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

By Karen Valby, Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006, 12:00 AM

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.

A van meets us at the last stop in Thailand, the Nong Khai train station, and whisks us over the Friendship Bridge at the Laos border. Any potential stress in attaining our visas is alleviated by Bom's calming presence. He has reserved lodging for us in town at the Mali Namphu guesthouse, which has air-conditioned rooms with cable TV and serves breakfast in the breezy French colonial-style courtyard.

Our lodgings are a couple of cobblestone steps from the Nam Phu Fountain, the humble downtown center of dusty Vientiane. Everything is slow-paced--the small clusters of tourists strolling along the Mekong River, the paper lanterns lolling lazily overhead at outdoor bars, even the stream of mopeds at the peak of the city's supposed rush hour.

Bom takes the group across the street to Namphou Coffee, his favorite restaurant in town--one he most often frequents alone, as many of the people he guides opt for more tourist-friendly joints. We order two crispy roast ducks, three vegetable pho soups, pork fried rice, and the addictive Lao staple, spicy papaya salad. All of this marvelous food, which leaves us moaning in three different languages of ecstasy, costs less than $7 total. And that's one good reason to head to Laos. Everything is almost embarrassingly inexpensive. (At restaurants throughout the trip, I consistently overpay the bill by accident. There are some impressive chases, but no waiter lets me walk away without receiving exact change.)

Just when I find myself in need of a break from the group itinerary--a long-winded guide leading a tour of Vientiane's main attractions makes me yearn for the peace of my iPod--there's a free day to explore the city. My husband and I opt for Bom's recommendation of the bustling morning market where vendors hawk everything from silk sarongs to Chinese electronics. We indulge in traditional Lao massages at Mixay ($3 for 60 glorious minutes!), and grab a couple 80¢ Beerlaos at the popular expat bar Khop Chai Deu (happy hour from 9 A.M. to 8 P.M.!). A bland dinner at one of the tourist cafés on popular Fa Ngum Road--praised, incidentally, by our Rough Guide--sends us back to the food stalls lining the Mekong. All along, Bom has been saying that the best food in Laos is eaten with the locals at cheap plastic tables.

On our last day in Vientiane, a high-strung American woman corners us and asks about our encounters with the tuk-tuk drivers. Have they been overcharging us? Do we haggle over fares? How in the world should she get to the airport? In Bom we trust, we calmly tell her, and return to our Beerlaos.

Bom deals with the logistics of check-in and seat assignments at the Vientiane airport, leaving us free to stick our sweaty faces in front of the oscillating fans. The 40-minute flight to Luang Prabang, Laos's ancient capital, ends on a strip cut from the jungle between the Mekong and Khan Rivers. On the tuk-tuk ride from the airport, we pass girls with parasols walking home from school, dressed in demure uniforms of white blouses and ankle-length navy sarongs, giving warm waves of welcome.

Our guesthouse, the Villa Suan Maak, a large yellow home with baby chicks waddling after their mother on the front lawn, is on a rural neighborhood block where people congregate outside every evening. Families grill fish in their driveways, young couples play badminton in the streets, old men gather for games of bocce, and children joyride three to a bicycle. On our leisurely strolls into town, I practice a few basic expressions that Bom has taught us: sabai di (hello) and khawp jai (thank you). Unfortunately, I keep getting confused, and tend to greet the friendly people on the street with a hearty "Khawp jai!"

Bom organizes an afternoon tour of the local blacksmithing and paper- and silk-making villages, where generations of families labor at one specific trade. At the Lao Silk Textile shop, Tim and I buy three 100-percent-silk tapestries for $35. Bom arranges for a slow wooden-boat ride another day, which takes us two hours up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. Along the way, we drop off two old monks, loaded down with four sacks of vegetables from the morning market, at their village on a beach lined with water buffalo. The caves, jagged holes in the face of a cliff, are stuffed with thousands of Buddha statues and sleeping bats, and offer a respite from the heat.

The group has settled into an easy rhythm and, despite the language barrier, we genuinely enjoy sharing meals. Everyone giggles over Bom's wacky stories about life in Thailand, and Ma and Akko never cease being amused by my ineptitude with chopsticks.

Tim and I excuse ourselves from the group one night for a drink at a popular waterfront café, Boungnasouk, and watch the sun set majestically over the Mekong. Then we hit the fanciest restaurant in town, L'Elephant, for fine French food. We splurge--for all of $31!--on a delicious three-course meal with lots of wine and an espresso. While some parts of Laos feel way off the Western grid, Luang Prabang is no longer an undiscovered pocket of paradise. On our way home, we wander over to the night market, only to discover that it's glutted with tourists.

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.

LAOS: A TOUR THAT EVEN LONERS CAN LOVE