Chinese Bureaucracy

Traveling to China is a dream for many travelers. One of the largest countries in the world, the largest country by number of citizens, and vast differences between hyper-modern cities and frozen-in-time villages. Getting into China is easy IF you adhere to the quite complex visa application rules. At least complex compared to any other country I’ve visited so far. You have to supply entry and exit tickets, exact itinerary, and contact details of hotels within the country to be able to apply for a visa. Plus some hefty visa fees. Luckily there is a way around the visa application if you’re willing to live with a few drawbacks.

Transit!

The solution is visa free transit. China offers for certain regions up to 144 hours of visa free transit time. You can enter the country and move freely, the only restriction is that you have to leave the country within 144 hours and you are not allowed to leave the designated provinces. At the time of the writing, October 2018, there are 3 regions in China eligible for transit: Beijing (+surroundings), Shanghai (+surroundings), and Liaoning, with Guanghzou to be available soon. And no, you cannot travel from Shanghai to Beijing, you have to stay withing the transit zone that you’ve entered. The second restriction is that the country you came from needs to be different than the country you’re flying to. I flew in from Japan and returned to Germany, so no issue there. If this works as well if you book a flight, say, from Germany via Paris to Shanghai and from Shanghai via Amsterdam back (yes, the famous KLM-AirFrance-Combination with guaranteed luggage loss) needs to be tested. Not by me, thou.

To get my first glimpse of China I decided to have a 4 day layover with Janina and Björn on our way back from Japan. We had a very uncomfortable flight with Spring Airlines from Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Shanghai Pudong (PVG), leaving Japan at 1.30 am and arriving in Shanghai around 4 am. Luckily, or maybe not, we were the only plane arriving at this ungodly hour, and as we had lots of time to waste before we could check in we took all the time to walk from the plane to the immigration. There were only 3 counters open, all marked “Chinese nationals”, but the security guard sent us there anyways. All the Chinese passengers already passed immigration and only 1-2 other passengers were behind us. As I reached the counter and handed over my passport I was immediately asked for an immigration card. As I didn’t get one on the plane I had do decline and was sent back to fill out the yellow immigration card. After filling out the usual name, date of birth, passport number, etc, I returned to the counter. I handed over the card and added that I want to enter on the 144 hour transit regulation. Then I got handed a blue immigration card and was sent back yet again to fill out the blue immigration card. The content was virtually the same, except for additional information on departure country and target country. Björn and Janina had the same process. We returned yet again to the counters. Now with all but “hotel phone number” filled out we were confident that they can process our immigration forms. But even the hotel phone number needs to be provided. Luckily the booking.com app had the number available, so we could add the missing information. Obviously the Chinese nationals counter staff was completely lost in processing the 144 hours special case. They called their supervisor who came down and had to assist in entering the data. But this wasn’t enough, so the supervisor collected our passports and then she disappeared in the back and we were told to wait. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Around 10-15 minutes later the supervisor came back and handed each of the immigration officers one passport. Then we were allowed to step forward, have our fingerprints and pictures taken before we could finally enter China.

tl;dr

The take away message here it: coming to China with the 144 hour transit is pretty easy. Just be aware that you should line up behind the “special” immigration counter (a third counter besides Chinese and alien), ask for and fill out the blue immigration form, and make sure to fill out everything, even phone number of hostel. Then don’t hurry and expect to wait for a while, but it will all work out in the end.

Final remark: Currently, information on transit visa can be found here: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/tour/visa/free-transit-144-hours.htm

Travel credit cards

Update 17 October 2018: After one year of using 3 different credit cards I updated the article below with some insights. The final verdict stays, but some interesting facts were added. I marked them in italics.

A quite regular discussion topic among my friends is the choice of credit card for traveling. Without credit card traveling is by now virtually impossible, or at least vastly inconvenient. Reserving hotels, booking flights, renting cars, ordering tickets, or even withdrawing cash. All works a lot smoother with the right credit card. But what makes a good credit card? The problem here is the complex set of criteria:

  1. No fees or interest
  2. Commonly accepted
  3. Good support in case of problems
  4. Transparency on balance and transactions

First a short introduction what these criteria mean.

No fees or interest

When using credit cards there are different kind of fees:

Foreign currency fee – mostly 1-2% of the price are charged on top for the currency conversion, e.g. if I pay 120$ with my credit card, the exchange rate is 1.20, then I’m charged 100 EUR. On top of that the bank charges 2% for the conversion, so the total is 102 EUR. Not much, but over time this adds up to quite some money.

Withdrawal fee – when withdrawing cash from an ATM the ATM owner can charge a fee (which will be shown on the ATM screen), and there is nothing you can do besides finding a different ATM brand. Some banks refund the fees upon request later, but this is based on goodwill. The second fee is charged by the credit card company and not displayed on the ATM. This is usually a percentage with a minimum amount, e.g. 2% but at least 5 EUR.

Yearly fee – the yearly (or monthly) fee some banks charge you for having the card at all. Usually comes with premium features like free luggage insurance, travel cancellation insurance, or cashback.

Credit interest – credit cards that are not evening out all debt every month usually charge interest on the remaining debt. For example if you pay 1000 EUR with your card but the bank only charges you 500 EUR per month, they will charge interest after the first month at the latest.

Commonly accepted

Different kinds of credit cards are differently accepted by stores and websites. Most widely accepted are VISA and MasterCard, American Express is ok, but still far behind. Discover exists but I only remember signs saying “we no longer accept Discover card”. So VISA is the most commonly accepted choice, MasterCard a good fallback if for some reason VISA is not accepted or not working.

Good suport in case of problems

When something happens to your credit card you’re usually not at home but somewhere with expensive roaming, bad wifi, no reception, completely different time zone, or all of the above. Having support that is easy to contact through various channels, available around the clock, resonds to non-urgent requests within 1-2 days, and focused on solving problems rather than finding them is really an advantage.

Transparency on balance and transactions

Back in the days where you got your monthly credit card bill some people sure got heart attacks when they saw how much they spent. Or found fraudulent payments. When traveling it is essential that you always know how much money you spent, on what, and where. For example by having notifications for spurious or larger transactions and an app or website to see all transactions instantly is essential.

This sounds like an impossible task and honestly, finding one card that fulfills all criteria is probably impossible. However, having only one credit card while traveling is not the best idea anyways. If one card gets stolen, lost, damaged, or somehow unusable, having a second card can save the day. I compared the cards I and my friends had to find the best combination. As I’m from Germany my recommendation here works if you are a resident in Germany.

My preferred combination of cards: comdirect VISA plus N26 MasterCard.

comdirect VISA

  • Very reliable, German direct bank, part of CashGroup / Commerzbank
  • VISA widely accepted, Debitcard included with higher acceptance within Germany
  • Support available 24/7, very friendly and helpful
  • Clean website with access to all transactions, SMS notification for unexpected transactions
  • No withdrawal fee outside of the EU with VISA, inside EU with Debitcard (EC-Karte), in Germany only CashGroup ATM

Downside: foreign currency fee for payments (e.g. in shops, hotels, …), required checking account, but works best if it’s also your primary account (Gehaltskonto), no payback of ATM provider fees

N26 Mastercard

  • No foreign currency fee on payments
  • All transactions instantly shown in app, notification as push message
  • MasterCard mostly accepted
  • Overdraft credit (Dispo) can be adjusted / activated on website in case you urgently need credit

Downside: Only 3-5 free cash withdrawals in Germany, foreign currency withdrawal fee, you need a checking account to use the credit card

Runner up: Santander 1plus VISA

  • No fees for cash withdrawal and payments in any currency
  • Payback of ATM provider fees (if receipt is scanned and mailed to them)
  • No checking account required (though you have to charge it to avoid credit interest)
  • VISA widely accepted
  • Monthly charging to checking account Only 25 EUR, the remaining debt will be kepts and generate interest

Downside: I’ve only heard bad things about the user support, I don’t really like their website, no contactless payment function, very annoying offline password reset

Summary

My preferred setup is:

All payments go through N26 MasterCard.

Cash withdrawal with comdirect VISA in non-EUR countries, an N26 MasterCard in EUR countries. Unless in countries like Thailand where all banks charge an ATM provider fee, where Santander VISA pays off.

N26 payments are exactly what I want. There is never a fee, I only pay the current MasterCard exchange rate, and I always see instantly what is charged to my account, in EUR and in transaction currency, given I have internet connection. Especially cash withdrawal with comdirect abroad is quite comfortable. Several times I had issues with ATMs in South America, because they charged fees that were not shown or returned the wrong number of bills. comdirect was always very helpful and refunded the costs.

Santander in place of N26 is no option, as I really like the transparency of N26. If you’re happy with your current checking account Santander 1plus VISA + N26 MasterCard is a viable option which saves you yet another checking account. But don’t underestimate the comfort of good customer support. comdirect really paid off for me.

What TAE-FUK?

When I told this story to my friends, the common response was “What, I never thought this could happen to you!”. Usually followed or preceded by full-hearted laughter out of Schadenfreude. But I have to agree, it’s actually really funny and I never thought this could happen to me. But let’s start from the beginning.

On 5 September the Osaka area was hit by a typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon within the last 25 years, which destroyed parts of the Kansai airport built on an artificial island in the bay of Osaka. As one terminal and one runway was completely unusable flight operations were completely canceled. Around the 10th the first airlines, like ANA, started operating a few flights a day. I had a flight booked from Daegu (TAE) to Osaka (KIX) with Air Busan for the 16th fo meet up with Björn and Janina. The days after the typhoon I monitored the situation. Every day some new information, some more flights going in or out, but operations were far from normal. Around 12 September I had to make a call, so that Björn and Janina can adjust their plans if necessary, that we could end up in the same place on the 16th. Of course due to the upcoming holidays in Korea and Japan flights were already expensive. For about a day and a half we checked various destinations across Japan and different departure airports in Korea. We agreed that most likely the best solution would be to still meet up in Osaka but fly in to Fukuoka and then take the Shinkansen to Osaka.

I tried to call Air Busan to have my existing ticket rebooked to the new destination, but their service center was completely overrun and even after hours of trying I never got through. The best option was then to just book a new flight and hope that the other flight will get canceled and I could get a refund. I selected the one-way trip from TAE to FUK for the 16th, entered my personal information and credit card info and bam: your credit card does not support 3D verification, proceeding without verification. But it only showed a white screen. I tried again. No luck. Next try was booking through my mobile phone. Usually it’s the mobile website that does not work properly and I use the desktop as fallback, why not once the other way round? Again selecting departure airport, destination, one-way flight and date, entering personal information and credit card and guess what, this time it worked. I confirmed the payment with the N26 app and the flight was booked.


Now everything was clear and I went to my trip to Daegu. On the 16th I got up in the morning, had a relaxing breakfast and made my way to the airport around 11 to be there on time for my flight at 14:00. I arrived shortly before 12 and looked for the check-in counter. On the information counter I was told that for the flight to Fukuoka at 14:00 Air Busan would open the counter any minute. So I waited for a few minutes and lined up for check in.

“Konichiwa, I have a reservation for the flight to Fukuoka.” I greeted the woman behind the check-in counter and handed her my passport. She started to check the system and then handed me my passport. “How do you spell your name? I cannot find it.” Only partly confused – having an umlaut and a dash in the name regularly leads to issues – I showed her the international spelling and she checked again. “Sorry, nothing. Do you have the booking confirmation?” Alright, I looked up the confirmation mail and handed her my phone. She started scrolling around and then pointed at the phone. “Sorry, your flight is from Busan. This is Daegu. You’re at the wrong airport.” I looked at the ticket and realized “Fuck, I’m at the wrong airport.” Busan, the home airport of Air Busan, it about 2 hours away in the very south of Korea. No chance I would make it there in time for the check-in. “Oh fuck, are there any seats left on this flight? I need to get to Fukuoka.” “Yes, there are free seats. Please wait, I check if I can rebook you.” Now a 20 min journey began of phone calls the woman made, while I was checking the website to see how much a new ticket would cost me. As there were only regular tickets left a new ticket would cost around 154.000 Won, at that time ca. 115 EUR. A lot, but still affordable.

In total the woman made maybe 7-8 phone calls, apologizing in-between for letting me wait, and in the end offering me to rebook my flight for 150.000 Won. Virtually the same price as a new ticket. Somewhat disappointing, but still better than to have Janina and Björn wait for me a day in Osaka. So I paid for the new ticket and went for the security area. However, I was still very lucky to get a ticket in the first place. As I boarded the plane as one of the last passengers, I saw that all seats except for very few seats here and there, were taken. And a couple of people were still behind me.

I was still confused. How could this happen to me? I’m an experienced traveler, booked all kinds of things through phone, texts, or website in all kinds of languages without any problems. So I looked at the mobile site and tried to figure out how this could have happened. And then I found it. As I said above, I entered departure and destination airport, selected one-way, and then the flight date. The mobile Air Busan website, however, changes the airports to their default selection Busan – Fukuoka when you switch from return ticket to one-way ticket. I guess that’s where it slipped through my attention.

A weekend in Daegu

To see something more from Korea than just Seoul I decided to go to Daegu, the 4th largest city in Korea with 2.5 million people. All the lab mates I told about going to Daegu just asked: why? It felt like to them there is nothing outside of Seoul that is worth a trip. My reasoning for Daegu was that (1) it was not Seoul and (2) had cheap flights to Osaka where I planned to go next.
Unluckily, a typhoon destroyed large parts of the Kansai International Airport, which is on an artificial island in the bay of Osaka the weekend before my flight. Some airlines resumed some flights, but it didn’t look like Air Busan, my airline, would do so. I had to find a different solution to get to Osaka to meet up with my friends. After about a day of searching, discussing, and comparing the solution was to fly from Daegu to Fukuoka and take the train to Osaka. So I booked my flight and started the trip to Daegu.


What struck me first in Daegu was the rare English translations all over town. In Seoul, all subway stations and most stores or restaurants had some kind of basic English translation available. In Deagu I really had to step up my game in reading Hangul.


My hostel, Daegu Midtown Hostel, was right in the heart of the city, so I started exploring the area and passed by Dalseong park which also contained a small zoo. One of the most depressing zoos I have ever seen. Giant owls, eagles, vultures or wolves in tiny cages, some not larger than 10-12 m². At the break of dawn I went to the Seomun night market, expecting something similar to the night markets I know from Southeast Asia. But this one was different. The food stalls were selling premium street food, from beef skewers to fried shrimp to seared sushi.


The last stop for the night was the International Jazz Festival, where Jazz bands were playing all week for free on a stage in the south of Daegu. On my way there it started to rain a little bit. Just enough to make everything wet but not enough to stay inside or wear a rain jacket. As I arrived at the stage the chairs were mostly empty, just a few people with ponchos or umbrellas faced the drizzling rain. I walked up to the middle of the seating area and went for a chair, when a Korean woman rushed towards me and started talking to me hastily. I did not understand a word, she did not speak any English, but what I got was that I should not sit down on this chair. Because it was wet. I pulled out my backpack rain cover and used it as butt protection. After a little while the rain became more than a drizzle, so I thought about either staying and getting a little bit wet, or seeking shelter in a nearby place, when the same woman came to me with a poncho. So I stayed a little longer and enjoyed the quite good music before I decided to give back the poncho and go back to the center.

The next day I decided to go hiking on Mount Apsan, even though the raid had still not vanished and the clouds were hanging deep. But I was full of hope to get a nice view over the city from the viewing platform. When I crawled further up the mountain the clouds were thickening and at one point, maybe around 100 meters below the peak, I was completely within the clouds. Left and right I could only see a few meters, and walking along the ridge with drizzle and wind was a different kind of fun. Luckily one I reached the viewing platform the clouds were already breaking up, and giving me at least a partial view of Daegu.

About the nightlife there is not much to say. The center has lots of bars and clubs, something for every taste, bur nothing extraordinary. As I had to check out at 10:00 the next day I decided to go back early and get a good nights sleep before heading for Japan. But boy, did I not know how much I would need it.

Korean hiking

Stereotypically, I was told, Koreans are going hiking in the mountains on weekends. Fully equipped with the latest outdoor gear they would climb everything from a small hill to the rough mountains. I could not really believe it until I went hiking on Sunday morning. I was waiting for a friend at a subway station where hordes of elderly people in the shiniest outdoor gear were rushing by. The subway to Suraksan station was filled with them. Backpack with water supplies for several days, hiking boots for alpine tours, windbreaker, sun hat, everything. And I thought I am a preparing person. When we started to walk from the subway towards the hiking trail we passed numerous outdoor shops offering discount gear for those who are still in need of some more equipment. Luckily, we had all we needed. A big bottle of water, some crackers, and a juice-pack filled with soju to celebrate at the peak of 600-something meter high Suraksan.

We started hiking up the well maintained and comfortable hiking trail, which even had a air pressure shoe cleaning station at the entry gate. To avoid the masses we decided to follow the routes less taken and ended up crawling small pathways up the mountain. Sometimes we hit the main trail and had to follow the stream of hikers uphill. It was impressive how those who could be my grandparents were still fit enough to hike up the quite steep and partially slippery trail.

The closer we got to the top the steeper and narrower the trail became. Some parts were even replaced by stairs to make it easier. The best views were from large rocks along the way, where sometimes you had to climb up using tiny support steps carved into the stone and rappel down with ropes. Finally something that was somewhat challenging and required to be attentive to not fall 20, 30, or even 50 meters deep between the rocks. The reward for all the climbing was an impressive view across parts of Seoul. Skyscrapers between mountains as far as the eye could see. All just one big city. The perfect activity for a Sunday and a nice 2-3 hour workout to get to the top, and enjoy the peak-soju.

Working Seoul

When I was in Seoul last year I experienced the first cold days of the year with nights below 0 and frozen lakes in the morning. As I did not bring any warm cloths and was planning to go to Southeast Asia next, buying warm clothes was out of the question. I had to leave. So I asked my friends what would be the perfect time to come back, and they all agreed that either spring or fall would be perfect. Not too hot, not too cold, not too humid. Luckily I seized the opportunity to work a few weeks at Korea University in September, ideal time for a trip to Korea and neighboring Japan and Shanghai.

A350 – where eco is fun again

This time I flew with Lufthansa from Munich to Seoul, partly because it was only slightly more expensive than a connecting flight via Beijing, and partly because Lufthansa is using their brand new A350 on this route. The plane was introduced earlier this year and has even in the economy class surprisingly spacious seats, both in width and depth. The in-seat display is huge and quite sensitive. No more punching the seat to click. However, the selection was depressingly mediocre. I hardly found movies I wanted to watch and TV series were even worse. The real surprise was the dinner. I had the Korean beef with rice and kimchi plus a small tube of hot sauce. Finally plane food that had flavor! The 10 hours flew by and at 5:30 in the morning I was in Korea.

The first days were all pretty similar. I went to the office in the morning, had lunch with my lab mates and dinner with friends and lab mates, followed by drinks until late after midnight. Anam, the area around the university, is full of bars and restaurants which cater to the students that make up the majority of the people there. Also the number of non-Asian people you see on the streets is way higher than in other parts of Seoul, which gives the neighborhood an international and easy-to-immerse vibe, even without speaking Korean.

Sing like nobody’s listening!

Leaderboard. I’ll never gonna give you up!

On Friday after our labmeeting we traditionally went for dinner and drinks with a small pub crawl through Anam’s basement bars until my colleagues decided to give me a real Korean experience: noribang. Noribang is the Korean version of Karaoke, where you rent a small room, usually in a basement, which is equipped with a karaoke machine and some sofas. You select from the impressive list of Korean songs or the not quite as extensive but still sufficiently variable list of western songs, pick up the mic and give it a go. The screen shows the lyrics and plays some videos in the background. But the videos do not necessarily match the music you’re singing. My opening song “Fear of the dark” by Iron Maiden was backed by a group of 8 or 9 Korean girls dancing to what I guess would be a K-Pop song. It gave the song a different but still somehow suitable atmosphere.

Beasts from the deep

Grabbing the octopus!

Saturday we went to the big fish market to try some fresh Korean fish. Walking through the hall with all the touts circling in on us it was not easy to focus on all the fish and other sea creatures that were on sale. From gigantic crabs to tiny shrimp, from big mussels to small octopuses. We walked around and my Korean colleague recommended to try one fish as sashimi and one very peculiar dish: raw octopus freshly chopped. The special feature is that the tentacles are still moving even after the octopus is chopped due to the nerves still sending signals. We got our fish and octopus and were led to a adjacent restaurant where the food was prepared and served. The sashimi was nothing extraordinary. Good, fresh white fish with black skin, a little bit too chewy for my taste, but ok. For me the big challenge was the octopus. Seeing the parts of the tentacle still moving, the suckers still sticking to the plate, so strongly that I could hardly pick them up with my chopsticks. Every year several people die because the tentacles get stuck in their throat. But the animal died to be eaten, so it would be a shame to waste it. I picked up a piece and ate it. A few strong bites on the surprisingly tender tentacle and it was gone. No tickling in my throat, no moving, all gone. The taste was really nice and fresh. But still, next time I’ll get my octopus cooked again. 

Restart. Again. 🙈

I know it’s been a while since my last post. Always the same: ah, I’ll write some more tomorrow and bam, 6 months gone. After my last post from Koh Rong I went to Kampot and Siem Reap in Cambodia, both equally charming and fascinating yet quite different. From Siem Reap I took the easy way out and flew to Luang Prabang in Laos. Definitely one of the highlights. Hiking, staying in remote mountain villages, or enjoying the peculiar nightlife in Laos. Following a 1-day layover in Chiang Mai the last bigger stop was Myanmar, to some still known as Burma. From all the countries in Southeast Asia, this was the one I would recommend to visit next. Seeing the balloons rising with the sun in Bagan was a one-in-a-lifetime experience. So I did it every morning during my 3 day stay there. Visiting the bright white temples in Mandalay, hiking 3 days to Inle lake, or joining in in the Luna New Year parade in Yangon were just a few other highlights in this country on the edge between military dictatorship and democracy. Short 12 days later I left for Singapore for a 2 day layover, then continued to Malapascua in the Philippines for 4 days of diving before returning to Singapore for the last nights before coming back home.

The following months I mainly worked with some smaller trips to London, Italy, Switzerland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Now I’m back in Korea for a few weeks of work followed by a short trip to Japan and Shanghai. Next chance to write about my trip. This time for sure, this time will be different 😅.

Backpackers island

There were we. Sihanoukville, a Chinese gambling and beach city at the gulf of Thailand. The sun was about to set and the streets around the pier were buzzing with people. Women selling grilled squids from a bucket BBQ or slicing fresh fruits for vitamins to go, kids were running around, and men were trying to sell you tuktuk rides or ferry tickets. And somewhere in the distance music was blasting. So just the usual southeast Asian atmosphere.

We checked in at our guesthouse, just 10 meters from the pier above a Japanese restaurant, and with direct view aross the sea from the terrace. We sat down to watch the sun set and have our well earned arrival beer, as one of our neighbors left his room. A man in his 80s from England. He sat down next to us and started talking with us. He is a doctor who worked in the US and Hong Kong, retired for a couple of years already, and currently in Cambodia for some dental procedures which are supposedly cheaper yet of equal quality in Phnom Penh than in Hong Kong. He has been backpacking his hole life, going through eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s, and just recently upgraded to double rooms instead of dorms, as his 70-year old wife is not as fit as she used to be. A quite interesting talk and a nice reminder that, given you stay healthy, traveling as backpacker is something you can do all your life. you just have to like it ;-).

After dinner we took a walk along the beach to find a nice bar for a few drinks. The beach seamed endless, as far as we could see there were lighs of hotels, bars and resorts along the coast, so we walked with our feet in the breakers which calmly rolled in from the sea. Surprisingly for the first minutes we did not see any bars. All the lights were from private parties on the beach, all equipped with big speakers at what looked like pre-installed cocktail tables. Pretty neat idea. The downside, however, was right in front of us. Trash. A lot of trash. Everywhere on the beach. And the reason: people just seem to not give a fuck. Very often I saw people carelessly dropping plastic wrappers or tossing away cans. So sad to see such a beautiful nature spoiled like that.
The next morning we took the ferry at 11.00 to Koh Rong. We explicitly bought the direct ferry to avoid the detour to Koh Rong Sanloem, however, the lady at the ticket counter intentionally sold us the wrong tickets. Instead with the recommended direct fast ferry we took a smaller and less renown company which almost doubled the time on the boat and, as we would find out later, did not have an office on Koh Rong island, so you don’t know when or if a boat is going from Koh Rong to the main land. Just another proof that there is not one honest soul in Cambodian transport industry. In retrospect I can say that not one tuktuk, taxi, bus, or ferry person did not (try to) lie to or overcharge us.

Little Khmer girl fascinated by my beard.

We boarded the ferry around 11.00, it was a rather modern speed ferry with maybe 60-70 seats, and is quickly filled up with a mix of tourists and few locals. In front of Melli and me was a Khmer family of 5. Father, mother, two very young kids, maybe 6 monts and 2 years, and a lively 3 or 4 year old. The older girl was watching music videos on her parents tablet for the first part of the trip, until she got bored and discovered us behind her seat. She started to play peek-a-boo with Melli and me, always hiding behind her seat and then popping up and laughing. Our lighter hair and my reddish beard were especially tempting to her. When she was popping up she tried to touch our hair or my beard, laughing and hiding again. We joined the game and started to hide as well, or peeking through the slits between the seats when she was hiding. Up and down the seats she climbed, grabbing beard and hair and having a lot of fun. Her parents, on the other hand, did not care at all what she was doing, or that we were playing with her. Imagine in Germany some strangers would start playing with your kid, it would grab their beard or hair, and climb on chairs. I don’t know who would get more yelled at, the kid or the stranger. Not only here but also in other situations, where for example 5 year olds were watching over 2 year olds when the parents weren’t around, it seemed to me that in Cambodia parents are more trusting in their kids and strangers.

After 1.5 hours we arrived at Koh Rong. From the boat you could see long white beaches, a beach front with small houses, and behind the houses the jungle rising across the island. I stepped off the boat, with my backpack on the back and my daypack on the front, and let the scenery sink in for a moment. Turquoise waters, wooden pier, small restaurants and guest houses on the beach front, backpacker and locals walking along the footpaths in front of the houses, and the smell of fresh food in the air. From all the pictures of Cambodia I had in my head, this was not it. This were the pictures you knew from glossy Thailand travel brochures or Caribbean islands. Then we went up behind the beachfront where we would stay the first two nights.

Arrived on Koh Rong, little paradise island.

Finding the right hostel on Koh Rong is actually not that easy. In the main settlement, Koh Touch, are many guesthouses and hostels, but also the main bars and clubs. You have almost endless options for eating and drinking, but also hear the people partying until late at night every day. The bungalows and resorts further away or even on the other sides of the island are quiet and relaxed, but you have to walk a bit to other hotels, if any, to try a different restaurant. Melli found a great location just at the end of white beach, the beach right at Koh Touch. It offered treehouses as bungalows, built in the palm tree tops right at the beach. Sleeping with a view across the sea up high in a tree was tempting, but the only availability was 9 to 11 January and for 70 USD/night. Quite steep for a backpacking budget, but we decided that we need to treat ourselves every now and then, so we booked two nights in the tree house and the 2 preceding nights in a cheaper guesthouse for 20 USD/night. Still not dead cheap, bu you don’t want to be on the other end of the island or in-between the party bars, so you have to take what you get if you book last minute.

We started to explore the town and it’s long, white beach. The beach front with restaurants and guesthouses stretches along 200-300 meters along the southern part of the beach. On it’s southern end was the Khmer village, where the locals live, and at the northern end where the beach continues the side-by-side houses are replaced by sparse bungalows and forest. This island was a place for backpackers largely run by backpackers. All menus at restaurants were in English, every bar was offering the best pizza in town, burgers with fries, and of course the best pub crawl in Cambodia. Western staff was working as waiters, and all wanted signs were asking for western staff. This place is heaven for those who want to live away from home but still feel like home. At night a mini night marked popped up along the restaurants, selling vegan samosas, hand-knit accessories, or jewelry made from scrap metal. All the things to bring some money into the travel fund and allow to stay a bit longer on the beautiful island. I talked to a few people about how long they were on Koh Rong. Some stayed only a few weeks, other a couple of months, but some already stayed for years and were not planning on leaving any time soon.

Shrimp with Kampot pepper and fried noodles. Tasty Khmer dinner!

With all the western-oriented menus it was actually harder to find good, non-standard Khmer food than spaghetti or burger. Luckily we found a small, family-run restaurant on the pier with the name “Khmer family restaurant”, or at least it was the only part I could read. On the 8 tables many locals were sitting and having beer, with 0.75 to 1 USD per glass or can in Cambodia a big bargain, so we gave it a shot. The food was really good, smooth barracuda amok, juicy fried noodles, and spicy shrimp with green Kampot pepper. But spicy in Cambodia means edible-spicy. Not the chili madness of Thailand, where a “little spicy” papaya salad brings tears in your eyes and and burns at least twice. And the prices for main dishes were between 2 and 4 USD, also en par if not cheaper than Thailand given the quality you get.

The first two days we mainly explored the beaches north of Koh Touch: long set beach, also known as 4k beach, and Vietnamese beach. Long set beach is an almost 4 km long fine white sand beach with shallow waters. The sand is so fine it really squeaks when you walk on it. A good half hour from the town there are small bungalow resorts and tent resorts the only buildings in sight. It’s easy to see why people loose track of time here. After another 20 minutes through the forest at the end of long set beach lies Vietnamese beach. Not as white, not as sandy, but spotted with rocks along the coast, it is a nice place for a little bit of snorkeling.

Long set or 4k beach, endless white sand and shallow waters.

For the last two days we moved into our trehouse. A quite spacious bungalow up in the trees, less than 5 meters from the waterfront, which was luxurious yet the same time basic with power only in the morning and evening, and only cold water. From the balcony we had an unobstructed view across the sea, and as we learned the next morning, direct view of the sun rising from the sea. A nice way to wake up at 6 am, when the bright and warm reddish light shines through the mosquito net onto your face. The second morning we even had a few visitors. Two monkeys jumped on our balcony, rather young ones I would guess, and one even tried to come through the open balcony door. But a loud “shhhh” was enought to convince the little guy that there is nothing of interest in our room.

Sunrise in the treehouse.

After 5 days and 4 nights we decided to leave Koh Rong and head towards Kampot, a small town on a river a few hours away from Sikhanoukville. If you had asked me before if a small paradisiac island like Koh Rong belongs to Cambodia, I would not have believed it. A few days there are totally worth the border hassle.

Crossing the border

What did I know about Cambodia before coming here? I knew it’s location between Thailand and Vietnam, I knew Angkor Wat is there, I knew it had a violent past with the Khmer Rouge (though I knew nothing more than that), and I knew it was or is one of the poorer countries. Then I started reading up on the border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia. “Watch out for visa scams!” “Keep an eye on your valuables, lots of pickpockets!” “Beware of bag snatching!” And so on. But I was in for a big surprise!

But first things first. One evening we were sitting over dinner and discussing when we’ll go to Cambodia. We decided to stay for two more nights on Koh Chang but move to Lonely Beach and will then go to Cambodia. We checked up on immigration regulations as the Thai-Cambodia border is infamous for visa scams, where tourists end up paying way more than the official 30$. We found out that Cambodia offers e-visa which can be obtained online and take up to 3 days. I decided to give the e-visa a try, as we didn’t have passport photos and I’m always preferring digital over analog solutions for things like this. The process was surprisingly easy. Enter your passport data, upload a picture, a selfie works fine, and send. Then you pay by credit card the 30$ visa fee plus a 6$ processing fee. Little preview: even though we payed more than the base visa price we were the two people on the bus who payed the least in the end. After the payment we got the confirmation that our application is complete and we have to wait for our request to be processed. It was 23:00 and about 2 1/2 days before we planned to enter Cambodia. I was curious if the up to 3 day processing time would deliver the visa in time.

The next morning around 10 I received an e-mail. “We are happy to inform you that your visa application was successful. Please find attached your e-visa.” That was real quick. Processing starts at 8, and 2 hours later they already completed my visa. The colorful pdf showed the usual shape and information on a visa, plus my selfie from last night. The following day we booked our bus ticket to Sihanoukville, Cambodia at a travel agency around the corner from our guesthouse. As it was already pretty late and one company was already sold out for the next day we did not ask around too much and went with a lady who had a good but not too cheap price. When we came back to our guesthouse we told the owner where we bought out ticket. Her reaction was just a sigh. “If you had asked me before, I would have told you to buy anywhere but there. Their service is bad and they overcharged us last time at the border with additional fees.” Well, what is done is done, so we went to bed and I was excited how the next day will be.

The next morning we got up early to be picked up by a minivan which would bring us to the border where we are supposed to continue with a big bus to Sihanoukville. We stowed our bags and the driver took our tickets. He didn’t even let me take a picture of the ticket, just pulled it out of my hand and told us to get into the van. So we drove on to the pier, set over to mainland Thailand, and continued towards the border. After around 3 hours we arrived at the border, where eager tuktuk drivers were already orbiting the van to offer us to transport the bags to the border checkpoint. We left the bus, received another slip of paper from the bus driver, and grabbed our bags before the vultures could lay their hands on them. As it was only a few hundred meters and to disengage this vulture culture, we walked straight to Thai Immigration. The line was rather short and we quickly were processed and left Thailand.

In the no-mans land between the checkpoints, another couple of hundred meters, loads of beggars and service men approached us to get some no longer needed Baht. We ignored them and marched straight to the Cambodian checkpoint. There the next flock of vultures was waiting already. “Can I see your ticket?” “Can I see your passport?” “You need vis, this way please!” I ignored all the visa requests and showed but never handed my ticket to people who looked like representatives of a bus company. One guy told us he is the driver of our bus and he will wait for us after immigration. So far so good.

Next we fought our way through the people to get to the immigration window, which was strategically clever locates between the window where you apply for your visa and the window where zou pay for your visa. So all people had to get back and forth before they could line up. After 15 min I reached the window, the officer looked at my passport and handed me wordlessly an immigration form to fill out. Another clever move not to put them out where everybody can just grab one and fill it out. This way they make sure that the visa vultures still stay in business if more people get e-visa, because they have these forms of course and for a fee will give it to you and help you to fill it out. So we filled out the forms and lined up again, as we were not allowed to cut in line. More people had arrived, and this time it took about 30 min to get to the window where the officer then processed my passport and after a few minutes the passport was handed back to me.

Our group from the bus had by then been scattered over the whole checkpoint. Some still applying for visa, some about to pay, some waiting at the immigration window and some had disappeared. A guy, who we were not sure if it was the same as before, approached us and told us he would bring us to the tuktuk that would then take us to the bus station at the border town. We followed him to a tent nearby where a family was living and selling drinks and cigarettes. We got some plastic chairs and were told to wait for the rest of the group. After 15 minutes a man came, set down behind a desk, and started processing our tickets. “So you are going to Sihanoukville. The bus leaves at 14:00 from the bus station in town, we will bring you there shortly. There you will get a big bus towards Phnom Penh and then change at the highway intersection to another bus to Sihanoukville. You will arrive there after 20:00.” Dramatical pause. “But we can offer you to upgrade to a minivan which leaves in 15 min, at 13:00, from here and takes you in 5 hours directly t Sihanoukville. This will save you at least 2 hours.” I looked at Melli and back to the salesman. “How much?” – “150 Baht per Person.” So about 4 EUR extra for the upgrade to a minivan, if you can call this upgrade, but including 2 or more hours saved and 2 bus changes avoided. I briefly discussed it with Melli and we agreed to the upgrade. Shortly after another tourist came. He only had a ticket to the border and wanted to buy a ticket to Sihanoukville. For him the price was almost 20 EUR. So I did not feel too bad for our upgrade, as we payed 17,50 EUR from Koh Chang to Sihanoukville plus the 4 EUR upgrade. Then we promptly got led to the minivan.

After we sat down in the minivan more and more people joined us. Some of them from our original group, some from other groups who where heading for Sihanoukville or the border town Koh Kong. A discussion started about the upgrade price we paid. Most of us paid 150 Baht, two paid only 100 Baht as they refused the first offer with 150 Baht and so got a discount. One guy did not pay any fee. He insisted on taking the included bus even though it takes longer for so long that they upgraded him for free. The rumor was there is no big bus, and this is part of the organized scam that they tell you in Thailand it’s a big bus so they can squeeze off a few Baht for the upgrade. Then we discussed about the visa fee. The official fee is 30 USD or around 1000 Baht. The others in our bus, even though at the border at the same time, paid 1400-1800 Baht, so 36-46 EUR. Even though all knew the official price, they were not able to get it. Even the Cambodian border officials were part of the scam, as they received the payment and, my guess, they distribute it later to their helpers. E-visa makes this less likely to happen, but there is still a way to go. The rest of the drive was fine. The van was overfilled, with people siting on stools in the isle for all 5 hours, but we arrived as planned right before sunset in Sihanoukville.

In Sihanoukville the tuktuk drivers were waiting for the people to leave the bus to start their singing: “you need hotel? where you going? You want tuktuk?” Our guesthouse was 3 km away, so we decided to get a tuktuk. The guidebook said the appropriate price would be 4 USD to the center, but drivers at the bus station go as high as 10 USD. Our driver as well checked where our guesthouse was and asked for 5 USD per person. After some haggling I brought him down to 5 USD for both of us, which was fine as I had exactly one 5 dollar bill. We started driving and he started asking where where we want to go next and if we need ferry tickets. We declined and asked him to bring us to the guesthouse. After a while he topped at a travel agency and said we should get our tickets there. I declined again and asked him to continue to the guesthouse. He replied that they had good prices, so I repeated that he should continue to the guesthouse. He started to talk again, so I rudely interrupted him with a vigorous and angry “no, please guesthouse”. He tried again and I put a more aggresive and determined tone into it. “No, guesthouse!” and I pointed down the street. He finally continued, just seconds before I would have unloaded my bags and hailed another tuktuk. He then drove us correctly to the pier where our guesthouse was located.

So, where is the big surprise? Well, that was about to come when we went to Koh Rong and Kampot the next days.

Happy New Year 2561!

When I told people I will spend New Years Eve in Bangkok I usually got the reaction “oh wow, there must be a huge party everywhere” and I thought so as well. I arrived on the 30th in Bangkok and started looking for places to celebrate. But aside from big hotels with ludicrously expensive dinner-and-party packages or purely tourist parties in the tourist area there were no NYE parties. So we decided to go to a night market and to the roof top terrace for fireworks.

The Rachada night market was packed and buzzing. Food stalls, tattoo artists, nail studios, mobile equipment, and clothes all mixed in small tents with bright neon lights, surrounded by 2-story bars with busting music from electro to rock.

The night market and party area was rather local, only a few western people here and there. And the decoration was not New Years Eve like. Some bars had “Happy New Year” written on a chalk board, but otherwise it was just like any Saturday. We grabbed a few beers and some food until 11 pm, then we went back to our rooftop terrace on the 31st floor with view over Bangkok.

The rooftop was not too crowded. The few chairs and benches were almost all occupied, but no one had to stand. It was very quiet in general, no music playing, no big party. All groups were 2-6 people just sitting together, having snacks and drinks, and enjoying the view. A few minutes before midnight the people gathered in the corner with the best view towards the center. At midnight, nothing happened. Aside from us and one other group, nobody said “Happy New Year” or started cheering. A few hotels started their fireworks, but all very basic. And 5 minutes later, the fireworks were finish. Every now and then another rocket blasted in the distance, but that was it. Very unspectacular.

So if you like nice and warm NYE party with people from every country and prices comparable or higher than in Germany, the big parties in the tourist hotels is a great option. If you want to celebrate with locals, maybe the Thai new years party in April is a better choice.

So, but why is it 2561? Well, Thailand uses in some parts the Buddhist era as timeline, which starts about 500 years before the Christian era. That’s why also Google tells me all the time that pages have last been edited in 2559 etc. So happy New Year!