I’m rounding out my third month of traveling through Southeast Asia and exploring the fourth country of this trip! I’m noticing patterns and figuring out my favorite things to do in a country I’ve never been to before. The best part of having a rough list of things to do in every country you visit, is that this method highlights all the differences! The different culture, customs, flavors, the people, the land, stand out in stark difference when you try similar experiences to other countries you’ve visited!
In addition to being a clever way to observe and expose yourself to a new culture, I love that it brings a routine, a sameness to my spontaneous journey! As much as I crave freedom and adventure, I’m starting to crave a routine, a pattern to my days. Having a project to work on (my blog!) has been satisfying in that regard, but in addition it’s fun to check off my list of 7 things to do in every country you visit.
1. Learn some basic words and phrases in the language
It can be so frustrating to spend 3 weeks practicing Thai, only to lose the ability to verbally communicate as soon as you cross the border into Laos and you have to start all over! Although many people speak English, especially in the tourism industry, most people really appreciate it when you try to speak their language in their country.
Trying to wrap your brain around unfamiliar sounds becomes totally worth it when a cute grandma smiles at you when you thank her in her own language. My advice is to embrace looking silly! You’re going to sound funny, and people might laugh or not understand you at first, but that’s all part of the fun! Don’t take yourself so seriously, and just try! You’ll make a connection with a local person and share a laugh! At a family Pho place in Vietnam, the family laughed all night when we tried to order ‘hai chicken’, or two chicken. They thought it was hilarious, and it kind of made our night!
The most useful words and phrases that I’ve found I reach for the most are:
- Thank you
- How much?
- Numbers 1-5 (or more! but I usually start with 2 and 5, those are the most useful!)
2. Eat street food
Street food is the cheapest way to try some local specialties! Is it safe to eat? Mostly, yes! After my food poisoning in Luang Prabang (it was bad. i might have cried.), I have some rules to follow for safely enjoying cheap delicious local street food!
- Make sure it’s cooked in front of you! This is especially important with meats and sausage, but applies to everything!
- Go to places where a lot of people go. This helps the turnover rate so you maximize the freshness of the food you get.
- Get the specialty. Don’t go for the meat option in a seafood joint, or vice versa. This also ensures high turnover rate, and keeps your food fresh.
3. Eat at a highly reviewed restaurant
Doesn’t have to be expensive! There are lots of options in TripAdvisor’s Cheap Eats section. Even if you’re backpacking on a budget, I’d definitely recommend spending a little money to try the best food a region has to offer. It’s been fascinating how different the food has been in each country in Southeast Asia, but also noticing the Thai influences on Laotian food, for example.
4. Eat at a place recommended by a local
A lot of these are food related, I’m noticing. But come on! I was so giddy when I first landed in Thailand because it meant thai food every day! We’ve eaten at some amazing places recommended to us by locals that weren’t that popular on TripAdvisor or in our guidebook, but were incredible. Your guesthouse owner or receptionist is a good person to ask for recommendations.
5. Take a cooking class
This might be my last food related point. 🙂 Taking a cooking class in every country has been one of my favorite experiences! I recommend spending a bit of time trying the local food on your own first (steps 2 through 4), so that when you take a class, some of the dishes you learn about are familiar. You’ll go deeper, however, and really dissect a dish and learn about it’s ingredients. And then EAT IT ALL!! This is where the real differences in the cuisines of each country really stand out. You’re exposed to much of the same ingredients, but use them in different ways.
My advice for finding a good cooking class include:
- Individual cooking stations!! This is key! In some of the cheaper cooking classes you kind of make the dish together with your group, so you only cut up the lemon grass, and someone else only mashes curry paste, etc. The best ones are where you have your own cooking station and do everything yourself.
- You make each course. In some of the cooking classes, each person makes their own dish to share, and then you feast on everyone’s food. But then you only learn how to make one dish! In the best classes, you make each course, and then eat your own cooking!
- Market visits are fun but not mandatory. It’s fun to visit the local market and most cooking classes include a market visit, but in my opinion it’s not a crucial part of the cooking class.
- Make sure the class is focused on cooking! Some of the ‘cooking classes’ are like: ride in a basket boat, then take a jungle trek, then go beer tasting, and also there’s a cooking class! That sounds like a fun trip, but the cooking will not be the focus of this excursion.
6. Explore the outdoors
Get out of the city and go outside!! The countryside varies drastically in Southeast Asia, and I super recommend doing something active outside. Go on a hike, go to the beach, go kayaking, climbing, go on a bike ride! This doesn’t have to be hard core, but a country is more than concrete jungles, and I think exploring a country should include some nature.
Going to national parks, beaches, and mountains shows the world that we are interested in these things. There is a lot of money in tourism, and I love that ecotourism provides financial motivation for conservation!
7. Do something you didn’t plan on
There are so many must-sees and don’t-miss-thats! It’s hard to not try to cram in everything so you don’t miss anything! It’s important to preserve some spontaneity and adventure, however, and leave some room to breath. Leave time to wander around town, or just hang out in a cute coffee shop you stumbled on, or visit a less popular market you walked by. Have a balance of schedule and organic exploration!
What are your favorite things to do in every country you visit?
What do you like to do in every country when you travel? Take a yoga class? Go sky diving? Learn a craft? Talk to 10 people a day? I’d love to hear about your ideas!
Also check out my post on how long you should travel for. I talk about the three ideal lengths of trips for the three different travel types. Which one do you prefer?