Campervan hire in Australia and New Zealand – save on cheaper deals

Campervans can be a great way to enjoy holiday travel. Most campervans are a delivery van fitted out to provide self-contained accommodation and cooking facilities. The smaller ones in Australia and New Zealand are usually Toyota Hi Aces,  while the larger ones are generally a Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter.

Small campervans are quite basic, offering a bed that is converted at night from a table and seats, a few cupboards, a gas 2 burner cooktop, and a fridge. Larger  campervans, often called motorhomes, usually have the same configuration, but with more generous dimensions, and have a combined shower/toilet, more storage and internal space, a TV, and a heater. The best equipped one that I’ve hired also had a very handy external fold out barbeque and table.

Campervan hire is like booking a flight with a budget airline. The bargain airfare quickly turns into a bloated deal by the time extras are added: checked luggage, a meal, an allocated seat, credit card surcharges, and the like. With campervan hire, the extras can often more than double the initial appealing quote, and many can be avoided or reduced with planning.

Careful preliminary reading of the documentation allows you to avoid paying for unnecessary extras. It’s unwise to arrive at the hire company’s office tired after a long flight or journey without having properly appreciated in advance all the tricky elements of the deal and their cheaper alternatives.

A few months ago, I hired a campervan in Queensland for 28 days. I saved about $1,000, paying around $57 per day instead of $90 per day, mainly by taking out my own insurance cover for damage or an accident, rather than following the hire company’s preferred procedure. Incidentally, if I had used the hire company’s cover I would have still been liable for an additional excess of $250 instead of nil with my own insurance.

The information below is quite detailed because hiring arrangements are made complex by the dense nature of the contracts used by hire companies. Ultimately that detail will only be of interest to someone seriously thinking of adopting some gypsy freedom. If you’re not so inclined, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon may convert you.

The next photo is of the virtually brand new camper I hired in May 2014 in New Zealand. The daily hire rate was AU$30.33 per day. There were extras, but as outlined below, there are ways to reduce them.

Free camping in our camper in the New Zealand's North Island.
Free camping in our hired camper (a Mercedes Sprinter) in New Zealand’s North Island

Another picnic spot by the sea in New Zealand

Another picnic spot by the sea in New Zealand

Our small campervan on the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island

Our small campervan (a Toyota Hi Ace) on the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island in north Queensland

Seaside camping at Cape Hillsborough National Park, near Mackay, north Queensland. (Apologies for the bad photo)

Seaside camping at beautiful Cape Hillsborough National Park, near Mackay, North Queensland.

The photo below shows the beach a few metres in front of the camp site at Cape Hillsborough.

Time to enjoy the sunset at Cape Hillsborough
Time to enjoy the sunset at Cape Hillsborough.

Details of Main Savings and Issues

1. Know the contract terms

Each hire company uses its own detailed contract. While there is no standard form, most share  common features that often parallel car rental contracts. When a booking is made in advance, the hire company supplies a summary of contract to be signed on collection of the vehicle. I treat this document as an important and lucrative (or loss-making) issue. The one finally presented usually adds some additional onerous terms.

The hire contract will contain many restrictions. For example, most campervan contracts prohibit the hirer from driving on unsealed roads (or off-road), unless it’s a short defined distance on a well maintained road to a recognised camping ground. I hire a 4wd camper if I want to explore on dirt roads or go off road.

2. When to hire

Prices are highest at peak holiday times, particularly around Christmas, Easter, school holidays, and at seasonal times when demand is likely to be high. In Australia, winter holiday-makers flock north (to northern New South Wales and Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory) to escape the cold or cooler weather further south. The reverse migration pattern applies in summer.

Camper hire companies cut hire rates drastically out of season. For example:

(a) In New Zealand and Tasmania, May to September rates are relatively cheap.

Factor in the weather if choosing to hire within these dates. My own experience is that the North Island in NZ is fine to visit in May (as is Tasmania) with sunny days, little or no wind, days that are around the high teens to low 20s (celsius) in temperature, and cool nights. Nice for camping. Higher altitudes will be colder, of course. A larger campervan should have a gas or diesel heater for warmth if required. (Check the contract).

Hire companies regularly offer specials. For example, Britz in November 2015 offered a 25% discount on hire charges for Tasmania over March and April.

(b) Relocating a camper can be very cheap, sometimes for nil to $1 a day.

A relocation may also include reimbursement of fuel costs, and if relevant, a sea crossing (in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and in Australia, the Bass Straight crossing between Melbourne and Tasmania).

There could be major savings involved. I recently read a quote of AU$750 for a return crossing of Bass Strait – Melbourne to Tasmania – for a 7 metre long motorhome. As a reference, a Mercedes Sprinter motorhome is about 7.6 metres long.

However, watch the insurance issue as noted below. It also applies to a relocation.

As an example of relocations, check:

https://www.apollocamper.com/press_relocations.aspx

The main negative of a relocation is that the hirer is only given a limited time to complete the journey.

3. Liability and Insurance

Essentially, the hire contract provides that the hirer (renter) is responsible for any damage to the vehicle or its fittings (usually including tyres and windscreen) or for damage to another vehicle or other property. The liability is regardless of  fault.

Here, major savings can be made.

(a) Use an appropriate credit card to pay for your campervan hire, one that includes travel insurance cover, specifically covering your hire vehicle accident liability.  Read your credit card contract carefully, as the terms differ from issuer to issuer. Examples of some differences and issues:

  • Some cards only cover passenger vehicles.
  • All have limits on the maximum accident liability cover. The ones I’ve checked have an upper limit of $5,000. Some hire companies impose a higher sum for liability, for example, $7,500 for a Britz motorhome and some of Apollo’s larger motorhomes.
  • Some cards, like my ANZ Visa Platinum Frequent Flyer card, apply to passenger vehicles only in Australia, but also apply to passenger vehicles and campervans overseas.
  • If you rely on your credit card for cover, ensure that you have activated the cover. For example, the credit card contract may require a minimum amount to be spent on travel costs using the card before the cover applies.
  • If you do rely on your credit card for cover, hire companies generally require a payment of the full amount of your accident liability under the hire contract. With my last hire, I was required to pay $5,000 (the accident liability amount) to the hire company (Apollo) – only by credit card – for the amount to be refunded within 28 working days of the completion of the hire. Plus their 2% surcharge. In fact, the refund was made after about 3 weeks.

This practice seems to be designed to strongly discourage people from opting out of the hire company’s insurance scheme. If you have a lazy $5,000 of credit with your card, you will incur fees – cash advance interest – before receiving a refund.

If it’s an international transaction, an overseas visitor hiring a vehicle in New Zealand for example, then the credit card payment to the hire company attracts currency conversion fees from the hirer’s bank, and the hire company’s bank initially, then the same again when the refund is made.

(b) Take out your own insurance cover. If you have travel insurance, it may cover you. On my recent 28 day campervan hire, I paid $125.80 for my own insurance cover that simply covered hire vehicle excess liability instead of paying $1,232 to the hire company.

I used RACV, one of Australia’s motorists’ organisations. See:

http://www.racv.com.au/wps/wcm/connect/racv/Internet/Primary/travel/travel+insurance/choose-a-plan/rental-car-excess

3. Dodgy payment issues

Apollo is representative of hire companies in only accepting payment by credit card. It charges a non-refundable fee of 2% on Visa and Mastercard and 4.5% for American Express or Diners Club.

This means that you cannot take advantage of saving by paying by direct deposit or in cash.

4. Other extras and issues to watch out for

It’s convenient to hire various extras along with the vehicle to make your holiday more comfortable. On the other hand, some can be easily obtained elsewhere at better prices.

  • GPS – Hire companies charge around $10 per day (usually with a maximum of $100). Bring your own if possible. Most smart phones now have a GPS, although you may need an app or map if visiting a foreign country. Paper maps still work.
  • Outdoor table and chairs. Rather than pay the hire fee of $17 per chair and $24 for the table (total $58), I buy them from a shop like KMart or Bunnings for around $7 per chair and $19 per table (total $33). Donate them to a charity (Opp Shop) or give them away at the end of the holiday.
  • Don’t assume that the daily hire rate is cheaper the longer the hire period. This is true up to a point, but with my most recent hire the daily rate increased after 28 days.

5. Cooking for yourself

Buying meals constantly can be both expensive and unattractive, depending on your food preferences.  Travelling provides opportunities to buy fresh produce at markets and farmers’ outlets, and seafood along the coast.

I prefer a picnic or meal in the open air with fresh local ingredients, together with a cheeky local wine, rather than a deep fried generic meal in a pub or cafe that offers nothing notable about its taste, location or origin.

Of course, eating out is important when it’s notable for the food, view, ambiance, or cultural experience, laziness….

As one whose culinary skills are most advanced in the fields of kitchen hand and washing up, I am acutely aware of the importance of observing the views of the chief cook on the issue of eating in or out.

6. Check the state of the vehicle at the time of hire, and at the end

Make sure that the vehicle report you sign when collecting the vehicle accurately states any pre-exisiting damage. I’ve found Britz and Apollo good on this issue of vehicle condition, but have experienced the opposite elsewhere. Take similar care on the vehicle’s return.

Take photos.

7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?

Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.

Paid camping

In Australia, the nightly fee for a campervan with on-site power at a commercial camping ground/caravan park/holiday park will generally be about $35 to $45 for 2 persons. Extra fees are charged for additional guests.

As an illustration, my daughter recently paid $66 nightly for a powered beach front camping site at Tathra on NSW’s south coast for 2 adults and 2 children.

Higher fees are usually charged for peak periods, popular locations, and where there are more facilities (swimming pools, water slides, entertainment centres and so on). My experience of New Zealand is that the fees are at least as high.

Cheaper paid camping is available, although not necessarily in the most popular or well known destinations. National parks, and campgrounds in less frequented locations generally offer lower fees or none, usually for fewer facilities, or none.

Free camping

Most hire campervans and motorhomes have a dual battery system that allows camping using 12 volt power from the auxiliary battery for lighting, while the cook top and refrigerator use gas. Therefore, it’s feasible to camp away from mains elecricity for a few days.

One potentially relevant issue is whether your campervan has an onboard toilet, as many municipalities require free camper vehicles to be self-contained in terms of toilet and waste water facilities. On the other hand, experienced Australian campers know that in the bush, a short walk with a shovel can solve those issues.

New Zealand is generally more accommodating than Australia towards free camping, and doing so at beautiful coastal locations is much easier than on Australia’s east coast. On the other hand, Australia has great free camping opportunities away from the coast. One of my favourites is to camp on the Murray River, our longest river, where there are numerous free camp sites stretching over hundreds of kilometres where you can enjoy Australia’s unique timelessness, most often without anyone else around.

7. The exchange rate

If you are visiting from another country, the exchange rate is an important cost factor.

Only a couple of years ago, the Australian dollar was above parity with the US dollar. Now (December 2015), US$.73 = AU$1, so an American who wants to holiday in Australia and hire a campervan is getting a 30%+ discount from the Aussie dollar’s recent high point. The Euro exchange rate is also better for a visitor to Australia than several years ago.

8. High season hire costs with no savings

In early November 2015, an Apollo Euro Tourer just like the one in the first photo above – a 2 berth motorhome with shower and toilet – would cost $226 per day to hire for 2 weeks over the Christmas period (15-28 December) from Melbourne + extras:

  • $44 per day to reduce the accident liability to $250 ($616)
  • + 2 camping chairs @ $17 each $34 + camping table $24

Interestingly, $44 per day for the insurance quoted equals $16,060 for the year.

Hire costs and accident liability are a little lower for smaller vehicles.

I think it’s time to plan the next camping trip.

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The Eagle Landed Today

The wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s largest raptor, typically having a wingspan of 182 – 232 cm (6 feet to 7 feet 7 inches), and has been recorded diving at 80 kph (about 50 mph). In the wild, wedgies live for about 40 years.

In my area wedgies are regular visitors, usually seen majestically soaring in circles high in the sky, perhaps 2000 metres up, using thermals in seemingly effortless flight. At other times they seek prey just a few metres above the ground, sometimes even landing quite close to the house.

Although in the past farmers often had a negative attitude about wedgies, mistakenly believing that they were preying on lambs and calves when in fact they were just consuming dead animals, now they are seen in a positive light. In particular, their role in killing Australia’s feral pests – rabbits, cats and foxes – is now applauded.

To the local indigenous people (the Wurundjeri) the wedge-tailed eagle is Bungil, their creator and spiritual leader. Many country people of European background also see the wedgie in a special light. My friends who left their home just minutes before the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire raced into their valley and destroyed most houses in the area, killed neighbours and cut off the road as an escape route, feel that they were alerted to the danger by the continually circling wedgie over their house.

When we moved into our current home in 2009 after losing our previous house in the same fire, a wedgie also featured. On arising on my first morning in the new home, I was greeted by a wedgie perched on a fence in the paddock about 40 metres from the front door. It was quite relaxed and unconcerned, and became a regular visitor over the next month or so, sometimes gliding a few metres above our car like a welcoming plane as we returned from an outing.

Perhaps today’s wedgie is the same one. Thanks for your welcome, Bunjil.

 

A wedgie in flight

A wedgie in flight.

Tha tail shape is the source of the name. I'm glad I'm not a rabbit
The tail shape is the source of the name. I’m glad I’m not a rabbit.

Flourishing in Flores, Indonesia

Curiosity about Flores was the reason for our presence on the 500 kilometre flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo. The plane flew spectacularly over the crater of Lombok Island’s majestic Mount Rinjani, then the islands of Sumbawa and Komodo, and many smaller ones. Labuan Bajo is a small town in west Flores, with a population of around 10,000 that is rapidly growing, mainly in response to increasing western tourism. Many visitors come for diving and snorkelling and to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, as the town is near Komodo National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guidebooks aptly describe Labuan Bajo as having a ramshackle air. There’s much corrugated iron – some rusty, otherwise brightly painted – and the buildings are an interesting mixture of old and new. Many have open-sided pavilions to take advantage of cooling breezes, and to catch the views: the harbour and its boat traffic, the appealing setting of islands and colorful sea, and the town’s hypnotic sunsets. Curiously, it also has about five Italian restaurants with Italian ownership.

Flores illustrates Indonesia’s diversity; here you are not in Bali, Java or Sumatra. Although Flores is nominally Christian, with the inevitable Indonesian underlay of adat (customary tradition and rules), Labuan Bajo has a significant Muslim population.

This is noticeable as mosques in town have spent heavily on their sound systems. One of the town’s largest mosques is located next a shop specialising in public address sound systems. There must be serious competition for adherents, as the volume level was unmatched in my travelling experience. Although difficult to encapsulate in a few words, it was as if 3 or 4 heavy metal bands located a few hundred metres apart were competing to have your total attention, while playing different songs in different keys at a volume suitable for a major outdoor rock festival. Unfortunately in the case of the mosques, while some of the sound was pre-recorded and beautiful musically (I enjoy Arabic and Middle Eastern music), several competitors had live performers who apparently acquired their positions on the basis of their inability to maintain a key.

From our hotel  balcony 500 metres or more up the hill, the competing volumes from the mosques made it impossible to conduct a conversation. We quickly adjusted to the afternoon call to prayer – between 4 and 5pm – by designating it the Call to Drinks. Travel encourages adaptability. Early morning calls to prayer (at around 4am and 5am) were less open to such innovation. No doubt for locals these experiences are part of the aural fabric. If they travelled to Paris, would the chiming of the bells of Notre Dame be a strange intrusion?

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo National Park
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo Island and National Park, as the crimson sky fades into twilight.

After my companions rather haughtily declined my invitation to see Komodo dragons, we hired a traditional wooden fishing boat with two crew members (cost AU$100) and spent an idyllic day: a trip through sparkling tropical seas, past many islands, finally disembarking at Kanawa Island. The island is quite small, with an attractive sandy beach backed by hills, shady trees to loll under, and a small restaurant, and modest set of bungalows. The snorkelling at Kanawa is excellent and safe. The bottom shelves gently from the beach to the drop off and the coral is very colourful, the fish even more so. A young Balinese in her shop in Sanur later described her snorkelling experiences on the island beautifully: ‘It’s like swimming in an aquarium.’

It pays to be curious.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter F.

A-Z Guidebook Badge

A visit to Emei Shan, China’s holy mountain

Emei Shan (Mount Emei) is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains, a place of pilgrimage for nearly two thousand years, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Traditionally, pilgrims hiked to the top of the mountain, a distance of about 30 kilometres, while stopping off at temples and monasteries on the way. Many monasteries still provide overnight accommodation. Modern pilgrims can take the easier option of ascending by bus and cable car, and staying in hotels.

Like important pilgrimage sites elsewhere, many now visit Emei Shan for reasons other than religion. The walk up the mountain is the pinnacle of the experience, and is reputedly a place of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. Pilgrims and hikers often use thick bamboo poles to assist their climb, a reminder of the wooden ‘Pilgrim’s Staff” traditionally used for the Camino de Santiago, the long walk to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Emei Shan is 3099 metres high (10,167 ft), providing superb views of misty mountain slopes reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings, lush forests, mirror like lakes, waterfalls and rushing streams. The temples and monasteries, of which there are more than one hundred, vary in age and style, and are often constructed to best fit into the landscape and exploit the views. Those interested in temples, Buddhism and Chinese history will find Emei Shan very rewarding, while hikers can enjoy the natural world and challenging walks.

Our friends from Chengdu observed that the admission fees paid to each temple or monastery, given the numbers of visitors, indicated a substantial source of income. An interesting point. Religious institutions often do have a very successful business model, whether in China or elsewhere, one that supplies more revenue than required to simply meet the spiritual needs of their devotees.

Before arriving at Emei Shan, our friends mentioned that on the return journey of a couple of hours to Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, they could take us on the ‘Narrow Road.’ Not quite understanding the meaning of this option, we agreed. During our several days on the mountain, they kept us informed about weather conditions, eventually explaining that the absence of rain meant that we could undertake the trip as there would be no landslides, and the road would not be too slippery. Should we have been more alert and a little alarmed? This road was not one of China’s modern tollways, or even a modest country road. It was something much more challenging. But that is another story.

This is my contribution to Fiona’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘E’.

A-Z Guidebook Badge

Graffiti: street art or vandalism?

Graffiti has been around for centuries. The Romans in Pompeii and the Vikings in the Orkneys showed a distinct bawdy tone in theirs. Graffiti can portray the spectrum of artistic and linguistic expression, from brilliance and innovation to blind rage, loss, despair, and garbage. It can be political, apolitical, satirical, sardonic, funny, sad, artistic, whimsical, ribald, or just plain vandalism, depending on the viewer.

Graffiti is usually defined as illicit drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a public place. Authorities are often ambivalent about graffiti, but recognise that prohibition usually doesn’t work. Sometimes therefore, limited acceptance occurs. In Melbourne, the city council authorises controlled street art that has become a major tourist attraction. In Valparaiso, Chile, the local authorities have at times commissioned and encouraged street art, although recent moves in Chile suggest a negative approach through plans to regulate graffiti by punishing parents for the actions of their children.

On my daily train commute to work in Melbourne, I was always amused by the slogan painted on a bridge beside the train track: ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’

Melbourne

Here are some recent photos taken in inner suburban Brunswick, Melbourne.

Chile

Valparaiso was once the major port on the South American Pacific coast for ships crossing the Straights of Magellan/Cape Horn to and from the Atlantic Ocean. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 Valparaiso lost most of its maritime port trade and declined. The city is now having something of a resurgence, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s renowned for its colourful housing, lanes and stairways, its ascencores (funicular railway system) linking the steep residential neighbourhoods with the port, and has some truly noteworthy graffiti.

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Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso
Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso, as the old graffiti behind it fades away

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I left the previous photo at a wonky angle to allow those with Spanish skills (or who want to translate) the chance to read the sign. Deposed former President Salvador Allende’s image appears on the red door, and I’ve written more about Chile and Allende here.

India

If you might be offended by strong language or sexual connotations, don’t look at the next photo.

Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India
Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India

Rome 2008

I’ve left the worst for last. Without claiming to be the arbiter of good taste, for which I am grossly underqualified, I share the general view that some graffiti is bad. In Melbourne, crude scratches mar the windows of many expensive new train carriages, and pathetic and meaningless swirls of paint appear in the wrong places. However, generally in Melbourne and elsewhere, there is a level of respect for older buildings and surfaces.

I haven’t selected Rome as my candidate for a bad graffiti award because of dislike for the city, as it’s one of my favourites. I was dismayed to visit in 2008 and discover that large numbers of classic centuries-old stone buildings were indiscriminately and unattractively sprayed, with no message, appeal or communication. Perhaps that was the point: a sign of urban decay, despair, powerlessness? It was the year of Silvio Berlusconi’s return to political leadership as prime minister for the third time, surely evidence that Italy had fundamentally lost its way. Of course, there may be other factors not readily apparent to a visitor.

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Good and Evil in Santiago, Chile

I innocently booked a hotel room in a central location in Santiago in 2008, not knowing that it was in a street holding extremely emotional, divisive and disturbing memories. I chose Londres in fashionable Barrio Paris-Londres, a quaint and attractive neighbourhood with its winding cobblestoned streets, ornate metal street lights, and stylish historical facades. The photo of Calle Londres (London Street) was taken from my hotel room window.

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Barrio Paris-Londres, is a vibrant area with excellent restaurants, cafes and bars, is a 5 minute walk to San Francisco Church (Chile’s oldest Colonial era building), a few more minutes to the city centre, and has easy access to Santiago’s excellent underground train system, the city park with a stunning view of the city’s backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, and is near the best lively inner city suburbs.

A little history is needed to appreciate the nature of the evil secret lurking just down the street from the hotel. In 1970 after a fair and democratic election, and proper legal rules being followed, Salvador Allende, a socialist, became Chile’s President. In a USA-backed military coup in 1973, Allende died and was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, who headed a brutal regime until 1990 that engaged in a terror campaign against the opposition; seizing, kidnapping, torturing and killing many thousands of its opponents.

On my visit 35 years later, Santiago was alive. I went for a 5 minute stroll from the hotel to Avenue O’Higgins, the major thoroughfare through the city, and saw thousands of protesters chanting slogans, waving banners, and tearing cobblestones from the street and hurling them at police and other authorities, whose armoured vehicles moved in using water cannons to disperse the crowds. I later discovered that the protest, one of many around that time, was about the state of education in Chile.

Mrs Nomadic and I became fond of nearby Cafe Radical, where the patrons seemed to have stepped from a 1960’s or 70’s film; most sipping red wine, ostentatiously smoking, the men frequently wearing a beret, the women elegantly alluring, in an atmosphere of equality, debate and style.

Cafe Radical, Tinto and atmosphere.
Cafe Radical, a cheap glass of tinto with radical 60s atmosphere.

After a few days in the city, we noticed a nightly phenomenon in our street. There were large gatherings outside a particular graffiti covered building . One night it was music, the next night a screen was erected outside the building and seemingly endless pictures of people were displayed while their biographical details were detailed over the sound system. This was in memory of the disappeared, victims of the Pinochet regime’s atrocities. 38 Londres was where many of the victims were taken to be detained, tortured and killed.

A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.
A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.

Like many countries with a fractured and polarised past, Chile has not yet exorcised the demons of history.

In spite of efforts in the late 1970’s by Chilean military connections to erase the memory of 38 Londres by altering the address to 40 Londres, the persistence of those who did not want this to become a forgotten era prevailed, and 38 Londres is now a National Monument, open to the public as a place of remembrance.

This photo of an image of Salvador Allende was taken in Valparaiso, Chile’s atmospheric port city, and the site of much impressive graffiti.

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A Mekong River Meander

One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, rises in the Tibetan Himalayas, flows through China, provides a border between Myanmar and Laos, then Laos and Thailand, before journeying through Cambodia and Vietnam to the sea.

The 196 kilometre road journey from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan in northern Thailand keeps the river in sight for most of the trip, and Laos across the water. Travel guides rightly describe this as one of the most scenic trips in Thailand. As a drive of about 4 hours without stops, it’s an easy day trip allowing for local sights.

My journey began at Nong Khai, a small riverside city that has hosts a lively river trade, and the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, the closest border crossing to Vientiane, the Lao capital, about 25 kilometres north-west.

Sometimes the river valley is a few kilometres wide, while at others times forested hills plunge straight into the river. The journey offers beautiful river scenery, the varying moods of the river itself, running wide and deep, or more treacherously through rapids, islands and shallower water, bordered by fertile productive agriculture of seemingly endless mixed uses, the opposite of monoculture – rice paddies, coconut palms, fields of pineapples, many varieties of vegetables, banana palms, papayas, ponds for fish – along with sections of  lush rainforest.

There are other attractions: important and historic forest wats (Buddhist temples), riverside villages and towns far removed from urban Thailand, a waterfall in the rainforest, and the often surprising and varied sights of rural life.

Impressively along the way, there are kilometres of paved and fenced riverside walks for local use, even in tiny villages, a reminder yet again how many ‘poorer’ countries focus on improvements for the whole population as many wealthier first world countries limit access to those who can pay.

Laos always lies on the other side of the river, sometimes appearing prominently like the riverside buildings of Vientiane, but more usually in a less populated and wilder form than the Thai side.

Chiang Khan is proudly re-inventing itself, a town of 5000 or 6000 residents stretched along the river. Most old teak wooden houses and shophouses have been restored and renovated, and tourism has brought increased wealth. The style is retro chic. The bicycle is a popular form of transport and a town motif.

As a visitor who prefers that tourism does not cause a locality to overly pander to us and ultimately lose its identity, to me Chiang Khan is doing well. I have seen enough beautiful localities transformed into false and inauthentic playgrounds for short-term visitors, be they the Costa Brava in Spain, or some of the beaches and islands in Asia.

Chiang Khan currently has the advantage of being a destination mainly for Thais. I only noticed about 4 or 5 other farang (foreigners/Europeans) on my five-day visit, and certainly, signage, menus, the absence of western food and other indicators suggest the absence of a western invasion, hopefully to remain so.

Once in Chiang Khan, if you rise at 6am, it will still be hot (27 degrees celsius when I checked) and there is an opportunity to see monks receiving alms in the street over the next hour or so, as well as to view the river emerging through the morning mist.

Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan
Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan

Later in the day a relaxing stroll is in order after watching the fishermen negotiate the river currents, At night, particularly on weekends when Bangkok visitors arrive, things get busier. Join the promenade to sample the sights: street food everywhere, musicians playing traditional Isan (northern Thai) music as well as modern styles, girls in tribal outfits dancing in the street, cyclists and strollers enjoying the festive atmosphere, eating, drinking ….

Sunset is best seen next to the river as a few small fishing boats return home.

The hills of Laos
The hills of Laos

Practicalities

Travel Options

Car rental from Udon Thani (1 hour south of Nong Khai) is quite reasonable. Avis quoted TBT560 (about AU$22) per day plus insurance excess cover for a small automatic gearbox car.

Driving yourself might be a reasonable option, noting that Thais drive on the left. Once away from the bigger city centres, Nong Khai and Udon Thani, traffic is quite light. Most major traffic signs are in Thai and English. However, some of the sights off the road are only signposted in Thai. Also, parking could become an issue.

I opted for a car and driver. I recommend Mr Chang from Nong Khai (Phone 081-369787) whom I contacted through Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse. He is relaxed and pleasant, and drove safely and reasonably; an important attribute to me as I have had more than my share of suicidal Thai drivers whose main mission in life is to speed excessively and always opt to pass on the most dangerous corners and crests. We agreed on TBT3000 (AU$115 or US$81) for the day.

The car and driver option makes the journey more flexible and independent, while it does mean missing out on some of the experiences, positive and negative, of public transport in remoter parts of a foreign country.

A hired motorcycle an option. 

Boat travel is not available, presumably because some of the river along this stretch is not navigable.

Bus connections are available, but there is no single bus trip connecting Nong Khai with Chiang Khan. I decided that it would take too much time to be feasible in my circumstances.

Recommendations

Chiang Khan

Tonkong Guesthouse for basic inexpensive accommodation. TBT700 for a double per night (AU$28 or around US$19) with Air Con, breakfast and free WiFi. Own bathroom and toilet. Room 8 on the first floor is the best room with windows looking directly onto the river, and the room opens onto a guest terrace that also overlooks the river.

Located between Soi 2 & 3.

Nong Khai

Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse (mentioned in all the guidebooks) is a good budget choice with varying prices, TBT1400 (AU$56 or about US$38) for the best rooms (try Arun – Room A) – with Air Con, own bathroom and balcony overlooking the river. The best room is Arun (room A). The riverside restaurant is a good place to while away some time. Inform the cooks that you prefer spicy food if you prefer real Thai tastes.