To many, the appeal of traveling within Asia seems to be restrained to the bustling yumcha scene in Hong Kong or bathing in the glistening glory of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. True, the fragrant smell of prawn dumplings and chicken feet, as they are transferred in their bamboo containers onto your dining table, is irresistible. And true, the appeal of the perfectly positioned Instagram photo whilst relaxing in the Infinity pool of Singapore’s premier hotel is a must-have experience. But how much joy can man-made, first world comforts compare to the brilliantly chaotic scenes of, for lack of a more creative word, more underdeveloped environments?
Many will think of Hong Kong or Shanghai’s burgeoning metropolis when Asian travel is brought up. Or the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Or Japan’s iconic Shibuya crossing. The commercial development of Asia, particularly within the past few decades, has seen miraculous growth in man-made comforts. If you’ve shopped in one of Hong Kong’s thousands of shopping malls, you’ll understand. The selection of merchandise, from jewellery, camera accessories, clothing to a huge range of electronic merchandise, the city is the ultimate blessing (or curse) for a shopaholic. Need entertainment? South Korea has no shortage of karaoke joints. In the Sinchon and Hongdae areas, crowds of university students enjoy countless hours of singing, fried chicken and beer. The latter two form a unique combination fondly named ‘Chimaek’. The karaoke machines even allow individual coin operation, meaning your spare change can be put to entertaining use.
Need food? Japan’s eating scene has vending machines which will serve you tickets, which you hand to a busy chef who promptly cooks your ramen of choice. What better way to immediately gratify a craving. Even better, restaurants in Tokyo are often open until late, meaning whatever energy-deficiency you are experiencing can be promptly remedied by a late-night feed of sushi, rice or ramen.
But to only revel in the wondrous development of Asia’s first-world commercial scene is to ignore its less developed origins, which truly make travel satisfying and wholesome. Let’s start with South-East Asia. Whilst Western European seasoned tourists may be more used to first-world comforts such as fancy hotels and well-serviced restaurants, the difference between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘traveller’ may well be seen in how one crosses the street. In the chaotic streets of Hanoi in Vietnam, one must more accurately ‘negotiate’ the street rather than ‘cross’ it. Otherwise you may well find yourself on the receiving end of a blasting horn by an incoming Grab Motorbike. It’s true, traffic lights are practically non-existent. Although ‘danger’ might be a word promptly applied, the feeling of it disappears as you realise that the roads, much like other parts of Hanoi’s street scenery, operates in a sort of organised chaos. You just need practice, and perhaps street smarts.
The food is another factor. While bugs may be a world away from the comfortable taste of burger, fries and steak, they are a protein-rich component of the South-East Asian diet. Many streets will hawk an eye-popping array of insects, worms and intestines to you. Often fried, lathered in savoury sauce or, alas even uncooked, the adventurous traveller is the one who will try these delicacies. But surprisingly, they don’t taste disgustingly different, it’s a matter of travellers embracing a taste (and texture) that may be different from the conditioned comfort of potato chips or chicken stew. In fact, fried crickets taste the same as potato chips. You may just feel a furry leg wedged between your teeth. Kidding.
Apart from creepy-crawlies, the street food in South East Asia reflects the practical and hustling element ingrained in socio-economic development. There is no focus on polite service and glisteningly clean tables as you would expect from a Michelin-star, but what you can expect is honestly-cooked and prompt service. Although spooning different curries onto a large metal plate, mixing it with rice and scooping it into your mouth (all by hand) may be a confronting ordeal, travellers can appreciate the down-to-earth nature of the Malaysian culinary scene. They may even disregard the need for a knife and fork for later meals!
The difficulty of travelling to South-East Asia is lesser than to other countries. For example, to America, the services of esta visa may be necessary. Just remember to purchase a visa stamp for your passport, often available from the embassy in your home country, which will allow you entry into the country. In addition, remember to visit your doctor for any vaccinations which will immunise against possible pathogens. Otherwise, travel within South-East Asia is cheap, visually spectacular and complete with the potential for experiences impossible elsewhere. Where else would it be possible to buy a meal for under 2 USD? In Vietnam, a fragrant bowl of beef ‘pho’ can be enjoyed for that price. Displace yourself to a West European country, and you could be spending ten times that price.