Watching oversized and underdressed men push, pull, lift, and hold each other is not my usual idea of fun. On paper, it actually sounds a bit terrifying but in reality it was scintillating. My first foray into the uniquely Japanese world of sumo wrestling did not fail in surprising and thrilling me. I arrived at the arena with very little knowledge of sumo wrestling; the common stereotypes of very large men comically charging at each other were the extent of my shamefully uncultured knowledge, but I truly left with a new-found appreciation of the sport. Live sport rarely manages to hold my attention, however the speed and simplicity of sumo had me hooked, teetering on the edge of my seat, and cheering on the athletes like I had been a fan for years. This was without a doubt one of my favourite and most memorable experiences in our entire Japanese adventure so if you happen to be in Japan during one of the tournaments, you must go and experience it for yourself!
I remember that first sip well; it was chalky and abrasive, something I did not want to drink again. In hindsight, trying sake for the first time at a raucous, much-loved local BYO restaurant was not my smartest move. There’s a reason they suggest you bring your own booze. But I was young and stupid, and the bento box dinners were within easy reach of my university student budget. The sake was promptly chased by a gulp of cheap wine and classed as a tick off the drinks bucket list. The few experiences I had since then were better, though still not enough to turn it into a regular drink of choice. Trying it again in Japan would be the final test; my logic was that if I couldn’t like it here then I wouldn’t bother drinking it again. So to give myself and sake the best possible chance of getting along, we joined sake sommelier Yuma from Ninja Food Tours for a sake tasting class!
Three months in South East Asia whizzed by in a hot, sweaty, spicy blur. The days started to run into each other, we lost track of time and often got lost ourselves, but each day felt like an adventure. As you would expect from long-term travel, there were plenty of ups and a few downs, thrills and spills along the way. There was a missed flight on day one (Wellington weather really hates us), many incredible meals down dingy alleys, a fine balance of luxurious and not quite five star places to rest our weary heads, and a plethora of sights taken in… all rolled into some of the most exciting and exhausting months of our lives.
We left with only a rough outline of which countries we would visit, and set about filling in the gaps and details as we went along. Neither of us get particularly enthused about the planning part of travel so we mostly took each day as it came which seemed to work out just fine. A certain someone and I have travelled together for close to six years now so we’re well versed in each other’s travel styles and moods. I can sense when he needs a tea top up, he can spot the symptoms of a hanger meltdown, and our spats are usually about embarrassingly trivial matters. But this trip still taught us so much, mainly about our approach to travel; some of our actions have changed, some of our views strengthened. These are the lessons I learnt from three months in South East Asia…
I looked over the menu not once, but twice, fervently studying each and every course listed. There are seven on the tasting menu and none of them have any mention of a fish amok. This, dear friends, startles me because it is quite unusual for a Cambodian restaurant to be without a version of the national dish, but then, Embassy is not your usual Cambodian restaurant. This is Cambodian-inspired fine dining, where chefs Pol and Sok have combined their love of local ingredients with their French culinary training. The double act are nicknamed the Kimsan Twins, though they aren’t really twins but coincidentally share a surname. I get it, it’s catchy, but after dining at their all-female restaurant, I think the food and service is memorable enough.
I’ve barely had time to admire the crisp white tablecloths and the very chic decor before the amuse bouche arrives. It’s a steamed baby tomato stuffed with buffalo; I like that it looks dainty and cute, but tastes a lot bigger and bolder. I take this as a sign of things to come and heartily look forward to the next course. The lotus stem salad comes tightly packed together and well dowsed in the sweet and sour dressing which I’m a fan of, even though it means the slow cooked pork belly which is also supposedly present, is nowhere to be tasted.
Our time in Siem Reap got off to a rocky start; my appetite had abandoned me during the bumpy bus ride from Phnom Penh and by the time we arrived, I wanted to do nothing more than bury myself into the bedcovers and ignore the world for days. I get Shakespearean-tragedy-style dramatic (the long suffering certain someone will attest to this) when I’m sick, which means I considered this to be a disastrous situation. Siem Reap happens to be quite an exciting city when it comes to culinary offerings, and I happened to have made a list of the restaurants I wanted to try. I wasn’t going to let a little bout of illness stop me so after a day or two of self-imposed rest and recovery, I soldiered on with the task of eating my way round the city.
Siem Reap has been welcoming visitors in their droves for years so there are really no shortage of dining options – there are plenty of the no-frills mom and pop operations serving up hearty one-dish specials, a plethora of bars and restaurants catering specifically for the tourist market in and around Pub Street, but I was interested in the more modern and eclectic offerings. In addition to the elegant Khmer cuisine at Malis and the inventive fine dining at Embassy, we also tried three of the city’s more casual but just as accomplished restaurants. All three are wonderfully placed away from the never-ending throngs of Pub Street and the Old Market, but I promise you, they are worth seeking out!
When we came to an abrupt halt outside the entrance of Malis in Siem Reap, I was in a mild state of shock. Our tuk tuk driver hooning down a one-way street in the opposite direction might have contributed had this been our first week in South East Asia, but by this point we were nonchalant about these things. I was actually more taken aback by the grandeur of Malis, and relieved I had decided to ditch the flip flops in favour of real shoes. From the attention-grabbing entrance to the sultry dining room which wrapped around a lush little courtyard, the whole space was rather stunning. As was the food, but I had already suspected that would be the case. Malis, brainchild of local celebrity chef Luu Meng, has been serving its refined take on traditional Khmer cuisine for close to 15 years in Phnom Penh and has recently brought this same touch of class to Siem Reap!
When we landed in Phnom Penh, we knew nothing more than the name of our hotel and a rough idea of how much the taxi would cost to get us there. Many of you will know that pre-trip planning and research is not our strong suit. This was the case before we decided to hit the road for months on end, but is even worse now that we’re constantly on the move. Cambodia also had the added misfortune of being the last country on our South East Asia adventure; we were a bit travel worn by the time we arrived and in no mood for extensive days of sightseeing yet we didn’t want to waste our short time in the country.
Much to our delight, Phnom Penh turned out to fit our requirements perfectly – this vibrant city has enough to keep you occupied, but its compact nature means it’s not at all overwhelming. Visiting in April also meant that it was suffocatingly hot. I thought I had acclimatised to the soaring temperatures of Asia but landing in Phnom Penh pulled me back to reality. And so our days took on a comfortable routine of action-packed mornings and lazy afternoons in the poolside cabanas at our hotel – it was bliss. For first time visitors, I think three days in the city is ideal to get around the main attractions, enjoy some of the fantastic restaurants, and still have some down time. Here’s what you should do on your first visit to Phnom Penh…