Border jumping Thailand to Cambodia : Ban Packard to Psar Phrum / Chanthaburi to Battambang

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We decided that we were going to head back into Cambodia, but did not want to go through the Poipet border, as the last time (coming into Thailand) it was a ridiculous, long, badly organised experience taking hours, to stamp out, walk a hundred metres, and stamp in again.

As we wanted to go to Battambang anyway, we decided to take the one of the quieter, southern border crossings – Ban Packard to Psar Phrum which, I discovered online has very little relevant info. Some sites suggest it’s the adventurous route, but actually it was really, very easy.

To get there, we broke it up over two days. We jumped in a minivan from Bangkok’s Victory Monument (Anusawari Chai, if you need to tell a taxi driver) to Chanthaburi, which cost two hundred baht per person, and around three hours.

Here’s a top tip, if you want to get to Chanthaburi as soon as possible, make sure you show a map to the booking people, because apparently it sounds a lot like Katchanburi when we say it. Katchanburi looks like a nice place, but it’s two hours in the wrong direction when you’re trying to get to Cambodia.

Chanthaburi is a provincial capital city, It seems like there could be a few nice things to discover and explore with a bicycle. There is also a night market, with a whole heap of eating options, but most of them are take-away only very few street vendors have tables and chairs. We did however found a cheap, awesome street style restaurant next to the 7/11 near the hotel – Delicious.  
Unfortunately our Thai visas were running out and had a date set to meet friends in Vietnam. Not this time, Chanthaburi.

Chanthaburi map

We stayed at the river view hotel, which had a very helpful lady working in the morning and directed us to the bus pick up just across the bridge – Less than 100m away. It was quite lucky for us that we had seen this hotel in a guide book and just decided to try it out. It was adequate and cheap, but ideally located to get ourselves (and our packs) to the border bus in the relentless heat.

Smallest 'double' bed ever...

Smallest ‘double’ bed ever…

As far as we could work out in the broken English conversation the bus pick-up only runs once a day. There is another company which is somewhere near (around a couple of corners) the KP Grand Hotel which is directly opposite the 7/11 on the map. They apparently run three buses a day, at 0930, 1030 & 1130.

A few posts I had read online suggested all kinds of issues with getting to the border, or across the border or even away from the border at the other side, but it went without a hitch, for us.

We checked out the bus stop before breakfast – the man there spoke no English at all, but had a little card that said ‘0940 – 150B’ so we came back then. The minivan arrived about 1010 and we had an entertaining one (ish) hour journey to the border with a bunch of octogenarian Thai’s headed to the Casino in Pailin. The journey was punctuated with beautiful scenery and the occasional squawking -between naps – from our Saga holidaymaking companions. We made up their conversations for our own amusement, it mostly involved a new handbag that was excitedly passed around a lot and how one of the ladies, who was huffing and puffing all journey was “too old for this shit”. Much fun was had by all.

We got out at the gate, walked through the Thai side, stamped out; across the very short dividing area and into Cambodia in less than five minutes. Apart from a couple of Cambodian girls, we were the only people at either passport control and sailed through. The Cambodian officials were very nice and polite with no mention of a bribe or ‘special charge’ at any point. They even wished us a nice holiday.

At this point we’re thinking, ‘this is where it’s gonna get hectic’, because there’s two confused looking white guys with backpacks and over half a dozen taxi drivers all waiting to separate us from our dollars.

The first guy who was very eager to speak with us, took the piss and quoted 1200B ($37USD) to get to Battambang (around 100KM) in a private taxi, or 400B each in a shared taxi. We read online you could pick up transport in Pailin so he quoted 300B for both of us, but said there wasn’t a bus station there. We weren’t sure if he was lying or not (websites only seem to talk about a taxi stand?) but we went with our instincts settled on another guy who offered $8USD each to go straight to Battambang central market.  We ended up sharing part of the journey with five; yes five other people in his Toyota Camry but it was all quiet enjoyable really.

We left Chanchaburi at 1015 and were eating lunch in Battambang at 1400 – A very enjoyable four hour run.

Why did we take this route?

Because the border is the closest to Battambang
Because we had no interest in spending all afternoon queuing at Poipet.
Because we had even less interest in giving the Poipet transport mafia any of our money. if you’re not aware there’s countless stories on blogs and forums about how you are taken to a ‘free transport centre’ in Poipet where you are forced to pay massively inflated prices to travel onward – it’s in the middle of nowhere and the police are in on it too.
Because travel is all about fun – We have such better memories of the times we ended up doing things the untouristy way than the ‘VIP AC bus from X to X’.

 

Costs

Minivan from Bangkok to Chanthaburi : 200B per person
Tuk-tuk from Chanthaburi bus station to the River View Hotel : 60B (two people)
Minibus from Chanthaburi to Ban Pakard/Pong Nam Ron border : 150B per person
Visa charges : $20USD per person
‘Taxi’ from Psar Phrum to Battambang : $8USD per person

River View Hotel : 290B for a double with fan/TV & attached bathroom. The TV didn’t work and it was the smallest double bed ever, but it was OK. They also had a shared bathroom option for 190B.

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Siem Reap & the Angkor Wat Historical Park.

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We previously wrote a piece on daily budgets for India, but didn’t write on for South East Asia – $25 (USD) per person per day, is a well reported figure online and we think is about right to cover backpacker style accommodation, basic food from cheap restaurants or street vendors and the odd beer. We thought it might be useful to note basic costs for visiting Angkor Wat on a backpacker budget.

 Visiting Siem Reap & the Angkor Historical Park will cost more than $25 dollars per day.

Park entry

There are three ticket options for visiting the Angkor Historical Park.

A one day ticket costs $20 (USD). A three day pass, valid to be used within a week is $40 and a seven day pass, which has to be used within one month is $60.

We used a three day pass for three consecutive days. We saw and did a lot we could easier have spent another day or two in the complex. A one day ticket would probably never be enough, you would briefly pass through all the popular/famous temples and not even see them properly, let alone visiting some of the quieter temples.

Transport

Angkor Wat is located 5-10Kms from Siem Reap, depending on where you’re staying. There are several transport options.

A car and driver are available for around $25 USD per day, often with air conditioning.

A tuk-tuk and driver are available for around $15 – 25 USD per day, depending on whether you’re staying in the main temple area, or planning to head out to places such as Banteay Shrei (32km from Siem Reap). Tuk-tuks are loads of fun and provide a nice breeze and respite from the heat and humidity. It’s your choice, don’t let a tuk-tuk driver choose you. There is a lot of competition in Siem Reap and people can be pretty in your face about offering you a ride… If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you’re not obliged to use their services.

Moto Taxi’s are available for zipping around Angkor for around $10 a day, but are only suitable for one person. May cost more to travel further afield, and potentially more dangerous than a tuk tuk. May well invalidate your travel insurance also.

Bicycles are a great way to get around, but you need to be really fit, and able to cycle from the Siem Reap to the Historical park, as well as around it. You won’t get to go as far afield on a bike and you will have to put up with the heat and humidity, but I guess it depends on what you want to get out of the experience. The roads however are pretty good quality for cycling, and cheaper than a tuk tuk or private car.

Walking is another option, as with cycling you can’t go as far afield and will be in the sun all day.

With private cars, tuk-tuks and moto taxis make sure you are all clear on how long you are paying for, and how much – agree on a time period and a price before jumping in. It can save a lot of confusion and and potential confrontation at the end of the day. It would suck to have such a small thing ruin what should be an otherwise awesome experience.

Guides

Apparently an English language guide is available for around $25 USD per day, more for less common languages.

Personally, I’m not so keen on the idea of a guide, and many of the tuk-tuk drivers know a fair bit about the different temples anyway. The difference between a guide, and a tuk-tuk driver is the standard of English, but we found our tuk-tuk captain to be a informative, friendly guy. This is entirely down to luck though…

Money

Cambodia has a national currency, the Riel, however most places list prices in US Dollars and take dollars as their primary currency. To complicate matters further you may often receive small change in riels, not dollars.

It’s really useful to have an exchange app on your phone to work out costs. We use the XE app; it’s free and lets you store ten currencies and will exchange rates without an internet connection. Winner!

Make sure you have some small bills, a lot of businesses in Siem Reap wont be able accept or be able to give change for bigger notes. It’s not all about the benjamins.

Accommodation

Accomodation options in Siem Reap are endless, my guidebook suggests “There are now more guest houses and hotels around Siem Reap than there are temples around Angkor”, and a search on Hostelbookers showed more than 100 options. There is a lot of choice, and options to suit all budgets but the demand is there also, several hundred thousand (probably more…) people pass through Siem Reap to visit Angkor each year.

We stayed in a double with shower/en suite as we did in most places in South East Asia for around $20 per night. The standard was as good as anywhere else in Asia we have stayed, although maybe slightly more expensive. We specifically looked for a hotel with a pool. We thought it would be a nice way to end the days after tramping around temples soaked in sweat – it was one of the best choices we made on our South East Asia trip.

Food

At Angkor Historical Park there are a number of places you may be taken for lunch, the two we went to were overpriced and pretty bland. $6/7/8 for a pretty average stir fried meat, veg and rice. If you want to save your money, take your lunch with you, or arrange beforehand to go offsite for lunch.

 Weather

Cambodia is hot, and humid. Get out as early in the day as possible. Around nine or ten in the morning the humidity becomes pretty stifling when you’re trekking about and climbing up steep steps. We visited in early December, which was apparently the cooler season. November through to February is apparently the premium, cooler dry season but with that expect lots of tourists around this time and high levels of humidity.

Realistically, it’s mostly going to be pretty busy unless you’re prepared to visit in the wet season, or when the temperature rises to around 40ºc.

Practicalities

Wear decent shoes! The paths are uneven and stony, there is also plenty of gooey moss around. Girls, make sure you are well dressed. Long dresses and covered arms will ensure you won’t offend the many practising religious folks at Angkor. It also means you get to visit ALL the temples – Phimeanakas, for example had an enforced dress code when we visited and a sea of under-dressed girls were left at the entrance.

Plan ahead and try to visit the more popular temples when they are less likely to be busy – lunchtime for example,or dawn when almost everybody will be watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

 Siem Reap town

As this is an incredibly tourist driven city there are A LOT of beggars, mostly children. It’s heart wrenching to ignore children telling you ‘I don’t want money, just buy me some food’ they could well be part of a scam where they sell the products back to the shop and split the money 50-50. Also these children are often being used and exploited by a gang running the scams. As harsh as sounds if you engage with them, and give them money, they will not break the cycle, they will continue to go without an education, and will spend their entire lives destitute and begging. If you want to help, there are many places in Siem Reap and surrounding areas where you can volunteer your time.

The same can be applied to children selling souvenirs in the Angkor Historical Park. They are going to work instead of school – it’s a moral judgement as to whether you buy something from them, We bought some postcards from a boy; he was probably around nine, but I am absolutely sure he went to school as well. I spoke with him about his life, and I negotiated that he had to teach me some Khmer if I bought his postcards. I have no doubt he will do well for himself, he was clever and his English was fantastic but there will be children in similar situations who will spend their whole life selling crap to tourists, never breaking the cycle, whose children won’t go to school either.

The town itself is an unusual place, it’s got such a high concentration of tourists it feels almost like a European holiday resort, there are bars and restaurants everywhere, and it’s not hard to find somewhere to eat. ‘Pub street’ in the heart of the backpacker area is full of restaurants, I imagine prices are slightly inflated with comparable restaurants in the rest of Cambodia, We unfortunately cannot compare as we didn’t have time to visit any other areas of Cambodia.

Bartering

Siem Reap is full of markets, if you want to buy some souvenirs, or some ‘replica’ items there are loads of choices, barter hard and walk away if you’re not happy, there are a hundred other people probably selling the same thing.

With regards to tuk-tuks or drivers, and guides we’ve read online you can barter them down a little bit, but why would you? $15 to employ a driver all day, and for him to wait around for you whilst you’re busy pretending to be Indiana Jones (was it just me?) is a really cheap price for a westerner to pay. What difference is a couple of dollars going to make to you? What you pay them is probably their daily wage, and they all have families to feed just like anyone else – Don’t be a dick.

We didn’t attempted to barter with our tuk-tuk captain and he made every effort to help us, he told us what types of food we should try, and offered to buy our water for us at locals prices rather than tourist prices, he also told us everything he knew about each temple. He was awesome, we were really lucky and I would have felt a dick if I had tried to shave a few dollars off.

All prices are in US Dollars,and based on our visit in December 2012.

**Check out our other posts on Angkor, including temples here & here.**

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Sydney’s best markets.

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Sydney has a great market culture, and so much great stuff can be found at them, whether you’re after fresh produce, second hand clothing, artwork, jewellery, books, home wares or something else chances are you will find at one of Sydneys markets.

These are some of our favourites within walking distance of the city.

Paddington

Paddington markets focus on hand made goods. Like Paddington and the surrounding Oxford street areas it’s pretty trendy, young Australian designers and photographers gather to sell their wares.

Things available in Paddington include photographic prints, hand made bags, Jewellery and clothing items. There are also a few food stalls and an indoor café area. The market focuses on the local designers and community aspects. Their website proudly states “You will not find these Australian designed and crafted products in any shopping mall and many of our products are exclusive to Paddington Markets”.

It’s well worth a walk up Oxford Street from the city, there are excellent coffee shops, cafes and book shops on the route and takes around twenty five minutes from Hyde Park/Town Hall area. There are also some excellent Galleries near to the Paddington markets.

Paddington markets are at 395 Oxford Street, from 10am on Saturdays. 

Glebe markets

Glebe Markets showcase a lot of Sydney’s artistic types. Glebe is home to plenty of Sydney’s uni kids and general trendy types so expect to find quirky jewellery, second hand clothes and artworks or home decorations. I’ve been to Glebe Markets several times over the last five years and always find new young T-shirt designers there. Also worth a look, Glebe Point Road also has some excellent cafes and restaurants, and is only a short walk from central station. There is also a good selection of  food stalls.

Glebe markets are every Saturday at Glebe Public School from 10am. 

Sydney Fish markets

The fish markets are never quiet, but whether you’re just after a browse around, some delicious lunch or some produce it’s a great place to people watch. It’s usually pretty packed, and very popular with the tourists. It’s especially busy on the weekends, and make sure you either walk from the city (ten minutes from Darling Harbour) or catch public transport because parking is limited and almost always full.

Sydney fish markets are open every day, from 7am to around 4pm.

Kirribilli Markets

Kirribilli has two monthly markets; the General Market on the fourth Saturday of every month and an Arts and Fashion Market held on the second Sunday of each month. They are both held at the Burton Street Tunnel next to Milsons Point train station. We’ve read that it’s a great place for the fashion concious Sydneysiders as designer bargains can be found here as well as the occasional designer on the way up. There’s loads of clothes stalls on both the Saturday and Sunday markets as well as great food options and live music with harbour views.

Located at burton street tunnel, closest station is Milsons Point but also accessible by walking  north from the city over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. General Markets 7am-3pm & Art/Fashion Markets 9am-3pm.

Chinatown Night Markets

On friday nights Dixon Street in Chinatown turns into an open air market; reminding us of being in South East Asia. There are many open air kitchens selling meat on stick and Asian food treats. There are also stalls selling jewellery, anime USB sticks and Pokemon socks amongst other bits and bobs. The usual hustle and bustle of Dixon street is multiplied by the market browsers and all the usual restaurants being open to entice the shoppers in. Nice lively atmosphere.

Chinatown Markets are on Dixon street, Haymarket from 4pm every friday.  

The Rocks

The rocks market is right in the centre of the hotels area, and as such the stores are generally aimed at the tourist markets.

You can buy all the usual tourist rubbish, wooden kangaroos, boomerangs, mass produced ephemeral items, paintings and drawings of the Sydney Opera House. There are a few basic food stalls and craft sellers but most sellers are focused on souvenirs and the tourist markets.

The Rocks markets are located under cover on George Street, in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge & in the pedestrianized section of Argyle Street. Open Saturday & Sunday from 10am-5pm.

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Sydney’s best parks, reserves and outdoor spots.

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One of the nicest things about Sydney is the amount of green space everywhere, little spaces of calm amongst the city. With so many nice views and a great climate it makes for a good way to spend an afternoon reading a book, or like a lot of sydneysiders a quiet place to hang out and eat lunch.

These are our favourite spots.

Observatory Hill

My absolute favourite place in Sydney to kill time. Sat on the opposite side of the harbour bridge to the opera house it offers a differing view of the Sydney Bay. The view takes in Balls Head, Blues Point, Lavender Bay, Luna Park, ‘That Bridge’, and all the lovely rooftops of the old terraces in The Rocks.

I discovered this space the first time I came to Sydney, and have been coming back ever since. I never get bored of the view, it’s just beautiful with enough background noise from the Harbour Bridge traffic. It’s also close by to lots of lovely old buildings in The Rocks, one of the nicer places to wander around.

Accesible from Kent Street, next to the tennis courts; Watson road (off Argyle Street) or the footpath under the Harbour Bridge from Cumberland Street.

Botanical Gardens

OK, so it’s always full of people whatever the weather but for a good reason! Dating back to 1816, and on the site of the first colonial farm in Australia, It’s full of plant species from all over the world, beautifully manicured gardens, some great sculptures, and wedding parties. There’s also plenty of wildlife including Ibis and Flying Foxes who sleep hanging from the trees in large numbers.

Several Entrances, most accesible from The Sydney Opera House.

Clark Park sercret gardens

Hidden away between Lavender Bay and Clark Park, lies a little green field of calm. Regenerated  by Wendy Whiteley, wife of the prominent and now deceased Australian artist Brett Whiteley. The land belongs to the railway company and was a dumping ground until transformed into a communal garden.  Superb harbour views from the top (as usual) and a secret grotto down the stairs with sculpture art, beautifully designed gardens and picnic tables.

Take a walk along lavender bay past Luna Park, and go up the stairs nearest the toilet block.

Paddington Reservoir

A tiny little space lies in the remains of an old reservoir, a sunken garden. It’s a clever design concept in trendy Paddington, with a tranquil space in the lower, sunken gardens and a grassy reserve on top of the remaining chamber. A great example of modern regeneration and clever, urban architecture.

It’s not a big reserve, but well worth a look if you’re headed to the Paddington Markets, or the Australian Centre for Photography which are all on Oxford street and within minutes of each other.

Nearest the junction of Oatley Road & Oxford Street, known as ‘The Walter Read Reserve’ on Googlemaps.

Blues point

Blues point is on the northern side of the harbour. Nice big green spaces overlook the Harbour Bridge & parts of the rocks including the Walsh Bay Wharfs. It’s a nice spot to sit in the sunshine and relax, or take a picnic. It’s also the home of one of Sydneys more controversial buildings. The Harry Seidler designed Blues Point Tower. Loathed by many locals, it was the first building in a plan of many tower blocks for the area that were never built; it now stands alone, and seemingly out of place on the harbour front.

It’s a nice walk from Milsons point, through lavender bay and onto Blues point.

Most accesible by driving. Can walk from Milsons Point train station, through Lavender bay. one hour (ish)

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Others good spots include…

Hyde park – A favourite with the backpackers and the city workforce. Lunchtimes are busy on a nice day. Also home to the Anzac memorial, giant chess and lots of Ibis.

Bradfield Park – underneath the northern end of the Sydney Harbour bridge, near Milsons point station with nice views of the city at dusk, often busy on nice days.

Shark Island – Ideally located in the middle of the harbour, with no city ferry service. Access via private ferry, kayak or water taxi! See more Shark Island pictures from NYE here!

What’s Your favourite? Have I missed anything?

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About us

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“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” – Bill Bryson.

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We travelled a lot independently, but as an awesome tag team we recently spent two years travelling using over a year of that time in South East Asi exploring all it’s delicious foods!  in 2013 we lived in Sydney, Australia using our working holiday visas and exploring the city. We traveled to India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. We’re back home in the UK for now but are always planning trips, adventures and hopefully a plan to move somewhere more exotic in the reasonably near future.

We like tea, photography, fish fingers sandwiches, bookshops, graffiti, galleries, and lots of sushi..

Check us out on Facebook, too. We update it a bit more often and post silly pictures of our lunch, general stuff and excellent examples of Engrish.

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Come and say hello!

Twitter @hungrybpackers 

Send us postcards, we love postcards.

Border jumping, Cambodia to Thailand: Siem Reap to Bangkok/ Aranyapathet to Poipet

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We arranged via our hotel to travel back to Bangkok on the bus, we didn’t really ask too many questions so it came to no surprise to us that we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Will it be one bus? Will we drive straight through?

The bus cost $16 US dollars through our hotel, it may have been a little cheaper if we had booked direct, but we didn’t know where we needed to go, and our hotel had been excellent so we were happy to pay them a commission.

We were offered three different times, six or eight in the morning and midday. We took the eight o’ clock bus as we thought it would be the most convenient time to leave, and also arrive.

The bus left sort of on time, and we drove towards the border. We stopped an hour into the journey for provisions and a toilet break, as is customary at these places everything is massively overpriced. There is a mini-mart opposite where the bus left from in Siem Reap which would has more choices and probably cheaper too.

We ended up stopping again in Poi Pet for some still unknown reason; we sat in a car park for about half an hour. After that the bus took us about a kilometre down the road to the border. It was very much a waste of time. The total journey from Siem Reap to Poi Pet took around three hours.

We were then taken off the bus, took back our luggage and given a red sticker! Hardly a ticket, and didn’t fill me with confidence if I’m honest.

So now were walking across to get stamped out of Cambodia. It’s getting on for midday and theres a lot of people around and plenty trying to get across the border. After you’re stamped out you have to walk across to the Thai side around two hundred metres and join the immigration queue here.

Again, the queue was long, and it did not move very fast at all. Literally hundreds of people walked straight past, out of the midday sun and into the air conditioned building. According to an employee we talked to you could go straight through if you got a visa on arrival! It’s a pretty great system that I pay for a multiple entry visa and have to stand in the midday sun for two hours whilst probably five hundred people  queue jump for a free visa on arrival. We spent over two hours waiting to get stamped out.

When we FINALLY get through, a man is waiting on the other side picking up lost looking people with red stickers. You now get assigned a number, and told to wait around.

A short while later a succession of vans turn up to ferry people to a restaurant around a kilometre up the road, where you’re invited to eat. It’s shit and it’s overpriced, but by this point I, and many others are pretty hungry. Sneaky.

You’re then ferried in mini vans to Bangkok, according to your red badge number (I guess to avoid queue jumping and suchlike) They jam you in and stuff all the luggage around you, it’s hot and stuffy and if you try to open the window the guy stops the car and gets out to tell you off. It takes about four hours and they drop you near Khao San Road.

Perhaps on other days the queue is shorter, or they are better organised. Maybe we went on a good day! If I did it again, I would get the six ‘o’clock bus to try to arrive at the border when the sun isn’t so strong.

The bus arrived into Bangkok around seven in the evening, taking eleven hours total.  I’ve read online about scams involving bus companies at Khao San Road, but nobody seemed to be missing anything in the buses we travelled in. Perhaps the night bus would be a more likely place to lose things.

How much does it cost to travel in India? Budgeting Delhi, Rajasthan & Agra.

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We spent three weeks travelling around Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra, an extension of the golden triangle. We flew into Delhi, travelled by train to Jaisalmer, and Jodhpur and then flew to Udaipur as there is no direct train link. We continued our journey onto Ranthambore national park, Jaipur and got a bus to Agra, as all trains were fully booked for our dates of travel. Lastly, we took the train back to Delhi.

Travel

Most people travel one of two ways, by bus or by train. We had quite a long wish list for India, and essentially a short period of time, so we booked (almost) all of our travel from the UK via Cleartrip, an English language version of the IRCTC for a small booking fee. Generally, I prefer not to book everything in advance, but being our first time in India, and after reading all about trying to book at the stations we decided it was the best way. It worked out perfectly for us, even after doing our best to miss our first train by going to the wrong station.

Generally, we looked to book trains in the ‘AC’ classes.  AC2 & AC3 offer good value for money.  AC2 specifies Air conditioned, two tiers and AC3 specifies, unsurprisingly, Air conditioned with three tiers. There is also the cheaper ‘sleeper’ class for the more adventurous. For all things train related check the train god Mark Smith’s website seat61.com.

Delhi to Jaisalmer was our longest journey, seventeen hours; and around 480 miles. We travelled in AC2. The tickets cost 1’384 rupees (£15/$25) per person. By comparison, one of our cheapest journeys from Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambore National park station) to Jaipur, was little over two hours, around one hundred miles and 300 Rupees (£3.50/$5.50) per person. Basically, the trains are very good value for money.

Travelling by train is a cheap, comfortable and enjoyable experience, as you get to meet Indian families also travelling the railways. The trains we took all left on time, and only one arrived late They are also clean and well organised. My tip would be if you’re travelling as a pair, book AC2 side upper and side lower. You get a window seat, usually with a power point and can be a little bit removed for the main area of the berth if you don’t feel like being sociable, or just want to sleep.

I wrote about our one bus journey from Jaipur to Agra in this post.

Our flight was the only transport we took that left late, and cost 3000Rupees (£35/$55) for the hour journey, which is still cheap for a flight.

Accommodation

Generally, we stayed in double rooms with en-suite. The standard of cleanliness in India, can quite often be a long way from European expectations, but It’s one of those things with India, you accept it and get on with it or you hate it. Kind of like the country I suppose.  We booked everything online the day or so before we arrived in a new city with Hostelbookers. Personally, I prefer to just book something and turn up, I don’t want to waste my time wandering around for deals. It might work out more expensive some times, but what price to you put on your leisure time in a location? Especially when we’re trying to cram as much in as we did.

With the exception of Ranthambore National Park, we found accommodation to be affordable, and fairly abundant. We generally paid around 500-700Rupees (£6-8/$9-13) per night for a double, with fan and an en-suite.

Food and drink

Food in India, is incredibly good value. I’m still wondering to myself how they make the bread, so light, crispy and not oily!?

Street food stalls, will sell tasty snacks, although almost always fried for between 10-50Rupees, (£0.10-0.60/$0.20-0.90) depending on how substantial it is. A simple sit down meal for two with a couple of vegetable mains, and some bread would cost between 100- 300Rupees (£1.20-£3.40/$1.70-5.50) A thali, for example would cost, on average around 200Rupees (£2.20/$3.60)

We ate out for ‘Fancy dinner’ three times in India, in Delhi we wanted to go to a restaurant we had seen on TV, famous for its chicken dishes. In Udaipur we wanted to spoil ourselves in the surroundings and in Agra, we were just quite weary and needed the peace and quiet. In all three we took advantage of the professional kitchens and refrigeration to indulge in meat! They were all around 1500-2000Rupees (£17-22/$27-36) for an amazing meal, and especially in Udaipur, a dinner experience unlikely to be matched any time soon.

Drinks in India are generally quite cheap, although alcoholic drinks in restaurants can be relatively expensive, especially spirits or cocktails. A large bottle of water usually cost around 15Rupees(£0.20/$0.30), a can of Coke, around 20Rupees (£0.25/0.40), and a large bottle of Kingfisher beer was around 150Rupees (£1.70/$2.75).

Experiences

India ticket prices can vary for historic attractions. They have a system whereby they have tourist prices, and local prices. The archaeological survey of India sites, including The Red Fort and Humayuns tomb in Delhi, and Fatehpur Sikri near Agra are all 250Rupees (£2.80/$4.50) entry for  a tourist. The Taj Mahal, is however 750Rupees. (£8.50/$13.50) Other historic sites such as Mehrangarth Fort in Jodhpur, or Jag Mandir in Udaipur are around the 300Rupee mark.

Other experiences included going on the tiger safari in Ranthambore national park, desert safari in Jaisalmer and visiting the famous Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur.

Ranthambore, does not work out to be cheap, especially not compared with the rest of Rajasthan. Currently, (and I think the rules and prices in Ranthambore change regularly) a safari lasts around three hours and costs  555-600Rupees depending on whether you’re in a gypsy (15 seats)  or canter (4 seats) . For accommodation we paid around 1300rupees (£14.80/$24), for nothing extraordinary. It’s a small town next to Ranthambore national park and as such prices are inflated for food as well as accommodation. We spent in the region of 10’000Rupees, (£115/$185) for two safaris each, three nights accommodation and all meals and drinks. We did see tigers, so it was totally worth it.

The town of Jaisalmer was averagely priced for Rajasthan, and we wanted to take an excursion to the Thar Desert to see the sand dunes and generally adventure. It was great, we went with a small company, ate good food and didn’t see another safari group, litter or the other things we had read bad reviews of. The rate for our tour was 1300Rupees (£14.80/$24) per person, but we paid extra to go out on our own.

Numbers.                                                                                                                                                       

We travelled for twenty one days, visiting three states.

Our transport, from city to city amounted to 6’800Rupees (£78/$125) per person, for three weeks and around 1500 miles total. we travelled in the region of 1’150 miles, spending approximately thirty five hours on the train tracks. We also spent around three hundred miles travelling via bus or train. Travel in India is exceptionally good value.

Aside from the above mentioned excursions, we reckon we travelled around India, eating well (although cheaply), but drinking sparingly; sleeping in private double rooms, travelling in AC2 or AC3 carriages and doing activities, or sightseeing most days for around about 1200Rupees (£13.70/$22) per person, per day.

All prices listed are in rupees, pound sterling and US dollars. I have not included our flights in, and out of the country as they are part of a multi-flight ticket. We travelled between October and November 2012.

Since leaving India, I have written this summarising post, which also may be of interest. Any views, or opinions welcomed.

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The things we learn’t about India, a retrospective.

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We left Delhi over a month ago now and it’s been more than enough time to reflect on our time in India.

Firstly, we had an amazing time in India. It was a completely new experience for us. Everyday held something new to us. We were like children the first time they go abroad. What is this? What do I do with this? How does this work? It was a great learning curve, for us as individuals and as a couple. One thing that surprised me personally is the accessibility. I really expected India to be a lot more challenging to western travellers. I had thought people wouldn’t speak English so much, or; we would have to work things out for ourselves more. Turns out, India is much easier than I had envisaged. Perhaps if we go to China one day we will discover truly challenging travel.

One thing I can say is that India is intense. It’s a sensory overload, smells of rubbish are constantly being replaced by the scent of sweet chai, incense, street food, sewage, burning plastic, spices and it back to the beginning again. Aurally, Car horns, traffic and the wallahs shouting “chai, masala chai”. Then there’s the million sites fighting for your visual attention. Dogs, pigs, cows and children all rummaging in rubbish (we actually saw all of this whilst the rubbish was on fire and none of the above cared) men casually urinating wherever they felt like, including, but not limted to train stations (both off the platforms and from carriages onto the tracks) in the street, in the middle of the day and I’ve probably lost count of the amount of tuk-tuks we saw abandoned whilst men pissed on nearby walls.

When we first arrived in Delhi, we couldn’t believe how many people stared. I mean a lot. It wasn’t in an aggressive sense, but neither was it inquisitive, it’s a little unusual coming from a country where people actively avoid eye contact. Also, especially in Delhi people would walk along side you and chat to us. We thought this was more underhand behaviour to begin with, like in Bangkok when people say things like ‘hey man! cool t-shirt, where are you from?’  Before you know it they are trying to sell you a suit or take you to a ping pong show. Actually, we worked out mostly people in India just wanted to practise their English on us. It’s quite nice really, and it’s an openness of people you don’t see often enough in England. We felt a little guilty, to think the worst of people.

I could go on and on about the experiences with people we met, and people we chatted to but none will explain India, and Indian people as well as I now know it as much as the border security police we shared a berth with on the train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur.

We happened to be sharing a cabin with some border patrol officers, who had been on exercise in the Thar Desert. They were a mixed bunch of twenty and thirty somethings who all wanted to practise their limited English on us, except for one. He was from Manipur, a small state in the very east of India close to the Myanmar border and looked far more Chinese or Mongolian than Indian. Turns out, the area he was from doesn’t speak Hindi, but tribal dialects and English. Basically, he had joined the Border security team without being able to speak to his colleagues, he explained to us that he was learning Hindi, but wasn’t so good yet. It’s unbelievable to me to think you could join the police without being able to speak the national language! Only in India could this happen.

They were such friendly people, and enjoyable company, we spent the entire five or six hour journey talking with them. They played us Hindi music, and I in turn got my MP3 player out for them. Immeadiatley one asked ‘Do you have Justin Beiber?!’ He couldn’t believe that only twelve year old girls listen to Justin Beiber in England. Western culture is starting to percolate through to India and only the most commercialised pop music is heard here (In the less developed corners of Rajasthan at least, this may not be the case for Goa, for example) Interestingly, our hostel in Delhi played Rhianna’s ‘Rude Boy’ a lot. Risqué I thought.

When we arrived in Jodhpur we said our goodbyes and got off the train. We waited around outside the train to read up about transport and how much we should pay, and then they all came marching out and harangued a tuk tuk driver into taking us to our hotel, for a locals price!

This mostly sums India up for us. Friendly people who have gone out of their way to help us and unfamiliarity in almost everything.

There is also  the contradiction between beauty and ugliness.

One thing that illustrates this point is the Jaisalmer fort. A resplendent golden castle seemingly growing out of the desert, when we look closer you see it’s covered with rubbish on the steep slopes where people have thrown their waste from the converted havelis. I can’t work out why this is accepted, Jaisalmer is a town almost ran entirely on tourism and the fort is the focal point, so it seems counter-productive to allow it’s decline. India it seems can sometimes be a little short-sighted, in this regard. education is blamed for most things in India; and the lack of sanitation, or recycling is again generally attributed to this. Surely it can’t be hard to articulate to people that if you continue to treat historical sites, areas of natural beauty and tourist attractions like shit, people will cease to visit and you will not earn any money!?

The country is growing at such an amazing pace and in such a rush to catch up with the western world that I hope it can retain the qualities that make it so different, and fascinating.

I’ve read online from countless people saying they couldn’t decide if they loved or hated India until they left, and realised they absolutely loved it, and it’s entirely true. From mint flavoured crisps, to tuk tuk’s carrying goats and trying to buy metro tickets at one of the busiest stations, in rush hour and being barged out of the way by every octogenarian in Delhi. It’s complete madness, but a massively rewarding country.

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Border jumping, Thailand to Laos: Chiang Khong to Huay Xai, and the slow boat.

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When I was researching this trip, this was one area I was pretty confused by. I found some articles from Flash Parker, which are very useful, and served me well. Hopefully now I can add some updated information to this subject.

If like us, and a lot of others you are leaving Chiang Mai and looking to get to Laos, you will get a bus from the arcade bus station. We booked onto the 08:30AM green bus service to Chiang Khong. It stops quite a lot, but they have air con, really comfy seats and a TV. We watched a dubbed copy of Spiderman!  Also, you get a receipt for your baggage. I’m not sure this would be any use at all in the event of your stuff being stolen, but hey.  The bus was 241Baht, for about a six hour journey. I’ve read conflicting information about the station, some people say it’s mental busy others fairly quiet. The day we travelled out the bus queues were quite short, however our bus was full so book ahead if you’re on a schedule.

Okay, so now you’re in Chiang Khong! You’re there? Wrong.  Due to some great idea involving getting more money for the local tuk-tuks, the bus stops at one end of the town and the ferry is at the other. You guessed it, you have to pay another 30Baht to get there.

Make sure you have some US Dollars before you leave Chiang Mai, you cannot pay the visa fee with any other currency and I expect the exchange rate at Chiang Khong is terrible. Most prices were around 20USD for Asian countries and 30-35USD for Europe and America. Oddly, Canadians have to pay 43USD. Also, you need one passport photo for your application.

You then wander down to the boats, stopping at the customs post (it looks like the booths attendants sit in at car parks) to get an exit stamp.  The two minute ferry across the Mekong will cost 30Baht and you’re in Laos!

Here, you have to fill in your entry card and pay your fee. I’ve read online about border staff being suggestive about bribes, but in my experience they were polite and efficient, people at Heathrow could learn a thing or two! Oh, and keep hold of your departure card, unlike most places they don’t seem to staple it into your passport.  There is a booth opposite customs for money exchange, but we waited until we were further into Huay Xai as again, we expected the exchange rate to be better. The bank in the town apparently does the best rates. If you have a smart phone, get the XE currency app, it’s brilliant and it’s a ball ache trying to work out prices when everything is interchangeable between Baht, Kip and Dollars.

So you need somewhere to stay! (You can spend the night in Chiang Khong, which is bigger but I’ve read about the bottlenecking at customs, and having to get up earlier to make the ferry. Also, mid- afternoon the border was pretty much dead) We stayed at one of the standard places on the main strip. It was clean and nice enough, it also happens to be opposite a place called Bar How? which is a really nice place to eat very good Lao food considering the transient nature of the town. You can book your ferry tickets via pretty much anyone in the town. We just bought ours from our hotel. We probably paid a bit too much, but it was more efficient and stress free than wandering around the travel agents.  I hate that.

There are three options to get to Luang Prabang, slow boat, fast boat and bus. I’ve read pretty bad things about the bus and any reputable guidebook recommends avoiding the fast boats.

The slow boats vary in size and quality. Some boats have seats taken from buses with cushions, others are benches.  We were lucky our boats both had comfortable seating. Rather than buying a cushion straight away, check your boat out first!

The people in the Huay Xai have all kinds of stories to tell, some people say the boat leaves at 9:30, 10, 10:30…etc. Also, everybody is trying to sell you stuff such as sandwiches and snacks. They will all tell you that you can’t buy anything on the boat. You can buy water, hot drinks, noodle pots, fizzy pop, beer and crisps, but take a sandwich with you. I’ve also read online that people would come onto the boats to sell other stuff, but this didn’t happen on our journeys so don’t count on it.

Also, the boat leaves when it’s ready, time is irrelevant. Depends on the cargo and other things they need to send on the river, we were told 10:30, but left at midday.

Invariably, someone will come onto the boat to tell you about Pak Beng, the stop over point and that it is high season and what not. They will probably try to sell you accommodation; we foolishly took some there and then, just to make it a bit better than dealing with all the touts. Don’t believe the hype. There must be enough accommodation, and frankly it’s cheaper directly in Pak Beng. Lesson learnt.

Pak Beng is nothing more than a stopover. I can’t think of any reason why somebody would stay here longer than the one night. Lots of people tried to sell me drugs here, I can only imagine they have a deal with the police and get a cut of the fine on top of the retail price. Being as you’re in the middle of nowhere without any choice, stuff is expensive here.

The second day is back on the boat, it might not be the same boat, and I’m not sure if you can buy cushions in Pak Beng, so it’s a bit of a gamble if you buy one originally. About eight hours later you arrive in Luang Prabang! Again, if you haven’t got accommodation sorted lots of people are waiting at the dock to welcome you to town, as such.

The journey is long, but it’s very rewarding. Make sure you put a warm layer in your bag because as the sun starts to think about going down, it gets cold. The views are pretty spectacular and you’re in a boat full of people to chat to if you feel like it. It’s a far more leisurely and enjoyable way to get travel than the bus.

Travelling in India, it’s not just the destination but the journey.

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We have a pretty short time in India, and have a pretty big wish list for our itinerary. Therefore, we booked as much of our transport as we could online, in advance. It’s a lot easier than expected and the trains have been really efficient, yet another country I’ve visited with a better rail network than the UK. However, one route Jaipur to Agra was pretty much sold out in advance. We took our chances and decided to book a bus locally in Jaipur.

We had originally hoped for a tourist bus, the incredibly helpful manager at our Jaipur accommodation (a rare light in an otherwise horrific time in Jaipur, but that’s a different story…) arranged for us. He had told us that the government buses, “Volvo, super nice” would be the ones for us. As it transpires, they were fully booked. A combination I fear of the proximity to Diwali and the well-trodden golden triangle route of Jaipur to Agra.

Anyway, we’re booked onto a private company bus, which isn’t Volvo, but will still get us to Agra.

The next morning a tuk-tuk driver deposits us at the destination, which is not a bus station but a hotel underneath an underpass full of various buses, booking stands and makeshift breakfast options. By some miracle (I think it’s down to the Ganesha I had in my backpack) we get on the right bus.

It’s pretty much the most unfamiliar bus layout I’ve ever seen. I can make out what seem to be three classes; Seated class, aisle class and coffin class.  Coffin class, was located in an elevated cabin, above the seated class, with a sliding plastic door like a seventies sideboard, with just enough room to sit upright, if you’re twelve, or under.

The whole process was mayhem, we were the only white folks on the bus, we had no idea about arrival times, or bus etiquette. Luckily the good man at the hotel got us into seated class and once we managed to get to our seats and sandwich ourselves, and our backpacks in, we were set.

Our tickets stated an 8am kick off, but for some still unexplained reason we set off at 7:45 and stopped about half a mile up the road for pretty much everyone to get off and piss on the closest wall. As we trundled out of Jaipur more and more people squeezed onto the bus, not one, but four conductors came around to check our tickets, and generally shout at people on the bus. As more people got on and ‘aisle class’ filled up I noticed many people negotiating their ticket price, I’m very happy  to have paid three hundred rupees for a six-hour journey, but, I’m pretty sure at this point I paid over  the odds, again.

Anyway, we carry on down the road, with the driver beeping at everything from the traffic to the wildlife in the road, and possibly people he knows and happen to pass, with all these people crammed in like livestock. It still doesn’t fail to amaze me the sort of positions and contortions Indian people can fall asleep in. I’ve seen people asleep on motorbikes, lying on curbs, and now also, three deep in ‘coffin class’ or sitting on the floor of a bus driving over potholes with knackered suspension.  Honestly mystifying.

The journey was a great insight into India, one thing I’ve seen over and over again here is people’s generosity, and tendencies to share everything. This continued on the bus ride with people breaking open their breakfast boxes and bottles of water and passing them around to one another.  Sometimes I’m not even sure if they knew each other. As is the case with transport in India, people all over the bus are playing music from their mobiles and this just blends in with all the other noises and I almost forget we’re the foreigners until I notice people staring, again.

A few other bizarre things happen, such as when we pull over for a ten minute break a succession of people get on trying to sell things such as, Plastic table clothes, small books which may have been Indian pulp fiction and gold neck laces.  As we set off again another argument kicks off and the conductor mediates ending with one woman smacking the guy in the seat in the front over the head. I can only presume he stole someone’s seat and I’m glad we didn’t get off the bus for fear of it driving off without us, and now also, for fear of losing our seats. Also worth mentioning that anytime anybody left the slightest edge of their seat available someone from aisle class jumped up and sat on the edge. It’s all very unfamiliar.

It’s a strange situation to be travelling in a bus and see one of the deluxe AC cruiser buses pull up alongside, with all the tourists pointing their cameras at you. (or at least your vehicle..) I think it was probably because people were sitting on the roof, but it felt very surreal and quite intrusive. I don’t know how the average Indian feels about it, but I can’t imagine they look on tourists in a good light in this sense.

So we arrived in Agra, another downside of the private buses we kind of got dumped on the edge of Agra, as loads of others jumped on. I didn’t expect to be delivered to a shiny bus station, and it was nothing a quick tuk-tuk couldn’t fix but it’s yet another example of the lack of communication or organisation (at least perceived from our expectations…) we keep experiencing in India! The only time we’ve felt comfortable we know where we’re going has been the Delhi metro with its English announcements.

It’s not all about the destination, and I’m glad we travelled a bit out of our comfort zone and wouldn’t have had the chance to notice half of the interesting things on the super nice Volvo.