The original plan was to go to Stockholm, but that would have involved handing over our hard-earned dosh to Ryanair, something we had pledged never to do again… so that plan was never going to take off. Thankfully, with the help of Google and our trusty 36 Hours in Europe book, it didn’t take long to conjure up an alternative: Gothenburg. Sweden’s second city caught our attention because it was often lumbered with the tagline of being a little rough around the edges but undergoing a resurgence. We like the sound of places like this, they are usually a little more under the radar and less chaotic than the main tourist haunts.
After spending a long weekend in Gothenburg, I would whole-heartedly recommend it as city break destination for those who are content with strolling the pretty streets, browsing through the trendy shops, and wandering down the halls of their excellent museums. We did all that, but mainly so we could walk off all the food we were devouring. The city is covered by both the Michelin Guide and its specifically Nordic counterpart, the White Guide, so there is a lot of great food to be had at all times of the day. We dabbled in the Swedish ‘fika’ culturewith stops for tea and buns, while also enjoying a mix of traditional and modern Swedish cuisine – here are a few ideas for you if you ever find yourself in Gothenburg…
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.
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!
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…
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 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…