Should I bring a Stove to Southeast Asia?

Street side market“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.

Comments

  1. Mark
    6th November 2010 at 6:31 am #

    Hi, thanks for the very useful information! We’re in Vietnam and looking at a trip up towards China, you’ve convinced us not to take a tent. I’d like to know a bit more about cooking though, where about do you cook? Most hotels here in Vietnam frown on indoor cooking and there aren’t really any picnic areas or anything like that.

    Thanks again!

    • friedel
      6th November 2010 at 6:39 am #

      You’re right, there are no picnic areas. When we’re cycling, we’ll just find somewhere by the side of the road (hopefully in the shade) and stop. We lay out our sleeping mats if we need a clean place to sit, and go to work cooking. It might be by a temple, in a school ground or – in rural areas – just by the side of the road. We also cooked in hotels (especially if we had a room with a balcony) and never had a problem with that.

  2. Neil
    10th April 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Hello,

    I’ve been trying to decide if I should take my small stove or not and by reading this I think I shall, I’m going backpacking around SEA rather than cycling though. Did you find it easy enough to find butane / propane gas canisters out there?

    • Stuart
      28th March 2013 at 3:52 am #

      Hi Neil,
      Although this reply is dated, the info will be useful to others. In short, you can’t find gas canisters here. Possibly in major cities if you can find a camping store, but my experience is that they are rare and expensive. You’d be better off investing in a multi fuel stove like a Primus Omni fuel that can run on petrol, which is cheap and everywhere. Hope this helps someone 🙂

      • Neil
        28th March 2013 at 10:01 pm #

        Hello,

        Thanks for the reply, still helpful for me as I haven’t left yet. Ended up on a few other spare of the moment trips instead!

      • Lo
        15th February 2016 at 12:12 am #

        Hi Stuart,

        Just to be clear you had refillable cannisters that you were easily able to load with petrol? Did you take those on the plane with you?
        Cheers,

  3. Eddie Kim
    22nd January 2016 at 1:25 pm #

    As someone who has been living in S.E. Asia for 7 years, I must say, this is one of the most ridiculous suggestions I have ever read of. I understand people being cheap, but when being cheap actually comes at the cost of not being cheap and just being an inefficient traveler, that is where you’ve got to draw the line. I mean, this is absolute penny pinching at it’s worst. Do you mean to tell me the only reason you have traveled with a freaking stove is so you could cook ramen with it? What’s worse, a butane stove that requires canisters?! Initially I thought, this guy must be talking about using a can style DIY stove and using a bottle of alcohol as many lightweight backpackers do in the wilderness, but a butane stove with canisters?!

    Please, take it from a real traveler, do not bring a butane stove with you for that 1 rare instance where you were up on top of a mountain and had to use it to cook some eggs for breakfast. South East Asia is dirt cheap, and I mean, dirt cheap. Want ramen noodles? Any guesthouse, hostel, or the like will have a stove in there that they would be more than happy to let a traveler use for a good review on Trip Advisor. Additionally, any guesthouse, hostel, or the like will have a kettle where you can boil water in. Hard boiled eggs and ramen noodles done. No need to carry your 12inx12inx4in stove and 6 pack of butane canisters in your backpack.

    Please add this to the book of inefficient travel methods. To Mark up there who said “indoor cooking is frowned upon in Vietnam”. That is just not true. 100% of Vietnamese households cook indoors even in the very rural areas. You may have seen vendors and such cooking outdoors, but this is not common practice for a regular family.

    TL;DR- Do not carry a stove and butane canisters for that 1 novel time where you actually had to use it to cook eggs up in the mountains or on the side of the road. You will regret it when you do it once, realize it’s a stupid idea, but have to lug that shit around with you for 6 weeks in your backpack. Sorry for being so rude, but the level of dumb in this post is beyond me.

    • andrew.grant
      9th July 2016 at 10:55 am #

      Well, what can I say. Everyone is different! For clarity’s sake, we had a stove that ran on petrol so we didn’t carry butane canisters. We just filled up occasionally at gas stations (or using white gas), as needed. Easy and cheap. You asked: ‘Do you mean to tell me the only reason you have traveled with a freaking stove is so you could cook ramen with it?’. The answer to that is no! We travelled with a stove for two main reasons. 1) It allowed us to leave at a time that suited us. You may scoff at an early start but if it’s warm and you have a hilly route ahead, leaving early makes sense. I don’t want to wait for a restaurant to open, if it means slogging up a hill under a blazing sun. 2) In some places restaurants were either not available (we travelled through very remote areas), unhygenic or very expensive. I am not talking normal SE Asian prices here, but the inflated prices in many tourist areas, which are not entirely possible to avoid.

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