647th post: Getting around abroad

In recent years, I had travel to countless number of different countries around Asia. I travel because I hear so much about different countries, but never actually visited them.

Back then, I had thought that you could only go abroad through "packages" by travel agencies, which I found expensive and inflexible. Not a fan of tour guides that travel around in large "herds" I see around me either. Just visiting a tourist spot near where I live and I could already see how expensive it is over the "less-touristy" ones.
  • Expensive: Hotels they offered, which is typically 3 to 5 stars, and may include meals containing food I do not want to eat.
  • Inflexible: They have schedules that are made up of mostly visiting tourist places and, looking at it, there is only little time where we aren't herded around except perhaps arriving and departing days, which, depending on what time of the day, can be short or long. I hate following schedules.

Anyway, during my travels abroad, I usually brought about 2-3 pairs of clothing (more for underwear and socks) and other random stuff that would fit in a haversack and still have room. Since I'm also boarding a plane without any check-in luggage as much as possible, I did not bring along toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Actually, you can bring these along, as long you check it in, total liquids you are carrying does not exceed 100ml in a transparent bag (which is troublesome to measure), or non-liquid versions of these. These kinds of things can be found at the destination country's hotel or stores anyway.

Another thing is to take note is to keep an eye out for the exchange rate between your currency and the currency you are visiting for a few weeks. Depending on the rates, you may need to change early, or right before the trip. If there are stopovers in a different country, exchange a bit of that country's currency (US$100 should be more than enough if you are just buying a meal) too. Depending on the country and place, rates from the ATM or outside the airport might have a better exchange rate. Note: Excluding the local currency, coins are generally not accepted or given at money changers.

Anyway, here are the things I find about a place that other countries do not have or are in a different way.

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Johor Bahru)

Getting around is kind of straightforward, but not so easy if outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Everywhere you see are likely to notice are car models that you would not see anywhere else in the world. The atmosphere feels kind of fierce, strong influence of a particular religion is noticeable too, and the crime rate there doesn't make me feel easy there. Even though the cost of things there might see high, the currency exchange rate against my home currency actually makes it cost less than back home.

1 USD is about 3 Malaysian Ringit

China (Shanghai and Shenzen)

I only made a short visit to these cities as I need to travel to get to elsewhere in an another country, so I don't really know much. Easy way to calculate is to think of it as divide the amount by 10 to get the amount in British Pounds, a currency more familiar to me.

The first thing I noticed is that the side of the road and tracks buses and trains travel on are at the opposite side from what I'm used to. I actually found myself wondering how to get around as it wasn't planned. Cost of things are cheap compared to back home, and probably at par with Malaysia. Can't put a rough number on it though.

Hong Kong

The reason why I mentioned being to Shenzen is because it was part of a side day trip from Hong Kong. Macau was considered, but did not go there in the end. The HKD rate may be 0.8 yuan or 12 yen per dollar, but the cost of things are actually that of between China and Japan. The Hong Kong coins are the thickest, heaviest, and largest (in size) that I have ever come across. Excluding the HK$10 note (issued by the government to replace the coin version), the banknotes are distributed by several different banks instead of a central bank, which is the weirdest thing I have come across for money.

As I get around, there are actually features that help the blind at pedestrian crossings and the ends of escalators, along with brale signs. Just crossing the border with China (Shenzen) and you would notice how different things are, form the standard of English, to cleanness. Signs are bilingual (English and Traditional Chinese) everywhere.

To ride on public transport, I obtained an Octopus Card (or 八達通 in Chinese) to save the hassle to dig up for coins, and exact change in some cases, to pay for buses, tram and trains. You could also use it to pay at convenient stores (though the cashier seem reluctant when I asked) and vending machines too. I am not sre about this, but apparently paying by Octopus Card might be cheaper than paying in cash too. I never paid in cash for transport except to top up the card, so I don't know about that.

Kansai Region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe)

Visiting this region feels like being in a different country than Tokyo. It may not be for neighbouring Kyoto, but in Osaka (and I forgot to mention earlier: Hong Kong too), people riding the escalator stand on the right instead of the left.

The trains uses a non-rechargable magnetic card that can be use instead of queuing up at long queues for the ticket machine, but you still pay the same fare. Like other cities in Japan, but not outside, you can use it even when the value is low and chose to pay for the insufficient difference either in cash or with another similar card. I bought several of them of 1000 yen each (minimum you could buy, but it's worth about less than 5 trips anyway) for the card design.

There are contactless card, but those are linked to your phone bill and obviously not accessible to the foreigner. I hear it's also compatible with JR West's ICOCA card, but I hardly ever come across any JR West station. The ICOCA card itself is also compatible with the SUICA card of the Kanto region (including Tokyo) and vice versa, but the PiPoPa doesn't work with the SUICA card.


What you would notice is how similar it is compared to Hong Kong due to both being former British colonies and small land area, which relates to infrastructure and such.

If you will be taking public transport a lot in Singapore, get the ez-link or NETS Flashpay card from the ticket counter (or customer service at the ticket barrier if there isn't any) as not only would you pay cheaper than by cash, it would be less of a hassle to pay the bus fare as there is no facilitation for change and therefore need to pay in exact change (or more). On top of that, distance-based fares means that no matter how many buses and trains you take, the total fare you would pay is just one long mode of transport. The only catch is that time between transfers must not exceed 45 minutes, not take the same bus service number more than once, and not take the train more than once.

These cards contain a $5 deposit, which is included in the card balance. You cannot use this card if the balance is less than $5 for trains, or, for buses, less than the maximum fare at where you board the bus (which includes transfer discounts from buses and trains you may had taken up to 45 minutes earlier). Don't forget to tap out as you had paid the maximum when you tapped in or you would not be refunded for the fare difference.

As for taxis, prepare to pay in cash even though various modes of payment are displayed on the door. You would be charged more on top of surcharges anyway. Yellow and black taxis are privately run and are less likely to support payments anything other than cash. At the city center, taxis are not allowed to drop or pick up passengers besides taxi stands and private roads.

Thailand (Bangkok, Kanchanaburi)

The cost of things you would find in Thailand are very noticeably cheaper than the other countries I had been to. Being from where the cost of things is higher, along with a higher exchange rate with the baht, means that it's so cheap that I would go "that can't be right". Of course, that also means that if I were to settle there, that would mean that I would be (likely to be) paid less than back home for the same job. I feel safer here than when I was in Malaysia.

The Thais would usually take the the bus as the BTS Skytrain is considered expensive for them, but for the more well off and foreigners like me, it's still cheap. When you first enter Bangkok, you would notice the motorcycle taxis and vehicles that are louder than what I'm used to. If it weren't for the language barrier and cases where tourists are cheated, I could had rode them. For the buses, they seem kind of old. Fare is paid to the conductor, so you just board the train and the conductor would come to you where you would pay the fare, if they noticed you.

For the Skytrain, you would buy a prepaid card, just like the one in the Kansai region, but paying only for the trip you are travelling. Except for the newer ones, the machines accept only 5 and 10 baht coins. Use the newer machines (which can have a long queue) or the service counter next to the ticket gate to exchange. The new underground subway system uses the same method as the new ticket machine, but dispenses a (plain) round token. There are ongoing developments to develop a card that works on both the Skytrain and the subway.

But if you are headed to places like River Kwai section of the Death Railway near Kanchanaburi (about 200km Northwest from Bangkok), you are better off taking a tour bus or with your own transport. Sure there is a bus terminal there to and from Bangkok, but the bus terminal is about 2-4km and, at the Bangkok side, you would have to take a bus from the city centrer to a terminal some distance away that is at the outskirts of Bangkok. If you can't speak Thai, you are going to have trouble asking for help.


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