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“But the coffee doesn’t taste the same as at home….”

How many times have we heard that? The expectations and realities of travel in Southeast Asia

“But the coffee doesn’t taste the same as at home”. How manky times have we heard that? Funny, (funny peculiar), how someone travelling half-way around the world would expect certain things to be different yet hope, (assume), that other things would be the same. Now the people have to be different; the photogenic orange-clad monks are essential, heaven forbid if all the Lisu, Hmong and Akha started wearing jeans and t-shirts and the Vietnamese have to wear those funny pointy hats and, of course, the landscapes need to be exotic. Visitors wouldn’t want Krabi beaches resembling Brighton or the Borneo jungle looking like the Black Forest or Dartmoor would they, but the coffee’s not the same….’Oh my God!

Beach in Trang which looks nothing like Brighton
Beach in Trang which looks nothing like Brighton

Food’s an odd one too – with most visitors expecting to eat ‘exotic’ local dishes for lunch and dinner, (so long as it’s not too authentic; Khmer chickens have bones do they?), but breakfast… that’s sacred! Rice for breakfast – unthinkable. Now mid-range hotel buffet breakfasts usually do a reasonable job of catering to foreign visitors’ early morning food intolerances: they’ll have Lipton tea bags, acceptable coffee and even milk and options will include bread and jam, various egg formats with ham or even a bit of bacon if you’re lucky.

Local style breakfast in the market, Son La, Vietnam
Local style breakfast in the market, Son La, Vietnam

Yet stay in a smaller town or remoter location and, with visitors being at their pickiest when they’ve just woken up, things can get whingy. “You mean they only have canned milk?”, in an incredulous voice. Yes; Chinese bread can be odd to Western tastes, Thai strawberry jam doesn’t taste like your granny’s, “Lao’s don’t have cheese for breakfast???” and we had a comment recently that Burmese butter tasted strange, (which it does but…)!

Bathrooms are another one: a constant source of bewilderment, confusion, frustration, turning-up-of-noses at or exasperation. A small village in the middle of nowhere…”But they’re squat toilets!!!”  Well, you won’t die, (it’s not that long ago the French still had them)! “There’s no shower curtain – when I shower the toilet seat will get wet?!” So?!?

The problems lie often with tourists preconceptions. At All Points East we try to combine famous sites with off-the-beaten-track destinations and the majority of our travellers do come prepared but you still come across people who like the sound of this in theory whilst in reality……well there’s a close line between being off the beaten track and out of one’s comfort zone. Many tourist hotspots in the region, e.g. Siem Reap, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai have plenty of Western-style chic coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants etc – all with ‘nice toilets’ – but going off-piste can be a different experience. ‘We want to see the non-touristy side of Thailand’ but when they get there, there’s no Wi-Fi or power showers, no banana pancakes and oh – and the chicken has bones in it!

Luang Prabang, nice riverside cafe
Luang Prabang, nice riverside cafe

The first things to pack when travelling in these parts should be an open mind, a flexible attitude and a go-with-the-flow mind set. What one gets out of one’s trip to Southeast Asia is in proportion to what one puts into it so a certain amount of effort will pay off. Not so much physical but mental; yes Borneo is going to be at times uncomfortably hot and sticky, Vietnamese coffee can taste odd to us, yes Burmese roads are dreadfully bumpy, the Khmers do not understand the concept of litter and Lao plumbing is idiosyncratic so, come prepared, embrace the differences and accept a certain amount of rough with the smooth because one day everywhere will be the same anyway! Cheers!