I would venture a guess that 99.99% of the people who visit Siem Reap come for the temples. It makes sense. The temples are fascinating and unlike anything you’ll see, but after two full days of exploring these historical monuments in the blistering heat, you’ll probably want to do other less sweat-inducing activities. Surprisingly (Well, I was surprised, but maybe that’s because I’m ignorant.), there are plenty of non-temple things to do in this fun little city.
We were pleasantly shocked to find that the food variety and quality was excellent in Siem Reap. Due to its large expat community you can find great Western food in addition to traditional Khmer cuisine. If you’re only traveling for a couple of weeks finding a good Western food establishment might not be so exciting, but if you’re roaming around Southeast Asia for several months you’ll start imagining how tasty that cow would be between a toasted bun with a side of fries. Mmmmm I can haz cheezburger? Of course you will pay a little more for Western food, but it won’t break the bank. There’s also an ice cream chain that has traditional flavors as well as more “exotic” flavors like ginger, black sesame, and durian. It’s wonderful ice cream and a delightful treat in the Cambodian heat.
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
We had our foodie friend with us from New York, and we were missing out on some serious eating in Croatia. With Zagreb being disappointing food-wise and the Plitvice Lakes area offerings being not that much better, the three of us made our way to the coastal town of Split for fresh seafood. This being the Dalmatian coast, we arrived in the city and immediately spotted a Japanese tour group cross the street in front of us and cruise ships docked in the distance. Palm trees lined the main promenade, and people sat outside sipping coffees and cocktails. How did we end up in Miami?
Being the hungry hippos that we are, we dropped off our bags at the apartment and immediately made our way to our first traditional Croatian tavern experience at Konoba Hvaranin. We’ve long stopped trusting any reviews on Tripadvisor, and instead found a review on Foodie International of a konoba recommended by locals so we put our faith in this girl. We were glad we did. After taking sufficient food porn photos, we dug into fresh pasta with clams, grilled shrimp and grilled baby squid with ink sacs inside.
After dinner, we took a walk around the Old Town to digest and more importantly, to have a nightcap. Split used to be Emperor Diocletian’s summer palace. I don’t know anything about him, except that he was the only Roman Emperor to retire and he hated Christians. We walked through the narrow, maze-like streets and finally found Ghetto Club, which was the only gay-friendly bar in Split I was able to find on the internet. Unlike what you would probably imagine from the unfortunate name, it’s a nice, spacious place. We had the whole place to ourselves, but I can imagine this place must be pretty busy in the summer months.
With our Schengen visa quickly approaching its deadline, we had to cut our foray into France short and make a quick exit into the Balkans via northern Italy. Milan happened to be a convenient stop on our way to Croatia, so we spent a few days in one of the fashion capitals of the world.
Frankly, Milan wasn’t my kind of city. Unlike the other tourists there, we weren’t there to stock up on name brand clothing and accessories. So we did what we do best: eat. We stuffed our faces with pizza, pasta, gelato and whatever else we could get our grubby hands on before being exiled to the Balkans for three months.
Snacks like the panzarotti and gelato were delicious, but we thought the restaurants generally sucked and were ridiculously expensive, so we opted to cook at our apartment. Always the reliable one to sniff out food, N found a fresh pasta shop near the apartment where we bought ravioli stuffed with different kinds of fillings. We had that with a cut of beef a neighborhood butcher recommended.
We arrived in Krakow sore and sleep-deprived after a 14-hour overnight bus ride from Vilnius, Lithuania on Ecolines. Why so tired? Imagine being confined to one seat on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours, during which the man behind you sounds like his phlegmy lungs are trying to eject themselves from his body, directly onto the back of your head. When the bus stops every once in a while, he and his son run off of the bus to chain-smoke furiously until the bus leaves again. During the night, you are abruptly disrupted from your sleep to find the man’s face inches from yours, wedged between the seats of your row, a la Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.
Thankfully, he wasn’t being creepy (or homicidal) and was just getting something from the bag resting on the floor between his legs. But still. We sleepwalked to our hostel, showered and wasted the rest of our precious day in Krakow by passing out for the rest of the afternoon in our private room. So much for getting some rest on a night bus.
Krakow, a city of cheap booze, severe hipster haircuts and most of all, a terrible wartime history. We spent the first half of our day getting N’s haircut at a hipster place right in the Old Town. Everyone was being given asymmetrical haircuts which looked as if the stylist forgot to cut the other half of their clients’ hair and left it at that. We convinced N’s stylist to NOT cut two upside down triangles into the back of her hair, and we were off to explore Krakow.
We walked through the Old Town and snuck into St. Mary’s Cathedral through the “prayer only” section because we didn’t want to pay to get in. We snuck a few photos of this colorful, marvelous cathedral as we sat in the pews. After walking all over town in the heat, we took a breather (and lunch) at a restaurant in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. As much as I like meat and potatoes, it was nice to have something a little more vegetable-based and refreshing for once.
Food in Tokyo is pretty damn good, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that there are great meals to be had in Kyoto besides the traditional Japanese food it’s known for. These are the top five food spots we liked best. We only wish we had a better camera. Please excuse our sub-par photos.
1. Italian at Colori Caffe
A friend of a friend in NYC heard we had plans to visit Kyoto and introduced us to Yossi, Italian restaurant owner and chef extraordinaire. From the moment we met, I knew we were going to be friends. I could go on and on about how awesome she is, but I’ll save that for another day. This girl does everything by herself, from the buying of the food to the cooking to the serving to the cleaning. Crazy, right? But she does everything so flawlessly and seamlessly that we were able to really enjoy the food.
One of my favorite Vietnamese meals is bò 7 món, translated as seven courses of beef for non-Vietnamese speakers or “BEEEEEEEEEEF!!!” for beef lovers.
This is our first post and we are already behind!
We had our first Tokyo ramen on December 24th in the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku. We were going to go to the ramen place that I had found a couple of years ago when I was wandering the streets of Tokyo on my own but we decided to be adventurous and try something new. Most restaurants in Japan like to show off their food offerings with realistic plastic decoys or giant fine art quality photographs so even an ignorant foreigner who doesn’t know the difference between Kanji and Hiragana can get a decent meal by pointing at one of the plastic display dishes. That’s the technique that I usually use but this time I had a my trusty translator with me so she helped me order the right meal.