The 4 best options to travel in Asia for the first time

An image of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan.

An image of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan.

So you want to travel in Asia for the first time. Where should you go? What are the best countries and destinations for your first trip to Asia. Well, I’ve traveled to most of the countries in SE Asia and I’d like to help you out. But there’s no easy answer. Here are four options for first time travelers to Asia.

  1. The Big Two – Japan and China
  2. Beach & Scuba – Philippines & Bali
  3. Elephants & Angkor Wat – Thailand, Cambodia
  4. Big City Tour – Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai

Before you decide, it depends a lot on what you’re looking for and how long you have. You might want to hit the big ones – China and Japan. Or you might want to hit the cheap ones – Thailand, Cambodia. You might want culture, or you might just want beaches. Here are a couple thoughts to consider before you decide where to travel in Asia your first time.

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What to Do in Chinatown Singapore

Singapore Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Roof GardenSingapore can be done in a day and a half. The best thing to do is to stay in Little India and visit Chinatown.

In Chinatown, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum just down the street from the Sri Mariamman Temple (Hindu), which isn’t far from the Jamae Mosque (Muslim). That’s Singapore in a nutshell – a harmony of cultures.

At the Buddha Temple go upstairs to the free Buddhist museum on the 3rd floor. They have tons of Buddhist relics from around the world and have done a good job telling the story of Buddha in a designed path through the museum. Take your time. Read a bit. Learn a bit.

Then hit up the stairwell and sneak up to the roof. You’ll find a lush rooftop tropical garden surrounding a large Buddhist prayer wheel. Grab the wheel, walk in a circle and make a prayer. It’s okay. You’re allowed to be there.

For lunch, go behind the museum to the Chinatown Complex (food hawker center). There are 1,000 food stalls. Take a deep breath and find a stall that sells ‘chicken rice’. When I was there it was #172. It should cost S$3. Wait for it. Make sure to take the little tray of red sauce. The dish will look bland – you will be surprised.

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Losing My Passport in Vietnam

Image of a beautiful blond model.

This may sound obvious, but your passport is critically important if you plan to travel between countries. The first 10 or 15 countries you visit, this will be obvious. But be careful not to drop your guard just because you haven’t lost it yet. This was my mistake.

Breakfast coming from Seoul. Lunch coming from Beijing. Dinner in Bangkok. It was the beginning of another sure-to-be-memorable vacation abroad. Plans included rock-climbing in Vietnam with Mixto and Huevos (aka the plumbers), whom I hadn’t seen in over 2 years since volunteering together in Peru. Then, planned to meet Taylor and his girlfriend, Nina, who I hadn’t seen since graduation from college together. These were four people you can’t help but be excited to see.

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Scuba Diving off Tenggol Island

Tenggol Island is a lesser-known island sitting of the east coast of Malaysia. The more well-known Perhentian Islands in the peninsular northeast and Sipadan Island off the east coast of Borneo steal the glory from little old Pulau Tenggol.

Well, when Jack and I took a trip to Malaysia last Summer, we wanted to experience the world-class diving Malaysia has to offer. Knowing of the popularity of the Perhentians, we asked our respective Malaysian friends about quality dive spots with fewer travelers. Pulau Tenggol was the response.

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How to Eat Banana Leaf Rice

Our first meal fresh off the plane in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia set the stage for the rest of the trip. Mr. J Chan, a friend I met 2.5 years ago in New Zealand, was nice enough to pick us up at the airport and take us directly to lunch. J Chan told his friends that he was going to take two Americans for their first meal in Malaysia and asked what they recommended. Multiple friends suggested he take us to eat banana leaf rice and better yet, most suggested one restaurant in particular. So that’s where we went.

Banana leaf rice is a seemingly simple dish. First, your “plate” is a banana leaf, rolled out in front of you like a placemat. Then a generous scoop of rice is plopped in the middle. Next, come an assortment of curry sauces and vegetables. That’s the basic dish, and it’s meant to be eaten with your hands.

Not wanting us to miss any of the good stuff, J Chan felt it a good idea to order a bit more. So, our meal had the addition of fried spicy calamari, fried chicken, and fish. One difficult, yet fun, part of eating the meal was trying to do so the traditional way – with only your right hand. As an American, it’s not a way of eating that I’m used to, but in actuality, it’s a more practical way of eating once you get used to the correct method. (Hint: scoop the food onto your fingers, and push into mouth with thumb)

Here’s a video we filmed on Jack’s iPhone of us eating banana leaf rice. (sorry for the low quality – hit the four arrows to go full screen):

How to Attack a Singaporean Hawker Food Centre

What the heck is a Hawker Food Centre? First and foremost, it’s the one place you can’t miss if you travel to Singapore (or Malaysia). Secondly, it’s delicious, cheap, clean food served food-court style. The problem is that Hawker Food Centres (HFC) can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

There are several HFC’s all over Singapore in Little India, Chinatown, and elsewhere, so it’s not that hard to find one. What you might find difficult is choosing the best food stall to order from when there are so many choices, most of which look delicious. So here’s the best way to attack the HFC’s.

1. Decide what you want to eat.
Do you want chicken rice, char kuay teow, satay, or fish ball noodles? The last thing you want to do is get stuck wandering around an HFC trying to decide among all the options. Everybody else will know exactly what they want, where they’re going, where they’re sitting, and how to do it all. This only makes things worse for you if you don’t. I recommend chicken rice – it looks simple, but if you choose a good stall, you’ll be amazed how delicious it can be.

2. Choose a stall serving what you want.
Rule of thumb – look for the places with a queue. The locals know what’s up, and if they’re waiting in line, it’s because it’s worth it. Also, look for the busy cooks. The chefs standing around aren’t busy, which tells you a lot. The best stalls sometimes even sell out of food completely, so don’t be afraid to go earlier rather than later.

3. Order the dish and then sit down.
You can sit anywhere there’s a sit. Don’t worry about sitting close if the nearby tables are taken. The hawkers will bring you the food. If you’re out of view, point to let them know.

4. Pay when you get the food.
If you’re a foreigner, they might let you wait until you’ve finished eating, but it’s standard practice to pay when the food comes.

5. Don’t worry about cleaning up.
In Singapore, there are specific people paid to keep the HFC’s clean. As you’ll soon notice, Singapore is a very clean city.

Bonus Step: Watch the video the below: Know Before You Go. It’ll give you a few images of the Chinatown HFC in Singapore.

How to Eat Pork Spine Stew

Haejangguk, or pork spine stew, is one of the top 3 Korean dishes you’ll want to try if you visit Korea. It’s known in Korea as the best hang-over cure, and restaurants specializing in the dish are often open until the early morning hours.

The tenderness of the meat combined with the spicy red-pepper spices and vegetables make this dishes one of the standards that I eat in Korea. It’s never hard to find a haejang-guk (pronounced hay’-chong-gook) restaurant in any town in Korea. Just act drunk and tell any passing Korean “pay go pah yo” which means “I’m hungry.” They’re bound to direct you to a haejang-guk restaurant.

Now, there’s a subtle art to eating the dish. It’s brought to you in a steaming hot pot usually with some spinach draped over the pork bones boiling in the broth. Don’t be alarmed by the bones – you’ll be eating the meat and tossing the bones aside.

Here’s how I eat it – and my recommendation for how you should eat haejang-guk.

Step 1: Remove meat from bone. Do this by holding a bone still with your spoon (or fingers) and scraping the meat down into the broth with your chopsticks. Some will fall easily, others will resist.

Step 2: Remove bone from soup. Pick the mostly meat-bare bone from the soup and place it in the empty white bowl. While picking at the other bones, this one will cool, allowing you to pick it up with your chopsticks (or fingers) and gnawing off the last bits of meaty goodness. Yes, it’s worth it.

Step 3: Enjoy. Wait a second for the soup to cool. Eat the kimchi’s sides while you wait. Try each of them and figure out which ones you like the most. Then, grab your spoon and dig into the haejang-guk.

Hint: Spoon a little rice before dipping into the broth. “Mah-she-tah” – “delicious!”

Enjoy the video below of us eating two different types of haejang-guk, the traditional pork dish, and a seafood version with clams and crab.

How I Accidently Participated in a 15K Mountain Biking Race

Well, it was half on accident, half on purpose. Obviously I could’ve taken a different route. But, when you accidentally ride your brand new 24-speed mountain bike to the beginning of a mountain biking race that’s going up the same routes you were planning to ride, why wouldn’t you ride along?

I woke up this morning with the intention to ride up the mountain. The only difference today was that I decided to ride by the nearby soccer field to see if anybody was out playing. I wanted a little outdoor activity and I was willing to jump in a pick-up soccer game, basketball game, or even a game a catch. What I got was a 15 kilometer mountain biking race!

I didn’t jump in the front of course. I waited until the slackers were making their way around the start of the track before I headed off in the same direction. We started along the road in front my University, and took a right up the road that runs along the reservoir. When the cherry blossoms are in bloom, this is one of the most beautiful roads in the world on which I’ve been.

The reservoir road runs up the mountain and gets real steep real quick. Pumping away in my lowest gear, most of us were crawling up the mountain. Yes, many of us hopped off our bikes and pushed them up until the path leveled out a bit. But, man, once we got to the top and it started downhill – I quickly flipped to my highest gear and FLEW down the mountain. I’ve ridden this trail a few times, so I knew when to slow down and when to let it go, and I was able to blow past a few of the race participants.

All-in-all, I rode for about an hour and a half up and down the mountains behind where I live. After the race, I stopped to chat with one of the more serious competitors and he informed me that it was a 15 km race. He was from a city about an hour away and had driven here just for the race.

Check out the video below for a taste of the views. What a beautiful day!

How Mixto Got His Name

If he didn’t deserve the name, it wouldn’t be his name. This is how he got the name.

Setting: Earthquake-ravaged Pisco, Peru circa July 2008.

The mission: To build earthquake-resistant sanitation units which included a toilet, shower, and large sink for the less-fortunate residents of Pisco. The unit had been designed, and prototypes had been built. However, documentation containing information on how to construct such units was scarce. The deadline for completion was approaching and plumbing needed to occur on a fast and efficient basis.

Enter: one British and one American voluntario. Mike (aka Mixto) and I had been given the task of organizing a list of all of the materials needed to plumb a sanitation unit. We had a drawing of the unit with no parts labeled, a list in Spanish that may or may not be parts that were bought for previous units, and no experience plumbing.

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How to Do Vegas Right: 3 Simple Rules

Gambling, hookers, booze, and staying up all night. That’s the stereotype of Vegas that the Tourism board wants you to live out. Hence the endorsed motto: What happens here, stays here. Well, if you want to know how to do Vegas right, follow these 3 simple rules!

Best way to do Las Vegas - ParisRule #1: Two nights max.

Never stay in Vegas more than 3 days, and 2 nights.

A) Your body can’t handle
B) Your mind can’t handle it
C) Your wallet (or purse) definitely can’t handle it.

The first day and night are fun. Soak up all the lights, the action, the excitement, and gamble a little. The second day and night are either a crazy blur, or a chance to see what you missed the first day. The third day you’re either hungover, or simply over it. Go home. Another night and you’ll wish you hadn’t come to Vegas at all!

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