6 Month Recap: The BEST of Southeast Asia

We're engaged!
We’re engaged!

6 months of Southeast Asia has already brought us a lifetime of memories. A recent 10 day silent meditation retreat in Thailand has afforded us ample time to stop and reflect on our half-year of travel, and we’ve agreed that this has been by far the best year of our lives, and getting better!

Beaches, beers, buses, flights, food, friends, mountains, meditation, motorbikes, sunsets, snorkeling, volunteering, ENGAGEMENT – AHHH the list never ends! So in celebration of our first 6 months since losing sight of the American shore, we’ve developed a list of our favorite experiences so far. Enjoy!

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Foodie Column: Bún bò Nam Bộ; a taste of Vietnam you won’t get at home

Vietnam is a crazy place, especially when it comes to food. I wouldn’t recommend the standard “point-and-cross-your-fingers” method at your everyday Vietnamese restaurant or you run the risk of getting a bowl of organs, snails, duck fetus or even dog and cat parts. I’m not saying any of these things aren’t absolutely delicious (MMMMMeow), but being delicious doesn’t make them any less crazy!

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bowl of snails and duck fetus

Since the end of the Vietnam War, one Vietnamese dish in particular has taken the U.S. by storm: Pho! If you want proof of how crazy Vietnamese food can be, you need only walk down to your neighborhood whitewashed pho restaurant, where you will find the typical bowl full of intestines and cartilage (with a few pieces of actual meat mixed in). Pho is a prime example of the typical Vietnamese flavor profile, balancing the savory beef broth with spicy chilies, tart lime juice and aromatic fresh herbs. It’s sort of  like adding a salad to your soup.

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Foodie Column: Kaya toast; a taste of Malaysia

Malaysia is not exactly known for bread. You won’t find rolls, baguettes, or pastries like you might in Europe or America. But they do have white toast, and boy do they go absolutely nuts for it! I’d say it’s the most ubiquitous breakfast staple in the country, and I’ve spent my fair share of time waiting out on the street for a crappy plastic chair to free up at a toast stand just to get some.

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Classic roadside toast cafe in Penang, Malaysia.

I should clarify. It’s not exactly the toast that is so beloved in Malaysia, but what goes on the toast: Kaya!

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Top 5 Philippines Experiences to Get Off the Beaten Path

Map of our travels through the Philippines.
Map of our travels through the Philippines.

The Philippines is a bit of a mystery. Being somewhat removed from the rest of Southeast Asia, this beautiful country rarely lands on the itinerary of the typical backpacker. And for good reason: the roughly 7,000 islands are difficult and relatively expensive to navigate as ferries are virtually nonexistent. Despite this, the Philippines enjoys a strong tourism industry fueled primarily by domestic travelers, and in recent years the Department of Tourism has even began to successfully lure more international travelers through their “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign.

With an ever increasing flux of tourists, it won’t be long before the Philippines becomes the next Thailand. The island of Boracay has already developed an international  reputation as an amazing beach resort destination, and although an exciting and/or relaxing trip to Boracay is highly recommended, it is no longer the hidden gem of yesteryear. Below are our top 5 unique Philippines experiences to get off the beaten path.

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Budget Breakdown: Philippines

Philippines is the land of jaw-dropping scenery, bland food and constantly smiling people. We spent Christmas and New Years island hopping around limestone cliffs, motorbiking through small villages, and COMPLETELY BLOWING OUR BUDGET. Still, at an average of $38/day/person, those on a budget should still keep the Philippines on their bucket list.

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Budget Breakdown: Malaysia

Malaysia, oh Malaysia. We’ve been traveling three months and have so far spent most of that time with you. You hold a special place in our hearts, not only because your people are so friendly, but also because your food is out of this world. We came under budget yet again and still managed to live somewhat luxuriously (private rooms with A/C, western restaurants, shopping, etc.). We could have spent MUCH less if we wanted to. Check out our budget breakdown below to see all the fun things you can do with $35/day when traveling Malaysia.

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Foodie Column – Malaysia & Singapore; What you never knew you were missing!

The world is small nowadays. If you live in a mid-size to large city, odds are you share your city with people and cultures from all over the world. Particularly in regard to food, you will probably find restaurants ranging from Thai to Ethiopian right in your own neighborhood. However, unbeknownst to most Westerners, one of Asia’s most highly acclaimed cuisines has somehow slipped through the cracks in the West.

I’m speaking, of course, of Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. I did a search in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (population ~12 million) and found only 3 Malaysian restaurants, and after spending 5 weeks in Malaysia, I have to wonder why. I’m sure Malaysians and Singaporeans will grumble about being categorized with one another, but the truth is they have many more similarities than differences. Their culinary traditions include influences of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures.

If you’re into food, Malaysia and Singapore MUST be on your bucket list, and since odds are you know nothing about Malaysian food, here is a comprehensive guide of some of the must-tries during your visit. I have limited the list to dishes that can be found just about everywhere, and have separated the list by cultural influence (Malay, Chinese and Indian). Hope you enjoy!

Malay Influence:

Laksa

LaksaA staple of Malaysian cuisine, Laksa is to Malaysia what Barbecue is to Texas. It is a spicy noodle soup with chicken, prawn, or sometimes fried fish. The broth is usually either a coconut based curry broth or a sour tamarind based broth (Asam Laksa). As with much of Malaysian cuisine, both the broth and the noodles can vary regionally.

Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE. Curry Laksa particularly in Singapore and Asam Laksa particularly in Penang, Malaysia.

Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$2.75).


Apam Balik

IMG_0647A light, crispy pancake topped with ground peanut. These are a beloved street “comfort” food in Malaysia & Singapore and you will often see long lines to get one at all times of day.

Where to Find It: Outdoor markets, night markets or hawker centers. You won’t see them in restaurants.

Price: 1 MYR ($0.25).


Rendang

RendangRendang (Indonesian) – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, in Malaysia it is one of the most variable dishes in the country. In essence, it is simply meat stewed in coconut milk and ground spices like ginger, galangal, garlic, shallot, lemongrass and turmeric. The consistency can be from dry to soupy and the meat is usually beef or chicken. Rendang takes the top spot on CNN’s worlds 50 best foods.

Where to Find It: For being so delicious, Rendang can actually be somewhat hard to find (probably because it takes a long time to make). You will have to ask a local or do some online research to find places that serve it. Food cities like Singapore and Penang are a good start.

Price: Can be “pricey”, especially for beef rendang. 12-16 MYR ($3.00 – $4.00).


Nasi Lemak

IMG_1304 Sometimes considered the national dish of Malaysia. In its most basic form, it is coconut rice topped with sambal (spicy sauce), dried anchovies and peanuts. It is typically served “to go” style wrapped in a little banana leaf pyramid and is most often eaten for breakfast.

Where to Find It: On the side of the street early in the morning.

Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).


Chinese Influence:

Congee

IMG_0665A savory rice porridge often mixed with diced pork, chicken or fish (or sometimes frog if you’re lucky!). It is embraced as a comfort food in many Asian countries, and is often considered as a food therapy meal for when you’re sick (similar to chicken noodle soup in the U.S.A.).

Where to find it: Everywhere. Any hawker center should have at least one stall.

Price: 3-4 MYR (~$1.00).


Bak Kut Teh

IMG_0741Literally “meat bone tea,” it is a pork medley slow boiled in a complex broth that includes dong quai, star anise, and cinnamon. It’s basically a bowl of pork parts: ribs, intestines, and mystery “balls,” all in a herbal soup usually served with a side of flash fried leafy greens and steamed rice. Depending on where you are in Malaysia, it might only be served for breakfast (as in Kuala Lumpur) or it might only be served for dinner (as in Sabah).

Where to Find It: Bak Kut Teh is usually served in restaurants that serve nothing else. Look for bustling open restaurants with tables spilling out into the street.

Price: 20-30 MYR ($5.00-$8.00). A little more expensive than average.


Claypot Chicken Rice

IMG_0755A steamy, crusty clay bowl of rice, meat (chicken or chicken sausage), soy sauce, and sometimes egg. The unique part of this dish is that the steamed rice is cooked at high heat on a charcoal stove causing the edges to “burn” onto the inside of the bowl, before the other ingredients are added. Everyone agrees that the little burned bits are the best part of the dish!

Where to find it: You might have to ask a local as this dish is a little less common.

Price: 6-8 MYR ($1.50-$2.00).


Hainanese Chicken Rice

Chicken RiceOften considered the national dish of Singapore. Bringing up the topic of where to find the best Chicken Rice could spark a violent debate as many Malaysians and Singaporeans are very serious about their chicken rice. In essence, it just a steeped chicken, chopped into strips and served over rice, but the subtleties of the dish make the difference. Some regions use coconut rice, some cook the rice in the chicken stock, some use roast chicken instead of boiled chicken, and so on. This one is not to be missed, especially in Singapore.

Where to Find It: Chinese coffee shops, hawker centers, and even some restaurants. Look for rows of cooked chickens hanging in the window.

Price: 5-8 MYR ($1.25-$2.00).


Hokkien Mee

IMG_1049One of my personal favorites. Hokkien mee is a noodle dish often consisting of both egg and rice noodles, mixed together with pork, prawns, squid and veggies. In Penang and much of Malaysia, the dish is served as a soup with a seafood based broth, while in Singapore the dish is stir fried. It is often garnished with sambal and sometimes lime.

Where to find it: Everywhere in Penang and Singapore hawker centers. Look for the signs and ask locals about the best spots.

Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$1.75).


Char Kway Teow

IMG_1068Somewhat similar to the Thai dish Pad See Ew. Char Kway Teow is a stir fried flat noodle dish with prawns, cockles, soy sauce and chillies and is usually served on a banana leaf or butcher paper. This is an especially popular dish in the Penang region, which has a heavy Hokkien influence.

Where to find it: Everywhere, especially in Penang. Look for hawker stalls and night markets.

Price: 3-6 MYR ($0.75-$1.50).


Indian Influence:

(Dum) Biryani

BiryaniSpiced basmati rice typically cooked together with meat. This is exactly the same as traditional Indian biryani, but Singaporeans think they can differentiate it by calling it “dum biryani” signifying that it is cooked together with the meat. Traditionally, all biryani is cooked with the meat anyways so the Singaporean attempt to differentiate it is a lazy one.

Where to Find It: Little India hawker centers and restaurants.

Price: 8-12 MYR ($2.00 – $3.00).


Murtabak

IMG_3953Though murtabak originates in the Arabian peninsula, it has been adopted into the food culture of the Malaysian Mamak (Indian Muslims). It is a savory pan-fried pancake usually stuffed with minced meat (beef, chicken, or lamb), onion and a cracked egg. This dish is quite heavy and is usually served with an assortment of vegetable curries for dipping. One of these could easily feed 2 people.

Where to Find It: Mamak stalls in Indian neighborhoods or night markets. It is often eaten for either lunch or dinner.

Price: 4-5 MYR ($1.00-$1.25).


Roti Canai

IMG_1040A savory pan-fried flatbread dish that is typically eaten for breakfast and served alongside lentil or meat curry.

Where to find it: Early in the morning at Mamak Stalls (streetside indian food stalls). Get there early because most places are likely to run out before noon.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25 – $0.50).


Drinks:

Cendol

IMG_0653An extremely sweet dessert beverage made from rice milk, coconut milk and palm sugar (sort of a Malaysian version of Mexican horchata). Technically the term “Cendol” refers to the rice based green jelly “worms” that are added to the drink. The drink is served with a large diameter straw so you can slurp up all the worms from the bottom. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the worms part, but the drink base is delicious!

Where to Find It: Most restaurants don’t feature a “dessert menu”, so in order to find this, you will either have to find a dessert stall (usually next to the hawker centers) or find a stall out at the night markets.

Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).


Iced Coffee

IMG_1092Most westerners would agree that coffee in Malaysia is sort of a sore subject. The ubiquity of an instant coffee mixture (they call Nescafe) has led to many a disappointing experience. That said, Malaysians have built quite a culture around their traditional Iced Coffee, the typical variety of which being coined “White Coffee” meaning it contains coffee, condensed milk, and sugar. Since it’s usually hot in Southeast Asia, most people drink their coffee cold, and if you are okay with your coffee being more sugar than bean, this is sure to be quite a treat.

Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE! The way most hawker centers work is that the drink people are in charge of the tables and so after you order your drinks you are free to go to any of the food stalls you want. As soon as you sit down at a table, a drink vendor will come by asking for your drink order (if you don’t get a drink, you won’t be sitting there). Every drink vendor will have iced coffee.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).


Teh Tarik

IMG_1336OMG They need to have this everywhere! I would order this HOT even in the blistering desert. Teh Tarik literally translates to “pulled tea” and all it is is black tea with condensed milk and a bit of sugar. The magic comes in the “pulling” part where the tea is poured back and forth between containers (usually from above the barista’s head) to develop a wonderful foam on the top of the drink. You can also order this as an iced drink, but obviously that would destroy the foam immediately.

Where to Find It: You can “find” it literally everywhere (like iced coffee), but in my experience your best bet is in an Indian hawker center as many of the Chinese centers simply stir the tea instead of pulling it.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).


Ais Kacang (ABC)

IMG_4567Literally meaning “ice beans”, this one is really more of a dessert than a drink and will certainly be one of the most unique things you try in Malaysia. The contents will vary from stall to stall, but at its core this is rose syrup shaved ice topped with an assortment of beans, sweet corn, cendol “worms”, fruit and vanilla ice cream and drizzled with condensed milk. Seriously. That’s what it is. This is one you might need to share.

Where to Find It: Like Cendol, this can usually only be found at dessert stalls.

Price: 3-4 MYR ($0.75-$1.00).


 

So if you’re planning a trip to Malaysia or Singapore, make sure you give yourself enough time to try each of these dishes at least once, and don’t forget to bring your stretchy pants!

12 Things You Learn After Traveling 3 months in SE Asia

We’ve been traveling in SE Asia for almost three months now. It still hasn’t “hit” us yet that this is our new reality, and we’re not sure it ever will. As we reflect on our first three months abroad, we have discovered a few unexpected things that have really stood out to us, both in our surroundings in ourselves. Hope you enjoy!

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24 hours in the #1 airport in the world. Ready. Set. Go!

We arrived at Changi Airport,  the #1 airport in the world, in Singapore at 4:37 p.m. on a Wednesday, and it took exactly 7 minutes from touchdown until we were off the plane and on to our next adventure. Little did anyone know, however, that our next adventure didn’t involve leaving the airport.

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