Jan 30

Firecrackers, Marigolds, Lucky Money: Celebrating Lunar New Year, Tet and Chinese New Year

A ferry transports marigolds, a symbol of good luck for celebrating Tet. Hoi An, Vietnam. ©Copyright Terence Carter 2014. All rights reserved.

The pop and crackle of Lunar New Year firecrackers going off around our Siem Reap neighbourhood over the past few days has punctuated the otherwise uninterrupted soundtrack outside of birdsong, motorbikes, barking dogs, crowing roosters, laughing tourists, and “Tuk tuk? You want tuk tuk, Madam?”

A few hardware shops at Old Market have been selling potted cherry blossom trees and red Chinese lanterns, but otherwise there were few signs that the Lunar New Year was approaching – until today, New Year’s Eve. The new Lunar New Year – and Chinese New Year – begins tomorrow, Friday 31 January, the start of the Year of the Horse.

Today began early with the hum of monks chanting at nearby wats (temples) and a steadily increasing pop and crackle throughout the day until an hour ago, when proper fireworks went off a few blocks away with a bang. Now? I can hear the tuk tuk drivers playing drinking games and Cambodia disco music in the distance.

The Khmer New Year – or Chal Chnam Thmey – actually takes place on the traditional Solar New Year over three days in April, when it’s also celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and parts of India. The Cambodians, however, love a party, and have been embracing holidays like they’re going out of style.

On our New Year’s Eve here in Siem Reap, there were far more Khmers dancing in the streets than foreigners. I read in a story today that a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture said that the “Universal New Year” was the third biggest celebration in Cambodia after the Khmer New Year. The second most important, while not an official holiday, was the Chinese New Year.

Cambodians without Chinese ancestry are celebrating because they believe it will bring them good luck, prosperity, and the natural consequence of that – happiness. If you’ve been through what Cambodians have been through then you’d be setting off firecrackers at every opportunity too.

Of course, many Cambodians are of Chinese descent. The Chinese Association in Cambodia estimates there are some 700,000 Cambodian descendants of Chinese heritage, although you don’t realise it until holidays such as these when all of a sudden your travel agent stops answering emails, your neighbours have pulled down their shutters on their shops and homes, and even your tuk-tuk driver has gone on holidays. Fortunately in Cambodia it’s only for a few days.

Across the border in neighbouring Vietnam, where the holiday is called Tet, the Vietnamese have been preparing for a couple of weeks. There, official Tet Holiday began a couple of days ago so people could start the trek back to their hometowns and villages to begin helping their families with preparations.

In Vietnam Tet is the most important holiday of the year, so they’ll celebrate Vietnamese New Year tonight, Vietnamese New Year tomorrow, and then take another five days off to spend with their families and close friends before making the journey back to their place of residence and work.

At roughly the same time last Lunar New Year – I can’t say “this time twelve months ago” because the Lunar New Year dates shift according to the Lunar Calendar – we were in Hanoi and then Hue while they were bustling with preparations for the holiday.

Everywhere, shops were selling vibrant red and gold lanterns, Chinese couplets, paper-cut decorations, red envelopes (to hold gifts of money) and fake flowers. People were buying new clothes and busy cleaning every inch of their homes.

After, they hide the brooms and cleaning products for a few days to prevent the good luck from being swept from the house. At nearly every eatery we ate at or shop we went to in Hue, we saw family members arrive with plastic bags full of fresh bottles of cleaning products, new cloths and sponges, and brand new brooms, ready to begin scrubbing their businesses until they were spotlessly clean. Some also had tins of paint and brushes to slap on a new coat even if it wasn’t needed.

We arrived in Hoi An two days before New Year’s Eve, to witness last minute purchases of cherry blossom and marigold trees – it’s also the Spring Festival, according to the Lunar New Year – and see dozens of the trees crammed onto ferry boat after ferry boat, along with scores of people and motorbikes. As if the things weren’t overloaded as it was.

The most bizarre sight during Tet that for me has become the quintessential image of the holiday is that of a motorbike buzzing through the streets with tall potted flower and orange trees strapped on behind. The quintessential smell is incense, which locals light for their ancestors at a shrine they decorate more elaborately than usual with fruit, fake money, rice wine or bottles of liquor, and plates of food.

We spent New Years Eve strolling around the crammed streets of candle-lit Hoi An until an hour before midnight when we hired a boat belonging to a smiling old lady so Terence could capture the reflection of the fireworks on the water. She rowed us around for a while and it was magic – so still, just us and a handful of others on the water, while the riverbanks were jammed with people.

A short time before midnight the old lady stopped at the dock so we could dash to a toilet, which fortuitously happened to be where her family – her daughter and grandkids – were waiting to board. We didn’t mind one bit. Just minutes before the fireworks crackled directly above us the sky opened up and it began to rain, and it rained so hard we all got absolutely drenched.

I didn’t quite figure out whether our soaking was good luck or bad luck. I guess it must have been a good omen, as it wasn’t a bad year. Let’s hope for the same again. I’m off to hide the brooms.

Happy Year of the Horse!

You might also like to read Terence’s reflections on Photographing Tet Celebrations in Hoi An.

Jan 28

How To Eat Like Locals When You Travel

Breakfast in a pho shop, Hanoi, Cambodia.

Slurp soup from a street food stall, sample home-cooked food at a local’s house, savour creative cuisine at a secret supper club, or, eat American fast food at KFC or McDonalds… there’s an abundance of advice out there on how to eat like locals when you travel but which should you follow?

It seems odd after four years writing about local travel here to be giving advice about how to eat like locals when you travel. Because everything we’ve written here on food is essentially intended to do that.

Whether it’s our local guides by resident foodies, our eating out guides, our focus on local chefs, restaurants, markets, street food, eat streets and neighbourhoods, cooking schools, food tours, or our series The Dish about learning to cook the quintessential dishes of places, we’re committed to encouraging you to eat like locals when you travel.

Which is why I felt the need to address some bewildering advice on the web recently on how you should eat like locals when you travel.

Eat Fast Food
One post titled ‘Want to Eat Like a Local? Why KFC Might Be Your Best Bet’ suggests you head to KFC, McDonalds or Burger King to mingle with locals.

As far as developing countries go, that’s fine if you only want to eat with middle to high income locals who are giving the kids a treat or mum a break from the kitchen, or teenagers. Because in Asia, especially in rural areas, the majority of people can’t afford to eat at foreign junk food joints. 

For the affluent minority in cities who can – teenagers aside, who in metropolises like Bangkok seem to live on junk food – visits appear to be special outings on occasions like kids’ birthdays. Here in Siem Reap, well-off Cambodians tend to frequent the more affordable, homegrown franchise Lucky Burger for their fast food fix, while tourists pack KFC.

Fast food joints have never really been on our radar (unless we were hungover), and we don’t really consider them places that are conducive to meeting people. The advice isn’t very helpful to people who love good food and who wouldn’t step into a fast food factory at home, let alone abroad. 

Avoid Traditional Food
“For many the first instinct is to seek out that country’s traditional dishes and find the place with a good reputation for serving these favourites,” the same author elaborates, “After all, if we want to get a flavour of the local culture, surely there’s no better way to do it than through the food that people typically eat. Isn’t that where we’ll find the locals, munching on their food in authentic restaurants that aren’t in the guide books? Well, that’s rarely the case in my experience.”

The author’s experience is vastly different to ours. Even in big cosmopolitan cities, where there are a wide array of eating opportunities, including ‘ethnic’ restaurants and modern cafés serving ‘international’ food, locals still eat traditional food.

They do so particularly in countries with rich culinary heritages, including strong street food cultures, where many people still do a daily shop at the local markets. In cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, locals are mostly eating traditional food, whether they’re eating it at home, on the street, at a market, or a hawker centre.

Of course affluent, well-travelled, upper and middle class Asians are going to eat out more, be more urbane and eat a wider array of cuisines, however, while they might dine on French one night and Italian another, I bet they’re still going to be eating traditional food at least once a day.

“But the truth is that in many places local folks would never go out for these national dishes – they are exactly the food that is best cooked at home,” the author writes. Well, the truth is a little more complex than that.

Local folks do go out to eat national dishes that might be far too time-consuming to make at home. In Mexico, Chiles en Nogada can be made at home but it’s complex, plus Mexicans love to eat it out on national holidays, because the dish is historically tied to Mexico’s independence. Mexicans love to argue about which restaurants do the best Chiles en Nogada.

In Mexico City, restaurants such as Pujol and Dulce Patria do modern versions of classics that are more sophisticated than what grandma would make at home. We dined with a local friend at Dulce Patria and he was blown away by a dish that is his mother’s speciality.

In Hanoi, where the city’s most famous dish is the soup called pho (and, yes, we do know there’s more to Hanoi’s cuisine than that), locals eat it out on the streets, at their favourite stall or pho shop specialising in the soup, like Pho Gia Truyen on Bat Dan Street, pictured above. Because to make the broth properly so that it tastes as sublime as these street chefs can make it taste, it involves far too much work and people simply don’t have time to make it at home.

When we lived in Hanoi for a few months last year, we walked past Pho Gia Truyen at least once a day and would see the cooks stirring their monumental pot of stock in an alley beside the eatery well into the night to start dishing it up around dawn. When the soup sold out by late morning, the family would sit down to eat lunch, then put another massive pot of stock on, which they’d work at all afternoon for the evening crowd.

The same can be said of many of Asia’s best traditional soups and stews that have become national dishes. Why would people cook it at home when someone else does it better and they can buy it for around $1 a bowl?

In Bangkok, locals eat dishes in restaurants that are authentic traditional dishes in Thailand but might be dishes that their family has never had a history of making at home, because the dishes are from a different region of the country. If you go to Nahm or Bo.lan, you’ll see locals eyes light up as they try things they know about but have never had before.

Never Eat In Restaurants in Asia
The Lions of Street Food’ was another post that grabbed my attention for the wrong reasons when the writer declared after a bad restaurant meal in Bangkok that he was never again going to eat inside a “real restaurant” in that part of Asia again.

“That experience, coupled with other letdowns over the past decade of travel to the Far East, helped form the basis of what I’ll call the Pretty=Shitty Postulate: That is, the more attractive the restaurant in Southeast Asia, the less likely it is to serve delicious food.” Right. Well, I know which writer I won’t be going to for recommendations, and that’s not only for his use of “Far East”.

“There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they are shockingly scarce,” the writer admits before declaring: “No, to eat well in this part of the world, look for the establishment with the tiny plastic stools, the gathering insects, the fluorescent glare of the hospital waiting room.”

The writer then advises you to skip restaurants with credit card machines, his and her bathrooms, teams of waiters, and menus.

If I were to base my judgement of a city’s restaurant scene on “other letdowns” – let’s say, a dozen or even two dozen bad restaurant meals over a decade, then I wouldn’t be sending people to eat in Paris or New York.

For every sublime meal we’ve had in Paris over fifteen years we’ve probably had five underwhelming meals in Paris. Aside from breathtaking experiences like lunch at Eleven Madison Park, most of our meals in New York were disappointing on our last trip and yet we were using respected local sources, including the New York Times and Village Voice.

We all know those cities have great dining scenes despite being home to more than their fair share of dreadful restaurants, so why hold that against Bangkok? There are thousands of restaurants in Paris and New York – and in Bangkok. You need to know where to go, from doing thorough research, using trusted sources.

My guess is that the writer has had some terrible restaurant tips over the years and hasn’t been consulting the right people. We go to local chefs, sommeliers, waiters, suppliers, food writers, and foodies for tips when we don’t know a place well.

Bangkok does have some horrible tourist restaurants and we wouldn’t dine at most in Bangkok hotels, but there are long list of exceptions, including Nahm, Thailand’s finest Thai restaurant.

I feel sorry for the author, because if he keeps his own promise he’s never going to experience some of Asia’s – and the world’s – greatest eating experiences in Bangkok if he never eats at Nahm, Issaya Siamese Club, Bo.lan, Gaggan, Eat Me, Smith, Soul Food, Appia, Opposite Mess Hall, La Table de Tee, Supanniga Eating Room, and another 20 or 30 fantastic restaurants in the city.

What each of those restaurants offers is some of the finest produce available in the country and the most authentic, accomplished, innovative, and, in some cases, wildly experimental food that you won’t find on the streets of Asia. They also offer superb wines, creative cocktails and atmospheric settings – along with credit card machines, bathrooms, teams of waiters, and menus.

The author’s “Pretty=Shitty Postulate”, that the more attractive the restaurant the less likely it is to serve delicious food also doesn’t apply as the restaurants above are in some of Bangkok’s most beautiful dining rooms. If anything, the fact that they are in gorgeous spaces adds to the experience of eating beautiful food.

Every city in the world has disappointing restaurants, just as every city in the world has outstanding dining destinations. The best restaurants are rarely going to be on a main street or off a hotel lobby – although, of course, there are exceptions such as Nahm – so you’re hardly going to stumble upon them. You need to know how and where to find them. You need to do some research.

Only Eat Street Food
The rest of the author’s story is essentially a case for only eating street food in Asia. Yet the same goes for street food as for restaurants – not all street food is great.

There is truly sublime local food to be found on the roads and in the lanes of Asian cities, in hawker centres, at mobile carts, and from roving vendors, in cities such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang.

There is also really horrid street food. We’ve all eaten bland dishes that have had us demolish most of the soys and sauces on the condiments tray or suffered from bouts of food poisoning that have kept us in bed for days.

Again, you need to know where to find and how to identify the great, safe street food spots in Asia. If you think you’re going to stumble upon an incredible dish just by looking for tiny plastic stools as your guide, good luck. It’s estimated that there are over 500,000 street vendors in Bangkok.

Chefs and restauranteurs we know often say that while hygiene standards are generally good on the streets, the quality and authenticity of the dishes is on the wane, with vendors taking shortcuts, like using factory-made sausages instead of home-made, which would have been a given a few years ago.

You can follow your nose, if you know how to identify the good from the bad. But never follow a teenager. The worst street food in Southeast Asia is generally found outside schools, high schools and universities, at the McDonalds or KFCs of street food stalls that sell highly-processed sausages, ‘seafood’ sticks, and ‘pork’/‘fish’ balls that you really don’t want to eat, let alone know what they’re made from.

In Asia, there are street food stalls where you should definitely not be sitting down at, despite the obvious appeal of those cute little plastic stools.

Our Advice on eating like Locals 

Be Discerning – Not All Street Food is Good Food

Following your nose is a great start. Sniff out good, aromatic smells and stay away from bad odours, like over-used frying oil or meat that has been left in the sun too long. Look for stalls that are clean and vendors with high standards of hygiene, top quality produce that looks fresh and is vibrant in colour, noodles that are handmade and stocks that appear to have been simmering all night. Look for massive pots and high piles of plates. It means the vendor has a lot of loyal regular customers because her food is obviously superior.

Avoid stalls where vendors seem to be cooking up food they didn’t sell yesterday that might have been sitting outside all day, re-using oil over and over again so everything has a rancid burnt taste, using highly-processed or frozen foods, or cooking with poor quality produce.

Appreciate that people have different ideas of what’s ‘poor’ too. The chicken breast, expensive in Australia, the UK and US, is cheaper in Asia because it doesn’t have fat. Asians like fat on their meat, because it gives it flavour, as well as parts of animals that some foreigners aren’t used to eating.

The meat that is close to the bone, and even gristle or shells, are not bad signs in Asia, where they’re treasured. But a bowl of soup that contains bones without much meat or fat to accompany them, or crustacean shells that are empty, is definitely not what anyone wants to be eating.

I remember years ago sitting at a celebrated soup stand in Bangkok and hearing a backpacker boast to his mates how he’d eaten an even cheaper bowl of soup the day before that cost 50 cents less. The young traveller obviously hadn’t tasted the difference of this superior soup, nor looked around him.

The place was full of local office workers, there were several colossal pots of steaming broths that were close to empty, and the cook’s prep area was spotlessly clean. This was a serious soup joint and yet he couldn’t tell that. We’re always going to head to a stall where the bowls of soup might cost 50 cents more, because it probably means the cook is using better quality produce and putting more time and effort into making what’s going into our bowl.

If you don’t think you have what it takes yet to identify the good from the bad, do a food tour. Food tours ran by locals provide fantastic introductions to the street food scene of a city, pointing out the best markets, stalls, neighbourhoods, eat streets, and vendors you should try and giving you guidance on what to sample.

Eat Everywhere – Street Food, Restaurants, Markets, Cafes etc
We love street food. We eat it all the time. We spend a lot of time writing about it here on Footpath Feasting and in print. Eating street food is a fantastic way to try to get beneath the skin of places.

Street food – along with food from hawker centres, markets, mobile carts, and roving vendors, which is really all ‘street food’ or ‘traditional food’ – is not only a far more delicious and far more healthier fast food when it’s done well than the rubbish served at KFC and McDonalds, but it’s also where you’ll find the locals eating.

But to only eat street food or fast food when you travel, because that’s where writers tell you that locals eat, is to miss out on the countless other rewarding culinary experiences of rich food cultures that places dish up –experiences where you can eat with locals, whether it’s at a market, a festival, a shopping mall food court, a funky café or fine dining restaurant, or even a local’s home.

Because, I don’t know about you, but whether I’m at home or away, I don’t always eat the same kind of food the same way everyday. Man and woman cannot live on street food – or even fast food – alone. Our food-loving friends don’t. I bet our readers don’t. Nor do the locals we meet when we travel.

We all like to mix it up. We might cook in one day, eat a home-cooked meal at a friend’s place the next night, sip a breakfast soup at a street food stall, lunch on a sandwich at a café, and indulge in a degustation menu at a fine dining restaurant for dinner.

Eat As You Would At Home
It’s unfortunate to see writers telling travellers to skip traditional food and only eat fast food or street food because they’re discouraging people from being adventurous and sampling the array of tantalising culinary experiences that places offer.

They’re also discouraging you from meeting people like yourself, people who like to eat the way you and I do. Our best advice on our how to eat like locals when you travel – and how to eat with locals who love food like you do? Eat as you would at home.

Jan 27

Monday Memories: A Portrait Session on Sydney Harbour

Richard Graham of My Sydney Detour. Unique tours of Sydney.

It was Australia Day yesterday on the 26th January, and while we always feel conflicted on this day that celebrates the official ‘founding’ of Australia in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from Britain, despite Australia being occupied by indigenous peoples for around 40,000 years previously, it was wonderful to see the images of Sydney on social media.

Of course, being Sydney, the focus of many of the photos was magnificent Sydney harbour, easily the most beautiful city harbour in the world, so beautiful it brings my wife to tears. I can vividly recall our last day in Sydney on our last trip back to our home town, which we spent on that harbour.

We had been wanting to do a day trip around Sydney with My Sydney Detour since Richard Graham, the creator of this unique tour, first contacted us when we initially arrived back on home soil. But we were waiting for the perfect weather. We finally firmed up a date for a day when we should have been packing, but it was too good to miss the opportunity to do a tour we had been so excited about.

For much of the time during the tour we were revisiting some of our favourite spots in suburbs we used to drive to on weekends, including a lookout where Lara and I used to take out-of-town family and friends who’d visit us in Sydney, which offers sweeping panoramic views of a great expanse of Sydney harbour, Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The views were as stunning as I remembered them, however, it was the final destination on Richard’s tour that really took our breath away. It was a secret spot that even we didn’t know, and yet Lara was born in Sydney, spent her childhood there, and we lived in Sydney together for many years in our 20s and early 30s.

The view was stupendous, but so was the magic hour light. I had wanted to get some formal photos of Richard and his beautiful old 1964 Holden for stories we were planning.

Lara and I have a nostalgic attachment to the old Holdens. They were a part of every Australians life growing up when we did, but a Holden also played a starring role in the feature film, a road movie, we made together in the late 80s. As Holden are ceasing production in Australia, we’re extra pleased that we took Richard’s tour.

The cul-de-sac we ended up in that overlooked that spectacular view was perfect for a late afternoon shoot – as, of course, was Richard’s hair! How does he do it? We should have asked him when we interviewed him; see the link below.

It took me a while to find the best set up to shoot Richard in – which is always a little nerve wracking when the sun is disappearing – but I particularly liked this low angle wide shot I managed to shoot just before the light started to fade. And yes, I’m lying on the ground, but there’s no passing traffic…

One thing I don’t like in the image is the two palm trees either side of his head – it’s a bit too symmetrical for me, but I do like the fact he’s slightly off centre to the left, having him centred in the frame would be a little too neat.

And while I don’t use my wide angle lenses much these days – I used them far too much in my early photography years – I think it really worked to pull the old lens out of the camera bag for this shot. You can see the image blurs at the edges (this is not a favourite lens of mine), but I didn’t bother correcting it because the attention is clearly on Richard.

I know that some people might think Richard is wearing fake tan – but that was just the beautiful golden light of a magic late Sydney afternoon. It was an informal portrait shoot that just clicked.

PS: Richard and his business partner liked the photos so much that they have licensed them for their business as his official portraits – a refreshing change from people asking if I can “just send the high res images through so I can use them for marketing” without even thinking of asking for licensing rates. That’s because, like the old Holdens, Richard’s fair dinkum*.

*That’s Australian for down-to-earth, straightforward, reliable, and trustworthy.

Details: Nikon D700, Nikon 12-24 f/4G @ 24mm @ F7.1 @ 1/1000th second @ ISO400

Read Richard’s local guide to Sydney here as part of our Local Knowledge series.

Jan 25

Shaken Not Stirred: a Martini 101 or How To Order A Martini

Cocktails at Ms Wong, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
It’s Saturday evening here in Siem Reap and Lara and I are starting to think about cocktails. It’s too early for a martini so we’ll probably start with a negroni. This time last Saturday night we were heading out to a fancy hotel bar for cocktails with friends from Bangkok. I delayed my martini there too, but for a different reason.

As travel writers starting out many years ago, we realised we needed yardsticks. If we were reviewing a hotel’s breakfast, the dish by which we’d compare it to other hotel breakfasts became Eggs Benedict. For reviewing bars, I decided I needed a cocktail by which to judge whether the bar had a barman who was up to scratch. I decided on the martini.

In hindsight, this was a great idea for assessing a bar, but a bad idea if we had to assess four bars in a night — sometimes two before dinner and sometimes two after dinner. The results were as predictable as they were messy.

I’d been to the hotel bar we went to last week once before and ordered my usual drink but they had failed miserably. The problem was, on that particular night, I had just described to our friend who was in charge of the hotel’s public relations that the martini was the drink by which I judged bars.

I had explained to her that I could tell whether a bar was serious about what it was serving, or whether it was just taking advantage of tired tourists too exhausted to take a tuk tuk somewhere better, by the way it made its martinis. She was a little embarrassed and professed that the bar was due for a makeover.

So here’s how I judge whether the bar knows how to make the classic cocktail. Think of it as a Martini 101 or tips on how to order a martini.

There should always be questions
When we’re visiting a bar for the first time, Lara will order something elaborate, exotic or local off the menu to test their creativity, while I stick to the martini to ensure they know their classics. When the bartender or waiter asks what I want, I just say “a martini, thanks” and wait for the questions. There should always be questions. If you’re not asked the following questions then use this as a guide to order the kind of martini you like.

Gin or vodka?
The first question, of course, should be whether you want gin or vodka. This is straightforward. Although a few years ago at The Ritz in Paris, where we interviewed Colin Field, the world’s greatest bartender according to Forbes magazine, he informed us dryly “if the martini is vodka-based, it’s a vodkatini.”

What kind of gin?
I’m happy when the barman asks if I want Tanqueray (oh, the Tanqueray No. 10!) or Bombay Sapphire or, one of my all-time favourites, the wonderfully botanical Hendrick’s. Sure they’re all premium spirits, but considering that the only other alcohol is a lesser percentage of dry white vermouth, it’s worth the couple of extra bucks. Although if a bottle of Hendrick’s is on the shelf in front of me, I might be tempted to go for a G&T just so I can get the full bouquet of the gin. On a night off from reviewing, of course.

Shaken or stirred?
It was James Bond who said he preferred his cocktails shaken not stirred and while shaken gets the martini colder much quicker, it may weaken the cocktail and make it cloudy for a short time. There is a difference in taste, but just remember, regardless, a martini needs to be really cold. I prefer shaken only because I want mine super cold and I generally don’t think most barmen know how to achieve that by stirring. There is some talk that the difference is at the molecular level, but I’m not a scientist, I just want a viscous, really cold, alcoholic beverage.

For those who prefer their martinis stirred (a martini-lover on Twitter insisted a martini must be stirred and that if a bartender can’t stir a martini then he’s not a good bartender) it’s worth noting that it takes 15 seconds of shaking to get the martini down to around -7˚C. The optimum coldness for a martini is between -5˚C and -10˚C. Of course there are many variables when it comes to stirring a cocktail, such as the temperature of the glass, the size and type of ice and how vigorously the drink is stirred, however, scientific tests have shown that it takes about one minute 45 seconds of fast stirring for the drink to to reach -3°C. Or even longer.

If you can find a bar with a Kold-Draft ice machine and an amazing bartender who can knock 30 seconds off the time to stir a martini, make it your local. I’d make it mine too, only I’m testing cocktails around the world. But the bottom line on the shaken or stirred debate is that it’s your choice.

A dry martini?
A super dry martini is a mix of 15-to-1 between gin and vermouth (yes, that’s why you need a great gin!) but most fall in between this and a 3-to-1 mix. Personally, I like mine dryish, usually around 8-to-1. You need to experiment to figure out what you prefer — preferably at home — but do it over a number of cocktail nights.

Olives or a twist?
Either is fine, but for me it depends on the gin. While Hendrick’s, packed full of flavour, can handle an olive or two, my personal opinion is that most martinis are better with a twist so that the flavour of the gin shines through — but, again, the martini needs to be really cold for olives to work too.

Do you want it dirty?
If you’ve requested olives, this should be the question that follows. A ‘dirty’ martini is with olives and some olive brine. I tend to shy away from them unless I know the bar and the barman (bar person?). There is nothing worse than brine from a jar that’s been in a refrigerator for months, as Lara recently discovered at a Siem Reap bar that shall remain nameless.

If you’re not a martini fan or a cocktail lover, I expect you might also have a few questions for me…

So what makes a martini special?
A martini makes everything right in the world, although Lara would say the same about a negroni — both are drinks for adults. But you know, when you’ve had one of those days when you hate your boss, you hate your life, or you’re just wondering what it all means? A martini might not provide all the answers, but by the second one it will certainly make you loose enough to not care for a few hours. Just don’t go for a third…

Why is two enough?
A martini is alcohol on alcohol with no respite. One before dinner and one after — if you still require one for medicinal purposes — is optimal.

How can barmen get such a simple cocktail so wrong?
You would not believe how easy it is. It’s either not cold enough. There’s way too much vermouth when you asked for it dry. The bartender defaults to using vodka instead of gin. Or uses cocktail olives older than me — and less, well, brined. They use the wrong glass — there’s a reason it’s called a martini glass. The list goes on.

The worst martini I ever had was from a barman at an upscale restaurant in Diani Beach, Kenya. He literally poured me a glass of Extra Dry Martini vermouth. Maybe it was lost in translation, but at least it wasn’t a full glass of Martini Rosso. Apparently people drink this. In public.

According to a barman on Twitter, who clearly thought we were American, if you order a ‘martini’ in Europe they’ll serve you a glass of this stuff without hesitation — that’s never been our experience in 15 years of travelling in Europe and we’ve ordered martinis in over 50 countries around the world. Maybe I’ve just been very lucky or look like I need a martini not a shot from a Martini bottle, which no-one should drink on its own. If you’re concerned, order a ‘martini cocktail’.

On our return to that posh hotel bar here in Siem Reap last week, I noticed a change. Order a martini and they use Tanqueray. And they make the cocktail table-side. Did my feedback have some effect? I like to think so. Cheers.

By the way, a couple of our favourite bars in Southeast Asia that do a grown-up’s martini are Ms Wong in Siem Reap, pictured above — the drink in the foreground is Lara’s favourite, the rose and lemongrass martini — and Soul Food in Bangkok.

Jan 24

Renting an Apartment in Siem Reap

Karavansara apartments, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The rise of holiday rental websites such as HomeAway and Holiday Lettings and rent-a-room sites like Airbnb and Roomorama have made it easy to rent short term apartments, houses and rooms in private homes around the world, whether it’s for three nights or three months. Not so in Cambodia, unfortunately, which is why we’re providing this guide to renting an apartment in Siem Reap, arguably Cambodia’s most livable city.

As you know, when we’re not testing out hotels for stories we’re writing, our preference will always be to try to learn to live like locals and we’ll always rent some local digs, whether it’s an apartment in a town or city or a house by the beach or in the country.

In Southeast Asia, we’ve rented apartments in Bangkok countless times and in Vietnam last year we had no problem finding an apartment to rent in Hanoi for two months. However, after we returned to Cambodia in June we found the task of finding a short-term rental apartment in Siem Reap a real challenge.

Initially, we had to do our usual hotel hopping for stories we were working on, but after we’d tried out some 40 boutique hotels in Cambodia – and having spent six months in hotels here and in Vietnam – we were well and truly ready to settle into an apartment with a kitchen.

We were keen on renting an apartment in Siem Reap for a month at first, as we weren’t sure whether we wanted to make Siem Reap or Phnom Penh our base for bouncing around Asia, so we were eager to test out both cities before committing to a long-term lease. We had rented a serviced apartment in Phnom Penh in 2012, but we didn’t love the apartment or the area, so we also wanted to give the Cambodian capital another shot.

In the end, after we spent six months searching – both online and in person, looking at serviced apartments, long-term apartment rentals and a house – and deciding we preferred Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as a base, we found a lovely light-filled apartment with a nice kitchen and balcony near the riverside in Temple Town that we’re already calling ‘home‘.

After trying two Siem Reap real estate agents, we ended up finding our little dream home on our own, online, and, jumping into a long-term lease. Ironically, it was another larger unit in the first apartment building we ever looked at, where we’d rejected a unit because it didn’t have a balcony. In hindsight, we should have contacted the owner directly to find out when other leases were due to expire and something might become available.

The problem with short-term apartments in Siem Reap is that of the two options typically available in most cities, serviced apartments and holiday rentals, the range is extremely limited and they’re expensive compared to other Asian cities. In most destinations around the world, it’s cheaper to rent an apartment for an extended holiday than stay in a hotel, but that’s not the case in Siem Reap. Long-term apartment rentals are an entirely different situation and more on those below.

You might also find this post on Our Tips to Renting Holiday Apartments – A Checklist useful.


Short-Term Apartment Rentals

Serviced Apartments
Serviced apartments in Siem Reap such as Karavansara Residences, Steung Siem Reap, Chateau d’Angkor La Residence, and Thavy Angkor Apartments are central, comfortable, spacious, and secure, however, they’re expensive compared to serviced apartments of a similar standard elsewhere.

Some of them feel more like hotels than serviced apartments, which is not what people who prefer to stay in apartments want, otherwise they’d just stay in hotels. The kitchens in most aren’t very well equipped when compared to apartments in other Asian cities. You’d be hard pressed to cook decent meals with the utensils available.

Chateau d’Angkor is lovely, in a colonial-inspired building near the Shinta Mani Hotel. It operates more like a hotel, however, with greater interest in higher-paying guests staying a few nights than people wanting to settle in for a while. Likewise, Steung Siem Reap, which is comfortable, if a little old-fashioned looking, and in a good location on Wat Bo Road, a block from the river, and handy to Old Market. They both have swimming pools.

Our favourite is Karavansara Residence, pictured above. It’s the most stylish and contemporary, with balconies overlooking the river and smart kitchens that are reasonably well equipped, although to do real cooking you’d still need to borrow, bring or buy additional utensils.

Karavansara feels more like a residential apartment building, which we like, but it’s attached to a hotel across the street so you have access to two pools and restaurant. We could have easily extended our two-night stay to two months.

The inclusion of utilities like electricity, water, Wi-Fi, and cable TV varies at each property, with some properties including some services in the rent but not others, so ask questions about what’s included and what the average costs are when you enquire so there are no nasty surprises at the end of your stay.

Rent for one-bedroom serviced apartments at the properties above averages at around US$145-180 per night or US$1,200-1,600 per month during high season. Rates are lower during the monsoonal low season.

Most properties only discount on their nightly rate if you stay a month, whereas Steung Siem Reap discounts for a weekly stay, so their one-bedroom apartment, which is $145 a night, is $650 for a week and $1,300 for a month. If you take out a 6-month lease, Steung Siem Reap reduces the rent to US$1,100 a month.

Still, while those prices might be fine for business travellers on expense accounts, they’re high for the average traveller, especially when compared to other cities in the region. The prices are on the high side for families and couples. In some cases, families and groups of foodie friends travelling together would be best booking a 2- or 3-bedroom apartment and splitting the rent.

There are a handful of slightly more affordable serviced apartments, such as Prestige Palace and Yanathyna, but they’re not the same level of quality or aren’t in as convenient a location. Prestige Palace, for instance, while close to the centre, is situated on Siem Reap’s busiest road, while Yanathyna much further from the centre, is on another of the busiest routes, Airport Road.

Karavansara Residence

Steung Siem Reap

Chateau d’Angkor La Residence

Prestige Palace



Holiday Rentals and Rooms to Rent
You only have to do a quick Cambodia search on sites such as HomeAway, FlipKey, Roomorama, and Airbnb and scan the results to see that the majority of properties on holiday rental and rent-a-room sites aren’t apartment rentals, houses or even rooms in private homes at all. While there are some on those sites, you’ll have to read the fine print to identify them.

The majority of properties on the sites are actually rooms in hotels, like these ‘holiday rentals’ in Phnom Penh on HomeAway and many of these short-term rentals in Siem Reap on Roomorama, and these on Airbnb. On Flipkey, this Siem Reap search result revealed hotel rooms, a homestay, one apartment, and a handful of expensive luxury villas.

When I first started looking for holiday rentals in Cambodia I would get so excited thinking I’d found a fabulous place with a stunning swimming pool for $60 a night – a great deal compared to what the serviced apartments charge – only to look more closely and find they were hotel rooms. Most that advertise ‘kitchens’ turn out to be little more than a mini bar and microwave, while ‘kitchenettes’ are often just mini bars with sinks.

Roomorama has several apartments listed in Kruos village off Airport Road as short-term rentals, such as these apartments for just $15-20 a night. The price looked too good to be true, but the owner never responded to my query.

A quick Google search revealed it was The Crystal Apartments and we happened to be staying nearby at the Anantara so we dropped by. They only had one apartment available – on a minimum six-month lease (their shortest rental period is 3 months) – and the manager didn’t even realize they were listed. I pointed this out to Roomorama, however, the property is bewilderingly still listed.

As you would have seen if you clicked through to any of those links above, there are very few affordable traditional holiday rentals, as in privately-owned apartments or houses, in Siem Reap, mainly expensive luxury villas.

Do see our post on How to Avoid Holiday Rental Scams too.


Long-Term Apartment and House Rentals
There are plenty of long-term rentals around in Siem Reap depending on the season. There are fewer rentals available during the cooler, winter high season and more available during the low monsoonal season. This is because many expats on short-term contracts, from NGO workers to archaeologists, skip town during the quieter, and often very wet, wet season.

Most landlords require that you commit to either a 6-month or 12-month lease, although some (few in our experience) will consider a 3-month lease. The longer you commit for the cheaper it will be. You will generally be required to pay a deposit/bond of 1- to 2-months rent plus one month’s rent in advance.

Some long-term rental properties come furnished, just like a serviced apartment, and might even include a television, washing machine, and fans if there is no air-conditioning. Others come empty but owners might be prepared to provide furniture if you take out a long lease. Some include services like cleaning and garbage collection, while others don’t, and utilities, such as satellite TV and WiFi, but not, say, electricity and water.

Landlords generally require utility bills to be paid monthly when you pay the rent. As with serviced apartments, ask lots of questions before you sign a lease about what utilities are included and what aren’t and how much they cost other tenants.

If anything is not up to scratch, chat to the owner about what you’d like fixed, changed or added, and begin negotiating. We found owners to be willing to add amenities or fixtures – even to put doorways in walls – to lock a tenant into a long-term lease.

Apartments in Siem Reap can rent from anything from US$350-500 per month for something basic and compact to US$500-800 for something nicer and larger, with a balcony or terrace, and better located.

The cheaper apartments will probably be painted in candy colours, have a very rustic kitchen (i.e. a concrete bench with a small portable gas stove), and be decorated with elaborately carved, heavy wooden furniture and older fixtures. The more expensive apartments are generally more Western in style, with cleaner lines, and a higher quality finish.

Pay from US$800-$1,000 and you’ll get a big, centrally-located apartment or a large several-bedroom house, while up to $1,500 will get you a massive multi-bedroom modern villa or beautiful traditional-style Khmer house with lovely gardens and a swimming pool.

Houses come with their own set of challenges. They aren’t as secure, so you’ll probably need to hire a security guard, and the maintenance/cleaning will require a handyman or cleaner. They may come with or without furniture, but one thing is for certain, the more you pay the better the kitchens will be.

We tried two different Siem Reap real estate agents as they generally had different listings, although there was occasionally overlap. We tried Samuel White from Independent Property Services and Fabien Lesecq from Siem Reap Properties. Both are available by email or phone via their website and will meet you and drive you around to look at properties.

Independent Property Services

Siem Reap Properties


Alternative Search Options
Expats have told us that they also had success putting the word out amongst tuk tuk (remork) drivers or hiring a driver to go looking for properties for them and then driving them around to inspect them. Some people have also found rental properties by checking noticeboards such as that outside Angkor Market and via expat forums and Facebook pages.


Cambodian Visas
For serviced apartments, the standard one-month visa will suffice, however, for short-term and longer-term rentals you will need to have a one-year business visa. To obtain the one-year extension, make sure that when you get your Cambodian visa at the border, airport or online that you opt for the US$25 Business Visa (Type E), not the usual US$20 Tourist Visa that most travellers obtain.

A travel agent can extend the Tourist Visa by one month for you (ours cost US$44 per person), however, you cannot then transfer from the Tourist Visa to the Cambodian Business Visa, which means if you entered the country on a Tourist Visa you will have to exit the country and re-apply for a Business Visa when you cross the border back into Cambodia again.

With the US$25 Business Visa (Type E) stamp you can hand over your passport to a good travel agent in Cambodia who can arrange your 12-month Business Visa. Ours cost US$284 per person and only took a few days.

There are many travel agents in Siem Reap who can do this for you, however, we’ve been using the sweet Sopheak from Sopheak Na Travel & Tours for the past six months. She also arranges our car to Poipet on the border (US$35 one way, US$60 return)

Sopheak Na Travel & Tours
#L05 Tep Vong Road
+855 63 968 895

If you have had a different experience to us renting an apartment in Siem Reap or have additional tips to share or questions to ask, we’d love to hear from you in the Comments below. We’re here for a while.

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