Asian Adventure » Review by Matthew Hogg
"The greatest journeys start with a single step and end up as legendary stories"
Travelling is more than just exploring the world; it's about taking part of your life journey. A journey that will take you to some amazing places. A journey that will create unforgettable memories. A journey where you will discover yourself. A journey that is not complete unless you get out there and explore! Throw into the mix meeting fellow travellers from around the world, local cultures & customs, history, incredible local cuisine and best of all - the local people themselves, and you've got yourself an incredible recipe.
And, where else in the world can you find the amazing food, try fried insects, buy a beer for 50cents, ride on 3-wheeled contraptions, attempt to cross the street without waiting for the traffic to stop, ride an elephant down the main road of a capital city and learn the entire war-torn and political histories, other than in South East Asia! And, (in my opinion) there is no better way to do it, than with Contiki Asia.
Though people may be familiar with the style of touring that Contiki has traditionally done through Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, Contiki's relatively new product in Asia differs slightly. As my Tour Manager Dave said in Vietnam "Contiki Asia differs to those locations that Contiki has traditionally travelled to...for example we use a variety of different transports, so in terms of a traditional Contiki tour, yeah it's still got all of those same elements. But, a little bit like Asia - Same Same But Different, that's what Contiki Asia is." What's more, is that not only is your Tour Manager there on each step of the journey, but you're also joined in each city by a local guide to show you their part of the world.
For me, my travel experience with Contiki in Asia was on the Vietnam Experience in 2009 with Tour Manager Dave, and in 2011 the Asian Adventure with Tour Manager Jonny. These two tours make up Contiki's Big Indochina Adventure which will take you though Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
What I particularly love about Contiki in Asia is that you simply get to see more. There is no sitting on a bus for hours on end every second day, and to reduce the travel time you often fly - giving you much more time to explore. As well as the internal flights, you also travel on overnight trains, tuk tuk's, bikes, rickshaws, sampans, and traditional Chinese style junk boats. All up, there is over 10 different means of transportation on the Big Indochina Adventure.
Their hotels are right where you want to be. In Bangkok, you're only one street away from Koh San Road. In Nha Trang, you're a minute’s walk from the beach. In Siem Reap, it's a 10 minute walk from the popular Bar Street and in Ho Chi Minh City, you're only minutes away from the Ben Than markets. Centrally located hotels that definitely have comfort in mind. You'll find all the rooms have their own private bathroom & air conditioning, and most will have TV's and free Wi-Fi (that should only be used to gloat though a Facebook status to those at home!). Contiki however, goes that one step further - and provides you with an authentic local experience on their tours in Asia. You stay in guesthouses in Pakbeng in Laos and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. And you also get off dry land with the overnight stay on the traditional junk boat in Halong Bay.
It all starts in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Forget the scenes depicted in the Hangover Part 2, Bangkok is a unique city that is sure to shock your senses - particularly if it's your first time to Asia! Street side vendors, tuk tuk's, markets and the neon lights is all part of what makes up the city they like to call Bangkok. It's here that the tour starts. When I arrived in Bangkok for the Asian Adventure in 2011, I arrived 2 days before the tour started. I was lucky enough to meet many of the people who were going to be on the trip beforehand, through the Contiki forums and a Facebook group, and we all headed out for some drinks. I was starting to get excited! That night, being the party animal I am I decided to head out after everyone else had gone back to the hotel. Jumping in a Tuk Tuk, and having no idea where I wanted to go, I told the driver to take me "to where it all happens in Bangkok". Perhaps I could have worded that a little better - the driver took me to a place which I thought was a bar, only to walk inside to a massive glass window with 30 Thai girls (well, I think they were) trying to get my attention. Lesson learnt I think! The next day, after we had our Tour Meeting, the group headed out for some dinner and drinks at a local bar called the Triple 9 West. Some, afterwards decided to be adventurous and head to Pat Pong Road, a street which the Thai people chose to believe doesn't exist, and go to a Ping Pong show. Not for everybody, but an experience in the least!
From Bangkok it's on to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Usually, you would get the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. However due to flooding in Thailand at the time of my tour the rail lines were under water and we had to fly. No problem - we scored an extra night in a magnificent city! Jonny informed us to go and buy some new clothes at the local market - and to "think 80's", because the next stop was Chiang Rai and we were heading out for an 80's party. Well...it wasn't really an 80's party, but I'm sure it was amusing for the local's to see 30 travellers walking the street in 'tight and bright' (and my amazing green flashing sunglasses that I found!).
It was then time to say Bye Bye to Thailand and Hello to Laos as we crossed the Thai/Laos boarder by boat! Yes, by boat - in what has to be the most interesting boarder crossing anywhere in the world. This is where being on Contiki and having Jonny with us was fantastic, he made it hassle free, and actually seem easy! It was now time to simply sit back and relax, as we cruised down the beautiful Mekong River for two whole days, with a stop over in a small local village called Pakbeng. It was once we arrived in Pakbeng that I became very excited about the country that we were going to spend 6 nights in - it was beautiful. That night, we had a delicious Laotian banquet at the hotel before heading out to what was the only bar in Pakbeng. We decided to start early, as there is still a curfew stipulated by the government in Laos, where we had to be back in the hotel by 11pm. A welcome change, I thought I may actually get some sleep for a few nights. But, for those of us that can't help but to party it just turned into a hotel party with a bottle of vodka, beer and the iPod dock! At one point we must have got a bit loud, because Jonny came out and told us to be a little bit quieter so those who wanted to sleep could, which then also lead to a local police man coming to tell us to shut it down. That wasn't anything that a free shot of Vodka to the local cop couldn't fix however!
From Pakbeng it was onto another day of cruising down the Mekong to laid back Luang Prabang. With Jonny telling us not to waste anytime once we arrived to the hotel, it was a quick drop off of the bags, hand in some laundry to reception to get washed and we went on a bike tour of this stunning town as the sun set. Laos was definitely shaping up to be a personal favourite. The next morning it was time for one of our optional activities in the giving of alms to the local monks. It was an early morning, but what a rewarding activity to be part of!
From Luang Prabang it was onto Vang Vieng. This was definitely something the whole group was looking forward to - Tubing! If you haven't heard of tubing before, search it on You Tube! Although, once we got there, I was pleasantly surprised. Vang Vieng was beautiful, particularly the picturesque limestone karsts. Whilst, extremely fun, tubing is also extremely dangerous with people being killed every year. My recommendation, if you travel to Vang Vieng, do yourself a favour and go tubing. But stick together as a group, and have some common sense about you, and you'll be fine.
Next stop - the French influenced capital of Laos, Vientiane. It's here in Vientiane that you visit Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe, and enjoy dinner at a restaurant called Makphet which employs local street kids and teaches them culinary skills in the aim to break the vicious cycle of poverty they were born into. A particularly proud moment for me was when we visited the COPE centre. What I didn't know before I visited Laos was of the cold dark history they have, with the secret war that had been fought there. Today, there is still thousands of un-exploded cluster bombs that lie in and around Laos, and many locals are still losing arms and legs from these bombs that haven't yet detonated. What the COPE centre does is make artificial limbs for these amputees. For only US$75 you can buy a limb which will be donated to one of these local amputee's, and it was a very proud moment when the group purchased a combined 13 legs for these unfortunate locals.
From Laos to Cambodia, and it was time to take to the air and arrive in the capital Phnom Penh. Once we arrived, Jonny prepared us for what was going to be a very raw experience. It was time to visit one of the killing fields under the Pol Pot regime. I'm not going to go into too much detail about that, but it is a reminder of the very dark history in South East Asia, which is fairly recent. Today though, unless you knew otherwise you wouldn't have a clue at the plight that the Cambodian's went though, and as we land in Siem Reap and take a cruise down the picture perfect Tonle Sap on a private boat, you begin to see the resilience and good nature of the Cambodian people. It was now soon time for the Asian Adventure to end, and at this point of the tour I remembered back to something that Jonny said 2 weeks before hand in Bangkok, that this was a unique tour that got better with each day. And, as I reflected on the previous two weeks he was right, and he was also right in what we experienced the next day. Angkor Wat at sunrise, nothing that I can sit here and type can give justice to this truly remarkable site of the Khmer Empire.
As I was doing the Asian Adventure it was now time for my tour to end, as the people that were doing the Big Indochina Adventure continued onto Vietnam. This was the part of the tour I did back in 2009 with Dave. It begins in Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon as the locals call it. Saigon is a manic city that has over 6million registered motorcycles. It's a city where you'll never get across the street if you wait for the traffic to stop. Arriving in Saigon a night before the tour started, I think I mostly stuck to restaurants and shops where I didn't have to cross the road - it was simply too daunting. It was day one, the Contiki meeting had finished in the lobby of the Viendong Hotel, and it was off to the Ben Tanh markets for dinner. It was here Dave told the group that when crossing the road, you just have to start walking and keep a steady pace and the motorbikes will dodge you, which was actually quite a thrilling experience. That night, we all got to know each other, having some drinks and the Aleez Boo bar and the Go2 bar, which are very popular night spots in Saigon. On this particular tour we were fairly lucky to have two training Tour Managers with us. We had Bern, who had worked with Contiki and Trafalgar in Europe, and Salli who had worked with Contiki in Australia. So we definitely had the experience to get some truly remarkable new adventures under our belt. I remember that night, at the Go2 bar there was a guy in our group who fell asleep at the bar. I was with Adam who was my roommate, and we decided not to wake him when we left - after all we hadn't even really spoken to this guy. Some two and a half years later I am still copping it for leaving him asleep at the bar!
From Saigon it’s a journey into the Mekong Delta. On this journey we travelled by bus, boat, bike and finally sampans. It was an overnight stop at a guesthouse where you could just chill back in a hammock, read a book, listen to your iPod, or if you were game enough engage in playing King of Beers with our local guide Nam. The next morning, heading back to Saigon, we stopped at the legendary Cu Chi tunnels. We actually got to go down the tunnels and experience the underground world that the Viet cong created for hiding. These tunnels were narrow, very narrow - which had actually been widened to fit us Western tourists. Back in Saigon, it was time for a drink again at the Aleez Boo, and Go2 bars before waking up the next morning and exploring the city, where we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral (which you would have seen as the starting point on Top Gear's Vietnam Special), the presidential palace, and the general post office (which you would have also seen on the Amazing Race), before our flight to Nha Trang.
Onto Nha Trang and it was time for Dave to show us around. Where to get the best seafood (amazing!), get our clothes washed and where to drink. Waking up the next morning we had the option to do our own thing, or go on an optional cruise to the gorgeous island off Nha Trang for what turned into Karaoke, snorkelling, jet skiing, parasailing, and a swim up bar! That night, it was off to Dave's local pick for a drink (probably because it's the only place where they sold Guinness on tap!) At this bar we were dared to try what they call the "real Nha Trang bucket". Which from memory had 2 bottles of Vodka, 2 bottles of rum, half a bottle of gin, triplesec, lime and sprite. 8 of us went in on it, and although I felt fine the next day some of the others didn't.
Time to take to the air again, and we landed in the world heritage listed Hoi An, which was a place to relax for a couple of days in the amazing hotel pool, get some fantastic clothes made, and enjoy some great food. From Hoi An, it was time to jump on a bus for a drive to Hue, where we travelled along the Hai Van Pass (again, seen in Top Gear) which as absolutely stunning. The view it said to be a like a picturesque metaphor where old and new Vietnam meet. With only one night in Hue, it was time to go local again, and stop in at the DMZ bar for a couple of drinks - and to tag ourselves on the wall.
The next morning began again with a flight to the nation’s capital - Hanoi! Hanoi is a great city, which offers great food and shopping. For those who wanted to, you could also go and visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. From Hanoi it was onto what was my favourite part of Vietnam - the overnight junk cruise on Halong Bay. I could go on for hours explaining how beautiful it was at sunset and sunrise, but I don't want to ruin the surprise for you who will eventually travel there. Once on shore again, it was time to drive back to Hanoi for what would be the final night of the tour, and for 30 new friends to return to their own corner of the globe.
Whatever you're looking for in a holiday, whether it be to see new things, to make new friends, to find lust (or even love), Contiki sure do have you covered in Asia. It was been one of the best experiences of my life, and I can't wait for the next one (Thai Islands perhaps??). Whether you're travelling with a group of friends, or even solo you're bound to have a good time. Both times I've travelled with Contiki in Asia I have travelled solo, and I have made friendships that I am positive that will last a lifetime.
So...if I can steal something from the Contiki Asia brochure, go out there and travel for the moments. Moments that will make your jaw drop and eyes widen, like the first time you watch the sunrise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Some give you that "wow" moment, like staring out over the turquoise waters of Halong Bay. Others are a little more low key, like watching the Buddhist monks quietly stroll by in Luang Prabang. These moments all come together to create your story...one that will live with you forever. It's the cultural explosion that makes Asia so special - the local cultures and customs, the unbeatable food, the incredible variety of landscapes and the amazing characters that make each country so unique. It's about widening your perspective on the world and coming home with your own story to tell.
My tips -
* Try as many different local foods as you can because chances are you may never come across something quite so unique again
* Travel with an open mind, who knows what is around the corner. Who you might meet, or what you might encounter
* Do all the optional tours, they are all so unique, and whilst it may sound more fun at the time to go to the bar and drink, you'll definitely be thankful that you've done it once you've returned home
* Have fun! Travel is all about having fun. Tick those items off your bucket list, make new friends (both other travellers and locals), and enjoy what South East Asia has to offer! And remember, a journey is best measured in friendship, rather than miles!
So go out and take that first leap, start that journey, and create that legendary story
Review written Feb 2012event 0.3