The following bullet points are a general list of advice my boyfriend and I wish we would have known before backpacking through South East Asia.
- Travel Agents in general
There will undoubtedly be times in South East Asia when you need a travel agent to book things like snorkel trips, trek trips, bus tickets, etc… However, at all costs try to avoid booking more than you need to i.e. book one specific activity at a time. It is tempting to book several things at once (as we did), but you will almost certainly pay much more for this with the undoubted extra commission involved.
It is quite common for there to be no buses other than the private minibuses these travel agents run. Always try & walk around town to price up the journey first. We often found a smaller competitor out of the main strip offering the same trip for far less. Try to haggle where possible or get a taxi included to pick you up at your hostel and take you to the bus if you so require.
ALWAYS research visas before setting off for new country. Ask other travelers what the crossing is like & research online if possible too. Find out how much the visa typically is & how long it’s valid for. People (especially travel agents) are always trying to scare you about border crossings to get some extra cash.
A ‘travel agent’ in Thailand tried to charge us $50 for a Malaysia Visa. She told us the rules had changed & that we had to get our visa before getting to the border or else we’d be stranded in No Man’s land. Fortunately, we stuck to our guns & shrugged her off after hearing nothing close to her claims in our own research. We were a little uneasy and apprehensive as we got closer and closer to the Malay border, but figured either way we’d deal with the outcome and make it work. As we suspected, the lady in Thailand was trying to squeeze an extra some extra cash & the Malaysia Tourist visa was in fact FREE!
- Extra Cash for Borders
It’s always a good idea to have some back-up cash in hand to cover any mishaps. This is especially true at border crossings! Crossing into Laos & Cambodia we had to pay an extra $2-3 for ‘overtime fees’. It would appear this is a rather whimsical tariff added at weekends, or if the border officials need a new pair of shoes or something. It’s a pretty insignificant fee but just be wary of it as they will expect dollars to pay such fees, & if you don’t have the cash your stumped! We also had a few discrepancies at the Burmese border over creased dollar bills not fit enough for the border ‘officials'.
- Land Crossings
Continuing with visas, double-check how many days your visa is for. Upon arrival in Bangkok (by plane, obviously!) we were given a tourist visa allowing us to stay for a month. It never crossed our minds that a land crossing visa into Thailand would be for any less time. Turns out a land crossing was only good for 2 weeks forcing us on our illustrious visa run to Myanmar. Not fun and not expected, so again ask around and do some research to avoid the annoyance… or at least expect it!!
- T.A.T. (Tourism Authority of Thailand)
Lots of tuk-tuk drivers around Bangkok may well start boasting to you about this oh-so grand organisation called the TAT. They will excitedly explain how the TAT is there to support you, the poor lost tourist. They may even claim it was put into operation by the King himself!… to promote tourism and put an end to sleazy travel agents ripping you off. Yeh, right! ALL travel agents in South East Asia will have a commission fees hidden in their prices… TAT or not! T.A.T. actually just means that the travel agency is licenced, only proving they aren’t illegaly ran!!… NOT cheap prices. We naively fell right into this tourist trap 2 days in to our travels. We booked an overnight train, accommodation, a trekking trip & a slowboat to Laos. We didn’t get ridiculously overcharged… but we definitely could have done it far cheaper had we booked everything on our own, step by step.
- Pak Beng
This en route town is a nightmare & appears to be a haven for scams. Travellers are cornered into this god awful place for an overnight stop when taking the slowboat to Luang Prabang from Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Before you even get off the boat in Pak Beng there will be countless numbers of touts offering you horrific accommodation for various prices. They WILL try & grab your bag. DON’T let them! Unfortuantely, they are however the lesser of two evils in some respects. Several people on our boat were coaxed into paying for a room before arriving in Pak Beng & ended up paying double the going rate on the river bank. Many ‘stories’ fly around suggesting you should purchase tickets or rooms in advance of arrival… they’re just stories… wonderfully fabricated falsifictaions conceived to play on your insecurities.
Overall, South East Asia is an amazing place to travel. The places we went, people we met, and experiences we had were incredible. Have fun and happy travels!
Written and contributed by Nicky & Rhys