Oct 06

Feeding The Hungry Ghosts During Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival

Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival, Cambodia.

It was probably because we’d spent several hours cycling through the lush countryside and sleepy villages around Cambodia’s little city of Battambang and I’d worked up an appetite that as we whizzed by a pagoda my senses alerted me to the mouthwatering aromas of a soup or curry simmering on a stove.

Following my nose I spotted several men stirring colossal woks and realized they must be preparing food not for a family feast but for offerings for Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival.

When the tantalizing fragrances first wafted my way and I noticed the large gathering out the corner of my eye – just as our guide Nyphea did and suggested we stop for a look – I forgot for a moment that Cambodia’s most important Buddhist Festival, Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestors Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival, was underway and thought that the food being prepared must be for a wedding or other celebration.

Elsewhere in Cambodia, we’d only seen people carrying small aluminium pots and tiffin boxes of sticky rice to the temples. We hadn’t yet witnessed a feast of such proportions being prepared for generations of dead loved ones and the monks who would ensure the food reached the lost souls.

Pchum Ben is often compared to other festivals of ancestor veneration such as Christianity’s All Souls’ Day, where the dead who didn’t achieve the moral perfection required to reach heaven before passing are helped along by prayer.

It is also like Mexico’s Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, held on November 2, where families build altars of photos, memorabilia, marigolds, candles, and sugar skulls, to honour the dead and take their favourite foods and drinks to their graves. Although celebrated on All Souls Day that commemoration has been traced back to an indigenous Aztec festival that is dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, whose role is to watch over the dead.

The rituals of Cambodia’s Buddhist festival have closer ties to Japan’s Buddhist Bon Festival, Korea’s Chuseok, and China’s Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Festival and Ghost Month – also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival – where offerings are made to comfort the dead in the afterlife to discourage them from haunting the living.

Pchum Ben also has some similarities to Phi Ta Khon, the Ghost Festival held in Dan Sai in the Loie province in Thailand, which we wrote about here. Although Dan Sai’s Ghost Festival is held at the start of the monsoon season and is partly about calling for rain, whereas Pchum Ben takes place over 15 days towards the end of monsoon.

In Cambodia, the period marks the end of Buddhist lent and the end of the monks’ monsoonal retreat, during which most will remain at the temples to receive offerings, unlike the rest of the year when they do their early morning rounds to collect alms.

As we parked our bicycles inside the pagoda gates, all eyes turned toward us. The people were apparently as fascinated by us, and our curiosity, as we were intrigued by the rituals and customs of Cambodia’s unique festival.

Dedicated to the spirits of the dead – ‘preta’ or ‘the departed ones’ in Sanskrit – the 15-day Pchum Ben period culminates in a three-day national holiday, which this year took place on 3, 4 and 5 October. While ceremonies occur throughout the two-week period, most of them occur over the last three days when all Cambodians get time off work so they can travel back to their villages and hometowns and to spend the time with family, living and dead.

During the 15-day period, towns and cities across Cambodia begin to hum from as early as 4am when the sound of monks chanting the ‘sutta’ starts, and rituals take place such as walking circles around the wat and throwing rice-balls into the air or into an empty field to feed the hungry ghosts. Buddhists ask the monks to pray for their ancestors and in turn they sit and listen to the monks’ sermons and chants.

Mid-morning, the wats bustle with crowds to a background soundtrack of xylophone music and Buddhists visit to make donations of money and offerings of food that they have lovingly prepared. Sometimes the food is left on a long table, at other times it is passed directly to the monks in a more elaborate procedure that involves reading out the names of generations of deceased relatives.

Soon after we reached the Battambang gathering of an extended family and their friends and neighbours, as our guide Nyphea would soon learn, spaces were cleared for us on the shaded, ramshackle wooden platform where the women were assembling round trays, painted with flowers, each holding several identical bowls for the food the men were cooking – a hearty herb soup, a chicken and vegetable stew that was somewhere between a heavy stir-fry and a light curry, and, of course, rice.

I had wanted only to observe, to watch what was being made and make some notes, and Terence – the cook in our household who once contemplated becoming a chef, who was impressed with the vast quantities of ingredients being combined in these huge wok-like pots over rustic wood-fired clay ‘stoves’ – had simply wanted to make beautiful photos of the vibrant food: yellow capsicum, red chillies, fresh green herbs.

Instead, after admiring the cooks’ culinary achievements with their rudimentary apparatus, which we acknowledged with a thumbs-up and smiles and translations through our guide, we found ourselves being treated as guests. An elderly woman with the shaved head and crisp white shirt of a devout Buddhist got up, gesturing for a few other women and raggedy-clothed children to follow, and invited us to take their place on the wooden platform.

The trim old lady would soon tell us she was 81 and still loved to dance and would later ask Terence to take her portrait by the gold stupa that contained her ancestors’ ashes, but for now she was eager to know what we thought of the big bowl of stew that had been thrust into our hands to try.

I at first hesitated, because our guide had told us that nobody could eat the food on the trays, let alone even touch the plates, before the ritual had been performed in which the monks would bless the offerings, enabling the food to be sent onto the famished spirits. To touch the plate might interfere with its journey to heaven.

Once the ceremony was underway, the monks could eat the food, and after it had finished the family, friends and neighbours could sit together and feast on what was left – hence the massive portions. For some reason, however, an exception was being made for us.

Could it be that the cooks, their assistants, their family and friends, somehow knew we were passionate about food? Because it seemed more than a gesture of hospitality or goodwill – they genuinely appeared to want us to eat and were eager to find out what we thought of their food.

Terence and I each tried a little of the bowl given to us to share. It was good. It was very good. In fact the both the stew and the soup were better than most meals we’d had in restaurants in our three months in Cambodia.

The chicken pieces were beautifully cooked – soft and succulent, not chewy and overcooked as they are in most restaurants – and the juices, both the broth for the stew and the herb soup were light yet complex and perfectly balanced, not overly sweet as they tended to be here. It was fantastic.

We each ate a couple more mouthfuls, just enough to show we were appreciative and had made an effort, but not too much, as we didn’t wish to appear greedy or disrespectful of the occasion. We offered the rest to our guide Nyphea, and after he was done, to the dirty little urchins that were the sweet kids who had gathered around us. For it has to be said that while these people had been generous, they were by no means well-off.

Some women and men wore crisp, laundered white shirts and freshly pressed trousers and long skirts and slipped off sandals at the entrance to the pagoda. Yet there were just as many people, if not more, who wore ragged clothing that hadn’t been washed in some time and recycled flip-flops made from recycled rubber tyres and children who were positively filthy who ran around barefoot.

With smiles and thumbs-up we showed the cooks that we had indeed loved the food that they had so lovingly and expertly made, and then we shared our bowls and spoons with those dirty little kids who followed us around practicing their English. Those hungry ghosts were going to have a very good feed that day.

How to experience Pchum Ben
* In 2014, the 3-day public holiday should take place from Friday 26 to Sunday 28 September, although rituals will occur at pagodas over twelve days leading up to the holiday. Note: there are conflicting dates as to when this holiday will occur, so check again in mid-2014.

* Visitors are welcome at temples, but do respect customs such as removing shoes and leaving them on the steps and wearing long sleeved shirts and long skirts/trousers. If you sit down, fold your legs beneath you to ensure you don’t point your toes at others and especially not at the Buddha image.

* If you’re presented with a tray or plate, you’ll be expected to make a donation, and even if you’re not, do look for a box so you can make a small donation.

* If you’d like to participate in a ceremony then do so with a guide or befriend a local. Don’t attempt to do so on your own as there are rituals that are important to get right, such as the way you handle the food you’re presenting to the monk and how and when to touch the bowl. Also, some pagodas schedule days and times for particular families to visit for the ceremony during the holiday, so you could be intruding on an organized event – as we did!

* Bear in mind that for the three days of the national holiday, government offices, banks, and all but the most touristy restaurants, cafes/bars and shops will be shut as staff are given leave to return to their hometown to spend time with their family. Plan to eat at the hotel, relax and laze by the pool, and get hotel staff to call ahead to make sure restaurants are open before going out.

* Take extra care with valuables when wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh during the period. Unfortunately, bag snatchings and armed robberies increase during this time.

Oct 01

Asian Food Etiquette – Eating, Drinking and Dining Etiquette

Street Food in Bangkok.

We all want to be welcomed when we travel – especially around the dinner table. Nobody wants to make social blunders when it comes to eating. Should we accept another glass of tea? Is it impolite to leave food on our plate? What should I do with these chopsticks when I’m done?

We definitely see travellers behaving less offensively when it comes to eating than they do with how they dress, but we cover so much food here that we thought we’d share some advice from the experts when it comes to Asian food etiquette and how to conduct yourself when eating, drinking and dining in the region.

I consulted food experts from across Asia – from chefs to food tour guides – for a story I did early this year on how travellers should behave when it comes to eating in Asia, from visiting an Asian home to dining out in Asian restaurants. You can read advice from some of the same experts on greetings, gestures, and good manners here in my previous post.

Chance encounters
For many travellers, an invitation to dine at a local’s home can be the highlight of a trip, especially in South East Asia where the cuisines are so diverse and delicious. Often invitations to eat with locals don’t come in advance but happen by chance. Glance at a family eating together on the ground floor of their shop-house and they might call out to you to join them. A friendly conversation in the street can often lead to a spontaneous invitation to dine.

“Cambodians will always offer people drinks such as water, tea or juice, and sometimes food,” Sambo Pat, chief concierge at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap told me. “To honor the host, the offer should always be accepted, even if the guest just takes a sip or small bite.”

“Never turn down food or a drink offered when visiting someone’s home in Bhutan,” advised Choden Dorjee, an executive at Amankora resort in Bhutan. “Even if you don’t eat or drink, simply accept the gesture and say thank you.”

“If you visit a Vietnamese family when they are having a meal, they will invite you to join them,” warned Tran Hoang Viet, guest relations manager at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay. “One of the family members will stand up and get a bowl and chopsticks for you, before you have even accepted. To be polite, you shouldn’t refuse.”

Visiting an Asian home
If travellers receive a meal invitation in advance and have some warning, how should you prepare, what should they wear, and should they take a gift, I asked the experts.

“Firstly, when visiting a Vietnamese family for a meal, be prepared to sit on the floor. Women guests should bear this in mind when dressing for the occasion. Shoes are generally taken off at the door,” explained Tu Van Cong, a food writer, guide, and owner of Street Food Tours Hanoi. “A small gift of fruit, flowers or a bottle of wine for the host would be appreciated but a big fuss won’t be made.”

Pauline Lee, who runs Simply Enak food tours in Kuala Lumpur, said that in Malaysia it’s also considered good manners to take a gift. “If you’re not sure what to bring the safe choice is always a basket of fruit,” she suggested.

“In Bhutan, bringing along a gift, even something small, some food or a textile, is always appreciated,” said Choden Dorjee. “And removing one’s shoes is respectful and a necessity.”

Keep in mind that there are some things that aren’t welcome. “If you’re thinking about taking a gift, don’t give handkerchiefs, a mirror or a comb, as they signify a funeral and separation,” warned Nguyen Huong Thuy, a manager at Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang resort, Vietnam.

“And if you wear shorts, they’ll think you don’t respect them. Don’t wear black clothes, which are thought to bring bad luck. Red or yellow, on the other hand, signify happiness and luck.”

“If you’re invited into the home of a Malaysian, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes. Malaysians remove shoes to keep the house free from dirt,” explained Bhaskaran Kessavan, concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur. “A tip: look to see if there are shoes outside the front door to know what to do!”

Greeting and seating
Once you’re at someone’s home, what next, I asked?

“In formal or semi-formal situations, it’s better to wait for the hosts to make the introductions,” advised Pitak Srisawat, chief concierge at the Four Seasons Bangkok. “Self-introductions are rare in Thailand.”

In Malaysia, it’s important to make an effort to show courtesy to more mature hosts, according to Pauline Lee. “If your hosts are older men and women, addressing them as ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ is considered polite,” she said.

Showing respect for older hosts is essential in Vietnam too, although Tran Hoang Viet warned travellers not to get too familiar. “In Vietnam culture, young people cannot hug elderly people, even in a family. Young people greet elders by folding their arms in front of their chest (and clasping their hands as if in prayer), and stooping down respectfully. Also, if an elderly person gives you something, you must receive it with two hands and stoop down. Saying thank you is a must.”

Similar customs exist in Cambodia. “When invited to the dining table wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements,” advised Sambo Pat. “The oldest person is usually seated first and should start eating before others. Do not begin eating until the eldest diner does.”

What if travellers are taking a photo to remember the occasion? “When standing or posing for a picture with an older person, a younger person should never put his or her hand on or arm around an elder’s shoulder,” Pat warned. “It’s considered very rude.”

Eating and drinking etiquette
Once seated around the Asian dinner table – which may be the floor in some situations – respect for elders continues although guests are also valued.

“In Vietnam, eating generally wouldn’t start until all guests have arrived. Usually younger people will wait for older people or guests of honour to start eating or the host will invite guests to start,” said Tu Van Cong. “It’s typical for younger folks to put food into the bowls of guests and older people.”

“You shouldn’t reach for the meat first,” advised long-term Hanoi resident and cookbook writer Daniel Hoyer, who runs Eating Vietnam food tours. “It’s more polite to take vegetables first and don’t take too much of the nicest things. If your hosts want you to eat more, they’ll offer you more.”

“A host will usually continue to offer you food as a show of hospitality in Malaysia,” explained Pauline Lee. “It’s okay to decline when you’ve had enough, but try to stay polite – a smile always does wonders.”

“Meals for occasions will start with a toast before people start eating. Toasts are very common during Vietnamese meals so expect to say cheers many times for many reasons,” warned Tu Van Cong. “The meals are generally lively with banter and can involve lots of drinking, particularly amongst males. Be aware that rice wine is strong, so be assured that when you empty your glass it will continue to be filled. The same goes for food.”

Tran Hoang Viet offered advice on how to drink rice wine: “The traditional way is that everyone at the same table shares one small cup of wine, then one by one (the eldest first), drinks the cup and then refills it for the next person. Asking for a personal cup when everyone is sharing is very impolite.”

The art of drinking tea
Tea is often offered in Asian homes instead of alcohol, before, during, or after a meal. Grant Thatcher, the publishing editor of Luxe Guides, who has lived in Hong Kong for 16 years, said that because tea drinking is such an important part of the local culture it’s essential for visitors to understand the etiquette.

“When visiting a Chinese home, the host will pour the tea for you and present you with your cup in both hands. Receive the cup with both your hands and sip the tea before putting it down,” Thatcher explained.

“If you’re at a restaurant with a large table of people and the tea pot is near you, always serve those who you can reach comfortably before helping yourself, and hold your hand over the lid to prevent it falling off,” he suggested. “Never place the lid on the table as this is considered rude and unclean.”

“If someone else is serving you tea, tap the table two or three times as a gesture of thanks. It’s polite to tap the table with two fingers to thank someone for pouring tea, as two fingers symbolise your two knees so it’s a gesture of deference,” Thatcher explained.

Chopsticks, forks or spoons?
Determining when it’s appropriate to use chopsticks, forks or spoons can be challenging for some travellers, even other Asians, as each country has different customs.

“In Thailand, chopsticks aren’t used everywhere or for all dishes. We typically use a fork and spoon to eat most dishes and the spoon is the primary utensil where the food is pushed onto the spoon by the fork,” explained Thai chef Ian Kittichai. “Traditionally, we only use chopsticks to eat noodle dishes, as noodles were brought to Thailand by the Chinese – as were chopsticks. Nowadays, we also use chopsticks to eat Japanese food, as that’s how the Japanese eat.”

“All dining in Vietnamese homes is communal so dishes are placed in the centre and people generally serve themselves with their own chopsticks,” said Tu Van Cong. “Sometimes hosts will use the handle end of the chopsticks to put food in a guest’s bowl.”

“Vietnamese will eat a meal using their own bowl and chopsticks, yet the spoon will be shared,” Tran Hoang Viet elaborated. “When you finish, don’t put the chopsticks on the table, but on the bowl. In a home, the wife or first child will be in charge of serving rice and you should accept at least two bowls of rice before saying “I’m full”.”

“In Malay culture, the traditional way of eating food is with your hands – an enjoyable way to eat a meal but do make sure you wash your hands before eating,” advised Pauline Lee. “And only scoop food with your right hand, as the left hand is considered dirty.”

“Usually chopsticks or other utensils are provided to scoop the food into your bowl to prevent your own chopsticks from touching the food that remains on the table,” Lee elaborated. “A tip: never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice, as this resembles sticks of incense used as offerings to the deceased. Playing with chopsticks is also considered bad manners.”

When you simply can’t eat another thing
What’s acceptable behaviour when you can’t eat anymore or need to be on your way?

“To indicate that you’re full, it’s best to leave something in your bowl so as to show it, otherwise food will continue to be offered or put in your bowl,” explained Tu Van Cong. “Leaving food on the plate is not considered rude.”

Who picks up the bill if you’ve shared a meal on the streets or in a restaurant?

“The person who invites will pay,” advised Tu Van Cong. “Splitting the bill is not common, especially not when an occasion is being celebrated.” Daniel Hoyer elaborated: “You can offer to pay, but your offer may be rejected. A reciprocal invitation is a polite way to return the favor when the host pays for you.”

“In Thailand, it’s not uncommon for wealthier friends to pay the bill for drinks or dinner,” said Pitak Srisawat, adding: “While Thai customs may seem conservative to Westerners, Thai people are generally relaxed and easygoing and will rarely take offense if a foreigner fails to follow Thai etiquette.”

Tun Van Cong agreed. “Dining in Vietnam is fairly casual with not too many rules. Usually visitors to Vietnamese houses are treated as guests of honour and if they’re foreigners they’re not expected to know any of the etiquette involved.”

Sep 29

Asian Travel Etiquette – Greetings, Gestures and Good Manners

Giving Alms to Monks in Asia.

Asian travel etiquette is not so complicated to understand, nor is it mysterious. Almost every Asian guidebook, travel website and those free little tourist magazines seem to have a section on etiquette – how you should greet people, how to conduct yourself, what’s considered good manners and what’s not, and what you should wear.

Yet we’re increasingly seeing travellers in Siem Reap’s streets who seem to have lost their luggage or in a moment of generosity have given all their clothes away – girls in bikini tops and skimpy shorts that look like undies, guys wearing singlets with armholes opened to their waist and shorts that look like pyjamas. Not a good look. In fact, it’s pretty offensive – not just to us but, more importantly, to the locals.

For some reason, travellers in South East Asia seem to think it’s perfectly okay to wear singlets and shorts in the streets. Well, it’s hot, right, so it should be okay? Wrong. Save it for the beach and hotel swimming pool. What most travellers don’t realize is their lack of clothes is highly offensive to all but the most open-minded of young locals.

While Asian countries have been quick to develop and modernize, it is still a region steeped in ancient traditions and customs, many still practiced today. Sure, young Asians might be increasingly dressing in similar styles, and going through the same struggles we all do with our families when we’re young and rebelling and developing our sense of identity. The difference is that they live here. You – and we – are guests, and who really wants to offend their hosts.

We all like to get friendly greetings when we travel to new places, to experience warm welcomes from people other than hotel staff, and to be on the receiving end of smiles rather than frowns. And Asia has a reputation as ‘the land of smiles’, with friendly locals to be found wherever you go, from Thailand to Indonesia, Myanmar to Borneo.

Yet sometimes travellers to Asian destinations find that they aren’t as enthusiastically welcomed as they’d like to be. Sometimes it’s a puckered brow or cold shoulder. Sometimes it might be a torrent of abuse. Nearly always the cause is a cultural faux pas that’s been made, a simple mistake, misunderstanding or manner of conduct that has caused offense that could have easily been avoided – by putting on a shirt, skirt or trousers, for instance.

For a story I wrote for a magazine last year, I consulted a long list of travel experts from across the region – from hotel concierges to tour guides, people who deal with foreign guests every single day – and I got their advice on how they thought travellers should behave when visiting their destination.

We covered everything from greetings and gestures and body language to general conduct. The aim was to try to ensure that the next time travellers visit an Asian country the only coldness they’ll experience is from that icy scented towel they hand out at reception. I thought it was timely to share some of that advice here.

It starts with a smile
I asked my local experts to tell me what they thought local expectations of foreign travellers visiting Asia are when it comes to greetings? In France, for example, the French always say “bonjour” when entering shops and they think tourists are rude when they don’t do the same. Are visitors to Asia expected to learn to say “good morning” in a dozen different languages? You know what we think, but let’s see what my experts thought…

“It’s always greatly appreciated when a foreign visitor uses local greetings and says ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ in the local language, even if it is read off a piece of paper,” said Choden Dorjee, an executive at Amankora resort in Bhutan.

Tran Hoang Viet, a guest relations manager at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam agreed. “Vietnamese people are friendly and always smile at foreign visitors: ‘xin chao’ is our traditional greeting and it is a very polite way of greeting that means: “Can I beg to say hello to you?” When a Vietnamese person says ‘xin chao’ and smiles at you, you should always smile back at them and nod your head or shake their hand, otherwise they’ll think that you are not very friendly.”

“In Thailand we use the ‘wai’, a gesture of respect when greeting one another,” explained Naphat Nusati, general manager of Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai. “As the guest of a hotel or as a customer in a shop, allow the staff to ‘wai’ you first, then return the gesture. But don’t ‘wai’ young children. A smile and friendly greeting ‘Sawasdee kha/khrap’ will do.”

Pitak Srisawat, chief concierge of the Four Seasons hotel in Bangkok, elaborated: “To ‘wai’, the hands should be raised as if in prayer and the head is bowed. There are strict rules concerning who and how to ‘wai’. Generally, the younger or junior person initiates the ‘wai’. It is considered unlucky by some Thais for an older or senior person to ‘wai’ a younger or junior person first. The lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown,” he explained.

“As foreigners are usually not expected to know ‘wai’ etiquette, they will be excused mistakes,” he said. “However, to avoid possible embarrassment to the Thai person, it is generally safer not to initiate a ‘wai’ if you are at all unsure, but always return a ‘wai’.”

The customs concerning greetings are very similar here in Cambodia. “Greetings are an important aspect of Cambodian etiquette,” Sambo Pat, chief concierge at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor here in Siem Reap, and a member of the elite concierge club, Le Clef d’or, said. “Here, locals also place their palms together as if in prayer. It’s known as ‘som pas’ in Cambodia and we say ‘sompeak’ in Khmer, and bow slightly.”

“We also say ‘choum reap sur’ which means ‘hello’ and ‘choum reap lir’ for ‘goodbye’, and we address a man as ‘Lok’ (Mr/Sir) and a woman as ‘Lok Srey’ (Mrs/Madam) along with the person’s name. It’s a sign of respect and honour.” In Thailand, Pitak Srisawat pointed out that the honorific title ‘Khun’, used before a person’s first name (and used for both men and women) is used for the same reasons.

It’s very important to know where the ‘wai’ is used, as Nicolas Peth, general manager at Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang in Vietnam warned. “One of the most common mistakes by Westerners touring Asia and visiting Vietnam is to assume that the Vietnamese also use the ‘wai’, placing their hands together close to their chest and face like they do in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia,” he said. “The Vietnamese simply acknowledge each other with a verbal ‘xin chao’. Handshakes are also common, but mostly between men.”

Handshakes are typically used in Malaysia too. “The traditional Malay handshake, known as ‘salam’, involves both parties extending their arms and clasping each other’s hand in a brief but firm grip,” advised Lew Wai Gin, the guest liaison manager at Tanjong Jara Resort. “The man can then offer either one or both hands, grasp his friend’s hands, and then bring a hand back to his chest, which means: ‘I greet you from my heart’.”

Too close for comfort
Handshakes aren’t appropriate everywhere, however, sometimes due to religion reasons – in countries with Muslim populations, for instance, it’s not appropriate for men and women who aren’t related or married to physically touch. Sometimes it’s due to religion and at other times cultural reasons, even superstitions.

Handshakes or any kind of touching is not always acceptable between strangers in Thailand, where Pitak Srisawat cautioned that some Thai people are very conservative regarding members of the opposite sex. “To avoid possible embarrassment,” he suggested, “It is better to avoid physical contact – even shaking hands – with someone of the opposite sex until a close relationship has been established.”

Ho Thi Hong Van, a manager at the Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang advises visitors to Vietnam to completely avoid displays of affection with a member of the opposite sex in public, especially at a pagoda or church. “Do not touch someone’s head, especially that of a woman,” she suggested, “And do not pass anything over someone’s head, as it’s seen as being rude.”

Sambo Pat agreed. “In Cambodia, the head is sacred, as it is where intelligence and spiritual substance reside. It is considered disrespectful to touch or pat a person’s head,” he said. “Feet, on the contrary, are considered the lowest part of the body and unclean. Pointing at someone or something with your feet can be considered an insult.”

The foot has significance in Bhutan also, where Choden Dorjee, warns visitors never to point their foot at anything. “Try to show respect by not sitting in a way that your feet are directly or overtly pointing at an elderly person you might be meeting or visiting,” she says.

These rules are especially important when visiting a temple or ‘wat’ or meeting a monk. Sambo Pat explained: “When entering a wat, shoes or sandals must be removed before entering and visitors should always sit with their legs bent and feet tucked backward, especially when monks are seated.”

“Women cannot touch monks,” he said. “So if a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly. This restriction even applies to a monk’s mother!”

How close people get to monks is an ongoing concern in Laos, where the early morning alms-giving processions of saffron-robed Buddhist monks through the pretty streets of Luang Prabang attracts hundreds of tourists each day – many getting too close for comfort with their cameras. See this post from our archives for more on that subject.

Sibounma Khampadith, a former novice monk and front office manager at Luang Prabang’s Amantaka resort provides some excellent advice to their guests. “Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful,” he suggested. “If you don’t wish to make an offering, please be respectful to others. If you want to take photographs, don’t take them too close and try not to use flashes, as they are very disturbing.”

He also recommends guests dress appropriately: “Shoulders, chest and legs should be covered,” he cautioned.

Gary Tyson, general manager at Amantaka, said he believed it was important to explain to guests the background of the alms offering and how to be respectful. In a measure to reduce the number of crowds in the main part of town, he invites guests to the street in front of the hotel to participate in the hotel staff’s daily alms offering to monks from a nearby temple. We did this when we stayed at the hotel and highly recommend it.

There are also customs as far as offerings are concerned. In Bali, where visitors will see small offerings of flowers, fruit and incense in bamboo baskets everywhere they look, Wayan Sucitra offered a few good tips. “Try not to step on offerings in the street,” he warned. “Take care to walk around them. Also, respect the slow pace of Buddhist processions. If you are stuck behind one, please be patient and if you are in a car, please do not honk your horn.”

Patience is a virtue
What next, I asked the experts, how can travellers move beyond greetings, gestures and body language? How should tourists conduct themselves more generally? Is there an appropriate way to behave? For instance, how should travellers deal with problems?

Wayan Sucitra stressed the need for visitors to show tolerance whatever the situation. “Try to be patient with people’s many personal questions, for instance,” he recommended. “Balinese are naturally curious about people from different cultural backgrounds so their questions should not be considered offensive.”

Pitak Srisawat explained that it is the same in Thailand. “When Thais meet someone for the first time, it is not unusual for them to ask questions,” he says. “They may seem very personal to some foreigners but it is best to accept them in good nature and without affront.”

“Always keep calm, smile and remain polite when interacting with Thais, even if you feel frustrated,” Chumpol Chantaloon, the guest services manager at Rayavadee resort, Krabi, advised. “Thai people value restraint and cool manners above almost everything else. Expressing anger and raising your voice is frowned upon and seen as a sign of weak character.”

The situation is no different in Malaysia, where the concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Bhaskaran Kessavan explained that “the Malaysian people are calm and humble, and ‘saving face’ is an important part of the culture. Relax and explain your grievances clearly in a polite manner to ensure you don’t make them ‘lose face’. The best way to handle a complaint is to stay composed.”

“Always avoid public displays of emotion,” Pitak Srisawat elaborated. “In no situation is it considered appropriate to show anger or a negative emotion. Doing so causes the other person to lose face and will not encourage sympathy or help from others. Instead, speak softly and smile warmly.”

As always, a smile goes a long way in Asia. As does wearing some clothes.

Sep 17

Relishing the Retro Charm and Ravishing Beauty of Rottnest Island

Ah, Rottnest Island. Yes, that’s the sound of a deep sigh. Sapphire coloured ocean wherever you look, sheltered aquamarine coves with crescents of creamy sand, windswept grassland fragrant with wild rosemary, ospreys building nests upon craggy cliffs, salty winds whipping your sun-kissed cheeks, and wherever you go, seagulls squawking overhead.

Shimmering salt lakes are skirted by samphire and saltbush, walking tracks shaded by Morton Bay figs and Aleppo pines snake around rocky headlands, shiny white boats bob in the water, pelicans strut along the quiet shore, and handsome sandstone cottages offer wide verandas for sipping cold beers while watching the sun goes down.

And everywhere you go, the island’s famous, furry little quokkas, miniature kangaroo-like pouched marsupials, hop about as if they own the place, causing minor havoc as they attempt to steal your food.

Although it was already called Wadjemup, meaning ‘place across the water’, by the indigenous Noongar people, Dutch mariner Willem de Vlamingh, who thought the cute quokkas looked like rats, named it ‘Rottenest’ or ‘Rat’s Nest’ Island in 1696.

Just a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle, some 20 kilometres off the coast of Perth, Western Australia, Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as the locals like to call it – is one of those wonderful sorts of old-fashioned holiday spots that have you wondering why you’d never been before, how you can manage to stay longer, and when you’ll next get a chance to return.

When we visit – after the day-trippers have caught the last ferry back to Perth, after a feast on fantastic Aussie seafood at the island’s best restaurant (starving from cycling all afternoon), and after we’ve enjoyed too many glasses of wine and games of pool with the locals in the pub bar – we lie on the old sofa on the sandy patio of our weatherboard beachside bungalow and listen to the waves quietly lapping against the shore.

As we gaze at the countless stars in what must be the world’s clearest sky, it feels as if we’re completely alone. Islands don’t come more romantic than Rottnest.

Well, except in summer, on weekends and during school holidays when Rottnest is teeming with groups of flirty teenagers and big noisy families and, unless you fit into one of those categories, is best avoided.

Rotto is not a tiny island – it’s eleven kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide – but the main settlement on Thompson Bay can feel crowded during those peak periods. The rest of the time, the place is tranquil and low-key, and untamed beauty and rustic charm aside the laidback vibe is a big part of Rotto’s appeal.

Apart from a couple of slick modern mini-markets, with shelves crammed with gourmet products, baked goods and bottles of Margaret River wines, that are easily as well-stocked as any fancy supermarket on the mainland, and the sleek bar of the Rottnest Hotel with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls and funky white chairs, you’d think you’d stepped back in time to a holiday spot of your Australian childhood.

That contemporary designer bar is somewhat incongruously attached to a grand old sandstone pub with wide timber verandas and a corrugated iron roof, and beyond that, gravelly paths lead to rustic accommodation, more in keeping with a school holiday camp than one of Perth’s most popular tourist destinations – and that’s the way locals like it.

We spent just two days on Rottnest Island – or ‘Rotto’ as the locals call it – and we were kicking ourselves we hadn’t planned to stay longer. We visited off-season, at the end of the southern hemisphere spring and the start of the Aussie winter, and the weather was just lovely – it wasn’t quite warm enough for sunbathing and swimming (surfers wore wetsuits and we needed jackets for the evenings), but the days were balmy and we were ambling about and biking around in t-shirts.

We not only visited off-season but we went mid-week, so there were none of the crowds the island draws during on weekends and during high season and it was dead quiet in the evening after the day-trippers left. We were wishing we’d booked the bungalow for a week and taken a few books.

There is a lot to do on the island if you want to get active. There are 60-odd beaches and excellent swimming, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and fishing, as well as some 50 kilometres of road to explore on bike or foot.

One of the brilliant things about Rottnest is that aside from a handful of vehicles (for police, island staff etc), a shuttle bus and tour bus, there are no other vehicles, so you can cycle and stroll in safety and silence.

The island’s wild beauty is a big part of its appeal. Blanketed in native bushland and speckled with wildflowers in season, Rotto boasts a dramatic coastline marked by intriguing rock formations, punctuated by secluded bays of turquoise water so clear you can see the reefs and fish, while inland there are the still lakes that gave the island its indigenous name. A dedicated nature reserve, it’s in pristine condition.

On land, there are the adorable quokkas that keep visitors amused, and less visible native wildlife including reptiles such as frogs, gekkos and snakes (take care), and abundant birdlife, from enormous raptors and handsome red-capped plovers to big muttonbirds and handsome pelicans. Don’t forget to take binoculars and long lenses.

Off shore, there are hundreds of species of tropical fish, coral and crustaceans, green turtles, bottle-nose dolphins, sting-rays, New Zealand seals, Australian sea-lions, and whales, including some 35,000 Humpback and Southern Right whales that play in the water on their way north in April and again from September to December on their return journey back down the coast.

Soon after arriving on the ferry from Fremantle we did the 90-minute Discovery Tour by bus, which, with a fascinating commentary by the driver and stops at picturesque spots like Wadjemup Lighthouse, was a great way to get our bearings while seeing the sights, as well as learn about the history of the island. For instance, I had no idea the treacherous coast was responsible for 13 shipwrecks.

We lunched in the sun at Rottnest Hotel on salty fish and chips and fried calamari, and sipped crisp white wine as we gazed at the still water of Thompson Bay. Then we grabbed a map and bottles of water and hopped on bicycles to explore on our own. We did the same thing the next day.

Had we have stayed longer, Terence would have hit some surfing spots and we would have done a few tours, including the free walks offered by the Rottnest Island Voluntary Guides, covering everything from nature and wildlife to the tragic indigenous history of the island.

Sadly, Rotto does have a dark past. It was once an indigenous penal colony and part of the old prison buildings are now used by Rottnest Lodge.

After ten Aboriginal prisoners were taken to the island in 1883, Rottnest was established as a penal colony and remained so for almost a century. During that time, some 3,700 indigenous men and boys were imprisoned, 369 of whom died. Most deaths were from disease, however, five were hung. There is a cemetery at Thomson Bay settlement that can be visited.

Like many cities around Australia boasting colonial buildings, many of those on Rottnest were constructed by convict labour, including the heritage buildings, lighthouse and sea walls. Look out for interpretive signs as you stroll around the island.

The Rottnest Island Authority, which manages the island, and the Noongar people are working together in a spirit of reconciliation that will see the Rottnest Lodge buildings handed over in a few years. A “Welcome to Country” by Noongar elders often precedes important events and ceremonies. The annual Wadjemup Cup, an indigenous youth football tournament, is held on the island, and activities such as basket weaving, taught by indigenous women, take place.

As I said, we are still plotting our return – only next time it will definitely be for longer, with a pile of books, and off-season, with only those cute quokkas for company.

Getting there
The easiest and most affordable way to get to Rottnest Island is by ferry from Fremantle (ticket office at B Shed, Victoria Quay; 25 minutes), from Hillarys Boat Harbour (45 minutes) or from Perth’s Barrack Street Jetty (90 minutes), which is a lovely way to go if you haven’t yet done the Swan River cruise to Fremantle. For timetables and to book tickets online from Freo or Perth city, see the Rottnest Express website. You can also fly by light plane or helicopter as the island has a small airport.

Getting your bearings
The ferry will bring you to the main dock at the Thomson Bay Settlement, where you’ll find the Rottnest Island Visitors Centre, shops, restaurants, pubs, and most of the accommodation. Your first point of call should be the Visitors Centre, where you can collect the key to your pre-booked accommodation (book online; see below), pick up maps and guides to the island’s swimming, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and fishing spots, as well as book tours. There is also plenty of excellent information available online.

Getting around
Cars aren’t allowed, but you can explore the island by bus, bicycle and foot. If you don’t want to pay for the Discovery Tour, we recommend taking the map and brochure from the Visitor Centre and doing a circuit around the island on the regular Rottnest Island Bus Service (free for those staying overnight) soon after you arrive to get a handle on the distances involved, and to note down nice beach spots where you fancy a swim, surf or snorkel. Then hire a bike from Rottnest Island Bike & Hire (behind the pub) to cycle back to places you liked. Save your feet for shorter walks and romantic strolls on the beach or to sunrise/sunset viewing vantage points.

Rottnest Island Bike Hire has bikes and locks, as well as other gear, like snorkelling sets. At the time of writing, bike hire fees ranged from $13 an hour to $28 for 24 hours to $56 for 3 days. They do a great job, offering a rescue service if you get a flat or a bike pick-up if you get exhausted – you simply lock your bike at a numbered bus stop, hop on the bus, and they will collect your wheels later.

What to do
Swim The best spots for taking a dip are The Basin, Thomson Bay, Longreach Bay, Little Parakeet Bay, and Geordie Bay, all roped off and not far from The Settlement, and a bit further afield on the southern side of the Island, Little Salmon Bay, Salmon Bay and Nancy Cove.

Surf Rotto boasts some of the best surfing in the state, with waves larger here than on Perth beaches. Popular spots for surfing and bodysurfing include Strickland Bay (ranked one of the world’s top 50 breaks), Stark Bay and Salmon Bay, while locals love the reef breaks of Radar Reef, Cathedral Rocks and Chicken Reef. If you’re going specifically to surf check the weather and surf conditions online.

Snorkel and dive Abundant fish and coral species, along with shipwrecks, make Rottnest Island a superb spot for snorkelling and diving. You can hire gear from Rottnest Island Bike & Hire (see above) and do snorkel trails at Parker Point and Kingstown Reef. You can also do snorkelling tours and diving trips with Charter 1.

Take a tour
If you’re interested in the history, geography, nature and wildlife of the island, instead of taking the regular shuttle bus around the island when you arrive, do the Discovery Tour (1hr 45mins, departing several times a day; adult/child/family $35/17/72). The drivers give a fascinating live commentary and stops for photo ops at some stunning locations including Wadjemup Lighthouse and the West End.

In good weather, Eco-Express circumnavigates the island on a 90-minute tour taking in whales (in season), a New Zealand fur seal colony out at Cathedral Rocks, and other marine-life and birdlife. Charter 1 offers sailing on their catamaran Capella as well as kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.

If you want to dig even deeper, the Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association, which I mentioned above, runs a number of free walking tours in and around the settlement covering the history, culture and heritage architecture of Rotto. They depart from the Visitor Centre.

Where to stay
You’ll need to book ahead and book online. If you want hotel-style accommodation, Rottnest Lodge, set back from the beach, is comfortable with a wide range of rooms in different styles, from smart ‘premium lakeside’ rooms with balconies to more dated ‘deluxe’ rooms in the historic part of the building dating back to 1864. (Note that some of these were part of the former prison.) The most stylish hotel accommodation is at the Rottnest Hotel where some of the light-filled rooms have stunning bay views.

But the real charm of Rottnest is in its old-fashioned, unpretentious self-contained accommodation including weatherboard bungalows dating to the 1920s and charming sandstone cottages. While some accommodation has been renovated with modern furniture and well fitted out kitchens, other accommodation is very basic so best to look at the photos online before you book. Most lies slap-bang on the beachfront, within splashing distance of the sea, and boast ocean views. There are also newer, smarter villas and units with balconies with sweeping bay vistas.

Some accommodation is set back from the beach without any views so be clear about what you want when you book and book well in advance. At the time of writing, prices start from $76/84 for a 4-/6-bed bungalow and $100 a night for the 4-bed chalet mid-week in low season, and go up to $450 a night during high season for the beautiful 6-bed Commander’s Cottages on the headland. Less atmospheric, but useful for backpackers, are the 6-bed dorm-style cabins, starting from $68, that are popular with students. There’s also a hostel and camping ground.

Where to eat
Lunch in the sunshine with the quokkas outside the Rottnest Hotel is a must. It’s one of the best food experiences in Australia you can have in fact. For dinner, Rottnest Lodge has a good seafood restaurant and a fun pub bar where the locals hang out. All of the self-catering accommodation on the island boasts decent, reasonably well-equipped kitchens, and the Rottnest Island General Store has a great range of groceries including fruit and veg, dairy and meat, as well as liquor, and you can even order online and they’ll deliver to your accommodation.

What it costs
Everyone arriving on Rottnest Island has to pay an admission fee (adults/kids: day only $16.50/$6; extended stay $21.50/$7.50; family $48.50), which is a contribution to the conservation of the island and its facilities. If you arrive by ferry you’ll pay the fee when you pay your fare.

The only downside to Rottnest Island (apart from the high season crowds) is that a visit is expensive. Here are our budget tips:
* Ferry tickets, tours and bike hire are not cheap, and combined with accommodation and food can really add up, so a long stay in self-catering accommodation and cooking your own food makes the most sense.
* While the more basic accommodation is very affordable by Australian standards, share with family and friends to save even more money and check the deals and packages on the island website.
* Biking is the best way to get around but you can save money by walking everywhere.
* Self-cater and do as the locals do and fish your meal! If you’re going to be eating out for one meal, we’d recommend making it lunch or an early sunset dinner – there’s nothing like feasting on seafood overlooking the water at the Rotto Hotel.

Rottnest Island Authority www.rottnestisland.com arranged our stay, including ferry tickets, accommodation, bike hire, and the Discovery Tour, and should be your first point for comprehensive information on the island.

Aug 27

Funky Fremantle, Perth’s Hip Historic Seaside City

Loft cafés, contemporary art galleries, unique concept stores, and vintage shops line the laidback streets of funky Fremantle, Perth’s hip, historic seaside city.

When locals in Western Australia’s capital Perth want to kick back on the weekend, they head to Fremantle – or ‘Freo’ as it’s fondly called. A lovely, low-rise, low-key little city at the mouth of the Swan River, with a pretty boat harbour, sandy beaches and sprawling pine-covered park, Fremantle is one of Perth’s oldest and most charming areas.

Whenever we’ve settled into the city for a while, whether to spend time with family or update Perth and Western Australia guidebooks, it’s been in Fremantle, where we’ve happily rented apartments for months at a time.

Settled thousands of years ago by the Noongar people, Europeans arrived in 1829 and used convicts to build Fremantle’s splendid sandstone buildings such as the Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle Prison, and the Round House, where my Mum used to work as a volunteer guide.

When Fremantle’s port boomed with the 1880s Gold Rush, prosperous merchants established grand headquarters here and constructed majestic hotels with intricate wrought iron balconies. Freo’s most handsome façades can be found on the quiet streets of West End, a compact quarter sandwiched between the port and harbour.

Freo’s laidback atmosphere has long attracted musicians, artists and writers, giving the place a bohemian hippy vibe, but in recent years a more contemporary creative scene has been taking shape in the West End where chic boutiques, concept stores, retro cafés, and contemporary art galleries have moved into historic buildings.

Traditionally, a Fremantle visit involves a museum – the Western Australian Maritime Museum, Shipwrecks Galleries and Fremantle Prison are all worth your time – the lively weekend Fremantle Markets on South Terrace (also known as ‘Cappuccino Strip’, because of its abundant cafés), and an amble through Esplanade Park with its colossal Norfolk Island pines, to the boat harbour for fish and chips followed by beers at boutique brewery Little Creatures. Now it also requires some time shopping the hip West End.

You should still enjoy Freo’s quintessential experiences – coffee at Gino’s (which offers 21 different cups of coffee), Perth’s best fish and chips by the water at Cicerellos, and icy beers in the sun overlooking boats bobbing on the harbour at Little Creatures. Order the White Rabbit Pale Ale and a crispy woodfired pizza. But after, walk across the park to West End.

On Henry Street, Moore & Moore in a historic merchant house dating to 1868, is popular with university students and local shop owners. The quirky space is furnished with vintage pieces and curios, there’s a sunny courtyard out back and a studio for artist’s-in-residence, while in the adjoining Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, you can browse art – anything from installations to videos.

Nearby on High Street, home to the West End’s best shops, is the B&M Store, where owners Jayden and Jess offer a carefully curated selection of design favourites from Australia and abroad, including their own colourful woollen felt products – coasters, placements, laptop covers, and wallets – to lifestyle essentials like Hookturn BYO Coffee Cups from Australia and Baggu Bags from the USA. Ask them to point out Australian products from PageThirtyThree, Ink&Spindle, Lad & Lass, and Not Tuesday. The FutureShelter timber brooches make unique souvenirs.

Local designer Sheree Dornan has filled Love In Tokyo with her ethereal creations – flowing layers of silk, slip dresses and dainty camisoles – along with floaty Eastern-influenced clothes, scarves and textiles, many embellished with gems and beads, as well as handmade jewellery.

Don’t miss Australian labels Vixen and High Tea with Mrs Woo. Sheree works on site, as does designer Liz Dawes, across the road at Cocoon Textiles, who you might see cutting her fabrics on the big table in the centre of the store. Along with her original bold printed fabrics and fashion, Liz devotes rack space to Western Australian designers like Ashe, Chinky Wooster and Petals in Disarray.

The shelves at Remedy hold lovely sustainable and eco-friendly products, from antique-style stamp sets in recycled wooden boxes to colourful baskets handmade made by indigenous women. Buy Australian-made Aesop skincare products and illustrated tea towels by Third Drawer Down.

Close by, Irene Daly has decorated Kartique with her favourite things as if it was a beautiful home, with vibrant embroidered ottomans and handcrafted furniture, strewn with colourful handmade cushions.

In keeping with the West End’s vintage style is The Attic on Bannister Street. A funky retro-inspired café opened last year by graphic designer Conrad and tea-obsessed Jess, the loft space is decorated with second-hand furniture and a ‘chandelier’ of old suitcases.

While the coffee is superb – and the freshly roasted beans are for sale – try the masala chai with a homemade orange and almond or chocolate and beetroot cake – quintessential Freo creations.

Gino’s Café


Little Creatures

Moore & Moore

B&M Store


Love in Tokyo

Cocoon Textiles


The Attic

Flights to Perth to gather content for stories were provided by Tourism Western Australia. Accommodation was provided by Number Six, a locally owned short-stay rental company we’ve been renting apartments from for years. A version of this post appeared in Sawasdee, the in-flight magazine for Thai Airways.

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