I won’t say much about the food on the cruise; it was better than expected, but it was still cruise food. It is hard to cook for 1600 people well, and that’s fine. I believe Celebrity has the best food of all the cruise lines I’ve been on and Royal Caribbean is second.
This country is immaculate. It is so clean that you could practice the 5 second rule in the subway station and not feel too bad about it. I did not see a single piece of garbage or a streak of graffiti and no one jaywalks. Maybe there is something to be said for extreme laws and penalties; clearly caning is not all bad.
Singapore is a melting pot, in the truest sense (there are 4 official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, Standard Mandarin) and the food culture reflects that. Hawker centers are Singapore's answer to the food courts, but the food stalls are not comprised of McDonalds, Taco Bells and other heartless franchises. Instead, they are a huge array of individually owned stalls, offering all sorts of deliciousness. Often a stall will focus on one dish alone, perfecting it for years and years. The first morning, Christine and I had a private food tour with a young Singaporean woman named Lynn to help us navigate the hectic, overwhelming, but truly outstanding food scene. We went to 2 different centers: Maxwell and Chinatown food complex.
We had roti prata (flatbread stuffed with egg), laksa (noodles in curry), chicken rice, bee hoon (fish soup with milk), bak chor mee (noodles with minced pork), yu sheng (raw fish salad), fried carrot cake, and coconut filled pancakes. I thought I would burst. When Lynn offered us more food, we begged for mercy.
The bak chor mee was my favorite that morning, but all of it was delicious. I was shocked at the layers of flavor exploding from each dish. Hainanese Chicken rice is a deceptively simple dish; it is poached chicken with white rice, but it is one of the two dishes that Singapore is known for (chili crab is the other - more on that later). Tian Tian at the Maxwell center is famous for their version. It was outstanding; the chicken was moist and flavorful (almost clean tasting) while the rice was perfumed with ginger, scallions and sesame oil. It was new to me, yet it immediately earned its place in my comfort food hall of fame. This would become a familiar theme in the food during the trip; flavors that I have known my whole life would be rearranged and reconstructed to becoming something new. It felt limitless - like the food blinders, I didn't know I had on, were removed. Sorry for being so wordy, but I don't know how else to convey the feeling.
For dinner, we went to Jumbo seafood, on the riverfront, to try the famous chili crab. The iconic dish is crabs, served in tomato sauce that's sweet, spicy, and tangy, and thickened with egg. It was outrageously expensive; we shared a 900g crab, 6 fried buns and 2 drinks and this cost over $100 USD. When you compare this to the hawker centers, where food is $2-$4 a dish, it is hard not to feel ripped off. The crab was good, but not great. I would have rather had another plate of chicken rice.
After the cruise, we had another full day in Singapore, so we hit two more hawker centers: People's Park and Lau Pa Sat. We had stewed beef noodles with yan dumplings, kway teow (stir-fried ricecake strips), chive and egg filled pancakes, more roti and more chicken rice and fried Hokkien noodles and mango milk ice. The Hokkien noodles were excellent and I am sad I waited till the end of the trip to experience them. I still maintain that Asian desserts are lacking, but the mango chunks and condensed milk over shaved ice was welcomingly refreshing.
Singapore has a large Indian population, so we had to have some chicken biryani in Little India. It was spicy, but delicious.
Ko Samui, Thailand
Our first port of call was Ko Samui, the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand. We spent all day with our new Canadian friends, Kim and Bruce, going to temples, pagodas, and other tourist sites. We got back into the port with just enough time for Christine and I to wander into a café in search of free Wi-Fi and our first taste of Thai food in Thailand.
I ordered pad Thai, and it came encased in an egg omelette. We broke in to the eggy package and had noodles that were remarkably similar to the ones I have had in the States, albeit, less sweet. It was good, but not the revelation I was hoping it would be.
For dessert, we came upon a street vendor selling freshly sliced mango over coconut sticky rice. This would become our favorite dessert, that we had four different times during the trip. The tender sweet chunks of ripe mango, paired perfectly with the sweet and salty coconut perfumed sticky rice. I am determined to replicate this and chicken rice at home.
Despite Bangkok being well known for their street food scene, it was not my favorite eating city on our trip. I probably should've gotten a guide, as I had in both Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore, but I thought since we had a day and a half there it was enough time to explore. I did my copious research and found two streets where the food scene was well known – Sukhumvit Soi 38 and Thong Lor. The first thing I learned is that the addresses do not coordinate with any sort of order. We only managed to find one of the places on Thong Lor that I wanted to try. We had Hoy Tod, which is an oyster omelette and it was delicious - plump oysters encased in egg with crispy lacy edges. At Sukhumvit Soi 38, we had green papaya salad, pad Thai, roasted duck over noodles and more mango coconut sticky rice. All of it was good, but not outstanding.
We stayed at the ultra posh Metropolitan Hotel, our bathroom was larger than the size of the cabin on the ship. We enjoyed the afternoon by the pool, eating the tenderest chicken satay, and more mango coconut sticky rice. It’s a lovely hotel; I would highly recommend it.
We went to Moon Bar for midnight drinks. It is a rooftop bar on the 62nd floor of the Banyan Tree hotel. The view was extraordinary; you could see for miles in any direction. It was the perfect cap to our one night in Bangkok.
The next morning, we had dimsum at Hua Seng Hong in Chinatown. The assorted dumplings were good, but the hot pot of roast pork and duck was best.
As we walked down the crowded street, I saw a durian vendor. For those of you that don’t know, durian is a fruit that reeks like a putrid rotting mango, covered in sewage. The smell is so bad they prohibit it on the subways. It’s been on my short list of foods that I refuse to eat. In fact, I’ve been even been able to get pass the smell to even try it. But, I decided it was time and Christine and I bought the smallest piece we could and bit in to it. It was beyond gross; this is an acquired taste I will never acquire. We immediately got some mango coconut sticky rice to get the revolting taste out of our mouths.
Our one stop in Cambodia was in Sihanoukville, a touristy beach town on the south west coast. Christine and I made some friends from Australia, and we shared a tuk-tuk with them to the Sokha beach resort. The water was a turquoise and warm as a bath and the white quartz sand that would squeak beneath your feet. We enjoyed summer rolls, seafood skewers, and drinks in coconuts.
It was a heavenly beach day, but not unique to Cambodia in anyway whatsoever. I could have been in Cambodia, or I could have been in Thailand, or any other beach in the South seas. I feel like I didn't get a taste of Cambodia at all and that’s a shame. I wish there was time to see Angkor Wat, but that is 7 hours inland and an impossibility on this trip.
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Nha Trang is a coastal resort city in southern Vietnam. I hunted down a banh mi in a small shop next to the Dam market. It was different than my beloved sandwich in Lowell, but equally delicious. The essential components were still present: crackling, crisp baguette, different kinds of pork, and fresh and pickled vegetables. It was all mine for $1.25.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I arranged for a sightseeing and local food tour on scooters and it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Flying through the streets and weaving in and out of traffic in Ho Chi Minh was terrifying and exhilarating. Thanks to our guides, we were able to see so much more of the city than if we were to do it ourselves. We started the day with an excellent banh mi, but it was the pho at Pho Le that stole the show. The soup sang with flavor; it was so bright, fresh and delicious, it made me want to cry.
The cruise was a great way to sample so many different places, but it just made me hungry (literally and figuratively) for more. I would love to return one day and take time to explore and experience Vietnam and Cambodia more thoroughly.