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Sublime Spanish Eats in Bali

When Restaurant magazine released their prestigious list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2013, Spain slaughtered the competition with three restaurants in the top ten, including the number one spot (El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, in case you were wondering). No other country managed to grab more than one spot in the top ten, which is perhaps a testimony to the ingenuity of Spanish chefs and the superb produce that comes out of this incredibly diverse Latin country. With this in mind, is it any wonder that some of Bali’s finest dining establishments are Spanish or Latin inspired?

El Kabron

el kabron

Photo courtesy of El Kabron

Nothing beats the stylish digs and picturesque location of El Kabron, resting high atop a cliff in Uluwatu and overlooking the swells of the Indian Ocean far below. By day, the place is part Mediterranean-style beach club with a freeform infinity pool overlooking the ocean and comfy blue and white bean bag chairs surrounding the pool. Come sunset, it’s all about signature cocktails at intimate tables, authentic Spanish tapas and laid-back grooves by live bands and DJs.

Spanish-born Executive Chef Marc Torices inherited his passion for cooking and love for the natural flavours of Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine from his grandmother, and he brings his gastronomic flair to El Kabron’s tapas, paellas and sweet treats. Small plates include imported Spanish Bellota ham and cured Manchego Cheese served with toasted bread sprinkled with fresh tomato and olive oil, Pulpo a la Gallega, Sliced Octopus with Potatoes seasoned with smoked paprika and olive oil, and Montaditos de Butifarra Catalana, Grilled Homemade Catalan Sausage with toasted bread. If it’s sweet treats you’re after, indulge in some of the best Crema Catalana this side of Barcelona.

Torices recently revealed his ‘Rustique Dining’ menu, which features dishes made with fresh ingredients that are loyal to what the ground can deliver at different times of year and prepared simply, avoiding unnatural approaches. This way, the true flavours of the ingredients come out and are celebrated in their essence. The a la carte rustic menu is available from 7:30pm to 9:30pm daily.

When the sun has well and truly set and the stars are twinkling above, El Kabron heats up into a stylish and sophisticated nightlife venue, with live music every night of the week, including smooth jazz bands, acoustic sets by talented local and international crooners and DJs from around the world. Head mixologist, Carlos Gutierrez, keeps the good times flowing with his special version of sangria served by the pitcher, cool cocktails and an enticing selection of international wines and beers.

Tel: 0361 7803416  


La Finca


Photo courtesy of La Finca

Just as you would expect from a vibrant Latin restaurant, La Finca offers heaps of character in their beautiful open-air setting with soaring bamboo beams, rustic wooden chairs and tables and outdoor garden seating amid lanterns and fairy lights. The vibe here is easy-going yet lively, and no attention to detail is spared, right down to the bright ceramic plates and beautifully presented Basque and Mediterranean dishes. The owners at La Finca work under the philosophy of ‘Alimenta El Alma’, which means ‘food for the soul’, so each and every dish is made with soul to feed the soul, using fresh organic ingredients and artisan methods and recipes.

Besides the usual tapas suspects like Jamon Iberico, Patatas Bravas, and special selections of Spanish cheeses, La Finca thinks outside the box with creative dishes like the Paquetito de Foie Gras con Salse de Remolacha y Estragon, Wrapped Foie Gras in creamy red beet tarragon sauce, Paquetitos de La Finca, artisan pasta pockets stuffed with sundried tomatoes, feta, and basil and complemented with capers, olives, rocket and butter sauce, or their famous Carne a la Piedra de la Finca, hot stone-grilled Australian rib-eye steak served with fresh spices, herbs and sauces. Keep an eye out for their weekly croquette specials made with various fillings like truffles, roast chicken and jalapeno, and squid with squid ink.

For those looking for a midday fix, La Finca also recently open for lunch with light bites like authentic Basque Pintxos—bite-sized tapas from the Basque region, and heartier fare like the Fideos Torcidos con Gambas Trufadas al Ajillo, hand-twisted noodles with garlic truffle prawns, as well artisan sandwiches and burgers made with fresh bread prepared in house. Refreshing sangria makes for the perfect liquid lunch, and if that isn’t quite doing the trick, try the Nieve de Leche, an icy dessert made with mint, condensed milk, lime juice and vodka and topped with shaved ice. La Finca is conveniently located between Canggu and Seminyak, just minutes from Batu Belig Beach.

Tel: 0361 2740088  


La Sal

la sal

Photo courtesy of La Sal


Bali’s first Spanish-Argentine restaurant is the brainchild of chef Lino de Zordo and Gonzalo Sanchez, who have been tantalizing palates with their contemporary tapas, tender BBQ meats and creative Latin-inspired specialties since 2005. Here the culinary concept of good food paired with good drinks and good company reigns supreme in their breezy al fresco dining area decked out in warm wood tones and surrounded by frangipani trees, and in the covered dining room with intimate white tables and soft lighting. The space is conducive to long leisurely dinners with friends and family over a few bottles of wine, and La Sal’s unwavering attention to detail in cuisine, ambiance and service makes it no surprise that La Sal is the recipient of the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for 2013.

La Sal works on the philosophy that ‘Life is no life without salt’—a statement that calls into question blandness and mediocrity in food and in life. This philosophy manifests clearly throughout their menu, which features a healthy mix of hot and cold tapas, innovative salads, hearty mains and decadent desserts with an Argentinian twist. Complementing the culinary creations, the drinks list features classic Spanish sangria, fine international wines and creative cocktails made with top shelf spirits.

The tapas at La Sal never fail to impress, as they are made with the only the best imported and local ingredients and are a mix of both traditional and modern culinary construction. Cold tapas include the Carpaccio with Foie Gras grass and a Manchego cheese cloud, Marinated Spanish Olives, and the fresh and vibrant Bruschetta with vegetables and goat’s cheese. If calientes is more your style, you can choose from Calamari deep fried and drizzled with white and black aioli, Grilled Garlic Prawns with truffle oil, or the sailor’s style Clam Casserole. Fresh salads can also be shared and are hard to resist with offerings like the Soft Shell Crab Caesar Salad or the Warm Goat’s Cheese Salad with a sweet and crunchy honey-walnut vinaigrette.

For those with bigger appetites, the main course menu offers an abundance of savoury meat and seafood dishes. Try the rich Crispy Pork Belly with casserole lentils and chilled mango, or the Slow-Cooked Lamb Shoulder, roasted for 72 hours so the meat is soft and buttery, and served with a two-pepper sauce and steamed vegetables. The Paella Mixta also gets rave reviews for its generous portions of chicken, vegetables, fresh seafood and subtly seasoned saffron rice. Finish the meal off with a sinfully smooth white chocolate and dark chocolate mousse or the Helado de Dulce de Leche, caramel ice cream prepared in true Argentinian style.

Tel: 0361 738321  


Tapeo Gastrobar

tapeo gastrobar

Photo courtesy of Tapeo Gastrobar


A welcome addition to Beachwalk’s already vibrant dining scene, Tapeo Gastrobar is both cutting edge restaurant and sleek rooftop bar serving up chilled sangria and Iberian fare in a contemporary setting overlooking Kuta Beach. After a long day of surfing, shopping and sun worshipping, head to their second floor location and grab a seat outside on the expansive wooden deck with oversized day beds adorned with comfortable cushions, or head indoors for a more intimate vibe. Soak up the tropical breezes, ultra-modern decor and chilled beats playing in the background as you dine on rich and flavourful fare prepared by Barcelona-born Chef Victor Taborda.

Taborda’s innovative menu features a mix of traditional Spanish flavours mixed with modern creations. Take for example, their sangria list, which includes six different options to choose from made with either red, white or rose wine. Throw in a creative tapas list, and you’re simply spoiled for choice. Try the wildly popular Queso Brie Frito, fried Brie served with mango marmalade, Atun Marinado, Marinated Tuna with soy sauce and seaweed salad, or the Mini Hamburguesa de Oxtail, which is exactly what it sounds like—a mini hamburger with a oxtail patty, seasoned to perfection and garnished with mayo and rucola. Mains include six different types of paella as well as fresh salads and a wide selection of fish and meat dishes.

After the feast is done, stick around to rock out to live bands or groove to the DJs hitting the decks on the rooftop patio under the stars. The drinks list here is impressive to say the least, with refreshing mojitos, international wines by the glass, draft beer on tap, and the super strong Ibiza cocktail made with eight different types of booze. Check with the staff to see if there are any specials on, as drinks specials and food promotions are almost always running.

Tel: 0361 8465645


Serenity Spanish Restaurant & Bar

Serenity Spanish

Photo Courtesy of Serenity Spanish Bar & Restaurant


With an unassuming facade and simple red and white sign reading Serenity Spanish Bar & Restaurant, you might be tricked into thinking that this is just another run-of-the-mill dining venue. However, like so often is the case, the modest exterior belies what lies within. Drive past it on the Sanur Bypass, and you would be missing out on one of Bali’s newest hidden gems—a temple of opulence, romance, space and muy delicioso authentic Spanish flavors.

A quick tour of the restaurant reveals two levels, with the main dining room and al fresco terrace on the ground floor and a swank cigar lounge, private party room and intimate tables hidden in cozy corners on the upper level. The lavish decor carries throughout each of the rooms, and the sense of light and space is compounded by large windows and a wide balcony that looks down onto the main dining room.

Serenity Bar & Restaurant comes to us from Singapore, where it has a long-standing reputation for Mediterranean-style ambiance and delicious Spanish fare, including tapas, paella and their famous Cochinillo Asado, which has often been referred to as the most succulent roast suckling pig in the city, possibly even giving Bali’s babi guling a run for its money. In traditional Spanish style, the tender pig is carved with a plate at the table (proof of the superlative tender texture of the meat), and the plate is smashed on the floor afterwards for good luck.

Popular tapas choices include the Patatas Bravas, golden chunks of potato drizzled in a mildly spicy romesco sauce and smooth aioli and the Rollito de Bacon y Esparrago for its crisp green asparagus wrapped in warm salty bacon. The Crema de Mariscos, a seafood soup with a rich velvety tomato broth laden with tender pieces of fresh dory, squid, prawns and scallops in the shell is another winner, and of course, the paella and suckling pig is not to be missed. Wash it all down with a red sangria made with smooth Spanish Rioja or a white sangria made with a fruity Australian Sauvignon Blanc.

**This article was previously published in the Yak magazine Sept/Oct/Nov 2013 issue. To check out the latest articles from the Yak, go to

Arak: Bali’s Favorite Alcoholic Drink or Deadly Cocktail?



When 45-year old Nyoman Laka accepted a drink from his employer on a cool morning in Ubud, he never imagined he would end up fighting for his life and spending the next two months in and out of hospitals.

For many Balinese farmers and labourers, it is common practice to start the day with a shot of arak, a local spirit made from coconut sap, palm sap or fermented rice. Many believe that arak warms the body and is good preparation for a long day’s work.

Nyoman digs wells for a living, a job that can be especially taxing on the body. On many occasions, his employer would offer arak to the workers before they started to give them a boost of energy. Little did any of them know that the arak he had picked up that day contained the lethal toxin methanol.

“After I drank the arak, I went to the rice field to work, but I didn’t feel well at all, so I went home,” Nyoman says. “Shortly after, I began throw up blood, and then I passed out. I woke up one day later in Sanglah Hospital and could not see properly. One of the guys that I worked with was there as well with similar symptoms, but he died the next day.”

Nyoman was in the hospital for 14 days with methanol poisoning, a potentially lethal affliction that affects the body in a number of different ways. Symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, loss of consciousness, blindness, and convulsions. High levels of the toxin can cause the vital organs to cease working, which can and often does result in death. Nyoman eventually gained back his vision and escaped with his life, but others have not been so lucky.

On New Year’s Eve, 19-year-old Liam Davies ordered what he thought was a vodka cocktail at a bar on the island of Lombok. It was discovered later that the cocktail was actually made with methanol-laced arak. After becoming violently ill, Davies was airlifted to a hospital in Perth, where he was declared brain dead. His family later made the heart-wrenching decision to cut off his life support.

Arak Madu cocktail

Arak Cocktail

Similar stories of holidaymakers in Bali and Indonesia suffering blindness or dying from methanol-laced drinks have sparked a flurry of newspaper headlines and government travel warnings about the dangers of drinking bootleg alcohol in Indonesia. Arak is particularly vilified as a deadly drink that should be avoided at all costs.

While there is no denying that methanol-laced arak has been responsible for many tragic deaths, arak is also very much a part of the history and culture of Bali. Many Balinese use it in ceremonies – where it is sprinkled on the ground to ward off evil spirits; for medicinal purposes as a remedy for headaches; and in boreh, a traditional body scrub for sore muscles. Arak is the social lubricant of many gatherings and supports the livelihood of many villagers.

The biggest arak production centre in Bali is in Sideman, Karangasem, where more than 300 farmers depend on the local spirit for their monthly income. Local arak producer, Ketut Mertika says, “I learned how to make arak from my grandfather, who learned how to make it from his grandfather. It is a village tradition.”

Every day at 4:00 am, Ketut heads into the forest to collect sap from the leafy shoots that grow on the palm trees on his land. The sap starts out as a mildly alcoholic, cloudy beverage called tuak. “Tuak only tastes good for one day”, says Ketut. “After that it goes bad, so it’s better to make arak with the tuak.”

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een verkoper van palmwijn (tuak) op Bali TMnr 10002905

Collecting palm wine

To make arak, the producers in Sideman distil tuak in metal stills over a low burning fire, and collect the clear spirit in plastic containers. It takes Ketut about four days to make 28 litres of arak, which he then sells to distributors from the surrounding areas and the cities for about Rp.200K. The higher the alcohol content, the more expensive the arak is.
“We never add anything to the arak that we produce here,” Ketut says.

“Maybe other people want to make more money, so they water down the arak or add things like methanol to make it taste stronger. If our arak made people sick, nobody would buy it and the government would crack down hard on us. Why would we want to lose our business?”

Ida Bagus Rai Budarsa, founder of Hatten Wines and owner of Arak Bali and Dewi Sri Brem, agrees with Ketut.

He says, “The people in Karangasem never seem to have problems with methanol poisoning, so why does it always happen so far from the source? I think the problem is not the arak, it’s the middlemen who tamper with it.”

Budarsa’s family has been producing brem – Balinese rice wine – since 1968, and later expanded to include arak in 1992, followed by (grape based) wine in 1994. The company sells about 1,000 bottles of arak a month, mainly to hotels and shops in Bali.


The arak produced at the Brem Dewi Sri production facility is not only government regulated, but also distilled in copper stills imported from Spain, and then undergoes a series of tests in the Hatten Wines laboratory to ensure that it meets international spirit standards. The company then bottles and seals the arak on site.

Although Arak Bali is made from white rice, which is fermented, pressed and then distilled, Budarsa sees the value in the traditional palm wine that comes from Karangasem.

“In the past, I’ve suggested working with the producers in that area,” he says.

“If they created a cooperative that only certain people could register and join, they could possibly make more money. They could supply us with the tuak, and we could produce the arak in our facilities. But they opted to continue producing and selling the arak themselves.”

While it goes without saying that the arak producers are proud of their product and traditions, once it goes out of the hands of the producers, it can be very difficult to predict what will happen to the product. Unless you buy straight from the producer or a trusted vendor with trusted sources, you can never be sure what goes into the mix.

“I understand that people have concerns about drinking arak in Bali”, says Budarsa. “Of course, even for me, I would not want to drink something that might make me sick. But if you want to drink arak, there are things you can do to be safe.”

Budarsa suggests sticking to a trusted brand, because they have a responsibility to keep the quality high. He also recommends being selective about where you drink.

“If a bar is offering free-flow drinks, think about how they can do that without losing money,” he says.

And herein lies the problem. With alcohol taxes at an all-time high in Indonesia, it makes sense that people would turn to cheaper alternatives rather than the wildly expensive imported spirits available here. Even local producers have a hard time keeping costs low, especially those with small-scale production facilities.

Budarsa says, “If you want to produce alcohol here, you must have a license, as well as a building permit for the facilities, and then you need to register the product.”

Then there are the taxes. In 2010, the Indonesian government increased the excise taxes on alcohol to a staggering 100 to 214 percent, depending on the alcohol content. This effectively created a boom in black market production and sales.

According to a spokesperson from the Directorate General of Customs, “Objects that are charged with excise have their excise tax increased every year, because it is done to protect the health and well-being of our people”.

While the tax increase certainly may have limited alcohol consumption for a large percentage of the population who cannot afford the inflated prices, it has also led others to find imaginative and sometimes deadly ways to cut costs.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that unethical bar and restaurant owners replace quality spirits with bootleg alcohol, while shady distributors and vendors water down perfectly good arak and add dangerous substances to make it taste stronger.


Since his terrifying ordeal, Nyoman Laka has made the decision never to drink arak again. “I’m so angry and confused,” he says.

“Why would people purposely do something so terrible, when they know that it can kill people? Arak is supposed to be part of our culture, not just something for people to make money off of with no care for human life. That is the opposite of what our religion and culture teaches us”.

A sentiment most of us would agree with, regardless of religion or culture. When it comes to health and well-being, money should simply not be an issue.

However, until there are cheaper options available, arak will continue to be popular and the risk of methanol poisoning will continue to be a very real possibility. For those who want to imbibe, it is better to pay more for commercially produced arak or invest the time to find a trusted producer who truly values his or her product and customers.

Written by Stephanie Mee and previously published in the Yak magazine issue March/April/May, 2013.


Where to Find the Best Street Food in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has long been known as one of the best places on earth to get fresh, tasty and cheap street food. From Singapore hawker stalls to Indonesian bakso carts, Thai night markets and Vietnamese roadside restaurants, we give you the rundown on the top hotspots for street food in the region.

Bangkok P1100339

Best Street Food Spots in Bangkok, Thailand


Sukhumvit Soi 38

 For a true Thai street food experience, head to Sukhumvit, Soi 38 where you’ll find a plethora of tin tables and plastic chairs and vendors selling everything from Pad Thai noodles to mango sticky rice. The stalls here are clean and there is a high turnover of locals and foreigners, which means the food is fresh and tasty to boot.

Time: 6pm til late

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Victory Monument

 The Victory Monument acts like a beacon calling hungry office workers, students and foodies to the small laneways shooting off from the traffic circle here. Wander down any of these streets and you’ll find plenty of food stalls selling delectable lunch dishes, including the famous Thai boat noodles. With a dark, rich broth flavored with herbs, spices and pork blood, slippery rice noodles, green vegetables and pork or beef, we bet you can’t eat just one bowl.

Time: 7am til late

Chinatown (Yaowarat)

 After the sun sets, busy Yaowarat Road transforms into a bustling night food bazaar with hundreds of vendors selling classic Chinese specialties like bird’s nest soup and roast duck, as well as some Chinese influenced Thai dishes like fried pork belly in peppery soup and rice noodles with ground pork, fiery chilies and aromatic holy basil.

Time: 6pm til late

Poultry at Chinatowns Talat Leng-Buai-la market (6491924593)

Roast Duck in Chinatown, Bangkok


Best Street Food Spots in Singapore


Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

 Smack in the middle of Chinatown, this hawker center is a Singapore institution and home to some of the most beloved street food stalls such as Tian Tian Chicken Rice with its succulent chicken served over broth infused rice with a side of fiery chilli sauce and Jin Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon, which offers up golden pieces of fried fish floating in a milky broth with thin rice vermicelli noodles.

Time: 8am to 10pm

Chatterbox ChickenRice

Chicken Rice

Old Airport Road Food Centre

 With up to 30 minute queues for quintessential Singapore hawker dishes like oyster omelette in chili sauce and Char Kway Teow (rice noodles with Chinese sausage, cockles, bean sprouts, chili sauce and dark soy sauce), you know the food stalls at the Old Airport Road Food Centre have got to have something good going on.

Time: Mon to Fri: 11.30am to midnight, Sat to Sun: 10.30am to midnight


East Coast Park Lagoon Village Food Centre

It’s all about fresh BBQ seafood like chilli crab, spicy grilled stingray and black pepper crab at the East Coast Park Lagoon Village Food Centre, as well as tasty wonton noodles, braised duck rice and satay. It doesn’t hurt either that the location is right on the beach, so you can grab your grub and have a picnic by the sea.

Time: 8am to 9pm

Chilli crab-01

Singapore Chilli Crab

Best Street Food Spots in Kuala Lumpur


Jalan Alor

A favorite foodie pit stop for locals, Jalan Alor runs parallel to Jalan Bukit Bintang, and is packed with hawker stalls selling Malaysian staples like chicken satay, grilled fish, braised duck with rice and fresh tropical fruits like durian, rambutan and mangosteen.

Time: 6pm til late (although some stalls are open during the day)

Kuala Lumpur - Jalan Alor

Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur

Chow Kit Market Hawker Stalls

Chow Kit is the biggest wet market in Kuala Lumpur, and as such, it should come as no surprise that there are tons of hawker stalls here that sell delicious street food made from only the freshest ingredients. This is the place to go to get heavenly nasi lemak—coconut rice with various side dishes such as fried chicken, crispy anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg and of course, fiery sambal, golden shrimp fritters, ikan masin (salted fish) and murtabak—flaky pan-fried bread with an egg and minced meat filling.

Time: 9am to 5pm


Petaling Street Night Market

Located in the heart of Chinatown, Petaling Street is a warren of shops selling clothing, electronics, handbags and souvenirs during the day, but come evening, the hawker stalls start to emerge. Many of the hawker stalls here have been in operation for decades, so you can sample tried and true recipes for delicious seafood, chicken and rice, BBQ fish, curry laksa and roti.

Time: 4pm til late



Best Street Food Spots in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)


Ben Thanh Market

Enter Ben Thanh Market, pass the colorful displays of silk scarves, beaded shoes, leather handbags and glossy lacquerware, and head deep into the interior where you’ll find simple stalls selling everything from steaming bowls of pho to crispy and fresh spring rolls, banh mi pate sandwiches and bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli noodles with BBQ pork, mini spring rolls, fresh herbs and fish sauce). Wash it all down with a rich iced Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk.

Time: 6am to 7pm


Pho Beef Noodles

Ton That Thuyet Street, District 4

Everyday, food vendors and foodies alike flock to this long strip of pavement to grab mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes like bun bo la lot, rice vermicelli noodles topped with grilled beef, pickled vegetables, peanuts, sprouts and herbs, sticky rice with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, chicken and fried shallots and che dau trang, a sweet dessert made with glutinous rice, beans and coconut milk.

Time: All day


Banh Xeo 46A

Banh xeo is a Saigon favourite, and locals in the know head to Banh Xeo 46A in District 1 to fill up on the savory rice flour crepes packed with fatty pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion and just a touch of turmeric and coconut milk. This roadside restaurant also serves up divine fresh and fried spring rolls.

46A Dinh Cong Trang Street

District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Time: All day


Best Street Food Spots in Jakarta


Pecenongan, Central Jakarta

By day, this street looks like any other, but as soon as night starts to fall, the mobile food carts move in and locals from far and wide flock here for tasty and affordable Indonesian fare. Get your fix of sate kambing (goat satay), martabak (a mix between a crepe and a pancake with sweet fillings like bananas, chocolate or cheese) and nasi uduk (coconut rice with roasted chicken, tofu or tempe).

Time: 6pm til late

Sate kambing sate ayam

Sate Ayam and Sate Kambing (chicken and goat satay)

Jalan Sabang

One block west of Jakarta’s backpacker area of Jalan Jaksa lies Jalan Sabang, a haven for street food that pulls in hungry diners both day and night. This is one of the best places in the city to get cheap eats, including nasi goreng (fried rice), chicken and mutton satay with spicy peanut sauce, fragrant duck rice and pisang goreng (fried banana).

Time: All day until late

Jalan Mangga Besar

If you’re craving Chinese food or seafood, Jalan Mangga Besar is the place to be. Some specialties here include bakmi kepiting (noodles with crab meat, fish balls and crispy fried wontons) and bubur ayam (chicken porridge). For the truly adventurous, try the cobra satay washed down with a shot of cobra blood.

Time: 5pm til late

Bubur Ayam Travelling Vendor 4

Bubur Ayam


For more info about Southeast Asian street food, including recipes that you can make at home, check out these great books from Amazon:


An Interview with Oak Chan of Blue Chilli Bar, Phnom Penh’s Premiere Drag Show Venue

Originally from Thailand, Oak Chan has been part owner of Blue Chilli since it opened its doors in 2006. He has been a huge supporter of the drag queen show, here in Phnom Penh, as well as in Thailand, and performs in his own shows twice weekly at Blue Chilli Pub. Read on as he tells Stephanie Mee about his path to success in Phnom Penh’s vibrant drag queen scene.


Stephanie: What made you want to come to Phnom Penh to open a bar?

Oak: I came to Cambodia as a tourist two years ago, and I fell in love with the people and the country. At that time there was only one other gay bar in Phnom Penh, (Salt Lounge) and so I thought it would be a good idea to open another place for the gay community.

S: When and why did you start doing drag shows?

O: In February this year, I decided to throw a few parties at the bar. I saw that not many people knew about drag shows in the city, and I thought it would be fun to do something different and exciting. After a few months, the parties became very popular, and so we decided to make them a weekly event.

S: Where did you find the performers?

O: All the performers are staff and some customers of Blue Chilli. We get together every week and practise new songs, try out new outfits, and make up new acts that are sometimes serious and sometimes funny.

S: Do you find that the shows are well accepted in Phnom Penh by the community at large?

O: I think so. In Cambodia there is a word for ladyboy, which is the same as in Thailand – katoey – have you heard it before?

S: Yes, but does isn’t it a derogatory word?

O: No – not necessarily. It just means a man who dresses or acts like a lady, and it can be a normal word, depending on who says it, and their meaning behind saying it. In Cambodia people are very kind, and I think the shows are great entertainment for everybody, not just gay people. We have a very mixed crowd for the shows.

S: I’ve noticed that every Friday and Saturday you have a large, mixed crowd as well as a group of moto and tuk-tuk drivers, and passing people who gather outside to watch the shows.

O: Yes, everybody can enjoy them (the shows).

S: How does Cambodia’s ladyboy scene differ from Thailand’s?

O: In Thailand, the scene has been around for a long time, and so it has progressed into a large and very open community. Here, the scene is just starting and so it will take time before it is as popular as in Thailand.

S: Where do you see the future of drag shows in Cambodia going?

O: There are many bars that do drag shows opening in Phnom Penh now, and I think that in the future it will get much busier, and much more popular.

S: What is your favorite part about doing the shows?

O: I just love entertaining people, and making the customers happy. The customers are so important to us, and when we do the shows, we can see that they are having fun and enjoying themselves. Everybody has fun, and that is the best thing about the shows.

Blue Chilli’s drag shows run every Friday and Saturday night at 11:00 PM sharp. They usually pull in a pretty substantial crowd, so unless you don’t mind standing, get there early.

Best Whisky Bars in Asia

Best Whisky Bars in Asia

Once the pastime of distinguished Western gentleman, whisky appreciation has taken off in all corners of the world and amongst all types of people, particularly in Asia, which is now one of the leading regions in global whisky sales. As General Manager of La Maison du Whisky in Singapore, Jeremy Moreau explains, “Today, because of growing demand in emerging markets, such as China, India and generally speaking Asia, whisky distilleries are scrambling to produce more to satisfy the demand.” This demand has also led to a profusion of bars and lounges across Asia that pander to the desires of whisky aficionados. These are just a few of the best bars in Asia to enjoy a dram of your favorite whisky.


La Maison du Whisky

Singapore’s foremost experts on whisky and fine spirits have a fully stocked bar that includes over 700 types of whiskies for the discerning or just plain curious connoisseur. Bottles range from best-selling single malts like Lagavulin and Yamazaki to rare collector’s bottles such as the coveted Macallan 1951. As General Manager Jeremy Moreau says, “There is a wealth of whiskies out there and if you listen to the people at whisky shops such as ours, you can discover some truly interesting whiskies from distilleries or countries that you wouldn’t normally suspect.” Sample a dram at one of the regular tasting sessions or dine al fresco amongst the warm-wood tones, mellow jazz tunes and gleaming rows of bottles. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at this intimate boutique can also answer any questions you may have about all things whisky.

80 Mohamed Sultan Rd. #01-10 Singapore

Tel +65 6733 0059


Auld Alliance

Relatively new on the Singapore whisky scene, the Auld Alliance has everything a proper whisky bar should. From dark wooden accents to candelabra style lighting to wall to wall whisky bottles, this is a dram lovers dream. The bar features over 1,000 whiskies, 600 of which are single malt scotches. Whiskey connoisseurs can choose bottles or glasses of coveted whiskies such as Bunnahabhain 18 year old, 1987 Yoichi, or  the discontinued Dunville’s Special Irish Whisky from the 1930s. Whisky lovers have the option to sit at one of the 15 seats surrounding the sleek, polished black bar, or one of the leather couches in the adjacent side room. There is also a private room where cigar smoking is not only allowed, but encouraged. Besides superb whiskies, the bar also features champagnes and spirits, a French Absinthe fountain, and a spherical ice cube maker so drinks stay cold without becoming watered down.

Chijmes 30 Victoria Street #01-08 Singapore

Tel +65 6337 2201


Hong Kong

Angel’s Share

Hong Kong whisky fans in the know head to sleek and stylish Angel’s Share in Central to peruse the 100 whiskies on offer at the bar, and dine on fine pub- influenced fare like Shepherd’s Pie and fish and chips. The cushy, dark leather couches and low lighting create an atmosphere perfect for imbibing rich, smoky whiskies in fine company.  Owner and whisky connoisseur Charlene Dawes comments, “Traditionally whisky bars are perceived as a gentlemen’s hangout, but we see this changing as about 30 odd percent of our customer base is female. The age group is also getting younger with late twenties upwards.” The shining centrepiece here is the 180L barrel of single cask 20 year-old Macallan 1990 that sits in the middle of the room, and can be tapped into on order. Another draw for veterans and newbie’s alike is Angel Share’s whisky flights, four glasses of selected whiskies from your choice of region.

2/F Amber Lodge, 23 Hollywood Rd., Central, Hong Kong

Tel +852 2805 8388


Distil Lounge and Bar

Whisky lovers in Bangkok can join the well-heeled glitterati at Distil, a swanky bar restaurant, and whisky lounge located on the 63rd floor of the Dome at lebua. Their extensive list of single malt whiskies includes classics like the Royal Salute 100 Cask, which PR Manager Jittranuch Mingkwan, describes asa “Long-lasting, fruity sweetness leading to a mellow, smoky oakiness”, and the Glenlivet 25 Years single malt, both of which are sold exclusively at The Dome at lebua only in Thailand. Each whisky order also comes with a side of authentic Scottish water. Accompany your favourite whisky with decadent oysters from the horseshoe shaped, marble Oyster Bar, or savour a smooth, authentic Cuban cigar with your dram on the open-air Cigar Terrace, which has top-rate panoramic views over the Chao Praya River. Throw in textured wooden room dividers, classy mirror and glass accents and loungey jazz and deep house beats, and it’s easy to see why whisky drinkers looking for a spot of refinement and luxury choose Distil as their preferred whisky lounge.

The Dome at lebua, Silom Rd, Bangrak, Bangkok

Tel +66 2624 9555


The Helmsdale

While many whisky bars have an exclusive ‘gentleman’s club’ feel, the cosy Helmsdale Scottish Pub in Tokyo exuberates casual affability with its smiling staff, European football matches playing on the television above the bar, and rustic Scottish themed decor. But don’t let the small pub vibe fool you; whisky is serious business here. Specializing in Scotch whiskies, the wall-to-wall bar displays over 300 whiskies from the Highland and Lowland regions as well as the islands of Islay, Skye and Orkney. For those with a taste for the rare, The Helmsdale has dozens of hard-to-find whiskies such as the spicy, yet fruity Ardbeg Chieftain’s 12 Year and the exclusive Lochside 1981 from the now defunct Lochside distillery.

Minami-Aoyama Mori Blvd. 2F 7-13-12, Tokyo

Tel +81 3 3486 4220



Luna Negra

Newcomer Luna Negra is a welcome addition for Jakarta’s whisky enthusiasts. With 70 whiskies on offer, tipplers have their choice of single malts, blends, and top shelf whiskies from all over the world in this modern, New York style bar and restaurant. The exposed brick walls, dark wooden tables and long marble bar add an elegant ambience to this dram-worthy locale in the heart of Jakarta. Sip on a velvety glass of Glenlivet 15 while indulging in delectable Italian fare. Or sample a fine Japanese single malt, gently chilled with a unique spherical ice cube that melts ever so gradually, retaining the rich flavour of the whisky and preventing it from getting too watery. With a wide range of whiskies from all over the world, experienced bartenders, and winning décor, it is certain that Luna Negra will be a favourite with Jakarta urbanites with a yen for ‘the water of life’.

Plaza Bapindo, Citibank Building, Ground FloorJalan Jendral Sudirman Kav. 54-55 Jakarta Selatan

Tel +62 21 2995 0077

Gay Bars and Drag Shows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gay Bars and Drag Shows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

As the lights dim in the crowded bar, an upbeat Khmer song begins to play on the sound system, and the crowd cheers for the first performer of the night. Tall, leggy, and beautiful she delivers a moving rendition of the song, including seductive dance moves and a smattering of friendly flirtation with the crowd. The crowd marvels at her beauty, and grace, as well as the fact that “she’s” not really a “she” in the traditional sense of the word.

Although one would never guess it from a cursory glance at Cambodia’s traditionally conservative society, Phnom Penh actually has a lively and flourishing gay community. One particular element of the gay scene that’s exploded in popularity lately is the drag show.

Unlike Thailand, Cambodia’s ladyboy or katoey scene has never been particularly obtrusive, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there. Strict Khmer societal rules have meant that in the past, gay Cambodians, katoey (the Khmer word for transgender individuals), and anybody deviating from the norm had to hide their true feelings or identity.

Fortunately, things are now changing at a pretty even pace. Gay friendly bars are on the rise in Phnom Penh, and drag shows are becoming more frequent, available, and accepted.

One of the city’s first venues for drag shows was Blue Chilli, located on St. 178, close to the Royal University of Fine Arts. Opened two years ago by Thai owner Oak and his Khmer business partner, Sokha, the bar has been a vital element in the growing popularity and awareness of katoey culture.

“Two years ago drag shows were very new in Phnom Penh, and not many people knew much about them”, says Oak. “ I wanted to open something different, and give my customers something special.”

Oak started throwing drag parties in February of 2009, and they grew so popular that the bar now offers shows every Friday and Saturday night. The shows consist of about four to five ladies, mostly staff of Blue Chilli (including Oak himself), and each act is carefully prepared and rehearsed throughout the week to ensure a thoroughly entertaining mix of both serious and humorous performances.

Server/performer extraordinaire, Dee Dee says, as he giggles coquettishly, “ I started doing the shows to help out the owners, and at first I was so scared – there were so many people! But after the first act, I saw that the customers really loved it, and now it’s no problem, I get up there and dance and make jokes with the customers, and everyone has fun.”

It seems that fun is the operative word at Blue Chilli, and the customers truly do love the shows. Every Friday and Saturday night the bar draws in a crowd of nearly 50-60 people, no small feat for a bar the size of an average 2 bedroom apartment. And this doesn’t even include the motodops, tuk-tuk drivers and passing pedestrians who crowd the street outside, hoping to get a glimpse of the action.

Another venue for katoey shows is Salt Lounge, the first openly gay bar established in Phnom Penh. It was opened in 1994 by a Khmer/Canadian expat, and began as a place where gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the capital could relax and enjoy a beverage and good company without being harassed or ostracized.

Seated in one of the comfortable couches amidst the rich red walls, strategically placed linga statues, and handsome bar men, current owner Meng explains, “At first the clientele was mostly expats and a few tourists, and not many people supported the bar, but now we have many customers, gay, straight, male, female, old and young, and people are much more open about the whole scene. I think they realize that there is a growing market for gay establishments, and it can be a really great thing for Cambodia.”

Meng throws twice monthly parties at Salt Lounge, and hires professional performers to do drag shows, traditional Khmer dance performances, and comedy shows. Parties take place every second Saturday night, and the shows are often sponsored by PSI, a local NGO who promote HIV/AIDS awareness to Khmers and expats in Cambodia.

“The market is getting bigger and bigger,” says Meng, “and the scene has expanded to Siem Reap also. We even do promotion in and around the provinces surrounding Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and the scene can only get bigger.”

Like Blue Chilli, Salt Lounge’s marketing is done mostly through word of mouth. Although both bars have websites, and advertise in various publications in Phnom Penh, the bulk of their business comes from their loyal customers, and solid reputations.

Despite the increase in gay bars and drag shows, the scene is still relatively small, and familiar faces abound in the out and about drag queen community in Phnom Penh.

Long time performer, Suun performs at both Blue Chilli and Green Flame, and has a tight knit clique of fellow performers, who perform at various venues around the city. After shows, they often head to the Heart of Darkness or late night dance clubs to turn some heads. “We travel together because it’s not safe at night. Sometimes we get hassled,” she says with a toss of her curly auburn locks.

When asked what she thought about the future of drag shows in Cambodia, Suun said, “ I think Cambodian people are pretty accepting of katoey people, but it’s up to the government to allow us to be more open.”

Staunchly conservative politicians in Cambodia have often stressed the return to strict traditional values, but even so, the country has generally been moving towards a much more tolerant outlook.

2004 saw the first transvestite beauty pageant, the second gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride celebration, and a public message from King Norodom Sihanouk himself urging Cambodians to respect gay and transvestite rights, and allow marriages between man and man or woman and woman.

The future seems bright for gay bars and drag shows in Phnom Penh. Strong support from the royal family combined with a young Cambodian population that is increasingly open to new ideas, and annual surges in international tourists might just ensure that the drag show isn’t just a trend that will go by the wayside.


By Stephanie Mee

Dancing the Night Away in Thailand

Dancing the Night Away in Thailand

Firetwirler Thailand


Thailand is a country that has great weather nearly all year round. It is a country with cheap food, accommodation and transportation. And Thai people are generally Buddhist people with a very easy going and happy mentality. These are just some of the reasons why it is such a great country for those who enjoy staying up late.

I’m not talking about those men who are so lonely as to pay for companionship. Rather I’m talking about people who want to be in exciting places and listen to music that gets their hips swinging with the beat.

It is somewhat of an irony that despite the importance of tourism for the Thai economy most places in Thailand have to stop selling alcohol at 2am. It is interesting to note that many convenience stores and street side bars attempt to circumvent this law, but generally speaking the law stops people partying all night. There are however a few places that seem exempt from this law. Clubs in Patpong in Bangkok seem to ignore this law and many beaches in the south choose to ignore this law.

Whereas much of Koh Samui shuts at 2am the neighboring island of Koh Phangan has made a niche for itself as the place to go if you want to dance the night away. The most famous all night event in Koh Phangan is the Full Moon Party. It is a massive beach party that regularly has over 20,000 people dancing through the night to trance, RnB, drum and bass, house and rock music. There are over 12 sound systems each with its own genre of music to choose from. When the party winds down the following morning those still up for more can head over to the Backyard Party that has a jumping after party until the following evening.

This is not the only dance event in Koh Phangan. Near Haad Rin in the village of Ban Tai there are also regular outdoor music events. These are the Jungle Experience, the Half Moon Party, the Shiva Moon Party and the Black Moon Party. The first three are held in jungle locations and the latter at Mac Bay on the beach. They are smaller than the Full Moon Party but have a great atmosphere and are ‘must do’ events for trance music lovers.

Finally, in the north of the island is the village of Chaloklum. It is an area with lots of great beaches. In the jungle next to a waterfall is the Paradise Waterfall Party. This is a psy-trance event that happens during the high seasons of January to April and July to August.

In the case of all these parties they are well organized. The music equipment is excellent and there is no prohibition on drinking after 2am. And of course when you’ve had enough of parties there are over 20 beautiful beaches to check out. What more could you ask for?