Tag Archives: accommodation

Why AirBnB is Broken

Over the past 4 months I’ve been travelling through Europe and I’ve been doing it on a pretty strict budget. So far the main cost has been transport due to the quick nature of the travel I’ve been undertaking, but accommodation costs have come in a close second. For both Susan and I, I’ve been trying to keep accommodation costs for Western Europe at around $60 per night and slightly lower in some of the cheaper countries such as Spain, Hungary and Greece.

So far $60 has been achievable in almost all places I’ve been including Paris. In Luxembourg City, I ended up paying about $37 per person for a dorm room, but that was cheap compared to anything else available. The reason I’ve been able to keep costs down on accommodation is primarily due to AirBnB.

The first apartment I chose was in Paris and I got it for $52 per night. Small studio, washing machine, tiny kitchen, sofa bed, wifi. I thought it was a fantastic deal and meeting the owner was pretty simple even after a long flight from Indonesia.

AirBnB Paris
AirBnB Paris

The next place was a funky studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Fast wifi, washing machine, small kitchen, loft style bed and decent bathroom. The cost of that was just under $60 per night and again it was a great deal!

AirBnB Berlin
AirBnB Berlin

The best deal we got was in Budapest where we got a great studio for about $35 per night with all the amenities of the other places we’d stayed in. We were over the moon and by this stage could not say a bad word about AirBnB.

AirBnB Budapest
AirBnB Budapest

But as we moved further east, we started having more problems finding people who were willing to accept our bookings. “What do mean by accepting the bookings”, I hear you ask. Well, when you book on AirBnB, the owner of the apartment has to approve the booking before it is confirmed (unless it’s an Instant Book place which close to 0% are). This is usually not a problem, but as we moved into Greece, Turkey and Georgia, we found that the majority of places we booked were declined. That is, we reserved the room and some hours later (sometimes the next day) the host decided to tell us it was unavailable.

The AirBnB system has a calendar for each property listed. Apartment owners are supposed to manage this calendar carefully so that their rooms only appear on days that they are available. And herein lies the problem with AirBnB — owners are seemingly not managing their calendars properly OR screening their potential customers after they book. I actually think in my case the apartments were already full, but the owners just hadn’t bothered to update their calendars. I noticed a couple of bookings I made didn’t get a response at all until I enquired further with a direct email asking what was going on, despite the owner having logged into AirBnB to see my booking. They simply did not respond despite knowing I needed a room and there was no consequence for them doing that. For me the consequence in both instances was that it was too late by that stage to stuff around with AirBnB and I just had to go and get a hotel room from Booking.com

This is a big deal. When you are travelling like I do, you book your accommodation one maybe two days in advance meaning that when you make a booking, you need to be able to know that you have a room when you arrive in your next city. When I use Booking.com or Hostelworld.com, there are no ifs or buts. You plug your credit card details in and get instant confirmation. With AirBnB, you plug you credit card details in, they pre-authorise a few hundred bucks and then you wait for the owner to decide whether they want you or not — and they have 24 hours to decide.

Why? Why do owners have the ability to accept and reject clients? If I were a hotel and I rejected clients after they had booked, I’d receive all sorts of complaints but with AirBnB there is no recourse. There is no feedback mechanism such as Tripadvisor to air your grievances on. Owners can just fob you off and complicate your travel plans without a worry in the world. And that is bad for the customer and consequently bad for AirBnB.

AirBnB counters this by recommending that you contact multiple owners prior to booking and asking them if their place is available. I’ve done that and it feels like your begging for a place to stay.

I’m actually going to wind back my use of AirBnB for the rest of my trip as I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of the rejections. And when you’re staying in cheaper cities, the advantage of AirBnB sometimes dissipates anyway.

In my view, this is one area in which AirBnB is far inferior compared to sites like Booking.com. If they can fix this problem up, I’ll be back to booking with them again and raving about how great an alternative it is to booking a hotel room. What do you think about AirBnB? Great experiences? Any poor ones? I’d love to hear about them!

Pangandaran, West Java

After taking care of a few housekeeping matters in Bandung, I decided to head off on a journey to some Javan destinations. The rough plan was to visit about 5 places in 10 days, but I ended up only visiting Pangandaran on the south coast and Yogyakarta in central Java which is more akin to my normal pace of travel.

Getting from Bandung to Pangandaran is easy. You simply find your way to the bus station in the centre of Bandung called stasiun hall and catch the number 1 city bus to Cicaheum. Buses to Pangandaran depart regularly and tickets for the 7 hour journey can be bought on the spot for about Rp35,000. It’s not a particularly pleasant journey because the condition of the road is poor, but the scenery in parts is stunning.

Beach

Pantai Pangandaran
Pantai Pangandaran

So the main reason you go to Pangandaran is for the beach. It’s a grey-looking thing lined with palm trees and it’s really quite picturesque despite the colour of the sand. Few foreigners make it to Pangandaran and you’ll be sharing the main portion of the beach with domestic tourists. Move west along the beach and it suddenly becomes barren and devoid of any human life whatsoever – perfect for a romantic walk along the beach (blergh).

It’s not very safe to swim at the beach due to the large waves and strong currents, but some people give it a go anyway. In the past 12 months, 11 people have drowned there and near-misses are daily occurrences. The lifeguards have a nice, shiny truck that they drive up and down the beach, but I didn’t see them get out of it let alone jump in the water. Maybe they can’t swim…

Whatever the case, the beach is a fantastic place to relax, people watch and surf (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Accommodation

There’s plenty of accommodation in Pangandaran and a basic room with cold water and a squat toilet will set you back around Rp70,000 per night. You can upgrade to an air conditioned room for about Rp100,000 per night. Most of these places cater to Westerners and are located at the far western end of town. The locals all stay in the centre of town and I reckon there’d be some decent cheap options there as well if the Western options are too expensive or not up to scratch.

Green Canyon

Green Canyon, Pangandaran
Green Canyon, Pangandaran

Around the Pangandaran area there are a few cool things to do. Well maybe one. A visit to Green Canyon is a must when visiting Pangandaran. It’s a small canyon with crystal clear turquoise-coloured water where you can hire a boat to take you up to a small swimming area. On the weekends, it’s extremely busy as I found out, but it is still a beatiful place even with the throngs clambering all over the rocks to watch their friends swim. Go here.

Batu Karas

Young Girls on the Beach
Young Girls on the Beach

Batu Karas is a surfing town that is less-heavily touristed than Pangandaran and it’s still relatively undeveloped. To be honest, it feels like a bit of a dump. But this will change as time passes and people invest money into the roads, warungs and seaside infrastructure. Apparently it’s a great place to surf and private lessons can be had for about Rp100,000 per day. I think I might partake in a bit of this later in the year when I’ve got a bit of spare time. Hopefully I can find some more redeeming qualities.

To keep you going, here are a couple of videos I took of Pangandaran and Green Canyon.

So that’s it. Another great tourist destination in Indonesia. If only infrastructure and marketing gave this place a chance. Want Indonesia?

Bali Travel: Ubud

This is Part 3 of my Bali Travel Overview which started here and was continued here.

I’ve generally encountered two types of people that enjoy Bali. The beach types and the culture types. The beach types predominantly hang out in the South (Kuta, Legian Seminyak and the Bukit) and the culture junkies in the centre – the centre being Ubud. So what does “culture” exactly mean? Well, it’s a catchall for seeing dancing, galleries, doing yoga, eating great food, staying in plush accommodation and wandering through the ricefields. If you like this stuff, you’ll love Ubud because it has it in spades.

On the cultural front, just about everyone visits a traditional dance in one of the main styles: Legong, Barong, Kecak etc. Although in the centre of Ubud these are put on purely for tourists, they still honour the traditional methods and in some cases offer a better experience than what you find in local villages. The main reason being that it costs a lot of money to have a hire a gamelan and train a bunch of dancers to the level that are on display in the centre of town. The other main cultural activity that people partake in is visiting local artists’ galleries and the woodcarving village of Mas or the stonemasons’ village of Batubulan.

Bali: Dancer
Bali: Dancer

Another favourite of visitors to Ubud is visiting a spa. Now for the blokes, this might seem a little girly, but it’s actually a pleasure to roll up and have a massage for an hour or two. Some places charge western prices and some are as cheap as USD$5 for an hour massage. You generally get what you pay for, but at the cheaper end competition is so fierce that with a little shopping around you can get a top massage in clean surrounds for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home.

Accommodation in Ubud ranges from a bare room with cold shower to hotels that rank among the best in the world. Most of the best accommodation options are located so far out of town that you have to use the hotel shuttle to get anywhere and are really only practical for those wanting seclusion. In the centre of town there are any number of cheaper options with common prices being around the USD$15/night and USD$40/night marks. Cheaper than this and you’re likely to get something not very nice.

Bali: Plush Accommodation
Bali: Plush Accommodation

For foodies, Ubud has all that you could ask for. World-class dining, great coffee, locally run eateries (rumah makan/warung) and even an organic food market. Most of the top-quality dining is found at the many top-end hotels around town such as Uma Ubud and the Viceroy. But there are also restaurants such as Lamak and Mozaic that are independently run and offer world-class food. The cafe scene in Ubud is also quite developed with Tutmak and Kakiang Bakery serving the best coffee and some good food too! On the local front, everyone visits Ibu Oka for a plate of pig ($3). But there are a bunch of other places that do good local food too like Warung Mendez (mainly for the goat) and Warung Mina. For the health nuts, you cannot go past Kafe or Bali Buddha for a vast menu featuring fresh local produce.

Bali: Lunch at Uma Ubud
Bali: Lunch at Uma Ubud

The one thing that I find most people don’t do when visiting Ubud is walk. Yeah, people might walk around the big loop that is Monkey Forest Road and Jalan Hanoman, but people rarely get beyond that. But beyond that loop are the endless surrounding ricefields. The Lonely Planet guide has a bunch of walks around the local area and they are generally very good and not too difficult to accomplish despite the oppressive heat. Just take a hat and some water and all is OK. The tranquillity just a 10 minute walk in any direction around Ubud is phenomenal and should not be missed!

Bali: Endless Ricefields
Bali: Endless Ricefields

Visted Ubud? How was your experience? Want to visit Ubud? What do you look forward to most?

Myanmar (Burma): Mandalay & Bagan

The Road to Mandalay

Looking at the map, Bagan and Mandalay are fairly close to one another, but the bone-crunching reality is that between these two places the road is like a goat track. One shouldn’t be surprised by this given that most roads in Burma seem to be of the goat-track kind! The journey between the two areas is about 7 hours on a local bus along a largely unpaved, dusty road which travels through endless dry plains and poor villages.

Mandalay

Mandalay is the second city of Burma and sits at the heart of the country. Most tourists will pass through here at least once as it serves as a transport hub for all points in every direction. Many of the people I spoke to before arriving in Mandalay had a generally negative attitude towards the place and I think this mainly evolved from the alleged below-par palace charging unsuspecting tourists US$10 to enter. Again, another Government sting but given that it’s not worth visiting anyway, there’s probably no harm done.

Mandalay is HOT in the dry season and the temperature reaches more than 40C (104F) most days. At night, it is also VERY hot and because the electricity in Burma is very sketchy, there is a better than even chance you will spend some sleepless nights in a lather of sweat. No air-conditioning, no fan. Just heat and humidity.

Myanmar: Wooden Bridge
Myanmar: Wooden Bridge

The food in Manadalay tended to be quite cheap and of a fantastic quality. The best by far was the mutton curry from the Chapati Corner. A small dish of oily mutton curry, a couple of freshly made chapatis and bit of biriyani… One of the best street side meals I have ever had. Another good place was the Nepali Restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet. Good food, good price.

Myanmar: Mandalay Monk
Myanmar: Mandalay Monk

OK, so why travel to Mandalay? Are there any sites? Well, yes. I’d recommend going to see the big wooden bridge at sunset and visiting a bunch of the old royal capitals. None of it was spectacular, but definitely worth a visit and easily enough to occupy a full day of touring. One cool thing to observe were the package tourists at the monastery in Amarapura. OK, it wasn’t cool. It was actually quite shocking. At 11am, the monks from the monastery gather to have a feed and there is a bit of ceremony about it. Well, bus loads of tourists roll up to have a look (us included!). But the manner in which people were interacting with the monks was hideous. Hoards of people sticking their cameras in monks’ faces, yelling and asking them to move or pose in a certain way and generally treating the whole situation like is was some sort of zoo exhibition. If this doesn’t make you cringe, nothing will. But at the same time, it was interesting to observe and gives the opportunity for self-reflection. Are we any better? Probably not.

Bagan

I’ve read many stories comparing Bagan to Angkor. First of all, there is no comparison. Totally different feel. I preferred Angkor much more for the following reasons. Firstly, Bagan is not set in a jungle. When we were there, it was like it was in the middle of the desert complete with searing heat. We got a horse and cart around the sites, although some had suggested a bicycle (like in Angkor!) – needless to say biking was out of the question.

I really wanted Bagan to be magnificent, but the polish was removed when travelling into town on the public bus from Mandalay, all foreigners were ordered to leave the bus 5 miles out of town to pay money at a checkpoint. It felt really uncomfortable to be on a bus packed with locals only to be asked to disembark to pay a fee. And the handful of foreigners on the bus felt similarly uncomfortable – especially when one went to pick up a brochure on Bagan and was asked to pay another US$5! Funny in hindsight, but a symbol of the lunacy of the Burmese Government.

There are plenty of reasonable budget accommodation options in Bagan, but food tended to be on the expensive side and was generally of average quality despite the multitude of options. Perhaps this is due to the predominance of package tourists in this small, rural town.

Myanmar: Bagan Temple
Myanmar: Bagan Temple

OK, so the temples – how were the temples!? To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. Sure, there were thousands of them. But many of the biggest and best could not be fully accessed due to structural concerns. Ordinarily, this would be reasonable – but given the amount of money being generated down the road at the checkpoint from tourists, surely there is enough to fix some of these temples. Sadly, it seems very little of that money goes back into temple restoration/improvement. Many of the smaller temples lack atmosphere and your entry into them is often interrupted by locals selling paintings. Not vastly different to Angkor, but at least in Angkor you could find solace once past the invisible line which is the entryway. In Bagan, no such line exists.

Whilst I’m generally negative about Bagan, it is worth a visit. As is everywhere in Burma. Just don’t expect to come back gushing. Rather, expect to come back questioning everything about the place, just as you do when leaving places like Yangon, Mandalay and Kalaw/Inle Lake.

What a very interesting place this is.

Is it Really Worth Saving a Dollar?

When travelling through South East Asia and probably other parts of the world, you meet all sorts of different travellers.  You meet the package tourist, the flashpacker, the stinky backpacker, the know-it-all backpacker and also a bunch of “normal” backpackers.  But there is a subset of these people that I am really interested in.  It’s the stingy traveller.  The type that will do anything to save a dollar. At times, I’m this person and it annoys me no end because in most cases it’s nonsensical.

Myanmar: Local Transport
Myanmar: Local Transport

I’m particularly frail when it comes to transport – taxis, tuk tuks, becaks, etc.  I will tend to argue for extended periods of time, refuse countless offers of transport and even walk miles just to prove the point that I won’t be ripped off by a taxi driver.  Ripped off, as in, not paying an extra 50 cents or a dollar over what I believe a reasonable price to be.  And I base my pricing on the wages which I know the local populace are getting.  Now, in the heat of battle, it all seems fair – why should a local person get an extra dollar for a short ride when the daily wage is $3?  And from an economic perspective, it does make sense.  There are farmers slogging their guts out in the ricefield for $3 in the beating sun, yet a taxi driver lounging under a tree all day waiting for a tourist to sting can make double that for a short ride.  From a moral perspective, however, it’s probably not right to quibble over a dollar and from a convenience perspective, I’m certainly doing myself a disservice!

Myanmar: Budget Accommodation
Myanmar: Budget Accommodation

As far as saving a dollar goes, the same issues apply to accommodation.  Sure, you can screw down prices to almost nothing, but if you spend an extra couple of dollars when travelling in SE Asia, you can really boost the quality of your digs.  Moving from $4 to $6 can mean attached bathroom, better outlook, less noise and a generally more pleasant stay.

What about food?  Many places in Asia are dirt cheap.  $1 for a substantial meal.  But occasionally, it’s nice to have an even nicer meal that might cost double.  Yes, $2!  I’ve met lots of people that will refuse to pay the extra dollar because it’s essentially a doubling of the expenses for the night.  But come on…  it’s an extra dollar.  And for an extra dollar, it might mean an even more awesome meal than the dollar meal.  More food, better produce and perhaps some meat that might otherwise be missing.

Myanmar: Samosa
Myanmar: Samosa

Some will argue on the flipside that the cheaper you travel, the longer you can travel.  Spending $20 vs $22 per day means you get to travel for 10% longer. For some, this might be wise, but for me…  I’m usually getting travel weary in the last 10% of my journey anyway and getting home a little earlier is no big deal – and I get a more pleasant experience while I’m at it.  What’s your view on saving a dollar?

Myanmar (Burma): Overview

After recently travelling through Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with a friend of mine, I felt compelled to write about my experience.  It was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited and over the coming weeks I’ll be providing more detail about the political situation there, some of the sites and perhaps some photos of this nexus between India and South East Asia.  Truly fascinating.

Lost in Time

When first arriving in Myanmar, the first thing you notice is that there are a lot of old vehicles driving the streets.  Particularly buses.  It’s the first indication you get that this place is stuck in some sort of weird sanction-imposed, poverty-induced time warp!  As you travel further and further into the countryside, you begin to see many more ox and cart arrangements straight from 3000 years ago and comparatively very few horses.  Motorised cultivation seems to be light years away which is astounding because this method of agriculture is widespread even in what many people would class as a poorer nation, Laos.  The number of times you find yourself saying “old school” in Myanmar is amazing.

Myanmar: Old Bus
Myanmar: Old Bus

Transport

Much of the tourist transport in Myanmar is the same method as the locals use.  That is, coaches and mini-buses.  Because the roads in the most part are very poor, it takes a long time to travel from place to place and it means that visiting the main tourist destinations in the country will require at least three overnight coach journeys which can be horrendous.  Worse still, arrival times of coaches after these journeys is quite often between 3am and 5am, so you can arrive at a guesthouse absolutely shattered from a bus journey, but still have to wait for a room to become available. (It’s all part of the oppression)

Cost of Living

Myanmar: Cheap Food
Myanmar: Cheap Food

The local currency in Myanmar is the non-convertible Kyat (pronounced chee-at).  It means that it is almost impossible to buy or sell Kyat outside of Myanmar.  Furthermore, there are no ATMs within Myanmar to access your money from.  So you are forced to carry as much US Dollars as you will need for your entire stay with you at all times and then try and exchange it on the black market.  The black market is in full swing in Myanmar, so guesthouses will routinely exchange money for you at reasonable rates.

Once you have your Kyat, living expenses within the country are generally very low.  Most meals were averaging $1.50-$2 plus drinks.  This average was based on us eating what we wanted and not trying to resort to the cheapest item on the menu.  If you did that, you could get away with less than $1 for every meal.  Also, breakfast is seemingly always included in room prices meaning another saving on meals.  And accommodation costs are ridiculously low for the quality provided!  Most rooms were about $6 per person for the better quality varieties.  Some rooms were as little as $3-$4 per night.

All in all, when including the cost of transport, food, accommodation, some tourist access fees and miscellaneous expenses, I spent about US$20 per day.  CHEAP!

Internet Access

Internet is inexpensive and available fairly widely in Myanmar, but it is apparently heavily monitored by the authorities and many sites are simply blocked.  So there can be some issues accessing email accounts such as hotmail – I wouldn’t go there expecting to be able to email freely.

Myanmar: Tilling the Fields
Myanmar: Tilling the Fields

Climate

Myanmar is a hot place.  I visited in March/April and the temperatures were regularly above 40C (104F) with less humidity in the North than the South.  These temperatures really take their toll on your body when walking around town.  But more importantly, at night some rooms can be unbearably hot!  So air conditioning in some places is a wise investment, even if the electricity supply is erratic.

Myanmar is a tough country.  It wears you down.  Many travellers I met in Myanmar compared it to India, but felt that India was much more in your face whereas Myanmar wore you down more.  Perhaps its the oppressed national psyche which imparts itself on visitors leading to more depressed feelings – a negativity which you can’t put your finger on.  Whatever the case, Myanmar is a country definitely worth visiting as an interesting look at how a country in a unique geographical location copes with the lunacy of a despotic regime.