In light of my departure from Asia and my arrival in Central America, I thought I’d throw this post up. Oh and it took me 40 hours to get from Bangkok to San Salvador so I had some times on my hands…
I am by no means an expert, but after nearly six months of traveling through 11 different countries I’ve learned a thing or two (usually the hard way), so I wanted to pass on some of those lessons. Whether I’m flying halfway across the globe to a different continent or just crossing the border from one country to the next, these are the five things I always do before my passport is even stamped:
1. Know the visa situation – Do I need a visa? Can I get one on arrival or do I have to get it in advance? How long does the visa allow me to stay in X country?
This might be obvious, but before going to a country you probably want to figure out if a visa is required. For my fellow Americans, here is the website I use from the U.S Department of State to determine if I need a visa (it also posts updated travel warnings and has other helpful info).
This will vary based on the country, your nationality and the reason for your visit (tourism, work, school, etc.). Many countries do not require a visa and for those that do you can typically obtain one on arrival. However, even when you can get one on arrival there are usually certain requirements (sometimes you can only get it on arrival when you fly in, and then only at certain airports). You’ll also need a certain amount of cash and, most of the time, an official passport photo to attach to your application (keep a few extras with you if traveling for a long time). You’ll also need to know how long you can stay in that particular country (again, this will vary). In Asian countries it’s typically 30 days, while in South/Central America it’s usually 90. This will also inform your route and onward travel plans (see #5) so it’s definitely a must to know this in advance.
2. Familiarize yourself with the currency/cost of living – How much kyat should I get out of the ATM to last me a week in Myanmar? What’s the average cost of a beer/hostel/meal in Bali? Is 2,000 baht too much to pay for a taxi in Bangkok?
Know the name of the currency and have an idea of what the most recent exchange rate is to give yourself some context. I have a currency conversion app on my phone that is a lifesaver. I don’t always know what things should cost before I arrive, but if possible I try to ask other travelers to give myself some benchmarks. Along the same lines, DO NOT go to a country with zero cash in your pocket. I learned this the hard way and was very hangry for 15 hours. You can’t always rely on ATMs and in many countries cash is the only acceptable form of payment. In a pinch, you can usually accomplish what you want with some American dollars or euros so keep a small stash on hand in case of emergencies. Oh, and if someone tries to charge you 2,000 baht for a taxi you should laugh in their face cause you know better than that, son!
3. Learn a few key words – Here’s something awesome for native English speakers: English is pretty much the universal language and nearly everyone speaks it or at least some of it. Here’s something not awesome: nearly everyone else in the world speaks AT LEAST two different languages and we look like ignorant fools.
Between other countries superior language skills and charades, you can usually get along most anywhere. But do yourself a favor and learn a few words/key phrases in the native language before you arrive or as soon as possible (just ask a local and they’ll be happy to help you). I like to learn “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “Cheers” in most languages. Those few simple words and a smile will get you a long way. Oh, and “Bathroom” is also a goodie, but if you say “toilet?” they’ll get it.
4. Research the culture/customs/laws/political climate/safety – Is it cool for me to walk around Don Det in my bathing suit or do I need to cover up? Can I rock a tank top at Angkor Wat? Should I resist the temptation to snap a pic of that monk? What if I take a video of people coming home after a trip to Mecca (BTW I found out that this last one is most definitely not acceptable).
It would be impossible to know everything about a country’s culture, customs and laws before arriving, and frankly you’ll learn most of those things while they’re there (that’s part of the fun of traveling, right?!). But it’s important to be respectful, safe and not break the law (see my post about bringing pepper spray into Singapore). If you touch someone’s head in Thailand they’ll look at you in horrified disgust as if you just groped their fun bits. When a Moroccan shop owner gets mad as you’re haggling you haven’t done anything wrong, he’s just pissed that you landed on a fair price. Spitting is illegal in Singapore and it’s never appropriate for women to touch monks – all lessons I’ve learned. But like I said, there’s no way you can know EVERYTHING – just do a small amount of research, be curious and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I wrote the majority of this post while still in Asia, but added “political climate/safety” upon arriving in El Salvador. Did you know that the U.S. issued an updated travel warning at the beginning of this year because “crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain critically high”? Or that El Salvador is the new murder capital of the world because of the prevalence of gangs? Or that last year there were 6,657 murders – in a country of fewer than 6 million? Yeah, I didn’t know any of that either. We’ll go ahead and chalk that up to another important lesson learned.
5. Have an idea of your route – You want to skip the 24-hour bus from Luang Prabang to Pakse, so you book a flight, only to realize that you’ve by-passed the chance to see Vang Vieng. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.
This one is actually up for debate because I’m all about the “No Plan” plan. However, I’ve pissed away a good amount of time and money going to one place only to find out that I then need to backtrack to another, or maybe there was a better, more linear path I could have taken allowing me more time in my destination and less time on a bus. Having a basic idea of some places you’d like to visit and considering the amount of time you’re allowed in that particular country can help you determine the best route. But then again you may meet some friends who invite you to go to Sri Lanka with them, which shoots your plans all to hell…but you go. Because that’s the beauty of traveling.
Lastly, remember that the first day in a new country is usually the hardest (jet lag, headaches of travel/delays/missed connections, finding your way around, culture shock, etc.) so just keep that in mind, stay positive and breathe it all in as part of the experience of traveling. My best stories almost always come out of shitty situations, so while it’s really not funny in the moment when you get the cops called on you in Singapore, it’s gonna make a great blog post in a week 😉