The ‘banana pancake’ consists of the well trekked backpacking route through the countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. This past summer I gave the route a whirl, despite warnings that I would be traveling during the harshest weather, monsoon season. Given that summer break was the only substantial chunk of time that I could travel between semesters, I took my chances and headed east, to join the ranks of sweaty backpackers and miles of tantalizing street food. I spent two and a half months traveling, and was even able to extend my destinations south into Singapore and Indonesia. While I did have an incredible adventure, there were a few things I wish I had known prior to setting out on my excursion.
1) Learn how to ride a motorbike
In Southeast Asia, motorbikes are often the most efficient form of transportation, and they allow you to taste more traditional dishes outside of city centers. In Vietnam for instance, most travelers purchase a bike in either Hanoi (in the north) or Ho Chi Minh (in the south), and ride it in either direction until their visa runs out (typically 30 days). Travelers can usually buy a great bike for less than $300 and sell it when they are finished with it. Prior to my travels I had never ridden a motorbike, and although my bike was automatic, I definitely wish I had some experience before taking on the congested streets of Hanoi. Riding a bike instead of constantly taking buses meant that I could stop in smaller villages to taste local fare. I would follow my nose and find whole pigs roasting and giant cauldrons full of pho bubbling. It was in those small villages where I believe I got some of the most authentic views into their culture.
2) Defend yourself against food poisoning
It’s no secret that all of the water in Southeast Asia is contaminated, but it also means that any food that uses water has the potential to be somewhat poisonous. While I was careful to only drink bottled water (sorry conservationists), I was much less cautious when it came to the street meats and noodle soups that occupied every street corner. Prior to my trip I was convinced that I had a gut of steel, but around the third time I had food poisoning, I decided it was time for me to lay off all of the bun cha. Backpackers should be aware that most of our stomachs do not have the same kinds of enzymes and bacteria as locals, so it’s important to take plenty of vitamins to combat nasty stomach aches. In order to not have to give up being an adventurous eater, I’d suggest a heavy dose of charcoal pills and probiotics, along with a discerning eye for dishes that may be best untouched.
3) Learn to accept tourist prices
This may be the first time that I will ever suggest for travelers to not haggle. When it comes to traveling, I do whatever I can to save that extra dollar, but in some of the poor areas of Southeast Asia, my frugality was compromised. A typical street meal may only cost a dollar or two, and a souvenir will often be less than five dollars. American or European currency has a much greater value than currency down South, and there are few regulations for minimum wage laws. Many of the people live in poverty, and often times their only form of income may be selling bananas or hand woven scarves on the side of the road. Instead of spending several minutes arguing about cost and forcing the seller to give you a price that is fifty cents less, just pay up and know that your money is probably going towards feeding their family for a week. The difference in cost to us is so small that our bank accounts will barely notice, and you can bet that the seller of a product will greatly appreciate your business.
4) Watch out for knock off booze
The use of fake alcohol in Southeast Asia has become such a big issue that most hostels will warn backpackers about the trend when they first check in. Since most countries in Southeast Asia do not export hard liquor besides rice wine and beer, spirits have to be imported, which is very expensive. Hard liquor is almost exclusively reserved for tourists because of its high cost. In order to cut the cost of liquor, many bars and hostels that are advertised to tourists will actually use a cheaper alcohol substitute instead of the real thing. This substitute is methanol, and each year there are stories about Austrialians going blind because they drink too much of the stuff (Australians are known for being the heaviest drinkers in the backpacking world). A good friend of mine drank the stuff just like he would drink back home, and found himself in a Thai hospital for a month suffering from a deteriorating stomach. Even buying a bottle of your own does not mean that you may be safe from the toxic chemical. Many bootleg distilleries will use empty bottles of Jack Daniels or Jose Quervo and fill them up with the fake alcohol. This is not to say that every bar and liquor store in the entire region only sells the fake stuff, but it is something to keep an eye out for. If a bar is offering a night of unlimited drinking for just five dollars per guest, that is usually a pretty good tip. Since there has been more attention brought to the problem, some bars and hostels will even advertise that their alcohol is certified and real, which you can often times trust and test based on the taste.