Traveling to China and Philippines. . .first time. . .
January 11, 2014 5:50 AM   Subscribe

I am traveling on business to China (Guangzhou area) and Philippines (Manila). I have some international travel experience but none to Asia. I'll be working most of the time, so this isn't about sightseeing; it's more about, what are some lessons-learned, travel survival tips, etc., that you can share? Many thanks in advance.
posted by charris5005 to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For work, I went to Daya Bay which is also in the Guangdong province.

I flew in to Hong Kong and then traveled from there. If you are going in to China the same way, note that a Hong Kong driver can take you all the way to your destination inside China, but when you leave you'll need 2 different drivers -- the driver inside China can take you only to the border, and then you'll walk through the border building (not sure of the right word for this) and to get to the other driver who will take you back to Hong Kong. Drivers inside China cannot necessarily leave China.

If you are in a rural area of Guangdong province, it's actually pretty bleak. Poor, but also bleak. I'm not sure how else to describe it. I was completely unprepared for this, and it was emotionally difficult for me to accept. Very possibly, though, this was about Daya Bay and not rural Guangdong province. (Daya Bay is an industrial area with nuclear reactors and chemical plants. I wasn't allowed to take photos, but I snapped this one from my hotel room, which was about a 15 minute drive from the plants -- that is, this is the town, not the work area.)

Since you've done lots of traveling, then I hope you've learned what I have -- places are different, but people are pretty much the same. Most are nice, and especially nice to travelers. China was no different, in my experience. Very nice people, and especially considerate to the traveler.
posted by Houstonian at 7:11 AM on January 11, 2014

I visited Guangzhou for a few days about 5 years ago. My experience was similar to Houstonian's. The city seemed to be under a permanent smog, my more experienced colleagues told me it was not a particularly heavy episode when we were there, visibility varied from about 200m to 300m and it felt kind of like driving around in a GTA game with things emerging, it was oddly dissimilar to fog.

I also flew into Hong Kong then got the train up, it was quick and clean and efficient and reasonably priced (ie better than the UK). Most of the landscape from HK to Guangzhou is industrial (or even post-industrial) and again lots of smog when we were there. Taking the train meant passport was done at either end, leave time to get through.

Grab a couple of days in HK if you can, well worth it.
posted by biffa at 7:37 AM on January 11, 2014

If you're on a work trip to Manila, and you don't have a lot of time to do sightseeing then you should be fine. I would recommend taking taxis around instead of trying to save money taking the jeepneys. But Filipinos are fluent English speakers, incredibly kind and friendly, and extremely familiar with expats and westerners, so you won't feel too out of place. Take the usual precautions with your belongings when you walk around. I've not been there recently, but Manila buildings did have a general policy of having everyone walk through a metal detector with a cursory bag check, following a couple of terror/bomb attacks.
posted by cendawanita at 8:06 AM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was in Shenzhen for a couple of weeks for business recently, plus a few days in Hong Kong for fun. I didn't get out into rural areas however.

Aside from the usual logistics of travel (i.e. it may be handy to bring little packets of laundry detergent to wash your clothes with), the biggest difference for me was the Great Firewall of China. Many common websites/services don't work at all (Facebook for instnace) or work intermittently (Google). I found a free translator app for my phone which worked offline (very important!) was very helpful if you stick to single words (beer, rice, bathroom, etc.). There were many signs in both Chinese characters and English.

I looked around on Amazon for books and did some web searches to find info about traveling and doing business in China, which was helpful. Etiquette in Asia is different, and knowing the rules makes things go better for everyone.

All the Chinese folks we worked with were very gracious and considerate hosts. Have a great time!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 8:36 AM on January 11, 2014

Since others covered Guangzhou, I'll address Manila:

The international airport is chaotic, non-existent facilities, and a ton of passengers (terminal 1). Stay aware as you get your bags, and seek out the official metered taxis. Terminal 2 is new and organized.

Manila advice is as good as the local neighborhood you are in. Makati is the business district and well developed with posh. Other areas are good and bad.

Traffic is horrible - no exaggeration. Give yourself plenty of time during the day and around early evenings. Night time is fine.

People are generally friendly and like tourists as long as you are respectful. Pickpocketing is an issue if you decide to walk around the neighborhood.

Avoid buses, jeepneys (unless you want the experience one!) Taxis are cheap and I would use them. Memail if you'd like more advice.
posted by Kruger5 at 10:45 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding cendawanita, don't bother with jeepneys in Manila as a foreigner. Taxis most places within the city will be under PHP 300 (about USD 8) at most. If you're going within the next month or so you'll benefit from 'winter' which means it will be moderately comfortable if still a bit wet.

Filipinos are super friendly and Makati City (the business district) is generally very safe. It's easy to find yourself in an unsafe neighborhood accidentally, so travel with locals if possible. Traffic is horrendous and traveling anywhere near rush hour will see you in a car for an hour at minimum. If you're going a short distance I suggest you walk.

The security is a guard and sometimes a bag check at every door but practically it's theater if you're foreign or white; many times you don't even have to stop for the check if you nod at the guard and appear to belong.

Don't eat street cart food or drink tap water. Restaurant food is fine. San Miguel is the local beer and it's cheap and good.

You can get a sim on Globe or Smart with unlimited monthly data for about PHP 1000 / USD 25 just about anywhere, like 7-Eleven.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:18 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm living in Manila right now. Feel free to memail me for specific questions.

Take taxis, they're more straightforward but I have some points below.

Taxis - There are plenty of companies and there's not much regulation. So far my experience is positive, but you do get the occasional taxi driver that doesn't know where he's going or pretends not to, so he can charge you more money. Look up the traffic route before you go board a taxi, or at least have a local that you can call that can give you directions. It really really really sucks to be stuck in a taxi with a driver that doesn't even know the main roads (the driver I had couldn't tell the difference between Ortigas and EDSA!). Use landmarks and major intersections as reference points. They don't care for unit numbers (no GPS) and they don't really understand/use directional points like north, south, east, and west.

Oh yeah, taxis don't take credit cards. Try to keep smaller bills on you, 10 pesos, 20, 50, and 100s. Don't ask them to break a 500, it's gonna take either a while or they're gonna keep some extra tip for themselves.

Give yourself extra time for travel. In Makati, sometimes you can spend 20 minutes flagging down taxis. Taxis are picky and will choose customers even though they're not supposed to.
posted by Hawk V at 11:24 AM on January 11, 2014

If you want to avoid food poisoning, don't drink tap water, don't eat tofu (seriously tofu processing here is sketchy), and make sure whatever ice they include in your drink was made from filtered water.

If you want good alcohol, check out their rum selection. It is a rum country. The San Miguel company has a monopoly over beers basically, but they're not bad.
posted by Hawk V at 11:27 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cultural differences
-If a Filipino nods multiple times, it doesn't necessarily mean s/he agrees with you. It just means that s/he's listening.
-If an event runs on "Filipino time", it's gonna start at least one hour later than the time initially agreed on.

There are some crimes that take place in taxis--hold ups at gunpoint, strangers enter the taxi and then they take you to a strange location, putting the passenger to sleep by airing out cheap glue over the air conditioning, etc. Many locals here, especially women, text the plate number (written on the inside of the passenger doors of the taxi) to a trusted person right when they enter the taxi. I haven't heard of a crime being committed against a foreigner (because probably a foreigner's behaviour is less predictable), but maybe it could happen if you look Filipino.
posted by Hawk V at 11:35 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

My family is originally from Guangzhou, and my parents both immigrated from there, although I was born in the U.S. We still have family there and I've visited there three times, once about a year and a half ago.

To put my advice in context: being an American-born Chinese person, I'm stuck in a weird place of pretty much looking like the local population at a casual glance, but not being from it, or being able to communicate with it. I can understand Cantonese (my first language) on an inherent basic level but can't really speak it with any fluency, because I think in English. It's really awkward and I feel kind of ashamed of not 'keeping' a culture that is only sort of mine.

Since you didn't mention any of these things, I'm going to assume they're not an issue for you. Do you obviously look like a foreigner? That will be a benefit and a hinderance, but mostly a benefit. People will stare at you and be really excited to meet/try their English on you. You might get charged different prices. But on the other hand, people will probably be very willing to help you. They'll also really want to sell you their stuff (under the assumption that you are rich).

You'll see a lot of pseudo-English, especially on clothing. Some of it will be very funny. (Some of it is nonsense straight up, like "Qnjovn, hn Ai mwenti," or obviously from something else like "lorem ipsum dolor sit amet" or "insert text here.") Buy some if it amuses you, but try not to laugh or be patronizing about it; messed-up hanzi/kanji/etc. in the West is just as bad or worse, and exists for the same reason: exoticization is exciting.

You may see some interesting fashion, but mostly hip young people will be dressed like hip young people in the West. Lots of Western brand names. Converse sneakers everywhere. Skinny jeans and hipster glasses (some without lenses). Maybe my cousin influenced my perception, but people seem to really like certain 'fancy' brands, not just in clothing/perfume but in electronics. She loved the Adidas sweatshirts, Versace perfume, Michael Kors scarf, etc. I brought her. Status symbols of Western-ness, you know? The iPhone 4S had just come out when I was there, and people were really excited about the "iPhone [Sze (4 in Cantonese)] Es-e." You'll be able to find a lot of cheap clothes if that's what you want (and sometimes it is!), although I had to do a little more searching to find better quality. When I did find it, it was very nice. (Although, even the cheap shops I went to would do alterations like shortening jeans legs for free. Pretty sweet.) If you're sized more like your average Chinese person, it's really exciting to be able to find a wide range of clothing that fits! You'll find more Westerners on streets like Beijing Lu, one of many staggering shopping areas.

Speaking of electronics, I was surprised to find that most consumer electronics like cameras and phones were *more* expensive, even with the exchange rate in your favor. You might have better luck than I, but I wouldn't bother trying to buy there instead. I think someone else already covered the firewall. Don't post on your Facebook that you'll post again when you get there safely, because you might not be able to.

Oh, here's something. Be careful about taking pictures. Of course, you should exercise basic courtesy; your exotic trip is someone else's everyday life, with reasonable expectation of privacy and so on. I was able to take pictures in most places without any problems, but sometimes (especially in places like the sort of apothecaries that sell traditional remedies, or in some of the street markets where people might not have licenses*), someone would object. That was the only unpleasantness I experienced in China; by and large people were very nice. Well, big city nice. Guangzhou has something like 13 million people. I feel like there's a point in the airport where you're told you can't take pictures, either. If you see a sign saying not to do it, don't do it.

*Street markets are great, and you should check them out. All kinds of fabulous fruit, old-fashioned balance weighting systems, live chickens which can be slaughtered fresh for you, freshly cooked buns and cakes and sweets. Fresh sugarcane juice. If you can find fresh mangosteen, I recommend eating it. It's mild but deliciously addictive and the canned stuff you can get elsewhere is a weak shadow. Sometimes you'll see makeshift markets where people are selling out of vehicles, or on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk; some of these are unlicensed and are designed to be quickly hidden away should police come by.

Oh, and shops will have more help than you're probably used to--like, five salespeople in a tiny little store with 150 square feet.

The food is glorious, plentiful, and very cheap. Cantonese cooking is famous in China, and there's all these little sayings about its importance, like "When people in Shanghai have a little extra money, they buy nice clothes. When people in Canton have a little extra money, they go out to eat." or "Go to Beijing to see the emperor, go to X to see Y, etc. etc... go to Guangzhou to eat." Oh my gosh. The food is so good, and I grew up in a Chinese restaurant. The chicken is amazing. Even the white meat was incredibly flavorful, like dark meat in the U.S. The chicken here tastes like cotton in comparison. The chow fun and cheng fun (soft rice flour noodle preparations; along with jook, or rice porridge, very common breakfast foods) from your average street cafe where commuters get breakfast is of a fineness and flavor to make you cry--way better than every restaurant I've had dim sum in the states, or that I can find in asian supermarkets. You can get a full meal with meat, vegetables, soup, tea, for a US dollar or less. Go out for dim sum/to yum cha in the place where it originated.

If you have international travel experience, you probably know this already, but I didn't know these existed until my friend told me about them: travel clinics, where you can get traveler-specific medical advice, immunizations, and medication (before your trip). Here's the one my friend went to. You might want to check on your hepatitis immunization and maybe pick up some "just in case" anti-diarrhea medication.

Everyone carries little packs of facial/toilet tissue around. It's common for there not to be public toilet paper in the (possibly squat) toilets and they're just handy in general, for cleaning your hands and face and utensils in restaurants before using them and so on. You can bring some with you but it's pretty readily available too.

People will just sort of walk across the street whenever they want sometimes, and taxi rides can be adventures. Bicycles will often have two or three people hanging on to them. Be careful about your belongings and your traffic safety when out.

I didn't know this until I heard my family doing it. A polite way to call or refer to wait staff (and, I think, retail help as well) is "liang nyue" (or "liang jai"), which literally translates to "pretty girl" (or "pretty boy"). You'll hear someone shout it across a restaurant to get the attention of their waitress/waiter. It's extremely commonly used, although I sorta get what they're getting at here to be careful to make it obvious you're not harassing anyone.

The Guangzhou subway system was the nicest and most advanced subway system I've seen anywhere (limited points of comparison: Chicago, New York, San Francisco). It also had the clearest and most accurate English (it really was very good!) of any public system I encountered in China. I don't remember how expensive it was. Buses are very cheap but will usually be incredibly crowded. Still, they're a great way to get around. But watch your stuff in that crowded environment; my grandmother had her purse snatched.

If you'll be working or staying with anyone in particular you'd like to show appreciation toward, some simple gifts from your own country will go a long way. In my experience, foreign chocolates went over like gangbusters.

If you do get to sightsee a bit, a few places I went that are near by:
Chen Clan Academy: incredible cultural center, gorgeous historical artifacts and art. You can get a chop carved by a skilled artisan; I treasure mine. It has its own subway stop, if I remember correctly, so pretty easily accessible.
Foshan: known for its pottery. Ancient kilns and lots of touristy places with pottery ranging in quality and price; I got a very nice tea set with extra cups for the equivalent of about $20. Toilet waterfall.

Man, I could go on for days. It's a little embarrassing. Feel free to MeMail me if you have questions! And enjoy!
posted by spelunkingplato at 1:41 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

As spelunkingplato mentioned previously, make sure you carry around tissues (travel packs from Kleenex or drugstore house brands) and hand sanitizer, as many toilets won't provide toilet paper or soap. You may end up not needing it depending on where you spend your time, but when you need it... you NEED it.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by sums at 1:18 PM on January 12, 2014

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