Digital Nomad Tips – Eat better with the locals for less

This is part of my Digital Freedoms series where I share my experience of providing client website service to fund a free living Digital nomad lifestyle.  In this one I’m talking about eating out as a nomad.

Tourist to nomad

I took holidays (vacations) in many places I now regularly visit as a nomad.  As a tourist I loved that I could try the local food, but also find my regular western dishes. I loved that prices were so reasonable even though I always seemed to overspend.

When I first became a digital nomad nothing much changed. I ate like I was holidaying. The money was coming in so why not?  Eventually I began thinking about the freedom we actually had. How long would our savings last if we had no further income.  How much would I have to compromise with the work I took?

We knew we were not eating as cheaply as we could. We were around too many other westerners but:

  • Were we keeping up our standards or being wasteful?
  • Now this was daily should we only rent fully equipped apartments and cook more.
  • Would the shopping and cooking time be worth it?

The best answer we came up with was follow the locals.  We moved away from the tourist hangouts and started finding out what, where and when the locals ate.  It’s became our default way to learn a new place.

Typically, in the west we hit the supermarkets and cook more. In Asian where (every 10th household is a makeshift restaurant or takeaway) we stay in rooms and go on eating out explorations.

Open for 2 hours. 3 or 4 choices of dishes on rice with soup $1 in Da Nang

Feel the fear and say bollocks to that

Comfort zone
I’ll happily dive in to the unknown when I need to change my life, but day to day I tend to stick with the familiar. My wife is not like that. She’ll happily walk in to back street restaurants where nothing is in English and where the food and even process to getting food is completely alien.

Social etiquette doesn’t get in her way.  They’re selling and we will help if they want our business. It’s a great attitude and I have now adopted it.  The worst that can happen is we will amuse the locals and end up with something we don’t like. Not really a problem as we go in with a sense of humor and the meals that went wrong are usually to most memorable learning experience.

Food safety.
I was a chef so I try not to look too hard at food handling practices in Asia. Of course I started worrying about things like Dehli belly, but not now. I’ve had food poising 3 times in my life. Once in the UK, once in a 5 star hotel and the other a mystery.  Maybe I have toughened up, but its not had a problem with place. UK health authorities would shut down instantly.

Recently we were in Delhi and ate at a known place for fine dining (ie. everything 5 times the usual price).  They started by offering us a Delhi street food taster which they said was not safe to eat outside so they make their own version.  Two of us had a dodgy stomach after.

As a westerner I have been exposed to a lifetime of processed swill doctored and package for mass consumption. I started travelling with a desire for pasta, pizza, burger and fries. That kind of commercialized  low nutrition food is an easy and recognizable fallback, but it’s such a poor deal.

In much of the East you can see that restaurants have developed out of a need to sharing cooking duties with the community. It’s not so much of a treat for those with disposal income, but part of the families regular diet. The food is fresh, balanced and sourced locally.

I gain weight in UK within no time and lose it in Asia even though I indulge daily in the local sweet dishes.


Kem Bo – Vietnamese Coconut Ice cream and Avocado (2 for a dollar)

I used to hate anything with lemongrass which limited dishes in Thailand. I used to not be able to think of anything with spice in the morning limiting the Indian breakfasts available. To my surprise my preferences have adjusted  considerable to my surrounding and this certainly has freed me up. The downside is I think I have a serious chili addiction.

Everything for a dollar!

This is a little exaggerated, but certainly in SE Asia there are still plenty of places where you get good healthy meal for a dollar. Of course much will depend on area, but to finish I though I should share just a few things we learned to do when eating out in Asia.

Stalking the workers
Places like Pattaya or Phuket where everything is built around tourism. The prices appear to be 2-4 times the amount charged in residential area of Chaing Mai. Luckily migrant hotel, shop and  bar worker eat out. Its just a case of finding out where they go.

Cold food
In the Philippines we were struggling to find cheap eats in the tourist places as we were little time in any one place. What we did see lots of locals houses with cooked food on trays for sale. The food was cold or at best luke warm and locals appeared mostly to be buying as takeaway food. Eventually we realize that you could eat in. They put the food on piping hot rice surprisingly is very effective at heating up the food. Additional you are usually served with a bowl of hot broth and salad.

$1 food in Thailand, Comes with soup.

Watch the clock
We visited Vietnam 4 times and never quite felt we found our regular daily food places. Finally after 2 months in Da Nang we realized our timing was all wrong.  Many locals are up at 5 am exercising on the beach. There are a whole bunch of restaurants serving hearty breakfast (such as Bo Kho – a filling beef stew) only until 10 am.
In the evening there are another bunch of places offering a diverse range of dishes where you can pick a few to have with rice. They open up at around 6.30 pm and are closed by 8pm. It is just the same as we saw in the Philippines and Thailand just here the opening times were short.

Vietnamese breakfast – Bo Kho

Check out the local food markets or food halls
If you are not intending to cook you probably will not think to look at local food markets, but some can be more like food halls. We had a fabulous time in the one close to us in Da Nang.  We had to just jump in as no English was spoken and nothing was quite clear about what to select and how to eat the food, but someone would help. Being something of a novelty in these places we got warmer welcomes that we ever would by the tourist industry.

On the whole we don’t look out for food halls, there are a couple of exceptions we found:

  1.  Singapore. It can be expensive but has a lot of cheap food halls. If you see a busy stall serving people quickly, and no prices shown, the chances are it’s the cheapest place around.
  2. Suvarnabhumi airport food court Bangkok.  I hate being hungry at airports. It irks me to pay over the top for rubbish food. Then we found this. Good food, normal prices, busy but largely unknown beyond the airport staff. There is one in the other Bangkok airport Don Muang.  Perhaps there are many more about?

Blowing our saving

Over the last 8 years in Asia we have found that for daily eating price is not a measure of quality. Small family businesses or popular places with locals tend to be far better then tourist restaurant with 100’s of items on the menus. It probably saved us a small fortune and makes us feel more secure about how long our saving could last.

The best thing though for me is that we feel we can regularly justify a good blow on a seafood, steak or hotel buffet. There’s no shortage of fabulous deals.

Grand View Hotel Buffet – Chang Mai. $5

Over to you. What has been your eating out travel experience?

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I build websites at WP Corner Shop and travel. I also co-host a weekly WordPress podcast called WP Builds and make YouTube videos.

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