It’s no 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.