Sweet Stories from South-East Asia

I was thinking about my various travels recently, with the idea of perhaps putting together a post along the lines of my ‘Top 10 Desserts from Around the World”. However, as I thought back to my South-East Asia adventure in late 2008 – a 29-day Intrepid tour looping Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia- I realised that most of my memorable dessert-ish moments from that trip don’t really fall onto a list like that. Some, I can barely remember the details to even begin a recommendation. Others are simply little travel happenings that rather made the dessert memorable. These are the ones I’ve written about here. They may not be truly reflective of a country’s traditional cuisine – but they are nevertheless the stories that have stuck with me!

(I apologise for the lack of any photos. Seems twenty-year-old Terri hadn’t quite developed the foresight to photograph such things!)

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An Ice-Cream Miracle | Vientiane, Laos

It was on this South-East Asian trip that I discovered what would come to be a recurring craving whilst traveling – simply a delicious, refreshing ice-cream. As things go, ice-cream was not particularly easy to come by in many places I visited on this trip. I tried as best I could, however, and this actually led to some fun little expeditions. The pinnacle of such ice-cream ventures was that of the Lao captial, Vientiane.

Some fellow travelers and I had spent the day exploring the city by bike, and the sweltering afternoon sun prompted a decision to search for a frozen treat. We trawled the surrounding streets, but the sun was getting hotter and the ice-cream situation was looking dire; there’s only so long you can drag around your friends in such a seemingly futile pursuit.

That’s when I heard it. A faint yet distinct tune rang through the quiet neighbourhood we were staying in. Slowly, it edged closer and closer, until the tinny music took form in the shape of a lone Lao man pedalling a bicycle with a big ol’ freezer tacked onto the front.

(This is when I first suspected I may have very mild superpowers in the ability to manifest my dessert destiny.)

In an otherwise completely deserted street, we dove into this man’s makeshift ice-cream cart like kids on Christmas morning. In being unable to read the local language, it was always a bit of a gamble choosing ice-cream flavours in South-East Asia – but I lucked upon a chocolate Paddle Pop type ice-cream filled with condensed milk. I’m not sure whether it was actually one of the greatest ice-creams I’ve tasted in my life (I’m a sucker for condensed milk!), or the whole magical-ice-cream-bicycle-man-appearing-out-of-nowhere-at-precisely-perfect-moment phenomenon merely amplified it to godly proportions – but I even today I crave that chocolatey, condensed milk wonder a lot.

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Sweet Milk | Vientiane, Laos

It would be the very night of the Ice-Cream Miracle that I would continue my apparent condensed milk crusade. My tour group visited a wonderful restaurant in Vientiane called Makphet, which trains and staffs street kids and at-risk youth in the kitchen and front of house. Run by Friends-International, the organisation also has restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia and I highly recommend supporting this cause if you find yourself in the area.

As we were prompted to order our beverages at Makphet that night, I was excited to find ‘Ice Coffee Lao with Sweet Milk’ beaming up at me from the menu. Yes, the wording was a little strange – though I naively put this down to a Lao-English translation thing. The weather was still sweltering and I could think of nothing better than a refreshing, cold iced coffee – something I hadn’t seen on a menu in Thailand or Laos so far on my trip. Now, a typical Australian iced coffee is a delightful concoction of milk and coffee, a scoop or two of vanilla ice-cream and a generous serving of whipped cream atop. What arrived at my table was something very, very different.

I was given a tall glass of cold, black coffee. Ice cubes bobbled and clinked at the top around a straw that stood totally upright in the centre of the glass. This apparent magic was in fact due to the inch of condensed milk that lined the bottom. As a strictly white-coffee drinker and yet a total floozy for all things condensed milk, I was torn between two worlds. And it wasn’t just any black coffee, either. It was strong black coffee. But in that Lao restaurant in that Lao heat, it was perfect. Icy cold, simultaneously super bitter and super sweet – it wasn’t the last time I had that style of iced coffee whilst on my South-East Asian trip! The style is actually more renowned as a Vietnamese beverage, which was quite convenient given it would be my next destination…

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World Heritage Listed Chocolate Mousse | Hoi An, Vietnam

One thing I hadn’t been expecting before visiting Vietnam (mainly because I was rather naive and did like, zero research before this trip) was the French influence. Colonised by France in the mid 1800s through to the 1950s, footprints of French culture remain in modern Vietnam by way of language, architecture and cuisine. I was, of course, delighted by the cuisine part – not least because of the French-style bakeries that proffered all the croissants and crepes a girl could ask for.

The Vietnamese patisserie that stole my heart, however, was that of The Cargo Club in Hoi An. Situated on the South Central Coast of Vietnam, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such has been conserved in all its old-world enchantment. My tour group stayed here for three days, and every single one of those days I visited The Cargo Club with a few similarly seduced travelers. The restaurant is a large, two-storey colonial building by the riverside and (lucky for me) has wholeheartedly embraced all things dessert – and in fact has become hugely renowned for it.

The one dessert that blew us all away was the chocolate mousse. I actually can’t even remember what it looked like (and this is why we take photos of our food, people!) – I just know it was one amazing little piece of chocolate paradise that had us coming back for more. Literally. Every day. The life of an obsessive dessert-lover can sometimes be a lonely one when journeying afar; fellow travelers aren’t always quite as keen to venture on a quest simply for something sweet. The Cargo Club was definitely not one of those cases. As much as I’m willing to seek out a treat myself, sitting down in Vietnam with a group of people sharing the mutual appreciation of a table-full of chocolate mousse and other sugary delights is a wonderful memory!

Guest Wanderer: John ‘Phampants’ Pham and an Eastern European Escapade

I met John almost four years ago through YouTube when I was gearing up for my first solo trip overseas. Having announced in a video that I would be jumping on a plane to Munich in a few short months, a YouTube user by the name ‘Phampants’ contacted me to offer any friendly advice he might give on backpacking Europe. John was both a fellow YouTuber and travel junkie – and this turned out to be the moment my first real YouTube friendship began.

Despite him being a resident Chicagoan, our worldly wanderings have meant that John and I have  had the opportunity to meet in person a couple of times whilst traveling:

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John and I having a quiet catch-up on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disneyland – Anaheim, California 

John recently shouldered his backpack for another overseas escape, returning once again to ever-enchanting Europe. I got in touch to chat about his latest adventures:

So, John. You’re a pretty prolific traveler, having set foot on European soil a couple of times already. What inspired this recent adventure?

J: When I first backpacked Europe in 2009, I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to do it again –  but instead of Western Europe, I wanted to do Eastern Europe. So this trip was a balance of visiting friends (Rome, Frankfurt and Krakow) and exploring the Eastern European countries.

Euro Tour 2013 map 1

John’s three-week Europe trip, Nov-Dec 2013

Truthfully, I just travel where my stomach wants to go.  The world is filled with too much delicious food to eat and alcohol to drink. Follow your stomach and you’ll never be disappointed.

Did this trip reveal any special places you hope to return one day?

J: I’ve been to Rome twice before. After studying the classics for so long and having a friend there now, it’s hard not to return. As for new cities, I definitely want to return to Berlin again when it’s warmer. Plus, I had the best ramen outside of Japan and best Korean food outside of Korea. Vienna needs a return visit because 2 days were not enough. Finally, I would return to Krakow in a heartbeat. It was definitely my favourite city on this trip.

House of Parliament in Budapest copyCharles Bridge in Prague copy

Hosue of Parliament, Budapest | Charles Bridge, Prague

The all-important question – what was the food like? Favourite dish? Anything you’re craving, now home?

J: Where do I even start?

Rome: For traditional Roman fare that is Anthony Bourdain approved, go to Roma Sparita in St. Cecilia Piazza in Trastevere. The cacio e pepe is phenomenal. But if you’re craving something different, No.au is a gastropub that’s perfect for beer lovers and foodies. Craft Italian beers meets food designed for your palate. For an aperitivo, go to Chiostro del Bramante. Drinks and snacks in an old monastery with an open courtyard in the middle of Rome.

cacio e pepe copyWienerschnitzel Frankfurt style copy

A Roman cheese and pepper pasta dish, cacio e pepe, at Roma Sparita – Rome | Wiener schnitzel with potatoes and green sauce – Frankfurt

Frankfurt: Wiener schnitzel Frankfurt-style is your typical fare, but with Frankfurt’s green sauce. While in Germany everyone must have a doner. I highly recommend one at Doy Doy’s off Konstablerwache.

Budapest: Szimpla is a ruin bar found in the old Jewish ghetto. I won’t say much lest I spoil the place.

Vienna: Julius Meinl on Kohlmarkt is a great place for coffee and lunch. If you’re here during the Christmas season, go to the Rathausplatz for some Glühwein, wurst and Leberkäse.

Prague: Old Prague Ham. Just have it. It changed my life. Beer lovers must visit Klášterní pivovar Strahov on the hills of Prague. It’s a great craft brewery in an old monastery with a great outdoor dining area.

Old Prague Ham copyKlasterni pivovar Strahov Courtyard copy

Old Prague Ham – Prague | The courtyard at Klášterní pivovar Strahov, a hilltop craft brewery situated in an old monastery – Prague

Berlin: When in Berlin, one must always have currywurst. But for something different, I highly recommend Kimchi Princess near Kottbusser Tor. The bibimbap is fantastic and  the kimchi jjigae fills you up perfectly. If you’re in Hackesher Markt, check out Cocolo Ramen for amazing ramen. Craft beer lovers – go to Hops & Barley on Wühlischstraße. For the adventurous type, go to labyrinth bar Peristal Singum.

Krakow: When in Poland, one must eat pierogies, black pudding & potato pancakes. Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa is a 1950s-themed bar that has a few locations in Krakow. Great place to hang out, have a few beers or shots of vodka.  Speaking of vodka, if you love Nutella or hazelnut, order some hazelnut vodka here.  You’ll thank me.

What would you recommend to anyone travelling to this part of the world?

J: Explore the Jewish history in Eastern Europe. From the free walking tours to Holocaust memorials or a trip Auschwitz, the history of the Jews in  Eastern Europe is something all should experience.

How has overseas travel changed for you over the years?

J: There’s always more to see, learn, eat and drink. The friends you make abroad are real. It’s okay to change plans halfway through your travels. Sometimes it’s worth blitzing an area and sometimes it’s okay stay in one place for awhile. And it’s possible to fall in love with more than one place.

And the question on every traveler’s mind upon returning home – where next?

J: South America is calling my name. Buenos Aires is on the top of my list. Cape Town, South Africa and Thailand are climbing up the list quickly. But Puerto Rico will happen this spring. ;)

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Zakopane, Poland

The Finders Keepers Markets

Last Saturday I woke gloriously late in the morning to such a sunny, soul-warming Spring day that just begged to be properly enjoyed. I adore these beautiful months of transition between Winter and Summer, where a warm and sunny day feels like you’ve won a little treasure in the lucky dip. With nothing planned, I jumped on my various social networking feeds – sure that there would be something or other on offer in Melbourne this particular October 5th.

Lo and behold, ’twas that very weekend that The Finders Keepers Markets were in town! The Finders Keepers Markets are independent art and design markets that make their way through Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on a bi-annual basis. I’ve definitely found myself becoming more and more interested in local, independent design lately – and not having been to The Finders Keepers before, it was a swift decision to change out of my pyjamas and jump on a tram toward the Royal Exhibition Centre.

The Finders Keepers Markets

Row upon row of gorgeous wares aside, there could be no more fitting backdrop than the 19th-century Royal Exhibition Building itself. I’ve probably only visited a handful of times – but brimming with the crowd, stalls and decor of The Finders Keepers, I think this was the first I’d ever really noticed how truly stunning it is.

I took the afternoon to slowly wander the markets, methodically winding around every stall cluster to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It seems quite redundant to say, but really – there were so many beautiful things! As a crazy stationery lover, I was rather besotted with Ask Alice, Bespoke Letterpress, Write to Me and an ever-favourite Able and Game.  I was also very much on the verge of buying this Red Frogs scented candle (made in recycled beer bottles!) from Pigeon & Weasel Soy Wax Candles.

However – it was but one, very special thing that captured both my heart and my money this day. That thing was this handmade wooden treasure box with a gorgeous Art Nouveau style fairy engraving from Foolhouse:

The Finders Keepers Markets 2

The Finders Keepers Markets 3

This treasure box honestly stopped me dead in my tracks. An overwhelming sensation fell over my body, and a strange voice whispered inside my head: Terri. This was made for you, and you alone. You must buy it. You must buy it now! Quick! 

And so, I did.

As a kid I was thoroughly obsessed with all things fairies – so much so that one teacher suggested to my mum at parent-teacher interviews that I might try ‘broaden my horizons’ on account of my strictly fairy-based writings. I’ve also grown up in a family that’s valued the importance of finding and keeping little ‘treasures’ – whatever that may mean to the particular treasure-keeper. I think I actually had quite the emotional moment over this treasure box, much to the bemusement of the stall-owner!

Whilst there was so much more I could have splurged on at The Finders Keepers, I’m still pretty happy to have come home with my sole loot, and simply having had a beautiful afternoon at the markets. Despite the crowd, I had enough time to be able to wander slowly and found it all rather peaceful, really! I’d love to return next time it pops up in Melbourne. In the meantime I’ll be keeping an eye on The Finders Keepers blog for updates, plus nifty features on Australian independent designers and artists.

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