It was painful but I learned a few lessons about traveling low budget in South-East Asia.
First, a few golden rules:
– the earlier you wake up, the safer and cheaper you get to where you want. After dark things become much more complicated, freaky even. So don’t be lazy and do wake up at 5.30 am if you want to travel that day. My experience of getting stuck in port cities (Padangbai and Lembar) at 8pm with weird people offering ridiculous prices for transportation convinced me.
– buy a local sim card. Loads of things can be arranged if you have one and it’s safer.
– negotiate everything. We knew the real prices and the number we were told from vendor were simply to laugh about, simply astronomical. Transportation, accommodation, even food if there is no set menu.
– they will always try to trick you. These are a few ways to be tricked:
- you need to get from A to B. The driver says he’ll take you to C and D on the way and make a whole tour and still be cheaper. Actually the price he offers is only from A to C and in order to get to B, you’ll have to pay extra for each segment. Happened at Borobodur bus station when we took the horse carts guy to get to the temple. Actually, it was walking distance but we did not know.
- you need to change money and you find this shady place with a good rate. There are many ways in which people get tricked at the money changer. One way to know you’re being tricked is when they give you back very small denominations of the currency you’re buying. They’ll make you look aside for a second and then a third of the money won’t be in the stash and you won’t even notice. Keep the money to yourself until you’ve triple-checked the amount you’re being given, without them helping you in the process. Happened in Kuta, Bali on Poppies street.
- you are walking in the city and some very nice local starts giving you tips of where to take a good excursion which is normally for locals, government-provided, and is not a rip-off like the rest. He even stops a taxi for you and asks the driver “no stop-no shop” so the driver won’t just take you to some shop rather than where you want. He negotiates an excellent price for the transport, says good luck and goes away. You are inclined to believe this random passer-by and thank him for a great tip. The truth is that he’s working together with the taxi guy and whatever tour company he advised you, which will be ridiculously overpriced. Happened in Bangkok, boat tour, the guys said he was a teacher.
- The free guides around historical attractions sometimes are actually free, but they’ll shortly end your trip to a few near-by stores to make you buy stuff. The seller is usually very charismatic. Or you’ll finish the trip in a place where you need to pay to get out or something. Happened at the water palace in Jokja.
- You had a drink too many. You will probably be taken advantage of in one way or another, lured into a bar where the minimum consumption is very high, or they’ll charge you for unknown stuff. They can also slip drugs into your drink and then rob you. I heard there’s a practice where guys are being drugged in clubs and wake up next to a girl who asks for crazy amounts of money so she doesn’t call the police to arrest you for rape. Mushroom guys in Bali will want you to take the shake with them so that when you trip they might get something out of you. Always be in control of the situation and take care. Happens everywhere, especially Bangkok.
- You arrive in a new city on the night bus. It’s not yet light outside. You decide to walk, get on a shadier road and quite soon some guys on motorbikes stop, threaten to kick you in the head with their helmets and maybe are armed. You run, they take all the stuff and disappear. Happened in Kuala Lumpur (through some miracle they didn’t manage to take our stuff). Or, daytime, main road, you’re a girl, some guy ona motorcycle passes by you, grabs you purse and pushes you, then disappears. Happened in Kuta, Bali.
- Never leave your stuff (not even your biggest bag) when getting off the bus for a break.
- Get travel insurance and travel light.
It sounds a bit dark, but that’s kind of how it is. Of course, if you’re careful, you’ll be ok and at most overpay a few things. But if you don’t have someone at home to bail you out or send you loads of money, better keep safe.
A few places, services and people who were good and I’d like to post them out here for future travellers:
Get a taxi from the airport to Kuta, should be about Rp30,000. Take only metered ones. The choice of guesthouses in Kuta is huge.
We stayed at Bali Dwipa (Gang Poppies II, +62 361 751446) and loved it. Close to the beach and everything there is in Kuta, has some great buildings and garden. You can get a twin room with aircon at about Rp180,000 and with fan at Rp120,000.
Depending on the kind of person you are, you might get the hell away from Kuta pretty soon (if you’re not into obnoxious drunkers and shit music) and start exploring the real Bali. If you have little time, just get a driver with a car and go to one of the many one day destinations around the region. The route we took was Dreamland – other beaches – Uluwatu (for temple and fire performance). It was really amazing. A little secret is taking a light dose of magic mushrooms – legal and widely available in Bali- for the way;) Connoisseurs will appreciate the touch. Other places to go to are Ubud and Lembongan island. We traveled with our driver David (Aichi Tour, +62 361 9260527, +62 081 236 031 532) who is a great person, lets you connect your ipod to the car sound system and rock all the way.
Travel Bali-Lombok. It’s really worth exploring Lombok while you’re there. You’ll easily find a shuttle to Panganbai (get the price per person down to Rp60,000) and the ferry to Lombok is 24 hours every 1-2 hours and costs a fixed price of Rp36,000. Sure, it’s not the most luxurious boat, but totally fine considering the alternative of fast-boat is at 600,000. You arrive at Lembar and you need to go away from there asap because, against what Lonely Planet says, there is no decent place to stay the night.
You can go to Secret Island Resort (http://www.secretislandresort.com/, the american owner is really cool). The island is amazing and there’s a small village and you can just walk all around the island on the pristine beaches all day. Also there’s amazing snorkeling and stuff. Rp 150,000 for a normal room is really good. You get a free pickup boat from the mainland. But you need to get there by car from Lembar on a 40mins drive. A reasonable daytime price is Rp150,000 for the whole car. Alternatively there’s the perfectly acceptable bimos (public minibusses) at 25,000 per person.
On the same island there is a very small and dreamlike villa, called Madak Belo (+62 81805549637) http://madak-belo.com/. Perfect getaway.
Most people go straight to Sengigi from Lembar and to the other, more famous Gilis. Depends on what you look for in a vacation, cause Secret island was really surreal.
A word about Chiang Mai, Thailand. Definitely to go there at new year/ Songkran in mid-April. Guesthouses will be full though so book in advance. There are a few places with real character, like the Red Buddha. But we stayed in this new place, Baan Nam Sai (+66 053326653, Soi 5, Moon Muang rd) which is so clean and has aircon and fridge and drinking water and TV and all these perks for a very reasonable price. A room of 3 people was Bhat700.
In Bangkok, we stayed in Kao san road. My advice is try to really understand what is Kaosan road before booking a palce there. It might be your paradise, but might be your hell.