50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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16 of Our Favorite Hostels in Southeast Asia

16 of Our Favorite Hostels in Southeast Asia

There are definitely some universals you can expect from all hostels: dorm beds, community kitchens, the inevitable person who snores, the late nights and early mornings as people catch their budget travel in and out. But there are some places that just do it better than the rest. Here are our top 16 places from our five month experience of living the hostel life in southeast Asia.

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Best of Vietnam

A breakdown of our favorite places to explore, things to do, and experiences to splurge on in Vietnam.

Best Experiences to Do for Free (or very cheaply)

War Remnants Museum (Saigon)

Wander around the night markets

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Explore the Old Town of Hoi An

Rent bikes or scooters and wander around (Tam Coc)

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Hike 450 stairs up Hang Mua, a.k.a. Lying Dragon Mountain (Tam Coc)

River tour (Tam Coc)

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Wander around the Old Town of Hanoi

Explore the lakes around Hanoi

Try egg drop coffee (Hanoi)

Rent a swan boat on the lake (Hanoi)

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Train Street (Hanoi)

 

Best Experiences to Splurge On

Cu Chi Tunnels (Saigon)

Canyoning and jungle trekking (Dalat)

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Tailoring clothes (Hoi An)

Oxalis Tour in Phong Nha National Park

Kayaking tour in Phong Nha Cave

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Ha Long Bay cruise

Bar crawl (Hanoi)

Motorcycle road trip (Ha Giang Loop)

 

Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Canyoning in Dalat (the tours take the photos for you!)

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Old Town lanterns in Hoi An

Anywhere in the jungles of Phong Nha National Park

The top of Hang Mua in Tam Coc

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Landscapes of the Ha Giang province 

Bikini pics in Ha Long Bay

 

Best Restaurants & Bars

Secret Garden Restaurant (Saigon)

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One (Saigon)

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Broma Not a Bar (Saigon)

The Gin House (Saigon)

Whiskey & Wares (Saigon)

The Maze Bar (Dalat)

The BBQ place in Dalat, ask someone at Wolfpack Hostel, they’ll know

Either of the Morning Glory restaurants, they also offer cooking classes! (Hoi An)

**DO NOT MISS** Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An)

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Jim’s Snackbar (Hoi An)

Mr Bean Bar (Hoi An)

Bamboo Cafe (Phong Nha)

Paradise Pizza (Phong Nha)

Andy’s Bar and Restaurant (Phong Nha)

Oasis Bar (Cat Ba Island)

Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (Saigon & Hanoi)

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Bit Tet Chim Quay (pop up restaurant, corner of Hang Buom and Hang Giay)

The Alchemist (Hanoi)

Mojito Bar (Hanoi)

Polite and Co. (Hanoi)

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The Mad Botanist (Hanoi)

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

Bui Vien Hostel (Saigon)

Wolfpack Hosel (Dalat)

Hoa Binh (Hoi An)

Trang An River Homestay (Tam Coc)

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Catba Central Hostel (Cat Ba Island)

Babylon Garden Inn Hostel (Hanoi)

 

Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Sapa terraces

Chu Chi Tunnels

Mekong Delta

Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and other southern islands

Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave

Ahh, the epic caves of Phong Nha National Park. The one adventure that got away from me.

MJ and I had planned since we left to do a multi-day tour of the legendary cave system (the largest in the world!) with Oxalis Tours. Unfortunately, my body was having none of it and due to some mysterious hip pain that I never really figured out, I had to miss out. 

MJ and Anna set out on a 3D/2N tour of Hang Tien cave and had an epic time - check out her post!

SO. Because of this set back, I hung around the beautiful city of Phong Nha, right in the national park, for a few days to let my body get back to homeostasis.

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I also took the opportunity to take a short day trip with two friends that took us kayaking deep into Phong Nha Cave. It was unbelievably cool.

Here’s a bit more about it.

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Phong Nha Cave

Phong Nha Cave is one of the most accessible caves to tourists within Phong Nha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its entirety, this enormous cave, the namesake of the whole cave system, is 7729 m long. Tourists can only get about 1500 m, which was about how far we got on our kayak adventure. 

The cave is famous for beautiful rock formations as well as its use as a hospital, storage place, and base throughout numerous military campaigns in Vietnam. There are relics and evidence that date as far back as the Cham civilization, but most recently, the cave was used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War against South Vietnam and the United States.

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The cave served as an important link on the Ho Chi Minh trail, allowing soldiers to camp out and hide both themselves and supplies at a strategic location in central Vietnam.

There are a number of caves you can visit that are considered a part of the Phong Nha Cave. Some of the most famous of these are called Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave. Tours to all of these caves, as well as the kayak tour I took, can be booked locally at Phong Nha Caves Tour Center or through your hostel/hotel. 

 

Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave

Why kayak over boat? Kayaking into this cave allows you to go about 1.5km into the cave, about 1km further than the boat tour. You’ll also get a chance to explore smaller caves off to the side of the main river, which is an amazing experience.

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The tour is straightforward, informative, and a fantastic adventure. You’ll get picked up early in the morning (take a dry bag or ditch the valuables!) and hop into a kayak on the Son River to paddle into the cave. 

The entrance to the cave is stunning, perhaps even more so going out than going in. Huge rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, tower above and around you from all sides, gaining this cave the nickname “The Fairy Cave.” As you venture further into the cave, lit only by flashlights, you’ll reach your first stopping point.

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This first side cave offers you a glimpse at some of the cave’s history. Scrawled across the walls of this cave, further back than you dare go, are charcoal messages from soldiers who hid in the caves back during the Vietnam War and even earlier campaigns. This was where they cooked, slept, and trafficked supplies across the country. It’s surreal to see the evidence of that so far into the cave.

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After this brief stop, you’ll jump back into your kayak and continue as far as you can into the cave before getting out again. Then it gets rocky.

The hike to reach the underground lake is tricky, but definitely doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Pay attention to your guides and watch where you put your feet (and hands, those cave spiders…).

After breaking about half-way for an amazing picnic lunch on a particularly large rock, we finally reached our destination - the underground lake. 

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We spent a little over an hour swimming, cliff jumping, and lazing about in the icy black water. It’s unbelievably quiet and peaceful this far back into the caves, something I’d imagine anyone who wasn’t scared of the dark would enjoy.

We finally paddled out of the cave, wet, tired, and happy, and slept about as well as you’d expect after our full day. The cost of the tour was roughly $70-$80 pp and if you’re interested in seeing the caves within this national park, but don’t feel quite up to a multi-day excursion, this is a wonderful alternative. 

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Interested in something a little more intense? Check out Oxalis’ legendary tours, including their famous 4D/3N expedition into Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world.

Tailored Clothes and Night Markets in Hoi An

If you have a slightly better idea of all the places you’re going than we typically do, you already know on your way to Hoi An that this is THE place in Vietnam to shop till you drop. It was by chance that we were traveling with someone who knew that Hoi An is world famous for tailored clothing, so we had some time to prepare before we arrived.

It is absolutely overwhelming how many tailored clothing stores there are in this colorful city. There are hundreds of tailors, thousands of fabrics, and millions of styles for you to choose from, and it’s quite intimidating to navigate without a bit of prep. You typically will need at least 2-3 days to get any one thing done, because clothes need to be measured and adjusted multiple times, and longer than that if you’re getting a substantial number of things (guilty). 

Here’s what worked and didn’t work for us throughout our tailoring experience in Hoi An. 

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Getting Clothes Tailored in Hoi An

Step 1: Know what you want (kind of) and know your budget

PINTEREST my friends. Anyone who knows me, or at least my social media habits, knows that I’m a self-professed queen of Pinterest. I’m addicted. It’s the virgo in me, can’t get enough of lists and folders and folders within folders. 

Other than helping me navigate the arduous task of learning how to cook for myself in college, Pinterest served all of us so well in Hoi An. The best way to get what you want out of your tailoring experience in Hoi An is to know what you want before you go. Every tailor will try and sell you on more ideas, more options, this coat, that blouse, but if you know what you want you’re way more likely to get exactly that.

Sounds redundant, right? You’d be surprised at how many people buy things in this city and then wonder why they made the choices they did after they leave. Trust me, explore Pinterest and the wider internet and think to yourself, “what do I want tailored?” AND, “what would I buy designer if I had all the money in world?”

To get you started, here are some ideas we, or someone we knew, started with:

  • Tailored, two piece suits

  • Linen dresses and pants

  • Winter coats

  • Burberry or Coach winter coat (they will come out EXACTLY the same minus the fancy logo)

  • Leather jackets & biker vests

  • Leather shoes

  • Formal dresses & jumpsuits

After figuring out an idea of what you want, figure out how much you want to pay, total, for everything you get. As you go around the shops, you’ll get an idea of what each item you want will cost and you can deduct it from your total budget. This is the best way to not go over what you want to spend, which is easy to do here!

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Step 2: Exploring your options

Since we arrived a day early, Sim and I spent a whole just wandering the area around our hostel and checking in on all the shops around our block. I really, really recommend taking this step before you begin getting things made. Prices, fabrics, and tailor skill will all vary A LOT, so it’s worth going around with your budget and your pictures to figure out the best place(s) to get things made. 

We took pictures of stores and fabrics that we liked so that we knew which to go back to and what we wanted to get made in each. If they couldn’t give us a price we wanted, we kept going. The tailors will try and convince you to buy something immediately because most of their business happens on the spot. Don’t get roped in! They will be right where you left them tomorrow. 

*TIP* The tailor shops on the main streets and in Old Town are bigger, more popular, and comparatively more expensive. We walked around a square block and found everything we wanted for decidedly cheaper than we would’ve found it on the Main Street. 

The hostel we stayed at was called Hoa Binh Hostel in Cam Pho Ward and it was great. Amazing breakfast, cheap and clean rooms, nice showers, etc. THAT AREA is great for tailors that will be a little less busy and less pricey than those on Duong Tran Hung Dao (nearby main street).

 

Step 3: Choosing your tailors

Like I said, there are endless options for you here. We chose our tailors (we used about 5-6 different ones between all of us) based on a couple of criteria:

  • Fabric (quality, color, texture, etc.)

  • Price (you can always negotiate but you’ll quickly see it varies quite a bit, especially from material to material)

  • Time (the whole process can take a while, so always check you have enough time before paying for anything!)

Take pictures and get quotes from a number of places before narrowing it down. It’s the easiest way to get exactly what you want!

Here are a couple of the tailor shops we used that we would recommend. They’re all located on the block around Hoa Binh Hostel.

  • LyLy Tailors

  • Rubin Tailors

  • Babi Tailors (these ladies were AMAZING - we all got numerous things at a great price and the quality was perfect)

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Step 4: Negotiating

Now for the fun part…

The entire tailoring process can be negotiated. This is the main reason I recommend shopping around before choosing a tailor. You’ll get a good sense of what something should cost and you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the tailor you end up going with.

The more you buy, the less each individual thing will cost, like anything else you’d buy in SE Asia. If you can work with a friend, even better!

Here are a couple of things that will affect the price of your tailored clothes:

  • Size of the piece (a jumpsuit does not equal a romper does not equal a pair of shorts, etc.)

  • Material (leather and linen will always cost you more than cotton and silk)

  • Complexity of the piece (fabric covered buttons, complicated stitching, etc.)

  • Quantity you’re buying

  • Location

  • Your own power of negotiation

Always remember that, in SE Asia, negotiating is a way of life. They won’t sell you something if they don’t make a profit. HOWEVER, this does not give you the right to be rude or irritable with the people you’re negotiating with. Be patient, but firm, and you’ll usually end up getting a price you’re happy with. Remember - that Burberry coat could be a couple hundred or a couple thousand!

 

Step 5: The Tailoring Process

Depending on what you’re getting made, this whole process can take one day or four. It’s a good idea to ask how long something will take (roughly) so you know you have enough time!

The tailoring process, at least our experience with it, goes a little like this:

Day 1

  1. Choose a tailor

  2. Pick what you want made and the fabric you want (again, pictures help a lot!)

  3. Negotiate the price (it will all be in USD) and work out payment. Some places will ask you to pay upfront, some will ask you to pay half upfront and the rest on delivery, some will let you pay everything at the end. Remember, once you’ve ordered something you will have to pay for it whether you like it or not!

  4. Initial measurements

Day 2 or Day 3 (depending on how fast they’re working)

  1. First fitting

  2. Adjustments

Day 3 or 4

  1. Second fitting

  2. Wrap up and pay OR additional adjustments

We had some things ready on the first go, some things took up to three or four fittings. Some things take longer than others to get right, so be ready to be patient - it’ll be worth it in the end. 

*TIP* It helped me a lot to make a schedule in my phone to keep track of all the fittings I had to do and where they were. I had 10+ things made at 5+ tailors, so I had more to work with than most of our friends, but either way this helped out a lot. 

*PRO-TIP* In between all those fittings, go grab sandwiches at Anthony Bordain’s (RIP) favorite banh mi shop - Banh Mi Queen! Honestly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and they’re only $1. I think we ate over 50 of them between five of us before we left Hoi An. If you stay at Hoa Binh maybe you’ll see the tally we wrote out on the locker in our room 😜 

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Step 6: Shipping Home

Ahh yes, everyone’s favorite thing to deal with while on a backpacking trip (or any trip, let’s be honest). Once you’ve bought all your goodies, and a few lanterns from the night market, you’re probably going to have to get them home by some means other than your own carry on! 

Each time we’ve shipped things home before Hoi An, we used the local post office (to varying degrees of success). However, in Hoi An, because shopping and tailored clothes are such a big business in this city, there’s a private service you can use that’ll come right to you with everything you need. The price is roughly the same as the local post and they send you updates throughout the shipping process to help you keep track of your box. They even help out with customs!

The service is called Dai Nam Postal Service and they have great reviews. We contacted them through our hostel and they were at our door within 30 minutes. 

 

Shopping in Old Town and the Night Market

Just when you were about to say, “I can’t possibly be expected to buy all this and ship it back home,” I’m going to jump in here with a, “but wait, there’s more!” 

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Hoi An is a truly beautiful city, and nowhere is this more true than the city’s Old Town. Nestled next to the river running through Hoi An, there’s never a bad time to explore this area of the city. After a few hours strolling through the cobblestone streets under the light of innumerable paper lanterns, you’ll certainly agree that, night or day, this city feels like a fairytale. 

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Across the river from Old Town, you’ll find the heart of Hoi An’s nightlife in the shape of rooftop bars, clubs, and pubs lining the street, and the city’s night market. Here you can sample the best, and cheapest, of Hoi An’s street food as well as dazzling array of local wares. Stalls overflowing with lit paper lanterns (yes, they collapse!), old school gongs, unique and artistic miniatures that you have just enough room for in your box - this place is dangerous! And you absolutely can’t miss it. 

After all, you’ve got to do something in Hoi An while the tailors are crafting your custom clothes. 

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A Week in Saigon: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh, is the 24/7 beating heart of southern Vietnam as well as the largest city in the entire country. Home to over 8.5 million people, Saigon has endless cultural and metropolitan attractions and serves as the starting or ending point for nearly every traveler passing through Vietnam. 

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Before I dive into a passionate description of the best pho in Saigon, I want to touch briefly on the history of the city. The reason I call this city Saigon rather than its actual name of Ho Chi Minh has a lot to do with the locals I met throughout southern Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the former Prime Minister of Vietnam who led the forces of Northern Vietnam against the south during the Vietnam War. 

While Ho Chi Minh is the recognized name of the city, I’ve met many Vietnamese people who don’t recognize the new name and still refer to the city as Saigon. In their words, “only someone who wasn’t from the south or who wasn’t Vietnamese at all would refer to that city as Ho Chi Minh, it’s still Saigon to those of us who are from there.” It’s because of this preference that I refer to it as Saigon.

If you visit this city, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War. I encourage you to take the chance while you’re there to learn as much as you can, especially if you come from the states.

Brief history aside over.

Some people fly through this city in just a few days, some stick around for weeks at a time. No matter how much time you have, here are a couple of highlights for your stay in Saigon.

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What to Do

Cu Chi Tunnels
Possibly the most popular tourist attraction in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense system of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. These tunnels cover much of the country and were used extensively in the south for military purposes, providing everything from shelter, hospitals, dormitories, conference rooms, weapons stashes, kitchens, and strategic military positions to the North Vietnamese army. 

Certain sections of the tunnels are open to tourists and it’s extremely easy to arrange a tour to go out and see them. Visitors can enter sections of the tunnels, fire assault rifles, and get a taste of what life was like down in the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels provide a unique take on the Vietnam War and absolutely shouldn’t be missed!

Ben Thanh Market
Who doesn’t love a good market? The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Saigon and stands in one of the earliest surviving buildings in the city. If you’re looking to browse the local wares and feast on some fantastic treats all in the same location (or if you’re panicking because you’re about to fly home and haven’t gotten your mom the present that says “I saw this and knew you had to have it”) this is your one stop shop!

The market is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

War Remnants Museum
Brace yourself for this one. The War Remnants Museum is probably the best place in all of Saigon, to understand the impact of the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It's a heavy place, but absolutely worth doing.

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Bui Vien Walking Street
On a different note, if you’re looking to party and get to know some of your fellow travelers without breaking the bank, Bui Vien Walking Street is your place. This walking street is lined from end to end with cheap, rowdy, and colorful restaurants, bars and clubs, and makes for a great night out. 

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Tao Dan Park
If you’ve got a beautiful day in Saigon, Tao Dan Park is a wonderful place to spend it. Home to picturesque manicured gardens, temples, and charming cafes, this is the ideal way to laze away an afternoon before hitting the surrounding area for dinner and sundowners.

Where to Stay

Bui Vien Hostel
We all stayed in this hostel for a couple of nights in Saigon and absolutely loved it. It’s cheap, the beds are wonderfully comfortable, it’s perfectly located right off of Bui Vien walking street, and it sells beer for less than 75 cents. What more could you ask for?

The Like Hostel & Cafe
While in a slightly different part of the city, The Like Hostel & Cafe has a charming rooftop lounge area, is located close to a number of bars and restaurants, and has comfortable rooms and beds. 

The Common Room Project
The one that got away…We were so hoping to be able to stay at Common Room before we got to Saigon, but unfortunately it was completely sold out. Don’t be like us, book it early. Just look at the pictures, you’ll understand.

Where to Eat

The Hungry Pig
Awesome sandwiches, breakfasts, coffee, etc. Right off of Bui Vien walking street. I haunted this place so much they gave my a free sandwich after a week.

Great wifi, friendly staff, good food, and great, cheap coffee.

Secret Garden
Secret is right. This quirky little restaurant is notoriously tricky to find but an absolute gem. Don’t be discouraged by the many stairs or the strange little alley it lives on. When you’re thinking, “this can’t possibly be right,” you’re almost there. The fantastic Vietnamese food and charming atmosphere is worth the hike up those stairs I promise. 

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One
Cheap, instantaneous service, as authentic as it gets, and absolutely delicious, you really can’t ask for more when it comes to a solid bowl of pho in Saigon. 

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The Workshop Coffee
If you’re looking for fantastic coffee, fast wifi, and an airy, bright space to hunker down and get some work done, then you’re heading to The Workshop. Get caffeinated and enjoy the productive atmosphere. 

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Where to Drink

Whiskey & Wares
Calling all whiskey lovers - this is the bar for you! Whiskey & Wares offers a laidback, comfortable atmosphere and a wide selection of whiskey drinks to get your night going. 

Broma Not a Bar
In a city full of expensive rooftop bars and clubs with entrance fees and dress codes, Broma is an absolute gem. This laidback rooftop bar has amazing views of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the surrounding area as well as a delicious drink menu. 

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The Gin House
This one’s for the gin lovers, like me. The Gin House has an intimate and casual atmosphere and offers an incredible variety of gin cocktails as well as a number of infused gin & tonics. 

Bui Vien Street
ONE MORE TIME - this street is an awesome place to bar hop without breaking the bank, paying cover charges, or needing to dress to impress. Looking for a casual night out that has the potential to become a "casual night out"? Head to Bui Vien Street.

Bangkok

Any traveller who’s ever visited Thailand has probably made their way through Bangkok at some point, and they all have something different to say about it. In fact, there are few cities we’ve been to that inspire more love/hate reactions than Thailand’s capital.

Home to nearly 8.3 million people, this gigantic city has no shortage of new experiences and things to do. In fact, there’s so much to Bangkok that it’s almost daunting to try and plan out what you want to do here. Personally, I think this, and Khao San Road, are the main reasons some people claim to “hate” this city. 

BUT, don’t knock it till you try it, no matter what anyone says. There are many, many amazing things to do in Bangkok. We spent a little less than a week exploring the city and had a blast. Here’s a breakdown of some of our highlights.

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Experiences in Bangkok

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Over 400,000 visitors hop on the metro to Chatuchak Park each weekend in order to browse the 15,000 stalls of Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in all of Thailand. You can get lost for hours, like we did, among the thousands of visitors and vendors haggling over Nepalese gemstone bags, delicate silver jewelry, and ornate wooden carvings. Anything you could hope to shop for, there’s probably 6 of, so take the day (or, hell, the whole weekend) and get ready to drop some dollars at this fabulous market.

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Ladyboy Show

Something that we unfortunately didn’t get to, ladyboy shows are frequently labeled a “must do” attraction of Bangkok, so they have be included as our “coulda, woulda, shoulda, but didn’t.” The most popular is called Calypso, and you can catch this eye-popping performance twice every day, so there’s plenty of opportunity. 

 

Wat Phra Kaew (Reclining Buddha)

If you’re looking to explore one of the more cultural attractions of Bangkok and don’t feeling like shelling out for the Grand Palace (aka, if you’re just like us), this is a great alternative. Much cheaper, less crowded, and with plenty of temple views and photo ops for you rising instagram stars. Despite being near impossible to photograph, the reclining buddha in this temple is incredible, and regardless of whether or not you hit up the Grand Palace, this temple is absolutely worth a visit. 

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Floating Markets of Bangkok

Another thing we opted out of, Bangkok is famous for its floating markets. While they’re a bit pricy to go see, you either splurge for a tour or catch a cab out of the city and hire a boat, there’s no doubt that it’s a sight to see. There are five floating markets outside of Bangkok, the most famous of which is Damnoen Saduak. We decided it was a bit too pricy for us, but many would argue the getting to witness the hundreds of boats floating up and down the river laden with fresh fruits, vegetables, and other goodies make it well worth the money.

 

Unicorn Cafe

Another one for the instagrammers out there. Unicorn Cafe has gone viral for the simple reason that suddenly everyone is obsessed with unicorns (the internet is a weird place). That being said, it’s a fun place to check out and a great place to take some pictures. Go early, it gets very crowded very fast. The food is all rainbow, a little weird but, hey, that’s the theme. We weren’t all that hungry for rainbow pasta, but the crepe cake was awesome! Must love sugar. 

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Where to Stay

Hint: not Khao San Road. 

We met a lot of backpackers who warned us off Bangkok and the majority of them (major shocker here) stayed on or near Khao San Road, the famous backpacker street in city. It is crowded, dirty, and full of absolutely wasted travelers by 9:30pm most nights. Even if you’re looking to party in Bangkok, we wouldn’t recommend you stay there because not only are there other places to party but its also pretty far away from the metro, which is the best way to get around.

We stayed in an area called Sukhumvit and loved it. It’s known as a party central, with major clubs and bars all within walking distance of the metro stop. We stayed at a hostel called 1SABAI and it was great, if quiet. It was right next to Slumber Party Backpackers, which has numerous hostels throughout Thailand and is definitely where the party’s at. 

Either is a great stay, depends how much you want to sleep each night, and they’re both a quick 10 minute walk to the metro that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. Definitely recommend staying in this area. Less touristy, plenty to do, great food, easy access to metro…what’s not to love?

 

Where to Eat & Sip on Some Coffee

There's no shortage of amazing restaurants, cafes, bars, and cheap food options in Bangkok and I don't know how one could create a "complete" list, but here's a couple of highlights from our personal food tour in Bangkok.

Simple Natural Kitchen: We are slightly addicted to brunch, and this place had an epic one. We ordered shakshouka and avocado toast and it was great. Definitely recommend.

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Wonderwall: We parked it at this coffee shop for a couple of hours to get some work done. Can't argue with great coffee and a chill atmosphere.

25 Degrees: Looking for a great burger in Bangkok? 25 Degrees has got you covered. It also have a fantastic happy hour and is a great place to stop after a long day of touring some of the Bangkok's more famous attractions.

Not Just Another Cup: We so badly wanted to make it here (again, addicted to brunch) but we didn't realize until too late that you'll need a reservation to sit down. Don't be like us. Reserve and enjoy.

Iwane 1975: We ate here maybe 2-3 times while we were in Bangkok. Easy walking distance from the metro station in Sukhumvit, about halfway between our hostel and the station, this place has an amazing brunch/lunch (we have a problem) and absolutely everything we ordered was delicious. I'd recommend one thing in particular but it's just all great. Take yourself here and thank me later. 

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Terminal 21 Mall: Much like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok has some fantastic malls. We spent tons of time in Terminal 21 because it was so close, has amazing destination themed floors (go to Tokyo!), and has a fantastic food court. You've got plenty of options and it's an easy and typically cheaper option than restaurants every night. 

Where to Party

Hint: not Khao San Road.

I’m not just hating here. The government and police force in Bangkok have imposed a strict midnight curfew and even conduct raids along Khao San Road in an effort to curb the wild partying in Bangkok. Other bars and clubs are also being affected by this curfew, but Khao San Road has been hit the hardest and if you go on a weekend night you’ll see the streets packed with drunk partiers by 11:30pm as the bars begin to close down.

It. Is. Not. Fun.

Some alternatives? The club scene around Sukhumvit is good, but not easy on the wallet. You’ll pay to get in and then you’ll pay double for drinks.

If you’re looking to go clubbing, and you’re in the Sukhumvit area, go check out Slumber Party Backpackers. Ask them where is best to go on any particular night OR make it even easier on yourself and join them when they hit the clubs. The night we went with them we hit Route66 Club and they went on to Onyx Club, which we opted out of. They host solid pregames every night and it’s a great way to meet fellow backpackers in such a big city. 

Sukhumvit Road is also an option, especially the Red Light District around Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboys. GENTLEMEN, watch your wallets, these ladies know what they’re doing and they’re probably not just interested in your face (though I’m sure it’s great).

Rooftop bars! There are TONS of rooftop bars in Bangkok and they are a great time. We only hit one while we were there, Sky on 20, and loved it. Shop around a bit and see which one suits your fancy, but chances are you won’t go wrong with a fantastic view and a fancy cocktail. 

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Another alternative is take you and your gang on a self guided bar crawl! We did this one night and had a blast just walking around and checking out any fun bar or brewery we could find. Our favorites that we found were CRAFT, a fun outdoor brewery venue with beer flights and good old American rock tunes, and Iron Fairies.

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Iron Fairies is dope. I have a thing for absinthe bars and this one was absolute magic. The decor is dark and suits the name. The live band is very talented and, though they’re a bit pricy, the drinks are great. We didn’t try the food, but heard great things about that as well. Even if it’s just for one drink, it’s a quirky and fun place to check out.

 

How to Get Around Bangkok

Metro, metro, metro (and walking)! If you can avoid Tuk Tuks and Grabs in this city then absolutely do, they can get pricy and the traffic is AWFUL at peak times. The metro is easy to use and cheap, definitely the best way to explore the city and surrounding areas. Whenever we hit a place that the metro couldn’t take us, we got as close as we could and walked. 

There’s also a great Sky Train in Bangkok, which we used to get to the Unicorn Cafe. There’s a stop for it in Sukhumvit as well if you’re staying there! More expensive, but worth taking at least one trip on. 

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Bangkok is a vibrant, chaotic, and diverse city that easy to get lost in, literally and metaphorically. Give yourself the time to explore it a bit and don’t listen to the haters - this city’s got a great time waiting for those who seek it. 

Navigating Kuala Lumpur

Of all of the countries we’ve visited in Asia so far, Malaysia has been my favorite, second only to Vietnam. It’s hard to explain exactly why that is, there’s no concrete reason, but between KL, the Cameron Highlands and Penang I absolutely fell in love with this country.

We started our adventure in Kuala Lumpur (KL), which is as easy and obvious a place to start as it gets. The biggest city in Malaysia, KL is known for food, incredible shopping, and fantastic city tours. If you’re spending some time in this metropolis, here are a few ideas to kick off your stay.

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The Food

This is just a reoccurring theme with our posts from Asia so far but we can’t help it - the food here is such a huge part of their culture and it’s so. damn. good. 

The classic hunting around until you find a restaurant you like will serve you well here - you’ve got endless options. But if you’re looking for cheap eats in KL, you’re going to want to check out one of two places: the street markets or the malls.

Sounds weird to say, but the malls in the major cities throughout Asia have absolutely bomb ass food. The food courts are enormous, relatively inexpensive, and you can find almost anything you want and chances are it’ll be delicious. If you’re like us and have a hard time with the daytime heat in Asia (shit is intense) then the mall is the perfect place to cool off, maybe swap a few items out of your backpack, and grab a delicious meal.

 

The mall we haunted was called Pavilion, but there’s also The Gardens Mall, Fahrenheit88, Suria KLCC and more. If you do take my rec and head over to Pavilion, you’ve got to go to Grandmama’s - Flavours of Malaysia. Order the hot pot, order the curry, order whatever you want and thank me later. It was SO good.

The other obvious choice for cheap, good eats is one of KL’s markets. Night market, morning market, daytime market if your brave and can handle the heat better than us. You can’t go wrong. Grab some fresh fruit off the street and wander until you’re tempted into one of the many stalls and restaurants lining the streets. 

At night, there’s the Connaught Night Market or the Alor Street Food Night Market (where we went). During the day, there’s Central Market, where you can shop for not only for food but for souvenirs too, or Lot 10 Hutong, which features 34 food stalls in the packed food court. Streets like Jalan Imbi, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Raja Chulan or Jalan Alor are all great places to start!

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The best part? Anywhere you could want to eat in KL is also where you can shop for those last minute souvenirs you promised everyone that you’ve forgotten about until now. 

One last thing. We are the queens of brunch, so I can't leave out our favorite brunch place that we found in KL - Merchant's Lane. You may have to wait but it is WORTH it. 

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Exploring the “7 Wonders of Kuala Lumpur”

This famous backpacker tour takes you on a whirlwind day tour of the most famous highlights of KL and can be booked through any hostel you’ll find yourself staying in.

On your tour, you’ll visit the following seven wonders:

  1. Thean Hou Temple: one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu

  2. Little India Brickfields: a wide street with Indian stores and restaurants run by the country's Indian community

  3. Batu Caves: a limestone hill that has a stunning series of caves and cave temples

  4. National Palace: official residence of the monarch of Malaysia

  5. National Monument: a sculpture that commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom

  6. City Gallery: information hub with souvenirs & art for sale, maps, cultural exhibits & a gift-making workshop

  7. Selangor Pewter: the Royal Selangor pewter museum

The tour costs a grand total of RM85, roughly 21USD. The same company that offers this tour, Backpacking Malaysia, also offers tours to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s oldest rainforest, the cultural gem of Malacca, and boat trips on the Selangor River. 

Whatever kind of adventure you’re interested in, KL’s got something for you!

PS: They may or may not be a part of your tour, but you can’t miss (literally you can’t miss them, they’re enormous) the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Day or night, these two massive architectural masterpieces tower of Kuala Lumpur and are absolutely worth a visit, up close and personal.

 

Going Out

All right. Before we even got to Malaysia, we met a couple of travelers who told us that we would have a really hard time going out in KL. That there wasn’t much to do at night and that we were probably going to be disappointed. In fact, they told us that the best place for us to go out in all of KL was going to be Reggae Mansion, the hostel we were staying at that does have a kickass rooftop. 

WRONG.

Granted, in those travelers defense, it’s definitely not obvious where to go out. We had an inside source (one of my best friends from college is from KL) who pointed us in the right direction and that direction was to…

Changkat! This street is lined with lively bars, restaurants, and small clubs that bump great music, offer terraced views of the street, and more happy hour deals than you have time for. You can’t go wrong, just duck in where the music sounds best and hop from one to the other. 

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Still looking for something more after that (we weren’t…)? Head down to TREC, where you’ll find Zouk, the biggest club in KL. This club goes from 5PM to 5AM Friday and Saturday nights and will stay open for you during the week until at least 3AM. 

So grab your pals, or just take your lovely self, order a hookah, hit a happy hour, and dance the night away.

If you’re still looking for a party at 5AM…I can’t help you. Go to Bangkok.

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Koh Lanta: The Peaceful Alternative to Koh Phi Phi

After experiencing both Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, I came up with a loving analogy to compare the two. 

If Koh Phi Phi is a first semester freshman in college who’s never left home and is finally turned loose on the world of partying, then Koh Lanta is the super senior who’s taking the bare minimum number of classes and spending most of the time stoned on the couch.

If you’ve gone to college, you probably get what I’m saying.

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Koh Lanta is bigger, less crowded, and unbelievably chill compared to Koh Phi Phi. To be honest, one of the best things to do in Koh Lanta is nothing, which me and my two companions did plenty of. Also eating, which I recommend you do at Secret Garden. I think we went there four times in three days (the crepes...).

When we weren’t doing nothing, we explored the area around our hostel on foot and around the island by scooter. We stayed at an amazing hostel called Loro Loco, which had incredibly friendly staff and an amazing pool/lounge area. It was also right on Long Beach, the main beach on Koh Lanta, which is lined with fun, colorful sunset bars.
*Note: If you're looking for a bit more of a luxurious stay on island, ASALANTA has amazing reviews and would be well worth checking out!

Needless to say, we spent every sunset and evening on the beach with a couple of beers and as much fresh fruit as we could carry.

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Renting a scooter on Koh Lanta is very cheap, only about three US dollars a day.

There's a number of places you can explore on Koh Lanta via scooter. There's Mu Koh Lanta National Park, Mai Kaew Cave, Koh Lanta Old Town, Khlong Chak Waterfall, and countless stunning beaches, including Phra Ae Beach and Bamboo Beach. If you're looking to stack your day full of activities and places to explore, there's no shortage of options.
*Note: We heard from a couple of people that the entrance fee to the National Park isn't worth it, which is why we didn't go there, but if you're still interested it's worth noting that there is in fact an entrance fee of 200B per person.

If you're in Koh Lanta for a little longer, there's also plenty to do just off the island. There's diving, sunset cruises, and a day trip to Morakot Cave. Also known as the Emerald Cave, this stunning cave is on a tiny island just off of Koh Lanta and is well worth a visit. We didn't have enough time when we were there, but if I were to go back that would absolutely be on the top of my to do list.

What we DID do is rent two scooters for the three of us to explore the perimeter of the island for an afternoon. We opted for a more casual exploration and just stuck to aimlessly driving around and seeing the landscape before parking it on a deserted beach with a couple of fresh coconuts for a few hours. If you're enjoying a more low key day or trip, you can't go wrong with this.

Whether you want to go full explorer or have a chill day meandering around the island, you've got plenty of choices.

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On a side note, this would be an amazing place to practice riding a scooter, due to the low traffic and wide, paved roads all over the island. So if you’re looking for a place to gain confidence before embarking on a 3-month Vietnamese bike tour… I’ll say no more, you know who you are.

If you’ve been traveling for a while and are looking for a break or if you’re simply in need of a quick detox from the craziness of Koh Phi Phi or the Full Moon Party, look no further than Koh Lanta. This is the perfect place to put up your feet, string up your hammock, and read a few chapters of that book you picked up two months ago but haven’t opened yet.

A Guide to Kata & Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand

I’ll start by saying that it’s largely chance that brought us to Phuket. MJ and I were ready to write off Phuket as a tourist-heavy, crowded beach with little to do other than party. Given that we were headed to Ko Phi Phi immediately after to do just that, we almost skipped Phuket all together. 

In the end, I’m glad we didn’t. 

Phuket is one of the bigger islands off of Southern Thailand and there are many ways to see it. Here’s our take.

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Patong Beach

I know, I know, starting with the obvious here. 

Patong Beach is without a doubt the most famous beach and tourist attraction on Phuket Island. This city is a haven for backpackers is probably one of the best places to meet and party with your fellow budget travelers. 

The place essentially is a 24/7 happy hour.

There are no shortage of bars and clubs on Patong Beach. As soon as the sun goes down, head to Bangla Road and duck into any one of the tens of bars and restaurants offering food, seemingly endless happy hour deals, and live entertainment. 

Not sure where to start your night? We stayed at Slumber Party Backpackers in Patong, which offers amazingly comfortable rooms and a different party itinerary for every night of the week. If you happen to wander over on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, join their pub crawl and see how long you can keep up (spoiler alert: I personally did not impress anyone). 

What else is there to do other than party? Patong Beach is the perfect place to lay out for a nap (go on, you’ve earned it), grab an icy fruit juice (COCONUT!), or even give parasailing a try.

Still not tired? Check out Patong’s night market for some of the most delicious and cheap eats you’ll find in the city. 

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Kata Beach

All right, so maybe you’re a little partied out and are looking for a more relaxing place to spend your time in Phuket. Allow me to direct your attention to…

Kata Beach is yet another stunningly beautiful beach town about 25-30 minutes south of Patong Beach. While it’s also got its fair share of tourists and nightlife, Kata is definitely the calmer of the two. 

You’ll have more room on the beach, less noise at night, and less traffic on the road if you’re looking to explore the city on foot, something I didn’t get to do but a friend highly recommended. 

After a few crazy nights in Patong, Kata was the perfect place to wind down with a beer on the beach at sunset.

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Best of Singapore

Singapore is the shiny, expensive, diamond in the rough of Southeast Asia. Notorious for its clean streets and safe, diverse neighborhoods, Singapore is consistently credited as one of the best cities in the world. This electrifying metropolis is an incredible example of urban planning and eco-design at its finest.

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The massive Changi Airport has countless flights connecting to pretty much everywhere, making Singapore a great last stop to blow your leftover dollars before heading home! Pro tip: Singapore’s impressive airport not only boasts a full size shopping mall for killing time, but if your layover is over 8 hours in duration, you’re eligible for a free tour of the city!

If you're looking for a budget friendly Singaporean experience, base yourself out of Chinatown! Everything is cheap, and it's only a short metro ride away from the Marina Bay area if you still want to have a wander around the luxurious landscape. The route along the Singapore River towards the Marina Bay is lined with beautiful parks and sculptures. Well worth the walk! 

Gardens by the Bay

Absolutely no trip to Singapore is complete without venturing down to Gardens by the Bay. Made up of the famous vertical gardens, the Flower Dome, and the Cloud Forest, you’ll catch your breath as you marvel at what Singapore has built.

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The vertical gardens, known as the Supertree Garden, are impossible to miss as your approach Gardens by the Bay. They tower over the surrounding area, ranging between 25 and 50 meters (82 and 160 feet for our fellow Americans). There’s a chance you may have already heard of them; they were featured in BBC’s Planet Earth Season 2 in the episode “Cities.”

While these trees are stunning during the day, be sure to catch a ride down to see them at night. They glow an eerie blue or light up with a dazzling display or neon colors.

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The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest are the other two main attractions at Gardens by the Bay. Our favorite, by far, was the Cloud Forest, which is designed to mimic actual cloud forests found in places like Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands or Costa Rica. 

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The enormous glass dome is an explosion of cool, tropical jungle plants. Take in the impressive indoor waterfall just as you walk in and take the elevator up to explore what’s called “Lost World.” This walkway will take you down in a spiral so that you can admire the indoor jungle from all heights and angles. It truly feels like a lost world - we spent over an hour alone in the Cloud Forest.

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The Flower Dome is also beautiful, though we would’ve skipped it if we hadn’t been obligated to pay for admission to both (locals get to pick one, foreigners must pay a double entrance ticket). That being said, the Flower Dome is bursting with color and flora from all around the world. Give yourself at least 30-45 minutes to embrace the flower power - you paid for it anyways!

The Infinity Pool at the Marina Bay Sands

Perhaps one of the most iconic hotels in the world, the Marina Bay Sands and its unbelievable infinity pool tower over Singapore. While a two-night stay here was the definition of treat yo-self, we couldn’t resist getting our crew of six up to the pool for a dip and the best view in the city. 

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The hotel feels more like a small city than a room for a night. With three towers, bars, a club, cafes, and walkway to the enormous Marina Bay Shopping Mall, you can spend your whole vacation in this complex. The highlight, however, is the world’s largest infinity pool on the 57th floor.

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When people say security is strict, they mean it. You need a key card to get up to the top floor and past the guard into the pool area. You also need to swipe in and out and there is someone posted at each entrance. It is NO joke. Courtesy of so many people trying to sneak in, security is very intense.

If you have at least one or two key cards, then all you have to do is take turns going up to use the pool. No one checks to see if you’re actually a guest if you have one. This is what we did to get all six of us up in turns. 

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Once you get up, it truly is worth the view. Of course, everyone wants that amazing picture (including us), and it’s worth it to be patient and get that shot. That being said, if you get up to that pool, take the time to float and enjoy the view, which truly is something spectacular.

ArtScience Museum

This lotus shaped architectural masterpiece of a museum is actually part of the Marina Bay Sands development, only a 5-minute walk from the main boardwalk outside the mall. The sun-soaked galleries “explore creative processes at the heart of art, science, technology and culture, and their roles in shaping society.”

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Check out their ongoing exhibitions for some inspiration and plan to spend at least one lazy afternoon wandering the interactive exhibits. Somewhere among the Titanic artifacts, Andy Warhol specials, or even Harry Potter wonderments, you’re sure to find an exhibit to get lost in.

Gilman Barracks

If you’re still itching to dive deeper into the art scene, make a trip to the southern end of the island and wander around the Gilman Barracks. This military base gone art hub is an awesome playground to get a feel for the young, lively art vibe in Singapore. There are tons of buildings to explore - from internationally renowned exhibitions to local artists’ galleries, the energy of Southeast Asian art is oozing from the barrack seams. 

Check out their schedule for special events or temporary installations! We spent our Friday night hopping around an opening night concert for Singapore Art Week - flashing LED headphones included.

Chinatown

Looking for somewhere to eat and stay in Singapore that won’t break the bank? Look no further than the city’s thriving Chinatown. With its central location, endless foodie options, and bustling markets, you can’t miss this vibrant corner of the city-state. 

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Take a stroll through the night or early morning market and try a dish you’ve never heard of before (if you dare). Check yourself into one of the many affordable hostels or hotels in the area. Everything you could possibly want/need is right outside your door.

When in Chinatown, don’t miss out on the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meal: Singapore’s Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & noodle. There may be a line - but it’s worth the wait!

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

 

Dine in the Dark

One of the coolest experiences we had in Singapore was undoubtedly our ladies night at Nox: Dine in the Dark. 

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We made a reservation at Nox off a recommendation from a friend who claimed this was her favorite thing she did in Singapore. A secret three-course meal, 12 dishes in total, all in eaten in total darkness. While the concept isn’t unique to Singapore, it was to us and we loved it.

So, how does it work? After showing up, you enter the restaurant’s downstairs bar where you order a cocktail and let the staff know if there’s anything you can’t/don’t eat. Don’t forget to mention that deadly peanut allergy, but be as adventurous as you can - it makes it more fun!

You’re then led upstairs into a pitch black room. I mean you can’t see A THING. It’s a weird experience at first, but one you quickly get used to. Your waiter will introduce themselves and then you’re off on your culinary adventure! Fun fact, all the waiters who work at Nox are blind and seamlessly navigate the room with 30+ tables.

Textures, smells, and tastes will take on a whole new meaning in this experience. One of the best parts is simply trying to guess at what you’re eating. They don’t keep you in suspense forever though. At the end of your meal you’ll get to take your guess and see just how close you got when they reveal everything you’ve tried. 

If you’re a foodie, need a clever date night idea, or are just looking to try something different - definitely give Dine in the Dark a try. It was delicious! 

PS: We definitely recommend taking the wine pairing with the meal, because everything is better with wine.

Other Digs in Singapore

  • Any street food in Chinatown - pick a stall and take a seat! Look for somewhere crowded, it's always a good sign...

  • Central Perk Cafe - the only copyright-approved Friends-themed cafe in Asia!

  • Hit up Clarke Quay for all-nighter bars and clubs.

  • McGettigan's CQ - of course we scoped out the best burger joint in the city.

  • Hawker Chan - the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world.

  • 28 Speakeasy - a completely unmarked bar, you might only be able to find it if you keep your eye out for some kiddos smoking some cigs on Hong Kong Street.

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