Although it may seem counterintuitive, credit cards are a huge part of the way we survive as budget backpackers. Many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “travel hacking”, which is basically signing up for credit cards that give you airline, hotel, or travel points. Most of the points come as sign-up bonuses for spending a certain amount, but I also accrue points by earning 1-5 points per dollar spent in my daily life.
We took a day trip from Brasov to go hiking in Piatra Craiului National Park. We caught the 9am train from Brasov to Zarnesti, a small town on the edge of the National Park. The train departs every two hours and costs roughly $1 per person. The train shuttles between Brasov and Zarnesti every hour and the journey takes 45 minutes.
Zarnesti’s train station is on the edge of town, which meant we had to walk all the way through Zarnesti to reach the National Park. We stopped in at the visitor’s center, mostly because I had to pee and the train station did not have a bathroom, but also to pick up a trail map since the internet actually provided very little information about how to go hiking in the park.
In my last post I talked about our budget for a year of round-the-world travel, which is $50 per day per person, and how we arrived at that number. $18,250 per year may sound like a lot of money, but it goes fast when we only have $50 a day to cover lodging, food, transport, flights, excursions, sightseeing, toiletries, and incidentals. In this post, I will describe some of the tricks we use to save or manage our money so we can stick to our RTW backpacking budget. For some of these points I will go into more detail in future posts, but for now here is a brief overview of how we save money on the road.
We are a little over 6 months into what started as a year-long, round-the-world journey from where we were living in Australia back to our permanent homes in the United States. You may have been keeping up with our travels and seen us lounging on beaches in Malaysia, drinking liters of fine wine in Europe, and staying in resorts in Fiji, and thought, “Those trust fund bitches…”
Actually, no. Our budget for a year of travel through Australia, Southeast Asia, India, Dubai, and Europe is $50 per day (per person), which includes everything: accommodation, food, transport, activities, excursions, flights, toiletries, alcohol, souvenirs, and incidentals.
Now that we are about 6 months into this round-the-world thing, it’s probably time for me to show you what I’m carrying with me!
Today Joe and I had the day off work from the hostel on Langawki Island, Malaysia, where we clean and do reception duties in exchange for room and board. We only work about three hours a day but the hours do fall right in the middle of the day, after one round of guests check out and before the next group checks in, so it can be a bit difficult to fit in a whole day’s worth of activities either before or after work. We had today all to ourselves so we wanted to have an adventure. There are many outdoor and watersport activities to do on Langkawi Island, but the tours and equipment rentals can be expensive and definitley add up. We are on a budget, hence working for our stay, so we wanted to explore Langkawi without spending a ton of money. Here’s what we did today and how much it cost us:
After taking a 15-hour train ride from Chiang Mai the previous day, we left Bangkok at 5:50am on another third class train to the Cambodian border. The six-hour train ride to Aranyaprathet, Thailand was bearable, but because Joe and I spent so long on the train the day before, all the eccentricities of the train had lost their charm. It was hot and loud and I was tired of locals boarding the train and hawking their snacks which mostly consisted of fish.
From the train station, we took a tuk tuk (pictured) to the Cambodian border since the train stops 6km away. I asked the tuk tuk driver how much and he said 80 baht. I’d researched the shit out of this land border crossing because I’d heard it’s riddled with scams and from what I’d read it seemed that most people were paying 80 baht even when they haggled so I said okay. The tuk tuk was fine but our driver was a bit slow. Some Polish people who were on the train with us flew by in their tuk tuk, which was fine by me because I’m happy to hang back a bit and watch other people navigate immigration and then I’ll know how it works. Our driver dropped us at the border and pointed to a building and said, “Visa.” I’d read up on the process and we’d gotten our evisas ahead of time. It cost us $6 extra in processing but I felt it was worth it in time and stress not to have to find the legit visa counter. Some common scams at this border are tuk tuk drivers taking you to an immigration building that looks legit but isn’t, those visa companies telling you a visa costs more than it does or charging extra for “expedited” service, or the actual immigration officials asking for more money if you don’t have passport pictures/as a “stamping fee,”/etc. So our driver had tried to scam us but he did it so half-heartedly it was almost cute.
Then we went through the departures line and exited Thai immigration rather easily. From here you have to walk into Cambodia but in the middle is a no man’s land of casinos and markets. A bunch of guys tried to direct us to “immigration” but we went the opposite way and followed a line of Thai/Cambodian people. We had to pass through a market but on the other side we saw the legit arrivals office. That was mostly an easy experience too, showing our printed evisas and filling out an arrivals card. The Polish people had beaten us there of course.
After passing through the arrivals Hall and entering Cambodia, we had to get some cash (they use USD) and find transport to Siem Reap. The whole time we were looking for an ATM, men kept hounding us, saying “Taxi! Taxi! Where you go?” They followed us around the square and would not go away even when we told them we are doing some stuff in Poipet and we are not ready to leave yet. We found an ATM and withdrew some cash and of course it gave us big bills, which can be a problem if the bus or store doesn’t have change. While we were at the ATM some Europeans were in there arguing about dollars and it seemed like they were confused why the ATM would give them dollars and not Cambodian Riel, the local currency ($1 roughly equals 4000 riel, so you would have to carry heaps of bills to pay for anything. How it works is that you pay for anything over a dollar in dollars and get change less than a dollar back in riel. There are no coins) Joe was trying to help them and advise them how many dollars they may need, telling them that they could get a dorm bed for $3 and the bus to Siem Reap (2 hours away) was $9. These two dreadlocked Europeans, with their 70 liter backpacks towering over their heads, snottily replied, “Oh, well our dorm is $1, and we’re hitchhiking.” So we said good luck to these two psychos and went back to find a bus to Siem Reap.
I’d read online that there’s a free shuttle bus to an “international tourist transportation station” 8 kms away, which has the effect of isolating you so you have to use the buses, vans, and cartel-owned sharetaxis since they are the only modes of transport that will go that far out of town. However, I was okay with this because the prices are fixed and you can meet others to share a van or taxi with. We waited at the “free shuttle to bus station” area and some guy came to get us and put us on this completely empty bus. I got sketched out and asked where this bus was going. They said the bus station, but I’m pretty sure they were taking us to the bus station with buses that go to Phnomh Penh. I said no we are not taking a bus. The guy started yelling and was like, “What, you want to go to the tourist station? The scam station? You want to get ripped off?” I became overwhelmed and almost started crying. I’d done so much research to avoid the scams and still couldn’t figure anything out. I was afraid to take my phone out because so many men kept coming up to us and trying to put us in their taxis and I didn’t want to get robbed or targeted.
Just then two Israeli girls we’d met in the immigration line came up and offered to share a ride with us. The more vocal of the two, Sarai, told us loud enough so the transport guy could hear, “My friend told me we can take a taxi to Siem Reap for $10 per person and they take you right to your hostel.” The transport guy rushed up and said, “Yes okay for you, we do this deal.” Sarai told him we would pay $10 per person, “not a penny more!”, and they would have to take us to our two hostels. Minutes later we were herded toward a Lexus SUV with pink duct tape on the doors, not holding it together, just as a marker. Joe sat in the front seat and I sat in the back with the two girls, who ate peanut butter sandwiches and promptly fell asleep for the 2-hour journey. Joe fell asleep as well but I don’t know how. The next two hours were some of the craziest in my life.
We drove on what was technically a one lane highway, but there were at least two informal lanes of traffic in each direction. I don’t believe our driver had brakes, only a horn, which he honked probably 150 times in two hours. It was constant. We flew around buses and Camrys and other Lexus SUVs (the only two car brands we saw in Cambodia) and tuk tuks and rickshaws and these vehicles which were basically a tractor with a flatbed trailer which hauled people and things. It was wild. There were motorcycles and bicycles and people walking on the highway. There were children swimming in muddy puddles on the side of the road. They all just got honked at. I imagined the haughty hitchhikers catching a ride on one of the tractors with 11 other people and ten bags of rice. It didn’t sit well with me that the same people who could afford the $37 per day entrance fee to Angkor Wat would refuse to pay for a ride with locals who are taking less-than-ideal modes of transportation, likely out of necessity, not for the “travel experience”. I enjoyed the thought of them getting picked up by a cartel taxi after all and getting taken for everything they’ve got.
We had a couple close calls in terms of braking and/or swerving but we arrived to the edge of Siem Reap in one piece. The driver pulled over and a couple tuk tuk drivers started opening our doors and telling us to get out. We refused to get out and go in their tuk tuks. The men said that taxis are not allowed in Siem Reap and we have to go by tuk tuk to our hostels. They had two tuk tuks there since we were going to two separate places. I knew they were lying (refer back to my obsessive research of Cambodian scams) and said so. Sarai told them to call their boss who had agreed the driver would take us to our hostels. We were at an impasse for several minutes because we were not getting out of the taxi and separating and the taxi driver was not taking us to our hostels.
Finally we admitted they were not going to take us so we agreed to go by tuk tuk but I said I’m not paying them anything for it. They said it’s free but we need to pay now for the taxi. The taxi driver refused to accept Sarai’s $20 bill because it had a small tear, so she said about us, “They are American! They know! The money’s fine!” I nodded as authoritatively as I could, being the official spokesperson for the US Treasury after all. I ended up having to take Sarai’s ripped $20 and give the guy two unripped $10s.
So Joe and I get in our tuk tuk and ride to our hostel. The tuk tuk driver says it’s a free ride, he just hopes to earn a job from us while we are in Siem Reap. This is a common scam so you hire them to take you to the Angkor Wat temples. When we got out he wanted to book us in for a temple tour tomorrow and I said, “We will call you.” He said, “Everyone says they will call, they never call. So we can agree I’ll come tomorrow?” I said no and walked away. He called after us, “Never in my life have I met a tourist like you!”
While I’m sure he has been refused payment for his part in a scam before, and Joe and I now laugh about being the worst tourists he has ever met, in the moment I was unnerved. He knew where we were staying and it was already apparent that these scams are elaborate and unyielding, and I just didn’t know what he would do. We checked into our hostel and after a few minutes in the room I went back to the front desk because they had forgotten to give me a towel. At the front desk were four policemen talking to the receptionist and looking at her computer. I started freaking out that this tuk tuk motherfucker had called the police on us for not paying him! I knew the police were complicit with the transportation cartel and allowed them to be the sole operators between Poipet and Siem Reap, and they were already getting their cut. I also assumed that they would tell me taxis are not allowed in Siem Reap either, and now I figured they would have no problem threatening to arrest me for stealing a tuk tuk ride that they driver promised was free.
I scurried back into the dorm room and hid but as it turns out they weren’t looking for me. We saw Sarai and her friend a few days later at Angkor Wat so apparently they survived their tuk tuk ride as well. We also saw the hitchhikers at Angkor Wat so I guess they made it as well. All in all the journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap–250 miles in 8 hours by train, tuk tuk, and taxi–cost us less than $13 each. We had planned on taking the train from Phnomh Penh to Poipet and then to Bangkok when we left Cambodia, reversing the land border crossing we’d just done. However, I really did not enjoy the discomfort of not only the smoky, bare bones trains but also, and primarily, the knowledge that nearly everyone was trying to scam us. We had to be on our guard to at least look like we knew what we were doing because there were many people waiting for their opportunity to take advantage of us. We decided to fly out of Phnomh Penh rather than take ground transport and do another land border crossing. We survived this border crossing and didn’t get too ripped off, so let’s leave well enough alone. I mean, wasn’t this enough of a story to tell? It’s no hitchhiking through Cambodia but….