Southeast Asia: The Challenges Of Ordering Food

On our first day in Bangkok, my sister, Jennifer, and I discovered what would the biggest challenge traveling through this region. It’s not confusion of bus times, respecting customs or avoiding scams. It is complication of food orders at eateries.

In this post I’ll explain the main issues we’ve had at restaurants and tips on how to avoid them.

Unlike European hostels, the ones we have stayed at so far in Southeast Asia do not have kitchens. This means that cooking is much more of a far-fetched reality and instead, we eat mostly all of our meals “out.”

“Out” doesn’t have to be expensive – most street food meals have never amounted to more than $2 USD. (Eating street food has been a fairly smooth and dilemma-free process) Therefore, once and a while we like to splurge at a restaurant. Particularly on a hot and sweaty afternoon, air conditioning and wifi are gifts from above.

It goes without saying that we are eternally grateful for the unnecessary willingness for locals to learn English and speak it with us. Even when I try to use a few basic words of Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer or Lao, the main content of the conversation -ordering the meal- is in English.

Which leads me to question whether the following confusions we’ve had are due to our language or our way of ordering food, or both.
It has been really frustrating (and makes us feel rude and annoying!) to explain to someone who is kindly speaking my native language, but with really basic capabilities, that “we don’t want to be rude but we just want to know if you understood the order and put in for the spring rolls we asked for, because we’ve gotten our main dish and they still haven’t come, so we were just wondering…”

How do you explain this? How do you maintain a calm encounter while potentially loosing face?

Below are some of the problems and my opinion on how to remedy them:

  • Food That Never Comes

The issue: In several of the restaurants, we’ve ordered dishes that just never came. Sometimes, we’re too full on part of the meal to care. Other times, we’d rather know if it’s coming than fill up on one thing. While eating with a Colin, friend and resident of Hanoi (you met him already in this post), Vietnam, at Choén he ordered a hotpot in Vietnamese, but it never came. Luckily we didn’t want it anymore. Similarly, we were eating in Vang Vieng and ordered spring rolls. Jennifer even pointed to them on the menu. Never showed. In Bangkok, we ate at the delicious Roti-Mataba. Jennifer ordered two roti desserts but only one came. When we got the bill, we were charged for two. That’s difficult to explain.

How to avoid it
: Have the waiter/waitress repeat your order back to you. If something seems to be taking too long, you can kindly ask the server if it is coming. If something you didn’t get shows up on the bill, patiently try to explain you never got it.

  • Food & Drink Name Confusions 

The issue: Most likely due to my lack of language skills and locals’ limited English, many confusions arose. In a fancier restaurant in Phnom Penh, I wanted to know if at 12:00pm we were still serving breakfast. The waiter misunderstood and thought I was asking for “fried fish.” After several attempts to rectify the miscommunication I gave up and ordered fried rice. In Luang Prabang, I thought I ordered a mixed fruit smoothie, but when a massive bowl of fruit with yogurt and museli arrived at the table, I saw where I went wrong (in hindsight I realized where I should have known. I thought she asked if I wanted sugar and I said “a little” – that’s why only a little yogurt was drizzled on the fruit. She had asked if I wanted yogurt!).
In another incident, I asked a waitress at Ganesh in Hoi An for a big bottle of water and she just stared at me. The water never came, and I think it is because she didn’t understand what I wanted and was afraid or annoyed to ask me again.
At the same restaurant, Jennifer ordered red wine and when white wine was brought to the table the waitress continued to insist that she was right and Jennifer had ordered the wrong thing. She even went so far as to bring out a picture of white wine, point to it and say, “See! This is what you order!”

How to avoid
: Do your best to point to pictures of the food if available, or to the dish on a menu where it is written near its translation. Try to learn the words to basic things that you’ll order frequently, and don’t be afraid at ask clarifying questions.

Other tips to avoid unnecessary drama:

  • Have one person at your table collect the orders of the group and say it to the waiter or waitress
  • Make sure you order what you want, or once you order something, don’t change or mind
  • Be as patient and kind as possible- especially if you are speaking in English

Have you had difficulties in ordering at a restaurant while traveling? What have you done to avoid them?

Top photo: Excellent meal at Tamarind in Luang Prabang, Laos. No issues there!


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