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This page was last updated 25 February 2015.
The Exotic Travel Guide
I love traveling. I have been all over the place - over 40 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America and more every year. I do not use travel agencies (except where I have no choice; you need an organized tour to enter Tibet from Nepal, for example) - I choose a region, buy a ticket, and go exploring, deciding every day where I'll be tomorrow. It's pure culture overload - no canned beach vacations or tourist ghettos for me! This is the only way to see the country and its culture first-hand.
What sounds exciting and easy actually does take some preparation and rules. This is a guide for exotic traveling, in which I describe all the tips and tricks I have learned over the years and that I follow to make my tours a success. I hope they'll serve you too, because once you have tasted the freedom and excitement of visiting exotic destinations you'll never want to stop!
I should also say what this guide is not. I am not Marco Polo; I like a certain minimum of creature comforts such as hot showers and good food. I won't sleep under bridges, eat insects, dodge police, or climb Mount Everest without oxygen or other extremes that sometimes go under the heading of adventure travel. I just do all the organizing myself instead of relying on professional tour organizers, and I love putting my ideas into practice.
If you have ever had a whim to see the Taj Mahal or Angkor or Tokyo, then I hope that this guide will help you realize it. I'll primarily talk about developing countries, not Western countries. My first tour just happened when, as a young student, I decided that I'd like to travel in Egypt and less than a week later I was in Cairo. You, too, could be in a 4500 year old pyramid next week!
Table of contents:
Choosing a destination
The world is a big place. What are you mostly interested in? Exotic cultures, watching the daily life of the people, seeing monuments and museums, grand mountains and jungles, cities, or the beaches? (The list is roughly sorted according to my personal preferences.) That should narrow down the list a little. Here are a few favorites of mine, but that's obviously highly subjective.
After having decided on the basic goals of the tour, I usually quite literally spin the globe, looking for places that catch my fancy. I can spend hours with Google Earth, tracing the Nile or Amazon, following the coastline of Indonesia, or looking for landmarks in the medina of Fes. It's truly addictive.
Then make a list. You should have narrowed down the choices to a
region of the world, and you know the natural and man-made highlights
that you'd like to touch along the way. You should pick a country, or
a small number of countries. Don't pack too many places into a tour,
you can always return later.
Here comes a point that I consider the key of successful traveling. You buy a guidebook. There are basically three choices:
I used to pack my PDA with copies of relevant web sites, but I rarely used the information.
Buy a book that's as focused as possible. A Lonely Planet that covers multiple countries, or even all of Europe, is not very useful because you won't get more than a few pages on each city. You will always want more than three or four hotel listings for major stops, for example. In a large country like India, try to find one that covers only the part that you expect to travel in. I have, on occasion, cut a book in half so I wouldn't have to carry so much weight.
Then read the book, cover to cover. Put little transparent Post-it bookmarks for places that interest you. I use red for must-sees and yellow for interesting places. Then put the red tabs on a map. An itinerary should suggest itself. Make sure it's not too ambitious, one red tab per day is clearly too much, probably even one every other day. Depends on the place of course, spending one day is enough for the Taj Mahal but not for Prague.
You might go as far as writing down a day-for-day itinerary to verify the feasibility, but do not stick to that list later! Once in the country you absolutely must retain the freedom to add places, drop places, go faster or go slower, to suit your fancy. You will deviate, and nailing down the itinerary before you start will put pressure on you that has absolutely no place in a tour. For the same reason, reserving hotels along the route (except for the first and last night, more on that later) is completely out of the question. Don't do that.
The approximate route is only half of the job. You also need to decide when to go. You don't want to freeze in Europe in the winter, or get into the monsoon season in Asia, or find all the Alps mountain passes blocked by heavy snow. On the other hand, you don't want to pick the perfect time either because then you'll find everything packed with tourists, and bus seats and hotel rooms will be scarce. I like the edges of the high season. Maybe a week or two outside the high season. Too far and you'll find out the reason why the season has ended, or you might find that most of the hotels are closed and shuttered up. You might have to deal with less than perfect weather, maybe it's a little hotter or colder or more humid, but avoiding the crowds and always finding seats and rooms will make up for that. You can find average sunshine, temperature, and precipitation tables in the Lonely Planet or on the net. In the tropics, rain tends to be heavy but short.
Whatever you do, avoid the peak times like Christmas, Easter, and unless that's your reason to go, local national holidays and festivals. If you do want to see the carnival in Rio or the Palio in Siena, you'll have to bite the bullet and reserve rooms a long time in advance, and accept that you might be one in a crowd of hundreds of thousands. That is not the spirit of this guide.
Imho, the work done by the folks at Lonely Planet and the others is
what makes adventure travel possible. They do all the hard research,
and give you a menu to choose from. You'll find mistakes and the quoted
prices are inevitably slightly too low, but you couldn't do that on your
own, especially in the more exotic countries where you don't speak the
language (or decipher the alphabet!) and they don't speak yours. I can't
praise these guys enough.
Here are the things to take care of weeks, in some cases months, before you go.
With a European passport, there are not a lot of countries where you need to get a visa before you go, but they exist. Vietnam is one, or China. It's harder for US Americans (I am told that's because they give visitors at their borders a hard time). Check out the web pages of the foreign service of your country, or of the country's local embassy (although the pages of small exotic countries tend to be not very useful).
If you are German, the pages of the Auswärtiges Amt are very useful, you'll find not only visa information there but also general information on the country, including safety warnings.
Exotic countries have exotic diseases. Although your first concern is going to avoid nonbottled water, from tap but also ice cubes in drinks or the stuff they wash salads or fruit with, there are also germs that pack more of a punch. Ask your doctor about diphteria, tetanus, FSME, and hepatitis, and maybe cholera and typhus. Your #1 concern in tropical countries, away from the big cities, is malaria. I carry malaria medication (Lariam) but I do not get inoculated because that's a pretty rough procedure.
Note that some inoculations take several weeks to "take", or require a second shot after six weeks. Find out early enough. If you are traveling in Europe, North America, Japan, and other industrialized countries, you can pretty much forget inoculations, unless you go trekking in a national park. But ask your doctor anyway, don't take my word for it!
Buy travel insurance. You can get them at travel agents for very reasonable prices, for the period you'll be abroad. Make sure that the insurance covers actual cost, not what it would have cost at home (treatment in the USA can be extremely expensive, for example).
Also make sure that it covers emergency transportation home, if the local doctor judges that it is necessary. The flight home should not depend on approval of the insurance company! Emergency transport can be hugely expensive and the insurance company will be very motivated to refuse payment.
I don't see any point in lost baggage insurance and the like. It's cheap but you are unlikely to collect.
I book all my flights, or train tickets, on the web. I have never gotten a good deal at the big sites like Expedia or Opodo, it seems they only resell regular airline tickets but don't have good deals. I now especially avoid fly.de because of their aggressive lawyers. But it often works to check these places for available flights, and then go to the airline sites directly.
If you stay on the same continent, first check the web pages of your local airports to see which airlines go where. Then check the pages of those airlines. Especially budget airlines like Air Berlin, Easyjet, Ryanair, Transavia, Air Asia, and many others. Budget airlines seem to be mostly a European phenomenon, but Air Asia is successfully applying the idea in Asia. I have booked flights with them in local Internet cafés. Do note that budget airlines often save money by flying to secondary airports: don't be surprised if Transavia's so-called "Amsterdam airport" is in Rotterdam, or Ryanair drops you off not in Heathrow but in Stanstead, which is a sixty-pound cab ride to London.
The main problem with Internet booking is that you have little control over connections. Two weeks ago I had one hour to connect in Hong Kong. The web site thought that's fine but it's really tight. You usually don't get the option of moving one leg of the flight to get more time. But Hong Kong is a well-organized airport, as is Amsterdam Schiphol.
There are airports where you absolutely do not want to connect. New York's JFK leads that list, but Heathrow is nearly as bad. CDG in Paris and Frankfurt in Germany are better but not great. In general, if you fly to the US, do whatever you can to avoid connecting in the USA. Immigration procedures are borderline fascist, and you must retrieve and re-check all your baggage. Immigration may take 30 minutes but just as likely four hours if you don't have a US passport (then it's easier). I have once had a 24-hour delay when connecting in New York JFK to San Francisco.
At first I found the notion of booking an expensive flight and receiving no more than a confirmation code disturbing. But it has never failed.
When you have booked the flight, reserve seats. Some people will now find out the kind of aircraft, check the seat layout, and try to get the best seat on the plane. Which is a window exit row except the middle one in 747s, where half your leg space is taken by the emergency slide box. Never get the first or last row in economy at a wall, because you either can't lean back or have no legroom. If you fly first on a 747, the best seats are the frontmost upper-deck window seats; in business it's the frontmost two window seats under the cockpit in 747s but not in other planes because of the legroom issue.
I just call the airline and reserve window seats somewhere in the front half. Too far back and you get out late and may miss the first shuttle bus (which you often get with cheap airlines), which can be a problem with tight connections. Then I show up at the airport real early, at least two and a half hours before boarding (before the counter opens) and chat with the agent. Note that some airlines allow seat reservations at any time, but many refuse reservations until a week before the flight.
Why window seats? I sleep best there and I don't get woken up by my seat neighbor who needs to use the toilet.
Do not make the mistake of overplanning, and booking hotels along your route. You want to be free to decide every day where you'd like to go next, stay at places you like, and quickly leave places you do not like. But I do recommend to book a hotel for the first night. If you arrive late, two nights. As I'll explain later, it is often hard to find a hotel when arriving in the country, and it's nice to arrive with a place to go in an unfamiliar country.
I usually pick a medium-class hotel from the guide book. I prefer hotels or guesthouses known for knowledgeable hosts who can help arranging onward travel, and popular backpacker's guesthouses where you can connect to other travelers and listen to their stories and recommendations. This is extremely helpful.
If the hotel offers airport pickup, I book that too. It's usually overpriced, but the few extra euros are well worth the luxury of avoiding the hassle at the airport, where touts will try to scam you. (More on that later.) You'll need to provide the hotel with your flight number and an easy to spell name; my last name is hard to spell so I tell them to carry a sign that just says "Thomas".
You might also consider booking the last night. You shouldn't cut the itinerary too finely and arrive at your final destination shortly before the flight leaves, because transportation might be unreliable. I usually arrange my travels to arrive and depart in different cities, so I book two nights at the end. I also splurge and book the best historic hotel I can, like the Oriental in Bangkok or the Metropole in Hanoi. (Too bad the Old Cataract in Aswan can't easily be placed at the end of a tour; here I broke my rules.) But only consider historical five-star hotels, not the usual boring business chains like Hilton that are the same all over the world! Those are a waste of money.
Cellular roaming partner
If you don't have a GSM cell phone, buy one. New phones start at under 25 euro without a contract, like the Motofone F3 at Amazon. Primitive but functional. If you visit the US, make sure it's a triband or quadband phone because they don't use the standard international bands there (this disqualifies the F3). If you are American and have a non-GSM phone, you can leave it at home, the rest of the planet with very few exceptions (Japan) uses GSM.
I usually try to buy a local GSM SIM card in the country I visit. That's far cheaper than using your own card. But in case this isn't feasible, check with your home provider that it has a roaming agreement with the local providers. Some, like the German E-plus provider and its prepaid brands, have roaming agreements only for incoming but not outgoing calls! I ran into that trap when trying to use my Simyo card in Egypt.
Then check the cost of making and receiving calls in the country. The cost often differs for different local providers. Find the cheapest one, and when in the country, try to register with that provider.
ATM cards and cash
These days, your home ATM card will work in almost every country. ATM cards tend to incur far lower transaction fees than credit cards. The fee depends on the local bank, and there may be an upper limit on daily withdrawals. Your home bank may have an agreement with a local bank to waive all fees; for example, Deutsche Bank in Germany and the Bank of America in the US offer free withdrawals with each other's cards. Talk to your bank. Make sure you have enough money in your account and there are no low withdrawal limits.
You can pretty much forget traveller's cheques. Those had their use before universally available ATMs, but no more. Their only remaining advantage is that they are insured in case of loss, provided that you have written down the cheque numbers. But it's not easy to cash them.
It's usually a good idea to get a little local currency before you leave. It can be surprisingly difficult to find an ATM at the airport when you arrive; in some countries you find ATMs only in banks. You need some money to pay for the ride into the city. Many currencies are not freely exchangeable and may not be exported though. Avoid large bills.
Many countries accept US dollars and euros. Some, like Cambodia, charge US $20 (and only US$!) for the visa. It can never hurt to carry dollars or euros. In a lot of countries, especially near Europe and in the main travel destinations in Asia, euros have replaced US dollars as the foreign currency of choice, but dollars, and sometimes British pounds, are also accepted. Other countries, like Vietnam, still prefer dollars. In any case, bring only crisp new bills, no stains, no tears, no handwritten notes, not crumpled! Such bills will likely be refused. Again, bring small bills, 20 dollars or 20 euros may be a huge amount of money in the country, and you won't get change. It's like paying a bus at home with a 100 euro bill. Won't work.
I am a big fan of handheld GPS units, specifically, my ruggedized Garmin Vista HCx with its new high-sensitivity receiver that works in buses and often indoors. I use it to record all my movements, and put the track into Google Maps when I return. But you need a builtin map for it to be useful. Western countries are well-covered, but unfortunately there seem to be no good maps for Asia and Africa. The mapsource world map is often sufficient, although it lacks almost all roads and is slightly misregistered.
You can also search the net for tracks and waypoints. They are harder
to find than one might expect, and many are not accurate, but anything
can be useful. Use Google Earth to find important landmarks, like cities,
islands, major highway intersections, and points of interest, and enter
them as waypoints. This is useful because you will often find yourself
in a bus where nobody speaks your language and you can't figure out
where to get off. You'll be very grateful if you can orient yourself
with the GPS map or waypoint distance. (I use the GPSBabel program to
convert data between Google Earth and Garmin's format.)
Ok, you have picked a destination, got everything planned, and made your preparations. It's time to pack your bag. The #1 mistake is to bring too much stuff. I'll assume that you travel to a warm and sunny destination, not northern Norway or Iceland in the Winter. I use a single 30-40 liter backpack. It must be comfortable; you may be carrying it for hours. This means good padded hip straps, chest straps, a mesh that allows air flowing between your back and the backpack, and enough pockets. You'll want a divided main section (half for clothing and half for other things) and at least two large pockets on top or on the back to hold small stuff that you need to access quickly on the road. Side pockets to hold or strap on things like water bottles are good too.
Mine is small enough to fit under an economy airplane seat. That way nobody can lose my baggage. I also carry an extremely lightweight foldable backpack; I put things in it that I can't take into the cabin (sunscreen (don't get me started on those idiotic restrictions on liquids), Swiss army knife, and a sweater and towel to stuff it so the baggage conveyors won't eat it) and check it. If the airline misplaces it, it's not a big loss. On arrival, I repack it into the main bag.
Total weight, including backpack, should not exceed 10 kg much. If you need to carry extra hiking boots or camping gear, you may be looking at 15 kg or more, but you better know what you are doing because it will not be fun to lug around. Still better than suitcases or multiple bags though. Remember that you can do laundry pretty much anywhere on the planet, and that it's easy to buy a sweater or other items if and when you need them. Once, when I found the Himalaya mountains much colder than expected, I simply went and bought a very nice and absurdly cheap Cashmere sweater that I still have. You will have problems meeting the 10 kg target, weighing each little piece and pondering its usefulness, but trust me, it's well worth the trouble. You'll meet plenty of fellow travelers who moan that they brought too much but you'll never meet anyone who thinks they brought too little!
Ok, down to the details. Here is my packing list. The web is awash with packing list recommendations but I have used and refined this one for dozens of tours to distant countries and it has served me well. Carry items marked with an asterisk (*) in an easily accessible place while flying to your destination.
A final note: the electronics list above adds up to a shocking number of chargers and power cables. If you have some experience with a soldering iron, you may be able to use one charger for several devices by adding extra connectors. If, however, you don't know what you are doing, don't mess with power cables, it can be dangerous, electrocute you or start a fire, or destroy your equipment if you get the voltage, wattage, or AC/DC wrong! In any case, make sure your chargers work with the voltage at your destination, either 110 or 230 volts. Almost all lightweight electronic chargers can handle both, but the old heavy transformer wall warts do not.
Lonely Planet has good
recommendations on packing light.
The day has come and you need to leave for the airport. Check that you have the items marked with an asterisk in the list above within easy reach, like in your waistpack, and make sure you have the essentials like passport, ticket, money belt, wallet with local money and/or dollar notes if needed on arrival, a ballpoint pen, and your key.
For long-distance flights, I show up at the airport two and a half hours early, at least. The counter usually opens two hours before the flight, which gives you a good position in the line that may have formed. Then you can switch your seat reservation to the best possible seat available; gate agents are usually happy to find exit rows or seats away from the toilet. I can sleep on long-distance flights only in window seats, with earplugs and eye shades. I have anatomically shaped earplugs made by a hearing aid specialist. Very expensive but I can comfortably wear them for many hours at a time. I also have a second set with embedded earphones, which I use with my Archos to watch movies. The seatback monitors are terrible.
Study the guide book for arrival procedures. Most countries want you to fill out an entry form, and maybe an exit stub and customs declaration. Sometimes they are handed out on the airplane, sometimes you find them in the arrival lounge. Some countries want you to pay an arrival fee before lining up for immigration, like Cambodia. In the USA you need to pick up your baggage after immigration and carry it past customs, before you recheck it and continue to your connecting flight. (That's why I recommend to never connect in the USA.) Make sure you find the best line; usually that's the farthest line from the entrance. But don't line up in the wrong line, like those really short ones for citizens, and favor lines that are serviced by two counters. They'll ask for your address in the country; give them the address for the first night and don't try to explain that you'll travel all over the country.
After immigrations and customs, you may be lucky and find an ATM and a GSM cell phone card vendor. Get local money and the cheapest prepaid SIM card you can find; it's usually easy to recharge. Don't forget to ask for your own phone number, you might want to leave it for travel agents later. If you are paranoid, try it out; I was recently given a wrong one in Saigon and was wondering why they agent never called back...
In Asian and African (but not European and American) countries, it's now time for your first culture shock: touts. Touts are loud and insistent street vendors or cab drivers. They'll walk up to you and offer a ride to your hotel. They might grab your arm or your bags and drag you to their cab, bus, or motorcycle. Sometimes they aren't even cab drivers but commission sharks who demand money for showing you where the cabs are.
Instead you look for a prepaid cab counter. You buy a ticket, get in line at the arrival hall exit, and chances are you'll get an honest driver. You should write down the name and address of your hotel and show that to your driver until he nods vigorously. Drivers will often speak no English, and won't be able to read your guide book map. If there are no prepaid taxis, ignore the touts and find your own taxi outside.
You'll usually find that the price is a little higher than quoted in the guide book. You can't avoid that; airport cab rides are always more expensive. And chances are you won't care about an extra euro so don't waste too much time haggling.
If the driver tells you that the hotel is closed, full, or burned down, break off negotiations and find another driver. The driver is probably trying to scam you: he'll drive you to another hotel or a travel agent where he gets a commission. This is very common, most travelers have had this happen to them. Having said that, I was once told this in Delhi and the driver was actually correct! I was so incredulous that I actually located the hotel before I believed the driver. But normally the hotel-is-closed line is a dead giveaway for a scam.
There is a variant of this scam that is much harder to spot: the driver takes you to another hotel with the same name. Fraudulent hotel owners appropriate another hotel's name for a short while and go fishing for guests of the real one. Verifying the address, or carrying a web page printout with a picture of the hotel helps. GPS coordinates are better but sometimes hard to come by in exotic locations. This is why I recommend booking a hotel for the first night and arranging a pickup. It's great to see your name on a sign and sail right by the touts. Don't expect the driver to be on time, you may have to call.
Don't extrapolate from the airport scammers though. Chances are that people in the country are pleasant and decent, and it's just that airports (and major train stations) attract the bottom-feeders. You'll meet lots of touts during your trip, but most are happy to just overcharge you a little (provided you follow rules 1 and 2), take it with a smile.
When checking in at the hotel, in many countries the hotel will keep your passport until you check out. That's normal, don't worry. They will enter your name, passport number, and visa number in their records, and in some less blessed countries they'll register you with the police. Only some top-end hotels don't keep your passport.
After checking in, explore the city. You'll want to find an ATM to
get local money, and a telecom kiosk for a cellphone SIM card, if you
didn't do that at the airport. You'll also want to arrange onward travel.
Sometimes that means long waits in train station lines. You might also
want to pick up a hat, water, and other items you need for traveling.
And you might want a nice 12-hour sleep after a transcontinental flight,
especially if you are prone to jet lag.
In Europe and America, taxis are reliable, predictable, and quite expensive. Taxis in less developed countries are different. You'll find
Unlike in Europe or North America, buses are usually not running on a precise schedule. They leave when enough people are on board. You may have a proper ticket that says 10:00, but some guy may call out your destination at 9:30 or 10:30. Often there are no tickets, you simply pay the conductor when boarding, during the drive, or when getting off. I have never had to negotiate prices; they are fixed, quite low, and nobody tries to cheat.
Trains are often the most comfortable way to travel in developing countries. Trains are often slower than buses, but trains have sleepers and you can move around. Sometimes you get the choice between a sleeper chair, "hard sleeper", and "soft sleeper", or similar names. What matters is the number of bunks per compartment. I usually go for the most expensive bunk I can get for overnight trains - the price difference is usually small and you sleep better. You must have ear plugs and eye shades, the tracks are often bumpy.
For train trips up to a few hours I recommend second class though. You'll get the chance to talk to the locals. Chances are they'll be very curious and eager to chat with you. Once I have talked for hours with an old Buddhist monk near Ayuthaya in Thailand who was happy to try out his English. You are in the country to learn how people live, aren't you?
Train tickets usually need to be purchased in advance, often on the previous day or at least 24 hours in advance. Refer to the guide book. Unfortunately you may have to stand in line for a while, especially in large cities. Write down the name of your destination, the day and time, and the class as shown on the train schedule, because the clerk is unlikely to speak English. Some hotels can arrange train trips for a small fee; this is worth the cost.
I usually pick a hotel for the next night the day before. I might stay another night if I like the place, or choose a new one from the guide book and call it, using the GSM cell phone card. Since I never travel during the high season, I usually get a free room with the first few calls. There is a risk, however, that the guide book is so popular that all the listed hotels fill up real fast while everything else is empty. It can't hurt to ask a hotel that turns you down for a recommendation. Also ask the hotel you are currently staying in. Often they are happy to oblige.
If all else fails, you can go there blindly and ask the bus station touts. You may not get your first choice but you won't sleep at the bus station. I have rarely found the Internet to be much help - the usual listings tend to show only top-end business hotels that can afford the listing, but you do not want to spend vacation time in a business hotel!
When choosing hotels, I first look at the location. If I plan to leave early in the morning, I'll pick a location near the bus or train station, but otherwise I'll try to find a nice busy downtown location from which I can reach sights and restaurants. In tropical countries, in a good hotel I look for air conditioning, but in a cheap hotel I prefer a plain fan because the A/C unit is likely to be loud and smelly. I also want a hot shower. I also favor popular places where I am likely to meet other travelers. On the phone I ask for the nicest room; I don't want windowless rooms or rooms facing a train line.
Once at the reception, smile and ask for a nice and quiet room with lots of light and a good view. Except at top-end hotels the price difference is usually small. Once, in Udaipur, I upgraded from a dank and dark ground-floor cavern to a little penthouse with my own terrace and view over the garden and lake, at the same price. If you are traveling in the off-season, chances are that there are many available rooms, and you are not in any way obliged to take the first room they offer. Higher floors are usually better, but in some cities there is a problem with water pressure there. Check that you have towels, soap, and toilet paper.
I don't care much for breakfast. Chances are you'll get better
food in a restaurant. In some remote places the hotel is going to be
the only place to get food though. If you are going to such places, it's
a good idea to bring water and maybe some food, like peelable fruit. It
can never hurt to carry a water bottle because you can't drink the tap
If you take traveling seriously, and not just as a photo opportunity, then you will want to explore the local food. Especially in more developed countries you'll find Western food. There are four McDonalds in Venice, there are 7-Elevens all over Thailand, and there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Even in local restaurants you'll find pizza, spaghetti, and burgers in many variations and spellings. But you'll never eat there.
The cuisine of a country is as interesting to explore as its temples. You'll find fruits, vegetables, and spices that you won't find at home, or are dulled by the long transport. Of course you´ll find mangos, guavas, or coconuts at your local supermarket at home, but they are pale shadows of the explosions of taste you'll find in tropical countries where they grow wild. Walk by a guava basket and you'll be stunned by the fantastic smell. Fruit, especially, is easy to find in any local market, and you'll find those all over the place, even in the tiniest villages. You do not buy them at supermarkets, and in fact you might not see a single supermarket during your entire trip.
Mangos, pineapples, passion fruit, lychees, and many others must be peeled before eating, which makes them safe. Other fruit, like strawberries or grapes, are unfortunately off-limits. Just like you can't drink tap water in developing countries, you can't eat unpeeled fruit without risking a serious case of diarrhea. The Immodium drug I have recommended may stop the symptoms but you'll still be sick for a day at least. Be careful even with peelable fruit - I have once seen watermelons on sale in Istanbul that were kept "fresh" by punching a small hole into them and storing them in the brackish water pooled at the edge of the road... In Western countries, this problem does not exist at all; tap water in Berlin tastes better and is safer than most bottled water.
I have never had problems in restaurants, with a bit of foresight - salads here will likely have been washed with tap water, and ice cubes will have been made from tap water too. Street vendors are fine as well, because you can see how the food is prepared. I have never gone as far as buying food or drinks sold in plastic bags. Avoid unpackaged ice cream, and in really dodgy places inspect the seals of plastic water bottles to make sure they haven't been refilled.
If you are traveling to Muslim countries, check the dates of the month of Ramadan. Muslims may not eat between dawn and sunset during Ramadan. Unless you are Muslim too you are not bound by this, but you will have a hard time finding food, and if you do, you risk screaming children pointing out your "mistake". Try to drink discreetly from your water bottle. Every sunset is a big celebration and the restaurants are packed. I don't recommend to avoid Ramadan but it is a hassle after a few days.
Food is not your only health concern. In Malaria regions, avoid exposure to mosquitos after sunset, by staying indoors, wearing long sleeves and pants, and applying DEET insect repellents to your clothing. There are special DEET sprays for clothing that do not smell, and last a long time. You should also soak your mosquito net in special DEET solutions designed for that purpose, and use the mosquito net when sleeping. Suspend the net from the ceiling and tuck it under the edges of the mattress, so that you won't touch it at night. Unfortunately air doesn't circulate freely under the net, so if it's already hot and humid the net makes it worse. Fortunately the Malaria risk in cities and at the sea is very low, but it is an issue in remote regions.
Also avoid swimming in lakes, rivers, and pools with stagnant or slow-flowing water. It allows insects to breed, which creates a risk not only for Malaria but also Dengue and all sorts of nasty worms that enter your body through the skin. See the World Health Organization's water sanitation page for more information.
When hiking, ticks can be a problem even in Western countries. They can transmit Lyme and other diseases. When bitten, remove the tick by grabbing its head with pincers and slowly twisting it out. Do not pull, or the tick's head will stay in the wound. Obviously, never touch a wild animal, especially birds and dogs. In some regions, such as American national parks, take bear warnings very seriously and hide food, and other items that smell, such as toothpaste, in bear lockers or on high branches or poles.
This is an incomplete and nonprofessional list. Always ask a doctor
about health risks at your destination, a few months before you leave
so there is enough time to receive inoculations. Some require multiple
There are a number of risks that you need to be aware of.
This is your primary concern. To put it mildly, traffic laws receive less attention in developing countries than they do at home. Prepare to find yourself in a madly honking maelstrom of motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, and animals hurtling in random directions with little regard for the proper side of the road, traffic lights, and oncoming traffic.
Fortunately the degree of chaos is inversely proportional to the average speed. In Southeast Asian cities, you'll often find top speeds of 30-40 km/h. So if you are acutely aware of your surroundings, it is possible to walk right into the thick of the traffic, apparently in total disregard of the swirling chaos, at a relaxed slow pace, and watch the traffic flow around you like a swarm of fish. Don't forget to look at other scared tourists at the edge of the road, desperately looking for a safe gap that will never appear, with the disdain of a seasoned expat. Unfortunately not everybody is paying attention, so always watch every vehicle in range really closely for sudden maneuvers, and don't do any sudden maneuvers yourself. I have seen several accidents, and badly mangled vehicles on the side of the road.
The situation gets much worse outside of cities. You'll see huge and ridiculously overloaded trucks blasting past defenseless cyclists with inches to spare. I have never ridden or driven my own vehicle outside cities in such countries, and I don't really recommend it inside cities either. I have once entered a short tunnel in Seoul in South Korea on a bicycle, and when I emerged on the other side I found myself on a raised freeway with no exit ramps until it ended at an approximately fourteen-lane intersection where everyone was traveling in a different direction. Approximate because there are no lane markings - they would be certain to be ignored. In Egypt they mark lanes, but a three-lane road might see five lanes of cars. Also beware of cars parked in curvy tunnels or in the middle of the road. In Cairo I was once driving with an Arab friend, and when we wanted to see a museum he stopped in the middle of the eight-lane road right on the double yellow line, and handed the keys to a traffic policeman with a five-pound note, asking him to watch out for it. He did.
In Europe, you practically never see a soldier, the army, or armed police. If you see a policeman, he will be happy to help you. There are no limitations on what you can take pictures of or where you can go, as long as you don't climb fences or open doors. That is not so in many foreign countries.
In developing countries, the military, and police if this distinction is made, tends to be an important force in the government. Even advanced democracies like Thailand aren't safe from their own military. They have a lot of power, which can translate to restrictions and hassles for tourists, and occasionally unexpected fees that are difficult to distinguish from bribes. A very large chunk of downtown Hanoi is off-limits and reserved for the army; in Marrakech you can't take pictures of the king's palace except the front gate and if you try a soldier will make you delete the picture; in Srinagar in Kashmir all major intersections and numerous road checkpoints are guarded by soldiers with machine guns and you can't walk without a guide, in Egypt the young men of the tourist police with their huge bayoneted rifles watch every step, in St. Petersburg hefty uniformed women guard the subway stations to prevent tourists from taking pictures, and in many countries you can't take pictures of "strategic installations" such as train stations, bridges, the army, or government buildings.
Chances are you won't notice this very much, but it's a good idea to pay attention to the warnings you find in your guidebook. The good thing is that these countries often depend on the money tourist bring into the country, and will try to make things as smooth and safe as possible. You are probably much safer in Hanoi at night than in Los Angeles, as long as you don't break the rules. Serious offenses can range from jaywalking to possession of illegal drugs - the latter can land you in a filthy overcrowded prison for years with no chance of help from your own embassy!
Your primary concern is going to have your wallet, cellphone, camera, and other valuables stolen from your pockets while you are gaping at a temple or market. That's why you should not carry valuables in easily accessible pockets. Never keep anything valuable in back pockets. Front pockets are better, especially if they are zippered, but not one-hundred percent safe either. Only keep your camera and victim wallet in your pockets.
A victim wallet is an old wallet containing a small amount of money to pay street vendors or taxi drivers. It does not contain larger bills, ATM or credit cards, or other valuables. The idea is that it doesn't matter much if people see it, or if it is lost or stolen. If you carry a camera, either use a large number of small flash cards, or back up your pictures to a hard disk every evening, so you don't lose irreplacable pictures if the camera is stolen. I always carry a second old camera so I can go on taking pictures; I once had a camera stolen in Thailand, and once my camera broke in Morocco. Always tuck the strap of the camera into your pocket with the camera.
Your valuables should be in the hotel safe if the hotel is trustworthy. It will likely keep the passport anyway. On the road I carry valuables in a waist pocket that I keep under my pants, on the side so it doesn't get in the way when walking or sitting. It's large enough for a passport, ATM and credit cards, my home key, full camera flash cards, and return tickets. I wrap the passport and tickets into a thin plastic bag so they won't get wet. I also keep small stashes of money in several places, on the theory that it's unlikely that they will all be stolen at the same time so I can at least reach a hotel. I often also carry a belly bag, but it's so exposed that I use it only for food, spare batteries, small items of clothing, and other things that do not need to be safeguarded.
Your bags at the hotel aren't safe either. I have heard several reports of bags being searched, or things being stolen, although it never happened to me. It shouldn't be a problem in good hotels, and I have never experienced or heard of a problem with bags in bus cargo bays. Bags being carried with you on trains or buses are at risk though while you are not looking, or sleeping. I carry a pair of small locks to lock the zippers on both ends of the bag. It won't keep anyone from slashing open the bag, but it will deter casual thieves. I also have a small steel cable to lock the bag to baggage racks on trains and buses.
But don't let the risk of theft worry you too much. It has happened to me only twice, and the loss wasn't great and in no way kept me from continuing the voyage.
A scam is a scheme to cheat you out of your money. The one you are most likely to see are the taxi scams, especially at airports and major train and bus stations. I have already mentioned the rules for taking a cab or motorcycle - agree on the destination, ideally using a photo or written note, agree on the price, show the money you'll pay, and only then give them your bags or get in the car or on the motorcycle, and only talk to the driver but not a tout.
If you book any kind of tour, it's quite likely that apart from the intended destination there are a number of rest stops that just so happen to be at souvenir shops or artisan factories. You can quite safely ignore the shops, you are better off finding your own markets. But make sure that any return tour you have booked leaves enough time at your intended destination! Otherwise you might find that an eight-hour tour leaves only an hour or two to sightsee or swim, and the rest of the time you are a captive audience for the touts.
But it's quite normal, and not a scam, if a "two-day, one-night tour" means an afternoon, sleeping, and a couple of hours in the morning, not two full days. Ask for a detailed itinerary when booking, in writing, so you won't be disappointed.
Anyone who tells you about gems is a scammer. They usually tell you about their uncle's gem shop, and how you can buy gems at his shop, or some "fair", cheaply and sell them for twice the price back home. This is obvious nonsense. Unless you are an expert, you won't be able to tell valuable from worthless stones. If there were really that much money to be made from selling gems in Europe they'd do it on their own; there is no place on the planet where DHL, UPS, et al. cannot move merchandise. Carpets are pretty much the same thing. (That said, I once did buy carpets in Kashmir in northern India, but I researched carpets before I went there and could judge the quality, and I sought out the vendor myself and didn't follow a tout.)
It's not usually the vendors themselves who try to get you to enter the shops. Touts do that. Touts are loud and tenacious people who start talking to you on the street - always a warning sign, never follow one of these people regardless of how helpful they seem! They would take you to a shop and receive a commission, which is effectively added to the bill. They will lie shamelessly to get you hooked. Once we were told by a tout at the corner of the Imperial Palace in Bangkok that the palace is closed today, while the tourists were streaming past us. He was pointing to a closed door, so sorry, but he could take us to a gem fair...
There are also scams involving buses that take much longer than promised, and take you only to overpriced restaurants and hotels that are designed to massively overcharge, at maximally inconvenient times. The best defense against this is to disbelieve anyone addressing you and offering a deal, knowing the normal price and travel time, and never believing deals that are too good to be true. At the bottom end you get what you pay for - at most.
While you are quite unlikely to become a victim of theft if you are
reasonably careful, you are pretty much guaranteed to be pestered by
touts in any place that sees a lot of tourists.
But how can you go shopping without fighting your way through a procession of touts? Your defense is a complete lack of cooperation. The conversation should go something like this:
Hello sir come buy something! No thanks. Very cheap! No thanks. Where you from? No thanks. Which country? No thanks.
At that point the conversation dies for lack of constructive information exchange. Be nice, smile, wear a slightly daft expression on your face, but do not say anything other than "no thanks". If you slip and tell them that you are from Germany, they'll inevitably have a brother in Frankfurt (they know that name because it's a major airport), and you'll have a hard time holding them down. Unless, of course, you have a mean streak and lead them on. My favorite answer for the "where you from" question was Andorra, a very small country in the Pyrénées, until I met a guy in India who actually knew it. Now it's Olympus Mons. That's the largest known volcano, and it leaves them guessing which city their brother ought to be from. I helpfully add "you know, on the Tharsis plateau" but these guys just don't know any geography on Mars.
You'll notice that after a few days in the country, you'll be targeted less and less by touts. It must be some sixth sense on their part that tells them that you know them for what they are, and have built defenses that makes success unlikely. A last-ditch defense is to stay close to obviously less experienced tourists, on the theory that you don't need to outrun the lion, you only need to outrun the other people...
When looking for souvenirs, first find out which market you are most likely to get them. Near major monuments you will likely get the most hassle and the worst deals because so many people buy blindly for any price. You'll have to balance this - move away too far from the tourists and there won't be any souvenirs. Don't be afraid to explore the souq, or bazaar, or market to find the little stalls in the back where they don't specialize in cheating tourists who are afraid to mingle. I sometimes walk in, dismiss the owner who will inevitably rise like a vulture and trying to block your escape route, with a brief but firm "just looking", and walk out if he doesn't get the hint.
So what if you found something? There is no price tag. There never is, that's a Western invention. So you hide your interest, pick something else and ask for its price. Look disappointed, haggle a little, look at the exit. Pick up something else, casually ask, haggle a little more, look disappointed again. Finally ask about your real choice, ask "and this one" as if you were about to leave because nothing in this pile of junk could possibly be worthy of any more of your attention. If it's still too much, repeat at another shop; you can always return later. The vendor will know exactly what you are doing but he won't try to overcharge you as much.
But always remember the relation. Don't haggle with some poor street vendor to save a few cents. You will pay more than a local but that's ok, you can afford it. I don't want to be cheated over worthless junk that costs more than it would at home, but I also recognize that it's often a hard living for them and I can spare a little extra money as long as the deal is fair. You'll have to shop around for some time to establish what is fair and what isn't. Some museums officially charge higher admission fees to foreigners, sometimes substantially higher, but I understand why they do that and won't feel cheated. If I can get in for five euro, and I think it's worth it, I won't feel bad if a local pays only fifty cents.
Then there is the issue of tips. I am always unsure about that. The
guide book usually offers hints: who expects a tip, and the percentage.
Sometimes tips are unusual and will cause embarassment, and sometimes
people will loudly demand one. Some ten percent at restaurants is a
good starting point. Ten percent for metered taxi drives are common,
but if we had agreed on a fare that's what I pay, without adding a tip,
unless some exceptional service like waiting was involved. Double the tip
in the USA. I hate it when hotel bellboys perform unnecessary services
for tips, you can never tell what's expected in a foreign country, so I
carry my own bag. If a driver will loudly demand a tip on top of the
agreed price, and I have no indication that this is common practice, I
refuse. They know when to back off. Always be firm, never be intimidated,
and never get angry.
The weeks of your vacation will probably be treasured memories later. You'll want nice pictures. I don't understand people who snap pictures with their cell phones because that's all they thought to bring. On the other hand, unless you are a professional photographer, I don't recommend a huge SLR with a tripod and a bag full of lenses either because it takes the spontaneity out of your pictures. You'll want to rapidly pull a camera from your pocket and take a picture within seconds. It should be a good camera but a compact necessarily means compromises regarding the quality. But you only want memories, good enough to frame and hang on your wall, but not to sell.
Unfortunately I am not currently (May 2008) aware of a camera that fits the bill. You'll want
Unfortunately the last requirement is a killer. It seems that all current compacts have dropped manual modes, and raw mode too which would allow fixing bad camera processing at home. Your best bet seems the Canon G9 at the moment, although it is heavy and lacks a wide-angle lens. I used a Panasonic TZ5 on my last trip, but was disappointed - its lens is fantastic (made by Leica) but it totally fails criteria 5 and 7, and the pictures often look washed out. A friend uses a Leica M8, which is perfect in all respects but size (although it's tiny compared to other SLRs). Maybe I should be traveling with a pro camera like that and a compact in the future. In any case, get used to your camera before you leave to get a feel for what works and what doesn't, including resolutions, compression, color modes, exposure compensation, blur, and so on. Play with all the controls and compare the results.
Bring at least three batteries and enough flash cards so you'll never have to worry about conserving space. 16 GB SD cards have become quite affordable, but small cards have the advantage that if your camera gets stolen, you won't lose all your pictures. I now use a 16 GB card, but I save all my pictures on an Archos mp3/video player, which has a photo sync function for SD cards (using an adapter) and many cameras directly. This once saved me when I had a camera stolen, I only lost the pictures taken in the morning. Also, I have several times met travelers who have lost pictures due to mistakes, and I have had SD and CF cards go bad on me and lose pictures all by themselves. And a few movies on the player help passing long bus rides! You can also buy "image tanks" designed for this purpose but the ones I have checked out are bulky and expensive; and they can't double as a music and video player.
I have developed some rules for the things I'll take pictures of. There are the postcard pictures of course; you can't very well visit Paris and not bring a picture of the Eiffel tower home. But these are usually not going to be your favorites. Think of your camera as a diary: take pictures of things that play a role in your trip, such as hotel rooms or vehicles, or people you meet. At home I often watch pictures with a PS3 connected to an HD beamer, and I find myself zooming in on details all the time. So I now take a lot more pictures of details, and a lot fewer panorama pictures. A photo with people in it is always more alive than one with just trees and buildings, but sometimes people object to having their picture taken, or make faces when they notice your camera. (Superzooms come in handy here.) I occasionally also take 360 degree panoramas that I later stitch to Quicktime VR domes at home, and my Panasonic TZ5 has a very good HD movie function.
Image composition is important.
In museums and near military installations cameras are often not allowed; you can try cheating by carrying two cameras but the guards usually know the tricks. I once had a Moroccan soldier demand that I delete pictures of a palace gate. The extra camera trick works in the Giza pyramids though. If you are paranoid, like me, you'll be carrying an extra camera anyway in case the main one breaks or gets stolen.
The secret of taking perfect pictures is taking a thousand pictures and then choosing the best three. I often take several pictures, sometimes as many as 50, of tricky subjects in the hope that one will turn out exceptional. Digital pictures are basically free.
With a digital camera, you may find yourself shooting pictures like crazy, faster than you can recharge your batteries. If you carry three as I recommend, one can always be charging in your hotel room. You could run into a problem here though: some hotel rooms have a slot next to the door for holding your room key, and your room has power only as long as the key is in the slot. When you leave, the power goes off after a few minutes. If you just leave for breakfast, you can detach the key from the ring and leave the keyfob in the slot, but that won't work if you leave for longer periods of time and need to leave the key at the reception. In this case, you'll often find that the minibar, the TV set, or the alarm clock power outlets do not turn off along with the rest.
I not only take pictures, I also write a travel diary. I use a PDA with a physical keyboard, but many people use small paper notebooks. I turn them into web sites later, but the main purpose is creating a memory of your trip. Write down all the details that you noticed and all the things that happened to you. The diary will help you later, back home, to relive events that could be the experience of a lifetime.
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