Jan 01

Happy 4th Birthday Grantourismo!

Bia Hoi in Hanoi.

Happy 4th birthday Grantourismo! It’s hard to believe it was way back on New Years Eve in 2009 that we uploaded our first post. That post was about the 12-month grand tour we were about to embark upon, aimed at inspiring you to travel more slowly, sustainably and experientially, and live like locals when you travel.

We’d been dreaming of doing a one-year project for a long time, where we’d stay in a place for a month at a time and immerse ourselves in it, in its culture and everyday life. Our plan was to learn to cook the food, learn a few skills, and learn a little of the language. We just didn’t know how to fund the thing. HomeAwayUK came to the rescue when they approached us with a slightly different idea and thanks to that one-year project Grantourismo was born.

We were spending Christmas with our family in Australia when we launched the site and wrote that first post. The cats and dogs, freshly cut flowers from the garden, and fragrant smells that emanated from the kitchen each day – mouthwatering smells that Terence was responsible for – made us miss having a home.

When we wrote that post it had been four years since we packed up the apartment in Dubai and put our stuff in storage. Four years that we’d been living out of our suitcases and travelling the world, bouncing all over the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and South America, and driving half way around Australia, primarily on guidebook and magazine assignments.

We spent most of those four years checking in and out of hotels, but whenever we could we rented apartments: a month in Brussels, a couple of months in Amsterdam, two months in Buenos Aires, a few weeks in Krakow, three whole months on the Mediterranean in Turkey, split between an Ottoman house in the old town of Antalya and our friend’s holiday house in Kas. That was bliss.

It was during those stays in apartments and houses that the idea for Grantourismo gestated and we began to discuss how we really wanted to travel and what we wanted to focus on as writers and for Terence as a photographer.

Yet it would be another four years of living out of our suitcases as we travelled the world before we decided enough’s enough for a while. In the beginning of December we took out a lease on an apartment in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finally unpacked our bags. We have one-year visas. We’re opening bank accounts.

Strangely enough, in December eight years ago we were beginning to pack up our apartment in Dubai. By the end of January we had put almost eight years of possessions collected during our time living in the UAE and on our many travels in storage in Dubai. This month, I’ve been arranging to have the container shipped to Cambodia. We are expats again. Our most recent post by Terence is about what it means to have a home again.

What does that mean for Grantourismo? We’ll still be travelling and travelling the way we like to travel that we write about here. We’re still full time professional travel and food writers and Terence a photographer so that’s what we do. We’re busier than we’ve ever been, writing regularly for newspapers and magazines we love, for everything from The Guardian and Feast to Gourmet Traveller and Travel+Leisure Asia. We’re also doing the bits and pieces we’ve always done for the web. We’ll just be travelling a hell of a lot lighter and focusing our travels on Asia as much as possible.

Terence has been working behind the scenes on a long overdue re-design of Grantourismo and we’ll be launching that soon. We’ll continue with a lot of our regular series on Grantourismo, but we’re going to ramp up a couple of our series, and introduce some new ones. If there’s anything you’d like to see here, please do let us know. A lot of readers contact us via email and Twitter for travel advice, and we email responses, so we’re thinking about how we can better address that need.

Terence has also been developing some Grantourismo products that we are very excited about, and we have a couple of other projects in the pipeline.

So thank you for sticking around and reading us for the last four years. We hope you’ll be with us for the next four.

Happy New Year! We wish you all lots of wonderful travel in 2014! xx

Pictured: a toast during a fun bia hoi tour we did in Hanoi that we wrote about for some magazines. We’ll post about it here soon.

Dec 31

Home

Red Curry Paste, made to a recipe from Ian Kittichai's Issaya Cookbook.

It’s been a huge year of travel for us here in Southeast Asia. The second half of it was just a crazy blur of photo shoots, working in hotel rooms, and having endless restaurant and street food meals. After obtaining our one-year Cambodian visa, we literally spent months searching for somewhere to live in Siem Reap and just recently found a place. We have a signed lease for the next six months and finally have somewhere we can really call home.

While we have a long list of destinations we’re going to next year on assignment, for now we’re wrapping up the last of this year’s work and enjoying settling into our new home. But I can hear you say, “Don’t you guys often rent apartments and houses? What’s so different about this place?” Well, here are some of the things that make it ‘home’ for me after almost eight years out of our suitcases…

1. I have a set of keys – not a collection of hotel credit card-type keys, but a real set of keys I have to mark to identify which door in our abode they will open.

2. I have a street address, not just a post box – an address I can give to people with confidence, so parcels don’t have to be couriered to the front desk or a hotel concierge.

3. I have a server and my own Wi-Fi network – an old MacBook Pro now sits in the corner of our living room so Lara and I can send files and photographs to a central server. No more emailing images! And it’s also home to all of our music so we can play whatever we want when we want, especially when we’re cooking. And…

4. I can use my Apple TV properly – and it has a permanent home, so I won’t have to keep hunting around the back of hotel TVs looking for the slot for my HDMI cable.

5. The TV channels don’t change every day – I no longer have to search for the Australia Channel when we’re craving a little Australian ‘culture’, Al Jazeera so we can catch up on the Middle Eastern news, or the trashy American drama channels that Lara likes to unwind to.

6. I’ve gone from “I’d love to cook that” to “I’m cooking that” – the markets here in Siem Reap are brilliant, as is the beautiful fresh local produce. I almost feel guilty buying such inexpensive seafood, chicken and pork. The beef? Not so much…

7. I have a freezer full of homemade stock – even when we’ve rented apartments for a month or two and I have been able to cook, there has never been room in the freezer or a pot big enough to make stock. Some people say that store bought stock is just as good. Just like fresh verses dried pasta, each has its place, it’s just that store bought stock has no place in my kitchen.

8. I’m buying in bulk – four litre tin of olive oil, I’m looking at you! Those chef-sized rolls of plastic wrap? I’m taking you home.

9. I have a collection of cookbooks I can use every day – they’re not weighing down Lara’s carry-on anymore. They’re no longer just salivated over. They’re finally getting sauce stained. Pictured (above) is a Thai red curry paste, made to a recipe from Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Cookbook that’s been in our bags for months…

10. I’m making a big batch of ragu Bolognese – that means homemade tagliatelle pasta, made with my own hand-cranked pasta machine, and then lasagne the next day. For me this is a great signifier of home. You have time and room to make brodo (stock). You have a stove and a pot big enough to make a batch of ragu. And you have the time at home to stir it. The aromas while making it? That’s home.

Dec 30

Monday Memories: Kind of Blue

Jazz at Doors, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I have to give Doors bar and restaurant in Phnom Penh some kudos for giving the city a great live music venue and supporting the local jazz scene. On the night I took this photograph, a talented jazz combo were performing a wonderful set from the Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue.

The drummer (pictured) was fantastic. He was really in his groove. And I had good access in terms of photography from his side of the stage for the entire set.

I find that knowing how to play music really helps when doing concert photography – I understand the beats and know when something interesting musically is happening.

Also, having listened to this album a million times – iTunes puts the first piece, So What, in my top 25 all-time listened-to songs – I can easily figure out which musician is up for the next solo and change my position to poise my camera for the next shots.

I love photographing live jazz, as you probably know if you’ve been following our travels here on Grantourismo for the last four years, and have read our posts From Saz to Jazz, a Guide to Istanbul’s live music scene or On Safari – on a Jazz Safari! – in Cape Town.

Usually the lighting at jazz venues is dreadful in terms of photography – it’s always a little too moody and dimly-lit, which is fine if you’re just there to watch, rather than take pictures – and this night was no exception.

The lighting was not kind of blue, it was so blue the original photographs would have been unprintable, so I’ve taken this image to black and white and added in blue-back very subtly. It’s a technique we call a duotone, and it’s cool – like Miles’ music.

Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F2.8 @ 1/125th second @ ISO3200.

Dec 16

Our Tips for Road Trips in Australia

Outback Northern Territory, Australia.

We’ve spent a lot of time recently on dusty red dirt roads here in Cambodia that have been reminding us of the many road trips in Australia we’ve done over the years researching travel guidebooks – the main difference being that in Australia those stretches of red dirt are back-roads, tracks or off-road trails. In Cambodia they’re national highways, pot-holed and damaged by monsoonal flooding.

A tour operator here in Siem Reap invited us to test out a new self-drive tour by jeep he’s introducing next year. To be honest, despite the fact that we’ve done road trips all over the world, from Europe and the USA to Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon and Syria, and driven all over Thailand, including roadtripping the Isaan region, I’m not sure I’m ready for a Cambodian road trip yet. If you’ve been on the road in Cambodia, by car or bus, you’ll understand why.

But the idea has got me reminiscing about road trips we’ve done Down Under, and how easily they can go awry if you’re not prepared. So here are our tips for road trips in Australia and exploring those outback tracks safely…

A jeep is a good start for a Cambodian road trip. In Australia, a four-wheel drive (4WD) is essential. We’ve often come across backpackers looking under the bonnet of their broken down cars because they’d tried to drive the ‘vintage’ second-hand sedan they’d bought on the streets in Kings Cross around the country or had even attempted to take them off road.

Making a bad decision when you buy or hire a vehicle can mean missing out on stunning scenery or even worse getting stranded. The likelihood of someone not stumbling upon you in Cambodia or other South East Asian countries, which are well populated, are low, whereas they’re higher in Australia, where on some outback roads you can drive most of the day without seeing another soul.

A few years ago, while researching Australia travel guides, we tested out a few different rental vehicles over a few months, doing everything from the long haul across the Nullabor Plains to off-roading in the Northern Territory. Our vehicle of choice was the hardy go-anywhere Toyota Landcruiser, which has a big diesel V8 turbo engine. While Terence has owned a few cars, I’ve never had a vehicle of my own – I don’t even have a license – yet we became very fond of that thing.

For me, the affection was partly rooted in reasons of nostalgia, as I spent five years of my late childhood and early teens travelling around Australia in a caravan with my family. Terence and I have also done a number of outback road trips before and we love the rituals of road trips: from buying music for the journey to the regular stops at scenic spots for sandwiches and hot tea from our thermos, and nothing but the sounds of the bush: birdsong and cicadas mostly.

Our fondness for that vehicle developed for another reason too – because it kept us safe and we felt protected. If we got into trouble, we knew that if we made the right decisions, it would get us out of harm’s way. For instance…

We were on our way from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon one day. The weather had closed in really fast, the sky suddenly turning steely-grey. The dirt track that the tourist office staff in Alice Springs had told us would be drivable in the wet all of a sudden wasn’t, rapidly becoming a mud bath as the rain fell in sheets.

As creek crossings turned into raging rivers, ‘floodways’ lived up to their name, and our dirt track turned into a stream, and, not long after, a lake. We knew that – despite having driven halfway along the 180-km Mereenie Loop that would take us to Kings Canyon– we had to turn around and drive all the way back to Alice Springs, on the flooded road, in the dark, and in the torrential rain. And we did it just in the nick of time as the water quickly rose around us.

Thankfully, our Landcruiser, or ‘Troopie’ (troop carrier), had a snorkel to prevent water being sucked into the engine which can lead to catastrophic engine failure, and low-range four-wheel-drive, essential for driving through dangerous creek crossings. We had the right vehicle to handle the harsh conditions the Australian outback can throw at travellers, so slowly but surely we were able to make it out safely. Others who’d taken the same route and were a short distance ahead of us became trapped and weren’t rescued by helicopter until a few days later.

That particular road trip took us from Darwin via Alice Springs and Uluru (we did make it to ‘the rock’ the next day via the main highway) to Adelaide, then across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth via the southern part of Western Australia, including the lovely Margaret River region – a nice little drive of around 10,000 km, not counting side-trips on outback tracks.

We tried a mix of accommodation, from motels to caravan parks, with the odd pub and self-catering place thrown in, and we ate everything from meat pies from roadhouse fuel stops to pub counter meals and seafood feasts in coastal towns. We did bush walking and bird watching, boat cruises, and snorkelling. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.

An epic journey of that kind, involving months of long days on the road, taking in Australia’s most jaw-dropping scenery, has always been something of a rite of passage for Aussies, and it’s great to see that it’s becoming increasingly popular with foreign travellers too. But in a challenging country like Australia it’s essential for road-trippers to be prepared and take plenty of precautions.

Here are our tips for road trips in Australia:

  • Plan ahead and plan well – plan your trip carefully and think long and hard about how you want to travel. Save the spontaneity for when you’re on the road. Due to the distances between places in Australia, every road trip will inevitably be a long road trip. Make sure you have enough funds to do it properly, i.e. safely.
  • Hire or buy a 4WD – whether you’re hiring or buying a vehicle for your road trip, don’t just get any old cheap beaten-up thing, and forget about sedans. If you plan on getting off the highways and even going off the main roads (and you should), make it a sturdy 4WD – our preference will always be a heavy-duty Toyota Landcruiser. Do your math: 4WDs are very expensive to hire, so depending on how long you’re travelling for, it might be cheaper to buy a vehicle and sell it at the end of the trip. Many travellers do.
  • AWD versus 4WD – an AWD (all-wheel-drive) vehicle is a popular alternative to a 4WD. They are cheaper, and can go just about anywhere a 4WD can. We could have used one for around 90% of that trip we did, but for the other 10% we would have run the risk of getting into strife. If you get bogged in mud, a 4WD with high ground clearance will probably only need low-range engaged to get out of trouble, whereas an AWD will probably need a tow truck. If you’re in a remote area, you’ll have a long wait for help – possibly a day or two.
  • Campervan or motorhome – if you want to save money on accommodation, you’ll probably consider a motorhome at some point, but keep in mind they are generally two-wheel-drive, rendering many picturesque tracks you’ll probably want to tackle off limits. You’ll quickly regret any envy you had for a home-on-wheels with bathroom when you see your first ‘high clearance 4WD only’ sign. Many campervans in Australia are 4WD, with popular rental companies like Britz and Maui using our beloved Toyota Landcruiser ‘Troopie’.
  • Where to sleep – if you opt to buy or hire a 4WD that hasn’t been converted into a campervan, then you’re going to have to take a tent to pitch at caravan parks and camping areas or check into motels and pubs when you want a break from sleeping on the ground. If you hire a 4WD campervan then you’ll have to decide between different types of sleeping and cooking arrangements. Also consider things like whether there’s enough storage space for your luggage (check if there’s space under the beds), the voltage and number of power outlets, whether you want a kitchen inside or out, how high the roof is if it’s a high-top or pop-up, whether bedding and kitchenware are included, and if there is a spare fuel tank.
  • Get 4WD-driving lessons – if you don’t have much 4WD experience, consider getting some lessons before you head off. Many of the 4WD/campervan rental companies offer short driving courses. Trust us: they can save your life.
  • Pack tools and emergency gear – make sure you have a basic toolbox, jack, a spare tyre or two, and you know how to change them. Hire a full recovery kit, including a shovel, tow rope, emergency beacon, and if you’re considering remote trips (and you will once you hit the road), a satellite phone. We always bought extra jerry cans and kept them full of fuel, along with oil and coolant. We also made sure we always carried plenty of water, tin food, dry food, snacks, batteries, torches, etc.
  • Take good maps, road atlases and guidebooks – you won’t be able to access mobile phone and internet services outside cities, towns and settlements in Australia, so invest in the best and most detailed maps, road atlases and guidebooks for the areas you’re planning to explore.
  • Watch the weather – check weather and road conditions daily (things can change rapidly and situations quickly become dangerous), and check in with the local tourist office and/or police station to let them know where you’ll be going before heading off-road.
  • Shop, cook and eat local – if you’ve got a campervan with a kitchen or you’re camping and cooking, head to the tourist office as soon as you arrive in a place to find out when and where the local farmers market is held and, if there isn’t one, what produce the area grows and where you can get it. The tourist office will have maps detailing foodie trails and be able to point you to farm stalls, tasting rooms, local seafood shops if you’re on the ocean, as well as provide you with restaurant lists. Tourist office info will always be better than guidebooks and online resources as they’re updated as changes occur. For lunch, you can’t beat pulling up at a scenic spot and tucking into an Aussie meat pie or sausage roll from a local bakery and hot tea from your thermos as you listen to nature’s soundtrack.
  • Drink local – drop into local wineries and craft breweries whenever you can and buy some bottles. Farmers markets and farm stalls will sell fresh bottled juices, home brews, and local specialties, such as ginger beer.
  • Drive safely – start out at dawn and finish your day’s driving before dusk to reduce the chances of hitting the wildlife that hits the road after dark. If you get tired don’t hesitate to pull up by the side of the road for a nap. Australian roads and highways have dedicated parking bays for that purpose, sometimes with water and toilets so by no means just stop anywhere.
  • Listen to local sounds – buy some great Aussie music for the road. If we’re doing a road trip in Western Australia, for instance, we’ll head to a music shop in Perth and ask for recommendations for local bands. Outback service stations often have an interesting selection of country and western or indigenous CDs and the occasional local oddity, like a poetry reciting cowboy for instance. Radio National’s programmes are riveting, especially their radio documentaries, and the ABC regional channels are fantastic for local news as much as music.

Have you done a road trip in Australia before? We’d love to hear about your experiences, especially any advice or tips you have to share.  

Dec 16

Monday Memories: Missed Monsoonal Moments

In Siem Reap local school children pedal home.

While we love to settle into a place for a while, the luxury of staying longer in a destination also has some drawbacks when it comes to me getting work done photographically – and in a timely fashion. There have been many missed monsoonal moments in recent months.

Here in Siem Reap during the wet season I had a tendency to keep postponing photo shoots at hotels, restaurants and cafés because the weather conspired to ensure that every time I raised a camera, the clouds rolled in and a torrential downpour ensued, forcing me to revert to Plan B. During the wet season you always need to have a Plan B.

My Plan B would be to get out for a late afternoon walk whenever the skies cleared. The beauty of living in a town you have photography commissions for is that the pressure is lessened compared to the assignments where you only have a few days in a destination with which you’re not all that familiar.

When you live in the place you have time to wander more and return to certain spots and take photos that don’t involve light reflectors, directing hotel and restaurant staff to ‘act natural’, or scouring the streets with a fixer in search of that interesting face.

This luxury means I can act like a flâneur and instead of pounding the pavement like a street photographer I can take a much more casual approach, lingering here and there and only lifting the camera when I feel I can make something special, rather than continually ticking off shots on a list.

One beguilingly bright afternoon I found myself a little – albeit deliberately – lost. I knew which general direction the town centre of Siem Reap was, but I was in a rural setting, with rice paddies, ox grazing, and kids taking advantage of the flooded fields to go fishing.

As I was about to snap a photograph of some children throwing a fishing net, a mother and daughter rode past on a pushbike and the little girl turned back towards me and smiled. It would be a shame for any portrait photographer to pass up the opportunity of capturing the pure smile of a Cambodian child. Despite the hardships, history, poverty, and intergenerational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) many of these families suffer, Cambodian children have grins that would melt a grinch’s heart.

Mother and daughter were wearing luridly coloured pyjamas, and, along with the smells of shampoo from their freshly washed hair, there was the aroma of rice and prahok emanating from the tiffin box the little girl was carrying. Perhaps they were on their way to an early family dinner.

While it would have made a wonderful photo I had the wrong lens on the camera I was carrying. But I didn’t care. I just enjoyed the moment.

With the weather improving as the wet season came to a close, there would always be another day, another field, and another smiling child enjoying the simple life in rural Cambodia.

That people can still be so happy and positive and generous with their warmth, despite the depressing statistics of rural life in this country, is something. Missing a photograph is nothing.

This photo was taken on another afternoon shooting with a full kit of lenses!

Details: Nikon D600, 80-200mm f2.8D Nikkor @ F5 @ 1/400th second @ ISO800.

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