Food, one of the key happiness factors of living in Southeast Asia
"a way to a Expat's heart is through their stomach."
When choosing to move to a country to live in Asia, people often consider between moving to Thailand or moving to the Philippines. They are both unique in their own right.
When deciding between moving to Thailand or moving to the Philippines, we often look into some of the bigger issues between the two countries. The major pros and cons often include the following:
In this article, we will focus on food, taste buds, filling our tummy along with the joy of eating out.
Round 1 Knockout - Thailand is throwing 3 to 1 punches here
When it comes to food, Thailand is the leader by a near knockout and some would consider it a no contest. Here are some of the values linked to food when living as an Expat in Asia:
The food itself (does it taste good?)
Accessibility (is it easy to get the food that you like?)
Cost of Food (is the value worth it?)
Food was one of the major items that made it to my “Thailand is better than the Philippines” list. This in regards to living in Asia as an Expat and not related to them solely as a country. The Phillippines is awesome too, for many other reasons. This conclusion for me was based on my own needs and served two key requirements for living anywhere:
Fulfillment (are you happy living in Thailand or the Philippines?)
Function (are you able to work in Thailand or the Philippines?)
The concept of being or feeling fulfilled is purely reliant on you as a person. What are you looking for?
A person that is retiring to move to Thailand or the Philippines will be happier with other needs than say someone who is enjoying a unique experience away from their home country. A person that is looking to settle down and start a family in Asia is also going to be more fulfilled by different needs.
Since many Expats run their own business or work for themselves, the items on the function list will be dependent on the person but likely linked to networking, Internet connections, ease of access to equipment, offices or a strategy to complete their desired goals.
The Food itself
When I was living in the Philippines I practically adopted a new family there and they spent the better part of the first few weeks trying to convince me about how amazing the food was in the Philippines.
Sadly to say, I never grew to a belief that Filipino food was all that great. I did give it a solid dose of attempts.
My first choice was going to Manilla and then to the Greenbelt in Makati and picking a seemingly popular upper-class to a middle-class restaurant that focused on Filipino foods. I thought this would give me a great introduction by having quality chefs prepare popular Filipino dishes.
I didn’t want it to be too exquisite because then it wouldn't really give me an example of how I would be eating on a regular basis. So I chose what I felt to be closer to what I might eat out at a few times a week.
If you travel often, you already know it is not too hard to find a great restaurant via a travel guide and discover Filipino meals that are not only tasty but right for you too. However, when you are living somewhere, this can be very different.
Living in Thailand or the Philippines and vacationing in Asia have very different requirements.
So, back to the restaurant the busy part of Greenbelt in Makati...
...I ordered about 5 main courses and about 10 different items from the menu to test. I was also on a date with a local Filipino girl and received advice on what might be best for us to choose.
To sum it up, I didn’t like much and ended up using the coconut soup to cover up the tastes and get through the meals. I still remember thinking about how the coconut sauce or curry was like me taking what I enjoyed in Thailand to mask what I didn’t enjoy in the Philippines.
I imagine there are some people that love that type of dusty flavor that comes with many of the dishes, but for me, it was the opposite of what I enjoyed.
The Tilapia wasn’t too bad but I was never one for eating too much fish (especially farmed fish) though I traveled in Holland and Germany testing out Salmon to my delight. I prefer my fish without a face and in Asia, seeing faces of Seafood on a table is quite normal.
It’s important to note that when you are getting fish, you want it to be from a natural environment if possible. This means that a fish that is farmed and fed only God knows what will not produce a quality meal.
The next larger attempt was a week or so later with my surrogate family and friends who took me to a popular outside location for traditional “local” foods. This is where you see the hoof of the animals and can have the soups and meats that Filipinos crave.
Again, I was happy to go and enjoy the time with friends (huge points in fulfillment there for the Philippines when it comes to feeling like family), but the meals were not working their magic as my friends had hoped.
This quest to experience the culinary treats of the Philippines extended into various restaurants and malls, hotels and group events. In the end, I just never felt that this was a place for amazing food. It wasn’t bad food, it just wasn’t my taste.
I made most of my meals at home and still find it odd that while at midnight I was perhaps craving a snack like pizza, fries or a good burger, my friends were craving Balut (pronounced BAH-loot) which is a developing bird embryo (usually a duck or chicken) that is boiled and eaten from the shell.
As an American, hearing that someone enjoys crunching down on a bird's beak was quite disgusting. It was shared in all good fun with some teasing and smiles.
It was funny too because I remember that though they craved this as an almost dessert, we had to eat these as part of a Black Belt TEST in our old-school martial arts training.
Looking back at that challenge now and how silly it must seem to Filipinos, it doesn’t have the same feeling of accomplishment.
Even after trying many foods, places, and types of meals, my friends still believed that I wasn’t normal to not have fallen in love with Filipino food.
Remember, I had also lived previously in Thailand and so the debate ended when I explained how many Thai restaurants there were in comparison to Filipino restaurants around the world. Granted, this could have a lot to do with issues related to where Filipinos go, but it appears more people are looking for Thai takeout than they are craving Filipino foods.
In addition to some of the above thoughts, many people can list off various Thai meals while fewer can name some of the popular Filipino meals.
Pad Thai (Rice Noodles)
Som Tum (Papaya Salad)
Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Prawn Soup)
And my two favorites:
- Tom Kha Kai (Chicken Coconut Soup)
Kai Med Ma Muang (cashew chicken)
I love Thai food and I also don’t eat spicily. But there is enough variety for me to feel quite pleased in the eating department. For those that love spicy foods then Thailand usually ranks pretty high with them.
So it is probably obvious at this point that I feel that Thailand serves up a better meal when it comes to comparing the two countries by food. Again, these thoughts are based on my personal taste, so let’s also consider how Thailand serves up a better deal too.
Cost of meals in Thailand
As odd as it may seem, eating in the Philippines is not cheap. So many people eat processed foods as the prices for eating out are just not going to please your pocketbook. That is unless you just came from London.
Also, take into consideration that you will be tipping in Thai Baht (I always tip in Thailand for every meal, haircut or service based business). Usually, a tip is about 20 baht for a basic lunch meal and I always leave the change.
When you are living in Thailand this can seem like a lot but it’s less than $1 and in the United States, we (most people) don’t tip less than $5 a meal when dining in a restaurant. Europeans are more accustomed to not tipping.
But not only that, you can eat in an air-conditioned restaurant for half of what you pay in the U.S.
When I first moved to Chiang Mai Thailand (over 5 years ago) I could order room service in my serviced apartment for as little as $1 or enjoy it in their restaurant for the same price. It would include a main dish like chicken and a side of rice with some vegetables.
If you are good at your research, you can find a quality serviced apartment that offers buffet breakfast as part of your monthly rental rate. In Thailand, you can easily find a quality hotel that has breakfast for around $50 a night. In Manila, $50 got me a crappy room at the green-belt and I had to jump up to about $140 a night to get something comparable to what I was used to in Thailand.
When you consider that you can live in a serviced apartment (a hotel with a small kitchen) for about $1,200 a month and it includes a buffet breakfast, the value goes up in relation to living in Thailand. This is because those meals are there and ready for you every morning.
Accessibility (is it easy to get the food that you like?)
Food just seems to be almost everywhere. When I lived in Pai Thailand there were chilis growing along the path up to the main house of where I stayed. In Ko Samui, I had a banana tree, lemongrass, and papaya all in the yard outside. Basil was easily found on walks too.
In Bangkok Thailand, you can get decent food literally on the streets (it is one of the few countries that is famous for it) and this is all at a price that is fair to Thais that live on a low salary.
And the Thai market (looks like a swap meet or a kind of flea market of sorts) is always a short walk away to buy what many would consider being a feast. Most places you can eat there for local foods or buy a variety and take home.
I was lucky enough to have Thai friends to show me how to buy a variety of foods and set up a table that everyone would pick from - it was like having our own buffet. When shopping at the market, your meals will be close to what you pay at a restaurant only you will have about three times more food.
And of course, you can also just shop for groceries and get a large variety of vegetables. Thailand seems to have been designed with the Expat in mind while in the Philippines it is struggling to be its own version of a location similar to the U.S. or Europe. This is especially true when you consider architecture or even renting (leasing a house).
Access to food at almost anytime time of the day (places like McDonald's even deliver in the evenings). In America, places like McDonalds and KFC do not deliver. We have to rely on 3rd party companies that are taking over the food delivery market (like Uber Eats, Postmates, GrubHub etc.).
Though I eat a rather serious low-carb diet (and often on a Ketogenic no sugar diet), having a plethora of options in Thailand supported my needs and was there when I wanted a cheat day.
Easy access to food can make your long-term living situation much more comfortable. Those that list food as high on their fulfillment list in terms of value will find that Thailand serves this need with flying colors.
It has been said that variety is the spice of life and I would have to say that when it comes to Thailand and food - it fits the bill.