Southeast Asia: Three Favorite Things

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I wouldn’t say that we’ve been *everywhere* in Southeast Asia, but over four separate visits, totaling five months spent in the region, we’ve seen and done a lot. At this point, we’ve been to nearly every Southeast Asian country (we’re only missing Brunei and East Timor.) So what did we like the best?

Three Favorite Cities

  1. Luang Prabang (Laos)
  2. Chiang Mai (Thailand)
  3. Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Each of these cities has a laid-back, fun-loving atmosphere, and days spent here flew by. We tend towards the smaller cities; Bangkok and Jakarta are not among our favorites (though we love Kuala Lumpur and would choose that as number four.)

The Luang Prabang main drag

Three Favorite Places for Neat Architecture

  1. Bali (Indonesia)
  2. Singapore
  3. Yangon (Myanmar)

Balinese traditional architecture is a blend of different styles, and it is like nothing else in the world. I particularly admired the Hindu temples on Bali, but ordinary courtyard houses were also beautiful. Both Singapore and Yangon have some fabulous old British colonial buildings, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and (in Singapore) Malay-style architecture. The different neighborhoods were fascinating to walk around.

An old British building overlooking People's Park in Yangon

Ruins of the historical center of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand

Three Favorite Attractions

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  2. Bagan (Myanmar)
  3. The old city of Sukhothai (Thailand)

Hmmm… these all turned out to be sites of ancient ruins. I guess you can tell where our interests lie?

Three Favorite Experiences

  1. Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)  The most fish I have ever seen in one place… plus turtles and sharks.
  2. Watching a water-puppet show (Hanoi, Vietnam)  So what if it’s touristy? It’s a really cool show.
  3. Touching a tiger (Chiang Mai, Thailand)  Do I have to explain the appeal of this one?

    Awww!

Three Favorite Foods

  1. Pad thai (Thailand)
  2. Adobo (Philippines)
  3. Banh mi (Vietnam; similar ones in Laos)

We tried making adobo when we got home... it was good, but not as good as on Boracay Island

Pad thai may be an obvious choice, but we never ever got tired of eating it. In the Philippines, each adobo we tried was better than the last. I don’t know how they do it. I asked one waitress about her restaurant’s version; she just shrugged and said “It’s Filipino food.” Which explains… nothing.

Runner-up: Roti canai (Malaysia and Singapore), which we ate for breakfast nearly every day in those countries.

Three Favorite Drinks

  1. Teh tarik (Malaysia, Singapore)
  2. Local coffee, sweetened with condensed milk (Vietnam, Laos)
  3. Watermelon shakes (anywhere there are backpackers)

Teh tarik… how can I explain teh tarik? It tastes like plain ol’ black tea with sugar and lots of milk (think Japanese milk tea) but the process of making it is special. Before serving, it is poured back and forth between two glasses several times, which makes the top nice and frothy, and in my opinion, makes the drink creamier.

Breakfast of champions: roti canai and teh tarik

Eating Laos

Laos is another country whose national cuisine I knew very little about. Everywhere in Southeast Asia has fantastic food, which I can’t stop writing about, but Laos was a real treat for us. With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, how could you not come up with some good eats? And as a bonus, their drinks are as good as the food. Lao coffee, with a bit of sweetened condensed milk, tastes so chocolatey that I wondered if they had added some cocoa powder. And Beerlao is the best beer in Southeast Asia.

We were happy to discover that for breakfast, baguette sandwiches (similar to banh mi) are popular items.

One of these plus Lao coffee equals perfect breakfast

Bob looks sad here, possibly because he knows he can't get this at home?

Luang Prabang and Vientiane have the most variety and best quality of food, and of the two we preferred Luang Prabang. It was a little cheaper, and the atmosphere was so pleasant and relaxed.

Our favorite restaurant was Coconut Garden. The nem tadieu, a mint and pickled pork salad, was amazing (but comes with a lot of peanuts on the side, FYI) and so were the deep-fried stuffed bamboo shoots. One specialty of the area is Mekong river weed, which I know sounds a little weird but it is DELICIOUS. It’s dried and seasoned, then fried and served in sheets. It was a more awesome version of Korean nori… which I didn’t think could exist.

I’ve taken cooking classes on my own in Indonesia and Thailand, but this time I convinced Bob to join me. We went to Tamnak Lao restaurant, which also runs a cooking school. The day started with a stir-fried dish that I have forgotten the name of, and a Luang Prabang salad.

Luang Prabang salad

Then we had a choice for our final three dishes. We selected stir-fried pork and eggplant, stir-fried rice vermicelli noodles, and chicken larb.

Chicken larb/ larp/ laab/ laap

Larb is also spelled laab, laap or larp- I wish these kinds of things would be standardized. Also found in Thai cuisine, it’s a cold salad made of minced meat or tofu, shallots, garlic, and lots and lots of mint. A Laotian twist is to add banana flower, for texture. True to their name, banana flowers come from banana trees and as far as I can tell, they are nigh impossible to obtain in temperate climates. It didn’t have much flavor but it added a nice crunchy texture. Our instructor suggested when making this dish at home, we could try adding bulgur. I thought that the minced white parts of Napa cabbage might also work well.

Food is always served with chili paste, known as jeowbong, and either steamed or sticky rice (the latter is more common.) One Lao guy told us that that was because sticky rice makes you feel fuller than steamed rice does. I had a fork and spoon on this particular day, but traditionally the Laotians eat with their hands. The sticky rice can be made into small balls and dipped into the chili paste, or you can hold the ball between your fingers while you grab some pieces of meat or vegetables. Many Lao dishes don’t have chilies, so diners use the jeowbong to add as much or as little heat as they like.

Our Lao dinner: stir-fried pork and eggplant, jeowbong, and sticky rice

On the whole, my impression of Lao food was that, even more than its neighbors, it is heavy on herbs (especially basil, mint, and cilantro.) The stir-fries and salads reminded me a lot of Thai food, and the noodle soups and baguette sandwiches of Vietnamese food, but the snacks and other soups were pretty different. Jeowbong, too, is unique to Laos, and comes in many different varieties (probably as many as there are cooks!) Also, I’ve never eaten so much sticky rice in my life. I ate it in other Southeast Asian countries too, but its use is much more limited.

Next time: we delve even further into Lao food, by having a picnic in the forest….