The first thing I remember people saying before I went to Asia for the first time was: “Don’t eat the street food! You’ll get food poisoning!”
I cannot express how much I wish I hadn’t listened to them because I was terrified of getting sick. Walking around Bangkok and smelling these delicious dishes was torture. All I could think of was everyone back home – who I should point out, had never been to Asia – warning me endlessly about only eating at restaurants.
Little did I realise that Bangkok is one of the top places in the world to eat street food. Southeast Asia thrives on street vendors cooking up their speciality dishes for locals and tourists alike. Street food started around two centuries ago here so you can bet they’ve perfected it. The first Pad Thai I had by a street vendor down a street near Khao San Road was some of the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. Now, I’m a Trip Manager for Contiki and I still return to this stall frequently.
It breaks my heart that travellers come with the idea that eating the street food will make them ill. I don’t know where this rumour started but I want to find that person, shake them and tell them how wrong they are!
One of my favourite things to do now is to go to local night markets and wander through the endless stalls of aromas from familiar dishes to the crazy unknown ones just waiting for my tastebuds to try it.
My main piece of advice for travellers coming to Southeast Asia for the first time is…
A few good tips I’ve picked up along the way are: go where the locals eat, they know the hot spots. Eat where the food is turned over regularly and can be freshly cooked in front of you – it adds to the experience as well. Be aware of your own sensitivities; if you have allergies or a sensitive stomach then double check with the vendor what is in each dish. Google Translate or just asking a local who speaks English is a great benefit.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James A. Michener
Ice isn’t sourced from the tap water
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard from people that they’ve ordered a refreshing smoothie or cocktail, then realised there was ice in it so they threw it out. What a waste! If only they had known that the ice isn’t sourced from the tap water. The tap water in most of Southeast Asia isn’t filtered enough for us to drink, therefore they don’t freeze it either to serve to people. And no, that whole myth about only certain types of ice with the holes in the middle, or whatever story people come up with, doesn’t mean it’s “safe” or not.
Southeast Asia gets their filtered ice just like how mini marts/supermarkets in most of your home countries sell bags of ice. It’s a common sight to see the local ice man on his modified tuk tuk driving around with his ice, delivering to the vendors and restaurants along the road.
So go on, have that mango smoothie! You won’t regret it!
Don’t give in to scaremongering
Deciding to move out to Southeast Asia to work for Contiki as a Trip Manager was a massive leap for me in so many aspects. My family and friends were excited but nervous for me. All of a sudden everyone started telling me every scary story possible about what could happen to me. I started reading blogs, which of course were every worst-case scenario making me more nervous.
“Watch out when walking around so you don’t get kidnapped”
“The locals will try to rob you”
“Don’t drink any drink that isn’t in a sealed bottle”
“There are tons of scams so don’t trust too many people”
“Every mosquito carries malaria so you’ll probably get it”
…and even more outrageous ones.
Not a SINGLE one of them has or has even come close to being accurate. Again, I was taking warnings and information from a lot of people who had never even been to this continent. They were all coming from a place of love and concern so I can’t fault them on making sure I was safe.
I can completely understand what it’s like coming to a foreign country and a lot of us experience culture shock, but these things did make me more nervous and question whether I was making the right decision.
Use common sense
As long as you have common sense then you’ll be safe over here. Just like how I wouldn’t take a drink from a stranger back home or walk down dark alleyways alone, I don’t do that here. Things that you do in your home country carry over to travelling overseas and that’s important to remember.
Southeast Asia has some of the friendliest locals I have ever encountered in my travels. 9 times out of 10 they want to help you and are just being friendly. If you tell them no, or you’re not interested then they will usually respect that and move on. I honestly feel safer in Asia than I did living back home.
I hope that my friends and family who have seen me thrive and fall in love with Asia take the leap to come out and experience the absolute beauty of this region.
Don’t let a few online blogs or people who haven’t been out to this region deter your travels. Take the leap, eat the street food, talk with the locals, and dive into the rich, diverse and magical culture around Asia.