2016 in review: a year fraught by human tragedies, natural disasters, political upheavals, and the deaths of beloved music icons David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, and others. A year of more lows than highs. But there were plenty of highs – for us, travel highs, naturally.
2016 in Review: It Was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the worst of times…
So many times over the last year I’ve found myself thinking: “these are the best of times, these are the worst of times, the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness…” and I gave up after that. My memory isn’t as reliable as it was when I was eleven and could recite off by heart the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
As could mum and dad, who gave me a embossed hardback of the book. Mum would often quote openings from classics, while Dad, who preferred Australian poetry, could recite the entire The Man From Snowy River. But it was the Dickens opening that I most recall. I wonder if that opening resonated with my parents in the way it does with me now.
My parents were children of the 1940s and ’50s. Young adults in the Sixties, they raised a family in the Seventies. While they had Rock ’n’ Roll, the Age of Aquarius, disco, and Gough Whitlam, there was the Korean War, Suez Crisis, Six-Day War, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Dismissal, Lebanese Civil War, Idi Amin, Pinochet, Pol Pot, and all those crazed serial killers.
Their generation also suffered heavy losses when it came to musical legends. I remember the names that would come up in late night conversations they had over drinks and cards with friends: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Johnny O’Keefe.
It must have seemed to them at different points in time – as it has to us in recent years, particularly in 2016 – that it was the end of the world as they knew it.
Many of those more momentous events impacted the way of life of entire generations, even when they didn’t occur on our soil. The inter-connectedness of the planet meant the ramifications were felt everywhere, even all the way Down Under in Australia.
These days, of course, with the speed of the spread of news and conversation across social media, effects are felt faster, are greater, and are more disruptive. On the one hand, we feel faraway turmoil and tragedies more profoundly and painfully. We hurt more now than we ever have before. On the other, I believe the pain, frustration and anger at the unfairness and senselessness of it all unites us and makes us more empathetic, more tolerant, and more humane. As does travel.
It was the best of times…
In 2016, more and more of you increasingly travelled how we predicted you’d travel well before we conceived Grantourismo and how we’ve been encouraging you to travel since we launched the site seven years ago – more slowly, more locally, and more experientially. We continued to travel more slowly, more locally and more experientially ourselves, and we did a lot to help others do so, too.
Siem Reap Retreats and Tours
In 2016, we took our little travel business to another level. I crafted dozens of bespoke itineraries for travellers to Siem Reap and increasingly other parts of Southeast Asia – everything from 3-day sojourns here focused on the cuisine and culture to month-long journeys taking in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
With our small Cambodian team, we hosted four fabulous small-group Cambodia trips – two 10-night Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreats and two 9-night Cambodia Culinary Tours – along with a few private escorted trips, with some adventurous foodies and creative participants from around the world.
We took our guests to temples and markets and into villages and local homes to see things like rice noodles and rice paper being made. We drank G&Ts as we watched the sun set over the rice paddies and ate fine Khmer food at Cambodia’s best restaurants. While they may have arrived as strangers they left as friends.
We have another four trips scheduled so far for 2017 and we can’t wait. For more on our culinary tours and travel and food writing and photography retreats, click through to the dedicated website Terence created for our Siem Reap retreats and tours, and my bespoke itineraries. (You’ll find participant testimonials on both sites).
Our Travel Highlights
Terence and I did the usual trips around Cambodia, across to Bangkok and around Southeast Asia for stories for everything from The Guardian to Australian Gourmet Traveller. Highlights included Bangkok for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards and a story on fermented rice noodles that also took us back to one of our favourite countries in the region, Myanmar, and one of our favourite cities, Yangon.
We travelled to charming Mawlamyine (of the Kipling poem fame), where we spent our time strolling the streets, remembering how good it felt to go to places devoid of tourists and how invigorating that first trip to a place you’ve never been can be. The journey back to Yangon by rail was just as compelling as the epic train trip from Yangon to Mandalay that we did in 2015 (one of the most read 2016 posts on our site).
We did a bittersweet trip to Penang, at the invitation of Georgetown Festival and made possible by Penang Global Tourism and The Edison hotel. We went for the fabulous festival, but stayed on for the fantastic street food, and a story for Australian Gourmet Traveller. It was bittersweet because it was where we took my parents for Dad’s last holiday before he died of cancer.
On the way back from Penang, we spent some time in Kuala Lumpur, which is a city that grows upon us more and more with each visit. And I have to say the same thing about Bali, which we visited as part of an Indonesia trip in September at the invitation of Tourism Indonesia and Skyscanner.
Bali was never a place that Terence or I ever had an urge to go and only ended up there for two weeks in 2010 at the request of HomeAwayUK, who we partnered with after exchanging hotels for holiday rentals for the round-the-world year-long grand tour that launched Grantourismo. We ended up loving our time there in a tranquil villa in a village in Tumbak Bayuh. The only thing that disappointed us was the restaurant food. The Balinese food that Terence cooked at home with Desak, our villa cook, was wonderful.
This trip, we were determined to seek out better food and were delighted with our discoveries in Seminyak and Ubud, which are easily some of the best restaurants in Asia. We also enjoyed the food of Java – the street food, especially – and the markets and stalls of Yogyakarta, where we went to discover sublime Borobudur and Prambanan.
We did more travelling around Cambodia, primarily for archaeological pieces as we had an exclusive for The Guardian on the groundbreaking new discoveries of more ‘lost cities’ and epic urban landscapes the airborne archaeologists identified beneath the forest floor. (We also covered similar cutting-edge archaeological news in 2013 for The Guardian and CNN.) We returned to atmospheric Banteay Chhmar and did a village home-stay once again and we explored the remote temples of Preah Khan of Kampong Svay and pre-Angkorian Sambor Prei Kuk for the first time.
But I have to say that when it comes to travel in Cambodia, while we didn’t venture to as many new places as we would have liked, I thoroughly adored returning, again and again, to the Cambodian villages around Siem Reap and Battambang that we’ve been to many times before.
There’s nothing quite like walking into the open-air kitchen of a Cambodian home, initially with some trepidation – will they remember us? – and then relief once we see the generous smiles, warm glints in the eyes, and the hospitable gestures to stay and watch, try our hand at whatever they’re doing, taste what they’re cooking. It’s that feeling of arriving as strangers and leaving as friends.
Tourism marketing folks can focus all they like on breathtaking scenery, stunning beaches, spectacular monuments. We’ll continue to promote the slow, local and experiential, because what makes travel special for us is the chance to get beneath the skin of a place, to engage with locals, and to get an insight into everyday life.
For us, as we’ve long said, local travel is about the people we meet as much as the places we go to. More than ever before, it’s essential that we all connect in the real off-line world if we are to save humanity and try to avoid having another year like 2016.
Wishing all our readers the best for 2017!
How did your 2016 shape up? Do you review and reflect upon one year before you get stuck into the next? We’d love to hear your thoughts.