Spices, herbs, an explosion of flavors enjoyed while relaxing in the shade of palm leaves. This is what a Cambodia retreat roughly looks like. If you add the interaction with locals in their own villages, seeing how they work and how they create the flavors that make their cuisine so appetizing, delving into Cambodia’s everyday life, you won’t have the average Cambodia food tour but the all-encompassing and enriching experience that travel and food writer and photographer Lara Dunston and Terence Carter have crafted and have been offering since 2015 to who wants to experience Cambodia in a whole new way.
With Lara and Terence’s creative Cambodia retreat you will tour around Siem Reap and Battambang, you will sample the finest Cambodian cuisine, learn how to cook their delicious dishes, explore the colorful local markets and learn the art of storytelling with writing and photography workshops. Are you interested in knowing more about it? Read my interview with Lara Dunston as she tells us about her love for the misunderstood Cambodian cuisine and their creative culinary Cambodia retreat.
–>> They are closing bookings on their creative retreats and culinary tours for the second half of 2017, and also on their 2018 tours. If you book now mentioning that you have learned about the tours here and giving my special code FTCCT-ANGCOR, you will get 10% discount and a 1-hour massage and culinary gift pack.
Click here for more details on tours, bookings and current prices.
When and why did you decide to launch your Cambodia retreat and culinary tours?
We used to live in Bangkok where we were primarily writing on food and travel for magazines and newspapers around the world. Soon after we moved to Siem Reap almost five years ago I started getting requests from Bangkok chefs and restaurateur friends to help them plan trips here and introduce them to the good food, because people don’t know much about Cambodian cuisine or where to try the best renditions of dishes. It’s a much misunderstood and underappreciated cuisine. So first I began crafting bespoke itineraries and planning what I called ‘Savour Siem Reap’ trips. I developed more themed itineraries – Inside Siem Reap, Shop Siem Reap, Sip Siem Reap, and Slow Siem Reap – and that’s been a small side business for us ever since.
Then a travel company asked us to host a travel and food writing and photography tour. We’d been considering hosting our own, so we leapt at the chance. I created the itinerary but they organized everything. It went well, but I thought we could do an even better job ourselves. So we did. We quickly realized during our first trip – which we called a retreat, as it included writing and photography classes and workshops at the hotel, ongoing support and guidance, and consultations – that some people were here to get creative, while others just wanted to eat, cook, explore the temples, and have fun. They wanted an enriching holiday essentially.
So that’s when we created two experiences: a Cambodia Culinary Tour and the Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreat. The tour is the fun trip, where participants do cooking classes and street food tours, visit markets, and eat in restaurants where I introduce them to Cambodian cuisine. This is punctuated with visits to temples, including Angkor Wat, and excursions into the countryside and villages to visit artisanal producers of things like palm sugar and rice noodles. The Retreat is still fun, it’s not all serious, but it’s for people who want to hone their skills, gather material to develop stories, start a blog, work on ideas for a book, or just spend time with like-minded people. And they can really use that time in any way they like and we’re there to guide and support them.
In what ways are your tours different from other Cambodia tours?
They are very different to all the other Cambodia tours on offer. Firstly, it’s a Grantourismo tour. Our site Grantourismo grew out of our love for slow travel, local travel, and experiential travel and the tours grew from that, so people won’t be rushing from one crowded tourist sight to another. We take long tuk tuk trundles through the lush countryside, we do village walks where we stop to meet and engage with villagers with local guides, and we linger at local markets, not only taking photos and sampling the food, but we joke around with the locals. The ‘local’ is integral to what we do – whether that’s using small local businesses to exploring local neighbourhoods. What we do is also very experiential, from the cooking classes which are very hands-on to the village walks where our guests get to interact with local people, and try their hand at things, whether it’s making rice paper sheets or during the rice harvest time, having a go at pulling rice out of the paddies. Not easy!
Because we live in Cambodia, we are frequently visiting all the places we take people to and we know everyone they’re going to meet, from the chefs, restaurant and bar owners to the villagers, such as a rice paper making family we visit in Battambang. This means we get a warm welcome everywhere and locals and expats open their homes and businesses to us. It’s a bit like meeting our friends and people love that level of intimacy, warmth and the hospitality they receive.
As residents, we have insider knowledge, and a deep knowledge of our subjects, but because we’re travel/food writers, we’re also very critical when it comes to tours, guides, hotels, restaurants, and have literally tested out thousands of things over the years. We know what we’re talking about, so that means our participants are only eating at the best restaurants or best food stalls that cook the most authentic stuff, they’re staying at good, locally owned, small boutique hotels that are really special, and the local tour operators that we partner with are offering quality experiences. As we’re advocates of responsible travel, everything is ethical and sustainable.
A lot of foreign tour companies say they do these things but they don’t. I was on a business trip in Bangkok earlier this year and staying in the kind of accommodation I wouldn’t normally – a big, ugly, bland franchise hotel with hundreds of rooms and no character. I saw a sign on the reception desk for a tour that was kicking off there with a North American travel company that markets itself as responsible, green and sustainable. The company is so huge, so I wonder if the CEO even knows they’re using this sort of hotel.
What are the most precious things your guests will learn on your Cambodia retreat?
The most precious thing is probably the most surprising thing because while I say the focus is on learning about the food and the people who make it, sell it and cook it, and telling and documenting stories to do with food and travel, it’s not just about the cuisine but it’s about the culture of Cambodia and its everyday life and the locals. Terence had a photography blog many years ago called ‘People, Places and Plates’ and that’s still the theme of his work as a photographer, and that is really the focus of our tours too.
So I think the most precious thing they learn is how those are all connected. Cambodian food is really a source of great pride to the Cambodian people and is part of their cultural and national identity. Cambodian cuisine is arguably Southeast Asia’s oldest and because a massive chunk of what we now know as Thailand, and large parts of Vietnam and Laos were part of the old Khmer empires – Khmer people being the indigenous Cambodian people – traces of their culinary history are found in those neighbouring countries. Yet we always read in ill-researched cookbooks how Cambodian food has been influenced by Thai food and Vietnamese food, when it’s actually the other way around.
Cambodians are special people. They have this long rich history and they were responsible for creating so many beautiful things – magnificent architecture, art, sculpture, long traditions of dance and music, and delicious food. They almost lost all that during the Khmer Rouge period and genocide of the mid to late 1970s when millions of Cambodian lives were lost. It then took them decades to recover after the Vietnamese, who were meant to be their saviours when they drove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into the jungle, became the occupiers. They’ve been so oppressed and badly treated, yet Cambodians are very resilient and incredibly positive, happy and generous people.
I think the most precious things that our guests learn is how beautiful a Cambodian smile is and how big their hearts are… those things make me treasure life, no matter how tough it can be at times.
You have been living in Cambodia for many years, is there any aspect of the Cambodian cuisine you feel is underrated and that you want your guests to know about?
Cambodian cuisine is generally underrated – all of it. It rarely features in cookbooks and when it does, it’s often combined in a chapter with the cuisines of Laos and Myanmar, which is just ridiculous. How authors ever get those books published is beyond me. They may as well combine the chapters on Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. It’s ignorant and lazy. We are working on a Cambodian cookbook, which we’ve been researching for three years, so we’re biased of course.
I want them to leave understanding that while Cambodian cuisine shares similarities and dishes with the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – some of which came from here! – it is very distinctive and it really is its own cuisine with its own character and personality. There is so much more to it than people realize. It’s very regional, with dishes found in some parts of the country that you can’t find in others.
It’s also very artisanal – many of the products and ingredients are still made by hand in small home workshops and cottage industries, from the fermented rice noodles to the desserts. We show people a lot of these things and why that’s special is because one day these traditions may die in the same way they have in other countries, such as Thailand, where most noodles are made in factories to feed a much larger population.
You’ve been holding these Cambodia food tours for quite a while now, what are the moments you and your participants have enjoyed more?
Often the special moments are the most spontaneous, funnily enough – the things that you can’t predict will happen or replicate from one tour to another. Where we are different again is that while I might spend days – even weeks! –tinkering at my itineraries so they are perfect, and after each trip, I will tweak them to enhance them even more, we like to be flexible and leave room for spontaneity. I also give my drivers and guides freedom to be spontaneous.
We have this wonderful driver in Battambang who we’ve spent so much time with over the years – we did a 10-page story on Battambang for Delicious magazine in Australia a few years ago and spent a month there exploring, going out with Mr. Ol early in the morning and late in the afternoon to take photos and discover different things, so he knows what we like and how we like to do things. Mr. Ol will just stop when he sees something delicious we need to try or spots a farmer harvesting some produce he knows will interest us.
I’ll never forget one stop on a late afternoon tuk tuk trundle through the riverside villages where we got off so Mr. Ol could show the group some dragon-fruit growing off the vines. I was distracted by the strong smell of bath soap and saw two freshly bathed women, wrapped in clean sarongs, sitting outside their house next door, one combing the wet hair of another. They saw us in their dragon-fruit field and came over and took some ripe dragon-fruit off the vine, cut the fruit open and offered it to us. It was the sweet red dragon-fruit, not the white fruit, which is a bit bland, and it was warm from being in the blazing sun all day, and it was just so juicy, it was dripping down our fingers and arms, and it was so delicious. I’ll never forget the sweetness of the fruit intermingling with the smell of soap and the warm smiles of those Cambodian women, so delighted by the pleasure we took in their produce.
Those sorts of moments are what is special about travelling in Cambodia – and we endeavor to allow the room for spontaneity that makes them possible.
–>> Are you interested? Then hurry! Lara and Terence are closing bookings on their creative retreats and culinary tours for the second half of 2017, and also on their 2018 tours. If you book now mentioning that you have learned about the tours here and giving my special code FTCCT-ANGCOR, you will get 10% discount and a 1-hour massage and culinary gift pack.
Click here for more details on tours, bookings and current prices.
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