Laos: A Tour That Even Loners Can Love
Somewhere between a fully guided coach tour and a do-it-yourself expedition lies a category that sounds a bit like an oxymoron: the independent traveler tour. On a trip to Laos, Karen Valby happily hands off the planning headaches to a guide--and discovers that she might even enjoy traveling with a group
Everything I had heard about Laos--that it's beautiful, friendly, and not yet overrun with Westerners--stirred my sense of wanderlust. But the prospect of planning a trip there was intimidating. I was nervous about being overwhelmed, making the wrong decisions, and feeling like a slave to my guidebooks. On the other hand, I dreaded joining a group comprised of folks who grouse if a restaurant doesn't have ketchup.
Intrepid Travel, a tour company that emphasizes blending into, rather than gawking at, a foreign culture, seemed like the perfect middle ground. Even though Intrepid handles the hassles of finding lodging and booking train tickets, you feel as if you're traveling somewhat independently: Intrepid employs local guides, groups are small (generally 12 people at the most), you stay in small guesthouses and use local transportation, and free days are incorporated into each trip, so nobody chafes under the demands of togetherness.
Relatively assured I'd be surrounded by like-minded souls, I signed my always game husband, Tim, and myself up for a trip with a name that sounded like an Indiana Jones sequel: Beyond the Mekong. I spent months thinking about my upcoming eight days in Southeast Asia, one minute dreaming of the amazing experiences that we'd have, the next worrying that I'd made a terrible mistake.
Shredded by jet lag, panting in the oppressive humidity, Tim and I pathetically try to communicate with our taxi driver. We need to get to Intrepid's meeting point, the Viengtai Hotel in the Banglamphu district of Bangkok. The driver is smiling, but he keeps looking back at us, pointing at his palm and punching it. I'm not sure if we're arguing about the price or the directions or the traffic. I'm not even sure if we're arguing. Finally, he loses his last bit of patience, threads his car the wrong way up a one-way street clogged with tuk-tuks, and deposits us outside the hotel.
The area is a magnet for backpackers; there's a 7-Eleven for every food stall frying up pad thai. The people look as if they've stumbled out of a Grateful Dead show, tanned college-age kids in peasant tops and beer-logo T-shirts. Intrepid's website stressed that the Thai are a conservative people and women should abstain from tank tops and tight shorts. Alas, I'm wearing a long-sleeved linen blouse in a sea of braless women.
Inside the Viengtai lobby, the Intrepid guide ambles over and introduces himself. "My name's Bom," he declares, bowing gracefully with his palms together. "But whatever you do, don't call me that at the airport!" Affable and relaxed, he's a 30-year-old from Chiang Mai who's worked with Intrepid for two years. Alongside Bom is a trainee named Wasa, a spunky young mother from East Thailand with spiked hair and an easy laugh.
The rest of the group is equally unthreatening. There's Ma, a nerdy 22-year-old computer-science student from Japan; another single Japanese woman, Akko, who is a timid, elegant 36-year-old engineer; and Jun, a mohawked photographer in his 40s who was assigned by Budget Travel to shoot this story. He grew up on New York's Upper West Side and now lives in Yokohama, Japan. Our group turns out to be exceptionally small, perhaps because we're on a new itinerary for the company. (Intrepid is constantly tinkering with itineraries; our tour later gets dropped from its roster.)
The next morning, we escape the claustrophobia of Banglamphu for a bike tour around the beautiful, bizarre zoo that is Bangkok. We hit the grander attractions, including Vimanmek Mansion and incredible jewel-encrusted temples like Wat Phra Kaew, and trek up the stairs of Golden Mount, where we get a glorious 360-degree city view and make a kneeling wish to Buddha. At one point, Wasa buys us tamarind and jackfruit, a tropical treat that's like a cross between a pineapple and a fig, from a street vendor. Anxious about all my guidebooks' horror stories of gastric distress--I shall eat no fruit unless I peel it myself--I watch with envy as everybody else, even my husband, enjoys an impromptu snack on the lush grounds of the Grand Palace.
After Bom gives us a few basic warnings (heat kills bacteria, crushed ice houses it), I stop depending on packaged food and pristine-looking restaurants. At a food stall outside our hotel, I order a sublime, ridiculously cheap (roughly 50¢) chicken curry soup. By the afternoon, it's become clear that while none of us can communicate very easily with one another, the group has developed a fun, relaxed camaraderie. Ma and Akko, who speak very rudimentary English, have a good-natured giggle at my teary gasping over the spicy soup.
That evening, Bom deals with the hotel checkout for the group and ushers us to the train station for our 12-hour overnighter bound for Vientiane, Laos's capital city. Tucked into a shallow upper bunk behind a flimsy curtain, I feel something enormously comforting about traveling with our motley little crew.