Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

Gallery image of this property

The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
Gallery image of this property

Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

20180821_091840It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

20180821_100129Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

20180821_095746

Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

20180821_101349It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

20180821_103628

Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

20180821_112822_000-ANIMATION

Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

20180821_114933

Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

 
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

20180821_094706

The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.20180821_122655

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

20180821_122240

My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.

Advertisements

How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

20170930_103515.jpg

For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

Best-Places-To-Travel-2016

Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

20180813_191118

Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

IMG_1117.JPG

Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

Related image

Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

Related image

Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

Image result for but why meme

Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

20160816_120225.jpg

Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

20170124_120532

Getting Settled In

20170125_124529
Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

20170124_123128
Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

20170124_112933

Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

20170124_133634

20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

20170124_150813

When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

20170124_152609
The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

20170124_154821

About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

20170121_090858

Kek Lok Tong
20170121_121010
After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

20170121_101451

20170121_102646
The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

20170121_102041

20170121_113028
The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

20170121_114001
On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

20170121_120707

Sam Poh Tong20170121_122213

The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

20170121_130338

20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

20170121_140725

Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

20170121_151322

20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤