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.
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).
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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%.