7. post & telecommunications
sending mail and packages
Post is reliable and cheap from the larger cities of every country in SE Asia. Every postcard and letter I sent from every country on my trip made it to its intended destination. Sending packages of stuff is a different story. Most post offices throughout Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and larger cities in India are reliable, but elsewhere you should only send packages from the capital cityís GPO (General Post Office). When sending packages, prepare to spend a lot of time (up to two hours) in lines filling out reams of paperwork. Do not box the contents on your own: this will be done for you, at a price, after all contents are inspected at the post office. In India, Nepal and Bangladesh, packages are wrapped in cloth only, so put your stuff in a plastic bag in case it gets wet on the journey home.
I sent packages home by sea mail from Bombay and Kathmandu, and air mail from Yangon, and they all made it back safely, with contents enclosed. Bangkok is another good one, but it tends to be a bit expensive. Beware of the post office near Khao San Road: travelers have reported that the contents of their packages posted from here were missing when they got home. If you're passing through Yangon, I highly recommend their air mail package service, which is perhaps the cheapest in the world. As of Jan '99, up to ten kilograms could be posted to the US for under $5, and it arrives within ten days. Rates to Europe are somewhat less expensive. Sea mail from Bombay and Calcutta is inexpensive, somewhere on the order of $7 for a few kilograms.
International telephone calls and fax are simplest with IDD (International Direct Dial). All of the travelers' ghettos, Paharganj (Delhi), Thamel (Kathmandu), and Banglamphu/Khao San (Bangkok) are convenient (and the cheapest) places to call home. Rates from Bangkok are competitive, hovering around 20-25 baht (50-60 cents) per minute. In Burma and Laos you will have to go to a government telecommunications office so that they can connect you to the international operator in Yangon and Vientiane, respectively. You could also try the five star hotels, many of which are installing IDD services. Calls here will be expensive. Throughout Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and, surprisingly, Cambodia, IDD payphones have sprung up. Simply buy a phone card and dial away. Generally, the more developed the country, the cheaper the call will be. If you can convince your friends and family to call you back so that they pay for the call, ask if you can use the phone at your guest house. Usually they won't mind, nor will they charge you, but Bangkok is again the exception. Here you will have to use designated call back offices, which charge around 5 baht per minute.
Of course, we are upon the 21st century and many travelers are now using Internet email (e.g. Hotmail, Mailcity, etc.) for their communications needs. If you don't have an account yet, go to www.hotmail.com or www.mailcity.com and follow the directions. There is no fee for their service. Again, the more developed the country, the cheaper and more abundant the Internet access will be. Sometimes (particularly in Malaysia and Singapore) student discounts are available, so always ask! Internet cafes have sprung up in malls in nearly every town in Malaysia, and are highly concentrated in the tourist ghettos of Bombay, Delhi, Kathmandu and Bangkok. Elsewhere, if you're having difficulty finding Internet access, ask the guest house owners in the more touristed areas. Chances are that someone will have asked them before. The following is a list of approximate Internet access rates per hour in selected countries:
-- Malaysia USD 1.1-2.6
-- Thailand USD 2.4-3.2
-- India USD 2.4-3.7
-- Singapore USD 2.9-4.1
-- Mexico USD 3.2-3.8
-- Nepal USD 4.5-7.3
-- Brunei USD 5.9-8.8
-- Cambodia USD 10.0
-- Laos USD 15.0
-- Burma - no Internet access (as of 1/99)
-- Ghana USD 5.2
-- Burkina Faso USD 8.0
-- Cote d'Ivoire USD 10.0
Sometimes this fee is charged in hourly or half-hourly blocks, other times by the minute. Always ask beforehand.
Occasionally, for example in West Africa or Cambodia, you will come across communications offices that send individual emails at a rate which is much cheaper than the hourly Internet access rate. These are a good idea if you just want to send a quick message to let everyone know that youíre ok. You generally cannot receive email at these places, although the FCC in Phnom Penh is a friendly exception.
If your friends or family back home are technologically incapacitated, snail mail is still an option. Guest houses and American Express offices have been known to hold mail for travelers passing through, but this necessitates great advance planning. The best way to receive mail on the road is through poste restante service. This is the same as General Delivery in the US. Most larger post offices in Asia have poste restante counters, but, unless you are in Thailand, Malaysia, India or Singapore, I recommend that you only use poste restante at the GPO in the capital city. All of these offices are familiar with poste restante mail for foreigners, but smaller post offices are not. To receive mail, tell your friends to write to you at:
c/o poste restante
Tell them to write a certain "hold until" date on the envelope, so the poste restante counter does not throw it away prematurely.
Generally, the more popular the country is with travelers, the more sophisticated the poste restante counter will be. Kathmandu and Bangkok are two of the safest and best places to arrange for poste restante pick-up. You always need your passport to retrieve poste restante mail, although this isnít necessarily enforced. Needless to say, do not have valuables sent to poste restante. Letters are usually arranged alphabetically by last name (underlined capital letters), but check under your first name as well to see if they misplaced it. This happens quite frequently. Sometimes (e.g. Yangon) poste restante is simply a box of random letters which you have to sort through and pick yourself Ė not recommended. Often there is a minor fee of a few cents per letter received. Donít haggle with this one, since the fee hopefully encourages them to look after your mail closely.