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…
The first time I made this courgette loaf cake, I happened to be at home working my way through a particularly nasty piece of project planning and budget forecasting. All those spreadsheets evidently made me hungry because about two hours in, at around 10am, I found myself sticking my head in the fridge hoping for some inspiration or at the very least, something to nibble on. I spotted a lonely courgette in the veg bin, half packet of feta, half a chorizo ring, and thought I definitely had the makings of something delicious there. So I turned to trusty google for ‘savoury courgette cake’ recipes… and came up with… not much that didn’t require a trip to the Sainsbury’s Local and could be done in a matter of minutes in between emails and spreadsheets.
So I changed tact and went in search of a generic savoury or cheese loaf/bread recipe, with the plan to just add my fridge forage treasures to it and hope for the best. Which leads us to where we are now. I have made this courgette loaf cake several times now with various tweaks; some worked wonders, one really tanked, but I think I’ve finally got the right balance. As long as you use self-raising flour, and make an effort to draw out the excess water from the courgettes, this recipe should serve you well as a base to which you can add your own twists. A lightly toasted slice with a slather of butter makes for a hearty breakfast, or add a bit of bacon, sliced tomatoes and a fried egg for a quick and filling lunch. Or just do what a certain someone does and nibble on a bit with a dollop of pickle when you need a snack throughout the day…
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 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…