6 Favorite Cafes of Southeast Asia

Although we had some delicious meals, sometimes the atmosphere was more noteworthy than the food. Other times, a calming cafe can be the perfect thing to break up the monotony of a long journey or offer a break from the hustle of a big city.

Here are our 6 favorite cafes that we visited in Southeast Asia.

1- Cong Caphe

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Where: Hanoi, Vietnam
Why: This eclectic cafe was beautiful in an mysterious way. Kind of like the way I feel about colonial architecture: it’s stunning and picturesque, but I just can’t shake the image of British soldiers beating Indians, for example. In this post I describe Cong Caphe as “uncomfortable grey area between historical knowledge and a Saturday Night Live sketch.” If that doesn’t ward you a visit, I don’t know what would.

2- Unknown cafe

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This is what it looks like on the outside! GO!

Where: Hue, Vietam
Why: Right after visiting Hue’s famed Imperial City, we stopped in this cafe for some refuge from the irritating mist (not quite raining, yet moisture isn’t letting you be). This cafe was our favorite not for the decor, but for two very important reasons: 1) A little nugget who gives gifts, and 2) insanely good lemon ginger tea. I don’t care about the cockroaches; there was no tea that compared to its crispness. Maybe they put MSG in it? Wait, is that insensitive?

The staff was open, friendly and accomodating, even given the language barrier. It was a stark contrast to the never-ending requests we got for us to buy someone’s product or take a cyclo ride. It was on par with being asked to ride a boat in Hoi An.

3- Sister Srey

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It was from an Iphone, okay?

Where: Siem Reap, Cambodia 
Why: One day there will be a post without a mention of Sister Srey. We certainly couldn’t get enough of it when it was in our vicinity and now that I have free reign to write about whatever I want I certainly can’t stop talking about it.

Everything about this cafe (minus my doubts about the productiveness of training cafes) was perfection. The owners were present and clearly had excellent relationships with their staff. They were supportive and encouraging, and I loved seeing them interact. The food was spectacular, and the people watching was on point. Sitting at one of their picnic tables in the open air cafe, my sister and I watched street vendors, tourists, locals, motorbikes, bicycles, cars, and animals go past. It was the perfect place to write in a journal or just *be.*

4- I.D. Cafe

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Who can resist this floor-stool-wall combination? A designer’s dream! Not that I would know. I’m not a designer.

Where: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 
Why: When I got a look at those floors, I knew I was going to enjoy my drink. At this cafe, instead of my usual tea or latte, I jumped at a chance to try a local brewery’s beer. I had Pasteur Street Brewing Company‘s Jasmine IPA. Since I’m not beer expert I’m not going to describe it for you, but I will vouch for it and say it was delicious. We sat on the top level in a wide, open room with the windows open. We felt the breeze and could hear snippets of life below on the street.

5- Sip & Chew

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Where: Phnom Penh, Cambodia 
Why: Jennifer and I were greeted here by the very attentive and friendly staff. The bright atmosphere was calming. We sat at a table by the window and looked out onto the Tonle Sap river. We watched people pass, noticed the diversity of tourists and locals and watched the sunset. The green tea flavored cream puffs pictured above were delicious as well. This was a perfect cafe to reflect and digest our surroundings.

6- Cafe d’tist

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Jennifer and I ate breakfast with our lovely friend Patrick.

Where: Pai, Thailand
Why: Although Pai was a relaxing town on its own, Cafe d’tist was an exceptionally calming place. Pictured above, Jennifer, our friend Patrick and I sat in a bungalow and savored a yummy brunch. It was cool, breezy and had a fresh scent. The wifi here was of exceptional quality and the coffee sharp. There was soft music that was low enough to create a mood and high enough to eliminate the silence. Their sugar packets had inspiration phrases on them (see one of them in this post).

This is how I feel when I’m so happy to eat food or drinks from one of these delicious cafes.

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FEED ME, FEEEEED MEEEEH

Featured photo: Happiness on the streets of Hanoi. 

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Sugar Packets From Around The World

Wouldn’t the featured photo be even more fun if I hadn’t have had to post the collage with the watermark? In case you’re wondering, I uploaded my photos to http://www.photovisi.com, and was too cheap to pay $2.30 for the one without it the watermark. This is not even meant to be an advertisement.

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Different hot beverages from around the world. From top to bottom, left to right:  [First row] Vietnamese coffee in Hanoi, Iraqi mint tea in Phnom Penh, classic earl gray in Pai, Thailand, [second row] latte and jasmine tea in Chiang Mai, Thailand, latte and green tea puffs in Phnom Penh, milk and honey in Istanbul, [third row] churros and hot chocolate in Zaragoza, Spain, Turkish tea street art in Istanbul, and a matcha latte in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
If the featured photo is an testament to the way I enjoy traveling, its that I ingest a variety of hot liquids in all of the places I visit. I love lattes, teas, matcha, hot chocolate and even hot milk and honey.

While many of these drinks are sweet enough on their own, others require extra sugar. And I’m not shy to make it as sweet as possible. With the frequency with which I visit cafes, this means I’ve seen a lot of sugar packets.

Some caught my attention for being crafty and colorful; others might have been considered boring had it not been for the allure of another non-Latin script.

Some of the photos below were taken quickly on my IPhone, sometimes as an afterthought. Please excuse the low quality.

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Seville, Spain. The packet reads: “Smile, life is happy, enjoy it.”

I have a friend who posts inspiring, short Facebook statuses. I once told him that I really appreciated them. When I scroll through my newsfeed, they are micro-reminders to relax, collect yourself and to be kind to others. Sugar packets with reminders, like one above, serve the same purpose. Just like a good cup of tea, a short quote can bring you back down to earth.

The sugar featured below is from Cafe Louvre in Prague. I was visiting last January, and realized that would be the last time I traveled to a freezing place on purpose. I found comfort on the second floor of the elegant cafe. I sat alone at a table for two and indulged in a sweet sampler platter. My motto was “treat yo’self.” I sipped from my latte and dug my fork into red velvet and chocolate cake as I wrote in my journal.

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Prague, Czech Republic

I didn’t realize the religious undertones (it does say “God”…) of the quote found on the sugar packet below, but here is an explanation. The takeaway? See opportunity in difficult circumstances instead of a failure.

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Pai, Thailand

Sometimes, it’s just sugar. Nothing fancy.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cups are red. So is liquid.

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Laos

Sassy Susan getting her morning brew.

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Camino de Santiago, Spain

Underwater themed! With bubbles and butterflies…

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Thailand

Hmmm…..

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Portugal

Sassy Susan also makes desserts…

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Portugal

“Love life, love food, love nature…”

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Thailand

Hearts and sugar.

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Portugal

Yes, you, sugar, you inspire my life…

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Portugal

More red!

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Laos

Palm trees and pirates = sugar.

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Florence, Italy

7 Best Meals of Southeast Asia

Because normally humans eat at least three times a day (and we often eat more than that), we ended up trying a lot of different foods. We’re not Andrew Zimmern, but I’d argue we’re much more adventurous than your average twenty something North American “white girl.” We’re no experts, but we are hungry girls with a food blogger mother (see her blogs Yates Yummies and Oranges and Almonds) and lots of appetite.

Sadly, there aren’t many things that bring us as much happiness as a satisfying meal, and Southeast Asia had a lot of hits and misses for us. Towering highs and plummeting lows. Look at our 7 best meals of Southeast Asia, and please, do yourself a favor and visit the restaurants we ate them at. Don’t succumb to the pressures of a gag-inducing pho with a side of dripping spring rolls in a corner cafe in Hanoi. You’ll never forget the stain of red grease on your fingertips.

In case you’re dying to know, although we have a love affair with sticky rice with mango, it’s not included on this list because that’s technically a dessert. TBD, To be debated…

1 – Pad Thai

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Photo credit: Jennifer Yates

Establishment: Thip Samai 
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Why: Just go ahead and ignore the haters on trip advisor who call this establishment “overrated.” You’ve clearly never had to spend years getting the closest thing to Pad Thai you could at Noodles and Co. Paired excellently with fresh orange juice and lots of hot sauce. Fresh off the plane, we inhaled the pad thai and slept like babies afterward.

 

 

 

 

2- Hotpot

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My sister, Colin, and Toni digging into the hotpot.

Establishment: Bun Dau Mo
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Why: Hot, fresh and delicious, this chicken hotpot made for a lengthy and relaxing lunch. The garlic, lemongrass, chilies and fish sauce all made for an incredibly flavorful experience.

 

3- Fresh and Fried Spring Rolls

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Photo credit: Jennifer Yates

Establishment: Góc Hà Nôi
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Why: This bright and cheery cafe in Hanoi had friendly staff and excellent service. The fried spring rolls were accompanied by a spicy dill dipping sauce and the fresh spring rolls had colorful rice paper. Although we didn’t order a huge quantity of food, we were quickly full.

4- Everything at Sister Srey

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Detox salad and bowl of goodness at Sister Srey.

Establishment: Sister Srey
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Why: Even though I discuss the ethical complications of being a patron at a training restaurant in this post, their food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Because we visited the restaurant so many times, we tried many dishes. Their “bowl of goodness,” filled with hummus, falafel and tabouli, mango chicken burger, and the detox salads were exceptionally delicious. Being there was also a pleasant experience. The staff was funny, friendly and inviting.

5- Chicken Shawarma

Establishment: Taste of the Middle East
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Why: I sadly didn’t get a picture of this dish, but you may remember this experience in this post about encountering refugees while being a privileged traveler. The welcoming Iraqi family invited us into their home and served us, with kindness, some of the best shawarma. It was exactly what we needed in that moment…when rice and noodles are just too much.

6- Laotian sampler plate

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Tamarind wants people to try different types of Laotian food.

Establishment: Tamarind
Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
Why: Unlike avoiding Cambodian food in Cambodia, it was often difficult to find anything authentically Laos in the tourist areas of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Tamarind, a restaurant owned by an Australian-Laotian couple, prides itself on giving tourists education on Laotian cuisine and authentic food experience. We sampled fried, grilled, and fresh goodies pictured above. We ate sausage, stews, and lots of vegetables. It was spicy and satisfying.

7- Seafood and Entire Garlic Cloves

Establishment: Red Snapper
Location: Koh Lanta, Thailand
Why: Similar to the non-compliance of eating food native to place we were visiting we previously experienced in Cambodia, we suffered two bouts of food poisoning in Thailand and wanted something familiar. It took me a while to be able to eat red curry again. At Red Snapper, we sat next to the owner’s parents, two talkative and humorous Dutch folk. We ate giant shrimp, chorizo, and other tapa-style European favorites. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any photos of the excellent food. The food here was on the more expensive end, but well worth its price.

Noteworthy Bad Experiences

Because even though it’s important to focus on the positive, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. Read: learn from our “mistakes.”

1- Love Strawberry Pai

In Pai, Thailand, we visited this strawberry-themed restaurant. I ate strawberry fried rice, which was good but I expected something more than just fried rice with dried strawberries sprinkled on top. I defied all odds and ordered it against our waiters insistence on having every order the pad thai. On a side note, my sister got food poisoning from there. And guess who didn’t…(but still got it somewhere else…).

2- Dried Octopus

In Ho Chi Minh, we were peer pressured into eating dried octopus dipped in chili sauce. Watch us discuss it in the video below. You just chew and chew and chew and chew… sounds like the time my friend Kourtney ate kangaroo.

3- The Pineapple Incident

After a meal in Hue, Vietnam, described as dismal at best, we went a little “wild” you could say and sprung for a flaming pineapple. After watching them struggle to make the pineapple flame up (all employees were rushing in and out of the kitchen for 10 minutes. We were the only ones in the restaurant), a thick slice of limp, gooey pineapple was delivered to our table. It was not worth $5. The pushy owner of our hostel had pushed (yeah, pushy people push) us into eating there. The depressing weather, cold and the restaurant’s proximity to our hostel made it an easy (but regretful) decision.

What were the best meals you ate in Southeast Asia?

Featured Photo: Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Another great dish but didn’t make the cut. Photo credit: Jennifer Yates

Video: Transiting Around Asia

What did moving on bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, buses, and our own two feet look like? This short videos gives a look into what you see from the back a moving vehicle.

Videos taken in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Featured photo: My friend Colin on his motorbike in Hanoi, Vietnam. At that point I was too scared to film for fear of dropping my camera. That would have been great footage. 

When I Flew To Asia On A Hello Kitty Plane

I am about to fly to Australia with Emirates. You know, the airlines that uses Jennifer Aniston in their marketing? The one with showers on board? They have a reputation. But a lot to live up to. I’ve already had a magical flying experience.

I was taking EVA Air from Houston to Taipei before transfering to Bangkok. When I checked in in Houston, I looked at my ticket. “Is this Hello Kitty?” I asked the flight attendant.”Yes, you’ll be flying in our special Hello Kitty plane,” she replied.

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Excuse me? Is this the best day of my life? Have I always dreamed of this moment?

No, but it didn’t make it any less exciting.

I anxiously waited as the multitudes boarded the flight. I was one of the last ones on. I waited in a long line. Stopped in traffic, I had a great view of our festive plane. A woman burped loudly behind me as I took a picture.

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The flight attendants were announcing information as I found my seat. The one speaking at the time sounded strikingly similar to Marcel the Shell.

I sat in my seat. I was in a middle seat, squished between an elderly man to my left and middle-aged man to my right. I think they noticed me sending selfies to my friends and family.

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Had to do it. WELCOME !
I curled into their amazingly warm blankets. I put on my pink slippers. I watched Bollywood and Korean films and was fed on no less than five different occasions. The highlight was the red velvet cake with cream cheese icing.

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GIVE ME MORE
You may have already guessed I also frequented the bathroom. All pain from my bladder subsided as I walked into a pink wonderland of Hello Kitty mist, lotion, and soap, with Hello Kitty Dixie Cups and pink toilet paper.

If I had to take a 16 hour flight, I’m glad it was with you, Kitty.

 

 

Why Backpacking In Southeast Asia Isn’t “Hard”

Jennifer and I were frustrated. We were in Hoi An. It was around 10am and we still hadn’t figured out how we were going to get to Ho Chi Minh. Should we take a bus? Should we take a flight? Is train an option?

We decided to book a flight. We found a cheap one on Air Asia for that evening. We were all set. Except, the website wasn’t working. We were running late for a cooking class (shout out to Gioan!) We stopped by the front desk on our way out. “Is there anything you can do to help us?” we begged.

The woman at the front desk said, “No problem.” She got on the phone and spoke for a minute. She hung up and told us, “Someone will come by in a few hours with your tickets. He’s on his way to buy them at the airport now. You’ll get on, no problem.”

After the cooking class, we came back and picked up our tickets from the front desk. They had even arranged a private car for us to take us to the airport. We doubled checked around the area afterwards, and it was significantly cheaper than other companies, and much cheaper than a taxi.

These types of situations happened quite frequently. Each time, someone we knew or a hostel employee figured everything out for us. We asked one question and everything would be arranged. It was like someone snapped their fingers and had an army of minions to arrange anything and everything.

Compared to a backpacking trip I did in South America and travel around Europe, Southeast Asia was easy. Incredibly easy. It also had to do with the type of travel I did. I stayed in hostels. I didn’t venture out into cities and towns that were untouched. I followed the typical backpacker route.

I expected there to be a language barrier. There was and there wasn’t. No matter where we went, it was clear where things were. Even though I speak Spanish and traveled in common tourist areas, Latin America was more challenging. Maybe it’s changed since I’ve been there, but the backpacker has to arrange everything on her own. There’s a lot of logistical figuring out. In Southeast Asia, the hostel would have booked your tours and your bus tickets for you. Then they would have transported you to the bus stop or the tour. Anything you needed, if they couldn’t help you, they would call someone who could. It seemed like everything was just a phone call away. The hostel owner in Bangkok even drove me to the hospital in his own car when I got sick.

Wi-Fi was everywhere. My sister asked for the password constantly – and it became a running joke. We once stopped at a rode-side shack on a bus ride in Northern Thailand. When she asked for the Wi-Fi password, I almost burst out laughing. Then, the woman pointed to an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of white paper with “PASSWORD” written on it and a series of number. I couldn’t believe it. If you ever need to research anything, confirm the location of anything, check online reviews of a restaurant or a hostel, you can easily login to Wi-Fi and do it all.

Experiences like this lead me to make the argument: based on where I’ve been, Southeast Asia is one of the easiest places for a first-time backpacker. It’s an excellent place for someone who gets nervous about times, details, and arrangements. If you’re okay with letting someone else handle your schedule, you can go without plans and easily book them as you go.

Featured photo: Fish on Silom Soi 20 in Bangkok, Thailand. Travel seems to be even easier when you constantly have a full stomach.

But Don’t Play With Me…

…’Cause you’re playing with fire.

“It’s clear they’re really talented, but it’s still awful to watch,” Lance said. “It’s same same, but not different at all.” Lance, our “outrageous Kiwi/Aussie friend,” was referring to the nightly fire shows on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand (you met him in this post about Vodka and Paolo, Phi Phi beach dogs).

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“I’m so done with these fire shows.” -Vodka

What was once a way for Samoan warriors to demonstrate their strength, the fire performances made their way to the Thai islands and turned into a staple (free) activity for cringing tourists.  A German employee at Banana Bar told us that although many of them are Burmese, the performers are “like Thai celebrities.”

Rightfully so. Every night they suffocate in the overwhelming stench of gasoline and more likely than not get third degree burns- without flinching.

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“I can’t watch you guys do this.” -Cat on Phi Phi

They stand barefoot on the wooded platform and drip sweat for four hours. Meanwhile, drunk and overly confident tourists who jump into the mess for a free bucket end up suffering for weeks to come. Just read this article by a guy (a self-proclaimed “dumb-ass”) who weeks after the incident still had a “festering burn.”

What happens at a fire show?

Our first night staying at Stones Bar, we were lured in just like all the other tourists. From our dorm room we heard the DJ put on his set list (which was ‘same same’ every night, a YouTube mix of deep house) and scream, “ARE YOU READY, PHI PHI?” Our first fire show was just a few feet away. We walked out and sat on those plastic, orange lounge cushions with awkwardly placed headrests.

We watched as the long-haired boys dipped the ends of their sticks in gasoline and lit them on fire. Most can be described as scrawny but muscular. With tattoos and piercings, they have a kind of bad boy look to them. A confident, relaxed look. It’s like their eyes are saying “I’m playing with fire but I don’t give a f***.” They were spinning the sticks in circles, to the front and to the back, and eventually throwing them in the air only to see them fall on top of them.

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Imagine this, but in human form. Perhaps not so drastic.

Aside from around six adult performers, Stones bar boasts two miniature performers. Both of them look around five years of age. They are put on people’s shoulders, jump on peoples’ backs, and used to adorn a formation like a star on a Christmas tree. The older one is 11, and he won’t let you forget it. “How old are you?” Jennifer asked. “ELEVEN! ELEVEN!” he replied in a half scream, half hiss.  Just like Vodka, he attracts a parade of mainly (drunk) girls who try to give him a hug (#guilty) and ask him lots of questions. During the show, the other performers put the small children in charge of walking around with the tip bucket. I gave lots of cash.

The show was impressive. The performers are talented. Even the young ones have a hand-eye coordination I never will. But just like Lance mentioned, it was hard to watch. I could imagine the pain of the burns, the sweat and the exhaustion. I worried about another childhood lost for a local 11-year-old. My sister and I stayed for the first part of the show and left the beach to see live music in town.

The next night, we started in the same way as before. We got dressed, walked outside, grabbed a drink and watched the Stones Bar fire show. But soon after it started, we decided we had seen the exact same thing the night before (and would see the exact same show for days to come). Looking down the beach we noticed that several of the bars had fire shows.

This night, we came to find out that the further you go down the beach, the more professional and intricate the performances become. If the fire shows boys lived in the Midwest, the Stones Bar boys’ appearance would be described as “jail bait” and those at Ibiza Bar “wholesome.” At Ibiza the performers never dropped sticks and followed along to the music in choreographed steps. At 4Play they impressed the crowds by doing bodybuilding with weights on fire. There appeared to be a hierarchy and a clear physical difference in the performers. I had a lot of questions.

Who are the performers?

I wanted to know who were the performers, and why did they decide to pursue this profession? Was it the fame? The prestige? The celebrity status? The chance to drink every night? Why were there only male performers? (Although, I did see one female Western tourist performing at various bars. Go, girl!)

A British employee at Banana Bar said most Western female tourists get with them, or want to get with them. A lot of them have Western girlfriends. A Brazilian, who worked at a snorkeling tour company who claimed to give you weed along with your snorkeling equipment, didn’t have a high opinion of them. “They think they own the island,” he said as he shook his head. “They are assholes. They punch dudes if they try to get with a girl they are looking at.” Perhaps he was speaking from personal experience.

When I approached the performers before the show the next night, they weren’t intimidating at all. On the contrary, they were soft spoken. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Thai and their English language skills weren’t enough for us to discuss my pressing questions.

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My favorite performer. Cue cat emoji with heart eyes.

I wanted to sit down with them, but timing was difficult. The only time I found them was either right before the show when they were practicing, or at the end of the night when they were too drunk to form coherent sentences, let alone in English.

One night, after the music had been shut off, I was hanging out at the picnic tables at Stones Bar. I was just sitting and winding down when I was approached by a British tourist. He sat down on a tree stump next to me and put his arm on my back. “Take it off,” I said. He laughed and asked, “Do you want to go have sex with me?”

I rolled my eyes and told him he needed to leave. When he hesitated I stood up and turned around. I saw the performers sitting at the table behind me. Still annoyed by the British tourist, I walked up to them. “I want to talk to you but I don’t want to have sex with you!” I belted out.

One of men was kind enough to assure me we could just talk. He even answered a few questions as best as he could. Most of the performers at Stones are from the north of Thailand. They’re young –between 19-24 years-old- and only recently started. They start off training with the basic moves, then with determination graduated to be good enough to perform at one of the beach bars.

I still have lots of questions and very little answers. The next time I visit Phi Phi I’m planning a full ethnographic study. The gracious performers weren’t able to tell me everything I wanted to know, but one did confirm something I suspected.

“What do you guys do in the shows?” I wondered.

“It’s same same, all days.” He said. Like Lance said – same same, but not different at all.

Featured photo: One of the young kids on top of a fire pyramid. 

Want to see an interview with a performer? Watch this video filmed in Koh Tao by Jacques de Vos.