Essential guide to Southeast Asian food | Expert Travel Tips
Backpacking in Southeast Asia? Read our recommendations on what’s tasty, authentic, won’t break the bank and won’t give you bellyache. This guide briefs you on essential food to eat and where to get it in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
As much as your local supermarket might have you believe, there’s much more to Thai food than green (or even red) curry. When we’re in Chiang Mai we like to head over to It’s Good Kitchen, a small budget restaurant ideal for hungry backpackers looking to fill their bellies with a simple and authentic meal. They serve up a great plate of pad thai, a delicious noodle stir-fry made with meat or vegetables. It’s a staple dish in Thai cooking and it’s hard to get wrong.
When it comes to desert it’s all about the mango sticky rice: a pretty straightforward name that lets you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s the most famous of the country’s desserts, made up of sticky rice covered with sweet coconut sauce and slices of mango. As a favourite of the nation it can be found almost everywhere when you’re traveling around Thailand. Our favourite place to grab a bowl is at the Saturday night market in Chiang Mai.
Mango sticky rice
If you’re looking for a traditional Lao dish have some laap, made up of minced meat (chicken, pork, water buffalo or fish) served with rice and sauce. On arrival in Luang Prabang we normally head over to Coconut Garden to grab a bowl of it.
If you’re walking around Luang Prabang you’re going to see fruit being sold everywhere. When you need to cool down you can’t go wrong with a smoothie – head to the end of Sisavanvong Road where there’s an array of stands selling them.
Vietnam’s a favourite food destination for many who take our Southeast Asia trip. Upon arriving in Hanoi most Dragon Trippers’ first experience of authentic Vietnamese cuisine is banh mi. A fusion-food influenced by French colonial occupation, this Vietnamese sandwich combines a French style baguette with a sticky Vietnamese sauce. We’d recommend Pateta Banhmi if you’re looking to grab one.
Pho (a rice noodle soup) is a staple, traditional Vietnamese dish and a must try while you’re there. The hostel we stay at in Ho Chi Minh city is right nearby Pho Quynh, and we’d give it a firm thumbs up when it comes to its delicious, good value pho.
If you’re looking for the ultimate ‘fresh food cooked in front of you’ experience, you’ll love the beaches of Nha Trang. Its common to get local people walking around with a portable BBQ on which they will offer to cook you fresh seafood such as crabs and lobsters. It’s cheap, tasty and you get to eat it right there on the beach.
Fancy yourself a bit of a chef? During our Southeast Asia tour we spend time cooking spring rolls together with a family in our homestay. Combine rice and vegetables then put them in rice paper to deep fry. Delicious.
No visit to Cambodia should be made without trying amok. The dish is served as curried fish (sometimes beef or chicken) inside a banana leaf. Traditionally the leaf is used as the vessel to steam the fish in, though now it is often just how the dish is served.
Khmer Surin is our pick for a restaurant to get this one. For backpackers on a budget it’s not as cheap as some of our choices but prices are not too high either. The place has got a buzzing atmosphere and, of course, delicious fish amok.
Have we got your stomach rumbling? Check out our 31-day Southeast Asia Circuit, 12-day Thailand & Laos tour or 21-day Vietnam & Cambodia tour. Or get in contact with any questions.
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