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WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 09:35 AM

Independent travel vs. Private tour--which would suit us?
Okay, I've been asking questions here about SE Asia, and have settled on an approximate itinerary.

Some background--I am 65, my husband is 70. We want to do about 16 days or so Bangkok - Siem Reap - Luang Prabang - Chiang Rai in February. We are pretty adventurous travellers, but like a fairly relaxed pace (old bones), and realize the heat will also slow us down. Aside from a business trip I made to Mumbai 10 years ago, and my husband's business trip to Singapore last winter, we have never been to Asia!!

We like to wander around town making our own discoveries, love local food, bars, markets, whatever's going, but we also want to see major sights like Angkor Wat/Thom, Ayuttaya, and whatever else is suggested (I have loads of suggestions.)

I've been working with a couple of tailor-made specialists (Exotissimo and IOT), and they are doing proposals for us for private itineraries, private drivers, many meals, hotels, airfares, transfers included. No final prices yet because they haven't quite given me what I want yet, in terms of free time versus planned time with excursions, although I do have one quote for about $2700 per person. In both cases they have suggested various interesting-sounding excursions, plus the overnight boat trip up the Meking, Luang Say.

I realize we could do this a lot cheaper if we planned it out ourselves. I like planning travel--sussing out hotels, etc. but there's something attractive about being taken care of in this case.

So, what do you think?

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 10:27 AM

Travel in Asia is actually fairly easy to do on your own. And as you know, you will pay a hefty premium if you use an agency. I skimmed your first thread and it appears you are planning 4 nights at each location, which really gives you 3 full days at each when you take into account the time it takes to travel from place to place. It is easy to arrange flights on line.

Of the 4 locations, Bangkok is the most challenging to manage and may be worth an extra day. Hiring a driver (there have been many mentioned on this board) can help.

Luang Prabang will suit you well. It is a walkable town where you can just wander. There are a couple of excursions outside of town that can be arranged on the spot.

Most people that go to northern Thailand stay outside of Chiang Rai - the Anantara is a popular resort on this forum. Various activities can be arranged there.

We found it helpful to have a guide in Siem Reap but it is not necessary. The town itself is fairly compact - there are some notable restaurants but you will want to spend your time sightseeing at Angkor Wat and the other temples. You will want a hotel with a good pool as most tourists take a break at mid-day to escape the heat. All very easy to set up - they are used to tourists.

You can get a ton of good info from this forum as you have already found. Then you can tailor the trip to your specifications, not some agency's.

Kathie Jun 21st, 2013 10:39 AM

Is $2700 pp just land costs in Asia? I'm guessing that is true. If so, I hope you are staying at the absolute best hotels in each location and that you have plenty of extras provided. That is a lot of money and you could live very well for less. IMO, the problems with these private tours is that they want to employ someone to hold your hand every step of the way. That is both expensive and unnecessary (and I find it annoying). If you decide exactly what services you want and have them arrange it, fine. But you probably don't want them arranging meals, for instance. Most pre-arranged meals are set up so there will be nothing to offend anyone (i.e., nothing spicy, nothing you won't recognize, etc.).

16 days for 4 locations is an ok pace, but I wouldn't call it leisurely. It means you will have 4 nights in each location, three full days.

When we were in Luang Prabang many years ago, our visit coincided with a group traveling with a high-end company. They told us the various "special" things they were doing... the "special" things that they booked the tour for. Non of them were "special" all were things that anyone with a guidebook could easily arrange. So look carefully at the "special excursions."

And decide how often you want a guide. Guides can be very helpful but they can also get in the way of your experiencing a place. They often interact with locals, so you don't. I'd rather interact with the locals myself.

You will probably want a guide at least part of the time at Angkor, especially if you don't know a lot about it. We actually opted not to have a guide there because we had done a lot of studying (and I'd been reading about Angkor for decades), so we just employed a driver. Our most magical moments at Angkor were the temples where we were the only visitors... you don't get that with a guide.

If you have a guidebook, you don't need a guide for Luang Prabang.

Given that you enjoy wandering on your own, I think you may find the private tour smothering unless you cut dramatically what they want to sell you. Also, make sure the itinerary they sell you has free time in it.

This is a remarkably easy part of the world to travel in. The tourism infrastructure is very good, the people are warm and helpful, almost everyone you have contact with will speak at least some English.

Come back when you have a proposal, and we can help you adjust it if that is what you want to do.

WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 10:49 AM

Yes Kathie, I have tried to get them to cut way back on how much they do for us. I don't ahve $$ results on that attempt yet. We're talking 4-star hotels, nice properties from what I've seen, but not super pricey. And air is included, using regular airlines, not budget.

Craig, thanks for your comments. Anantara is way out of our league, at least the prices I'm seeing online are out of sight--am I missing something?q And we would rather stay nearer to town so we can explore, although a nice resort on the edge of town for the last couple of nights or so might be reallly nice, just not that pricey.

As for Bangkok, my brother, who's spent lots of time there says a driver would be useless because of the traffic. Another friend really didn't like Bangkok at all and loved Chiang Mai--I know Kathy prefers "Rai" to "Mai"--is Chiang Rai like of like Luang Prabang? Too much so?

Kathie Jun 21st, 2013 11:06 AM

I'm one who never uses a driver or guide in Bangkok - for just the reason your brother cites. I use the skytrain and the water taxis to get around.

Chiang Rai is not like Luang Prabang, but frankly, there isn't much at CR. The reason to go there is the countryside.

I know that for a while, you were considering cutting CR and sticking with three locations for your 16 days. That would give you a more leisurely pace, lots of time to wander in all three locations, all of which are great wandering places.

Hi Craig, I was posting at the same time as you. Not surprisingly, we agree on all this.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 11:12 AM

WW - we visited Chiang Rai on our first trip to Thailand. The Anantara did not exist at the time, so I can't help you there. In my opinion though, most of what you will want to see and do in northern Thailand is outside of Chiang Rai. The town really doesn't have that much going for it. If other activities in northern Thailand don't appeal to you, I wouldn't bother going there.

We have also visited Chiang Mai and were not very impressed. There are some interesting temples, the crafts "villages" on the outskirts and the night market...

We have been to Bangkok half a dozen times since 2000. We have hired drivers and found them helpful in getting us to the tourist sites. The traffic can be horrific at times, especially at the rush hours but a knowledgable driver knows how to avoid the bad spots. It does pay to learn the sky train - especially for restaurants and shopping.

WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 11:26 AM

Thanks for the further feedback. I'm preparing to talk to my husband about everything--he's been too busy to pay attention much yet. If we dropped Chiang Rai completely, and just did three locations, would Luang Prabang be sufficiently relaxing to stand in for it? Especially if we spent another day or two there. (Of course, this would cut out the river boat trip, so cheaper too.)

Here's the thing--after this trip, husband goes on to Singapore to work for two weeks--so I want him to relax at the end of the trip. That's why I suggested a beach resort first of all, but then realized that the logistics of schlepping back to Bangkok then to Singapore might be a pain.

I'm really appreciating all this help, btw. You guys are great!

WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 11:37 AM

Oh, and we love taking public transportation--yes, sometimes it's daunting, but not for long, I've found.

Will the language be a significant problem anywhere? Will we be able to get reliable airport transfers in LP, CR and SR?

Is there anything that would keep us in Siem Reap more than 4 nights? 3 days climbing around ruins sounds like a lot to me--don't get me wrong, it will be thrilling to see these places and explore, but it will be hot and we will get tired.

I looked into a trip on Tonle Sap and realized that many people recommend NOT doing this because of the abject poverty--we don't protect ourselves from situations like this, nor do we seek them, so I think we will give this a pass.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 11:41 AM

Luang Prabang is very laid back and should be sufficiently relaxing to spend an extra day or two there. Don't count out spending some of the extra time in Bangkok though. While it is not a place to wander on foot, it is a place to explore...and that takes time, as getting around by any means is not particularly quick. Extra time in Bangkok could be spent outside of town, visiting the floating market and going on a tour to "Tong's secret place" and/or doing a klong tour one afternoon.

WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 11:43 AM

BTW, we both consider ourselves Buddhist, although we don't really have a serious practice. So I think Luang Prabang will be of particular interest to us.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 11:49 AM

To reply to your second post:

1. The skytrain is great for getting around and not daunting at all
2. Language has never been a problem for us. English seems to be spoken everywhere. Memorizing a few phrases in their own language can always endear you to the locals, however. Airport transfers are easy in LP - there is a desk that deals with this, easy and cheap. We were picked up in SR by our guide. I imagine that hotels would also provide free transfers as the airport is not far. Don't recall what we did in CR but it is a small town, easy.
3. Unless you are Kathie (Hi Kathie ;-)), you definitely don't need more than 3 days in SR. We did the trip to Tonle Sap as part of our 3 days there and thought it was worthwhile.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 11:51 AM

To reply to your 3rd post, don't count out Thailand for Buddhist culture and way of life. But if you want to interact with the monks (and not just the morning procession), then LP will be very rewarding for you.

Marija Jun 21st, 2013 01:31 PM

If you want to help the monks practice their English, go to the library in Luang Prabang where the monks gather each day to converse with English speaking tourists.

WWanderer Jun 21st, 2013 01:51 PM

That last sounds good--I have a bit of ESL background, just tutoring, but that sounds lovely!

rhkkmk Jun 21st, 2013 02:07 PM

English is not a problem at all..

I like a guide/driver in bkk as I love coming out of a hot as hell visit to the grand palace, for instance, and having my a/c car and a cold towel waiting for me.. I do not have to fight with a taxi driver to take me to the next location and I don't have to walk there in drop dead humidity..

LP is a great lay back place... choose your hotel carefully..

I dislike CM even after 3 visits.. CR is ok but more for backpackers.. outside is more pleasant... anantara prices are now outrageous... most of us paid $100-200 to stay there.. find another place near-by---I think the opium museum has rooms??? it is a must btw...

4-5 days at SR is perfect... no need to go to ayuhatta (sp) if going to Angkor...

my 17th trip to bkk is upcoming and I will spend about 25 days there this time---we never lack for things to do there..

my wife and I are the same ages as are you.

MissGreen Jun 21st, 2013 03:13 PM

I am 40's and I love the pace you're going out.

Kathie Jun 21st, 2013 03:18 PM

Luang Prabang is lovely and laid back. We spent a week there and loved every minute. Go to some of the wats not on the main street - they don't get as many visitors. We had nice conversations with many monks.

You can also get a good dose of Buddhist culture in Bangkok. Again, visiting some wats that are not on tourist itineraries pays off.

In Siem Reap, enjoy the wats and wandering the town, but also consider This is something you might rally enjoy. And it would give you a reason to stay longer in Siem Reap.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 04:32 PM

Just to add on what Kathie is saying re:
Ponheary Le is the namesake of this organization and we were one of the first on this forum to have her as our guide and to spend a morning distributing school supplies to kids at a local school. There are many opportunities for visiting tourists - feel free to contact her for more info.

thursdaysd Jun 21st, 2013 05:39 PM

" Unless you are Kathie (Hi Kathie ;-)), you definitely don't need more than 3 days in SR"

I am not Kathie, and I definitely needed more than three days in SR. My first visit I had three nights, so one sunset and two full days, and I knew that I needed to go back. The second time I spent four nights, and now feel that I don't need to revisit - which is good, because it sounds like it has gotten MUCH more crowded since 2004. I know that revisiting LP in 2011 turned out to be a bit of mistake because it was so much more touristy, but if it is your first visit you will probably still like it.

Craig Jun 21st, 2013 06:14 PM

Actually, thursdaysd - I should have said "unless you are really into temples, you definitely don't need more than 3 days in SR". We had 3 full days, and at that point we had had our fill. That said, I would love to return and spend more time helping with Ponheary and the school kids.

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