Category: Travel Tips

Wat Xienthong

Impressions of Luang Prabang

28/1 – 11/2/2019

 

After tiring flight from Auckland via Singapore on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir (SQ’s regional subsidiary), I arrived in the small city of Luang Prabang. 

As soon as you arrive, you know it’s small. The airport terminal building is one of the smallest I have landed in.  I think a 737 or a 320 is the largest aircraft that could be accommodated.  Immigration formalities and baggage collection (combined) took place in an area the size of a medium-sized business class lounge. One pays a fixed price in US Dollars + a $1 service charge for their Lao visa.  As an American, I paid $35+$1. Canadians pay one of the highest fees at $42. Poor fellows.

 

I changed a crisp Benjamin for 857,000 kip, a rather good rate. With some pocket money, I went over to the taxi desk where you pay 50k for a fixed-price ride into town.  Not the cheapest I have taken, as it’s only 5km, but whatever.

 

As you might expect, I was surprised when the people sitting next to me on the Silkair flight in town were in the cab along with another lady. We joked that a 200,000 kip cab (US$23.35) is exceptionally profitable. Whatever. C’est la guerre.

 

In a short time, I was in front of my Chinese-owned guesthouse, in its own way a tiny constituent part of China’s global “belt and road” activities. It was interesting having to use my rudimentary Chinese skills to explain how I booked and paid (Airbnb).  Meeting the other (mostly) Chinese guests was a rare glimpse for me into the on-the-ground realities. The guests were here for the future China-Laos railroad.

 

My guesthouse was almost on the Mekong, so I went for a stroll along the river to stretch my legs.  Many small “restaurants” are directly on the water’s edge.  They are little more than a small patio with a dozen or so tables, a stall with coolers/fridges of drinks, and a small kitchen across the street handling food prep.  The views, particularly at sunset, are incredible.  “My” little one does well-priced beer and tasty local food – mostly simple curries, rice, noodles, barbecue, and dessert.

The temples in Luang Prabang aren’t exactly large. I found that I never spent more than 20-30 minutes in any one, and that includes going up and down Mt Phousi.  Nonetheless, they are pleasant oases from the tuk-tuks and commerce in the streets.  Some are free to enter, while others are 10-20,000 kip.  The National Museum (aka Royal Palace) was an interesting visit for me, though I chuckled at the royal car collection. Three cars were gifts of the US government (I suspect to curry favor with any non-communist in the region) – two Lincoln Continentals and a Ford Edsel. Good God…why? Shouldn’t a diplomatic gift showcase your nation’s craftsmanship and esteem for the recipient?   

Wat Xienthong
Wat Xienthong

I do want to add a note about the money changers.  Yesterday, I went to exchange kip to US dollars to get some small denominations ahead of my Siem Reap trip. I found a booth selling dollars for 8,600 kip, the best rate in town.  I presented her with 817,000 kip – $95.  She tries to give me $91. After her English skills dramatically collapse when presented with mathematical reality, she hands me back the 817,000 and shoos me away. It’s 3pm, I am not a stoned/drunk gap yah, and I am one of billions that carries a multifunctional calculator (phone) in my pocket.  Not. Going. To. Work.

 

Much more common is the scam when you are buying local currency, and they slip 20,000 kip notes in lieu of 50,000. Every one of those they can fraudulently tender is worth approximately US$4.

 

Café lovers rejoice. Luang Prabang is loaded with options to enjoy coffee as well as Lao/SE Asian or Western food. My two favorites, unoriginally, are Joma and Saffron. Joma is a Canadian owned micro-chain in SE Asia and serves up a pretty healthy menu if you need a break from more indulgent or oil-laden local fare.

 

Breakfast at Zurich Bread cafe

Overall, the charm of this town is its sleepiness. There’s not much here.  The bars are shut by 11 or 11:30 at night.  The attractions are fairly simple (Kuang si waterfall is the most time-consuming, where you’ll want a half-day at least). Come here to rest, rejuvenate, think, reflect, etc.  I should add that if you’re coming from Thailand, Laos will feel as if you’re paying more for less in terms of food, transport, and accommodation.  If you like to sleep in, find lodging on a side street.  Lao people start their day early, and the street noise would have woken me by 6:30 AM if I weren’t up already.  Late risers, consider yourself warned.

Buddhists collecting alms at daybreak

Addedum: After a booking issue with my guesthouse, I moved to the Luang Prabang River Lodge Boutique, a small and charming hotel run by a Lao couple. I could look out my window and see the Mekong or go downstairs and enjoy coffee while banging away at the keyboard.

Changing Money in SE Asia

Changing countries begs the question of what I will do with remaining cash. Typically, I face three choices. Do I save it for a future trip, change the leftovers into my next destination’s currency, or change into US dollars?  It’s rare that the first option comes into play.  I’ve found that the second option is usually quite inefficient.

I had a look at what I’d face changing Thai Baht (THB) to Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) ahead of my arrival in Bali.  Phuket lacks a truly excellent foreign exchange option a la superrichthailand.com, so I looked at what the banks charged. [Note: bank rates are typically acceptable.]

Typically acceptable –

I decided to play with the calculator on the Siam Commercial Bank website to see how many IDR I’d get for 3000 THB. SCB would pay 1 million even.  The google exchange rate? 1.3 million for said THB. Ouch.  I looked at the trading spread.  They buy 1 IDR for .002 THB and will sell it for .003.  That’s a significant spread, if you aren’t put off by the weird, almost obfuscatory, calculation of baht per one IDR.  By comparison, changing to USD in Thailand and then using said USD to buy IDR in Indonesia would, if using optimal or close-to-optimal rates might only cost you .5% total versus the spot rates.

I’ve noticed that this holds true for other intra-ASEAN currency exchanges (excepting the Singapore Dollar). The Vietnamese Dong, Philippine Peso, and Malaysian Ringgit also sport a pretty terrible exchange spread.  Note: you’re not going to find easily available info on changing currencies like the Laotian Kip, the Burmese Kyat, or the Cambodian Riel.

Categories: money Travel Tips Ubud

The Three Best Places to Change Money in Hong Kong

Normally, money-changing is about as note-worthy as waiting at the dentist. Occasionally, it’s analogous to the root-canal if you’re bothered to do the math. I recall during my St Andrews days seeing 20 cent spreads on the USD/GBP rate.

 

Hong Kong is a different story. The core neighborhoods are replete with small money changers looking to buy and sell US Dollars, Euros, Yuan, Baht, et cetera. I’ve seldom seen a truly bad deal like you find in the US or Western Europe. As of this writing, one USD buys $7.85, per the Google “spot” rate. The “worst” rate I saw in Tsim Sha Tsui hovered around(1 USD buys) HK$7.50. That’s better than the offer of $1.85 per £1 back (I did not take it) when it was worth $1.70.

 

My go-to is to pay a visit to Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. CM is one of my favorite places in the world. I jokingly refer to it as the Mos Eisley of Hong Kong – a warren of tiny hotels/hostels, African restaurants, Indian/Pakistani snack stalls, convenience stores, electronic shops, and money changers. Learn more here.  I am simultaneously amazed and delighted that it hasn’t been gentrified. 

 

Coming here is a game to me. I always have leftover something-or-other in my wallet, so I read the boards and shop the rates. Typically, the shops nearest the street have the worst rates, while the innermost money changers have the best.

 

On my last visit, Singapore Exchange Co (green sign, a minute’s walk in) had the absolute best rate for USD. I have used them before to sell HKD and buy NZD (a much harder currency to get a good rate for). On this auspicious day, they were selling USD for below spot (7.845 versus 7.861 that day, according to xe.com). I hopped on that right quick.

They were kind enough to round up to $180.

I wondered if there was a similarly good deal Island side. Over a bacchanalian dinner-feast at the Chariot Club, I asked this of my friend’s girlfriend. She mentioned Berlin in central. Their rates explain why, and the queue for service can be quite long. I also found another one (favored for Chinese Yuan exchange) called Ngau Kee

 

If you have a lot to change (thousands of USD or more) or are bored, HK changers are also open to bargaining versus the posted rates. Have fun! Never overpay. 

fried chicken onigiri

Tokyo for Digital Nomads

My first stop as a digital nomad (aka Expat 2.0) was Tokyo. I was quite interested to survey it from the perspective of a digital nomad. Most feedback I received from other Americans had to be considered in the context of said Americans visiting as 4-5 star premium/luxury tourists.  My other sources were Australians and New Zealanders going on ski holidays in Hokkaido. How would Tokyo be from the perspective of someone not frittering away ¥10,000 notes ($90) on every meal with the time to relax and enjoy the city? 

 

I offer a quick guide based on my observations and experiences of a couple of weeks. I’ve tried to cover certain basics. Your mileage may vary, so to speak.

Location

 

 I based myself at Chapter Two Hostel, located in Asakusa steps from the local train station. I avoided the much more famous districts of Ginza and Rappongi. The former reminds me of Fifth Avenue near Central Park, and the latter of Times Square (i.e. tons of tourists clogging the streets). My accommodation cost ¥3,100 per night. My rate was somewhat reduced as I had booked in excess of two weeks. A light breakfast (boiled egg + toast) was put out in the common area each morning.

Transport Costs

 

Subway/train rides tended to run ¥200-700. The 700-ish ride took me from Tokyo to visit my friend in Yokohama. A number of different companies serve Tokyo, so hopping A-B on Company 1 and taking B-C on Company 2 means that you’re paying fares to both. It’s important to note that there is no maximum daily fare, so a tourist frenetically rushing around Tokyo could run up high charges on their card. (Note: get a SUICA/PASMO card for your stay. It works on all trains and can be used at convenience stores for purchases).

 

The limited express train running between Narita and Haneda costs ¥1,290 to Asakusa. The faster Narita Express runs ¥2600-ish.

 

Taxis tend to be cheap for short rides, but rapidly go up in price if taken at night or for trips over 4km.

 

Accommodation

 

Variable, in a word. In my own searches and chats with other travelers, hostels and other shared accommodation starts at US$25/day. Private hotel rooms start at $60, though at that price, they’re small enough to feel quite cramped if two people are traveling. Airbnb in Japan is in turmoil right now, with many bookings being cancelled and throwing travel plans into chaos.

 

Food

 

This part is the most variable (that word, again), and in my opinion, the area most laden with misconceptions. I would remind my readers here that my perception of cost is colored by my American upbringing. I found ample options at every price range from ¥300 lunches up to many thousands of yen.

 

Assuming that you aren’t cooking for yourself for whatever reason (lack of desire or access to a full kitchen should cover most possibilities), the cheapest eats come from your nearby convenience store (konbini) – 7/11, Family Mart, and Lawson.   Fresh fruit, hot foods, take-away meals like katsu curry, spaghetti, salad, dumplings, and onigiri (filled rice balls) await your pleasure. Expect to pay ¥100-180 per onigiri, ¥280-300 for a can of Sapporo/Asahi/Kirin beer, ¥400-530 for a sushi, karaage, or curry meal, and ¥105 for a banana.

Tokyo seven eleven storepicture of lawson convenience store

 

At the next level are quick-bite restaurants that serve roughly the same function as a US diner: cheap, fast comfort food. Ramen & gyoza restaurants are by far the most common. Other small noodle and onigiri restaurants fall in this category. A meal will run you ¥400-1000, with ramen tending on the cheaper side. Kaiten (conveyor) sushi and premium quality noodles (yes, there is a perceptible difference between a ¥1100 bowl of “good” soba/tan tan/udon versus ¥450 ramen vs cup noodles) occupy the next level between ¥1000-2000 depending on location, ingredients, and your appetite.

standing sushi

 

Before this drags on, the quick summary: pick a sum between 500 and 50,000 yen, and you’ll find lots of tasty options.

 

Drink

 

 This wasn’t a huge area for me, but I’ll pass on what limited info I picked up. Most of what I drank here was sake. I was in Japan, after all. Sake at a restaurant typically began at ¥650 and went all the way up. A premium sake like Hakkaisan (my favorite) would cost ¥1300 for a 180mL portion. I didn’t do much cost research on bottles to bring home, as I tend not to drink solo at home.

Hakkaisan sake

 Beer at a konbini ran ¥280-300 per can. Out and about, ¥300 for a cheap mug/happy hour is the bottom end, whereas my most expensive turned out to be ¥1000 at a in Roppongi. The overwhelmingly common price was ¥500-700 depending on size. Note: these prices were for Japanese domestic beer. Expect to pay a considerable premium for craft and import.

 

Internet

 

 I found the process of a sim card byzantine and expensive considering phone band compatibility and the ¥3000 for the card. I elected to go with scrounging whatever wifi I could. This turned out to be a reasonably doable option for a short-term visit. I found internet at convenience stores, train stations, restaurants, Starbucks (as always), museums, and around major landmarks. Free. I had one situation in 3 weeks where I was cursing at my ill-luck, which is remarkably excellent in the greater scheme of life (for me). Otherwise, connectivity of some sort is fast, stable, and nearly ubiquitous.

 

Coffee

 

 I am embarrassed to admit that I did not get to assess this part. Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I was turned off of visiting cafes, as ¥500 for a basic beverage was standard at an independent café.  $4.50 for an Americano is a turn-off. 

 

Down Time

 

This is where Tokyo shines. When I wanted to get away from my screen in order to rest my eyeballs and refresh my brain, Tokyo delivered numerous options.  I found the Asakusa area jam-packed with stuff. Sensoji temple merited a wander or two. My favorite option included exploring one of Ueno Park’s attractions on a given day. There’s a shrine/temple for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the zoo, and multiple museums covering modern art, Euro-American/western art, Asian art, Japanese artifacts, natural history. The Tokyo National Museum and Ieyasu’s shrine are personal favorites. 

samurai armor picture

 

Beyond the big stuff, I highly recommend walking around and exploring. I “found” small shrines, parks, and public gardens. It helps to be in an old district of Tokyo, I suppose, but I loved stumbling on a small park or garden. 

Ueno Toshogu shrine to tokugawa ieyasu
Ieyasu’s Shrine

Keep these documents on you for travelling

Wallet, passport, phone, backpack, laptop, chargers (plural), clothing, camera, and so on. Such is the typical 2018 travel list – be it for a tourist, digital nomad, or backpacker. If you’re like me, it’s 8 p.m. at the hotel, and you’re cursing yourself for leaving the charger at home or at your prior accommodation. Woe unto thee.

 

However, there are a couple of things I never  forget when travelling, particularly to Asia. As I get ready to go off again, these items are in mind. I’ve been stocking the envelopes and passport wallet with them just this weekend!

 

Old Credit & Debit Cards

 

American express credit cardBy luck & planning, I had my major credit and debit cards replaced/updated within the last 4 weeks. Here’s the thing though, my bookings were primarily made with those cards. I didn’t cut up and dispose of the cards. It’s not uncommon on check-in for flights or hotels to have the original booking card requested as a form of security. This is extremely rare in North America, but it’s not uncommon throughout Asia. When I received my replacement cards, the old ones attached to bookings went straight into my passport holder.

 

This can be exasperating for Westerners traveling out of airports/countries where this additional security check is common. The time between purchase and the flight date can be up to one year, after all. In my observations, low cost carriers tend to be far stricter on this check than full-service carriers.

 

What happens if you can’t produce the card? It varies. Jane Doe holding a passport for Jane Doe travelling on a ticket for Jane Doe is probably at a relatively low risk of being denied use of that ticket if she isn’t holding the card ending in 1234 Jane originally used to book 7 months ago. If the carrier is truly a ball-buster, you might have to buy a new ticket at the airport, which can get very expensive.

 

Crisp Cash

 

There are few problems that  Ulysses Grant or Ben Franklin can’t solve, particularly if you deploy him/them en masse. There are numerous reasons why you might want to carry the cash. Budgeting can be psychologically easier than swiping plastic. ATM fees can be extortionate when added up, especially if you have a fee from your home bank on top of something like Thailand’s foreign ATM fees (₿200 – about US$6). Of course, there are always those pesky emergencies like being locked out of your card for “security!”

 

Moneychangers abound in global cities of any size. I have found that Southeast Asia  Hong Kong (Chungking Mansions!) have some of the most incredible rates of exchange for cash I have seen. I calculated a .25% (one quarter of one percent!) difference between the exchange booth and the spot rate when I changed Hong Kong Dollars to Singapore Dollars in central Singapore. Try getting that in a Western country. Surprise: you can’t. 

 

Typically, I advise that one exchange $50 or $100 (if US$) in the best condition possible. For the sake of convenience, it is typically best to carry larger denominations. Moneychangers like them more, and carrying smaller denominations discreetly becomes problematic (over $200 in $20 notes isannoying). Like any rule, there are exceptions. or dollarized economies such as Cambodia, having a stash of $1, $5, and $10 notes is extremely useful for smaller, day-to-day transactions.Picture of a US 100 dollar bill on top of other dollar bills

Do non-Americans need USD? Not necessarily. Recognizable global currencies like Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand Dollars as well as Yen, Euro, British Pounds, South Korean Won, and Chinese Yuan are fine.

 

 

Flight & Hotel Printouts

 

This one may seem quaintly archaic in the era of apps and digital confirmations, but never underestimate the authority and utility of ink on paper. A billing dispute (e.g. prepaid reservation or not) or apparently non-existent reservation magically ends in your favor the moment you can produce a piece of paper with key information.

 

When crossing borders, I find it very useful to have proof of accommodation and proof of an onward ticket. The latter applies more to backpackers, long term vagabonds, digital nomads, et al. When traveling on one-way tickets, the airline checking you in or (on rare occasion) the immigration officer will want to see proof of departure by the end of your allowed stay.

 

Another great part: I don’t need to worry about some god-damned app cooperating, my phone’s charge at a given time, or my ability to connect to WiFi or 4G!

 

On a final note, the sweetness really comes when you’re arranging transport to the hotel. Certain websites, such as Agoda.com, use both Latin characters and local script in the booking confirmation. Life becomes much easier when the Hong Kong or Bangkok taxi driver can read the hotel address in Chinese characters or Thai script rather than figuring it our from the romanization.