Thursday, 5 January 2012

100 things…Where to backpack

After having a general overview of where to back pack i decided to look into further, at more specific places.

Backpacking in Australia

               Intro: The world's biggest island, smallest continent and an icon for round-the-world and far fetched travel. Somewhere perfectly civilized, English spoken, a lot of beer drunk, the chance to earn some money and miles from home with loads of places to see on the way there and back. That's a few of the reasons why Australia is so popular and currently so much in vogue. Nevertheless, three things to remember about Australia before you reason that no further consideration is necessary and you've found the ideal destination. 1) It is huge and the cost of getting around soon mounts up. For example, even if you make it to Alice Springs its still the distance from London to Edinburgh to get to Ayres Rock. 2) Tourism is a major industry and although the established backpacker network makes things easy, there are tight regulations and little or no room for real adventure. 3) Finally, it is a developed country and living dirt cheap like in the rest of Asia is simply not possible, more so considering the myriad of things to see and do (and party culture), meaning you often simply haemorrhage money.
                                  Highlights: Sydney, Melbourne, Fraser Island, Nimbin, the Gold Coast, the Great Ocean Road, neat animals and some generally beautiful diverse scenery and weather. If you have the money, sailing in the Whitsunday Islands is fantastic. Forget the various 'party boats' and plump for a traditional vessel for the best experience - either way it's not cheap, but almost paradise.
                                  Lowlights: The speed you spend money and long distances. In many opinions the Great Barrier Reef is not too different (for the average tourist) to reefs that can be seen in Asia and Central America. Also note it is a long way off the coast and in winter the trip can be rough.
               Typical tourist trail: Cairns to Sydney. Side trips down to Melbourne, Darwin to Alice or to Perth
               Dangers: Spending too much money, never leaving
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Normally fairly hot pleasant weather. Darwin can be unpleasant in the wet season and Sydney/Melbourne and the far south can get colder than you might expect in the winter months.
               Costs: Coming from Asia you're going to find Australia expensive on a day-to-day basis. However if making a comparison with Europe prices are comparable or cheaper - especially with an advantageous exchange rate. Nevertheless, to summarise Australia is expensive and the Australian Dollar is a strong currency. Sticking to major cities (as backpackers do) and covering the country's vast distances are going to bleed money, particularly if you want to live it up to any degree. At least US$60/£35+ per day and that's with cooking most of your own food. The country is well set up for independent travellers, so with a student, YHA or other backpackers' card you can find discounts on transport, entertainment, etc and with a highly competitive market you can find some bargains. Just remember, getting around costs a lot of money, so does drinking and giving in to all the great things like parachute jumping (cheaper in NZ) that the country has to offer. 

Incidentally (and probably because it is a long distance trip and thus tourists stay longer and spend more) according to statistics gathered by the UN World Tourism Organisation, when you take total visitor numbers (5.9million in 2010) and divided them by total tourist receipts  the amount spent in Australia is the highest in the world at an average of over $5,000 per person. Way ahead of everywhere else on the list and [tellingly] 2.5times more than New Zealand.
               Guide book: Many available, all good. The Lonely Planet: Australia is a good choice, but extremely popular. The Rough Guide: Australia version is a great alternative and recommended. It may not be as well geared to budget travellers, but who cares when there is so much free material available when in Oz on hostels, saving etc. It is however, a really good read and not boring in the way the Lonely Planet can be. For a full list of guides and reading material.
               Other reading: Recommended by readers are: Down Under by Bill Bryson which has a fair bit of history and general humour in it. (see details - UK).
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Fine, some backpacker jaded souls in places, mostly friendly
                                  Other travellers: A lot of backpackers from all over the world, especially the UK. Many young first time backpackers, coming after graduating from school sometimes on 'Daddy's' money to work or seemingly just to get drunk - normally both. Too many travellers to pigeon hole
Getting around:
Land: Many options. Backpacker buses (see getting around in the on the road section) are popular. Perfect if you are in a hurry or on your own, but better avoided if there are a few of you in a group who could club together for more independent means (such as car hire or Greyhound Buses (for which you can buy a mileage pass)). Car hires is quite expensive, so buying a car or, better, a campervan and splitting the cost between a few is a cheaper option if you have the time. 

There are quite a few re-locations available around the country, if you keep an eye out. You will probably end up on a tour at some point (in the Northern Territory) and will probably have to take internal flights if doing more than the east coast stretch.

Train travel is an other option and comfortable, but slightly more restricting as trains don’t run as frequently or operate to as many destinations as buses. There are numerous good value rail passes and special 'backpacker' fares.

Air: There are many companies offering internal travel in Australia, the staples of whom are Virgin Blue (virginblue com), Qantas and its budget arm Jetstar. They operate on the same basis as low cost/no-frills airlines in Europe, i.e. the sooner you book, the cheaper the price. Both websites are user friendly, and you can easily book your flights before leaving for Oz, simply quoting your reservation number on arrival at your Australian airport. 

It's worth studying both airlines, because it is sometime cheaper to take the outward journey with one airline and the return journey with the other. Of the two, Virgin Blue is more no-frills while Qantas provides a free meal and drinks. Note that internal flights booked from outside Australia are free from 10% GST (Australia's VAT). 

There is much more information in the budget airlines section of the 'on the road' chapter.

               Tourist factor: 8/10 on the main circuit - it's no coincidence that this is the second most viewed page on this site!
               Money: ATMs and credit cards
               Accommodation: There is a huge variety and range of places to stay, and notably an excellent choice of hostels with good social scenes in most towns: book ahead for the best ones and for double rooms. Camping is widely available at campsites (if you can get to them with your own transport) or in some hostel gardens.
                                  Hot water: Developed country, never a problem
                                  Average cost: US$60-80 double room in Sydney hostel, prices less outside big cities
               Communications: Cheap international calling cards available, internet widespread. Local pay-as-you-go SIM cards for your mobile phone.
               Food: Buy your own and cook it in hostels to keep costs down
                                  Books: many good book shops
                                  TV: In all hostels
               Hassle and annoyance factor: None 

                                  Women alone: Fine
               Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Big drinking culture, smoking an expensive and difficult pastime (smokers in Australia have been squeezed out of bars and restaurants, as well as some beaches and most other public places). Check out Nimbin in NSW and bigger cities for the alternative scene.
               Rating: 7/10
 New Zealand
Intro: It's a view maintained by many that New Zealand beats the hell out of Australia as a backpacker destination. Its smaller, cheaper, more compact, prettier and just better. Few would disagree that for a developed country it's cheap and one of the, if not the, most beautiful places on earth. Picking up a car to buy or hire is easy and the country hosts a perfect system of wonderful hostels. Outdoor activities are cheaper than Australia and there is a whole host of possibilities from oxygen-assisted skydives to white-water rafting/surfing to the well known bungee jump. You might feel a little like you are on a tourist trail and the North Island is a little lacking in some ways, but the scenery, especially in the fiordlands makes up for it all.
               Highlights: The fiordland , volcanic activity, Wanaka, great hostels and the South Island in general. NZ's amazing back country hut system comes highly rated as does many short treks. General awesome natural beauty, great facilites and compactness .
Lowlights: Queenstown, often full accommodation, the west (wet) coast (although lowlight might be a bit harsh and some certainly disagree), some of the North Islands cities and sand flies. Christchurch and Auckland are just big cities, with little to distinguish them from most western world cities. The general feedback on backpacker buses is rarely good.
               Visa strategy: Free on entry for three months for most nationalities - onwards ticket sometimes requested. Australian citizens can stay indefinitely. Many choose the one year Working Holiday Visa (one time only, for those under 30) so they can legally work while travelling.
               Typical tourist trail: Too various to mention, generally a loop around the North and South Islands
               When to go: Dec-March is busy season, worth doing some booking ahead. June-Aug (winter) is the off-season and quieter/cheaper to travel in, though with worse weather.
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Typical four season climate, can get hot at the top of the North Island. The weather is (on average) rainy in the west and dry in the east. There is little variation between seasons, temps are rarely higher than mid 20's or lower than 0. Average is about 10 during winter, 20 during summer. Best weather is January - April.
               Costs: Good value, getting around can be expensive, as can tours. Cook your own food to save money. US$40-50 per day, but with so much to do, like shark diving (better in South Africa), dolphin swimming, glacier climbing and extreme sports (which are poor value), costs can run out of control. For a better idea of prices see
               Money: ATMs and credit card
               Getting around: Many travellers go for backpacker buses. Hire or buy a car instead - you won't regret it.  Generally buses can be a little expensive (more than hiring a car if sharing the cost). There are quite a few car and car sharing notices in hostels, re-locations available around the country, if you keep an eye out. Compared to many western countries, hitchhiking is easy, but you'll need some experience in this means of travel to avoid waiting too long - even the pro expect average wait times of about an hour per ride. Rail is quite limited and expensive. Many choose to cycle.
               Guide book: Use the fantastic free hostel guides (BBH) for accommodation if hostelling. Recommended is The Rough Guide: New Zealand. The Lonely Planet: New Zealand is up to its usual standard, but far too overused for the liking of many. Again the Let's Go makes a good alternative. All these guides can be bought with ease in New Zealand: the Rough Guide is the cheapest to buy when in New Zealand. There are a number of Lonely Planet specialist guides for walking/trekking (see details - UK or USA) and cycling (see details - UK or USA) which are very good. 
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Friendly and welcoming
                                  Other travellers: Various, lots of Israelis and Dutch, but most notably - Germans and English. NZ is backpacker central. Many young 'kid' travellers
               Tourist factor: 8/10 (NZ has become extremely popular in recent years)
               Accommodation: Hostels, book ahead in peak seasons, especially for double rooms
                                  Average cost: $24-$29NZD dorm, $55-$60NZD for a double. Most expensive in Wellington and Queenstown. Campsites are ~NZ$10 for unserviced and NZ$15-20 for serviced. A common recommendation is that an enjoyable way to save money is the Woofing programme, where you get to meet locals, eat very well, save money and learn loads of interesting stuff.
               Communications: Internet widespread, but not that cheap. International calls with locally bought calling cards are very good value.
               Health: Watch out for sand fly bites, otherwise no need for any special precautions
                                  Books: Loads of bookshops
                                  TV: Always in hostels and even cheap hotels. Like watching in the UK. Casualty, Coronation Street and the like.
               Food: Easy to cook own food in hostels. Eating out is not too expensive... cheap takeaway - $8 NZD, main dish at a restaurant - $14 NZD. Most restaurants allow BYO wine which is much cheaper.
                                  Vegetarians: Never a problem
               Hassle and annoyance factor: None
                                  Women alone: None (hitchhiking alone might not be the best idea)
               Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Beer and wine good value and can now be bought in supermarkets throughout NZ. There is now no smoking inside public buildings including bars, pubs and restaurants but they usually accommodate smokers in special smoking rooms or balconies etc. A lot of dope grown in the North Island and around Motueka and Nelson so no worries about getting your mitts on some in the South or North Island (it's still illegal though). Another recent development in NZ is the advent of Party Pills, made from BZP, which gives a similar high to ecstasy, but legally. Can be bought from shops open all hours over the counter but you must be 18 or over and unfortunately will probably be made illegal by the time you read this.
Rating: 8.5/10

Backpacking in South America
               Intro: The poorest and debatably the best (from an independent budget traveller's perspective) of South American nations. Bolivia is no secret, it's generally crammed full of backpackers who come for a cheaper stay than elsewhere in the region and the great diversity on offer.
Diversity in the terms of - to name only a few examples - historic (Potosi), amazing scenery of a beautiful altiplano plus the worlds highest capital city, reasonable trekking opportunities and a hugely accessible (cheapest in South America (not as accessible as in Central America)) jungle. Bolivia is also the most indigenous country on the continent, with more than 50% of the population maintaining traditional values and beliefs. This Tibet of the Americas is as popular as the Asian original. 
On the downside it's worth noting that the countries road system is on the whole terrible, due in part to the topography and in part to lack of maintenance. Making long trips can be somewhat unpleasant; there is no established budget airline network, so to avoid such journeys and fly, can become quite pricey. Worth a month of your time and a few Spanish lessons, but don't expect to have anything to yourself, but the remotest jungle. 
                Highlights: Salt flats and altiplano , Inca Trails (there are several), a mountain bike trip down the world's most dangerous road, Potosi and swimming with river dolphins in the Amazon
                Lowlights: Lots of tourists, limited sights on established routes. Poverty very notable and so are mosquitoes/heat/humidity in jungle areas. The countries road system is on the whole terrible, due in part to the topography and in part to lack of maintenance. Making long trips can be somewhat unpleasant; there is no established budget airline network, so to avoid such journeys and fly, can become quite pricey.
               Visa strategy: Free visa on border or at the airport for most nationalities. Other nationalities such as South Africans will have to pay (almost US$50). Regulations seem to change frequently, but our understanding is currently citizens of Japan and most EU countries can stay 90 days without paying for a visa; citizens of Canada, Australia and New Zealand can stay 30 days without paying for a visa. USA Citizens now do require a visa, it's a 135 bucks (!), takes 24hours to issue and is valid for 5 years (you can use it up to 3 times per year, 90days max). Most other nationalities require a visa in advance - usually issued for a 30-day stay.
               Costs: Cheapest nation within South America, US$20-30 or even less a day. Excellent value if you are prepared to live, eat and travel as locals do. However, much more if you want to do a jungle trip, trip across the altiplano or other such activities.
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Very nice and laid back, Spanish easy to understand
                                  Other travellers: Typical Gringos, many have high expectations of Bolivia and come to spend large amounts of time, hearing it is the cheapest of South American countries. Notably, many Israelis - it's a circus in La Paz during Pass Over.
               Tourist factor: 7/10
               Accommodation: Cheap, sometimes basic and cold (spend money on better warmer accommodation if need be)
                                  Hot water: Can be a problem
Average cost: less than $10-20

               Hot/cold, wet and dry: The higher plains of Bolivia get pretty cold at night, but never as cold as some make it out, unless in winter (June/July). Visiting jungle areas during or just after the wet season is not pleasant. Lying in the southern hemisphere; winter runs from May to October and summer from November to April. Basically it's generally wet in the summer and dry during the winter.
The tourist season is something like late June to early September, which has a good climate and is Bolivia's major fiesta season. This does however make for a very crowded time with overseas visitors and lots of South Americans travelling.
As mentioned, highlands and the altiplano can become very cold in the winter and wet in the summer. However the wet summer months (northern hemisphere winter) are not a serious barrier to travel and additionally there is far too much scare mongering regarding the winter's freezing lows.
Yes it can get very cold with the higher points of the altiplano dropping as low as -15C, and in most seasons below zero is not uncommon, but these are nightly temperatures when you will be tucked up in a sleeping bag (rent no problem) with loads of blankets available and not outside in a tent. Remember these high altiplano points are where you transit from Chile to Potosi/Uyuni, not where you travel day-to-day (which are lower areas such as Potosi, Sucre, La Paz or Cochabamba). During the day it is most likely you will be in a jeep as at such attitude any physical effort is very toiling. It won't be t-shirt weather, but a good fleece (or two) is enough. It's ridiculous to pack arctic clothing for only a few days stay and limited exposure to such a climate. If anything good thermal underwear is most useful due to it's multi purpose applications.
Conversely, on the tropical lowlands, summer is near miserable with mud, steamy heat, bugs and relentless downpours, making travel very difficult if you are anywhere off the beaten track.
                Typical tourist trail: Lake Titicaca to La Paz, to the jungle or Coroico, to Copacabana to Sucre to Potosi to Uyuni to Chile (or reverse if coming from Chile, not Peru/La Paz)
                Dangers: Some violent crime, take care at night and during civil unrest (stay well away from demonstrations) - road blocks and unrest around Easter time common. Watch petty thieves in markets and bus stations which normally involves a distraction like something being dropped or spat/spraied on you. On the whole these are all minor issues and it is a fairly safe country on regional standards.
                Money: In larger cities ATMs. For cash, US dollars are of course the foreign currency of choice throughout Bolivia, but currencies of neighbouring countries can be exchanged in border areas. All casas de cambio change cash US dollars and some also change traveller's checks. If you can't find a cambio, try travel agencies, jewellery or appliance stores and pharmacies. Credit cards may be used in larger cities, but not elsewhere - best bet stick to using ATMs in major centres.
                Getting around: Most roads okay with frequent buses, some roads (especially lowland roads in wet season) are awful. Trains get very cold at night and are considered worse than buses - certainly slower. Worth flying to jungle areas and if feeling a little travel worn. As mentioned in the lowlights making long trips can be somewhat unpleasant, roads in the cities are alright, and the stretch just south of La Paz is OK, but most other rural roads are terrible. There is no established budget airline network, so to avoid such journeys and fly, can become quite pricey. Aerosur and Lloyd Boliviano, the two national carriers, are expensive compared to buses, but not as expensive as this seems to imply.
       Health: Be aware of food poisoning. Take it very easy and be careful at high altitudes - it is common for a traveller to hit 5000 meters
       What to take: Some warm clothes and hat, cool covering clothes and insect repellent for jungle. Some periods of the year can be quite wet and a waterproof jacket can be useful during these times.
       Guide book: Footprint.
       Communications: Internet no problem, but more expensive in jungle areas
       Food: Some good, cheap food
                                    Vegetarians: Not really a problem
       Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
                                    Women alone: Be careful at night, not really a problem. Taking jungle tours alone, especially if female is not advised.
Rating: 8/10

               Intro: On the whole Brazil is a pretty western country - somewhere it's easy to travel and have a good time. It's also home to some of the world's most beautiful scenery, particularly along its southern coast. Jungle regions may disappoint, as prices run high and any tour is likely to have you not 'seeing the wood for the trees', as the expression goes, as with all trips of these nature the focus is very much on flora and not fauna. Trips to the Pantanal (wet land areas) are far more worthwhile, but it can be quite a touristic experience, costs are still comparatively high and there a more than a few stories running around of cheap tours turning into a disaster.
What really sets Brazil apart is, generally speaking, unlike the rest of South America it is fairly void of tourists outside of three or four locations, who are scared off by the distances, costs and stick mainly to the run to Bolivia and Argentina from Rio (the a main entry hub) taking in the Foz do Iguaçu.
Brazilian Portuguese, which you need to think about more than just believing its pretty much the same as Spanish, needs some mastering as English or Spanish is incredibly rarely spoken for a developed country and day to day living costs are much higher than the likes of Argentina and Peru or infact anywhere else South of the USA (Chile and a few Caribbean islands aside). And that's really the deal - since as great a Brazil can be, if you have any illusions of bargain travel and have to watch your pennies plus don't speak a word of Portuguese, it's going to be a lot less fun. You're not quite at European or North American prices, but if you are hitting the big cities and popular beaches don't figure on cheap. A double room in a Rio hostel will set you back over 100R or 50+US$ (although dorm beds are of course cheaper) and (especially when factoring in long distances), bus travel will soon add up. A great network of internal flights are good value and it's when you get away from the major attractions that you'll meet some great fun people from the sexiest nation on earth. Speaking some Portuguese, avoid any crime and being disposed to 'beach life' are the major factors in getting the very best from Brazil. Those who do will deservedly rave about the place.
                Highlights: Foz do Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro, carnival (Salvador), the party loving friendly Brazilians, beautiful coastal towns and islands. Oh and of-course Caipirinhas.
                Lowlights: Amazon, distances and big cities (Rio aside)
               Typical tourist trail: Rio to the coast and down to Foz do Iguaçu then on to Paraguay.
               Dangers: Some violent crime. Care is required in big cities as with anywhere in South America. Although few travellers experience serious problems it is worth remembering that along with a handful of other places on the globe, Brazil can be a very dangerous country with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and care is needed even by day. Simple precautions like not wearing a flashy watch and not using ATMs on deserted streets and always hide your PIN make a lot of sense.
               Visa strategy: Visa free on arrival for EU members plus New Zealand / Israel. Visa required for other nationalities (inc. Canada, Japan, Australia). A Brazilian visa now costs $100 for US citizens. Ouch!
Be warned that if visiting other countries in the region where yellow fever is a problem (e.g. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela) a yellow fever certificate maybe requested on entry. You need to have the jab ten days before you travel.

               Costs: US$40-60 a day should cover you, if hitting some big cities. If you want your money to go the furthest, Northern Brazil is certainly cheaper and some knowledge of Portuguese is essential. Kitchens in many hostels and good supermarkets mean self-caters can really reduce daily costs. The same goes with using dorm bed rather than private rooms. 
Brazil has never been cheap compared to many other Latin American counties, but is getting increasingly more expensive mainly due to its massive economic growth which has significantly strengthened the Real as a currency. Once again, those expecting ultra-budget travel, beware.
               Money: ATMs commonplace, although many don't work on the international network. Look for HSBC branches which use the VISA network (Cirrus much less common). Most banks change Travellers Cheques, but changing cash or TCs on a Sunday can be quite difficult. On the whole you can pay for most of your day-to-day needs getting about with a debit/credit card, which limits your need to carry too much cash.
               Guide book: Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides please see here.
               People vibe:
Locals: Very friendly and welcoming, especially if you make an effort with Portuguese. Younger travellers getting a little off the beaten track and staying in communal accommodation are often welcomed into beach parties and make friends very easily.
Other travellers: Many British/Irish, not so many typical Gringos. Worth noting is as with in South East Asia, a large number of Israelis.
               Tourist factor: 6/10 (obviously away from Rio and other main attractions)
               Accommodation: Can be quite expensive relative to the rest of South America. There has been a big increase in international style hostels in the past few years, but away from Rio and the like, you are limited to the smaller less traveller/non-Portuguese speaking orientated Brazilian versions. For carnivals it's advisable that accommodation be booked between August and November regardless of the carnival you choose to view, although you may be offered a home stay on arrival if you're lucky. If you are looking for a double room in a Rio hostel, best book before you arrive.
Hot water: Fine
Average cost: 70R up to 110R in cities. Note these are as with all average accommodation prices on this site for a double room. Is it worth noting that for Carnival or over New Year places jack their prices up, up to ten times, and have several day minimum stays.
               Communications: Okay internet, some international call centres. Post, cheapest in South America
               Food: Sometimes expensive, buying your own at good supermarkets is an option. Is it also worth noting the outstanding variety of Brazilian food and fruit juices, with so many cultures from all over the world and all the fruits from the Amazon.
Vegetarians: Fine
               Hassle and annoyance factor: None really, apart from Pantanal tours
Women alone: As with the rest of South America, single women should be very wary before taking a jungle or Pantanal tour with a male guide
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Brazilians love to party and normally alcohol is involved. Cocktails including the famous Caipirinhas and its many variations are mixed very strong - so watch how much you drink if out at night and in an unfamiliar area. Cocaine readily available in big cities if you are looking - police entrapment is common. Grass also widely available. Substances likes 'daime' or 'ayahuasca' are not illegal in much of South America (inc. Brazil). Both are two names for the same hallucinogenic that are used in rituals. The effect is similar to magic mushrooms, or peyote, or even LSD. There are many specific destinations for those who want to participate with support, although the effect is not to be underestimated.

Getting around:
Land: Economy buses are okay value and are usually reasonably comfortable. Deluxe buses are sometimes very comfortable, but obviously pricier. The cost of bus travel can however really add up and a hire car is an option if you have the money or are in a group. Overnight trips aren't too painful. Many companies offer difference classes on longer routes, but the distances just go on forever! Take for example the journey from Rio to Recife - 38 hours by bus. Train are a scenic option in places.
Air: To really cover Brazil, those that can afford it may want to consider an air pass or much easier use this countries excellent budget airline network. Gol, TAM and the much troubled Varig are the three leaders. You can check all their websites to get an idea of routes, times and prices. These can be equally surprisingly low or high. Six hours on a bus, Rio to Sao Paulo can be flown for less than 70US$ (not to mention that Rio's Santos Dumont and Sao Paulo's Congonhas airports are spectacular to take-off/land in). Booking on-line proves far more difficult, due to recognising or security checking non-Brazilian credit cards (this should change in the future), but these airlines have desks that can be found in shopping malls or airports where you can book. Equally a travel agent can do it for you, sometimes even hostels. Getting deep into the interior normally requires the use of a flight at some stage.


               Intro: Ten times longer than it is thin. Flying into Santiago on a clear day you can see the Andres and the ocean in one quick glance. Like Brazil, Chile is far from a budget destination and Spanish, which is spoke at an amazing speed, is tough to understand for a beginner. Valparaiso and the odd vineyard aside, most cities lack obvious attractions, those landing in Santiago and heading north to the vast uninteresting region that turns into the visually stunning altiplano at the border with Bolivia, may not be overly impressed. However, those with time, money and 'outdoor' personalities, who have good weather on their side and head south to the lake district and over subscribed Patagonia are in for a real treat. 

Chile really does feel different than the rest of South America. Comfortable, almost European in places with quirky cities and a 'froniter' feel on its fringes. Tourism is for the most part well supported with plenty of hostel and free maps abound. You'll find in urban centers plush shopping malls, well stocked super-markets and great nightlife. If only the country were more compacted..... despite a fantastic and comfortable bus network, to see the country beyond Santiago and Valparaiso, you'll need to invest some time - which most don't given the temptations of other cheap countries to the North and East.

Getting to Patagonia is particularly problematic requiring a flight or, as with any travel in Chile, a long (but always good) bus ride. Very much an outdoor destination, the beautiful fiordland and national parks leave those with time to explore and the right weather conditions breathless. There is also the opportunity to ski at good value resorts. Those interested in Easter Island see details under the Australia and the Pacific section summaries.
Highlights: Patagonia and the lake district (you will need to trek to see these properly), San Pedro de Atacama, Valparaiso, white-water rafting, nightlife and getting off-the-beaten track along with good value and world class skiing (Esquel & Bariloche)
Lowlights: Distances and the bottom of the world (the continents most southern point is somewhat unspectacular). Santiago, may be the capital, with a great nightlife and home to most of the population, but it is an underwhelming place.
               Visa strategy: No visa required for most nationalities, but as with most of the rest of the region, a 'reciprocity fee' is levelled on those nationalities that charge Chileans for a visa. Most notable this applies to the Americans and Canadians at a whooping cUS$130 (Australians about half that), the amount is payable in USD on arrival and is linked to the passport number so good for as long as you have the passport. Kiwis, Brits and most other European nationalities have no such fee charged.
Typical tourist trail: Arrival in Santiago by air or overland from Mendoza. Costs considered, many and especially those who already spent time in Argentina and are making there way North to Bolivia and beyond, restrict themselves to only Santiago (and possibly Valparaiso) before jumping on a Bolivia bound bus. Those with more time taking in Patagonia, the Lake District and/or San Pedro de Atacama.
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Trekking in Patagonia only possible in summer (European/N. American winter). Climate varies dramatically from snow to sun
               Costs: Reasonable, transportation is a major cost, especially paying for flights. Great supermarkets so do your own cooking or sandwiches. Consider US$50-60 per day
               What to take: Some warm clothing. Sleeping bags and rain gear can be hired for Patagonian treks and is okay quality, but not fantastic. You may do some camping and if you are into this scene bringing all the gear with you is a good idea. You don't need a tent to trek the Tories del Paine, there are rest houses, although they are basic (need sleeping bag) plus get very crowded in peak season and close in the winter.
               Money: ATMs
               Getting around: Great overnight buses and cheap internal flights. Turn up at the bus stations and try and get a discount on half empty departures just leaving - except on holidays. A lot of locals hitchhike.
Guide book: Rough Guide or Footprint. Many use a regional guide.
               People vibe: Young Chileans looking to practice English are friendly, so on the whole are the rest of the very civilised population. Spanish is spoken very fast with some endings clipped and thus hard to understand for a beginner.
Locals: Generally nice, interesting and educated people
Other travellers: Fine. Predominately German, English and American. Sometimes in large groups of friends. There is also an increasing number of Argentinean and Brazilian travellers.
               Tourist factor: 7/10 in Santiago, Valparaiso, San Pedro de Atacama, and parts of Patagonia. Elsewhere, considerably less.
               Accommodation: Mainly okay, occasionally quite expensive (Santiago). Private homes often offer the best accommodation and a chance to get away from large groups of travelling friends, but many have closed with the massive explosion of hostels over the last ten years. Towns like Valparaiso went from having no hostels to one on every corner within a ~10 year period. In general and like everywhere, some are good and some are not. One feature is that very few hostels are purpose built and thus don't have the facilities to handle large number and often wooden floors that carry any sound. Those looking for the very cheapest deal (which many are as Chile is an expensive country) won't necessary get a good nights sleep.
Hot water: Always. Limited water sometimes none for showers in desert regions
Average cost:: Less than US$40 - more in Santiago
               Communications: Okay internet, easy to find and a good speed in most cases. Most hostels have Wi-Fi or a computer you can use for free
               Health: Altitude when entering the country by bus from Argentina or Bolivia
               Food: The country seems to have an obsession with Hot Dogs (try the Italian, with toppings to match the Italian flag) and Pisco. Great supermarkets if you wish to prepare your own food.
Vegetarians: No problem
               Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine
               Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Fantastic and cheap wine. Pisco is the national drink (never mention that you heard it came from Peru), in its more sophisticated form: Pisco Sours, less so and a popular student drink: Piscola (Pisco and Coca-Cola). For the adventurous, a 'terromoto' literary 'Earthquake' is the way to go. Based on wine, fruit juice, served in pitchers and topped with ice-cream, it creates a lasting memory.
Rating: 7.5/10 (if you have time and not on a very tight budget)

               Intro: If you're looking to be told that Colombia is not a dangerous country, you won't find it here. Large sections are controlled by very nasty, unpredictable rebel groups. Each year there are numerous kidnapping incidents reported, some involving foreigners. Violent crime, and especially bus hold ups are unfortunally common. However, the situation and safety in Colombia has improved dramatically over the last five or so years. Equally there's a lot written on the bad aspects of Colombia and these do on the whole relate to certain hot-spots easy to avoid, so there's no need to go on.
What we can tell you is Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the Americas and fairly vacant of tourists. Most travellers debate long and hard about visiting Colombia, finding only negative comments on the net, posted by those who have not visited or had a bad experince. Some do make the decision to go and more often than not their appraisal is: Colombia should not be missed. Just don't get carried away exploring off the beaten track - Colombia is not like other countries. By sailing/flying into Cartagena and travelling to Ecuador or vice-versa, with common sense, it is unlikely you will have any problems other than the ever present threat of theft. If possible, leave your main bag somewhere (like Ecuador) and travel very light keeping all your belongings in a day sac, thus being able to keep it near to you at all times when travelling. Colombia in places is spectacular - take care and enjoy.
                Highlights: Cartagena old town and Caribbean coast, San Agustin, Zona Cafetera north of Cali, Sierra Nevada, carnival (forget Rio, head to Barranquilla), the trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) and limited tourists
                Lowlights: Common theft and generally unsafe situation
               Visa strategy: Free upon entry for most nationalities
               Typical tourist trail: None (other than a quick transit taking in Bogotá and Cartagena)
               Getting around: Great bus system and excellent faster 'collectivos' (mini-buses that leave when full). Good value on main routes, more expensive on country routes. Travel at night at your own risk, and always know the situation along the road you are travelling. 

As with much of South America distances are long and even with an excellent bus system, if wanting to get around the whole country and do so as safely as possible you should use the excellent cheap internal air network. A good starting point is Aires Aero.
               Costs: $40 per day, general costs much higher than in Ecuador - similar costs to Brazil
               Money: ATMs commonplace, allows you to make small withdrawals at a time. You can use a debit/credit card for many purchases.
               What to take: As little as possible (keep your bag with you at all times when on public transport), all insured and nothing you mind loosing
               Guide book: Footprint and new Lonely Planet on the scene. Both with a good level of detail and practical security advice.
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Various, however many don't want anything to do with travellers, consider them all North American. Most, however are very affable, friendly and welcoming.
                                  Other travellers: Various, many Germans, very few North Americans - generally Europeans and Israelis. Some degree of snobbery among the self-styled 'hardcore' backpackers element.
               Tourist factor: 3/10
               Accommodation: Hostels and bulk standard hotels in cities, accommodation has much more character and is cheaper in rural areas. Try and stay on a coffee farm.
                                  Hot water: Normally no problem
                                  Average cost: $25 big cities, $10-20 in rural areas
               Communications: Internet can be a little difficult to find, but always available.
                                  Books: Most of 'The Gringo Trail' by Mark Mann is set in Colombia and like so much fiction in it's style, is completely unrepresentative. 'A hundred years of solitude' is one of the best books based in Colombia, if not the best ever written. Other Gabriel Garcia Marquez titles are also highly recommended. As is Louis de Bernieres trilogy, the first part (his first book), 'The War of Don Emmanuel's Neither Parts' is the best of the three. Strange title (that has nothing to do with the plot), hugely funny, clearly copied style from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but as with 'A hundred years of solitude' highly, highly recommended. (It should be noted that Louis de Bernieres trilogy is set in a fictional South American country - that resembles parts of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela (Grand Colombia)). Click here for other South America recommended reads.
                                  TV: Spanish cable and CNN
               Food: Okay, eating out not overly cheap in cities, commonplace supermarkets means cooking for yourself in hostels is easy. Water comes in silly little packets and fruit, especially mangos are ubiquitous and cheap.
                                  Vegetarians: Fine
               Hassle and annoyance factor: No real hassle. The most hassle is found in Cartagena.
                                  Women alone: Not recommended
Rating: 7/10

               Intro: Ecuador is many travellers first and sometimes, only taste of South America, either arriving from Central America or seen as the ideal taster country, being safe and compact (a rarity in South America). It's the departure point to the biggest draw on the continent and what most wealthier travellers are in Ecuador to get a flight to - the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is all these things, safe, compact and easy (the number of North American visitors is testament to this), but can be seen as a
               disappointment compared to the rest of the continent and over crowded. Otavalo's culture is hard to find and the towns famous market is a fest of dollar pushers and takers. Baños (the bathroom of South America), a number one destination offers nothing more than a few good bike rides, sugar cane to chew on and a chance to relax with good restaurants and books (best place in South America to find them) the same goes of the highly spoken of Vilcabamba. The coastal region lacks really good beaches and scenery, the jungle is over crowded and over priced (compared to Bolivia). The famous ride on the roof of a train has lost the best parts of its track to various El Niños and the cities are certainly not much to write home about. It's still fun though and since it is easy (and smallish), it provides a good chance to relax and get away from constant bus travel. It's also cheap! The chance to climb a volcano should not be missed and the one attraction that really shines does so, so brightly, if you get the chance to get there all else is forgotten (that's the Galapagos Islands by the way).
Highlights: Galapagos Islands, smallish size, standing on (and either side of!) the equator and laid back attitude
Lowlights: Coastal areas and non-eventful tourist traps
                Visa strategy: Free visa on entry - expensive +$100 park entry fee to Galapagos
                Typical tourist trail: Quito to Otavalo, back to Quito and down the avenue of volcanoes to Baños and other villages in the south. Most travellers come from Peru or Costa Rica
                Dangers: Some guerrilla activity in very north west, along Colombian border. Like Costa Rica, petty theft is becoming prevalent and you should be extremely careful on buses and at stations. Worth reading avoiding theft section.
                Passport: Technically you should carry your passport on you at all times, although many will advise you a copy is best given the high levels of petty theft in Ecuador.
                Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jungle, coast and highlands all have different best times to go. Overall pretty much a year round scene.
                Getting around: Pretty good cheap buses. Roads good, just windy
                Guide book: Footprint
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Fine, a little tourist jaded in places
                                  Other travellers: Lots of Americans and a few package tourists
               Tourist factor: 9/10
               Accommodation: Good value
                                  Hot water: Normally fine, apart from jungle areas
                                  Average cost: Less than $10. Quito more expensive
               Communications: Good internet
               Health: Many travellers do suffer from food poisoning and related stomach problems
                                  Books: Best if not only place for books (Baños and Quito) in South America. See Colombia summary for some recommended reading.
                                  TV: English language cable in some hostels
               Food: Good choice and range in tourist areas, more limited outside. Can you bring yourself to eat a guinea pig?
                                  Vegetarians: If you eat chicken fine, if not harder
               Hassle and annoyance factor: None
                                  Women alone: Fine
               Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Vilcabamba is famous for it's hallucinogenic cactuses, however most backpackers won't come across them. Grass is of course available pretty widely and certain so in beach/touristy areas.
Rating:5.5/10 - note that typical mainland tourist destinations are rather disappointing (Banos, Papallacta), but many speak highly about more off the beaten track regions. See comment. But then again comments are not meant to be disparaging of Ecuador, remember it summarises the whole and compares against other similar countries in the region directly.

               Intro: The home of the Incas, Machu Picchu and the amazing sacred valley, Peru is the image of South America most people bring to mind and Machu Picchu is somewhere everyone will want to see, but, to coin a phrase, that's just the top of the pyramid - Peru is the Egypt of the Americas. There certainly is a lot to see, but most ancient sights, if not destroyed/assimilated by the Incas were finished off by the Spanish. Therefore what's left, outside of Machu Picchu (which the Spanish never found) and Nasca can be a little dull unless you're an archaeologist. Peru is a huge country, which means two things, the first that distances can get you down especially crossing mountains, but secondly, if you have got time and knowledge of Spanish, there is loads to explore off the beaten track, jungle river trips and great treks. Time is a precious commodity, Cusco can take a week minimum and will try to keep you there for longer with it's great bars and restaurants. Lima is not overly interesting and the country is generally poor value compared to Bolivia and Asia, and good cheap food, in any variety is hard to get.
Highlights: Cusco, in-depth history, Ica, Nasca, seeing condors, trekking around Huaraz and sand boarding in Huacachina.
Lowlights: Inca trail and it's raising cost - not taking anything away from the ruins at the end, Puno, distances and generally being overloaded with historical facts and ancient civilizations. The poor man's Galapagos Islands off Pisco are a little of a let down unless you have never seen a seal or seagull before. Be warned coastal fog covers the whole coast (especially Lima) for several months a year.

               Dangers: Some violent crime, be careful at night – don't walk with your pack on after dark or in the early hours of the morning
               Visa strategy: Free on border
               Typical tourist trail: Bolivia - Puno, Cusco, Arequipa, Nasca, Pisco, Lima, Huaraz, Trujiillo - Ecuador.
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jungle, coast and highlands all have different best times to go, pretty much a year round scene. Serious coastal fog much of the year. Highland towns like Cusco get cold at night. Peru's peak tourist season is from June to August, which is the dry season in the highlands, and the best time to go for hiking. Many of the major fiestas occur in the wettest months and continue undiminished in spite of heavy rain.
               Money: ATMs; a Visa Plus as well as MasterCard's Cirrus card is useful. Can withdraw dollars in some machines.
               Costs: Not brilliant value for money compared to Bolivia or Ecuador, about $40 per day. Allow $300-$500 to do the Inca trail and similar for an arranged jungle trip. Costs are of course lower than in a developed country, but higher than those in many neighbouring countries. Lima and Cuzco are the most expensive destinations in Peru.
               What to take: You can rent all equipment for the Inca trail in Cusco. Take good walking shoes and a warm fleece, plus if you have on, your International Student card for the Inca trail.
               Getting around: Buses, some roads (Lima to Cusco) a killer, distances just go on and on. The Pan American highway is smooth and flat. Trains are slow, cold and over priced. Internal flights good value and a necessity to get to many jungle areas.
                Tourist factor: 10/10 in Cusco, outside of 7/10 to 4/10
                Accommodation: Reasonable accommodation, brilliant choice in Cusco.
Hot water: Some problems
Average cost: Always less than $10
                Communications: Good internet in major towns
                Health: Altitude and food poisoning
Books: Very limited opportunities to buy
TV: Hotels with cable have Sony channel and others, with loads of treats. Restaurants and bars in Cusco show movies
                Food: Outside of Cusco, poor and expensive. Eating fixed menus is a way to keep the costs down
Vegetarians: Can be difficult
                Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Normally fine, be careful at night
                People vibe: 
Locals: Not as friendly as other South American nations
Other travellers: Typical Gringos, packages in Cusco
                Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: You may hear of Cocaine available in Cusco night clubs.
               Rating: 7.0/10
Intro: Not so long ago long-term travel in Argentina was prohibitively expensive for budget travellers, then everything changed with the devaluation of the once US dollar pegged Peso. Argentina became very cheap. Now with the worst of the economic crisis behind the country, Argentina when comparing standards of comfort when travelling and to neighbouring countries, particularly Brazil, is a bargain (do note however that with high inflation prices are creeping up). Coupled with this Argentina is an extremely likeable place. Buenos Aires is a fantastic fairly laid-back city (and big enough to escape the crowds that can blight some other of the countries attractions). Countrywide, there's a good travellers network and it's stunning beautiful with huge variation - even the Spanish sounds gorgeous here!
Highlights: Value for money, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, the lake district and the Foz do Iguaçu (see Brazil above)
Lowlights: Distances and the bottom of the world - Ushuaia is the Timbuktu of the Americas, someone where everyone seems to want to make a bee-line for. It's not unattractive nor without merit, but as with the really Timbuktu, somewhat overrated and unspectacular (compared to other parts of Chile/Argentina, that don't lie on the Tierra del Fuego).
               Visa strategy: Free on arrival for most nationalities.
               Typical tourist trail: There are several tourist trails, but they normally include Buenos Aires then take in Iguaçu Falls, Salta, Mendoza and of course Ushuaia (and Patagonia with it's spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier).
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Trekking in Patagonia only possible in summer (European/N. American winter). As with Chile, huge climate varies from the countries top to bottom.
               Costs: Very reasonable, transportation is a major cost, especially paying for flights. If use to paying for buses in Peru/Bolivia/Ecuador, you are going to find buses tickets expensive, but the standard good. Consider US$30-50 per day, depending on the distance you travel and if you use easy to find cheap dorm beds.
               Getting around by air: In terms of Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas (domestic + international) and its domestic-only wing Austral are known as the most reliable and extensive in their coverage, but they're also expensive for foreigners. Aerolineas offers domestic combo pack if you fly into Argentina with them, but this is now generally regarded as a pretty bad deal, since it would be as cheap or cheaper to book domestic flights individually. LADE is a weird military carrier that apparently has rock-bottom rates, but flights are sporadic and can be unreliable. LAN Chile also might have some domestic flights in Argentina. For further afield such as for Asuncion, Brazil or Chile, Aerolineas, Varig. The domestic airport in Buenos Aires is called Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (or simply "aeroparque"), although Aerolineas Argentinas also flies some domestic routes out of Ezeiza, the international airport.
For more information see: Argentina Cafe Travel Guide
               Tourist factor: Argentina is a big country and you can easily escape the crowds, but at major attractions it can get quite crowded.
               Accommodation: Good section of hostels in BA and other major destinations, many offering excellent reasonably priced double rooms if dorms are not your thing. These hostels are an excellent point for getting information, planning your trip and meeting people. Elsewhere hotels and guesthouse are quite reasonable and plentiful.
Hot water: Never a problem
Average cost: Around US$10 for a dorm bed, US$30-50 for a double room.
               Communications: Plenty of internet places in major towns and attractions. Plus in most hostels
               Food: Some of the best steak in the world and at very reasonable prices.
Vegetarians: No problem
Rating: 7.5/10

Backpacking in South East Asia

Intro: Indonesia represents an enormous area to explore, with most travellers focusing only on small parts. Its islands offer fabulously varied scenery, from volcanoes to idyllic beaches and desert. This is can be one of the most rewarding of all Asian destinations, but with some 17,000 islands (the world's largest archipelago) too little time or patience and too much travel can turn a trip into a miserable stressful race between islands with some very hot/huimd weather and shitty roads (and drivers). Equally Indonesia is no Thailand and those looking for universally easy transport and (Southern Bali aside) a party atmosphere, will be sadly disappointed.

A long standing (if not the longest) traveller favourite and firmly on the South East-Asian 'Banana Pancake Trail', Indonesia in general is probably the most varied country in the region. Comparing the tourist centres/resorts of Bali with the mountains of Irian Jaya is an impossible task. The distance between Aceh in the West and Papua in the East is more than 4,000 kms (2,500 miles), comparable to the distance between New York City and San Francisco. Few however get past Bali and near-by Islands. Although for good reasons, Bali is a name synonymous with paradise and with an international airport to boot, likewise nearby islands are cheaper and easier/quicker to access than from Jakarta. From Bali you can easily get the once fabled and inaccessible Gilli Islands, arrange boat trips to see dragons on Komodo/Rinca and hop on tours/flights to the temple and volcanic highlights of Java. 

It is certainly true that when many think of Indonesia they think of Bali, the 'jewel-in-the crown' of the Indonesian tourist industry. Bali does have much to offer from a place to kick back, the fabulous Ubud to great sweeping beaches and excellent waves. However, on the whole it represents everything Indonesia is not and in its blackest spots (Kuta), hosts some of the worst tourists you will find anywhere. Bali is not to be missed, but is not a good reflection of Indonesia. 

Nevertheless away from the small island of Bali it has to be noted that there are huge chunks of Indonesia that are not only a pain to get too, but have limited facilities for visitors and are of not much interest (compared to other parts of South East Asia). At the end of the day many just prefer Thailand (although Indonesia is better value and less crowded). Others like Indonesia simply because it is not Thailand and has a greater sense of adventure attached to it. Nevertheless this is still South-East Asia and has the same flavours and same kind of travellers as elsewhere in the region. Some will love it, others will be slightly disappointed.
               Highlights: Central Sulawesi, Eastern Indonesia (Flores among others), scope to explore away from crowds plus trekking/beach opportunities. Dragons at Rinca rather than Komodo. Parts of Bali, surfing and of course the Borobudur and other stupas in Central Java (Yogyakarta and around).
               Lowlights: Jakarta, Medan, Kuta (Bali)
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Sumatra is right on the equator - so often hot or wet, but mountains can be quite cold and snow can be found on peaks in central Irian Jaya. The seasonal variations between wet and dry are a little varied for different parts of the country and you are best to consult a more detailed guide book, but generally speaking travel is fine all year round and wet season downpours last only a few hours. Even the driest periods seem damp, hot and humid in most parts.
               Typical tourist trail: A popular stop for many looking to explore SE Asia away from the mainland. Cheap and easy budget airline flights from Singapore to Surabaya, Jakarta and Bali aid traveller-traffic. Relatively few make the journey overland from the SE Asian mainland, but it is quite easy and Bali with its international airport and paradise invoking name is clearly the main tourist point. 

Most starting from Bali will either stay there (there is plenty to see/do) or take a ferry to the tiny Gilli isles or Lombok. The more adventurous will take trips either overland or by air to Flores where Komodo dragons can be seen nearby or arrange a trip to one of the temples or volcanoes in Java. Very few take in Jakarta for good reason or other more remote islands (also for good reasons: effort and time required). At the other end of the country Sumatra hosts the steady stream of travellers that come from the South East Asian mainland and with progress in Aceh some travellers are finding long forgotten gems in that region which are widely publicised in guides.
               Getting off the beaten track: With such a vast area, getting off the beaten track is easy given the right amount of time and money. One such area is the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua, the Indonesian part of New Guinea (aka Irian Jaya), for which Marc Todts has contributed an excellent summary.
               Costs: Endless troubles ensure the Rupiah is excellent value; prices vary from island to island but are always reasonable. $25 a day is no problem. A long stay in resort towns in Bali (such as Kuta and around), yacht tours to islands (such as to see Komodo Dragons) or similar can increase this significantly.
               Money: ATM's commonplace in populous or tourist areas and in most cities and islands, take supply of cash out to further islands with you.
               Getting around: Getting around depends on the island. On major islands such as Java or anywhere tourists normally go, it's a breeze. Off the beaten track in Kalimantan or West Papua there are few roads and options are more limited.
                                  In general transportation is by buses some good, others not so. Between backpacker centres there is a well developed network of tourist buses and for a premium you can have comfort and direct routing. Prices are many times greater than local buses, but still cheap and save a lot of time and hassle. However in times of reduced tourist numbers, some services are suspended and off the beaten-track you just won't find them.
                                  Train services available only in Java and parts of Sumatra. Several trains run between Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya. Most  trains are comfortable (AC sleepers), however prices for different classes and trains vary enormously.
                                  Boats to get from island to island. Since you have to cross water, travel can be time consuming. PELNI, the state owned shipping company has numerous vessels, operating on about two week loop schedules. Ships are AC and first class cabins have TV and privacy. Timetables on line. There are places on yachts, normally heading from Bali to Komodo. Off the beaten track, inter-island exploring can be expensive and time consuming especially in Maluku (spice islands).
                                  Air, considering the difficulties and expense with getting far afield, internal flights become a very attractive option with an excellent network and some mainstream budget airlines. Some local airlines have questionable safety records.
               Guide book: Lonely Planet. 
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Vary from island to island. Few would say that Indonesians are unfriendly, but this is far from a 'land of a thousand smiles'.
                                  Other travellers: If you are a European, imagine Ibiza, if you're an American, imagine Cancún. This is how many (a particular type of person) see Bali. Outside Bali, typical South East Asian travellers. In many parts of Indonesia you will find yourself happily alone.
               Tourist factor: Bali and surrounding islands are extremely well trodden - 9/10, most other areas 7/10 - 5/10. 

Many of Indonesia's nicer destinations are slowly finding their way into the mainstream with more tourists and better connections in the same way as the Thai islands. A perfect example are the tiny Gilli Islands off Lombok, once an off-the-beaten track reserve of backpackers and a solid feature on the South East Asian trail. These islands despite being fairly close to Bali required a lengthy (long day) journey from Bali to Lombok, bus within Lombok and then second ferry. The three islands had rustic accommodation, perfect beaches and were a true get away from the worst of Bali. 

Today the islands are accessible with ease by direct (although expensive) fast boats making even day trips possible and are suffering the same fate as parts of Bali. Such is unfortunately synonymous with not just Indonesia, but the whole of South East Asia which one day might look like Pattya, Puket or Kuta everywhere there is a nice beach and easy connections.

Still such notes sound sour and there is always fresh ground to be broken in South East Asia and especially elsewhere.
               Accommodation: Accommodation can be basic on remoter islands and quality/price can depend largely on demand (season and local holidays/travellers). For the most part you can find somewhere to stay cheaply and with ease.
                                  Hot water: Won't be available in cheaper rooms
                                  Average cost: As little as US$5, average US$10. AC will increase this substantially.
               Communications: Internet on most main islands, including some very fast connections and wi-fi in many mid-range hotels and cafes/restaurants - especially in parts of Java and Bali.
                                  Books: Many bookshop in Bali and major towns in Java and Sumatra. Wide-range of international magazines also easy to find.
                                  TV: In more expensive hotels. Movies played in restaurants and bars in tourist areas
               Food: Indonesian cooking is distinct within the region and good street food is easy to find. Chicken, shrimp and peanut sauces feature heavily. Eating decently is never really a problem and fresh fruit juices are abundant (including avocado with chocolate sauce).
                                  Vegetarians: Fine, look for 'temple meat' which is Tofu or Gado-gado which is a traditional dish of vegetables served with a peanut sauce. It should be noted that strict vegetarians will struggle as prawn/shrimp is used as a base for many sauce and prawn crackers are often added to the top of dishes. You can find some vegetarian restaurants and Ubud (central Bali) in particular will cater to all diets including vegans and health freaks.
               Hassle and annoyance factor: Can be hard work with tons of hassle in major tourist destinations especially in Bali. More relaxed off the beaten track.
                                  Women alone: Normally okay, be careful and remember this is a Muslim nation. Mild harassment is common, but not a major problem. It's easy to say you are married and dress a little conservatily.
               Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Depending on island, soft drugs easily available, although in the likes of Kuta (Bali) a little too easy and questions are raised as to just how safe it is buying off the street. In addition, magic mushrooms can be found with ease in the wet season and feature on many Bali menus year-round, if that's your bag.
Rating: 6.5/10

               Intro: Malaysia (coupled with Singapore) is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in South-East Asia. It can be described as buoyant and wealthy with a cultural infusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that you just don't get in Thailand. The peninsular has good transport, jungle, beaches, culture and is a good chance to escape some of the Thailand crowds. Most travellers zip through, which is why others say that it is SE Asia's hidden jewel (although others might label it as dull after a long stay in Thailand/Indochina). East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) is the Borneo travellers speak of and is much more adventurous and fun. Malaysia is fairly developed and easy to travel in but nowhere as exotic or cheap as the likes of Indonesia or Thailand. Most visitors tend to stick to the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur (KL) or the colonial Cameron Highlands Hill Stations. However, the island of East Malaysia offers the best of Malaysia with wildlife, caves, longhouses and Mt Kinabalu.
Highlights: Islands of Perhentian, Kecil (small) considered better than the Besar (big) - however both now becoming big touristic areas with package accommodation and so on. A trek in Taman Negara National Park, Niah Caves (East Malaysia), and climbing Mount Kinabalu (East Malaysia)
Lowlights: Penang, less fun than Thailand. Some find Sabah not challenging enough (or as they expected) and overcrowded in places. Many island resorts have priced backpackers out or are trying to.
      Visa strategy: Free on arrival. Most Western nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa, and are normally issued 30, 60, or 90 day entry permit stamps.
      Typical tourist trail: A dash from Thailand to Singapore. Normally taking in a national park (jungle train ride), a beach stop in Penang and the capital - KL. More and more travellers are flying to East Malaysia on the island of Borneo.
      Hot/cold, wet and dry: Malaysia like most of SEA is hot and humid all year.  It's best to avoid the November to January rainy season on Peninsula Malaysia's East coast if you want to enjoy the beaches, but general travel is fine. The time to see turtles on the east coast is between May and September.
      Guide book: Any, not really vital unless off the beaten track. 
      Costs: $30-40 per day, normally good value, just not as cheap as Thailand or Indonesia. Time in big cities and beach resorts and increase your need to spend.
Money: ATMs plentiful, but limited in East Malaysia. Credit card advances normally commission free and travellers cheques can normally be exchanged for a better rate than cash. Getting money off the beaten track on islands is tricky and it's worth stocking up before heading out.
Getting around: Good buses, roads and trains, some routes (jungle railway) worth seeing. Of buses, there are four basic types, non-AC state, non-AC interstate and AC express (or VIP). Finding a bus going your way is normally easy, but most stop often en route. AC express are the fastest. Non-AC are good if you need to get on and off (i.e. a bit of spontaneous exploring). On trains students are entitled to a 50% discount making the fare comparable to buses. Ten or thirty day rail passes can be bought, but must be purchased outside the country. Both trains and buses make international connections to Thailand and Singapore with ease.
               Malaysia is also one of the only places in SEA where renting a car is a great idea and not too expensive.
               The Jungle Railway is a daily eastern line service which stops at every station (every 15-20 min or so) between Tumpat (close to the Thai border) and Gemas. It's 3rd class only so no air-con and no reservations, and has a tendency to linger in stations while other regular trains overtake. This service is most popular to travel to Taman Negara National Park (Jerantut) or the Perhentian Islands (closest station to Kota Bharu is Wakaf Bahru). It's a great name, and you see a lot of jungle, but less than when you are actually in the jungle itself.
Getting to East Malaysia (Borneo) is also easy and sometimes flying is cheaper than the normal road/water combinations.
               People vibe:
Locals: You notice instantly that Malaysians are a lot more diverse and more open than their Thai neighbours (in a genuine way at least - not only of you are buying something from them.
Other travellers: Typical backpacker types. Many older travellers.
               Tourist factor: 7/10
               Accommodation: You can find a cheap bed almost anywhere (except resort islands that have gone very up market). In tourist/transit bus and train stations, touts come with a photo and map of the guesthouse they represent. On beaches, Thailand style A-frame huts are hard to find and most accommodation is more expensive and aimed at package tourists. If you want an ultra cheap time on a picture perfect developed beach, head to the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand. Nevertheless quality does make up for the higher prices in many instances.
Hot water: Fine, limited in jungle areas and ultra cheap places.
Average cost: $15-20
               Communications: Widespread Internet
               Media: New book shops in very civilised KL, no real traveller scene, so limited second hand books, but plenty first hand.
               Food: Normally pretty good, standard fare.
Vegetarians: Fine, good variety
               Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Not really a problem

Myanmar (Burma)
               Intro: Asking questions about Burma on newsgroups several years back would have had you shouted down on ethical grounds. Now more and more people are discovering one of Asia's hidden jewels - it's only hoped they are doing it responsibly. Burma or Myanmar (Me-an-mar) - which we should probably now refer to it by - is a land of wonders, gentle culture and welcoming smiles, but before you go make sure that you are well aware of the situation there and how your visit may prolong it. The Lonely Planet (unlike the Rough Guide, who believe the disadvantages of travel outweigh the advantages and thus ignore the country) has an excellent introduction in their guide to Myanmar regarding the merit and demerits of visiting - which you can read here. Often quoted is that isolating a country and starving its population of income in the hope they will have less to lose and revolt, is a dangerous and almost sickening policy. Many will wonder if all those who call for a total travel boycott rather than responsible tourism
               will visit China (occupying Tibet), Israel (occupying the West Bank and Gaza), France (nuclear testing in the Pacific) or even America and the UK (where do we start there!). However the argument regarding tourism and the support it lends to one of the world's most brutal dictatorships as opposed to its many possible positive effects is highly complex. You are left to your own decision (this article and others are worth reading).
For what it is worth Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader was quoted in 2009 as saying she now believes tourism can be encouraged, provided it is run through private operations and not through the government, and that visitors might help draw attention to the oppression of the people by the military junta. She has made her views known through a close acquaintance and former member of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). When last quoted on the subject, in a BBC interview in 2002, she said: "We have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists."
Highlights: Bagan (Pagan), the people and 'removed from the west' culture. Getting off the tourist trail
Lowlights: Government travel restrictions, ignorant package and other tourists (on MTT tours)
      Typical tourist trail: Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Bagan (Pagan), Inle Lake and back to Yangon
      Dangers: If you can get there successfully (restricted area), the Shan state has Burmese and Thai Guerrillas present. Watch out for the Burmese new year (March-April) - not only will you be sprayed with water, but everything grinds to a halt and transport gets booked solid. There are numerous other restricted areas away from the tourist heartland of which permits to visit can be applied for in Rangoon at the MTT office.
      Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot or wet all year round. It is well worth planning your trip to avoid the worst of the heat (March to May). October to February would be best, Yangon is pleasant, in the interior it can get a little cold during night at higher altitude.
      Costs: Admission fees which are foreigner priced add up (and btw go on the whole directly to the government - see right) and so do long distance taxi rides which are useful if you need to cut down on travel time and increase comfort - but on the whole it's generally cheap. $25-35 per day
      Tourist factor: On the beaten track 7-8/10, off it 3/10. Burma has quite a compact circuit and you should not expect to be alone (other backpackers and many tour groups) on the Rangoon-Manadaly-Bagan-Inle-Rangoon loop.
      What to take: Some locals appreciate foreign English magazines as these are hard to get and expensive.
Communications: Internet is just starting to creep in. In Yangon if you look around hard enough you can send and sometimes receive e-mails. Much of the internet is censored. May Shan guesthouse is a good place. Latest reports are that Hotmail and Yahoo is censored at all the internet places you can find. All the places let you use their own email accounts to send emails, but not receive. This means having a hard copy of all addresses you wish to send to (or a very good memory). International phones and faxes are like hen's teeth and cost a small fortune to use.

Getting around: Myanmar Air internal flights are known to be a little dodgy to say the least (about 3 of these old Russian twin-props crash a year). Buses are generally okay for the main route from Yangon to Mandalay, but generally travel during the night. Getting south or west of Rangoon or to the far north is difficult and will require some serious adventure, normally riding in trucks. To avoid very bumpy and windy buses or pick-up truck rides, split the cost of a taxi, between four. Boat travel is available from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa. There are trains, but service is bad and foreigner pricing funds the regime and make buses better value.
Getting there: Generally a flight from Bangladesh or Bangkok. Almost all land borders are closed (Bangladesh, Laos, India), are open only to the immediate area (Thailand) or require permits to cross (China/Tachilek) - essentially this is a fly-in, fly-out destination. Most people loop Yangon and back, but since there are flights out of the country both from Yangon and Mandalay it's better to start in one and finish in the other to cut down on travel. Myanmar Airways International (MAI) has started operating the Delhi-Yangon sector thrice a week.
It's now possible to go by road from Tachilek (opp Mae Sai) to Kengtung. Permits are not needed, just the full visa. Getting to Taunggyi and on to Mandalay on via this means is open to which report you read - knowing Burma, I wouldn't bank on doing it - this is the Shan State and to leave the country this way would require a permit for the area. The road is in bad condition and the trip takes a good while and energy.

               People vibe:
Locals: Incredibly friendly and welcoming, hard not to feel sorrow for their situation
Other travellers: Some awful package tourists, others generally nice guys. In recent years much more of an overflow of the banana pancake crowd.
               Guide book: Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here. Remember you won't find a Burma section in the Rough Guide SEA guide. Another up to date guidebook on the market is the Insight guide to Burma, published Dec 04 (LP: Nov 05).
               Accommodation: Many guest houses and hotels, try to find those that are locally owned. Most places are empty, so always bargain - you can get a good room for $10-$15. Prices more expensive in Yangon, some cheap rooms available.
Hot water: Can be a problem
Average cost: $20-30
Books: Some copies of Burmese Days floating around in Bagan, which is a good, if somewhat depressing read. There are, of-course, numerous great books written on the struggle for democracy in Burma, but these are best read before you go and not while there for obvious reasons. One to read on your trip might be, The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire. It's a mixture of a travelogue and historical book about Burma, the historical bit focusing on a explorer type called George Scott, (who brought his beloved game of football to Burma) about 100 years ago. It's a great read. The ISBN is 1582432422.
TV: None
               Food: Pretty limited, but if you find it real Bamar food is great and as good as Thai food. Western style food is not done very well.
Vegetarians: Fine
               Hassle and annoyance factor: There are plenty of things to get annoyed about, but the people themselves are never a concern. Very friendly laid back culture
Women alone: Fine
Rating: 8/10

               Intro: Many say the Philippines just isn't South East Asia. Sure it's the only Catholic country in the region, an island nation (over seven thousand of them) which can't be 'just popped over the border to', English is widely spoken and of course it sits well away from a mainland and off any practical route. In fact the Philippines is every bit South East Asia - all the good bits. Great beaches, dramatic volcanoes, a colourful transport system, diverse culture, hill tribe & jungle treks and stunning rice terraces. The only thing that really sets the Philippines apart from the likes of Thailand et al. is in comparison you'll have much of it to yourself. Forget Vietnam this, or Malaysia that, you can keep them all because when you've seen the rest, head to the Philippines. The Philippines is ultra diverse, there's something for pretty much everyone (from swimming with Whale Sharks, cheap diving and forgotten beaches to good surfing, even better nightlife, hill tribes; the list goes on). Very civilised in parts, fair value for money (when the Peso is weak) and the fact English is widely spoken is a massive bonus for many. Sometimes it seems the only ones who have discovered these beautiful islands are the Koreans/Japanese and the sizable number of westerners who have settled and walk around with a Filipino on their arm. Alex Garland's a huge fan and so will just about anyone who's been. Mabuhay!

Highlights: Great nightlife (cheap beer, a young vibe and plenty of excellent live music), undoubtedly some of the world's best beaches (some maybe crowded, but with a little time and travel you can find your own paradise), underwater gardens (for divers and non-divers alike, the coral and many wrecks are stunning - great value scuba), trekking (there are many volcanoes to climb, but most require a good deal of planning and determination, however the highland areas of Luzon are easy to explore, stunning and relative uncrowded), fantastic food options, countless vast shopping malls and that Latin fire 'stroke' Asian grace of the long suffering Filipino. Other places of note: Vigan, around Banaue, Sagarda, Bohol and anywhere offering a cold San Miguel and a massage on a white beach at sunset.
Lowlights: The jury's still out on Boracay, beautiful as it may be, some find it just too developed and expensive when compared to other options (still others love its choice of bars/restaurants/hotels, amazing beaches and kite surfing). Damaged coral and lengthy bus journeys where air/sea is not at option. Manila makes a good first impression on few (although it has plenty to offer) and urban areas do seem forlorn compared to the dynamism of modern Bangkok/KL. In places, like in Thailand, sex tourism is obvious and can leave a bad taste in the mouth if you come across it. Finally not all, but some boats are obviously overloaded and not for the faint hearted in rough seas.
               Visa strategy: A three week visa is free on arrival for most nationalities. Extensions allowing you a total stay of two months cost around US$30 in Manila, Boracay, Cebu and many other places. Unless you are getting someone to organise it for you the hassle is less in the likes of Boracay or Baguio. Second extensions are more costly and regulations get stricter the longer you stay.
               Hiking: The mountains and rice terraces of north Luzon are a worthwhile alternative to the over-commercialised hill tribe treks of northern Thailand. Banaue/Sagarda can be somewhat of a pain to reach, so you will probably want to make the most of your time there with a two to three day DIY trek. When it comes to the most attractive (and therefore most popular routes) guides can easily be arranged, but not as essential as locals will tell you the way. You will find some basic places to stay if making a loop from the spectacular terraces in Batad. Private transport is however necessary in many cases are public jeepneys are not so common on the more remote roads. Away from mountain provinces, hiking needs plenty of stamina and even more water as it's going to be hot.
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot almost all year around, there is however a highland area to escape to where, in winter months, it can get fairly chilly.
               Typical tourist trail: Virtually all flights land in Manila (although you can enter the country in Cebu or regionally at the ex. USA airbase of Angeles/Clark - 2-4 hours North of Manila). Manila like any big Asian city has nightmare traffic and heavy pollution. From there on, there is no tourist trail as such. Many travellers will leave by air for Cebu (onto Bohol) or Boracay. Many will bus north to Baguio and onto Banaue and further north. For those on limited time the closest resort/dive site is Puerto Galera.
               Costs: US$25-40, depending on your passion for Scuba, beer and AC rooms. Heading into rural areas you will be hard pushed to spend even half of this.
Money: ATMs plentiful in any large town. However don't get caught out by lack of ATMs at Clark Airport (where inter-regional budget flights sometimes land and you'll need some cash for the two-four hour bus ride to Manila) and on Palawan. Most hard currency will change in big cities and tourist enclaves. US dollars as good as Filipino Peso.

There are problems in the Philippines that are occasionally splashed across western media. In a very simplistic form problems emanate from the large southern island of Mindanao which is the country's largest Muslim enclave. Travel in some parts of Mindanao is safe, but anyone heading this way will of course do some careful research, since there have been several kidnapping incidents of late. 

There are a number of areas on Mindanao and islands off it which should be considered no go areas. On the whole, the Philippines is safe and authorities are pro-active to tackle any threat including the few minor bombings that do happen from time to time. A quick visit to your country's foreign office site will give you much more accurate (if slightly alarmist) current info.
Getting around:
               Internal flights: There are numerous flights each day to and from Manila to Cebu, Boracay, Mindanao, Palawan and many destinations north of Manila in Luzon. With destinations such as Cebu, no forward planning is necessary - you can book with ease at the airport or an agency the same day. However, at Easter and other holidays and for destinations less frequently served, such as Legazpi, booking ahead is required. As a rough guide one-way Manila-Cebu is around 15-2000Pesos (around 35-50US$). Due to the nation's topography, flying is often the only alternative to lengthy ferry journeys.
               Buses: One of the joys of the Philippines is you don't need to use buses too much as air/ferry travel is for the most part more practical. The one exception is heading north in Luzon. The northern highlands make for slow windy going. When you do need to hop on a bus you will find an excellent network with frequent departures by many companies. Bus quality is good, but not on par with Thailand's finest.
Others: Jeepneys run around most towns and can be used for small hops, although FX taxis (mini-vans that leave when full) will be faster. It is possible to hire a motorbike in some places (e.g. Bohol) with limited hassle. 

Taxis and drivers can be hired for longer journeys (drivers are always keen). Rates are on the most part reasonable if there are a few of you, but will seem very expensive for the Philippines. Nonetheless this is easiest option in many cases. Moto-taxis (with side-car) will ferry you around smaller towns, and taxis in larger towns all have metres that most drivers use no problems.
               Guide book: Both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide have good looking and fairly new guides out. Neither is that good. Used the Rough Guide only a few months after it was published and it was full of errors. Still, the context chapters were excellent and the quality and accuracy was found to be better than the LP counterpart. Philippines chapters in SEA multi-country guides are very poor. See more info on Rough Guide Philippines, which is the recommended guide, click here. Using this site to buy through Amazon contributes massively to its continuation.
               People vibe:
Locals: Although English is an official language, don't expect every local you meet to be 100% proficient, although the basic understanding most have and the excellent understanding many have, makes for good interaction and ease of travel. Apart from a few exceptions, the Filipinos are a very friendly and welcoming bunch in a way you would never find in the Western world.
Other travellers: Few of the typical SE Asian backpackers and fewer of the younger crowd or Israelis you find in Thailand. Many westerners travellers are those with Filipino wives/girlfriends/kids. Popular destination for Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans, many of whom honeymoon or learn English here.
               Accommodation: Accommodation and cost vary substantially. It's fair to say there is not the quantity and/or range of accommodation as in other parts of SE Asia, although there is enough. Costs tend to be slightly higher, but if you want to go basic there's plenty and the prices are rock bottom. Manila has only a few traveller-focused guesthouses, recommended highly in guidebooks and almost always fully booked. There are other options such as the good value mid-range hotels in the Manila district of Malate if you crave AC. Beach resorts have plenty of fancy accommodation geared at Japanese and Korean holiday makers. In resorts good value low/mid-range places aren't too plentiful or great value, but can be found. As with anywhere if you want AC you dearly pay for it. Off the beaten track accommodation gets much more basic, but is really cheap. As in Indonesia the mayor or village chief of small out-of-the-way places may be able to help you find a place to stay when there is no hotel.
Hot water: Not always in cheap places.
Average cost: From as little as US$5 in the north to on average US$15 to US$25.
               Communications: Easy cheap internet access almost everywhere and some good call centres in major cities. Mobile phone use is widespread (Filipinos are text mad) so SIM cards are cheap and easy to buy. On the beaten track and major beach resorts, Wi-Fi spots are easy to find.
               Tourist factor: 6/10, most visitors limit themselves to resorts such as Boracay.
         Books: In larger towns (Cebu, Manila, Davao etc) no problem finding international magazines and a good range of books / guide books. There a several daily English language newspapers.
         TV: In any accommodation from basic mid-range up. Excellent selection of cable channels, live sport, news and a wonderful channel that runs karaoke songs and words 24hr a day.
      Food: For seafood eaters this may well be heaven. Food is on the whole excellent and cheap. Meat is surprisingly popular for an island nation. A huge range of different Asian cuisines are on offer; Korean and Japanese food is particularly good. In major cities, in any one of the country's many enormous shopping malls, there is a quite unbelievable range of cheap fast-food, from western international brands and local copies to Thai, Japanese and Korean gigs. Many, particularly the Asian versions are excellent.
         Vegetarians: Fine, especially if you are pescetarian.
      Hassle and annoyance factor: Never really a problem
Women alone: Never a problem, above the normal questions and minor hassle you would expect anywhere in Asia.
Rating: 8.5/10
               Intro: Singapore is really just a transit zone for backpackers, on their way to the beaches of Thailand, Malaysia, the myriad of Indonesian islands or Australia. It is also quite a bizarre place (coming from the rest of Asia); cars use their indicators and stop at crossings! There's none of that mayhem that makes travel so interesting (and at times stressful) in the rest of Asia. It is an expensive place by neighbouring country standards, but cheaper than Japan, Australia or Korea. For its size there's loads to do but, being such a small place, after a few days (unless hitting the shops big time) you'll probably want to move on. What strikes you most is the Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions that seem to blend into the city. In the morning you could be on a market stall eating noodles as in Vietnam and in another part of town find Indian temples as in Madras. Then its high tea in the best British fashion with air-con, starched linen table cloths and gliding waiters. If you want 'it's a small world' Asia without breaking too much of a sweat, here's your place.
Highlights: Zoos (there are two, a day one and a night one) and cleanliness. Amazing, brilliantly tasty, safe and cheap food from every Asian (or Western) cuisine you can imagine. Shopping, drinking Singapore Slings and marveling at it all while kicking back for a few days with zero hassle and everything you might need.
Lowlights: Raffles, electronic goods prices not too different than home (electronics usually aren't the bargains they used to be), costs and accommodation prices.
               Visa strategy: Free on arrival - varies 14/30/90 days depending on citizenship and/or point of entry
               Dangers: Super-safe and mega-clean. This is one place you do not want to break the law, and they have some strange ones
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Very hot almost all year around - avoid the wet, humid season
               Costs: US$35-50, depending on your alcohol consumption. Slightly less expensive than the USA and certainly western Europe, but hugely more expensive than say Indonesia
               Money: ATMs extremely plentiful along with change places
               Getting around: Fantastic public bus system. Trains to Malaysia, ferries to Indonesia. The MRT is one of the best metro-systems in the world and the budget airlines operating from Johor Bahru, just across the border, and from Changi airport will take you all over Asia and to Darwin (Australia) at real bargain prices (see budget airlines in the links section).
               Guide book: Make some notes from someone else's guide or photocopy a few pages. No real need for a guidebook, other than an address of a place to stay when you first arrive. All major hostels provide great info. Local guidebooks and maps can be picked up with ease cheaply or free from tourist info places.
               People vibe:
Locals: Highly multi-ethnic population, some of whom are not too jolly (Chinese). Very helpful in general, although a bit paranoid at times.
Other travellers: Typical SE Asian teens & backpackers on transit between Asia and other parts of the world. Plus a fair amount of older travellers stopping off between Australia and Europe and an ever increasing number of Asian tourist.
Tourist factor: 6/10
               Accommodation: Within the last couple of years a few good hostels have opened around town. One such establishment is the BetelBox hostel, which is friendly, has nice areas to meet other people and offers free Internet and other nice treats. Furthermore it is located in the Katong/Geylang area which is much more interesting than overrated Little India. Accommodation is not ultra cheap, but of a high standard. In little India, Ali's Nest is the place to stay. Usually the standard of the new hostels is very high, often as good as in Australia or New Zealand and definitely better than any cheap place in the rest of Asia.
Hot water: Not always in cheap places, but certainly in the new hostels.
Average cost: SG$20+ a night to much higher. A 'real' hotel will be out of a budget travellers price range.
               Hassle and annoyance factor: Never a problem
Women alone: Never a problem (above norm) - totally trouble free
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Alcohol and cigarettes expensive - don't even mention drugs
               Communications: Easy internet access and some call centres. International calling cards used in the many public phone boxes make calling home very easy and very cheap. Like everything in Singapore the quality is great.
Books: Some imported newspapers and expensive bookshops. There are a lot of regular bookshops and also some great second hand ones for the bargains. All with mostly English books. Strait Times is a good English language newspaper.
TV: Only in expensive hotels or hostel common areas.
               Food: Singapore is one of the best places in the world to eat, since so many cultures come together, the choice is huge. Street cafes in little China and little India are your best bet for a good cheap meal. Food is cheap, especially in the Geylang Serai/Katong areas.
Vegetarians: Fine, huge choice.
               Intro: Thailand is where many travellers first venture as a backpacker and although in time they may view it with contempt, they'll probably never forget how easy it was to have a good time, how friendly and fun-loving the Thais were and just how picture perfect the beaches were. Many arrive alone and/or frightened, and before they know it are having a fantastic time. Thailand is a country with huge appeal, but increasingly crowded and cheesy. Certainly on the tourist trail English is never a problem, travel is straightforward and relaxing is easy on some of the world's best beaches or in any one of the thousands of great bars Thailand has to offer.
There is, however much more to discover in Thailand apart from beaches and bars. Since it's easy to get around you've no excuse not to take the time to explore before being tempted by the likes of 'full moon parties' and neighbouring countries. 

You might like to think about avoiding the crowds by not staying on the Khaosan Road in Bangkok and not going to Chang Mai or any well known islands or beaches. Don't miss some ruins and a national park; hill tribe treks and full moon parties are - many feel in retrospect and when compared to other Asian activities - overrated. 

Thailand may well be the easiest backpacker destination on earth and, the 'pinch of salt' (right) comment aside comes highly recommended especially for those nervous about setting off into the big wide world.
               Highlights: Bangkok nightlife, street food, Khao Sok national park, Ko Chang, Similan islands, getting away from the masses, beach life and a great base to explore neighbouring countries.
               Lowlights: Crowds (Pattaya, Phuket, Ko Samui), hill tribe treks (around Chang Mai), full moon parties (Ko Pha Ngan) and many of the other travellers visiting.
               Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and humid most of the time of the year, best during Nov/Dec/Jan, but this is equally the most crowded time (then it's always tourist central). March to May is extra sticky with 35C the norm. Summer (July/August) is still hot and technically wet season, but not a major hindrance to travel.
               Costs: Pretty good value, $30-50 per day, much more if you like to party since beer is quite expensive comparative to the cost of living. It needs to be stated that Thailand has become much more expensive in the past few years. Major resorts have long been more expensive, but now many more places are catching up. Rural Thailand still remains cheap, but on the tourist trail costs are rising and numerous temptations burn money fast. Those coming from Indochina, Nepal/India or Burma might find Thailand a little (and only a little) pricey - though it's still good value by western standards.
               Visa strategy: Simply speaking there are two main types of tourist visa for Thailand, but entry requirements do vary for citizens of different countries as you would expect. Generally speaking, if coming from the EU, Israel, North America, Australia or another developed country, two main methods of entry are available for travellers...
1. Many opt for the conditional 30 day visa exemption stamp on arrival. One of the conditions is that you must be able to prove that you're leaving Thailand by air within 30 days of your arrival. Technically you may need to show the immigration officers flight tickets or e-booking confirmation showing a flight out of the country and 20,000 baht in available funds on arrival before they stamp you in. That said, Thai immigration enforce these rules completely at random. They might check you, they might not. They almost definitely won't check to see if you have the funds, but they may check for proof of onward flights. Based on our experiences of late, unless you look like a hobo, you won't have a problem. More likely if flying to Thailand on a one-way ticket, the issue you will have is with the airline taking you asking for proof of exit upon check-in. More and more airlines now refusing to carry you to Thailand in the first place if you can't produce a valid visa or proof of onward flights when checking in at your departure airport. Simply confirming you have an exit flight, but 'don't have the details with you' normally works, so does a little bit of text forging on an e-ticketing confirmation just to pacify zeal check-in staff. If entering Thailand on an open-jaw, the airline won't give you a hard time on check-in. 

And lastly once in Thailand a short extension to the 30 day visa exemption may only be granted for a fee, but they aren't a God given right despite what you may read or hear elsewhere.
2.  The second option is a tourist visa (in advance) valid for 60 days. You can also buy double and triple entry tourist visas, with each entry also entitling you to 60 days. Tourist visas can be extended for varying lengths, at varying number of times and varying costs. 

You'll be fined if you overstay any visa. To extend free of charge, leave the country, turn around and re-enter Thailand under the 30 day visa exemption rule mentioned above. A plus point of this method is that proof of onward flights are never checked for at land borders, so you can walk back in no questions asked. However, time limits govern how long you're permitted to stay in Thailand under the visa exemption rule, with the current limit being a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period starting when you first arrive. In the past 18 months, Thai authorities have tightened up visa requirements and even changed the regulations considerably and they'll probably be changing again soon, with the advent of the new collaboration visas with other SE Asian countries. Whereas Thailand is far from difficult when it comes to visas, it is also wise to check what the situation and read the comprehensive info here on a Thai consulate web page.
               Dangers: Some petty theft and druggings, but not that common, loads of little scams and crimes of opportunity due to large tourist numbers. Theft of passports and credit cards has been reported as a major problem, but then again so have lady boys! Bangkok can be a little painful with plenty of individuals feeding you misinformation in order to steer you to a shop or other opportunity to make money. So always double check information. It's more of an annoyance rather than a danger. 

The southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla have been considered unsafe due to militant activities, explosions and government fire fights. So check the situation before you go and don't hang around any hot spots unnecessarily.
               Typical tourist trail: Bangkok to Chang Mai (return to) Bangkok to the Samui archipelago to Ko Tao or Phuket to Malaysia. There are some good sample popular itineraries and a lot of good information on travelfish's Thailand page.
               Money: ATMs - which are very plentiful. Any hard currency cash or travellers cheques change easily in larger towns and major traveller destinations.
               Getting around: Thailand has great trains and buses - cheap, fast and simple to use. Tickets are easy to arrange from numerous travel agents, however to avoid an agent's commission, always try and buy your own tickets from train or bus stations, it is not too hard. To move around cheaply and travel on a limited budget take 'fan' buses on short to medium journeys - if you leave early in the morning, it's normally cool enough. Plus third class trains - these take a bit longer than AC buses but are great and a cheap way to move. For example: Khorat to Bangkok costs B50 on ordinary third class train (6 hours), B78 on ordinary bus (5 hours) or B139 on AC bus (4 hours).
                                  Yet another little con: To reach many tourist destinations you can get privately organised bus and minibus transport. Agents who sell tickets will tell you what you want to hear re: length of trip, quality and number of passengers. Most notorious are Bangkok to Siem Reap buses. Think about it; if your ticket is costing half the price of a public service ticket, you're going to get at least 50% quality and a pretty shit journey - be warned.
                                  To and from Bangkok Airport: Since Bangkok is a major stop over it is worth mentioning that airport buses run from 0430 to 0030 and the fare is about 150B per person. There is a directly regular bus to the Khao San Rd and plenty of information and advice at the airport to point you in the right direction. This is the best option if going to the Khao San Rd and you'll meet others while waiting or on the bus. 

There is now a nice new high speed train from the airport. This is a great option to get into town, but it won't take you directly to the Khao San Rd. If you want to take the train, better to jump on the non-express line (the City Line) and get out at Phaya Thai (if on the Express line it is further away and just get out at the last stop). Here are the details and route. From there jump in a taxi (driver understand 'Khao San' better than 'Khao San Road'. It is almost certain that there will be someone else on the train going that way and don't be afraid to ask to share. It's not far to Backpacker central. A taxi will be metered, a tuk-tuk you'll need to barging for. 

Late at night a taxi is best from the airport (better with someone else), ignore any touts inside the terminal. Leave the terminal and follow the signs for Taxi to get to the rank (it's really close from the exit - you will see it from the terminal door), walk over and tell the attendant where you are going. They'll write it down on a form and give it to you. Make sure the meter is on and off you go. If a driver refuses to put the meter on, or turns it off, tell him to take you back to the rank, or just get out and get another taxi - be firm. You will however have to pay the motorway toll if you travel into the city by this route, so don't be surprised if you are asked for some cash halfway through your journey. It's worth noting that the info and tourist advice desk in the airport is first class and if in doubt they can help with many matters.
                                  Motorbikes: Can be rented in any larger town and with care, are a great way to tour country routes.
                                  Trains: Are cheap, easy, comfortable during the day and night (if a little cold at times) and let you see the country as you experience it, for more details see Thai Train System Explained
                                  Internal and international (local) flights: Air Asia and other carriers have a good and very reasonable network to KL, Chiang Mai, Penang, Siem Reap, Hanoi and beyond. Internal flights are equally pretty cheap. you can book yourself on the internet.
               People vibe:
                                  Locals: Generally nice, always smiling, but can get a little tourist-weary. The Thai are a proud race and this can result in some frosty behaviour toward travellers who don't show respect to it or to all tourists in general by some.
                                  Other travellers: Increasingly many package holiday makers and those in early teens- almost every type of traveller it seems ends up in Bangkok at some time! Around the southern beach hot spots expect at some point to run into some of the worst types of independent travellers. As with India and Brazil, you can expect a large number of young Israeli travellers. Also expect to see a large number of (young and old) guys going around with Thai girls.
               Tourist factor: 9/10
Communications: Slightly expensive international call centres. Good internet on the mainland and ADSL connections can even be found on popular islands such as Ko Pha Ngan. Post good value - best to send parcels at the 'slow air' (SAL) rate which is half the price of regular Air and usually take much less than the 1.5 months delivery time announced, in particularly if you register it (an additional B25) and put an airmail sticker on the package.
Books: Loads of book shops in Bangkok, but not as good value as in Kathmandu or Saigon. Everyone seems to be reading 'The Beach' and for good reason. 
TV: New release movies played in cafes and restaurants. If paying a little more for a room (mid-range standard), a TV with numerous international satellite channels is fairly common in tourist centres.
               Food: Great, but can be very spicy - eat off the street for best food. Banana pancakes may well be the tastiest food on earth. Seafood excellent.
Vegetarians: No problem. If unsure you can always ask for 'Buddhist' meals or use the magic word. The magical word is 'jeh' (said like 'jay' quickly). As in 'song Pad Thai jeh' - two vegetarian pad thais.
               Guidebook: Various, available in Bangkok (but not cheaper than at home) No recommendations, you don't really need one on the beaten track. Plus both the Rough Guide and LP are far from brilliant. 
               What to take: You might hear a lot about taking your own padlock. The reason for this is that the doors of some hotel rooms, normally the cheaper ones, lock only with a padlock. Take one for sure, but you will find that most budget places insist that you use their padlock (don't lose the key - they will charge you the earth). You can always chain your bag to the bed, but if the place really feels that dodgy, stay elsewhere.
               Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited, some beggars and touts. Anyone with half a brain will tell you not to buy drugs off tuk-tuk drivers or gems off their best mate/uncle.
Women alone: Lone female travellers are fairly common. Be careful at night and in bars where drink drugging have occurred (Ko Phan Ngan has the current reputation).
Backpacking in the South Pacific
South Pacific backpacking destinations:
1.     Fiji
2.     Vanuatu
3.     Samoa
4.     Cook
5.     Tonga
6.     Tahiti

1.     Fiji is known as a little mecca for backpackers with lots of cheap accommodation and lots of camping opportunities. There are several excellent backpacking circuits around the main island of Viti Levu, and in the Northern Islands, both of which are great for Eco-tourism and exploring. The Yasawas offers the best island hopping in the South Pacific with loads of small locally run budget resorts with thatch bungalows and camping sites beside the beach. Fiji has excellent beaches, great diving and snorkelling, good surfing and remote wilderness. Whilst Fiji has some of the most outwardly friendly people in the South Pacific, most Fijians are very hard to get to know beyond a few words and crime is high on the main island, particularly robbery with a growing concern of rape cases.
2.     Samoa is the up and coming South Pacific backpacker destination. Less commercialised and more traditional than its better known neighbour, Fiji, Samoa is easy to get about, extremely cheap and there's an excellent system of beach fales (traditional thatch bungalows) throughout the country operated by local villages. Samoa has excellent beaches, good surfing, a rich and friendly culture, lovely mountains and waterfalls and is the undiscovered island of the South Pacific. Serious crime in Samoa is low and single female travellers will find it to be safe so long as they dress respectably and accept the sexual forwardness of Samoan men without insult.
3.     The Cook Islands is more limited for backpacking, and camping is actually prohibited, although the atmosphere is extremely friendly, there is virtually no crime and women travellers are treated with great respect wherever they go. Most backpackers stay on Rarotonga, which can quite easily be explored in a few days although its easy to chill out for many more. Apart from Rarotonga, there are only five other islands to visit with budget accommodation but flying to them is expensive. Camping is prohibited throughout the Cook Islands.
4.     Tonga is less developed for tourism making this a good choice to go out and explore and meet people. Small locally run guesthouses are springing up on the more popular islands of Tongatapu, Lifuka and Vava'u and are very reasonably priced. In most parts of Tonga, camping is prohibited. The Tongans are amongst the friendliest of the South Pacific Islanders and crime is not apparent.
5.     Hawaii often turns out to be pleasantly surprising when you get out of the hugely touristy regions on Oahu (Waikiki Beach), Maui and Kauai. There are excellent exploring opportunities on all islands and numerous National Parks, designated hiking trails and state and private camp grounds. There are also lots of bed and breakfasts and guesthouses which can work out cheap for couples, although generally prices are more expensive than the South Pacific Islands, except of course Tahiti. In Hawaii, state campgrounds offer excellent value for money and full facilities including showers and bar-b-que facilities. Most state campgrounds close one day each week to discourage long term campers.
6.     Tahiti is not a good choice for backpackers. Prices are high throughout the islands which deters many backpackers from visiting, although campers are welcome at most budget hostels - most backpackers end up on the short ferry ride over to Moorea and stay at one of the campgrounds or budget hostels. Moorea has stunning mountain scenery and some nice beaches. Budget travellers will find the campgrounds on Moorea and Tahiti to be one of the most popular backpacker hangouts in the country.

Backpacker accommodation around the south pacific islands is roughly US$12 for a single room and US$5 for dormitory (Fiji Islands cheaper, Tahiti and Micronesia superb more expensive).

South Pacific Camping desitinations:
1.     Hawaii
2.     Fiji
3.     Tahiti
4.     Samoa
5.     Tonga
6.     Cook
Camp sites can be found throughout Hawaii and the Fiji Islands. On the other Pacific Islands, camping is rare and in some countries it's even prohibited. The land to islanders is very sacred and you can quite innocently upset local protocol by wandering off and doing your own thing. If you are going to camp in the wilderness, make sure you first have the permission from the local village chief.
In most of the island nations (notably Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Island and Hawaii) the best backpacker destinations are not the islands where you arrive. Unfortunately the cost of getting around (especially to outer islands) adds superb to the cost of a backpacking holiday and can take time waiting for connections. Travellers stopping for a few days only therefore limit their chances to visit the more beautiful islands. Give yourself at least a week for the smaller island nations, and more for Hawaii and Fiji. Some of the popular backpacker resorts can get booked and flights at times are fully booked out well in advance. We've supplied a directory of email contacts so you can check ahead and book from home or at the local Internet Cafe. It's possible to get discounts by booking direct so there's no harm asking for best or local rate.

South Pacific Facts:

Total islands: 330
Total land mass: 18,274 km²
Capital: Suva
Main Island: Viti Levu
Int'l Airport: Nadi
Population: 900,000
Language: English, Fijian
Tourists: 500,000 per year
Accommodations: 150
Money: F$

Fiji Health Issues
Mosquitoes are present in most parts of Fiji but are really only an annoyance during the wet season between December and April, and in this period only after heavy rains. Some areas can be particularly bad, especially those near the still waters of the mangrove forests. Affected resorts tend to spray the undergrowth to kill the mosquitoes and some resorts provide mosquito nets. The smaller offshore island resorts are mostly free from mosquitoes due to a constant sea breeze.

The country is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in tropical countries. The exception is the occasional outbreak of dengue fever which is spread by mosquitoes as well as the disfiguring disease of Leprosotisis. Dengue outbreaks occur when the wet season is very wet, and are usually restricted to the populated towns. When an outbreak does occur, spraying is the one thing Fiji does quickly.

Water is safe to drink and few tourists suffer from stomach upsets. The only real threat is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations are quite common, the latter especially so in the more humid season between December and April. Take light, airy clothes. Local private doctors and pharmacies are good although hospitals can provide only basic accident and emergency operations.

HIV Aids is becoming a problem in Fiji, particularly in the towns where prostitution is high. Homosexuality is illegal whether in privacy or in public display

Fiji Electricity
Electricity is 240 AC voltage (same as UK, Australia and New Zealand) but if you come from the US you will probably need a convertor. Sockets are three pronged, the upper two prongs being angled and flat, the lower prong being circular.

Fiji Communication
Fiji is 12hrs ahead of GMT.
The international dialling code is (+679).
Telephone lines are reliable and most resorts have e-mail connection. A few resorts have public Internet access and there are several Internet Cafes springing up around Nadi, Lautoka and Suva. Postcards are sold in all resort boutiques and at most of the tourist shops in Nadi and Suva. The quality of postcards has recently improved quite significantly. Sending cards and letters abroad is exceptionally cheap and handling is efficient.

Top 10 Attractions:
1) Mamanuca Islands Day Cruise, small islands, snorkel and dolphins

2) Visit Navala Village, stunning 200-thatch roof village

3) Learn to Scuba Dive, best soft corals in the world

4) Fiji Beach Hopping, explore the Yasawa Islands

5) Bouma National Park, waterfalls, marine park and coastal walks

6) Explore Navua River, through the rainforest to villages

7) Go Exploring, head to the remote islands of Kadavu, Lau or Lomaiviti

8) Nananu-i-Ra Island Day Tour, spend a day on the beach

9) Aerial Sightseeing, seaplane, helicopter or skydive from Nadi

10) Historical Coral Coast Tour, sigatoka sandunes & tavuni hill fort

-Cook Islands
Total islands: 15
Total land mass: 236 km²
Capital: Avarua
Main Island: Rarotonga
Int'l Airport: Rarotonga
Population: 18,000
Language: English, Maoris
Tourists: 78,000 per year
Accommodations: 60
Money: NZ$

Cook Island Health and Dangers
Mosquitoes are present in most parts of the Cook Island. They are particularly bad after heavy rains in the wet season and in the inland areas of Rarotonga, Mauke and Mangaia where the swamps are present.

The country is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in tropical countries.

Water is considered safe to drink although tap water is not treated. In some of the outer islands it is best to drink from the rainwater tank and in times of drought water should be boiled. However, the main threat to your health is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations are quite common in the tropics, the latter especially so in the more humid season between December and April. Take light, airy clothes. Local doctors and pharmacies are found on all the islands in the Southern group.

Swimming is safe in most areas but there are some local passages and reefs that have dangerous currents. Beware of walking on coral or swimming in shallow waters - coral cuts can easily become infectious and quite painful. It is best to stay within the sheltered lagoons where most of the resorts are located.

Cook Island Electricity
Electricity is 240 AC voltage (same as UK, Australia and New Zealand) but if you come from the US you will probably need a convertor. IN some areas a two pin plug convertor is necessary.

Cook Island Communication
Cook Islands is 10hrs behind GMT.
The international dialing code is (+682)
Telephone lines are reliable and available throughout the southern islands. International collect calls can only be made to Australia, Canada, Netherlands, NZ, Sweden, UK, USA and most South Pacific countries.

Most resorts have e-mail connection. Public Internet access is available at the Post Office and Pacific Computers, both in Avarua Town on Rarotonga and several cafes around Rarotonga. Some resorts have guest Internet Access, although on-line time is expensive. There is no public Internet access on the other islands although most guesthouses do have their own even more expensive access.

Top 10 Attractions:
1) Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise - island hopping, beaches and snorkelling

2) Traditional Dance Shows - best dancers in the South Pacific

3) Overnight trip to Atiu Island - caves and traditional life

4) Explore Rarotonga by Moped - buzz around Rarotonga

5) Aerial Sightseeing around Rarotonga - take to the air

6) Night on the Town - fine dining and great nightlife

7) Cook Islands Cultural Centre, Rarotonga - handicrafts and stories

8) Muri Beach, Rarotonga - activity beach centre on Rarotonga

9) Cross Island Hike - Rarotonga - rainforest and waterfall

10) Learn to Scuba Dive - relaxed scuba diving courses for beginners

Total islands: 9
Total land mass: 2,831 km²
Capital: Apia
Main Island: Upolu
Int'l Airport: Faleolo
Population: 214,000
Language: Samoan
Tourists: 32,000 per year
Accommodations: 15 + fales
Money: ST$ (tala)

Samoa Health and Dangers
Mosquitoes are present in most parts of Samoa, especially in the tropical rain forest where repellent is a must have. On the coast and in Apia Town they are really only an annoyance during the wet season between December and April, and in this period only after heavy rains. Occasional outbreaks of Dengue Fever can occur.

The country is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in tropical countries. The exception is the occasional outbreak of dengue fever which is spread by mosquitoes and Filariasis, another mosquito borne disease which causes swelling of the lymph glands and rashes amongst other symptoms.

Tap water is generally safe to drink and few tourists suffer from stomach upsets, although bottled water is cheap and much healthier. In the tropics it is advisable to drink plenty of water throughout the day to avoid dehydration. The only real threat is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations are quite common, the latter especially so in the more humid season between December and April. Take light, airy clothes. Local private doctors and pharmacies are good although hospitals can provide only basic accident and emergency operations

Samoa Electricity
Electricity is 240 volts AC50 cycles (same as UK, Australia and New Zealand) but if you come from the US you will probably need a convertor. Sockets are three pronged, the upper two prongs being angled and flat, the lower prong being circular. American Samoa electricity is the same as the USA.

Samoa Communication
The country code for Samoa is (685) and for American Samoa (684). Telephone lines are reliable with direct international calls and international calling cards which can be used a public phones around Apia. Most resorts on Upolu and Savaii have e-mail connections. A few resorts have public Internet access and there are several Internet Cafes around Apia, but none on Savaii. Postcards are limited. Sending cards and letters abroad is exceptionally cheap and handling is efficient.

Top 10 Attractions:
1) - Stay in a Traditional Beach Fale,
explore secluded locations in the real samoa

2) - Robert Louis Stevenson - Historical Apia Town
Robert Louis Steveson house, museum and grave

3) - Saanapu to Return to Paradise Beach Walk, Upolu
stroll for miles along secluded beaches and rock pools

4) - Circle Island Sightseeing Tours, Upolu & Savaii,
tropical waterfalls to golden beaches

5) - Visit American Samoa,
explore the National Parks and wild coastline of Tutuila Island

6) - Fire Dancing,
traditional dancing, fire dancing and feast

7) - The Art of Tatoo - A Samoan Tradition
watch a master tatooist in action - or get one yourself!

8) - Falealopu Rainforest Reserve, Savaii,
canopy walk, sea arches, sacred rainforest;

9) - Swim with Turtles at Satoalepai, Savaii,
lava flow, rainforest, waterfall and turtles

10) - Woodcarvers of Uafato Forest Reserve, Upolu
experience fa'a samoa, village life and traditional handicrafts

Total islands: 170
Total land mass: 748 km²
Capital: Avarua
Main Island: Rarotonga
Int'l Airport: Rarotonga
Population: 18,000
Language: Tongan, English
Tourists: 45,000 per year
Accommodations: 25
Money: T$ (paga)

Tonga Health and Dangers
Mosquitoes are present in most parts of Tonga, although trade winds keep these to a minimum on coastal areas.

The country is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in tropical countries.

Tap water is generally safe to drink and few tourists suffer from stomach upsets, although bottled water is available and much healthier. In the tropics it is advisable to drink plenty of water throughout the day to avoid dehydration. The only real threat is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations are quite common, the latter especially so in the more humid season between December and April. Take light, airy clothes. Local private doctors and pharmacies are good although hospitals can provide only basic accident and emergency operations.

Tonga Electricity
Electricity is 240 volts AC50 cycles (same as UK, Australia and New Zealand) but if you come from the US you will probably need a convertor. Sockets are three pronged, the upper two prongs being angled and flat, the lower prong being circular. However, several of the German managed resorts have imported their own European style plugs.

Tonga Communication
Tonga is 13hrs ahead of GMT
The country code for Tonga is (+676).
Telephone lines are reliable with direct international calls and international calling cards which can be used a public phones around Nukualofa Internet Cafes are available in Nuku'alofa and Neiafu but are painfully slow and not that cheap either. Few resorts or guest houses offer internet access for their guests. Sending cards and letters abroad is exceptionally cheap and handling is efficient, although the quality of post cards is poor.

Sunday in Tonga is a strict day of rest and any commercial business from restaurants to taxi operators are closed. There are no international or local flights on Sunday.

Top 10 Attractions:
1) - Waterways of Vava'u Islands
cruise and snorkel around these limestone islands

2) - Humpback Whale Watching, Vavau
watch these spectacular mammals in the waterways of Vavau

3) - Island Hopping off Tongatapu
visit the tiny coral uninhabited islands off Nukualofa

4) - Blowholes of Tongatapu
series of spectacular blowholes on Tongatapu

5) - Trilithon on Tongatapu
learn about the intriguing history of Tongas past

6) - Attend a Traditional Feast
indulge in traditional food cooked underground

7) - Visit An Active Volcano, Haapai Group
visit the sleepy villages of Haapai

8) - Hike the Coastal Cliffs of Eua Island
spectacular cliffs and forest trails

9) - Aerial Sightseeing
view the coral islands from above

10) - Visit Nukualofa Market
browse the handcraft stalls and vegetable markets

Total islands: 118
Total land mass: 4,167 km²
Capital: Papeete
Main Island: Tahiti
Int'l Airport: Fa'aa
Population: 260,000
Language: French, Tahitian
Tourists: 210,000 per year
Accommodations: 80
Money: CFP /Euro

French Polynesia Health and Dangers
Mosquitoes are present in most parts of the French Polynesia Islands. They are particularly bad after heavy rains in the wet season and in the inland areas of French Polynesia, Moorea and the larger tropical islands. A good mosquito repellent is essential if you are hiking or visiting waterfalls. On the beach, trade winds and a sea breeze generally keep mosquitoes away but sand flies are even more annoying and give an itchy bite. These are particularly bad on the small motu islands surrounding the lagoons (such as the coral islands surrounding Bora Bora).

The country is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in tropical countries.

Tap water is considered safe to drink in Papeete although it is not treated, but not outside of Papeete or in the islands. Bottle water is widely available and expensive. In the outer islands it is usually safe to drink from the rainwater tank but in times of drought water should be boiled. However, the main threat to your health is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations are quite common in the tropics, the latter especially so in the more humid season between December and April. Take light, airy clothes. Local doctors and pharmacies are found on all islands.

Swimming is safe in most areas but there are some local passages and reefs that have dangerous currents, particularly on the main island of French Polynesia. Beware of walking on coral or swimming in shallow waters - coral cuts can easily become infectious and quite painful. It is best to stay within the sheltered lagoons and not venture out beyond the reef unless with a local guide.

French Polynesia Electricity
Electricity is 110 or 220 AC / 60Hz voltage depending on the island visited with 220 AC most common (acceptable for UK, Australia and New Zealand) but if you come from the US you will probably need a convertor. Sockets are French style.

French Polynesia Communication
French Polynesia is 10hrs behind GMT
The international dialling code is (+689).
Telephone lines are reliable and available throughout the French Polynesia Islands. Public Internet access is available throughout the main islands but is limited on the outer islands.

Top 10 Attractions
1) - Bora Bora Lagoon
take a day cruise around this idyllic tropical lagoon island

2) - Explore Cooks Bay, Moorea
drive, sail or hike this spectacular deep bay

3) - Traditional Dance Show
exotic Polynesian dances and theatrical drummers

4) - 4WD Inland Tour of Tahiti
visit waterfalls and lush tropical valleys of the rain forest

5) - Snorkel or Dive with Reef Sharks and Manta Rays on Bora Bora
beaches, uninhabited islets and bird sanctuary

6) - Remote Marquesas Islands
horse riding, coastal walks and traditional villages

7) - Luxury Overnight Cruise, Society Islands
pamper yourself on a scenic overnight cruise

8) - Tetiaroa Atoll & Bird Sanctuary
nesting sea birds and beaches of Marlon Brandos' retreat

9) - Beach Chillout at Maupiti Island
stunning beaches, snorkelling and costal scenery

10) - Laid-back Huahine
sleepy town of Fare with local culture and archeological sites.

Total islands: 10 (+ 100)
Total land mass: 29,311 km²
Capital: Honolulu
Main Island: Oahu
Int'l Airport: Honolulu
Population: 1,200,000
Language: English, Hawaiian
Tourists: 5,000,000 per year
Accommodations: 500+
Money: US$

Hawaii Health and Dangers
Mosquitoes are present throughout Hawaii but are rarely an annoyance on the dry coastal areas. Inland, however, and along the wet tropical north-east coasts of the main islands, mosquitoes thrive and a good repellent and mosquito screening is necessary. Outbreaks of dengue fever sometimes effect the east coast of Maui. Hawaii is free from malaria, yellow fever and most other diseases endemic in other tropical countries.

Water is safe to drink except from mountain springs where purification is needed. The only real threat is the Sun - sunstroke, prickly heat and other skin irritations particularly in the more humid months from August to November when light, airy clothes are essential. Take plenty of sunscreen and a good brim hat with full UV protected swimsuits recommended for small children.

Doctors, dentists and pharmacies are found everywhere but are extremely expensive as are hospital beds and emergency operations.

If swimming, it is advisable to stick to the public beaches which have lifeguards. Hawaiian beaches often have dangerous rip tides and currents around its passages and the state uses official flags to represent swimming conditions.

Hawaii Electricity
Electricity, as with mainland US, is 100 AC voltage and standard two pin flat plugs. Most video and digital camera power supplies and laptop computers offer dual capability so a transformer is not required. However, check before hand - if your appliance does not offer an input range of 100-240 volts, then you will need to buy a transformer to use your appliance.

Hawaii Communication
Hawaii is 10hrs behind GMT.
The international dialing code is (+1); the US State code is (+808). Telephones in Hawaii are very reliable and there are lots of public phones. Prepaid calling cards are widely available and offer cheap international calls. Local calls are charged at a flat rate of 25cents.

Internet Cafes can be found throughout the State in all town centres and at many hotels. Connection speeds are extremely fast and cost about US$1 for ten minutes.

Travellers with Disabilities
Hawaii has exceptional facilities for wheelchair access and Oahu has been voted the most accessible destination in the USA on several occasions and several rental companies offer cars for travellers with disabilities.

Media and Books
National, local and free newspapers are widely available, and there is an amazing quantity of free tourist publications selling mostly tours and attractions. For the most detailed information, pick up a copy of 101 things to Do for each island.

Travel Guide books for Hawaii are numerous and include the always interesting to read Rough Guides and the usually out of date Lonely Planet. The most detailed book for pointing out the sights are the independent titles published on Kaua'i, Big Island and Maui by Wizard Publishing. Hawaii hosts an unbelievable quantity of pictorial books, most of which are glossy editions of popular tourist sights or aerial photos.

Top 10 Attractions:
1) Na Pali Coast - KAUAI
dramatic coastline; hiking; scenic beaches

2) Volcano National Park - BIG ISLAND
lava flows; volcanic crater; trails; flora - 1 day minimum

3) Waikiki Beach - OAHU
world famous activity beach and shopping

4) Whale Watching - MAUI
Nov-May; calving late Jan-Mar; excellent viewing from coast

5) Archaeological Sites - BIG ISLAND,
stone foundations; temples; petroglyphs; Captain Cook memorial

6) Historical Lahaina Town - MAUI
charming seaside town; art galleries; restaurants

7) Pearl Harbor - OAHU
historical world war two site and USS Arizona War Memorial

8) Waimea Canyon - KAUI
unusual rock formations, large canyons and walking tracks

9) Waipio Valley - BIG ISLAND
hidden valley of yester-year with taro fields and horse drawn carts

10) Oahu Scenic Coastal Drive - OAHU
blowholes, snorkelling and scenic beaches.

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