Booking or not booking ?
On my long journey in South East Asia, I have seen so many tourists booking their whole stay in advance and feeling disappointed and stuck in a place they don’t like that i have to write this article.
The first thing to know is if hotels are rather full or empty on the time you plan to go. Is it high or low season ?
→High season or national holiday, religious celebration, family gathering time. Hotels and train should be booked far in advance.
→Other times of the year. One week before or more, but not too early, check on the web by trying to book a room at your future destination on the day of today or for the next day. You will see how many rooms are available for the current day. If there are many rooms available, you can consider that you are in a quiet time and that it’s not necessary to book (check the national holiday first). If it all seem almost full, then you could book in advance to be able to chose.
Also, it’s good to keep in mind that not all hotels are on the web, or they are in the local language. Some are only on Facebook, and most cheap or family run ones are simply found by walking on the road (or checking the web in the local language). But sometimes, these hotels are just not clean or calm enough for westerners’ standards, or they are « different kind of hotel ». Couchsurfing is also an option to keep in mind (see below).
In the end, if you find nothing, you may find local people to show you a place or to help you, a hotel that is full could also accommodate you on the terrace or somewhere (some travelers even ask for it when they have a hammock).
If you are really unlucky, and tired, you could also take a transport to the next town. After all, the main risk by not booking is actually having to pay for a more expensive room, or staying in a place you don’t like for a night.
A touristic place may have more hotels than a small unknown town. In big towns, you can check around places to stay at around noon, which is when there is higher room availability, as previous travelers should check out before 12.
If you go to a small town without any clue of where to stay, it’s better to arrive early in the day.
Once you know the status of room availability the choice of booking or not booking will depend on your preferred way to travel.
Here are some advantages and drawbacks of each :
+ you are sure to have a place
– but not sure that you will like it
+ some places offer transfer from station/airport to their hotel
+ you can arrive late (check the schedule and inform the staff of the hotel if you arrive later than reception’s office hour or earlier than check-in time).
Booking the 1st night only
+ you feel safe on your arrival, you can arrive late and also have a transfer from station/airport, if offered
+ Keeping the freedom to change on the next day
+ you can explore other hotels around without your backpack
+ you can extend if you like it BUT
– if it’s full on the next days you cannot stay
– if you find a better place, you have to pack and move again
+ you are totally free
+ you can check out the area and hotels, you can even change area (or town !) if you are disappointed.
– you have to carry your backpack for a while (unless a hotel or a friend keeps it and wait for you).
– you have no guarantee of getting a good place
+ you can have nice surprises
+ you can get good deals on low season, bargaining on a longer stay
– it’s better to arrive early, and especially nicer before night, which means before 6-7pm.
+ you may meet people on the way and look for a place together
+ you can prepare yourself checking on the web hotels around your chosen area and making a list of names of place to check out and phone numbers, just in case.
+ having a name of a hotel will make your transport able to drop you at a first place.
Remember : check out is usually at noon (11 or 12 am) which will eventually make you travel at the hottest time of the day. But, leaving earlier, you may arrive before check-in time (around 2 pm so they can clean rooms) at your next hotel. So you might not be able to lay in your room directly, or even to see a room before taking one. But you can still leave your back pack at the reception and have a rest (or look for another place that is less full).
In low season you can usually get a room directly.
Comparing hotels: check-list
To stay aware while you visit hotels, you can make your own check-list for choosing your accommodation.
Here is some inspiration for you with my own list:
A nice place should have AT LEAST :
– a calm location (not on a busy road or in a party place).
– a comfortable bed (test it).
– a window, for air flow.
– not too much dirty/broken.
Optional and appreciated :
– friendly staff/reception
– drinking water for free or hotel located nearby a refill machine.
– clean place
– wifi (inside or outside the room depending on people’s need)
– a nice common area to meet people
– a kitchen
– a blender
– a fridge
– a garden / rooftop / balcony / terrace
– a private bathroom
– mosquito screens on windows (uunless you carry your own mosquito net).
– a good door lock
– a safe for dormitories
– computers (usually there are no more computers as most people have a smart phone).
In any case, you cannot plan everything, and many plans that you may make in South-East-Asia would be transformed by events.
So, the best advice is : follow your instinct ! Do what makes you feel good, happy, relaxed or stimulated.
The second best advice is : no problem ! This is a very local philosophy. In fact, the biggest issue regarding hotels would be to be in a non perfect place or to have to pay a few dollars more and getting an amazing room for that price. This is talking from a westerner’s point of you, who, even though being a backpacker, can usually afford unexpected situations.
Couchsurfing and it’s alternatives (bewelcome, warmshower,…)
For budget or friendly travelers, interested about local culture. It’s a nice way to travel while meeting locals or expats that can show you around, give you tips and maybe become your friend. When staying with locals, it’s also nice to have access to a fridge, a kitchen, maybe a bicycle or even a garden…
What you can bring to them is to share moments, talks, stories about your culture, your travel and adventures. Preparing some food for your host is always appreciated.
Couchsurfing on a special diet
If the place you go is far from town, shops or markets, you may be dependent on your host for getting food.
If you have a special diet, inform your host before so he and you can know if this can work. Special diets are not always easy to understand, would it be for westerners and even more for Asians (raw food or vegan is almost unknown there). You can tell them that you don’t eat rice (rice stands for life, mother life, for many Asian cultures, if not all of them, so it’s shocking to hear, but they will then assume that you eat bread and don’t like rice, so this you can also explain), no meat, no fish, depending on your diet.
But rather than focusing on what you don’t eat, the best is actually to tell them what you eat (because it’s the question they will have in mind and that they may answer by themselves imagining the foreigner eating hot-dogs or whatever image they have about western culture, thinking that you simply don’t like Asian food). Tell them for example that you will need to go to the market everyday or every second day to buy a kilo of fruits and a kilo of vegetables. So they can imagine before and let you know if it will be possible or not from their place.
If you are a durian fan, they might be excited to share one with you, or they may not let you put any in their fridge (for the smell).
If you don’t share their meals, it is always nice to bring some fruits to share, everyone usually likes fruits. These culture like to share food and to make/receive gifts. You can also cook/prepare something for them, mind that they usually don’t eat big salads and they like sparkling tastes, strong. If your dish is spicy, Thai people and from other Asian countries may appreciate it more.
If you go to the restaurant together, you will usually find vegetarian options, or some vegetables and a coconut or a fruit platter. Food courts are common in Thailand and even more in Malaysia and can be a way to eat different food in the same place. For vegetarians or paleo eating people, a hot pot, or clay pot, or Korean fondue, in Thailand or Vietnam, or any Chinese influenced place, can be a good option. With this, you can enjoy fresh vegetables or boil them in the broth (one is spicy, one is not), and, but in the same broth unless u get a private one, they can enjoy meat, shrimps,… And you can skip noodles and carbs if it’s what you don’t eat.
If you eat raw fish, a sushi place will offer some sashimi, raw fish without rice (but the quality and safety are not always good). And seaweed salads (with sugar).
There will be more about traveling with special diets in South East Asia to come on this website.