Lesser Known Backpacking Travel Tips

By: leelefever on January 3, 2007 - 1:38pm

Throughout the trip, when the inspiration struck, we would type a few travel tips into our phone. The majority of the tips below came from spur-of-the-moment revelations on the road, now in more organized and long form. 


  • To save battery power turn off mobile phones - being connected to or looking for the network drains the battery.  The same is true for laptops and wi-fi signals.  Turn em off.
  • When you get to a hotel room, open your computer and look for an unsecured wi-fi signal.  You’ll be surprised often.
  • Carry two batteries for all gadgets.  Though, a computer battery may be an exception.
  • If you are using a mobile phone for more than a few weeks in a country, buy a SIM card for a local network when you arrive.  It's what the locals use and you would have a local phone number with free incoming calls from home
  • If you want to be able to charge more than one gadget at once, get a travel splitter or multiple outlet adapters for each format. 
  • Always think redundancy - back up often and send home DVDs of your pictures.
  •  DVDs hold a lot more pictures than CDs for back-up purposes - 3 times the amount.  Most internet cafes offer DVD burning services.
  • Invest in lots of camera memory (lSD cards, memory sticks).  You do not want to consistently be hamstrung by a camera that is full of pictures.  A 1GB card with 5megapixel photos was enough for us.
  • If you have a laptop, move photos from the camera to the laptop daily.  Always leave the room with 2 charged batteries and an empty memory card.
  • Take your computer to the Internet cafe and plug it into their network with the Ethernet cable.  They will know how.  Europe doesn’t allow this, Asia does.
  • Wrap your computer in some sort of sealable plastic bag before packing it away.  Wetness happens.
  • Keep your valuable electronics on your person when in transit.  Don't  put your computer in a bag under a bus.  
  • People can’t steal what they don’t see.  Limit gadgetry use in public.

Hotel Living:

  •  When leaving a hotel, take the complimentaries with you, like coffee, cream, tea, toilet tissue, etc.  Towels, bedspreads and hangers are not complimentary.
  • Never, ever miss an included breakfast.
  • Many cheap hotels require that you insert the key into a slot in order for the power to come on. While it saves energy, it means you can’t charge electronics while you’re out of the room.  Often you can use a business card in the slot instead of a key.
  • Don't leave the room for the day without a map, local currency, identification and the room key.
  • Try to resist giving the front desk your key when you leave – this is very insecure.  Notice that when you return, they will give you any key you request. 
  • If your hotel does not serve breakfast, remember to go to a store on the way home at night to get something for the morning.
  • Unless the city gets full consistently, don't make reservations in advance.  Get there; find your favorite neighborhood and then a place to stay. 
  • If you are going to be in one city for more than a week or so, consider renting an apartment.  A kitchen and washer /dryer are so nice sometimes.
  • If you know the part of the city where you want to stay, make a reservation in advance for a single night at a hotel in that area, even if it is more expensive. Then, when you arrive, walk around to hotels and find a better deal for the rest of your stay.
  • For most major cities, two nights is not enough as it leaves only one full day for exploration.  Three nights is usually a good amount if you're on the move. More is better.
  • The combination of your padlock is a risk.  You may be asked for it if your bags are lost on international flights (they may need to open the bag).  Make it unique - not associated with bank accounts, etc.
  • When unlocking your padlock for your bag, remember to spin the numbers once so your combination is not displayed for others, like the housekeeper, to see.


  • Tear unused pages out if your guidebook.
  • In inexpensive countries like India remember to carry small bills and change - go to a bank to get the change you need. Making change is a pain.
  • When wandering a new city at night, adopt the moth strategy and go toward the light.
  • Buy clothes made of synthetic fiber - they are lighter, stay cleaner and are easier to wash and dry quickly.
  • Days of the week can start to blend together.  The biggest problems happen on Sundays when a lot of businesses are closed and Mondays when museums often close.
  • In packing your backpack, make sure you pack it the same each time, giving each item a specific place.  When something is missing you'll know.
  • Buy a backpack that is built for travel and not camping.  The best ones open from the side, allowing access to everything quickly instead of bags that open from the top only - requiring an unpacking to reach the bottom.
  • A clean and free bathroom is only as far as the closest McDonalds.
  • Take a flashlight.
  • In public, you will never be judged or create a spectacle for being too quiet.  This is made more difficult with alcohol.
  • Look for English language weeklies in cities to find out about events.
  • Check local pharmacies for prescriptions that are expensive from home.  Beware of fakes in China.
  • Do like the Spanish and have a siesta.  Explore for a few hours in the morning, nap in the heat of the afternoon and go back out for the evening.  This is sustainable for long periods.
  • Only rookies get sunburned.  Be liberal with strong sunscreen. Wear a hat.
  • When getting up from a park bench, airplane seat or any place where you sat, turn around and look back at the area to ensure you didn't leave anything.
  • Use the local mail service to send home items you are not using.  Most useful when changing climates.
  • Remember that you can’t do everything. Relax, take a deep breath and enjoy what you *can* do.

Anatomy of a Scam in Vietnam

By: leelefever on July 27, 2006 - 8:22am

It’s been said many times- be clear with a Vietnamese cab driver about your hotel, or they will take you to their friend’s hotel, where they will earn a commission. We’ve seen many attempts at such diversions, but none so blatant as we experienced today, just after arriving in Hanoi.

We took a cab from the airport into town (37km for US$10). On the way, we told the driver to go to the “Camellia 3” Hotel and showed him where it was on the map. He agreed and the agreement was settled. Along the way he had a number of phone calls, which rang in a ring tone with the volume on 11. We understood nothing he said.

Upon arriving in the Old City of Hanoi, a young Vietnamese guy walked over to the car, opened my door, stuck his head into the car about 3 inches from my face and said “Welcome to the Camellia 3 Hotel!” I struggled to look around him at the building and the awning and did not see anything about the Camellia, or any hotel for that matter. No matter what we asked, he continued to insist, quite rudely “Yes, this is the place, the Camellia 3 Hotel, let me get your bags.” All I could say was, “First, please back up and let me get out of the car.” I left Sachi in the car and stepped into what was supposed to be the Camellia 3 Hotel. I walked to the reception desk and said “I’d like a business card please, where is your business card?” Their answer: “We ran out”. This, of course was a lie and there was no longer any doubt what was happening. This was not the Camellia 3 Hotel.

The cab driver must have thought we were complete idiots. He actually thought that he could drop us off at some random hotel and we would believe, thanks to the not-so-skillful scamming of his not-so-sly cronies, that we had arrived at our requested destination and would blindly get a room, earning him a commission.

We’ve met a lot of nice people in Vietnam, but it is the prevalence of this kind of bullshit that will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. We said to him what we say to all people who try to pull such stunts. “You are bad for tourists – you keep doing this, tourists will stop coming.” He only smiled with a “you can’t win’em all” attitude and went off to give another tourist a good reason not to come back to Vietnam.

A Holiday in Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 7, 2006 - 3:08am

Since Cambodia became an imminent part of our itinerary, I have had the Dead Kennedy’s song “Holiday in Cambodia” playing a soundtrack in the back of mind.

It's time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear

It's a holiday in Cambodia
It's tough kid, but it's life
It's a holiday in Cambodia
Don't forget to pack a wife

The song was published in 1980, just a year after the failure of the Khmer Rouge regime and reflects some of Cambodia’s reputation from the time (full song lyrics). I think it is safe to say that Cambodia has come a long way since 1980, which was the nadir of its backward progress. 

A holiday in Cambodia can now be taken with no irony whatsoever. Sihanoukville is a southern town with miles of beaches, friendly people, a laid back vibe and good food.  Beaches in Cambodia?  Yes- and they are quite nice.  Below is where we stayed and a place we recommend for Sihanoukville: Coaster’s on Serendipity Beach.  Don’t stay in the town- head for Serendipity Beach.

Don’t get me wrong though, Cambodia has a way to go, and that is part of the allure.  The roads off the main strips are pretty horrid, the majority of buildings in town are run down and it isn’t as clean as Thailand.  Luckily, these things can all be remedied with time and investment.

The feeling we get is that Sihanoukville is on the verge of an explosion.  People who have grown tired of the scene in Thailand are discovering the coast of Cambodia and you can’t go anywhere without seeing construction in Sihanoukville.  One day, today may be the good ole days before it became crowded and lost its small town charm.  Of course, we are here in the low season, so our perceptions may be one-sided.  Either way, Sihanoukville is better than we expected- enough to cause us too add a little time to our trip here…

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3 Day Mahout Training, Thai Elephant Conservation Center

By: leelefever on June 22, 2006 - 3:13am

I return from 3 days of learning about elephant training more of an elephant lover and with more mixed feelings about the life of the domestic elephant.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a multi-day mahout training course that enables a tourist to live at the center for 3 days to learn about elephants and elephant training, their relationship with their trainer (the mahout) and general elephant/mahout life.  The course includes accommodation for 2 nights, 5 meals and all instruction for about $125.   Below is one day in the mahout training program.

6am: Awake from our basic bungalow style houses and don our very flattering mahout uniforms- blue denim pants that tie at the waist and a button-down shirt.  I remark that I look like a prisoner.

6:30am: Me, Yuri (from Japan) and Kristine (from San Jose, California) follow the mahouts in pouring rain over a mile into the forest to collect the elephants that had been kept their overnight.  One of the mahouts finds this wicked looking scarab beetle. 

7:00am: The mahout “Tit” and I reach Lu Khan, my elephant for 3 days.  The 50 feet of chain that kept her in place overnight is stretched to the full length and she shows excitement as we approach. much of the vegetation surrounding her is either flattened or eaten.  Lu Khan is covered with dirt that she threw onto herself overnight to cool down and keep the flies away.  Tit has Lu Khan lay down with the command “map long” and he uses his machete to scrape away the dirt and unchains her from the tree.

7:10am:  I mount Lu Khan for the trip home.  During the trek she willfully veers off course to grab some greenery just off the trail.  She is graceful in the mud, taking every step carefully and never slipping down hills.  I think that she is the best all-terrain vehicle ever.


7:30am: Between the jungle and the Conservation Center, we wade through a river for one of her 3 baths of the day.  She completely submerges herself as the mahout and I scrub the remaining dirt off her hide.  I get completely soaked.  It’s easy to tell she loves the water.

7:50am: We arrive at the center and Lu Khan gets fresh water and sugar cane while we scrub her even more.  Tit and Lu Khan disappear and Yuri, Kristine and I have breakfast after a quick change of clothes.

9am:  We meet back at show grounds for training.  I practice with Tit and Lu Khan.  A command of “Song Soong!” causes Lu Khan to pick up her right leg, enabling me to climb up her using an ear and handful of tough skin. “Tag Loong” enables me to slide off the front of her head.  It’s obvious that my commands don’t matter- she only really listens to Tit, her mahout for the last 9 years.  After practice she eats bananas and more sugar cane with me on her neck along with dried bananas.  As soon as I get the package of dried bananas, her trunk appears in front of me, begging for some and breathing elephant breath on my face.  Mmm elephant breath.

9:30am: All the elephants and mahouts (including us students) meet near the back of the center for more eating.  The elephants steal food out of one another’s mouths with no protest. The mahouts lounge on their elephants so comfortably it looks like they could take a nap. I’m not quite so comfortable.  

9:45am: A crowd of spectators gathers near the river beside the center and we ride the elephants into the river for bath #2.  This one is mostly for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter to Lu Khan.  I get soaked again as I do my best to throw more water to clean her hide.  Some elephants spray each other and the mahouts are pre-occupied with a snake that has been sighted on the other side of the river. We appear in many pictures.

10am:  The elephants and mahouts ride through the crowd to the show grounds where they show the crowd a few tricks, how they move logs and some cheesy things like painting and playing music.  The next day I will be part of the show, but not today.

10:45am:  The show ends and I mount Lu Khan while she eats more.  Then more practice.  The elephants are chained by the foot near food if they are not currently involved with the mahout.

12:00 Eat Lunch- Home cooked fried rice.

1:00pm:  We walk to the elephant hospital with an English speaking guide.  I am grateful to have access to him as Tit knows little English and I had many questions.  The hospital has about 10 elephants.  3 with deformities, one with a gunshot wound, a couple in “poor condition”.  The biggest problem for elephants is constipation, which can easily kill them.  Judging from the amount of pooh they create, this is not surprising. We learn that the numbers of Thai Elephants are declining and the hospital does not have the money it needs.

2:30pm:  We meet the mahouts to return the elephants to the park where they stay overnight.  A few lengths of chain is placed around Lu Khan’s neck and she knows what is happening and is visibly excited- ears flapping, tail wagging.  I mount her and off we go.

2:50pm:  It’s time for the 3rd bath of the day on the way to the jungle.  Once again, I get soaked to the bone with a huge smile on my face.

3:10pm:  Tit picks out a spot of the hillside where Lu Khan will spend the night (he uses a new spot each night).  He ties the chain to a tree and also attaches her front feet together with a small amount of chain. She can walk and move around, but not aggressively.  This prevents her from breaking the chain and is the hardest sight for me to bear.  For the rest of the night she will graze in the area until she lays down to sleep, when she will yawn and dream, just like us.  

3:45pm:  Tit invites us back to his house in the mahout village.  His family lives in a modest home that he built himself. I can see through the floorboards to the dogs and chickens below.  In addition to being a mahout, he fixes motorbikes.  He has a proud picture of a young 4 year old Lu Khan displayed on his wall, like a proud father.  Tit repairs a motorbike while we are there.  We walk back to the bungalow and rest until dinner.  This is Tit- notice pictures of Lu Khan in the background.

 This is his house in the mahout village:

6pm:  We meet at one of the homes and start chopping vegetables over shots of home made rice whiskey that one of the mahouts made.  It is red and tastes like cough syrup. We eat a basil chicken dish along with rice and stir fried veggies.  Very good food served on the floor of the open air kitchen area.  After dinner we watch world cup soccer and play cards with a few mahouts before going to bed.

10:45pm: Retire to bed and wait for the rain to come, as it does every few hours. Look forward to waking at 6am to collect the elephants back in the jungle.

The experience at the Conservation Center was very enjoyable and I learned a lot but I have to admit that I feel a little sorry for domestic elephants in general.  My attraction to elephants comes from a feeling that they are like dogs and through domestication have developed a bond with humans that is special in the animal kingdom.  I hate to think about them being mistreated or unhappy.

Though they are very well cared-for at the center, their size and potential for destruction requires that they lead a life in bondage- chained to a tree or the floor consistenly. Being domesticated from birth, this lifestyle is a reality to the elephant in the way that a dog is kept in a kennel or a rabbit in a cage.  I left with the feeling that the elephants at the center are quite happy, but there are many in the country (and world) that are not so happy and it pains me to think of the life they lead.  Thankfully, organizations like the Thai Elephant Conservation Center are working to raise awareness and educate people about the plight of these incredible animals. 

See Also:  Should We Be Riding Around On Elephants in Thailand? 

Japanese Culture Defined: The Meigetsu Ryokan Inn

By: leelefever on May 12, 2006 - 9:27pm

A Ryokan Inn, or Japanese style hotel, is really a must-do while visiting Japan as it offers a traditional Japanese traveler experience that, for foreigners like me, is highly unusual and surpisingly luxurious.

A few days ago, we visited the small mountain town of Tsuwano, population 5,500.  Having had our eye on staying in a ryokan, we figured this would be the place. Unsurprisingly, a train conductor ended up leading us through the town to two different inns.  The last of which we chose to spend the night, as the other was full. It was called the Meigetsu Ryokan- and we recommend it.

A night at a ryokan usually involves a single room for the night, dinner and breakfast, a private bath, an ofuro or group bath (more on that later) and the love and care of the host. Most ryokans are in scenic locations and are often costly.  Ours was about $175 for the night- but well worth it.

In no other place have I been immersed in so much traditional Japanese culture - from the environment to the food to the people. Our room had the traditional tatami mat floors- 8 mats on the main room, 6 mats in the entry way (traditional rooms in Japan are measured by the number of tatami mats that fit on the floor).  The sliding doors, or shoji doors, were made of light weight wood and paper. In the middle of the room was a single table holding on it a tea set.  In a closet in the entry way were the mats and comforters used for making a bed on the floor, as is the tradition.  Simple and elegant, the room had everything we needed.

Before dinner, I went to the bath, for another traditional Japanese experience.  In Japan, people bathe often in onsen or ofuro baths, which are steaming hot group baths with men and women separate. It’s like Japanese people soup and is another must-do in Japan.

 I had hoped for an empty bath where I could be my foreigner-self.  As my luck would have it, I found three aging Japanese men, all naked and in various stages of the bath.  And then there was me - six foot three inches of pure self-consciousness, a true bath rookie holding nothing but a small white towel and a nervous smile.  

According to standard bath behavior, you are supposed to rinse off before entering the actual bath, which amounts to a large wooden bathtub.  Two of the men were currently in the rinse cycle and I had no where to go, so I stood there wishing I knew more Japanese or had done this sort of thing before.  Luckily one of the men left and I was able to use the handheld shower nozzle for a cursory rinse.  Of course, I had showered before ever arriving at the bath, but felt the need to send the message that I knew what was going on and respect the tradition of entering the bath clean.  So I rinsed and climbed into the bath with one of the men who knew much more English than I did Japanese, thankfully.  He was from Sapporo, in the north of Japan and I couldn’t help but tell him that I knew about Sapporo from the beer.  He laughed.  Then, as is the case with every male in Japan who learns I’m from Seattle, we discuss baseball and mainly Ichiro, Seattle’s star outfielder from Japan.  I’ve found that Japanese men know much more than me about American baseball on the whole.  He promptly left and I finally found myself alone in the bath, relieved and wondering about my chances of getting out without any more weird, bath-based interactions.  I made it out, dried off with what seemed like a large facial tissue, put on my robe and went back to the room to relax before dinner.  Sachi met the Ichiro fan’s wife in her bath and surely had more productive conversation than me.

Part of the cost of the ryokan is justified by the excellent Japanese food and this ryokan was no exception.  Dinner was served in our little room and included about 17 dishes of various sizes per person. The meal was a spectacularly elegant and delicious affair, all laid out before us in a particular and precise manner by our host, a sweet little lady in a kimono.  She took a liking to Sachi, who could talk to her in Japanese.  At one point, they even had a playful argument about who was going to make the bed.  I couldn’t understand a word, but knew exactly what was happening.


I’m finding that Japanese food is more delicate in flavor than I would have thought.  Much of the traditional food- sushi, tempura, noodles, rice, etc. has a light taste, nice texture and a sensual kind of aftertaste that hangs in your mouth, begging for more. This meal was similar. It was not rich and savory.  It was delicate, unique, exotic, healthy, impeccably presented and genuinely tasty.  As there wasn’t a main course, we laughed at our dilemma in choosing what to eat from the many plates of small things that included a soup, sashimi, fruit, various pickled vegetables, sake and soup with egg that we cooked at the table.  My favorite was the sashimi.

We both like escargot covered in butter and garlic, but had never eaten a snail right out of the shell like this one.  It was good, but had a bitter aftertaste that I do not wish to taste again.


After the meal, we drank a little more sake and moved the table out of the way to make room for the bed, which is made by piling beach towels-sized mats one on top of the other.  We used all the mats, maybe 10 of them, to create a soft bed on the floor that was then covered with big comforters; all quite luxurious, even for a bed on the floor. 

The next morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast, much in the same style as the dinner before, ending our experience at the ryokan.

I personally feel somewhat lucky that I made it out without punching a hole in the paper doors while putting a shirt over my head or something- that would totally be my luck.

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Lanta Marine Park View Resort, Ko Lanta, Thailand

By: sachilefever on April 30, 2006 - 10:27pm

Lee was looking forward to being on a hillside with a view of the water. We scoured the guidebook and tried to decide on a resort from the hotel websites…the best advice was from our TwinF readers. Ko Lanta. From there, we found the only hotel that seem to fit the bill - Aircon with a great balcony view of the bay and in our price range.  Ours was second from the left- A-6 at Lanta Marine Park View Resort.


Our bungalow is very comfortable with wooden floors, a fridge and satellite TV – though the only English station we have is BBC World.  The bathroom is enclosed (some here are open air) which I prefer to keep out any bugs. Speaking of which, we have some furry friends that scurry around outside from time to time.  I love the view which looks East so we don’t have the afternoon sun in our windows. We do look straight out at the Pimalai resort though which reminds us everyday of its 5-star-ness with US$500 – 2000 per night rates. When the power goes out, as it does everyday, Pimalai always comes back on within a few minutes with their generators. We wait with the rest of the island for the power to return. On those nights, I remember they get a full dose of the hot afternoon sun each day <evil grin>.

Our resort has bungalows sprawling up the hillside and reserves some of the bay frontage for their restaurant and bar called Bay View. It really should be called Bay Terrace View. They’ve built cozy sitting areas for 3-4 people each on terraced level so it feels like you have the view all to yourself. Half the restaurant has tables and chairs while the other half entices us loungers with cushions on the floor on a perch overlooking the restaurant and the bay. We find that the staff love to sit/sleep/drink/play guitar here too- this is Nong, who runs the "shroom bar".

The food here is wonderful, except for the pizzas. Lee loves the cheeseburgers, I love the Thai food, but the crust somehow wasn’t right on the pizza pie. 

In the area are a few outings advertised everywhere like elephant treks, a hike to the waterfall, and an elephant trek to the waterfall. It’s been dry though, and the mountains are not very high so right now there is no water at the waterfall. There’s also an old fishing town, a set of caves to explore and many little islands for diving and snorkeling trips. If you go, you CANNOT miss the sunset from the resort up the hill called Top View- best on the island.

One staff member said this morning with a big smile, “Last night – late. I sleep today. Sleeping, working, relaxing…all the same.” I think it sums up the gravity-stricken staff here, as Lee mentioned. Everyone seems to take things so lightly and easily- it is a wonderfully relaxing vibe.  Sometimes in the afternoon heat, they wake up as we walk by and greet us, “Good morning Lee and Sachi! Everything good? Enjoy nice day!”

We’re paying 1150 baht US$30 per night and the restaurants around are all about 150 to 300 baht US$4-7 for a dinner for two. To us, it seems like a steal.

Oh, and here is one last photo for our friend Up, with his standard issue black rock and roll shirt...


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