A couple weeks ago I have witnessed something quite interesting: I won’t name the company, as this is not the place to make some free advertising, BUT I was quite entertained and shocked to learn that in Malaysia, someone has decided to teach people how to travel on a budget. Obviously, for a price.
I have attended the press conference of a Malaysian company that is offering “backpacking tours” to interesting Asian destinations such as Mongolia, India and Tibet, offering a full vagabonding adventure under the tutorial of a guide. They won’t pay for your meals, they will make you sleep in gers and tents, and they will teach you how to take great travel photography. Still, you will pay to get out of your comfort zone, and have fun learning the backpacking style under expert supervision. Cool, isn’t it?
I liked the idea: as many Asians I met complain about safety issues and high costs of travel, and seem to be alien to the concept of backpacking and traveling independently without buying a full package tour, this seems to be a welcome educational improvement coming from Malaysia.
I reflected that, in Asia, what we take for granted may not be the same: a stronger money and family ethic, and the fear of the unknown are common among the young. Plus, they struggle to create their own critical thinking identities. For sure, there are quite a number of Asian backpackers on the road already, including Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Chinese, South Koreans and some Indians. But I think that, as the majority prefers organized tours, by offering a modest package to understand adventure travel and backpacking ethics, this company has made a right choice in its market.
How do you consider such an idea in the West? Do you know of any Western companies offering this sort of educational backpacking travel? Please comment below.
MARCO FERRARESE explored 50 countries and lives in Penang, Malaysia since 2009. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University’s Sunway Campus, Kuala Lumpur, researching the anthropology of punk rock and heavy metal in Southeast Asia. Besides his academic endeavors, he blogs about overland Asian travel and extreme music in Asia at www.monkeyrockworld.com
Argentina recently enacted new visa rules, according to this post on The Flight Deal. U.S. citizens must pay a “Reciprocity Fee” of $160. More importantly, this must be paid before entry. If you don’t do this, you’ll be denied entry on arrival. The reciprocity refers to how if Country A charges Country B’s citizens a visa fee, then Country B will do the same to Country A’s citizens.
This problem happened to another backpacker I’d met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was having breakfast with some fellow travelers at First Cup Cafe in Bukit Bintang. A British girl talked about how she was excited to go to Vietnam.
I asked, “So have you got your visa yet?”
“I’ll just get one on arrival,” she said.
The rest of us looked at each other, our faces saying, “Who wants to tell her the bad news?”
Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Vietnam requires you to apply for a visa before arrival. You’ll have to go to a Vietnamese consulate. You might be able to apply for an e-visa on short notice.”
“Oh no! Really?!” she said.
After breakfast, the girl and her friend hurried back to the hostel to get online and check their options. In the end, they skipped Vietnam in favor of Thailand’s beaches. From the happy photos she shared on Facebook, it worked out for the best.
A good resource to check is Project Visa. To be sure, you should always check with the official website of that country’s consulate or embassy.
Have you ever had visa problems? Do citizens from your country enjoy lower visa fees? Please share your stories in the comments.
It may be because I have just watched “Life of Pi”, or because once you go to India, if you loved it, you can hardly get it out of your mind. Anyhow, this week I would like to bring this article to your attention. It is an interesting series of suggestions for women travellers to India.
The author “found India both tough and rewarding in the same breath. And from time to time the experience can seem even more perplexing for girls (we are talking about a country where the metro offers a separate carriage for women), but India also has the potential to offer its female visitors even richer rewards (imprinted with henna and swathed in sari silks it’s impossible not to feel like a princess)”. Fantastic. I think the author has pointed out some interesting essential topics.
In the past 24 months, I have spent 7 in India, and I have grown a particular fondness for its thunderous character. I met fantastic people there, and I have also made some strange encounters. Based on my experience, it was interesting to read about the perceptions of a woman travelling around India, as it is undeniably true: sex makes a big difference in this country.
I have been lucky enough to be the guest of a big number of Indian families of all social strata: the rich, the poor, the excessively posh and the dirt poor. One time, I did not stay with a friend because the double bed provided at his house with no roof already had to accommodate six other family members. But apart for this case, one thing was clear in my personal picture: women and men in Indian society are very different classes of people. A man is advanced by a patriarchal society, and a woman is generally employed as a “slave in the house”, regardless of her social status. The only difference may be the number of maids she has. (more…)
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
By Tom Vater – published by Crimewave Press, 2012
A bunch of hippies, a rattler of a bus and the adventure of a lifetime along freely open South Asian land borders in the mid 70s are the base ingredients of “The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu”, Tom Vater’s first novel, originally released in 2006 and newly available now. Add and blend in a scary amount of drug abuse, corrupted border officials and a drug smuggling deal gone bad in the Pakistani mountains of the Swat valley, and you can complete this lethal Molotov cocktail of a book. To my knowledge, one of the few pulp adventures set in the Hippy Trail’s background, if not the first.
The plot is precisely knit as a handmade, intricate Kashmiri carpet: the events unfold between a lysergic trippin’ past in 1976 and present day Kathmandu, where the surviving units of the wild bunch have reunited to piece together the last fragments of a puzzle scattered across much more than just time.
When a mysterious email lands in Dan’s inbox, a story which may have stayed buried under the Himalayan snows comes back to life, rippin’ and taking hostages like a terrorist attack. And it is rendezvous’ time, adding young Robbie, Dan’s son who finds himself in Kathmandu at the same time, looking for his own version of Asia. The plethora of gangsters, guns, women and holy men coming in the middle will just help to make it a dangerous one.
Tom Vater, travel writer and expert of the region, mixes a fondness for Asian travel with a deep appreciation for noir and crime fiction, painting a vivid portrait of a Thamel-haunted Kathmandu and its dwellers. If you ever visited the Nepali capital, you may easily get lost in the abounding topographic details scattered all over the novel. Its characters get slowly uncovered, pieced together with 25 years old tape, showing that for some not much has changed between now and then. Inevitably, the gathering becomes housekeeping time for restless souls and bank accounts, respectively.
“The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu” successfully depicts an odd world of lawless Western abuse against the magical backdrop of Asia’s southern roads; at the end, it is difficult to discern who plays worst between strung-out travelers and strange locals. One thing is certain, tough: it is a ride you won’t likely put down until this book is finished. A noteworthy addition to your travel literature.
Some twenty odd years ago, Ian Mckaye – at the time the angry singer of straight edge punk pioneers Minor Threat – sung “guilty of being white”. The lines of the aggressive chorus blazed into my mind as I stepped at the airport’s immigration line to re-enter Malaysia; a bunch of what seemed young Australians were waiting behind me. They were dressed and attired in the quintessential banana pancake trail non-outfit: singlets, flip-flops, short pants. The picture was stereotypically completed by over exposed tattoos – even the shabbiest ones -, visibly dirty long hair, and the red cheeks which are typical of an in-flight heavy boozing session. They were exchanging idiotic comments on the situation in their slurred, drunken Aussie lingo.
As I tried to forget them and walked to the officer getting my papers in order and surpassing the passport check stations, here I see another white trash queen: she is about 20 years old, trashing her thongs around, wearing the shortest mini hot pants you may imagine in order to expose her tighs, emblazoned with one of those silly female-skull-with-butterfly-wings tats you can get at every cornershop. I instantly turn around to check if the beach is in sight, but the only thing I can score is the luggage carousel, slowly spitting bags out of his noisy esophagus. Luckily, no other passenger around me suffered from the banana pancake syndrome.
It may be the coming of age, or it may be the fact I have been used to travel in Islamic nations where such a behavior would result in an instant flash mob or a brutal gang rape, but I think that by carrying the symptoms of Western casual stupidity and holiday retardedness, these youth are reconfirming to Southeast Asian people that inventing ways to empty their wallets is approved by every God. Mohamed included.
I feel offended by the low profile of such people: Southeast Asia is not a fool’s playground, for chrissakes. If humanity has a decency level which is measured in the ways we act, I candidate the backpacker type as some of the ugliest, gone wrongest experiments. Please people, react and do something. Asia is not your playground, and when your flabby beergut stinks, let me tell you, it really does.
As I am thumbing my way across the Central Asian republics, I made a very much welcome discovery by typing “hitching to Dushanbe” in Google. What I found was a bit puzzling, at first: I would have never thought that a volatile, hazardous and utterly non-scientific art such as hitching a ride could have a wiki website!! But it really has!
Hitchwiki is some sort of Wikipedia of hitching, and it works wonders. Subdivided into geographic areas and countries, it gives you proper practical information from the mouths of experienced hitch hikers. You may now tackle every country’s highway with the right dose of preparation. And if you believe you do not need it, it means you have never thumbed a ride before!!
As the simplest example: how to get out of a city to actually be able to stop the car and get the ride you want? Do you think you may start hitching in the city center of Paris? This website proves extremely useful as it gives a low down on the ways to reach the toll heads of the most useful highways, and describes accurately what kind of city transport you may take to get there. I got some very useful information on how to leave the city center of Khujand and arrive directly in front of the Dushanbe highway using public transport. As Hitchwiki suggested, I got there, and in five minutes I was riding happily – and free of charge – down the highway towards my destination.
For some countries this sites suggests useful hitching language and a detailed description of some cultural aspects you may come across – or against – during your hitching adventures are readily explained. Such as the concept of Tarof in Iranian society: according to this, a driver would never ask you to pay for a ride, although he may want to, as many private cars in Iran are unlicensed taxis!!
I am glad I made such a discovery and that hitch hikers decided to share their experience and knowledge for the joy of other road adventurers… and I am also psyched to have more reasons to leave the bus stations’ touts and hassle behind!!
Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
Chartering a boat isn’t cheap. If you are lucky and know the right people you could however, get a job as crew, stewarding, cooking or being a deck hand if you don’t have sailing qualifications. If you are not working then watch out for hidden costs such as moorings, docking, water and tips for the crew which may not be included in the bill.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
There is an excellent musician in St.Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, called Kurt Schindler, he has a catamaran style boat which he uses as a stage. He parks it a few meters off the beach in Cruz Bay, St. John or off White Bay, Jost van Dyke and plays his gigs from there. I saw this rickety contraption with only an outboard motor, no sails and with banners flying in the wind, making it’s way considerable distances between islands.
Can you imagine being woken up at a hostel at 7:30am to chop fire wood or complete your chores before breakfast?
Chore detail had fizzled-out before 2009 when I hostel hopped for several months; spending anywhere from three nights to two weeks at various places. Personally, I enjoyed seeking out the odd ones, like old prisons or sailing ships. But what I discovered recently was, that same year the concept of youth hostels had officially been around for a century!
Apparently the idea came from Richard Schirrmann who led extended hikes across the German countryside and sought shelter for his group at farms along the way. But on one rainy night in the summer of 1909 Schirrmann and his companions were turned away by a farmer. Though they weren’t forced to resort to sleeping in the rain; it was a close enough call that he dreamed up the vision of widespread dorm-type accommodations. A year later the first youth hostel opened at Altena Castle in Rhine Valley which is still in operation to this day.
In the beginning beds were stuffed with straw, chores part of the payment and everyone was required to be out exploring during daylight hours. But now each one has its own social vibe and offers creature comforts. Hostels actually do more business than large hotel chains and are progressing with demands by offering smaller more private rooms.
How different would backpacking be without hostels? Have you ever done chores while staying at one?