I am that annoyingly enthusiastic person who is always harping on about eating all the local or traditional foods of the place I am visiting. Little to no research is done on what to see or do, but I’ve always got a list as long as my arm of dishes to try or restaurants to visit. However, there are times when my dogged determination in search of the exotic, authentic or down-right unusual takes its toll on our poor tastebuds, and we find ourselves craving a taste of the familiar. We ate some of the most incredible cuisines in South East Asia, but even I had to admit that you could have too much of a good thing. About once a month we hit pause on anything eaten with chopsticks, anywhere the dining table view was the roadside, and anything we couldn’t pronounce. Which is how we ended up at Khema, a French restaurant and deli with two sites in the heart of Phnom Penh.
After a hot and sweaty tuk tuk ride which took twice as long as it should have, walking into the cool and calm Khema La Poste in the recently rejuvenated Post Office area was a dream. In a past life, this space was a nightclub, but now it is all understated French chic and sophistication. Open all day, we chose to meet in the middle and lunch among the bustling array of local and expat business clientele. I imagine many of them would take advantage of the generous and well-priced lunch menu, a three course offering which changes every two weeks depending on the seasons and chef’s whims. I was tempted, but the a la carte menu filled with familiar favourites was too appealing.
I can assure you that you will not go hungry in Luang Prabang. This pretty little Unesco town may be small, but its steady tourist trade means it is mighty when it comes to culinary offerings. During the day, the cafes and casual eateries dotted in amongst the souvenir shops and tour agencies in the main strip are awash with tourists seeking a bite to eat and refuge from the hot afternoon sun. When darkness falls, the streets come alive with the night market providing a one-stop-shop for eating, drinking, shopping, and people-watching! For a cheap and cheerful dinner, we couldn’t go wrong with a steaming bowl of Lao khao soi noodles which are like an ingenious cross of soup noodles and bolognese complete with herbs and condiments, while others went mad for the barbecue stalls or vegetarian buffets.
If you are in the mood for something with less curbside decor, there are restaurants aplenty serving anything from traditional Laotian cuisine to classic French fare, a legacy of their colonial past. However not all restaurants are created equal, and as is common in many tourist-centric towns, some are guilty of resting on their reputations and ultimately proving to be overhyped and overpriced. We experienced this at a much lauded French establishment serving food from a bygone era with little flavour or finesse, while others have also talked of standards slipping at other well known Laotian restaurants. After this, we stayed away from the main tourist hub and found our two favourite Laotian dining experiences located just a short tuk tuk ride away on the outskirts…
One of the most popular journeys in South East Asia must be the slow-boat cruise down the Mekong River from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. It’s a well-worn route, often described with such romanticism that it would be difficult to resist. We fell for it, and you would too if you had also read half the articles we did. With the luxury of time on our hands, the idea of spending two days crawling down the Mekong River, absorbing tranquil scenes from a rustic but comfortable slow-boat seemed just lovely. We thought it would be a great way to switch off and just relax as we had a few weeks of long, action-packed days full of exploring up to that point!
There are two options when it comes to cruising along the Mekong; you can take the much cheaper public boat, or splurge a little to go with a private company. It took us all of five seconds to come to the conclusion that the private boat option was the one for us. And a mere five minutes to find three companies which seemed suitable, but this is where our trip got a lot harder to plan. The usual journey takes two days with an overnight stay at Pakbeng, the small village halfway. Our complication was that we wanted to stay two nights instead of one, and no private company could accommodate that on their schedule. So the plan was to brave it with the public boat, but we also ended up taking a private slow-boat; this is what happened…
Still half asleep and in my morning daze, I was momentarily perplexed as to exactly where I was when I woke up that first day at the Luang Say Residence. The familiar crow of an energetic rooster is one we have heard all over our travels through Asia, and yet, my immediate surroundings took me to another world. ‘You’re in Luang Prabang’, I reminded myself… a pretty little town with a UNESCO Heritage Site title under its belt and an unshakable French influence. Which brings me right back to the Luang Say Residence and all makes sense again. This gorgeous hotel is well-regarded as one of the best in town, and within minutes of our arrival, I knew exactly why.
In stark contrast to the small but heavily-populated streets of the town centre, the Luang Say Residence is a sanctuary for those in need of rest and relaxation. At this point in our travels, we welcomed that idea and are not ashamed to admit that we spent a lot of our time in Luang Prabang simply chilling out at the hotel. If we weren’t in our suite we were most likely to be found down by the pool… The stunning French colonial style buildings set in lush, tropical gardens made for an inviting combination. Add the excellent restaurants and impeccable service, and the thought of spending the day at the Luang Say Residence was simply irresistible!
I have never been so happy to see a sunset and call an end to the day. A day which started before sunrise, involved a lot of waiting around, and an excruciating eight hour slow-boat journey down the Mekong River with about a hundred drunk backpackers for company. It was neither pretty nor comfortable and when we finally got to the port at Pakbeng, I could have kissed the ground just to be on dry land again. One by one, all 150 of us clambered off the boat to be welcomed by hoards of guesthouse hustlers ready to pounce on anyone who seemed lost and looking for a room for the night. This frenetic scene made me even more grateful that we’d made a reservation at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge and their tuk tuk was already waiting for us at the top!
When we arrived at the lodge just a short and bumpy drive later, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. We made it; it was calm, the outlook over the Mekong River was stunning, and I had no doubt that the lodge would be infinitely more comfortable than any of the guesthouses in town. The standard journey down the Mekong from a small town by the border between Thailand and Laos to Luang Prabang takes two days so most people only stay in Pakbeng for just one night. We decided to stay for two, this gave us a much needed break between slow-boat journeys and a chance to take in the idyllic surroundings and quiet village life.
When you are living in hotels for months on end, the last thing you want to do is stay in more than one in the same city. I have to pack my bag enough times already, thank you very much. So you can imagine the amount of convincing it took for us to leave our sleek haven at G Hotel Gurney to spend the rest of our time in Penang at their sister hotel, G Hotel Kelawai. It was just a short buggy ride round the corner, but I didn’t see much point… surely they would be the same? They’re similar but definitely not the same. As an elder sister, it’s not really in my nature to admit this but sometimes our younger sisters are much cooler than we are. It is true for me, and it seems, for G Hotel Gurney too. At Kelawai, there is a distinctly different atmosphere – the focus is less about business and more about leisure!
G Hotel Kelawai opened its glossy doorsonly a couple of years ago and brought another level of style to the Gurney area. Its location is just as good as its sister property, with easy access to popular malls and food outlets, however it is far more intimate with fewer rooms and cosier spaces. The team said we would like it better and while it initially felt disloyal to G Hotel Gurney to admit it, we did… the more relaxed atmosphere and laid back vibe at Kelawai was more in line with our travel style, and as a result we felt more at home here!
After weeks of eating solely out of melanine plates and bowls, usually perched on stools at a wobbly plastic table, the sight of a well set table at Macalister Mansion was a welcomed one. Hawker centres hold a special place in my heart but there are also times when one wants to have a meal they can linger over. Preferably without the soundtrack of woks being fired up and pots clanging, and away from the glare of other hungry diners eyeing up your seat. The Dining Room at Macalister Mansion provided this brief oasis; you won’t find any of Penang’s famed street food here but you will find a fine-dining experience good enough to make you think you’re sitting in London’s Mayfair. In a country like Malaysia where hawkers reign supreme, this is a rare find indeed!
Macalister Mansion is named after Sir Norman Macalister, one of the first Governors of Penang. I’m not sure what he would have made of the transformation, but personally I think they have done a marvellous job restoring this colonial mansion into an exclusive eight bedroom boutique hotel in the heart of Georgetown. While each of the unique rooms has a luxurious but sleek approach to their design, the common spaces are where the artistic flair truly shines. We spent our first few moments at Macalister Mansion in their delightful Cellar, sinking into the oversized leather couches, eyes darting around taking in the trinkets carefully placed across the room. Before we got too comfortable, we moved into the Dining Room, another stunning space with tables set around a striking white tree centrepiece. The Penang we already knew felt like a world away…