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The Wonders of Coffee and Travel

It’s not secret that I love coffee. Or maybe it’s that I constantly need coffee. Either way, I seek out plenty of it when I travel, sometimes with more success than at other times. Most of the time, I make my morning cup at home, even when on the road. Coffee and travel go hand in hand–it’s what fuels my adventures.

There were times I had to find a cafe in Hanoi when the Wi-Fi or electricity cut out at my hotel in the Old Quarter and I had to find a quick place to work until service was restored. It was the first time I got to try egg coffee–a thick, sweet specialty coffee drink of Vietnam. It was good, but too sweet for me.

egg coffee vietnam

Egg coffee in Hanoi

While traveling through East and Southeast Asia, coffee is nearly everywhere. Even here in Taiwan there’s a great coffee culture–I can get a cheap cup at a to-go shop or a fancy cup at a trendy cafe, and the prices vary widely. It was similar during my stay in Seoul, though Korea seems to prefer the higher-end coffee shops. Seoul also holds the title of most Starbucks for a city, not to mention the dozens of other local/regional chains and independent shops. Tokyo’s culture is closer to Seoul, but with fewer reasonably-priced options.

Taiwan has some good coffee

I learned not too long ago that Taiwan grows a fair amount of coffee, but it’s difficult to find. There are specialty shops and some vendors in touristy areas, but the coffee is not sold in most grocery stores. Even at the airport, I have seen locally-grown kopi luwak (civet coffee), but I have never seen it anywhere else.

One of the few highlights of my trip to Tainan was drinking a cup of Alishan coffee from a vendor at Sword-lion Square, which is a small touristy shop area. The coffee helped relieve the stress of almost getting run over by cars and motorbikes at every street crossing. And as the coffee was take-out only, it was inexpensive.

Sen Gao Coffee

How coffee is served at Sen Gao

In Taipei, I usually head for Cama or Louisa if I drink outside–the former is my favorite but the shops are not comfortable for relaxing with the coffee, so it’s more of a to-go shop. There is one shop that specializes in Taiwanese coffee, though. Sen Gao Coffee (森高砂咖啡館) serves nothing but coffee grown in Taiwan, and they have their own way of serving it, which made me feel a little better about spending more than $7 on a cup. Unfortunately, they do not offer the local kopi luwak.

What is in my coffee?

The prize for most surprising coffee flavor goes to Singapore. At the Old Airport Road hawker market I found a vendor who had kopi halia (ginger coffee). I figured for about a dollar I’d give it a try–it’s two flavors I like separately but had never imagined combining. It was good. The sharpness of the ginger balances out the bitterness of the coffee–it’s almost refreshing on a hot day in Singapore.

kopi halia singapore

kopi halia in Singapore

Other than the few specialty coffees, I haven’t had much worth mentioning while traveling–as I said, I like to make my coffee at home. Usually, I end up buying coffee on my trips to bring back home. The best I bought was in Yogyakarta–of course, I tried the Java Preanger blend before buying a pound of it; it was the only blend that was grown nearby. It was also by far the most expensive thing I bought in Indonesia. I suffered a bit of sticker shock, but decided that this was the best shop to buy quality coffee.

Organic Burmese coffee at the airport

When I visited Myanmar, I only had coffee with breakfast at the hotel (and it wasn’t very good). But on my way back to Taipei, I had some leftover kyat to spend at the Yangon airport. I browsed the shops looking for little souvenirs to buy. With only a couple dollars worth of kyat left, I spotted some local organic coffee. It cost a little more than half of what I had–I asked the vendor what I could buy with the remaining money and she offered a discount on a second purchase of coffee.

Coffee in Laos

My experience was similar in Laos, though I did stop off for coffee a few times because I was on a real vacation and didn’t feel like making it myself. As I was exhausted on my first day in Vientiane, I found Cafe Sinouk, a local chain that serves great coffee. Of course, it’s geared toward tourists and expats and the prices reflect that. It was at least good enough for me to buy a half pound of local coffee to bring back to Taiwan.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Coffee with a view at Saffron

I would have preferred to buy coffee at Saffron, which focuses on organic fair-trade coffee in the Luang Prabang region. The owner of the shop even offers tours of coffee plantations (by reservation only). I enjoyed a cup while staring out the window toward the Mekong River–it is a relaxing cafe. This is definitely the cafe to try when visiting Luang Prabang. They even sell coffee soap–I was tempted to buy it but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to smell like coffee all day.

saffron coffee luang prabang

Saffron Coffee, Luang Prabang

On a couple early mornings in Luang Prabang, I grabbed a cup (and even breakfast) at Joma Bakery Cafe, which is a popular place throughout the day. It was near my hotel and breakfast was reasonable–most tourists there in the morning stay at hotels that don’t serve breakfast or that serve little more than white bread and instant coffee. Every time there, I opted for the large Americano mainly because it includes a free refill–almost $3 for a cup is expensive in Laos where the average annual income is only about $2000.

On my way out of Laos, I stopped in Sinouk once more to buy a half pound of local blend coffee. It’s a pleasant, earthy blend for the mornings (I don’t make my coffee too strong at home) and it’s not too acidic or bitter.

collagen coffee laos

I did not buy this coffee in Laos. I was too scared

Of course, while waiting in the tiny Vientiane international airport, I decided to buy more coffee with my leftover kip. I had enough for a snack and a half pound of organic Lao Mountain coffee. This coffee was much more earthy than the Sinouk blend. It wasn’t earthy in a good way either; when I say earthy, in this case it means that it tasted like dirt. After a few cups, I started to think it wasn’t so bad. But I was much happier after finishing the half pound that I bought.

Where have you found great coffee on your travels? 

Travel Necessity: Making Coffee on the Road

and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, “Coffee would be nice,”
-Kwame Dawes, Coffee Break

One of the greatest expenses on the road can be coffee, especially for addicts like me. When I worked overnight in New Jersey, I would regularly make a full 10-cup pot of coffee. Plus, I’d drink tea later in my shift. (Note to coffee companies: You can sponsor my travels.)

In some destinations coffee can be expensive. In touristy parts of Italy, a cup of coffee will set you back at least EUR 3. I got spoiled going to my local used bookstore for good coffee for $1.75, with free refills, which usually convinced me to buy yet another book to read (one addiction feeds the other).venice-coffee

Before I set out on this journey I worried about my ability to find coffee at the grocery stores–I remember how difficult it was to find non-instant coffee when I first moved to China in 2005; I practically wept when Carrefour and Jusco moved in near my apartment in 2008  with a consistent supply of coffee and cheese. I was so desperate back then that I would travel an hour and half on a bus to the foreign import store and buy a tub of Folgers for more than $10 when I knew it was much less expensive back home.melita-coffeemaker

Fortunately, my parents’ friend had a Melita cup-top hand drip coffeemaker. It was the best going-away present I could receive (well, other than money for future plane tickets). Because I didn’t want to have to always go out to find new filters as I traveled, I set out in search of a reusable coffee filter–the stores didn’t have the specific one for this Melita product, but I managed to find one that fit.

More than a year later I’m still making my morning coffee with this. Fortunately, there’s a Carrefour near me in Taipei and I can buy 1/2 lb. of ground coffee for NT$99 (about $3). It’s not great coffee, but it’s good enough. If I buy really cheap coffee, like I usually did in New Jersey, I just add some cinnamon to the grounds as I brew my cup–it tastes better and the cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar.carrefour-coffee

Of course, I still enjoy going out to coffee shops. I went to a few in Seoul–they weren’t difficult to find as the Korean capital has more Starbucks than any other city in the world (plus a few dozen other coffee chains). During my second trip to Japan, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks working on my China Survival Guide and other writing and ramblings–I usually avoid Starbucks, but there wasn’t anything else near me. I was forced into a few coffee shops in Hanoi when the power went out at my hotel while I was working. Plus, I had to try the egg coffee–it was good, but a little too sweet for my taste.egg-coffee-hanoi

In Taipei, I sometimes go out to Cama Coffee, a chain that serves great coffee in very small shop spaces. They also have whiskey hot chocolate–you can’t taste the whiskey, but the hot chocolate is really good. There are plenty of other options around the city at varying prices (most don’t have seating though).

How do you feed your coffee addiction while traveling?