There I was, sipping my welcome drink in a posh Ubud resort, when I almost choked on it.
I was accompanying friends as they sought the best wedding venue in Bali. Concerned about the monsoon, they asked the hotel manager why it hadn’t rained at all in the week we were there.
Without batting an eyelid, she informed us there would be no rain for the entire month. “You see, Julia Roberts is in town.”
The Hollywood leading lady has many accomplishments to her name, I get that, but the ability to control weather surely could not be one of them. As it turned out, one of the most popular myths in 2009 went something like this: Roberts came to Bali to shoot Eat Pray Love. To minimize interruption on the set, traditional rain-makers were hired to cast spells over the skies to keep the rains at bay.
One can never be too sure about these things in a mystical country like Indonesia (and I say this as a committed, practical Singaporean), but what’s certain is Bali—and by virtue of proximity, South-East Asia at large—has had an indelible spell cast on it by the Eat Pray Love marketing machine. You can now go on Eat Pray Love tours to trace Elizabeth Gilbert’s footsteps around the island. You can meet the medicine man she consulted, at $25 (around Rs 1,145) a pop. You can meditate at a beautiful beach resort, learn yoga, and wander around Bali in search of the enlightenment that Gilbert and Roberts popularized in print and on the big screen, respectively. I love Bali, yet I could not help feeling like I wanted to eat, pray and hurl.
Eat, eat, eat: (clockwise from top left) Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love; learn to cook Malay dishes, such as ayam percik, in Kuala Lumpur. Adrianna Tan/www.popagandhi.com; roadside stalls in Bangkok. David Longstreath/AP; and the island of Koh Lipe. Adrianna Tan/www.popagandhi.com
I trotted off instead to my beloved Thailand, into Bangkok’s chaos and the hidden order beneath it, and the secrets of the Andaman islands.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands may be too remote and too inaccessible, even from major Indian metros, but most of the islands on the Thai side of the Andaman Sea have the right amount of seclusion and infrastructure. A short flight or an overnight train from Bangkok into the southern cities of Trang or Hat Yai, followed by a bus and boat transfer, will take you into the increasingly popular but still pristine waters of the southern islands. My favourites in the bunch include the Tarutao islands that border Malaysia: Koh Tarutao, Koh Lipe, Koh Rawi, and Koh Adang; a season of Survivor was famously shot on location on Tarutao. In centuries past, the Tarutao islands were known for pirates and prisoners. Today, they are home to some charming islands which are getting more popular, as travellers flee the commercialism of better-known Phuket and Koh Samui. Using Koh Lipe as my base, I opted for a bamboo house on the beach, and hired a boat to take us around the islands of the Tarutao National Park for a day of sun and snorkelling.
Just a few years ago, Koh Lipe was barely on the radar: The immigration building, for those entering by speedboat from Malaysia, was a wooden shack on the beach. There were a handful of budget accommodation options, with no mid-range or luxury option to speak of. Today, it is visibly more popular, with its brand new concrete hotels and more frequent ferry services, but the no-shoes, no-stress experience still has its charms. The sand on each of its beaches, including the biggest one, Pattaya beach, is still soft, white and powdery; the waters a clear blue-green shimmer.
The more adventurous would probably do better at the private island of Koh Laoliang. At Laoliang Island Resort, cars, boat traffic and bikes are banned. Travellers are treated instead to the “luxe camping” experience, staying in sturdy, well-furnished tents instead of huts or bungalows. Climbing, snorkelling, diving, fishing, kayaking, and daily seafood barbecues are on the menu at Koh Laoliang. Just you, your tent and the open sea—it rarely gets better than that.
Then there’s the food, glorious food, of South-East Asia. Born in this part of the world, I can safely vouch: There is no life without our food. No South-East Asian journey is complete without a comprehensive itinerary devoted to both street food and fine dining.
Nearly all the Thai food in Bangkok is phenomenal. Everywhere you turn, from a street vendor with her som tam poo, spicy raw papaya salad with freshwater crab, to the Michelin-starred Nahm in the fancy Metropolitan Hotel, to the famous pork satay man on the edge of Convent Road, gives you the feeling that this is a city where nobody sleeps, and nobody goes hungry.
Wake up to lunch in Bangkok, queuing up as all the locals do, to have the opportunity to eat at the simple, humble restaurant Krua Apsorn, said to be the Thai princess’ favourite restaurant, with its plastic chairs and old-time Thai favourites.
But you’d be a fool to go to Bangkok and miss a meal at its most spectacular restaurant of the moment, Bo.lan. At once cutting edge and painfully traditional, at Bo.lan the husband and wife team of Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones does everything from scratch. They believe in the power of the old school so much that they pore devotedly through ancient books, hoping to come across something new in the very old; such that they may then translate the best of the old world into modern, well-executed plates that can easily take their place among the top tables of New York or Paris. “It’s Thai food like you’ll never have anywhere else,” is the common refrain. I dined here many evenings, in the romantic Thai house tucked deep into a soi in downtown Bangkok, slowly working my way through the gut-busting Bo.lan Balance degustation menu that epitomizes the perfect Thai meal from start to finish.
If the way to your lover’s heart is through his or her stomach, then learning to cook South-East Asian food will help you take things up a few notches. For this you will have to make the trek to Kuala Lumpur, where Rohani Jelani inspires even the unmotivated with her brilliant instruction. Thirty minutes outside the city, the culinary retreat she calls Bayan Indah plays host to students who come to stay and cook. Pick from courses such as Typically Thai, Easy Japanese, Festive Indonesia or Malaysian village food; learn to handle crabs, Asian vegetarian and noodles, with ease and expertise. It helps that the on-site guest house, where she also lives, is a stunning, elegant respite from the chaotic downtown of Malaysia’s capital city.
Then eat your way around Malaysia. Venture into the unlikely territory of Kampung Baru, just a little outside the Twin Towers, for down-to-earth Malay and Indonesian fare at rock bottom prices, in the little shacks that dot the “village”. Sit down with some of the best Chinese fare in the world— think salt-baked chicken, roast pork, char kway teow, chicken rice noodles with bean sprouts, in the Chinese enclaves around the city, and in the old Chinese mining town of Ipoh, near historic Penang where colonialism and Chinese-ness have always mixed well.
Peninsular South-East Asia may not be quite as sexy, or as “on the radar”, as any Bali experience, but can easily be as beautiful, and certainly as tasty. The key, as with any form of romance, is to look beyond the well-trodden path, and to venture into fresh, unknown territory with a giant leap of faith—because in the end, why we eat and why we travel is more or less the same as why we love.
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