The first marking experience you have in Thailand is definitely the people. “Thailand” literally means the country of a thousand smiles and that you will agree of when you land there.
Prices are fairly cheap for food, accommodation and goods, from 2 to 4 times cheaper than in Singapore, which is already roughly from 1 to 2 times cheaper than France.
It will be a good deal though only if you don’t fall in one of the many scams in Bangkok. The typical scam is related to tuk-tuk drivers. A tuk-tuk is typical type of motorbike that was transformed to be halway between a car are a motorbike. Many tuk-tuk drivers are part of large soft mafia. They wait around the guest houses and other tourist hotels or places of interest like temples. They offer you an insanely cheap tour of the city instead of bringing you to wherever you want, which is tempting. Basically the cheap charge is covered by FORCED AFFILIATION. This driver will bring you to many places that will charge you a crazy price and they will get a commission that’s far more interesting than a tuk tuk ride for them financially speaking. The worst possible affiliation they have is jewels stores. Tuk-tuk drivers will tell you it’s the last day of some promotion than allows you to buy sapphires at company price and resell them in your country for much more.
If you go to Bangkok, if you are on low budget, go for tuk tuks never accept ANY STOP or prefer city buses even cheaper but quite slow. Or simply take a taxi meter, which is still relatively cheap.
Tuk-tuk drivers elsewhere Bangkok are just insisting are only sponsored by guest houses. They are so insisting that the only way we found to turn that into something was to answer “tuk-tuk” to whoever asked “Tuk-tuk ?”. Further in the joke, every time we were riding a bike, we couldn’t help reversing the joke and asking real tuk tuk drivers if they wanted a ride on our low-cost one-day tuk-tuk bike. “Hello, Where you go ? Tuk tuk ? Guest house?”. Most of them laughed a lot, that was fun.
There’s a regret though of not having had more time to explore trading opportunities and to trek around especially around Chiang Mai.
The first this that strikes when you arrive in Laos, is the absence of smiles. We had indeed been spoiled by the nice Thai people. Three days are definitely too short to draw conclusions on the locals but that was the first impression. Country is really poor. Prices are insanely high considering we’re in Asia. It’s almost like in Singapore (1 to 2 times cheaper than in France) which should be OKAY, minus the fact that Singapore offers very high standards (cleanliness, modernism, transportations, safety…) for the same price.
I want to explore a bit more to find out how much communism is responsible for the sad situation of Laos. Planned Economy seams to be practised everywhere. Laos is probably the only country in the world where you will find 10 stalls, all near each other, ALL selling the EXACT same things, at the exact same price with virtually no possibility of discount.
This applies to all types of businesses, the similar business all cluster in one place, and all do the same thing atidentical places. No differentiation, no innovation, barely any marketing. The agressive business man travelling in Laos will easily wonder whether those people are here because they have to. It could be given the motto of communism : everybody according to their needs and according to their capabilities. In other words, do whatever you can do for the community, and we’ll give you (not what you produce but) what you really need.
Landscapes however are tremendously beautiful. If you’re a lover of nature, you will be amazed by the northern part of Laos with its abrupt hills and dense vegetation. Going south, the land flattens, and you will see more rice fields, but I would recommend outside the harvesting period when the rice is flashy green.
Banana trees grow everywhere, as omnipresent as undesired plants. A local snack is some sort of BBQ banana: it’s a not-yet-ripe banana that’s gently grilled and it makes a delicious and not too sweet, not too soft snack.
Oustide a few funny plants here and there, we barely found anything TYPICALLY Lao in terms of food. You’ll find fried rice and other very healthy fried foods and over-sweet drinks like everywhere else in southeast Asia but don’t expect anything too fancy.
Currencies ! Nearly everywhere in Laos, you can pay in either USD, THB (bahts), or KHIPS (the Lao currency). I would however recommend two things for your savings. First, the locals are convinced that 1 USD = 7000 KHIPS, truth is it’s worth around 8500 Khips. So it’s often better to pay them in Khips because most will apply this rate that advantages them a lot. Second, sometimes price is indicated in several currencies and barely updated to keep up with stock exchange fluctuations. Do convert all of them to see what currency advantages you more and pay in that one. That’s how we saved a bit by choosing USD and BAHTS instead of KHIPS a few times.
The regret with this trip is to have been to Vientiane where there is nothing to do, more affecting yet, I wish I could spend a bit of time with a mainstream Lao family with one person that can converse in English, and understand everything about their lifestyle.
Stop in Pulau Penang (Malaysia)
If you travel from say Singapore to Bangkok by bus (overall 35 to 45 Euros against 60 Euros by low-cost plane) and achievable in 2 nights and one day (leaving evening from Johor Bahru and arriving not the next but the following morning in Bangkok at 6/7am), you might consider stopping in Penang. I warn you: there is nothing much about this island ! No nice beaches, normal landscapes, absolutely nothing very entertaining. The only fun thing I considered was Parasailing (parachute 30 meters above water and pulled by a boat) and jet-sky. For 2 RM,Take nothing else than a 501 “Rapid Bus” bus from the Jetty in Georgetown to the beach Batu Ferringhi (one every 20/30 minutes), like anywhere where you are tourist ignore the seemingly friendly agents one the way to the beach and go talk to the people directly in charge of the activity you want to do. Jet-Sky can be negotiated for 65 RM / 20 minutes (13 Euros) and for Parasailing 50 RM/ 5 minutes (10 Euros).
Night Bus: Johor Bahru (Malaysia) to Pulau Penang (Malaysia)
From 10:30pm to 10am, 70 RM (14 Euros) (Malaysia Ringits) (company “SuperNice”)
Guest House :15 RM (3 Euros)
100 Cindra Street, Pulau Penang (Georgetown), Malaysia.
Bus : 33 RM (6.5 Euros)
From Butherworth (near Penang) to Hat Yai (Thailand), 3 hours.
Night Bus: 740 TBH (15 Euros) (Thailand Baht)
From Hat Yai to Bangkok (Thailand), from 8pm to 8am, SIAM Transport (02-8946160-2)
Guest House: 150 TBH (3 Euros)
Bangkok, Krao San quarter.
Thai Massage: 180 TBH (3.5 Euros)
Bangkok, Women Prison, 1 hour, nice but a little too strong.
Bus: Bangkok – Sukotai : 273 TBH (5.5 Euros)
Guest House : 150 TBH (3 Euros)
Old City Guest House, Sukhotai.
Main ruins temple entrance : 150 TBH (3 Euros)
Bike for a day : 30 TBH (0.6 Euros), end of the main street on the mekong side, in front of Kmuh massage (Tel: 567-1306).
Bus : Sukhotai – Tak, 53 TBH (1 Euro)
Bus : Tak – Chiang Mai, 275 TBH (5.5 Euros)
Bus : Chaing Mai – Chiang Rai, 180 TBH (3.5 Euros)
Bus : Chiang Rai – Huay Xai (Laos) : 55 TBH (1 Euro)
Lao Customs : 30 USD (
Bus : Huay Xai – Luang Prabang (Laos), 20 USD
From 2pm to 5am.
Bike: Luang Prabang, 3000 Khips for a day
Lao Massage : 45000 KHIPS
Kmuh Massage, 1 hour, very nice.
Night Bus: Luang Prabang – Vientiane (Laos), 13 USD.
Vientiane – Nong Kai (Thailand) : 60 THB
Customs exit fee : 2500 KHIPS
Nong Kai – Bangkok: 325 TBH
Food + local buses and tuk-tuk : 250 TBH/day on average