In a Nutshell

Food and Drink in Malaysia

Food and Drink in Malaysia
Food and Drink in Malaysia
Food and Drink in Malaysia

Malaysia is a great place for people who love to eat and experiment with food. There are a wide range of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes available through the country and some interesting mixtures of culinary styles. As you travel through Malaysia, look out for regional specialities and try to experience the full range of Malay cuisine.
Hawker stalls and coffee shops are good places to find a cheap and tasty meal. Hawker stalls tend to be very clean and open until late in the evening. Curry dishes and other meals in western style restaurants, while seafood restaurants serve fresh fish prepared in the Chinese style. For western food, head to the shopping malls, where you will usually find a large food court with a number of well known fast food restaurants.

Here is a selection of the numerous dishes you will find on your travels in Malaysia:

Nasi lemak – the most common Malaysian breakfast dish consists rice cooked in light coconut milk with anchovies, peanuts, a slice of cucumber and a little chilli.

Rendang – usually made with beef, this dry curry dish consists of stewed meat in a spicy curry paste.  

Chilli crab – a whole crab is covered with a generous amount of sticky, strong chilli sauce.

Laksa – this dish varies from place to place but is basically a coconut both with seafood or chicken.  

Bak chor mee – this noodle dish is cooked in a chilli-based sauce with minced pork, fried anchovies, vegetables and mushrooms.

Popiah – these delicious spring rolls can be either fried or raw. Filled with boiled turnips, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelette, chopped stir fried long beans, there is usually a sweet chilli sauce to dip them in.  

Hainanese chicken rice – usually found on street stalls, this steamed chicken dish is served with special gently spiced rice and tasty ginger.

Bubur cha-cha – a traditional Malay desert with cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added to coconut milk soup.

Kuih – this sweet desert is made with coconut milk, coconut flesh and either glutinous rice or tapioca. It is often made into cute and colourful designs.

Avoid drinking tap water and drinks with ice in Malaysia. Bottled water is cheap and easy to find.  

Coffee – known as kopi – and tea – teh – are both popular and tasty drinks in Malaysia as well as a local variation known as teh tarik. Tea and coffee usually comes hot, with condensed milk to sweeten it. If you don’t want milk ask for teh o, while teh ais will get you iced milky tea.
Also popular is a drink known as kopi tongkat ali ginseng, which is a mixture of coffee, a local aphrodisiacal root and ginseng served with condensed milk.

Despite being a predominately Muslim country, alcohol is widely available throughout Malaysia. Beer and other alcohol can be bought in bars, restaurants and 7-11 shops. The local brew is tuak, which fermented rice wine that comes in many forms. Usually served lukewarm, tuak is often flavoured with sugar or honey.

Festivals and Holidays in Malaysia

Festival and Holidays in Malaysia
Festival and Holidays in Malaysia
Festival and Holidays in Malaysia

Malaysia is a real melting pot, where a large number of cultures live side by side. This means that the country celebrates a large number of festivals, with the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious festivals all being observed.
Malaysian festivals tend to be loud and colourful, marked with plenty of singing, dancing and parades through the streets. Malaysian people tend to be tolerant of people from other faiths and welcome them into their homes to celebrate with them. These festivals are a good opportunity for foreigners to learn more about Malaysian culture and hospitality.

Here are some major Malaysian festivals to look out for. Many festivals revolve around the lunar calendar, so dates vary slightly from year to year.

New Year’s Day
January 1st is a public holiday and New Year’s Eve is marked in most cities with sporting events, competitions, exhibitions and cultural performances by Malaysian multi-ethnic groups.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days and is very colourful, filled with feasting and firework displays.  Gather to watch the traditional dragon and lion dances, which take place to the beat of gongs and drums. Penang is the best place to experience Chinese New Year in Malaysia.

Thaipusam
This festival is celebrated by Hindus on the tenth month of the Hindu calendar. Thaipusam is a day for penance and atonement and during this time devotees to fulfill a vow they have made to Lord Muruga, who is also known as Lord Subramaniam. Devotion is demonstrated by fasting and piercing their bodies with elaborately decorated metal structures decorated with colored paper, fresh fruit and flowers and parading through the streets. To get the most out of this festival, head to Kuala Lumpur to watch Lord Muruga’s jeweled chariot carried  through the streets to the Batu Caves in Selangor.  

Wesak Day
Buddhists celebrate this festival in May to remember the birth, enlightenment and ascension of Lord Buddha. The daytime is filled with visits to the temple and merit making, while there are processions of floats and candles in the streets after dark.

Gawai Dayak
On the 1st of June the people of Sarawak celebrate the good annual with parties, games, processions and feasting. People gather to sing traditional songs, dance and drink the locally produced rice wine. Children bring their parents plates of food and cattle is sacrificed to ensure that there is a good harvest the following season.  

Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
Also known as Hari Raya Puasa, this Muslim festival marks the end of fasting throughout the month of Ramadhan, which is the tenth month of the Muslim calendar. The celebrations last for one month and feature bright decorations, feasting and parties

Lantern and Moon Cake Festival
This festival is celebrated by all Malaysians, who hang colourful lanterns on their houses and eat moon cakes in this celebration of peace and unity. 

Hungry Ghost Festival
According to Chinese tradition the gates of hell are opened during the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to allow the hungry ghosts to wander the Earth in search of food and possibly seek revenge. The Chinese hold a festival at this time to remember their dead ancestors and pay tribute to them, setting aside food for them and burning money so that their relatives can use it in the afterlife.

Deepavali
The Festival of Lights, also known as Deepavali, is celebrated as the triumph of good over evil, marking the legendary time that Lord Krishna is said to have defeated Narkansura. Mainly celebrated by Hindus, people visit the temple during the day and lit candles and oil lamps in the evening. There are colourful parades through the street and much merrymaking.

Christmas
Unlike most Asian countries, Malaysia celebrates Christmas much like people do in western countries. Houses are decorated with lights and a large Christmas tree, carols are sung and the traditional roast turkey dinner is often eaten to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Dos and Don’ts in Malaysia


Dos and Don'ts in Malaysia
Dos and Don'ts in Malaysia
Dos and Don'ts in Malaysia

Malaysia receives a large number of tourists and the Malay people are used to the different habits of foreigners. Although Malay people tend to be tolerant to cultural differences, it is important to remember that this is a conservative country and you should show respect by trying to follow the established customs. While some customs may sound a little bit complicated at first, simply observe the behaviour of other people and all will become clear.
Clothing
The people of Malaysia generally dress conservatively by Western standards, and showing too much skin in public is sure to cause offense. Although the high temperatures and humidity levels throughout the country may make visitors want to strip off, it is best to wear long, loose clothing at all times. Wearing shoes indoors is also considered to be rude, and visitors will usually notice a place to put shoes just outside temples and private houses.

Greetings
Malaysian people usually greet each other with a salam, which is a type of handshake that it made with both hands. When greeting someone for the first time, the protocol is for you to stretch out your hands in greeting. The other person will touch your outstretched hands, and then bring them to their chest in a gesture that means “I greet you from my heart”. Now it is the visitor’s turn to return the gesture. In some cases, someone may offer to shake hands instead, although this isn’t common and shouldn’t be initiated.

Eating etiquette
Eating etiquette is important in Malaysia and varies depending on the type of food you are eating. While Malay and Indian food is usually eaten with the right hand (never the left, as it is considered to be unclean), chopsticks tend to be used to eat Chinese food. Those who prefer to use cutlery than their right hand will be supplied with a spoon and a fork. Knives are not commonly used here, as most dishes feature pieces of meal that are small enough to scoop into your mouth without cutting them first.

Showing Affection
People rarely show affection in public, aside from the traditional salam greeting, and kissing and holding hands when in a public area is sure to cause embarrassment to onlookers and attract unwanted attention.

When to Visit Laos

When to come to Laos
When to come to Laos
When to come to Laos

Laos’ climate is tropical and the weather tends to be quite hot and humid, with temperatures climbing as high as 40?C to the south of the country. There are two main seasons in Laos; the rainy season, which lasts from May to September and the dry season from October to April.

The coolest and driest months are between November and February and this is the best time to visit the country, especially as this is when many of Lao’s vibrant festivals are held.

However, temperatures are significantly lower in the mountainous regions to the north of Laos and can be pleasant all year round, although it can get rather chilly in the evening during January and February. The hottest part of Laos is by far the southern region and it is best to avoid this area during the very hottest part of the year, especially March and April.

You can expect heavy rain practically every day during the rainy season. However, these rain showers tend to be over quite quickly and are easily avoided. Travelling during the rainy season can still be enjoyable, although be aware that many of the roads won’t be in as good a condition as during the rest of the year.

The peak tourist seasons occur from December to February and again in August. January can be very busy and it is a good idea to book in advance if you are travelling at the start of the year.

Types of Transport in Laos

types_of_transport_in_laos_1
Types of Transport in Laos
Types of Transport in Laos

Laos has only been open to international visitors for little over a decade, so you cannot expect to find the spectrum of travel options available in some of the neighbouring countries. There is no rail service and although most of the roads are now paved vehicles can be old and unreliable. The secret to successful travel in Laos is to allow plenty of time and don’t worry too much if things don’t go exactly to plan. Just sit back and enjoy the journey as you watch the stunning scenery slide past.

Plane
This is of course the most convenient way to travel, although not necessarily the most rewarding and certainly not the cheapest. The national airline is Lao Aviation and there are regular domestic flights from most major towns and cities such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Pakse and Oudomsay. There are even weekly flights from smaller towns such as Luang Namtha, Sayaboury, Houeixay, Sam Neua, Saravane, Lak Xao, Muangkhong and Attapeu.

Taxis
Mainly restricted to Vientiane, taxis can be both metered and unmetered. It is also possible to hire taxis for the day if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing.

Tuk-tuks and jumbos
The Lao answer to the taxi, these small and somewhat rickety motorized vehicles can be found all over Laos and are a good way to get around. Fares are generally negotiable, so make sure you agree the price with the driver before setting off.

Buses
Public buses run around large towns and cities between towns and villages throughout Laos. They tend to be rather small and cramped but quite reliable. There are also slightly larger tourist buses available for a slightly higher fee.

Mini Buses
These are a more comfortable way to travel if you are following the tourist trail between places such as Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

Boat
The mighty Mekong River flows through Laos and travelling by slow boat is a great way to see the country, while speed boats race down the river, much to the delight of thrill seekers. Daily services run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.

Bicycles
A great way to explore the countryside is by hiring a bicycle at a tourist hub and simply cycling away.

Car hire
Although private car hire is possible, it is generally more trouble than it’s worth. A better option is to hire a car with a driver, which can be done through most hotels or tourist agencies.

Survival Tips in Laos

Survival Tips in Laos
Survival Tips in Laos
Survival Tips in Laos

As a rule Laos is a very safe country to travel in. People are friendly and honest and the crime rate is low. However, as with any place there are certain things you should look out for so that you can make sure you stay safe while you travel.

Most people will have trouble changing large kip notes, so it is essential to carry a selection of smaller notes as well. Change larger notes at banks, luxurious hotels and upmarket shops.

Tap water is undrinkable, so make sure you buy bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Bottled water is cheap and can be purchased at most shops.

Lao people don’t follow western queuing methods and trying to form a polite line to buy your bus ticket or at the post office will simply mean that you get pushed to the side. Be assertive and don’t be afraid to elbow your way into position, nobody will think any less of you for it.

Although crime is low in Laos, money and belongings do occasionally go missing from hotel rooms. There is also sometimes pick-pocketing and bag snatching on crowded buses. Stay alert and keep your valuables with you.

Buy a good padlock for your bag and hotel door. You may find that windows don’t always fasten properly and you should fasten them securely with a cable lock.

There is a risk of banditry is some of the less travelled regions of Laos. If you plan to explore off the tourist trail it is a good idea to take a guide with you or consult a local tour company to find out which areas are at risk.

There are also a number of unexploded bombs left over from the Second Indochina War. Although tourist areas have been swept carefully, many areas of jungle and farmland remain uncleared. Be sure to stick to well worn paths when exploring and consult a tour company before wandering off on your own.

Remember to carry your passport or ID document with you all the times in order to avoid a fine.

Location and History of Laos

Location and History of Laos
Location and History of Laos
Location and History of Laos

Covering 236.800 square kilometres, Laos is a small landlocked country situated in the Indochinese peninsula. Bordered by Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, the population of Laos is around 5 million.

With a tropical climate, Laos is a country of stunning natural beauty. The southern most part tends to be the hottest and here you will find a variety of pretty islands. The centre of Laos is covered with dense forests, while there are dramatic mountains to the north.

Laos’ past is somewhat turbulent and the country has suffered greatly from the effects of war and poverty. The people of Laos originated from Thailand and it can be observed that the culture of Laos has a lot in common with that of Thailand. It was also formerly a French-Indochinese state and you will still find French influences as well as traces of the Vietnamese and Khmer cultures.

After centuries of invasion from neighbouring countries, Laos took a severe beating during the French Indo-China war and again during World War II. Laos finally gained full independence from France under the reign of King Sisavang Vong in 1953, although peace still did not follow as the monarchy was opposed by the Laotian Patriotic Front. Years of warring followed, with the LPF forming an alliance with the group that would become the Viet Cong.

Finally, after years of instability cultural and bilateral trade agreements were signed with China in December 1987 and the political situation began to improve. Relations were improved with neighbouring countries and the west and the king retired in 1991, allowing a new constitution to form. Laos has been governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975 and the political situation finally seems stable, allowing the country to rebuild and resettle.

Despite former hardship, the people of Laos are warm and welcoming and smiles are frequent and genuine. Today Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries, with agriculture the main form of economy. Laos’ main products are rice, pulses, fruit, sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, with coffee being the country’s largest export.

The official language of Laos is Lao, although a range of tribal languages as well as French, Vietnamese and English are also sometimes spoken. The majority of people are Buddhist, with a range of other religions such as animism, Confucianism and Christianity practiced by the tribes people.

Food and Drink in Laos

Food and Drink in Laos
Food and Drink in Laos
Food and Drink in Laos

Food in Laos is similar to northern Thai food, yet with its own unique twist. Rice is as popular here as in the rest of Asia, although in Laos sticky rice known as khao niaow is served instead of long grained rice. Sticky rice comes in bamboo containers and is eaten with your hands, usually dipped in a selection of spicy sauces.

The French influence in Laos can be found in the cuisine and baguettes filled with pâte known as khao jii pat-te are delicious at any time of the day, especially for breakfast served with kaafeh thung – rich and tasty Lao coffee. Lao coffee usually comes with a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom, or black – kaafeh dam.

International food is widely available in tourist towns and in Vientiane, the country’s capital, where you will also find a great selection of gourmet French restaurants.

Here is a selection of popular Lao dishes to get your taste buds tingling.

Laap – the national dish, an extremely spicy salad made from minced meat, herbs, spices, lime juice and a LOT of chilli. This dish sometimes uses raw meat.

Tam maak hung – know as som tam in Thailand, this is fresh, spicy grated papaya salad, where the flavours are pounded with a mortar and pestle to combine them.

Foe – Vietnamese noodles, often served as a snack or at breakfast time.

Khai phaan – this Mekhong River weed is served in Luang Prabang as a delicious side dish.

Padeck – fish preserved with salt and stored for anything up to three years. Padeck is usually eaten with sticky rice.

Money Matters in Laos

Money Matters in Laos
Money Matters in Laos
Money Matters in Laos

The official currency of Laos is the Laos kip (LAK), which comes in 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 kip notes. Although this is the country’s only official currency, Thai Baht and US Dollars are also accepted in many places, especially tourist areas, which can make life easier if you are travelling to Laos from Thailand. You will need a ready supply of kip notes for use in smaller towns and villages as well as for small purchases.

Because it is such a poor country, the cost of visiting Laos is low, even compared to other Asian countries. Accommodation and transport are cheap and most people should be able to get by comfortably on $15 USD per day, although you can spend a lot more if you choose to eat and sleep in exclusive hotels. If you need to save money, it is possible to spend as little as $10 USD per day by eating at the local markets and staying in the cheapest hotels or guesthouses.

Make sure you bring a good supply of cash and traveller’s cheques with you as most places don’t accept credit cards and finding a cash machine can be difficult.

Changing your Money
There are banks located in all main towns and these can exchange all major currencies. The best rates can be found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, where competition is higher than the rest of the country.

Traveller’s cheques can be cashed in exchange bureaus and banks, which can be found all over Laos and traveller’s cheques in US Dollars, are preferred.

You cannot exchange kip outside of Laos, so make sure you convert your cash before leaving the country.

ATMs
Cash machines have only recently made their way into Laos, and even now they can only really be found in Vientiane. Unfortunately, even in Vientiane the number to ATM machines are limited and they often break down. Also be aware that there is a limit to how much you can draw out at a time and there are quite hefty charges for doing so. To avoid potential problems it is best to make sure you draw enough money for your trip before entering Laos or take traveller’s cheques as these can be cashed in most of the tourist areas.

Tipping
Tipping is not common practice is Laos and will not be expected of you. However, generosity will always be appreciated, especially as the average salary is very low.

Festivals and Holidays in Laos

Festivals and Holidays in Laos
Festivals and Holidays in Laos
Festivals and Holidays in Laos
Click on a picture to see more images by the photographer. (Some pictures do not have links.)

Bun Pha Wet

Celebrated at the end of December or early January, this festival marks the birth of Prince Vestsantara, the last Buddha to walk the earth. A large number of men enter monkhood during this period and it is a good time for families to get together.

Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year
This three day festival takes place in March and is marked with fireworks, loud street parties and visits to the local Vietnamese and Chinese temples.

Boun Pimai
Visitors arriving in the middle of April will witness one of Laos’ most lively festivals, held over three days to celebrate Lao New Year. This is the hottest part of the year and during Boun Pimai people soak each other in the streets with water guns, hosepipes and buckets of water to cool down a little. Luang Prabang is a great place to experience this festival as there are parades through the streets and the residents party long into the night.

Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival)
Not to be missed, the rocket festival is a Buddhist rain-making festival where huge bamboo rockets are built and decorated by monks. The rockets are carried in procession and then launched into the sky. There is much singing and dancing during this festival and the atmosphere is highly charged.


Visakha-Busaa

Celebrated on the 15th day of the 6th lunar month, this festival marks the days of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. Activities focus around the country’s temples and there are pretty candlelit processions in the evening.

Khao Phansaa
This festival marks the start of Buddhist Lent, when the monks must retreat to their monasteries and commence a period of fasting. Many men become monks for a short time during Khao Phansaa, which lasts from June or July until October.

Boun Ok Phansaa
The end of the rainy season is celebrated with huge boat races along the Mekong River. Smaller boats are decorated and paraded through the town before being floated on the river.

Awk Phansaa
As the monks emerge from their monasteries once more people gather to greet them and present the spiritual guides with gifts such as robes, alms bowls and candles. Small banana-leaf boats containing candles, and incense are floated on the rivers and other waterways.

That Luang Festival
Taking place at That Luang in Vientiane, people travel from all over the country to witness the hundreds of monks, who gather to receive alms early in the morning. This festival lasts for a week and features a vibrant procession between Wat Si Muang and Pha That Luang. As well as music, dancing, chanting and delicious food.

Lao National Day
December 2nd is the day to commemorate the 1975 victory of the proletariat over the monarchy. There are parades through the streets, speeches and mass flying of the communist hammer-and-sickle flag.