Tour group traveling. For some, it conjures up images of camaraderie, sociability, and the chance to leave the planning and execution to someone else. Others shudder at the thought, and objections can range from being stuck with people who rub you the wrong way to forced socializing to being shackled to an itinerary that doesn’t allow for spontaneity.
I haven’t gravitated toward group travel for two reasons: I’m an introvert and I love to do my own travel planning. But when it came to our first trip to a non-Western part of the world, we felt it might add the safety net we were looking for. Finding a reputable company that incorporates physical activities into the itinerary was the icing on the cake. While the trip did have a few drawbacks, we have no regrets. It was the right trip for us. The question is – is it right for you?
My Dream Boutique Resort, Luang Prabang. Beautiful rooms, friendly staff, two swimming pools, and only a short walk from the seasonal bamboo bridge that leads into the old town.
We actually stayed in three different rooms at this resort, but I forgot to photograph one of them. We were rather under the weather, you see, when we checked into our third room on our return from Nong Khiaw. Fortunately, it was as nice as the other two.
Nong Kiau Riverside Resort in Nong Khiaw, with its location along the river offering stunning views.
Borei Angkor Resort & Spa, Siem Reap, where we stayed in two separate rooms that were more or less identical.
*According to R.E.I.’s website, these three places are the ones they most often book for this trip, though sometimes circumstances necessitate that they use other accommodations.
Days: The trip itself is 12 days, though days 1 and 12 are really just half days. Also, add two extra days to get there (from the US anyway), one extra day to get back, and plan on a protracted period of wicked jet lag when you return. We went a step further and gave ourselves three days to get there. We wanted a buffer day in case we had flight delays, but the travel gods smiled on us and we got our hoped-for spare day on the front end of the trip to recover, adjust to the time zone, and see Luang Prabang.
Travel season: At the time of this writing, the R.E.I. website doesn’t give tour dates since most of their trips are canceled due to coronavirus. I can tell you, however, that this trip is offered only in November, December, January, and February. This is the dry season, and it was also wonderfully mosquito-free. Engaging in the physical activities during the rainy season would have been a nightmare. I second R.E.I.’s decision to run this trip in the dry season only.
Group size: This can range from 4-14 people (not including guides) but our trip had only six. According to our guide, the trips that run over Christmas tend to have lower numbers. He expected the January and February trips to have closer to the max, and he confirmed my suspicions that those fuller trips have a different feel, saying everything moves much more slowly and that people tend to divide off into groups.
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Sports/Activities: Perhaps not surprisingly, when R.E.I. bills one of its trips as “multisport,” it means there are at least two and sometimes three sports or physical activities around which the trip centers. In our case, hiking, cycling, and kayaking were the featured activities. Cycling was the star of the show, hiking played a supporting role, and kayaking had only a cameo. Of the ten full days of the trip, this was the breakdown of scheduled physical activity:
- Day 1 – cycling
- Day 2 – cycling
- Day 3 – cycling
- Day 4 – hiking
- Day 5 – kayaking
- Day 6 (depart Laos/arrive Cambodia)
- Day 7 – cycling
- Day 8 – cycling
- Day 9 – hiking
- Day 10 – minimal hiking (boating on Lake Tonlé Sap)
For you avid cyclists out there, you should know that all cycling was done on mountain bikes, even though we were road biking. If you’re used to cycling on a lightweight carbon road bike, as I am, this may take some getting used to, especially in hilly areas.
Hiking enthusiasts, you should know that the hiking was quite a bit tamer than I was expecting in terms of physical exertion and level of difficulty, given the kind of activities I generally associate with R.E.I., but it was enjoyable just the same.
Guides: This trip has a main guide and, once you arrive in Cambodia, a secondary guide who kind of becomes the main guide while the original main guide takes something of a back seat, at least when you’re out touring. Our main guide was Choy, who is Laotian, and our secondary guide was Bun, who is Cambodian. If Bun was very good, Choy was absolutely fantastic. We all fell in love with him. There is no guarantee as to which guides you will get on your trip, but if they’re anything like Choy, you will have an amazing experience.
Cultural and historical sites and experiences: Temples; museums; games of pétanque; a former communist cave-hideout; religious ceremonies; remote villages; sacred hills, mountains, and caves; a bear sanctuary; a whiskey-maker; waterfalls; cultural dances; paper and bamboo handicrafts—this trip had it all. Despite what I’m about to say about longing for free time (see “cons,” below), I would have regretted missing any of these.
Food: Most days, all three meals are provided on the trip, and the food always fell somewhere along the “delicious to utterly spectacular” continuum. Except where there are buffets, dining is family style and there is no ordering off a menu. The guides choose a range of dishes ahead of time. We don’t have any forced or chosen food restrictions (I mean, my god, the husband eats Spam® for crying out loud, and I’m the queen of dairy and carbs), but if you do, the guides will accommodate it by making sure at least a few of the dishes at each meal align with your dietary needs.
Pros & Cons
Except for two cons, below, there was nothing we didn’t like about this trip. Everything I’ve mentioned so far went into our “plus” column. One huge pro I haven’t remarked upon yet is ease. Everything about this trip was just so damn easy! Need a bike? *Poof* A bike appears. Problem with your bike? *Poof* A new bike appears. There’s no arranging transportation, making reservations, or getting lost. There’s no standing in line, keeping track of tickets, or agonizing over tipping culture. We even got to skip the customs line in Cambodia, something I didn’t think was even possible.
Yeah, yeah, I know. All this meant things were a bit insular. Some of you will find this type of travel too detached, not messy or gritty enough, too orderly and prescribed. I get it – while nobody wants to lose their tickets or get lost or struggle with the currency or the language or a million other things, those experiences are more “authentic” if you will—less coddled. And while that type of figure-it-out-as-you-go, do-it-yourself, plan-for-the-best-but-expect-hiccups travel is what we usually embrace, this time we wanted to minimize the stress, especially since the preparations for this trip were herculean compared to others we’ve taken. Now, for the cons . . .
Con #1: Too. Much. Food.
I’ve been eating food for many years now, and I still haven’t mastered portion control. It’s particularly difficult when I’m faced with copious quantities of delectable, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime food. But my personal failings aside, we all bemoaned the fact that, most days of the trip, when we sat down for lunch we were still full from breakfast, and when we sat down for dinner we were still full from lunch.
For the husband and me, though, this wasn’t just about expanding waistlines and indigestion. We felt uncomfortably imperialistic getting up after a meal and leaving platters of food unfinished. And in addition to having that “rich, spoiled Westerner” feel, I plain old don’t like waste. I was somewhat mollified later in the trip when I learned that the leftover food is given to pigs and other animals, but still, I wish R.E.I. could somehow make lunches optional.
Con #2: Not enough free time.
“Eat, eat, eat. Go, go, go.” That could be R.E.I’s tagline for this trip. You certainly get your money’s worth in terms of activities. When we weren’t engaged in the actual hiking, cycling, or kayaking, we were seeing, visiting, touring, and doing. We are so grateful we could get ourselves over to Asia a day early so we could have time to explore Luang Prabang at our leisure. We did not get this in Siem Reap. In fact, when people ask me what I thought of Siem Reap, I shrug my shoulders. We had no time to explore. Each day’s itinerary was full, so full that once or twice the six of us flexed our collective group muscle and demanded a later departure time for the next day’s activities. In short, the husband and I craved down time.
So now that you know what you know, do you think R.E.I.’s Laos-Cambodia Multisport Adventure would be right for you? Despite its few shortcomings, I highly recommend it. Just be sure to bring some Tums™ and leave your need for relaxation at home.
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To be taken to R.E.I’s web page on its Asia Multisport trips, click here. (Note: Twelve hours before this post was due to be published, I gave it one last proofread and double-checked the Laos-Cambodia trip link, only to find that sometime in the last week, the trip was removed from the company’s website. Whether this is a temporary or permanent deletion remains to be seen. If you’d like to call R.E.I. and give a lowly customer service agent an earful about how they’ve made me look like a fool for reviewing what is now a nonexistent trip, call 1-800-THANKSREI. I’m going to go out on a limb, however, and posit that everything I’ve just written is generally applicable to other R.E.I. multisport trips.)
To read my truncated day-by-day itinerary of the R.E.I. trip, read this: And We’re Off…
To read about those whole SE Asia odyssey from the beginning, start here: Things We Learned From the Travel Medicine Doctor: Laos/Cambodia Edition