It’s hard to believe that we have already spent 100 days travelling through South East Asia since our departure from Cape Town on 24 August 2017. Our old lives living in a house in Gardens with all our stuff and a driveway full of cars seems like a very distant memory…Now our lives involve travelling from place to place and all of the positive and negative realities that our new lifestyle involves. We are writing this post to share both the pro’s and con’s of the past 100 days with our friends and family…
On the positive side we have visited some amazing places, like Angkor in Cambodia where we spent a week visiting the various temples, travelling by tuk tuk. We also had a great introduction to Cambodian village life when we spent two weeks teaching kids English as volunteers. We also visited Chiang Mai in Thailand and spent time at an elephant sanctuary before travelling to five islands in Thailand. We really loved Koh Kood, Koh Mook and Koh Kradan. We didn’t like Koh Phi Phi, but enjoyed a cool snorkeling experience at the adjacent Phi Phi Ley. Koh Lanta offered a laid-back beach lifestyle but there was not much to photograph – luckily I went snorkeling on a day trip to Koh Roc and Koh Hai which was very cool.
Our first stop in Indonesia was Kalimantan (Borneo) where my childhood dream of seeing orangutans in their jungle habitat came true. We did a three day ‘klotok’ boat trip into the jungle and were lucky to see many orangutans, including mothers with babies and large males. It was a real adventure for us and we will never forget the experience.
Thus far we have been able to stick to our plans without much drama, apart from us having to cancel our two weeks in Bali following Mount Agung’s possible eruption. We decided to spend the rest of our time in Java, and are just taking it easy now before we fly to the Philippines, which should provide us with some great photo opportunities…
While it may seem that a life of travel is an amazing, adventurous lifestyle it’s important to realize that it also has its challenges. During this phase of our travels much of our time is taken up by simply handling the logistics of getting from one point to the other with as little hassle as possible. Arranging transport involves the following:
- Searching online for the most affordable way to get to our next destination, either by plane, train, bus or minibus. Plane tickets can usually be bought online using a credit card.
- Train tickets may involve actually going to the station and standing in a queue for an hour or two.
- Bus and minibus tickets have to be bought in person after visiting several small travel agencies in order to get an idea of the best price for that particular trip.
- Most travel agents will try to inflate the price for foreigners by up to 100%, so getting a good price can be a frustrating and exhausting experience.
Once the transport is arranged, we have to make sure that we get to the departure point timeously in order to check in and board without any hassles. To do that we need to find out what the easiest way is to get to where we need to be, bearing in mind that we each have over 25 kg of luggage that also needs to be transported.
When we arrived on Koh Phi Phi the only option we had was to literally carry and drag our bags almost a kilometer to our accommodation as there are no taxi’s, etc on the island. There are porters with luggage wagons, but they had all been taken by the passengers of the ferry which arrived just before ours. When we departed from Phi Phi it took me a day to arrange for a porter to take our bags to the ferry in a wagon as our accommodation was not on the main stretch.
For Koh Kradan it was necessary to arrange with our resort to have someone meet us with a trolley on the beach where our ferry dropped us, to avoid trying to carry our bags about 1km on the sandy beach. Other travellers had not made such arrangements so were forced to struggle up the beach themselves. Doing research and planning ahead are necessary to avoid unnecessary misery 🙂
One of the most stress-filled parts of travelling is flying, as it involves getting through security checks with photographic gear and often having your bag searched. When this happens your fear is always that an official will want to seize your batteries, or your drone. An attempt was even made to seize our tripod, which was attached to the side of Akhona’s camera bag, when we flew domestically in Indonesia.
On entering and leaving a country you also have to contend with immigration officials, who often question you on your movements and demand to see proof of your onward flight at the end of your stay before stamping your passport. If they are suspicious they can delay your departure, so it’s important to say as little as possible when questioned.
The need to produce an onward ticket also means that the dream of unfettered travel with no forward planning is not really realistic for most travellers. On arrival one gets either a visa on arrival or a visa waiver for 30 days usually. So the onward ticket must show a departure date within 30 days of arrival. If you plan to extend your visa by say another 30 days, the immigration official still wants to see onward flights based on the initial 30 days, so you can see how this can be a problem. Either you take a chance and make no booking and hope you are not asked, or you make a booking but usually lose your money as low cost airlines don’t generally offer refunds. For two travellers even a short flight to a neighbouring country can cost US$60 – 80 each, which ends up being lost if you don’t take the flight.
So in reality we have to actually work out our itinerary at least two countries in advance in order to overcome this problem. We have to decide beforehand how long we will spend in a country, and then plan accordingly. Extending a visa can be quite a hassle, involving a trip to the immigration offices, presentation of various documents and photo’s, and payment of course. In Indonesia three visits are necessary, in Thailand it takes three hours, so each country is different, and requires research to find out what to do, and where to go.
So the freedom to do anything you like and stay as long as you like is actually not that easy, regardless of how many travel bloggers portray their lives. Unless you want uncertainty and chaos, you need to be organized, which takes time and effort.
Sorting out your accommodation at each destination is another source of stress. We use Booking.com almost exclusively now, as we get a 10% discount as frequent travellers, and their booking system is nicely integrated with Google, so bookings are automatically added to our Google calendar with a link to the confirmation email. Booking.com also quote you the final amount payable, and offer free cancellation on many of the listed properties. We have to rely on looking at photographs, the description supplied by the accommodation, and their position on the map of the area in order to make a decision on where to stay.
We have had largely positive experiences with the accommodation we have stayed in, apart from a really bad hostel in Siem Reap where we booked a double room for six nights. It was a pokey, unbearably hot room, and going to the toilet meant was like taking a sauna. They had also not mentioned that they only had cold water showers. After our complaints about the room went unheeded by the manager we moved to a better hotel – and lost four days payment for the room. I wrote a negative review on Booking.com, after which the owner wrote me an email asking me to remove the review in exchange for a refund. It doesn’t work that way – a review cannot be removed, and stays up for two years. Revenge was sweet.
In Koh Lanta we had the most bizarre experience with accommodation to date. I booked through AirBnb as we had credit from referrals on our account. The listing had an Alex as the owner, and he responded to confirm the booking immediately. I asked him if he could collect us from the ferry pier which he said he would, and we exchanged several messages in the days before our arrival. He even sent me a photo of himself so that we could identify him when we arrived. On the day of arrival we got off the ferry and discovered that the ferry company offered a free transfer to one’s accommodation, so I messaged Alex to tell him not to worry. He wasn’t there anyway, and said he had been on his way. We were dropped at our resort on the beach, and on arrival they knew our names and our room was ready.
The next day I approached the woman on reception who I presume was the manager or owner, and asked her to book me a car for the following day, as we had made arrangements to visit an eco lodge and chat to the founder. She assured me that all was in order for the delivery of the car at 08h00 the next morning. The following day it transpired that she had tried to get a car from her sister instead of booking one from a car rental company, but the car had no insurance and couldn’t lock. I gave her a piece of my mind and insisted that she arrange a replacement immediately, which she did. Shortly afterwards she asked me how I had made my booking. I told her on AirBnB and showed her the booking confirmation. She said she didn’t know Alex, and implied that I should pay again! I called her bluff and said that we should call the police as I had a photo of Alex, and he should be arrested for fraud. Suddenly she changed her story and said not to worry. I presume that the resort is family owned and there is a dispute between family members and the manager…I made it clear that I don’t like people that lie.
As we are travelling on a US$60 – 80/day budget depending on location, we are generally staying in accommodation in the sub $35/day category. Sometimes we are lucky and the place is great, but more often that not there are issues with maintenance wherever we stay…Showers don’t work (I have repaired three showers thus far), rooms are smelly or pokey, photographs seem to be of another place entirely, etc. So upon arrival we now insist on first seeing the room and testing out lights, shower, fan, aircon, etc. before agreeing to occupancy. If we are not happy we insist on another room, as we have realized that many places try to fob off their worst room first…
One of the major challenges we’ve experienced in the first 100 days od travel has been finding good food to eat each day. We started out volunteering in Cambodia and stayed in a village, were our hosts wife cooked us three typical Cambodian meals each day, consisting of a large bowl of rice accompanied by a main dish of fish, chicken or meat stew and two side dishes. Some of the food was delicious, some was inedible to us. On a bad day we had to go and hunt for alternatives – fortunately we found a fried chicken wagon nearby which got us through the tough times. We have also been eating additional fruit to supplement our diet wherever possible.
We thought that Thailand would offer us better food, but after a few weeks of fried rice and fried noodles we again had to look for alternatives. When in Bangkok we visited the megamalls which have massive food courts offering a wide range of food at reasonable prices. A good pizza every now and then helped, as did a burger from Burger King or a meal from KFC. They also have nice clean toilets J An unexpected source of good, tasty, cheap food was 7 Eleven. They sell a range of ready to eat meals including toasted sandwiches which they prepare for you on the spot. We would often buy our lunch there, consisting of say a toasted sandwich, spaghetti carbonara, teriyaki chicken and prawn dumplings.
Indonesia is proving an even greater challenge when it comes to finding food. Some restaurants only offer a single dish, like tripe soup or nasi goreng. Smaller towns have loads of warungs, which are small hole-in-the-wall eateries, but the cleanliness and freshness of the meat on offer leaves much to be desired, so we have avoided them and gone for food courts or restaurants. We have also cooked our own food if a kitchen is available at our accommodation. We visit local markets to buy fresh fruit like dragon fruit, banana’s, mangoes and papaya. Usually we are the only foreigners in the market, so we are a real curiosity to the locals.
Eating unusual food has also played havoc with our stomachs as we don’t think we are getting enough roughage with an Asian diet. We found a delicious multigrain biscuit in Cambodia and Thailand which we snack on to try and balance our diets. Every now and then either one or both of us gets a 24hr bout of diarrhea from eating a bad meal, but this has only happened around once a month. We only drink bottled water to cut down our risk of picking up a stomach bug. The aircon in hotels has not been good for me, and I have had two bad colds with a bad cough in the past three months. We are now choosing fan rooms rather than aircon when possible. Because we are sometimes showering in unfiltered, cold water Akhona has developed a bit of a skin allergy as she has a sensitive skin at the best of times. Of course, even though we use insect repellant, we are still bitten by not only mosquito’s but ants and other bugs. We have taken anti-malaria pills when visiting high risk areas just to be on the safe side, but of course there is still a risk of dengue fever throughout SE Asia so we just have to hope we are not infected.
All travellers will have experiences with people trying to rip them off at some time or another. It usually starts with the overpriced ‘airport taxi’, but fortunately in Thailand the system is very fair…you get to take a metered taxi with B50 added as surcharge. In Indonesia access to a metered taxi was easy in Jakarta, as was access to Uber or Grab transport, but in Surabaya a mafia seem to run the airport. No metered taxi’s allowed to do pick-ups, and all online transport forbidden to enter the airport property. Instead travelers are forced to pay more than twice the standard rate for ‘airport transport’. In Yogyakarta we also had to be picked up in the street outside the railway station as online Uber is barred from pick-ups outside arrivals. Indonesia so far seems to be the worst for scams designed to rip off foreign travellers.
Traveling together as a couple for a prolonged period has actually proven to be easier than we thought it would be. We have always got on well and enjoyed spending time together, so if anything travelling has strengthened our relationship. As must be obvious from this post, there is lot more happening behind the scenes than is evident from the cool pics we post on Facebook and in our blog posts.We don’t want people to think that we are living a life of luxury while we travel, without any of the challenges that people experience in their daily lives. Many ‘aspirational’ travel blogs sell readers the idea that anyone can just chuck up their job, sell their possessions and travel the world…And they post articles showing themselves staying in luxury resorts and appearing to be living the perfect dream. The reality is that in order to survive financially they have monetized their blog and actively seek sponsorship of trips in exchange for glowing reviews and cool pics and drone shots of the resort. So they are actually just doing a different job, which also has stress and deadlines. We don’t want that lifestyle, which is why we sprinkle some volunteering into our travels. We have a monthly travel budget which is the interest on the invested money that was generated when we sold our house and stuff.
Independent travel as we are doing it is truly an adventurous way to travel as we are responsible for planning everything, as compared to a couple going on a two week trip to a single destination where the entire itinerary is arranged by a travel agent, from airport transfers to flights to hotels, excursions and meals. That style of travel is for a tourist…our approach is that of the true traveller…It is not always easy, but it is a sustainable way to travel if you have a monthly income as we do. We still have roughly 300 days to go before we return to Cape Town for a three month visit next October…
We hope that by sharing our real-life experiences with friends, family and fellow travelers we will help those people who one day want to to do what we have done 🙂