Itinerary: Hong Kong to Hanoi by Train

Over the past few years, my partner and I have made it our missing to travel all the way from Singapore to London overland. From Thailand’s idyllic beaches to the mountains of China and the vast wilderness of Siberia, this was to be our ultimate journey. Sadly, the reality of busy lives in London prevented us from tackling the entire journey in one go, and forced us to split it into numerous smaller segments. Our most challenging leg to date was that between the high-rise hub of Hong Kong, to the historical citadel of Hanoi, thanks in large to the logistical issues that can arise from both arriving in and departing from the People’s Republic of China in anything other than an airplane. This, however, was our journey…

Train Travel in China

China’s rail network is vast, largely efficient and good value for money considering the distances involved. With several different classes of train ranging from the brand new high-speed G Class trains, to the older and slower (although still perfectly good) K Trains, there is usually an option to suit all needs and budgets. 2nd class seating on daytime trains is perfectly suitable for 99% of visitors, although First or even Business Class on the high-speed network can be an experience in budget is of no concern! For overnight trains, there is usually a choice between “Soft” and “Hard” sleepers, although this has nothing to do with the quality of the bed! The main difference, realistically, is the price. Soft Sleepers are arranged in cabins of 4 bunks whilst hard sleeper has 6, but both come with sheets and a pillow and are perfectly acceptable for the odd overnight journey, and have the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel bed! The excellent www.seat61.com is a great place to read more about travelling by train in China.

When it comes to booking, Chinese trains (particularly the overnight sleepers) can book up days in advance. Whilst it’s perfectly possible to book the trains in person at the station once in China, booking through the online agents listed below can save a lot of headaches and missed connections. If you do opt to book in person at the station, don’t count on the ticket agent being able to speak a single word of English. A better bet would be to print and complete this excellent form and simply present it at the booking window. Just don’t forget to take your passports with you!

 

A Word on Visas…

My first experience applying for a Chinese visa was whilst I was living as a teacher in Kolkata, India, in 2008. It didn’t go well, and I never made it north over the border. Fast forward 10 years and from what I can tell, progress in the application system has been minimal! All visas for China are best processed in your home country, well in advance of your planned departure date. You can’t apply directly to the embassy itself, but rather through the Chinese Visa Application Centre, who add a hefty fee to the already significant visa charge. Budget travellers be warned, your visa will be valid for 30 days, although it is possible to spend as little as 48 hours in the PRC on this trip – if you have time it may well be worth extending your itinerary beyond what I provide below, to get more value from your Visa!

In a nutshell, the best advice for a pain-free visit to the Visa Centre is to read their website back to front, in minute detail. And then read it again. The exact requirement can vary slightly depending on your nationality, and where you are physically applying from. Generally, at the very least, you will need to provide details of exactly how you will be arriving in and departing from China, and where you will be staying on each night that you are in the country. And when I say details, I mean Confirmed Reservations.

And this is where things can get tricky. It is not currently possible to book Chinese Trains online from abroad, meaning you will need to use an agent – more on this later. Unfortunately, most of the booking agents are unable/unwilling to book trains for you without a copy of your Chinese Visa. See the conundrum here? No visa without tickets, yet no tickets without visa! Fortunately, once you’ve got your visa, your official itinerary can go out the window – meaning that with a little creativity, getting a visa might not be so bad after all. My favourite method is to book the ferry between Osaka and Shanghai as my return method of travel, as they will issue you with a booking certificate without any down payment or credit card guarantee. As for hotels, I generally book two weeks in a reputable Shanghai institution that offers free cancellation, send my papers off and hey presto – a shiny new Chinese Visa! A few quick cancellations once the deed is done and you’re home and dry…

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Arriving in Hong Kong

How: Airport Express Train

Cost: HK$115

How to Book: Buy at Station

Recommended Connection: Departures every 10-12 Minutes

Where to Stay: Ovolo Central

Get Around: Buy an Octopus card at any MRT Station for discounted fares on all public transport.

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The Journey
Having arrived into Hong Kong’s vast and shiny airport, by far the quickest (although not the cheapest) way into the city is using the Airport Express train. If you’re staying in Kowloon or the New Territories, alight at        Kowloon station, or continue to Central station to be delivered to the heart of Hong Kong Island. Your Airport Express ticket also includes a free shuttle -bus from the station to many of the main hotels, so be sure to follow the well signed route to the shuttle bus desk!

Whilst in Hong Kong    
Having historically belong to the UK up until 1997, Hong Kong is a fascinating blend of colonial British and Cantonese influences. The central business district on Hong Kong island is a hub of global business, with modern high-rise buildings, fine restaurants and exclusive bars operating late into the night. Whilst on the island, be sure to explore the maze of backstreets and alleyways that weave across the city, punctuated by surprisingly calm and pleasant parks and temples. A trip to the summit of Victoria Peak is a must for incredible views across the towering skyscrapers to the bay beyond, with sunset a particularly popular time to visit. The historic tram that runs to the peak is charming, although rather expensive and often with huge queues – it’s quicker and cheaper to take a taxi, particularly if there’s a group of you! Finish your day on the island in one of the many bars that make up the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong, where the early evening happy-hours take the sting out of the Hong Kong prices!

For a taste of Cantonese life, jump on one of the famous Star Ferries that cross the harbour to the main land every few minutes. At just HK$2.50, this is by far the cheapest way to experience Hong Kong’s manic harbour waters and the old boats are quite an experience in themselves. With over 21 million people living in just 47 square kilometres, Kowloon is one of the most densely populate places on earth. Prepare yourself for a crazy mix of markets, malls and tower blocks that seem to never sleep! For shopping, the area around Mong Kok has something for everyone, whilst Temple Street Night Market is a great place to get a taste of authentic Chinese street food.

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Hong Kong to Guangzhou

How: Intercity Train

Cost: HK$210 in “First Class” (Standard Class) / HK$250 in “Premium Class” (First Class)

How to Book: https://www.it3.mtr.com.hk/b2c/frmIndex.asp?strLang=Eng

Recommended Connection: 13.11 (Train Z826)

Where to Stay: Lazy Gaga Hostel

Get Around: Metro

The Journey    
Up to 10 days per day leave Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station, bound for the mainland. Just a short hop from downtown Kowloon on the MTR, the station has a definite airport vibe and be prepared for extensive security and immigration checks! Rather confusingly, the entry level seats are named “First Class”, whilst “Premium” is what we would call first class. Whilst the normal seats are perfectly fine, the extra US$5 for premium buys you a very comfortable seat with free nibbles and at-seat service! The trains are generally punctual and take around two hours to make the trip into Guangzhou’s east station, passing through the industrial areas to the north of Hong Kong before reaching a more scenic stretch on the way into Guangzhou.

Whilst in Guangzhou
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city and dates back over 2000 years to when it was founded a key trading town for the region. Today, the city is an important business hub with a sprawling and modern city centre, and numerous large and beautiful parks. For visitors, it is probably the historic and cultural side of the city that holds the most appeal with a number of temples, monuments and memorials dotted across the town.

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A great starting point for visitors to Guangzhou is the historic European quarter on Shaiman Island. The beautifully renovated buildings, squares and churches are a great area to explore on foot and soak up the quirky, artistic vibes. For shopping, the pedestrianised Beijing Lu is Guangzhou’s answer to London’s Oxford street, whilst Qingping Market is home to an array of exotic goods, foods and traditional Chinese medicines.

As the hub of Cantonese culture, Guangzhou is also home to some unique and delicious delicacies which are traditional to this part of southern China. A word of warning, however – the Cantonese are famous within China for their use of all parts of the animal when cooking – and I mean all. The squeamish may be wise to ask for English menus when possible, although even then the translations can be misleading!

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Guangzhou to Nanning

How: High Speed Day Train or Overnight Sleeper Train

Cost: From $26 (Day Train, 2nd Class) / $31 (Overnight “Hard” Sleeper)

How to Book: www.chinahighlights.com

Recommended Connection: 13.02 (High Speed Day Train G2914) / 17.25 (Overnight Sleeper Train K1205)

Get Around: Metro

The Journey: 
Taking a little under 4 hours to cover the 600km between Guangzhou and Nanning, a ride on one of China’s new “G” class trains can be a great experience in itself. Hurtling through the countryside of southern China at speeds of up to 300kmh is both a comfortable and convenient option. That said, the scenery on the way is not particularly exceptional, and by the time you’ve got to and from the station at each end you lose practically a whole day travelling.

Our preference has always been to cover such stretches at night in one of the comfortable sleeper trains that ply the route. This means you maximise your time in each city, with the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel for the night. The trains are clean, comfortable and a great way to meet local Chinese people!

Whilst in Nanning                 
Nanning, although a large city, has relatively little to offer the average tourist. Instead, it tends to act merely as a staging post for those making the journey to or from Vietnam by train. A number of modern shopping malls and some nice landscaped parks are perfectly pleasant places to spend a few hours whilst in town, but one night here is usually enough for most visitors. In fact, if you’re short on time, it’s perfectly possible to arrive at in Nanning in the morning on the overnight train from Guangzhou, and then leave again the same evening on the sleeper train to Hanoi. If you choose to do this, the train station has a convenient left luggage option where you can store your bags for a few dollars whilst you spend the day in town!

modern city at night, Nanning, China

Nanning to Hanoi

How:                                        Overnight Sleeper Train

Cost:                                        From $38 in Soft Sleeper

How to Book:                          www.chinahighlights.com (Search for “Gia Lam” as your destination!)

Recommended Connection:   18.05 (Train T8701)

Where to Stay:                        Central Backpackers Hostel – Old Quarter

Get Around:                            Walking / “Vinasun” or “Mai Linh” Taxis

The Journey: 
Whilst technically a sleeper train, and it does indeed have perfectly comfortable Soft Sleeper berths, don’t count on getting too much sleep on this journey! Expect to arrive at the Chinese border town of Pingxiang at around 10pm, where an announcement will be made in English that the trin will stop here for around two hours whilst customs and border checks are completed. You will be required to leave the train, taking all of your luggage with you, and pass through Chinese immigration before returning to your berth.

Once everybody is back on-board, it’s then a relatively short trip to the Vietnamese border post at Dong Dang where the routine is repeated again, this time for the benefit of Vietnamese immigration. It’s worth noting that it is worth changing a small amount of money into Vietnamese Dong here, as you will need some cash when you arrive in Hanoi!

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From Dong Dang, it’s then non-stop to Hanoi’s Gia Lam station, a few kilometres away from the Old City. This stretch is your best chance to get a little shut eye before arriving at around 6am. The station is pretty remote and you will be greeted by hordes of taxi drivers offering to deliver you to the old town for an extortionate price. You can try to haggle with the drivers but the chances of them turning their meters on for you is slim as they know you have few other options. At this stage, many passengers are so tired that they give in a pay the higher rates, although walking a few hundred meters down to the main road may get you a better price. If you can, flag down a green ‘Mai Linh’ or white ‘Vinasun’ taxi – these are two of the most reputable companies in Vietnam and their drivers are friendly and always use their meters!

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Whilst in Hanoi      
Walking the buzzing streets of Old Town Hanoi has to be one of the all-time great travel experiences. With many relics of the communist days, the city is packed with history and is home to a number of great museums, memorials and temples. The Hanoi Citadel and Military Museum both offer great insight into the history of the Vietnam War, whilst the grand Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a triumph of communist era architecture.

For culture-vultures, the Temple of Literature dates back almost 1000 years and offers an oasis of calm in the sometimes-overwhelming madness of Hanoi’s streets. Another great escape is to take a walk around the central Hoan Kiem lake, and even join the groups of locals practicing Tai Chi or martial arts in the park area surrounding it.

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For food, one of the must try dishes when in town is the famous beef noodle soup, or Pho. At around $1.50 per bowl, this is a great value, healthy and filling meal. For a snack on the go, the Banh Mi is Vietnam’s answer to the French baguette, and comes packed with delights such as BBQ pork, fresh chilli, herbs and pickled vegetables. For drinks in the Old Town, head to Ta Hien, affectionately known as ‘beer street’ and join the locals sitting on tiny plastic stools on the street side. Bia Hanoi is a classic bottled brew, whilst the draft Bia Hoi is the cheapest option at as little as $0.25 per glass!

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Itinerary: Singapore to Bangkok by Train

A firm believer that the journey is as much of the experience as the destination, I’ve always been one for overland travel whenever possible, with train travel being my preference. Not through any particular love for the locomotives, but more the overall experience. Often faster and more comfortable than busses, yet still very firmly on the ground, rail travel allows you to cover vast distances at ‘street level’ – and often meet some wonderful characters on the way. My first foray to Asia many years ago had me excited at the prospect of riding aged carriages along historic routes, and the journey we chose was from Singapore up to Bangkok, taking a little over two weeks at a comfortable pace.

Nowadays, sadly, the connections are not what they once were. With much of the Malaysian section now electrified and running modern intercity style trains, in order to make the journey by train, one must change trains more frequently. It’s hoped that the ongoing modernisation work on Malaysia’s railways will be complete by 2020, allowing the for the re-introduction of a direct north to south service. Until then, here’s how we did it…

 

Arriving in Singapore

How: Fly to Singapore Changi Airport; MRT into City

Cost: SG$1.75

How to Book: Buy at station

Recommended Connection: Departures every few minutes between 6am – Midnight

Where to Stay: AMOY by Far East Hospitality

Get Around: The Singapore Tourist Pass offers Unlimited Public Transport from SG$10 per day

The Journey
The vast majority of visitors to Singapore arrive by air, into the city’s glistening Changi Airport. A model of cleanliness and efficiency, you can expect a quick stroll through immigration and customs, before boarding and equally smart and efficient MRT train which will deliver you into the heart of the city in a little under an hour. Kill the time by reading some of the entertainingly excessive rules that one must adhere to onboard, and remember – Don’t even think about bringing a Durian fruit on the train with you!

Whilst in Singapore
Modern, buzzing and a veritable melting pot of cultures, Singapore has something for everyone – although be prepared to pay handsomely for it! There’s no such thing as a cheap night’s sleep in Singapore, so we opted to spend a little more and treated ourselves to a room at the boutique AMOY hotel, directly opposite Telok Ayer MRT station on the downtown line. Situated at the heart of the city and accessed through a historic temple, this gem of a hotel is a great base for exploring all that Singapore has to offer. The rooms are well furnished and the staff couldn’t be more hospitable.

Take advantage of the excellent value Singapore Tourist Pass for unlimited travel on the excellent Bus & MRT network, which will deliver you speedily to any corner of the island. Be it shopping on Orchard Road, nightlife at Clarke Quay or a stroll through the lanes of Little India or Chinatown, it’s possible to see the highlights in just two days. For the budget conscious, eating at hawker markets is another great way of keeping costs down whilst enjoying some of the most authentic food in local surroundings. A huge portion of fried pork dumplings can be found for as little as SG$6 in the markets of Chinatown.

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore's Chinatown at sunset

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

How: Train

Cost: Approx. $17

How to Book: Book Online 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1. Depart Woodlands 08.00 / Arrive JB Sentral 08.05
2. Depart JB Sentral 10.00 / Arrive Gemas 14.25
3. Depart Gemas 15.00 / Arrive KL Sentral 17.12

Where to Stay: The Reggae Mansion

Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber, or buy a Touch’n’Go card at any major station for discounted fares on all Public Transport

The Journey
Sadly, Singapore’s central station has been out of use for a number of years now, meaning that all journeys off the island start at Woodlands Checkpoint station, a quick bus or taxi ride from the city. Once you’ve cleared Malaysian immigration, a 5-minute shuttle train ride will take you across the causeway that links Singapore island to mainland Malaysia, and into Johor Bahru Sentral Station. From there, you board a brand new express train for the 7-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur, with a quick half hour change at Gemas. The trains are modern, air conditioned and very comfortable, and the view from the windows is magnificent, particularly approaching Kuala Lumpur.

If you don’t fancy changing trains so often, there are direct busses linking downtown Singapore to KL although these can be prone to long delays at the border, and often fall victim to KL’s traffic. Be prepared for the journey to take just as long as the trains, if not longer – It took us nearly 9 hours on a recent trip!

Whilst in Kuala Lumpur: 
Described by many as Singapore without the polish (and excessive rules – chewing gum is perfectly legal!), Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s thriving capital city, and a model of diversity. The sprawling markets of Chinatown are just minutes away from world-class mega malls, whilst the twin Petronas Towers dominate the skyline of the city’s financial district. Whilst it’s possible to ascend the famous towers, there is often a long wait for a slot and the tickets don’t come cheap. Another option is to ascend the KL TV Tower which is far less visited and considerably cheaper. Best off all, the view from the top features the full KL skyline – including the twin towers – something you wouldn’t get if you were standing inside them!

Thanks to the excellent network of subways, light railways and even a monorail, getting around is a breeze. Clean, bright and modern, the Reggae Mansion offers reasonably priced private or dorm rooms with breakfast included and an amazing rooftop bar. It’s within walking distance of the famous Petaling night market and directly opposite Masjid Jemak MRT station, and as such is a great base for two or three nights in the city. For a local dining experience, head for Jalan Alor and choose from one of the dozens of restaurants that line the streets!

Petronas Twin Towers at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth

How: Train

Cost: Approx. $18

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart KL Sentral 09.00 / Arrive Butterworth 12.53

The Journey  
You’re back onboard one of Malaysia’s brand new ETS Platinum trains for the four-hour ride up to Butterworth. With an onboard Bistro car serving fair value snacks, and often overly powerful air conditioning, you can expect a comfortable ride with lovely views of the Malaysian countryside as you head north at over 100mph – an experience in itself in SE Asia!

Whilst in Butterworth:
Butterworth itself probably doesn’t warrant a visit in it’s own right. It’s a perfectly pleasant town in which to grab a bite of lunch before the connecting train north later in the afternoon. However, if you have time, we strongly recommend breaking your journey here for two or three nights, and making the short trip to Georgetown, on the island of Penang.

 

Optional Side Trip: Georgetown, Penang

How: Ferry

Cost: Approx. $0.30 Outbound; Return Journey Free

How to Book: Buy Onboard

Recommended Connection: Every 30 minutes from 5am to Midnight

Where to Stay: Numerous Guest Houses & Hotels on Love Lane

Get Around: By Foot

The Journey                                            
Having jumped off the train at Butterworth, follow the signs for the short walk to the ferry which makes the 15-minute crossing to Georgetown every 20 minutes or so, between 5am-1am. The outbound fare is around $0.30, and the return journey is free making this an incredibly affordable stopover. Georgetown itself is small enough to easily explore by foot, or you can hire 4-wheeled pedal cars from a number of locations around Armenian Street!

Whilst in Penang            
Famed for its ubiquitous street art and incredible food scene, Georgetown is a haven for any budding culture-junkie. Exceptional Chinese, Indian and Malay can be found on every street corner and in food markets dotted across the city – all at bargain prices. Assam Laksa is one of the most famous dishes, and is prepared with a thinner soup than other Malaysian Laksas, resulting in an amazing balance of sour and spicy.

The ‘Little India’ district transports you to downtown Delhi, whilst the area around Armenian Street is a hub of Colonial architecture and vibrant street art. Hours can be spent wandering the back streets in search of lesser known pieces, whilst the most famous works of art will often have large crowds of people waiting to pose alongside them. Be sure to visit the Kapitan Kling mosque for a free and incredibly interested tour of a working mosque, guided by a local volunteer.

For accommodation, the area around Love Lane has a number of good value guest houses, where it is advisable to simply turn up and negotiate a rate directly with the hotel. In the evening, a number of small bars pop up in the backstreets around here, serving cold beers on plastic tables at the side of the road!

 

Butterworth to Surat Thani

How: Train

Cost: $18

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1.Depart Butterworth 14.25 / Arrive Padang Besar 16.16
2. Depart Padang Besar 18.00 / Arrive Surat Thani 23.28

The Journey
Having taken the ferry back to the mainland, it’s time to continue north and leave Malaysia behind as you cross into Southern Thailand. Once again, a shiny new Malaysian train will deliver you to the frontier station of Padang Besar where you will officially exit Malaysia, and enter Thailand. Both border posts are within the station building, and are both usually very efficient meaning there is little risk of a hold up. Once across the frontier, you board an older but perfectly comfortable Thai overnight express train bound for Bangkok. Whilst it would be possible to book an sleeper berth to deliver you straight to the capital overnight, you’d be missing some of the very best of Thailand. Instead, we recommend booking yourself a second class seat and jumping off at the town of Surat Thani just before midnight.

Whilst in Surat Thani
Much like Butterworth, Surat Thani is generally just a staging post for travellers transferring between trains, busses and ferries on their way to or from the gulf islands. Given your late arrival, it may be best to book a hotel online and simple take a Grab taxi straight there from the hotel. Town itself is pretty small and run down, so you won’t be missing much by taking an early departure to Koh Samui the next morning!

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Surat Thani to Koh Samui

How: Bus & Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $18 (Incl. Hotel Transfer on Koh Samui)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Surat Thani Town 09.00 / Arrive Na Thon Pier, Koh Samui 12.35

Where to Stay: Ananas Hostel Samui

Get Around: By Foot, Motorbike or Shared Jeep

The Journey      
There are numerous operators and agents selling cut-price combination tickets from Surat Thani to destinations all over Thailand. Generally speaking, if you book through one of the numerous touts, you will likely get to your destination eventually. However, for well-maintained ferries, great organisation and an overall lack of hassle, I wholeheartedly recommend spending a couple of dollars more and travelling with Lomprayah ferries, booked through 12go.asia. They provide collection from the town centre, a fast catamaran connection between the islands and the mainland, and a free minibus shuttle from the ferry pier to your hotel door on one combined ticket. It’s unlikely that you would save much, if anything, by arranging each leg yourself and the through ticket makes the whole journey fast and pain-free!

Whilst in Koh Samui  
As the most developed of the gulf island, Koh Samui has everything from basic backpackers digs to ultra-luxurious 5-star resorts. The beaches are undoubtedly the main attraction, although pretty much anything else you could hope for will be available somewhere on the island and can be arranged at any of the numerous travel agents across the island. The largest and most famous beach can be found at Chaweng (Samui’s answer to Sin City), along with a number of bargain bucket accommodation options, and a hardcore nightlife scene. Whilst the cheap drinks and fast relationships 8for want of a better phrase) on offer in the bars of Chaweng are a draw for many of the islands visitors, we prefer to stay away from the craziness and explore the less developed side of the island.

Ananas Hostel is set in a beautiful local part of the island, with picture-perfect beaches within walking distance. It’s possible to hire 50cc scooter here, too, which make a great way to explore the island and discover your own secret beaches far away from the tourist throngs!

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Koh Samui to Koh Phangan

How: Minivan & Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $14 (Incl. Hotel Pickup on Koh Samui)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Samui 09.45 / Arrive Koh Phangan 11.45

Where to Stay: Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort

Get Around: By Foot / Jeep Taxi

The Journey
If you once again book through Lomprayah, a minivan will pick you up from your accommodation around an hour before sailing time and deliver you to the pier, where you will re-board one of the company’s catamarans for the short ride over to Koh Phangan. If you’ve pre-booked your hotel, they may well offer a pickup from the port – otherwise it’s down to you to negotiate a price with one of the many jeep taxis that meet each sailing.

Whilst in Koh Phangan 
Koh Phangan is home to the world famous Full Moon parties, where thousands of revellers descend on the idyllic Haad Rin beach to spend the night consuming questionable substances and dance the night away to deep house and trance music. If you can’t make it for Full Moon, but still want a slice of the action, the Half Moon parties give you a taste of what it’s all about. Either way, if you visit during either of these events, be sure to book your accommodation and transport well in advance as the sudden influx of thousands of visitors means that things sell out quick. The Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort offers reasonable quality accommodation at fair prices, right at the heart of the action.

The day after the party sees a coordinated clean-up effort by many of the revellers, and taking part is a great way of giving something back to the community and environment.

If wild parties are not your thing, head for one of the smaller communities on the island where the traditional fishing lifestyle is still at the heart of the community. Heading inland from the coast, there is endless opportunity for hiking through the stunning green hills that make up the island’s backbone, with plenty of hidden waterfalls thrown in for good measure.

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Koh Phangan to Koh Tao

How: Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $17

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Phangan 13.00 / Arrive Koh Tao 14.00

Where to Stay: Koh Tao Coral Grand Resort

Get Around: By Foot / Motorcycle

The Journey 
Talk to your hotel’s reception to organise transport back to the ferry pier at the end of your stay. They will be able to arrange a fair price for you, as well as advise what time you should leave to make your ferry connection. The ride across to Koh Tao is the longest crossing of your trip so far, so it’s worth taking some drinks and snacks with you, particularly if you’re suffering the aftermath of a big night! Once again, transport from the pier on Koh Tao is best arranged through your hotel if you have pre-booked.

Whilst in Koh Tao
The smallest of the three main gulf islands, Koh Tao has a long and well-deserved reputation as being the most chilled out island, and is a favourite amongst those looking to get away from it all. The diving is world class, and a number of 5 Star PADI Dive Centres are based on this tiny island, making it a go to destination for qualified divers and beginners alike. Prices are pretty comparable across all of the schools, with most offering dive and accommodation packages for those seeking to complete their Open Water certification.

Getting around the island is best done on foot, or with a rented scooter. To access some of the more remote coves on the far side of the island, it’s best to hire a jeep Taxi which can cope with the rough, unmade roads that cross the island’s spine. Alternatively, longtail boats can be hired directly from the beach to take you anywhere around the island.

The small island of Koh Nang Yuan lies less than a kilometre away and makes a great excursion by long tail boat, and offers excellent swimming and snorkelling oppurtunities. In the evening, head back to Koh Tao and garb a drink in one of the beach bars to see the sunset behind Koh Nang Yuan.

Ko Tao to Bangkok

How: Ferry, Bus & Overnight Sleeper Train (Lomprayah)

Cost: $51 (Second Class Sleeper Train)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1. Depart Koh Tao 14.45 / Arrive Chumphon Pier 17.15
2. Transfer to Chumphon Station by Bus (Included with Lomprayah)
3. Depart Chumphon Station 21.10 / Arrive Bangkok Hua Lamphong Station 06.30 (+1)

Where to Stay: Sri Suvan @ Rambuttri Guest House

Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber; Public Transport

The Journey
The final leg of the journey takes you back onboard a Lomprayah catamaran for the crossing back to the mainland town of Chumphon, several hundred kilometres north of Surat Thani. If you book a through ticket, a bus from the ferry port to the train station will be included in the price – just follow the instructions of the staff onboard.

The sleeper train to Bangkok is a great experience in its own right, and second class is generally perfectly comfortable enough for most travellers. The sleeper berths are made up by the onboard attendants, are well padded and come with a pillow, blanket and curtain for privacy. Although reliable, the trains can be prone to delays of an hour or more, so be sure to leave enough time if you have a flight to catch!

Whilst in Bangkok
Bangkok is a vast city and deserves at least three days to really do it justice. The modern part of the city, centred around Siam Square and Sukhumvit, is full of high rise office blocks and designer malls. For a cheap bite to eat, do as the locals do and head to the food court at the top of the terminal 21 shopping mall, where a full meal can cost as little as $2.

Bangkok’s old town, with its hundreds of temples and vast Royal Palace, is just a few kilometres from the modern city, but is sadly not served by the Skytrain or Metro system. The busses are cheap and frequent, although using the Uber or Grab taxis apps is a great way of getting around very cheaply. Just be aware of flagging down a taxi or Tuk-Tuk as overcharging is rife!

If you have limited time, a visit to the Grand Palace is essential, followed by a visit to the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho before jumping on one of the taxi boats that ply the Chao Phraya river. A quick stop at Wat Arun is the perfect place to catch the sunset, before continuing on the river boat to Phra Arthit and the backpacker district of Khao Sanh.

Famous the world over, the Khao Sanh road is Bangkok’s original backpacker’s street with a thriving night market, cheap accommodation and boisterous nightlife. Just a few minutes’ walk from the main strip, the Sri Suvan guesthouse offers simple yet immaculate rooms at bargain prices, with a number of great restaurants just on the doorstep.

If you’re leaving Bangkok by plane, Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is on the city’s excellent Skytrain system, whilst Don Mueang airport (DMK) requires a metro journey as far as Bang Sue station, before taking a connecting Bus.

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Isaan: Thailand’s Final Frontier

Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport isn’t an inherently bad place. It’s by no means a highlight of anyone’s visit to Thailand, but neither does it conceal some dark force of evil. It is, however, a place that I will generally try to spend as little of my life as possible for if it is one thing for sure, it is boring. And so we found ourselves sitting in – rather bizarrely – and Egyptian themed bar in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, eating Hummus and flat bread. We were due to meet a friend in Yangon in around 10 days’ time and were trying to find the best way to get over there. Pretty much every flight we could find for a reasonable price required a lengthy layover at Don Mueang– something you may have realised we were keen to avoid. Another option that was open to us was a quick hop over the border and an overnight sleeper to Bangkok and onward flight to Yangon. That was out, too, as we’d already spent a considerable amount of time in Bangkok and didn’t fancy killing another week there now. Looking at the expanse of North Eastern Thailand that lay just across the Mekong, it dawned on us that this was the one region of Thailand we were yet to really explore. It was our final Thai frontier: Isaan.

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A quick bit of online research soon revealed that as-well as the plush overnight express trains, we could reach Bangkok using the much cheaper, albeit much slower, local third diesel trains that plied the tracks between Nong Khai and Bangkok. This is a part of Thailand that is often overlooked by both the tourist and backpacking crowds as it has none of the fine sandy beaches for which Thailand is famed. What it does have, however, is an incredible cultural diversity, some fine Khmer ruins (Cambodia & Laos are just a hop away!) and food that is considered both delicious and spicy – even by Thai standards! The spherical Isaan Sausages are renowned throughout Thailand and available practically everywhere – not one to miss!

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A quick and hassle-free trip to the border using Vientiane’s local bus network soon saw us boarding a shuttle coach across the bridge leading over the mighty Mekong, and into the Thai city of Nong Khai. We had seen a flyer for a guest house here a few weeks ago and had, fortunately, had the good sense to note down the details, and it was just a couple of hours after leaving the bustle of Loas that our TuKTuk driver was delivering us to the oasis that is Mut Mee Garden guest house. Owned and managed by long term British expat Julian and his Thai family, Mut Mee was the escape we so badly needed after a few months of rather basic accommodation. Luscious riverside gardens, soft beds and immaculate rooms were served at prices that even the most budget conscious traveller couldn’t refuse. Julian’s hospitality, it would seem, is somewhat legendary locally, and we ended up spending almost a week in and around Nong Khai. Whilst the city itself is perhaps unexceptional, the weekly regular street food markets, excellent cycling network and relaxed, riverside vibe makes it a great place to spend a slow week. A cycle out to the Sala Keoku sculpture park with its gargantuan concrete statues is a surreal experience and an absolute must whilst in town.

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We had decided to break the 600+ kilometre trip to Bangkok down into smaller sections, spending a night or two in towns along the way. Local Thai trains are utterly brilliant. Not in the sense that they are in any way luxurious or modern, but in the sense that they connect you to local life in a way that no other mode of transport can. The rusty diesel cars that were to be our chariot for the next week offered only third-class seating, which had certainly seen better days. Trundling south, however, on our first leg towards Khon Kaen, we knew we had made the right choice in travelling this way. The seats may have been hard but with the windows wide open we were able to truly appreciate the staggering beauty of this land, so untouched by tourism. Mile upon mile of farmland rolled by, punctuated by rural villages and the occasional larger town.

Life on board was just as vibrant as that trundling by our window. Food vendors boarded at most stations, offering cooled drinks and various snacks which were both as delicious and as spicy as we had been warned to expect. Towards the front of each train is an area of seating reserved exclusively for the use of Monks who may happen to be travelling. This can be a great place to sit as we found that many of the Monks who boarded spoke remarkably good English and were keen to engage us in conversation and share their knowledge of the area.

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Despite their slow speed and regular stops, our train trundled into Khon Kaen pretty much dead on time, and we had a wonderful evening exploring the local night market, before enjoying an exceptionally good value meal in the food court just a few hundred metres from the station. We had been warned that the cities of Isaan’s cities didn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing, and had decided to spend just a night or two in each of our stops. This worked perfectly for us as we were mainly looking to experience the region rather than go off and hunt down specific sights.

Next stop on our journey was the provincial capital of Nakhon Ratchasima, locally known as Korat – remember that when looking at train timetables as both or either names may be used! On this particular leg, our train was much busier than previous journeys. The conductor, seeing us jump on board with our bags was keen to practice his English for a few minutes, before ‘miraculously’ reserving 2 seats for us by the window, with space for our bags!

Despite its size, Korat retained it charming, small town feeling. A large central square, interesting selection of temples and buzzing night market cemented the charm factor, whilst the city Zoo – one of Thailand’s largest – makes a great day trip. Shopaholics will also be delighted by the great range of wares available in town, both in the street-side markets and large, modern malls that can be found on the city’s edge. For those with a little more time, the hour-or-so journey to Wat Non Kum will reward you with idyllic views over a grand Thai temple, with none of the tourist crowds!

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From Korat, both Bangkok and the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya are in easy striking distance by train. If time is of the essence, regular express trains make the journey into Bangkok’s Huamlamphong station in around three hours, although we decided to stick to our guns and complete the journey on our trusted slow trains! Whilst this may sound a rather romantic waste of time, one of the most truly remarkable aspects of this style of travelling is the cost – or lack of. Our entire journey from Nong Khai on the Laos border, to Bangkok some 630 km away had set us back a mere 120 Thai Baht. That’s less than $4, for several days of stunning views, great conversation and unobstructed photography. Who needs windows when you can have the wind in your hair?

Top 10 Dishes to try in Morocco

Safe, vibrant and well connected to Europe and beyond, Morocco is widely regarded as one of the most accessible North African countries to visit. With both Arabic and French as its national languages, and English widely understood in tourist areas, it’s possible to truly immerse yourself in the local culture and experience the famed Arabic and Berber hospitality. I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to get to grips with a new culture is through its food, and with Arabic, French and Berber influences coming together with incredible fresh produce, Morocco is a joy to visit. Here are 10 classic Moroccan dishes you shouldn’t miss…

 

Tagine

Possibly the most famous of Moroccan dishes, the name ‘Tagine’ actually refers to the unique clay cooking dishes used commonly in this part of the world. A wide, clay base and tall conical lid work together to ensure its contents are cooked slowly and evenly, whilst the shape of the lid acts to preserve moisture and keep the contents juicy. This humble dish gives birth to a myriad of different dishes, although Chicken, Lamb and Beef are staples along with an assortment of vegetables, olives and traditional Moroccan preserved lemons. Tagines can be found practically everywhere in Morocco, and are almost always served with freshly baked bread. Delicious!

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Merguez Sausages

Bright red in colour, these fresh sausages can be found grilling over hot coals on practically every street corner. Traditionally made of either minced Lamb or Beef, these little delights are heavily spiced with Cumin, Sumac, Fennel and Harissa – a spicy blend of roasted peppers, chillies and garlic which gives the sausages their red colour. Traditionally eaten as a sandwich or with French fries, Merguez sausages can also be found dried as an ingredient in Tagines. Head to Marrakech’s famous Djemaa el Fna square to try one hot off the grill!

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Mechoui

Morocco’s famous slow roast lamb, usually prepared by roasting whole lambs on a spit in clay ovens. Before roasting the lamb is smeared in traditional Smen, or fermented butter, and then coated in a blend of cumin, coriander and chilli powder for that signature north African flavour. Whilst the idea of fermented butter may sound unpleasant, when roasted it helps to keep the meat tender and juicy, whilst enhancing the natural meaty flavour. Once cooked, the succulent meat is pulled apart by hand, shredded and eaten with salt and freshly ground cumin – and the ubiquitous flatbread!

 

Harira

A traditional North African soup, Harira is often eaten as a starter or by itself as a light snack, although it is particularly popular during the holy month of Ramadan when it is eaten to break the fast at sunset. Rich hearty and satisfying, the main broth is made from Chicken, Chickpeas, Lentils and Tomatoes, with hints of ginger and saffron. Just before serving, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice is often added for sharpness, along with a pinch of salt and turmeric. Traditionally served with hard boiled eggs, dates and sweet bread, it’s a triumph of sweet and savoury!

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Couscous

Popular and trendy across the world, Couscous is a classic Moroccan dish and can be eaten both as a savoury main course, or sweetened and eaten as a desert. In its savoury form, couscous is eaten in a similar way to how other cultures would eat rice or pasta – as an accompaniment to a stew with lots of vegetables and sauce. A classic example of this would be the famous “7 Vegetable Couscous”, where squashes, cabbages and root vegetables are slow cooked in an intense broth and served on a mound of fluffy couscous. In its desert form (known as Stouff), the couscous is traditionally steamed several times until incredibly light and fluffy, before being topped with sugar, almonds and cinnamon and served with milk that has been perfumed with orange flower water.

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Bread

A nod to Morocco’s French influences, freshly baked bread lies at the heart of Moroccan culture. A perfect accompaniment to the rich stews, hearty soups and succulent meats that make up the Moroccan diet, bread is both cheap, filling and delicious in its own right. It’s perfectly common for every household to prepare their own fresh bread every morning, which is then taken to the communal bread ovens that can be found in every neighbourhood, where it is expertly baked in the hot ovens before being collected again in time for lunch.

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Tangia

The lesser-known brother to the Tagine, ‘Tangia’ refers to the clay cooking pot that is traditional to Moroccan Berber culture. It is common for single men to take their Tangia to the local market in the morning, and have it filled with a mixture of olives, preserved lemons and meat – usually beef or lamb. A blend of spices and seasoning is added, along with a little water and olive oil, before the pot is tightly sealed. The pot is then often taken to a bakery or even the fires beneath a steam bath where, for a small fee, the pot will be nestled amongst the embers of the fire and left to slowly cook for several hours. The result is a rich and nutritious stew with succulent meat – the ultimate one-pot cooking!

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Dates

As with many Arabic cultures, dates have been popular in Morocco for thousands of years and are in ready supply thanks to the vast number of date palms that grow in the region. Often eaten ceremoniously to break the fast during Ramadan, dates are still a popular ingredient to this day and can be eaten alone as a sweet snack, or used in recipes such as the famous Tagine. Whilst over 100 varieties of date grow in Morocco alone, the most famous is the Medjool Date which is celebrated for its meaty flesh and honey-like flavour – perfect with a cup of fresh mint tea!

 

Moroccan Mint Tea

Drinking mint tea is a national past time in Morocco and is considered a symbol of hospitality and friendship. Whilst the preparation of food is still often considered to be a woman’s role, the preparation of the tea – a process known as atai – is usually left to the man or head of the household. Brewed using green tea, fresh mint and sugar, the tea is then poured from the pot from a height of at least 30cm into a small glass, causing a foam to form on top. This foam is known as the ‘crown’ and is an essential sign that the tea is good to drink!

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M’Hanncha

Whilst a huge assortment of sweet pastries known as Baklava are available across the country, one dessert that is particularly renowned in Morocco is the M’Hanncha, or Serpent. A sweet mixture of almonds, butter, sugar and rosewater is wrapped in long sheets of thin pastry, similar to Filo. This long tube is then rolled up and baked, with its shape resembling a coiled snake – hence its name! Sweet, with a crisp pastry crust and oozing centre and wonderful perfume of rosewater, this is a quintessential Moroccan experience and is best enjoyed with a fresh glass of mint tea!

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A Journey Into The Shan

Originally Written for One City Road, March 2017

As a kid growing up in England, it was not uncommon for Mum to bribe me into doing some kind of physical activity by assuring me that my “dinner would taste all the better at the end of it”. I’d like to think I was a pretty savvy kid, and soon realised that this generally wasn’t the case, and that dinner was usually pretty delicious without hours of sweat and exertion beforehand.

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Fast forward 20 years and you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m not, by nature, the most sporting of creatures. Sitting with a cold beer in hand one evening, you can imagine, therefore, my misgivings when my partner bounded onto the terrace and announced that she’d just booked us onto a two-day trek into the hill tribe villages the next morning. We’d only arrived in Hsipaw, a small town in Myanmar’s Shan State, a few hours earlier after a 12-hour train journey. The slow pace of life here was slowly becoming infectious and I had personally been looking forward to a slow amble around the town the next day, punctuated with numerous cups of tea.

Alas, it was not to be. 8am came around fast and we found ourselves marching out of town with a small gaggle of other backpackers, led by our ever-resourceful guide, Ko. We had to cover 17km that day to reach our overnight stop in the village of Ban Kham, with a climb or around 900 meters thrown in for good measure. Whilst the trail varied from basic to non-existent, the countryside scenery was never less than stunning. Our route was punctuated with small farmer’s huts, where we were invariably plied with bananas fresh-off-the-tree and sweet local tea. Along the way, Ko (not his real name, more of a local phrase meaning ‘Brother’) would stop and pick interesting tit-bits for us to try. Peanuts fresh out of the ground were particularly surprising, tasting not unlike their namesake ‘Peas’.

The British Government advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to a large part of this area due to ongoing insurgencies. As ever, we relied on the mood on the ground at the time to reassure us that we wouldn’t wander into harm’s way. On a couple of occasions, we passed small groups of what Ko cheerfully dismissed as ‘local hunters’. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone hunt with Kalashnikovs, but we exchanged cheerful “min-ga-la-ba ‘s (Burmese for Hello) and went on our way. A bunch of bumbling Brits are unlikely to present much of a threat to their cause, least of all hunting.

Cresting our final hill at around 4pm, we were greeted with a cluster of small, bamboo houses nestled into a small valley, with promising wisps of smoke drifting from the make shift chimneys. We were to spend the night sleeping on bamboo mats around an open fire in one of these stilted constructions, before setting off again at sunrise the next day. Having been warmly welcomed by our host family with more cups of strong and sweet tea, we were soon seated on empty hessian sacks around the clay fire pit that was the focal piece of their single-room abode. Grandma spent the next hour or so lovingly stirring, tossing and boiling numerous clay pots over this simple wood burner, whilst the kids prepared salads and breads in the open-air kitchen overlooking the valley.

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Burmese meals at the best of times usually consist of no less than 10 small dishes in the middle of the table for all to share. Spicy chutney’s that can catch the uninitiated off guard; dried fish with peanuts, pickled greens and curried vegetables are all staples of the Shan dinner table, and bring a balance of texture and flavour that any Michelin chef would be proud of. A special mention must go to the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, with juicy home-grown tomatoes and crunchy fried beans. The freshness of each ingredient sang out loud and clear, yet worked in incredible harmony for a dish that had been mixed with bare hands in a clay bowl just minutes earlier. As soon as a dish was any less than full, Grandma would send one of the kids scurrying out to refill it, lest her guests go to bed anything less than full.

The Fork and Spoon are the classic Burmese eating utensils, with the fork mainly used to load the spoon – a technique that takes a little practice. Nonetheless, several very contented hours were spent slurping around the fire, with Ko doing his upmost to provide a little translation between us and our hosts. With the sun well below the horizon, and Granma’s pots well and truly emptied, we succumbed to the day’s exertions and drifted into possibly the best night’s sleep I’d had in months.

The Forge Restaurant & Wine Bar

Originally Written for Destination Luxury, July 2017

Dating back to the 1920s, The Forge Restaurant & Wine Bar is a Miami Beach institution. Having welcomed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy garland and more recently Justin Bieber through its doors, there is no question of The Forge’s credentials as a luxury dining venue. In 2015, owner Shareef Malnik appointed celebrated Chef Julia Doyne to lead the dining operations in the role of Executive Chef, bringing modern techniques and flavours to the established American Steakhouse genre.

A Cleveland native, Chef Doyne began her culinary career at the age of 5, learning to cook with her mother at home in the family kitchen. First setting foot in a professional kitchen at the age of 13 as a dishwasher, Chef Doyne’s culinary career blossomed at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to New York City to continue her training under some of the finest chefs in the country. Having built a long and successful working relationship with celebrated Chef Christopher Lee in New York, she followed him to The Forge as Chef de Cuisine before being promoted to Executive Chef in 2015.

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Since assuming ultimate control over the culinary operations at The Forge, Chef Doyne has been quick to put her personal touch on the menu, which has long been celebrated for its Steakhouse Classics. According to owner Shareef Malnik, “Her dishes are thoughtful in presentation and offer bold flavours and masterful presentations that are influenced by her passion, precision and technique.”

Similar words could be used to describe the interior of The Forge, which is a seamless blend of traditional and modernist features. Having undergone a number of changes over the years, the most significant refurbishment took place in 2009 when the restaurant was closed for a year to allow for a $10 million regeneration. Lead by renowned interior designer Francoise Fossard, The Forge was reborn with a modern décor, ambience and philosophy. Hand carved wooden wall panels, Murano glass chandeliers and colourful upholstered furniture are plentiful throughout the main dining room. For private dining, the glass-enclosed ‘Board Room’ features a 22-foot long tables carved from a single, polished Indonesian tree trunk. For a more traditional feel, one can dine in the ‘Library’ room with its stained glass, light wooden furniture, open fire and extensive selection of books adorning the high walls.

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The trademark design feature of the new-look Forge, however, is the labyrinth-like wine cellar which also boasts its own private dining room for up to 25 guests. With over 25,000 bottles of wine stored in this cavernous site, the Wine Cellar at The Forge is one of the largest collections of fine wine in the country. The list features exceptional vintages dating back to 1822, as well as over 60 wines available by the glass, dispensed and preserved using state-of-the-art technology. Upon our visit, we were fortunate enough to be given a private tour of the extensive cellars by Dean, one of The Forge’s many wine experts. The sheer size and complexity of the operation is staggering, and the tour was a definite highlight of our visit and an experience which should not be missed.

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Having taken our seats in the wonderfully light and airy main dining room, we were taken on a journey of gastronomic delights as Chef Doyne introduced us to the dishes which she has personally hand-crafted for the menu at The Forge. To start, I opted for the Artichoke Ravioli, served with crispy pancetta, brown butter and pine nut biscotti. The balance of textures was outstanding and the freshness of the artichoke sang through the rich butter sauce. My partner’s Crispy Crab Cake was wonderfully light and worked perfectly with the smoked remoulade. A burst of fresh acidity was delivered masterfully through the addition of fresh green apples and pickled fresnos.

As would be expected from an American Steakhouse, The Forge features an extensive selection of cuts ranging from Japanese A5 Wagyu through to a mammoth 35oz, bone in dry aged Porterhouse for two. Add to the mix a number of creative spice rubs and a plethora of sauces and butters, and it’s clear that the emphasis on delivering world-class grilled meats lives on at the heart of the kitchen.

To complement this excellent selection of steaks, Chef Doyne has added two composed entrees of her own creation which elevates the menu well beyond that of a typical steakhouse. A tableside classic, the 2 Pound Lobster Pot Pie with root vegetables was both hearty and refined. The generous chunks of succulent Lobster were coated in an indulgent sauce and topped with rich, buttery pastry, whilst the sweetness of the root vegetables complemented that of the lobster meat superbly. My partner’s whole Salt Baked Branzino was perfectly light and delicate, and was supported by a wonderful warmth from the smoked paprika vinaigrette.

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As far as side dishes are concerned, a number of classics have been given the chef’s twist, such as the Haricot Vert which are delicately seasoned with Szechuan chilli sauce and sesame seeds. The Creamed Spinach is adorned with a soft poached hens egg and parmesan cheese for richness; Cauliflower with English cheddar is a classic reborn through the inspired addition of capers for acidity. For the ultimate indulgent side, it’s hard to resist the house special of Caramelized Brussel Sprouts with Confit Duck and verjus raisins.

To round off such an indulgent meal, it would have been amiss of me not to sample Chef Doyne’s signature sign off: ‘The Forge Dome’. Rich chocolate cake, homemade banana bread ice cream, vanilla infused walnuts and pineapple sauce come together in a satisfying blend of old school flavours and modern culinary technique. Served under shiny dome of chocolate, the hot sauce is poured over the top of the dome at the table, thus melting the chocolate and revealing the delights within. Being renowned as a venue at which to celebrate special events and milestones, the ‘off the menu’ Birthday Cake Soufflé is a testament to the skills of the kitchen team and a desert fit to mark any special occasion.

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As The Forge approaches the 100 year anniversary of its original inception, it is comforting to know that the dynamic team of Malnik & Doyne are at the helm. Together, there is little doubt that their respect for the traditional values, yet forward-looking approach will continue to keep The Forge at the very forefront of the American Steakhouse genre for the indefinite future. Here’s to the next 100 years.

 

 

Barcelona: A Quest for Culinary Immersion

First Written for FreeB&B, July 2017

With a population of over one and a half million, Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region as well as Spain’s second largest city. As such, it’s only natural that Barcelona has become a veritable melting pot of people and cultures, which is reflected more than ever in its diverse culinary scene. Whilst traditional Catalonian cuisine stills lies at the very heart of the city’s identity, world-class fare from other regions of Spain, and indeed the world, continue to pulse in the background. As a major tourist destination, Barcelona has more than its fair share of over-priced restaurants serving questionable food to the throngs of tourists that pass through its streets all year round. However, this in no way means that It’s impossible to find an authentic meal for a reasonable price; It simply means that those unfamiliar with the cities winding streets must work that little harder to find the local experience.

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To truly understand the Catalonian approach to meals, one must first understand the structure of a Catalonian day. For a culture with such a rich gastronomic background, it should be of little surprise that the day is largely defined by meal-times – which are numerous and somewhat different to those in other parts of the European mainland. Thanks to the predominantly warm climate and distinct beach culture, meal times generally happen comparatively late in the day, and with pleasing regularity for someone with my considerable appetite.

Breakfast

Having spent the majority of my life working in hospitality, I’ve become entirely used to starting my day with nothing but a strong cup of coffee or two, followed by a more substantial morsel later in the morning once the day’s operations were underway. As luck would have it, nothing could have prepared me better for adjusting to life in Catalonia. Having risen, a dreamily light ‘Café con Leche’ is the first order of the day for many locals, perhaps accompanied by a slice of toast or a biscuit. This double shot of espresso is topped up with generous amounts of hot steamed -milk and provides a silky-smooth drinking experience. The coffee scene in Barcelona is world-class, and I must say I have come to favour the shorter, more intense hit of a ‘Cortado’ – a large espresso with just a dash of warm milk.

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Around 11am comes the first ‘real’ meal of the day. Arguing whether this still constitutes ‘Breakfast’, or whether it has transgressed the boundaries of space and time into ‘Brunch’, is entirely academic. What matters is that this mid-morning carb hit is all that you have to carry you through until your lunch later in the day. Turning off the main tourist thoroughfares and into Barcelona’s veritable maze so side street and alleyways, you will be met with a multitude of small cafes serving a variety of bread-based delights. Whilst the humble croissant is not uncommon, many locals prefer the heartier option of a rustic sandwich, laden with the cured meats for which Spain is famous. ‘Elias Forner’ have 6 outlets across the city, including on the Avinguda d’Icària, and with over 80 years of baking heritage they are a long-term favourite with locals seeking the very best in freshly baked bread.

 

 

Lunch

Lunch time is almost sacred to the Catalonians, and usually takes place between 2pm-3pm. Generally a three-course meal, many consider lunch to be the most important meal of the day and eating out is both common and affordable. The numerous backstreet restaurant burst into life and offer dizzying array of tempting options. To find the best value for money, seek out the restaurants offering a “Menú del día”, or Menu of the Day, which typically includes a starter, main course, desert, bread and a drink – coffee is almost universally charged as an extra. Chilled Gespatxo soup, salads, cured meats and home-made croquettes are all staples of the first course. For a typical Catalonian main course, search out the ‘Botifarra amb mongetes’ – spicy barbecued sausages served with fried beans and a garlic aioli sauce. Hearty and satisfying, this is the epitome of simple Spanish cooking and demonstrates the virtue of quality fresh ingredients cooked well. To finish, fresh fruits, cheese, and honey are the order of the day, often accompanied by a small glass of sweet wine. Whilst this veritable feast may seem an extravagant midday meal, portions are generally small and the emphasis is on enjoying the meal and socialising, rather than simply satisfying a hunger-pang. If you feel more comfortable eating earlier, then this is entirely possible too – Just be prepared to dine exclusively with your fellow tourists!

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Dinner & Drinks

Despite Spain being a major wine producing country, Barcelona’s beer scene is significant and constantly evolving with a number of new micro-breweries popping up across the city. Come 7pm, the streets will be filled with after work drinkers socialising over a chilled ‘Cerveza’. Estrella is the major beer favoured in Barcelona and is found almost universally, whilst newer brands such as Moritz have also established a significant following. Ordering ‘una cerveza’ will generally get you a bottle of the house beer; for lovers of draught beer, ‘una cana’ will yield pleasing results. These small glasses of cold beer are perfectly suited to Barcelona’s hot climate as they do not have the time to get too warm as they are consumed quickly.

As a great man once said – “What’s a beer without a nibble?” The Spanish are famed for their love of Tapas and Barcelona is no exception to the rule. For one or two euros per dish, you can from a vast selection of both hot and cold dishes ranging from locally caught calamari rings, spicy roast potatoes in an indulgent tomato sauce, to strong cheeses and fried seafood. Standing on a cobbled street, sipping beer and grazing on an assortment of tapas is an essential part of any visit to Barcelona and an experience that certainly should not be missed. Rather than trying to decipher the menu – if there is one – simply approach the counter and point out the dishes that look most appealing to you. Not being entirely sure of what you’re ordering is all part of the fun and you will rarely be disappointed!

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If you are seeking something more substantial, head to the beach front restaurants around Barceloneta around 9pm and join the throngs of locals dining on freshly caught seafood just meters from the sandy beach. Despite being originally a dish from Valencia, Paella is held in high regard and eaten regularly by many locals. Practically every restaurant in Barceloneta serves it’s take on this classic dish of rice and seafood with lemon and saffron, although quality can vary dramatically.  Take your time to walk along the seafront and see which restaurants are busiest and don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations! Since 1903, ‘Can Sole’ has been pleasing groups of locals and tourists alike with it’s fresh, home cooked food, served in a charming two storey house.

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Ultimately, it would be entirely possible to spend a month simply wondering the various districts of this vast city and exploring the vast culinary scene. Another month could be spent exploring the fresh produce on offer at the numerous markets and yet another attempting to master the skills involved in delivering the world-class fare that has become synonymous with Barcelona. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get an authentic taste of the city in just a day or two – Explore the backstreet, order blindly from menus you may not be able to read, and embrace ever pulsing moment you have in this vibrant city! Salud!

 

Original post can be found at:

https://freebnb.com/blog/barcelona-quest-culinary-immersion/

PM Fish & Steakhouse

Originally Written for Destination Luxury, May 2017

Set in an imposing red-brick building in South Miami’s flourishing Brickell district, PM Fish & Steakhouse delivers industrial vibes with impressive levels of polish and glitz. With over 25 years of experience and wide ranging success delivering Argentinian inspired cuisine in Mexico, PM first moved into the Miami area in 2009 and have since continued to flourish under Executive Chef Maite Munoz.

Stepping inside, the raw brickwork is tastefully broken up with aged metal plating and nautical-style lamps, alluding to the freshly caught fish sitting resplendent on ice before the open kitchen. The circular bar provides a convivial setting for a pre-dinner cocktail from PM’s lusciously crafted list. Taking a seat on a high back leather bar stool, I opted for the signature ‘Cambalache’- a spicy Hibiscus and Lime mix, with Chipotle infused Mezcal setting the tone for the flavour delights to come. My companion indulged in an aptly-named ‘Buenos Aires’- a refreshing twist on the Mojito featuring Absolut Pear vodka and fresh Lychee puree.

To further tease the taste-buds, we were presented with a bowl of homemade potato chips, puffed up like balloons and wonderfully fresh and crisp. Over my shoulder, I could see the kitchen picking up pace ahead of another busy evening, with the seafood counter showing off the prime catch of the day, whilst the exclusive ember grill flared into action. The atmosphere s iinformal yet elegant, and invokes happy memories of evenings spent in the acclaimed steakhouses of Buenos Aires.

It is the exclusive ember grill which is central to the Steakhouse offering at PM’s. Fired by the embers of a precise blend of wood and charcoal, the natural high temperature cooking divulges exceptional flavour and tenderness to their prime cuts – a superbly executed contrast to the delicate fishes prepared just meters away. Homemade pastas and creative salads bring balance to the menu whilst maintaining the Argentinian feel. Cibeches, Carpaccios and Tartares sit confidently alongside soups, stews and Empanadas whilst never losing focus on their namesake Fish & Steaks.

Having been led up the wonderful cast-iron spiral staircase to the upstairs dining area, we are greeted by the contented patter of satisfied diners, and a wonderful waft of spice. Seated by the floor-to-ceiling windows which practically surround the dining area, we had a wonderful view over the ample outdoor bar and dining area, already buzzing with groups enjoying the lazy sunset.

The team at PM epitomise the very essence of hospitality: At no point were we left wanting for anything, and the smiles and suggestions we received were both honest and genuine. Following our charming server’s recommendation, we opted to begin with an assortment of breads and dips whilst we made our selections. Following on, I couldn’t resist the simple lure of Grilled Octopus. Freshly plucked from the Gulf of Mexico, dressed in quality olive oil, salt and pepper and quickly seared in the roaring heat from the ember grill, it certainly delivered on both taste and tenderness.

The humble Tuna Tartare is a staple of any self-respecting seafood menu, but was successfully escalated to new heights on our visit. The quality of the Tuna spoke for itself, and was perfectly complemented with delicate avocado, shallots, capers and a wonderfully balanced citrus-soy sauce, which bound the dish together.

For main course, we left ourselves at the mercy of the char-grill, and feasted on the signature Wagyu Tenderloin, cooked to absolute perfection with a wonderful crust on the outside. Cutting into this 12oz monster, we were met by a perfectly even hue of pink which epitomised the juiciness for which Wagyu beef is renowned. Accompanying this meaty delight was a hearty portion of grilled vegetables, and the most indulgent of creamed spinach dishes. Divinely rich and creamy, seasoned to perfection and topped with a wonderfully intense mix of cheese, this was a feast in its own right.

French Fries, Baked Potatoes and Creamy Mash are all familiar staples of the American Steakhouse and executed with precision, but a visit to PM’s wouldn’t be complete without sampling one of their signature Soufflé Potatoes. Wondrously light and fluffy, and with just the right touch of cream cheese, these were the ultimate accompaniment to our Steak. Baked Wild Mushrooms with garlic, parsley, olive oil and three cheeses requires no further introduction as the ingredients speak for themselves, and delivered on every point.

Another recommendation of the house, the Shrimp & Octopus Stew, was also an immense success. Generous chunks of Octopus and meaty shrimps were lovingly braised in their own natural juices along with potatoes, bell peppers and olives, and delicately finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Delicate yet bold; Spicy yet subtle and undeniably fresh, this simple yet refined cookery demonstrates the awesome skill of the chefs in delivering classic cooking with an upmarket twist.

Having devoured our main courses, it was wonderful to see that the same love, attention and skill that we had graced every other aspect of our evening so far, had not been spared on PM’s desert menu. On offer were delights such as a Chocolate Soufflé, Crème Brulée and the ‘Coffe Mantecado’ – a fine almond biscuit filled with coffee ice cream. A life-long lover of pastry deserts, we opted to share a portion of ‘Blintzes’. These ample baked crepes are filled with an airy mix of cottage cheese, and finished with a most indulgent berry coulis. Wonderfully light and, critically, not too sweet, this proved the perfect sign off to an exceptional meal.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the team received the coveted OpenTable Diner’s Choice award earlier this year. PM’s stated goal is to fuse the simple elegance of a traditional steakhouse with contemporary design, an inviting ambience and a superior dining experience. Whilst an arguably bold mission, from me at least, it’s mission accomplished.

The Vietnamese Foods that will leave you begging Pho more!

First Written for FreeB&B, May 2017

Vietnam is undoubtedly a country of contrasts. North, south, coastal or inland, it feels as if every inch of the country has its story to tell, and at times it can feel like all 101 stories are being shouted at you at once, clamoring to make themselves heard. That said, if there was one thing that could claim to unite every voice in Vietnam, it would have to be the sheer passion that goes into Vietnamese food.

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I come from a pretty foody background, having spent the last far-too-many years working in hospitality in London. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented chefs from a range of backgrounds who have constantly strived to achieve just one simple thing in their cooking: Balance. And balance, it would seem, is something the Vietnamese have in spades.

Somehow, and to this day I’m still not entirely sure if it is by accident or design, but even the most humble street side eatery achieves a balance of flavour, texture and spice that any classically trained chef would be proud to call their own. But don’t start to imagine vast, shiny kitchens with high tech equipment and fancy ingredients. To the contrary, many of the classic Vietnamese dishes have their roots in the communist days when life was much harder.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner receive very little differentiation in many Asian countries, and Vietnam is no exception. It took me a day or two, but my pre-9am chilli tolerances soon adjusted and my morning Pho intake soon became a key part of my daily ritual. In fact, writing this some weeks later in Sri Lanka over a breakfast of Dhal and rice, I thoroughly miss my soupy companion.

Pho is probably the best known of the Vietnamese classics, and for good reason. A hearty bowl of goodness and born from humble roots, this fresh and spicy broth is the very essence of this mighty country, in a bowl. A true peasant’s dish which has been crafted, refined and elevated to new levels during the countries recent economic boom.

Essentially, Pho (Pronounce “Fuh”) is a huge bowl of light, fragrant and subtly spiced beef stock, garnished with soft rice noodles and an abundance of fresh herbs. In the north, thin slices of raw beef are added at the last second whilst those in the south prefer to add generous hunks of slow cooked brisket. A squeeze of fresh lime and generous spoonful of freshly sliced chilli adds a fragrance that can’t help but envelope the streets of a morning.

A possible reflection of the pre-war economy, those in the north and Hanoi in particular like to keep their soups simple, and add very little extra. In fact, the clarity of the broth is often considered the first indication of it’s quality. The south however prefers to add a little Hoi Sin or Chilli sauce to further enrich the flavours – an unnecessary addition in my opinion, but not without it’s merits.

With most of the street-side Pho vendors sold out and packed up by lunchtime, the small charcoal burners and wire-mesh grills begin to fire up, signalling the arrival of some of the best street side BBQ you could hope for. The vendors are always looking to inject maximum flavour into the dishes, meaning you can fine minced shrimp pressed around a stick of lemongrass, or tender hunks of minced pork wrapped in fragrant leaves and grilled directly over the hot coals.

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It’s these beautiful porky-bundles that make up the cornerstone of another Hanoi classic: The mighty Bun Cha. Hunks of barbecued pork sit atop a mound of soft and slightly sticky vermicelli rice noodles, fresh herbs, pickled veg and another healthy dose of fresh chilli. Unlike in western cooking where the dip-pot on the side usually contains little more than a condiment, it is in fact this very sauce which binds the whole dish together.

Typically, the dipping sauce for Bun Cha is comprised mainly of the ubiquitous “Fish Sauce”, along with lime juice palm sugar and chilli. Considering the country’s vast coastline, it’s only to be expected that fish, or fishy derivatives, have embedded themselves firmly in the culinary identity. Alone, this fermented fishy liquid is rather pungent, but artfully blended into various sauces and dips, it adds an unmistakable edge to every dish it graces.

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On the topic of seafood, I think it’s fair to say that the Vietnamese have created a new seafood dish for each of the country’s 3260 kilometres of coastline. Perhaps I’m stretching the point, but it is truly remarkable how such wonderfully fresh seafood can be cooked in so many different ways, without becoming overcomplicated. The freshness and quality of the produces always shines through, with often just minutes between the boats landing and the fish hitting the grills.

Perhaps one of my fondest memories of Vietnam was a day when we road our motorcycles along the coastline of the Mekong Delta, and stopped for lunch at a roadside shack where a fishing boat was just unloading that day’s catch. A small, scruffy board stood outside, yet to be written but would surely later boast the merits of that day’s catch.

Freshness being the absolute cornerstone of any good seafood, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, and we elected to take an early lunch there and then, at around 10am. My Vietnamese language skills are definitely towards the ‘non-existent’ end of the scale, but we managed to find one mutual word which suited our wants: Shrimp. But if you are now picturing the small brown things that English pubs insist on serving up with brown bread and butter as some kind of punitive snack, then think again.

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Each around 10 inches in length and the thickness of a fine Cuban cigar, these plump bad-boys were surely a recent relative of the lobster family. Cracking open their still-steaming shells yielded enormous amounts of sweet juicy meat. Mercifully, these guys had avoided the usually ubiquitous dose of seasonings and flavourings and the sea water alone provided the perfect amount of seasoning.

I think it’s places like these that truly represent the pinnacle of the restaurant scene in Vietnam. Only to call them restaurants at all is somewhat of an injustice, because they are not. They are people’s homes, opened to the public and invariably selling only a handful of different dishes. Far from restricting the appeal of such places, this heartfelt commitment to the faultless execution of a simple menu is a lesson that would be welcome in many a western country.

Another joy of eating out in Vietnam is the fact that, unlike the majority of their neighbours, the Vietnamese use the Latin alphabet, albeit excessively garnished with accents, squiggles and the like. This makes understanding menus in restaurants too small to offer numerous translations, actually possible. Whilst the language itself is still alien, you can very quickly pick up enough words to order yourself a simple meal and gain the infinite respect of the locals for making the effort.

For example, “Mi” is the general term for noodles, “Xao” describes pretty much anything that is fried in a wok, and “Bo” refers to beef. Apply the wonderfully simple Vietnamese sentence structure (at the level at any rate) and you get “Mi Xao Bo” – Beef Fried Noodles! If you were feeling particularly riské one day, you could even swap your Mi for some Com to get yourself a cheeky Beef Fried Rice.

If you are fortunate enough to visit Vietnam, then I implore you to do so with an open mind and an empty belly. Whilst some dishes may not sound like the food we are used to at home, they are invariably cooked with such love and attention to detail that the combinations of flavour and texture alone are enough to satisfy both the pallet and soul.

Already visited Vietnam and keen to share some of your Vietnam Tips with us? Maybe there’s a hidden gem in Hanoi or a secret eatery in Saigon? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch in the comments below! Cảm ơn bạn!

 

Original post can be found at:

https://freebnb.com/blog/the-vietnamese-foods-that-will-leave-you-begging-pho-more/

‘Street-Eats’ in Thailand’s Forgotten Province

Originally Written for OneCityRoad, January 2017

Border towns generally have a well-earned reputation as being brash, unfriendly and often grubby places, with little to keep tourists there beyond a perfunctory border crossing. Nong Khai, on the Thailand-Laos border, is the textbook exception to that rule. The warm and open nature of the Isan people is primarily what drew us to the banks of the Mekong on a warm and lazy Saturday evening.

We’d heard numerous reports of the exceptional street side eating to be had here, even on Thai standards, but the milling, giggling families and endless intriguing trinket stalls momentarily distracted us from what we were really there for. Walking through the winding streets felt like a strange mix of Arabic Souk and London’s Camden market, with each stall offering something largely unique. Further along the river, the stalls started to change slowly from clothes and curios, to food vendors peddling their various specialities. It was the smells that wafted over the early evening breeze that led us first to a street side BBQ, offering everything from grilled whole chickens on lemongrass skewers, to pork belly and chilli kebabs. Keen for us to try her cooking, our beaming host handed us sample after sample, before sending us on our way laden with a selection of goodies for just 50 Thai Bhat (around £1.20). Ducking between stalls and heading for the river, we found an oasis of calm on the riverbank as groups of friends and couples gazed on at yet another wondrous Mekong sunset.

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Our meaty goodie bag, still piping hot having left the charcoals just minutes earlier, delivered a wonderfully fragrant punch of chilli and lime over juicy hunks of meat. Taste buds alight, I left my partner to guard our spot and ventured back into the throng, only to emerge minutes later armed with Chicken Satay skewers (the length of the queue suggested this was a local favourite), and a selection of what can only be described as spherical pancakes with an odd, gooey filling. All delicious, if not to this day somewhat of a mystery.

Whiling away the evening on the river bank was almost cinematically perfect, with the soundtrack provided by a faint tannoy system playing a mixture of music and what we assumed to be news or information. The mood changed suddenly when a piece of music was announced slightly louder than the rest, and the whole scene immediately froze and everyone stood respectively still until the tune changed. We could only assume that this was to do with the recent passing of Thailand’s king, with signs of respect still peppering everyday life.

With the sun then well below the horizon, the festivities outlasted our stamina, and we exited stage left, allowing another gaggle of hungry customers to take our place.