Our 36 day adventure was escorted by Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT, the second tour company that we have used preferring to travel on our own. Our other tour was through China Focus for a 30 day tour of China in 2007.
I was impressed with the OAT travel philosophy that is built around travel, adventure, and discovery. This resulted in an in-depth exposure to the country, and culture of the countries visited. Beyond seeing the big cities and the usual tourist attractions we went to small out of the way villages, had dinner with families in their homes, visited schools from elementary level to university and were able to interact with the people of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. However I felt that the tour focused more on the failures of the countries rather then the successes of the countries. I never saw a nice home in Thailand or any of the beautiful beaches and resorts of Thailand. I left Thailand with the impression that the monarchy holds all wealth and the country and citizens spend a fortune praising the king and queen. If Thailand would spend the money that they spend on bigger than live banners, billboards, and monuments of their king and queen on sewage disposal, garbage pick-up and street paving in their remote villages the country could take a major step into the 21st century.
The real asset held by OAT is their tour was the tour guides. We were assigned a guide from each country who escorted and coordinated our visits in each country. Our Cambodia guide, Thai , grew up in a floating city and was chosen to be sent to an inland school and continued his education to become an extremely knowledgeable and personable guide, as a part of our trip he took us to his family home on the water and introduced to his family. He was able to provide a knowledgeable and insightful answer to every question ask. His knowledge of Ancor Wat that the other temples and their history was inspiring.
Our Thailand guide, Poupe, a 46 year old single mother is one of the most personable and versatile people that I have ever met As well as a knowledgeable guide she sang, danced, and educated us on virtually every aspect of Thai live. At times she provided TMI, but it was done in good spirit and with the best of intentions.
Our Vietnamese guide Dy, pronounced Yee, was a true professional, maintaining control of the group, sharing his knowledge, and giving us a valuable exposure to the Vietnam people while helping many of us answer the many questions that we brought with us about the Vietnam War. Dy also introduced us to his family, which I believe to be a part of the OAT program, thus allowing us to see how a successful middle class Vietnamese family lives.
The hotels were for the most part very good, we only had one that I would have not stayed in if we were traveling on our own. Although it was on a beautiful setting on a river with nice grounds and pool the room was not clean and the facility had fallen into disrepair. The hotels for the most part place you in the middle of the activity of the bigger cities and with easy access in the smaller cities, we were never in the suburbs where activity might have been out of reach. A cab fare to a market or restaurant never was more then $3.00. Although it was on a beautiful setting on a river with nice grounds and pool the room was not clean and the facility had fallen into disrepair.
Currency was difficult to adjust to; 3400 Bat equaled a dollar and 17,000 Dong equaled a dollar. Thus I found myself getting one million Vietnamese Dong out of an ATM to get spending money. So a cab ride would cost 34,000 Dong.
The food was good but I did tire of Thai food before we moved on to Vietnam. Lunches and dinners provided through OAT were always from a fixed menu and many times were excellent, but the best meals that we had were those that we had when we sought out top quality restaurants when we were on our own. We were able to find them through our Lonely Planet travel guide or through internet search. With the low cost of transportation you could get the best meal in town including cocktails and wine for $30.00 as long as you stayed out of the multi-national hotels.
We choose not to take any of the optional tours, about seven offered, choosing instead to explore the cities and countryside on our own. In the one cases that we wanted to go to the same location that the optional tour, the Cu Chi Tunnels, we were able to purchase the tour locally at the Saigon Post Office for less then half the price that OAT asked; ours did not include lunch but eating in Vietnam is quite cheap. It was also nice talking with another tour guide and getting their perspective on the was, the government and the economy. Some of our best times were striking out on tuk-tuks to the Chinese Market, or a temple, or a restaurant on our own and experiencing the country at our own pace.
The only real issue that I have with OAT was their tipping policy. In the pre-trip information they informed us that tipping was optional for the exceptional service of our tour guide and $7 to $10 per day per person was customary. Upon arrival we were given an orientation pamphlet that repeated the $7 to $10 tipping to the tour guide but added $4 to $6 per day per person for the bus driver, $2 to $4 for the driver assistant, $1 for the room maids, and additional for boat drivers, local tour guides, elephant drivers and elephant snacks. On our China trip we tipped our tour guide and he took care of all additional tipping that was required or expected. Several of us felt this was a shirking of the responsibility of OAT to take care of their hired employees and independent contractors. If you met their suggested tipping the total would amount to 10% of the tour price.
I look back on the tour now and feel it was more of an education than a vacation, and that is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the trip and that I will not use OAT in the future. We were up every morning at 5:30 to 6:30 AM and on the road by 8:00 AM and our day ended after dinner at 7:30 to 8:00 PM. Some of our fellow travelers, there were 15 of us, often chose to skip dinner and get to bed early. The average age in our group was probably 60 years old, but all were relatively fit and able to keep up the pace.
I feel I know Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, I know their people, I understand their economies, and I understand their culture. If I’d taken a cruise that stopped in these countries I don’t think I would have been able be achieve the level of understanding that I have today.