Jul 30

The Best Bars in Siem Reap

Miss Wong Bar, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

After a sweaty day scrambling temples, cycling Siem Reap’s villages or spending too much time at the swimming pool, come sundown the best spot to be is downing icy cold Beer Laos or sipping killer cocktails. Leave Pub Street to the backpackers and hit the best bars in Siem Reap instead.

Miss Wong

Hands-down this is Siem Reap’s most stylish bar and is home to the city’s best cocktails. Hidden down a lane parallel to Pub Street called, um, The Lane, Miss Wong is also the most atmospheric bar in town with Chinese lanterns, red walls, retro posters, and black lacquer screens that evoke old Shanghai. Head here around 6pm for pre-dinner drinks or after your meal for a nightcap to mingle with expats. The waiters are warm, friendly and welcoming and the Kiwi owner Dean is a wealth of knowledge if you’re after insider tips. A warning: the cocktails are heady. Don’t leave without trying my favourite: the Rose and Lemongrass Martini. We also recommend the China White with jasmine tea syrup, lychees, gin and Cinzano. The dim sum makes a fine appetiser or late night snack.
The Lane, Old Market quarter, enter lane opposite Siem Reap Referral Hospital, 5pm-1am www.misswong.net

Asana

Tucked away in an alleyway around the corner from Miss Wong, Asana remains something of a secret. Set in the last standing antique Khmer timber house in the old town, it also oozes charm. Owned by an equally charming young Cambodian woman called Pari, who invented the Khmer cocktail – a mixed drink that must contain at least two or three Khmer herbs, spices or roots – Asana is also the spot for some cocktail lessons, but more on that later. Even if you don’t sign up for a class you can still sink back in the comfy seats and listen to smooth jazz sounds as you sip a Little Sweet, Pari’s favourite cocktail, made from Bombay Sapphire, wild ginger, turmeric, lime, and sugar cane juice.
Off The Lane, main entrance on Street 7, Old Market quarter, 11am-2am www.asana-cambodia.com

Foreign Correspondents Club Angkor

Located on the riverside in the leafy French Quarter, which was home to the administrative buildings of the French protectorate, this handsome modernist building was once the governor’s mansion. The interior lounge bar and restaurant upstairs are in a colonial style with leather armchairs and ceiling fans and the balcony is the spot to be for dinner, but there are few more sublime spots in Siem Reap than the FCC courtyard for a sunset drink. The cocktails are unimaginative but the cold beers hit the spot and there are decent wines by the glass, as well as delicious Asian appetizers, such as fresh spring rolls, satay sticks, and fried calamari. Happy hour: 5-7pm
Pokamber Avenue, French Quarter, 7am-midnight http://fcccambodia.com/

Elephant Bar

A cocktail in the elegant old bar in the historic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which opened in 1920s, is a must-do, simply to soak up some history. As Siem Reap’s most luxurious accommodations for decades, the hote, along with its majestic sister-property in Phnom Penh, the Hotel Le Royal, had countless famous guests check in. One of those was former American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967, after whom the hotel in the capital named a cocktail, the Femme Fatale (Champagne, Crème de Fraise, Cognac). The Siem Reap property’s signature drink is the tropical Airavata (rum, Crème de Banana, fresh coconut juice, sugar cane, lime juice). Note that there’s a dress code of collared shirts and shoes so leave the t-shirts and flip-flops at the hotel.
Raffles Hotel, opposite Royal Gardens, 6pm-midnight www.raffles.com/siem-reap/dining/elephant-bar/

Martini Lounge

As martini-lovers, a long martini list is very alluring, but so is the romantic dimly lit atmosphere of this sophisticated lounge bar upstairs in the main building of one of Siem Reap’s most beautiful hotels. The traditional Khmer timber architecture is a big appeal, but so are the pool and tropical garden views and the breezes that waft through on a balmy evening. It’s ideal for a quiet pre-dinner or pre-show drink – the hotel also hosts one of the city’s best Apsara dance performances – or nightcap. There’s a happy hour from 6-7.30pm.
Belmond La Residence d’Angkor, East River Road, 8am-midnight Martini Lounge Webpage

Heritage Cocktail Bar

The lofty lobby bar of this luxury hotel is hidden down a dirt lane off Wat Bo Road (turn right opposite Marum), within earshot of the monks chanting at nearby Wat Polanka. Drop in on a Thursday night when it’s the place to be in Siem Reap and all you’ll hear are the beats of a live jazz band (from 6.30-9.30pm) as you sip happy hour cocktails (5-7pm). You could snag a spot at the bar or sink into a comfy chair, but if you’re up for making new friends, this is the place to do it – jazz nights see Siem Reap’s friendly expat crowd catching up in between songs.
Heritage Suites Hotel, Wat Polanka area, off Wat Bo Road, 8am-11pm www.heritagesuiteshotel.com

AHA

Boasting a sleek, contemporary, almost-Scandinavian sense of style with its clean lines, sculptured wooden feature wall, and striking light fixtures, this chic wine bar and casual restaurant could be at home in any cosmopolitan city – if it weren’t for its views onto Old Market on one side and on the other, The Passage, another bustling little alley that’s home to bars, restaurants and shops. While you can dine on contemporary Cambodian tapas, among other things, there’s a long list of good wines by the glass as well as bottles and the high tables and chairs are made for sipping and snacking. The air-conditioning is bliss on a sweltering day.
Off The Passage, Old Market quarter, 11am-10pm AHA Website

Laundry Bar

This laidback French-owned bar, one block from Old Market, is a favourite of European expats, locals, and savvy tourists for its dirt-cheap drinks, pool tables, dart boards, and funkiest soundtrack in the city. While it is often low-key early in the evening and on weeknights, late at night and on weekends it can get boisterous. When there’s a DJ or band on, such as the massively popular Cambodian Space Project, the small dance floor heaves and punters spill out onto the footpath and street. The bartenders and waiters are very sweet and although the drinks are nothing to write home about they’re budget-priced. A night here is all about the music, relaxed vibe and conversation – it’s another spot where it’s easy to make new friends.
Street 9, Old Market quarter, 5pm-late Laundry Bar on Facebook

Linga Bar

For a quintessentially Siem Reap experience, plan on a cocktail or two at Linga while you watch their drag show. Tucked down the buzzy little lane known as The Passage, which is dotted with shops, eateries and bars, and opposite The One Hotel and AHA (above), this relaxed gay bar is legendary. Located in a colonial building with shuttered windows it’s fairly low-key when it opens at 4pm when it’s not unusual to see no more than a dozen or so people, gay and straight, quietly sipping cold beers and cocktails on the leather sofas outside. Come 10.30pm on a Friday and Saturday night, when the spotlights go on and the sound is turned up, the atmosphere is decidedly different. The outrageous drag show has patrons spilling onto the alleyway and passers-by of all ages stopping to watch the flamboyant acts.
The Passage, Old Market quarter, 4pm-late http://lingabar.com/

Charlie’s Bar

Next door to Linga, Charlie’s Bar has a retro American theme – think: neon signs, classic pinball table, and a vintage motorbike hanging above a door. Popular with travellers and expats alike, especially big groups of backpackers and volunteers and NGO workers, this is the bar you go to when you want cheap drinks and music that’s not so loud you can’t have a conversation. Don’t come here if you want good wines by the glass or creative cocktails; come if you have good company and don’t care where you go or you’re alone and want to make friends. Check their Facebook page for specials, from $1.50 Frozen Margaritas on Tequila Tuesday, $1 spirits on Thirsty Thursday, and $6 jugs of sangria on… you guessed it, Sangria Sunday. It’s okay to wear singlets and flip-flops here.
Street 11, Old Market quarter, 8am-late Charlie’s Bar on Facebook

X Bar

With its rooftop half-pipe, pool tables, tattoo shop, regular live bands and DJs, and late opening hours, this alfresco spot is Siem Reap’s party bar. You can expect anything from reggae to hip hop, acoustic to rock, including resident band The X-Rays, which usually performs on Tuesdays and Fridays. Check their Facebook page for details. There’s food if you get peckish, however, most people aren’t here to eat. Not sure where it is? Walk to the end of Pub Street where it meets Sivutha Boulevard and look up to where all the noise is coming from. That’s it.
Corner Sivutha Boulevard & Sok San Road, upstairs, 3pm-sunrise X Bar on Facebook

Tuk Tuk Bar

This quirky little bar belonging to Cambodian local Hong has been built around a tuk tuk. While it’s the novelty factor that first drew drinkers here, now they come for the late opening hours (it’s open 24 hours, meaning it’s open when everywhere else has closed), dirt-cheap drinks (US$1.50 promotions from 6pm-3am), and mix of punters, from hard-drinking expats and locals to well, um, hard-drinking travellers. People tend to settle in so don’t plan anything else if you’re heading here – except sunrise at Angkor Wat, because at least you won’t sleep through the alarm clock.
Sok San Road, at the far end, so take a tuk tuk, 24 hours http://tuktukcocktailbar.com

UPDATE 1/9/14: Things change fast in our sleepy little city. Sadly, since writing this Linga Bar has closed and Charlie’s Bar is moving. We’ll have a new address for the latter soon.

Jul 29

Our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap

Marum Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Temples are at the top of every Siem Reap visitor’s to-do list and there are so many of the things that few travellers think of anything else. They are magic – we’ve lived here for over a year now and had visited Siem Reap a few times before we moved yet we’re still not ‘templed-out’. There’s so much more to the city, however, that you’re really missing out if exploring temples is all you do.

There’s eating, for instance, and Cambodian food is wonderful. However, it’s also one of Asia’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisines. There’s a lot of misinformation out there (chicken amok is not the national dish and a good beef lok lak should not be made with ketchup) and many restaurant reviews are misguided. We’ve been doing in-depth research on Cambodian cuisine as we’ve been eating our way around the country so expect more about that soon. In the meantime, here’s our culinary guide to Siem Reap:

Siem Reap Markets

Hit the local markets around 7-8am to get an insight into everyday life. Siem Reap’s best market is Phsar Chas or Old Market, in the historic centre of town. This is where you’ll buy your souvenirs and as you stroll around you’ll undoubtedly be subjected to annoying shouts of “Buy something! No charge – just looking!” But it’s not just a tourist market. Locals shop here too and in the early morning, vendors spread out their produce in the aisle between the shoe shops, from freshly picked fruit and vegetables to just-caught seafood from the nearby Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. It’s all so good that Siem Reap’s best chefs shop here. You may also bump into us picking up some seafood or fruit and veg. It’s so inexpensive that if you’re a chef or foodie you’ll be tempted to swap your hotel for an apartment so you can start cooking.

Phsar Leu, Siem Reap’s biggest market, is on National Route No 6 and it’s even more local and more fascinating. But not everyone can handle the, ahem, aromas. If you’re still half-asleep when you arrive, the prahok (Cambodia’s famous fermented fish) and fresh meats will wake up your olfactory system. It’s a great spot to buy kitchenware and household goods if you are settling in. On the opposite side of the road toward the centre of Siem Reap, dimly-lit Phsar Samaki is even grittier and is worth a look if you’re a market enthusiast.

Another bustling little market is Phsar Polanka on the quieter upper riverside, which has a few good food stalls inside, while the mobile carts outside are the place to buy glistening, roasted char sieu duck and pork, and num pang, the Cambodian version of the Vietnamese banh mi, a baguette stuffed with pork, salad, pickles, mayo, maybe some fish, and pâté, when it’s called num pang pâté.

Breakfast in Siem Reap

For a typical Cambodian breakfast hit the food stalls at the centre of Phsar Chas, slap bang in the middle between the meat/seafood and fruit and veg sections, and at Phsar Leu, at the back of the market in the morning and during the day and at the front come late afternoon and early evening. Most of the cooks sell just one or two (or at most, three) local specialties and because the food is mainly made for vendors, it’s authentic. At Phsar Chas, the two most popular stalls specialize in quintessential dishes such as bai sach chrouk (sweet, sticky grilled pork, slowly barbecued over charcoal, sliced up, and spread over a generous mound of white rice, with pickled cucumber and carrot, and chilli sauce on the side), the popular Cambodian pork noodle broth, kuy teav (which you can have with thin slivers of pork or with the addition of offal), as well as congee or babor (also borbor or borbo). Expect to pay around 5,000r or US$1.25 per dish. There are also fresh and fried spring rolls, fried noodles, and, generally not until later in the day, desserts. The stalls at Phsar Chas are more hygienic than those at Phsar Leu.

Cooking Classes in Siem Reap

A number of restaurants and hotels offer cooking classes in Siem Reap, from the more exclusive cooking lessons at five-star hotels such as Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and Anantara Angkor Resort, which are outstanding but expensive, to the more accessible, affordable and fun Cooks in Tuk Tuks experience offered by the River Garden hotel. All are conducted by professional chefs and offer a pre-class trip to a market to introduce participants to Cambodian ingredients and produce before returning to the hotel to get stuck into prep, cook the dishes, and enjoy them over lunch. When we tested these out, we found the Raffles class to be the most interactive, the Anantara more demo-style, and Cooks in Tuk Tuks somewhere in between, combining both hands-on prep and cooking with presentations of different techniques. The Raffles and Anantara experiences are private, so if you’re eager to meet fellow foodies you will prefer Cooks in Tuk Tuks. All the dishes taught are authentic renditions of Cambodian classics, such as fish amok and beef lok lak.

Cambodian-Kiwi chef Kethana Dunnett, who owns Sugar Palm restaurant, also offers a rather special Cooking with Kethana experience at her splendid Khmer timber home, set amongst the rice fields, booked through Backyard Travel or Exotissimo, that can be as participatory or as relaxed as you like. We also did some basic Cambodian country-style cooking with a lovely local on a mat on the ground as part of Beyond Unique Escapes Day in the Life of a Village tour. There are many more cooking classes offered by restaurants around town but not all teach authentic dishes. Stay clear of anywhere that has beef amok on the schedule! More on Siem Reap cooking classes soon.

Desserts in Siem Reap

Combining myriad textures, from silky glutinous surfaces and crunchy shaved ice to smooth medicinal jellies and creamy coconut milk, and flavours that are exotic to foreign palates, from yellow bean to durian, Khmer desserts are an acquired taste for many visitors. Sweets are often eaten as a snack during the day, especially in the afternoon, when you’ll find elderly ladies selling desserts that they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning making at markets such as Phsar Chas (Old Market) and Phsar Polanka (Upper West River Road). Look out for a little old lady at Polanka Market selling one of my favourite desserts, Num plai ai, glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with palm sugar syrup and rolled in fresh grated coconut and sprinkled with sesame seeds (2,000R or US$0.50c per serve of about ten balls). Pop them in whole so that they burst in your mouth. Cambodian women jokingly call this glutinous sphere-like dessert genre (of which there are a handful of varieties) ‘killing husband’ because of the chance of the balls becoming trapped in the throats of drunk spouses. If you’re concerned about hygiene, try Kaya, a lovely café opposite Old Market that specialises in Khmer desserts, drinks and shakes made from Cambodian fruits, herbs and spices. Desserts are made fresh daily with just a few on the menu, so you can keep returning to try a different one each day.

Street Food in Siem Reap

Street food tends to be eaten in the late afternoon and evening and there are street food streets and corners, permanent food stalls that appear at particular times, and mobile carts that you’ll see pushed or biked around Siem Reap, but you do need to be careful where you eat. It is true that poor water quality, low hygiene standards, lack of education, and the prevalence of communicable diseases, make it more risky to eat street food in Siem Reap than, say, in Hanoi or Bangkok, so for the risk-adverse travellers consider doing a street food tour for your first outing. The best (and first) street food tour in town is offered by Deb and her Cambodian cooks at River Garden hotel and it’s fantastic. (I’ll be writing more on this in another post). Also see our Footpath Feasting post on How to Eat Safely in Cambodia.

For the adventurous, hit one of a handful of smoke-filled corrugated-iron roofed shacks and fancier open-sided eateries on Wat Damnak Street (one block from the pagoda) in the late afternoon and early evening, for one of Siem Reap’s most popular street food snacks, sach ko ang (1000r/US$0.25 per skewer), beef skewers marinated in palm sugar, soy and kreung (a paste of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, garlic), and then barbecued over coals on a traditional clay grill. Locals love them with pickled radish and cucumber and chilli sauce on a buttered baguette. There’s another much-loved local barbecue skewer stall on a quiet lane perpendicular to River Road on the upper reaches of the river that sets up around 5pm; arrive earlier and you’ll only see tables and chairs stacked up.

More stalls start up about the same time on the streets around Phsar Chas, from Street 11 running by Pub Street up to Sivatha Boulevard, and in the other direction toward Pokamber Avenue, where they also dot the riverside. Here, you’ll find everything from fresh coconut water, sugar cane juice, iced coffee, and fresh sliced fruit and fruit shakes, to crunchy insects, num pang (Cambodian banh mi; see above) and the ubiquitous ‘pancakes’, which are, in fact, thin French-style crêpes and are a legacy of the colonial days when Cambodia was a French protectorate (1863-1954). A backpacker favourite, they’re served with banana, and, ahem, chocolate sauce or Nutella. You’ll also find vendors selling pickled fruits served with chilli, salt and sugar (a favourite with local women and mostly sold by women bearing baskets) and nom pao, the Cambodian version of Chinese steamed buns, stuffed with pork, boiled eggs, and sometimes the sweet Siem Reap-style Chinese sausage (sold by men usually, in mobile carts boasting steamers and glass display cabinets).

Cambodian Restaurants in Siem Reap

There are countless restaurants in Siem Reap serving Khmer or Cambodian cuisine, but sadly most of them are offering up anodyne versions of local dishes that leave out the sour (chou), bitter (l’evign) and pungent (chat) notes that Khmers love so much.

If you’re keen to experience authentic Cambodian flavours, book a table at Cuisine Wat Damnak, where you can order one of two tasting menus for a wonderful introduction to Cambodian cuisine. This is Siem Reap’s, if not Cambodia’s, finest restaurant, where long-time resident Chef Joannès Rivière creates refined renditions of Cambodian dishes, some prepared with French technique. The chef changes the menu weekly, based on availability of ingredients that he finds at the markets. Hope that the Mekong langoustine in rice paddy crab curry is on. Based on a traditional paddy crab brain soup, here it’s prepared without the shells used in the countryside (Cambodians love texture, especially anything that crunches), and with the addition of fresh coconut milk and sweet, meaty Mekong langoustines. The restaurant is set in an elegant, renovated Khmer timber house; book upstairs for atmosphere, downstairs for air-conditioning, and the terrace in winter.

For traditional home-style Cambodian food, also served in an atmospheric Khmer style wooden house with wide verandas, Sugar Palm is your best bet. Everything on the menu is delicious, although you can expect the pungent prahok to be tamed down a tad when used, as it is at most restaurants. The Cambodian-Kiwi owner Chef Kethana is the go-to person when celebrity chefs are in the country doing television cooking shows, and she knows her stuff. Sugar Palm serves up a superlative version of Cambodia’s national dish, amok trei or fish amok. Snakehead fish from the Tonlé Sap is combined with fresh coconut cream and a kreung of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, and chili, and here is served in a coconut shell (it’s usually served in banana leaf; never in a ceramic bowl).

On the riverside, stylish Chanrey Tree, which opened late last year, offers some delicious traditional Cambodian dishes that you won’t see on other menus, including some of the owner’s mother’s recipes. Order the crispy sticky rice with natang sauce, made with minced pork, shrimp, coconut milk, and peanuts, served with fried tempura-like frangipanis and vegetables; the char kroeung, made with frog’s legs, chicken or beef that is stir-fried with a kroeung paste of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, lime, garlic, and spring onion; and free-range Khmer chicken, roasted with honey, rice brandy, young jack fruit and lemongrass, and served with a prahok dip and fresh vegetable crudites.

For creative interpretations of Cambodian cuisine, authentic dishes presented in a contemporary style, including Khmer tapas (pictured above), as well as dishes featuring imaginative pan-Asian flavour combinations, try Marum, a hospitality-training restaurant ran by Friends International, set in a timber house with art on the walls and alfresco seating in the leafy gardens. I love the red tree ant fritters, barbecued pork ribs with apple and daikon salad, and the roast duck and pumpkin croquettes with citrus and hoisin sauce.

If you want authentic, quality Cambodian/Khmer cuisine, avoid the tourist restaurants in the Old Market area, especially on and around Pub Street, which offer lame renditions of Khmer dishes and watered-down curries, closer in flavour to Thai food, which most visitors are more familiar with. If you’re not fussy, you’re not a fan of Cambodia’s pungent, sour and bitter notes, or you favour atmosphere over food, then by all means try them. Our picks would be Amok (on The Passage) for lane-side action, fun staff and Fawlty Towers-like service, and Old House (opposite Siem Reap Provincial Hospital), which has terrific value Thai-Cambodian set menus.

More stories coming soon on Siem Reap street food, soup joints, local eateries, cooking classes, Khmer desserts, and restaurants, including several new spots. In the interim, if you’re looking for more restaurants see our Eating Out in Siem Reap and for drinks see Siem Reap’s Best Cafes and Bars, both of which we’re currently updating.

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: Q. I’m interested to know what triggered all of this — what’s your earliest food memory?
David Thompson: A. 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.

Q. So what inspired your passion for Thai food?
A. 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.

Q. But there must have been something that ignited this passion, this lifelong project?
A. 
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.

Q. What motivated you to open your first Thai restaurant, Darley Street Thai, in Sydney?
A. 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.

Q. Why do you feel you have no right to it?
A. 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.

Q. What sort of food were you making back then, first in Sydney and later at Nahm in London? It’s often called Royal Thai.
A. 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.

Q. So what were you cooking then?
A. 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.

Q. 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?
A. 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.

Q. 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!”
A. 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.

Q. How has your food evolved during the life of each of your restaurants?
A. 
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.

Q. Are you still learning as a chef?
A. Oh, shit 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.

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