Jul 15

Chef David Thompson at Nahm Restaurant in Bangkok

Copyright 2014, Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

We recently spent a couple of enjoyable days with Chef David Thompson at Nahm restaurant in Bangkok. Much of it passed gossiping over coffee. Some of it was spent in the kitchen tasting dishes the chef was cooking. One evening we even dined in the kitchen on cushions at a low wooden Thai divan from where Thompson’s partner Tanongsak keeps an eye on operations. In between, Terence made some of the warmest and most relaxed-looking portraits of the chef, who does not enjoy being in front of a camera, while I interviewed him for a few stories.

We’ve been fans of Thompson’s since we first ate at his restaurant Darley Street Thai in Sydney in the early 1990s. That inaugural David Thompson meal set high expectations for us from that point onward when it came to Thai food. We met the chef only briefly that evening, but like our meeting with Chef Tetsuya Wakuda at his first restaurant around the same time, it left an impression.

We’ve interviewed the chef and observed him in the kitchen, cooking, tasting and teaching, a handful of times since he opened Nahm in Bangkok, including October last year when he was in Battambang, Cambodia, where he’s an advisor to the social enterprise restaurant Jaan Bai. We’ve learn a lot from those encounters.

Watching the chef make a curry – and teach trainee cooks how to make a curry – is a participatory experience. There’s no fly on the wall research where David is involved. Spoons are also passed to the writer-photographer team to continually dip in the pots and woks to understand how a dish evolves with each sprinkle of this and smattering of that to gain the depth and complexity of flavour that great Thai food has. As a consequence, our expectations of Thai cuisine are higher than ever and appear to increase with each meal we relish at Nahm.

But we admire David for so much more than his kitchen craft and staggering knowledge of Thai food and its culinary history. No person we know has got under the skin of a place – that place being Thailand – like David has, from his fluency in the Thai language to his understanding of the country and culture. But that’s not what we were at Nahm to chat about.

In February 2014, Nahm was named Asia’s Best Restaurant at the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards by the global food industry – chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality professionals, gourmands, and food media that are organized into regional panels to vote annually for the planet’s finest eateries. We went to the event in Singapore, where Terence also did a culinary workshop with David Thompson. In May, Nahm placed at #13 on the global edition, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. We made a beeline for Bangkok.

All the restaurants at the top end of that list (a list well-regarded by industry and used as a guide by jet-setting food tourists) – Noma in Denmark, El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, and Osteria Francescana in Italy to name a few – are renowned for their never-ending tasting menus, contemporary techniques, artful plating, and the whimsical experiences they offer diners.

David Thompson’s pungent relishes, tangy salads and fiery curries, on the other hand, are served together family-style in rustic bowls on unadorned tables, and are distinguished by their authenticity, deliciousness, and, paradoxically, simplicity and complexity. There are no gastronomic fireworks or cheeky tricks, yet for those who appreciate authentic Thai food, a meal at Nahm will highly likely be their most memorable in Thailand and perhaps their most enjoyable in Asia.

That says a lot about “the cook” (as David prefers to be called over ‘chef’) and his food. I hope the interview below reveals a little more.

Lara Dunston: I’m interested to know what triggered all of this – what’s your earliest food memory?
David Thompson: My mother was the world’s worst cook. That I survived her food is a testament to the strength of her genes. She cooked in the style of the Anglo-Celtic provincial – meat and two veg. I do remember my father growing a few vegetables in the backyard but it wasn’t a food-orientated upbringing. When I was 21 and finishing university it was as if a time bomb went off and I had to cook. There were no Masterchef, no TV chefs, no gastronomic epiphany that announced the beginnings of a career. I just became obsessed with food.

So what inspired your passion for Thai food?
I remember eating my first Thai meal in Sydney at the Siam in Paddington. It was dreadful – fish cakes, which were rubbery, and lemongrass, which I hated at the time, but I suspect because it was 1979 it was dried lemongrass. I had no further appreciation of Thai except as a ‘lazy Sunday night I couldn’t be bothered to cook, shall I call the restaurant and get takeaway’ type of food.

But there must have been something that ignited this passion, this lifelong project?
I came across Jennifer Brennan’s book on Thai food, just before or after I went to Thailand for a holiday. I went back to Australia and decided to move to Thailand. That was in 1986. I still wasn’t impressed with Thai food. It was more the crazy edge to this country I found intoxicating, enthralling, absorbing, and more delicious than the food. I thought it was certainly better than the Thai I’d had in Australia but I didn’t think it was great.

What motivated you to open your first Thai restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in Sydney?
I’d been in Thailand for two to three years, during which time I’d met an old woman who’d been educated at the Thai palace and cooked with an inherited skill and you could taste the generations and experience in her food. As you can with any good cook. I met her through my partner, Tanongsak, who has been my culinary guide, and it was through him I started collecting old Thai cookbooks, which was another way I could gain access to a culinary culture I had no right to nor understanding of.

Why do you feel you have no right to it?
Well, I’m not Thai. I understand when Thais are incredulous when Westerners cook Thai food because having tasted many Westerners’ interpretations of Thai food – apart from some exceptions – there are few who can really communicate the complexity, depth and balance of flavours. Some Thais don’t get that either but they have an inherent advantage and some cook with inherent skills. Others cook like my mother.

What sort of food were you making back then, first in Sydney and later at Nahm in London? It’s often called Royal Thai.
Royal Thai is a spurious thing and extinct as well. It’s the food of a milieu that’s been dead for 60-70 years. I caught the tail end of some of those cooks but it’s not that they cooked in that manner because that was reserved for the princes of Siam and above, where you’d have small portions, exquisitely cooked, and very elegant. You get the veneer of it when people carve fruits and vegetables, but I find it a bit dodgy when they then go and use canned coconut cream. Royal Thai food was marked by a combination of dishes that struck with a blur of intensity, contrast and contradiction that was dark and sonorous and delicious. We have old books from that echelon but we’re cooking food from a nice avenue or nice house not a palace. Because that food, as it was prepared, has many parameters no longer available and points that must be adhered to before it can be called ‘royal’. We weren’t and aren’t doing that.

So what were you cooking then?
We were trying to do the food that’s come to fruition at Nahm – good food that’s faithful to the cuisine. My whole career as a chef has been based upon being faithful to the food I understood at the time and it’s been with my increasing understanding that I’m still faithful to it. I’m not one who is here to please customers and that’s why we have customers complaining because we don’t conform to what people understand Thai food to be from their restaurants in Manchester, Wichita or Dubbo.

How did those foreigner-friendly restaurants with the cookie-cutter menus of spring rolls and rubbery fish cakes and red and green curries come about?
Thais are intrinsically polite and hospitable people who worked out what it is Westerners liked to eat. The ubiquitous restaurants you’ve described developed in the 1970s and Thais don’t think the Western palate has moved on but I’d like to this it has – enormously. Some people get our jungle curries at Nahm and some don’t and are burning with scorn – as well as chillies. What most Thai restaurants do is offer a kind menu they know will please and ensure their business isn’t at risk because they’re doing something controversial. I’m not cavalier, nor dismissive – my priorities are to the cuisine. Hopefully people get that. The Thais themselves think their food can be too extreme and people won’t understand it and I get that. They also don’t think that Westerners can cook their food. But I think some people get a handle of it without question.

I remember when Terence and I first ate here at Nahm, an older Thai gentleman at the next table exclaimed to his wife after a mouthful of curry: “I haven’t tasted anything like this since I was a child!”
Well, that’s what we’re trying to do. I’m also less dictatorial, it’s more collegial, and things are more conversational as I develop recipes with Prin (Nahm’s head chef). I guide but I don’t have to control every element. Why would I waste the talent of someone like Prin and some of the others in my kitchen? Their involvement is as important. This restaurant is often accused of being ran by Westerners but it doesn’t ring true. Those who make those accusations don’t understand how restaurants work. There is only one Westerner in the kitchen at Nahm.

How has your food evolved during the life of each of your restaurants?
The first one represented the enunciation and beginning of an understanding and discovery through books and ingredients which I thought were fantastic at that time when they were grown in north Queensland in Australia and came down to Sydney. And that was when Sydney’s restaurant scene was in that high flying swing of success – the time of Neil Perry, Chris Mansfield, and all those chefs who built its reputation. Then in London because of the ingredients available it developed much more, along with my depth of experience, and I thought we were pretty good. But coming back to Thailand things changed completely. The recipes I had that I thought worked well didn’t anymore so everything had to be re-tested. There was a culinary spring-cleaning which as a 50 year-old cook was irksome at the time, but in retrospect was good, because it got rid of a lot of assumed recipes that had been relied upon without reconsidering.

Are you still learning as a chef?
Oh, s**t yeah. Now I’m more interested in the arcane ingredients that are entering the fray – different types of fish sauce, fermented fish, and fruits and vegetables, and that’s growing. We go to markets and we track things back to farms. For example, we found some half ripe mangosteens that are crispy and crunchy and are perfect in duck curry. There’s lots of stuff to be discovered that I wouldn’t have found in London. Plus there’s the depth of recipes that we now play with. I have so many projects going on and I’m setting up various things but I still like to spend one day a week wandering around like a lunatic with a dirty spoon and mucking around in the kitchen experimenting with new dishes. And that’s important to cooks – no matter what their age.

A shorter, edited version of this conversation appeared in the June 2014 Interview issue of Southeast Asia Globe. While interviewing and photographing Chef David Thompson we stayed as appreciative guests of the hospitable Metropolitan by Como hotel in Bangkok, which is home to Nahm.

Jul 14

Why You Shouldn’t Travel Without Travel Insurance

Traffic in Hanoi Old Town. Copyright 2014, Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

I’ve noticed some really bad advice on the web recently about travel insurance – mostly on Twitter and usually dished out in unhelpful proclamations like “Don’t buy travel insurance – I’ve been to 100 countries and I’ve never needed it”. Well, aren’t you the lucky one? It wouldn’t concern me if it wasn’t coming from influential bloggers who should know better, travel bloggers who travellers listen to. Well, let me tell you a little story about a scene we recently witnessed that will hopefully convince you why you shouldn’t travel without travel insurance.

We were in Thailand two weeks ago working on some stories in Hua Hin on a hot summer’s afternoon. Two twenty-something female backpackers in cut-off denim shorts and tank tops had obviously had what they thought was a bright idea at the time – to hire a motorbike and (I’m guessing by the bikini straps) head out of the city on a short ride south to cleaner beaches and cooling ocean breezes.

When we spotted them they were giddy with excitement. Their cheeks were flushed and they were grinning ear to ear. We were walking in their direction and couldn’t help but exchange brief looks as they popped on their cheap motorcycle helmets and one at a time swung their bare legs over the bike. The girl who initially took control didn’t appear so confident once she was sitting at the handlebars, her fingers uncertain on the grips.

Her pixie-haired friend seemed more at ease, perhaps even a little cocky, and although we didn’t hear what she said to persuade her friend she was the better driver, they quickly and somewhat awkwardly swapped places. These were girls who weren’t at all comfortable on a motorbike.

The girl at the controls was smiling wide and they shared a laugh as she failed to start the thing the first time. She glanced in our direction, and despite her confident revving of the bike, as we got closer I detected a glint of nervousness in her eyes.

I even felt an ever so slight sense of fear on her behalf that almost compelled me to offer some advice (although it had been a long time sine I’d ridden a motorbike), or to suggest to Terence that he share a few tips. But just as we reached them, they took off a little too fast, as they left the lane and turned right into the town street.

Within seconds of passing by them, we heard a screech, crash and squeals, and as we turned around we saw the motorcycle crash into a row of stationery bikes before falling on its side and they and the bike scraping along the bitumen as they slid down the road into oncoming traffic. Thankfully they weren’t the busy main road.

My first impulse was to rush over to see if I could help. But two old expat blokes had already left their bar stools and hurried to their aid. A couple of locals joined them. If they weren’t dead, we thought, they must have been terribly hurt. But miraculously, as a young Thai guy retrieved the bike, the girls got to their feet. One staggered, the other tottered. They were dazed and obviously in shock. The girl on the back of the bike crumpled onto the footpath where she sat, stunned. We were some distance away, but I’m sure I saw a blur of blood, on her head and on their legs.

One of the old expat blokes had taken charge and was talking to the girls, I assumed, to ascertain their state. Someone else was on the phone – no doubt calling an ambulance. Elsewhere on the street, shopkeepers returned to their businesses, to their newspapers, their bowls of noodles, their embroidery. They have obviously seen this sort of thing many times before.

Confident that things were under control, we continued our walk. “Silly girls”, I said. “Why even attempt to ride a bike if you don’t know how?” “I hope they have travel insurance,” Terence said. “They’ll be in hospital under observation overnight.” Or worse, I thought.

I was thinking about another incident a few months earlier in Siem Reap. An American backpacker mysteriously dropped dead in the street, apparently from cardiac arrest, after having been ill. It seemed he didn’t have travel insurance and the family couldn’t afford to have his body sent home to the US, so he was cremated here and money was raised online to have his ashes returned to the US. I can only imagine the heartbreak and sense of helplessness his family must have felt until his friends came to the rescue. Their son couldn’t have saved them that had he have had insurance.

Travel insurance need not cost a lot. Our insurance has actually run out and I’ve been researching different packages online. One of the cheapest travel insurance products I’ve seen starts from as little as $70 for one traveller for a month in Asia. Some travel agents will sell you insurance for even less than that if you’ve already bought flights or a package while some credit cards even offer free travel insurance. One-year packages of the sort we want are far better value. But if you can’t afford $70 then you really can’t afford to travel.

My advice: you shouldn’t even be thinking about travelling without travel insurance. While the chance of you dropping dead on the street in Siem Reap is extremely rare, motorbike accidents throughout Asia are common. You’d be silly not to have insurance that covers ambulance, hospital stays, treatment, and, in case you’re coming to Cambodia, medical evacuation. But then you’re also pretty silly getting on a motorbike in shorts and a singlet, particularly a motorbike you didn’t know how to ride.

Watch this space for more practical advice and tips – I’m currently seeking a travel insurance professional to participate in a Q&A. If you have questions you want answered feel free to leave them in the Comments below.

Jul 13

Learning About Places By Observing Public Rituals

King Father Norodom Sihanouk's body returns to the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Copyright 2014, Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Over the years there have been times during our travels when we’ve found ourselves caught up in momentous events and unexpectedly learning about places by observing public rituals, rites and ceremonies, and the outpourings of emotion that come with them – whether it was a national demonstration, celebration, commemoration, or in this case, the mourning of a beloved leader.

Soon after we moved to Phnom Penh in October 2012, the Cambodian King Father Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing and we suddenly found ourselves documenting the country’s mourning of its former king for a British newspaper and Asian magazine. Night after night Terence and I returned to watch and photograph Cambodians grieve for a leader many had immense affection for. We learnt a lot about the country and its people that week.

We just had a long weekend here to mark the enshrining of the late King Father’s remains in the capital. Several days of ceremonies began with monks offering prayers last Thursday, an elaborate royal procession through the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday, and the interment of the King Father’s ashes in a stupa at the Royal Palace’s Silver Pagoda on Saturday. On Sunday I expect many people might have enjoyed a quiet, reflective day off. I thought it was timely to share our experience of October 2012 when we watched Cambodia mourn…

 

At 3pm it is blisteringly hot in Phnom Penh. This is not an hour when Cambodians, accustomed to the fierce heat of their sultry tropical climate, would normally be on the street.

This is a time when the city’s locals are ordinarily returning to their workplaces after an hour or two of eating and sleeping, when tuk tuk drivers prefer to doze in a hammock strung over the passenger seats – the only time of day when they’re disinterested in a ride. But 10 days ago, Cambodians made an exception.

October 17 marked the beginning of a week of mourning. The body of Cambodia’s beloved King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had died of a heart attack a few days earlier in Beijing, had been brought home to rest and lie in state.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians have come out in the sweltering heat this week to offer their respects, including many elderly survivors of that tragic period, lining the broad boulevards of this former French colony, from the airport on the outskirts to the Royal Palace in the city centre.

I waited with them on the waterfront boulevard near the palm-lined promenade of Sisowath Quay and the Tonlé Sap, a tributary of the Mekong. Near me, an elderly bald Buddhist nun, her head bowed so low her chin touched the tips of her tiny wrinkled hands, clasped together tightly to her chest, sat serenely on the scorching concrete softly chanting a prayer.

The nun’s smooth head glistened with glass beads of perspiration. Her worn white cotton blouse and lace sash had seen better days. A long white skirt concealed her tiny legs, folded beneath her. Close by, a barefoot urchin of a child with matted brown hair, grubby clothes, and blackened soles, hopped across the road, wincing from the burning bitumen.

On a red plastic tray on the pavement beside the nun was a messy pile of incense sticks, stems of crimson water lilies, and crumpled riel notes. In front of the nun, three pretty university students, their shiny black hair pulled back in ponytails, their slim legs tucked under their petite frames, also held their hands in prayer, their heads bowed so that their foreheads touch their manicured fingernails. It was their money at the top of the heap.

When the nun finished chanting, they got to their feet and took sticks of incense from the tray. Catching me watching them, the young women darted toward me. One reached into her handbag and pulled out a black ribbon which she swiftly pinned to my chest, before bowing her head and saying “Okun!” (Thank you).

It was so hot that a Cambodian family of eight crouched in the shadow of a colossal black four-wheel-drive to shelter from the blazing sun. Others sat cross-legged on the kerbside, dressed in their mourning clothes of white shirt and long black skirt or trousers, a black ribbon pinned to their chests. They held clusters of incense sticks, candles and water lilies, while at least one in every group held a portrait of a dapper-looking grey-haired gentleman in a gold frame – their late King. Others flapped lace fans in front of their faces. Some stood behind their groups, shading them with umbrellas.

A group of dazed looking backpackers, wearing too few clothes for such a significant event, ambled along the nearby waterfront, searching for some shade. I joined the family squatting beside the big fancy car.

The King died at 89 years old – an age that few Cambodians have reached. It’s thought some 300,000 died in the conflict that brought Pol Pot to power in 1975, with some two million more falling victim to the notorious killing fields of the tyrant’s Khmer Rouge regime over the next few years.

Some Cambodians appeared to have joined the crowd merely out of curiosity, keen to catch a glimpse of the gold casket atop the extravagantly gilded funeral ‘barge’. This majestic vessel, which traditionally transported royal figures along rivers, took the form of a flamboyant Naga-headed float on wheels to carry the former king from his plane to the palace, where his body was due to lie in state for three months. Most, however, were not here just to capture the spectacle on their camera-phones. They had come to pay their respects.

The older Cambodians were clearly more moved, many weeping openly. Later, once the casket had passed by and was through the palace gates, many moved closer to the glittering Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya, or Moonlight Pavilion, festooned with fairy lights and flowers and a monumental portrait of their Father-King.

They knelt on the manicured lawn in the front of the pavilion, on the concrete paths that criss-crossed the square, and on the gravelly road traditionally used for parades, listening to the many monks who sit cross-legged with them, chanting prayers.

They gently threw their lilies onto growing piles and placed candles on the concrete to create circles of light that they kept illuminated throughout the night. They crowded around a table of bound blank-paged books where they patiently waited their turn to record their feelings about the Father-King, their friends shining their mobile phones so they could see to write.

King Norodom Sihanouk was a complex man whose 60-year career was significant, if controversial. Lauded by many for taking his country from a French colony to an independent state, he was also criticised by some for not doing enough to prevent the Khmer Rouge from coming to power in 1975, nor to topple them later.

At various times he was a king, a prime minister, a communist, a leader in exile, and later, once more, a king – until 2004 when he abdicated to allow his son take over. Whether in power or not, whether in Phnom Penh or Beijing, Norodom Sihanouk he believed he was Cambodia. And so too, it seems, did many Cambodians.

The Cambodians who stayed in front of the Royal Palace lit the incense sticks that they had carried all afternoon, poking them into the grass and sand, creating bonfires that were intermittently put out with water bottles by whoever was around.

At first the incense produced fragrant plumes, initially pleasant, but later, late into the night, and over the course of the following week, the air became thick and pungent.

For many Cambodians, the King-Father’s death was symbolic; some hoped that with their King would go Cambodia’s tragic history.

Maybe now, I thought, after witnessing ten days of mourning, and ten days of tears, Cambodians could finally move on.

A shorter version of this story, Cambodia – for King and Country, appeared in The Independent on Friday 26 October 2012.

Jul 12

Our Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang

Riverside Eating, Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Cambodian cuisine is one of the most misunderstood cuisines in Asia. And unfortunately visitors’ understanding of the food isn’t helped by tourist restaurants passing off Thai dishes as Cambodian because they know diners are more familiar with the balanced flavours of their neighbour’s cuisine than the confronting sour, bitter and pungent notes of their own.

A few tourist restaurants aside, Cambodia’s second city of Battambang, set in an agriculturally-rich region, is one of the best places in the country to sample the most authentic renditions of Cambodian dishes – at roadside stalls, fresh markets, local eateries, foodie tours, a stylish restaurant, and even a boutique hotel restaurant or two.

Due to its sizable expat population and creative young locals, Battambang is also the spot to find Cambodia’s best coffee, along with good burgers and icy beer in arty bars, and everything from French pizza to fantastic Indian food. Thanks to Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok, and restaurateur John Fink, owner of Quay in Sydney, Battambang now boasts a sleek restaurant serving pan-Asian sharing plates and potent cocktails.

Here’s our guide to eating and drinking in Battambang:

BREAKFAST
Battambang’s typical breakfast is kuy teav, a pork noodle broth, and you’ll spot it being slurped at markets and stalls all over the city. The best is at Mrs Te Lieng and Mr Lee Mun’s soup joint in Wat Kor village on the outskirts of town, where the couple have been dishing up bowls of the steaming stuff since 1995. The version with succulent pork slices served atop the noodles is the most barang (foreigner) friendly, however, locals prefer the addition of offal, including liver, intestines, lung, and heart. Add chilli, lime and fresh herbs to taste from the selection of condiments on the table. The deep fried breadsticks or youtiao – also known as ‘Chinese doughnuts’ – served on the side, are for dipping in the soup. If you’re staying at Battambang Resort, owner Phary takes guests on a breakfast bicycle ride to the eatery as an alternative to the hotel buffet. For a Western breakfast, expats like Cafe Eden (85, Street 1) for its pancakes, crepes, bagels, and enormous huevos rancheros, however, a warning: while service is well-meaning it is excruciatingly slow.

MARKETS
After breakfast, make a beeline for the markets, which are best in the morning. Fertile Battambang province has a reputation for producing the country’s finest fresh produce – Cambodians swear its coconuts are the finest, pineapples the juiciest, oranges the sweetest, corn the tastiest – so it’s no surprise the town is home to a couple of the country’s best markets. In the heart of town, Phsar Naht market is most compelling in the early morning for fresh food and the early evening for street food. Our favourite market is the larger, busier Phsar Boeung Choeuk, which is a distribution point for suppliers (look for different sections dedicated to pineapples, corn, coconuts and so on), as well as the market where locals do their eating and shopping.

COFFEE
Coffee lovers shouldn’t miss Cambodia’s best coffee at cute Café Kinyei, a social enterprise aimed at providing training and employment for young locals, on dusty Street 1½ in the heart of the old city. Set in a renovated colonial-era Chinese shop-house, the compact café is decorated with rustic wooden furniture and flowers on the tables. This is where you’ll find smiling 19 year-old Sakana, Cambodia’s 2013 Barista Champion, making her award-winning Cambodian Cappuccino with pineapple syrup, palm sugar and frothy coconut milk. The café also serves up Battambang’s best cheese toasties.

LUNCH
Nicknamed ‘Noodle Guy’ or ‘Chinese Noodle’ by expats, Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh (145, Street 2) is a simple, no-frills eatery with a stall-like kitchen with boiling pots and woks on gas stoves at the front of the joint. This is where the most unlikely of noodle masters, wearing low-slung shorts, singlet and flip-flops, makes hearty handmade dumplings and silky hand-pulled noodles to order.  Order a serve of each. Don’t even think about ordering anything else.

For something more contemporary, along with air-conditioning, good wines by the glass and great music, try Jaan Bai (Street 2), which means ‘rice bowl’ in Khmer. In a chic, renovated, colonial-era shop-house, the casual restaurant features local art on the walls and bookshelves holding issues of Anthology and Kinfolk. The exterior is covered in murals by Battambang artists and boasts an alfresco area furnished with astro turf and wooden pallets serving as coffee tables and seats. The succinct menu features a few dishes by Chef David Thompson, an advisor to the hospitality training restaurant, such as a fiery Thai jungle curry, and is made with seasonal produce that’s been grown in CCT’s own organic gardens. Try the pulled pork buns and squid sliders (if they’re on the menu) and don’t miss the Kampot pepper crab, a Cambodian specialty from the south.

LOCAL FAVOURITE
If you speak Khmer or have a Khmer-speaking guide or friends, ask them to take you to the local favourite, a riverside restaurant called Mlob Chan or The Shade of the Nutmeg Tree, for a quintessentially Battambang experience. There is no menu and guests simply request their favourite dishes or order ahead, as our friend did. Locals like to linger for hours here, eating slowly and drinking beers as they swing in the hammocks in the rickety alfresco bamboo pavilions that overlook the river. After they’ll snooze or play cards, ordering more snacks if they’re still hungry. We were firmly focused on the food: a massive spread of plastic plates piled high with morning glory and garlic; wok-fried chicken with preserved lemon and garlic; prahok with kroeung; whole goby fish grilled in salt, eaten with a sauce of young tamarind paste, chilli and garlic; fresh green beans, baby eggplant, cucumber and cabbage; and a mountain of rice, all arranged on a colourful mat on the bamboo floor. It was simple, fresh and flavourful.

STREET FOOD
Forget the Nutella pancakes, Battambang’s food stalls serve up some of the most authentic street food you’ll find in Cambodia and the best way to experience it if you’re visiting or are new in town is on a snack tour with Phary, the owner of Battambang Resort. Come late afternoon, Phary leads her food-loving guests on either a bike ride or tuk tuk tour (your choice) to graze at half a dozen food stalls and small family-owned eateries that dot the dusty riverside road. We love it so much we’ve done it a couple of times.

The tour generally starts at a wooden stall where owner Sal makes nom krourk (fried rice and coconut cakes) in a mould over a charcoal fire, which she serves with a sweet, light vinegary syrup of palm sugar and fish sauce. The next stop is usually a ramshackle bamboo shack precariously perched over the river (each monsoon it slips a little further toward the water) where you can sample son vac (fish paste grilled in banana leaves), which you should wrap in lettuce and eat with the cold noodles, basil, saw-tooth coriander and tangy sauce provided. We also order pong tia koun or boiled baby duck eggs, which we scoop out and eat after first drinking the warm flavourful juices from the shell that we created by adding salt, pepper and lime juice.

A little further down the road at Ponleu Preh Chung or The Shining Moon, where Mrs Vat Ongn has been crafting a repertoire of desserts for over 20 years, you can try an array of sweets if you like. I love the heavenly banh ja’neuk or glutinous rice balls stuffed with mung bean paste, drowned in coconut milk and tapioca, with sesame seeds sprinkled atop. It and a similar dessert are nicknamed ‘killing husband’ for their tendency to get caught in the throats of drunk spouses.

If you have room, Phary can include a few other spots on her itinerary too, however, the highlight for us is the final stop. Outside a corrugated iron shed, Mr Pra Dina is usually found piling raw beef skewers that he has been marinating in a big plastic tub of kroeung onto a row of barbeques. We like to watch him fan smoke over the coals as dozens of locals begin arriving on motorbikes to join us in the patient wait for the smoky beef skewers, succulent from the pork fat placed between the beef pieces, and aromatic and sweet from the lemongrass kroeung. They are well and truly worth the wait

TAKEAWAY
Around sunset, smoke starts to rise from the stalls set up in the evenings outside Psar Naht market, where you’ll find grilled salted fish, various barbecuing meats and offals on smouldering coals, and hearty soups and stews in massive pots. Take care, as this is takeaway-central. Locals cruise right up to the stalls on motorbikes and in vehicles to buy their dinner. The best stalls are those that are busiest, but look out for two adjoining stalls selling soups and curries.

We like the stall ran by a very focused woman called Roth, who has had her stall here for a decade. Her specialties are char kroeung (a kroeung-based dry curry-like dish made with chicken, duck or cat fish) and home-cooked samlors (soups), including samlor machou youn (sweet and sour vegetable soup with pineapple, tomato, watermelon and tamarind, and vegetables); samlor machou, a typically-sour countryside soup made with green papaya, spicy basil and smoked fish; sgnor, a clear chicken broth fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime; samlor trayong chek, made with banana blossom and tamarind; and samlor machou kroeung that looks like a watery curry but is actually a rich, flavourul koeung-based soup. Don’t leave without buying another Battambang specialty, prahok chamhuy, a steamed prahok fish paste, with pork and eggs.

There are several stalls offering all things grilled – frogs, fish cakes, chicken wings, pork ribs, quails, sweet Cambodian sausages, and whole chickens – glistening from a marinade of kroeung, oil and red chilli. You will also spot large grey-coloured goby fish and smaller catfish, both caught from the river, blanketed in a salt mixture featuring kaffir lime and lemongrass, and being continually turned on the barbecue. The culinary adventurous shouldn’t leave without sampling khnob – barbecued prahok, mushroom and tamarind wrapped in banana leaf.

If you need help, go see English-speaking Dang who, with his baseball-capped wife, sells succulent rotisserie chickens and ducks, sold with bags of fresh greens, cucumbers and fragrant herbs. Their stall is the only one sign-posted. Try to find petite Mao Vanna too. For over 20 years, this lovely little woman has been selling three specialties from her tiny stools, topped with trays of amok trey, Cambodia’s national dish that has a texture that falls somewhere between a souffle and mousse. It’s made from fish and a curry paste that’s been steamed in banana leaf and in Battambang it’s always made with goby fish (note: for Cambodians, there’s no such thing as chicken amok or beef amok or tofu amok – these are dishes purely invented for tourists). Also try her other two specialties: char kdao, a kroeung-based duck dish with hot basil, and char kgney, a light chicken and ginger stir-fry.

DRINKS
One of the loveliest spots for sunset drinks has long been atmospheric Balcony Bar in a big traditional Khmer timber house on the riverside about halfway to Wat Kor village, which recently reopened under new management. Another good spot for sundowners is Café Eden (see above), where the narrow first floor balcony offers good peoplewatching – come sunset the riverfront is busy with locals jogging and power-walking, monks strolling and kids playing games. The Bambu bar (see below) is a popular happy hour destination, with stools filling with an equal number of expats as hotel guests; you’ll often find gregarious owner Pat perched at the bar shouting drinks. Art curator Darren Swallow’s stylish Lotus Bar (Street 2½) is great for cold beers (and they also do good burgers), especially on Friday and Saturday nights when they host anything from avant-garde sound performances and live music to experimental film screenings and exhibition openings in the gallery upstairs. The best spot for serious cocktails remains Jaan Bai (above and below), where technical advisor Tom has injected some creativity into the heady Asian-inspired cocktails.

DINNER
The best restaurant in the centre for dinner is Jaan Bai, which stays open late and is even buzzier at night than it is by day. If you’re looking for a change from Cambodian, try the cheesy French-style ‘pizza’ that affable Frenchman Michel serves up in his simple shophouse pizzeria, BTB Pizza (Street 2). But if you haven’t had your fill of local food yet, then stroll over the bridge or take a tuk tuk to Battambang’s best boutique resorts to tuck into some of the city’s most delicious Cambodian cuisine.

Across the river at Russey Restaurant at colonial-inspired Bambu hotel, you can try generous portions of expertly cooked Cambodian favourites, such as a rich samlor kako, a hearty Cambodian soup made with kroeung, prahok and a variety of vegetables, such as sweet pumpkin, and one of the finest renditions we’ve had of lok lak, a beef pepper dish that is thought to have been probably brought to Cambodia by the Chinese in the 13th century. The restaurant’s signature dish ‘Beef Battambang’, however, is a richer, more sophisticated version of sach ko ang jakak, the grilled kroeung beef and pork skewers, and it’s often served at weddings. The restaurant also offers delicious Western and Asian dishes in case you have a craving.

A ten-minute tuk tuk ride out of town you’ll find some of Battambang’s finest Cambodian cuisine served on the leafy Lotus Terrace restaurant at the charming Maisons Wat Kor, a small boutique hotel of traditional timber houses. Here, Cambodian owner Kim Nou has worked with his chef to develop refined renditions of Khmer dishes, including some not typically found in Cambodian restaurants. Some are cooked with French techniques or presented in a European style. Pretty on the plate, they are packed with big flavours. Hope that the fried frangipanis are served and the intense, ginger-infused beef broth is on the menu. Book a table early in the day or a day ahead for the set tasting menus change nightly. If you’re not staying at the property, organize a tuk tuk driver through the hotel or ask your own driver to return or wait.

For more on Cambodian cuisine and Battambang, see our 10-page story ‘Land of Plenty’ in the May 2014 issue of Delicious magazine; ‘On the Map: Bohemian Battambang‘ in the March 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Battambang Bada Boom’ on Jaan Bai in the January 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Cambodian Culture Club‘ on Jaan Bai in the January issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Jun 17

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia

Tara Winkler, founder and managing director of the Cambodian Children's Trust (CCT). Photographed at Jaan Bai restaurant, Battambang. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

As we waited at Siem Reap airport for our flight to Bangkok a few days ago, I overheard American tourists on their phones telling friends back home about their Asian adventures. A highlight of their trip, they said, had been visits to orphanages in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. These have to stop.

It was another similar conversation I overheard between young Asian-Australian travellers in a Battambang hotel a few months ago that motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust. CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, which we’ve been writing about since it opened last October. Here’s why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia…

Grantourismo: Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?
Tara Winkler: Orphanage tourism is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries like Cambodia. It simply means tourists visiting orphanages as part of their travel itineraries.

GT: Orphanage tourism is closely linked to voluntourism – they both come from a desire to give back to the places visited.
TW: While voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, it can cause serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia – problems that most people are not aware of. Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. We need to think before visiting an orphanage. Children are not tourist attractions.

GT: So orphanage tourism is big business?
TW: Absolutely. Because there are so many tourists who want to come visit orphanages, it has become very lucrative for orphanages to exist and to be open to tourist visits. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphans has declined. It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and well-meaning foreigners are the customers.

GT: What’s wrong with orphanage tourism exactly?
TW: The majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope that they will find a path out of poverty to a better life. Yet these families do not fully understand the negative impact that living in an orphanage can have on their children. At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

GT: Why is that?
TW: Part of the reason for this is the rotating roster of carers and visitors to orphanages. It is important for children’s development and mental health to have long-term, stable relationships, rather that short-term periods of bonding followed by separation. So to answer your question, because orphanage tourism provides an incentive for these orphanages to exist, it is not a good thing at all. With the best of intentions, people who visit orphanages are being more harmful than helpful to children.

GT: Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
TW: I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?

GT: What are the alternatives to orphanages in a country like Cambodia where UNICEF estimated there were 600,000 orphans? Are residential care centres and children’s villages better?
TW:
Residential care centres, children’s villages, and orphanages are all types of institutionalised care. The best place for a child to grow up is in a family environment, not in an institution. That’s why all the children that CCT works with live in a family, whether it is with their biological parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, or foster parents. Cambodia has a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children within kinship care, and to this day, the majority of Cambodia’s orphans live within the extended family. The rapid increase in residential care facilities threatens to erode these existing systems and places children at risk.

GT: If altruistic travellers want to help to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, what are some better to do this?
TW: A great way is to support social enterprises run by charities that support children. In Battambang, we run Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains youth from our programs, with all the profits coming back to CCT to support our programs. There are similar social enterprises throughout Cambodia, like Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh and Marum restaurant in Siem Reap, which support Friends International’s work with children living on the street. In Kampot, Epic Arts Café supports Epic Arts’ work with people with disabilities.

GT: Why was CCT established and what does it do exactly?
TW: CCT was established in 2007 when Jedtha Pon and I, with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, rescued 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Battambang. Since then, we’ve grown to support more than 300 children and their families through our communityeducation and social enterprise programs. These programs work together to ensure children and their families have the comprehensive support they need to thrive. We enable children in Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

GT: How does the CCT differ from an orphanage?
TW:  All children supported through our programs live in a family. We believe strongly that families are the best place for children. There have been a few cases where we have reunited siblings and parents and children who have been separated when the children were living in orphanages, and it is incredible to see the difference this makes in their lives. They are doing so well.

GT: What about travellers considering a volunteer program?
TW
: Think before volunteering overseas. When travelling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might inadvertently be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train and empower local people. Then, instead of taking jobs from local people, you’ll be empowering them and helping them to become more employable.

GT: Any tips for travellers who wish to donate money or gifts?
TW: Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Support organisations that promote family based care and empower the people they are working to help. Think before sending donations of goods to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

GT: In other words, do some thorough research first.
TW: It is the responsibility of each of us to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the ways in which we are helping are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

GT: Are there any specific organizations, projects or businesses you recommend travellers visiting Cambodia donate to or support?
TW: In addition to those I mentioned already, PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.

Cambodian Children’s Trust
www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org

You can also donate to Cambodian Children’s Trust here

Older posts «