Most of our friends know that in the month of September every year we travel. We invest lots of time not only in identifying the potential place of travel but also research extensively about the places of travel from multiple perspectives. Places of interest, budget for the entire tour, ease of travel to and within that country, availability of food (because we are pure vegetarians), dairy products, fruits and vegetables, currency rates, tour operators (here in India and in the country of travel), culture, history, geography and so on…its a long list. We evaluate in depth and then decide on a final destination. The reservations follow.
This year we chose to tour Laos, a land locked country with its neighbours as China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But then we did not do a thorough homework for this trip as much as we had done in the past. For a number of reasons. And we paid dearly for not doing our homework.
First of all, the local operator who managed our tour, is a specialist tour operator for organising adventure tours such as trekking, kayaking, rappelling, ziplining etc. targeting the young backpackers who love adventure sports and travel of all types. For this group comfort and convenience is not as important as it is for us. We have distinct and different needs from the backpackers group on the adventure front.
Second, we struggled to get pure vegetarian food. Luckily for us, we had taken along with us a few vegetarian items, and that stood us in good stead for sometime. Except for the Deen Restaurant in Nong Khiaw that served us extraordinary vegetarian Indian food, the other restaurants serving Indian cuisine were just above average. So we thrived on Italian, Thai and Laos vegetarian food largely. We don’t look for Indian food when we travel as we like to eat local food, but if that is the only option to get pure vegetarian food, then we go for it.
Third, we prefer to stay in hotels where the rooms are spacious, comfortable, clean and hygienic, with some added facilities. As the local operator had booked us in hotels where their core target audience, the backpackers stay, we found it difficult to stay in the matchbox sized rooms and hence had to change our reservations multiple times. We lost a few hundred dollars in cancellations, for no fault of ours.
Fourth, we always like to travel in a van or SUV in excellent working condition including the A/C, and a local guide. It works well for us, as we like to see local sights, try roadside safe food and interact through the guide with the local people. The local operator assured us again that the public minivans in Laos are Japanese or Korean SUVs with good air-conditioning facilities and reserved seats with lots of space for keeping the luggage. Our very first (and the last) public minivan trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw was a disaster. For about 3.5 hours we sat packed, in a single position with our backpacks on our laps. The air-conditioner was switched on just 30 minutes before we reached our destination. A disastrous trip that left us exhausted and frustrated. Again, we had to cancel one leg of our trip, review and revise our schedules. This in turn led to some more cancellations and loss some more dollars.
Last, and the fifth, a relatively inexperienced guide was sent along with us for a trekking trip that was supposed to be completed in about 1.5-3 hours including sightseeing and lunch. But the guide took a wrong turn, and we ended up walking about 12-13 kms for about four hours (between 9.30 am – 1.30 pm) under not so ideal conditions. We did not see a single waterfall or tourist sight that we were supposed to see during the day and returned to the hotel tired and angry.
There are more… but the above mistakes by the tour operator, despite our briefing in person on the second day of our tour, meant that we had to do lots of homework, almost everyday, to ensure that our tour went well. Besides of course the additional un-budgeted dollars that we spent. The only saving grace was that our operator in India was always available and accessible to help us every step of the way.
Just for the record, we loved our tour of Laos. The people are simple, straight forward, loving, don’t expect tips, the place is lush green, laid back, and the country is very clean …Every bathroom that we used on the highway was clean, every time.
The trip merely reinforced our belief in doing our homework … or pay a huge price. There are no shortcuts really and you cannot wing it. So do the homework, whether you are travelling for a holiday or making a presentation or just wanting to exercise !! If you don’t do your homework… you pay more.