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Asia travel tips

Friday
Feb232007

Airport taxis

Airport taxi drivers are the bane of every Asian traveler’s existence. The moment you step out of the customs hall, at almost every airport in Asia, you will hear the familiar “Taxi sir?” Based on my own experience, and being as objective as possible, I would say that 24 out of 25 times, it will be a tout that is asking you that question. They survive by preying on tourists who look like they might be visiting for the first time, and don’t know where the official taxi rank is, or what the licensed taxi prices should be. If you respond to the question with a “Yes, I need a taxi” then I would say that 23 out of 25 times, you are going to get ripped off, paying up to double what you should be (and occasionally even more), or end up in a unlicensed rust bucket in which you will wonder whether you will make it to your destination in one piece. Very, very occasionally, you might end up in a genuinely dangerous situation where your personal safety is at risk. Fortunately it hasn’t happened to me, but it has to others.

Here are a few tips about getting in from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) – the airport that I know best. I’ll add some others as soon as I get time.

Kuala Lumpur

Despite the Malaysian police and airport authorities supposedly having constant crackdowns on touts at KL International Airport, it is a rare day not to be approached by at least 4-5 touts as you push your baggage cart through the arrivals hall. After a crackdown has been implemented, you may find the touts are all dressed in smart suits, to look like hotel representatives or limousine chauffeurs, to try and throw the police off the scent. But the fact is anyone asking if you want a taxi in the arrivals hall is a tout, because if you want an official airport taxi, you need to buy a taxi voucher after leaving the customs hall and before going through the sliding glass doors into the arrivals hall. The taxi voucher counter is easy to miss if you don’t know where to look for it, so there is usually a guy on the INSIDE of the sliding glass doors asking people if they want a taxi. He is the only person who is not a tout – his job is just to point out the taxi voucher counter, so you can get your prepaid voucher before you enter the arrivals hall.

You have to buy a prepaid voucher to use the airport taxis – they don’t accept cash (to prevent tourists from being ripped off) – so if you miss the taxi voucher counter on your way out, you can still get a voucher at another counter in the arrivals hall. But your problem will be to find the counter without being misled by a tout disguised as an airport official who will tell you something like “No need to buy a voucher, just come with me and you can pay in cash” or tell you there is another counter on a lower level (they will just be trying to get you into the car park where the touts have taxis waiting). Some of the taxis the touts use are city taxis looking for passengers for the return trip to the city, but others are unlicensed taxis. Very occasionally, you might be lucky and find a city taxi driver prepared to use his meter (often the ‘scruffy’ looking touts in the arrivals hall are actually city taxi drivers looking for a return fare) but too often they take advantage of unsuspecting tourists to overcharge them.

One day I overhead a tout in the arrivals hall telling a family from the Middle East that he would give them a special rate of RM150 to take them to the city. Yes, the rate was special alright – the usual fare is around half that. It’s a bit hard to say what the fare should be because it depends on where in the city you are going. The fare will range from about RM60 for destinations on the southern side of the city to RM90 for destinations on the northern side of the city. The city centre is usually around RM80 depending on traffic conditions (airport to city centre generally takes about an hour). The prepaid taxi vouchers that you buy at the airport will cost about 10% more than the metered fare, but the condition of the airport taxis is better, and they have more room for luggage than the city taxis.

Of course, if you don’t have much luggage with you, then give the taxis a miss. Take the KLIA Ekpres train from one of the lower levels of the arrivals hall and it will get you into KL Sentral in 28 minutes. It leaves every 15 minutes in peak hours and 20 minutes at other times. It’s fast, comfortable and a lot safer than the taxis. Many of the taxis drive at unsafe speeds (the speed limit on the freeway into the city is 110 kph, but I have had drivers get up to 160 kph before I told them to slow down). Some years ago, a European couple were killed in an airport taxi that was speeding. The KLIA Ekpres costs RM35 per person each way, and you can buy tickets from a counter in the middle of the baggage hall whilst you are waiting for your luggage to come off the plane. KL Sentral is not actually in the centre of KL – it’s about 5-10 minutes away depending on traffic. Again, there is a prepaid taxi voucher counter there, so you can do the last leg of your journey without getting ripped off. The taxi voucher counter is right outside the exit from the KLIA Ekpres. You can’t miss it. If you are traveling really light, and you know where you are going, then often it is quicker to complete your journey using either the commuter train (KTM Kommuter), elevated light rail system (Putra LRT) or monorail. The KTM Kommuter can take you to the PWTC station for hotels like the Seri Pacific and Legend; the LRT can take you to KLCC where the Twin Towers are (hotels close by include the Mandarin Oriental and Corus) or Ampang Park (hotels close by include the Nikko and Crown Princess); or the monorail can take you to Bukit Bintang or Jalan Sultan Ismail where many of the other hotels are located. The KTM Kommuter and Putra LRT stations are all in the same building as the KLIA Ekpres, but for the monorail you have to go outside the building and walk across the car park to the station on Jalan Tun Sambanthan (3 minutes). It’s on the opposite side to the Hilton and Le Meridien hotels.

Thursday
Aug312006

Packing for the trip

One of the secrets of hassle free travel is to start the trip without the stress of wondering what you have forgotten to pack. If you are one of those people who spend the journey to the airport with a feeling in the stomach that you’ve forgotten something, then try preparing a packing list well before your trip, and use that as a checklist to make sure you take everything that you need.

As a frequent traveller, I have used a packing list for years, and can now pack my two bags and leave for the airport in less than an hour. My personal packing list is shown below, and you can use this as a guide to prepare your own list (of course, mine is for a man – a woman’s packing list will require more changes)

I normally travel with a suit-pack and a backpack (both with wheels and retractable handles). You will note from my packing list that included in each of these is a ‘fold-up bag’. These are those small black nylon bags that fold up to a very small size. One of them I use for throwing my dirty laundry into, and if I can’t fit it all back into the suit-pack when I return (dirty laundry seems to take up twice the space of clothes that are newly laundered and pressed), I check it in as an extra bag for the return trip. The extra bag is also useful for any souvenirs that you buy whilst away – they can be wrapped up in the dirty laundry.

The fold-up bag that I keep in my backpack is a smaller size. I keep that in case I am made to check-in my backpack by an over-zealous airline employee (my backpack is slightly oversize for a carry-on bag – I usually get away with it, but occasionally have to check it in if it is a small plane or on some domestic flights where the overhead bin is not large enough). I take my laptop computer out (which is in its own case with a shoulder strap) and then put my cameras, lenses, iPod and other valuables in the fold-up bag. Without all the padding of the backpack (it is a Lowepro backpack designed for carrying camera gear), once the contents are transferred to the fold-up bag, it is well within the carry-on baggage limits.

The ‘essential toiletries pack’ and the ‘essential medicines pack’ that you see in my backpack packing list are kept in the backpack permanently, so I don’t have to worry about transferring items from the bathroom and medicine cabinet when packing. If I run out of anything when I am on a trip, I restock as soon as I return, so I don’t have to worry about doing that before leaving for another trip.

The ‘essential toiletries’ are those items that I keep in my backpack that I may want to use on the journey or might be difficult to replace quickly if my suit-pack gets lost en route. Items that are easily replaceable I put in my suit-pack to save space in the backpack.

My ‘essential medicines’ kit was designed for me by a doctor for travel to countries like Afghanistan or North Korea, and other developing countries where you may have to self-treat common ailments. So someone traveling to Bali for a two weeks holiday would not have to take all of what I pack in my medicines kit (but the Travelan and Ultracarbon tablets would be a good investment to fend off a potential attack of ‘Bali belly’).

I have refined my own packing list after many years of travel. These days I rarely find I need anything that I haven’t taken, but at the same time I take nothing that is not essential to the trip. I hope you will find my list helpful in putting your own packing list together.

Suit-pack

 

Suit

Business shirts

Casual shirts

Slacks

Jeans (if trip includes weekends)

Ties

Black belt

Brown belt (if not wearing on plane)

Jeans belt (if trip includes weekends)

Black shoes

Brown shoes (if not wearing on plane)

Gym shoes

Shaver and power cord

Hairbrush

BlackBerry charger

Underpants

Handkerchiefs

Sports shirts (if trip includes weekends)

Gym shirts

Gym shorts

T-shirts

Casual or sports jacket (if not being worn on plane)

Inside pocket 1:

Leather document case

Blank CD-Rs for photo back-ups

Inside pocket 2:

Box of Strepsils lozenges

Box of Difflam lozenges

Box of Ultracarbon tablets

Box of Travelan tablets

Box of Panadol tablets

Chewing gum

Manicure set

Sewing kit

Compass

Broadband Internet cable

Large side pocket:

Documents/guide books

Computer cable lock

Hat

Swimming trunks

Hotel slippers

Folding nylon tote bag

Small side pocket:

Shampoo in plastic bag

Toothpaste in plastic bag

Toothbrush in plastic holder

Magic tape to seal plastic bags

Multi-vitamins

Retractable knife

Plastic cutlery set

Business cards

Black socks

Brown socks

Gym socks

+ for cold climates:

Overcoat

Sweater

Scarf and gloves

Singlets

 

Backpack

 

Centre compartments:

Nikon D100 camera body (check battery charged and memory card empty)

Mini-tripod

Nikkor 80-200 mm lens (with UV filter fitted)

Folding nylon tote bag (underneath)

Hoya 77mm Circ PL filter

Hoya 72mm Circ PL filter

Cokin Grad ND2 filter

Cokin Grad ND4 filter

Cokin filter holder

Cokin adaptor rings (77mm and 72mm)

Left hand compartments:

Nikkor 12-24 mm lens (with UV filter fitted)

Nikkor 24-120 mm lens (with UV filter fitted)

Essential toiletries pack*

Eye shades (underneath)

Nikon D100 battery charger and power cable

Right hand compartments:

Nikkor fisheye lens

Air blower (underneath)

Nikon Speedlight SB800 (check batteries)

Essential medicines pack** (underneath)

iPod (check battery charged)

Sony Cybershot (check battery charged and memory card empty)

Sony battery charger (underneath)

Universal power point adaptor (underneath)

Top zip pouch:

Spare Nikon rechargeable battery

CF memory cards

SD memory cards

USB CF memory card reader

USB SD memory card reader

USB flash drives

Lens cleaning brush

Top zip pocket:

Photocopies of passports and credit cards

D100 and SB800 instruction books

Targus aircraft notebook computer power cables

Bottom zip pocket:

Disposable raincoat

iPod USB cable

iPod earphones

Shutter cable release

Lens cleaning cloth

Front compartment:

Notebook computer (in carry case with power cable)

Sunglasses

Reading glasses

Keys

Passport and ticket wallet***

 

*Essential toiletries pack: deodorant, face wash, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, antiseptic cream, lip balm, dental floss.

 

**Essential medicines pack: Mefloquine 250mg (if traveling to a malaria region), Augmentin 625mg, Imodium 2mg, Maxolon 10mg, Buscopan 10mg, Dextromorphan 15mg, Clarityne 10mg, Ponstan 500mg, Panadeine 500mg, Strepsil lozenges (one strip), Difflam lozenges (one strip), Ultracarbon tablets (one strip), Travelan tablets (one strip), Bandaids.

 

***Passport and ticket wallet: Passports (check validity of visas), tickets, itinerary, hotel booking confirmations, currency notes for countries to be visited plus USD/EUR notes, foreign coins for countries to be visited, frequent flyer membership cards for airlines on itinerary, hotel membership cards for hotels on itinerary, travel insurance card, spare visa photos, ballpoint pen.

 

PS: In case you are wondering what Travelan tablets are, they are an Australian bio-technology ‘invention’ which contain antibodies which work to counter the effects of the major strains of E. coli (ETEC) which are the major cause of travellers’ diarrhoea (TD) – the most common health problem of international travel, especially in developing countries.

It is a completely natural product, made from colostrum which is harvested from Australian dairy cows that have been immunised with an Australian patented vaccine to produce very high levels of specific antibodies against the common strains of E. coli. The antibodies in Travelan bind to the E. coli in the gastrointestinal tract and inhibit their attachment to the gut wall, significantly reducing the chance of the bacteria secreting toxins and causing TD.

You take a Travelan tablet before each meal when in an ‘at risk’ area, and clinical trials have shown Travelan to be 90% effective in preventing TD. Even in the 10% of cases where it doesn’t work, it reduces the symptoms of the TD. Travelan also contains high levels of other anti-microbials, which assist in providing protection against a wide range of disease causing pathogens, and high levels of lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase which provide further non-specific anti-microbial activity.

I know this sounds like an advertisement for Travelan (I promise I am not on a commission to sell it) but given that it is not well known outside of Australia (at least at the time of writing this) and having had trips to India, Vietnam and the Philippines spoilt by bouts of TD, I believe it is something that every traveller to Asia should pack in their medicine kit. You can buy it at pharmacies in Australia, but if you don’t live in Australia you can order it by airmail through their website at www.travelan.com.au