This is my current transportation breakdown for the Asia 2017 trip. The total comes to $1,698.22, or $19.98, a day for all transportation from one location to another for the 85 days. While that will not be the exact final figure but it will be fairly close as the airfare and bus rides are already purchased and that comprises the vast majority of the major transportation expense. There are 23 flights, 3 bus rides, 3 train trips and a car rental. Actual map is here. Continue reading
These are the weather averages for the cities I’ll be visiting for my Asia 2017 trip. This helps me to figure out what to pack. Continue reading
Couchsurfing. Strange sounding word, right? And it is strange. While I normally like to send neophytes to Wikipedia to check out concepts, the Wikipedia page for Couchsurfing is terrible. It tends to leave someone that has no knowledge of couchsurfing with an impression that is far from what couchsurfing is all about.
Couchsurfing is, essentially, asking someone to sleep on their “couch” and that “couch” can actually be anything from a spot on the floor to a whole apartment if they aren’t there when you surf their place. I’ve participated in Couchsurfing. Many times. Yes, it can appear to be a strange concept to the uninitiated, but it’s really not. It’s about people who are relatively open to meeting new people and sharing some life experiences. It does, however, have some pros and cons.
Pros: You will be guaranteed meet some really interesting people. Some people say it’s a way to stay somewhere for free. The host can fill you in on what’s going on in a particular locale. You get to see what normal, everyday life can be like in the area in which you find yourself. In a some locales, it’s the absolute best way to find great accommodations. In some instances, you can stay with some incredibly interesting people in some even more incredibly interesting places.
Cons: It takes work. It’s only free for those people who have no money and can’t take their host out for a meal or a drink. Conscientious surfers tend to reciprocate their host’s generosity in some way. Sometimes, the person that says they will host you will back out at the last minute. I’ve had it happen. Sometimes the hosts couch is really, really far away from where you want to be.
What do I look for when I surf? References. I want someone who has a track record as a member of the Couchsurfing community. I look for potential comparability. I’m not the same person I was when I was 18. I don’t surf with teenagers. I want to surf with someone who I feel I’ll appreciate and they will appreciate me. At least to some degree. I welcome diversity, but not to the extent that I think we have absolutely nothing in common. I look for location. I like to meet people and make new friends but I travel to check out an environment and to see some of the world’s greatest wonders. The primary objective of my travels in not to meet new drinking buddies, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can do that at home. When I surf someone’s couch I want them to be different than I am but I need their couch to be relatively convenient to what I came to their world to see. I look for some “people” time. Couchsurfing is about meeting people and having some people time.
Do I Couchsurf often? No. It’s normally a lot easier to find accommodations at a hostel and hostels don’t cost that much. At a hostel I’m guaranteed to have the ability make new friends if I so desire. Sometimes, I’ll even meet people to travel with. I couchsurf when I’m in a situation where I think it will benefit my understanding of the location I’m going to and I’ll have the opportunity to make the acquaintance of someone I think can can be a real resource and someone that’s fun to be around.
Trip planning is one of my life’s little pleasures. Some people may look upon it as a pain in the behind. I look at as one of my life’s little blessings. I plan my trips. I spend a lot of hours doing it. Here’s why.
- I really enjoy it. It’s virtual travel. I get to see all kinds of places I never knew existed, places someone has discovered for me.
- I learn from it. The Internet is one huge book. It has a lot of information in it and it’s expanding faster than I can keep up. Today, if I want to know what there is to see in Nauru, a United Nations member state with a population of under 10,000 and a land mass of 8 square miles that has the same number of U.N. votes as the United States or China or Russia, I can.
- It fascinates me. Maybe I’m simple-minded or easily amused, but I can spend hours in fascination of the wonders of the world. I like them. They get me juiced. Even the ones not many people know about.
- It saves me money. How can I go out wandering the world for months at a time? I do research and find how to do things cheaply while still maintaining a high degree of personal and physical comfort .
- It makes me incredibly informed. I like to understand the cultures of the world. I like to know population densities, average incomes, how may people have running hot water and whether polygyny, polyandry or some alternative are legally allowed. I want to know where and how people live. I’m kinda like that. I enjoy certain types of trivia. I should have been a sociologist.
- It’s a challenge for me. I want to feel that I’m prepared to face the local transportation issues of Tokyo, Bucharest or Fez. They have different ones, believe me.
- It makes me efficient. If I’m taking a very structured trip or I’m taking one where the only thing I know are the dates and locations of my arrival and return cities, it means that I understand my options much better than of I have never planned at all.
- Everyone does it whether they want to admit it or not. If I’m taking a trip where the only thing I know for certain is the date and time of my trip back home, even if that date and time are months ahead, I have to make a decision about what I’m going to do every morning I wake up, even if that decision is to do absolutely nothing that day. Admit it, we all plan.
- It’s fun. At least for me.
I feel really fortunate that I can spend as much time as I do planning my trips.
Free Walking Tours. What a concept, right? How do they do it, you might ask. Well, it’s simple. They take donations at the end of the tour.
I’ve been on a few. I think they’re great. I take one every chance I get. The easiest way to find them is to go to a website freetour.com and do a search by city. Sometimes, in the bigger cities, there are more than you can do in a day or two. Sometimes, there aren’t any if you plug in a city where there are few tourists. If you can’t find a walking tour there then you might want to Google the city and the term “free walking tour” and see if there is a page or a comment. Barring that that, you can go to TripAdvisor and visit the forum for a particular country. Try searching for “free walking tour” along with the city you are in on that forum. You will only need to do this at locations where there isn’t much of a likelihood of finding a free walking due due to lack of demand. Where there are lots of tourist you can bet there will be a free walking tour offered. Often, the tour may even be sanctioned by the local tourist bureau.
As a last resort, check the accommodations where you are staying. If you’re staying at the Hilton or another upscale accommodation, I’m sure they have a list or tours that are available but it’s unlikely any of them will be free. If you’re staying at a hostel your odds on finding a free walking tour on the advise of the person at the desk go way up if there are any.
There’s a reason I’m planning my Tokyo Hostel Strategies about four months out. It seems I will be in Tokyo during Golden Week. Prior to this trip I had never heard of Golden Week. Wikipedia states that many “Japanese nationals take paid time off during this holiday, and some companies are closed down completely and give their employees time off. Golden Week is the longest vacation period of the year for many Japanese workers.” They also say “Despite significantly higher rates, flights, trains, and hotels are often fully booked.” Uhh-Ohhh.
This led me to believe that it’s a good time to establish a booking for a Tokyo hostel. Hostelworld had listings for a total of 88 properties in Tokyo at the time I wrote this. Before I did any filtering I found that there were 63 properties available for the period of April 28th through May 2nd, a period immediately prior to my flight back to the U.S. on May 2nd. When I set the filter to show that I only wanted hostels and not guesthouses, hotels or campgrounds. it lowered the number to 55 hostels. The biggest concentration of the hostels seemed to be in Taito, which is the section of the city that is often referred to as Old Tokyo. When I said I only want to see hostels that were rated 8/10 or better the number dropped to 44 hostels. Ratings are important to me, but so are the number of ratings. The price of the 44 hostels ranged from $13.93 to $29.81. The cheapest hostels tended to be cheapest because they were farther away from the center of the city and they weren’t as nice as more expensive hostels.
In the end, my three main criteria for my hostel stay in Tokyo turned out to be location, price and privacy. The hostel that I booked have a relatively good, not great, rating with over 2,000 reviews. The location of the hostel I booked was what I considered to be optimal for my situation. It was very close to a major metro station. It was in a location I felt would not be one where street or proximity noise would be a problem. It was very close to some of the major attractions I wanted to see. The price of the hostel I booked was a little under $20, a good price for a hostel in Tokyo. The hostel didn’t get a really high rating for cleanliness but the reviews tended to imply that much of that wasn’t due as much to the staff as to the guests. That tend to be what you get in less expensive hostels. The ratings also said the “atmosphere” wasn’t great. This is hostel-speak for a lack of a party atmosphere, a definite plus for me. The privacy issue comes in when there are curtains on the sleeping bunk for each bed. It help shut out some of the distractions of the room movement.
I bought a one-way airline ticket to Phuket, Thailand for $26.02 that left from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Thailand has loose visa restrictions. I can get into the country and stay for 30 days by merely having my passport stamped. Phuket is described by Wikipedia as “a rainforested, mountainous island in the Andaman Sea, has some of Thailand’s most popular beaches, mostly situated along the clear waters of the western shore. The island is home to many high-end seaside resorts, spas and restaurants. Phuket City, the capital, has old shophouses and busy markets. Patong, the main resort town, has many nightclubs, bars and discos.” Lonely Planet describes it as “Thailand’s original flavour of tailor-made fun in the sun.” Fodor’s says “Phuket has consistently been voted as one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations, both for budget travelers and those seeking sumptuous luxury.” TripAdvisor advises “Thailand’s largest island is an international magnet for beach lovers and serious divers, who enthusiastically submerge themselves in the Andaman Sea. Blue lagoons and salmon sunsets make for a dream-like atmosphere, and indeed, a vacation here can feel a bit surreal.”
I go to Thailand for the cheap scooter rentals, the incredible fruit and vegetable markets and the $5 massages.
When I checked the hostel prices for the day I would arrive I saw 25 hostels out of the 70 available hostels for Phuket that were priced under $10. Most of them are in Phuket Town but a few of them are located in Patong which Lonely Planet labels “Phuket’s sin city”, a phrase that’s hard to ignore though one that doesn’t nearly perk my attention they way it would have 40 years ago. Paton is more of a consideration for me because it’s supposed to have Phuket’s best beach. It’s something I don’t intend to miss but I’m more inclined to stay in Phuket Town due the the history. I’m not much of a beach guy, although I’ve seen more than a few from Miami to NIce to Bali.
I’m also going to the Phuket area to take in Krabi, another famous beach area in Thailand. Krabi doesn’t get the same amount of press as Phuket, but it is a well known area as far as travelers in Southeast Asia are concerned. I intend to visit Krabi Town from Phuket and to do it as a day trip via a bus so I can see a bit of the countryside.
Another reason to visit the Phuket/Krabi area is the hope that I’ll be able to visit the son of a friend of mine who I’ve known for almost 50 years. The son happens to be teaching English in the area. One thing I’ve always liked to do is to reconnect with people as I travel. I have friends whose primary reason to go to certain places as they travel is to visit people they’ve met before. While I can appreciate friendships, and I will go out of my way to visit people I know, I don’t tend to plan my itineraries around friendships as some people I know do. I tend to like to go to places I haven’t been before and I tend to build my itineraries around locations which have significant tourist attractions. But I do hope I get to see my friend’s son and I would certainly like to hear his experiences of teaching English in Thailand.
From Phuket/Krabi my intention is to take the train to Bangkok. Bangkok is a major transportation hub in Southeast Asia. Cheap flight to dozens of locations are common. Right now I’m looking at a $30 flight from Bangkok to Hanoi, Vietnam. My primary reasons to go to Vietnam would be to take the train from Ha Noi to Sai Gon. There, I can catch another cheap flight to Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwan is one of those interesting political paradoxes. It’s a part of China but it isn’t. I’ve been to China but I’ve never been to Taiwan. I haven’t purchased the tickets to Vietnam as I write this but it looks ever more likely that I will. The visa issue is nowhere near as complicated as it was the last time I was there. Nor is it anywhere near as expensive. Approximately two weeks ago they initiated an visa-on-arrival system that gets me into the country for $25, a far cry from what I paid previously. Plus, since I’ve been there before I know my way around somewhat. I found Vietnam to be a great experience. My biggest takeaway was a t-shirt that said Same Same on the front and But Different on the back typifying one of my favorite philosophical paradoxes – we’re all the same but different. Another takeaway was the realization of what happens when you smile at a Vietnamese person – they smile back. Try that in New York City, London or Paris. I like Vietnam. I’d love to ride that train from Ha Noi to Sai Gon.
Bangladesh was on my list. The keyword here is was. That’s the past tense of is. It’s not that I don’t want to go to Bangladesh. I do. I just decided that this isn’t a good time to go to Bangladesh. The reason why is the $160 visa fee for Americans. While I’ve paid more than $160 for a visa, I’ve never paid $160 for a visa to a country where I only intended to stay somewhere between 24 and 48 hours. On this trip, my journey to Bangladesh was simply going to be a run across the border to get to see Dhaka and to get an entry and an exit stamp. I had no idea that one of the poorest countries in the world was going to want me to give them $160 to get into the country. I’m glad I found out before I went too far forward with my flight reservations. I discovered the issue when I was working on my plans to get a multi-entry visa for India. What I had planned to do was to fly to Madurai, India from Colombo, Sri Lanka. I’d take in the sights in Madurai and then make my way up to Kolkata where I would catch the train to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I’d spend a day or two in Dhaka and then head back to Kolkata where I would catch a plane to Bangkok.
Sounds simple. Normally, I would show up in India and get a visa-on-arrival at the airport. But, the visa-on-arrival for India has changed. It’s actually gotten a lot better and a lot cheaper. The problem is that there are only a select group of cities in India where the new, electronic, visa-on-arrival is acceptable and Madurai, the one place I wanted to go in India this trip, was not one of that group. Madurai is not one of India’s major centers for entry into the country. To further complicate the issue, the visa-on-arrival is no longer a multi-entry visa. I was uncertain if I could have gotten a multi-entry visa that would have let me into the country multiple times on this trip when I arrived in Madurai. Further, the Indian government now has a visa that costs $120-$150 depending on how it is obtained. All the above factors made India and Bangladesh less attractive from a cost-per-day standpoint.
When I started looking at the negative issues surrounding a trip to India and Bangladesh it seemed to me that they were really the result of my not having enough time to justify the cost. With this in mind I decided to delay my trip back to India and my first trip to Bangladesh until I had a bit more time. Plus, I felt that it would be more practical to do the trip when I could combine it with a trip to the “countries” of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and Kashmir, countries I have never visited. It would be much simpler to try and do Norther India with side trips to the places I have never been before. The die was cast. I book airfare from Colombo back to Kuala Lumpur and then on the Phuket, a location that had not been on my original list of places to visit but one that had always tempted me. Bangladesh and India would have to wait until next year. Or the year after, Or the year after that. Or…
I’ve been flying on Air Asia for what seems like a long time. I can remember when I first started using them. Their website was terrible. The biggest problem was that it was difficult to get the payment processed. I’d pick my flight and in the end it could take me as many as six or seven tries to get the payment fully processed. The website kept crapping out on me and I was never sure whether the payment got processed or not. I’d wait to see if I got a confirmation email. Sometimes I’d wait for a day or more. Sometimes I’d call the credit card to see if the payment got processed. This wasn’t just an isolated issue or a one time problem. Sometimes the website worked and sometimes it didn’t. That was the norm for a couple of years.
Today, the website is much, much improved but there are still issues. I found that I needed to make one-way bookings as I was never able to decline the baggage fee or travel insurance for the return flight on round-trip bookings. I could decline them on one-way flights. I needed to decline them because the fees tended to between 25% to 50% of the price of the flight. While I’m willing to pay for seat selection, I always carry on my luggage and I have my own travel insurance for the trip. I don’t need to pay the fees.
The biggest problem I had with the Air Asia website was that it didn’t handle their cookies well. Cookies are little pieces of real-time software that keep track of what’s going on between the user and the website. I found that I was usually able to get through one booking session fairly well, but doing multiple bookings back-to-back meant having to leave the browser or clearing the cache and the cookies after each booking due to 403 Errors. These errors are, typically, communication errors caused by poor programming of the information found in the cookies. When I encountered a 403 Error in my browser it meant my ability to book with Air Asia was over until the cookies timed out or I cleared the cache and cookies. This could be a pain on days when I wanted to make as many as four bookings. Maybe I need to enroll in their Big Member program. While it’s a much better experience than it was when I originally started using their website, the Air Asia website can still cause me to become frustrated. I love all the cool things technology allows me to do, like booking airline tickets all over the world from the comforts of my home, and I hate how it doesn’t always work like I think it should. The key term here being “like I think it should.”
The issues that I have with the Air Asia website are really too bad because my overall experience with flying on the airline has been positive. I’ve seen posts on many forums that accuse Air Asia of being late all the time but my experiences with them have been relatively timely in terms of departures and arrivals. One thing I don’t like about the flights on Air Asia is that the arrivals can be be at second-tier airports that are located a very long way from the arrival city. This, however, is something that is quite common to budget airlines all over the world. That being said, I’ve found that there is virtually always a reasonably-priced shuttle bus available to take the passengers into town. It can, however, take as much as two hours to get into the destination city in some locations. Budget airlines have downsides associated with their use. I only use them because, relative to first tier airlines, they can be an incredible bargain.
I’ve done it before. Slept in airports, that is. My first time was not voluntary. It was caused by bad weather on a return flight to OKC. These days it’s something I do to live the mantra of “You have to suffer for your art form.” This trip to Asia is a Godsend. I will have the opportunity to visit the following airports: Seoul Incheon, Taipei Taoyuan and Osaka Kansai. These are rated at numbers 2, 4 and 6 worldwide in terms of sleepability. Now if I can just figure out how the squeeze Singapore Changi, the most sleepable airport in the world into my schedule, I’ll feel like I have accomplished something.