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
Grateful that our guesthouse is removed from the hubbub of downtown, we find our friends finishing up dinner on the front patio. Bom is regaling the group with lines from his favorite Hollywood movies. "Now Con Air, that's a classic!" he says, before shifting into a surprisingly believable impression of Nicolas Cage: "Put the bunny back in the box!" He sends the kid working the night desk off on a bike for more Beerlaos, and keeps us all in hysterics until late in the evening.
Needlessly embarrassed by his behavior the night before, Bom wakes us at 5:30 A.M. on our final full day so that we can experience Tak Bat--the ritual offering of alms to the local monks. We buy little baskets of hot sticky rice and kneel on the sidewalks in wait for a procession of monks in flowing saffron robes. It's a moving, somber transaction, handing balled-up mounds of rice for the monks to eat later at the monastery. There are inevitably a couple of yahoos who intrude on the ritual with obnoxious chatter and flashbulb-popping. I'm proud of our group's behavior, which is appropriately humble and discreet.
We pile into a tuk-tuk after breakfast, bound for the Kuang Si waterfalls. (Along the way, we stop to ride elephants. As fun as this may sound, our elephant is spooked by a construction site, and then we get spooked seeing the elephant's owner angrily press a dull spike into its forehead. Tim, upon our return home, promptly joins the World Wildlife Fund.) The multitiered waterfalls are magnificent, turquoise and clear, framed by hanging wild orchids. We go for a refreshing dip in the swimming hole and a quick Tarzan whoop off a rope vine, before digging in to the best meal of our whole trip--fried ginger with chicken and a vegetable noodle soup for $1.75--served, appropriately, at rickety picnic tables in the middle of the woods.
That afternoon, Tim and I drop into L'Etranger Books & Tea, a cool book swap and coffeehouse that shows independent movies every night, before treating ourselves to $3 massages at the Lao Red Cross. I later find my husband out front watching Caddyshack on TV with the old woman who runs the massage place. They're sitting together comfortably without saying a word, rolling their eyes and laughing at Chevy Chase.
Bom and Wasa are back at the guesthouse when we return. They're lounging on the patio with Vieng, the friendly young owner of Villa Suan Maak, eating Pringles and fresh mangoes. They invite us to join them, and, over a couple of beers, Bom asks for some American slang that he can incorporate into his repertoire. Somehow, nobody has told him about the ultimate superlative. "Bom," we tell him, "you're the best. You're the bomb!"
Proving that the world is indeed a very small place, at the Luang Prabang airport I run into an old friend from work. We're both momentarily struck dumb by the absurdity of meeting up half a world away. When she notices Ma, who's wearing a goofy brown leather baseball cap--turned sideways--I introduce them and explain that Ma and I have been on a group trip together. My friend looks at me, wide-eyed. "Was it like being on a cruise ship?" she asks.
I gush about Bom and our delightful guesthouses, our meal in the woods, and our cozy bunks in the train. My friend and her husband, meanwhile, stayed at the most luxurious resort in town. I love the numbing comfort of a great hotel as much as the next person, but why travel to an exotic destination only to remove yourself from the everyday life of the country? I can honestly say that I wouldn't trade my trip for hers.
How an Intrepid tour works
Started in 1989 by two Australian backpackers, Intrepid Travel originally focused on Asia but now runs some 300 trips to more than 50 destinations all over the globe. The most common style of lodging is the family-run guesthouse. On certain tours, guests camp in tents. Tours change from time to time: Beyond the Mekong, featured in this story, is no longer offered, though several Intrepid trips include visits to Laos. A few things are constant: Singles don't have to pay a supplement (they're paired up with same-sex roommates instead); meals generally cost extra; and tours require a small local cash payment that guides use for group taxis, boats, and excursions (866/847-8192, intrepidtravel.com).
Other independent tour operators
Expect to find small groups, plenty of free time to explore on your own, and guides who steer participants to authentic experiences and restaurants where the locals actually eat.
Djoser: A Dutch company with nearly 80 itineraries, such as safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, dogsled trips in Finland, and custom-designed cultural tours of Mexico. 877/356-7376, djoserusa.com.
G.A.P Adventures: An active-tour operation based in Canada, with trips all over the world focused on kayaking, trekking, cycling, sailing, nature, or culture and history. 800/708-7761, gapadventures.com.
Adventure Center: A specialty agency based in California that books hundreds of small-group adventure tours run by a variety of companies, including Intrepid Travel and Exodus, a U.K.-based outfitter that specializes in hiking tours. 800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com.