The Man To Know If You’re Considering Asia
“I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and China was closed, full-stop closed, permanently closed,” writes Asia Correspondent Paul Terhorst.
“Mao’s Revolution had taken hold,” Paul continues. “One thing we knew for sure was that we’d never, ever get to travel in China.
“Today I can still hear my older brother saying, with that grave, pontificating voice that 14-year-olds assume, that China, not Russia, looked to be the biggest danger in our future. Remember that, during the Cold War, Russia–actually the Soviet Union, but everyone called it Russia–was Enemy Number One. My brother figured China would be even worse than Russia one day and might even attack us with nuclear weapons. Yikes.
“Then came the Vietnam War. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese wanted no part of us. Hundreds of thousands of communist Vietnamese went to their deaths to help get us out of their country for good.
“Fast forward to the 21st century. The communists have stuck around but in name only; China and Vietnam now stake their futures on free markets.
“My wife Vicki and I first came to Asia on a pleasure trip more than 20 years ago and have been back to Asia nearly every year since that first trip in 1988. I still feel like Alice in Wonderland at times, with the temples and dances, food and drink, language and laughter, parks and wildlife. I predict you’ll feel like Alice, too, at least part of the time, at least now and then.
“But don’t let that keep you away. Today you can travel almost everywhere in Asia. Vicki and I recommend you do so. As much as possible, we also recommend you travel over land. You want to travel at street level, to take tuk-tuks, to order from street vendors, and to chat with innkeepers. You want to get to know people here, to share in their daily triumphs and to mourn their losses.
“Of the many good reasons to visit Asia now, one of the best is that it’s cheap. The Chinese have undervalued the yuan (called the ‘kwai’ on the streets), the Malays have undervalued the ringgit, all to foment exports. Many other countries have done the same. We travelers enjoy the benefit of export-led growth policies, sort of on the side. Those cheap currencies translate into cheap food and lodging for us.
“The current super-cheap spots in Asia won’t stay super-cheap forever. Again, I say, best to get over to see them now. Start with the least expensive: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Burma, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Oman.
“And when you come, I suggest an ulterior motive. Consider whether you might want to live in any of the countries you visit. This is what I’ve done during my most recent travels in this part of the world. I’ve talked with expats about getting visas, finding a place to settle in, using the libraries, and so on.
“Southeast Asia, especially China, still has regions so remote that you won’t see expats or, more to the point, anyone who speaks English. Even in those cases, you can try to imagine your life there, as I’ve done. How would you get by? Answer: Pretty well.
“Asia opens a whole new world, exotic and cool, glittery and mystic. Languages not only have different ancestors, they have different alphabets, sometimes no alphabet at all…
“Specifically, Vicki and I have decided we’re going to spend more time in Malaysia, India, and southern China. We love all three places–the weather, people, culture, things to do, food, and so on. Those are personal reasons, and you may have other views. But I can point to objective reasons to prefer these countries, too.
“First, India, China, and Malaysia offer low costs of living, at least outside Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and a few other Chinese and Indian cities.
“Second, Americans and many others can enter Malaysia and stay 90 days without a visa. After 90 days, you can cross the border to Thailand, say, or to Singapore or Indonesia, and return for another 90 days. India issues 10-year, multiple-entry visas with each entry good for six months. These India visas cost US$150 plus processing and apparently are available only to Americans who apply in the United States. But once you have the visa, you’re set for a long while. China, too, has been easing visa rules.
“Ease of entry makes a big difference these days. Many Third World countries are increasing visa fees, renewal fees, exit fees, and so on.
“Third, discount carrier Air Asia offers cheap air travel. Air Asia makes its base in Kuala Lumpur and expands its route structure regularly, with more and more flights to India. Tony Fernades, the founder of Air Asia, laughs at the state-owned airlines that provide the so-called competition. Tony runs circles around them. Just to give you an idea of some of the low fares on Air Asia, last year, Vicki and I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for US$8 each, including all taxes and fees. We took airport buses to/from the respective airports, adding another US$5 to our door-to-door trip. Total cost was US$13.
“So I say one more time: Try Asia. Whether you want to run around and have a look or to settle down and stay awhile, Asia makes so much sense right now.”