I sometimes find myself arguing with people that yes, they are, in fact, creative. So many people assume only those in the traditional arts like music or painting have claim to that particular trait. I’m a firm believer that creativity at its heart is about turning tradition on its ear. Independent travelers – you’re the new creative class. (Just check out the collaborative travel dance and film project Alaine Handa is working on, or the badass dystopian costume design Faith Roswell makes for Wasteland Warriors all over the world.) When you charge forward into the world without guidebooks and travel agents dictating your every move, you’re creating something. In this latest addition of my itinerary series – designed to unleash your creative planning power, rather than give you a copy-and-paste blueprint for your trip – we’ll explore one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world: Southeast Asia. Its bottom dollar price tag makes it one of the best starter destinations for budget backpacking in the world, but there’s so much more to it than that. If this corner of the world wasn’t filled with sublime natural beauty, rich cultural traditions, and some of the most banging food across the globe, no amount of budgeting would be worthwhile. Read on for must-have information on some of the highlights you might choose to include in your own Southeast Asia itinerary.
Working while traveling is both challenging and enriching. Having freelance projects and this blog gave me more focus and purpose on my RTW trip, while also helping support the costs of that travel. I frequently booked accommodations that would allow me to work from my home away from home. I also stayed in a fair number of hostel dorms, and sometimes you get tired of catching side eye for being that chick who always seems to be on her laptop. What’s a digital nomad to do? Enter the WiFi cafe. As the number of remote workers in the world grows, so too does the number of places willing to let you buy a latte and settle in for the morning. In my Creative Professional’s Guides, I often highlight the best cafes to work from in destinations from London to Ljubljana. But there’s more to finding quality work cafes than a single online recommendation. Think about these criteria when assessing the work-friendliness of cafes in your destination.
In preparing for the Southeast Asian leg of my RTW trip, I read a lot of horror stories about the slow boat to Laos. The three-day journey from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos seemed to have been a trying experience for many. At the same time, it seemed the most reasonable way to get into a landlocked, less developed country. A bus between the two cities would have been unbearably long, and a direct flight wasn’t quite in my budget. Plus, deep down, I felt the need to see just how bad it really was.
Either things have changed or the blogs I read about the slow boat were way overblown accounts of people who didn’t manage their expectations well. The couple of days I spent cruising down the Mekong River were an absolute highlight of my time in Southeast Asia! But if you don’t know what you’re getting into, I can see how it would be a shock to the system. Read up on the details of taking the slow boat to Laos and decide whether it’s for you.
I’m not sure I can count all the ways taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai was the best idea. I love Thai food and enjoy cooking at home, which is a bit of a luxury on the road, especially in Southeast Asia. (Most of the hostels I stayed in there didn’t have much in the way of kitchen facilities, unlike similar properties in Europe.) Perhaps more importantly, food is one of the best windows into other cultures, and recipes make incredible souvenirs.
The blog grapevine pointed me to Mama Noi Cookery School, and so I devoted one of my last days in Chiang Mai to their full day Thai cooking class. Like most cooking classes, we started with a visit to the local market, where an instructor pointed out ingredients particular to Thai cuisine like galangal and kaffir lime leaf. After a few minutes to wander on our own, we drove out to the classroom, set in an organic garden.
I had about a half dozen classmates, mostly Americans, which is always surprising to me. We seem to come few and far between on the budget backpacker trail. We each had a menu to select which dishes we’d make in each of several categories. For the rest of the day, we’d cook and eat plates two at a time.
Soup: Chicken in Coconut Milk
Although we all made our dish selections individually, we still cooked as a group. Our instructor was really skilled at balancing the needs of the group, and the structure of each lesson was well thought out with many steps being similar for different dishes. She also had a pretty sharp sense of humor and as she was dividing our group into teams (people who had chosen the same dish), she dubbed my group making the mild chicken in coconut milk soup the “Baby Team.” A mother and daughter preparing a sour and spicy soup were “Mama Team,” while the lone gentleman making the ultra spicy hot and sour prawn soup became “Sexy Man” for the rest of the day. Lesson one about Thai cooking: spice is sexy.
Stir Fry: Pad Thai
The quintessential Thai dish, practically everyone in my group chose to make Pad Thai as our stir fry. Other options were cashew chicken or a stir fried chicken with basil. But seriously, who could resist the call of spicy rice noodles doused in peanuts? I don’t think I ever realized just how many ingredients go into a proper Pad Thai, several of which I’d never worked with before. Palm sugar, dried baby shrimps, and pungent shrimp paste were all on the menu. Once everything was prepped, we headed to the stovetop, where you had to be ready to put in some work. You want a good Pad Thai? You have to put your whole body into stirring the wok.
Curry: Massaman Curry
If you had told me a year ago, I’d make my own curry paste from scratch, I wouldn’t have believed it. But one mortar and pestle, and 10 minutes of some serious elbow grease turned that particular culinary achievement from “I’d never” to “I did.” Most Thai curries are red, made with dried chiles, and green, made with fresh chiles, which makes green curry the spiciest style of curry. I opted for something I wasn’t already familiar with: Massaman curry. Cinnamon and star anise are added to a basic array of curry ingredients for a mild to moderately spiced, Indian influenced dish. Other options included Penang curry – a thick and sweet red peanut curry – and Khao Soy curry, another novelty to me. Khao Soy is totally unique among Thai curries because it is served with crispy egg noodles rather than rice.
Thai Iced Tea
To tame the heat from our curries, we also made Thai iced tea. The leaves for Thai tea really do produce that bright orange-red color, and sweetening with condensed milk rather than sugar is a must. I’ve tried to make Thai iced tea at home before and it’s always been close but no cigar. Lots of sweetened condensed milk is the key.
Fried Spring Rolls
I’ve always been a little terrified of deep frying. I’m still not sure I can bring myself to stick a vat of boiling oil in my kitchen, but I was really happy with how my fried spring roll turned out in cooking class. Rather than everyone making a full serving of spring rolls, we worked as a group. One guy volunteered to work the wok to cook the filling we would all share. We each took a wrapper, learned the right way to fold, and then fried our rolls in batches of two to three before topping it with a sweet chile sauce.
Appetizer: Green Papaya Salad
This was another category that nearly every member of the class agreed on. Green papaya salad is one of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes. Green papaya itself doesn’t have much flavor, but it’s just the right texture for creating long, thin, almost noodle-like strips to be doused in a sour and spicy dressing. I was a little surprised to learn this salad is prepared in a large wooden mortar and pestle. Other appetizers on the menu were a spicy ground chicken salad and a glass noodle salad.
Dessert: Mango Sticky Rice
Ever seen sticky rice that looks like it’s been dyed a completely unnatural color? It’s not unnatural! Our final lesson of the day, dessert, kicked off with making natural food dyes for bright blue and green sticky rice. The green coloring comes from pandan leaves, which are mildly fragrant and sweet but unlike any ingredient you’d find in the west and thus somewhat indescribable. The blue comes from butterfly pea flowers, which have a host of homeopathic applications and are often found in Southeast Asian beauty products as well as treats like sticky rice. For both colorings, you chop and crush them in a little water and squeeze out all the pigment you can. If you add a little lime juice to the butterfly pea flower dye, it will change from bright blue to a gorgeous purple. Our dyes went right into a sweetened coconut milk mixture on the stove which we stirred glutinous rice into, to be served alongside a fresh mango. Sesame seeds and mung beans went on top for a little extra crunch. Most of our group made mango sticky rice, but there were a couple less popular desserts also on the menu like fried bananas and a dish called “red rubies” – a uniquely textured dessert made from water chestnuts and coconut milk.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day was getting sent home with a cookbook, so we each got all the recipes regardless of what we chose to make that day. Like I said – recipes make the best souvenirs.
This is still simply scratching the surface of Thai food. Read up on more awesome dishes in this quick foodie guide to Bangkok.
Thailand may have been the first travel destination I ever became aware of. My dad grew up as an army brat and spent three years of his childhood in Bangkok. So I grew up hearing endless stories of the former kingdom of Siam. Naturally, no matter what the country’s reputation in the larger travel community was, I would have carried a big soft spot for Thailand. But I’ve been lucky enough to not only get to know my dad’s childhood home, but to also discover a country famed for its convenient and budget friendly travel. How much does it cost to explore Bangkok and Chiang Mai? I break down every dime I spent from airfare and accommodations to every last Thai iced tea I sipped on.
Few places have as strong a reputation among digital nomads as Chiang Mai in Thailand. The northern city has become an expat mecca, and much of my motivation to head north from Bangkok instead of south to islands was driven by the desire to see for myself just how friendly the town was to remote work. I’m certainly not the first to have been lured by promises of strong WiFi, cozy cafes, and an easy pace of life. Of everywhere I’ve been on my RTW trip, no place fits all the living abroad criteria quite like Chiang Mai, often called the Boston to Bangkok’s New York. And while the city itself has become rapidly Westernized, it still provides a great base for exploring Thailand’s north and getting some unique cultural experiences.
Sometimes I feel like a bad tourist. Bangkok definitely inspired that nagging voice in the back of my mind as I spent my first several days in the city doing nothing but eat. But food is one of the best windows to a new culture, and Thai food is some of the best in the world! Thai cooks have a true, nearly incomparable skill at balancing sweet, sour, and spicy flavors in dishes that are just explosively, mind-blowingly good. Bangkok in particular has a serious reputation for awesome, affordable eats, so I won’t consider those first few days wasted. Below are nine meals, snacks, and drinks to fill up on in the Thai capital, from comfy full service restaurants to basic street stalls.
Hostels are one of the staples of budget travel, whether you’re on a year-long RTW trip like me or a shorter vacation. Found nearly everywhere outside the US, these shared spaces help travelers save money and make friends. Though they have a bad reputation among many less experienced travelers, there are plenty of hostels that are clean, comfortable, and safe. Sometimes, however, it’s true that you pay a different price for that tempting low nightly rate. Below are all my worst hostel experiences from nearly a year on the road.