Tag - westerners

Traveling China

Travelling in China
Travelling in China
Travelling in China

For all its beauty, mystery, and excitement, China is one heck of an intimidating mass of land. The country itself is huge and diverse; the languages aren’t even remotely familiar for most Westerners, and China’s self-described “smaller cities” boast several million people. So where does a traveler begin? Dozens of tour companies have made a nice bundle on this intimidation, selling organized tours to curious-but-overwhelmed travelers. At first glance, a potential traveler might be tempted to do the same. After all, China doesn’t have the compact size of Japan, or the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia. Here, KSR gives you the low-down on traveling China, with a group or with oneself.
Time

If you have a two-week time frame and a mile-long list of Chinese must-sees, a tour will allow you the luxury of enjoying the moment without worrying about sold-out trains, odd museum hours, and researching each new hotel. A traveler who knows exactly what they want to do on the trip may feel relieved when the details of accomodation and transportation are arranged.

If your schedule is more flexible, a solo trip allows you the luxury of staying as long or as briefly as you like in each new spot. Lone travelers are free to change their timetable if something unexpected comes their way; a kite festival, a rafting trip, or a volunteer spot in a panda sanctuary. A traveler who is prone to falling in love with new places (especially cities off the beaten path) will benefit from this kind of malleable timetable.

Sightseeing

When it comes to building an efficient schedule, you can’t beat the convenience of a private tour bus and guide. With a tour group, you can hit all the sights on your must-see list without the fuss of ticket queues and city buses. Many companies offer various tours that cater more specifically to a traveler’s interests. Athletes can hike, bike, rock-climb and kayak, while history buffs can sign on to a tour of temples and monuments.

Solo travelers have to work a bit harder to find their way around, and information in guidebooks can be subject to change.
    
Without the guided tour, however, the traveler can spend as much time as they like seeing the landmarks of China that really speak to them.

Travelers who stick with a group might not like every part of their tour, or want more time at some stops (like the buffet) and less time at others (like the demonstration of 17th century pottery). If your idea of travel involves people-watching and unstructured exploring on bicycle or foot, then a tour itinerary might cramp your style.

Socializing

A lot of lone travelers enjoy tour groups, as if offers them the company of fellow adventurers with varying backgrounds and similar interests. Because you will travel with the same group throughout the journey, there aren’t as many sad goodbyes and tedious introductions (what’s your name? where are you from? have you tried wontons yet?). You can get to know your fellow travelers, and you can also take advantage of your guide, who will serve as a teacher, translator, and insider on Chinese life.

Solo travelers can find good company in hostels, which often draw livelier and more diverse crowds (though some dubious characters will inevitably crop up). However, between these meetings come some lonely patches when you’re between hostels, or in a quiet hotel. Chinese people are kind, helpful, curious and friendly, but most speak no English at all, especially in smaller cities. Travelers might meet earnest Chinese students who are looking to practice their English. These folks are usually charming and harmless, but solo travelers are more susceptible to tourist scams or overcharging.

Travel

Again, those on a tight time frame might not want the added stress of tracking train station addresses, checking the schedules, making a reservation with a language barrier, etc. Chinese trains and buses are reliable and comfy enough that an organized traveler can move from city to city with ease. Many big-city bus and train stations have one ticket booth with an English-speaking attendant. If you have the time and patience to make these arrangements yourself, the flexibility can be freeing. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be sticking to a plan, then the ease of a tour means that travel details are out of sight, out of mind.

The same applies to getting around a Chinese city. Most urban areas have great, reliable buses and subways. City types who don’t mind wandering and getting a little lost might enjoy going at their own pace. Travelers who want simply to go from point A to point B might benefit from a tour group, to avoid the stress of navigating new places.

Eating

With a tour group, you are guaranteed the opportunities to try a wide range of Chinese dishes. Some groups will shepherd their tourists to western-friendly hotel restuarants, where the food is more bland and gentler to the western palette. Others will get to try fresh and authentic dim sum, duck, soups, and famous regional dishes. A group has the asset of the omnipotent guide, who can help travelers with dietary issues and allergies.

The solo traveler has to use the luck of the draw with their eating. Adventurous foodies will love the challenge and reward of navigating food stalls, communicating from the phrasebook, and eating exotic new dishes without knowing all the contents. Some may be alarmed by the cultural barriers and recess to the safety of grocery store dinners or familiar sights like Subway or McDonalds. If you’re one who doesn’t mind taking a gamble on your supper, solo travel can open the door to hole-in-the-wall gems, amazing new flavours, and the local culture of dining.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com

Thailand Books for Travellers; a KSR Guide to the Backpackers’ Favourites

For an English-speaker, shopping for books in Thailand is no treat. In the tourist markets that cluster around guesthouses, most bookstalls sell the same thing; copied Lonely Planets, some Dan Brown, some Ben Elton, some Western classics. But in the midst of these books, there are always Thailand-specific novels, memoirs and nonfiction pieces. These become backpacker classics because the author is just the voice you’re looking for; a smart, specific glimpse into Thailand from a western point of view. Some are light, some are gritty, but all of them shed light on Thai culture, especially in relation to Westerners. Here, khaosanroad.com wades through the usual fare in Thailand-themed literature, giving you an easy guide to the books that have become backpacker favourites.   
  
The Beach by Alex Garland
Yes, this novel inspired the movie of the same name, an eye-candy film of lush beaches and lush Leo DiCaprio which likely caused a hefty climb in Thai tourism when it was released in the nineties. But before the clutch of Hollywood, Garland’s novel stood firmly on it’s own feet; a Heart of Darkness meets Lord of the Flies meets Lonely Planet’s Guide to Thailand’s Beaches medley. Amid Garland’s sexy vagabond characters and Edenic beach descriptions, there’s a psychological story that’s both glossy and gritty. With a twisting plot and an immediately likeable wrong-place-wrong-time protagonist, this suspenseful book will leave you grateful for another quiet, lazy day on the beach. A good story told with good style. Plus, your copy might have Leo on the cover.
  
Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand by Phra Peter Pannapadipo
At the age of 45, successful English businessman Peter Robinson gave up the rat-race and moved to Thailand and joined a Buddhist monastery. Peter, a likeable, witty narrator to the memoir, has to un-learn all his fast-paced Western tendencies and adjust to the monk lifestyle, tackling barriers in culture, language, and upbringing. The author’s tender sense of humour weaves personal stories with the theories of Buddhism the he picked up in temple. It narrates his journey of spiritual enlightenment in a down-to-earth way, with witty observations about eastern-western differences, and tales of culture shock that any visitor to Thailand can instantly relate to.
  
Backpack by Emily Barr
While the book may strike you as generic chick-lit, and the main character might strike you (in the first few chapters at least) as being immensely dislikeable, Emily Barr has taught me that first impressions can be faulty. As we follow selfish, shallow Tansy as she pouts her way along the backpacker trail, we watch her experience those wonderful epiphanies of introspection and self-awareness that come with being in a foreign land. By the time she finds herself in a burgeoning backpacker romance, you’ll be cheering for the reformed snob.
  
There’s a subplot with a string of murders, each victim a cute white backpacker. It moves the plot along, but the meatiest parts of the story are in the small moments when Tansy, piece-by-piece, shakes off her layers of insecurity and gains a better sense of self. This book is a great read for those who are traveling on a soul-searching life journey. Plus, you’ll laugh out loud at her spot-on descriptions of every hippie-snob backpacker who’s ever joined you at a beach bar.

The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows
This book will have you on the edge of your seat (albeit, semi-nauseous) as you see the author go from a dislikeable criminal to sympathetic, suicidal prisoner. Fellows’ memoir is brash and honest; he doesn’t ask the reader for sympathy as he narrates his jail term for trafficking. Rather, his anecdotes range from suffocation-by-sewage to death-by-elephant, are all narrated with a grim honesty. The book is graphic and shocking, the type of story whose hellish details will stay in your mind for ages. The squeamish may find the vivid details difficult to take, but be sure to pass it on to any travelmates lacking in self-control.
  
Bridget Jones; Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
Though Fielding’s beloved title character may only spend a third of the book in Thailand, it gives you a hearty taste of the Thai tourist experience, gone comically awry. Though Bridget Jones may not be the first person to go to Thailand as an escape from life’s complexities, her fussy, honest reactions to the land of smiles will have you laughing on the outside and guiltily agreeing with her on the inside. As an endearing fish-out-of-water, Bridget calls to attention all the foreigner reactions you’re embarrassed to share out loud.
  
Though Bridget’s stint in Thai prison may come across as summer-camp fluffy, it makes for a funny, sympathetic story. This book may not be the best resource for Thailand-related facts, but for smart, relatable observations expressed in all the wrong ways, Bridget Jones is the master. As a writer of guilty-pleasure reads, Helen Fielding is the master. Ladies, prepare to laugh out loud.
  
Thai Girl by Andrew Hicks
Hicks addresses the age old question that crosses the mind of every single visitor to Thailand; in a white-guy-meets-Thai-girl relationship, who’s really holding the chips? When a tourist splits with his girlfriend on a holiday in Thailand, he finds himself enraptured by a charming-yet-mysterious local woman. The novel’s Thai heroine is a multilayered character, at times passive and helpless, at times wry and controlling.
  
What comes across as a couple wrapped up in mind games will get you thinking about power dynamics in general, and how gender, age, ethnic and economic differences all factor together. The endlessly complex characters will leave you guessing until the very end. Feminists may find this relationship hard to handle, men who date Thai women may find it instantly relatable. Regardless of your opinions on the falang/Thai romance phenomenon, Hicks’ honest dialogues and relatable themes makes this book an absorbing read.  

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.