Robbed on the bus from Bangkok!

31 03 2010

Last time we met, we were on our way from Chang Mai in Northern Thailand and all the way down to Ao Mae Haad on Ko Phangan in Southern Thailand.  In 48 hours we spent 30 on a bus and two in a boat but it was all worth it when we came to Mae Haad.  This is not the first time we’ve been here, we came here near the beginning of our trip as can be seen in previous posts: Island hopping, Little piece of heaven and From one island to the next.

The journey wasn’t without its incidents as we discovered when we arrived in Mae Haad.  When we opened our bags it was obvious that someone had gone through the bags in search for something.  After a closer inspection we were only missing a flashlight, a watch, a wallet with 1,000 ISK and one roll of gaffer tape.  Since the Icelandic króna is practically worthless these days it wasn’t such a big loss :) maybe the biggest loss was in my watch but I’m sure I’ll make up for that in China!

We have been warned on several occasions not to leave any valuables in our big back pack and fortunately we have our ears open once in a while.  We had all our valuables with us – it was unlucky that the watch was there but I had bought a nice fake watch in Chang Mai.  Of course I won’t tell anyone which kind because I want you to think that I have the real thing ;)

The life for the past five days here in Mae Haad has been wonderfully simple.  We wake up around nine and go to the beach – eat lunch when we get hungry and then head for the beach again until about sunset – then its time to clean up before dinner – eat dinner and go to sleep.  The beach here is beautiful and great snorkeling.  There is plenty of people during the day but most come here by bike and go back before dinner so the evenings are quiet.

Once a month there is a big Full Moon party here on Ko Phangan with up to 30,000 visitors.  On the day of the Full Moon Party we rented a motor bike and drove around the island.  We tried to drive to Bottle Beach, supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches around, but the road was so horrible that we turned around when we could almost see the beach.  There is possible to get there by boat so we might try that before we leave.  After Bottle Beach we went to Haad Rin where the party takes place.  We thought that we would be able to catch the beginning of the party before heading home but it started very slowly unlike an Icelandic “Verslunarmannahelgi” and we kind of missed it :(  The roads here are not that great that we wanted to be driving in the dark on the busiest night of the month. 

Is backpacking in Asia something for you?

30 03 2010

It is only natural that before going on an almost four month journey with just a single back pack, something that we hadn’t done before, we had some concerns and worries regarding how things will turn out.  In this post I will list the main concerns we had before leaving home and address them now that we have visited all the four countries, here in South East Asia, that we will be visiting on this trip.  So below are our concerns.

Is backpacking something for us?
Will it be fun to travel for four months?
How will the accommodation be at our price point?
Will we like the food?
What about sanitation and what diseases could we catch?
What about visas?
What about bugs and other unknown creatures?
Will there be people everywhere trying to scam us?
Will we be in danger?

Is backpacking something for us?

We have seen people from the age of seventeen up to almost seventy backpacking so it is fair to say that backpacking can be for anyone – at least age doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor.

Being on our own with nothing other than our backpack has given us great freedom to go wherever we have wanted to go, whenever we have wanted to go.  We have had absolute freedom regarding how we spend our money and when.  All that freedom has been just fantastic. 

We have been on an organized trip before and I have to say that backpacking suites us much better than a package trip, especially here in South East Asia where there are so many people backpacking and the infrastructure for it is great.  It is less of a hassle than one would think and it quickly becomes a routine to find a new hostel or organize activities or decide where to go next.

Will it be fun to travel for four months?

Before heading off this was a big question mark.  Before this trip our longest trip had been three weeks or so and we have always been quite happy to return home. 

Travelling for such a long time has definitely been different in many ways.  We have not been in such a rush to see as much as we can before returning home and that has given the whole trip a different rhythm.  It has also affected our buying habits in a nice way – often when abroad we’ve been thinking about what to buy and maybe focusing too much on that aspect but now we have just postponed all buying decisions and just been enjoying the places we have been visiting.

Of course there have been ups and downs in the almost three months that have already passed but for the most part the trip has been a fantastic adventure.  I think that the downs are mostly connected with staying too long in a particular place and we have become bored of the place or maybe more the atmosphere at that place.  A couple of times we have also experienced a kind of travel boredom where for instance we can go and see a world famous temple or something like that but because we have seen so many fantastic temples we aren’t really interested, which is kind of sad.

I’m not sure we’ll ever go on such a long trip again and this has surely been a once in a lifetime experience.  I think that the optimal trip length for us might be somewhere around six to eight weeks and we would surely rather go twice for eight weeks than once for the four months :)

There are numerous stories of people that start backpacking and when the get back home the can’t wait to go on the road again …and again so only time can tell how thing will go in our case :)

How will the accommodation be at our price point?

We have been staying at budget hostels and guesthouses, typically priced between 8-20 dollars for two depending on the price level in that particular town.  I would say that the accommodation in general has been better than we expected.  Of course there have been a few instances where we should have looked further but decided to stay but for the most part we have been fairly lucky.  The worst experiences have been when we have arrived after dark to a new place tired and annoyed and not bothered to look hard enough and settled for something less than satisfying – we’ve kind of always known but still didn’t look further.

Will we like the food?

The food around here has ranged from being absolutely fantastic to being nothing special.  It has never been bad and that says something.  We only had problems finding something we liked on two occasions, first in Bangkok after we arrived and that was just that we were afraid to try and too conscious about sanitation and cleanliness, which has never been an actual problem here.  The other time was in Phenom Penh where it wasn’t easy to find nice places to eat at.

In general the Western food hasn’t been too good except that we’ve had a few good pizzas.  The Western food is also a lot more expensive than the local food and definitely not worth the extra money.  In quite many places we could find Indian food and that was always very good.  A bit more pricy than the local food but great to mix things up.

The Thai food has been fantastic wherever we have been – at the guesthouses, with street vendors or at restaurants.  The curries and the fried rice, soups and nonames, noodles and pancakes and the variety of fresh seafood is astonishing.

The food in Cambodia was a bit of a disappointment after the Thai food.  It always felt like they put too little chilly in everything so it tasted a little bland.  The exception was the Amok, which is a special kind of Cambodian curry.  The food wasn’t bad but just needed more seasoning for our taste.

Vietnamese food received mixed reviews in the group.  I loved the food but Elínborg was less impressed.  They have a great variety so there is plenty to choose from and everyone should be able of find something they like.  The street vendors offer really fresh and good baguettes that we ate a lot for breakfast and most places have wonderful Vietnamese coffee.

The food in Laos was always good – even the Western food.  It had some French influence with great baguettes and fantastic Lao coffee and I only remember everything tasting good in Laos.

What about sanitation and what diseases could we catch?

In terms of diseases we took some precautions before heading off.  We went to a vaccination clinic in Switzerland and got all the vaccinations they recommended.    Of course one can not be vaccinated against all diseases so we took some medicine with us.  What we took is listed here.

We have actually been surprised about the sanitation level of food and food products. We just expected that we would have a mild food poisoning once in a while or stomach aches after eating something bad but that hasn’t occurred at all.  We have had some aches after eating something too spicy for our stomachs but that is easy to avoid.  We have eaten at Western restaurants, local restaurants, local homes, street vendors and food markets and at no point have we eaten anything that has given us problems.

What about visas?

When you fly into Thailand you get a 30 day visa exemption for free (at least most European citizens) and if you enter on land borders you get a 15 day exemption so there is no hassle to enter Thailand, just make sure that you don’t overstay the exemption or you’ll get a 500 baht per day fine.

Visa into Cambodia is available at most borders for $20.  We had heard of Cambodian border controllers asking for more money and to avoid all hassle we bought an e-Visa off the internet for $25, a very easy two day process and in the end you have a print-out that you show at the border.

We got the Vietnamese visa in the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok.  I think that it cost 1,900 baht if you wait for two days but 2,200 baht, just over $60, if you want to pick it up the next day.  However it was much cheaper to get the visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Phenom Penh, Cambodia.  I think that it costs 30-35 dollars over there.

The Visa into Laos was available at the airport in Luang Prabang and cost about $30.  We were out of dollars but they were happy to take baht instead – at a reasonable exchange rate.

When we entered Burma we got a day permit (apparently good for two nights) at the border for $10 or 500 baht so bring dollars if you have them.

The visa for China we got at the Chinese embassy in Reykjavík.  We got a six month visa with two entries just to make sure and that was around $100 if I .remember correctly.  Maybe a three month, one entry visa would have been sufficient but we didn’t really know at the time.

So if you stay slightly informed the visas shouldn’t pose any problems.  Just check before the trip if all the countries that you want to go to offer visas to citizens of your country.

What about bugs and other unknown creatures?

The only creature that has really been bothering us are the mosquitoes.  They seem to love fresh Nordic blood.  There are over 3,000 different types of mosquitoes, each slightly different from the others.  We have usually been most bitten when we are at a new place.  Then we learn how, where and when the mosquitoes bite and can better avoid them.  Some bite in the morning, others at dusk and yet others during the night.  Some bite mostly by the joints, others on the feet and some in the limbs so the are a bit difficult to figure out.  The best way to avoid them is to be properly clothed in the early morning and at dusk and apply some mosquitoes repellant – we have used 50% deet.

We have once meet bed bugs.  We didn’t see them at first, actually we weren’t really looking but as soon as we laid on the bed the came forwards.  Bed bugs are nasty looking creatures looking a bit like lice and they bite you if they can.  The bite is not dangerous but itches a lot.  We had been warned that we could encounter them and that we should always check the beds before deciding on a room but we hadn’t seen any after ten weeks so we weren’t really checking any more.

We have seen some rats but only in the street so they have not been bothering us at all.  We have seen some cockroaches as well and had a few of them visiting our rooms but I wouldn’t say that has been common – maybe in every tenth guesthouse or even more seldom.  There are ants everywhere here so if you leave something they like they are pretty quick to find it and carry it away so don’t forget those chips on the table :)

Will there be people everywhere trying to scam us?

We have encountered a few scams along the way as can be seen here.  I think that all of them can be easily avoided by using common sense and be a little prepared.  The Lonely planet books list a few of the scams so that is a good start.  Just remember that there is no free lunch and always double check all prices and you’ll be good

It is understandable that people with little money try get as much for products and services as they possibly can – it’s the same as we do in the West – so that can’t really be categorized as a scam.  We have however seen that it pays to shop around and check for the prices at other vendors.  Often people add a tourist premium or just think that you have just arrived and try to charge too much.

Will we be in danger?

I don’t think that we have been in any danger at any point in our trip, at least not more danger than if we would have stayed at home ;)  Everyone connected with tourism has seemed to us as very responsible and safety minded.  Even the bus drivers, that seem to have a bad reputation on the internet, were quite good and drove responsibly.

Just one warning, always keep all valuables with you and not in your big back pack, especially while on the busses.  At one point someone went through our bags during a bus ride and we have heard of other instances on boats and in storage rooms at guesthouses so it is better to be safe than sorry and keep everything valuable with you!

Lonely Planet – Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Travel Guide

28 03 2010

southeast-asia Before going on our trip we bought the latest Lonely Planet – Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Travel Guide (14th Ed.), published in March 2008.  The book contains separate chapters on each of the countries in South East Asia and for each country it lists the main cities, towns and other notable places.  For each of those places place it in turn lists the main activities, main sights, accommodation options and eateries and lists the prices for everything above.

We thought we would be all set with this book as it covered all the four countries that we planned to visit and we were not alone with that thought.  A great majority of the people we have seen on the road have been carrying this same book. 

I can only say for us that we were greatly disappointed.  We weren’t satisfied with this book at all!  It focuses mainly on accommodation and where to eat but less on what is really interesting in the places it recommends so it hardly passes as a travel guide – its more of a hostel/guesthouse/restaurant directory.  If the book would have been a good hostel/guesthouse/restaurant directory we wouldn’t have any complaints but it wasn’t at all.  The info it gave was too out-dated for that, the prices were way wrong and the descriptions were often inaccurate.  Maybe we should have known better, buying a book that was one and a half year old at the time but it was the latest version and we didn’t give it a second thought.

Before the trip I had read a lot of reviews that complained about Lonely Planet and this book might be the reason.  If we were repeating the same trip we would not buy this book.  We probably wouldn’t even take it if it would be given to us!  Therefore we really can’t recommend this book for anyone unless they have a brand new version. 

We however bought the Lonely Planet – Vietnam book while in Cambodia and that one was very good.  It had good descriptions on every place we visited with a lot more info than the shoestring book and the info was very accurate and thorough.

If we would have known then what we know now we would have bought the Lonely Planet – Thailand book before leaving home – so that we could plan the first couple of weeks.  For the ten days we spent in Cambodia we didn’t really need a guide book and we really liked the Vietnam book we bought in Cambodia so I guess we would buy that one again – or the Rough Guide – Vietnam. 

By the way, they sell a lot of really cheap copies in Cambodia (we saw them in Vietnam as well) so keep that in mind.  The copies are of decent quality but the maps, pictures and drawings are nothing special.  What is good about them is the price, a Lonely Planet book that costs around $20 on Amazon is available for just $3-4 in Cambodia.  With that kind of an investment it is easy just to leave the book behind when you don’t need it anymore.  Of course the downside is that they are illegal so you wouldn’t be buying those books, would you?

For the ten days we spent in Laos we didn’t really need a book but we would have liked to travel more in Laos and then we would surely need a guide book and I guess that the Lonely Planet – Laos is as good as any but just to get the comparison it might be a good idea to get the Rough Guide – Laos for cheap in Vietnam before entering Laos.

For the China part of our trip we have purchased Lonely Planet – China and it looks good but the real judgment will be handed out after we have used it in China.

Blogging on the road

27 03 2010

I have received a few questions on bringing a computer with me on a backpacking trip like ours and I’ll try to answer as many of them in this post as I can.

Why a Netbook?

I really wanted to blog throughout our journey, both to let people know where we are and what we were doing but also to keep a journal for our selves that we can look at in a few years to remind us of how great the trip was.  We also needed some sort of a device to store our photos, we have so far taken over 1,300 photos and videos in ten weeks but our camera only stores about 600 photos if I remember it correctly.  Being able to watch movies and listen to music would be an added bonus.  With that in mind I did some research back in December to see what we could do.

I have a 13 inch MacBook at home that I love dearly and even though it is quite small I didn’t like the idea of taking an expensive device like that with me so if I wanted to take something with me I would have to acquire it.  I looked into several smart devices like the iPhone and netbooks and laptops as well.  At first I really liked the idea of a 9 inch netbook but they were hard to get and in the end I settled on a 10 inch Asus netbook from Amazon. 

The netbook was “only” about $340 and had everything that I wanted: Windows 7 (I didn’t have the time to install MacOS), fantastic battery life (10.5 hours), adequate hard disk space (250 GB) and memory (1 GB) and a bright screen with a good resolution (1024×600) and most importantly light (just over a kilo) and compact.

What about Internet Access in the Orient?

Before coming over here I thought that we would have internet access once a week or so at best but we have been pleasantly surprised that you can get on the internet almost anywhere.  I would say that about 70% of the guesthouses that we have stayed in have had their own computers that they rent out (often at inflated prices) and free wifi access in the lobby area for those that have their own computers and about 15% even have access in the rooms.  This has been the same for all four countries we’ve been in so far.

Internet cafes are quite frequent but they are not really cozy places to hang around in – just rows of computers – so when we have not had internet at the guesthouse we have dropped into one of many restaurants offering free wifi to entice customers.  There have been plenty of restaurants with free wifi, at least where the guesthouses seem not to have wifi on their menu.

The internet connections have been quite fast over here, maybe not as fast as back in Europe but fast enough to upload these blog posts, movies to YouTube and photos to flickr.

How to keep safe?

I haven’t been too concerned with digital security – someone sniffing the network and trying to steal my passwords – I think that is more of a concern if you are using a shared computer.  Physical security however has been more of a concern.

When we have been one the road i have always had the computer in my small bag so it is with me at all times, I would never have it in the big pack as it gets thrown around and, as we have seen on one occasion, been searched through for some valuables.

After we have picked a guesthouse I sometimes leave it there during the day but if I get suspicious I take it with me.  Sometimes the lock on the door isn’t too trustworthy or that strangers could go to the rooms unseen, then I just take it out with me – it is just one kilo so it isn’t a big deal, just like taking an extra water bottle.  If I leave it in the room I always lock it in my big bag and sometimes I lock the bag to the bed.  I know that is false security as a thieve could easily open the bag with a knife but it makes me feel better.

Some guesthouses offer security boxes in the lobby area but we haven’t used that service at all.

Quite many tourists over here carry expensive cameras that are 4-10 times more expensive than my computer so I’m not overly concerned about theft but just in case we always back up our photos to a memory stick ca. every three weeks.

How to make time to blog?

Most of my posts are written off-line with Windows Live Writer, a blog editor from Microsoft that works nicely with WordPress – my blog service.  In Writer I can format the posts and insert the photos so that when I come online I can publish the posts by pressing one button.  Same goes for photos where I use Flickr Uploader to upload the photos to Flickr with a push of a button.

Since I’m able to do everything offline I can just use whatever dead time that is available.  My favorite times for blogging are at night just before going to sleep or while taking one of the many bus rides that we’ve been on – it passes time pretty quickly :)

How has it all turned out?

Apart from the blogging and photo storing it has been nice to be able to watch movies at night or go through our photos together, edit and refine them, when we have the time.  It has also been fantastic to be able to update the iPods once in a while, refreshing the music library or adding new audio books instead of the ones we finish.

All in all it has been a fantastic decision to take the netbook with us and definitely worth the little hassle it has cost us.  I won’t think twice about taking a computer with me on our next trip!

Mae Sai Visa run and then back to Bangkok

26 03 2010

Before entering Thailand from Laos we had heard that we might only get a fifteen day visa exception into Thailand, which would be too short for us, but the Lonely Planet book told us thirty days so we didn’t worry.  When we were at the border we discovered that the 30 day visa is only granted when you fly into Thailand so we only got fifteen days.

That meant that our visa would expire before we fly to Hong Kong and the fine for overstaying your visa is 500 baht per day ($16).  To escape the fine we needed to make a visa run.  A visa run is to go to a neighboring country, only for a few minutes, and then back to Thailand to get extra fifteen days.  The cheapest option is to go to Burma (Myanmar) (Laos $30 and Cambodia $20) where you can get a day permit for $10 or 500 baht, which is very strange since $10 is actually 330 baht ?!?!

For our visa run we drove up to Mae Sai, a small border town by the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet.  The Golden Triangle used to be the world’s biggest opium producer but that has all been cleaned up – at least on the Thai side.  The four hour drive up to Mae Sai was painless and once in Mae Sai we just walked through the Thai immigration office to get stamped out and into the Burma immigration office where we paid the fee got our Burma passport stamp and walked back into Thailand with a new fifteen day visa.  The whole process took about ten minutes and was as simple as could be.

After getting our stamp we drove back to Chang Mai to take the ten hour sleeper bus to Bangkok.  We are only staying the day in Bangkok before talking another sleeper bus down to Chumpon and from Chumpon we take the boat back to Ko Phangan where we intend to load the batteries before taking on China – The Middle Kingdom.  I have a few topics I want to address while on the beach so stay tuned :)

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

26 03 2010

small.DAWKINS_The God Delusion Richard Dawkins is an atheist and has been very active in public debates about religion, both in the UK and in the US.  He has both written books and hosted TV shows where he scrutinizes religion and argues all religion is harmful and that atheism is the only way forward.

In this book, The God Delusion, Dawkins has two main goals: first “To raise consciousness to the fact that being an atheist is a realistic aspiration” and secondly, to convince believers, from any faith-system, that there is almost certainly no god and therefore they should convert to atheism.

In the book Dawkins tries to answer questions like – Is it possible that God created the universe? Why do almost all civilizations have some sort of a faith system? Do we need god to be moral? Aren’t we better off having a god to console us?  Is it possible that there is no God?

Without passing any judgment here on whether Dawkins is right or wrong, I thought it was a very interesting book in deed and entertaining at times.  Dawkins has a been debating the issue for years and his arguments are quite polished and his coverage of the topic thorough.

This is a topic that most humans think about at some point in their life and some minds are constantly on the subject.  This book comes from a side that is not very often heard and I think it is very healthy for anyone to read the book and familiarize them selves with its content, even if they don’t agree with the author.

The only fault I could find with the book is that sometimes Dawkins is too academic in his arguments and I sometimes felt that he was arguing for the arguments sake.  I also noticed that occasionally Dawkins interprets what people were actually thinking while saying certain things, which he has really no idea about.  He has plenty of good arguments and doesn’t need to add the bad ones as well.

I would recommend this book to anyone contemplating faith in any way or is having doubts of their own faith. I think that the book is also an excellent read for people that are interested in the public debate regarding faith and religion in modern society as it speaks the voice that is not too often heard in that same debate.