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SE Asia Food Trip, Need 3rd Destination

Making my second trip to Thailand. Meeting a food-writer friend in Bangkok. He's then heading off to Chiang Mai and Ko Samui. I've been to Bangkok and Chiang Mai before. Felt like I covered most of what I wanted to experience in Chiang Mai, so I'm not planning on joining him up there. (Though an advanced class at the Thai Cookery School is tempting.)

Instead, I'm planning on going to Kuala Lumpur. 50,000+ hawkers sounds like my kind of town. And I love Malaysian food.

I've got two weeks total. I'm thinking about 4 days in Bangkok, perhaps about the same in KL. So that leaves a few days for another destination. I was considering Vietnam, but I'm trying to make this trip on a budget and flights to Vietnam are about triple or more anywhere else in SE Asia, it seems. Would have loved to hit Ho Chi Minh. Oh well, another time.

I thought I'd look at Indonesia -- very much like Indonesian food --, though I don't know the best cities for food travels. But then I saw that Jakarta is having terrible flooding and malaria and dengue fever is out and about.

So, now I'm leaning towards Singapore. Wouldn't have to deal with another language and it sounds like a great food city. However, I was hoping to get a little more variety and I worry that the food scene in Singapore and KL will be too similar. I'm opening a restaurant this summer and will be working many hours without a chance for travel in the foreseeable future, so I want to pack as much in this trip as possible.

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  1. Saigon would be well worth the investment for someone opening a restaurant.

    If you don't go to Saigon, quit worrying and go to Jakarta. It will be worth it.

    Singapore has as much or more to offer than KL.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      My experience has been the opposite between Singapore and KL. I found there to be so much more depth and variety in the various hawker centers around KL, where the hawker centers in Singapore seemed to offer the same general things, especially chicken and rice, Sing noodles, satays and nasi lemak. All of our friends in Singapore are glad to visit us in KL when we are visiting my wife's family, as it gives them an excuse to go on a food binge. Alot of Singaporeans go to Malaysia for the food, not only because of the favorable exchange rate, but also because they say the food tastes better there. One friend told me that so many of the Sing hawkers now cook using propane, whereas they still find many hawkers using charcoal in Malaysia, which is what he prefers.

      I will give Singapore the edge when it comes to ease of getting to and fro - Singapore is like NYC, where KL is like LA. Singapore is so easy to get around, using the MRT and taxis, where KL is a crawling parking lot, where if you don't have wheels, you're screwed...

      1. re: bulavinaka

        Thanks. You're probably right on all counts. I've never had wheels in KL.

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Sorry to hear that, but then again, all you do is get in your car, start it up and creep along... it's gotten really bad there... I think I could easily sacrifice a little variety for the convenience of Singapore - it's really clean too...

          1. re: bulavinaka

            And it's tought to walk, too, because they have possibly the worst designed streets ever -- even worse than San Francisco around Market. I imagine if you look at a street map it looks like a spirograph. There are no straight lines. But between the LRT and Monorail, it's not too bad.

            One great thing for Malaysia that I found very useful is the Star's Guide to street food in Malaysia. I think the Chinese to Malay ratio is a bit high for KL, but the maps are extremely useful and the recs were hits and matched up with Chowhound recs.

            1. re: extramsg

              That sounds like a great resource. Will have to keep the Star Guide in mind for the next time we visit... Because my wife is from KL by way of Malacca, we have our "resources" there already, which can be a blessing as well as a curse. We always go to the places that our relatives prefer to go to, which are good. But I feel this is kind of limiting since they have already staked out their preferences and may not be as open to try other places. Also, I'm lucky enough to have a mother-in-law who has a deft hand in the kitchen, so we often eat in, which is becoming more and more rare as the younger generations opt to use the kitchen to boil water for instant noodles...

              I've probably spent about almost two monthes of time over three visits there, and I still can't get my sense of direction for the most part. The last time we were there was is 1999, so it will be interesting to see what has changed in KL. I'm hoping that the govt has decided to lay off of the grand projects that were supposed to put them on the forefront of the world scene - the biggest this, the tallest that, the longest... if they had instead pumped all of that money into true infrastructure improvements, they would be going head-to-head with Singapore. But maybe that's the charm of KL - not so much a place to visit for tourism, but more of a place to live and enjoy great food.

    2. How about Luang Prabang? Peter Green has posted an interesting thread on eGullet complete with photos.

      3 Replies
      1. re: whs

        Right. But if time and $ are a concern, why not Vientiane--my fave.

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          I had thought about going into NE Thailand which I haven't visited and Laos. What's the food culture like in Vientiane? Why's it your fav?

          1. re: extramsg

            Lao and NE Thai (basically the same thing) are my favorite foods: laab with sticky rice and greens that include leaves from the forest, sausages, dried meats, lots of dishes made of the good (organ) parts, along with soups, noodles, green papaya salad, Lao style BBQ chicken, fruit. The diet is really clean and healthy. You can go to either NE Thailand or Laos. I would go to Vientiane.

      2. Being from Penang, I'll say Penang over Singapore. There is a serious hawker culture in Penang - I've known Singaporeans who fly in to Penang for the weekend for their hawker fix. I'm not sure what you mean by Malaysian - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Nonya? I would stick to Malay and Chinese in KL and do Indian (particularly banana-leaf places) and Nyonya in Penang. There's also a strong Indian Muslim population in Penang - their specialty is Nasi Kandar - some places are open 24 hours.

        1. First of all, Jakarta is perfectly safe (I live here). However, as much as I like living here, I would trade the food for Saigon's food any day of the week. Check out fares on regional carriers and it shouldn't be too expensive. I know JetstarAsia does the trip from Singapore very cheap. Maybe Bangkok Airways from Bangkok.

          2 Replies
          1. re: brianmh

            Is there a better place for food and culture in Indonesia?

            1. re: extramsg

              If you want broad exposure to Indonesian foods, Jakarta is the place.

          2. imho, the food scene in Luang Prabang rivals that of NYC, SF and NO. If you're opening a restaurant and can source the ingredients used in Lao cooking, you'd have an interesting menu.

            1 Reply
            1. re: el jefe

              Wow, I wish I had had your experience there. I wasn't really blown away on this trip (last week) by most anything I had there (unlike the first time I went, when I was amazed at what I ate). Some was good, but not transcendent. I agree that you COULD do something excellent there, but I think it is still hard to find the best Lao cooking in restaurants, even in LP. More to follow when I have time to write up notes.

            2. I'm partial to Nan in Thailand. The food is a bit different to Chiang Mai (and in my experience most visitors to Chiang Mai don't experience that much true northern Thai food), with some Lao overtones, it's a small, laid-back town with a nice feel to it, it's got a bunch of good markets (amazing eats at the night market), and there's a great Northern Thai restaurant and lots of good street eats. There's also great scenery around, it's a beautiful, barely touched area, a very good, reasonably priced tour agent (not 'tour' as in loads of tourists - there are hardly any in Nan) who can lead you to outdoor activities and culture. Well off the well-trod tourist track.

              Good on you for choosing KL. I write a food blog from the city (I won't flog it as that's frowned upon here on CH, but the site is on my info page) ... have been eating like mad here for 1.5 years and am far from exhausting the possibilities. The food here is tremendous, and KL is completely overlooked by foodies.

              Unless you want to switch gears to upscale dining Sing won't give you anything you can't get here (preparing myself for an onslaught from Singapore food lovers) and when it comes to street food what's here is - sorry! - better. Penang is a great suggestion - KL'ers drive the five hours just for a single meal there.

              If you want something different I'd suggest Sumatra. One hour or less from KL, cheap flights on Air Asia and the food is really and truly fantastic. In Medan you can find Acehnese food, Batak food, nasi Padang, and food from other parts of Indonesia. Padang, capital of West Sumatra, is a smaller, more laid-back town than Medan. There's certainly enough in either place to keep you busy and well-fed for for a few days. Just returned from our fourth trip to Sumatra in a year, Medan this time. Can't get enough of Sumatra - the pple are truly among the friendliest and most welcoming in Asia.

              2 Replies
              1. re: foodfirst

                Thanks. I'm still going back and forth on the third location. Anyone know if Medan was affected much by the earthquake? I've pretty much narrowed my choices to Indonesia (either Java or Sumatra) or Thailand (either northern or northeastern, with possible quick trip into a bordering country).

                btw, foodfirst, your link isn't in your profile. Note, you're allegedly allowed to post a signature like the one below.


                1. re: extramsg

                  OK, thanks msg, will rectify.

                  Medan was not affected by the earthquake.