Q&A – Mark Wiens

Simon Stanley talks to the Bangkok-based food and travel blogger about his love of chilli peppers, durian, and Southeast Asia’s street food. Photo by Mark Wiens.

You were born in the United States and have lived in France, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya. So it’s fair to say travelling is in your blood?
My parents laid a foundation in me from an early age, both for travelling and learning to appreciate food from all over the world. Being raised in a number of different countries, and travelling frequently with my family while growing up, provided me with a very open perspective on the world.

Your journey from teacher-cum-blogger to YouTube star has been outstanding; especially now you have over 300,000 subscribers and videos attracting millions of views. How did you make the leap into the big leagues?
For both YouTube and my blogs, it’s been a gradual growth process. I don’t think there was one big leap, but I think the most important factor has been a lot of persistence; taking small steps each day, and producing and publishing a frequent schedule of quality content. It was about two years after going full-time that I started earning a decent living. Most bloggers and YouTubers will likely experience viral content at some point, but I think it’s often the sustainable growth that’s more effective in the long term.

Since beginning your travels eight years ago in South America, how many countries have you racked up and which ones are your favourites?
I’ve visited about 30 countries. When my wife and I travel, we like to stay in one place for a few weeks to really get a feel for that city or country, and be able to experience the local food scene. Ethiopia, for its incredible culture, history, and unique food, was one of the most memorable countries I’ve visited. Nepal, with its mountains and natural scenery, was mind-blowing. Overall though, the entire region of Southeast Asia has a special place in my heart, for the energy, the friendliness of the people, the convenience of just about everything, and, of course, the incredible food. 

You’ve now made dozens of videos about street food stalls across Southeast Asia. Have you picked up any gruesome bugs or parasites on the way?
Fortunately I haven’t experienced anything severe – or really even anything minor that often. I do try to stick to street food stalls that are busy with local customers, and, if possible, I prefer to visit a restaurant or food stall when I think the food will be at its freshest. You can often almost feel if it’s a good choice to eat there or not.

Your enthusiastic reaction to each new dish you try seems to have become your trademark, even earning a parody or two on YouTube. What’s the story behind the ‘Mark Wiens face’?
I originally started blogging and taking photos of the food I ate before I ever thought about making videos. And one of the things I could never capture was the atmosphere, the passion, and the emotion. What I love so much about the food video format is that you can capture that, more than with any other type of media. My hope is that the ‘delicious food face’ helps others feel it, and come that much closer to tasting the food themselves.

How do you stay in shape while eating for a living?
I don’t eat desserts often, and I also try to stay away from packaged snacks. I also drink mostly water, black coffee, and tea, and occasional alcoholic beverages, but I avoid sweet drinks like sodas and juices. When I have a chance, I love to walk, jog, bike, exercise, and I frequently do pushups while travelling. I also eat a lot of chilies, which potentially increases my metabolism – at least I’d like to think so.

Yes, your love of chilli peppers is another trademark. Have you ever surrendered to a particularly fiery dish?
There have been a couple of times. There’s this one restaurant in Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand that served me a green papaya salad with about 45 chilies in it – there were more chilies than green papaya! It made me cry!

Aside from the food, is there a particular encounter from your travels that has stuck with you?
There was a time on the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, when we were driving around and spotted a local wedding. Many weddings are set up in tents outsides people’s homes, often along the side of the road, and our plan was to just stop by and try to catch a glimpse of the festivities. But when we arrived the family welcomed us in and invited us to eat buffalo curry with them. It was incredible. Somehow they found out that I loved durian and one of the owners of the house went and got a fresh one from the backyard for me. The hospitality, the generosity, and the relationships that come as a result of appreciating local food is amazing. Food is delicious, but the real reason why I think food is the best reason to travel is the people.

You now live in Bangkok, but Vietnam is clearly one of your favourite foodie destinations. What keeps you coming back?
I love the vibrant herbs and contrasts of flavours and textures that go into Vietnamese cuisine. For noodle soup, one of my favourites in Saigon is bun rieu, from a restaurant called Bun Rieu Nguyen Canh Chan. Another dish I love is bo la lot. Co Lien Bo La Lot on Vo Van Tan (District 3) makes a delicious version.

Can you give us any insider tips for Bangkok?
Not exactly an undiscovered gem, yet a place that still remains very local, is Wang Lang Market. Along with clothes and gadgets, you’ll find a sea of street food snacks and restaurants. Away from there, one of my favourite southern Thai restaurants in Bangkok is called Ruam Dai. It’s near the Siriraj hospital.

How did the name ‘Migrationology’ come about?
I wanted to focus on local travel and food experiences that come from immersing oneself into a culture – rather than backpacking from one place to another very quickly while remaining on the tourist trail. My idea was to stay in one place for a longer period of time to learn and get a feel for that place; to live like a local, more like a migration than a vacation.

You seem to love everything you try. Are there any dishes that you remember for the wrong reasons?
I’m a non-picky eater but when it comes to bad meals I’ve had, they have, for the most part, been a result of food that’s spoiled. There was a meal I had recently that was way too salty – it was inedible.

Don’t you sometimes get fed up with trying new and unusual food and just want to eat bag of crisps instead?
Yeah, sometimes I do grab some chips – but I know that once I start eating them it’s hard for me to stop!

Taking photos of every meal while you’re out on the road must get tiresome. Do you ever consciously leave the camera at home?
It’s very rare, but occasionally I try to take a vacation or a meal away without using my camera. It’s difficult because making those videos is now not only my passion, it’s also my business. However, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. Family and friends are what I consider to be the most important things in life, so I’ll be taking more time away from the camera. Also, I think that no matter what you do, especially if you’re a creator, taking a little break can be a huge help, to renew your thoughts and help you come back stronger.

What goes on behind the scenes in the life of a blogger?
The truth of the matter is, travelling and eating, while I thoroughly enjoy it, is only part of the process. I spend the majority of my time on my computer, writing and editing videos, researching, marketing, and getting frustrated sometimes. Money, especially in previous years, was very unreliable, and very unpredictable. There have been times when I’ve worked on projects that fell through or didn’t succeed, and times when I didn’t think I could make enough money as an independent entrepreneur to support my wife.

With your family in the US and you now living in Bangkok, what are the dishes you miss most from home?
I have family in both Arizona and Hawaii. My mother being Chinese American, I grew up mostly eating Chinese food, so there aren’t many American dishes that I really crave. The food that I miss the most though is Hawaiian poke. It’s cubes of raw fish marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and onions.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Without a doubt, meeting and later marrying my wife, who is from Thailand. That was and still is the highlight of my journey so far. When I started travelling right after graduating from university, I had little idea about what I wanted to do – or even what I was doing. I just wanted to travel and eat. My wife has been an amazing and supportive travel partner who is willing to take crazy food expeditions. She’s also the one who films our videos.

What do you think it takes to become a successful blogger?
In my opinion, it requires a passion and honesty for the subject you’re dealing with; also, publishing helpful content that readers can use and benefit from; and finally, to have some knowledge and strategy for online marketing. That combination, plus a willingness to try new things and not give up, is the recipe for success.

Visit Mark’s blog at migrationology.com

Published May 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine

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