April 18, 2015

You have now entered the Tourist Zone

sadhuA few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.

From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.

The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.

“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”

“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.

“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”

Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.

On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.

Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).

As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.

As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.

Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:

1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.

2) Mind your manners

Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.

3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there

In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).

4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones

Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

April 1, 2015

Vagabonding Field Report: Hanoi, Vietnam

In northern Vietnam lies this gem of a city where French food and fashion meet Vietnamese culture and vermicelli. Sometimes overlooked as it’s not as big of a hub as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers a taste of authentic street food and genuinely good prices.

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Cost per day:

Hanoi has a huge range of hotels on offer from $4 a night for a shared dorm to much, much more at some of the fancier establishments in the French quarter. We’re at a solid $14 USD a night which has a western bathroom/shower and includes breakfast. With only a few minutes walk to the old quarter, we’re at the heart of the city and don’t need to rent scooters or bicycles. For lunch we eat street food, sitting on tiny child-sized plastic stools along the sidewalk: maybe a bowl of phở or a sweet and savory bun cha, each costing somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 dong. A bowl of fruit salad mixed with coconut cream, tapioca balls, and jelly cubes with crushed ice will only run you about 20,000 dong as a sweet snack to tide you over until dinner. Dinner may set you back you a bit more but can still be done affordably. We often eat phở on the street for 50,000 dong, but there are many restaurants serving western fare as well as Vietnamese and French for a bit more. Household items can be bought from corner shops (we bought electrical tape for 5,000 dong, the equivalent of about $0.25 USD) and shopping for clothing and handicrafts is plentiful but requires a lot of hard bargaining. Beer is the cheapest I’ve ever seen at 20,000 dong or less.

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Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

March 7, 2015

Around the World on a Shoestring

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Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.

Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel – some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.

The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.

The travel caricature of Havana, of course, is an elegantly aged vision of cigars and classic cars, son and salsa, communist slogans and café con leche. To actualise this vision, many upscale tourists head for the $120-a-night Hotel Nacional, a classic, mafia-era facility that features $8 mojitos and a lovely terrace looking out over the Malecón and the Straits of Florida. Unfortunately, most Cubans don’t have access to the Hotel Nacional, and – as is the case with luxury hotels in many parts of the world – it tends to create a travel experience based more on the idea of how the city should be than how the city is.

I spent my nights in Cuba just up the street from the Hotel Nacional, shelling out just $15 a night to sleep at a casa particulare homestay in Havana’s leafy Vedado district. I couldn’t see the Malecón from my bedroom, nor could I order room-service rum cocktails, but I did get to take part in the day-to-day home routine of my Cuban hosts. In the mornings I would have coffee with them and practise my Spanish; in the evenings we’d watch the state-run TV station, trying to spot bits of real news through the haze of official propaganda. My host family cheerfully introduced me to various friends and neighbours, and within a few days my little social network had offered me access to underground poetry readings, pickup baseball games, and – on one fateful afternoon – a bagpipe performance at the Asturian Federation in central Havana.

Where I come from in the United States, bagpipes are the pastime of earnest, middle-aged men with potbellies and Scottish surnames. In Havana, I discovered that bagpipes are the passion of wicked-smart twentysomething Havana University graduates with a love of music as deep and soulful as anyone portrayed in The Buena Vista Social Club. Instead of playing the Spanish guitar and African percussion that distinguish son music, however, these guys were channelling the Celtic rhythms of Spain’s Asturias region, which sent tens of thousands of immigrants to Cuba in the late 19th century.

When I befriended those hipster kids and began to learn how to play the gaita (an Asturian bagpipe with a single drone pipe), I discovered a side of Havana that was as authentically (if not stereotypically) a part of Cuba as baseball and rumba. Like the tourists in the Hotel Nacional, I still had plenty of access to son, cigars and salsa – but I also got to see a side of Havana that revealed the complexity of the city and its subcultures.

I’m not saying that you have to hang out with bagpipers if you really want to experience Havana; I’m just noting how spending less money has a way of paying off in original and memorable experiences.

And shoestring travel is not just for long trips. Last summer, I travelled to the Czech Republic with my parents. We could have easily splurged on expensive hotels and guided tours during our time in Prague, but instead we bought a three-day tram-pass and checked into a hostel in the city’s suburban Vinohrady district. Even though my parents are in their 60s, the youthful backpackers staying at the hostel treated them as one of their own, and offered travel advice on topics ranging from tourist destinations to experimental theatre to where one can sample the city’s best absinthe. We ended up spending three days exploring various corners of the city on foot and by public transport. We stumbled across standard sights like Stare Mesto and the Charles bridge, of course, but we also happened upon children’s school-jazz performances and a Czech Corvette-club rally. We admired the art nouveau styling of the Mayor’s Hall, but we also marvelled at the casual art nouveau detailing in suburban post offices and pizza parlours. When we stopped into a random pub and used improvised hand signals to order Plzensky Prazdroj and knedliky, we felt as if we were the very first outsiders to discover the joys of Czech beer and dumplings.

If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.

The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.

Perhaps my favourite budget destination in the world is Bangkok. The city may be chaotic, traffic-snarled and incomprehensible, but it never fails to amaze me. Over the years I’ve found lodging in countless corners of the city – from the $4 backpacker dives of Khao San Road (which has gentrified a lot since my first visit in 1999) to the posh, five-star environs of the storied Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My favourite place to crash is the Atlanta Hotel, a curious little $15-a-night gem (complete with a courtyard swimming pool and an art-deco lobby) off on Sukhumvit Road. To the untrained eye, Sukhumvit Road could pass for a westernised strip of air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, but the area wears its globalisation in a distinctively Thai way. Sure, there are McDonalds and Starbuck franchises for those who choose to dine there, but there are also street vendors serving paad thai, fresh pineapple and grilled scorpion on a stick for pennies a serving.

It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.

Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.

This notion of spending less and experiencing more holds true regardless of economic conditions, but in a time of global recession it makes even more urgent sense – not just for holidays, but for life in general.

 

This story originally published by The Guardian, February 7, 2009

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Category: North America, Vagabonding Advice

March 4, 2015

Vagabonding Field Report: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This tightly compacted city holds some of Cambodia’s best food and most tragic history. Without knowing its past of civil war and genocide, you would think Cambodians and Phnom Penhers in particular were just really friendly people. Once you learn their history and realize that everyone you see was affected by the notorious Khmer Rouge in the 1970s in one way or another, then you know they’re more than just friendly; they’re admirable. Visiting Phnom Penh is easy if you’re already in Southeast Asia. Cambodia can be overlooked and a lot of visitors only see Siem Reap in the north to visit the temples of Angkor Wat then move on, but Phnom Penh is the heart of the country and merits a visit all its own.

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Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

February 21, 2015

Song of the Broken Road- Cambodia

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Our Cambodian truck driver, who says his name is “Mr. T,” pulls the Nissan pickup to the side of the road and looks back at me expressionlessly. “You get out!” he says. As if to underscore this suggestion, he steps out of the truck himself, unzips his jeans and begins to urinate on the side of the road.

Since I welcome any chance to exit the jammed mini-cab, I follow suit.

I have been riding in Mr. T’s truck long enough to know that he was not being rude with this curt demand. He was merely showing off his arsenal of English phrases, which also includes “I am Mr. T” and “You pay $6.” Every 20 or so minutes, he turns around and says, “This road very bad, ha-ha!” The quip is meant to be a joke, but after two hours of slamming through the unending succession of potholes and washouts known as Cambodia Route 6, I’m not laughing.

Since Route 6 is the only passable road from the Thai border to the ancient Khmer monuments at Angkor Wat, it gets a surprisingly steady stream of tourist traffic. We are currently at the height of dry season, and the road is as brown and featureless as the Texas panhandle in winter. Each time a truck full of glassy-eyed travelers bounces past, I feel like I’m journeying through some sadistic antipode to Disneyland, where the only ride lasts six hours and is designed to underscore just how long, difficult and boring life can be.

As I void my bladder onto the Route 6 shoulder, I notice that my white-haired seatmate, Mr. Cham, is standing a few paces away, watching me. All dandied-up in a brown porkpie hat and a purple polo shirt, Mr. Cham looks like he’s ready for an afternoon at the horse races. I half expect him to break into applause as I take my whiz. Once I’m finished, he hurries down the road to watch the other foreigner — a middle-aged Belgian named Claude — urinate. I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Cham doesn’t get out of the house much.

Mr. Cham and I have been smashed up against each other in the Nissan mini-cab all morning. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I am sponsoring his ride. The first time I ever saw him was yesterday. He was wearing a black Bon Jovi T-shirt at the time, and had just stolen my sandals. My second encounter with him was this morning, when he showed up at my departure point from a town known as Opasat and informed my Cambodian hosts that I was to pay for his transit to Siem Reap. It seemed like an odd request at the time, but I went ahead and obliged him out of generic courtesy.

Mr. Cham has no personality and smells like a bag of stale Cool Ranch Doritos. If I had it to do all over again, I would have saved $3 back at the truck depot and made him ride in the back of the Nissan with the old women, the chickens and the bags of rice.

As I return to the truck from my toilet break, Mr. T rushes up to cut me off at the door. At first I think there’s some sort of danger, but it turns out he’s just looking for a chance to show off some more English. “You get in!” he says.

In the waning days of the Jimmy Carter administration, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I dressed up like Batman and, as part of a UNICEF Halloween promotion, went door to door collecting money for the starving children of Cambodia. As I recall, I was far more interested in Batman than Cambodia, and I only mention it now because it occurs to me that Mr. T (who, despite his authoritative name, is no older than me) was probably one of those starving children.

Perhaps out of gratitude all these years later, Mr. T is hell-bent on driving me to Siem Reap as fast as possible. His road style is bold, unorthodox and unnerving, and I’m beginning to suspect that he originally learned how to drive by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Claude the Belgian, who shelled out $10 for the shotgun seat, is gripping the dashboard with a queasy, defeated look. The rest of the passengers, including Mr. Cham and me, are packed into the mini-cab so tightly that there’s no point in trying to steady ourselves. With each road flaw, our heads bang back and forth in unison, like we’ve just been teleported here from a Judas Priest concert.

Mr. T slows down only for roadblocks that are manned by men with assault rifles. I have yet to figure out if these armed sentries are soldiers or bandits — or if there is even any distinction between those two job descriptions in northwestern Cambodia. The roadblocks seem to be located only in shaded places where one can hang a hammock, and I suspect that anyone in this country with a spare AK-47 and a little initiative can find part-time work as a freelance Route 6 tollkeeper. Mr. T doesn’t pay the tollkeepers much mind, slowing only to toss a 500-riel note (about $0.13) out the window at each roadblock.

When an old codger on a parched section of the highway tries to wave our truck down with a slingshot and a shoddy bundle of sticks, Mr. T slams on the brakes, jumps out of the truck and chases the old man off into the scrub bushes. I’m not exactly sure what nuances lurk behind this confrontation, but it’s the most excitement we’ve had all day. Everyone cheers when Mr. T gets back into the truck.

The strangest detail about Cambodia Route 6 is that it is populated by so many children. Some of them are out fixing road defects with shovels; others help guide the trucks over dilapidated bridges. All of these kids demand a tip for their services, but Mr. T unconditionally ignores them. Lots of the kids are armed with Super Soaker water guns — probably a holdover from the Khmer New Year’s festivities — and we get ambushed with water whenever we slow down.

Were I a sentimental ironist, I might make some dewy-eyed observation about how these kids represent the peace-loving hopes of post-Pol Pot Cambodia — how these gentle, harmless water guns have replaced the tools of genocide. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic. The old ladies and chickens in the bed of the Nissan are completely soaked because of these spiteful little extortionists, and each time Mr. T drives past without tipping them, they shake their fists at him in pre-adolescent fury.

Four hours into our journey, we stop at a village for lunch. “You get out,” Mr. T tells me as we coast to a stop in front of a roadside food stand. I get out.

Since I’m not all that hungry, I stand with Claude the Belgian and stretch my legs. I have stopped trying to talk to Claude because he speaks only French and Khmer. What little English he knows is not much better than Mr. T’s repertoire. I try not to hold this against him, since I studied French for two semesters in college, and all I can remember now is that fromage means cheese.

As Claude and I stand in silence, a Cambodian man across the street takes an AK-47 out from the cab of his truck and starts to fire it into the sky. He is part of a large crowd, and all the women in his immediate vicinity start to scream. Even from across the road, the noise of the weapon gives me a start. The only thing that keeps me from running for cover is Claude, who acts as if nothing is happening.

“What the hell is that all about?” I say under my breath, not really expecting an answer.

“Waiting,” Claude says.

“Waiting for what?” I reply, still under my breath.

“Waiting,” Claude says. “Man, woo-man. Waiting.”

It dawns on me. “Oh, wedding. It’s a wedding party.”

Oui. Waiting part-ee.”

As I am watching the quirky wedding festivities across the street, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. Cham, who indicates that he wants me to come over to the food stand. For a moment, I think Mr. Cham has redeemed himself by ordering me lunch; as it turns out, he just wants me to pay for his lunch. I foot Cham’s lunch bill, secretly formulating ways to dump this creepy little freeloader as soon as I get to Siem Reap.

Since I’m already at the food stand, I decide to check out what kinds of cuisine they offer. The lone on-duty chef at this moment is a scowling 8-year-old girl who chops up a dead chicken with fearsome strokes from a butcher knife. When she finishes, she scoops up the gelatinous cubes of deceased fowl and dumps them onto a plate of rice.

Since the bird was never properly disemboweled, each chicken cube resembles a tidy anatomical cross-section of meat, bones, skin and viscera. In all my international culinary experience, I have never seen the likes of this. I half expect an elementary-school gifted-student coordinator to walk up and cheerily announce, “OK, now let’s see which one of you can put that chicken back together!”

I elect to skip lunch. My quest for a toilet leads me to a forlorn strip of cement behind the food stand, which provides a nice view of Route 6 twisting off into the distance. I wish I could say that the midday sun makes the dusty, brown road seem full of intrigue and possibility, but I’m on the wrong continent for that kind of notion.

In Cambodia, there are no hipster myths or soda advertisements to insinuate that the road is some kind of romantic-individualist icon. In the Cambodian outback, the road is little more than a long, dully dangerous, frequently uncomfortable way to get to Point B from Point A — a monotonous, head-banging waltz-with-misery that you endure in the hope that it will eventually stop, so you can begin to forget about it.

I feel another tug on my shirt. It’s Mr. T, who points back to the Nissan. “You get in!” he says.

I get in. But only because there are no other options out here.

 

Originally published on Salon.com, May 18, 1999

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Category: Asia

February 15, 2015

Getting my Open Water in Thailand

Learning to dive was in the front of my mind when I started planning my trip to southeast Asia. Friends had learned in Thailand and I had heard that it was one of the cheapest places to get certified. After some research, we headed towards Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was keen to get my Open Water certification, but my husband was not. He agreed to stay on shore and I signed up for the three day course.

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My brain was stretched and challenged as I did my homework each night; I enjoyed learning new terms and pondering the science involved in taking a human body deep underwater. I was back in school and excited to learn about decompression sickness and the volume of the air in my lungs under pressure. Over those three days, I learned the skills I needed to stay alive and also realized a recurring dream I have of being able to breathe underwater. I made new friends and relied on them for my safety. Diving began to feel natural and, at the end of my course, I got my very own photo ID to prove that I was now a licensed diver. While having lunch with my group on that last day, I pondered where this new skill was going to take me.

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Having my OW was nice, but what about deeper dives like wrecks? I wouldn’t be able to dive past 18 meters and having a limitation on the kinds of dives I could do made me consider sticking around. Later that day, on an impulse, I signed up for my advanced course to spend two more days learning a few more skills and practice my buoyancy control and breathing. I dived a sunken wreck and did a night dive where I saw herds of porcupine fish and phosphorescence. In a classroom, I wasn’t enthralled by the science of volume and pressure, but as I watched a raw egg cracked open at 30 meters depth, I marveled at the real world demonstration: holding its shape, floating weightlessly as if in space. After leaving Koh Tao, I started doing fun dives near the Koh Phi Phi islands and had a chance to see some amazing sea life. I practiced using my GoPro on dives and bought a red filter for taking photos and video at depth to bring back some of the red that gets lost the further down you go. There’s still a lot of work to do and perhaps some new gear to acquire, but the opportunity to expand my photography to include underwater shots is also exciting.

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Diving is a skill that lets me explore an entirely new part of a country and see things I wouldn’t have been able to see before. I can wander the grounds of the ancient city of Sukhothai one week, and the next be face to face with a lionfish in the Andaman Sea. Who knows where this endeavor will take me?

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia

February 7, 2015

Lost in Transaction

kyatOne of the most startling travel epiphanies I’ve had in recent years came on a trip to Burma, when I was counting out small change so I could buy a packet of toilet tissues. The Burmese kyat had recently suffered a jag of devaluation, and when I’d tallied up my toilet-tissue money, I noticed that it consisted of twelve small denomination bills.

Given that Burmese tissues came in packets of ten, it occurred to me that it would be more economical to just wipe my ass in kyat and pocket the difference.

Though this Burma experience was an unusually vivid example, travel always has a way of testing one’s faith when it comes to the workings of money. At home, one can pass bills without thinking too much about it, but the arbitrariness of modern currency can be alarmingly apparent when one is abroad.

As a veteran Asia traveler, my bewilderment with legal tender goes back to a day seven years ago, when an elderly vendor in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market refused to accept a worn $10 bill I’d brought directly from the United States. “Too old,” she’d told me. When I asked the woman to show me an example of acceptable currency, she held up a discolored (yet crisp) $20 bill that had obviously been counterfeited locally. In Cambodia, it seemed, the true value of American money was not pegged to its authenticity, but to whether or not it was wrinkled.

Such an idiosyncrasy may well derive from fact that portable currency (a system created in part by the demands of travel itself) has never been foolproof. In areas where a standardized money system has yet to catch on, for example, the act of shopping can prove ambiguous. In the 19th century guidebook The Art of Travel, Francis Galton suggested bringing beads and shells to use as “small change” when traveling in remote regions. Galton warned against knickknack-inflation, however — noting that one African chief had complained that his women were already “grunting like pigs” under the burden of beads given to them by previous travelers.

Other times, the absence of standardized currency has worked in travelers’ favor. Pioneering voyages to the South Pacific abound with tales of an improvised iron-based economy, wherein a sailor could acquire a short-term Tahitian wife through the gift of “an old razor, a pair of scissors, or a very large nail.” In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis of the Dolphis had to forbid his men from trading nails for anything save wood or water, “to preserve the ship from being pulled to pieces” by horny sailors. Of course, iron isn’t the only item that has served as de facto travel currency. Wandering Norsemen once brokered deals in butter, the nomads of the Sahara traded in salt, and (in a scenario that’s fun to imagine) ancient Aztecs paid off their debts in chocolate. Tobacco was legal tender along the roads of colonial Virginia — a fact that sounds strange only until you consider that cigarettes were used as money in many parts of Europe after World War II.

In fact, paper money — which carries a purely hypothetical value — has only recently caught on as a world currency. The Chinese may have valued paper notes against silk to mixed success 1000 years ago, but a similar effort in 13th century Persia was ruined by counterfeiters. William the Bad tried to introduce leather money in 14th century Sicily — though (given the king’s unfortunate name) it’s easy to conclude that this royal experiment didn’t go over so well. To this day, the uncertainty of paper money has been known to break a regime: In late 2001, forged paper notes reportedly helped destabilize the Taliban government (one naturally wonders what graven image the Afghan Islamists had printed on their money — a grenade? an unplugged TV set? a smashed chunk of Buddha statue?).

Even in the United States, a paper dollar has little inherent value beyond the fact that it’s a part of the largest system of common faith in the world. Indeed, despite doctrinal differences, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and animists readily accept paper dollars — and even the metaphysical workings of the dollar’s “managed system” of value (wherein American banks and the Federal Reserve determine, Old Testament-style, that a dollar Is What It Is) seems firmly rooted in the ways of shared belief.

When such faith begins to crumble, of course — like it did for me in Burma — it’s easy to conclude that, for all its usefulness, paper money is still just paper.

For the record, I went ahead and swapped those twelve banknotes for ten tissues. But only because the latter were more absorbent.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on March 27, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Asia, Money Management

February 5, 2015

Trip Report: how we did Oman for $570 in airfare and accommodations for two

When I first became interested in traveling, airfare and accommodations were the two most daunting expenses. Both such expenses can add up quite quickly.  For example, these days $420 may not seem like enough to pay for airfare and accommodations for two people visiting the Middle East. But when you are willing to combine a few “travel-hacking” strategies to make it happen, it’s absolutely possible to do a trip like this.

Perhaps the best way to tell you how is simply to lay out the exact costs my husband and I had for airfare and accommodations for our recent trip to Oman.

Now, I’m not assuming that Oman is a particularly popular travel destination. It’s simply an example of a recent trip for which we utilized enough of our travel-hacking strategies to keep the travel-related costs below $500. With a bit of adaptation, you could apply these strategies to a variety of travel destinations.

Trip Details:

We flew from DC to Oman (with a layover in Amsterdam) in economy class and returned from Oman on the same route a week later. Excluding nights spent on the plane in transit, we spent 6 nights in Oman.

Grand Mosque

 

Firstly, let’s tackle the issue of airfare:

Expense: $420 roundtrip for 2 people

(You may notice that this now accounts for the entire “airfare and accommodations” costs. I’ll explain that in a bit…)

Strategy: Mistake Fares

Mistake fares are not the kind of flight deals you can count on if you have a very specific destination in mind. But if you are the kind of person who is curious about a variety of destinations, mistake fares are great.

Just as their name implies, these are simply airfare prices that have come about because of some kind of error in how the price was programmed. These rates disappear as soon as the booking sites who’ve made the errors recognize and fix them, so you have to make your decision about booking quickly. To learn more about how to find these accidental sales, see this post about how to find mistake fares.

 

Now let’s take a look at how we covered 6 nights of accommodations in Oman:

Expense: $150

Strategy: Hotel points and credit card annual fees

Night 1 and 2: 44,000 Club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Park Inn Muscat + $75 annual fee for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card

I’ll elaborate on the Club Carlson strategy just a bit but the basic strategy revolves around benefits of the program’s Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card, a card with a $75 annual fee.

The first benefit that comes into play is the sign-up bonus. This card currently offers 50,000 points after you make your first purchase and another 35,000 points if you spend $2,500 on the card within your first 90 days.

The second benefit that comes into play is a perk that card-holder’s get when making award bookings. If you redeem your points for a stay of 2 nights or more, the last night of the stay is automatically free. Of course as you can see here, we booked two nights, effectively getting a buy one get one free price in points.

(Please remember that your credit score is a valuable thing to manage cautiously, and therefore using credit card strategies safely depends on your ability to make on-time payments and avoid keeping a high balance on your cards.)

Night 3 and 4: 44,000 club Carlson points for 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Muscat

This of course utilized the same Club Carlson strategy described above.

Night 5: 1 Category 4 certificate for 1 night at the Grand Hyatt Muscat + $75 annual fee for keeping the Hyatt credit card beyond the first year

This strategy, again, requires the Hyatt credit card, a card that has no introductory fee, but a $75 annual fee each year you keep the card.

I’ve listed the expense as 1 Category 4 certificate because that’s what we used, but the card really offers two different strategies. One strategy factors in an annual fee charge (as was the case for us) and one does not. It just depends on where you’re at in your credit-card history.

You could for instance use one of the sign-up bonus certificates instead. The sign-up bonus for this card is 2 certificates for use at any property if you spend $1,000 on the card in the first 3 months of opening your account. Then, each anniversary you will earn 1 category 4 certificate, eligible for use at properties designated as “category 4.”

Night 6: 1 free-night-credit at the InterContinental Muscat

This strategy actually does not involve the InterContinental credit card. Instead, it involves an annual promotion offered by InterContinental Hotel Group. The promotion changes each time it’s released, but the version of the promotion we used for this stay was called the “Into the Nights” promotion. (The current version is slightly different and is called “Set Your Sights.” )

Basically the promotion gave each participant a few “challenges”. For instance one might be “book a night using our app.” And another might be “stay 4 nights”. Not only did participants win points for completing a goal, they won even more points once they completed a pre-set number of those goals. For instance some people received challenges that required them to complete 7 out of 8 goals. Others, 4 out of 5. It was a targeted promotion that varied per participant.

During the “Into the Nights’ promotion, some people were invited to choose either 50,000 points or 2 free-night-credits as one of their rewards. We chose the free-night-credits.

 

Conclusion:

As you can see, travel-hacking requires a blend of strategies. In this case, we saw some amazing and beautiful things in Oman without worrying about crippling costs. Some of it was luck

 

 

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Category: Destinations, On The Road

February 4, 2015

Vagabonding Field Report: Ao Nang, Thailand

Many people head to southern Thailand for beaches, islands, and the relaxed vibe of coastal life. Ao Nang is a bit more relaxed than larger cities like Phuket but still has a vibrant tourist draw and is an easy jumping-off point for many activities like rock climbing, island tours, beach lounging, hiking, and diving.

Cost of living:

2015-01-31 11.23.58

A cost breakdown for the month using our budgeting app.

If you’re trying to save cash and are settling down for a while, a monthly rental can be found here for about 9,000 baht if you’re willing to stay a few kilometers away from the main beach area. Doing this will save you cash and the restaurants and shops get cheaper as you move farther from the beach. A scooter rental will cost you 250 baht per day or only 3,000 baht per month. If you were to eat all three meals a day at restaurants, your daily food allowance would need to be between 350-500 baht per person. However, stocking up on groceries and eating breakfast and/or lunch at home can save some cash and drop your daily food costs down to 150-250 baht per day. Prices at restaurants can more than triple when you get to the main beach strip and the quality of food isn’t any better. Sometimes you have to give in and spend 200 baht on that piña colada so you can watch the sunset at a beachside bar.

(more…)

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Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

January 18, 2015

Solo travel when you’re not traveling solo

Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.

IMG_9892

When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.

triptich b&w

I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.

 IMG_9886

On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.

Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.

To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.

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Category: Asia, Family Travel, General, Solo Travel
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