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Money & costs
The East Asian financial crisis is now a distant memory, and the countries of Southeast Asia are generally gaining economic clout in the world; but the rate of exchange, not to mention the price of most goods and services, means that travel in the region is very budget friendly. In places such as Laos or Cambodia, you'll find that you can live quite well on very little, and the region's resort destinations and luxury accommodations in general come at a fraction of what you might pay in your home country. ATM service is good in the larger cities but can be scant, at best, in some of the region's backwaters. Traveler's checks, an anachronism elsewhere in the world, are still not a bad idea, especially in the developing countries of the region. Note that the U.S. dollar is the de facto currency for many Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Hotels in particular prefer doing business in U.S. dollars to dealing in local currency, a practice that helps them stay afloat amid fluctuating currency values. In some parts, everybody down to the smallest shop vendor quotes prices in U.S. dollars, and particularly the big-ticket items are best handled with greenbacks instead of large stacks of local currency.
While dealing in U.S. dollars can make things less complicated, always keep in mind local currency values so you know if you're being charged the correct amount. In this book, we've listed hotel, restaurant, and attraction rates in whatever form the establishments quoted them -- in U.S. dollars where those were quoted, and in local currencies (with U.S. dollar and British pound equivalents) where those were used.
Note that with the exception of the Singapore dollar, Malaysian ringgit, and Hong Kong dollar (which have remained stable), all other Southeast Asian national currencies are still in a state of flux. Before you budget your trip based on rates we give in this book, be sure to check the currency's current status. You can find a comprehensive currency converter at www.oanda.com/convert/classic.
You will have to rely on local currency when traveling in many rural areas where neither traveler's checks nor credit cards are accepted. The U.S. dollar is the most readily accepted foreign currency throughout Southeast Asia, and it's a good idea to carry some greenbacks as backup.
It's not a bad idea to try and exchange at least some money -- just enough to cover airport incidentals and transportation to your hotel -- before you leave home (though don't expect the exchange rate to be ideal), so you can avoid lines at airport ATMs; most international arrival points in the region, however, have 24-hour exchange counters. You can exchange money at your bank or local American Express or Thomas Cook office. If you're far away from a bank with currency-exchange services, American Express offers traveler's checks and foreign currency, though with a $15 order fee and additional shipping costs, through www.americanexpress.com or tel. 800/807-6233.
Bali (Indonesia) -- Indonesia's main currency is the rupiah (Rp), with bills of Rp100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000. Coins come in denominations of Rp25, 50, 100, and 500. After wild fluctuations in the 1990s, the rupiah has stabilized in recent years to Rp11,223= $1.
Cambodia -- Cambodia's monetary unit is the riel, which is available in 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000 riel notes. Cambodia's volatile exchange rate typically fluctuates, but is currently at 4,000 riel = $1. It's a good idea to bring a supply of U.S. dollars, as the dollar is considered Cambodia's second currency and is accepted -- even preferred -- by many hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants. If paying in dollars, you'll get the small change in riel.
Laos -- The primary unit of currency is the kip (pronounced keep), which comes in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 notes. The exchange rate is approximately 8,500 kip = $1. As in Cambodia, many tourist establishments prefer payment in U.S. dollars. In many areas of Laos, both U.S. dollars and Thai baht are preferred over the local currency.
Malaysia -- The ringgit (RM), which is also referred to as the Malaysian dollar, is the unit of currency. One ringgit equals 100 sen, and notes come in RM1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 50 sen, as well as RM1. The exchange rate is approximately RM3.59 = $1.
Singapore -- The Singapore dollar (S$), commonly referred to as the Sing dollar, is the local unit of currency, with notes issued in denominations of S$2, $5, $10, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000; coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents and the gold-colored S$1. The exchange rate is approximately S$1.49 = $1.
Thailand -- The Thai baht (B) is made up of 100 satang. It comes in colored notes of 20 (green), 50 (blue), 100 (red), 500 (purple), and 1,000 (khaki) baht. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, and 10 baht, as well as 25 and 50 satang. The exchange rate is approximately 35B = $1.
Vietnam -- The main unit of Vietnamese currency is the dong (VND), which comes in denominations of 500,000, 200,000, 100,000, 50,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, and 200 notes. There are no coins. Most tourist venues accept dollars, and even in small towns you will at least be able to exchange greenbacks, if not use dollars directly. The exchange rate is approximately 21,000VND = $1.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM. The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on, then call or check online for ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $2). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can get cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, provided you know your PIN. Keep in mind that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time. Also, note that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% "transaction fee" on all charges you incur abroad (whether you're using the local currency or your native currency). Before you leave home, call your credit card company to find out if there's a daily limit on cash advances.
In most parts of the world, traveler's checks are an anachronism from the days before ATMs made cash accessible at any time. But be forewarned that the developing countries in Southeast Asia have scant ATM service, especially in rural areas. Traveler's checks are a sound alternative to traveling with dangerously large amounts of cash, and they can be replaced if lost or stolen.
You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233, or 800/221-7282 for cardholders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322, or AAA members can call tel. 866/339-3378 to get checks up to $1,500 for a $9.95 fee); and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, and MasterCard all offer foreign-currency traveler's checks, which are useful if you're traveling to one country; they're accepted at locations where dollar checks may not be.
If you carry traveler's checks, keep a record of their serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Every Southeast Asian country has its own currency. The US dollar is the official currency of East Timor, the unofficial currency of Cambodia and Laos, and (for larger payments) is widely accepted in some Southeast Asian cities. Euros are also widely accepted in the major cities, although rates are rarely as good as for dollars. Thai baht are widely accepted in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. As Singapore is considered to be the main financial centre of Southeast Asia, Singapore dollars would generally be accepted in major tourist areas if you're in a pinch (and are legal tender in Brunei), though the conversion rate might not be very favourable.
Exchange rates for Southeast Asian currencies tend to be very poor outside the region, so it's best to exchange (or use the ATM) only after arrival. Alternatively, Singapore and Hong Kong have many money changers who offer competitive rates for Southeast Asian currencies, so you might plan to spend a night or two in transit for you to get your money changed.
Southeast Asia is cheap, so much so that it is among the cheapest travel destinations on the planet. US$20 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget in most countries in the region, while the savvy traveler can eat well, drink a lot and stay in five-star hotels for US$100/day.
Some exceptions do stand out. The rich city-states of Singapore and Brunei, which boast some of the highest GDP per capita in the world, can be more than twice as expensive as their neighbors, while at the other end of the spectrum, the difficulty of getting into and around underdeveloped places like Myanmar, East Timor and the backwoods of Indonesia drives up prices there too. In Singapore in particular, the sheer scarcity of land drives accommodation rates up and you would be looking at more than US$150 per night for a four-star hotel.
Southeast Asia is a shopping haven, with both high end branded goods and dirt cheap street goods. The most popular city for shopping in Southeast Asia is Bangkok, although Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore all have extensive arrays of exclusive shopping malls stocked with haute couture labels. On the other end of the spectrum, street markets remain a part of daily life (except in Singapore) and are the place to go for dirt cheap or counterfeit items. Some towns like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Bali, Indonesia are well-known for enormous markets selling traditional artworks, and it's often possible to buy directly from local artists or have dresses, jewelry, furniture etc made to order.
Bargain in public markets and flea markets where prices aren't fixed, Southeast Asians actually will give you a bargain if you make them laugh and smile while naming your price, if they don't try saying bye bye and smile and maybe the vendor might change his mind and give you a discount. When bargaining for simple things like watches, sunglasses, and shoes remember that these are marked up indefinitely more than 400% and given you have the bargaining skill, can easily be brought down from 4,500 baht to 800 - 1000. If you can't seem to get them down to a reasonable price, then you're doing it wrong.
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