Beneath the surface

It’s hard to write about Vancouver.

Officially, it has been named one of the most liveable cities in the world, even through skyrocketing property prices (thanks to foreign speculation and buying), with a huge and impressive backcountry of British Columbia backing it up. An hour’s drive northwards brings you to Squamish, a haven for outdoorsy types. Drive east and you’d still be hard-pressed to escape the beautiful scenery that encircles the entire place.

In Vancouver itself, there is a multitude of fascinating neighbourhoods that hold their own ethnic enclaves and by extension, the cuisine on offer is as varied and authentic as the immigrants themselves who bring a wealth of diversity to the city. Gastown–the oldest part of the city centre–is a hodgepodge of quirky restaurants and souvenir shops. Walk a few streets down and the skyscrapers attest to the financial core of the place along with the waterfront properties where the super-rich cavort and preen. Whip out your wallet if the shops appeal…though it was London Drugs that I gravitated towards, each and every time.

The kind of Vancouver that the travel companion and I wanted to experience was the daily life that most Vancouverites lived. We went grocery-shopping, we cooked dinner and did laundry in a rental apartment, took the subway, drove out of town for a bit and went rock-climbing in a gym that looked at us funny because of the way we belayed. We even fell sick and stayed in when we could, as TC came down with a sore throat that soon turned into a full-blown flu. We didn’t cram as many touristy activities as we normally do because this time around, we have an entirely different purpose driving our visit. There were some places that we visited which were absolutely breathtaking (Port Moody and Coquitlam for instance) and others which we didn’t think we liked at all.

And amidst the glittering picture that many travel guide print of this place, our experience showed that many juggled the same anxieties of living in a city as they fretted over paying their mortgages, and a deep divide in the ethnic and wealth classes that seems to be growing ever deeper. The polite friendliness is always there, though it might well be a veneer that masks a kind of social aloofness that I found surprising, though it’s probably arguable that all cities demonstrate this sort of alienating trend and a standoffishness that skewed my initial impression of Vancouver.

The ability to speak English isn’t a requirement to settle in Canada (or so said an alarmingly chatty cabbie who talked about investor programs and problems the population faces in general); the result is the growth of insular communities that don’t interact outside of themselves not only because of language difficulties. The part where TC and I stayed was a rental AirBnB apartment and I’d barely heard English spoken at all in the days we were there. The ring of Asian shops and eateries had for a moment, however, had me wondering if I was really in Canada. A short drive into North Vancouver however, showed yet a different side of the inhabiting population.

A cousin of mine who lives in Vancouver raves about the place, nonetheless. Having been in Canada for over 3 decades, the picture that she paints of Vancouver is quite a different one that we’ve experienced, so the contradictory information is giving us pause.

We left the city after a week. Unlike some places, we weren’t exactly sorry to say goodbye, though the awe-inspiring landscape was difficult to leave. Vancouver’s left us mixed, though it’s admittedly a rather gloomy impression I had of it by the end of that short week.

Day-tripping to Whistler

The Travel Companion (TC) and I debated long and hard about renting a car in Vancouver, even if it was only for a few days. Public transit has always been encouraged and what people say about Vancouver being a ’small’, walkable city is to an extent, true, unless you’re staying out in the suburbs and not Downtown.

In the end, we compromised (isn’t this always the case?) and rented a small, white pimple of a VW Golf—easy to handle, though guaranteed to give you performance anxiety as larger cars and trucks breeze past on the highway—because we wanted the freedom of exploring Vancouver’s suburbs while doing a day trip to Whistler without being shackled to the rigid pick-up and drop-off times.

Day-tours are personally my favourite: I find that I don’t have to repack my bags for a few days away, but bring all that I need to get through a long day sightseeing some place while still getting back to base to collapse in a familiar bed at the end of it all. Obviously exceptions do apply.

In this case, we were rather torn between wanting to visit Vancouver Island and Whistler, but some research on travel forums suggested that Whistler (via Squamish) is the easier one to do, while the trip to Vancouver Island is more exhausting to manage with ferry crossings and all. Leaving Vancouver island for a longer weekend trip was recommended and that was time which we didn’t have at all.

As the name suggests, the sea-to-sky highway (highway 99) is a twisty, tricky road dealing with changes in elevation (dubbed ‘killer highway’ before road upgrades) that follows the Howe Shoreline and winds through the coast mountains of British Columbia. It heads straight for Squamish—a backcountry haven for climbers, bikers and trekkers—and goes through to Whistler and Pemberton. We didn’t make too many stops in this 95-km-long trail, having started out at the boundary of Burnaby-North Vancouver-West Vancouver, getting caught in heavy traffic before finally getting untangled from it to head northwards. Inclement weather in the first day of spring meant that we were slow-ish turtles on the roads compared to those who raced past us down the difficult stretches, though the weather cleared up later in the afternoon.

We simply headed to the back to parking lots 1-5, paid CAD10 for a day’s worth of parking and headed off.

Whistler has a staggering number of resorts, all of which offer some kind of package for skiers or holiday makers. Non-skiiers like TC and I opted for the Peak 2 Peak tickets that cost CAD 59 per person and that allowed us a gondola ride up Whistler (taking approximately 20-30 minutes) and then yet another ride across to Blackcomb Mountain. The pass officially expires when you take your last trip down to Whistler Village.

This being spring break, the crowds were in full force, meaning, there were queues going up. Spring was delayed this time, and winter seemed to be making a comeback instead, so there really wasn’t much else to do except ride the gondolas up and down and to-and-fro. Summer however, would present more opportunities to hike and explore the other peaks around Whistler.

Kuala Lumpur for the lazy traveller

The usual 3-day itinerary in any place typically involves a clever mix of time-saving routes and an assumption of boundless energy that will enable any intrepid visitor to cover a key number of sights. In short, a brag-worthy itinerary for a short but exhausting period of time that you can confidently say to anyone ‘I’ve visited this place and have seen the top x number of things I should see in it’.

Doing this in a place as dauntingly large as Kuala Lumpur is a difficult task to plan. Doing 3 days over a festive period (Chinese New year) with many Chinese shops (and areas like Chinatown) is impossible. But seeing as I was there primarily to try climbing the Damai Wall at the Batu Caves, running around the city and aiming to visit the Petronas Towers were not my priorities. So you could name something (such as Pudu, Aquaria, Central Market) and chances are, I haven’t seen it at all.

On the contrary, what I saw and did were the antithesis of the rush job that the crammers try to do. I don’t remember how that happened for me, but there was a time where travel became a race to see as many things as possible, following a list of things to do because they’re worth seeing, then getting very upset when I couldn’t tick off all the boxes. KL became a place where I finally did what I felt like doing, and not because a guidebook recommended it.

But first, get out of the airport. That was in itself, a feat to congratulate yourself for achieving, considering the 1.5 hours spent just waiting in a queue that barely moved to get my passport stamped.

  1. 1. Get from the airport to the hotel via KLIA express, which I found good and reliable. This was an extra bonus because I stayed in KL Sentral.
  2. 2. Walk and eat along Brickfields, the Indian quarter of the city.

  1. 3. Get around using Grab, the goodwill of some people who actually deigned to drop me at the near Light Rail Transit station (the KTM is the most unreliable thing, they said) and the various rail transit networks. They’re all good, except for the horrifyingly cramped and stuffy monorail.

4. Visit several train stations and gawk at the shopping complexes built around these stations. KL is an impressive place, with a skyline as diverse as I’ve ever seen: high-rise condos that stretch to the outskirts of the city, gleaming skyscrapers, minarets that suddenly rise out of the forested hills and a bewildering rail network that sometimes towers so high above the expressways that you think of syfy-movies immediately. And since you’re there, go shopping. KL Sentral (Nu Sentral), Imbi (Berjaya Times Square) and the very trendy Bukit Bintang (Pavilion, Lot 10, Fahrenheit) took up a whole day.

5.  Watch a movie. It was a novelty to do something like this, then walk back to the hotel room which was literally just 5 minutes away.

6. Go climbing. Novice climber or aspiring pros, there’s always something to do. I chose to visit the Batu caves with the fabulous rock climbing guides at Verticale, though Camp 5 at 1 Utama was a serious consideration before I found out that trad climbing was available during Chinese New Year.

7. Spend half the day in the pool. The hot weather will give you the tan you crave.

Getting enough (passive) income to travel

I think this post was inevitable, even if the title makes me cringe. But there comes a time when you start to wonder if your blog can start to make money for you. Or you start thinking about ways you can keep an income going while still seeing the world.

I first started out blogging on an old (but free) WordPress account as a way of keeping people who were interested in what I was doing updated, until I became dissatisfied with the sloppy way my own posts and pictures were laid out. But to say that I bought my own domain, researched WordPress themes and paid for hosting was merely an idea to make money off blogging is absolutely false. More like, to satisfy my own organisational impulses and the pride I wanted to take in having a pretty website that I could feel happy about each time I logged in.

This was however, also the time when travel blogging had long taken off. So people were making money off their travels in ways I couldn’t fathom and blatantly showing off their successes on social media.

It got me thinking.

The truth is, travel takes money. Managing finances while on the road can be hard. But I’m not yet prepared to quit my boring job yet, even though it doesn’t pay as well as I’d hoped or as stable as I think.

So, back to getting the money flowing while on the road. These are the things I’ve read about so far, tried and failed at. I’m still experimenting with different things to do though, and I’m not sure if any of them work yet.

I’ll add more methods I’ve used as I go along, but feel free to write and tell me what you’ve done.

Earning passively

This would only work if you already have a large following. Every click on the advertisement embedded on your page will contribute an amount of money to you and the program you’ve chosen to be an associate of. If you’re a book blogger, you can be an Amazon associate. For travel bloggers, there’s always Booking.com’s associate program. The latter is what I’m part of, so if anyone clicks on the ad on my page and books something with my id embedded in the link, I’ll get a portion of the fee they pay.

This clearly, hasn’t happened yet. 

Some groundwork is necessary though. Social Media is a perfect way to get a fanbase, so to speak. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest…you name it. Write, tweet, share enough about yourself and you might convince thousands of people to follow you. Building up a following has always been tough for me. I’m introverted, paranoid about my own privacy, suspicious about every kind of online log-in and site, so writing about anything personal makes me think more than twice.

Selling things

Teach at Udemy

Are you good at teaching? Do you have solutions to problems that people are looking for? Do up a course for Udemy. Break down what you know in bite-sized chapters and get people to learn what you already know. The information is all out there on the internet, but as I’ve been told, people will pay for information that is structured and clear.

The Gig Economy: Etsy, Fiverr, GigBucks

If you’re good with offering digital services, Etsy, Fiverr and GigBucks will be the place for you. Etsy’s terrific if you already know your niche, be it creating graphic templates to selling handmade and/or vintage clothing to people who will pay for specialised work.

Fiverr and GigBucks are microjobs (better known as Gigs) sites, if there’s such a term. Get paid for doing things that can range from offering your website-making services, photography skills or even giving health and nutritional advice for small amounts of money.

Click-working (Or better known as User testing)

There are websites out there that actually pay you for user testing and many times, all you need to do is quite literally, click on the mouse button to get paid. The truth is, they do pay a pittance (somewhere between $0.01 and $0.05 for say, a minute of two of your time, but if you’re the multi-tasking sort who can concentrate on blogging, listening to music while reading some article online, this might be for you.

Generally speaking, my experience with these is that tests are more sporadic than you think and the payout even more so, but some people do have more luck than others in getting passive income this way.

Usability Hub 

The whole point of UsabilityHub is to get public (and possibly anonymous) feedback on what works (or doesn’t work) on a website. A quick test usually involves choosing your preferred look of a website and answering questions about why you chose what you chose. The payout per test is $0.01 and the tab you have open will need to stay constantly open for you to catch a test. It’s not terribly consistent though, and I stopped altogether when it took me months just to get earn $10. UsabilityHub only pays out when you hit $20 worth of tests conducted.

UserTesting

Speak your thoughts out loud as you navigate your way through a website, saying what works and what doesn’t. There’s a test to go through before they approve you as an official tester, which I didn’t get past, so that’s as far as my knowledge goes.

Userlytics and TestingTime

I can’t personally vouch for these yet, but they’re just a few number of sites that I’ve come across in my research. All you need is an email address, an Internet connection, and typically, a Paypal account where they can transfer funds.

Investing

Hop on the Cryptocurrency train

Cryptocurrency (and Blockchain technology) has to be the hottest thing in recent months. I don’t proclaim to understand all of it, but the media is filled with heaps of articles that decry this trend, laud it and analyse it.

The good part about investing in Cryptocurrency is that, well, people like me can do it. But it’s in its infancy, and volatility is the only consistent thing about it so far, unlike traditional, fiat-based assets. The bottom-line isn’t known – we get financial giants giving dire predictions – and the warning is as always, thoroughly research what you’re choosing to trade or invest in.

Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin and Ripple…these are just the few cryptocurrencies that has been making waves in the last couple of months, thanks to their meteoric rise in value. Very briefly put, you can buy and sell coins from an exchange such as Coinbase, Gemini or Kraken, link your bank account to it (after you get your identity verified), then start buying. Use a wallet to store your coins (if they’re stolen, they’re gone), but keep in mind the transaction fee each time you move your coins around.

I’ve found some basic but good guides here if you want to get started:

How to trade Cryptocurrencies for Beginners

Guide to Buying Cryptocurrency

A Beginner’s Guide to Investing in Cryptocurrency


This is by no means an exhaustive list; this is a post that I imagine I’ll be revisiting as I add (and remove) ‘methods’ that work (or don’t). I’ve only scratched the surface and have yet to find a way that’s feasible and profitable for myself.

Have you found something that works for you? I’d be happy to hear what the rest of the travel community is doing.

Eating in Siem Reap

Khmer cuisine is a curious thing, as it sits on the crossroads between Thai and Vietnamese dishes, though the dishes are slightly more sweetish, minus the stomach-burning heat yet still bursting with flavour with the abundance of herbs used in each one.

Steven, our guide for the local food tour that we are taking of Siem Reap—and an ex-Scottish chef in a previous life—thinks that the cuisine in this region generally evolved at the same time, only with slight but distinct regional variations as national boundaries changed over the years.

The tuk-tuk we pile on goes around the corner from where we stay and into a fairly large shop where the locals feast on a fish porridge—the kind that’s boiled in a clear broth with filleted pieces of fish and a multitude of herbs floating in it—and dough fritters bundled in a clear plastic bag, should you wish to dip it in the broth. It’s the traditional breakfast that Cambodians eat and according to Steven, it’s only one of the few original stores left in the old market area that hasn’t been priced out of the area altogether when the tourists started coming and the prices started rising. It’s delicious, fragrant with the amount of herbs in it and non-smelly (as fish can be, when boiled) which is frankly, an absolute revelation.

While we eat, Steven talks a little about his history and our favourite cuisines. I half-listen and chip in how much I like Middle-Eastern food, too busy devouring the soup and the pandan tea.

We trundle to the wet market next and it’s a massive one as our driver stops at the edge of it. We enter through a small muddy lane, where both pedestrians and motorcycles have equal rights passing through. A bewildering array of vegetables and herbs are laid out on both sides of the lane (I get excited when I recognise some of them), and Steven chatters with the shopkeepers in Cambodian as he buys a myriads of things from the wet market some of which whose names I’ve already forgotten: fried banana fritters, fried coconut and rice flour waffles, a few variants of rice cakes, pickled vegetables, jackfruit, delicious coconut ‘cakes’, for starters.

We eat a few of them, and then leave the rest as a ‘non-bribe’ to the Angkor complex checkpoint officers so that our tuk-tuk’s passage through the complex (and into the village) would be smooth. As we talk, several storekeepers come over and make fun of Steven’s Cambodian. Laughing at his expense is a regular occurrence, though it seems to have more to do with the fact that they can’t get over how a Caucasian is trying to speak their language and getting it mostly wrong.

A slight drizzle starts, turning dusty lanes into muddy ones with huge potholes of dirty water. Meanwhile, the conversation flows: from corruption in Cambodia, health care standards, NGOs whom the government relies on to keep the general populace educated and fed, foreign investment, rural life and racial tensions as we walk around the stands of raw meat, clothes and vegetables…and how much Steven loves the dogs and puppies in the village.

On the way to the village, we stop yet again, to get some barbecued frogs stuffed with pork (seasoned with turmeric and other spices) and omelettes with herbs cooked over hot coals. We pinch some off; the rest are given to stray dogs that look tetchy and desperate for scraps.

The village is a long road with houses and farmland bordering it. We stop somewhere in the middle and walk into a few families’ homes to see how rice is milled and how traditional rice noodles are made. Steven explains that there is a measure of sustainable living among the villagers who live off the land and this self-sufficiency means that few of them don’t really venture out to the city, despite Siem Reap being only about 14 kilometres from it. But while the villagers hardly leave their homes, they’re more than happy to see foreigners stepping into their world and getting to know them a little. It’s a good exchange, so we’re told.

The last full meal of the tour is Nom banh chok Samlar Khmer and my favourite of the day, a bowl of rice noodles made from fermented rice with gravy made with fermented fish paste and coconut, garnished with raw vegetables like banana blossom, water lily stems and fresh herbs. I slurped mine quickly, then felt regretful that there weren’t more of it.

We pile into the tuk-tuk once again as the sun peeks out a bit. Slowly, the old market area and the surrounding traffic congestion come into sight as the grey clouds come around the edges. By the time we get ready to go out for dinner at a French creole place, the rain starts to come down, getting heavier by the minute. The sludge and mud are challenging to wade through and our shoes are dirtied, then dirtied some more. Things go awry at the last minute—though this is probably routine for Cambodians—a dead baby lizard gets stuck in the hairdryer and makes the hotel room smell ominously like barbecued meat. The windows leak, as does the huge lizard living behind the mini fridge that calls out persistently throughout the night.

But it’s a full, memorable day. Not all Cambodian food is to my liking, which doesn’t come as a surprise, but a few of these dishes have already, within a span of a few hours, become my favourites.

Templed Out

Coming to see the Angkor temples was my primary objective in visiting Siem Reap and doing it during the cooler months from November – March sounded like a bloody good idea. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the whole world thought the same thing.

Still, the best thing you can do is to plan…and plan well, just to avoid jostling shoulders with the huge crowds of Chinese tourists as much as possible. There are several ways to go about it: hire a tuk-tuk for a day or go with a tour operator, though choosing which one is probably imperative. A good guide makes all the difference and the stories he tells will probably make you look good if you’re a travel bragger.

Our day tour

TC and I booked our day tour with Vespa Adventures and it turned out to be a shrewder move than we’d initially expected. The manoeuvrability of the scooter meant that we could take worn footpaths and smaller forested roads where larger tour buses and tuk-tuks couldn’t go, so we zipped in and out quicker than would have been able to.

Sathya and Heang (our riders) picked us up at 8 a.m., and we then went to buy our tickets at Angkor Enterprise. A day pass costs USD $37 and you get a typically bad photo is taken there and then at the counter. A shell-shocked image is what you have permanently imprinted onto the pass that you’ll need to flash each time you get to a different temple in the Angkor complex.

The Angkor Archaeological complex is massive, so a day is definitely sacrilege to cover it, because it’s basically impossible to do so. TC and I wanted just a small taste of it however, so a day pass sufficed.

Back briefly at Vespa Adventures office, we met our guide Sov Sothick, whom we later learned, had spent 12 years as a temple boy learning the Pali text as well as English from the monks before civil war broke out.

A Brief History

The Khmer empire, as does modern-day Cambodia, has a turbulent history that spanned roughly 600 years. At its height, Angkor Thom was a vibrant complex of temples, palaces, and houses as kings declared themselves gods and built structures that mirrored the universe in Hindu cosmology…that was later switched to Mahayana Buddhist by Jayavarman VII (reigned:1181–1219) and then erased in a period of iconoclasm after his death.

Our even shorter Itinerary

Bayon, our first stop, was a temple mountain of faces where we struggled just to get a free square metre. Ta Prohm – the temple that’s getting gradually reclaimed by the jungle as the trees’ massive roots wrap around these structures – or better known as the Tomb Raider movie set, was next.

Angkor Wat, the biggest of the three we were going to visit, was left for last, because, according to Sov, the hordes of Chinese tourists take their siesta from about noon to 2 p.m., leaving the queue for the uppermost levels of Angkor relatively free.

Lichen still coats many structures; the difference between the restored stones and the stones in their original state is stark after the ongoing restoration projects by joint teams from Japan, Cambodia, India and France. In the sweltering heat, we watched selfie after selfie getting taken and increasingly bushed tourists just stopping for a breather. Few stopped to admire the intricate detail of the carvings that told convoluted stories of good vs. evil in the Ramayana or the tales of Khmer victory over the Cham people.

Things to Remember

Cover up. Cover up. Cover up. Hydrate. Take loads of photos. Try not to get irritated with the jostling crowds. Hire a guide – the insider knowledge will bring you a long way. Up the sense of adventure by humming the Indiana Jones theme song.

When the dust settles in Siem Reap

Siem Reap’s – quite literally meaning ‘Siamese Defeated – name is a (smug) testament to its history of conflict that Cambodia has always been embroiled in one way or another. And it isn’t a place that the travel companion (TC) and I actually envisioned visiting at all.

But the idea the Angkor Wat Complex simply grew too big to contain. Knowing that the year end week-long holidays offered the opportunity to do just that, we booked our tickets still feeling uncertain, and that was that.

If November – April is Cambodia’s driest and coolest period, the day we arrived proved the contrary. The sweltering heat and humidity meant the insects were out in force, as were the sweaty people whose facial glows were made worse by the garish night lights.

Escaping the heat and getting into the hotel’s air-conditioned rooms was a luxury all on its own, and its location on a side street supposedly meant that we were further away from the noise downtown. But an incessantly-chattering lizard, noisy neighbours who stomped their way around at 3 a.m. and the screaming Cambodian children playing early in the morning meant that sleep was scarce.

TC and I were grumpy arses because of the infuriating airport queues, the flight delay and questionable standard of the room we had in a hotel that was supposedly rated very highly by others.

All things considered, I do tend to arrive at my destination feeling worn-down, worn-out and plain unwashed, then wonder how people make merry while I see everything else through the dusty lenses of a tired tourist trying to keep it together.

The centre of Siem Reap turned out to be several night markets, a bewildering string of push-cart stalls, swirling with the dust of a hundred tuk-tuks and the footsteps of too many tourists stumbling their way through the uneven roads. A town on steroids, so to speak, when things pass you at warp speed, and all you want to do is take a bath, find something to eat and head to bed.

It was a typical first day, after all.

When travel becomes lacklustre

It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

Dollars & Sense: 10 things to note when budgeting for a trip

The problem of trying to figure out how much cash to bring on a holiday is something that typically doesn’t have a good solution. Overdo it and there’s so much excess cash that sometimes tempts you to spend it on things you don’t need just so you don’t have to convert them back to your own currency. Under do it and you’ll be searching out another money exchange counter in no time, which frankly, wastes precious time.

When I used to do bi-annual 2-week trips to Europe about a decade ago, I went on a strict budget and told myself that no matter what, this fixed amount – do or die – was going to have to see me through. It clearly didn’t always work, particularly when I sneaked in a purchase or 2 with a credit/debit card in some seedy places.

Most people go about budgeting like this:

  • ask someone who went to the same place you are going how much they thought they spent
  • (in cases where nobody is around to ask), start asking on online forums
  • wait till the last minute, panic, come up with a random figure to bring and just wing it

None of these methods are very helpful (the last one even more so). And you find yourself either trying to do stupid things to save costs near the end of your holiday (“Who needs to spend on laundry? I will wear the same pair of underwear for 3 days – I know I can do it!”), using a credit card in some seedy venue, then fretting about your card getting cloned or trying to change money at a money changer when you can’t speak the language and don’t recognise the currency properly and so are almost guaranteed to get cheated to some degree.

I figured that there had to be a practical way to get an estimate of how much money to bring on a holiday. After nights of desperate browsing and calculating, it seems I somehow hit upon a sort of method of doing just that.

The general idea behind this is to:

  • note down any costs which are fixed
  • try to estimate those costs which are variable (in foreign currency)
  • total the whole lot up
  • figure out how much you need in your home currency to change for that amount of foreign currency

What you are trying to do is to make sense of madness, so some boundaries must exist. Please note that this will only work when some basic conditions of your trip are met before you go on it :

  • you know where you are going (the exact location)
  • you know the length of the trip
  • your accommodation is booked ahead of time
  • activities/side trips are mostly booked ahead of time
  • you spend responsibly while on a holiday

If you are backpacking to a general region, aren’t sure exactly which countries/regions you will be in or how long your trip will last then this won’t work for you. Or if you are the sort who likes buying a round for the entire bar in every bar, this isn’t for you, either.

But if you meet the conditions above, here then, are a rough series of steps to figuring out how much to bring. First, though, figure out the fixed expenses, such as air tickets, pre-booked activities and tours, hotel accommodation charges, transportation and prepaid SIMs.

1. The length of your trip

This is the first thing you figure out since this determines how many days of expenditure are involved. Even if some of the days are partial, note those down since you will need to spend money on those days as well.

2. The number of meals needed

Food is one of the most straightforward expenses you will need to budget for. Although this is a variable (who knows what you will eat for each meal? – more on which, later), you still know how many meals you will need to have. A few things to keep in mind here :

  • Is breakfast is included as part of your stay at your place of accommodation?
  • Are meals provided on flights? (assuming you can stand airline food, of course)

These may be meals you don’t have to budget for as they are already provided.

What you will end up with is a list resembling this :

e.g. for 4 nights
Incoming flight at 10am, outgoing flight at 2pm
4 breakfasts (breakfast provided on incoming flight)
5 lunches
4 dinners (dinner provided on outgoing flight)

3. Planned activities

Any planned activities such as tours are fixed costs. Note these down.

Some of these will insist on payment in cash only, not necessarily in the currency of the country you are visiting (e.g. some tours ask for payment in US dollars only). Remember to take these into account when changing currency!

4. Other fixed costs

There are typically some other costs which you will know of ahead of time, or at least have a rough idea of. Classic examples are transportation costs to/from the airport and possibly mobile phone card costs. Note these down as well since they are generally known values. A google search like ‘prepaid SIM card cost in [insert place]‘ will bring up many threads that will give you an estimate cost.

5. Estimating daily costs

This is where things get a little tricky – you have pretty much removed the costs which are static. Now we try to estimate the variable costs as best we can.

To do this, we need an estimate on the daily costs of living in the places you will be visiting. You can find this on websites such as Expatistan (www.expatistan.com). The information there is crowd-sourced and should give you an idea of the daily costs for various activities on your trip.

6. Meals

The easiest variable cost to deal with is meals. You already know how many meals you need for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). Using the information taken from the website, you should be able to calculate an estimate of how much your meals should cost. A few tips here :

  • In some cases (typically dinner) you may find more than one cost option listed on your cost estimate website (e.g. a meal at a budget restaurant vs a 4 course meal at an Italian restaurant in an expat area). Always use the more expensive choice in your estimates. Overestimating is good.
  • I find that budgeting dinner for 2 people is a good idea, since this puts you in a position to pay for a possible partner or date. At the very worst, it will mean you can manage a more fancy dinner or have a bit of spare cash on hand, never a bad thing. Think about those lovely seaside dinner places on holiday.

7. General daily activities

The next is a list of general daily activities you might undertake. This can be a bit tricky but typically, there are few things that will get done every day on a holiday. Examples of these are :

  • a cab ride
  • a museum trip
  • sitting down for a coffee at a cafe

Of course, this varies from person to person and you should tailor this for the sort of things you might do daily while on holiday.

The general idea is if you think you might do it, then factor it in. Err on the side of caution. Multiply this estimated daily cost against the number of days your trip is and you have another estimated cost dealt with.

8. Daily spare cash

This might be the hardest thing to estimate but looking at the rough costs of various things the website gives you for the place you are going to will give you an idea of how much this can be. Multiply this by the number of days you are spending in the place and you should have a buffer of spare cash, just in case.

9. Adding it all up

Add up the fixed and estimated costs for your trip and round up to the nearest. Again, overestimating is good. You now have the estimated amount of cash you need in foreign currency.

10. Currency conversion

The final step is to calculate how much you will need of your own home currency in order to change for the foreign currency or currencies you will need. I use currency conversion websites for this (e.g. Oanda) and then add another about 15% on for the amount of home currency I should exchange. This is to take into account getting a crappy exchange rate at the money changer.

Hopefully, this should give you a workable sum of cash to use at your destination. In practice, I typically end up with a bit of extra cash which I have to change back to my home currency. While this isn’t terribly efficient since I almost definitely lose some value in changing currencies back, I’d rather have extra cash at the end of my trip and be prepared for contingencies than find myself short of cash.

Dweebs in Doha

Doha reminds me of Dubai a decade or so ago: a city expanding and changing at a frenetic rate as migrant workers and expatriates flock here to construct its lofty ambitions in the dust and sand. It’s also a hard city to love, with horrendous traffic and red lights that last up to 3 minutes and a plethora of dust pollution swirling at your feet each time you walk. I found myself mostly ignored by men and tried not to feel insulted that many of those who walked around in thobe dishdashas—whether working in the souq or the museum—chose to speak over me and directly to TC instead, when gender separation is clearly important here.

As a city under construction, Doha thoroughly modern, with artificial sights and a ton of shopping malls to keep its expatriates happy as they work their way through their contracts, yet with a dire record of human rights and labour laws—termed by the media as modern slavery especially when it comes to the treatment of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent or even sub-saharan Africa—in this sharia-legislated country. It’s hard work, after all, prepping a city for the 2022 World cup, as construction on the stadium and the metro barrels full steam ahead. But the extremes here are jarring, to be honest. The exploitation of the ‘lower classes’ in contrast to the excess and opulence of the wealthy, all within the strict rules of Islamic laws—they took a while to get used to frankly, after having come straight from Tbilisi, a city that’s still building itself from the ruins of communism.

Thankfully, February in Doha is still considered a ‘winter month’, so temperatures were actually beautifully balmy at about 16-22 degrees celsius and the infamous desert heat hadn’t yet returned. We arrived on short-term visitor visas in Doha for 2 days and learned that taxis are pretty much the norm here, as we went to and fro from our hotel at the Sports Roundabout. Taxis are plentiful, though not necessarily always cheap, given the bad traffic jams here. Karwa taxis would be Doha’s default mode of transportation apart from buses, although there’s a subtle tipping culture here that we aren’t quite used to given the appalling wages that these workers actually earn. We added about 5-10 rials to each cab fare, then about 20% more to restaurant bills, then felt thoroughly frustrated because it was something else yet to remember, which be solved by simply adding service charge and government tax to the total bill. It was also surprising to learn that most places to eat were either found in hotel lobbies or shopping malls that do play a large role in pastime activities for expatriates.

In Doha itself, there’re just a few fixed things to see: the Museum of Islamic Art which does have an impressive collection of artefacts, a stroll through part of the 5 km-long Corniche and the Dhows floating on the banks, the atmospheric Souq Waqif if you can ignore the treatment of the poor animals on sale in a certain part of it and the adjoining Falcon Souq, and perhaps the West Bay financial district if a glittering skyline is what you look for.

As we took our last taxi ride through the lit columns framing the expressway that led to Hamad International airport, I asked myself this question: is it a place that I’m willing to return to? Unfortunately, I can’t quite say yes.