How To Travel Cheaply in South East Asia
Before You Start Out
There are three very important aspects to travelling cheaply. The first is planning ahead, the second is research and the third is flexibility with time. Simply walking out the door and jumping on a bus is not the way to do it. So often if you waited, the bus arriving twenty minutes later would be half the price.
So! How long have you got? What is your budget? Where do you want to go?
This is not an all embracing bells and whistles guide but rather a collection of practicalities based on my own few years experience of budget travelling in Asia. I have been through India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and some of these several times. I have however tried not to make this guide country specific. Everywhere is different but yet everywhere is a little bit the same.
If I knew back at the start what I know now I could look forward to another few years on the road. As it is I have wasted both time and money...but what the hell, I've had a ball. Follow my suggestions and you WILL save money!
What to pack? Well you are going to Asia so you will be mainly warm but some mountainous areas are pretty cold and the air conditioning on long distances buses could almost freeze the bone marrow. Packing is always personal. Bear in mind though that practically everything you may want to bring with you, you will find cheaper in the first country you visit.
These packing lists will help you. The Universal Packing List and The Vagabonding Packing List.It is really amazing what you don't need so read both of these with a pinch of salted guidance and think about YOU, what you need.
The two most important things to pack you will not find on any list. These are to be open minded and accepting even if you don't like it and to never forget that you are a guest in someone elses country.
Get the Documentation in order
MOST IMPORTANT - make sure your passport has a couple of years to run before expiry.
If you are from the European Union or the USA you are lucky because there are so many places you can visit without a visa...but not ALL! Check first. Keep in mind that only the countries you are intending to visit can give you up to date information on requirements...and these can change at a whim,
As many visas are time limited and start from the date they are put in your passport, you, as a flexible budget traveller it is probably only worth checking out, and obtaining, if necessary, a visa for your first country of call. You don't know how long you will be there. Getting a visa to move on is relatively simple. Most local travel agents can arrange to do it for you but you will pay a premium. Many Embassy internet sites will allow you to download an application form. Just a matter then of completion and popping to the Embassy with cash, form and passport. Most will give a visa on the day but if you allow three days it will be cheaper still...so, again, be flexible.
Keep a copy of your passport and all other important details hidden away on the internet somewhere. ATM cards, insurance etc
Health and Insurance
You may never be sick and I hope you won't but it is possible as is having an accident. There are umpteen insurance companies out there after your money, I looked at dozens before I started out and decided on the best, and the best for me was World Nomads. Give it a try to I am sure it will tick all the right boxes for you and then some. The only problem with them is that they do not issue policies to over 60's which is a bit of a bind.
One of the real benefits to membership of World Nomads is that you can subscribe to their Travel Warnings. It is useful and I learnt beforehand that a city I was directly headed to had been hit by an earthquake. I was then able to make changes to my plans.
Check out what vaccinations you may need before you start out. I acted on the advice of my doctor and updated my tetanus and had shots for, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Rabies and Japanese encephalitis. Look at the MD Travel Health site and check out the advice for the countries you are going to visit.
To begin with I was taking anti-malarial tablets but gave up a few years ago now. I discovered that I was more at risk from Dengue fever which is also spread by mosquitoes but for which there is no vaccination. It made sense then to practise a few procedures to stop being bitten at all. I have tried many applications and the best I have found is Boots tropical strength long acting insect repellent. It gives at least 7 hours protection and one 120 ml pot will last a few months. This is 50% DEET and is the product to go for. Citronella products are a waste of time. Apply the repellent to exposed flesh in the morning and in the evening. There are very few mosquitoes around during the day except under the desks in internet cafes, in cinemas and some cool places like Starbucks when they first open in the morning. Be aware it is the day flying mosquitoes that carry Dengue.
At night I use a plug in vapouriser in my room. If plugged in an hour before you retire you will not get bitten. Up to now I have found them to be 100% effective.
Don't forget condoms (whether you are male or female)...actually they are readily available practically everywhere. I brought some along on the advice of my doctor. I laughed when he first suggested it but he then said "even bald ugly guys get lucky." I laughed again. As it turned out he was so right.
Attitudes to sex and prostitution are often very different to your home country. Consider too that so many tourists and travelers own morals change when away from home.
The World is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only One Page - 'St. Augustine'
Lonely Planet and Friends
I admit it...I have carried Lonely Planet and still like to try and get a look at it or one of its equivalents like Footprint, Rough Guide and Let's Go. They are all good and everyone has their favourite. The problem is that people so often use them like a bible. They see only what the guide mentions, they eat and drink only where the guide says and lay their heads only where they are told to sleep.
To me that is bad. I recollect sitting having a beer. Over the road from me was a hotel recommeded by Lonely Planet. It was full. Over the course of an hour I watched no less than twenty seven backpackers in 1's, 2's, and 3's turn up with guidebook in hand only to be told they were full. The backpackers then stood outside and studied Lonely Planet for a few minutes, pointed and then headed off down the road. Fair enough you may think but, on either side of the full hotel were two others. Both had rooms to spare, both were better and both were cheaper. The backpackers were like sheep being led by shepherd Lonely Planet.
One of the problems with such guides is that wandering about with one in your hand instantly lets every crook and conman know that you are green. You are setting yourself up to be ripped off. Read it, read it by all means but do it in a cafe or hotel room. Memorise your route,,,even photocopy a small section. Do not walk about with a guidebook in hand.
Another problem with a hotel being included in Lonely planet is that it feels it has made it (not all, I agree) and ceases to make an effort. It is full every day. Why bother? Meanwhile those around are like Avis "We try harder". Give them a try you will be better off,
A Good Traveller Has No Fixed Plans and Is Not Intent On Arriving - 'Lao Tzu'
Getting from A to B
By way of an example: If you have not done your research and you arrive in Bangkok airport and are intent on traveling to Pattaya, you open yourself to the cons and tricksters the moment you get off the plane. You are tired, jaded, run down and a touch more defenceless than usual. All you want is to get to your hotel and relax. The touts know you are weak and will move in for the kill.
Today there are very pretty girls waiting near to the luggage carousels before you have even passed through customs. They have a car! Yes it is reasonably priced. Yes they will go to Pattaya. Two thousand Baht. What? Thats just forty quid for a two and a half hour drive. Imagine trying to get such a good deal in the UK! (But you are not in the UK)
You go through customs. More. Smooth talking men. "Meter Taxi", More pretty girls. Luxury Limousine. Ignore Ignore.
Outside there will be shouts from across the road "Taxi! Taxi!"
Turn left and there is a Taxi Rank. Set Price now 1,500 Baht but you pay Tolls...another 80 Baht.
There is a minibus downstairs. Runs fairly frequently during the day. Find the girl. Sit and wait. Price 150 Baht. A tenth of the cheapest taxi!
Or get the free airport bus to the bus station and catch a scheduled bus to Pattaya...less than 100 Baht!
That is Bangkok but it is real and every airport in Asia has some sort of similar scenario. Do your homework.
In Asia it is Planes and Boats and Trains. On the plane side of things avoid travel agents like the plague. Sometimes you will have no option but they will always take their cut. The best plane travel site for Asia is Asian Budget Airlines. I use it all the time. Book ahead using Credit or Debit card and be flexible with time and date. Watch out for special deals. I once flew from Singapore to the Philippines for one Singapore Dollar.
For Trains in Asia and in fact anywhere in the world the best site is The Man In Seat 61. It does not cover every country in Asia but does most of them. It also has some details on ferry services as well.
Buses are the choice for most Budget Travellers in Asia. Buses are frequent and go practically everywhere. Price reflects and you could go to the same location in an open windowed bone shaker or in recline seated air conditioned luxury. Ask around and get to know the system in adavance. Sometimes tickets have to be bought in advance and sometimes on board.
Buses, along with trains will often have food and drink vendors coming on board with some regularity. If buses don't have toilet on board there will be toilet stops every three hours or so.
Accommodation depends really on how fussy you are and more expensive is not necessarily the best. Find somewhere...stop one night and look around the following morning before you are due to check out. Most places will give a noon check out time so you will have a few hours to find somewhere cheaper and better.
I once stayed for a week in a moderately comfortable but noisy located fan room with a cold water shower and mild bed bug infestation. One day I asked at another hotel up the road if I could see one of their rooms. I moved in within the hour. The room was quiet, large, clean, airy, hot water shower, air conditioned and had a colour TV with satellite reception. What's more it was cheaper than where I had been staying.
You really have to assess what your needs are. Do you really need a view? Consider that many budget rooms in Asia do not even have windows. You pay extra for a window even if it looks straight out onto a wall you could touch.
Do you need air conditioning? It is nearly always an extra. It is nice enough but very often a fan can actually be better. The fan too is a big help at keeping mosquitoes away from you during the night.
A swimming pool? You are kidding...right? Actually, joking apart there are budget guest houses that do have pools...but you are going to pay extra. Give it a miss unless all you are going to do is lie by the pool all day.
Sometimes accommodation will give you free coffee and tea. A big plus, especially in the morning. Free breakfast too sometimes and if it is buffet you can sometimes get away with not eating again till the evening.
Many so called 'single' budget rooms contain a double bed and even two single beds with their 'single' designation applying to the room size rather than the sleeping space provided. In 99% of cases you are paying for the room and not the number of occupants so if you don't mind sharing it is a good way to save. Be wary though because some guesthouses discriminate and if you had a new boyfriend or girlfriend from the country in which you are travelling they may not let them in the hotel.
If you are stopping in a backpacker area. Ask around...ask other travellers before you enquire at hotels and hostels. Consider too if you really need to be where you think you want to be. Move two or three streets away from your choice locale and you will nearly always get a better deal. Beach front budget accommodation is a rarity and quite often you are paying a premium for living in a little straw hut with no mod cons. Okay, it is all right for a day or so, but it is not secure and the novelty wears off very quickly. Two hundred yards inland you pay less, get more and it is usually better.
The very cheapest way to save on accommodation is to become a member of Couchsurfing or a similar group.
I Travel Not To Go Anywhere, But To Go. I Travel for Travel's Sake. The Great Affair Is To Move. - 'Robert Louis Stevenson'
Previously the Couchsurfing group was a bit exclusive and private. They asked that they not be advertised too widely but at the end of 2008 there was actually a bit on the TV about them so I reckon it is fair to spread the word.
So what is couchsurfing? In a nutshell... by becoming a member you agree to provide accommodation (at a time convenient to you) for members and in return they will provide accommodation for you. No money changes hands. They become a guest in your house and you in theirs. You set the rules...one, two, three people for one, two, three days...or how you like. The benefits are that you get somewhere to sleep in the house of someone who lives in the country you are travelling in. They get to practice...usually English...and friendships are formed. They can advise, suggest, aid and help. It is expected though not written that you will feed you host once or twice during your visit.
If you don't have accommodation to offer. Many don't. Then you can make yourself available to meet for a cup of coffee. Again a chance to aid, help a make new friends.
Do join! Encourage others to join Couchsurfing.
A similar group of people doing much the same thing is the Global Freeloaders. It is well worth joining them as well. Why have all your eggs in one basket if you can extend your opportunities.
Then there is Stay4Free. Again offering much the same service. Claims to be longest established but the website needs a bit of negotiating.
I don't know because I am not counting but the Hospitality Club claims to have the biggest number of members offering free accommodation. They certainly have a lot of places listed so check this one out too.
Last but not least give Place2Stay a chance in the 'free' stakes. Perhaps not as many members as the others but it may well be that you will find the location to suit here.
Travel is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness - 'Mark Twain'
Travelling is not for the fussy eater. You need to be adventurous or starve or possibly become very ill. I once sat next to an Australian girl on a bus. She had been on the road for months. She had never eaten in a restaurant or off the street. All her food was purchased from the 7/11 or its equivalent and was consumed alone in her room. She never went anywhere or met anybody. Her travelling life was a bus window on the world. I wonder if at the end of the day she thought it was all worthwhile? Apart from anything else it is quite an expensive way to travel.
Within the UK I have always found the best places to eat are where there are old age pensioners eating. Pensioners always seek out a good deal, they are fussy too so the food is always good. The same applies when travelling in Asia but it is the Bar Girls you need to watch here. Bar Girls are usually trying to save every penny so their choice of restaurant is always good value for money.
Street food is always good. If there are people eating there it is edible. So much rubbish is talked about food abroad. Think about it though. If the stall or shop or restaurant was selling inedible or dicey products it would quickly go out of business.
True enough you will probably get the odd stomach upset but this is to be expected with a change in diet, herbs, spices, water etc. Unless you are really really ill don't worry about it. Your gut bacteria will adapt in a few days.
Western Food is available in any big city in Asia but it will always cost more than local food.
Staying In Touch
Some travellers really never leave home. They spend all their time in internet chat rooms or chatting on their mobile phones.
It is important that the 'folks back home' know you are safe but you should not let contact rule your life and besides it can be very expensive.
Take your mobile by all means but use it only for local contact, for people you meet on the road. In each country you visit buy a simcard. They are cheap enough and sometimes free. Put the minimum credit allowance on and then don't use it unless you have to. If you do have to call home in an emergency use a landline in an internet cafe. They can sometimes be the best option. Be sure you have the right Country Calling Code.
Use Skype. Skype is a wonderful traveller tool and very cheap. In practically all Asian countries it is available in internet cafe's. Skype allows you to make free skype to skype calls as well as cheap calls to mobile phones and land lines. Sending an SMS is cheap and easy too. Be aware of the time differences back home but send an SMS from the internet (set yourself up with an account and a 10 dollar balance before you set out) as to when you will be on line. Chat for free...video calls too if you like. Brilliant.
There are others like Yahoo Messenger and again most internet cafe's have Yahoo.
With all this modern technology don't shy away from sending out a postcard once in a while. People love postcards with nice foreign stamps. They can see these all the time but cannot see a computer message.
Facebook is another useful addition to your ability to stay in touch. Visit once day. A quick update on where you are and where you are heading next. All your friends will know.
You will be taking photographs along your journey, everybody does. Be sure to download these onto a computer every couple of days. DON'T FORGET! I have met several people on the road who have been robbed. They have lost cash, cards and passports. Without exception their biggest regrets were losing their cameras with all the photos. Memories lost. Past is past you cannot go back. There are many sites to store your photos, some cost, some are free, some let you store so many before costing. My favourite is Flickr. It is quick and easy to set up and operate and by adjusting the settings all your friends will be able to see your photos on line...if you want them to.
Keeping a journal is always a good idea. Some people prefer to stick with the old fashioned pen and notebook. Nothing wrong with that. Quick and easy and it looks good. The advantage of using modern technology is you can add and alter and of course easily include or remove photos. There are some excellent travel journal sites out there. Check out Travel Journals, Travel Blog, Travel Pod, Off Exploring, Mapness, you are bound to find one which will suit your style.
All Journeys Have Secret Destinations of Which The Traveler is Unaware - 'Martin Buber'
No Cash at All or Some to Spare
For those who find that they really stretched for cash it is possible to save money by sleeping on buses and trains en route to your next destination. Many do it but they are amongst the most miserable and grumpy of travellers you will meet.
At the start or end of your journey or perhaps whilst travelling to another country it is well worth looking at Sleeping in Airports. This is full of useful advice.
What about Youth Hostels? I really believe that membership is well worthwhile. It is cheap to join and they offer a really good deal in sometimes fantastic buildings and locations. One of my best stays ever was in the Hostel in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
Then there are Hostels in General. The advantage here is that you can usually book in advance for a fee and sometimes get something quite nice. I have had both good and bad. I suggest book in for a day. If you like it stay longer...if not move along. Make sure the place still exists though. I went to one place only to find it had been closed for a year.
Hostel World is a good choice. They list more than 18,000 Hostels in 168 countries. Although the search is good and usually turns up something the list is often quite small. Be aware that there are probably other places close by. This being the case take a look at Hostels.com. You may just get a repeat of the same or something a little different because they have something like 8,000 more Hostels listed than Hostel World.
Hostels.net is a fiddly site and rarely comes up trumps so give it a miss unless you have time to spare.
Don't divorce yourself from the idea of stopping in a Short Time Hotel. Dependent on your arrival in a new location this may well be the best and cheapest stop whilst you pull yourself together.
Money and country information
You are not going to get anywhere without money so use it wisely. Don't try and be too frugal or you will not enjoy yourself...and your trip should be fun.
Get to know the currency and the exchange rate of the country you are about to visit BEFORE you get there. Leave it till you arrive and in your first day you will lose...sometimes bigtime. If you have not already exchanged some money then get a look at it by visiting Asian Banknotes. Check out the more recent issues. Keep a check also on the current exchange rates by looking at noticeboards in banks and on the Universal Currency Converter.
How you take your cash is a personal choice. I carry a Nationwide Debit and Credit card. I have a couple of travellers cheques stowed away and a few dollars and Euros in my money belt. This arrangement has served me well everywhere. ATM's were very scarce in Laos and Cambodia so I took cash but the situation is much easier there now. Always keep more cash on you than you need. Ideally enough for three days because there will be times that all ATM's will cease to work.
By 'Money Belt' I mean an actual belt with a hidden zipper compartment in the back and not one of these fancy traveller things which people have under their 'T' shirts.
I wll be a help to you to know a little about the country you are visiting before you get there. The CIA World Factbook gives regularily updated 'in a nutshell' accounts on practically everywhere.
I have rarely found that language is a big problem. Someone will usually speak a little bit of English. Learning a few words of the local language is always a plus but make sure that you get pronunciation and tone right or you may something really rude. Not that you are likely to be talking about 'Snow' in Thailand but if you were and got the tone wrong you could be talking about a dogs vagina.
Far better for me has been using Point It and The Wordless Travel Book. They have not failed me.
One thing I have noticed on my travels is that there are many more single women traveling than there are men. Mainly it is couples or girls together but single men are a bit of a rarity.
I have spoken to many of these girls and hardly a one has had a problem and those that had were usually minor ones. Asia is safe for travellers.
Like anywhere though you must be streetwise. There is tremendous poverty in parts of Asia and getting a little bit from you could make a big difference to someones life, but you cannot help them all.
Keep an eye on your belongings, walk on the lit side of the street, take care, grow eyes in the back of your head. Avoid dodgy neighborhoods especially at night.
Whereas I have found that most people are good and honest and even the bad ones have good in them, be wary. Never trust anyone until you know more about them and then go by gut instinct.
If anyone offers you anything that seems to good to be true....it probably is not true.
Observe the law of the land you are in. Don't expect special treatment if you commit a crime. I have met people who have spent months in Thai jails and they have nothing pleasant to say about the experience.
Travel is Fun. Get out there, relax, enjoy yourself. Tomorrow is another day.
One last site that you may like to take a look at is Just In Case I Die. Not to be morbid or anything it is just that it can eliminate the worries you may have. You can use it if you go on a trip, a date, a jungle trek. There are dozens of possibilities.