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…
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.