Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017

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South by Southeast

20 tips to travel through Asia's most exotic tropical countries with ease

With tourist numbers steadily rising, Asia is now being touted as “The New Europe” and its southeast sector is a logical choice for first-time visitors. But if you’re thinking about veering east instead of west on your next trip you’ll need to get, well, re-oriented. These 20 tips can help turn trepidatious penny-pinchers into savvy travellers.

Where and When

1. Read up: Whether you’re planning an urban escape, a beach retreat, a cultural foray or an eco-adventure, the frugal vacationer’s first step should be investigating every variation on the theme. Start at the regional tourism association’s website (southeastasia.org): it features loads of info plus links to individual national sites. After shortlisting the possibilities, click Travelfish.org, which focusses less on promotion and more on brass tacks; then, to ensure your choices are safe, check the travel reports at Voyage.gc.ca.
2. Check high season: When budgeting, it’s important not to generalize about countries since some parts will invariably be pricier than others. TripAdvisor's 2011 Cost Comparison Index, for example, ranks Bangkok as the world’s “Best Value City.” Top Thai beaches, on the other hand, are significantly more expensive than up-and-coming competitors like Nha Trang (in Vietnam) or Kep (in Cambodia) – especially during Australian school holidays when Aussie families fill rooms in Phuket and other prime resort areas, hiking up rates in the process.
3. Pack an umbrella: Weather is another key factor as it can vary widely within a comparatively small nation. Take Vietnam: Hanoi, sharing the same latitude as Hawaii, may seem ideal for a balmy winter break. Yet January is chilly (highs are just 20°C) and overcast due to a persistent mist residents call “rain dust.” Ho Chi Minh City, conversely, promises dry 32°C days. To avoid disappointment consult Wunderground.com’s Trip Planner before committing to any given spot. It predicts the weather you can expect based on historical averages.
4. Know local holidays: High holidays must also be considered when weighing the question of value. Say you’re bound for Singapore: you’ll lose several days of sightseeing over Chinese New Year (which falls between January 21 and February 21) since many venues close. The same applies in Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim nation) over Idul Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. The kicker is that locals move en masse themselves during these periods, creating an upswing in domestic airfares. So you’ll end up spending more for less.

Visas and Vaccinations

5. Paperwork: No matter which country you choose, you won’t be permitted entry without the proper paperwork. So welcome to the confusing, potentially costly world of visas. Specifics about what’s required where are available at Voyage.gc.ca. I cross-reference that at Visahq.ca; then skip the middleman fees by ordering visas directly through the appropriate foreign government office. Knowing the tab for taking multiple visa photos runs up rapidly, I snap my own and download them at Epassportphoto.com.
6. Skip the line: You can sometimes purchase visas on arrival. Having one in hand, however, saves time by letting you skip onsite line-ups. It might save money too as the amounts quoted, especially at land crossings, can be surprisingly fluid. A second upside of advance planning is that it foregrounds other entry requirements, which can include anything from possession of an onward ticket and a passport valid for a further six months to proof of immunization. Myanmar, for one, requires certain travellers to carry a Yellow Fever Certificate.
7. Get your shots: In many cases getting vaccinated, while not imperative, is prudent. If you prefer an ounce of prevention to a pound of cure, review Iamat.org’s world immunization chart well before you leave. Two other valuable websites – Travelhealth.gc.ca (from the Public Health Agency of Canada) and Istm.org (operated by the International Society of Travel Medicine) — both have advisories and updates on disease outbreaks, along with details on travel clinics that offer risk assessments and recommended shots.

Planes, Trains and Tuk-Tuks

8. Follow the fares: Rather than waiting for last-minute deals to materialize, be proactive about trans-Pacific flights. Start by subscribing for email alerts that notify you of price drops on preferred routes (two of my go-to sites, Farecompare.com and Travelocity.ca, offer the service). When registering, be flexible on dates: a single day may make a difference. Ditto for the airports you select: departing from a nearby one (particularly in the US) and deplaning in a hub city (like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore) could save a bundle.
9. Local and low-cost: Within the region, budget airlines are the quickest, most convenient way to link destinations. Sites like Budgetairlineguide.com and Myasiachannel.com pinpoint your options: among them, AirAsia (Airasia.com), which an international flight-monitoring organization has named the “World’s Best Low Cost Airline” three years running. Inexpensive, efficient, safe: what’s not to love? Nothing as long as you remember it’s a point-to-point carrier. Consequently, connecting – even to other AirAsia flights – is tricky.
10. Book early: The eye-popping fares AirAsia and its competitors advertise (think Kuala Lumpur to Bali for $45 or Manila for $65) apply to limited seats and must usually be reserved at least 28 days ahead. With standard fares, early purchase is equally important. The carriers operate on supply and demand; hence prices rise as seats sell. Once you have your ticket, minimize add-ons by packing light (getting laundry done for $1 a kilo is cheaper than paying for excess baggage) and bring a luggage scale to help you stay within your allotment.
11. Avoid long train rides: Trains are frequently preferred by vacationers who believe the journey is as important as the destination. Whether they’re economical in terms of time and money, though, depends on your tolerance level. Long hauls can be unnecessarily exhausting; short hauls can be exhilarating. Luckily, the Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) gives honest assessments of both. His site delivers detailed info on continental railways and often buses and ferries too. Ticket-buying tips and worth-1000-word pictures are provided as well.
12. Take local transit: I would never rent a car in Southeast Asia – and there’s no need when alternatives are cheap and plentiful. For instance, you can ride Bangkok’s subways all day for a mere $4. Opened in 2004, the system is ultra-modern and startlingly clean. The same cannot be said for the city’s Khlong Saen Saep canal ferries. But if you’re sure-footed enough to hop one, you will find that they’re fast and fun in a thrill-ride kind of way. Tuk-tuks, motodops, cyclos and other local conveyances similarly double as transportation and entertainment.

Bed, Bath and Beyond

13. Handy hotel staff: I’m a huge fan of rental homes. However, in areas where staff support helps me better negotiate linguistic and cultural barriers, I stick with hotel-style lodgings. Numerous sites specialize in the Asian market, including Agoda.com. It led me to two favourite boutique hotels — Villa Siem Reap (thevillasiemreap.com) and the Kabiki (thekabiki.com); then let me reserve best-in-class rooms in each for about $50. More hotels, plus fly-and-stay bundles, are available through AirAsia offshoot Airasiago.com.
14. Go mid-range: Digs at the bottom of the accommodations scale generally don’t have an online presence. That’s OK: unless you’re nostalgic for your backpacker days, there is little point considering them anyway when an extra $10 scores you comforts such as air-conditioning, a private bathroom and a lump-free mattress. At the high end, brand-name spots are typically best booked through the chain’s own site assuming you act early. Most Hilton Hotels (hilton.com), for example, shave up to 20 percent off if you pay online a set time in advance. 15. Use your points: Hilton’s Orchard Road property in Singapore, where doubles this winter will go for $263, is a case in point. Right in the heart of the region’s priciest city, with a panoramic pool above and posh boutiques below, it’s a relative bargain to begin with. Reserved 21 days ahead, the bill drops to $223. Note that if you collect reward points, this is also the sort of place they stretch farthest. I’d need 40,000 HHonors points for the room above. For comparison’s sake, I’d use 30,000 on the same date at Hilton’s Hampton Inn in Saint John, NB.
16. Get special advice: For intimate, unforgettable options, I rely on TripAdvisor’s Specialty Lodging support forums. Through them I found the Rivertime (rivertime.com) in Laos and The Kebun (thekebun.com) on Borneo. Neither is five-star (which is why my trio only paid around $100 a day with room, meals, excursions and airport transfers included). Nevertheless each was stellar thanks to the friendly staff. In their company, extraordinary experiences – like planting rice, visiting a traditional healer or observing wild orangutans – became daily occurrences.

Sites and Sensations

17. Affordable attractions: Beyond Singapore — where top picks such as the Singapore Flyer (Asia’s answer to the London Eye) or Universal Studios charge fees comparable to their overseas cousins — sightseeing won’t bust your budget, even at major attractions. Entry to Thailand’s opulent Grand Palace complex is $11. Angkor Wat is $20, and a tuk-tuk driver will chauffeur you around the sprawling grounds for $15 per day. The caveat is that free tourist literature is limited, which means independent types should invest in a guidebook before striking out.
18. Use a guide: Guidebooks, of course, are no substitute for guides. So I mix DIY outings with responsible, small-group tours like those Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com) runs in five Southeast Asian nations. Rates are affordable, the insights invaluable. If I hadn’t seen Phnom Penh’s Khmer Rouge sites with a local expert, would I have known the gentleman I ran into at the S-21 Genocide Museum was one of the prison’s seven survivors or that the Killing Fields debris was really rag and bone that kept working to the surface? No.
19. Find an ATM: Eating is itself an adventure since the area is famous for “hawker” food — which millions dine on daily without ill effects. You can grab fresh street-stall meals almost everywhere by forking over a nominal sum in local currency (Xe.com’s currency convertor tells you how many dollars those rupiahs, ringgits or dongs equal). Concerned about running short? Check Visa.com/atms or Mastercard.com/atmlocator. Aimed at PLUS and Cirrus network users respectively, they identify bank machines worldwide.
20. Import hassles: Cash – and bartering skills – both prove useful when you engage in another time-honoured activity: shopping. From funky housewares to bespoke suits, bargains abound. Yet purchases are worth zilch if you can’t legally bring them back — and I’m not just talking obvious no-nos like ivory. Declaring designer knock-offs gets dicey and customs officers are leery about letting wood items into Canada (cbsa.gc.ca has details). As for tempting tech toys, they’re no deal either if system incompatibility renders them useless at home.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

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  1. On November 18, 2011, Laurel Kallenbach said:
    Thanks for the insights! I love Villa Siem Reap, especially because you can also spend a day volunteering in a Cambodian village!!

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