Tag Archives: tips

Surviving Long-Distance Bus Trips

Asia is famous for its lush scenery, mouth-watering street food, religious diversity and crumbling temples.  It may also be equally as famous among the backpacker types as home to some of the most harrowing bus trips on the planet.  Traveling by bus is usually the transportation mode of choice by budget backpackers because it is cheap.  Those who are constrained by time (and not by money) usually prefer to fly between cities, rather than take the bus.

10 hour bus rides are commonplace all over Asia.  But, more experienced backpackers know that 10 hours is nothing.  16, 20, 24, even 32 hour bus trips are relatively common in Asia.  Although you might step onto the bus feeling chipper, you’ll likely exit the bus 24 hours later feeling as though you’ve been trampled by a steam roller.  Long-distance bus rides can be bumpy, stiflingly hot, sticky, smelly and all around hellish.  So, whether it’s from Kathmandu to Pokhara in Nepal (7-9 hours) or Hanoi to Vientiane (24 hours), there are some steps you can take to make these extreme journeys slightly more manageable.

1) Ear Plugs

Ear plugs are an absolute must when embarking on a long-distance bus trip, especially one that will drag on through the night.  It is fairly common on bus trips, especially in Vietnam and Thailand, for the bus driver to blast cloyingly sweet and poppy music videos all through the night that will eventually make you want to cut your own ears off with the nearest butter knife.  Be sure to have a set of ear plugs to end the music video madness.  You’ll be happy you did.  Ear plugs will also block out people’s conversations, crying babies, meowing cats (yes, cats have been known to be on long-distance bus rides in Asia), and the sounds of people vomiting.

2) Extra Sweater

Photo by: lululemon_athletica

When you think “Asian climates” you often think “hot.”  This is true, in many Asian destinations, temperatures regularly rise above 90-degrees Fahrenheit.  Despite this fact, long-distance bus drivers in Asia find it immensely pleasurable to crank the air conditioning in the bus to sub-arctic levels.  You’ll quickly forget you’re driving through the sweltering tropics and wonder why in the world you feel like you’re trekking through Antarctica with nothing but a bathing suit on.  Vietnamese long-distance bus drivers are especially notorious for turning up the A/C and refusing to turn it down or off.  The solution is to bring an extra sweater (or two, or three) always when on a long-distance bus trip.  If, for some reason, you do not have icicles coming out of your nose, you can always ball up the extra sweater and use it as a pillow.

3) Baby Wipes

Baby wipes are a definite must for maintaining sanity on long-distance bus trips.  After only a few hours on the bus, you’ll probably begin to feel greasy, grimy and covered in dirt.  There may or may not be someone throwing up continuously in front of your seat (bringing extra plastic bags may be a good idea, too, especially on Laos bus trips).  Baby wipes come in handy for a quick wipe down of your arms and face.  You’ll instantly feel more refreshed and ready to take on the next 10 hours of the trip.

4) Snacks

Photo by: maskoen

Throughout the course of most bus rides in Asia, the driver will stop somewhere several times for food and drinks.  Passengers can get off, go to the bathroom, grab some chips or crackers and stretch their legs.  But, it is not unknown for the bus driver who may or may not have had 15 energy drinks to power straight through to the destination.  Whether or not there is a stop on the bus ride, it is always wise to bring a few snacks for yourself.  While rat-on-a-stick (Laos) may sound tasty to some, others may want to munch their own snacks.  Bring a small stash in your backpack to keep your blood sugar up.  It is also nice to have fresh snacks, like a bag of rambutans or a bunch of bananas.

5) Sit in the Front

Photo by: joaquinuy

It is wise to arrive at the departure bus station early and find seats about half-an-hour before the bus leaves.  Bus drivers and bus attendants in Asia have been known to stuff those silly farangs (foreigners) in the way, way, way back of the bus, next to the stinking bathroom and everyone’s luggage.  If you have no choice and are forced to sit in the back, embrace the adventure.  But if possible, sit in the front of the bus where the ride is infinitely less bumpy and you’ll have easier access to get out on rest stops.

6) Reading Materials/Entertainment

Photo by: Brian Lane Winfield Moore

Bringing a book, a magazine or some music on your bus journey is sure to ease the pain.  To be honest, you might not even touch your book because there is always an endless stream of entertainment outside the bus window. No matter where you’re going, looking out the window is usually always fun and exciting because everything is so new and the scenery is often spectacular.  When you get bored of window watching, having a book is nice, but not always feasible to read, especially if the trip is extra bumpy.

Other Things to Bring/Remember for Your Bus Trip:

Photo by: ToastyKen

*On long-distance bus rides a toothbrush and toothpaste are your best friends.  A quick teeth-clean can be the difference between feeling hellish and feeling normal.

Photo by: swimparallel

*Always keep your passport and valuables ON YOUR PERSON.  It is very important not to stow passport, cash, credit cards, etc… in your backpack that is under the bus.  Sneaky people have been known to riffle through bags under the bus, helping themselves to whatever catches their fancy.

Singapore: Is It Asia Lite?

buildings in SingaporeThere are a few things that will inevitably come up in a conversation about Singapore:

1) “It’s sooooo clean!”

2) “Don’t they arrest you for chewing gum?”

3) “It’s very Westernized.”

There are truths and falsities to all of these points.  First of all, yes, Singapore is very clean.  They do a wonderful job at keeping their country spic-and-span.  You’d be hard pressed to find a mound of trash, or even a lone plastic bag, anywhere on the ground.  Of course, considering how small Singapore is, it’s almost necessary to keep the island tidy.

Second, you won’t be arrested in Singapore if you’re chewing gum, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll find gum sold in the first place.  The import and sale of gum in Singapore is banned, unless the gum is of therapeutic value.

Third, compared to many other parts of Asia, Singapore does seem very Westernized, maybe even more so than most Western cities.  Towering skyscrapers gleam from the sky, high vehicle tax means the traffic runs smoothly and taxis are clean and shining.  People in Singapore enjoy a very high standard of living and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP per capital in Singapore is $50,523 (compare that with US GDP per capita of $46,381).  All-in-all, Singapore runs like a well oiled machine: great facilities and services, government benefits and supports, almost no homelessness and a very good health system.

All these factors combined often make people think that although Singapore is in Asia, it’s “Asia Lite.”  Just like Coors Lite is Coors without all the extra calories, Singapore is like Asia, without all the culture.

This, fortunately, is dead wrong.  While it may seem that Singapore is more similar to Los Angeles than Phnom Phen, is definitely not just “Asia Lite.”

Singapore is literally bursting with awesome Asian culture and things that make it like no other Asian country or Western city in the world.

Here are some cultural things to do and think about to steer clear of the “Asia Lite” stereotype:

1) Singapore’s Chinatown

Let’s face it, Singapore’s Chinatown is definitely a tourist attraction.  At the heart of the Chinatown enclave, tourists gather at outdoor

Bustling Singapore Chinatown by night. (Photo Credit: WilliamCho)

tables underneath umbrellas, sipping on Tiger Beer and snacking on chicken rice.  The best way to get the real feel of Singapore’s Chinatown is to stick to the perimeter.  The area is packed full of restaurants, art stores and other shops just waiting to be explored.

For an adventurous lunch, find a Chinatown restaurant with no sign and maybe no menu.  Point to what someone else (a local) is having and see what comes of it.  Most likely, it will be one of the best meals of your life (something you’ll say after every Singaporean meal).

There are some quintessentially “Chinese” things are Chinatown that you shouldn’t miss out on.  Two of those things are reflexology shops and Chinese medicine shops.  Reflexology is an alternative healing technique in which pressure is applied to various points on the feet, ankles and toes.  Supposedly, certain acupressure points around the feet correspond with various organs and parts of the body.  For example, if pressure were applied to a certain part of the foot’s arch, the reflexologist may tell you that this will affect your kidneys.  Whether you’re looking for some Chinese healing, or you just want an hour respite from the Chinatown heat, reflexology is a worth the money and the time.  There are dozens of reflexology shops around Chinatown that are open to walk-ins.  The price is usually between $15-$20 SGD for about 1-1.5 hours.  If food massages are your thing, do not miss this.

For a mysterious and enchanting dose of Chinese culture, step into one of the Chinese medicine shops.  Unless you speak Chinese, you probably won’t know what anything is, even if they tell you, so just have fun looking at all the interesting herbs, plants, animal parts and powders in the glass jars.  Chinese medicine shops usually exude a very unique smell, so you probably won’t miss it if you walk by.  If you’re afflicted by something, try explaining it to the medicine shop owner and who knows, you could walk out with some powdered antelope’s horn or a vial of “tiger’s blood.”

2) Little India

Hop of the MRT in Little India and spend the day immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of one of Singapore’s most eye-popping ethnic enclaves.  Little India spans a number of blocks and is packed with markets (indoor and outdoor), tea shops, sweets stalls, spice vendors and temples.  The vibrant colors of Little India mix with the pungent incense aroma, the thumping Bollywood music and the chants coming from the temples.

Begin your tour at the Tekka Wet Market, which is packed with hawker stalls, vegetable and fruit vendors and even has a section from meat and fish.  Wander through the lined up stalls and watch as vendors cut off chicken heads, gut fish, weigh out miscellaneous vegetables and mix extra-hot Teh Tarik (special sweet tea).

Indian treats are small, but incredibly sweet. (Photo Credit: Ian Muttoo)

Once you’ve had your fill at the wet market, make sure to hit up one of the many sweet stalls that line the streets.  India is famous for its shockingly sweet treats (called Mithai).  The sweets are made with varying amounts of sugar, milk, oil and condensed milk with a number of other spices and flavors added in.

To wash down your sweets, don’t miss out on a cup of Teh Tarik.  Teh Tarik is a kind of sweet, milky tea that is literally pulled from one tea pot to another.  The vendors who make Teh Tarik are quite skilled at juggling their tea pots and pouring the hot, steaming beverage from one container to another.  Even if you don’t like sweet, milky drinks, order one for a friend just to see the vendors put on the show.

By now you’ve had tested out the sights, smells and tastes of Little India and it’s time to check out the religious sites.  Upon exiting the Tekka Wet Market, you’ll notice row after row of shops on the street selling garlands of marigold flowers.  These shops sell, along with the marigolds, items that can be given as offerings at the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple just down the street.

Statues at the Sri Veeramakaliamman in Little India. (Photo Credit: Matthias Rosenkranz

Check out these little shops that sells garlands, incense, and candles.  Even if you don’t purchase anything, wonder at the amazing floral smell that radiates from this corner of Little India.

3) Bugis Street

Although Bugis Street now is nothing like it was in its hey-day, it’s still fun to roam around the area and try to picture what it used to be like.  Bugis Street is currently a center for shopping and is host to an immense and tangled mass of market and street vendors who sell everything from eggs boiled in tea, to knock-off sunglasses, to refreshing glasses of coconut juice.  Walk through the stalls and mingle with Singapore’s young, hip and adventurous crowd who brave the sticky heat to find some great deals.

Bugis Street’s old claim to fame were the prostitutes, transvestites, drunks and drug addicts who roamed the street in search of a good time.  The area attracted foreigners, including American G.I.’s looking for some “fun.”  They found it alright: Bugis Street became Singapore’s central for sex, drugs and rock and roll, with a transvestite twist.

Bugis Street may not be the party-central it once was, but it's still fun to try to picture it. (Photo Credit: nlann

Those days of hedonistic pleasures are long-gone, but the name remains.  Now, instead of brothels, Bugis is lined with tidy shopping malls and shops.  Singapore’s government completely revamped the area in the 1980’s, getting rid of all that subculture-fun.  There’s not much trace of what used to be there.  Instead, sit back at one of the hawker centers, grab a Tiger Beer, squint your eyes and try to image what sort of craziness used to go down on the Singapore streets.

Four Money-Saving Travel Tips

Although the open road may beckon us, there are often road blocks between the dream of backpacking around Asia and living at home.  One of those road blocks is most often money.  Traveling around the world can be expensive, but it can also be very cheap depending on your living standards and your money-spending habits. The following are four techniques you can use while traveling to stretch your dollar, euro, rupee, or whatever, as far as possible, because every dollar saved means more time living your dreams on the road in Asia.

Tip #1: Eat Street Food!

Omlette vendor in Vietnam There’s a great deal of misconception about eating street food in Asia.  Depending on who you ask, what guide book you’re reading, or what travel doctor you see before your trip, they might give you one major piece of advice: “Don’t eat the street food!”  They’ll probably tell you horrible stories about food poisoning from eating street meat in Bangkok or fish in Vietnam.  But, don’t let these horror stories deter you, because this advice is absolutely false.  If you adhere to those misguided words or wisdom in Asia, you’ll be missing out on some of the most INCREDIBLE meals of your life, not to mention some of the most important local food culture.

The other major perk of eating street food in Asia is the price. Good, incredible, spectacular food is cheap. For example, a bowl of steaming hot pho in Vietnam ranges anywhere from $0.25 to $1.50. A few thick, chewy roti prata made in front of your eyes on the streets of Malaysia will run you about $1.00.  Eating street food will save you loads of money compared to if you were to eat all your meals in sit down restaurants and, honestly, street food is often better than restaurant food.  In some parts of Asia, like Thailand, street food is a major part of the culture.  To not eat street food in Bangkok would be about as sacrilege as going to Siem Reap, Cambodia and missing out on Angkor Wat.

Delicious and fresh papaya salad for about $1.

Some people are concerned about health issues and sanitation of street food vendors. But, not to worry.  You won’t have a problem with most street food carts, just make sure you keep your eyes peels and if the food doesn’t look very cleanly, don’t worry, another street food cart is likely only a block away.  The glory of the street food cart is that you can watch your food being made right in front of your eyes, while at a restaurant, the food is made behind closed doors.  Just remember that if you stomach does become upset from eating something, don’t blame it on street food in general!  Remember that it’s one isolated incident that shouldn’t be applying to the street food category as a whole.

Tip #2: Be Mindful of Your Books

Books from a used bookstore in Thailand

Used books are your best friend!

Long travel stints often mean a lot of free time: waiting at bus stations, nights along in hostels, 24 hour train trips.  What better way to fill your free time than with a thick, worn-and-torn book?  When you’re traveling, this often means you are looking at and thinking about the world in totally new ways and reading new material can make this fresh experience even better.  And let’s face it, on those nights when you just can’t stand the thought of going out for beers again, sitting on the roof of your hostel with a book is probably the most delightful alternative.  Whether it be classic novel, a historical narrative or a non-fiction work, books are a traveler’s best friend.  So, what’s the problem?  Although books are one of the most necessary travel accessories, the problem is that books can be very expensive while traveling.  There are several solutions to this problem of expensive books.

The first solution is to trade books with other travelers looking for some new material.  This is one of the best approaches because it is completely free.  It’s also fun to read books that dozens of other people have read, made notes in, folded the pages of and loved.  Add you own little note (maybe your email?) at the end of the book and see what comes of it!  The other good thing about trading with fellow travelers is that you get to talk about other recommendations for similar books.

The next solution is to go to a used bookstore where you can often find some stellar deals.  Many of the used bookstores in Asia also sell some new books, so if you’re craving some brand spankin’ new pages, you can get them there.  The benefit of going to used bookstore is that they will often buy your finished book for about half the price they’ll sell it for and you can use that money as a credit for your next book.  This ends up being a pretty good deal if you’re swapping out books at used book stores.  Some regions have a sparser selection of used book stores, but in places like Thailand and Malaysia, used bookstores abound.  The draw back of too many used bookstores is that you’ll be tempted to buy too many books and then end up carrying around 10 extra pounds in your pack.

**Travel Tip: Some of the best places for English-language used books stores in Asia include Chiang Mai (Thailand), Bangkok (Thailand), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Hanoi (Vietnam).

Tip #3: Stop Spending So Much Money on Your Room

Simple hostel bed

Nothing wrong with this simple hostel room for only a few dollars.

Because really?  How much time do you spend in your room when you are traveling anyway?  A comfortable room is always nice, but is the TV, in-room bathroom and sink, air-con and refrigerator really necessary?  Probably not.  One of the best ways to shave money off your travel expenditures is to settle for no-frills, basic rooms.  You can find a room in Asia for anywhere between $1,500 (and beyond) and $0.50.  Spending $2-$3 on a room means you’ll probably just get a bed and a closet-like room.  This is fine if you’re planning on spending the majority of your time out-and-about (which you probably are).  For a few bucks more, you can get a room with air-con, which is always nice if you’re in a place like Bangkok where the heat can be sweltering.

What you’ll get with a very cheap room:

1) A bed.  It won’t necessarily be comfortable but it will most likely be clean and sleepable.

2) A pillow.  It won’t necessarily be soft, but it’s still a pillow.

3) A shared bathroom.  Some travelers steer clear of the shared bathroom, but it’s really not so bad.  You share one bathroom and shower, sometimes more, with other travelers.  People generally keep this communal area clean.  In larger hostels, each floor may be equipped with as many as 5 shared bathrooms for easier access.

Tip #4: Walk!!!!!!

Walk! Walk! Walk!

One of the best ways to save money is to forget the taxis, the rickshaws, the tuk-tuks and even the buses.  Walk!  It’s free, fun, good exercise and is probably the best way to intimately get to know a place.  Taking the occasional taxi for long journeys is ok, but getting in the habit of hailing a cab every time you need to get somewhere will surely put a damper on your travel budget.  The best perk of walking is that you see exponentially more things, details, people and events than you would see while in a moving vehicle.  The best way to get to know a new place is to get lost on foot and then find your way back to your hostel or a major landmark.  It is essential that this be done on foot.  Make sure you take comfortable walking shoes with you on your travels!  This tip will help your wallet, will increase your knowledge of a place and will help you stay fit while on the road!

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Still nervous about street food? Click below for some great advice from bad ass and traveler extraordinaire, Anthony Bourdain: