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Apr 06

An Update from the Road: to Singapore via Phuket and back to Bangkok

Eating in Chinatown, Singapore.

We’re back in Cambodia at our home in Siem Reap so this isn’t strictly an update from the road. Although I did start writing it in Singapore where I was feeling terribly guilty for having had to neglect poor Grantourismo because we were so busy working on print stories.

Terence and I have just returned from one of those trips we increasingly seem to have a tendency to do, where we end up staying in a place much longer than we’d ever intended to. Remember Vietnam? We flew into Hanoi at the end of 2013 for a month and seven months later we were still there. When they wouldn’t allow us to extend our visa anymore, we finally boarded a bus in Saigon for Phnom Penh.

The Singapore trip took us first to Phuket for a couple of nights to try the flamboyant new Iniala Beach House and Aziamendi restaurant, and interview the lovely Michelin three-starred Basque chef Eneko Atxa for stories for Australian Gourmet Traveller and Southeast Asian Globe, amongst other publications.

It was a couple of delicious nights (the first night was actually Terence’s birthday) spent eating the exquisite food of Eneko and his chef de cuisine Alex Burger, who is permanently based there, and the fresh, simple flavours of Iniala chef Sandro Aguilera. We’ll tell you more about that soon.

We then flew on to Singapore, again for Gourmet Traveller and a few other publications, but primarily to attend the San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna 2014 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards and participate in some of the excellent activities they organized this year. These included a Culinary Workshop with Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok (which was deservedly voted Asia’s Best for 2014) and an inspiring one-day Future of Food Forum, which I wrote about for Southeast Asian Globe, which we’ll also tell you more about shortly.

A two-week trip somehow turned into four weeks and I blame Singapore’s fantastic food. We spent most days interviewing fascinating chefs, Terence photographing beautiful dishes and making handsome portraits, and stuffing our faces with some of the finest food we’d had in a long time. Each day we’d find ourselves eating (often twice a day) at outstanding restaurants that really do deserve to be named some of Asia’s best, and in between we’d be tucking into local comfort food at hawker centres.

One evening, thanks to restaurateur Ignatius Chan, we dined on a wonderful degustation meal at his restaurant and then went hawker centre hopping. While sipping cocktails at his nearby bar after dinner, Iggy said, “Let’s do a Tets!” (as a hawker hop is something that Chef Tetsuya Wakuda apparently likes to do) and he hired a taxi to take us out to try a few of his favourite dishes.

You see, we’d been complaining to Iggy that we didn’t think we’d tried the best renditions of some of Singapore’s most popular local dishes yet (despite using supposedly reliable sources of information) and Iggy was intent on fixing that. And he did. I have no idea how we managed to fit in all that food. It was quite an achievement and it was lots of fun.

By the end of our month-long stay we had eaten at most of the Singapore restaurants on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, including Waku Ghin, Iggy’s, Les Amis, Jaan, and Tippling Club, and at many of the city’s other fine restaurants, such as Pollen, Catalunya, Esquina, Cut, Bacchanalia, db Bistro Moderne, Sky on 57, Osteria Mozza, Cassia, Skirt, Ku De Ta, and more.

Yet somehow we still left with a long list of restaurants that we had ran out of time to try that will be at the top of our to-try list for the next trip. Next time we’re keen to sample some of the smaller neighbourhood restaurants ran by Singaporean chefs who are experimenting with the local cuisine and those claiming to be using local produce — quite an achievement in an island-state with little land, where sustainability is a key issue. I have a dozen on my list so far but more recommendations are always welcome.

Aside from experiencing Singapore’s best restaurants, another goal of the trip had been to try as many of the finest interpretations and original renditions of Singapore’s most quintessential dishes as we could, at hawker centres and local eateries and wherever else they might be. That was the sort of food we’d eaten on previous visits.

Because this wasn’t our first trip to Singapore, of course. We’ve been countless times over the years, mainly on short stopovers between Australia and the UAE when we lived in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The most memorable trip was to fulfill my father’s dying wish to travel to Asia. We took Dad and Mum to Singapore and Malaysia (his doctors wouldn’t let him venture further), and it was a very special time spent together.

That was a fantastic trip when it came to the food too, both because of the company and the circumstances. We treasured every moment. My parents loved their food and we created lots of great food memories together, slurping soups, tucking into noodles, dipping into steamboats, and sucking on the claws of countless Singapore Chilli Crabs, the sauce from the crab dripping down our hands and arms, and washing it all down with icy beers.

Singapore Chilli Crab featured on this recent trip too. One of our first meals in the city was with a bunch of Bangkok restaurant friends who were in town for the Awards. We feasted on a fantastic, rich Chilli Crab with the sweetest and plumpest of crab meat, and at least a dozen other superb seafood dishes (that’s what happens when you let a chef order) at the legendary No Sign Board restaurant in Geylang. It was a fun night of feasting.

The next four weeks saw us eating everywhere from rowdy hawker centres, where we found ourselves standing in interminable queues (usually for Hainanese chicken and rice) and busy local coffee shops (for kopi, kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs, of course) to loud dim sum joints (for pau) and 24-hour curbside Muslim restaurants (for biryani and curries).

We also tested out cocktail bars, did a cooking class, browsed markets, and checked out Temple Street’s kitchen shops. We explored the artsy heritage area of Bras Basah, the busy commercial heart of Bugis, a Chinatown far more gentrified than when we were last in Singapore, the Muslim Malay neighbourhood of Kampong Glam with its increasingly hip little lanes, the Art Deco quarter of Tiong Bahru with its pockets of chic, and colourful Little India, where we felt some underlying racial tension, but that’s another story. Unlike previous trips, our visit to Orchard Road was very brief.

One month in Singapore may seem like a long time to stay in a city that most travellers treat as a stopover destination, yet somehow we still left feeling like we had really only just scratched the surface with a to-do list for the next trip longer than the one we started out with. But I always find that to be the way these days. Are we better at identifying places? Or are our appetites more insatiable?

From Singapore it was back to our second home Bangkok for eight nights for more magazine stories on the city’s best restaurants and food scene, on Chef David Thompson, and the restaurant movement toward heritage cuisine, regional/local cuisines and cooking ancestral food that we believe David and Bo and Dylan of Bo.lan inspired when they opened their restaurants four and five years ago respectively. Look out for that piece in the next issue of Bangkok Airways’ Fah Thai magazine and we’ll share more thoughts with you on that subject here as well.

This recent trip wasn’t solely about the food. In all three destinations we got to test out some truly outstanding hotels, from sleek, stylish properties like Capella and Park Royal Pickering in Singapore to the big luxury hotels in Bangkok like the Mandarin Oriental (which we’ve now been fortunate enough to stay at a few times), Metropolitan by Como (a second stay), and Siam Kempinski and Four Seasons (both firsts).

Checking in and out of hotels every two days is nothing new to us on these sorts of work trips, but twenty-one hotels (and one apartment!) in a row really got us thinking (again) about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to hotels, and what sort of things make a hotel truly great. Or terribly disappointing. More on that topic soon too.

And more on Phuket, Singapore and Bangkok, and all the delicious food we ate and things we did on the trip, as well as other destinations we are way behind in posting on, from Brisbane to Adelaide in Australia to all over New Zealand, and everywhere from Borneo and Kuala Lumpur to Northern Thailand and Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An, Sapa and Saigon.

Do look out for our print stories also. We have quite a lot out there at the moment, all featuring Terence’s mouthwatering images, including pieces in Travel+LeisureAsia on the foodie renaissance of Battambang (March issue), Hoi An’s best Six Dishes (April issue) and Siem Reap’s best Six Dishes (next issue). We’ve got stories in Australian Gourmet Traveller on Battambang’s Jaan Bai restaurant (issue before last), on Aziamendi in Phuket and a Singapore guide (next issue), and a Phuket guide (issue after).

We’ll also have a long foodie feature on Battambang and Cambodian cuisine in next month’s Delicious magazine. In Southeast Asia Globe there was a piece on Battambang’s Jaan Bai last issue, on food trends in Southeast Asia in the current issue, and on David Thompson in the next Interview issue. There’s a lot more coming out too, both in print and online, that I’ll update you on as the publications hit the stands.

Until then… it’s dinnertime and time to eat!

12 comments

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  1. Beirutibrit

    Wow! You really have been busy! Can’t wait to read more about your singapore adventures!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Posts coming soon – unfortunately the restaurant posts have to wait until the magazine stories are published, which is always the issue. One reason I haven’t posted much on Hoi An’s food is I’m still waiting for publishers to run pieces we submitted a year ago. Frustrating. But they will end up here eventually. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. HappinessWherever

    Please post pics!

    Great food + amazing hotels are travel bliss :)

    http://www.happinesswherever.com

    1. Lara Dunston

      Agree! Pics are coming, promise! We’ve just been frantically busy – on the road again. This time in Phuket :)

  3. Antonio Bortolotti

    Reading about all the places you ate at just makes me want to get back to Asian food so bad! I quit my former job as world traveler about three years ago to venture into a new life that I equally love, so I haven’t gone much further than Italy and a few other places. Yet Asia is always on my mind. Hope to hear from you soon Lara and Terry! Take care.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Antonio – you’re living in paradise there in Sardinia! But you must come back to Asia one day. It’s wonderful! Got your email today and will email you on the weekend. Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Antonio Bortolotti

      My wife and I will definitely get back to Asia in the near future and reading all your advice is priceless to get ready and well prepared for such a great journey! An amazing guide for foodies and travelers alike, Grantourismo is really a great project!

      I look forward to hearing from you and while I know you are both extremely busy, I hope we can cross paths again soon on what I mentioned in my earlier message.

  4. Jeremy

    Singapore is so boss for food … glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Isn’t it? We’re already planning to return!

  5. Louisa

    Terrific blog. Just stumbled on it looking for info on Budapest. We are doing a slower version of slow travel than you did – we are here for two months! Having travelled fast and slow, this is the right speed for us, we love living like locals! Got some great tips from your Budapest section. Thanks.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Did? We’re *still* doing our endless slow journey of the world, Louisa. I’ve been travelling slowly since my parents first took my sister and I on a one-year jaunt around Australia in the 1970s that turned into a five-year trip. Terence and I left Australia to move to the UAE in 1998 for a year, stayed eight, and we’re still *away*. We’ve been travelling slowly since we first went overseas in the early 1990s, staying in places for months at a time.

      But as for Budapest, we’ve been a few times. The posts you’re referring to were written during a 2-week stay that was part of a 2010 project with HomeAway. They paid us to travel the world for a year trying out their holiday rentals in different destinations around the globe for two weeks at a time.

      They chose us as we were some of the first writers to promote slow and sustainable travel, local travel and experiential travel, writing about it in guidebooks and magazine stories years ago. We’d been renting place apartments and houses well before it was fashionable — before holiday rental websites even existed. We used to rent directly from real estate agents. Our original Grantourismo project involved one month in each place, but HomeAway wanted an ‘around the world in 80 stays’. As they were footing the bill for accommodation, flights, expenses, and our fee, it was a compromise.

      In our profession, most writers and photographers parachute into a destination for a few days then return home to write up the trip and edit photographs. We’ve always chosen to stay in places for research, write-up and photo-prep, so we’ve often spent several months at a time writing books and stories in places, from Amsterdam to Milan, Brussels to Buenos Aires. A 10-page feature on Cambodian cuisine in the latest issue of Delicious is the result of a couple of months’ in Battambang. In the years since the HomeAway project, we’ve settled into Bangkok (several 3-4 month stays), Perth (2 months), Sydney (2 months), Hanoi (3 months), Hoi An (3 months), Phnom Penh (2 months), and Siem Reap, now our home (8 months).

      But here’s the thing: the vast majority of travellers do Kontiki-like tours — 12 countries in 24 days, that sort of thing. A couple of weeks spent in one place means that they’re not getting to visit other destinations on their ‘bucket list’. Two weeks is a very long time to the average traveller.

      We believe it’s better for people to do a short stay in a place first to get a feel for it and figure out whether it’s a place that they want to explore more and perhaps live in one day. We recognize slow travel is not for everyone. We also hope it doesn’t become a contest to see how ‘local’ one can be based on the length of a stay. It’s disappointing enough to see people ticking off destinations and racing around the world to ‘knock over’ every country before they’re 30 (or whatever). Any travel broadens the mind and it’s important for people to figure out how they best like to discover a place and do it at their own pace.

      Glad you found our tips helpful. Happy travels!

  6. Torsten

    Some really great tips here – thanks!

    Have followed you guys on Twitter so I can catch more!

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