Review: Bamba Experience bus in South-East Asia

Like most young travellers I’ve met on the road, I organised my trip with STA, back home in London. I booked all my flights through them along with a flexipass – which means I can change my flights if I want to – and also bought a few more services through them.

One of them was Bamba Experience’s “hop-on hop-off” bus tour of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam called Spicy Ways. I have, at best, mixed feelings about my experience about it so I thought I’d share to warn potential travellers…

 

Hop-on hop-off, except not

To me, hop-on hop-off means you’ve got a bus ticket that you can show up to a bus stop with, get on, get off, and again until it runs out. Since that’s the label with which STA sold me the package, that’s the way I understood it. Big red shining sign here: it’s not.

You’ll have to email Bamba anytime you want to make a bus journey, at least 24 hours in advance, and request to be booked on. Bamba and/or STA will have given you an itinerary brief before your departure that includes most bus departures. Don’t take that for gospel, as there are sometimes more or less. Be wary of the arrival times they give you, too; I booked a sleeper bus that I was told would arrive around 5 or 6am, and found myself alone in Phnom Penh at 2am, with every hostel closed.

In addition, there were a couple cases where I showed up to get on a bus and the bus company had no notice of my booking. Make sure you always have with you both the booking confirmation sent by Bamba, and the phone number for the local travel agent so they can be called to sort out the situation if need be.

My main problem with the whole system is that it lacked the spontaneity I was expecting the system to provide, and that I was relying on a daily basis on people I could only contact via the internet, which isn’t always easily accessible while on the road.

I was lucky that I never had a problem with a bus being full at the time I wanted it, I think it helped that I was travelling in the off-season. That’s one thing worth taking into account, too.

 

Activities

Aside from travel, the other thing included in this pass is a number of activities, ranging from bike tours to monument visits and mini-trips. Like the bus bookings, these need to be booked by email at least 24 hours in advance.

I enjoyed all the activities I did as part of the pass, and would’ve happily booked them myself if they hadn’t been pre-booked. But that’s the thing: I wish I’d just gone and booked them myself. This one’s my mistake – it was the first part of my trip and I wanted some reassurance, when really the best and easiest way to travel South-East Asia is just to wing it. I ended up on a lot of those activities by myself or with large tour groups, rather than with the pals I’d make in hostels. There were a few activities that I ended up not doing, or doing via a different company so I could join friends. Overall, I think this pass is better suited to groups of friends with limited time, rather than flexible solo travellers.

On the plus side, there were definitely some activities in there that I wouldn’t have done, or dared doing, if they hadn’t been pre-booked (cycling in Bangkok traffic on my third day? Hell no.) In that way, the pass has its upsides.

 

As for the money…

I’ll be honest, I didn’t keep precise track of the prices of the activities so I can’t exactly tally up what I paid against what it all would’ve costed had I paid as I went. However, South-East Asia is dead cheap, so I have no doubt it would’ve been cheaper to do without the pass. Besides, I would’ve selected lesser-class buses which would’ve no doubt reduced the price, too.

 

I think it’s rather obvious, but overall I would not recommend travelling South-East Asia with one of Bamba Experience’s bus passes unless you’ve got a strict schedule on a backpacker budget. I found it uncomfortable and hindering most of the time, which is at odds ends with what I wanted my trip to be. It won’t make the memories of this trip any less fantastic, but it was definitely the most unpleasant part of the trip, only second to losing my wallet on day one

If you’ve travelled with Bamba Experience too, I’d love to hear your thoughts and how it went for you – I hope this post and its comment section can help future travellers.

Travel budget: what you’ll forget to plan for

The internet is filled with travel blogs, and most of them cover the subject of budgeting in some form or another, so that’s not what I’m going to get into. But I read those and still ended up with quite a few extra bits to pay that I wish I’d considered from the start. It doesn’t mean I’d done things radically differently, but it’d have saved me from a few late-night spreadsheet panic sessions.

Not all of those are applicable to everyone, but they might come in handy still…

Storing your stuff

You’ll be leaving with only a backpack, so the rest of your stuff will have to go somewhere. As I was packing I donated a lot and threw out even more, but I’m not known for my minimalism so I still ended up with a mountain of things to store while I’d be away. I decided to avoid taking out a storage unit because they’re exceptionally expensive, especially within London.

Instead, I made good use of the boundless generosity of some of my friends, and ended up storing a few boxes with two Londoners. You’ll still have to pay for a cab or a rental van to get those boxes there (unless you’re lucky to have a pal with a car!)

I also decided to send a few boxes home to my parents. I’m obviously in a particular situation since my parents live in a country different from me – most parents can drive down and pick up boxes. If you do end up wanting to ship boxes domestically or internationally, I can recommend Parcel2Go. I used it to ship a box via UPS and one via DPD. They cost me under £20 each, and arrived within three days. Take that, Royal Mail.

Passport and visas

Do you need to renew your passport before you leave for your trip? Kerching! Here goes £100 or so. Top that with whichever visas you need ahead of your trip, and don’t forget to also factor in the price of the visas on arrival you’ll be getting as you go along (they usually cost around $30-40).

At this point, I’d like to refer you to this always valid tweet:

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I have done a separate post all about visas. Yay.

Banking fees

Can this blog get any sexier? I mean, banking fees, guys. But seriously, though: travel banking will cost you money. First, because you’ll want to get a credit card if you don’t have one already, which may cost you a fee. You might also want to get one of those cash cards that allow you to pay and withdraw cash without being linked directly to a bank account – there will also be an opening fee. Finally, and most importantly… Card fees! I will be doing a post all about banking to look into this some more, but even with the best planning possible, you can’t dodge the fees altogether, and can expect to pay for both conversion and just ‘cos your bank wants you to.

Water

In Asia, you’ll be spending a lot of time walking in very hot countries where it’s often best to buy bottled water. While this doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, it’s worth adding £1-£2 to your daily budget for water.

Goodbyes

If you’re going long term, get ready for some seriously expensive weeks as you prepare to set off. If you’re like me, you’ll want to make the most of your friends and home city, organise a leaving do or two, and possibly calm your packing nerves with a drink or a takeaway. You may be better at saying no than I was, but still – goodbyes don’t come cheap. (And, I’d argue, they shouldn’t.)

These were the ones that cost me the most and that skipped my mind a little – did you have any other surprises if you went travelling? If so, let me know, as I’ve still got many months to go…

 

Picture source

What to do when you lose your wallet on day one

What’s the worst that could happen to a traveller? Very worst, losing their passport, I’d say.

Second worst: losing their wallet. Which is exactly how I started my trip.

I had just got through customs at Suvarnabhumi Airport (dead quick, and without any questions for my French-passport holder self) when I looked into my bag to get my wallet… and came back empty handed. Knowing that I’d used it at Doha airport during my connection, I supposed it would be either in the plane or back in the airport.

It wasn’t on the plane.

Which meant it was in Doha – a roughly seven-hour flight from my location.

I breathed deep, somehow managed to not break into tears, and proceeded not to panic. What I’d lost with my wallet was three of my bank cards, including the credit card I’d planned to rely on almost exclusively (more on my banking strategy in a later article), along with half of my Thai Bhats and some of my US dollars. I also lost my British learner’s driver license, but that one would’ve expired by the time I come back, and a couple student cards I was hoping to use for discounts.

What I did not lose, however, was the second half of my Thai Bhats and my fourth debit card. And boy am I glad I decided to completely over prep and bring four cards.

I’ve been using that one to get cash out (in large amounts, as Thai ATMs charge a 200BHT fee per withdrawal from a foreign bank, on top of my bank’s 1.45%) until I figure out a way to get things sorted out.

What to do when you lose your wallet abroad

Check. If you have any idea where you lost it, check if it’s been found. I contacted Hamad Airport in Doha, who said they had a matching item. They set it on to Bangkok airport where I was able to go and pick it up*. I wish I’d done this first, as it would’ve saved me the nightmare that goes with…

Cancel your cards. Being in Thailand, and originally unsure where and where my wallet had taken off, I decided to play it safe and immediately cancelled two of my lost cards (the third being a cash card that had no money loaded on and wasn’t connected to any accounts; basically a worthless piece of plastic). I have a Halifax card which I easily cancelled on my online banking, and an HSBC card that I had to cancel on the phone.

Buy a local SIM card with cheap international minutes or get onto Skype. In the heat of the moment, I called HSBC from my UK phone to cancel my card. I now have a £60 phone bill. This is my blog, so I’m allowed: fuck this shit.

Find a way to get hold of money. Like I said, I luckily had an extra card that I can use to keep going. If that’s not your case, you can use Western Union to get money transferred from home to pretty much anywhere in the world, in cash. Make sure you store that cash safely.

Sort out replacement cards. Here comes the real headache. If you cancel a card in the UK, a replacement card should automatically be ordered and sent to your account address. What you want to do, ideally, is change that address to get the card sent instead to one of the bank’s branches near you. Unfortunately for me, neither HSBC (seriously – should I point out to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation that China is next door to Thailand) nor Halifax have any in Bangkok, nor were they willing to send the cards to Thailand. Instead, I’m having to rely on the best friend in the world to pick up the cards and courier them to me. I’m not sure how long that will take, so I’ll update this post when my moneys have crossed the world.

Don’t let it get you down. It was a really shit way to begin my trip and I did have a brief second of feeling like this was all the worst. Then I decided to focus on the positive, bought some street food and went to see some temples. And all was well.

Moral of the story, that I cannot stress enough: never store all your money in the one spot. Do not ever, ever do that. If it wasn’t for that bit of common sense, I’d probably still be walking around the airport looking distressed (and starving to death) right now.

 

* Would you believe it: EVERYTHING was still in there. Even the single-dollar bills. Thank you for your honesty, good people of Qatar. And thank you, thank you, thank you to Qatar Airways for being the heroes of customer service and being really patient when my eyes started leaking.

Applying for visas in the UK: a guide for non-UK nationals

First, let me get one thing out of the way: visas are the bane of my existence.

I spent years and years living a blissful life, empty from embassies and consulates, enjoying a life free from 50x50mm photographs and ticketed appointments. And then, I decided to travel. Oh, boy.

By far, visa applications and the general navigating of international administrations have been the most tiring part of planning this trip — a lot of it due, I think, to the fact I applied for visas in a country that I’m not a national of. To make things more complicated, it’s a little hard to find information about such cases online (especially for non-USA passport holders), which is why I thought I’d do a post on my experience.

New Zealand

First, I wanted to get my working holiday visa for New Zealand out of the way. This wasn’t actually difficult — the website is really well made and allows you to pick whichever holiday scheme is the correct one for your country. The earliest you can apply for it is a year before you plan on entering New Zealand. Then the process is pretty quick, it took about two weeks for mine to be granted, and as it’s an e-visa, it can all be done from the comfort of your home.

It’s worth planning for the extra documents that customs might ask you when you actually get to the country, but that’s something I’ll update you on in the future…

Vietnam

I then decided to apply for a Vietnamese visa: it’s not normally necessary for tourists to get one for a short stay (it can be obtained at the border), but as it’s the last country on my bus tour around south-east Asia, I thought I might end up spending a little longer than two weeks there, and could use a visa.

The experience for this one was relatively painless: I simply filled in the online form then followed the instructions on the Embassy’s website. In this case, not being a UK national wasn’t particularly complicated. The only thing to be aware of is that the Vietnamese Embassy in London only accepts cash, and you must email them to obtain the fee information so you know how much to bring. It took only three working days to get my visa, and only cost me £52: easy enough.

China, part one

The third on my list was the one that worried me the most: China. As it turns out, I was right to be worried. I don’t know how I got it so wrong, but I missed the piece of information explaining that a 30-day Chinese visa’s validity (three months) starts from the day you apply for it, rather than starting on the date you enter the country. This means that the earliest you can apply for a Chinese visa is three months before you will be exiting China — for me, that places my application window not in London or Paris like I’d hoped, but in Thailand… To be continued.

India

Finally, the last one on my list before I left was India.

But, you’ll say, there are really good and easy e-visas for India online!

Yes, but they are valid for 30 days. And I’m going for 34 days. (sigh)

This one was particularly tricky, as to apply for an India visa in London, non-UK nationals must prove they have permanent leave to remain and have been living in the UK for over two years. You can use utility bills or tenancy agreements; I couldn’t for reasons a little bit complicated to go into. Instead I had to apply as a non-UK resident, and add on an application letter explaining why I was applying for this visa five months early. A lot of jumping through hoops, but it worked out and I ultimately got my visa in just three days. (A note, here: the Indian visa centre on Goswell Road does have a photobooth if, like me, you can’t figure out where to get 50×50 photos — it’ll cost you £10 though.) On the plus side, it all cost only £32 and I got a six-month multiple entry visa.

Most of the other countries I am visiting offer visas on arrival, and I plan on applying for my Australian e-visa closer to the date. Overall, it maybe wasn’t too painful of an experience, but as a European, it certainly put me out of my free-movement travel comfort zone. If you’re planning a big trip with a rather set itinerary, I’d recommend creating a master spreadsheet to keep track of visas you need, their prices and deadlines to apply. It’s definitely been my best friend throughout planning this trip.

 

Top image by dcgreer

So you want to go travelling?

When I started telling people about my travel plans, many asked where this whole travelling idea came from. I thought that’d be a good place to start the story.

Curiosity

My answer could really start and end here. I’ve always been curious – about other people, other places; habits, flavours, sounds, stories that are different from mine; about people and their lives and what they think about and how they feel. I want to see different trees, sunsets and trains. I want to see what a civilisation that wasn’t built by the Romans under the banner of Christianity looks like. I want to eat lots of new things, taste flavours I don’t even know exist, spend my savings for that mortgage I won’t ever be able to afford anyway on a couple of top meals whose cuisine is miles away from what I know. Mostly — mostly I want to learn to make bread however the locals make it (no jokes). I can go on for ages (especially about bread). There is so much that’s different out there and I want to see as much of it as I can.

Finding stories

I’m a journalist by trade. Words are my currency and stories are how I make a living. And I found/find it hard writing stories when I have so little material to use as inspiration. My literary vocabulary is already limited when it comes to words because I choose to write in a language that’s not my mother tongue, but I feel like my sentient vocabulary is even more restricted. I want to be able to use examples that reach outside of my the bubble of my experience, to tell stories of people that you and I haven’t met, to have more experiences to bring into my writing.

Taking a break

Going through years at school and university (or even later, by that matter), did you ever feel like it was all going a bit fast and you didn’t really know why you were doing what you were doing and whether you really wanted to be going in that direction? I need some time out to go figure out what path I want to take and what I want my priorities to be.

The challenge

I like pushing my limits. Challenges give me motivation, and I get a kick out of completing them. I know it’s a fine line to walk between a healthy challenge and a painful, masochistic trial – and I’m sometimes on the wrong side of it – but I’m hoping this one turns out to be the former. Travelling is very much a challenge, seeing as I am used to a life of colour-coded diarising. This should be interesting.

Because I want to (and I can)

Ultimately, that’s the only one that matters. It’s a little bit easy to forget already. Travelling doesn’t need a reason or a goal. I don’t really know why I’m going. I just feel like it (and I can).

The traveller’s goodbye manual

Everyone’s had to say goodbye at least once. Your primary school friends, the house you grew up in, your sixth-form teachers, a beloved pet, the colleagues at a job you’re leaving… I think we can all agree: it’s never particularly pleasant. Quite the opposite, actually. (Unless you hated the job. Or the colleagues.)

Now, picture a lengthy, far-away journey that leaves your home, job, friends and family behind – and imagine the goodbyes.

I think preparing for goodbyes is a part of travelling that’s just as important as vaccinations and a solid backpack, and especially so if you’re going without a definite return date.

You want to have given it some thought and planned a strategy. Figure out who will be the first person you will say goodbye too, and the last. Pack in as many last minute memories as you can. Make a list of things you want to say. Take pictures. Leave notes. Eat all the best things, and also all the average ones that feel like they’re the best because you love them that much. Say thank you. Go out of your way to say thank you. Also go out of your way to give hugs. Hug dogs. Hug close friends. Hug babies. Sit quietly in the places you love. Take mental images of both the important moments and the everyday things. Wear waterproof makeup and cry tons. Then, when you realise you can’t quite cry anymore, hug a little harder. Say I love you.

And then, off you go.

 

My name is Gaëlle and I’m about to set off on a round-a-lot-of-the-world trip with no set return date. This is the diary of my adventures.