Travel Tips, part 7, or, choosing a tour

Posted in Travel at 15:32 by RjZ

The more you’ve travelled the tougher the decision is to make. To book a tour or not. The problem is that advantages and disadvantages of the organized tour don’t change much from country to country. Once you’ve gathered a bit of experience, you can be confident that you know what to expect and what you’d have to do in order to arrange the darn thing yourself. So, for those of you who don’t yet, let me run down some options.

Just to give you a starting point, suppose you’re in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and you’ve heard of this kitschy elephant training camp that’s not too far away. How are your going to see it?

The organized tour:
Starting in your budget hotel, and nearly everywhere you go, people are offering tours throughout the Chiang Mai area. Virtually all of them have an offering that includes the elephants playing soccer that you read about in your guide book and, it turns out, there’s much more to see in one convenient tour! It always pays to shop around, just to be sure, but it won’t do you much good, because it’s nearly impossible determine which tours are the best. They all promise much the same things. Better, is to ask fellow tourists if they found one that they liked and also why they liked it. Тry to nail down details from the person selling you the tour about what exactly they’re promising and how long things are supposed to last. Ask what happens if your tour group decides they don’t want to see the reptile farm and they’d rather have a few more moments for coffee. Depending on your taste for coffee this may not be a problem for you, but it’s a good idea to know in advance how that’s going to be handled—will they just skip the reptiles after running out of time?

What happens next in the great majority of cases is that you pay your money and a tour bus of some sort comes by your hotel the next morning to pick you up. It’s great service, but tour operators have learned that waiting for tourists to show up is a recipe for disaster so it’s worth it to them. Next, You’re rushed from one site to another, almost always with more time to eat and shop than to see what you paid for. A sheepherder tour guide explains what you’re going to see next and includes stories about why it’s important. While it can be pretty annoying cooling your heels in a terrible cafeteria restaurant after finishing your bland meal while the rest of your group enjoys a second cup of coffee, you’re still going to fit at least dozen different activities into your short day.

Result: you’re part of a possibly annoying, embarrassingly loud, group, and you get to feel rushed while seeing just enough of any site or activity so that you won’t complain that you were cheated. On the other hand, you’ll get chauffeured around to a dozen sites in one day and you might even have a guide in your language to explain what you’ve seen and provide a few cute, memorable stories too.

Your own private guide:
If you look closely at the songthaews (truck-taxis) racing around Chiang Mai (or whatever the local taxi service is for your destination) you’ll notice that some of them have names of the places they go written on them—in English. Your elephant trip is printed right there on some of the songthaews…surely you could just hire one of those. In order to visit the clever pachyderms, you venture out to find a cab or truck-taxi, or whatever you can get. Some negotiation later, your taxi driver insists he understands everything and he’ll take you exactly where you’d like to go.

A private guide, you figure, will give you more freedom and time to do things your own way. Now you’re riding in a back of a cab and hoping he takes you to the places you had in mind. You haven’t paid him yet, (right?) so he’s got some incentive to make you happy, but you have negotiated a price already (and it’s more than you would have paid for a tour, but this is a private tour, isn’t it!) and the driver figures that the sooner he get’s you on your way, the sooner he get’s paid. Plus, if there’s anything chance he can convince you to stop and shop for some souvenir, he might even get a commission out of the deal.

Result: your-taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide rushes you from site to site as much as he can and even squeezes a few upscale souvenir shops into the deal, and though you’re paying more for a trip without meals, you’re completely at his mercy the whole time. At least you can keep him waiting for you at each site as long as you wish, and sometimes he finds something cool that wasn’t even in your guidebook.

Self-catered tour:
If you’ve been doing this a few times already, it’s pretty easy to see there’s no real rocket science to driving you around to places which frequently end up being right next to each other in the first place. If you could only do it yourself, you’d have as much time as you wish and no pressure from anyone to have an extra cup of coffee or to see if the diamond and gold gallery is your kind of souvenir shop. Plus it’s going to be great fun!

Problem is figuring out how to get to these places. Not only where they are, but whether self-drive is the same as taking your life into your hands. Not surprisingly, this information is a little harder to come by. You don’t exactly speak Thai and many locals who do operate tours and tell you everything is too far away or too dangerous to get to. About the only guy who thinks it’ll be no problem is the guy who’s renting the motorbike…but then he really would like to rent that motorbike.

Inspired by the other tourists racing around the town, you rent the bike, buy a map, and begin your adventure. Damn if it doesn’t turns out finding street signs in another language is tougher than you thought and actually getting to places is further and more difficult than you imagined. All the while, you fret about someone stealing your rented bike the whole time you meant to be enjoying the silly elephant show.

Result: it takes more time to plan and execute your self-guided tour and you have no idea what you even missed. You stand in awe of temples that you can’t find on your map, but, without a guide, you won’t even be able to tell people the names of them, let alone what their significance is. Still, nothing gives you a more intimate connection with a new country than being lost on back streets where nobody ever even sees tourists and you’ve got some serious bragging rights about how cool and independent you are. Tours are for sissies.

Elephants Painting, Maesa Elephant Camp, Thailand

It can be pretty irritating taking guided tours in big groups and even worse, it turns the whole world into a big museum. But don’t count them out, above all when you’re time is limited. It can be pretty disappointing to return from a trip having missed a world famous site just because you couldn’t find it before your rental period was up. If you’ve got the time to really figure out where things are and enough books to understand what it is you’re actually looking at, nothing will give you a closer look than getting somewhere yourself and there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

Regardless of what fits your schedule, don’t miss the touristy elephant show near Chiang Mai; they really were amazing. Come on, how many places in the world can you see elephants paint flowers? How cool is that?


  1. tess said,

    February 23, 2008 at 8:57

    the best part of this is that YOU, of all people, did something touristy. bravo! an elephant never forgets…how to paint apparently.

  2. RjZ said,

    February 23, 2008 at 12:03

    I very explicitly do touristy things…haven’t I already written about that girl who didn’t want to see Geyser in Iceland?

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