Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Money Saving Tips for the Budget Backpacker

One of our biggest concerns when planning this trip, especially as recent college graduates, was finances. After carefully planning and budgeting (see our expense reports for details), all that was left to do was to use our money wisely. At first we went through a lot of trial and error as we got the feel for traveling on our own in Southeast Asia, and sometimes we spent more than we should have. But after months of packing up our things every few days and moving to a new city, we’ve picked up on dozens of small, easy ways to save on day to day expenses. In our city by city blog posts, our goal is to help other budget travelers save as much money as possible in each destination while still enjoying their new surroundings. But there are some general tips that will save Asia-bound budget travelers money no matter where they are. Here’s what we’ve learned so far in simple bullet-point form:

  • Stick together: The most important way traveling in groups or in a pair will save you money is on hotel rooms. For solo travelers, the price of a bed in a dorm may seem like a steal, but often the cost of a double room split between two people is a much better value. For example, one bed may be $5 but a double room with a fan is $8, or $4 each. Traveling together also saves money on transportation by splitting the cost of taxis or tuk-tuks, and can even save you money on rentals or in souvenir shops. One of our favorite lines is, “If we buy two (or three, or four), can we get a discount?” It works more often than you’d think.
  • Stay longer: Another great way to get a hotel discount is by staying longer. We’ve gotten discounts pretty regularly by telling the staff we’ll be staying for a while. The magic number is at least four nights. Sticking to one area has the added benefit of giving you time to find the cheapest and best places to eat. Staying longer in one place also has benefits besides saving money, like the ability to make friends, see more of one area, and build a relationship with a certain town or city.
  • Booking online: yes or no?: Booking online is sometimes necessary and often worth it. If you’re going to a certain city during a big festival or holiday booking online is a must to avoid the last pick of hotels. It’s also useful if you’re arriving late at night. In some places there are great deals online as well. We booked a great hostel in Siem Reap for $1 a night online. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the cheapest hotels aren’t listed online, and useful websites like Hostelworld or Hostelbookers charge per person, which often ends up being more expensive. Finding a hotel upon arrival is time consuming but allows for bargaining and the chance to see the room beforehand. In other words, if there isn’t a worthwhile deal online and it’s not a peak travel time, booking in person is always the wiser choice.
  • Become a regular: Being a regular is the best, because it’s a sure way to put a smile on a small-business owner’s face. But it can also save money in unexpected ways. Every now and then we got freebies from our favorite places, like free pineapple from our favorite restaurant in Siem Reap, or free bananas and shakes from our go-to sandwich ladies in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Yay for free stuff!
  • Steer clear of tourist restaurants: Although great every now and then for comfort food, tourist restaurants usually overcharge for local specialties. The best way to save money and get a real taste for local food is by eating in local eateries or opting for street food.
  • Walk everywhere! Transportation costs like taxi and tuk tuk fares may seem cheap at first compared to Western prices, but it adds up quickly. We walked so much, I broke clean through two pairs of sandals. Walking is a great way to get to know a city, and the best part is, it’s free!
  • Rent bikes: When a sight is too far to walk, bike rental is a great alternative. This is especially true for attractions that lay outside the city. A 10 km tuk-tuk ride may be spendy, but bike rental is around 1 or 2 dollars a day and you’ll see much more on a bike than you will out the window of a taxi.
  • Take local transportation: Tourist attractions are always more expensive than just the entrance fee if you’re planning on taking taxis or other expensive forms of transport like tourist buses or tuk tuks. In most large cities, local transportation is easy to use with the right information, and is always a fraction of the price. Ask local friends, your hotel staff, or the waiter at your favorite restaurant what bus to catch to get you from A to B, and have a map or a pen and paper handy to find out where to catch it. When traveling long distances, always check to see if there are local buses you can take instead of tourist buses. Make sure you research the most affordable form of transportation available beforehand (i.e. is the train or the bus cheaper?) and see if you can buy bus tickets at the bus station instead of through an agent (it’s usually cheaper that way).
  • Filter your own water: Filtering your own water on a long trip is a good idea for reasons other than the money you’ll save; I consider a water filter an absolute essential for a backpacker in Asia simply because of the impact buying bottles of water has on the environment (especially in a place with no recycling facilities like much of Asia). Filtering water will also give you more of an idea of what it’s like not having easy access to clean water, a state much of the world’s population still lives in. But if you need more convincing, filtering water can save you a ton of money! We used my Katadyn microfilter to pump our own water on our trip. This filter can purify up to 200 gallons of water with one cartridge, depending on water quality. Based on the length of our trip (taking into account time spent with friends when we didn’t have to pump water) and the fact that we pumped approximately a gallon of water each day for the two of us, I estimated we pumped around 177 gallons of water with our filter, or 22,656 ounces. That’s equal to around 686 1 liter bottles of water (that would no doubt be in a landfill or a river by now). Priced anywhere from 50 to 75 cents per bottle, we saved between $343 and $514 over seven months by filtering our own water. No brainer? I think so.
  • Hand wash your laundry: For short trips, having your clothes laundered is actually pretty affordable. But for a long trip like ours, it adds up. Pick up some cheap powdered laundry detergent at your local market before you leave, and transfer it into a heavy duty gallon sized Ziploc. Hand washing clothes in the bathroom sink may seem like a hassle at first, but I grew to like it. It made me feel more connected to my clothes. And I did seven months of laundry for only a few dollars!
  • Get food to go: if you know you’ll be spending lunch at a busy tourist attraction, avoid the marked up prices and get food to go from a local establishment beforehand. Lunch stops on long bus rides are sometimes expensive as well, so this is also a good idea when traveling overland.
  • Join rewards programs: Without frequent flyer programs, our trip may never have happened at all. If you use a credit card, make sure it’s a rewards credit card like the AAdvantage card from Citi or Chase's United Explorer card (both of which give you bonus miles just for signing up!). However, please only do this if you plan to be responsible with the credit card. For long trips, credit cards are not a responsible method of payment, outside of emergencies. Joining other rewards programs that have no membership fee is also a good idea, like hotel rewards programs. At the very least, make sure you’re enrolled in frequent flyer programs for the airlines you use so you can accumulate mileage for your next trip.
  • Join Couchsurfing is not only an incredibly rewarding experience on a personal level, it can save you money in several ways. The most obvious way is by saving you money on a hotel room. While couchsurfing should not be abused as simply a free hotel service, it is nice not having to pay for a room. Other ways CS can save you money: free meals (sometimes, depending on the host), tips on where to find the best deals on food and travel, knowledge about the local transportation system, and unbiased advice from a friend on the ins and outs of their city.
  • Ask the locals: When you don’t have a Couchsurfing host to rely on, go out of your way to ask other local friends for advice. Be sure to ask someone unbiased. The waiter at your favorite restaurant will give you better advice on tourist attractions and bus tickets than a local trekking guide or even your hotel staff (who usually have package deals to sell you). Ask someone at the local market where the best, cheapest places to eat are. Most of the time you’ll find complete strangers more than willing to help out!

Of course, common sense and good research are always your first resources when it comes to saving money. Never take the first deal you come across, be it flights, hotels, or souvenirs, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. An informed traveler is a happy traveler! And now you know. For more questions on how to save money, please refer to our expense reports or send us an email or comment and we’ll be happy to answer!

Happy saving!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Taking it Easy in Charming Hoi An, Vietnam

The charming little French-inspired town of Hoi An, Vietnam is the perfect place to relax and take in the atmosphere in the middle of your trip to Vietnam. If you’ve just come from bustling Ho Chi Minh City or have been whisking off to waterfalls and villages on the back of a motorbike in Dalat, Hoi An’s relaxed vibe, pretty stucco buildings, and charming lantern-lit streets are the perfect setting to take in the simple beauty of central Vietnam.

Hoi An's streets are especially charming at night.
That said, Hoi An is not the place for those looking for excitement or adventure. Aside from the endless opportunities for shopping (Hoi An is famous for its clothing, both custom and ready-made) there are basically three attractions: Hoi An Ancient Town, My Son Ruins, and Cua Dai Beach.

Food, Travel, and Accommodation:

We took the bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An, an 8 hour ride that cost $11. When we arrived at the bus stop the customary taxi drivers were there to take us to our hotels, but we opted to walk instead. Hoi An is a pretty walkable city, and the center ended up not being too far from the bus stop. We stayed at Hop Yen Hotel on the outskirts of the city center, a great location. Hop Yen has dorms for $5, but we bargained for a double room with a detached bathroom for $6 a night. It was a great bargain for a room with free wifi, but the added price was having to climb five flights of stairs to get there! Hop Yen also has a pretty decent-priced restaurant downstairs, though we didn’t eat there. One of our favorite places was Des Amis Cafe in the city center for their fantastic and very filling pancakes, lovely French music, and great coffee! We also frequented a great noodle soup street stand for dinner located near Mermaid restaurant.

Hoi An Ancient Town:

The river near Old Town
Hoi An’s Ancient Town (or Old Town) is a curious attraction, as admission works on a coupon system. At the various ticket booths around the town’s center, tickets are sold for 90,000 dong ($4.50) and will gain you admission to all of Ancient Town’s old streets and five attractions: one of the four museums, one of the four “old houses,” one of three assembly halls, the handicraft shop and a traditional show, and either the Japanese covered bridge or Quan Cong temple. Kim and I decided to forego tickets to Ancient Town, as we were enjoying the rest of town just fine and weren’t sure if the admission price was worth it for us. To decide if it’s worth it for you, check out this feature on Travelfish; the prices are a little outdated, but it will help you decide which attractions to hit, and which ones to miss.

My Son Ruins:

At the My Son Ruins
The My Son Ruins 55 km outside Hoi An are remains of the ancient Cham Kingdom and some of the most important ruins in Vietnam. While the ruins are an important historical and cultural sight, when seen in terms of value, the ruins take on a different significance for budget travelers. 

Tours to the ruins run from $5-$7 depending on which you choose. $5 will get you a bus there and back with an English speaking guide. $7 will get you a bus there and a boat back with an English speaking guide, free lunch, and a stop at Cam Kim Island to see a local handicraft village. At first glance, the $7 tour seems like a great value. We booked this tour and found ourselves on the way back from the ruins sitting on an extremely loud, water-polluting boat, eating a tiny rice and vegetable lunch (we ate a second lunch upon our return to Hoi An), and our stop at the handicraft village was only a ten-minute stop at a single store that sells wood carvings. For those who really want to see the ruins, book the $5 tour and get back in time to eat a real lunch and take a ferry to Cam Kim later on your own.

That being said, there are some who won’t want to do the tour at all. The ruins themselves aren’t very impressive, especially since many of them were destroyed by U.S. bombs during the Vietnam war. Our tour consisted of our very bored tour guide leading us through one of the major sites, explaining a few historical facts, and leaving us to see two other sites on our own. The tour itself lasted about half an hour. My favorite parts of the whole thing were understanding a bit more about the destruction the Vietnam war caused to the landscape and hearing our guide humorously explain the yoni and linga symbols placed throughout the ruins. So, is it worth it? For budget travelers who have already seen ruins such as those in Siem Reap or Ayutthaya, no. We certainly weren’t very impressed. But for those who have a little more time and money to spend, or who are especially interested in the cultural and historical significance of the ruins, it’s not a bad way to spend a day.

Cua Dai Beach and Other Ways to Spend Your Time:

For those who forfeited a stop in Nha Trang, the tourist beach capital of Vietnam, Hoi An is your chance to make up for it with a little sun-soaking. Cua Dai Beach is easily accessible by bike, and bike rental is only around $1 for a day’s use. Kim and I opted not to make the trek, but reviews of the beach are generally positive and we met one fellow traveler who said it was worth half a day and the short ride/walk out of town. Another idea is to take a romantic sunset river tour with your significant other, or shop ‘til you drop at the dozens of clothing shops lining Hoi An’s streets. By far our favorite activity in this city was simply sitting back at our favorite cafe and enjoying the quiet, pleasant atmosphere of Hoi An.

Happy traveling!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Da Lat: A City of Love

Da Lat (or Dalat) is the capital of the Lam Dong province in Vietnam and has a population of a little over 200,000 people. It is located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and with its elevation of 4,900 ft (1,500 m) its weather is significantly cooler than most other parts of tropical Vietnam. It is a popular tourist destination, particularly among the Vietnamese themselves. A Vietnamese friend once told me that Da Lat is “a city of love,” and with its mist covered mountains, French colonial architecture, and plethora of cozy cafes, it is not difficult to understand why. 

What to See

Da Lat Cathedral
At the center of Da Lat is the beautiful Xuan Huong Lake. Walking along the lake gives you stunning views of Da Lat and its surrounding areas. There are a few restaurants along the lake if you want a relaxing place to sit and enjoy a meal. For the more active, swam-shaped boats can be rented and taken out on Xuan Huong Lake, although Sarah and I chose to skip this.

While roaming around Da Lat’s city centre, you are unlikely to miss the high-rising Da Lat Cathedral. It is known locally as “Cock Church” in honor of the man-made rooster standing at the very tip of the church on the beautiful bell tower. The priest and staff are very friendly and welcoming. There are numerous Mass services held here throughout the week, and we attended one of the 5:00 pm services while in Da Lat. The inside of the church is beautiful, and although the services are all held in Vietnamese, it is a beautiful and interesting event to experience.

If you are interested in architecture or are a fan of Walt Disney, check out Hang Nga Guesthouse, popularly known among locals and tourists as the “Crazy House.” Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga is the creator of this beautiful piece of art. Many people compare the design of this building to artists such as Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. This magical building incorporates things such as caves, giant spider webs, stairs leading to the sky, bridges, mushrooms, giant animal sculptures, and trees in its beautiful and incredibly complex design. For 35,000 VND you can explore the Crazy House, and if you are willing to pay the price you can even stay a night or two in one of the spectacular rooms scattered around the building. This is a fun  and unique place and, at minimum, will produce many humorous pictures!

Crazy House
Easy Riders

If you visit Da Lat, you will undoubtably run into many Easy Riders enthusiastically offering you tours to pretty much anywhere in or around Da Lat. Easy Riders is a group of local tour guides who provide tours of various cities in Vietnam via the backs of their motorcycles. It is a way to travel “off the beaten track” and see the beautiful views Vietnam offers firsthand. Da Lat is the birth place of Easy Riders, and you cannot walk more than a few minutes without running into one. They offer tours through the Central Highlands, the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh Trails, and more. They can even take you to the next city you are heading to if you want to make it into a two or three day excursion. They also do shorter and simpler day trips to nearby waterfalls or villages. Their prices are usually pretty reasonable, and they can be bargained with to reach a happy medium. If you need more convincing, you will more than likely be presented with a binder full of pictures from past tours and notes from previous clients saying how wonderful their experience was. In the end, Sarah and I decided not to do one of these tours, but it could be a fun way to spend a day or two if you have the extra time and money!

Where to Eat

In the city centre of Da Lat
There is no shortage of places to dine in Da Lat. Many cute French style restaurants line the streets, most complete with free pots of tea and soothing European music playing in the background. There are numerous bakeries scattered around Da Lat, and most pastries they sell are surprisingly good. Sarah and I both developed an addiction to the miniature loaves of banana bread sold at several bakeries around town (for remarkably cheap prices!). One budget restaurant that we particularly loved, but unfortunately only discovered during our last couple of days in Da Lat, is Peace Cafe. Peace Cafe, not to be confused with the nearby Peace Restaurant, is located at 64 Truong Cong Dinh and occupies the bottom floor of a family run hotel. There is a book exchange here, and the menu is full of both Vietnamese and Western dishes for cheap prices. I particularly loved the pancakes (which, unlike the crepe-like things misleadingly called pancakes at most eateries in Asia, could legitimately classify as a pancake). Definitely stop in here if you are looking for cheap, tasty, and filling food!

There are also several unique foods produced and sold in Da Lat. One of my favorites was the artichoke tea sold at many tea shops throughout Da Lat. It tastes unusual but good! It’s a fun thing to try and could be a unique thing to bring home to family or friends. Another popular thing produced in Da Lat is fruit preserves. Some of the most popular types include strawberry preserves and raspberry preserves. They look delicious and can be incorporated into many different recipes if you have room in your bag and aren’t traveling for much longer! 

View of Da Lat from "Crazy House"
These are just a few of the highlights of Da Lat and the many possibilities it offers its visitors. The overall feel of the city is very laid back and quaint. With its chilly weather and French architecture, it gives off a very strong European vibe. At one point, I glanced down one of the streets and suddenly felt as if I was looking down a strikingly similar road I had once walked down in Edinburgh, Scotland. Spending just a few days in Da Lat made me feel incredibly nostalgic of my time in Europe and reminded me of how much I love and miss it there (and convinced me that a trip back is needed in the very near future!). Needless to say, if you’d like to see some of the beautiful mountains in Vietnam and get a little break from the hectic and bustling lifestyle of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Lat may be the perfect option for you!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Getting a Taste for Vietnam: Surfing in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, was the capital of South Vietnam before the country’s reunification in 1976. As the site of so much history, and as one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, there is a lot to see, learn, and taste in the city that is now beloved Uncle Ho’s namesake.

One word for HCM City's streets: Motorbikes!
After our three weeks in Cambodia, we traveled from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City ($10, 6 hours), the former capital of the Southern republic of Vietnam. The three things that soon came to embody my experience in Vietnam—food, history, and new friends—were overwhelmingly present in this busy, bustling motorbike city!

Our five days in Ho Chi Minh City are basically a testament to the wonders of Couchsurfing. We surfed with a host family in Thu Duc District, a 30 minute bus ride from District 2 (in the city center). Our hosts, a 22-year-old university student and her family, gave us an introduction to Vietnam we will never forget! They went above and beyond, showering us with Asia’s famous hospitality, especially in the form of food—tons and tons of wonderful Vietnamese food! We met our host’s university friends and were even invited to big family dinners with extended relatives, where we sat in a large circle on the floor and ate, drank, and laughed for hours on end. Much of our time was spent with our new friends, buzzing around on the backs of motorbikes to out-of-the-way pagodas, street food stands, and local coffee shops. One of my favorite nights was spent on the roof of a cafe near the airport, where the planes flew right over our heads as they came in for landing! We truly had an unforgettable experience, and looking back on our five days in HCM City, it seems like two weeks. Because of Couchsurfing we were able to experience much more in a short amount of time than if we were on our own, and we left feeling as if we were leaving family. Because of our new friends, I learned that Ho Chi Minh City can be an engaging and dazzling place with the right people guiding you. The lesson here? Make local friends whenever possible! is the perfect place to do this. I will never forget the amazing hospitality of our Vietnamese family in Ho Chi Minh City! Here’s a little of what they taught us:
Kim and our host sister Queeny eating street food in University Village

Vietnamese street food:

Street food is a normal part of most Vietnamese people’s daily lives, and local eateries with their own specialties can be found almost everywhere. Some of my favorite meals in Vietnam were on plastic chairs and concrete, and our hosts in HCM City took a lot of time in teaching us about local foods. Here are a few of my favorite street foods we tried in Ho Chi Minh City:
  • Phở (pronounced “fuh”): This classic Vietnamese rice noodle soup is a staple throughout Vietnam, but you’ll find it tastes different in the North and the South (it’s a bit sweeter in the South). It is customarily served with fresh herbs, like basil and mint, halved limes, and fish and chili sauces that you can add to taste, and can include chicken (phở ga) or beef (phở bo). Many people eat it for breakfast, but it can be eaten at any time of the day. This is a must-try anywhere in Vietnam!
  • Bánh tráng nướng: This is made with a round, thick piece of rice paper filled with various ingredients, rolled, and cooked on a small grill. We ate this delicious snack in University Village, and it contained a simple medley of veggies, chili sauce, and a healthy dose of the staple Vietnamese fish sauce.
  • Ram bắp: Delicious Vietnamese hand rolls, usually with meat inside. Our host mom made these often for dinner and I could never get enough of them!
  • Tàu hũ đá: This is an iced soy drink our host introduced us to that can include various candied fruits and flavored gelatins. A unique desert!
  • Cà phê: Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world, and is uniquely prepared in Vietnam with a phin, a drip filter similar to a french press that filters the coffee straight into the cup. It can be served over ice (cà phê đá) and is normally prepared with sweetened condensed milk. This sweet milk coffee can be hot (cà phê sữa nóng) or iced (cà phê sữa đá) and is another must-try anywhere in Vietnam!

What to do in Ho Chi Minh City:

Reunification Palace
We split our time in Ho Chi Minh City between the city center (mainly districts 1 and 2) and Thu Duc district. While most travelers don’t find a reason to head to Thu Duc, I loved our time in this part of the city. Thanks to our wonderful new friends, we had the opportunity to experience Ho Chi Minh City in a very different light. During our five days, I didn’t see a single other tourist in Thu Duc. It’s a great place to try traditional Vietnamese food and chat with the super friendly locals! Local bus fare from Thu Duc to the city center is around 25 cents.

This isn’t to say we didn’t get our tourist on in HCM. We started at the Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace), which used to be the administration center for South Vietnam’s government. The palace has been kept exactly as it was when North Vietnamese troops breached the main gate on April 30, 1975, down to a replica of the tank on display toward the front of the palace. Admission to the palace is 30,000 dong per person and includes a free guide. Our tour took around half an hour and we got to see all the most important parts of the palace, including some very vintage and important-looking underground control rooms! It definitely feels like stepping back in time!

Beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral
Just a few blocks away from the Reunification Palace is the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, constructed in the late 1800s by French colonists. The beautiful brick red building was made with materials imported from France, and the statue of Mary at the front of the cathedral is stunning. This cathedral will definitely be a welcome taste of home for Catholic or European travelers, and it’s a great place for photos! There is an English mass every Sunday at 9:30 am and the church is surrounded by some very classy restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries.

A protest poster on display at the
War Remnants Museum
About ten minutes’ walk from the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral is my favorite tourist site in Ho Chi Minh City, the War Remnants Museum (admission 15,000 dong). If there is one must-see attraction in HCM, I’d say this is it. The museum was created as an anti-war museum and aims to raise awareness about the atrocities of war, specifically the atrocities and war crimes committed during the American-Vietnamese war in the 1970s. The museum includes exhibits on worldwide protest of the Vietnam war and war propaganda, American war crimes, and a heartbreaking and informative exhibit on the use of chemical weapons by the U.S. Army. Those expecting an objective and detached approach from museums won’t get this at the War Remnants Museum; the pain, destruction, and insanity of war experienced by both the Vietnamese people and U.S. soldiers in Vietnam is boldly on display in this museum with a very specific agenda: to encourage peace in Vietnam and around the world. I would especially recommend this museum to American travelers to get a Vietnamese perspective on the war.

A short walk in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is enough to discover the importance of a single man in the history of divided and unified Vietnam. The image of the city’s namesake, Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately called by locals) can be seen on red banners throughout the city, especially around the Reunification Palace. Our friends recommended we learn more about Uncle Ho by visiting Dragon House/Ho Chi Minh Museum. This isn’t a very popular tourist stop, and we saw almost no tourists there when we visited. While it’s not the most exciting place, from what I gathered from our friends, it’s an important building to locals because of it’s relation to Ho Chi Minh. This building, which Uncle Ho himself passed through on his way to his famous sojourn to Europe and America, is named the dragon house for its architecture. The museum includes personal items of Ho Chi Minh and a detailed history of his life and political path organized chronologically into several rooms on the second floor. My favorite part was the top floor, where many poems Ho Chi Minh wrote while in prison are on display—a very beautiful exhibit! Admission to Dragon Palace is 10,000 dong.

Shopping in Saigon:

The main shopping hub in Ho Chi Minh City is Ben Thanh Market, a sprawling shopping center with clothes, handicrafts, textiles, and local food. The market is in downtown HCM City across from the main public bus terminal in an impressive pale yellow building. You’ll be able to find just about any souvenir you need here, but expect to haggle. Our friends suggested we go to the old post office, just across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral, to buy souvenirs at fair prices. There are just a few small shops inside, near the entrance of the post office, but for those uncomfortable with haggling, the prices are fixed and fair.

Happy traveling!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

General Travel Tips: Cambodia

Here’s your one-stop-shopping, bullet point style rundown on Cambodia travel!
  • Watch out for mystery fees at the Poipet border crossing. Walk in with exact change for the visa fee ($20), preferably in US dollars, and 2 passport sized photos for your visa application. Have extra USD on you for a bus ticket at the Poipet bus station, as there are no ATMs and a poor exchange rate.
  • US dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia as well as Cambodian riel, and ATMs dispense USD. It’s a good idea to have some riel on you at all times, but you won’t lose money if you pay with US currency.
  • Exchange money at local exchange stands instead of banks for a better rate.
  • Bike rental is often the cheapest and most rewarding form of transportation in Cambodia. Most bikes cost only one dollar a day and it’s a great way to see the country’s beautiful scenery.
  • Don’t leave Cambodia without visiting some of the historical sites related to the infamous Khmer Rouge Regime, an important part of Cambodia’s history that happened very recently. Phnom Penh is a great place to do this.
  • At some historical sites (i.e. the Killing Caves outside Battambang), cute little kids will offer to show you around, or naturally assume the position of tour guide. If you accept their services, be prepared to give each of them (even their friends tagging along) one dollar. They may be cute, but keep in mind the impact encouraging extortion in little kids might have on their future.
  • LGBTQ Travelers: Cambodians are generally accepting of homosexuality, but keep in mind that public displays of affection (heterosexual or homosexual) are a cultural no-no!
  • Before you consider signing up for a tour of an orphanage, please read this article on why orphanages are not tourist attractions.
  • You may encounter street children in some of Cambodia’s cities. Please do not give them money, as this does not help kids get off the street, and often the money goes directly to a handler or a pimp instead of necessities for the child.
  • Always bargain, but make sure you do it with a smile! You’ll do much better that way.
  • If you are traveling to Vietnam from Cambodia, get your visa at a travel agent in Phnom Penh instead of the embassy—it’s cheaper!
  • Most of the water is brackish, so unless you have your own filter, expect to buy bottled water. Another eco-friendly option is to bring your own reusable water bottle and have it filled at restaurants or convenience stores that offer to fill water bottles.
  • As always, keep your valuables on you at all times while traveling! Don’t leave cameras/laptops/cash/passports in luggage that is stowed underneath the bus or in an overhead compartment. Keep it right on your person to prevent it from being stolen.
  • Watch that handbag! In Phnom Penh there are occasionally “drive-by muggings,” men on motorbikes who ride by and snatch shoulder bags from people. One incident tragically ended in a woman being pulled into traffic and killed. Keep your bags secure, or at least away from traffic!
  • What to buy in Cambodia: Paintings of Angkor or watercolors of floating villages and scenes from rural life; fair trade handicrafts; kramas (multi-purpose scarves worn throughout Cambodia); Angkor t-shirts.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Many Flavors of Phnom Penh: What to do in Cambodia's Capital

Phnom Penh, while not a particularly large city, holds enough sights and activities to keep any traveler busy for a few days or a week. Cambodia’s capital is a good place for shopping and chilling out eating happy pizzas by the riverside, but most importantly it is the best place to learn about the Khmer Rouge Regime and the tragic events that took place in Cambodia from 1975-1979. For this reason alone it is an essential stop on your tour of Cambodia!

We arrived in Phnom Penh on a bus from Siem Reap, a 5 hour ride costing $6. We couchsurfed during our stay at a home just Southwest of the tourist center, around the corner from Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, but most travelers to Phnom Penh stay by the riverside. A tuk-tuk to Riverside from the main bus station should be no more than $2. Riverside is charming and filled with cafes and restaurants, but be sure to move a bit inland to find cheap food. Street food vendors also turn up during the evenings to save you a few bucks.

What to do in Phnom Penh:

Shopping: There are two large markets in Phnom Penh, Psar Thmei (central market) and the Russian Market. Psar Thmei is well-known by locals for being overpriced, so any deals to be had are at the Russian Market. Don’t let this stop you from bargaining, however. As a tourist you’ll still be overcharged, but you’ll get a better deal than at the central market. Psar Thmei carries more clothing, knock off designer items, and jewelry, and the Russian Market is more plentiful in local art. Both markets carry essentially the same handicrafts you’ll find anywhere in Cambodia: wood products, handmade puppets, and ceramics to name a few. Both markets also carry electronics, most notably some knock-off Beats By Dre headphones for under $40. We met an expat at the Russian Market who’s been buying them for his grandkids for years and swears by their reliability, but we’ve also heard of people only getting a few weeks of use from them before they fell apart. Be sure to open the box and try the headphones out on your iPod before you buy them. Make sure the cord is thick and sturdy looking-- some knock-offs are visibly better quality than others. It also doesn’t hurt to ask if you can get your money back if the headphones stop working in a few days. You can also get local food and yummy smoothies at both markets (seriously, try the smoothies!), including fried crickets and tarantulas at Psar Thmei! Kim and I tried a bit of both and decided they taste similar to barbecue shrimp. If markets aren’t your scene there are some decent fair trade shops and thrift stores just south of Riverside on Street 240, near a candy store called Chocolate.

Kim chowing down on a fried tarantula we bought outside Psar Thmei
Cultural/Historical Sites: Three easy attractions of historical/political importance are the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, and the National Museum. Independence Monument is ten minutes walk from Riverside, and though it won’t take up much time it’s an impressive sight on the way to or from Tuol Sleng Museum (more on that later). The Royal Palace and the National Museum are both very close to riverside, and both have entry fees. Kim and I decided the $6.50 entrance fee at the Royal Palace wasn’t worth it, as visitors are only allowed to see certain parts of the grounds (and not even the most impressive parts). However, most reviews of the palace are positive. If you have the time and money it will be worth it. But if you’re on a tight budget and have already toured some of the main temple attractions in Thailand, don’t feel bad skipping it. The National Museum (admission $3) is a worthy visit for those interested in Cambodian sculpture, religious history, or ancient customs. The museum mainly displays sculptures, many of them recovered from the temples at Angkor, along with artifacts from archaeological excavations and burial sites.

Outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Learning About the Khmer Rouge Regime: Phnom Penh is one of the best places in Cambodia to learn about the infamous Khmer Rouge Regime, which was responsible for the deaths of around 1/4 of Cambodia’s population from 1975-1979. While traveling in Cambodia, encounters with survivors of this brutal regime are guaranteed, as anyone in their late 30s or above was around when Cambodia’s cities (including PP) were emptied and thousands of citizens were sent to forced labor camps or secret prisons. Today, Cambodia and its people seem to be rising from the ashes of this recent tragedy, and many Cambodians have dedicated themselves to educating locals and foreigners alike of the genocide they endured in order to prevent similar atrocities in the future. For travelers to Cambodia, it’s incredibly important to understand this period of time, not only to understand Cambodia’s history but also to appreciate the astounding gentleness and optimism of the local people. The most infamous of the Khmer Rouge secret prisons was called S-21, and is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek, the most infamous Cambodian killing field is also just outside of Phnom Penh, and all but a few of the 20,000 prisoners of S-21 were executed there.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a high-school-turned-secret-prison
Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek can be visited in one day, but we split it into two days because each site is an overload of both information and heartbreak. At Tuol Sleng we roamed through the hallways of what used to be a high school, it’s rooms and corridors now converted into rows of individual cells, and saw pictures of the thousands of prisoners once held there. At Choeung Ek we roamed through the quiet, grass covered area where thousands of bones were found buried after the Khmer Rouge fell out of power. Many of those bones are on display in a beautiful memorial building in the middle of the field. Admission for Tuol Sleng is $2, and is extra for a tour guide. Choeung Ek has lately been privatized, which troubles many as it seems profit is being made on the back of a tragedy. This may be so, but the grounds are very well kept by the staff, and the $5 admission fee includes an excellent and informative audio tour. I learned more at Choeung Ek about the Khmer Rouge regime than anywhere else. We hired a tuk-tuk to take us the 20 minute drive to Cheong Ek for $11. I wouldn’t advise paying any more than $12.

Cheong Ek Memorial
Suggested Itinerary for Phnom Penh

How much time you spend in Phnom Penh is up to how busy you want to stay. Here’s a suggested itinerary if you only have two full days at your disposal:

Day 1: Have a city map handy, which you’ll be able to get from most hotels. Start off by taking a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. Budget at least two hours here to take everything in (including a short video shown twice a day, once at 10 am). The walk from Tuol Sleng back to Riverside is fairly straightforward and you can take in some sights on the way. First, stop off for lunch at the excellent Chinese Noodle Restaurant on Monivong Blvd, not far from the museum. Kim and I ate lunch here several times and it was our favorite meal in Phnom Penh! The noodles are excellent, as are the dumplings, and you get to watch them make the noodles right outside! Continue walking toward Riverside and pause at Independence Monument for some photo ops. Finally, hit up the Royal Palace or the National Museum for an hour or so to end your day.

Noodles from the Chinese Noodle House- yum!!
Day 2: Start your day by getting a tuk-tuk to Cheong Ek Killing Field, a 20-minute drive. Budget several hours for this, as you’ll want to take your time. After finishing up here, get back to Riverside for the happy hour at Tutti Frutti (1-3pm). Kim and I got big bowls of frozen yogurt after our tour of Cheong Ek to cheer us up, because ice cream fixes everything! For something to do at night, catch a movie at one of the Flicks Community Movie Houses, a great place to relax, eat, and enjoy Western quality cinema at Cambodian prices-- adults pay a $3.50 cover charge per day (kids $2). 

For another dose of Western entertainment, be on the lookout for a monthly comedy act at Club Pontoon, put on by the Phnom Penh Comedy Club. Admission is $7 or get discounted pre-sale tickets at Flicks 1 Movie House.

For those traveling to Vietnam after Cambodia, be sure to get your Vietnam visa through a travel agent rather than the embassy! It ends up costing less because they send it to Sihanookville to be done. We did ours at Lucky Lucky Moto on Monivong Blvd.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Angkor on a Budget: Getting the Most Out of Cambodia’s Majestic Temples

Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia, and of the Cambodian people. Believed to be the largest religious complex in the world, it is one of many temples found in and around what used to be the city of Angkor, a metropolis of around 2 million people that was abandoned for unknown reasons. What is left is Angkor Archaeological Park, an UNESCO World Heritage site and Cambodia’s biggest tourist draw. For temple enthusiasts, Angkor is a must-see on the travel circuit. For budget travelers, the $40 three-day admission price may send chills down one’s checkbook, but if  you spend your time wisely, the price is well worth it. Here’s a run-down of our time in Siem Reap, the town just outside of Angkor National Park, and our adventures in the ruins in Angkor.

Siem Reap:

We arrived in Siem Reap from Battambang just in time to meet a friend of mine I met traveling last year in Nepal. The bus ride from Battambang was four hours and cost five U.S. Dollars, and a tuk-tuk ride from the bus to our hotel was one dollar. We stayed at Garden Village Guesthouse, which I recommend. It’s a five minute stroll to the center of town and there are rooms for every budget. We booked two $1 dorm beds on HostelWorld and were surprised to see when we arrived that the beds were outside under a corrugated metal roof! We each got a mattress, a mosquito net, and our very own Cambodian stray kitten. If you’re not down for a little camping though, private rooms are available. If you do the dorms, bring your own padlock for a free locker.

Our "dorm" at Garden Village Guesthouse. Very cozy!

What to do in Siem Reap: The town of Siem Reap can be a bit overwhelming, mainly due to the millions of tuk-tuk drivers desperate for business during the rainy season (I think our record was about 10 yards between subsequent offers from a driver). Most people travel to Siem Reap solely for Angkor, but there are a few gems in the town itself that make up for the overabundance of transportation. One of my favorite parts of Siem Reap was the number of wonderful fair trade shops in the city center. Before you do any shopping in the Old Market or the Night Market (both good for local art, tea, and spices) check out the fair trade shops for more unique gifts and souvenirs that benefit poor or disabled Cambodians. My other favorite was our go-to restaurant, Navi Khmer Kitchen. This is a small, unassuming family-owned shop right down the road from Garden Village Guesthouse on the way to town. The sign outside says Navi Khmer, but the menu says Khmer Cafe Des Sports; anyway, it’s right across from My Best Western Guesthouse and we ate almost every meal there! Go there for $1 breakfasts, 50 cent fruit shakes, yummy Samla Ktiss (traditional soup), and the best pancakes in Cambodia!

The French influence in Siem Reap is lovely!

If you’re going to be around after your Angkor pass expires you might end up booking a tour of the surrounding area. A floating village is nearby, but tours can get pretty pricey. Some tours, including one through our hotel, include a stop at a local orphanage. While this may sound like a nice idea, these tours actually cause more harm than good. A former guest of our hotel who vandalized the sign advertising the orphanage tour summed it up nicely: “An orphanage is not a zoo.”  Before you book any sort of tour please read this article on why orphanages are not tourist attractions.

Angkor Archaeological Park:

Guide books will do a better job of explaining the history of Angkor than I can, so I’ll just stick to what I know, which is the most rewarding way to visit Angkor if you’re traveling on a small budget.

Angkor Prices: When it comes to entrance fees, you have three options: a one-day pass for $20, a three-day pass for $40, or a one week pass for $60. Conveniently, the passes do not have to be used on consecutive days, so if you need a break amid all the temple-hopping, you can feel free to take a day to relax in Siem Reap. I do not recommend getting a one-day pass, as you’ll only have time to see a few of the big hitters and will miss out a lot of the quieter ruins (which were some of my favorites!). If you have time for the week pass, go for it. But for our purposes, the three-day pass was perfect. $40 sounds like a lot, but I’d say it’s a worthy sacrifice to experience this amazing archaeological park!

Transportation to Angkor: There are basically two options, unless you’re with a tour group: tuk-tuk or bicycle. A tuk-tuk can cost anywhere from $12-$15 for a day, depending on how many temples you see. Bicycle rental is a more rewarding and cost-effective method, if more time consuming, at around $1-$2 for a day. We rented bikes for two out of our three days in Angkor and hired a tuk-tuk the other day for $12 ($4 per person). The bicycles limited what we could see somewhat, but we only missed one of the heavy-hitters, Banteay Srei, because it’s over 20km away. If you want to see this one, your best option is to hire a tuk-tuk. Considering we saw everything else we really wanted to see, I’m happy with our decision to rent bikes and discover Angkor at a more relaxed pace.

Angkor Itinerary: Lonely Planet’s guide to Cambodia has some very useful itinerary suggestions, along with descriptions and history of individual sites. We based our itinerary loosely on Lonely Planet’s suggestions. My friend Courtney was only with us for the first two days, so we saw most of the biggies in the main temple group in those two days, saving the most impressive temples for the second day. (Be sure to see our photos of Angkor below!)

Day 1: Banteay Samre, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Krol Ko, Ta Som, East Mebon
We rented bikes on our first day and visited seven temples North and East of Angkor Wat. Banteay Samre was the farthest ride, so we visited this one first. Rainy season in Cambodia is June through early November, so half of our ride ended up being in the pouring rain. Although we were soaking wet, the rain didn’t dampen our moods, and Banteay Samre proved to be a delightful introduction to the Angkor temples with very few tourists to disturb the serenity. We ate lunch afterwards across the road (where, by the way, they have two menus: a tourist menu with higher prices and a secret low season menu that you may get if you say you’re going to look for somewhere cheaper) and headed to the other six temples. We started with the farthest, Preah Khan, and worked our way back toward the entrance to the park. These six temples are easily accessible from each other as they are all located on the same main road. It was a long and full day, but as long as you get a decent start in the morning you’ll be able to hit all of them! If you must sacrifice any of these temples, Neak Pean and Krol Ko were probably the least impressive; don’t miss the other ones! Ta Som was one of my very favorite temples; make sure you walk all the way to the back and through the stone archway to see a tree that has grown around/become part of one of the structures.

Day 2: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, Pre Rup
The first three in this group are the biggies. If you see anything in Angkor, let it be these ones! The labyrinthine structure and impressive sculptures in Bayon (in Angkor Thom) and the sheer majesty of Angkor Wat warrant quite a chunk of time, so plan on this taking a whole day. We rented a tuk-tuk for this day so we wouldn’t have to leave our bikes outside these very busy temples, each of which can take up hours of your time. We were able to negotiate a $12 price for the four temples, or $4 for each of us.

Day 3: Roluos group: Preah Ko, Bakong, Lolei
Kim and I rented bikes for this day as well, a great way to enjoy the scenery on the 13 km ride from Siem Reap. To reach these temples, take National Road No. 6 heading East until you see a sign on the right for Bakong. Preah Ko and Bakong are on this same road. There’s also a ceramic workshop on this road where Khmer ceramics are made and sold that is definitely worth a look! Preah Ko and Bakong are worth the ride, but it’s a good idea to take a lunch with you so you’re not rushed. To reach Lolei, ride just a little farther on No. 7 and turn left onto a dirt road. This temple is smaller but is worth a look as long as the road isn’t muddy. I’m somewhat less coordinated than Kim and I definitely fell completely over on my bike attempting to navigate the muddy tire tracks!

Eating in Angkor: Expect to pay a little more if you eat in the park. If it’s low season, you may be able to get a discount at some of the restaurants, but we found it was more economical to take lunch with us. When we ate lunch in the park we each paid between 2 and 3 dollars, but a take-away fried egg sandwich from Navi Khmer Kitchen is one dollar and allowed a more leisurely lunch.

Our total cost per person for 3 days in Angkor (admission + transportation): $46

Is it worth it?

Yes! If you think you’ll get templed out before your three days are up in Angkor, think again. The temples of Angkor were built during different time periods and under many different kings, creating diversity among the ruins. Some of the more well-known temples will be flooded with tourists (for good reason), but there are also those lesser known temples whose natural and man-made beauty is combined with serenity that will make you feel like the first person to have stumbled upon them. I could spend pages and pages describing the beauty of the ruins at Angkor, but I think a few pictures will probably do a more efficient job. So here you go! Decide for yourself, but I promise a stop at Angkor will not disappoint!

The mother of all temples, Angkor Wat!
Kim hanging out inside Angkor Wat

Bayon, Angkor Thom
Striking a pose in the hallways of Bayon!
Headless giants at Preah Khan

Preah Ko

Kim in front of beautiful Ta Som

Banteay Samre

Real life Jungle Book at Angkor Wat!

Sarah in front of Ta Prom

Sarah at East Mebon
Bakong from across the water