By Michael Minorgan for Curtains Up
Packaged vacations to far off distant lands….we’ve all taken advantage of them at one time or another. We sign up for an advertised tour guaranteed to show us all the wonders and hidden secrets of one country or another and while doing all these wonderful things you will be ensconced in your four or five star hotel with all the comforts of home. You are assured they will watch out for your safety and protect you from all the sin, corruption, crime and poverty you have been warned about, especially if your trip happens to be to one of the ‘third world’ countries where filth, bad food and crime abound!
In most instances this is just a hyped up sales pitch and not at all reflective of reality. Before my first trip to Bangkok I was forewarned by everyone, none of whom had ever visited Bangkok by the way, that I should watch out for rampant crime. Bangkok, a city of roughly 12 million, (they are never really sure of the actual number) was probably one of the safest cities I have ever visited and the people I came in contact with went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
When planning vacations we are far too easily sold this pitch of luxury vacations in 4 or 5 star resorts and hotels where everything is taken care of and all you have to do is show up every morning and get in your air conditioned van for the days pre planned and highly sanitized activities. God forbid you should ever sample street food lest you come down with the deadly ‘tourista’ and spend days in bed cursing the food you ate.(I have never been afflicted in five trips)
I must admit that I have been down that road a few times myself especially when I accompanied my parents on vacations when I was too young to know any better or I obviously lacked the financial means to strike out on my own! I loved those fancy hotel meals and the pools. I remember my parents coming home with tons of photographs of us all dutifully posing outside the many tourist sites I was dragged to by our hotel tour guides.
Don’t despair all you true adventure seekers, there is another way and in my opinion it’s the best and only true way to really get to know a country, its inhabitants and their many traditions and cultures. I am a chef and of course I have a built in bias, but having traveled quite extensively in South East Asia and conducting culinary expeditions to these countries I can attest to the saying that the best way to really get to know a country and its people is to explore and sample their food and food markets…to go off the beaten path and find the real stuff and visit the scores of local village food markets and sample the amazing and yes, delicious street food, from family run food stalls and enjoying these meals at communal tables with the locals hilariously conversing in broken English and impromptu sign language. I have even managed, on occasion, to bribe a food stall owner into sharing a recipe with me. This is quite a coup in itself considering each food stall usually just specializes in just one dish made from a much guarded and treasured family recipe that may have been handed down for generations.
Yes, we visited most of the ‘tourist sites’, but we did it in the company of local guides we met along the way. We got a much more personalized tour and a decidedly more colorful repartee than that gleaned from company tour guides with their scripted comments.
I also took many sojourns off the beaten path to small tribal ethnic villages tucked away in remote mountain valleys and small coastal fishing villages and was able to observe the day to day life of the people living there. We even stayed overnight with families, ate meals with all the family members and conversed in our broken Thai or Vietnamese often with hilarious results.
We did indeed stay in hotels along the way, but instead of those hotels offering all the comforts of home with grandiose pools and western amenities, we stuck to family run small ‘boutique style’ hotels where the family owners greeted you by your first name every morning when you came down for breakfast. I spent many hours talking to these owners about their business and the villages they lived in. They were a wonderful source of information about the surrounding countryside and steered us to many out of the way hidden secrets.
Being a chef one of my priorities was to discover and sample the many foods of each country. Not only did I relish in the delicious street food and visit scores of awesome and eye popping food markets stocked with foods unimaginable to us back home, but I also sought out local chefs and cooks eager to share their skill and knowledge. I took part in a cooking session in a tribal village in Sa Pa in northern Vietnam where a local cook instructed me in her out door kitchen composed of a simple open flame fire built inside a ring of stones. This simple method of cooking gave credence to the saying that all you need to cook is a source of heat and a pot to put the food in. Many of these traditional cooking schools have now been included on our itineraries..
Visiting a country “off the beaten track” and connecting with the “real stuff” is an extremely rewarding and very memorable experience, whether it be cooking a traditional dish in a remote ethnic village nestled in a mountain valley in Northern Vietnam or riding an elephant bareback through the jungle outside Chiang Mai in Thailand or just relaxing on a secluded palm lined pristine white sand beach in Phuket , you will definitely come away with way more real life experiences and memories than just a camera filled with stock photos posing by all the tourist sites and a magnificent hotel pool
For those who would dare to join me on our 2014 yearly Foodie Getaway to Thailand or Vietnam and see each country from the locals point of view and experience some of the best food and cooking schools in the many towns and small villages we visit go to www.globalgourmets.ca for all the details