For many travellers, the rich variety of food on offer throughout Southeast Asia will be one of the most memorable aspects of the trip. It is also generally very affordable, especially if you’re eating off the street and in markets.
If you’ve never been to Southeast Asia before, it can pay dividends to ease yourself into the cuisine. Arriving in Thailand and immediately scoffing down plates of raw prawns and rich pungent curries will probably be a bit of a shock to your digestive system. Ease yourself in, dish by dish.
The staple across the region is rice, sometimes glutinous, which is served as the main dish with a variety of dishes on the side. Second place is taken by a maddening variety of noodles, which are boiled, fried, tossed, steamed or baked to form a part of a wide variety of dishes.
In tourist-heavy areas, English-language menus are quite common, but in other areas they are less sighted. If you don’t have a handle on the language, be prepared to point and pick. Don’t be shy—the restaurateurs won’t be expecting you to be fluent in Vietnamese, but pointing to a dish on another table, then at yourself, carries a pretty international meaning.
If you have any food allergies, ask someone to write them on a card for you in the local language. For example, gluten-free flash cards in a number of languages can be purchased online.
Travellers with severe peanut allergies will struggle with some cuisines, as peanut oil is a very common ingredient. In some cases you will be better off to avoid certain foods entirely.
A few words on eating etiquette. Simple restaurants will generally have a tray of chopsticks, forks and spoons, along with various condiments and perhaps a jug of water. Knives are generally not supplied as the food served is in small enough portions that they are not required.
Use your fork to push food onto your spoon, which is the primary implement for shovelling food into your mouth. Chopsticks are used with some soups and fried noodle dishes, but not with soupy curries and salads which are placed over a bowl of rice and eaten with fork and spoon. Supplied chopsticks will be either disposable or reusable ones. If the latter, it is considered normal to give them a wipe over with a tissue before using.
If there is a jug of water on the table and you are served an empty cup then you are allowed to drink water from the jug (the water will be safe to drink) free of charge. Condiments, anything from bowls of chilli to picked garlic, soy sauce and fish sauce, are free to use without charge. Chips and other snacks in sealed plastic bags are there for the taking (good for dipping), but are generally not free.
If a dish can be eaten by hand, you should only use your right hand for handling food going into your mouth. Never place food into your mouth with your left hand, nor hand food to other people with your left hand.
A sit-down restaurant will generally bring the bill to you at the end of the meal. Tipping is not expected, though it is always appreciated. More modern restaurants may add a service fee onto the bill. Some restaurants may expect you to remove your shoes, though this is becoming less common. Smoking in restaurants remains commonplace, even though laws against it are slowly spreading.
With the exception of Indonesia and Malaysia, alcohol is widely served and sold in all manner of stores and restaurants. There is generally little in the way of age checking (though in theory minors are not allowed to drink). Most restaurants at a minimum will serve beer and local concoctions like local whiskey or perhaps rice wine. Western-style wine and other liquor (aside from whiskey) remains rare in smaller, locally run businesses, but is reasonably common (often sold in minimarts) in more built up and tourist-heavy areas.
In some areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, alcohol will have only limited availability (notably east coast Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Sumbawa and some parts of Java and Kalimantan). Where alcohol is served, it may be done so in plain cups or glasses (so it is not obvious to onlookers that you are drinking alcohol). Bringing your own alcohol, or conspicuous consumption of it in these areas, is neither polite nor recommended.
Staying with alcohol, in Indonesia you should be very wary of cheap liquor—it is often fake. Methanol poisoning kills plenty of locals (and occasional tourists) every year. Even a mild case of methanol poisoning can result in blindness. Methanol is a side-product of alcohol that has not been distilled correctly. Despite what you may read in some newspapers, methanol is not deliberately added to drinks to poison customers.
While some illicit alcohol can be consumed safely, it varies batch to batch and the only real giveaway is the price. Indonesia has extremely high taxes on imported alcohol and if mixed drinks are being sold at a price comparable to beer, then it is likely the liquor being used is fake and may be tainted. While fake alcohol is a problem right across Indonesia, the Gili Islands in particular are notorious for it so we strongly suggest sticking to beer.
A word on ice. Drinking unpurified water is one of the easiest ways to get ill, and ice can be a common vector for bugs to get into your system. Generally speaking, ice served in restaurants is made from purified water, so is nothing to worry about. You can recognise these ice cubes as there are roughly cylindrical with a whole through the centre.
A second kind of ice is shard ice—large blocks of ice that are primarily used for refrigeration but can on occasion make it into drinks. This type of ice is not always made from purified water and is not always transported in a hygienic manner. The ice is rough and irregular in shape as it is split off a far larger block out back. This type of ice should be avoided.
Outside Singapore, the tap water anywhere in Southeast Asia is not reliably safe to drink, making it thus unsafe to drink. It might be okay to brush your teeth in, but we strongly advise not using tap water to refill water bottles, unless you use a Steripen or some other equipment to sterilise the water yourself. Do not drink the tap water as it is.
If a food or drink makes you ill, reaching for some pills to calm your stomach down need not be the first action (unless you need to travel and know you may not have access to a toilet). Go back to simple staples—like rice and bread—and other simple foods (we’ve had great success with bananas). Avoid caffeine and alcohol, but drink lots of water with rehydration salts. Generally a minor case of an upset stomach will pass within 24 hours.
Southeast Asia gets pretty warm, and even lying around in a hammock can by dehydrating. Be sure that you drink enough water. Exact amounts will vary depending on your bodyweight, but figure out what you should be drinking and drink it. When we’re travelling around as a 6 foot 100kg male, we’d drink around two litres a day.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.