9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia by Lauren Riley


My relationship with coffee is (brewed) strong. I’ve been drinking it nearly every morning since I was a freshman in college, and for me it’s become as much about the ritual of starting my morning off on the right foot as it is about the obvious caffeine rush I crave.


More from Lauren: What Happens When You Quit Your Job to Travel


As a black coffee drinker who enjoys the occasional latte, cappuccino, or americano (no sugar, please), all the sweet coffee of Southeast Asia wasn’t my first choice – in the beginning. But here there is no shortage of condensed milk and instant coffee, so rather than kick my coffee habit (with $1 coffee pretty much everywhere, that wasn’t going to happen), I was forced to put my pinky down and take a sip.


Yup, I discovered what Starbucks lovers have known for years: caffeine and sugar in any form might just be the best combination since backpackers and bar crawls. Hostels and free breakfasts. Ryan Gosling and feminism. Political campaigns and SNL. Drinks on a plane. Steph Curry and three-pointers. In short, it was always meant to be, and Asia knows it.


Here are some of my findings from 2 months on a backpacker’s budget and an unstoppable coffee addiction in SEA (and some things I missed that you shouldn’t)!


Vietnamese Egg Coffee

I have not a clue where the coffee itself is in the Vietnamese egg coffee, all I know is that I don’t know what I’ve been doing all my life without it. Espresso and egg yolk are whipped with condensed milk into a thick froth in this mind-blowing indulgent drink. Entirely a hazelnut and cream flavored dessert with a little bitter taste of espresso at the end, it’s basically tiramisu in a cup. The recipe was created in the 1940s to compensate for a shortage of milk for coffee. I had to watch the Vietnamese woman next to me to make sure I drank it correctly, and she spent a lot of time stirring the espresso at the bottom in before she went ahead the spoon to scoop the froth.


In my caffeinated sugar rush I can only sum up: Must. Try. Must. Bring. Recipe. Home.


9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia
Photo by Lauren Riley


Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Apparently, Vietnam doesn’t stop there with their interesting coffee combinations. Yogurt coffee is another staple, thanks again to the milk shortage and introduction of yogurt during the French colonization. It’s definitely another way to take cream with your coffee, and I’m dying to try this match next time around (though I might not wait and instead try at home!?)


Vietnamese Black Coffee

If it’s done right, it’s just the best thing ever. The grounds are packed in a tin with hot water poured over the top for the (very) slow drip. It’s usually served strong in small amounts, like an espresso, over (you guessed it) condensed milk. You might want to embrace the sweet, because even black coffee is served with sugar (though you can always ask for less).


However, not all ca phe is created equal. Be careful, because the dark black color does not always identify strength of coffee. On the contrary, cheaper beans are harvested prematurely and lack the shiny black color of ripe beans. As a result, it’s rumored (and apparently also in Cambodia) that the grounds are “dyed” by being roasted with – wait for it – fish sauce to recreate the color and luster of better beans. I experienced both really rich cups and some overpowered by saltiness, which confirmed the hearsay for me. As a backpacker, you win some, you lose some – and when you’re paying 25,000 dong (about $1) for your morning wake up call, you still win in one way.


9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia
Photo by Lauren Riley


By the Way…

The northern city of Hanoi is full of urban-industrial style cafes and sidewalks lined with mini tables and chairs. Here, v v trendy Hanoians sit outside in all black outfits and dyed hair to sip egg coffees and people watch. Coffee seekers can’t miss out on the cafe culture here. The streets around Olive Hanoi Hostel are perfect to wander, or check out Trieu Viet Vuong (“Coffee Street”) in the Hai Ba Trung District. Peacoats and platform shoes optional, but preferred.


Laotian Coffee Smoothie

It’s exactly what it sounds like, if it sounds like heaven to you. You can find them at fruit stands in Luang Prabang and the riverside town of Vang Vieng in Laos. You’ll be able to blend with chocolate, Oreo, and fruits, but blended with banana was a personal favorite. The only downside might be that they aren’t super caffeinated, so if you’re looking for a jolt, stick with black coffee. It’ll be strong and unsweetened if you order without milk!


Balinese Coffee

And the award goes to…ground beans on Bali. You can’t really go wrong with them, and I enjoyed cheap cups for $0.35-$0.75 almost every morning because of it. Sweetened or black, the wet climate and high altitude plantations where the beans are grown produce coffee that won’t disappoint.


I know, I know, how could I have missed…

Poop coffee (kopi luwak) is the most expensive coffee in the world. It’s well known that the coffee made from the beans found in the poop of civets (cat-like weasels) is a highly-recommended novelty in Bali. Blame it on not feeling well on our day in Ubud, I wasn’t able to try it myself, but I’ve heard nothing but amazing reviews from fellow coffee lovers. You could find a cup anywhere between $3-$12 in Bali, whereas you might be paying closer to $25 in western countries. You can enjoy it at the recommended Munduk Moding Coffee Plantation, an ethical coffee plantation in North Bali. I’ll be here, pretending I’m not envious.


Thai Iced Coffee

Don’t even think about worrying where you’re going to get your coffee fix in Thailand! By now you can guess, Thai iced coffee consists of great coffee sweetened with condensed milk that you can conveniently find throughout The Land of Smiles (the nickname must have something to do with all the caffeine). Pai is the up-and-coming spot for coffee growers and lovers alike.


9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia
Photo by Lauren Riley


More than that, the coffee experience here is about the cafes themselves. Chiang Mai alone is home to countless re-purposed, hipster-haven, industrial cafes whose ambiance alone makes you want to quit your job, put gages in your ears, and commit your life to that of a bAriStA (pinky back up). There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said (in words or pictures) in comprehensive posts like this one. Food porn lovers, feast your eyes.


9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia
Photo by Lauren Riley


When in SEA…

You’ll also see White Koffee advertised though much of Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. Powered, sweet, artificially creamed, it’s comparable to hot chocolate with coffee, or a Southeast Asian Starbucks Vanilla Latte, if you will. When it comes to choosing instant coffee at coffee stands, it’s a popular choice I’d recommend.


What should I bring home?

There’s plenty of tea and coffee blends that you can opt to take with you — but is it worth it? As my friend, who’s recently been to Indonesia, puts it, “I purchased regular coffee, poop coffee, and lemongrass tea and haven’t had any in the last 9 months (since) I’ve been home. It’s not the same having it here. I think it may ruin what I remember it was like in Bali.”


For those of you who are afraid of purchase fomo – it’s best to enjoy it abroad while you can. Get it while it’s hot (or iced, of course)!


9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia
Truer words have never been spoken… – Photo by Lauren Riley
9 Ways to Enjoy Coffee in Southeast Asia --- The Borderless Project
Local Cafe near Maya Mall – Photo by Lauren Riley


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