the surface and the fish dart about. You can’t put the experience into words that accurately describe the magnitude of this magical almost out of body experience.

I also love that you can dive the same sites over and over and have a different experience every time. I have dived Tioman before but on this trip for the first time I learnt that some anenomes fold up on themselves as it comes into evening. They will bring their skirt in and up on themselves hiding on the inside all of their tentacles and exposing the underside of their skirt which can be so brightly colored. In my experience the under sides were bright purple and on occasion a bright orange clown fish would dart in and out of the opening. Such a beautiful and colorful sight.

Whilst it is a calming and serene experience you actually do exert a lot of effort when you are diving. I sleep a lot between dives and eat a lot. Oh boy do I eat! I promised you I would get to the food. 

As I mentioned earlier the crew on the boat is mostly Thai so for the two days we are treated to an amazing array of delectable Asian dishes, a good portion of them Thai.

Yesterday morning I emerged from the water to be treated to a steaming hot bowl of Thai rice congee. This delicious warm soup for the heart and the soul is an everyday meal in Thailand. Broken, cooked Jasmine rice is immersed in a traditional chicken or pork broth. You garnish your individual serving with a small (I stress 'small'!) spoonful of bird’s eye chilli soaked in nam pla (fish sauce), thin slivers of ginger, chopped coriander and spring onions.

Lunch yesterday included a Tom Yum soup which we make quite frequently at home. Andrew makes a fabulous rendition that he learnt to cook on one of his trips to Thailand. Breakfast on the final day is always my favourite: Thai chicken curry with roti prata.

Roti prata is not typically Thai, acknowledged, and to be honest I couldn’t do curry for breakfast in any other circumstance! But I tell you, what a feeling, coming up from an early Sunday morning dive cold and hungry only to delve into a big plate of warm, spicy chicken goodness with the sun dancing off the water around you.

Washed down with an espresso of course …

I can’t wait for the next trip in August!

Tom (too) Yum Goong Soup
a creation by Andrew

21/2 cups of prawn stock (see method below for how to make this, it's very easy)
2 stalks lemongrass, (hard outside layers removed and cut into 3cm pieces then pounded with the butt of a knife handle)
1 thumb sized piece each of galangal and ginger, peeled and sliced into thumbnail sized slices
6 kaffir lime leaves, stems removed, roughly ripped and bruised with the butt of a knife handle
4-10 birds eye chillies, chopped and seeds removed (4 of these with seeds removed will give a nice mild-medium warmth. 10 will set your pants on fire!)
2 tomatoes, cut into eighths
8 mushrooms, quartered (or a can of button mushrooms)
12 prawns, peeled and deveined with heads kept for the stock
4 tablespoons of nam pla (fish sauce)
4 teaspoons of lime juice

First, make the prawn stock by bringing 3 cups of water to the boil. Cut or break off the heads of the prawns and add them to the boiling water. Let them gently boil for 5 to 7 minutes all the while pressing down on the heads to extract all the juicy, prawny goodness from them. It should turn red and frothy, careful it doesn't boil over or it will leave your cooktop incredibly fragrant (stinky). Give the prawn heads one last press and discard them, the stock should have reduced to 2.5 cups by now.  

Add lemongrass, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and chillies to the simmering stock. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes stirring occasionally.

Add tomatoes and mushrooms and stir until cooked. 

Add the nam pla and prawn meat. The prawns won't take long to cook and will continue to cook in the hot liquid as you're serving up the dish. 

Put a teaspoon of fresh lime juice in everyone's bowl then divide up the soup. Make sure you divide the prawns evenly, this causes fights in our house! 


Yield: 6-8 serves depending the serving size