Tuesday, 22 February 2022

On backpackers

As readers of this blog know, I spent more than half of 2019 travelling around SE Asia, covering a lot of ground in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

I didn't carry a backpack, because I'm old and have spinal issues, but I was, to all extents and purposes, a backpacker: It was an extended trip. I moved around from place to place every few days. I explored widely -- not just the "top tier" tourist destinations in each country, but loads of places that see almost no Western tourists. 

I was a backpacker, with a smart cabin trolley by my side.

Backpackers get a lot of hate from a lot of places. Government ministers can be often seen leading the pack (for example, the Indonesian Tourism Minister claiming in September 2021 that backpackers weren't welcome "to keep the country clean" once Bali reopened for tourists, as if the trash that washes up on the region's beaches was all tossed by backpackers, while all the $200 a night tourists carefully took their empty Evian bottles home with them at the end of their trip).

Some of this hate-the-backpackers may be based on economic self-interest (either the speaker owns a big 4 or 5-star hotel, or the people making the largest donations to his or her campaign do), but a lot of it seems to be more based on outdated concepts.

When was the last time you saw a bunch of old-school backpackers anywhere in SE Asia?

These days, boutique hostels with infinity pools have replaced the old-timer $3-a-bed shacks. The image of the hippy backpacker in torn trousers and a fraying Bob Marley t-shirt, spliff in one hand and banana pancake in the other, stopped being relevant sometime in the 90s. We're all flashpackers now.

So why the continued hate?

As the Indonesian Ministry for Tourism got a lot of negative press for his "clean" comments, I thought I'd like to share some facts with him (cause he's bound to read this; I had 7 visitors last month, so my site is bound to become world-famous any day now):

In 2019, I spent 51 days (7 weeks) in Indonesia, flying in to Yogyakarta at the start of August, and flying out from Flores via Bali in late September.

During that trip, I spent an average of $46.31 USD per day, so just shy of $2400 USD in total. That's in-country spend, so doesn't include flights to get to Indonesia, nor the visa. I also don't drink, so the total is a little lower than it would be if I liked a beer or cocktail of an evening.

I stayed in 20 different hotels or guesthouses in Indonesia, ranging from Solo and Semarang in Java, to Pemuteran and Pantai Jemeluk in Bali, to Gili Gede and the Senaru on Lombok, to LB in Flores. Most of them I stayed 3 nights, although there were a few where I was mostly breaking a long journey, and only stayed 1 night, and a few smaller towns where I only stayed 2 nights.

I must have eaten in a hundred different restaurants, cafes, food stalls, and hole-in-the-walls. I used local taxi drivers, and tour guides, and laundry services, and shops. I carried a refillable water bottle everywhere I went. I took 2 minute showers to reduce my water usage. I didn't eat any banana pancakes (not that there's anything wrong with that) and I didn't smoke any spliffs. I spread my money around to a lot of small businesses, owned by locals.

According to the government ministers who make pronouncements on this sort of thing, that makes me undesirable.

They'd prefer that I flew in for a week, and stayed at a 4 or 5-star resort. That I was a "quality" tourist.

The 4-star Mercure Resort in Kuta is currently offering rooms for $38USD a night. It's owned by the Accor brand, so most of the proceeds will leave Indonesia, but never mind. While I'm there, I won't eat all my meals in the hotel, so I will undoubtedly visit local spots, like Starbucks. Too bad the Planet Hollywood restaurant closed down. 

Even before Covid kicked the socks out of prices, I would have probably spent less in country for a week in a 5-star than I did for 7 weeks backpacking, and would certainly have spent less for a week in a 4-star. And almost all of the profits would have been offshored. The locals would have received no benefit, apart from mostly low-paying jobs.

Or, I could be a backpacker, and put money into the pockets of local small business owners.

Yet the government ministers still keep insisting the 4 and 5-star tourist is desirable and the backpacker is undesirable. Which begs the question: 

What are they smoking?

Sunday, 22 December 2019

2019 travel costs for Thailand

Back on my 2011 travels, I included a breakdown of travel costs for Thailand. I thought it might be useful to update those costs for my 2019 trip, as I spent 3 weeks in SE Thailand in July, a month in north and northeast Thailand in October, and 9 days in SW Thailand in December.

One caveat, my travel style has always been more flashpacker than backpacker, and is probably even more so, now I'm middle aged. I like AC. I hate share bathrooms. For convenience, I've broken the Thai portions of the trip down into different sections, as the costs do vary a little (with the islands costing noticeably more than the mainland).

Peninsular towns (Songkla, Phattalung, Nakhon Si Thamarat, Surat Thani, Chumphon, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Hua Hin, Trang, Satun): average costs per day = £26.29 (1045 THB)

Accommodation average £17 per night (675 THB)
  • Songkla - 1175 THB (£29). Songkla is very popular with domestic tourists, and I was there over a weekend, meaning most places were fully booked. I therefore had to take a more expensive room that I normally would.
  • Phattalung – 730 THB (£18.25) 
  • Nakhon Si Thamarat – 495 THB (£12.40) 
  • Surat Thani – 490 THB (£12.25) 
  • Chumphon – 622 THB (£15.50) 
  • Prachuap Khiri Khan – 570 THB (£14.25)
  • Hua Hin – 744 THB (£18.50)
  • Trang – 502 THB (£12.50)
  • Satun – 590 THB (£14.75)
Food and drink: average £5.50 per day (217 THB) – mostly cheap restaurants and a few food stalls, but no alcohol. Sample costs might be:
  • 30 THB for khao gaeng (curry rice) at a market stall
  • 20 THB for an iced coffee at a stall
  • 60-70 THB for an iced coffee at a fancy coffee shop
  • 90 THB for khanom jeen (a noodle dish), a sharing-sized side of goong tod (fried shrimp fritters) and an iced tea at a small restaurant.
Sightseeing is pretty cheap, as museum fees are generally not excessive (perhaps 100-150 THB) and that wandering around and visiting wats is largely free. Average £0.68 (27 THB) per day.

Transport is also affordable: I used a mix of trains and minibuses to move between towns, with  sorngtaews, the occasional taxi, or often just my feet to get around in town. Intercity train journeys varied between about 20 and 100 THB, depending on the distance (3rd class). Intercity minibuses varied between 80 and 180 THB. I typically spent an average of £1.62 (64 THB) per day.

Northern and NE Thailand (Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao, Thaton, Mae Salong, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Phitsanulok, Dan Sai, Chiang Khan, Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdaham, Ubon Ratchathani): average costs per day = £25.64 (1026 THB).

Accommodation average £14.43 per night (577 THB)
  • Chiang Mai - 500 THB (£12.50)
  • Chiang Dao – 500 THB (£12.50) 
  • Thaton – 400 THB (£10) 
  • Mae Salong – 700 THB (£17.50). Paid extra for a room with a view of the tea fields.
  • Chiang Rai – 600 THB (£15) 
  • Phayao – 690 THB (£17.25)
  • Phrae – 700 THB (£17.50)
  • Phitsanulok – 535 THB (£13.39)
  • Dan Sai – 400 THB (£10)
  • Chiang Khan – 720 THB (£18)
  • Udon Thani – 590 THB (£14.75)
  • Nong Khai – 575 THB (£14.34)
  • Nakhon Phanom – 500 THB (£12.50)
  • Mukdaham – 952 THB (£23.80). I'd been roughing it in southern Laos for two weeks, so decided to treat myself to a plush hotel for a couple of nights.
  • Ubon Ratchathani – 425 THB (£10.65)
Food and drink: average £6 per day (240 THB) – mostly cheap restaurants and food stalls, plus a few fancy coffeeshops and the odd "nice" restaurant, but no alcohol. A bowl of khao soi (Chiang Mai style noodles with beef or chicken) or a stir fry on rice is typically between 40-60 THB.

Sightseeing is pretty cheap, as museum fees are generally not excessive (30-100 THB). Some of the more popular wats charge up to 100 THB entry fee as well. But I spent more time wandering about towns and hiking into the countryside around the town then visiting paid-for attractions, so my average spend was only £1.13 (45 THB) per day.

Transport is also affordable: I used a mix of coaches, minibuses and sorngtaews to move between towns, with a quite mobile schedule - I spent 4+ nights each in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, but most places I stayed only 2 nights, with a couple I only stayed a single night to break up a longer journey. Average spend was £2.31 (93 THB) per day.

Island sites (Ko Samui, Ko PhaNgan, Ko Lanta, Ko Ngai): average costs per day £35.80 (1424 THB)

The islands vary enormously in terms of cost. On some of them (I'm looking at you, Ko Ngai), expect to pay mid-range-and-up prices for basic, cold water fan-cooled rooms. Other islands offer some very good value rooms, especially as soon as you move one row back off beachfront properties. Average £18.36 per night (730 THB).
  • Ko Samui – 800 THB (£20) - bungalows one row back off the beach
  • Ko PhaNgan – 600 THB (£15) - small hotel one row back off the beach
  • Ko Lanta – 520 THB (£13) - bungalows a 4 minute walk inland from the beach
  • Ko Ngai – 1335 THB (£33.35) - beachfront property, but I was in one of the cheap bungalows at the back.
Food and drink is also more tourist-focused, and more expensive. Average £9.40 (374 THB) per day. If stopping by a small Thai restaurant anywhere near the beaches or touristy areas, expect to pay a minimum of 120-150 THB for a basic curry, rice, and water (double that if you're eating in your hotel's restaurant, or in a very touristy area). If partaking of international food, expect a minimum of 250-300 THB pp, excluding drinks. Still probably cheaper than back home!

Fees for diving and snorkeling trips, boat trips, etc., can add up pretty quickly, but swimming, walking on the beach, and snoozing in a hammock are all free :)

Ferries to or from the islands are usually fairly tourist-focused, so expect to pay a minimum of 300 THB every time you to from the mainland to an island, or from one island to the next (and some of the other islands I didn't visit are considerably more expensive to reach, with ferries costing 800 or 1000 THB per person). So if you're planning on doing a lot of island hopping, your costs will mount horribly quickly.

So, that gives you a rough idea how much you might spend, assuming you travel as a solo flashpacker.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

2019 travel costs for Laos

I visited Laos for the first and second time this year. I crossed from NE Thailand into Laos at Vientiane in October 2019, and spent three nights in Vientiane, then up to Luang Prabang for 6 nights. Then I visited again spent in November and December 2019, crossing into Southern Laos from Cambodia, and working my way north through the 4000 Islands, Pakse, Savannaket, and Thakhek, to cross back into Thailand at Nakhon Phanom. Here is a brief run-down of my spending on these trips (as a solo flashpacker).

Although not as expensive as Cambodia, Laos is still a bit more expensive than Thailand, with loads of fancy French restaurants and patisseries to tempt you into going over your budget. I spent an average of £40 / $48.50 USD per day (about 1480 THB. By comparison, I spent about 1000 THB a day in northern and NE Thailand).

Accommodation often hovers around the $20-22 USD mark for standard, decent places with AC. Exchange rates vary a lot from place to place, so these are all approx.
  • Vientiane – $22 (210,000 kip)
  • Luang Prabang  – $20 (180,000 kip)
  • Don Khone (part of the 4000 Islands) – $33 (300,000 kip). There were loads of cheaper, more backpackery places available on the islands, especially on the more touristy Don Dhet, but I decided I wanted to splurge a little on a nice place in a quieter part of the islands. 
  • Pakse – $29 (260,000 kip)
  • Savannaket – $22 (205,000 kip)
  • Thakhek – $22 (200,000 kip) 
Food and drink: average $17.23 USD (£13.13) per day in the north (a lot of tourist-oriented restaurants, a lot of fancy pastries and croissants, and a few high end meals at expensive restaurants) and $9.90 USD (£7.54) in the south. Sample costs might be:
  • $3.37 (30,000 kip) for a croissant or pastry, and coffee or tea
  • $7-7.50 (60,000-68,000 kip) for a baguette and juice or coffee
  • $14.50 (130,000 kip) for a three-course lunch in a nice French restaurant
  • $5-6.60 (45,000-53,000 kip) for a curry, rice, and water at a tourist-oriented small restaurant
  • $2.25 (20,000 kip) for a plate of local food in a small (non-touristy) restaurant
  • $1.15 (10,000 kip) for noodles at the market
  • $0.50 (5000 kip) for a large bottle of water in a touristy area
Sightseeing: average $5.85 USD (£4.50) per day.  Sample costs include 10,000 kip ($1.12) donation at a small temple, 20,000-50,000 kip ($2.25-$5.60) entry to museums or tourist sites, 85,000 kip ($9.55) for a half-day boat trip out of Luang Prabang, and 200,000 kip ($22.50) for a full day kayak trip out of 4000 Islands. Remember to budget for souvenirs (all those beautiful hand-woven textiles are sure to catch your eye....)

Transport: average $4.90 USD (£3.80) per day. Coaches or minibuses between towns typically cost around $3.50-$11 per trip, depending on the distance, and tuktuks and taxis around town tend to charge tourist prices, so expect to pay $3 for a short trip, and $6-7 for a longer one (such as from Luang Prabang or Vientane town centre to the airport). Arriving in Luang Prabang, the airport taxis even put me and another tourist in the same taxi, and charged us both full fare!

So, that gives you a rough idea how much you might spend, assuming you travel as a solo flashpacker, and like your French pastries as much as I do.

Friday, 29 November 2019

2019 travel costs for Cambodia

I visited Cambodia for the first time in November 2019, and thought it might be useful to share how much it cost (as a solo flashpacker).

First off, Cambodia is harder to do cheaply than neighbouring Thailand. You will often end up paying more to find decent accommodation, and it can be harder to find street food (certainly, the street food is less accessible). Although I found cheap local noodle places in some places, in others those sorts of joints were either few and far between, or seemed (to my fastidious Western eyes) quite decrepit, so I didn't necessarily feel comfortable eating there. Plus all those fancy French restaurants and patisseries are quite tempting....So I ended up going considerably over my budget, and spent an average of  $66.67 USD (£50.61) per day.

Accommodation average $31 per night (£23.59). Siem Reap has an enormous number of hotels and dorms, across all price points. At the price I was paying, expect a nice room in a small hotel with a pool. Phnom Penh has a lot of quite dodgy, cheap places. I splurged for a midrange hotel, so I could be assured a pleasant stay, away from the noise of the city. Sihanoukville should be avoided at all costs (the town has been turned into a massive construction site and garbage dump, with almost all the old backpacker-friendly places gone). The islands are nice, but very expensive (I guess that's supply and demand, now Sihanoukville has been destroyed, there are very few places left for beachgoers to visit). Kampot, Kep, Kratie and Stung Treng have more of the old backpacker vibe going on, with plenty of good-value accommodation available.
  • Siem Reap – $24.
  • Battambang  – $20 
  • Phnom Penh – $34 
  • Sihanoukville – $40 – arrived too late to want to go to the islands, so spent a night in town. That was a mistake.
  • Koh Rong Samloen – $69 for a perfectly average bungalow joint. Decent place, but about twice what I'd expect to pay for something similar on the Thai islands.
  • Koh Rong – $52
  • Kampot – $17
  • Kep – $20
  • Kratie – $15
  • Stung Treng – $15
Food and drink: average $17.68 USD (£13.42) per day. A lot of tourist-oriented restaurants, a lot of fancy pastries and croissants, and a few high end meals at expensive restaurants. Sample costs might be:
  • $3.50 for a croissant and coffee for breakfast
  • $2.75 for an iced coffee in the Angkor archaeological park
  • $5-11 for a meal at a tourist-oriented cafĂ© or small restaurant (ie., a veggie bowl and smoothie, or a sandwich and iced coffee, or a curry and rice). Expect prices at the lower end of the range in the more backpackery sites, and the upper end on the islands or Siem Reap
  • $33 for a fancy afternoon tea at a 5 star hotel
  • $1.25-$2 for a bowl of noodles at a local place
Sightseeing: Angkor will be your main sightseeing cost, and isn't cheap, but is well worth it. A three day pass will be sufficient for most people, and costs $62 USD. Add on to that the cost of a tuktuk or driver to get you to/from, and around the site. I was told the going rate was $12 a day, but I found the drivers typically asked for $15-20 (I agreed $15 each time, so may have overpaid a bit, but I figure a man should make a decent wage for his time). 

Other sightseeing costs: $8-15 each for the big museums and sites in Phnom Penh, $1 to $5 for small museums and art spaces outside of the capital, $13 plus tips for a pepper plantation tour (including hotel pickup), $20 for a snorkelling trip, $14 for a full-day bus trip up Bokor mountain, and $10 for a half-day cooking class.

Transport is also generally affordable, with a large number of coach companies plying routes between towns. I tended to use the more expensive coach companies (typically $8-15 per trip), with better reputations for reliability and quality of buses, but don't expect too much. Even the more expensive companies frequently break down, or arrive an hour or two late. I moved around a fair amount, and spend an average of $7.50 pd, including the cost of hiring tuktuks for the day to visit Angkor Wat, and a few tuktuk taxis to get across town.

So, that gives you a rough idea how much you might spend, assuming you travel as a solo flashpacker, and like your French pastries as much as I do.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Kampot: a taste of old-school backpacker life

Cambodia has been developing quickly. Not too long ago, Siem Reap was a small town. Now it's a massive tourist hub, completely outgrown it's own infrastructure.

Sihanoukville has turned from what apparently used to be a party-oriented beach-bum site, to a hole of half-finished construction and gambling.

The islands still have some nice bits, but prices have shot up ($60-70 USD for a beach shack) and the vacant lots are rapidly filling in with "boutique" hotels and glamping setups (charging minimum $100 a night for a tent), catering more to middle-class professionals on 2 week's holiday than long-term travellers.

So where do you go in Cambodia for an old-school traveller vibe, a relaxed scene where you can meet other people and chill for a while, without worrying about your cash running out?

Well, that would be Kampot and Kep, in the far south, not that far from Vietnam.

The big durian in Kampot

Yes, that old-school traveller vibe is alive and well, especially in Kampot. And although that means a lot of not-terribly good restaurants selling burgers and watermelon shakes, it does mean good value accommodation, easy access to group tours, and plenty of new friends to make (should that appeal to you).

The town is an attractive one, with plenty of French colonial architecture, alongside some more modern bits. And the townspeople do love them a neon light, so much of the city is also attractive to walk around in the evening.

There are also a wide selection of decent international cuisines, and a general friendly feel. I liked exploring the town for a few days, and it helped blast away some of my Cambodia malaise.

Popular tours include a day trip to the remains of Bokor Hill Station (which I'll cover in a separate post), or an evening boat trip up the river, to see the fireflies.

It's a popular trip, with several boats going just before sunset each night. You can buy a ticket just before you board (which includes a drinks ticket or two), or you can sometimes get a free entry-only ticket (I was given a free entry ticket when I booked my Bokor Hill Station tour) and partake of the cash bar on board. 

Most boats are flat, barge-like boats with additional seating on pillows on the roof (my bones are old and creaky, so I chose to sit at a table and chairs on the main deck). If you do decide to take to the roof, please be aware: the boat goes under one very low bridge, where everyone on the roof has to lie down to avoid being squished as the underside of the bridge passes just above their bodies. (I wonder how often someone doesn't see the bridge coming and gets clunked?)

Sunset as the firefly boat sets off up the river

Another firefly boat, seen from my boat

One of the bridges seen from the firefly boat

All in all, I liked the town, and could easily see a traveller deciding to spend a few extra days. I would have been tempted to stay longer myself, if I'd had the time to spare on my visa....

Sorry about the finger - my phone is too large and heavy to use one-handed, and when I try and
shoot 2 handed sometimes a fingertip gets in the way. When did phones become so big again?

Friday, 8 November 2019

Battambang, the cultural centre of Cambodia

After a busy handful of days in uber-touristy Siem Reap, I caught a bus to Battambang, knowing little about the town (except that it had a reputation as a cultural centre, as was in the breadbasket of Cambodia).

On the road, just outside of Battambang

There's a great collection of old Khmer artefacts at the Battambang Provincial Museum, smack-dab in the old town (opening hours are a bit erratic, and don't expect the staff to know any English except "One dollar" which will get shouted at you the second you cross the threshold.)

There's a brilliant collection of modern Cambodian art (and a relaxing rooftop coffeeshop) at Romcheik 5 Artspace, nestled in a quiet, green street a short walk East from the town centre.

Landscape Under Acid Rain, by HOUR Seyha

There's plenty of choice in hotels, cafes serving western food, traditional Cambodian food, and even cooking classes (I took one at Nary Kitchen, and Nary was absolutely lovely).

Newer Battambang - some of the good-value hotels along the riverbank (goats not included)

In the old town

There are plenty of tourists in town, obviously (there wouldn't be half as many vegan cafes and cooking schools without them), but the town doesn't feel overly touristy.

It will never be my favourite place in Cambodia, probably because I had some bad luck with hotels: In the first place I stayed someone tried to enter my room during the night. It seems to have been an honest mistake - the man was a staff member who apparently thought the room was unoccupied. I moved to another hotel in the morning, and discovered when coming back to that second hotel in the evening that I'd inadvertently picked one right where the local red light zone was, so I was walking past prostitutes and curb-crawlers every evening (which honestly didn't bother me as much as the local naked homeless guy, standing there watching them, did - I don't think Cambodia has much mental health provision). None of which is the town's fault, but it did rather put me off.

Still, for a low-key couple of days in Cambodia, you could do worse.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Saving the best for last: Angkor Wat

So this is the biggie: the temple of Angkor Wat itself. 

World famous. Awe-inspiring. Crowded.

You've undoubtedly seen the photos of the central causeway and path filled with hundreds and hundreds of people, a solid mass of humanity streaming into the main entrance. But those pictures fail to tell the full story.

Pick your time of day right, and you'll find smaller crowds. Not empty of other people, of course, but definitely quieter. 

The site is also massive – take your time exploring the smaller structures surrounding the main temple, and the outer courtyard (many tourists rush straight into the centre of the structure, leaving the outer portions less visited, and missing the spectacular bas reliefs that adorn the outer courtyard walls).

One of the outer buildings

Portico of the outer courtyard walls

View over part of the outer courtyard from the roof

Bathing pool inside one of the inner courtyards

The money shot

Preah Khan

Wandering around Preah Khan feels like discovering a ruined monastery - a mess of crumbling small chambers and hallways, courtyards, and rubble, surrounded by forest and moats. 

It's a popular site, but large enough that you can easily get away from other people and have your own little Indiana Jones moment.

A few more places to lose yourself

Opposite the terraces, you'll find a large dirt parking lot where your tuktuk driver can wait for you, a handful of vendors selling cold drinks and souvenirs, and a large modern toilet block. 

Behind all of that, though, you'll find large handful of largely deserted and unvisited temples, stretching across the grasslands and forest.

Preah Pithu group is a collection of small temples spread over a wooded area

One of the Preah Pithu group
The northern-most of the Khleangs, most likely used as storerooms

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The royal terraces

Terrace of the Elephants

Close up on some of those elephants

Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King