A Travellerspoint blog

A flashpacker’s notes on traveling in SE Asia

Before I left on the trip, I’ve been asked a few times whether I will be going backpacking, and I struggled to describe the kind of travel that I will be doing – while in spirit very similar to backpacking, mine was not going to involve hauling all my belongings on my back, and in general was going to be characterized by a higher level of comfort, though not at the expense of an adventurous spirit. Apparently, there is a term for it – ‘flashpacking’. So, here are my notes on the logistics of flashpacking through SE Asia.

Accommodation

Those who are on a quick vacation will undoubtedly find Asia cheap, as measured by their Western yardstick. Staying on the main tourist trail, one can find Western-style hotels for 30-50% off (using US prices as a point of reference). However, those doing a longer trip who need to stretch their budgets would be well served to re-scale their price expectations. $20/night accommodation is not bottom of the barrel, in most places that’s mid-range by Western standards, though usually comes with a few local quirks (i.e. shower without a clearly defined shower cabin, where just about everything in the bathroom ends up getting wet). If you are paying over $40/night, you better be getting upscale digs for it.

In none of the places I’ve visited pre-arranging accommodation was a must, one could certainly show up and find a place to their liking easily. If a destination is on the tourist map, you can take it as a given that there will be plentiful accommodation (with the exception maybe of the ‘booked-up’ Laos, where supply is a bit tight). I, however, prefer not to schlepp my bag around town in search of a place to stay, so I usually pre-booked a couple of days before arrival. Everywhere but Laos where you would be well served to book a place of your choosing for the duration of your intended stay, the best strategy, I found, was to book a place for a night or two, and at check in tell the manager that if I like the room, I will stay longer. This tactic tends to procure the best available room while allowing one to maintain flexibility.

Reservation tools that should be a staple of your toolkit are TripAdvisor and Agoda, which rules the region. Both have quality rankings by fellow travelers, with Agoda often having richer rating history. TripAdvisor allows to simultaneously get rates from as many travel sites as the accommodation has, which is a very efficient price check. You may also be well served to Google the hotel’s name as many have websites providing useful info on the property, as well as direct rates (which are rarely as good as those provided by online travel sites). Occasionally, if available rates seem high and you have reason to believe that demand is low, reaching out to the manager is a successful tactic for obtaining better pricing.

If you are a graduating flashpacker with a just-above-backpacker’s budget, you may also be well served to scout the area for guesthouses that may not be fancy enough to have representation on the Internet, yet provide very decent accommodation. A ‘guesthouse’, in local speak, is a rather ambiguous term which could mean anything from a family-run hotel (an equivalent of an inn), down to hostel-style accommodation, so don’t exclude these from your search, but do ask questions to make sure that you are going to get what you expect.

Should you find yourself off the beaten track with no hotels in sight… the word to remember is ‘homestay’. This concept seems rather popular here in Asia, and what that entails is being a houseguest at a local’s home. Adjust your expectations, though – this is no couch surfing, that would be too luxurious. You share in a typically-modest dinner that the family has, and are given a mat on the floor in the same room where the family sleeps for a bed, and if you are lucky, a mosquito net. This is not for light sleepers, be prepared for a pre-dawn wakeup call by roosters. Some seek this experience even when other options are available (having spent childhood summers in tiny villages with rather similar conditions, I personally don’t see the exotic luster in it).

Transportation

In general, Asia has a high level of service, much above what once would experience on a similarly priced trip in Europe of Latin America. It is standard for all excursions and transportation arrangements to come with free pickup. Carrying a guest’s luggage is not a favor but a norm that doesn’t presume a tip (though of course tips are appreciated). That makes a backpack rather unnecessary for those who aren’t truly roughing it on public transport.

Tourism is a very big part of local economies, and probably the most profitable one. Luckily, that means that transportation and accommodation is highly rational – demand is invariably provided with supply. and most popular locations are linked not only by public ‘chicken buses’, but usually several privately run ‘VIP’ options (in this context, all ‘VIP’ means is that it’s chicken-free, nothing more). Even this VIP transportation is laughably cheap (e.g. $10 for a 5-hour ride), and on a few occasions I would have gladly paid more for more comfort. Here are the transportation options available:

Airport transfers – private transfers, in a car or a tuk-tuk, should run you between $5-15 depending on location.

Around town – in Vietnam, motorbike ‘taxis’ rule (basically you catch a ride on the back of someone’s motorbike). Everywhere else, tuk-tuks of all kinds (motorbike driven carriages and converted pickup trucks) are the main form of transportation for short rides. A ride around town should cost $1-4 per trip, depending on location. Car taxis are more expensive, if you want to travel like a Westerner, you will likely be asked to pay close to Western prices.

Longer trips – the cheapest way to travel are public buses and ‘saginew’ – basically a pickup-truck based tuk-tuk with benches along both of its sides and a roof, but sides open to the elements. This is how locals travel. These operate on a fix route yet pick up and drop off passengers along the way rather than at pre-determined stops. These can be useful for medium-distance trips, especially in resort areas, where taxi drivers will want to rip your face off if you are a farang. Even these tend to obscenely gouge tourists, so try to find out pricing before you board (e.g. on a trip from Nathon to Buphan in Koh Samui, some 25km ride, the driver attempted to charge me 300 Baht which is about $10 while the local price is 40 Baht). Of popular ‘VIP’ options, minibus/minivan is wide spread. The advantage is that these usually travel faster than buses. The disadvantage is that they are often filled to capacity (the term ‘capacity’ takes on a new meaning here, as they fill not only every seat including the jump seat and the middle seat between the driver and passenger in the front, but also cram in all of the luggage inside). If you are considering it, you better forget the word ‘legroom’ altogether. VIP buses, then, tend to have a bit more room, even if full. Their level of VIP-ness varies, however – many are old and rickety, and bathroom on board is not a standard feature. For some of the longest trips, sleeper buses are available. These are double deckers with a fully reclining seat. I haven’t taken any of these, so can’t really comment. An upscale road travel experience would be to hire a private car/minivan, which should run you about $100/day all-in (i.e. including vehicle, mileage, gas, driver, and driver’s accommodation for multi-day trips).

Train travel is available in different classes of service on some routes in Vietnam and Thailand (though not Cambodia or Laos). Again, no personal experience there, but from what I heard, even top class is hardly the luxurious experience that the fancy name may imply. Boat/ferry travel is available along the Mekong, aswell as in ocean areas. Quality ranges from basic cargo night boats with nothing but an open deck where passengers get to sleep all next to each other on a mat, to bigger Western-style ferries with reasonably comfortable seating and an air-conditioned area, to small speed boats that zoom you to your destination. Boats are priced slightly higher than an equivalent level of bus travel would cost. Everywhere but in Laos where Lao Airlines’ near-monopoly means that they charge the farang a rather steep rice, air travel is cheap by Western standards, but expensive relative to VIP buses. Do your own math on the time/money/convenience tradeoff. Most fare profiles are rather flat, with cheapest advance fare perhaps 2/3 of the cost of last-minute fares, and availability is generally very good, making air travel a viable last-minute option that doesn’t need to be thought through in advance.

Money

Credit cards, while accepted in upscale establishments, are certainly not nearly as wide-spread as in the West. Even if accepted, they usually carry a 3-5% surcharge over quoted prices, which, combined with a foreign transaction fee charged by most cards makes their use impractical.

In all of the places I visited, ATMs were widely available. I tend to see this as the optimal solution, as it minimizes the chance that large amounts of cash carried around would be lost or stolen. Some country peculiarities are noted below:

Vietnam
The country has a dual-currency system in practice – prices for hotels, for instance, are usually stated in USD, while prices in restaurants and for petty purchases are usually in VND. Most establishments would usually take either one, but to avoid being bid/offered on exchange, it makes sense to have both. Make sure that if you are bringing USD, to bring small denominations (I’m talking $1 and $5, certainly no more than $20).

Cambodia
The country is firmly on a USD standard. All prices are in USD. Do yourself a favor and get a pack of $1 bills before heading there – here even more than in Vietnam, your $50 or $100 bills will be useless, as that’s an exorbitant amount of money by local standards that very few establishments off the luxury trail will be able to break. If you are buying something that costs less than $1, change will most likely be given in [???] (that is, after they attempt to charge you a dollar). There is absolutely no reason to attempt to obtain [???] as USD is preferred by everyone.

Laos
Even though the latest Lonely Planet book, published less than a year ago, advises that USD is the main currency in circulation, that is not actually true anymore. It seems that there was a recently enacted law that’s rather punitive towards transactions in anything other than LAK. Some hotels will still quote prices in USD so it may make sense to have some USD for larger purchases, however you will be using LAK most of the time. While ATMs are plentiful on the tourist trail, I am not certain that would be the case off the beaten track, so if you do get off the trail, make sure you have some LAK on you.

Thailand
THB is pretty much the only currency in circulation. ATMs are plentiful, and certainly the best way to go. Should you insist on exchanging money instead, keep in mind that exchange places have tiered pricing depending on denomination of notes you are exchanging. USD 50, 100 command the smallest bid-offer, while USD 20 worsens the exchange rate by some 2%.

Posted by kgbgirl11 14:29 Comments (0)

Concluding thoughts

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I arrived back home, to Miami Beach, just over a week ago, however I didn't want to post right away. I wanted to see how I perceive my daily reality post-trip, and was curious whether the impact of the trip will be felt in my daily routine.

I felt really happy to finally land in Miami. During the cab ride from the airport, I asked the cab driver to keep the windows down, and experienced a yoga-esque moment of awareness deeply inhaling the familiar air. As we were taking the causeway to the beach, I couldn't help but smile at the poetic beauty of the reflection of the last rays of sun in the Biscayne Bay. I arrived to my apartment and hurriedly opened a bottle of Heineken, one of the very few items in my fridge that were patiently awaiting my arrival, for the sunset-from-the-balcony ritual that I engage in many evenings. I am happy to be home. As I put it to one of my friends some time ago, you are in a good place in life if there is no other place you'd rather be.

One of the things I was struck by, since my arrival back, is how friendly the people are. I think this is notable as my frame of reference was Asia and most recently Thailand, with its reputation for friendliness. True, Asian service deserves a high grade overall, but that just means you get more value for your money. But when it comes to unselfish gestures, I've encountered random acts of kindness more frequently here over the past week than in Asia. Perhaps some of that has to do with being [by some accounts] a cute female, but if someone offers to help me with heavy packages while not asking for anything in return, that qualifies, in my book. It certainly isn't an impression I get exclusively from interaction with men, either -- regardless of the gender, there is a palpable aura of goodwill, for its own sake -- something I felt was keenly lacking in Thailand overall. Perhaps Thailand is friendly relative to some places around the world, like Northeast US or certain parts of Europe that shall remain unnamed, but I prefer Miami.

There are several ways in which I feel the trip affected me. The first one is that, traversing Asia on a flexible itinerary, I seem to have become a lot more comfortable with the go-with-the-flow approach. I don't think I'll ever be the one to "float aimlessly down the river of life", but I think I have a lot more appreciation for the opportunities and experiences that become available when I don't cement my well-laid plans too early. So, this New Year's Eve, unlike any that I can remember, I'm playing it by ear.

The other aspect of the travel experience which I feel affected me is a loss-of-face concept that is an important aspect of many Asian cultures. The concept of 'face' is hard to define; I think this Wikipedia definition comes close to capturing it:

"Face" means 'sociodynamic valuation', a lexical hyponym of words meaning 'prestige; dignity; honor; respect; status'. (Carr 1993:90)

I've experienced others' concern for my face on a couple of occasions during minor snafus. One such example would be when I was at a hookah/sheeshah/nargilah place in Singapore; I was so excited to get my fix that I took a couple of deep inhales as soon as they brought the hookah out. When no smoke came out, it didn't take me long to realize that the coals weren't placed on it yet! Confident in my hookah smoking prowess, I was about to laugh it off, however the waitress, apparently concerned about loss of face, came to my face's rescue by commenting how you can actually taste the finer aspects of tobacco this way. Leaning naturally on the side of calling it like it is rather than keeping up appearances, I find this cultural concept somewhat foreign. And while I still think one needs to be secure enough to laugh at themselves in comical situations like the one described, I also have a new appreciation for the role of this concept with respect to more sensitive situations.

These are just some of the most pronounced ways in which I feel the trip affected me. I'm sure that over time others will emerge, and some perhaps will be so subtle that their impact will not be easily discernible. But, that's a story for another year. For now, I will draw the curtain on the adventure that 2011 was.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 04:54 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Singapore

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I viewed this stopover as part of my four day long journey home, but Singapore is unique enough to warrant an entry of its own. Walking through the 'spairport', I couldn't help but smile at how I saw these exact sites only two months ago, at the very beginning of my SE Asia adventure, at that time having a very different perspective. This time, however, I was determined to put that entry visa to a good use and make it beyond the airport terminal.

During the cab ride to the hotel, I was amazed at just how green the city is. I'm not talking about parks punctuating a concrete jungle, what I'm referring to are old mossy trees lining the roads, trees surrounding every one of its modern towers, green everywhere. It seemed like architectural computer simulations were super-imposed on a tropical forest.

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I think this was the first time ever that I consulted an encyclopedia-type source for what the official language of a country is, so improbable were the highly Anglo-Saxon street names I saw in this tiny island country sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia. Sure I knew about its British history, but if the impossible-to-pronounce Native American names could survive much longer Anglo-Saxon influence in the US, surely there should be streets around reflecting the country's equatorial whereabouts better than 'Orchard Road' or 'Scotts Road'?..

Given the hotel manager's warning that this is the middle of the monsoon season, and that the day before it rained non-stop, I decided to keep my afternoon venture outdoors flexible and walked over to Orchard Road, which is notorious for its shopping malls. As much as I intended to eschew those shopping malls, the next wave of tropical rain arrived just as I was approaching the first of them, leaving me little choice but to go in. As soon as I entered, I was greeted by, of all things, a makeshift salsa class! I momentarily considered the need to brush up on my basic step before I head back to Miami, but gave myself an out under the excuse that 'Singapore salsa' might not be quite the same as 'Miami salsa'.

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I spent the next couple of hours on Orchard Rd's crowded sidewalks and stores, occasionally pummeled by rain. The city is very well planned out, as obvious from little details such as under-ground crosswalks. As bizarre as the mixture of tropical trees, top-notch modern buildings and British street names was, the mix of people seemed even more unexpected. There were the Chinese-looking folks, the Indian-looking ones, women covered according to the muslim dress code and Westerners dressed with no regard for such. Given the post-modern setting, I at one point felt that I was in one of those sci-fi movies where the world is ruled by inter-galactic counsel and 'diversity' takes on a whole new meaning.

Next day, I woke up to the absolutely dreary weather outside. The sky was completely grey, and from my 18th floor hotel room, it seemed that the town was fully enveloped in rain. It was an exercise in willpower to get myself to abandon the comfort of the hotel in favor of the soaking rain outside. Once I made it outside, however, the day turned into a wonderful experience. I roamed all around town, taking in its waterfront, then taking a ride on the observation wheel (which claims to be the largest in the world).

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I then meandered through the maze of shopping malls towards the Arab Quarter. The one thing I had hoped to find there was hookah/sheeshah/nargilah, and I smelled it before I saw it, from a block away. It's been almost 2 months since I smoked my last one, in Hanoi, and I was ready to indulge myself once more. As I was sitting there, puffing my well-put-together sheeshah at a Turkish restaurant in the middle of Singapore, I notice that my authentic Arabic tea-with-mint-leaves actually comes in Russian packaging:

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The only other thing on the agenda for this late afternoon was to see the building marked with a Star of David on my map, which I expected to be the city's synagogue. When I showed up there, however, I was told by an oh-so-polite yet oh-so-firm guard that the synagogue has just closed to visitors for the day. He just about succeeded convincing me that I'm out of luck when I spotted a couple of guys in kippot approaching the compound. I used my internationally tried-and-true method of starting up a conversation in Hebrew, which worked this time as well -- though I didn't get to see the inside of the main synagogue, I got a personal tour o the compound. Apparently the building of the synagogue dates back to 1878, and the congregation predated it by some 40 years. Though historically a sfaradi community, it now has about a thousand Israelis or all backgrounds among its members, and another thousand of other members.

My overall impression of Singapore is of a very dynamic bustling center of commerce. I couldn't help but feel that this is precisely the kind of vibe and cultural cross-polination that made other famed city-states throughout centuries into the commercial powers that they were. If I had to pick a business-friendly base in Asia, I would certainly consider Singapore. This was a good note to end my Asian adventure on, and ease myself into life back in civilization.

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I plan to post two more entries to this blog in the upcoming days -- one, my overall thoughts on this 3-month adventure from a personal standpoint, and the other, some practical tips for traveling in SE Asia.

Posted by kgbgirl11 06:49 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Thailand - concluding thoughts

I can't say that Thailand was an unequivocal thumbs-up, from my perspective. Rather developed and Western, it was less exotic and less charming than Laos, or even Vietnam. And with tourism a long-time staple of the economy, the mindsets have been altered by the goal of deriving as much profit as quickly as possible without, in many cases, the foresight of working to generate goodwill that bears more sustainable fruit.

The former Lanna Kingdom, in the North, was a relatively smooth transition from Laos in terms of its culture and attitudes, if not the state of its infrastructure. The people here don't look much different from those in Laos -- light skinned, slim if not small, looks clearly influenced by its Northern neighbors. Yes, Northern Thailand was more developed than Laos, but there was still plenty of that genuine friendliness tourists site so often... or at the very least, realization that a satisfactory service needs to be performed in order to entice tourists to open their wallets.

I skipped Central Thailand when I rerouted my trip due to the floods, so for a good three weeks out of the four that I spent in Thailand I was in the South. People here look quite different from those around Chiang Mai. They are much darker skinned, many looking more Malay (in my understanding of what Malay looks like) than Chinese. There is a lot more chubby people here than in the North. And unlike the predominantly buddhist North, the South is predominantly muslim, with a fairly high percentage of them rather observant.

The South, I have to say, under-delivered. Sure it has some beautiful beaches (I think Koh Tao was my favorite, if I had to pick a place to spend a week). However, not only is the general price level meaningfully higher in the South than in the North, but the attitude you get in return for that higher price tag is a lot less positive. Simply said, the South ha gotten fat and lazy off of tourists. And it's not to say that it's the case for every single establishment, but overall, they've gotten spoiled rotten by tourists practically begging to give them their money and gotten corrupted by the revolving-door mentality. I haven't been asked the question of 'how much can you pay?' anywhere else in the world other than here, where taxi drivers, for instance, don't even make an effort to disguise their attempt to gauge you. I'm all for market economies, anybody who knows me even a little knows that, but when a shared-taxi / bus driver attempts to get a price from me that's 8x what the published fare is, that's just not cool in my book. In the South, you often don't even get a smile or even an acknowledgement as you part ways with your money -- the explanation I heard is that it's not traditional for Muslims to smile.

The 'land of smiles' moniker needs to be addressed more in-depth. It baffles me how so many people can confuse smiling with friendliness. After all, most are familiar with the world-famous 'American smile', the forced expression of showing one's teeth while not necessarily finding anything particularly joyful in the moment. How is it that the Westerners are able to recognize insincerity in that smile, yet are so oblivious to the Thai smile? Smiling is a social behavior, rather than a reflex. Monkeys smile to express a variety of emotions, and friendliness is not even near the top of the list. I read that Thai people have 13 different types of smiles, of which the genuine happy smile is only one of the many meanings. I've seen some of the least-masked 'I-smile-because-I'm-expected-to' smiles here.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed by what I saw relative to the travel stories I heard. The ability to observe a culture as it once was is no longer possible, at least not if you step anywhere near the tourist trail. Don't get me wrong, this is still a great place to go on vacation, and even at prices inflated 8x relative to locals' costs you will probably still find it reasonably priced if not cheap (and most likely, will never even find out). But, my North American readers, keep in mind that Thailand's glories are perhaps a bit inflated by sun-starved Europeans who don't have the luxury of having Latin America a quick skip away for an impartial comparison. And those of us who do, we should spend more time exploring it rather than chasing a 'crowded trade'!

Posted by kgbgirl11 02:37 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Thailand - Phuket

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Though I thought of checking out yet another island before my flight out of Phuket, I decided, in retrospect wisely, to give myself a couple of days of lazy rest before I begin a 4-day trip back. Securing a 5* hotel on one of the quieter beaches, near the airport, for $75/night sealed the deal. My first full day here, I realized that the weakness I have been experiencing, accompanied by cough, has a name -- a cold. Fortunately, a day of rest with plenty of hot tea took care of that, and I was firmly on my feet today.

Nai Yang beach, just a 5 minute ride from the Phuket airport, is a delightful secluded beach that's still rimmed by old pine trees rather than grotesque hotel towers. I spent today, my last day in Thailand, doing absolutely nothing but bathing myself in warm rays of the sun and slightly cooler waters of the Andaman sea. My last day here was no longer travel, it was a vacation.

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I went for dinner on the beach, a short walk from my hotel. While waiting for my food to arrive, I did something I haven't done in quite a while -- I pulled out my phone, and started looking at pictures I have stored there. Seeing images of home -- taken both outdoors as well as in my apartment -- put a big smile on my face. As much as I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity to explore the world over the past 3 months, I'm ready to go home.

After dinner, I walked back along the dark beach, with my handy little flashlight wreaking havoc in the life of confused crabs. I stopped to listen to the sounds of the waves crashing, gazing at stars shining brightly above. This was the moment to harmonize the experience. I suppose this is also the moment that many in my shoes would have attempted to capture in memory for the duration of the cold winter ahead of them, the mental escape of sorts. Lucky for me, I know exactly how long it will be until I experience the warm ocean waters again -- it will be exactly 5 days until I return to Miami, and 6 days, at the most, until I strip down to my bathing suit under my neighborhood palm trees for one of my open water swims.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 07:20 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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