Money Changer Bali BEWARE

2nd day in Bali, been here already, but jetlagged, tired, a bit unattentive, in the evening I wanted to exchange 200 € to IDR. Found a good rate in the streets, on Jln Legian, near Ground Zero Memorial in Kuta, Bali… the guy showed me on the calculator the amount I was supposed to receive, which was 3.3 million, he prepared 3 bunches of small (50k) bills, supposedly 1 million, 1 million, then 1.3 million.

Here the trick/scam

I counted the first bunch of bills, it was 1 million. I did put them back on the table, to count the next bunch. The guy quickly touched them, supposedly to put them together nicely. Something inside of me told me “wtf? why is he touching my money I just counted?“. I should have told him directly not to touch after I counted… instead I counted the next bunch, put back the bunch on the table, he did the same. I had a plastic bag, like the ones you receive at the airport to put liquids. I did insert the first 2 bunches in the bag, before counting the last one, I thought if there is a trick I’d be safe… wrong. I should have put the money away directly after counting, not after he touched it… I counted the last bunch and it was 1.3 million. I did put it away directly, without letting him touch anything this time… but it was too late.

I arrived at the hotel, counted the money and it was only 2.3 million. The guy, just by “putting the money nicely together” managed to make 1 million disappear. It’s crazy, because I watched carefully his hands when he did it, but he was super fast. I guess these guys know some tricks like the magicians who are able to make card tricks etc.

So I learnt these big lesson the hard way

  • do not exchange big amounts (more than 1 million is considered a big amount)
  • when you count the money, have a bag or an envelope ready and put the money directly in your bag, do not let the guy touch your money after you count it
  • if the guy touches the money, politely say not to touch it and count it again or tell him to give you back your currency and go somewhere else

Switzerland: build up resistance to Bali belly

If you don’t know what Bali belly is, check: Bali Belly – What it is and How to Avoid it and see also TripAdvisor: Bali Belly, what is it?

The first time we visited Bali in 2014, we didn’t even know about Bali belly and we didn’t have any problem. We were in Malaysia first, though, and in Malaysia a vomited my soul (and emptied my guts in liquid format) after getting a dodgy drink in the street (I will never buy a drink from the street again).

Anyway, long story short, many forum posts suggest to drink Yakult in Bali and already 1 month before your trip to Bali.

In Switzerland you can buy Yakult at Coop, check Probiotic drinks (including Yakult) at Coop.

You can find also Probiotic at Migros.

How to get a visa for Vietnam?

TL;DR: scroll down and check how to obtain an e-visa.

Get the Visa the old school (and expensive) way

Some years ago I wanted to go to Vietnam, but I gave up because of the bureaucratic way to obtain a visa. I mean, look on the Vietnam Embassy’s in Switzerland how to apply for a Visa.

They tell you to go in person to Bern or to send the passport with a pre-stamped envelope to send it back per post, as long as a receipt that you paid the fee in advance. The fee was listed nowhere in the website, so I had to ask it at their bluewin email address.

The answer I received on 2019-08-20 was:

Dear Sir/Madam,

1. The visa application fees vary according to the duration of your stay and number of entries. The current visa fees are as follows:
- One month visa, single entry: CHF 70 per person.
- One month visa, multiple entries: 85 CHF per person.
- Three month visa, single entry: CHF 85 per person.
- Three month visa, multiple entries: 120 CHF per person.

* Remark: For children up to 12 years old, the fees are 10 CHF less than those applied to adults, namely 60 CHF, 75 CHF and 110 CHF respectively.

The above fees are calculated for normal processing procedures (five to ten business days). If you wish to obtain a ONE-MONTH express visa (one-two days by mailing, or directly if you come to the Embassy), you must add 20 CHF more for each visa.
The fees must be paid in advance by bank transfer (preferably) or in cash. In case of transfer, please enclose a copy of payment.

2. When you enter and exit Vietnam with your child, birth certificate and/or Authorization to travel for minors is not required.

Best regards,
Consular Section
Embassy of Vietnam in Bern

70 CHF per person, and 10 CHF discount for a child, that makes for me, my wife and our baby: 70 + 70 + 60 = 200 CHF + postage fees to send the passport and a pre-stamped letter to send it back. It’s a ridiculous amount of money compared to the next option.

 

Visa on Arrival (letter fee + queue and 25 USD stamp fee on arrival)

Check this thread on TripAdvisor about the Visa on Arrival.

I read you can get a visa on arrival (VoA) in a form of invitation letter (or similar) sent by an agent online for a price varying from 10 to 25 USD + a stamping fee of 25 USD per person on arrival.

If you google for “visa to vietnam”, you find several agents offering the same service. I did my research to be sure that they were not scams. In the tripadvisor thread I’ve read that they are legit. The only annoying thing is that when you arrive you still need to fill a form, queue somewhere and pay 25 USD.

Examples of services offering the approval letter for the visa on arrival:

Conclusion: e-visa

The funny thing is that the e-visa is listed as option in the Vietnam embassy in Bern (visa on arrival not mentioned at all) but described as not yet applicable. “Vietnam E-visa pilot project is not applicable yet in Switzerland” (Switzerland’s “Ordinary” passport is not checked in the list they linked, updated in 2018).

I even e-mailed them to clarify. As read in the forums I didn’t expect much advertising of the e-visa, as the e-visa “product” is basically a competitor. If all tourists do the e-visa, the embassy will lose a lot of money. Why should they advise their competitor? It seems crazy, but every office ultimately wants to survive and make income… the answer I received on 2019-08-26 was:

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your email.

The pilot E-visa scheme has been recently implemented for Swiss citizens on an experimental basis until 01 February 2021, applied for TOURIST visa. This visa scheme is managed exclusively by the Vietnam Immigration Department and absolutely independent from the Embassy.
The official website for E-visa is: https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/vi_VN/trang-chu-ttdt
However, as far as we know from some Swiss customers, the E-visa is not working properly at the moment.
In the meantime, we recommend you to follow traditional procedures in order to get a Vietnam visa, especially when your trip is scheduled for few upcoming weeks.
If you have any difficulties while applying an E-visa, please contact directly the Vietnam Immigration Department.

For other information please feel free to contact us.

Best regards,
Consular section

The link in their reply matched the proper entity in Vietnam issuing e-visas: Vietnam National Web Portal on Immigration E-visa page. Check in the List of Countries that allowed E-visa issuing if your country is listed. Surprise: Switzerland is listed!

If you click on the form to apply for e-visa (a bit slow to load), Switzerland is in the dropdown list of nationalities.

The fee is 25 USD. When you arrive in Vietnam you go ahead to the passport control with the printed e-visa and they put a stamp on your passport. No queues, no additional stamping fees. So, despite the risk that for some customers “it is not working properly” I think that the e-visa is the way to go.

Enjoy your trip to Vietnam.

Order an international driving license for your trip abroad

Procedure to order an international driving license.

If you live in the canton of Zurich, check this out Internationaler Führerschein, you need:

  • a passport photo
  • your Swiss driving license
  • go to Strassenverkehrsamt
  • they will make it for you directly, it costs 15 CHF
  • it will be valid for 3 years

When you rent a vehicle abroad you will need to present both your original Swiss driving license and the international driving license.

Enjoy your driving and drive safely. Be aware of scams when you rent scooters in islands they often charge you for scratches, even those under the vehicle (ridiculous). That said make sure to check reviews of such “dealers”, take photos before renting the vehicle and ask if they are precise about scratches under the scooter. If they do, go somewhere else. Sand roads in islands are always crappy, with bumps and little stones etc. so 100% you will make some scratches of normal usage and you don’t want to pay 100-200-300 USD to those scammers.

Some thoughts in Bali

It’s a long time since my last post: I was busy in exploring several beaches (Gili Trawangan, Gili Air), chilling out (Ubud), snorkeling/diving (Tulamben), smartphone gaming (Plague Inc: being a virus and destroying humanity has never been so much fun), doing nothing (“il dolce far niente” to keep the real expression, in Italian), but finally I’m inspired again to fulfill my goal to blog something during my sabbatical trip in Southeast Asia…

Here I am, still in Bali and not by coincidence: it’s the island of the Gods! So of course I had to stay longer here.

I didn’t hike any mountain or volcano, but I’ve seen plenty of things (mostly temples, island, beaches and last but not least the treasures hidden in the ocean, underwater) and enjoyed my time, even with simple things.

Snorkeling and diving was the best I could enjoy here and I’m so happy to get rid of my fear of the water, finally!

I remember that in 2011, before saying “yes” to the diving offer I got in Ko Phangan and doing the open water course in Ko Tao, I was not used to go in the water and not even used to stay to the beach. I was the kind of guy “naaa, I prefer mountains than sea”. In reality I was afraid of the water and that way just a lame excuse to stay away from it.

I’m so happy to have begun a journey to fight a fear and transform it into a pleasure. It took 2 years, but the result is amazing. Now, not only I can dive and do snorkeling without a life west (before this trip I could do snorkeling only with a life west): I can even swim in the sea without fins and without mask (having sensitive eyes I still prefer to wear a mask, but also without it’s ok). I’m really proud of it.

Still I’m not a good swimmer (probably it’s a good idea to put in my to-do list to improve my technique and my skills) and I have my respect for the water. But one thing is sure: after beginning to dive a new world opened up to me.

Photo of me diving with my girlfriend

Diving is -for me- like being an astronaut and at the same time living inside of a dream -an aquarium in the space- but it’s real and all laws about physics apply. Typically, scary fishes like sharks become, once you are a diver, trophies you are looking for. Diving let you change perspective and learn new things about the world and about yourself.

And the dive talks. I was thinking it’s just for diving aficionados, but I finally heard the first diving story from a dive master in Tulamben, about an accident. I heard that story just after witnessing a dive accident with my own eyes. It happened in my group, during a night dive: a guy –who already had a bit of flu- lost consciousness for a second. Worried, he ascended. Instead of stopping diving, he descended again. He got some problems equalizing, so he ascended again, to be rescued, all of this after a series of “unlimited dives” for several days. He got a narcosis (too much nitrogen). Nothing too critical, but it was painful and he had to get oxygen and stop diving for a day. Scary, but interesting at the same time.

Still, diving is fun and I’m looking forward for my next 2 dives tomorrow, in Menjangan. And watching the dolphins in the ocean (I’m in Lovina mainly for this purpose).

Renting a scooter in Sanur, Bali

Today I decided to rent a scooter.

Before going into the details I can only say one thing: driving rules here are quite flexible but to sum up, there is only one rule: survive! It’s like a jungle… I had my eyes open but I understood why there are so many accidents, the driving is quite aggressive here.

About legal: be sure to have your international driving license and your original driving license with you. Wear an helmet and drive safely. In case a cop will stop you and find some irregularity to the vehicle I was told that it’s possible to find an unofficial way out: pay 50k.

Scooter costs

Yesterday a guy from the street offered me 80k/day.

A tourist I crossed before told me he got a scooter for 2 months, for 25k/day.

I found a guy near my hostel, he wanted 100k/day, I tried to bargain to 70k, he said 90k. I said another guy offered me 80k so in the end he accepted…

I got a nice black scooter. The guy told me to put Premium Fuel and explained where to find a petrol station 1km away.

At the petrol station, however, the premium fuel was finished. They guys didn’t really speak English, they asked me if I wanted the normal fuel. I said no, so then I went on and on on the same road, and finally decided to just buy some gasoline from the bottle, like in Thailand.

1 bottle (1 liter) costed 7k. I found another petrol station and bought 1.5 liters of premium for 10k. I have the feeling that premium is better.

What else, this was just the beginning. The real adventure begins tomorrow, during the day. Driving in the night was just to warm up… Stay tuned.

Bali tour from Senur

Yesterday I received a voucher for a free island tour in exchange of my time spent at Club Bali’s timeshare presentation (should have been 90 minutes, it was more than 180 minutes!). Pickup time was today at 10:00.

The driver arrived at around 10:10. Very friendly person and very good first impression.

Heading to Bedugul, I asked the driver to stop for a photo:

At Bedugul, we stopped for another photo and we bought some bananas:

We proceeded to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, quite a beautiful attraction (admission fee: 30k rp/person):

We had lunch in the nearby, in one of the little street warung after the curve, 500m/1km before the market (actually the market would have been a better place with more choices). We just had a soup with noodles and chicken. It was ok. I added some chilli and ketchup, as the driver told me that the locals usually eat it like that. My mouth was burning but it was worth trying it :-)

After lunch, we were brought to a coffee/cacao/tea plantation, a lady showed us the different plants, the procedure to make coffee and finally to a degustation of several coffees and teas, most of them containing already sugar. I loved it! We also tried a cup of the special Bali coffee luwak. The degustation was free, but a cup of Kopi Luwak costed 50k RP (5 USD)! It was like a turkish coffee, meaning you should not mix it with the spoon, but you need to wait that the coffee powder goes down. I didn’t add sugar and tasted it pure, as the lady suggested. It had really a unique flavour, compared to the standard Bali coffee (I tried also that one). After the degustation, we went to the shop and bought a pack of coffee ginseng, lemon grass tea, red rice tea, saffron tea and another one. In total we spent 250k + 50k RP = 300k RP. I think it was really worth it!

We went to our final destination: Tanah Lot. The entrance fee was 65k RP for 2 (including parking). I think it was not so special compared to Uluwatu temple. It was full of tourists and if you go there for the sunset, make sure that there aren’t too many clouds… for us it was cloudy. Anyway, there are lot of shopping places there and the prices are better than in the city. So if you happen there, buy something to maximize the investment for the entrance fee. We bought some shorts and a souvenir.

The driver answered all our questions, showing great knowledge of Bali. He suggested to stay a few days in Ubud for a difference -less touristy- experience. We will probably follow his suggestion.

It was a great day! I’m happy I was a yes man and accepted to participate to a boring presentation in exchange of this tour for free (which would have costed, only for the driver, something around 400k – 600k RP I estimate). Life is good!

90 minutes presentation and you get a free voucher for an activity

This is my story, victim of a tourist trap. I’m not telling it’s a scam, but the selling techniques (to sign a contract for 20 years) are very annoying and similar to brainwashing. Read on to get more details.

Yesterday I was approached by a travel agent when walking near Danau Tamblingan Street No. 80, Sanur, Denpasar (Bali). He checked me and my girlfriend and told us we could fit for a special promotion for a new hotel. He said we would just have to attend a 90 minutes presentation about the new hotel and that if we liked it we could eventually be guest at that hotel next time in Bali. So we would not be required to buy anything and, after the presentation, we would get a free voucher for an activity such as jet ski, river rafting, tour in Bali etc. (see picture).

I though “ok, what do we have to loose? Let’s go, 90 minutes of my time is not that much!”. The guy was very polite, he put emphasis on the fact that we would get an activity for free and even a free massage when they would show us around the hotel, and even stay there for dinner if we wanted, and a driver would bring us back when we want, also in the evening.

So, we agreed to be picked up at 09:00 at our home stay, the same travel agent picked us up and he was even so polite to bring our bags to a new home stay in the nearby, as our was fully booked and had to check out.

We arrived at Club Bali around 09:40, were brought upstairs in the presentation room, and were welcomed with a coffee and some pastisery.

A nice lady just begun the presentation first with some classic small talk at 09:50, she asked were we stay, were we went etc. so far everything ok. We could tell our story, just to relax, you know.

The small talk went on and on, so I begun to wonder “what’s up here”? Finally we were introduced to the concept of timeshare, something I’ve never heard of before (and it was not even presented as “timeshare”, I just found it by googling around).

As I understood it, the system works like that: I -obviously- pay a yearly fee (wait, she would explain how much only later…) and get some points (2640/year) I could exchange for a nice room in a 3-5 star hotel part of the club. A room for 1 week would cost 1320 points/week. So far, quite cool, isn’t it? Wait, besides the point I would still need to pay an administrative fee of 315 USD/week for hotels in the RCI system, besides the points. So, if I would go to vacation for 2 weeks, I would need to pay 630 USD. But, as I would be member from Bali, I would pay only 45 USD/week for a hotel part of BCWW (Bali Club World Wide). This, just for the accomodation. No food, no breakfast included.

If I would not use the points one year, I could accumulate them for maximum 3 years. Then I would lose them or be able to spend them only at the “mother” hotel, which in this case it would be Jayakarta Bali. A room would cost always the same price (in points), “that’s one of the advantages, you know, for the inflation…” I was shown a nice graph, that a hotel room that now costs 130 USD would cost 1’300 USD in 10 years, because of the inflation… really? Bullshit. I’m pretty sure that the prices go up, but not that much!

I was told I could even sell my stay, for example for an apartment with 2 rooms I could subrent one room to a friend, or even send a friend to vacation with my points. There are thousands of “happy members” of the system, worldwide.

At this point, if I remember well (maybe before) my girlfriend and I were brought to Jayakarta hotel, to see a nice apartment with kitchen and 2 rooms, jacuzzi and nice view. She told us we could expect such a standard from the club. Then she brought us downstairs to see the facilities: fantastic swimming pool with luxury restaurants, and this just a few meters from the beach. Wow, so cool, never seen something like this! (Just kidding of course…). We were both exhausted and the heat during the walk near the beach almost killed us. Thank God we didn’t drink any alcoholic beverages (we were even offered to drink a beer if we wanted).

Anyway, while listening to the presentation I had some quality toilet time, where I could check some reviews about the system and more precisely about RCI, as BCWW is relatively “new”. Check some reviews about RCI:

So, after scrolling these 2 pages for a couple of seconds I understood that I would for sure need to check more about this, before signing for anything (also many reviewers suggest NOT to sign anything).

At around 12:30 I was almost convinced that the system is actually quite cool, till I was “promised” that the yearly “fee” (wait, the senior guy -yes, the lady needed some support for my “interesting questions”- corrected me and said it’s “maintenance costs”) of 630 USD would not be increased too much… say -with the inflation- the maintenance costs would not increase more than 5%. Really? You tell me that the advantage is that the cost is always the same now and also in 10 years (to fight the inflation) but you increase the yearly fee during the years? Are you kidding me?

Additionally, I asked if it’s written somewhere in the contract that the maintenance costs would NOT increase more than 5% (per year). He said me “no, but I promise you it would not happen”.

Sorry, but a serious company writes every single details in the contract, no verbal promise, everything must be written.

In the end I said I would not sign anything, but read the contract carefully, in my room, and sleep over it before deciding for anything.

I was told I could not get the contract with me (rules by club bali) but I could stay there and read it more if I needed (and ask all the questions I wanted).

I was already pissed off enough, and quite tired of the time and brain consuming -brainwashing- presentation and didn’t want to start any argument or start accusing them of anything, as I already knew they would try to change my mind or giving me the answers to every accusation (they are trained for this).

So, I clearly said I would not sign for anything and I would eventually come back another day, if interested.

I was told that if we would go back we would not have the same benefits as during this presentation (to make more drama, the senior even went in the backstage to ask his boss…). I said “ok, I take the risk”. Lol, really you want to play that card with me? No, no and again no!

At around 13:10 I could get my freedom back. Nice shake of hands, no hard feelings and I could get my voucher for a free activity validated. Wait, I asked about the free massage. They told “which free massage?”. The one the travel agent mentioned me… apparently, if I wanted that I had to ask it during the visit of Jayakarta hotel… really cool, isn’s it?

Conclusion: 90 minutes my ass, the presentation (brainwashing) lasted 3 hours, almost 3 hours and a half, which is more than the double. This, without including the driving time from the hotel to Club Bali. A private driver costs around 600’000 RP, which is about 50 USD. My time is not an issue as I’m taking it really easy, but if 5 hours of your time have more value than 50 USD, do not attend this presentation. Pay for an activity and save yourself from this kind of brainwashing.

Tomorrow: pick up time for “Bali tour” at 10:00. Hopefully they won’t try to brainwash me again during the tour… keep the fingers crossed ;-)

If you don’t read anything anymore, in 2 days, begin to worry…

Langkawi memories

Langkawi -compared to Koh Lanta- is more developed, roads are better, the main difference is marked by the religion: I could see mosques everywhere, as well as kebab places. Note, kebab is not as we know it in Europe…

I booked a place (the cheapest I could find: Kuala Melaka Inn, a twin room) near the airport. I read that Cenang Beach is located South West, as the airport. In my research I didn’t see that Cenang Beach is only 2km long and located much Souther (about 10 minutes driving) than the hotel. So the location we got is quite bad, actually. No problem, I rented a scooter from a hotel 1 km away North, in a village with not many facilities. Interesting -comparing to Thailand- I had to fill no form. The staff at the hotel asked just my international driving license -which they copied- and I paid 40 RM cash. No receed. After a phone call, a guy arrived within 5 minutes on the scooter, followed by a fellow. He gave me the keys, 2 helmets and his visit card. He told me to call him if I needed to extend, he would make a better price than the one from the hotel: 40 RM. I told him that that’s the price I got from the hotel, so we agreed on 30 RM. Always bargain! :)

As we had a room in the middle of nowhere, I was forced to find options in order to have some fun (walking 1 hour to the beach, on car roads without pavement is not fun). We already scouted the entire island by scooter. I have the impression that there is not that much to see, besides a few attractions, but it was quite fun to ride a bike again. I like the metallic noise of the engine. Old but good scooter, 125 cc.

Attractions:

  • Oriental Village, cable car to the panorama view
  • Seven Wells (water falls and to the top, after the so called 600 steps, where the water falls are generated. Nice to have a bath there)
  • Night markets to enjoy some street and food

Cenang Beach:

  • good for shopping
  • good food, in particular we found an Indian hawker stall/restaurant at the beginning, North Cenang Beach. I love roti canai and tandoori chicken!