Friday, March 4, 2011

Tickets: check

Booked tickets today. Round-trip between Shanghai and Bangkok from March 15th (so let's hope there are no issues with adding pages to my passport, since this flight is the day after my appointment to do so) to May 17th. It looks like chances are it will be cheaper to change the date if anything comes up, so I went with a round-trip after all.

Things I bought today for the trip:

- Medicine for indigestion
- Eye mask
- Inflatable pillow (think long bus rides)
- Ear plugs
- Sneakers

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Vietnam is just ... meh."

That is the review I got from Michael, a teacher at the belly dancing studio I was at today. (I buy a lot of groupons on impulse. This particular one is for a trial, or 3 hours' worth, of belly dancing lessons. My back is amazingly sore. I also have one for pole dancing, but I feel like that's going to be really bruisy.)

He told me I must go to Angkor Wat and that some city in Thailand that starts with a B isn't really worth going unless I just want to see some transsexuals, but I can skip Vietnam. He seems to think it's not worth going to partially as an effect of it being "right there." (You can cross the border of Yunnan province in China and get there.) So I think it's kind of like how I totally thought UPenn was just a regular-tier college until high school because I grew up near Philadelphia, so it's "right there," and obviously things that are close to home can't possibly be special. Duh.

He did say more specifically that an issue he ran into in Vietnam was that if you want something nice, it's not an issue of having the money to pay for it, it's an issue of it existing. For example, he and his group were looking for a nice meal, and they simply couldn't find one in the particular town they were at. So I guess that's good to know in advance. Although I feel like that's probably to be expected anywhere outside a big city, even in the States. I wouldn't exactly expect to find a Michelin five-star restaurant (or do they use three?) in Collegeville. I expect to find the Collegeville Diner in Collegeville. But you know what? A diner is a pretty quintessentially American sort of place that serves very American sort of food, even if the taste isn't great. So maybe I'll find the [insert small Vietnamese town name here] Diner and it will be just as well.

Provided nothing weird happens with applying for a visa, I'm definitely still going, but who knows, maybe he will turn out to be right. Maybe it will be like Brussels. Except... not at all.

Maybe I will ask my boyfriend's dad about Vietnam. Although he was there in wartime, so his perspective is probably a little different (though incidentally, he has very high opinions of Yunnan, which is apparently gorgeous). Also, he's not allowed back into Vietnam. I think they are supposed to kill him on sight. That is what actually happens when you are a spy. Unlike Chuck Bartowski, who would definitely be on a lot of people's hit lists by now, yet inexplicably gets admitted to fancy parties where top-secret bad guy meetings are taking place even without alteration to his appearance. Willing suspension of disbelief.

I assume that writing that my anonymous boyfriend's dad, who is no longer in the military, was a spy in Vietnam is not breaking any sort of anything, but if I suddenly stop posting for a week, the Party got me. In which case, a) I'm screwed, b) so much for southeast Asia, and c) I'll be waiting for your Amnesty International letters in my jail cell (not that I'll ever receive them). I find it hard to believe that countries that hold political prisoners to begin with would actually ever deliver letters addressed to those prisoners. I mean, let's be real. That's not happening. Also, someone tell Clinton so he can come get me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fuck visas. Also, planning.

So I think what's going to happen is I'm just going to get visas along the way. Also, I think I'm just going to get a one-way ticket and wing it. Possibly a round-trip ticket if the fee for changing the return date is less than the price difference between a round-trip ticket and two one-ways. Of course there's also the possibility that I won't be near the city in which I first arrived, so for the sake of flexibility, one-ways are probably just better.

That still means a lot of reading so I at least have some general idea of what I don't want to miss (did I mention I know nothing?), as well as where best to get visas, but that means not setting any firm dates (most notably transportation/lodging) ahead of time, because it seems like an unnecessary hassle, and honestly, I can't tell from reading where I'm going to want to spend more or less time, so if what's in my head and what I actually experience are completely different (which is very likely, if not certain), then I may find myself with a shorter stay in a wonderful city and a really long stay somewhere I'd rather leave immediately.

My (extremely) rough itinerary is looking like:
Bangkok -> through Cambodia (get visa for Vietnam here) -> through Vietnam, going up the coast from south to north -> Laos -> northern Thailand to southern Thailand, maybe some border towns (Myanmar) -> down through Malaysia -> Singapore

If I have enough money, I'd also love to swing through the other half of Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, but... that's highly doubtful.

As far as how much time I'm going to spend on each of these legs and where exactly I'm going to be going in each of these countries, I have absolutely no clue. But I do want to take a train that makes stops in the jungle. THE FREAKING JUNGLE. Because that sounds amazing. As long as some heretofore undiscovered bug doesn't land on me and give me what turns out to be the equivalent of AIDS in the 80s. Also highly doubtful. Especially as I am probably not going to get off the train in the middle of the jungle. I can barely handle camping. And that's at established camping grounds with plumbing and a nearby van full of conveniences. (In other news, I bought secondhand, along with my backpack, a tent and a barbecue set. Not for backpacking obviously. But anyway, we'll see how that adventure turns out. Hint: It won't. But it's nice to feel like I once had the intention.)

Hopefully I will be able to CouchSurf some of the way, which will ensure that I get an authentic experience and meet cool locals. Plus, there are presumably no bedbugs. Gross.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

And then there were six.

Look, Myanmar, the thing is, we've got a three-strike policy here, and well, you've violated it. You've actually got five strikes so we've really been lenient with you, so... I'm sorry, but we're gonna have to let you go.

Strike one: The visa takes a week and I may or may not have to go to Kunming to get it. It's unclear, but the other reasons have totally eradicated any motivation I would have to get this cleared up. (Oh, and I'm striking the Kunming-beforehand plan. That's much more expensive and evidently there is a Vietnamese consulate in Shanghai, even though they don't have a website. Why does nothing in Asia have a freaking website? And when they do, why is there just text everywhere? It's like the dictionary threw up into the HTML code. Although this has been getting much better with time.)

Strike two: There are no ATMs in Myanmar. This means that before I cross the border, I have to withdraw all the cash I might possibly need and carry it around with me, or get some sort of certificates that are exchanged for cash or something. That's annoying and weird.

Strike three: Land borders are closed, at least to U.S. (and I assume other Western countries') citizens. That means I have to fly in, which is an additional (although not that hefty) expense.

Strike four: I've been informed by a friend that the locals do not talk to tourists, because upon doing so, they are required by law to report to the authorities the content of your conversation. No one wants to have to talk to the authorities, so no one talks to you.

Strike five: ... Did you get that memo about the TPS reports?

The first three strikes, perhaps individually, I wouldn't mind. Lumped together though, they are a considerable nuisance. And the fourth just makes the trip kind of pointless, at least for me. I get a lot more enjoyment out of getting a feel for what the culture and daily life in a country are like than looking at some really old crap. This is why I almost never go to museums. The result is I spend hours indoors with no sort of social interaction, and I'm never like, "Ohmydamn, seeing that vase/painting/relic/sculpture has changed my life." Although that one time at Princeton, there was that penis perforator. Which just made me question a lot of things.

By the way, in Asia, nothing in the New World is considered old, unless it's Native American, Mayan, Incan, or otherwise indigenous. I mean, most people's living room furniture here would qualify as "antique" in the States. So that's a pretty reasonable world view.

Moral of the story: Myanmar is a goner.

No one ever picks up the phone at the Vietnamese consulate in Shanghai. Ever.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Digital is not always better.

Ok, a few updates on things I mentioned yesterday.

The earliest appointment I could get at the U.S. Consulate to add visa pages to my passport was 3:00 in the afternoon on March 14, so my estimated date of departure is somewhere around the 20th, allowing time for getting my visa for Vietnam and Myanmar. It's probably going to take me two weeks to prepare anyway, in terms of planning and buying things I need, so that's fine.

My heater just made a very movie effects-like sound that started low and went higher, as if it's about to blast off to its home planet. That's odd.

I went through the form for the Cambodian e-visa, and it seems that you need to choose a specific port of entry in order for this to work. I don't have an itinerary set in stone yet, so I'm holding off on this, and since it only takes 3 days to process, I'm not too worried. Plus if nothing else, I can just get a visa on arrival if I want to keep my plans flexible.

I went with the digital book, and here is what I have found.

Drawbacks:
A map spread over four screens that you flip through individually makes no sense whatsoever.
Real books don't, even on the rarest of occasions, freeze. Nor do they have a loading lag.
You can't easily flip back and forth between pages (for example, between a description of a site and a map).
You have no feeling for how much of a chapter or of the book you've read.

Good things:
It really is much lighter than it would be on paper.
I can click on the chapter or section that I want to read without a lot of flipping back and forth (first to find the page number and then to get to it) or go directly to a page number.
There are also various jumps placed in the book by the author that allow me to skip to relevant passages in other parts of the book. (On the other hand, this isn't exactly hard to do in a real book if they provide page numbers.)

My verdict is that ebooks are better for novels than for reference books like this, but I may change my mind when I'm lugging everything in my backpack and thinking a few extra pounds would have really sucked.

On a note unrelated to digital v. hard copy, Lonely Planet really needs to bring in some fresh blood on its editorial staff. I've only read a bit of the introduction and part of the Cambodia chapter, but here are some errors I've noticed:

1. Apparently, you should walk in the shade instead of "bearing your belly." So let me get this straight. I should walk in the shade as an alternative to being pregnant with my own stomach? Is that right? Or am I bearing the weight of my belly because I ate so much? That's actually really plausible. But wouldn't I still have to do that in the shade?

2. "For more guidance on how to avoid being a sore-thumb tourist, the Culture sections in specific country chapters throughout this guidebook." If a second grader had this as a daily edit, they would write, "Their's no vurb, dumbass."

3. Something (I think Indonesian airfare) is more expensive than "in year's past." So this past, it belongs to the year? Is that particular year's past an exceptionally good vintage? Full-bodied? With a flair of cinnamon and strippers?

I mean, yes, this book is almost 1500 pages, BUT I'm also assuming that lonely planet has its fair share of editors. And these were all within three pages. Which I'm taking to mean between all these editors, no one proofed these three pages. How does that happen?

So I came to the realization that 80% of my wardrobe is black or denim. This is not ideal. So I've ordered some stuff online that will be more reasonable and not make me feel like I've climbed inside a bear and am now suffocating in its hide. Or is it pelt? Whatever bear-ness is called. (Yeah, that's right. I know the difference between bear and bare. To reference high school, that's what my 1600 is for.) I should also get a haircut.

Tip: If you live in China, whether you are a Westerner or not, I highly recommend vancl.com and other credible online shops over going to the malls here, which are ridiculously expensive - think 800RMB+ for a polo - and have questionable notions of normalcy.

I also need to buy sunblock and mosquito repellant. I am evidently very delicious to mosquitos, and last summer, I was in the sun for 30 minutes without sunblock, and I STILL have a tan line. Otherwise I'd be Irish computer camp pale. (With a hint of yellow for lemony freshness.)

Last night's questions:
Money - I'm told it is much more useful to have my U.S. debit card than my Chinese one for withdrawing money. It would be even better to have both Visa and MasterCard, but I've only got a Visa. No matter what the case, a little cash on hand, and by cash, I mean U.S. dollars, is always a good idea.
Phone - Skype.
Laundry - By hand, which usually dries overnight, or if you want to pay, you need to be in town for two or three days.
Faux pas - If you wouldn't want your pet dog to have an "accident" on it, don't put your foot on it. Or point with your feet. Or really do anything that involves your feet other than walk or bike. Also, women should dress modestly outside of large cities. (So basically I'm going to have a farmer's tan. For like a year. Awesome.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prepping for Southeast Asia

So I decided last night to go backpacking through Southeast Asia. That means Candide is coming back, this time on a whole new continent.

At first I was deciding whether I should take an internship that pays next to nothing and involves a lot of overtime but would look good on my resume, or a part-time teaching job that involves very few hours and high pay but doesn't start until April. And then I realized I'm an idiot.

I've been accepted to law school, so I have no academic pressure; I don't have a job or much necessity for one, so I don't have work pressure; and I'm not married and I have no kids, so I have no family pressure. When is the next time that will be true? Retirement? As much fun as it would be to go walker-ing around Southeast Asia and waving my cane at pickpockets (because obviously, I'm going to be rocking both a walker and a cane) while grumbling about how I can tell it's going to be monsoon season because my knee is killing me (and my knee is never wrong), I feel like it's probably more optimal to go now. Plus I don't want to be the odd one out at a Thai sex show. If such a thing were possible.

But enough about me. It's business time.

First on the agenda: Visas.

U.S. citizens are exempt from visa requirements for Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore (assuming your stay is less than 30 days, or 90 for Singapore). If you are travelling to these countries, you should obviously double-check this information here (select a country and click on "Entry/Exit Requirements"), as I might be remembering incorrectly and/or things may have changed.

Apparently Cambodia can process e-visas. That blows my mind. I've always associated visas with an unnecessarily bureaucratic and completely arbitrary application process that is a pain in the ass. My students here have told me plenty of stories where people's applications for U.S. student visas were accepted or rejected either without any questioning whatsoever or for ridiculous reasons. (You need to dress uglier, for example.) And here the Cambodian government allows you to fill out a form online and take a printout with you to the border. And even if you don't do that ahead of time, you can get a visa on arrival. Amazing. The website for the form is here. I somehow did not notice the link at first, but it's next to the the flashing red APPLY E-VISA HERE.

Laos processes visa applications on arrival. All you need is $35 and 2 passport photos.

Viet Nam is a little tricky. Evidently there are visas that stick to your passport (as usual) and looseleaf visas (both of which require application beforehand, as far as I know), but the looseleaf or detachable visas are collected when you exit. This is sometimes an issue, because the country you're entering may need proof that you've formally exited Viet Nam or they will send you back. I don't actually know what happens after that, because you then no longer have a visa to enter Viet Nam either.

Tip: Do not ever trust an agency to apply for visas on your behalf unless you are certain of its credibility. (That goes for people applying for U.S. visas, too.)

If, like me, you are leaving from China, the consulates you are looking for will be in Beijing and/or Kunming. At the moment, I'm planning to tour Kunming for a few days before I depart for the region, especially since flights from Kunming are relatively inexpensive, so I will take care of visa applications then. If you plan to return to China after your trip, make sure you have a valid multiple-entry visa or you won't be able to. And that would be awkward.

I think I need to add pages to my passport, since I'm using the same one from Candide's Eurotrip. If you need this service in China, it can be done at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai (and I assume consular offices in other cities), and barring any abnormal circustmances, takes 30 minutes. Just make an appointment here first.

Second on the agenda: Buy a guide book.

My knowledge of Southeast Asia is zero. I have no idea what to see in which country or how to say hello anywhere (except Singapore, of course). I had to look at a map just to identify which countries the region consists of and where they are in relation to each other. (Yes, my geography is that bad. But let's be real. Don't pretend like you know where Laos is.)

I generally do not like Lonely Planet, because they give me a lot of logistical information without telling me anything that would help me decide whether or not I want to go somewhere in the first place. It's nice to know when a site opens and closes, but it really doesn't matter if I don't know what the hell it is, what it's like, or what I should be doing while I'm there. However, they do have a guide book called Southeast Asia on a shoestring, which sounds more or less like exactly what I need. Also, unlike Europe, where I can figure out the trains and discount airlines on my own, I really am clueless about travel logistics (or anything else) in Southeast Asia. Plus they have it at the Sony e-bookstore, which is convenient since my dad handed his (very lightweight) Sony reader down to me. On the other hand, that's one more thing to have to keep charged and not get stolen. Still deciding - we'll see.

Further questions:
- Money
- Phone
- Laundry
- Faux pas