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Month: June 2015

From Thailand to Laos and Back in One Day

One day, four of us were sitting around in Khon Kaen (Thailand) when we decided to take a day trip across the border into Laos. I’d never been to Laos before, plus I needed to renew my visa, so I figured “why not”.

Laos (also spelt “Lao”) is officially referred to as the “Lao People’s Democratic Republic”. Laos is located along the side of the Mekong river. The country is bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west.

So we jumped in the car and headed north to Nong Khai. Nong Khai is the nearest Thai town to the Laos capital – Vientiane. It’s about 22 kilometres from Nong Khai to Vientiane. From Nong Khai you can enter Laos via the Thai/Laos Friendship Bridge.

When we arrived at the border (the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge), we were told that we couldn’t take our car across the border. This is because it was a hire car. So we had to take a bus across the Thai/Lao Friendship Bridge (20 baht), then hire another bus/minivan once we arrived in Lao.

To enter Laos, we needed to get a tourist visa on arrival. So it was the usual process of getting stamped out of Thailand by the Thai immigration, then applying (and paying $35 USD) for a visa before entering Laos via Laos immigration. The visa fee is different depending on your nationality. Also, you have the option of paying in Thai baht. However, if you choose to pay in Thai baht, you will pay a lot more due to the Laos immigration’s practice of using a really bad exchange rate (or really good exchange rate, depending on whether you’re Lao immigration or the tourist!).

We hired a van and the guide took us to Vientiane and back to the border at a cost of about 1200 THB. The rain started falling as soon we got in the the bus. The driver was hell-bent on taking us to a bunch of duty-free shops. Obviously he gets a kick-back from any purchases that we make. We told him we weren’t interested and wouldn’t be buying anything. Said he understood but if we could just go in anyway and then he’d show us the temple we wanted to see. So two of us walked in then turned around and walked out again. Our driver was bamboozled as to why we didn’t buy anything. So we continued on our way. We were then informed that the temple that we wanted to check out closes before 12 noon every day. We found out later that the temple is open from 8am to 5pm every day…

Anyway we managed to pick up some dried buffalo skin for cheap so all was not lost. Many Laotians and some Thais find them delicious!

We ended up back in Nong Khai eating dinner alongside the Mekong river.

So in a nutshell, we drove several hours from Khon Kaen to Nong Khai, hopped over the border, viewed Laos from the inside of a minivan, then within a couple of hours, hopped back over Thailand. If you like to waste your money on nothing in particular, you should try this too!

Mind you, I did get another 15 days on my tourist visa when I re-entered Thailand so from that perspective, mission accomplished.

The above trip was in 2011. Fortunately I’ve been back to Vientiane since then  and loved it. Stayed a few nights and I’m looking forward to doing this again for my next border run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Thomas in the Caribbean

Photo of a school of fish at Magens Bay in Saint Thomas

School of fish at Magens Bay in Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas is part of the US Virgin Islands, which are located in the Caribbean. Other islands that make up the US Virgin Islands include Saint John, Saint Croix and Water Island.

Saint Thomas has many islands around. And beautiful scenery from the ocean to the top of the hill. Today, millions of tourists from around the world flock to St Thomas.

The main town centre consists of jewellery shops, jewellery shops, and… jewellery shops! The main reason for all these jewellery shops that, like other caribbean islands, these luxury items are all tax free in St Thomas. If you’re looking for diamonds or other gemstones, you can find a bargain in St Thomas.

We went out to the beach called Magens Bay. Recognised as one of the world best beaches as selected by National Geographic magazine.

The best time to visit this beach is in the morning before lunch time. That is because it’s the best time to see the schools of fish. There were so many fish swimming around with us. I’d never seen so many fish like this so close to the shoreline before.

A big fish, about 80 centimetres long, was swimming around people trying to eat the smaller fishes. Some people thought it was a shark! We could even see the fish when we were sunbathing on the sand.

Another place of interest is Blackbeard’s Castle. Blackbeard’s Castle is an historic castle near the main township. It’s all about Blackbeard – the famous pirate in Caribbean. Blackbeard’s Castle can be reached by walk up 99 steps to the top along the way.

After our half-day excursion, we waited for our boat trip back to the cruise liner. Maybe next time we’ll stay a bit longer.

How to Find Short-Term Rental Accommodation in New Zealand

One thing I’ve noticed with New Zealand is that it can be quite difficult finding cheap short-term rental accommodation (as it can also be in Australia).

By “short-term rental” I’m referring to stays of say, one or two weeks, to possibly several months (but less than the usual 6 to 12 months that most landlords require).

This is in contrast to countries like Thailand, where many (if not most) accommodation providers offer rates for daily, weekly, and monthly stays.

In New Zealand, your short-term rental options usually consist of the following:

  • Pay the nightly rate multiplied by the number of nights
  • Try to negotiate a lower rate with the accommodation provider
  • Go through a real estate agent and sign up for a 6 month (or 12 month!) lease

Pay the nightly rate multiplied by the number of nights

While this option can work well for shorter stays, it can become very expensive if you plan to stay more than a few weeks at the same location. Hotels/motels rarely charge less than $120 per night (more like $140 per night and higher) so multiplying that by say, 21 days, will cost you more than $2,500.

Of course, you can always save money by staying in a camping ground. A small cabin at a camping ground could be as low as $50 or $60 per night. And if you bring your own caravan, campervan, or even tent, your accommodation bills can be reduced quite considerably.

Try to to negotiate a lower rate with the accommodation provider

This is something you should probably always try to do when staying longer than a few nights at the same location. I always ask the accommodation provider if they offer discounts for longer stays. They usually ask “how long” and I reply with something like “maybe weeks, maybe months… depends on the discount”!

Some providers advertise lower rates for longer term stays but most don’t. If you plan on staying several months, ask if they offer a monthly rate.

The season can make a big difference on the price you pay and whether you can secure a large discount on your accommodation.

For example, I’m currently paying $350 per week for a fully furnished holiday cottage in Nelson, which usually goes for $240 per night. Mind you, I had to sign a 9-month lease, but the lease allows me to cancel at any time by giving 3 weeks notice. I found this place online before I arrived in New Zealand and emailed the owner asking if they offer discounts for longer term stays of several months or more. I was surprised when he provided me with a link to the TradeMe website advertising it for $350 per week (utilities extra).

In case you don’t know, the TradeMe website is one of New Zealand’s most popular websites. It’s a buy/sell website and also includes real estate rentals.

Go through a real estate agent and sign up for a 6 month (or 12 month!) lease

If you’re comfortable with this option, you could pay as little as a few hundred dollars per week for a two or three bedroom house in a good location. Perhaps less for an apartment.

However, there are several problems with going the real estate agent route.

First of all, you need to be able to commit to staying for the full 6 months (or 12) that you sign on the lease. If you’re only staying a few months, you’d best not go down this route – unless you can find a landlord who’s willing to allow you to sign a shorter lease (probably won’t be easy).

Also, most properties offered through real estate agents are non-furnished. This means you’ll need to buy a bed, fridge, lounge suite, kitchen table, washing machine, etc etc. This is just not feasible if you’re only here on holiday. OK, some rental properties are offered fully furnished, but then you’ll run into the next issue.

You’ll need to complete an application form (once you’ve inspected the place).  This application is then presented to the landlord (along with any other applications) and the landlord will choose whichever he/she thinks is the best fit. If you’re only in NZ on holiday, this could cause some problems. If you have no rental track record in NZ this could cause problems.

One way around this issue could be to offer to pre-pay the full 6 months in advance. But then that’s a risk you’d need to be willing to take…

Conclusion

While finding short-term rental accommodation in New Zealand can be quite difficult, a little bit of effort can achieve positive results. Just be prepared to spend some time researching the market before you arrive at your destination. And don’t be afraid to fire off those emails asking for discounts!

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