Thursday, November 6, 2008

Strapping on the Feed Bag: 4 Days in Kuala Lumpur

Since mom & dad tend to keep us on a 3 hours feeding schedule when we’re here, listing the contents of every meal would be challenging (to say nothing of tedious). Here are some examples/highlights.

First night’s dinner
There was a multi-course meal waiting for us in the kitchen when we arrived at ~ 1:30am the first night, but we were too far gone to snap photos. Our first sit-down dinner together, was the next night. It was a seemingly simple meal of noodles, veggies, and fruit.

But the ingredients and level of effort bear some rumination. The noodles are Cantonese smooth fried noodles with egg & seafood. The rice noodles are made by a guy down the street in the morning, the prawns are fresh from the market, the squid is dad’s catch from a recent trip. Mom then combines all this goodness with a deft hand and careful technique to concoct a dish where the gentle flavors come through, but the textures may be even more important.

The noodles are like silk with a slight firmness thanks to a fry in a seriously hot wok (note the brown caramelized streaks – yumm). The prawns and squid still retain their snap, but the flesh itself is smooth and just-cooked through. The “gravy” sheaths everything; smooth and thin – NEVER gloopy. The combined effect is airy comfort food. The chilies served alongside are fiery but flavorful – adding a zing as counterpoint to the softness of the dish. After being sliced, they are marinated in a bit of light oyster sauce and kumquat juice to introduce some fragrant sweetness alongside their bite.

The veggies are the freshest baby bok choy given the simplest of preparations: tossed in a hot wok with aromatic ginger and then just slightly steamed at the end of their cooking. Their white stalks are soft and firm like the noodles; the ends a welcome element of leafy goodness.
And then there’s desert. Or, “Mango Fest” as we call it. Although not always about just mango, this part of dinner is always about a newspaper-covered table, incredibly good fruit, and dad with a REALLY sharp knife.

There are three types of mango on offer tonight; all remarkably different. The yellow one on the left is Thai with ultra firm flesh and a refined flavor. The orange one next to it is a harumanis; an Indonesian strain grown in Malaysia - heady and super sweet. Finally, the monster sized one on the right is a local hybrid (we think it’s crossed with some of the huge but flavorless Australian mangos) that has a bit of mango-y flavor and a light sweetness.

Just for scale, let’s note that although Pleen’s sister SC isn’t all that big, just the SEED of that monster mango is the size of her head!
Breakfast of champions:
This was breakfast this morning, but it’s emblematic of each morning here for us.

For Pleen, it’s a peanut pancake - a childhood favorite. A thin pancake sprinkled liberally with a crushed peanut and sugar mixture. The outside is crispy, but the very next layer is chewy-gooey & sweet. A wonderfully simple delicious treat.
That's one happy eater!

For me, it’s a bowl of fresh rice noodles & mixed yong tau foo (“stuffed beancurd”) all smothered in curry sauce. The sauce offers hot and spicy flavors set against the richness of coconut milk. It enhances the earthy goodness of the fried tofu chunks studded with bits of seafood or veggie (in this case, roasted eggplant) and counterpoints the cool softness of the rice noodles.

Along with a cup of kopi – local coffee roasted in an oil-filled wok, coarsely ground, filtered through a tea sock, and mixed with condensed milk – this breakfast costs about US$1.50. OUTSTANDING!!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Siem Reap

The staging town for visiting the Angkor Wat temples, Siem Reap is becoming something of a destination in itself. We spent a few days there. Here are some of our take-aways.


We were REALLY pleased with Viroth’s Hotel. Tinny, stylish, and comfortable, it felt like our own little oasis tucked into a corner of the cacophony. The price was reasonable and the quality of the rooms and service was high (“Tsai” is a particularly great resource for arranging anything in town). Moreover, we really dug the location. Many of the growing number of international standard hotels are on the outskirts of town along the main road. That’s fine, but being right in town proximate to the Old Market was much more fun. The croissants they serve for breakfast on the roof top are brought over from the Blue Pumpkin bakery in town and are particularly yummy.

Viroth's hotel

#0658 Wat Bo Village

Siem Reap Cambodia.

063 761 720

016 951 800 (Mobile)

Honestly, if I were going to consider spending more, I’d go all out and stay at either the Hotel de la Paix ( or the Amansara ( These are both beautiful ultra-high end luxury joints in the

center of town and I’m sure they’re worth the $$. We had dinner one night at the restaurant inside Hotel de la Paix (“Meric”). It was probably equal to what we spent on every other dinner in town combined and it was absolutely lovely. The food was world class. The setting was spectacular, and the service was great.

However, high end dinning is not why we were in Siem Reap. We really enjoyed several other places.


Khmer Kitchen: There are several places called “Khmer Kitchen”. Not sure if they’re all under the same ownership. The one we liked was along “Pub Street Alley”/“Food Alley” which runs between the Old Market and Pub Street (northwest of the market - the side opposite the water). All the dishes were fresh and crazy cheap. We particularly liked the morning glory w/shrimp.

Angkor Palm: We had a great dinner at this joint facing the Old Market on the northeast side

( It’s just an air-coned version of pretty much the same Khmer food served elsewhere (with the addition of a wine list), but it was all good. The owner was engaged, hands on, and made sure we had everything we needed. It’s people like him and our guide John Teng who are going to build an economic future for Cambodia.

Aha: This place looked like exactly the kind of joint we didn’t want. At the southwest end of Pub Street Alley connected to the McDermott Gallery. Highly hip and far too slick to be much about their food. WRONG! They’re doing great fusion-ish food in their little glassed-in central kitchen. These are global “tapas” that are more than just a mishmash. Moreover, the service was impressive. Kind and easy going, but on-the-ball attentive. Found out later that they’re owned by the crew from Hotel de la Paix.

Viroth’s Restaurant: Around the corner from the hotel along Wat Bo Road, this place serves Khmer food done to a high standard in a lovely setting. After a hot & sweaty morning exploring the ruins, it feels like an oasis for lunch. (

FCC Angkor: We never got over to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club ( We heard it was a great place for an evening cocktail and perhaps dinner. Looked really fun.

Snack: Across the street from the Old Market on the southwest side, there’s an open front store doing these palm sugar, tapioca, coconut, black sesame cookie/pancake-things. Thin pancake done on a hot griddle, then rolled into a tube. They sell them in packages, but buy one off the griddle to nibble as you walk the market. Yummy.

No-go List:

Chamkar: Veggie place in Pub Street Alley. Inconsistent, SLOW (as in 1.5 hours between order and service). We had a seriously shitty interaction with the French manager.

Cambodian BBQ: Cute spot in Pub Street Alley. The food was boring with relatively high



The damn temples are so beautiful that it’s hard to come up with a list of must-go places. We certainly enjoyed Les Artisans d'Angkor school ( It’s a French backed facility that recruits rural kids, teaches them traditional Khmer craft, and then employs them making stuff to fund the school. If you want to do some shopping, buy here; both to support the program and because of the quality and price.

I felt that the Cambodian Land Mine Museum & Relief Facility ( was extremely well done. Our guide mentioned that there was a government run “official” museum that was crappy so I’d make sure to get to the one run by Aki Ra.


I can’t speak highly enough about the guide we hired, John Teng. He was

knowledgeable, reliable, flexible, and very reasonable. If you think you could use a guide for the temples, for transport, etc., John’s the dude.

John Teng

(+855) 12 995 977, (+855) 16 518 888

*Note: Many of the photos here were taken by our friend Ken Girardini. As a rule, the good ones are his. If they suck they’re mine.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Thoughts on Bali

Pleen and I spent a week on Bali split pretty evenly between the high-end villa venue of Canggu and the artistic center of Ubud. For me it was a first time visit. Pleen hadn’t been there since high school.

Bottom Line Up Front:

We’re both glad we came to Bali and we had a good time, but it probably won’t make our must-return list anytime soon. It's lovely, just not really our scene.


North of the more well known beaches of Kuta, the high end areas around Seminyak & Canggu offer splendid villas for a romantic get-away or an enjoyably isolated retreat with friends or family. The spectacularly luxurious villa our buddy BL arranged would easily take 5 couples for less than most of the higher end hotel resorts. We were impressed not only by the beauty of the facility, but also by the kind and competent staff. It beat the hell out of anonymous luxury hotel – it felt much more personal.

Here’s the whole crew with Henry, one of the dozen or so staff who took such good care of us.

When we chatted briefly with the rep from the agency handling the villa he told us that his firm managed about 40 more similar properties! If there’s really that sort of choice among these sorts of properties, it’s good news for travelers.

The little bit of shopping we did around Seminyak was jointly stymied by the heat (we chose the shops we entered as much due to their air conditioning as their offerings) and the fact that we didn’t need anything. Traveling through Asia for a month, we were loathe to begin filling up on souvenirs. Moreover, the wares on offer seemed to extend pretty quickly from affordable touristy stuff to international fashionista accoutrements. We both felt that, in a town where a good lunch from a high end place cost US$5, $100 bikinis seemed a bit much for us.

In Ubud, we found a similar extreme spread in accommodations. It seems that the market caters to either the backpacking crowd or the Four Seasons crowd, with relatively little in between. We ended up bouncing between “just fine” and “over the top”. The gallery and shopping scene in Ubud is certainly nice enough, but not all that compelling. In the end, people watching and chasing a good meal turned out to be our primary activities – big surprise.

Throughout our time, we found some good eats. BL describes Balinese cuisine as boring, but Pleen and I hadn’t had a hit of Indonesian food in a long time so it was a treat for us. We got our fill of old favorites like nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) & gado-gado (steamed veggies & tofu in a peanut sauce). Somewhat ironically, our first hotel in Ubud served the best mie goreng (egg noodles stir-fried with chicken, egg, and veggies) we had anywhere along our trip.

Smoky and oily with a nice bit of chili alongside, it had much more going for it than some of the more refined versions we sampled at more refined places. This highlights the common case where street food suffers the farther you get from the street. All you’re really looking for with this sort of food is a well-seasoned wok and an experienced chef. The niceties of presentation are often contra indicated for real flavor. There were also new-to-us treats like urap pakis (a salad of wild fern tips and roasted coconut) and karedok (vegetable salad with peanut tamarind dressing). Fresh, light, and herb-y, these dishes were wonderfully fulfilling in the hot languid cafes of Ubud.

A word here has to be reserved for our favorite culinary discovery of the trip. Perhaps the best “mocktail” ever is the Breeze from Kafe Batan Waru. This place is BL&ST’s favorite place in Ubud and, as usual, they didn’t steer us wrong. The food in general is well worth stopping in for. Aside from dishes mentioned above, their tahu petis (fried tofu with house dipping sauce) rocks. But the drink is what brought us back. The Batan Waru Breeze is a concoction of lychee, mint, ginger, lime juice, and ice that serves to perfectly refresh and rejuvenate. It’s like an artisanal limeade . . . or perhaps lemonade for adults. I won’t embarrass Pleen by admitting in print how many times we returned for one of these treats as we trooped ‘round town sweating and exploring. I will only say that this is the finest tropical refresher we have yet encountered.


So the place is lovely, but it’s not enough of our scene to compel a recent return. We’re not surfers or exotic fashion fans or any of the other specific categories of travelers for whom Bali is so well suited. We weren’t looking to bum out on a beach this time round nor learn the intricacies of making batik fabrics. There are any number of other reasons to find your way here, and Bali is certainly the most user-friendly locale in Indonesia. The well-developed infrastructure and services make it easy to get to and easy to enjoy.

Kafe Batan Waru

Jalan Dewi Sita, Ubud

Bali, Indonesia