Tourists encountering Thai native fruits. Image courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand, used with permission.
Take it slow in Southeast Asia, and you’ll be amazed at the cultural and spiritual activities around you that you’ll suddenly have time to enjoy. The region’s well-developed local cultures reward visitors who take the time to learn their ins and outs: invest in Southeast Asia’s cooking classes, wellness retreats and art workshops, and by trip’s end you’ll bring home far more afterward than just souvenirs.
Cooking the food of a country is one of the best ways to take a bit of the local culture home. And in Southeast Asia, you’ll find no shortage of edible culture to take in: countries like Thailand and Vietnam host an endless selection of cooking classes, each one steeped in the exacting traditions of their respective cuisines.
In Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai is a hotspot for cooking instruction; you can pick a course that piques your interest, from instruction focused on Northern Thai dishes to vegetarian- and vegan-only courses. Top school picks include Thai Farm Cooking School (thaifarmcooking.com), A Lot of Thai (alotofthai.com) and Pantawan Cooking (pantawancooking.com).
In Vietnam, the centuries-old town of Hoi An owes its tourist renaissance partly to the local attention to Vietnamese food. Great local food choices can be found on almost every corner on Hoi An’s old town, and an assortment of Hoi An-based cooking classes offer a deeper understanding of Vietnamese cuisine to willing students.
Local cooking schools include Red Bridge (www.visithoian.com/redbridge/), Morning Glory (www.restaurant-hoian.com), My Grandma’s Home Cooking School (www.cooking-hoian.com) and Green Bamboo (www.greenbamboo-hoian.com).
Before signing up to a cooking class, do your homework: quality of cooking classes varies wildly, depending on the abilities of the instructors (not just in cooking, but also in speaking the language of their students). The best cooking classes not only delve into the cooking techniques native to their respective countries, they also take you to see where the food comes from, be it a nearby farm or a wet market.
Bali woodcarving class. Image © Mike Aquino, used with permission.
Art lessons & workshops
The village of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia is all about art. The kings of Ubud were inveterate patrons of the arts, filling their palaces with traditional dances and sponsoring local sculptors and illustrators.
Up till today, modern Balinese artists have flourished under the sponsorship of Ubud nobles. Local museums are not just static displays of old artworks, they also serve as living, breathing workshops for Balinese art, open to locals and foreigners alike.
Creative types can stretch their artistic abilities in Ubud: not just through drawing and painting lessons, but also by taking up woodcarving and silversmithing. Skilled Ubud artisans can help you find your muse in venues like the Puri Lukisan Museum (museumpurilukisan.com), the Pondok Pekak Library (pondokpekaklibrary.com), WS Art Studio (craftworkshopbali.com) and Studio Perak (studioperak.com).
Artists of the textual type can pencil in the Ubud Writers Festival (ubudwritersfestival.com) on their calendars; this three-day writing workshop takes place at the end of October every year.
Yoga and Wellness Retreats
Yoga originated in India, but the Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia were quick studies in the art. Thailand and Bali, again, dominate the market for yoga and other wellness-themed retreats across the region, but retreats in Cambodia are gaining in popularity as well.
There are few more conducive retreat environments than Cambodia’s countryside – you’ll find inspiration in the close proximity of Angkor-era temples, and the kind demeanor of the locals will help ease your stress. Retreat experiences in Cambodia can help you rebalance your life and get back in touch with your own spiritual needs.
In Cambodia, you can choose retreats lasting from less than a day to several weeks in establishments like Angkor Zen Gardens (angkorzen.com) and Hariharalaya (hariharalaya.com) in Siem Reap; and the Vine Retreat in Kep (thevineretreat.com).
Considering the range of retreat lengths, price ranges and locations, a little shopping around will do you some good. Once you identify what you want to get out of your retreat experience (Detox? Life coaching? Intensive physical activity? Meditation?), you can then narrow your options.