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[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country specific advice, tips and info for: South East Asia (SE Asia) - Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

For Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - see the Indochina page.

Asia» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info

? Also see: Thai Train System Explained



[book] This is where most backpackers start and for good reason. There's plenty to see/do, life's fun, cheap, easy and fairly safe. There's however something clichéd about the region and many grow tired of the crowds while a certain type of backpacker keeps coming back. Nonetheless, miss the likes of Thailand's beaches, Angkor and the Philippines at your peril.

Remember what follows are only basic snapshot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us, it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a good way to say thank you (if you have been helped out); to see why click here.



*    South East Asia

* Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region

» Cambodia - See Indochina page

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» Indonesia

  • Borobudur StupaIntro: Indonesia represents an enormous area to explore, with most travellers focusing only on small parts. Its islands offer fabulously varied scenery, from volcanoes to idyllic beaches and desert. This is can be one of the most rewarding of all Asian destinations, but with some 17,000 islands (the world's largest archipelago) too little time or patience and too much travel can turn a trip into a miserable stressful race between islands with some very hot/huimd weather and shitty roads (and drivers). Equally Indonesia is no Thailand and those looking for universally easy transport and (Southern Bali aside) a party atmosphere, will be sadly disappointed.

    A long standing (if not the longest) traveller favourite and firmly on the South East-Asian 'Banana Pancake Trail', Indonesia in general is probably the most varied country in the region. Comparing the tourist centres/resorts of Bali with the mountains of Irian Jaya is an impossible task. The distance between Aceh in the West and Papua in the East is more than 4,000 kms (2,500 miles), comparable to the distance between New York City and San Francisco. Few however get past Bali and near-by Islands. Although for good reasons, Bali is a name synonymous with paradise and with an international airport to boot, likewise nearby islands are cheaper and easier/quicker to access than from Jakarta. From Bali you can easily get the once fabled and inaccessible Gilli Islands, arrange boat trips to see dragons on Komodo/Rinca and hop on tours/flights to the temple and volcanic highlights of Java.

    It is certainly true that when many think of Indonesia they think of Bali, the 'jewel-in-the crown' of the Indonesian tourist industry. Bali does have much to offer from a place to kick back, the fabulous Ubud to great sweeping beaches and excellent waves. However, on the whole it represents everything Indonesia is not and in its blackest spots (Kuta), hosts some of the worst tourists you will find anywhere. Bali is not to be missed, but is not a good reflection of Indonesia.

    Nevertheless away from the small island of Bali it has to be noted that there are huge chunks of Indonesia that are not only a pain to get too, but have limited facilities for visitors and are of not much interest (compared to other parts of South East Asia). At the end of the day many just prefer Thailand (although Indonesia is better value and less crowded). Others like Indonesia simply because it is not Thailand and has a greater sense of adventure attached to it. Nevertheless this is still South-East Asia and has the same flavours and same kind of travellers as elsewhere in the region. Some will love it, others will be slightly disappointed.

Dangerous?

Hot Topic: As many do now know, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and many seem to be put off exploring since the two Bali bombings and other incidents such as small attacks on cafés in Jakarta. Don't be. With the same commonsense that needs applying everywhere, there is no problem (with terrorism at least; there are always dangers wherever you are, from buses, boats, etc). At the time of the bombings, some governments advised not travelling to Bali (even South East Asia) - crazy advice. Not spending any time in Kuta or Jakarta is better advice - bomb or no bomb! No tourism will literary kill many parts of this nation. Indonesia is not the Middle East or anything like it. It is undoubtedly South-East Asian in feel.

Indonesia has suffered great upheaval in the last ten or so years - everything from peaceful demonstrations to armed conflict. However, the situation in Indonesia is often exaggerated by western media, making it seem like the whole place is in turmoil. Areas of Central Sulawesi, Aceh, Papua and Maluku have all experienced unrest; but outside these areas life is simple. Still it pays to keep in touch with the news when in the country - especially in Aceh.

  • Dangers: There has been political unrest in the past and some Indonesians are a little crazy (just look at the way they drive). Best stay away from Aceh, unless you are happy with the current situation, some parts of Maluku, especially Ambon, and some parts of Sulawesi, which are experiencing civilian unrest.

  • Visa strategy: The Indonesian Government requires nationals from most countries to purchase a tourist visa on arrival at one of the main air or sea ports. A 7-day transit visa on arrival (at pretty much all common entry points) costs around US$10 and a 30-day visa costs US$25 per person (have the cash on you, in exact change US$). A 30day visa is extendible for another 30 days. Be aware that Immigration officials calculate the 30-day period as follows: your arrival day is counted as your first day, and you must leave the country on the 30th or 60th day! If you are not arriving at one of the main points of entry you will need to obtain a visa prior to travel. The cost in advance varies depending on the country of application, but seems to be about $60US depending on where you apply.

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» Laos  - See Indochina page

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» Malaysia

  • Petronas Towers, KL, MalaysiaVisa strategy: Free on arrival. Most Western nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa, and are normally issued 30, 60, or 90 day entry permit stamps.

  • Typical tourist trail: A dash from Thailand to Singapore. Normally taking in a national park (jungle train ride), a beach stop in Penang and the capital - KL. More and more travellers are flying to East Malaysia on the island of Borneo.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Malaysia like most of SEA is hot and humid all year. It's best to avoid the November to January rainy season on Peninsula Malaysia's East coast if you want to enjoy the beaches, but general travel is fine. The time to see turtles on the east coast is between May and September.

  • Guide book: Any, not really vital unless off the beaten track. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here.

  • Costs: $30-40 per day, normally good value, just not as cheap as Thailand or Indonesia. Time in big cities and beach resorts and increase your need to spend.

  • Money: ATMs plentiful, but limited in East Malaysia. Credit card advances normally commission free and travellers cheques can normally be exchanged for a better rate than cash. Getting money off the beaten track on islands is tricky and it's worth stocking up before heading out.

  • Getting around: Good buses, roads and trains, some routes (jungle railway) worth seeing. Of buses, there are four basic types, non-AC state, non-AC interstate and AC express (or VIP). Finding a bus going your way is normally easy, but most stop often en route. AC express are the fastest. Non-AC are good if you need to get on and off (i.e. a bit of spontaneous exploring). On trains students are entitled to a 50% discount making the fare comparable to buses. Ten or thirty day rail passes can be bought, but must be purchased outside the country. Both trains and buses make international connections to Thailand and Singapore with ease.

    • Malaysia is also one of the only places in SEA where renting a car is a great idea and not too expensive.

    • The Jungle Railway is a daily eastern line service which stops at every station (every 15-20 min or so) between Tumpat (close to the Thai border) and Gemas. It's 3rd class only so no air-con and no reservations, and has a tendency to linger in stations while other regular trains overtake. This service is most popular to travel to Taman Negara National Park (Jerantut) or the Perhentian Islands (closest station to Kota Bharu is Wakaf Bahru). It's a great name, and you see a lot of jungle, but less than when you are actually in the jungle itself.

    • Getting to East Malaysia (Borneo) is also easy and sometimes flying is cheaper than the normal road/water combinations.

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» Myanmar (Burma)

  • Temples of BaganTypical tourist trail: Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Bagan (Pagan), Inle Lake and back to Yangon

  • Dangers: If you can get there successfully (restricted area), the Shan state has Burmese and Thai Guerrillas present. Watch out for the Burmese new year (March-April) - not only will you be sprayed with water, but everything grinds to a halt and transport gets booked solid. There are numerous other restricted areas away from the tourist heartland of which permits to visit can be applied for in Rangoon at the MTT office.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot or wet all year round. It is well worth planning your trip to avoid the worst of the heat (March to May). October to February would be best, Yangon is pleasant, in the interior it can get a little cold during night at higher altitude.

  • Costs: Admission fees which are foreigner priced add up (and btw go on the whole directly to the government - see right) and so do long distance taxi rides which are useful if you need to cut down on travel time and increase comfort - but on the whole it's generally cheap. $25-35 per day

  • Tourist factor: On the beaten track 7-8/10, off it 3/10. Burma has quite a compact circuit and you should not expect to be alone (other backpackers and many tour groups) on the Rangoon-Manadaly-Bagan-Inle-Rangoon loop.

  • What to take: Some locals appreciate foreign English magazines as these are hard to get and expensive.

  • Communications: Internet / Wi-Fi places are popping up all over the place but are often painfully slow. However, almost all places had access to FaceBook, et al. and some webmail services. You can also buy a local SIM card - your home mobile probably won't work at all.



Getting there & around:

Getting around: By road, getting south or west of Rangoon or to the far north is difficult and will require some serious adventure, normally riding in trucks. To avoid very bumpy and windy buses or pick-up truck rides, split the cost of a taxi, between four. Boat travel is available from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa. There are trains, but service is bad and foreigner pricing funds the regime and make buses better value.

There are now 5 airlines: Air Mandalay, Air Bagan, Air KBZ, Yangon Airways and Myanmar airways (govt owned using old planes and with a poor safety record). Annoyingly all flights leave around the same time, typically first thing in the morning. Note that Mandalay airport is 1hr drive from Mandalay and if there’s 1 route you might want to do overland it’s the Mandalay – Bagan route (using Monywa as a stopover). Air Mandalay has a ~$225-300 air pass which offers a small saving compared to booking flights individually and has to be booked in advance.

Getting there: Air Asia is probably the cheapest route in from Bangkok or KL though you may get a good deal with Thai or other airlines for the long haul trip. There are now connections from Kunming to Mandalay and from October Air Asia will fly Bangkok to Mandalay which allows you to do a loop rather than backtracking to Yangon. Other options are from Bangladesh, Delhi and Singapore.

Almost all land borders are closed (Bangladesh, Laos, India), are open only to the immediate area (Thailand) or require permits to cross (China/Tachilek) - essentially this is a fly-in, fly-out destination. Most people loop Yangon and back, but since there are flights out of the country both from Yangon and Mandalay it's better to start in one and finish in the other to cut down on travel.

It's now possible to go by road from Tachilek (opp Mae Sai) to Kengtung. Permits are not needed, just the full visa. Getting to Taunggyi and on to Mandalay on via this means is open to which report you read - knowing Burma, I wouldn't bank on doing it - this is the Shan State and to leave the country this way would require a permit for the area. The road is in bad condition and the trip takes a good while and energy.

Change?:

SLOWLY Myanmar is changing for the better. In November 2010 the regime held a general election, admittedly heavily circumscribed but the first in two decades. It then released the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. A formal transfer from military to civilian rule took place in 2011. No one doubts that the soldiers are still in charge, but things are changing... for the better it is hoped.

In 2012 after almost 60 years Coca-Cola went on sale again in Burma. Change, for sure For the better?

Entry fees & Visa:

Admission fees are omipresent in Burma and almost all funds go to the government. Think about what you want to see, for example, the Mandalay Palace is a non-event and the moat was reputedly drained with slave labour. Remember your entry fee money could be going to the government, a lot of sights are not worth seeing and fees can be avoided (give your money to beggars or other numerous mendicant members of the population, if you have an ethical problem with dodging fees).

Visa strategy: Get your visa in Bangkok, (same day now avaliable, next-day easy) or see http://www.myanmarvisa.com for visa on arrival. In Bangkok the Myanmar Embassy is in the south of town at 132 Sathorn Nua Rd (boat to Tha Oriental or Tha Sathon then 15min walk east). Open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 16:30. You'll usually have the visa ready in the afternoon by 15:30. It'll cost something like THB800 + 3 passport photo for the basic 4 weeks tourist visa to use within a month from the date of issue. If you overstay your visa you just pay 3US$ per day of overstaying (at the airport). Do note that there are many areas off the beaten track closed to tourists; these seem to keep changing.


Money and FECs:

At time of writing there were no international ATMs and, as far as can be established, this is still the case. Take USD/EUR cash or worse USD/EUR traveller cheques. With Burma, the best bet is to take cash for all your planned expenses. Unfortunately money is a real hassle if you are used to ATMs, credit cards and travellers cheques. Your best bet is to carry USD cash in MINT CONDITION – this is covered in detail in the LP and cannot be stressed enough. Some banks in Yangon and Mandalay accept Euros and the Singapore Dollar but USD is definitely the safest option. Traveller's cheques are pretty useless.

KyatThere is no reason to change money into FECs (pronounced feck) as they trade at the same rate as the USD. In 2012 $100 notes were getting 813 Kyat (pronounced Chat) per $ where you'd get around 793 for $50 notes- on top of this you could get something like 25-30 Kyat extra per $ on the black market, albeit at your own risk. You can change money at the airports, banks, some guest houses and travel agents etc and while rates are slightly lower at the bank than changing on the black market it is certainly safer than changing money on the street - you should be very aware of scams especially at the market in Yangon. Double check what you are given before you hand over your cash and know exactly how much you should be getting. At the bank you also have the benefit of breaking down everything into 1,000 Kyat notes. If you do get stuck with USD that can't be exchanged into Kyat your best bet is to ask other travellers to swap notes if they have any spare.

In the past you had to change USD (around 200) into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) when you enter the country - this is no longer enforced. The FEC rule has been abolished, but they are still legal tender (at less than face value) and officials may keep up pretences for all those bribes to keep flowing in. The FEC desk at the airport is now closed most of the time.

* Miss at your peril: Bagan, people, culture and getting off the beaten track in Myanmar - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Philippines

* Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

Dangers:

There are problems in the Philippines that are occasionally splashed across western media. In a very simplistic form problems emanate from the large southern island of Mindanao which is the country's largest Muslim enclave. Travel in some parts of Mindanao is safe, but anyone heading this way will of course do some careful research, since there have been several kidnapping incidents of late.

There are a number of areas on Mindanao and islands off it which should be considered no go areas. On the whole, the Philippines is safe and authorities are pro-active to tackle any threat including the few minor bombings that do happen from time to time. A quick visit to your country's foreign office site will give you much more accurate (if slightly alarmist) current info.



Whale of a time:

Swimming with Whale Sharks: Just off the coast of a small village called Donsol is one of the only places in the world where Whale Sharks can be anything close to guaranteed and where, if you want, you can swim with them (scuba not allowed). Donsol is about an hour or two south, of Legazpi, about 14hrs bus trip from Manila, or by ferry head to Masbate Town (three sailings a week from Cebu (overnight)), connect to smaller craft (1hr) and then less than 30mins to Donsol. All trips must be arranged through a government-run centre (15mins past Donsol)). They are the only people who can arrange a boat and crew. You can rent mask, snorkel, etc. You have to pay a registration fee and the whole experience will set you back something like US$70 per person (based on two sharing - cheaper if more). The price is more likely to go up than down in the future and you are by no means guaranteed to see anything.

A trip would normally start at about 9am and run until 1pm. You don't go far off the Donsol coast. The water is far from clear and a spotter will look out for shadows on the water (a sunny day makes his job much easier). If you have only a little bit of luck you should see at least one, but you could be swimming alongside for less than 10 seconds before it dives. Visibility is not brilliant. On a really good day, you could see five or six and get a few minutes trying to keep up with one of these enormous creatures. It's a lot of money for the Philippines and you could see nothing; conversely, if you have the luck it is a fantastic and unique experience.

Scuba diving and swimming:

PADI courses and dive trips are available in all tourist beach resorts, Puerto Galera being a great place to get certified. A PADI 3/4 day course will cost between US$250-300, instruction can be found in most European languages, Japanese/Korean without problem. Dives including equipment run at around US$25-35. Coral will look damaged in some places, but for the most part you will be spoilt, especially if you are keen to travel a little away from big resorts. There are also some great wreck dives. Diving is to the Philippines what trekking is to Nepal. It's cheap, easy and some of the worlds best.



Shop till you drop:

What to buy: The Filipino obsession with 'malling' takes many visitors by surprise. This may be one of the best performing economies in the region and the retired colonial power of America obviously has a huge influence but still the malls of Manila and a few other places are huge (even by American standards), ultra-numerous and of an amazing variety. Shops range from local clothing discounters up through Filipino retailers like Oxygen, Bench and Human, onto international brands such as Top Shop, Gap, Zara and M&S, right up to the likes of North Face, Armani, Diesel and Ralph Lauren - to name a few. Basically everything is here and it's all excellent value.

Manila is a shopaholics paradise and if the Peso is weak, it's good value. In Manila, for quality brands the Powerhouse is a first good stop, SM malls are also huge (many cities) and for one of the biggest, Manila's Mega Mall or the new Mall of Asia. Try not being overwhelmed by any of these. ATMs are plentiful and all stores accept debit/credit cards. There is also a good range of souvenirs and for those who play the guitar, they are cheap/easy to pick up.


Comment Comment: As a Filipino, I must commend you for your good narrative about the Philippines. Well-balanced and enthusiastic. Your publication does not suffer from bias by over rating Philippine neighbours, a practice common among many travel publications. Wholesome tourists normally leave the Philippines with lasting memories of our beautiful landscapes, rich culture and history, and more importantly our people.

  • Getting around:

    • Internal flights: There are numerous flights each day to and from Manila to Cebu, Boracay, Mindanao, Palawan and many destinations north of Manila in Luzon. With destinations such as Cebu, no forward planning is necessary - you can book with ease at the airport or an agency the same day. However, at Easter and other holidays and for destinations less frequently served, such as Legazpi, booking ahead is required. As a rough guide one-way Manila-Cebu is around 15-2000Pesos (around 35-50US$). Due to the nation's topography, flying is often the only alternative to lengthy ferry journeys.

    • Buses: One of the joys of the Philippines is you don't need to use buses too much as air/ferry travel is for the most part more practical. The one exception is heading north in Luzon. The northern highlands make for slow windy going. When you do need to hop on a bus you will find an excellent network with frequent departures by many companies. Bus quality is good, but not on par with Thailand's finest.

    • Jeepney, BoholOthers: Jeepneys run around most towns and can be used for small hops, although FX taxis (mini-vans that leave when full) will be faster. It is possible to hire a motorbike in some places (e.g. Bohol) with limited hassle.

      Taxis and drivers can be hired for longer journeys (drivers are always keen). Rates are on the most part reasonable if there are a few of you, but will seem very expensive for the Philippines. Nonetheless this is easiest option in many cases. Moto-taxis (with side-car) will ferry you around smaller towns, and taxis in larger towns all have metres that most drivers use no problems.

Ferries:

BoatIt's really not possible to cover the many sea options in a small summary like this, so this is only a quick guide. For short hops to popular destinations there are excellent larger fast boats. For cheaper travel there are slower big boats. For less popular crossings, smaller fast sealed inland waterway type boats (like Cambodian inland fast ferries) and much slower open air large out-riggers. The worst are the smaller fast boats, but they are normally only used for short crossings. These are normally close to overloaded and not really recommended for rough seas.

For longer journeys, large vessels leave overnight with several accommodation options. Normally these are (cheapest first): outside covered bunks (many together), inside AC bunks (many together, gets very cold), cabin doubles/quads and en-suite cabins. The most expensive option will be about the same as the comparative internal flight, cheaper options are great value and you arrive refreshed (well kind of). Sea conditions do, of course, vary but for the most part it's normally calm; larger boats are fairly stable. Lastly, and most the expensive option, for short trips you might like to or need to hire your own out-rigger to reach the forgotten beach/island or snorkelling trip. For the record, you can reach Malaysia by ferry, but flying makes a lot more sense. There are no passenger boats from the Asian mainland, such as Vietnam, China or Hong Kong, or from Taiwan to the Philippines, close as they might seem.

  • Media:

    • Books: In larger towns (Cebu, Manila, Davao etc) no problem finding international magazines and a good range of books / guide books. There a several daily English language newspapers.

    • TV: In any accommodation from basic mid-range up. Excellent selection of cable channels, live sport, news and a wonderful channel that runs karaoke songs and words 24hr a day.

  • Food: For seafood eaters this may well be heaven. Food is on the whole excellent and cheap. Meat is surprisingly popular for an island nation. A huge range of different Asian cuisines are on offer; Korean and Japanese food is particularly good. In major cities, in any one of the country's many enormous shopping malls, there is a quite unbelievable range of cheap fast-food, from western international brands and local copies to Thai, Japanese and Korean gigs. Many, particularly the Asian versions are excellent.

    • Vegetarians: Fine, especially if you are pescetarian.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Never really a problem

    • Women alone: Never a problem, above the normal questions and minor hassle you would expect anywhere in Asia.

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: San Miguel beer is drunk in great quantities, costing only slightly more than soft drinks. Smoking is not a great Filipino pastime, but cigarettes are as cheap as you would expect. There is very little drug scene simply because there are not the tourist numbers, as say in Bali or Thailand, to sustain it. Anyway with life this good who needs drugs?

  • Vice: The Philippines has somewhat of a reputation for the sex trade and sex holidays. Take a walk through certain areas of any big town and it's easy to see why. However, prostitution is illegal. In reality (of course) most will end up touching rather than looking. Go-Go bars (where they exist, as local laws/tolerance allow) are centred in a few locations and are much the same as elsewhere in the region (although reflective of the country's Catholic culture and without 'live shows' or audacious acts found in Thailand). Most bars cater to Korean and Japanese visitors or are legacies from former military bases. Pop into any of these bars and what you will get is many gorgeous girls (many look and probably are under 18) in little dresses asking for you to buy them drinks (and/or take them home). This is hardly unique to the Philippines.

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» Singapore

  • Accommodation: Within the last couple of years a few good hostels have opened around town. One such establishment is the BetelBox hostel, which is friendly, has nice areas to meet other people and offers free Internet and other nice treats. Furthermore it is located in the Katong/Geylang area which is much more interesting than overrated Little India. Accommodation is not ultra cheap, but of a high standard. In little India, Ali's Nest is the place to stay. Usually the standard of the new hostels is very high, often as good as in Australia or New Zealand and definitely better than any cheap place in the rest of Asia.

    • Hot water: Not always in cheap places, but certainly in the new hostels.

    • Average cost: SG$20+ a night to much higher. A 'real' hotel will be out of a budget travellers price range.

  • Hassle and annoyance factor: Never a problem

    • Women alone: Never a problem (above norm) - totally trouble free

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Alcohol and cigarettes expensive - don't even mention drugs

  • Communications: Easy internet access and some call centres. International calling cards used in the many public phone boxes make calling home very easy and very cheap. Like everything in Singapore the quality is great.

  • Media:

    • Books: Some imported newspapers and expensive bookshops. There are a lot of regular bookshops and also some great second hand ones for the bargains. All with mostly English books. Strait Times is a good English language newspaper.

    • TV: Only in expensive hotels or hostel common areas.

  • Food: Singapore is one of the best places in the world to eat, since so many cultures come together, the choice is huge. Street cafes in little China and little India are your best bet for a good cheap meal. Food is cheap, especially in the Geylang Serai/Katong areas.

    • Vegetarians: Fine, huge choice.

Edit Many thanks to Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker for his recent updates and insights.

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» Thailand

* Miss at your peril: 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - the perfect place to start (despite the crowds, senseless development in places and proportion of idiot/pervert visitors)

  • Taj MahalIntro: Thailand is where many travellers first venture as a backpacker and although in time they may view it with contempt, they'll probably never forget how easy it was to have a good time, how friendly and fun-loving the Thais were and just how picture perfect the beaches were. Many arrive alone and/or frightened, and before they know it are having a fantastic time. Thailand is a country with huge appeal, but increasingly crowded, cheesy and full of idiots. Certainly on the tourist trail English is never a problem, travel is straightforward and relaxing is easy on some of the world's best beaches or in any one of the thousands of great bars Thailand has to offer.

There is, however much more to discover in Thailand apart from beaches and bars. Since it's easy to get around you've no excuse not to take the time to explore before being tempted by the likes of 'full moon parties' and neighbouring countries.

You might like to think about avoiding the crowds by not staying on the Khaosan Road in Bangkok and not going to Chang Mai or any well known islands or beaches. Don't miss some ruins and a national park; hill tribe treks and full moon parties are - many feel in retrospect and when compared to other Asian activities - overrated.

Thailand may well be the easiest backpacker destination on earth and, the 'pinch of salt' (right) comment aside comes highly recommended especially for those nervous about setting off into the big wide world.

Thailand certainly has a special place in the heart of this website and many travelers, if only for one night in Bangkok and enjoying smiles, sea air, sunshine and amazing food.

A pinch of salt

Judge for yourself, but this easy, fun-filled (cheap living, cheap girls and even cheaper beer) country attracts visitors of all types from all over the world for just that purpose. There isn't much class or culture in most of the offerings to these tourists and that sight can leave a bad taste in the mouth as might be experienced in Cancun, Ayia Napa, Mykonos, Kuta and the like. Pattaya really has to be one of the worst showcases for this not just in Thailand, but worldwide. Flag

Pattaya - though as much of an oddity it is, and admittedly a far cry from most of Thailand - does, however make an interesting example. It was set-up as Asia's first tourist resort to cater for GIs during the Vietnam war. If other parts of Asia follow this lead catering now not to GIs but to an influx of package tourists from China/Russia and others (old guys looking for young girls, Pattaya is the undisputed sex-tourism capital of the world), it's going to be a sad day - unfortunately it seems to be slowly happening. Anyone who has made a few visits to popular resorts and islands over the past ten or even five years might, and witnessing the speed of development, have already considered such an omen.

Some now consider (especially during high season) beaches - once its crowing glory - the low light of Thailand. Such is the over, unmanaged and clearly unsustainable development of Phi Phi, Phuket, Ko Samui, et. al. It is truly sad how these paradises have changed over the years along the Pattaya model.

A further key issue with Thailand is, and this needs to be put very carefully, some of the other travelers you encounter. Many are very young, aggressive, arrogant, naive and intolerant to others + local customs. The Thai tourist industry is smart enough [commercially] to know what many of the young crowds heading to Thailand want and caters to it heavily in hot spots. Expect to overhear some very naive conversations, be woken up by drunken groups and find all too many jaded locals working in the tourist industry.

1. Many opt for the conditional 30 day visa exemption stamp on arrival. One of the conditions is that you must be able to prove that you're leaving Thailand by air within 30 days of your arrival. Technically you may need to show the immigration officers flight tickets or e-booking confirmation showing a flight out of the country and 20,000 baht in available funds on arrival before they stamp you in. That said, Thai immigration enforce these rules completely at random. They might check you, they might not. They almost definitely won't check to see if you have the funds, but they may check for proof of onward flights. Based on our experiences of late, unless you look like a hobo, you won't have a problem. More likely if flying to Thailand on a one-way ticket, the issue you will have is with the airline taking you asking for proof of exit upon check-in. More and more airlines now refusing to carry you to Thailand in the first place if you can't produce a valid visa or proof of onward flights when checking in at your departure airport. Simply confirming you have an exit flight, but 'don't have the details with you' normally works, so does a little bit of text forging on an e-ticketing confirmation just to pacify zeal check-in staff. If entering Thailand on an open-jaw, the airline won't give you a hard time on check-in.

And lastly once in Thailand a short extension to the 30 day visa exemption may only be granted for a fee, but they aren't a God given right despite what you may read or hear elsewhere.

2. The second option is a tourist visa (in advance) valid for 60 days. You can also buy double and triple entry tourist visas, with each entry also entitling you to 60 days. Tourist visas can be extended for varying lengths, at varying number of times and varying costs.

You'll be fined if you overstay any visa. To extend free of charge, leave the country, turn around and re-enter Thailand under the 30 day visa exemption rule mentioned above. A plus point of this method is that proof of onward flights are never checked for at land borders, so you can walk back in no questions asked. However, time limits govern how long you're permitted to stay in Thailand under the visa exemption rule, with the current limit being a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period starting when you first arrive. In the past 18 months, Thai authorities have tightened up visa requirements and even changed the regulations considerably and they'll probably be changing again soon, with the advent of the new collaboration visas with other SE Asian countries. Whereas Thailand is far from difficult when it comes to visas, it is also wise to check what the situation and read the comprehensive info here on a Thai consulate web page.

Accommodation:

Rooms of a normal Asian standard, great value away from main tourist attractions and conversely steadily raising prices in main tourist haunts (popular beaches and islands and of course the Ko San road in Bangkok).

  • Hot water: Not common, if on the cheap

  • Average cost: Various, normally under $10-20. Sleeping on the cheap it's normally possible to find a bed under five bucks, but expect low standards.

The Khaosan Road (Banglampoo - map), - love it or hate it - really is backpacker central not just for Thailand, but for the whole of South East Asia. A Disney-land to generation after generation of travellers. It's really just one rather small and shabby street in a very big, fascinating
city, which offers a lot of budget-priced accommodation and services for travellers. Like everywhere in Thailand as the country's popularity rose and backpackers flooded in, its growth has been phenomenal and just keeps going. Those who visited even a few years back would find some parts unrecognisable, as big hotels and yet more delights to service a backpacker's every need go up. The development on the streets behind the Khao San Road (across the street from the police station and past the temple) is particularly notable; these used to be recommended as better, cheaper, quieter options, but no longer.

Worth mentioning is that the Khao San Road (which after all many travellers will want to stay on) can get very full even early in the day during peak seasons and although you can normally find 'something' it might take a fair bit of searching - solution: if dead set to stay in a nice place in the heart of it all, you might want to book ahead. There are tonnes of options, but right in the heart of it D&D is as good a first place as any to land and given the huge sign it's easy to find.

Away from Bangkok and the Khao San Road, a good range of accommodation is easy to find (apart from popular beach resorts during Christmas and a few other times of the year), although as mentioned 'above the rock bottom' (aka slightly nicer places) rates are slowly rising and standards dropping. AC is nice in the hot season, but comes at a price. If sleeping in beach huts which are common on Thailand's islands/beaches, make sure they are secure.

Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol:

[book]Opium available in hill tribe areas and amphetamines available on the Samui archipelago. Grass is always widely available, but buying in Bangkok a big city (such as Bangkok) is not recommended as random police checks do happen. The Samui archipelago has always been the centre of Thailand's backpacker recreations drugs scene, but police are much stricter than in the past and especially at full moon parties. Twenty years ago you could order a magic mushroom omelette straight off a menu and the smell of grass filled the air. Okay if you look hard enough you can still find mushrooms, 'magic' lassis and 'special' cookies on Ko Pha Ngan and other laid back beaches/islands. Grass always seems to be available on backpacker frequented beaches. Nevertheless as Thailand's popularity has rocketed the police have become stricter and stricter. If you must, be discreet and don't get blasé. Thousands of overseas visitors are prosecuted for drug offences every year in Thailand. Full moon parties are notorious for attracting undercover police. Running around trying to buy grass, acid or ecstasy off complete strangers at 2am on a beach is not recommended. Having said that you still see loads of people doing it (maybe they are the same ones you see getting arrested later). Be aware that Methamphetamines are often passed off as ecstasy and speed as cocaine and sudden deaths have occurred at full moon parties. If you do buy drugs, do yourself a favour and don't travel with them as the penalties if caught are even higher. If you grew out of all this years ago or simply aren't interested, it's worth skipping these islands as there are nicer places in Thailand/Asia with less idiots.

Beer is expensive in comparison with other costs in Thailand. A 660ml local bottle costs half the price of a basic guesthouse room (about B50). But maybe this means that rooms are cheap...

Full moon party expected dates: (2014) Wednesday 15, January; Saturday 15, February; Saturday 15, March; Monday 14, April; Wednesday 14, May; Thursday 12, June; Sunday 13, July; Sunday 10, August; Monday 08, September; Friday 10, October; Thursday 06, November; Saturday 06, December

! Dates do sometimes change due to Buddhist Holidays. This is now a commercialised event.

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» Vietnam - See Indochina page

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Hammok» Others





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[book]One of the best sources of planning information in Asia is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland', although the Cambodia chapter is very out-of-date. However there is a new version of this book out that focuses just on South East Asia. It is a fantastic guide made up of hand-drawn maps packed with great information. It's called South-East Asia: A Graphical Guide and is by the same author as Asia Overland - Mark Elliott, however it is now also out of print, but check Amazon and similar as second-hand copies do float around.

[i] For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.

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Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

"A short pen is better than a long memory"

Confucius




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