Live Talk Transcript: Southeast Asia

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Writer Matthew Link answered your questions on traveling to Southeast Asia.

Matthew answered your questions Tuesday, August 31, at 1 p.m. EST.

Matthew Link was destined to be a travel writer, having grown up on his father's 52-foot sailboat during his teenage years, cruising around Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He has at various times called Hong, Kong, the Philippines, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand home (not to mention more hum-drum spots like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London). His last stint was on the Big Island of Hawaii for five years, where he wrote and published his own guidebooks to the islands, Rainbow Handbook Hawaii. Link has produced award-winning social documentaries which have shown in film festivals and on PBS stations, and he is also an avid kayaker, hiker, snowboarder, and skin diver. Africa is his all-time favorite travel destination, and he has visited Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Egypt, and Ghana.

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Matthew Link: Hi everyone! Thanks for your questions we'll get right to them.

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Castro Valley, CA: Matthew, Trying to find a low price airfare to India. Also looking for any other way to get to India, maybe through Hong Kong?

Matthew Link: The best company we've found for roundtrips to India from the U.S. is Hari World. Established over 30 years ago in Canada, this company serves the ex-pat Indian community in North America, offering them great deals that anyone else can enjoy too. Don't hold me to it, but in the past they have quoted me roughly $800 for a roundtrip from New York to Delhi. They have offices in Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Toronto and New Delhi, with plans to open ones in Boston, Washington, and Miami later in the year. You can contact their office in San Francisco at 510/795-5000 or go to hariworld.com.

Air India (airindia.com) also offers a "Companion Free Scheme" which gets you a free coach ticket when someone flies from the U.S. to India at Executive Class level. The passengers need to fly on the outbound flight together, but can return to the States at different times. The deal is good until March 31, 2005, and certain restrictions apply.

When I lived in Hong Kong in the early '90s, it was a cheap place to get onward airplane tickets throughout Asia. Now, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world according to surveys, and I think it will be cheaper and easier for you to fly directly to India, since Air India now has flights three times a week from L.A. (which just started in June), and you fly via Frankfurt anyway.

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New York, NY: When is the best time to visit China? Which cities have the best food in China?

Matthew Link: China covers many different regions and ecosystems, but generally speaking has hot summers and unpleasant winters, making spring and fall the best times for traveling there. Hong Kong in the south is muggy and humid in summer, and Beijing can be freezing in winter -- but even spring and fall can be wet, so don't blame me! ;-) Although Chinese New Year is like Mardi Gras (without the nudity), this time period (usually around February) can be packed and hard to find rooms, so book early.

Chinese food varies much more than what you find in North America. So it really depends on what you like. Northern Chinese cuisine tends to be more spicy, while Shanghainese food is emphasizes seafood. In my view, Hong Kong has the most developed restaurant scene in Asia, with everything from street food stalls (licensed and kept hygienic by the government), to five-star restaurants mainly found in the city's awesome hotels. It also has the most Western types of food for the unadventurous!

When traveling in China, especially in rural areas, be careful of anything fried, since a lot of cooking oil in China is rancid and foreigners often get very sick.

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Fort Bragg, NC: I was recently in Thailand and had a domestic beer, but I can't remember the name of it. I think it means "elephant" in Thai. Can you refresh my memory?

Matthew Link: Now here's a questions right up my alley! I think the brew you mean is Beer Chang, which is brewed in Thailand under license from Carlsberg, and is their equivalent of the European Elephant Beer. It's probably the cheapest and most potent beer in Thailand -- some bars won't even serve it! There's also Super Lion (also called Leo Beer or Super Leo). It's another rather strong local brew that takes people by surprise. Super Lion was recently rebranded "Beer Thai," but it's essentially the same stuff. According to Bangkok Bob (bangkokbob.net), Super Lion is "good for cleaning paintbrushes, so don't spill it on varnished wood though, but if you can't get to sleep try a bottle of either Chang or Leo, it should put you out!"

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San Francisco, CA: I am planning a visit to the Philippines with my girlfriend in January. She's of Filipino heritage but every bit as American as I am. In other words, we'll both be real tourists. I'm Caucasian and I was told that there's been a security advisory from the US State Department regarding travel to the Philippines because of the Muslim rebels in the southern part of the island. Is this advisory true? How safe or unsafe is it to visit the country? Other than Manila, we would like to spend a few days in the island of Boracay, which we have heard great things about.

Matthew Link: The "Filipino Diaspora" has created whole populations of "Pinoy" who have never seen their native homeland. But when your girlfriend shows up, she will be treated like family, since the Filipinos have a very strong sense a national identity even outside of their country. Filipinos are some of the friendliest people in the world, and will give you the shirt off their backs even when living in poverty. My father has lived there for years, and my stepmother and sister-in-law are both Filipina, so don't take my biased word for it -- go to the Philippines to experience it for yourself.

The Philippines is one of the cheapest countries in the world to visit. The Asian economic miracle has not floated all boats -- and the Philippines is far behind its neighbors in terms of prosperity. As for safety, yes, it is an issue in the south of the country on the island of Mindanao. To put it in context -- this region has been a hotbed of the Muslim separatist movement for a couple decades now, way before anyone heard of Al Queda. If you stay in the northern regions of the Philippines on the island of Luzon -- hundreds of miles from Mindanao -- you won't be affected at all. And to back up my point of view, according to the U.S. Department of Tourism Research: "The United States, which continues to issue adverse travel advisories to its nationals leaving for the Philippines, remains the country's number one market, with 252,612 American travelers coming in during the first semester, a 35.5 percent growth rate year on year."

Manila is thriving but also hectic and dirty; best to head out of Manila to the more mellow region of Baguio in the north of Luzon, where you'll also find wonderful beaches as well. Boracay is south of Luzon in the Visaya Islands, and is truly the most scenic part of the Philippines that I've seen, full of cheap (under $50 a night) guesthouses popular with Europeans. The Philippines, a Catholic and Latin-influenced nation in the middle of Asia, on the whole is very pro-American and most everyone speaks English, which may account for the consistent popularity with American tourists.

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Boston, MA: Hi Matthew, What type of clothing should I pack for a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in December? Thanks.

Matthew Link: It's always warm in Southeast Asia apart from high mountains, so leave the heavy clothing at home. Cotton and breathable fabrics are always better than synthetics -- although cotton does wrinkle a lot when traveling! December through April is roughly the dry season in that region, although it can still rain a little. December is a good time to go in terms of temperature -- cooler than in the humid summertime. Either way, wearing more clothing (shirt sleeves and long pants) is always more respectful towards the Asian culture, especially when visiting temples and rural areas.

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Ann Arbor, MI: How should bartering be approached in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia? As a white-ish male, should I expect to be taken for my money at every turn?

Matthew Link: Southeast Asia is a bartering culture, and it's often expected from shopkeepers, especially in tourist areas. However, in areas filled mainly with locals, prices may not necessarily be jacked up, so it's important to ask around and find out how much things should cost from people like hotel staff and friendly locals before you dive into bargaining.

It's important to have the right attitude when battering. Many Westerners approach it in a "I win you lose" manner. It's good not to ever let the shop keepers lose face. Always be friendly, smiling, mellow when battering -- never abrasive. Battering is nearly a pastime in these countries, and people almost approach it like a game to be played. So relax and enjoy it as a cultural experience. Don't feel bad about bargaining down for items that cost less at home -- being taken for a fool is never honorable. But at the same time stay sensitive to local prices. The store owner may need the two dollars a lot more than you!

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Albany, NY: Hi Matthew, thanks for taking questions. I will be doing a 6-month travel stint through New Zealand/Australia and Southeast Asia starting in mid-October. What would be your top 10 do not miss list for destination cities? Thanks.

Matthew Link: Since I went to high school in New Zealand (yes, I had a Kiwi accent!) and have been to Oz twice, I can help you out with the whole region.

I would say Wellington is more picturesque than Auckland -- although Auckland, NZ, is bigger and brasher. But Wellington is more friendly and built around hills and a bay -- and yes, it is slightly colder.

Everyone has an opinion if Melbourne or Sydney is better. I'm sorry -- I have to go with Sydney! Maybe it's all the inlets and finger of the harbor, the no-attitude manner of the people, or just the great energy of the place. Melbourne is more artsy, cutting edge, and interesting in some ways though.

Hong Kong is a must -- to see how sophisticated China can be and beyond modern.

Beijing is also a must if only for the great landmarks and history -- not the traffic, pollution, or ugly architecture!

I'm not a huge Bangkok fan although it does have some amazing temples. I think Phnom Penh is more interesting since it is rapidly changing and not as touristy.

If Nepal is going through a peaceful phase (check the State Department warnings), I love Kathmandu -- one of Asia's greatest treats, up in the pre-Himalayas and small and walkable and full or unique atmosphere.

In India, my favorite state is Rajastan and my favorite place is Jaisalmer. It's way out in the desert with palaces and you can do camel safaris out in the desert.

And if you can make it -- keep going to Ulan Bator in Mongolia -- I loved the Soviet feel and the remoteness! And oil-rich Brunei is fascinating if only for its special status as a tony enclave within Malaysia. Is that 10? I hope so!

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Hartford, CT: I would like to visit various Asian countries: Singapore, Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong. What would be the best approach in doing this? How long should one stay in each country? What would be 2 or 3 sites one should see in these countries/cities?

Matthew Link: For any traveler seeking to cover a lot of ground in Asia, a Cathay All Asia Pass is mandatory. For $999, you can fly to 17 Asian cities over the course of 21 days, and that includes your flight from the U.S. to Hong Kong, Cathay's hub. Be sure to book the pass at cathayusa.com by signing up for the free "CyberTraveler" program, since it will cost $200 extra to purchase the pass by other means. Then you need your travel agent to actually book the flights for you -- Cathay insists. (The pass has been around for a long time, so most agents are familiar with it, and Cathay's web site is loaded with a ton of info on routes and add-on cities.) And if you are over 55, that brings the air pass down by $100. The $999 pass price is good from August 17 through December 1, 2004 -- but if you want to travel during the high summer season time period, the price goes up by $300. Don't forget to budget for airport taxes too -- they fluctuate, but usually hover between $10 to $30 per passenger depending on the country.

Cathay Pacific only flies out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York -- the latter probably being your preference.

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Matthew Link: Thanks for your questions! It's been fun. Be sure to check out Budget Travel for articles on the Philippines and Asia. Next week, our live chat is about Hong Kong - so be sure to come back then.

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