Archive of ‘Southeast Asia’ category

Singapore on a Budget

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singapore budget marina bay sands

Singapore is one of the most expensive countries in Southeast Asia, and you could definitely have a luxurious vacation here if you wanted to spend that kind of money. But you really don’t need much money at all to get the full local experience.

Accommodations

You’re probably looking at $15-$25 USD a night, which is still much more expensive than Thailand or Vietnam. But it’s doable and much better than Western European prices.

Food

singapore food hawker centers budget cheap

Hawker centers are basically huge, diverse food courts. You can easily get a full meal for under $6 USD and they have some of the best food I’ve ever had. Hawker centers began as a way to regulate formerly unhygienic street hawker food. Now they’re a staple and some food stalls even have Michelin stars. My favorite hawker center was Lau Pa Sat, which is probably the most popular choice. It’s also a very local experience as many of the local business people eat here.

Transportation

Public transit in Singapore is the way to go. It’s efficient and cheap (half the cost of the subway in New York). It’s also cleaner than anywhere I’ve been in Europe for sure!

Budget Activities

Marina Bay Sands

Singapore marina bay sands gardens by bay budget

Go to the top and take in the views. We got drinks, but you can actually go up for free and look over a small (but crowded) balcony that’s open to the public. Beats spending $500 a night to stay there.

Gardens by the Bay

This is completely free and one of my favorite thing to do in Singapore. You could definitely spend hours here. I went both at night and during the day and I just couldn’t get enough. If you don’t have a lot of time, try and go at night because the lights are beautiful.

Botanical Gardens

singapore botanical gardens free

The Botanical Gardens are also free to the public. There are some gardens that cost extra, but we were already so overwhelmed with all of the free options that it’s hard to imagine getting bored.

Explore the Neighborhoods of Singapore

Walk around Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street to absorb the local street culture. Singapore is all about the immersion of different cultures. Be sure to check out the local food, architecture, and shops.

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Becoming a Yogi in Bali

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bali yoga yogi indonesiaI’ve always enjoyed yoga as a casual hobby. My “practice” consisted of going to a class at the gym a few times per month. My motivation was completely physical and I rolled my eyes whenever I was in a class where the instructor started chanting. Needless to say, I was far from a yogi.

This all changed when I started going through some major life transitions. I had plans to quit my job and move across the country. Despite wanting to make this change for over a year, as the day came closer I began to question myself. I was beyond stressed. I decided it was time to get away. Maybe a weekend yoga retreat outside the city?

As I began to research my options, I realized that this city break was going to cost me a lot more than I would have expected. The average retreat cost about $500, not including transportation. I was discouraged until I found something even more surprising. For the same $500 I could spend a month doing unlimited yoga in Bali! Of course, flights were a bit more expensive than Amtrak but screw it. I booked the retreat and after quitting my job I was off!

Upon arriving at my retreat in Canggu, Bali, I definitely started to feel at peace. With ocean winds, open-air yoga studios, and a large pool to drink healthy smoothies by, how could I not? But I also started to realize that the yoga itself was not what I expected. I had assumed that the yoga would be fun and mostly for beginners. I also assumed that most of the other people at the retreat would be like me, casual exercisers who just wanted to escape life for a while. Boy, was I wrong. Nearly everyone was a pro!

My first day of yoga was exhausting. I just took one, 90-minute class (out of the 12 classes available each day) and I nearly passed out. The movements were challenging, the heat was intense, and the instructor really pushed me. In fact, he physically pushed me into positions that my body couldn’t handle. He told me that he could tell I was very flexible and I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I was not a fan of this guy.

aerial yoga retreat bali

I expected to be too sore to do any yoga the next day. I was surprised to wake up refreshed and eager to take more classes! Over the next coming weeks, I still found the classes difficult, but I was excited to push myself further and further. The instructor I hated my first day became one of my favorite people. I was starting to see physical and mental changes within me. My body could do things it never could before. I even became confident enough to try aerial yoga! More importantly, I was able to sit still and be calm, something that’s quite foreign for an anxious person like me.

Over the course of 30 days, I met inspiring yogis from around the world and kick started my own journey into spiritual wellbeing. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this in a weekend in New York.

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The Most Unusual Foods I’ve Eaten Abroad

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For me, one of the most exciting things about traveling is trying the local cuisine of different cultures. To quote travel writer Deborah Cater, “You have to taste a culture to understand it.” Most of the unusual foods on this list are considered novelties in their respective countries as opposed to traditional fare. Still, I had such a fun time trying them and don’t regret any of them!

Thailand: Scorpion

scorpions unusual food thailand abroad

Foul. It honestly just tasted burnt and I couldn’t finish it. I wouldn’t recommend falling for this tourist trap. But if you insist, you can find it on all the most popular streets in both Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Vietnam: Rat

This was an interesting experience. With a local guide we ended up in a family home of a local tribe community in Da Lat. They were so eager to have us try everything they had, further supporting my theory that the poor are much more generous than the rich. They gave us a vase filled with what they eat for dinner every night. We asked our guide to translate and tell us what was inside. He refused to tell us until after we tasted it. Well it was chunky and I think I tasted some hair. It wasn’t awful, but I definitely wouldn’t ever eat it again. When the guide confirmed that it was rat, I don’t think anyone was surprised. Still, I was grateful that this family allowed us to try their food.

Vietnam: Crickets

crickets unusual foods vietnam

I also tried crickets in Da Lat. They were deliciously seasoned and came with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. They reminded me a bit of potato chips. I would love to try them again. Luckily, I may have the chance within the U.S. since insect protein is predicted to be the next big thing in sustainable cuisine.

South Africa: Warthog

My friend ordered this dish in a restaurant called Mama Africa in Capetown. Honestly, it just tasted like steak. I was a little thrown off as I expected it to be more similar to pork. Regardless, I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re ever in Cape Town. Delicious, traditional food along with music and dancing every night.

Namibia: Zebra

zebra game meat african food namibia

Out of all the strange things I’ve tried, I have to say this was my favorite. It tastes like meat…but better somehow. However, my dining companions were torn and there were some who really hated it. Head to Joe’s Beer House in Windhoek to sample this along with a host of other local game meats.

Namibia: Crocodile

This was also at Joe’s Beer House. I have to say I liked this as well. Probably because I’m not the hugest fan of meat and this had more of a fishy texture. I believe that most people at my table enjoyed the crocodile as well.

Malaysia: Cendol

cendol strange food malaysia dessert

The only non-meat dish on this list, Cendol is a common dessert in the hawker centers of Georgetown in Penang. While I generally loved the food in Penang, this was a little too much for my taste. It’s basically shaved ice cream with “jelly noodles” on top and red beans throughout. It’s an odd combination of sweet and bitter, but my friend loved it.

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How I Spent A Month in Vietnam for Under $500

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vietnam travel budget backpacking

A lot of people ask me how I can afford to travel so much. There’s a very in-depth answer to this that I’ll share in a future post, which includes frugal living, saving, side jobs, and prioritizing. But choosing affordable destinations is equally important. Here’s how I spent a month traveling through Vietnam for less than $500. You may spend more or possibly even less depending on your spending habits and priorities.

Budget Breakdown
  • Visa: $40
  • Transportation: $91
  • Accommodation: $84
  • Food: $51
  • Alcohol: $18
  • Water: $9
  • Toiletries and Necessities: $7
  • Tours and Activities: $192

Total: $492

Vietnam Visa

The cost of a visa will vary depending on your country of citizenship, as well as where you apply. I found it was much cheaper to apply for my visa in Cambodia than it would have been to apply in advance in the US.

Transportation

I traveled throughout Vietnam exclusively by bus. Many were overnight buses, which were surprisingly comfortable and I had a (mostly) positive experience. However, I’ve definitely heard horror stories as well. Alternatively, you could take planes or trains, which are a bit more expensive but still a lot cheaper than you would pay nearly anywhere else in the world. For $91, I took buses from HCMC-> Mui Ne-> Da Lat-> Hoi An-> Hue-> Hanoi-> Sa Pa-> Cat Ba.

Accommodation

I stayed mostly in hostels and homestays, with the occasional night on a sleeping bus or boat. Rates per night ranged from $2-$7. I definitely wasn’t staying in the nicest hostels, but I made sure not to skimp on anything that was important to me either. Check out my post for tips on picking the best hostels.

Food and Drinks

vietnamese food hanoi

I will admit I probably spent less than the average person in this category. Many of the hostels I stayed in included meals and free/discounted water refills. I also ate mostly budget-friendly, local food rather than dining at tourist restaurants. Western food tends to cost nearly double, but when you’re traveling for a long time I can understand the appeal. I also had the occasional night out, but I didn’t get too heavy with the drinking. Alcohol is very cheap in Vietnam, with mixed drinks coming in under $4, but this can add up quickly if you’re a big partier.

Tours and Activities

A lot of budget backpackers like to skimp on tours in order to save money for alcohol and food. I tend to believe in the opposite philosophy. While I definitely prefer to experience culture through interacting with locals as opposed to taking tours, there are some things that you just can’t do otherwise. I do not regret any of the activities I paid extra for and I highly recommend abseiling, Mr. Rot’s Secret Tour in Da Lat, and trekking in Sa Pa.

Tour Breakdown
  • Sand dune tour in Mui Ne: $10
  • Abseiling in Da Lat: $32
  • Mr. Rot’s Secret Tour: $35
  • Overnight cruise of Halong Bay: $94
  • Trekking in Sa Pa: $26
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Living with the Locals in Sa Pa, Vietnam

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sa pa vietnam trekking

Sa Pa lies up in the North of Vietnam among the mountains. It’s a very scenic town and some even call it the Vietnamese Alps. Unfortunately, it’s become very touristy and the city center is no longer a pleasant area to stay due to aggressive sales people and over-priced restaurants. But a 2-hour hike brings you to the most amazing views and a true local experience if you dare to take a chance.

Most people who visit Sa Pa book an organized tour, often leaving from Hanoi. Others take the bus or train to Sa Pa and book a homestay through one of the Hmong people advertising on the streets. While a homestay is nice in theory, most are crowded and not much different than staying in a hotel or hostel.

I was lucky enough to get some great tips from fellow travelers prior to arriving, including the contact information for a local Hmong woman. As soon as my travel buddies and I arrived in Sa Pa, I called her and arranged to go trekking and spend the night in her home.

The next day, we met Mama Sumy and she took us trekking through the mountains to her small village in the hills. While the hike wasn’t too difficult overall, we did struggle with some steep inclines that we were amazed Sumy easily climbed in slippers. Throughout the trek, she offered a lot of insight into our surroundings, showing us green tea plants, her family’s rice field plot, and the local animals. We were careful not to disturb the wild buffalo as we walked a mere 5 feet away from them. Mama Sumy even made us hats out of the wild plants.

sa pa vietnam trekking mountains

That night, we headed back to her home, which was modest but much more developed than we would have thought. She made us tea and introduced us to her two small puppies. She even showed us the marijuana plants growing in her yard but informed us that they were strictly for selling to tourists as most locals do not smoke. Later we chopped vegetables and helped cook dinner, which was a delicious feast of spring rolls, beef, and stir fried veggies.

We were joined by her 15-year-old son for dinner. Her husband was away in town for work and her other three children were in school. Because the school is a long hike away, most students live there during the week and come home for the weekend. Although Sumy spoke English very well, her son did not since it is not taught in school.

After dinner, we still had a lot of time to kill before bed. Sumy insisted that we all drink some “Happy Water.” When asked what was in it, she simply replied, “alcohol!” It was much too strong for us! We pulled out some cards and attempted to teach her and her son a game. We quickly realized the language and cultural barriers made this difficult. Even games that seemed simple to us proved to be too different for them to understand. But we had fun trying!

The next day, Sumy made us pancakes for breakfast. She gave us bananas which we rolled in the pancakes and ate like hot dogs. She then insisted that we try on her traditional clothing! We looked ridiculous and she had a good laugh. Afterwards, we hiked back to the city center of Sa Pa.

This was one of the most memorable travel experiences for me. There were definitely more moments of silence than I’m used to and some uncomfortable situations, but I highly recommend that everyone stay with a local from a truly different culture at least once.

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Da Lat, Vietnam: Not to be Missed

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da lat vietnam

When it comes to Vietnam, the backpacking route that most travelers take is pretty simple: Saigon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi, with a stop in Halong Bay. Maybe because its less talked about and more difficult to get to, many people skip Da Lat. Big mistake. Along with Sa Pa (also skipped by many), Da Lat was one of my favorite places in Vietnam by far. The people are so friendly, the city center is lovely, and there are so many activities.

Where to Stay

Backpacking accommodation options in Da Lat are unique in that they are mostly homestays with friendly and personable hosts. They usually include free breakfast and family dinner nights. I stayed at Lucky D’s Hostel, which I cannot recommend enough! Lucky was such a friendly man who cooked for us some nights and took us out to dinner other nights, often on his own dime. He also did our laundry for us and really made us feel at home.

What to Do

I found that there was a seemingly endless amount of things to do in Da Lat. Even just walking around the city is very pleasant as the people are so friendly and there is a beautiful lake, where you can sit and sip from a bottle of the local wine. Every evening there’s a night market, which sells very affordable fake “North Face” jackets and sweaters (which you’ll need here) as well as handmade goods.

While Da Lat isn’t as much of a party town as some other cities in Vietnam, I enjoyed the nightlife here much more. There’s a place called 100 Roofs Cafe, also known as Maze Bar, and it may have been the most fun I’ve ever had at a bar. It’s five or so stories of twists, turns, and little nooks; a full-on maze. Definitely not a place that locals frequent but a great place to get lost, meet new people, and laugh.

Day Trips

canyoning da lat vietnam

While I adored the city of Da Lat, my favorite parts of my stay were actually my day trips into the highlands. On my first full day I went canyoning (~$30), which involved abseiling down cliffs and waterfalls. The tour also included sliding down waterfalls! It was such a blast and the falls were beautiful. It’s geared towards beginners so don’t let fear hold you back!

On a different day we booked Mr. Rot’s Secret Tour. As the name implies, we didn’t know what we were getting into but other backpackers I met were raving about it. While I don’t want to ruin the surprise, I can tell you that this was one of the best tours I’ve ever taken and they stray away from the touristy in favor of the authentic. The tour guide himself once belonged to a local tribe so he knows what he’s doing. Furthermore, Mr. Rot and the other guides bring so much humor and life into the trip that it’s impossible not to have a good time. Book at the Villa Pink House and try not to do too much research or you’ll ruin the surprise!

What to Eat

We ended up not paying for many meals since they were either included in our hostel or in the tours we booked. However, we thoroughly enjoyed the street food that we did try. If you walk through the local mall, you’ll find an abundance of authentic local food options on the other side. When we went, we were the only Westerners there! Bún riêu was a dish that really stood out and seems to be more popular here than in other Vietnamese cities.

How to Get There

Unfortunately, Da Lat is a bit difficult to get to because of its location in the mountains. We got a bus from Mui Ne, which took about 6 hours and was fairly painless (and a bargain at $4). However, if you’re coming from the North it’s a much less comfortable ride. Upon leaving, we took the bus to Nha Trang, which was about four hours but very bumpy and dangerous. The bus drivers here are a bit aggressive, which leads to a lot of swerving and short stops.

Your other option is to fly in/out. The local airport has flights to Danang (a quick bus ride from Hoi An), Ho Chi Minh, and Hanoi.

 

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Langkawi, Malaysia: Phuket Without the Bros

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langkawi malaysia southeast asia beaches

When I was younger I took my first solo trip to the southern beaches of Thailand. I had a blast! Partying all night and sleeping on the beach every day was a great life. But I’m past that point in my life and it’s now sad to think that such natural beauty is wasted on those that are often too drunk to appreciate it.

In comes Langkawi: a collection of islands off the main peninsula of Malaysia and not too far from the islands of Thailand. It’s just as beautiful, but it remains peaceful and quiet. Tourism to the country and related development on the island only began in the late 1980s. It’s still a resort-style island with plenty of accommodation styles for all budgets, but the tourists definitely skew more family/honeymooner types rather than gap-year bros.

For 3 nights and 4 days I relaxed on the beaches, hiked the jungles, played with monkeys, and went parasailing. That’s not to say I didn’t spend any time at our hotel’s pool bar. It was too cheap to resist, but it was a lot nicer sipping on a pina colada with serene views rather than chugging a Thai “bucket.”

Where to Stay in Langkawi

Pantai Cenang is the most popular beach for tourists, but I much preferred where we stayed in Pantai Kok. Kok is much quieter, has prettier beaches, and is closer to the main attractions like the Sky Bridge. However, Cenang is great for budget guesthouses and adventure sports.

What To Do

The Sky Bridge/Cable Cars: The views are amazing and epic and the Sky Bridge is probably the island’s most famous attraction. That said, it’s attached to a tourist-trap theme park of sorts, full of gimmicky 3D attractions. We ended up doing plenty of them because we had to wait 2 hours until our “show time” for the cable car after buying our ticket. So keep in mind that this is an all-day event unless you find another excursion nearby.

Adventure/Watersports: The island is full of parasailing, ATVs, kiteboarding, jetskiing, and other fun activities. Sure, you can do them in most resort destinations, but I absolutely loved the parasailing views as the landscape here is stunning. Plus, you’ll find much cheaper rates than you would in most other places.

Tours/Treks: There are plenty of different tours available if you want to explore the local nature and wildlife. We did a jungle trek that was attached to a resort and I have to say I cannot recommend it. It just wasn’t worth the money as there was nothing we wouldn’t have seen on our own in terms of wildlife. However, if I could do it again I would have loved to take a sea safari or a boat tour that goes island hopping through Langkawi. There are also kayaking tours through the mangroves.

Explore: You’ll be amazed at how much wildlife you can see all around you without spending a dime. Our resort was full of monkeys (to the extent that we occasionally couldn’t eat outside)! We also were able to spot some unique birds and sea creatures along the beach.

What To Eat

Not Durian. Kidding. Sort of. You’ll see what I mean if you have the guts to try this odd, foul-smelling fruit that is loved by locals. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I have a feeling it won’t appeal to most Western palettes.

While Malaysian cuisine is great, the foodie scene here isn’t that impressive as it’s mostly geared towards tourists. If you do want a taste of the local cuisine, go for a basic squid dish as they’re caught fresh every night. You’ll be sure to see the green lights in the ocean from the boats looking to attract fresh squid.

Alternatively, if you find a local eatery, give traditional laksa a try!

Getting to Langkawi

Langkawi is easily accessible from Penang or the mainland by ferry. It also has a small airport with flights from Singapore and other cities in Malaysia.

Getting Around

You could rent a motorbike, but we had a hard time finding ones for a reasonable price (relative to the rest of Southeast Asia). We ultimately found that taxis were very well priced and Langkawi has fixed rates so you don’t have to worry about getting scammed.

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