#36 Learn to Hitchhike

[Note: I wrote this post two years ago during my time as an au pair in Germany, but what I feel about hitchhiking still stands today. More than just reliving the good ol’ days of thumbing my way around town, I would like to share again the beauty of this seemingly-outmoded way of travelling for those who are heading to Europe or the Americas, or wherever it’s legal and safe to do. Unfortunately where I’m living right now, it is an illegal (and unfashionable) way of getting around – a damn shame really. I hope this post helps my fellow wanderbugs out there. I have also made some updates — the price of a Happy Weekend Ticket or Schönes-Wochenende Ticket has increased from €37 to €44 now.]

There are mostly two reactions when people talk about hitchhiking. It’s either a lifestyle, or an absolute no-no. More than two weeks ago, I would rather walk or pay for an exorbitant ride than embark on such a supposedly dangerous activity. I mean, we often see on TV and in movies where the guy picking the hitchhiker up is some sort of serial killer who would undoubtedly kidnap the hapless traveller and slice him into pieces, not before torturing him à la the movie Saw.

I have never considered hitchhiking as a viable transport solution. First, I was worried that the driver might turn out to be someone on the wrong side of the tracks. Also, I did not believe that I was brave enough to stop a stranger’s car and ask for a free ride. I know tons of people probably do this everyday, especially seasoned but cash-poor travellers, but when you have already passed the coming-of-age period marked by wilful rebellion and a serious lack of inhibition, you become ‘old and boring’, that is, always fearful and suspicious of the people around you.

I wasn’t about to think of myself as ‘old and boring’! I want to think young, think wild, think freely. Or basically, stop overthinking and start doing. Embrace the situation. Have faith in people.

Finally, it took me a desperate situation to take the plunge. Continue reading

#34 Rome, Hacked

First, see the Sistine Chapel.
Visit Colosseum.
Eat more than one gelato.

Rome, as a travel destination, is haplessly done to death. Yes, it’s gorgeous, spellbinding, romantic. It is. You have to go to Rome, at least twice. You will come home gushing about your Roman adventures. But before that happens, you want answers to your burning questions, to make that first time so smooth you’d head back for seconds.

So, here I will tell you what I know, based on my experience.

The Roma Pass – do I need it?

Simple answer, no. Unless you are the sort to visit at least five museums in a 72-hour period (meaning crazy) on top of seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, you don’t need the Roma Pass. Granted, this pass covers public transportation (buses and trains), you are not likely to take enough rides to justify the cost. Seeing that a one-way ticket sets you back €1.50 and allows only one metro segment within a 100-minute period, you’re better off grabbing a map and walking before you finish figuring out how to connect.

Also, it doesn’t cover to the trip to the airport – so yeah, the Roma Pass is real useless, if you ask me. AND if you are an architecture student, a student in general or a senior citizen, please check for extra discounts not related to the Roma Pass.

Can I walk around Rome? How walkable is the city?

We walked from the Vatican City to Termini after a whole day of traipsing around the Old City. It takes 45 minutes, good shoes and an uncomplaining companion. So, the answer is yes. That said, on a bloody hot summer day, it will also cost you a few gelatos.

I don’t want to walk. Give me a public transport solution that’s simple to remember.

Continue reading

#16 A Concise Guide For The London Airport Transfer on Your Budget

*This blog post is in no way an endorsement for any of the companies mentioned here.

Spring days are perfect for itinerary planning. It is one of those things that a traveller enjoys, or at least is learning to, because it is an inherent part of designing an itinerary that is tailor-made for your own travel style, budget and personality. I’ve put together a quick reference for the budget traveller who’s always on a time crunch!

I am going to London really soon, for the third time no less. It’s a wonderful city to fly out of when you want to make a quick weekend jaunt to continental Europe, or even to North Africa or parts of the Middle East with low-cost airlines like easyjet and Ryanair offering affordable prices (especially if you book in advance or travel off-season). In less than 3 hours, you could be in Warsaw, Fez or Lisbon. What’s not to love about that?

Another thing that makes London such a great European travel hub, though not centrally located, is that the city offers many airports to fly out of, meaning if you are willing to travel to the more far-flung and less busy airports, you might find that a low-cost airline will take you to your destination at a fraction of the cost of a regular commercial airline such as British Airways. Yet the multitude of choices often make me more frazzled because my obsessive travel-planning self will compel me to plan my route from my hostel to the airport to perfection, including finding the most economical way to get to my lovely holiday to Madeira, and at the timing of utmost convenience to me. This adds up to a lot of juggling of tiny bits of information when all you want to do is add up the cost of your flight with the cost of your airport transfer to see if it is worth your time, effort and money.

So how do you find the cheapest airport transfer on your budget?

The aptly-named express trains for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted do get you to the respective airports in a heartbeat, but the fares would also make your budget-conscious heart skip a beat. Spare an extra hour or more and opt for the other much cheaper options available. Usually, the cheaper it is, the longer it takes for you to get there, but not always. It’s always smart to check in advance when the coaches are scheduled to leave, and aim to get there earlier, especially the National Express ones, because there are some potentially long frequency intervals (up to 1 hour or more) at off-peak periods.

Continue reading

#14 Crossing from Siem Reap into Bangkok

You have survived the muggy heat and the crush of tourists at the UNESCO-listed world heritage site Angkor Wat, and can’t wait to get back on the banana pancake trail…and what better place than to seek refuge in the City of Sin, where cheap pad thai stalls line the streets, smartly dressed office workers stride alongside downtrodden backpackers weighed down by their packs, where the good kids are seen praying sans shoes at the temples and the bad ones living’ it up in Patpong.

It’s time to dust off your passport and head on a long journey again… I know you are tempted to do it the cheapest way possible but we were so annoyed by the nonsensical struggles of doing it the “cheap way” (and in the end it didn’t seem to be worth all that effort, really, unless you are planning to stretch that cash a loooooong way) that we just gave in and got a direct coach from Siem Reap to Bangkok for US$10. DON’T DO THIS! In fact, many lessons were learnt, but that’s just how it goes when you are striking out on your own.

1. Hunt around the vicinity for similar buses heading to Bangkok.
Don’t purchase from the first one you see, unless they charge less than US$8. I found out that a fellow traveller on the same bus only paid US$6.50 for the same crappy ride.

2. Don’t trust the tour agency when they promise a tuk-tuk will pick you up from your guesthouse.
No partying the night before unless you want to miss that bus. Get up early, if it’s the 8am bus (trust me you want to leave at this time to reach Bangkok just around sunset), at least 45 minutes early, make sure you get to the bus 10-15 minutes before departure time. Our promised tuk-tuk didn’t arrive; we hired one ourselves and the driver hunted for our bus for 40 minutes. We only managed finally to catch it at a random place much later, after our driver borrowed a cellphone (his cell ran out of credits) from a friend, contacted his “people” and hunted it down. We were the last people to board. Needless to say, this time, we were LUCKY.

3. The ride is going to be shit. Yes, even though you paid good money for it.
They made us wait not once but thrice, for no apparent good reason given to us. Most of the travellers on the bus were Western travellers/tourists with a few East Asians, all going to different places like Ko Samui, Bangkok etc. So their ingenious idea was, at the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border, to split everyone from the original bus up into different mini vans heading to different directions. We crossed the immigration, walked nearly 1km in the blazing afternoon heat across to the Thai side, and waited in the hot sun, and waited. Continue reading

#12 Eight Lessons On Rail Travel – Beijing, China

Travel Dates: 2 – 7 May 2009

Not many people enjoy reading a descriptive travel piece without any extra value towards their base of knowledge, so I shall give some travel ideas and dish out some advice about going to Beijing  instead. What’s of utmost concern to you, the free and easy traveler? Getting to your destination of choice, before anything else!

Lesson #1: Travel guide books may have some doubtful content, but they are mostly right! Believe what Lonely Planet says, at least the travel advice!

We sit, we stand, we whine and we grumble…in the hard seat carriage

My journey to Beijing is an exhausting, close to hellish, train ride, but nevertheless rather ‘adventurous’ and thus made it pretty unforgettable indeed. It did occur to me to book tickets in advance, but since we decided to take the train from Shenzhen (China) instead of Hung Hom (Hong Kong), we needed to buy them in Shenzhen. And we didn’t want to make the extra trip across the border, so we just simply hoped there were tickets to Beijing while we arrived in Shenzhen. Bad move, because there weren’t ANY seats left, let alone sleepers! Booking train tickets in China can be a bitch, so unless you go to a travel agent, you can’t get return tickets, because tickets are only sold at the point of departure. The only good thing is that we paid RMB260 for a one-way ticket, and that’s half the price of a hard-sleeper and near 1/10 of a plane ticket. Money saved in exchange for some physical hardship. Aah, come on, this is what travelling is ALL about! :)

Lesson #2: Always buy tickets in advance to avoid surprises and potentially uncomfortable situations, and especially if you can’t bear to stand throughout a 24-hour train ride.

We were determined to get our asses to Beijing the next day, so in the spirit of adrenaline-charged adventure, we bought a “no seat” ticket, which is essentially just a standing space confined to a particular carriage on the train. This proved to be a challenge, especially the culture shock at first. When Lonely Planet mentioned that hard seaters could be quite unbearable and not for the uninitiated, they were absolutely right. In a narrow aisle space of less than 50cm along the carriage stood at least 25-30 people who all purchased “no seat” tickets.

Lesson #3: Know your threshold before you embark on an adventurous journey.

After 1-2 hours of standing, and with the prospect of standing for another 23 hours at the back of our minds, we decided to sit in the aisle, while people continued to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisle, going to the extremely unsanitary bathroom, or just near the doors for a smoke. It was warm and stuffy, people were eating and YELLING at each other (no fear, this is how Chinese people conduct a cordial conversation). The smoke from both ends of the carriage wafted in and filled the space, since there was civic mindedness in people to close the carriage doors. On top of this olfactory annoyance, there would be annoying standing passengers who would plonk their butt down onto a seat they didn’t pay for, and ask a paid seated passenger to scoot aside to make space, and they usually do because they want to avoid making a scene. Essentially this means that you won’t be spared from having your private space invaded even if you DID manage to secure a hard seat for yourself. For the pampered tourist, this would be the part where you will flung your prissy ass across the tracks and contemplate suicide because you won’t be able to stand this nonsense.

Lesson #4: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

Very soon, adversity forced us to learn the Chinese way. Whenever someone stood up to use the bathroom, we would take their seats until they return to give us the evil eye, of which we would promptly ignore and dismiss. Close to nighttime, after 10 hours of sitting/crouching/standing like an illegal immigrant smuggling into another country, we decided to conquer some space, and sat at someone’s seat and just refused to get up, managing to get 2 hours’ of nap while the rightful passengers stood and watched us (rather patiently, in fact). At this point, I realized that these people must be regulars in these situations and they are quite nice indeed to not have demanded for their seats back, knowing that standing passengers have much rougher time on the ride than they do.

Lesson #5: Be flexible and willing to part with a little money for some precious slumber.

We didn’t learn the Chinese way quick enough though. By 2am, we felt the exhaustion settling in and we were desperate to look for a place to sleep. Looked for the train conductor in hopes of upgrading to a sleeper. No luck… Decided to go to sleep in the restaurant car instead. Passengers need to be paying customers in order to stay there, so we paid RMB35 each for the standard snack set they had on the menu to earn the right to stay until 6am. I later learnt that we could actually spend that RMB35 and stay in the restaurant car from 10pm to 6am, but it was good enough for us to have a bit of personal space for 4 hours. Even though the seats were too short length-wise and a little hard in spite of the padding, I promptly fell asleep, curled up like a fetus, only awoken by a crick in the neck…

Lesson #6: The beautiful moments on a journey are transient and unpredictable, when they appear, just sit back and enjoy.

Sunrise, sunrise…

The sun began peeking out from beneath the flurry clouds at a little before 6am. The scenery of the countryside was dream-like and whimsically beautiful. A thick blanket of fog shrouded the rolling plains of farmland somewhere 8 hours south of Beijing, around one-third of the journey left (near Jinan perhaps?). The sunrise was spectacular, since we were facing seawards towards the east. The weather was balmy and crisp, very promising for a great day out in the city…though it was really too early to tell since we were still far from reaching our destination. We were recharged even though we barely slept, but the little shuteye and the prospect of actually surviving this “worth a story-telling session” train ride perked us up and gave us the strength we needed to endure till the end. Continue reading