“Why in the world would you bring a stove?” is most people’s reaction when they find we’re lugging one around in a region renowned for its cheap and tasty food.
Why indeed. At first it seems a no-brainer to leave the stove at home when you come to Southeast Asia but we made good use of ours.
Make no mistake. It’s certainly possible to get along without a stove. In almost every town you will find at least one roadside food vendor and in larger centres there will be proper restaurants and market stalls to choose from. Dishes can usually be had for $1-2 U.S. per person and $5 U.S. will buy you a multi-course feast.
That said, if you’re really on a budget it’s still cheaper to cook for yourself, especially if you’re a big eater. You may find that one serving of fried rice doesn’t fill you up so you spend $1-2 U.S. on the first meal and then run out to buy snacks. With the same money you could buy noodles and vegetables at the market and make a huge plate of pasta that would keep you going for longer.
In touristy towns, it’s even harder to find reasonably priced food, especially for breakfast. Eggs cost 1,000 kip each (about 10 U.S. cents) in Laos so three eggs make a great omelette for just pennies. By comparison, in Vientiane we got 2 fried eggs for 6,000 kip (60 U.S. cents) – double the market rate, and we had to walk quite some distance from our hotel for this deal. If we wanted to eat at some of the cheaper restaurants on the main drag, we would have paid about $2 U.S. each for breakfast.
Also, while Thailand has lots of reliable and freshly cooked food, food in the rural areas of Cambodia and Laos is not always fresh or appealing. In Cambodia, there are many restaurants which we took to calling ‘peek a pot’ because they are simply a string of pots on a table with various dishes in them and you pick one. They’ve been sitting there all day and are usually lukewarm at best. The meat is of dubious quality and once we discovered worms in the accompanying bowl of rice. That put us off. There were no vegetarian options or anyone cooking things to order. By the time we got to Phnom Penh all we wanted was Western food and that is really expensive!
Occasionally in Laos and Cambodia we didn’t even find ‘peek a pot’ so we were really glad that we carried some noodles and sauce packets with us. We could always find a little shop selling eggs and maybe some vegetables. Fried eggs with noodles makes a basic but decent meal.
Some people say that if you’re in an area you miss out on the culture if you don’t eat in the restaurants. This is partially true. We’ve had some very nice meals while chatting with the locals, so we wouldn’t advocate cooking all your own food. But going to the market and bargaining for your vegetables is also a nice cultural experience, not to be missed. If you really want to go local, why not buy some grilled squirrel in Laos to have with your pasta!
One final reason to bring the stove: if you like to set off early – a very good idea in SE Asia – things may not be open when you leave. We have cooked breakfast at the top of a mountain at 5:30am. A fantastic view and great food on our cooker.