2 December 2010
Thailand & Backpacking. The two go together like Sang Som & Coke.
Is backpacking in Thailand easy? For the most part. Should you expect challenges? Definitely.
If you want order, normality, and don’t want to be placed outside of your comfort zone, you probably shouldn’t visit Thailand. Expect language barriers. Expect that someone will try to scam you. Expect to get lost. Expect squat toilets. Expect the power to go out. Expect delayed buses.
If you’re willing to take these challenges in stride and are keen to experience a part of the world that is unlike anywhere else, then backpacking in Thailand is right for you. Here are:
Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, is a series of contradictions, layered in smog and drenched in heat. It’s a chaotic rush of traffic, horns, and pollution.
You have BMWs sharing traffic clogged streets with dated motorbikes and tuk tuks. Bald-headed monks sporting traditional orange robes ride Bangkok’s excellent public transit system whilst typing away on iPhones. Five star hotels share the same streets as slums that local Thais and immigrants from SE Asia call home.
It’s a strangely addictive city that begs to be explored.
Not to be Missed: Khao San Road, food from the street stalls scattered throughout the city, and the Giant Reclining Buddah.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a country with a more welcoming, laid-back, and friendly population (and I’ve just spent a year backpacking in New Zealand). Thailand is called the “Land of Smiles” for a reason, and you can expect a hospitable welcome almost anywhere you travel to.
Mai pen lai translates roughly to “no worries” and is very much indicative of the Thai’s outlook on life. Similarly, sanuk translates to fun and permeates all aspects of Thai culture. Thais love eating together, drinking together, and generally living and having fun together.
Expect smiles, a carefree outlook on life, and generosity – soon, you’ll wonder why you’d ever want to leave.
Thais love to party. Your experience backpacking in Thailand should include a healthy dose of the country’s nightlife. Chances are, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll stay out far later than you expected.
Drinking in Thailand is cheap; you can get a beer for $2, a cocktail for $5, and a bucket filled with Sang Som (Thai Whiskey, which is actually rum), Coke, & Red Bull for $7.
Whether you’re drinking in a classy Bangkok club, a Thai bar filled locals, a Koh San Road street bar, or a moonlit and music filled beach, you’ll soon understand that the nightlife in Thailand is second to none.
To say backpacking in Thailand is budget friendly is a gross understatement.
Backpacking in Thailand is cheap. Really cheap. You can expect quality accommodation for $10 / night, delicious street food meals for $2, overnight air-conditioned bus rides for $15, and a long taxi ride around Bangkok for less than $5.
Adventurous Kate, myself, and a Swedish mate chartered a private longtail boat with a driver on Koh Phi Phi for an entire afternoon. We saw Maya Bay (where they filmed “The Beach”), went snorkeling, and watched the sunset. The cost? $30.
Many people are aware of these advantages and have temporarily made Thailand their home; from location independent lifestyle designers, to dive instructors, to travel bloggers, to English teachers, there is a great group of foreigners who have relocated to Thailand.
And I don’t blame them.
Your visit to Thailand won’t be complete without seeing Thailand through their eyes. Find out the best spots to eat, to drink, and get a feel for what life in Thailand could be like. Just be careful, you may never leave.
Thailand’s food is a culinary delight; from spicy curries, to aromatic stir-fries, to barbecued meats, to fried crickets, to the quintessential pad thai noodles, there is something to please even the most discerning backpacker’s palate.
For anyone traveling on a budget, you don’t need to look further than the street vendors scattered throughout Thailand’s streets and alleyways. Street food in Thailand is cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s safe. I ate food from street vendors literally every day for six weeks and wasn’t sick once.
Expect to pay anywhere from $1 – $3 for a full meal. You won’t be disappointed.
Thailand’s South is a tropical paradise. On the East Coast you have the Gulf of Thailand with Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui. On the West Coast you have the Andaman Sea with Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi.
While each island has its advantages and disadvantages, they all are home to some of the world’s most pristine beaches. Think fine white sand, clear water with tints of blues and greens, and beachside bungalows.
These beaches are the reason many backpackers travel to Thailand and the reason many never leave.
Have you traveled through Thailand? Leave your backpacking tips and top experiences in the comments section below.Continue reading...
22 November 2010
During my recent trip backpacking in Bali, I spent much of my time exploring the island from behind the wheels of my very own rented motorbike. It was an excellent, albeit slightly terrifying way to see the island.
It was an ideal way to get around Bali and I can’t imagine my experience would have been anywhere near the same had I relied on public transport.
Two quick words of warning regarding the video.
First, at just over 11 minutes, it’s arguably too long. Yet based on much of the feedback I received, a 10 minute long video is watchable assuming you’re entertained throughout. With quick scene changes, a mix of dialogue and views of what I’m seeing, and some interesting facts throughout, I think this works.
Second, as I’m traveling solo, I didn’t have anyone alongside shooting the footage. Everything except the last scene was self-shot. The result? Some scenes are bumpier than others. This was inevitable with a shaking hand and a bouncing motorbike – I hope you can see past it.
I know I shouldn’t bring light to potential faults in the video – yet, I’d prefer you were aware going in.
Grab a coffee, a beer, or a glass of wine and enjoy …
0:50 – I visit the Sacred Monkey Forest to see Long Tailed Macaques just outside of Ubud – see the monkeys and learn about their place in Balinese culture.
4:40 – I visit a “Bali Drive-Through” for some street food.
5:21- While pulled over to check the GPS on my iPhone, I receive a traditional Hindu blessing from a local woman.
7:00 My experience at a traditional Bali cockfight deep in the jungle.
8:15 – Heavy rain forces me off the road and into a warung for some Nasi Goreng.
8:40 - While thinking I’m lost on jungle road in a rainstorm, I nearly crash my motorbike.
9:40 – After passing through small villages seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I reflect on the kindness of the people I’ve met before coming across another small village.
Thanks for watching. Please leave your feedback – good and bad – in the comments section below.Continue reading...
16 November 2010
When you think of Bali, chances are you envision clear blue skies, white sand beaches, thundering surf and beach-side massages. You might picture thick jungle, vivid green rice paddies, and towering volcanoes. These scenes very much exist in Bali and are the reason I was terribly excited to spend a week in this island paradise.
I expected outstanding seafood, friendly locals, budget friendly accommodation, and a pumping nightlife scene in Kuta.
One evening in Lovina, a series of seaside villages in the north of Bali, I met a local who was working at a beach-side bar and restaurant. I was enjoying a few Bintangs (Bali’s beer) along with some Canadian backpackers I had recently met when Putu invited me to a cockfight the next afternoon.
Needless to say, this isn’t an invitation I often get.
Cockfighting plays a very important role in the life of many Balinese men. A cockfight, in the simplest sense, is a fight between two roosters in a caged ring. To many men in Bali, it’s much more than this – it’s an obsession that has been passed down through the generations.
Cockfightinging is illegal in Bali and has been since 1981. The only exception is when a cockfight takes place for religious purposes. Bali is an intensely spiritual island made up of almost all Hindus; in Balinese Hinduism, the spilled blood in a cockfight is believed to expel evil spirits.
Although it is illegal, cockfighting takes place throughout Bali. Men will spend anywhere from six months to two years preparing roosters for a cockfight. They are fed high quality food so they develop muscle – the stronger the rooster, the better its chances of winning the cockfight. Cockfighting is so pervasive in Bali culture that you’ll often see men of all ages sitting around, grooming their roosters, comparing weights and sizes, and showing them off to other men in the community.
It’s a very big part of the local culture – and although inhumane by most standards – I couldn’t bring myself to turn down the invitation.
I met Putu the next day and he took me twenty minutes outside of Lovina to his home. Outside this traditional, one-room house, Putu had bamboo cages of roosters of different ages. Though their was a significant language barrier between us, the pride he had in his roosters was overwhelmingly apparent. He pulled out one of the roosters who he assured me was strong, well-fed, and could win in the cockfight.
We took our scooters higher up the mountain before turning off the small, single tracked road and onto a muddy dirt trail. We went deeper into the muggy jungle before arriving to the cockpit. There were already dozens of men preparing for the fights; as many of them chain smoked sweet-smelling clove cigarettes, they were preening their roosters and seeking out opponents.
The roosters have a natural aggression towards other males. The first step in the process is seeing which roosters want to fight. After finding a suitable opponent, a third man attaches the taji to each rooster’s leg. The taji is a razor sharp dagger of about four inches – it’s a sacred weapon and the fights are won or lost based on the use of the taji, not necessarily by the pecking that takes place between the roosters.
Before the fight begins, there is a chaotic couple minutes while the men around the cockpit place their bets. They shout out the color of the cock they want to win and were placing bets between 50,000 and 1,000,000 Rupiah. The two birds are released in the center of the ring and jump at each other, peck at each other, before one finally slashes the other rooster with the taji.
It was a quick, somewhat anticlimactic finish to all of the pre-fight negotiations. Those who lost their bets gave their cash to the organizer of the cockfight before another round started.
And what about the loosing cock? The owner of the winning cock gets the body of the looser. Unfortunately, my rooster lost and would have likely then been used to prepare Ayam Pelalah – a spicy, Balinese chicken soup.
After the cockfight I was invited to Pulu’s traditional home. He introduced me to his wife and his young daughter before serving me an outstanding lunch.
Their kitchen was outside in a bamboo enclosed room and their stove was a coal fire. As I’ve found many times in Southeast Asia, it’s amazing how those who seemingly have nothing are so giving. They made sure I had seconds, offered me tea, and gave me a gift of a polished seashell.
What is your take? Have you been to a cockfight? Would you go? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
12 November 2010
I’m writing this November update on an AirAsia flight from Denpasar, Bali, to Bangkok; I’m covered in sand, my face is gray with road grime, but I’m unbelievably happy to be here, as three hours ago I was almost certain I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now.
I woke up just before sunrise this morning in the small, undeveloped village of Medewi on Bali’s West Coast. I hoped to surf for a couple hours before heading to Kuta to catch my flight. By 6:30, I was at Medewi Beach – instead of five star resorts and hawkers, the view from Medewi was intensely green, flooded rice paddies and grazing cattle.
Though I had minimal luck surfing, it was a refreshing way to start the day – and a stark contrast to the mood I’d be in three hours later. Thanks to another meeting with the Bali Polisi, heaps of traffic, and some wrong turns, I was running extremely late. I didn’t think there was any way I’d make my flight.
Somehow, I did. It was an epic journey and you can read more about it here on my post at Flightster.com.
While you’re there, check out the post Meeting a Slightly Crazy (but wise) Shoeless Man in Bangkok. In this post I share my experience meeting a bizarre old man from American one afternoon in Bangkok.
It was another good month in terms of mentions to Backpackingmatt.com throughout the travel blog community. Check out these posts below:
I was in Bali visiting an old friend from Canada who I met while I was working in an Edinburgh Pub. It had been almost three years since we had seen each other last. I always enjoy reconnecting with friends in random parts of the world. Jess is from Canada, but we first met in Edinburgh, and she now lives in Australia. Who would have ever though we’d meet up again three years later in Bali? Not me.
While I’m not sure the country is ideal for quote, un-quote backpacking, it was an excellent place to spend a week. Friendly locals, beautiful beaches, thick jungle and relatively budget-friendly, Bali is someplace I’d return to in a heartbeat.
While I was there, I shot a lot of footage of my journey around the country on a rented scooter. Though the filming isn’t perfect as it was nearly all done solo, I’m really excited with how it turned out. Look forward to a Bali Travel Video in the next week as I have some serious editing to do first.
I think typically with videos, shorter is better. This one will turn out to be quite long unless I run it in a Part One & Part Two format. I think it flows well and works better as a 12 – 14 minute long video, but maybe I’m wrong.
One ten-minute + video, perfect for that morning cup of coffee, that escape at the office, or that evening beer or glass of wine? Or two shorter videos? Please leave your comments below.
I’ll be spending the next three weeks in southern Thailand. In addition to doing quite a bit of work, I’ll be exploring a couple Thai Islands, heading to the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, and hopefully meeting back up with Adventurous Kate and meeting Cody from Thrilling Heroics to maybe do some rock climbing in Krabi.
Until Next Time,
6 November 2010
Bali – one of the many islands in the Indonesian Archipelago – is a shockingly beautiful and diverse place. This is no secret as many parts of the island are overrun with five star hotels and resorts. Lovers and honeymooners alike flock here in droves to relax on the beach, soak up the sun, and treat themselves to luxury spas, Balinese hospitality, and excellent food.
Bali is clearly more than honeymooners, spas, and tourist resorts – it’s an intensely spiritual island with temples, devout Hindus, and a spectacular array of landscapes. Add to this world class surfing and diving, beautiful beaches, and excellent museums and galleries and Bali is a pretty amazing place to travel.
Yet is Bali ideal for the backpacker, budget traveler, or solo-traveler?
I’m not sure. I’ll have a better feeling by the time I leave next week. I am sure of one thing:
The first thing you’ll notice after leaving Bali’s airport is the shocking number of scooters on Bali’s roads. They weave in out and of traffic, buzz by you as you’re stuck in traffic jams, and somehow make order out of the chaos of Bali’s traffic patterns. From children in school uniforms heading to class, to entire families of four or five, to ladies in miniskirts and high heels, everyone it seems in Bali has a scooter – and so should you.
Hiring a scooter in Bali will allow you to get out of the tourist centers, it will reduce your reliability on relatively expensive or unreliable public transport, and if everything goes in your favor it will save you money.
Shortly after leaving Kuta, I was over the moon and taking in the rush of cruising along the beach. The combination of the hot wind in my hair, exhaust from traffic in my face, and stunning views of the beach and surrounding mountains was making for an absolutely epic experience.
Everything changed as I came upon a police check point. Ten or so uniformed police officers were randomly stopping traffic as they passed checking for registrations and licenses. I assumed I would be fine as the rental agency didn’t mention anything about my Iowa license.
“Problem,” the officer said as he looked at my license. He pointed at a piece of paper and said, “For you, 1,000,000 Rupiah ($100 USD) fine or we take your license.” I then made the mistake of opening my wallet to show him my rental agreement. “Ah, unless you pay now,” he said, “Problem okay.”
Knowing now what was coming, I began pulling notes out of my wallet. He kept shaking his head until every last note was gone. Luckily this was only about 300,000 Rupiah ($30 USD). “Okay,” he said. “You go. Problem fixed.”
If you’re traveling Bali in a scooter and don’t have an international license, make sure you keep your notes in separate places. From what I’ve picked up now talking with other locals, typically a foreigner can get away with a 50,000 Rupiah pay off – have a couple 50,000 notes handy and when pulled over play up that you speak little English; act confused, hand them money, and you should get sent on your way.
The whole experience rubbed me the wrong way; especially after finding out I should have been able to get away for significantly less. Nonetheless, I should have done a bit more research and planned accordingly.
Cruising around Bali yesterday on my well-used Honda was exhilarating, it was terrifying, it was freeing – and it’s something you must experience while you’re here.
26 October 2010
I’ve heard nothing can prepare a traveler for their first days in Southeast Asia. I’d agree. It’s a place different than anywhere else in the world. My first taste of Southeast Asia came with a quick, 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of stark contrasts; nestled up against the Petronas Towers – the tallest skyscrapers in Southeast Asia – you have historic mosques and temples, world class shopping malls and potholed filled streets lined with open-aired food markets offering food from all over the continent, stalls with Malays from the surrounding countryside selling their wares, and WiFi enabled coffee shops (free WiFi, come on New Zealand).
Exiting my Air Asia flight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I quickly realized how close Malaysia is to the equator. Stepping out of the plane brought on an intense wave of stifling heat and humidity; an overwhelming heat I have not felt in almost 18 months. As planes full of travelers from all over Asia were packed into the customs arrival hall, the smells of travelers who had been on long-haul flights permeated the air. We queued up in lines where there weren’t enough passport control agents and waited to be stamped into Malaysia.
Leaving the airport I was immediately greeted with dozens of hawkers selling various bus services to downtown Kuala Lumpur. With my train ticket in hand, I made my way through the humidity to the shuttle bus which would take me to the high-speed train to Kuala Lumpur. After arriving to the KL Sentral Station to hordes of people, light rail trains, shops, and taxi stands with signs in a language I knew nothing about, it hit me how this was the first time in ages I’ve been distinctly out of my comfort zone; strangely, it was a refreshing and exciting feeling.
I love the challenge of arriving to a city where you know very little about the culture, nothing about the language and being forced to make your own way. This aspect of travel that some people dislike the most is something I yearn for.
I hailed a taxi that would hopefully take me to my hostel. As we traveled through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, I began to realize the contrasts I referenced earlier. The pot-hole filled streets we traveled down were filled with scooters of all sorts and sizes that zoomed between old cars and even older buses. If you didn’t turn around to see the towering Petronas Towers, you’d never know you were in a city with one of the continents leading economies.
“That is your street there,” the taxi driver told me. He then circled the block just enough to turn my directions around before dropping me off on the busy street corner. “Welcome to Malaysia,” he said as I exited his taxi.
I was immediately overcome with the intense smells, sounds and sights of Kuala Lumpur. Locals sat outside food halls having their dinner. Garbage sat on street corners waiting to be collected. Incenses from shops, cigarette smoke from men on street corners, petrol and exhaust from passing buses and scooters and the constant beeping of horns all mixed together to make a strong humidity-filled Southeast Asian cocktail.
As I attempted to get my bearings and make my way to the hostel, I manged to slip on the wet sidewalk and stubbed my toe on the concrete. My trusty Kiwi-jandals from 11 months ago had failed me and began to puddle with blood; the absolute last thing you need on a busy street corner as night falls. Realizing I was lost, and now with an injured and bleeding foot, I happened to walk past a travelers guest house.
I walked in and asked the man at the counter where the BackHome Hostel was. He quickly explained through broken English, some scribbles on a piece of paper, and a series of hand gestures where to go. As I looked at him blankly, he smiled, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out the front door. Ten minutes, two alleyways, four turns and three to-close-for-comfort calls with passing buses later, he dropped me at a street corner and explained it was just down the block to the left.
As he left and I stood there smiling, thinking about the goodwill you see in people while traveling, another old man approached me and asked if I was looking for Chinatown (a popular nearby neighborhood). “No,” I explained, “I’m going to the BackHome Hostel, it’s just – ” and he cut me off.
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed, “a very nice hostel, come with me.” As he took me down the street by the shoulder he asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” I told him.
“Oh, America!” he said with excitement. “My daughter’s English teacher is from San Diago. Welcome to Malaysia – you must be here on holiday.” As he brought me through traffic and the remaining 5 minutes to my hostel, he explained how he was visiting Kuala Lumpur working in the market selling miniature Buddhas. “Take one,” he said as he pulled it out of his bag. “Only 20 ringitt and it will bring you good luck.”
After all the hospitality I had experienced in the last half hour, I could hardly say no. “Enjoy your journey,” the man said as he left me at the door to my hostel.
While I typically don’t write posts in a first-person, narrative format, I felt this was the best way to share my initial experience in SE Asia.
Have you traveled SE Asia? What first experience stands out in your mind? Please leave your experiences and advice below.Continue reading...
23 October 2010
A highlight of a visit to Bangkok is undoubtedly the wide variety of food on offer from street cart vendors.
From the quintessential Pad Thai Noodles, to banana pancakes, to barbecued chicken, to dishes you’ll not know what you’re eating unless you speak fluent Thai – you can get it all from the street carts. And you should. Put any food hygiene concerns behind you and spend a day wandering from street cart to street cart sampling their specialties.
The best part? You’ll be hard pressed to spend over $2 on a dish.
It took a bit of exploring, but near the Bangkok street famous the world over – Khao San Road – we found them. A cart full of bugs; ants, worms, crickets – you name it.
20 Baht ($0.67) got Kate and myself an assorted bag full of bugs. Some were salty, some slightly sour, some were gooey, while others (namely, the crickets) were crispy – surprisingly, they weren’t that bad.
Do you have a picture you’d like to share here? Email me at matt <at> backpackingmatt <dot> com and I’ll gladly feature it with a link back to your blog.