The look on most people’s faces when we tell them that we spent ten weeks, not days, travelling through Japan is priceless. It’s part disbelief, part surprise, part curiosity. We get asked a lot if it cost us a fortune, if it was hard to navigate for that long, and finally… just why?! It’s a long time to be spending in one country for a ‘holiday’, I get that, but it really was my dream destination. I’ve wanted to visit Japan ever since I missed out of a school trip when I was twelve; it only took close to twenty years but when we finally arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun, my heart was bursting with excitement and apprehension. Would it live up to the lofty expectations I have held for it over the years? Friends, it did. We can both, hand on heart, without a single ounce of hesitation, say that Japan was our favourite of all the countries we visited during our stint away.
It’s so hard to succinctly explain the lure of Japan; it is a country of contrasts and contradictions. It is fabled for being overbearingly ordered and controlled, yet you will find pockets of disarray which challenge the norm. It is high tech and cutting edge, but painfully traditionally in so many aspects. The cities are big, bold and bright, while the countryside is overwhelmingly green and peaceful. In ten weeks we were able to explore the country at a slower pace than most, taking in all the beauty and quirks of this country, but even then, there’s still so much more we want to experience and are already plotting a return visit… hopefully I don’t have to wait so long next time. Here are a couple of lessons (trivial and otherwise) I learnt from those ten weeks in this incredible country…
I squeezed this poor unsuspecting lime to within an inch of its life, trying to get as much of its sweet, zingy juice as possible. To it, I added generous squirts of pungent fish sauce and a dash of soy, a spoonful of sugar, and a sprinkle of finely sliced fresh chilli and coriander. All my memories of Vietnam came flooding back… I may have physically been standing in our London kitchen but my mind had wandered way back to those streets filled with vibrant aromas. I thought had eaten decent Vietnamese food, even managed to rustle up an adequate shaking beef, but I was wrong. Anything I had tasted or tried to recreate previous to our trip was painted in muted, pastel tones compared to the technicolour masterpieces we encountered at the source. I had long been a fan of the cuisine, and everything we tasted lived up to my expectations.
Touching down in Hanoi was a jolt to the senses. We had just come from Vientiane; although equally as smog-filled and suffocating, it was far less exciting. Hanoi oozed the kind of seductive appeal which was pointless to resist… Staying in a hotel in the thick of the old town meant that we were thrown head first into the manic cityscape. We got incredibly lost in its maze on our very first night but it was fun, we were in our element. We had very few aims for our time in the city – see a few sights, absorb the ambience, inhale as much food as possible.
I had already decided that no Vietnam itinerary would be complete without Halong Bay but I also knew it would be a hard sell to a certain someone. Two or three days on a boat, organised activities, no wifi connection, and forced social interaction are not things we willingly sign up to. The only way I stood a chance was to go down the luxury route – if I was going to get him on board, figuratively and literally, it would have to be a rather nice boat. Which also suited me just fine – you didn’t think I was keen on one of those party cruises filled with eager gap-year youths did you? That ship has most definitely sailed.
With this criteria, it didn’t take long to cobble together a shortlist – there are boats aplenty (probably too many if we’re being honest) sailing in the bays, but not many which would get the certain someone seal of approval. And so, armed with photos of gloriously picturesque scenes and inviting cabins with balconies, I made my pitch. Slowly but surely I won him round, though just in case… I threw in the pleading girlfriend eyes to seal the deal and a few weeks later, we were boarding one of the rather lush boats from Orchid Cruises.
What a year it’s been – full of new sights seen, new experiences had, and plenty of new food consumed – I’ve loved every single minute of it. I started 31 in Melbourne and we have spent the year in New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan, before eventually coming back to London a couple of months ago. This year has been an utter privilege and taught me so much about what I value and what I’m so lucky to have. For the nine months that we were on the road, a certain someone and I had the freedom to explore and the time to be engaged and present in new experiences; this was a true luxury and something I will never take for granted.
Summarising this year into a handful of highlights has been tough, but as always, I’ve loved taking the trip down memory lane. We’ve checked into some rather swanky hotels, and seen some sights that have genuinely made me pinch myself. We’ve eaten a ridiculous amount of incredible food from plastic stools on the roadside, Michelin star restaurants, and tiny eateries with a countertop bar and a handful of seats – all different but all a unique memory etched into my mind. Here are my favourite moments from the year that was…
Bangkok is not a city for the faint hearted; in fact, I’ve come to realise it’s a bit of a marmite kind of town. You either love it or hate it. In our case, we love it… it wasn’t love at first sight but after three decent stints, we’re firm fans. So much so that we’ve often talked about how we could see ourselves living there for a while, to truly get under its skin. I would ecstatically devote my days to uncovering the nooks and crannies you don’t get to find when you’re just visiting, and eat my way through the side alleys and street stalls. But what really excites us about Bangkok is that on top of all that, there’s also a burgeoning contemporary restaurant scene which is dead set on catching up with its more established Western counterparts.
Right now, the food industry in Bangkok feels like a land of opportunity that everyone wants a piece of. International chefs are flocking to this fertile ground, while local chefs are upping their game to hold their place. Contemporary fine dining here doesn’t seem to have the same constraints or rules, perceived or otherwise, that may exist elsewhere and as a result, the cuisine is ambitious and creative. As a diner, this gets me salivating and hungry for more… new restaurants are popping up all over the city, some of them are serving up traditional Thai flavours in a fresh new approach, whilst others are bringing their own style and incorporating the very best of Thai ingredients!
Years of eating sub-standard Thai food everywhere other than Thailand had me conditioned to break into a state of despair any time anyone suggested we ‘go out for Thai’. I am realistic; I know that the authenticity of any of that food I was eating was dubious. However, I am also proof that after one too many gluey pad Thai noodles or watered down green curries, your faith in the real real is also somewhat watered down. In my early twenties I endured the tacky cookie-cutter Thai restaurants which were the scene of every second (alternating with Indian) BYO dinner in silence because I didn’t want to rock the boat. In my late twenties I became more sure of my distain and only very occasionally put aside my prejudices for the much-lauded Thai restaurants in London, only to be disappointed time and time again. Then I went to Bangkok.
Though there was no instant epiphany, that would have been too easy. Bangkok showcased just one teeny tiny part of this country’s food culture, but it seemed like a good place for me to start my Thai food education. My first visit made me ‘not hate Thai food so much’, my recent visit helped me understand and respect it a lot more. With all the temple-touring and must-do sightseeing out of the way on the first trip, we spent our days focused on food. Bangkok is one of those cities so food-centric that you can literally eat your way round the world by jumping on the Sky Train, but some of the best food you’ll taste will be still the local dishes. These are the places where the locals will queue, the recipes have been the unchanged for the years, and people will excitedly traverse the city for… these are the places that gave me a true taste of Thai food!
I have so many fond memories from our time in South East Asia, but there is one in particular which will forever be etched on my mind for all the wrong reasons. We were having lunch at a popular Chiang Mai restaurant, and all around us families, couples, and large groups of friends were all happily devouring the delicious food while drinking water from plastic bottles, poured into plastic cups, sipped through plastic straws. The ridiculousness of that sight is one I will never forget; what brief amusement it caused soon gave way to despair. Single-use plastic consumption is a hot topic right now. We can no longer deny the damage it is causing to our environment and I think we all have a responsibility to do something about it. A certain someone and I are slowly but surely reducing our plastic usage which means being more conscious about sustainability when it comes to making all sorts of consumer choices… and hotels are definitely one of them!
We have become those guests who leave some constructive feedback as to how a hotel might consider changing some of their habits to become more sustainable – we’re not evangelically demanding anything, merely planting the achievable seeds for change. We did, however, recently come across one hotel where no hints or suggestions were needed because they have already gone ahead and eliminated all single-use plastic from their property, the first hotel in Asia to do so. Let me introduce you to akyra TAS Sukhumvit, a five star boutique hotel which is the newest property in the akyra portfolio and the first to implement the company’s stance on being single-use plastic free…