A Baby Boomer’s survival guide to travel. Part One – SE ASIA

I love to visit new places. Actually, I love to settle in new places. For me travel is not about ticking off sights or adrenalin filled experiences, for me it is about getting to know the people, their lives. It is about discovering how alike we all are, despite our different cultures. It is about making new friends.

There are many travel guides that will tell you where to go, what to see, where to eat – this is not one of them but it will hopefully help you endure the worst part of travel, the travelling.

What to bring and, yes, I only travel when it’s hot.

A passport’s handy and, not being a lover of paperwork of any kind, pretty much the only document I take. It is all you need at any airport check in as long as the system is working and there hasn’t been a power cut, in which case chances are the flight will be going nowhere. Everything else is relegated to technology. The insurance documents, booking confirmations, medical conditions etc, all logged into at least two pieces of technology. I have learnt from experience that you ignore ‘back up’ at your peril. Oh and a universal travel adaptor which will give you access to all of the above.

Travel light. I mean light. No more than 20kgs at the outside for 6 months. All you really need are your ‘keep me alive’ drugs, a few clothes, your preferred technology, books or a kindle, underwear (not easy to find good bras and knickers everywhere), possibly make up (not that you’ll be using much but there might be the odd evening when you feel like making an effort), Sun glasses (not so much to keep the sun, but rather the dust, out of your eyes), reading glasses, and a back up pair – we are old remember and therefore blind. Losing, or breaking your glasses is like losing or breaking a limb. Not easy to carry a spare leg around with you, but a spare pair of glasses – no problem. And wet wipes – a suitcase full of wet wipes. Everything else can be bought and your expensive designer clothes will be a travel accessory albatross you will regret; they will never be worn.

Forget fashion. Swap your tart’s trotters for flip-flops and, (if you really must trek to that ‘amazing’ waterfall – which will have no water – it is the dry season, or climb up the – gave up counting at 300 – steps, to the top of a pile of old stones known as Angkor Wat so you can look down on a pop festival’s worth of tourists and tour buses), trainers. They will stink after a week but you might not break an ankle. Only ‘might not’ mind you, there are plenty of limb breaking hurdles ahead.

White anything has no place outside of the Med or the Middle East. It will be burnt brown or grey (depending on the colour of the soil), with dust in a day, and you will cry. Start off with greys, browns, reds, sludgy greens and blues. They will all look the same after a month and it will halve your laundry bill.

Loose clothes are good, (naked is better but somewhat frowned upon). Thin T-shirt material best mops up the rivers of sweat between the dashes to the shower, and those less than flattering baggy cotton trousers they sell in every market are popular because?…They are cool, and not in a ‘wow man that’s cool’ kind of way. They also go a long way to keeping the militant armies of mosquitos at bay. Jeans, unless you actually decide to live here and therefore eventually acclimatise and find 27 degree chilly, are a ‘no no’ but, if you insist on bringing them, I suggest you add several tubes of anti fungal cream to your ‘staying alive’ drug cabinet.

Now might be a good time to mention laundry. It’s cheap, easily accessible (you’ll find one on most street corners) and often returned the same day. How often should you wash your clothes? Forget ‘does it look clean?’ Work on the ‘what does it smell like?’ principal. If you think you can get away with the T-shirt for one more day, you can get away with it for two.

So my top tips for your case – note I say case – not backpack. There are few sights more ridiculous than that of a pensioner carrying double his/her weight on their back and trying to look cool, in any kind of way. Ageing baby boomers desperate to recapture a youth long gone; remember in the 60’s we  thought Blue Nun was cool.
HELLO?! There weren’t wheels on suitcases back then! If there had been don’t you think half the kingdom of hippy would have used them. I think Jane Asher and Pattie Boyd would have happily embraced them on the Maharani tour, oh no, I forgot, they had staff.
Coming through Samui airport on my last visit, I counted the back packs, precisely 2. Even the most die hard, tattooed, full moon partygoers, were dragging their wheels behind them.

I digress. For your suitcase you will need:
4-6 bras (optional for men)
7 pairs of knickers (one clean pair to be kept in your hand luggage at all times. Your case will get lost in transit at some point and you will thank me for this. I am forever grateful to a good friend for this tip.)
2 or 3 pairs of shorts.
1 bikini/swimsuit/pair of swimming trunks. Note: speedos do not look good on anyone, least of all pot bellied old men. Replacement swimwear can be bought everywhere so a starter pack will suffice. If you are size 16 or over, you may need more.
6 spaghetti strap tops or vest tops for men.
2 thin dresses or skirts/ 2 pairs of thin trousers for men.
A combination of 3 or 4 long sleeved thin over tops/shirts/T-shirts/thin cardigans.
NO sarongs. They have them by the thousands.
2 pairs of flip-flops (one of which you will be wearing).
Your ‘keep me alive’ drugs.
Your technology which could include: a laptop, an iPad, a phone, a kindle and relevant chargers. A universal adaptor and credit and debit cards, yes cards…you will lose at least one of them. KEEP ALL THESE WITH YOU IN YOUR HAND LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.
A short visa run ago I foolishly packed the chargers in my case, which was duly lost in transit. Great. I had my laptop, my iPad, my phone and my kindle and within 2 days they were about as useful as a cake mix with no oven.
A couple of books (for those with no kindle).
Sunglasses and reading glasses plus a back up pair.
Possibly hair dye (we are old and therefore almost certainly grey) if you have a preferred product, and ditto make up. Optional for men of course.
WET WIPES. I cannot stress how important wet wipes are. In the larger cities you will be able to stock up in the shopping malls. On an island the shopping mall IS the 7/11 and wet wipes are pretty low on their priority list. Alcohol and red bull being deemed far more important.
DON”T bother with jewellery. It’s something else to worry about and beach jewellery looks far better.

That’s it. Toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, skin care, perfume (there is only one perfume that is relevant ‘Eau de mosquito repellent’), suncreams (coconut oil is the best), after sun, cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate, in fact all the travel essentials can be bought in the 7/11 and are generally far cheaper than back home.

Trains and Boats and Planes (and buses, and motorbikes and tuk tuks) and …Airports – the darker side of travelling.

My absolute pet travelling HATE is the fact that airports, globally, do not offer free wifi unless you are travelling business class or higher. That is just spiteful and perpetuates a rather tasteless myth that as a high spending traveller you are so much more valuable as a human being. On the rare occasions I stay in 5* airport hotels, which by the way often charge for their wifi, I afford myself a slight smug smile knowing that the offspring down the road in their back packer hostel are getting it for free.

I also detest the whole airport experience, http://kim.hemmingway.info/2012/03/air-travel-like-age-has-little-to-commend-it/ however, a quick trip around some of the SE Asia airports I have endured to date:

Koh Samui
Small but perfectly formed, nestled in a bouquet of bougainvillaea and currently my Number 1 airport in the world. Sad that the island doesn’t come up to the same high standard and generally resembles a municipal rubbish dump. Taxis and mini bus transfers are all available once through immigration and there are ATM machines at the top of the walkway.

The departure area has limited, but charming boutique shopping and a small duty free shop, once through immigration, where alcohol, perfume and tobacco can be purchased. Not an airport for those craving retail therapy on an heroic scale but rather one where you can chill, open your book or your lap top and de stress. The waiting areas are built Thai style with roofs but no walls. Although there is a VIP room with air-con, few use it, preferring the warmth and the last rays of holiday sun. Seating is comfortable and more than adequate and, if you are travelling with Bangkok Airways, all food, snacks and wifi are provided free of charge. There is a small smoking area in the garden, so no build up of stale smoke.
Top tip: On arrival If you have several hours to kill before your ferry crossing to one of the islands, stay airport side for a couple of them, the ferry ports are anything but charming.

Siem Reap
Arrivals can be a nightmare. Best advice is buy an e-visa on line before you set off. Queuing for a visa at the airport (you will need $20 US and a passport photo, or $25 if you have no photo) can take several hours if more than one flight has arrived at the same time. Once through immigration there are plenty of taxis/tuktuks/motor bike taxis all touting for your business. Don’t assume the hotel taxi you booked will arrive, it possibly won’t.
Top tip: Go to the taxi stand on the left outside the main entrance and book through them. Cost should be about $7-$8 US.

Departure check in area is pretty utilitarian but runs smoothly unless there is a backlog of flights, if there is, be prepared for a long wait.
The Departure lounge is a taste of the west. A bite sized delightful taste. Plenty of seating, good eateries, enough shopping to satisfy most retail therapy cravings, massage facilities, a well stocked, if limited, duty free shop and a large well ventilated smoking room that more resembles a cafe (without the food or drink) than the usual leper colony.
All the boutique airlines have their own lounges and in these your wifi will be free.

Top of my list of ‘never to be visited again, unless absolutely necessary’ airports.
Arrivals isn’t too bad, it’s just another airport with the usual luggage delays, but departures…words fail me…
Badly signed, chaotic queues and, once through immigration, it resembles a poor man’s shopping centre, not even a mall (Think Elephant and Castle circa 1970). One or two traditional Thai shops and a raft of fast food chains. The smoking room reminded me of a second class British Rail carriage in the 1960s – actually probably worse, the black hole of Calcutta had better ventilation.
Not enough seating for one flight, let alone the hundreds that take off in a day.
Again, if you are travelling with a boutique airline or business class and above, you will be able to avail yourself of the free wifi. If not, forget it or make sure you have pockets deep enough to get you into a VIP lounge.
Departure gates are often overcrowded with two or three flights waiting to depart from the same gate at the same time. If you are lucky enough to find a square foot of floor space, park your bum, that’s as good as it gets. Top tip: Fly through somewhere else if you can. Phuket, the island, has little charm unless you are a sex tourist, a fitness fanatic intent on causing yourself injury, determined to drink the island dry while indulging in Karaoke, or cocooned in a five star resort.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK)
Famous for it’s sci-fi pods, BKK is a truly international airport it has everything with knobs on. If you like retail therapy, you will be in seventh heaven, if you don’t it’s a bit of a challenge.
Arriving more than 3 hours before your departure will mean you will have to stay off airport side, which is more than a challenge. Overcrowded, not enough seating, clogged and artery clogging fast food outlets and limited internet, mostly in the fast food outlets. You can however buy access to a VIP lounge for about $8 an hour and I would thoroughlyrecommend it.
Once through immigration, it is one giant shopping mall. There are several smoking rooms, all larger, but all as equally poorly ventilated as Phuket. Plenty of seating but pretty rank.
Again, if travelling with a boutique airline or not in cattle class, you will have access to free wifi. If not there are some stations where, if you show your boarding pass and after a long walk to find the station, you can access free wifi for 30 minutes. As airports go it’s bearable but hardly sublime. Top tip. Shop if you must then find a quiet spot and curl up with your book/kindle.

Bangkok Don Mueang
Is Bangkok’s second airport. It handles the traffic for budget airlines both domestic and international. Much smaller than BKK, with limited retail outlets and less bling but well organised and easy to get in and out of. Personally I prefer it. Top Tip. BKK is an hour away but there is a free airport shuttle. Make sure you get your flight times right if you have to connect. Warning: traffic through Don Mueang is growing, it could lose it’s charm in a couple of years.

With its tropical fish tanks, roof top swimming pool and butterfly house, Singapore is often rated as SE Asia’s top airport. I would beg to differ. Another giant, orchid draped, shopping mall designed to make you feel that you are an absolute failure, having neither the money nor the inclination to throw yourself into an aspirational shopping fest.

I did look to buy a new Longchamp bag, mine being some 10 years old and showing its age. Longchamp bags are large and waterproof , handy for those boat trips. They are the perfect travel bag and my only concession (apart from Apple Macs) to designer anything, in fact the only bag I possess is a Longchamp. I discovered that it was far cheaper to buy one on line than in the Singapore airport shop.

The last time I came through Singapore I had a 3 hour stop over in the early hours and, not being a worthwhile human being, was travelling on a budget airline so had no access to any of the free wifi lounges. I did, however manage to charge all my technology. The plugs are 3 pin square, like the UK, and unlike most of SE Asia where they are 2 pin round or flat.
Lying on the floor, (seating is limited and usually occupied by canny backpackers sprawled over three chairs, who, if not asleep, are feigning it – they have no intention of giving up an inch of their hard won space) hoping to cat nap while everything charged, I noticed that I was sharing my floor space with a colony of copulating cockroaches whose offspring were intent on eating every spare morsel the carpet (think of kitchen flooring circa 1960 ) had to offer. Beneath the thin veneer of bling clad Singapore sophistication, the grim reality of third world grime is never far away.

The smoking room is a larger version of those in Bangkok with possibly more seats but no more enjoyable.
Top tip: If you have to transit through Singapore make it during the working day. Little is open in the very early hours and there is only so much coffee, even Starbucks, you can drink.

Kuala Lumpur KLIA and KLCC
An international hub airport with a satellite. Having only been through the international KLIA twice, I can’t offer great advice. It is another large shopping mall, albeit prettier than some, with interior and exterior tropical gardens softening the harder lines of its architecture. KLCC the budget terminal is 16 kilometres away, $20 by taxi, so get your timings right. A bit like Don Mueang, Bangkok’s satellite, it feels friendlier than KLIA and if on the return leg you end up at the wrong airport and your connections times are tight (trust me it CAN happen), the taxi drivers at KLCC will happily break every traffic rule and speed limit to get you back to KLIA on time. Bribery won’t even be necessary, they delight in your terrifying experience.

The smoking room in KLIA is pretty much the same Bangkok and Singapore but with no seats, making it almost not worth the effort.
There is a lovely restaurant – I forget the name – where you can get a proper glass of French wine and poached salmon with spinach, worth every overpriced penny.

That’s about it on airports. Planes take off and mostly land. Some have jet engines, others spiders on the front. Sometimes it gets bumpy, sometimes it gets very bumpy. Some airlines offer food, others let you buy food on the plane. Not being fan of airline food, I generally travel with nuts and dried fruit on short haul flights.

Top Tip: Wherever funds allow use Bangkok airways for short hops. Twice the price of many of the budget airlines but you will thank me. After a few months of any other type of transport, discovering the Bangkok Airways lounge with its complimentary food and drink (non alcoholic) and it’s fast free wifi is like reconnecting with civilisation.

Buses and Trains.
This is aimed at the old remember. Young people happily suffer the discomfort of budget travel. Young people are also prepared to go for days without a shower. Young people still believe that buses and trains are all part of life’s rich travel tapestry. To quote Leonard Gershe from his play ‘Butterflies are Free’ “ Diahorrea is part of life but do we have to look at it?” Or in the case of buses and trains in SE Asia, suffer it.

Some golden oldies think it’s fun to take a bus. I’m still trying to work out why. It’s not, it’s barely sufferable for the young; nothing short of traumatic for the rest of us. Rather like Glastonbury (unless you are flown in by helicopter to the VIP enclosure), bus journeys in SE Asia are something that should be relegated into room 101 at round about the age of 35, 40 is definitely the upper limit.
Oh sure you will have many a tale to tell at dinner parties when you get home of how you ‘really lived’ the life. “Do you remember when that bus was coming towards us and we thought we were all going to die?” Yada yada, yada… yes, we’ve all done that, everyone does that and it wasn’t that much fun at the time was it? If you really want to ‘live the life’ cross London on a double decker bus, you will see just as much of the human condition and a London bus will be far more comfortable.
Bus journeys are long, bumpy, uncomfortable and, although sometimes the scenery can be spectacular, unless you are a sufferer of FOMO syndrome (a new expression a young person taught me, ‘Fear of Missing Out’), not worth the discomfort. I am not even convinced that by the time you have spent the extra money on overnight accommodation and food to relieve the boredom, they actually work out that much cheaper. If you insist on travelling by bus, go buy Lonely Planet and do the research yourself.

Trains are not a lot better though I suppose, if you do suffer from FOMO syndrome, (I don’t), a bit like the Full Moon party, you have to do an overnight train once.

To my absolute despair, I have done it twice, the train that is, not the Full Moon Party. The latter being a bit like jumping out of aeroplanes, mass murder and bungy jumping, all experiences I can well do without.
My first train journey was an overnight in India. 10 years later (rather like childbirth, the pain dulls with time) I foolishly agreed to repeat the experience with a young person on a tight budget who was travelling with me. This time from Surathani to Bangkok on our budget trip to Chiang Mai.
A two and a half hour ferry to Surathani, an hour’s bus drive in a bus with no suspension over pot holed roads to the train station in a particularly unspectacular part of town, three hours waiting for the train. Train delayed for another hour. Nine hours in our overnight, admittedly, not uncomfortable, sleeping compartments, being woken at every stop by new travellers joining the train and opening the curtains to make sure it wasn’t their compartment….Can I rest my case now? The memory is causing a fresh outbreak of hives.

It’s your choice dear Baby Boomer, but I would rather forgo new shoes for a year, dining out in the UK for two years, my monthly manicure and pedicure forever, than give up Bangkok Airways.

I love boats. I love being on the water so it’s hard to find bad things to say about the ferries that take you to the islands of your dreams. Yes the ferry ports are horrid. overcrowded, hot, dusty and with endless queues at the ticket office. Even if you buy a ticket at the airport, you will have to queue to change it for 3 more. One to stick on your chest like an unaccompanied minor, so they know which ferry company you are travelling with, (odd as there is generally only the one), one for your case so it MIGHT be taken off at the right disembarkation port, and one to hand over as you board as proof you have paid.
The walk from the ticket office to the boat is never less than 100 yards and generally longer (see you love me for your case on wheels now, no sherpas here.).
The ferry companies have never heard of health and safety. The boat is old, creaking and in danger of sinking even before half the people are on board. It will lurch out of port and the young people (if they are headed to the hedonism of a full moon party, or the island they are going to’s equivalent) will be drunk before they embark and will be on a mission to be catatonic by the time they reach their destination.
Pray for a calm sea. I will leave you to imagine the picture of an overcrowded ferry, alcohol fuelled passengers and a rough sea…not pretty. On a calm day with no party date close, it is like entering paradise.

Top tips:
a) Check your ferry times. They cruelly rarely match up with international flight times and you could well end up having to stay overnight at your port of entry.
b) Don’t queue to get on the ferry. Wait in the shade until the disembarking passengers and their luggage are off the boat, then saunter with well travelled, weary confidence to the front of the queue (limping a little helps) and ignore any dark looks. You’re old, you don’t know the rules and no one in SE Asia queues unless they are a Farang (foreigner).

Tuk Tuks, motorbikes and motor bike taxis.
Travelling by tuk tuk, is best accomplished blindfolded and with earplugs. Driving on whichever side of the road is designated as the right side of the road to drive on in SE Asia, is merely ‘a suggestion’ and rarely adhered to.

Tuk tuks are expensive in Bangkok where taxis are far better value (always insist on the metre). On most of the Thai islands open air taxis ( a bit like mini buses with no side panels) are the norm. In Cambodia and Vietnam Tuk Tuks are virtually the only form of city travel (apart from death by motorbike taxi).
In Singapore and Malaysia I have only ever used taxis.

Motorbikes and motorbike taxis
Whether hiring them or riding on the back of one, I have nothing to say apart from ‘go look at the stats’. There are so many motorbike accidents daily in SE Asia that they don’t even make the local papers, let alone the nationals, unless (and not even always) a death occurs. You may be a safe driver with decades of two wheeled experience under your money belt but trust me the rest of them out there on the roads are insane (and often drunk). The bus drivers are insane, the taxi drivers are insane, the roads are insanity. There are no rules. As many as seven people can be seen on one motorbike with all their worldly possessions. It’s your call but I would rather jump out of an aeroplane than get on a motorbike in SE Asia, and you know how I feel about jumping out of aeroplanes.

You can hire motorbikes in Thailand but not legally in Cambodia or Vietnam. You can of course hire them but it will probably invalidate your insurance.
On the subject of Insurance, don’t travel without it and don’t take short cuts. Yes you do need that repatriation add on.
A young friend had a motorbike accident on Phuket. She had no insurance. Her injuries were horrific. She had to be flown back to the UK. Her friends and family had to raise the necessary funds. That’s all I have to say on that.

Walking and trekking
For me only the former applies, I see no delights in scrambling up well trodden mountain paths in sweaty hiking boots, missing what might be beautiful scenery as you battle with a battalion of mosquitos and live in abject terror that a snake might cross your path. Good luck if this is your bag. For me walking is getting about town and that isn’t as easy as you might think.
In most SE Asian cities crossing roads on foot alone is a fantasy.
Top Tip: Water sellers, little old ladies weighed down by a bamboo pole on their shoulders, with half a vegetable market in the baskets at each end, or currently ‘resting’ tuk tuk drivers (who find the whole spectacle funnier than a Japanese game show), are the best travel companions when attempting this.

Do’s and Dont’s
SE Asia is largely, but not exclusivley, Bhuddist (there are many Muslim enclaves).
Topless sun bathing is, by and large, tolerated but you won’t gain much respect by going bare breasted or bare arsed in this modest part of the world.
Bartering is a tricky one. For centuries a way of life, now over exploited (alas often by the young). Margins generally are tight (thanks in part to the internet) so think before you erode them further. Your 50p win could mean less on the table for a family meal. Is it really worth it?
The thumbs up sign was once considered a huge mark of disrespect. The Vietnam war and the tourist invasion has largely dispelled that, but putting your hands together and lowering your head, or even the V for victory sign pressed against your forehead, is still far more respectful.
Do tip. You can afford it and for the migrant workers in Thailand from Laos and Myanmar (often illegal with no papers or recourse to schooling and health care) this can be a life line. Wages are extremely low (as little as £6 a day in most resorts).
Do get ripped off, at least for the first week. You are a tourist, you should get ripped off, it goes with the tourist territory.
Don’t come here if you think you can live a high end western lifestyle for peanuts. Your fantasy will implode.
Try not to be loud and argumentative. Confrontation is against the nature of most SE Asians and you will only embarrass them and be far less likely to secure your goal.
Try and learn a few words of their native tongue, even just a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will go a long way.
Show respect. This is their land not yours, don’t be so arrogant as to think you have the right to impose your ways on them.

As more occurs to me, or if you have questions on any other topic, I will happily update. Please note all prices quoted are circa 2014. Costs will have gone up.

The traveller who hates travelling

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