Remote Lands’ success as an ultra-luxe tour operator largely stems from our expertise in achieving the perfect blend of sublime luxury and gritty, authentic experiences. Our travellers expect the best hotel suites, the most luxurious vehicles and the highest standards of personal service; but they also want to explore real local culture and have encounters and experiences that other travellers might miss.
So whilst we reserve the best tables at renowned Southeast Asian restaurants such as Bangkok’s Gaggan, Singapore’s Restaurant Andre and Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak, we also encourage our clients to eat the way the locals do – on the street. Markets and street food stalls are where the locals eat, meet and shop, and you haven’t experienced Southeast Asian food culture until you’ve joined in.
In this article, we take a tour of the region’s street food via five iconic dishes which, whilst they can be found in swankier, air-conditioned eateries, are best eaten streetside. Bon appetit!
Thailand – Pla Pao
Many of the dishes we foreigners associate with Thailand – red curry or tom yam kung for example – aren’t exactly everyday foods on the streets of Bangkok. But there’s one dish you’ll find on every street and at every market – pla pao. There are few more delicious ways to cook a fish (usually snakehead or tilapia) than coating it in salt, stuffing it with lemongrass, and then cooking it over hot coals, then peeling back the skin, pulling out chunks of soft, fragrant flesh, wrapping them in a lettuce leaf and dipping the whole thing in a spicy lime & chilli sauce. As a Bangkok resident, I hardly ever eat red curry, but I eat pla pao at least once a week.
Vietnam – Oc
The importance of food in Vietnam is illustrated by the way the Vietnamese greet each other – not with “Good morning” or “How are you?”, but with “An com chua?” – “Have you eaten yet?” And there are few food experiences more quintessentially Vietnamese – or, more specifically, Saigonese – than sitting on a tiny plastic stool on a street corner, drinking Saigon Beer and nibbling on plates of oc, or fresh shellfish. There are hundreds of oc joints throughout Saigon, from tiny streetside stalls to massive operations (such as the legendary Oc Oanh) turning over thousands of covers per night. Every Saigon resident has their own favourite, but whichever you go to, you’ll end up devouring plate after plate of clams, cockles, razor clams, scallops, crab claws and other tasty marine delicacies.
Myanmar – Lahpet Thoke
Whilst many Southeast Asian dishes can be found, with small variations, across the region (chicken noodle soup in various forms is a staple in every city in the region, for example), Myanmar’s lahpet thoke, or fermented tea leaf salad, is truly a one-off. There is nothing like it anywhere else. Found on virtually every street in the country, it may sound unappetising – oily fermented tea leaves mixed with tomatoes and crunchy beans or peas and then topped with peanut oil and garlic – but once tasted it’s never forgotten and can quickly become an addiction. Munching lahpet thoke from a plastic bag whilst walking the streets of Yangon is the ultimate authentic Burmese food experience.
Laos – Laab Moo
Many dishes thought of as Thai actually originate from Laos, and laab moo – spicy minced pork salad – is one of them. Whilst the dish has a spectacular range of flavours – salty, sweet, sour, spicy all in one bite – it’s actually very simple to make, consisting of minced pork cooked and then mixed with lemongrass, chillies, onion, garlic, herbs, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce and, the crucial ingredient that gives it its crunch, toasted rice. Street laab always seems to have a punch that the restaurant versions lack, and you’ll find it on most busy streets in Vientiane & Luang Prabang, with beef, chicken and even duck varieties also available.
Cambodia – Bai Sach Chrouk
One thing you quickly learn when you spend time in Asia is that breakfast, which is rather rigidly defined in the west, is a lot more varied. It’s not unusual to see people chowing down on chicken curry or dried fish first thing in the morning. And whilst I still generally stick to toast, a croissant or a good old English brekkie, one of the things I enjoy most in Cambodia is getting outside a plate of bai sach chrouk first thing in the morning. Strips of pork marinated in garlic or coconut, slowly grilled over hot coals, and served over broken rice with pickles and chicken soup on the side. I once had a memorable bai sach chrouk before an early-morning climb of Phnom Oudong, and without its sustenance I don’t think I’d have made it to the top!