Asia - Planning and Preparing for Your Trip

Frozen Tianchi

Planning and Preparing for your trip to

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We can only talk about our own experiences pertaining only to the countries we've visited. So here's a breakdown of the Visa Requirements of the countries we've visited.

Thailand: We didn't need to go through some kind of Visa ordeal for this country as a US Citizen. It was pretty straight forward to visit the country once you've taken care of all the flight logistics and ensure your passport is valid 6 months after departing the country.

Cambodia: When you arrive at the Siem Reap airport (that's the only region in the country we visited), you actually have to sit in a long line to pay on site for your Visa. I recalled it was cash only (in American currency) but I don't remember how much. We also had to bring a passport-sized photo of ourselves along with our Passport, of course. Once that's done, you have to pick up your passport and processed Visa in another queue, then sit in yet a third queue to get through the Passport Control. It was pretty lengthy and inconvenient sitting through all these lines at the airport (also seemed inefficient in our minds). But shouldn't be a showstopper. For more info about Cambodian Visa Requirements, click here.

China: This one required quite a bit of pre-trip processing to even enable a visit. I recalled we had to send in our passports (that meant we couldn't travel for as long as we didn't have them in our possession) along with some form we had to fill out. Along with the passport, we also had to send in at least one passport-sized photo of each of us. Plus, we had to remit payment (and for sure this wasn't cheap). I remembered our Visa form required us to enter our names in Chinese, which is funny because what if you don't have a Chinese name or didn't know how to write it out? In any case, I'm not sure whether this had anything to do with helping or hindering our Visa application process, but I thought it was kinda quirky.

We actually paid a little bit more money to both expedite and help handle our Visa logistics through some Visa company (South Coast Visa) in Orange County. For more information about Chinese Visa Requirements, click here.

Japan: We didn't need to go through any Visa process to enter this country. Just have your flights booked, ensure you have enough money (especially a means of getting cash or having it on you), and that your passport remains valid 6 months after your departure from the country.

India: This also required a bit of an involved and somewhat expensive process to enable a visit. First, we had to apply electronically where you have to fill out an electronic application. When completed, you'll also have to send in your passport with at least a few blank pages (i.e. you won't be going anywhere until you get your passport back) for processing. This whole process costed us $115 per application (ouch), which included consulate, shipping, and outsourcing fees. We were without our passports for less than two weeks, but I can easily envision this lead time is different depending on where you live and other variables regarding the way the processing occurs. The Visa lasts for 6 months.

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None of the Asian countries we visited had vaccination requirements. However, the southernmost regions of China as well as rural regions of Cambodia and Thailand does have a malaria risk. And even though Malarone was taken on our Thailand portion of the trip, realize that the first discoveries of malaria bacterium resistant to the most effective drugs to date have already occurred in Cambodia.

So try to take as many precautions as possible to minimize the likelihood of getting mosquito bites (like DEET, using those mosquito nets at night, burning mosquito coils, and wearing long sleeves).

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We'll have to speak in generalities here because we're talking about lots of countries and lots of terrain as well as climate zones. The things listed immediately below are the more general things that could apply just about anywhere else you go. We'll point out specifics for Asia afterwards.

So in order to ensure a relatively safe and hassle-free trip, here are a few things you might want to consider packing for your trip in addition to your basic toiletries and clothes.

  • Passport - everyone needs this so this is a no-brainer.
  • Comfortable Shoes - much of the country's activities revolve around participating in the great outdoors. This means you'll be doing lots of walking and hiking in some rugged mountainous terrain ranging from muddy moors to cliff-hugging granite trails to alpine forests to grasslands. At the very minimum, comfortable walking shoes are a must, but hiking boots are probably better (for ankle support among other things). Now even as I say this, we have noted that much of Asia's tourist attractions have paved surfaces enabling even some women to tour in high heels, which we don't recommend, but it's not an uncommon sight.
  • Hat - don't take for granted the dangers of UV radiation. A hat will at least keep your scalp from getting severely burned. If you're wearing a broad-rimmed hiking hat, it could also help protect your neck, ears, and face.
  • Sunscreen - again, given the sun's harmful UV rays, it's a good idea to protect other exposed parts of your skin from sunburn.
  • Sunglasses - prevents cataracts or other harmful effects of prolonged exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays on your eyes
  • Bug Repellant - this can be controversial because the chemicals contained in these things can be harmful to the environment. However, mosquitoes can be quite annoying especially in the more tropical regions. In any case, the most effective repellants contain DEET, but they're smelly and toxic if used excessively. The better way to go environmentally, though not necessarily a comfortable one, is to cover your skin with long sleeves and pants.
  • Layered Clothing - this means wearing multiple layers of jackets, sweats, or shirts and taking them off/on depending on the conditions. This is very important to be able to adapt to the variable weather and climate in the mountainous regions. In places like Doi Inthanon in Thailand, Tibetan Plateau and/or the Northeast of China, and the Japan Alps and Hokkaido in Japan, it can easily go from freezing cold to sweaty hot and back in a day. This will at least protect you from exposure to hypothermia (even from your own sweat).
  • Rain Coat - this will keep you and your equipment dry for the most part (with a rain poncho covering the pack in addition to the body). Given how rainy it can be no matter where you go, this will at least keep you sane under such conditions (not to mention limit your exposure to hypothermia).
  • First-Aid Kit - this often-overlooked necessity allows you to disinfect and close wounds or tape up a sprained ankle. You never know when Murphy's Law strikes and having this kit will at least put you in a situation to deal with the consequences rather than letting circumstances degenerate into something more life-threatening than it has to be.

Rain coat was handy in this circumstanceSome other things worth bringing to enhance your experience include...

  • Hiking Sticks/Trekking Poles - this is useful for longer and more involved tramping excursions (especially multi-day or very long day hikes). They provide you 1 or 2 extra "legs" to maintain your balance on stream crossings or alleviate shock to your knees if you're carrying a pack
  • Lots of Memory or Film or Portable Hard Drive - the first and third items are for digital photographers. In any case, you'll be taking heaps of photos and you'll want to make sure you can bring all your photos home

We're adding this third list because we've found some additional things that might help you get by (especially if you don't speak the local language or read/write the local text.

  • Phrase Book - this really helped us more than a few times in Japan. In China, we had some knowledge of the language so we didn't need it as much, but if you don't have it, then I'd imagine you'd want one of these too. Some people have the more expensive electronic dictionaries, which can help you on the spot (as we've seen some guides in China use extensively). We didn't have one of those but I'm sure they could've easily helped us more than the phrase books if we chose to fork out for them..
  • Airborne - you may find many parts of Asia (especially in China) have pretty unsanitary conditions or even unsanitary behavior by locals. I had gotten sick twice in China due to this. So one way to fight off infections is through this product which seems to boost Vitamic C levels as well as other vitamins in the body conducive to preventing your body from being overcome by illness.

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There are varying levels of safety depending on the country you're in, the environment you're in, and how conscientious and prepared you are. We'll first go through some common sense stuff and then try to point out some particulars for each country.

Soldiers at Forbidden CityFirst, the general stuff. There are many places throughout Asia where poverty is rampant, which tends to lead to crime as well as aggressive hawking and/or scams. Generally, the greater the gap between rich and poor, the greater your chances of seeing aggressive hawkers and/or scam artists as well as pickpockets. Sometimes, even corruption can lead to kidnappings and/or even murder.

Generally, we try not draw unnecessary attention to how much money we have. A money pouch is good for this purpose as are TSA locks if you have to leave stuff in your accommodation while out during the day. While safety deposit boxes are encouraged to be used in some more upscale hotels, we've witnessed too many people forgetting their stuff in there (especially passports) so we generally don't use them.

Finally, nature is inherently dangerous and unforgiving. Now while you probably won't find yourself too often out in the bush under wilderness conditions, here's a list of things you need to be aware of to stay safe in the outdoors...

  • Getting lost - always stay on the tracks and heed the signs or trail markers (cairns or spray-painted rocks). Even though there's lots of development on many of the tracks in places like Thailand and China, in Japan, there are still some places where it's truly back to nature.
  • Hypothermia - given the amount of high elevation and high lattitude adventures, the danger is very real. Always pay attention to the weather reports before undertaking any tramp that exposes you to the elements. Bring a rain coat to avoid getting wet and losing heat that way.
  • Dropoffs - given the rugged mountainous terrain, you're likely to come across dropoff hazards on a trail, road, or even a viewpoint, where a fall can easily be fatal. The best advice here is to stay away from the edges to the best of your ability to limit the chances of falling off or having the cliff go unstable on you. For sure don't bother climbing barricades or railings.
  • Road Fatigue - you're probably not likely to drive anywhere in Asia except maybe Japan. Still, I've noticed slow speed limits making drives seem much longer (especially in Hokkaido). To prevent falling asleep behind the wheel or losing your focus, try to switch drivers periodically or break up the drive (rather than tackle it all at once).

Now with the general stuff addressed, let's go into some of the country specifics:

Thailand: We were on an escorted tour for most of the trip though we were on our own in cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The roads tend to be quite busy and vehicles don't yield to pedestrian traffic. Even tuk tuks and motorized scooters as well as bicyclists tend to swerve around pedestrians rather than slow down for them.

As for pickpockets, they're there. Especially in the bustling night markets where people are up close to each other.

Cambodia: In the limited time we were here, there are some things you should definitely watch out for. Pickpockets and hawkers at all the major attractions are common thanks to the amount of poverty and government corruption here.

If you choose to stray from the established paths (not wise in our minds), be aware that there may still be some unexploded land mines in the jungles thanks to the Khmer Rouge conflicts and genocides of the past.

China: Of all the places we've been to, we have lots to say about here. So let's get right to it.

First, the hygiene is a big issue. Indiscriminant spitting (even inside trains, hotels, etc. is a big germ spreader. Lots of people also cough without covering their mouths. You even see some people excreting waste publicly. Plus, you can't avoid cigarette smoke no matter where you go (believe us, we tried). I hated being sick twice during the 5 weeks we were in China so definitely wash your hands frequently and try to discpline yourself not to touch an orifice (eyes, mouth, nose, etc.) prior to washing your hands.

Second, due to the high population combined with environmental degradation, you have lots of people living in poverty or are in desperate situations. This results in very aggressive hawkers (almost Egypt-like) as well as the odd pickpocketers or even hotel thieves. When you're in crowded areas (almost commonplace in China), it helps not to carry too much with you.

Third, it pays to be aggressive in public areas. For some reason, much of China doesn't believe in queues. There's always someone cutting you off, cutting in front of you, pushing and elbowing their way through you, etc. And if you don't follow suit, you're probably going to end up going backwards as everyone else cares not about your courtesy. I believe this has to do with Chinese population density as you have to be aggressive to survive in many places.

Fourth, road rules dictate that pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order. In other words, cars yield to trucks and buses, scooters yield to cars, trucks, and buses, bikes yield to scooters, cars, trucks, and buses, and pedestrians yield to all of the above. Failure to heed this, and you could end up being roadkill (and I'm not kidding about that). Motorists tend to overspeed and drive wrecklessly. Some even avoid walking at all costs so you might find scooters and cars on walkways in Nature Reserves or National Parks. Consider yourself warned!

If you're crossing the street, it's a good strategy to try to stand next to locals doing the same. Chances are, they can read the traffic better than you can, and you might even use them as shields or screens from oncoming traffic.

Finally, language is another biggie in terms of survivability. Many places have Chinese only menus with no pictures. I don't know what more to say than just go to restaurants with pictures and/or English on them. Many of the local joints require a bit of culinary adventure anyways (even for us).

Japan: We got a taste of what it's like to go to a foreign country and be pretty much illiterate not knowing the language in this country. Good thing most Japanese people are courteous and genuinely nice (sometimes going above and beyond to help you out). We tended to find information kiosks whenever we first arrived at a particular train station or bus terminal. Generally, buses are the scariest to take since most of them don't even have English anywhere inside. Hope you can recognize some of the kanji characters and compare them to your maps or books.

One of the biggest nuissances of Japan is that it's mostly cash based. Don't expect your credit card to work in all but the most tourist friendly hotels and restaurants. Otherwise, get ready to exchange for lots of yen and spend them quickly especially with how expensive some public transport (no matter how convenient) can be.

We haven't had much issue with crime. But in the crowded subways and trains, we can easily envision pickpocketing (I'm guessing it's not nearly as common here as elsewhere in Asia) as well as groping. The groping issue can be particularly a nuissance especially if you're a female. So much so that we saw women-only trains during rush hour.

India: At first, we thought there was lots to say about China. Then, we went to India and boy do we have lots to say regarding nuissances and dangers.

First, let's start with poverty. India exhibits the strains of overpopulation and this is exacerbated by corruption, lack of education in a significant portion of the population, and political instability in some regions.

So for sure you're going to run into beggars (some of them children carrying other children), touts who won't take no for an answer, and maybe even some locals bitter at tourists directing uncomforting actions against you like threatening to throw something at your tour vehicle, make racist comments or slurs (though maybe this is specific to us since we were the only ones who looked Chinese in many of the rural regions we were at), and strangers standing around you staring and not respecting your space (you're never sure if they're curious, have bad intentions, or are hoping you initiate a friendly conversation).

While the poverty is confronting and you may feel guilty about the financial situation of some of your tour workers as well as the people around you, keep in mind that you alone can't solve everyone's problems and giving handouts is just asking to get flooded by aggressive requests from others who have taken note. In other words, ignore them (as selfish as this might seem) or risk getting mobbed.

As for lack of education, realize that there's a tremendously wide gap between the rich and poor in India and most of the population is on the poor side. Thus, you can bet many of them are also uneducated. And with this lack of education, you're bound to see behavior you're not used to seeing at home like littering, pooping on the beach (this is memorable for me because I actually stepped in it), pushing/shoving if you happen to be in someone's way, etc. Granted these are really more of an annoyance than anything and you just have to deal with it.

However, one huge consequence of the gap between rich and poor is political instability. There are a handful of separatist groups (many from poverty-stricken tribal areas) looking to see that their demands are met through violence (as apparently the diplomatic solutions haven't gone anywhere or corruption has exacerbated their plights). This was the first time we had to make last minute changes to our itinerary because of insurgencies. Some of the more well-known groups are Maoists and Naxalites, which impacted our ability to travel to the states of Chattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand. There was even a bombing near Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam just two weeks after we traveled there by other separatist groups. And we're not even talking about spillover instability from neighboring Pakistan or the well-publicized instability in Kashmir. Also, the 26-11 attacks in Mumbai by Pakistani insurgents are reminders that anything is possible.

While the last point is scary, we think it's a shame to miss out on this country altogether. We're being truthful about the overall situation as we saw it, but keep in mind that our three weeks in the country were largely incident free aside from the annoyance of rearranging our schedules, delays, and harrassment.

I think if you try to stay respectful (even if it's only you making the overtures), more often than not, you'll be greeted in kind (as long as you know they're not touts). Sometimes a simple "Namaskaar" greeting with a smile goes a long way to a feel good conversation and one that expands your horizons (isn't this what traveling is all about?).

OK, for other things to keep in mind...

Traffic. It's chaotic. Dangerous. Quite similar to China, which you can read about how we dealt with it above. Except I'd argue India's got another level of chaos and danger on its roads. Just stay alert and do as the locals do if you have to cross any streets. Never assume anyone will stop for you! Even scooters can be particularly aggressive.

As for language, most Indians know some English. Sure some of it may not be clear or understandable, but it's certainly better than some of the exchanges we had with locals in Japan who knew no English.

Air quality. You'll be surprised at how bad the pollution is in the cities like Delhi and Mumbai. But we were also surprised that even places we thought were more like jungles and more tropical boonies were actually full blown cities (and also polluted) like Shillong, where we had black snot thanks to the soot in the diesel exhausts from both our vehicle and the lorries that belch them too. It's something you'll have to deal with and just try in some way shape or form to minimize your exposure to it.

Finally, like with other developing countries, you really have to watch out for food poisoning. Clean fresh water is becoming more scarce in India, and it's usually the water that carry the bacteria that wreak havoc on your digestive and immune systems. We basically defended ourselves by sticking with bottled water (as environmentally unfriendly this is), brushing our teeth with boiled water or complimentary bottled water, never eating raw vegetables, and even passing on some of the chutneys and juices. Julie suffered through a spell of fever on a couple of occasions during our trip so we know full well how this can ruin a trip.

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The Thai Baht is the currency of Thailand. During our visit in December 2008, it was exchanging at around 34 baht to 1 USD. This resulted in a reasonbly inexpensive visit (outside of tour, logistics, and hotel costs). We primarily paid in cash wherever we went. Though most of our tour was escorted.

The Cambodian Real is the currency of Cambodia. But we must warn you that if you're visiting the Siem Reap area, don't bother exchanging money into reals. It seems they don't want their own currency from foreigners as you'll get double whammied with the exchange rate hit (the airport rate sucks), and then at the cashiers who tend to estimate downwards even further. Just pay with American Dollars (and/or maybe Euros?) and you'll do fine. Trust us on this one. We made the mistake of exchanging to Cambodian Reals.

The Chinese yuan or Renminbi (RMB) is the currency of China. While historically it had been trading at 8 RMB to 1 USD, when we were there, it was down to 6.75 RMB to 1 USD. Watch out for counterfeit bills (my dad once thought he was getting a good deal on a hat when he got change in counterfeit bills and the deal wasn't so good after all). Even though the dollar has weakened against the RMB, many of the foods, merchandise, etc. remained very reasonably priced and even downright cheap in quite a few cases.

The Japanese yen is the currency of Japan. Since Japan is a cash-based society, you will find yourself using special ATMs (usually at post offices) or banks to exchange hard US currency to yen. Most places don't accept foreign credit cards or even any kind of card period. And considering Japan isn't the cheapest place in Asia, you may find yourself plowing through your cash very quickly. As for exchange rates, we got 91 yen to 1 USD even though it had historically been hovering around 100 yen to 1 USD, and the LP book even had it at 125 yen to 1 USD.

The Indian rupee is the currency of India. During our November 2009 trip, we got to exchange Rs 46 to 1 USD. But towards the end of our trip, the dollar fell to Rs 43 to 1 USD. We exchanged money at the airport in Delhi and never exchanged any more. You'll find that generally your cash will mostly be spent on tipping. And given that many workers you'll encounter are underpaid, they really depend on the tips and even expect/demand it.

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This Lijiang scene is said to be on the back of the 20 yuan noteThis is not an easy question to answer especially since it depends on the country and your own tastes. So let's look at our take for each country.

Thailand: We were on an escorted tour of the country for 2.5 weeks. This covered Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Phuket, Ayutthaya, Khao Yai, Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon, Umphang Wildlife Reserve, Sukhothai, and the Khong Lan area. Sure there's much more that we didn't get to see so certainly a longer stay could've allowed us to see parts of northeast Thailand, the tropical southernmost regions of Thailand as well as more waterfalls in the places we have been to already.

Cambodia: We were on an escorted tour of only the Siem Reap area for 3 nights. It was enough to see places like Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Prom, and the floating village. It wasn't enough to see any waterfalls in the country. So take it for what it's worth. You could easily spend more time here visiting Phnom Phen and other less touristed regions assuming you don't run into land mines or government corruption.

China: We toured the country for 5 weeks on a mostly escorted tour with roughly 1 week of it on our own. It was enough time to see Hong Kong, Guilin, Sichuan, many major waterfalls, the Northeast, Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai. We didn't see Tibet, Yellow Mountain, Fujian, Taiwan (whether or not you believe it's a separate country or not), etc. It's a country as big as the US in landmass so certainly you could spend a lifetime seeing all there is to see here (and it still might not be enough time). But even with that said, how long you stay in one go may be tested what with the crowds, lack of common courtesy, lack of hygiene, and pollution.

Japan: We toured the country on our own for 3 weeks. It was enough time to see Tokyo, Nikko, Akiu Onsen (but not Sendai), Fuji, Matsumoto, a very small helping of Japan Alps (Tateyama and Norikura-kogen), Kyoto, Nara, Himeiji, Kobe, Kii-Katsuura, and a fair bit of Hokkaido. Public transportation is very efficient though it can still slow you down if you're going out of the way where infrastructure isn't as developed. So places like Shikoku, Kyushu, far north Honshu, and far west Honshu were bypassed in this time.

India: We toured the country for just under 3 weeks on an entirely escorted tour. Given the traffic, lack of infrastructure in some places, and the unreliability of some of their public transportation schedules, getting around the country is slower than you think. So we barely saw a small fraction of the country (let alone waterfalls) in our time and we'd need to have another 3 weeks to cover the parts we had to nix based on separatist insurgencies as well as time/budget constraints. Our trip involved North India from Delhi to Agra to Ranthambore National Park, then a couple days in Meghalaya in the northeast, then Mumbai, Goa, waterfalling in Karnataka, Kerala, and a brief night in Tamil Nadu. We still missed a large chunk of East India as well as the Himalayan India, and would love to have a shot at going to those parts if we have the chance. That just shows you how much time you really need to see a large sampling of the country.

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