Dec 15

Footpath Feasting: The Condiment Tray and DIY Seasoning

Condiments in Hoi An, Vietnam.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been footpath feasting at a street food stall in South East Asia and overheard a conversation that went something like this: “This soup tastes bland.” “I agree. I don’t get it.” Yet at no point did either person reach for the condiment tray.

In Asia, that ubiquitous plastic or stainless steel condiment tray or condiment caddy on the table, holding a collection of bottles, tubs and jars of soy sauces, fish sauce, vinegars, pickles, sugar, pepper, spices, garlic cloves, ginger slices, and chili jams, powder, flakes, and fresh chili peppers, is there for a reason – it’s DIY seasoning.

Along with a dish of lime wedges and perhaps a plate or basket of fragrant fresh herbs, the condiments in that caddy or that tray are intended for use with whatever you’re eating. The cook won’t mind – in fact, she or he will probably smile, pleased to see you have some local know-how.

I often forget that for ‘Western’ people (and I do hate to generalize and put us all under the same umbrella, but here goes), it’s considered an insult to the cook or chef if a guest or diner wants to adjust the taste of a dish by adding seasoning. On the dining tables of most homes in Western countries (and, again, forgive the generalizations), there is little more than salt and pepper, but increasingly neither.

Maybe some mayonnaise or salad dressing for a casual lunch. Olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy. HP Sauce in the UK. Tomato sauce in Australia. Ketchup in the US. Mustard in France. At my Russian grandmother’s home there was always a tub of sour cream and a jar of homemade gherkins.

But there is generally little else on a Western dinner table and asking a host for chili, fish sauce, soy, and fresh herbs to add to the clear broth set in front of you would certainly raise eyebrows and probably won’t score you a further dinner invitation.

In many restaurants, especially the very finest, salt and pepper aren’t even placed on tables these days. The most creative and accomplished chefs have worked hard to balance the ingredients and flavours of dishes when developing their recipes. If it’s a degustation menu, the chef has also taken into account the progression of each dish and how the flow from one to another affects the taste buds.

To change the flavour profile of a dish by adding your own seasoning, and disrupting the sequence of a carefully constructed experience, would be considered an affront to the chef.

Yet in most countries in Asia, everywhere from Korea to India and in between, and in the Middle East as well, from Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula across to Morocco, adding some sort of seasoning or even a whole gamut of condiments is not only acceptable, it’s expected and encouraged.

There’s nothing wrong at all with adding something to your dish if you desire a little more heat, spice, sourness, saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, tanginess, and even umami – in many parts of Asia, one of those glass jars on the table will probably contain MSG.

One night in Hanoi at a street food stall in the old town, we watched two 20-something Asian-American girls, sitting beside us at a teensy plastic red table on miniscule plastic blue stools, screwing up their nose and moving their noodles around on their plates with their forks.

The girls might have just arrived from the airport and this could have been their first meal in Vietnam. Regardless, only their features gave away their heritage, because they clearly didn’t know how to eat in Asia.

Neither girl was very enthusiastic about her dish – dishes we were already tucking into and loved. Dishes that we had been encouraged to embellish by experience and watching a regular customer, an elderly gentleman at another table. The moment the dapper old man in plaid jacket and beret sat down on his stool, he took the chopsticks out of the paper packet and readied the condiments in front of him, checking each bottle and jar was full, and if one wasn’t swapping it with another from the next little table.

As soon as the plate was set in front of him, he set to work – a splash of fish sauce, another of soy, a spoonful of chili jam, and a squeeze of lemon. He didn’t even try the dish first. Then he combined it all with his chopsticks and put his head down close to the plate, and began to shovel the noodles into his mouth, not looking up until he was done. When he was, he took out a perfectly pressed white handkerchief from his top pocket and dabbed at his mouth.

We watched him intently, as we watch any local diners the first time we eat a dish we’re unfamiliar with – if they haven’t already gestured to show us what to add of their own accord, as they often do in Vietnam and Thailand – and after tasting those noodles we immediately followed suit.

On another day at one of Hanoi’s most revered pho establishments, we watched table after table of locals enhance their dishes after only a cursory glance at the broth steaming in front of them. With Vietnamese and much of South East Asian street food, it is as if the cooks give you a blank canvas and you add the condiments to your heart’s content to complete the dish.

But at the Hanoi noodle stall, however, the American girls were obviously oblivious to how we and the old gentleman opposite were eating the rich noodle dish that was all the more delicious because of our additions.

The girl on my side looked up to her friend and, crinkling up her nose again, said: “The chef hasn’t quite got there with this dish.” Wrinkling her face right back at her pal, her friend responded in agreement. “It’s under-seasoned, don’t you think?” Of course it is!

I blame cooking competition shows like MasterChef, IronChef and My Kitchen Rules, where entrants are required to create dishes that are finished, judged by their perfection of form, and are commonly scored down if what’s on their plate isn’t faultless.

How many times have we heard John Torode, Gordon Ramsay or Matt Preston tell a contestant their dishes are under-seasoned? The chefs and food critics obviously have the most well developed palates (we’d like to think we do too) but what they and their shows don’t take into account is that we all have different taste.

I like my food fiery. I don’t do bland. I have a very high tolerance to heat and, along with Terence, who is an expert in the art of seasoning and likes his salt and spices, we probably add more condiments to our dishes than the average diner. Terence has been known to turn many a clear soup red.

In Cambodia, where the cuisine lacks the intensity of, say, Thai cuisine (in an interview I recently did with Chef David Thompson he called Cambodian a “gentler cuisine” and I like that), we find we are continually reaching for condiments, especially for the chili.

In Cambodia, like Thailand, the portable condiment tray will generally hold chili flakes or chili jam (or relish), fish sauce, and something like vinegar. In Thailand, it’s generally red chilis and garlic, whereas in Cambodia it might be green chilis or even pickled cucumber or daikon and carrot. The sugar that is commonplace in Thailand doesn’t always appear in Cambodia, but in both countries, as in Vietnam, there will generally be an additional bottle or three of soy sauces (light and dark), fish sauce, and perhaps a chili sauce like Sriracha on the table.

While not strictly classified as condiments, in Vietnam, there will often be the added bonus of a basket or plate of fresh aromatic herbs and greens that might include any combination of mint, Vietnamese mint, Thai basil, holy basil, coriander, dill, saw tooth herb, fish herb, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, and lettuce, that if served with your dish you should sprinkle on top and can continue to add as liberally as you like throughout your meal.

The condiments are on the table for a reason and you’re welcome to use them to customize your dish to your liking, especially if you believe it to be ‘under-seasoned’. Don’t ever consider a street food dish in Asia, especially South East Asia, complete. Some dishes are made to be enhanced – pho, congee, cao lau, com ga (and in the Middle East, foul), just to name a few. But how much flavour you add is up to you.

Just watch what the locals do and add a little of each – you can always add more, but you can never take something away. Then again, you don’t have to add anything if you don’t want to. And therein lies the beauty of the condiment tray and DIY seasoning.

Just don’t call something bland without understanding how locals embellish a dish. Otherwise, you may as well head right back to the airport. Or eat at McDonalds.

Dec 15

Footpath Feasting: How to Eat Safely in Cambodia

Market vendor in Battambang.

How to eat safely in Cambodia is a concern of many travellers heading here and is something we are asked about all the time by people planning a visit. Getting sick can ruin that once in a lifetime trip to Angkor Wat here in Siem Reap or the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh but it can ruin a whole lot more than that if you catch something really nasty.

There are so many different factors that can cause you to become ill after eating at a restaurant or street food stall, making it an issue that we often find hard to cover when writing about destinations.

For example, a few years ago on a guidebook assignment in northern Italy we were driving to our next destination when Lara told me the name of the hotel we were staying at that night. It sounded familiar and I recalled why… a couple of weeks before our stay the hotel in question had a serious outbreak of food poisoning amongst a group of guests, resulting in one fatality.

As it was the summer high season, we had booked all of our hotels in advance and it was too late to change to a property we’d prefer to be writing about. Needless to say, the mood at the hotel was somber. The chefs were using thermometers to check the doneness of scrambled eggs at breakfast. The waiters were very suspicious of my cameras. They probably suspected we were doing a story on their food poisoning incident.

It was a dilemma trying to determine how to cover the hotel in the book we were working on. It was one of the grandest hotels of the region, with a noble history, so was it fair on the hotel to mention the incident (“nice hotel, but avoid the food!”) or unfair on potential guests to not write about it?

A couple of recent incidents in Cambodia raised a similar issue for us. While it’s one thing to get sick yourself or read reports about groups of people falling ill after a meal at one of the best restaurants in the world, it’s another to see poor food handling practices up close.

We had just arrived at a new hotel in Phnom Penh and with deadlines looming that afternoon we decided to order some room service for lunch. Our own needs aside, we also try to make a habit of ordering room service at hotels we’re writing about to see what it’s like, as travellers often tell us they ate in their room because they were too tired to go out.

The fresh spring rolls that arrived that day were very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that the prawns were raw. The ‘chef’ hadn’t cooked them before preparing the rolls. I would eat raw prawns in a sushi joint in Japan or a fine dining restaurant in Italy, say, where they serve them uncooked in olive oil, and where they know how to handle them. But the last place I’d eat raw prawns is Cambodia.

For an unsuspecting and unlucky guest, eating the uncooked prawns could have meant a couple of days suffering bacterial diarrhoea, or worse, contracting hepatitis A or typhoid, both distinct risks in Cambodia. One reason why you should have those pre-trip vaccinations.

A couple of weeks later we did a popular cooking course at a restaurant in a Cambodian city where the ‘instructor’ really had a thing about food safety – and sprinkling Knorr’s chicken stock cubes into every single dish. While his obsessive use of the stock cubes was disconcerting, his admirable safety lessons were undone by the plastic container of ‘meat’ he proudly showed us.

I prefer metal containers for hygiene reasons. I also prefer to keep raw beef, pork and chicken in separate containers. Yes, he kept all three types of meat in the one container for use in both his restaurant and the cooking classes he ran with his wife each day.

If you were being generous you could say that, well, it’s all going to get cooked anyway and that any bacteria (yes, you chicken juice floating around with possible campylobacter and salmonella) will die when the meat is cooked to a safe temperature. But really, would you want to cook or eat in a restaurant with a kitchen that takes that unnecessary risk in the first place?

While I would never recommend a cooking course where the secret flavour ingredient is Knorr’s chicken stock, I would also never knowingly eat at a restaurant that takes such risks with food hygiene when it comes to meat storage. Nor do I want to be recommending it.

But as travel writers do we have an obligation to other travellers to not only not mention these places in the stories we’re writing but to also ‘out’ places that could potentially harm – or even kill – guests with poor food handling practices? And how do we know that places we recommend actually do have better food handling without going into the kitchen to do an inspection?

In the case of the hotel in Phnom Penh, Lara sent the spring rolls back and sent an email to the hotel owner and manager. It turned out the hotel was in between chefs and a very junior kitchen staffer had forgotten to cook the prawns.

The cooking course instructor, however, didn’t think that there was anything wrong with his food handling practices, even after I pointed out the potential problem. It’s a popular cooking class that is recommended in guidebooks and travel forums and included on food tours. There’s no way we will be recommending it.

As we’ve now been living in Cambodia for six months and have spent plenty of time in kitchens here, doing cooking classes and interviewing chefs and restaurant owners, we thought it was time for some tips.

TIPS FOR EATING SAFELY IN CAMBODIA

  • Be more conservative in Cambodia – take a lot more care in Cambodia than you would in other countries when it comes to food that you’re willing to try on the streets – hepatitis A and typhoid are not souvenirs you want to take back home. For a number of reasons, diseases are more prevalent here, hygiene standards are generally lower, and street food stalls are not as scrupulously clean as they are in Vietnam or Thailand. Most travellers we meet have been sick at some stage of their Cambodian trip.
  • The usual South-East Asia street food rules apply – make sure the stall is busy with locals. Look for a tub of dishes that appear to be getting washed in hot soapy water. Check to see if the chopsticks are in sealed paper/plastic or they and the cutlery are presented in a container of piping hot water. Make a note of how clean the kitchen or food preparation area looks if you can see it. All are essential in Cambodia.
  • Take extra care with fresh, uncooked food – you want to buy some sliced fruit from a street cart on a hot day? Sure, it’s fantastic, especially when sprinkled with salt and chilli, but is the vendor wearing gloves when cutting it? Great, but if he’s still wearing them while handling money, good luck. I’ll peel my own fruit, thanks.
  • Be careful at the hotel breakfast buffet – if you’re at a hotel/hostel with a buffet, don’t pick up food or pieces of fruit with a communal fork and then eat it with your hands. Buffets themselves are never a great idea but sharing cutlery can be just as dangerous.
  • Wash your hands well – always wash your hands well before you eat, but especially if you’ve been in the countryside, shaking hands with people, and perhaps patting (hopefully rabies-free) dogs. Wash your hands throughly with soap for at least twenty seconds. Or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Remain cautious in restaurants – don’t assume that visiting a Western-owned restaurant means you’re safe. Unless the chef is operating at the level of a restaurant like Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, food hygiene standards might not be much better than a market food stall, and in some cases could be worse. Lara was out for two days after eating at an established French restaurant in Siem Reap – one that came recommended by local residents.
  • Take care at cooking classes too  – if you’re doing a cooking course, find out if the instructors are qualified as chefs or have worked in a good restaurant or hotel kitchen, where you can expect there are procedures in place for food safety. Hopefully one where the hotel wasn’t “in-between head chefs”.
  • Take calculated risks – because I’m living in Siem Reap, in the name of research I’ll often take more risks than the average person would or should. I take might just finish off that slightly undercooked roadside beef satay, order beef carpaccio at our regular Italian place, or get a beer with ice in it. But I don’t have a full day’s tour of the temples in a tuk tuk booked for the next day. Nor a plane to catch. As the saying goes, only gamble what you’re willing to lose.

Dec 13

The Myths About Monsoon in Cambodia

Monsoon in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The continual pitter-patter of rain on our rooftop here in Siem Reap has stopped, the geckos are no longer seeking shelter inside, and the green frogs that graced our steps night after night have gone. The wet season has ended and the rains have stopped, but the myths about monsoon in Cambodia don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Afternoon Rains Do Not Fall Like Clockwork
Guidebooks, magazine articles and websites covering the climate in this part of the world typically generalise. You’ll read countless times how the monsoon rains arrive like clockwork each afternoon.

We’ve just spent our first full wet season in Cambodia and while it’s true that it’s more likely to rain in the afternoon, it frequently rained in the morning, the middle of the day, the evening, and overnight. Sometimes it didn’t rain at all for a day or two, while at other times it rained relentlessly for three days.

Nothing runs like clockwork here in Cambodia, particularly the weather.

The Myth of The Wet and The Dry
High season has well and truly kicked in this month, coinciding with the start of the dry period. We recently did a tour where the guide, having recited the same old script too many times, told our group how Cambodia has two seasons, the wet and the dry, and the wet had ended and the dry started. Tuk tuk drivers will tell you the same.

The Tourism Cambodia website states that the wet season lasts from May to October, bringing with it 75% of the annual rainfall, while the dry runs from October to April, with a dry and cool November-January period and a scorching April.

The reality is more complex. The free Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide by Canby Publications goes some way in better explaining the nuances, identifying four seasons: December-February, cool and dry; March-May, hot and dry; June-August hot and rain; and September-November, cool and diminishing rain.

According to data gathered at the Siem Reap weather station at the Angkor International Airport. In Siem Reap, the the wettest month this year was September, when it rained for 77% of the month, and after that October, then July, and then August. There was very little rain in May, although there were more thunderstorms than other months, and the rain diminished in late June-early July, and there was also brief lulls for a bit in August and early September.

Northern Australia’s Six Seasons
Our experience in Cambodia this year was a little different, the weather patterns reminding me of those in the monsoonal north of Australia, which has the same tropical savanna climate and six seasons identified by Australia’s northern indigenous peoples, who have been observing weather patterns for 50,000 years.

There, Dhululdur is the pre-wet season from October to November; Barra’mirri, the growth season, December to January; Mayaltha, the lush flowering season, February to March; Midawarr, from March to April, the fruiting season, which includes Ngathangamakulingamirri, the two-week harvest season in April; Dharratharramirri, from May to July, the early dry season; and Rarrandharr, from August to October, the main dry season; while the period known as Burrugumirri, from July to August, is identified as the time when sharks and stingrays give birth.

Because there are so many indigenous tribes in Australia, including across northern Australia, living in different areas with different climates, and different languages and dialects, there are also different seasonal calendars.

In the Northern Territory’s Katherine region, for instance, the Jawoyn people identify the seasons in their area slightly differently: Jiorrk, from January to February is the main part of the wet; Bungarung, from March through to mid-April is when the last of the rains fall; Jungalk, from mid-April through May is the early hot dry; Malaparr from June to August is the cooler middle-dry time when burning takes place; Worrwopmi in September and October is the hot and sticky early build-up; while Wakaringding in November and December is the build-up, marked by brooding thunderstorms, when the first rains fall.

If you’re interested in learning more, see this piece on The Lost Seasons on the ABC site and the Indigenous Weather Knowledge project on Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology site. There’s more insight here too on Climate in Aboriginal Australia.

While the months when different weather cycles occur obviously differ between Australia and Cambodia, Australia being in the southern hemisphere and Cambodia in the northern, indigenous Australians’ more nuanced understanding of the seasons more closely reflected our experience this year.

The Only Constant is Inconsistency and Unpredictability
If there was one constant here in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh it was the continual change and the unpredictability of the weather. As a photographer, Terence is constantly checking weather websites so we know when to schedule activities and photo shoots. Never has he spent so much time looking at storm patterns and never have I made and changed plans as much as I have during the last six months.

What surprised us most was how quickly the weather could shift and wouldn’t settle in. There were days where it would rain like mad for half an hour then the clouds would pass and the sun would come out and it would be a gorgeous afternoon. In some cases it could be raining in one part of the city and in another the sun would be out.

I’m not sure which days I liked more, when we woke to grey skies and heavy rain and had to walk in ankle deep water just to get to breakfast, only to be pleasantly surprised when it cleared in the afternoon to reveal a perfect blue sky and swimming pool weather. Or those late afternoons when we would watch from our balcony as slate-grey clouds dramatically rolled in, quickly blackening the sky.

The Downside of Visiting Cambodia in Monsoon
For travellers, the unpredictability of the wet season means that it’s a gamble to visit during monsoon. If you’re on a tight schedule and have just a few days in Siem Reap then you’re going to be very disappointed if it rains the entire time.

The rain makes the temples very slippery and sometimes there is so much water around, some may not be accessible at all. At times you won’t be able to avoid being ankle- or even knee-deep in water. Each night you’ll be scrapping mud off your shoes and wiping splatters from your clothes.

Then there are the floods. Heavy rain that started in the third week of September and continued throughout October and November this year – not receding until the end of November – caused flooding in 20 provinces. The floods affected 1.7 million people, resulting in around 150,000 people being evacuated and almost 200 deaths. Details here.

Most of Cambodia’s cities are set on rivers, and when the waters rise so high they inevitably flood the streets, forcing tourists to stay in their hotels or leave town. The flooding can be so bad in places that roads are cut off completely, requiring detours that could add hours to a trip or, if you visit remote temples, stranding you completely.

In October-November, the usual 2.5 hour journey by car between Siem Reap and Battambang stretched to seven and eight hours. It’s still a slow journey overland between the two cities and from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as the roads are so damaged with colossal pot holes everywhere.

Monsoon Best for Budget Travellers and Photographers
If you’re a budget traveller or a slow traveller with no fixed schedule and all the time in the world, the wet season is actually a wonderful time to visit. We absolutely loved it.

The countryside is lush and the rice paddies are an incandescent green. Farmers fish in their flooded rice fields and kids play in the water and catch frogs. Butterflies flutter about, and geckos and frogs are in abundance, making music at night.

There is water everywhere, the moats and pools prettily reflecting the temples, while the water on the stones enhances their colours and makes the intricate details on decorative carvings stand out. The lime coloured moss and lichen that dapple the temples is also more pronounced.

In practical terms, accommodation is plentiful and rates as low as they’ll get. You can get five-star hotel rooms for the price of a four-star. We spent two months while we searched for an apartment at a lovely mid-range hotel for which I was able to negotiate budget rates. There were some days when there were no other guests and we had the property to ourselves.

The restaurants are empty and the towns quiet, especially Siem Reap, which can get uncomfortably busy during high season. Best of all, there are no crowds at Angkor Wat during the dampest months, and we often found ourselves alone at temples. Bliss.

TIPS

  • Research the weather before you book – do some thorough research well ahead of time so you know what you’re getting yourself into to determine which season is right for you. I’ve found the Travel Indochina site’s weather posts to be the most detailed of any when it comes to describing weather in different regions of Cambodia, as well as Vietnam and Laos.
  • Use Weather Underground – Terence found it to be by far the most accurate weather site of all, and he used many sites throughout the season, continually comparing them on a daily basis.
  • Be prepared – bring quality walking shoes with good grip so you don’t slip when exploring the temples. A quality wet weather jacket might be too hot, but you can buy cheap light ponchos ($1-2) and more durable ones ($10) at markets, along with cheap hats and umbrellas. Zip-lock bags, sold in supermarkets here, will keep tickets, money, phones, and cameras dry.
  • Be flexible – try to build additional time into your itinerary so you can extend your stay if you find you arrive and there are three days of rain but it’s going to be clear the day you plan to leave.
  • Book last minute – there’s no need to book flights and hotels well ahead of time. There are plenty of hotels and we were continually booking accommodation at the last minute and finding some fabulous deals.
  • Book local – there’s no need to book tours from home before you travel during wet season. Book when you arrive and use local tour companies so you can be sure the money is staying in the community. Visit the travel company’s office so you can discuss options and whether it’s perhaps possible to change dates if it rains.

Have you been in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, or other parts of South East Asia during monsoon? Would you return during the wet season? We’d love you to share your experiences and tips with us.

Dec 11

Reflections From a Warm Climate on the Notion of Sunny Escapes

Majorca Beaches.

About this time every year, people who live in the coldest parts of the northern hemisphere (not here in tropical South East Asia), who are already getting weary of the chilly weather, are starting to consider sunny escapes and retreating to warmer climates in the new year for some winter sun – if they haven’t already.

Here in Cambodia, high season has already kicked in and many of the people we’re meeting and the accents we’re hearing in the streets of Siem Reap are European, particularly northern European. For many travellers, Cambodia is part of a larger trip that might also take in Vietnam or Laos, and usually Thailand, with a spot of shopping in Bangkok and, at the end, the obligatory few days basking in the sun at a Thai beach resort. And who can blame them.

Northern Europeans spend much of their winters in darkness, while in the UK things get dismally grey and gloomy. Fog, sleet and snow are winter constants. So, after they’ve enjoyed their Christmas markets and the festive season, and got in some skiing or snowboarding, unless the cold is a novelty as it was for us all those years living in sizzling Dubai (which is why we loved our first full winter in Europe a few years ago), people in Europe begin to plan their sunny escapes.

The only European countries to visit in winter are those on the coast on the sunny Mediterranean – Spain, Southern France, Southern Italy, and so on – places that still get cold after the sun goes down but if you find a sheltered spot can be warm enough to lie in the sun. Which explains why islands like Cyprus (where we’ve worn t-shirts in winter in the middle of the day) and Mallorca (which I love), and holiday resorts like Magaluf and Paphos (neither of which I’m a fan of to be honest) are popular with people seeking little more than some therapeutic time sitting in the sunshine.

I am fond of Mallorca, where the photo above was taken, and I am a big fan of the island in winter, when the clarity of light is just magic and the sea sparkles diamonds. Though I’d prefer to be going hiking in the hills or eating my way through the restaurants in the Old Town of Palma than lying on the beach with goose bumps beneath the hotel towers at Magaluf. But then I was born in sunny Australia, as was Terence, we moved to the blistering United Arab Emirates in the late 90s, and now we’re living in tropical Cambodia. We’ve spent our lives living under the rays of that big ball of fire in the sky.

I would like to know what that impulse to escape to warm climes feels like, to pin a picture of a tropical island on your work cork-board or the fridge in your kitchen at home – or share it on Facebook or Pinterest! – and gaze at it longingly day after day, yearning to be in that frame. I’d like to remember what it feels like to expose my skin to the sun for the first time after months beneath woolly jumpers and overcoats and feel the heat warm that poor body, weary from trembling its way through winter. Or would I? Perhaps not. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be living in South East Asia.

Can you relate? Are you a resident of a cold climate country already starting to dream of a sunny escape? If so, are you planning a quick trip to the Med or a longer holiday further field to Asia? Make sure you tell us if you’re heading our way. We’ve love to meet up.

Dec 10

An Update from the Road, Ruins and Rice Paddies

Pre Rup Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We’ve been quiet here on Grantourismo these last few months while we’ve been bouncing around Cambodia working on stories. An update from the road, ruins and rice paddies is long overdue, so here goes…

From Siem Reap to Battambang and Bangkok and Back Again
One of the biggest challenges with being bloggers as well as professional writers, and Terence a pro photographer, is that the paid work for publishers takes priority, and we’re thankful that there’s been an abundance of it this year, particularly in the last six months. Unfortunately this has meant less time to spend on Grantourismo, though we’re hoping that will change soon.

So where have we been and what have we been writing about? When we returned to Siem Reap in June from Saigon, we planned to work on stories on the things that had changed since we were last here – new restaurants, hotels, tours, that sort of thing. We never imagined we’d be writing pieces on the new big top in Siem Reap that is home to the quirky and distinctly Khmer Cambodian Phare Circus, which we wrote about for CNN Travel, nor the new archaeological discoveries.

Branded by the Sydney Morning Herald as the discovery of a ‘lost city’ – an angle the sub-editors at the publications we write for also latched onto – the new archaeological discoveries announced in a report released in June weren’t exactly ‘new’ nor were they about a particular city that had been ‘lost’. Rather, the report described the results of a groundbreaking aerial survey of several sites, confirming theories archaeologists had long had about the Angkor area but didn’t have the technology to prove.

That narrative may not sound as dramatic as the unearthing of a lost city, but it really is exciting stuff, changing the way we think about and imagine Angkor forever. We thought so, anyway, writing about it for The Guardian, CNN Travel, National Geographic Traveller, Wanderlust, and a few more publications which will publish our pieces next year. We’ll also share more about it all here on Grantourismo.

When we last posted we told you about our experiences feeding the hungry ghosts during Pchum Ben or Ancestors Festival around Cambodia, the most memorable of which was at a pagoda we stumbled across in a village while on a bike tour around sleepy Battambang. We’ve spent a lot of time in Battambang over the last few months working on stories for food and travel magazines like Travel+Leisure AsiaFeast, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Delicious, SE Asian Globe, and The National.

The impetus was the launch by Cambodian Children’s Trust of their first new social enterprise project, a terrific new training restaurant backed by legendary chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok and Australian restaurateur John Fink of Quay in Sydney. We were behind the scenes in the period leading up to the launch, hanging out in the kitchen with David, John and Matthew Albert (former head chef of Nahm London and soon to helm David’s new Singapore restaurant), tasting food and trying drinks, and we were there for the fantastic opening night party.

We have returned a few times since, spending a couple of weeks at a time in Battambang, and it’s been a real delight seeing the menu develop and the lovely young staff grow under the supervision of the multi-talented Tom O’Sullivan, who comes from a strong social enterprise cafe background in Melbourne.

While we were in Battambang we discovered there’s so much more to the little city than the new restaurant, the Bamboo ‘Train’ and its historic colonial centre, which are the reasons why most travellers visit. For starters, Battambang feels more like the ‘real’ Cambodia – down to earth, laidback, unpretentious. It also boasts the world’s friendliest people and its surrounding villages are home to thriving family-ran cottage industries. Expect to read more about Battambang here soon.

We haven’t spent the whole time in Siem Reap and Battambang. In fact, we’ve been bouncing between the two places and Phnom Penh, with occasional side trips to cities like Bangkok, where Terence had a major photography project for a restaurant and we gathered content for a handful of stories on Bangkok, from Bangkok’s Off The Beaten Track Floating Markets (for Feast and the Sunday Times Travel magazine, which also published pieces of mine on Sydney vs Melbourne’s food scenes and my favourite picnic spot in New Zealand) to Green Bangkok, from the city’s riverside renaissance to Secret/Hidden Bangkok.

In Print and Online
We’ve covered a lot of these places for a new series on The Guardian on travel itineraries. Check out my pieces (with some of Terence’s pics) so far on Bangkok in Three DaysSiem Reap in Three Days and Top 10 hotels in Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh in Three Days. The Top 10 Hotels in Phnom Penh piece should be going up soon, if you’re looking for accommodation in the Cambodian capital, along with my countrywide and regional itineraries, and stories on Bangkok’s Best Thai Restaurants and Hoi An’s Top 10 Dishes. I’ll post the links here when they’re published.

Aside from the pieces I’ve mentioned above, it been nice to see other features finally published, including our stories on Contemporary Australian Cuisine in the Four Seasons magazine; Halong Bay for Ocean; Hanoi’s Bia Hoi Scene, Vienna’s Krampus festival, Cape Malay Cooking, and Istanbul After Dark for Get Lost; Bangkok’s Best Restaurants and Phnom Penh for Thai Airways’ in-flight magazine Sawasdee; Dubai for Executive Traveller and Garuda’s Colours magazine; and for Feast, stories on everything from the legendary Cao Lau Noodles to Hit List guides to cities as diverse as Hoi An, Jerez, Budapest, and Rio, and bite sized pieces on everything from Hoi An’s chili sauce to Mui Ne’s fish sauce. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing any of these and I’ll email PDFs.

From Staying in Hotels to Establishing a Home
We’ve spent an awful lot of time in hotels over the last few months, for the stories above and more, such as this Guardian piece on the world’s 100 best boutique hotels, for which I wrote about hotels in Asia and New Zealand, and we’ve got a lot more pieces on accommodation in the region publishing there and in other publications, as well as here on Grantourismo.

I must do a proper count, but I reckon we’ve stayed in 40-50 hotels in Cambodia alone in recent months – I hate to guess how many we’ve stayed at this year – everything from luxurious hotels like Raffles, Park Hyatt, La Residence d’Angkor, Heritage Suites, and the new Shinta Mani here in Siem Reap to lots of budget boutique places for another story. I’m going to blog about the latter here soon, as they’ve had us thinking a lot more about accommodation and what people really want when they travel.

As you know, our preference has always been to stay in holiday rentals, apartments or houses, but unfortunately they’re in low supply here in Cambodia and serviced apartments are very expensive. We did test out the fabulous Karavansara apartments right on the river here in Siem Reap. It was our stay there, with a big kitchen and an abundance of space to sprawl out in, that really got us itching to establish a home base again.

After several months of searching, we finally found a lovely, light-filled apartment in Siem Reap that we can call home. It’s only a one-bedroom place, which is not ideal, as we don’t have a separate office. Terence is working from the living area and I’m in the bedroom – the first time we’ve worked at separate tables, let alone in separate rooms, in years. However, the rooms are super spacious, there are big windows everywhere, we have a huge balcony that wraps around two sides of the apartment. and, most importantly, we have a decent kitchen. I’ll Instagram some pics soon.

Thank You for Reading
We really want to thank our regular readers who have continued to drop by and dip into the Grantourismo archives even though we’ve been so quiet here. I have to say that there are few things that make us feel as good about what we do as when you come to search for information on a place and use our guides. The only thing that delights us more is when you email or visit us on Twitter and reference that story when asking for tips. Thank you. It means a lot.

We like to know that our stories have inspired you to go somewhere, but even more, we’re pleased to know that they’re of practical use when you’re planning your trips. We love to know you stayed at a hotel, ate at a restaurant or did a tour or activity that we tested out and recommended to you, and that you loved it.

I know some people think we take our jobs too seriously. Yes, we’re that couple at a restaurant intensively deconstructing the dishes on our plates, asking the waiter where the chicken came from, and sizing up the other diners in the room to make sure that restaurant is right for you. But the reason we do what we do is so that you have a great time when you travel – and it thrills us when you tell us that thanks to our advice you did.

What Next for Grantourismo
We have a lot more stories we’re continuing to work on for various publications, as well as some book and photography projects, but we’re also busy working behind the scenes at Grantourismo, with some big changes planned for 2014. Terence has been especially busy on a long-overdue redesign of the site to give it a fresh look and feel, as well as developing some exciting products we hope to launch early next year.

Watch this space to find out what’s next for Grantourismo.

In the meantime, normal programming is resuming.

Thanks for sticking around xx

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