Introducing the “Refill Not Landfill” campaign

Refill Not Landfill logo

From the very beginnings of Journeys Within in Cambodia, we’ve tried to find a solution to the thousands of plastic single-use water bottles that accumulate over time. Like in many developing countries, the tap water in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia is not safe to drink, thus single-use plastic water bottles become the norm for visitors, and our guests were no exception.

For years all of Journeys Within’s cars and vans had a cooler in the back full of these environmentally-devastating bottles. Cambodia doesn’t have any plastic bottle recycling, so every bottle was ending up in a landfill, or worse, in the Tonle Sap or Mekong rivers.

Exploring Angkor
Andrea, Callie and Couper explore the Angkor temples with their Refill Not Landfill reusable water bottles.

At the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel we offered glass water bottles in every room and at meals filled up glasses with water, rather than use more plastic bottles, but it was a small dent in a large problem. At one point we ordered BPA-free water bottles and gave them out to each guest, but we soon realized that our drivers and guides were filling these water bottles up from single-use bottles and the problem wasn’t being solved – it was merely being hidden from our guests.

Skip ahead to 2016… Christian De Boer, now the GM of the amazing Jaya House River Park Hotel, came up with and promoted the Refill Not Landfill campaign, and like we had done many years ago, printed up bottles for each of his guests. Here however, is where Christian was able to come up with a real solution to the problem.

Refill Not Landfill bottles in action

Not only did he partner with tour companies like Journeys Within, but he also got restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues to set up refill stations. These refill stations consist of larger water bottles that have clean, filtered water and can be used to refill the smaller reusable bottles. So now, guests can have a Journeys Within water bottle, but get it filled up at their hotel, at their lunch stop and even at the circus that night.

On my July 2017 trip to Cambodia, the kids and I loved having our bottles and we made the most of so many of the refill stations. More and more partners are joining the community initiative and Journeys Within is so proud to be a founding member. Check out this video that highlights how a day without single-use water bottles in Cambodia becomes a reality…

ABOUT REFILL NOT LANDFILL

Refill Not Landfill aims to cut down on the millions of plastic water bottles discarded in Cambodia each year by offering an alternative: reusable aluminum bottles. Our informal consortium hopes to revolutionize the way that tourists consume water in a country where few plastic containers are recycled, with most ending up in mountainous landfills or piling up beside roads, choking the Kingdom’s waterways and littering azure fields with waste. Click here to read more…

Refill Not Landfill bottles in action

Refill Not Landfill bottles in action

Refill Not Landfill bottles in action

Vietnam caving adventures: The underground world of the Phong Nha cave system

A few years ago the Son Doong and Tu Lan Caves were discovered in central Vietnam and my bucket list got a new #1 must-do item.

This past August, those dreams became a reality and I boarded a flight to Saigon, Vietnam, followed by a connection to Dong Hoi and a short drive to Phong Nha, which serves as the home base for Oxalis Adventure Tours – the outfitter for my caving adventure.

Located five hours north of Hue in central Vietnam, the Phong Nha area is perhaps the most beautiful part of Vietnam I’ve seen yet. With rice paddies stretching out to the horizon, limestone cliffs stretching up to the sky, and rivers running through all of it, the views that first morning made my trip worthwhile all by themselves.

Phong Nha, Vietnam
The view from Phong Nha, Vietnam was worth the trip by itself.

In Phong Nha, I also met up with the lovely Anna Baldwin – our London-based Journeys Within Tour Consultant – who would be accompanying me on this adventure… An adventure that was about to get real!

Anna and I took a minibus to the Oxalis staging area and got the gear we would need for our next three days of exploring: hiking boots, headlamps and waterproof bags. Once we were all geared up we headed out through the rice paddies – getting strange looks from the spectating water buffalo along the way – towards the towering mountains in the distance and the amazing caverns hiding amidst their peaks.

Vietnam cave mouth near Phong Nha
Entering many of the caves in this system required a swim.

Our first underground experience in Secret Cave really brought to life this adventure and how grateful we should be to be there. Squeezing through small holes and then entering giant caverns, it felt like we had stepped into another world. And it was only the beginning.

Now, while this other world was indeed amazing, the journey through it didn’t happen without some effort. We trekked for much of the day, literally up and over a mountain – an experience that felt like a combination of a Stairmaster workout and Bikram yoga. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life!

However, the reward was worth the effort when we trekked into camp that night and were greeted with a cool swim in a natural pool complete with a shower from the waterfall overhead. After an amazing meal cooked by our porters, we spent the night in hammocks, the brilliant sky framed by lush jungle foliage.

Caving in Vietnam
The size and diversity of the many caverns was something best witnessed first-hand.

The next day was dedicated to swimming… through caves! Many of the caves in the Tu Lan system can only be accessed by swimming and it was by far my favorite day… Floating in a pitch black cave as bats swoop over your head and your headlamp beam catches the shimmer of stalactites hanging above you is a surreal and magical experience.

We hiked and swam and felt like true explorers, and at the end of the day we once again arrived at a camp surrounded on one side by thick jungle and on the other a beautiful pool shadowed by towering limestone cliffs.

The last day was definitely the toughest – it started out hot and it didn’t cool down. We hiked up and over “Papa” Mountain and forded multiple rivers. We saw centipedes and snakes and again marveled at the underground worlds we entered and left.

As we crossed back over the rice paddies and past the sleeping buffalo in their mud holes, the entire experience felt like a surreal dream, only my bruises and sore muscles confirmed the reality of the amazing three-day experience.

Vietnam caving
Gazing out of one of the caves in the Tu Lan system.

All photos in this blog post by Anna Baldwin.

Bangkok update: After my visit

I had a wonderful few days in Bangkok and was, as always, impressed with their resilience and their commitment to getting back to life!

While they have not apprehended a suspect in the recent bombing they have announced a crackdown on crime and I believe that it is safe to travel to and around Bangkok. We are advising all our trips continue as planned and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Until then please take a look at this great article from Yahoo Travel on how to plan ahead in today’s ever changing world, featuring yours truly.

Bangkok after the blast

Erawan Shrine in Bangkok
The Erawan Shrine in Bangkok has survived the recent bombing.

“Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” says my taxi driver as he describes his typical day from the airport to town. “But today, you my only one. Not enough.”

I don’t take it personally. This is business, and since the bomb on Monday the driver tells me there are a lot fewer travelers arriving in Bangkok. The hotels have been telling me the same story – a lot of cancelled bookings, and those guests that are here are leaving early.

I’m here to gauge the situation and try to determine what advice I want to give our Journeys Within guests – and travelers in general – who have Thailand on their itinerary in the coming months. This is not the first time I’ve headed to Bangkok due to a bad situation. I was in Thailand after the tsunami, here during the first coup, here for the flooding and here for the protests. The truth is that when issues happen in any of the countries we work in, I like to be there on the ground so when I talk to my guests I can genuinely speak from experience. I think it’s my obligation as an expert of this region to have this first-hand knowledge.

So I’m here and I’m already hearing from the taxi driver that life is getting back to normal today. The schools that closed are back open, and so are the streets that had been closed after the blast.

After checking in, I did the one thing that always helps gauge the city, I went shopping. The malls in Bangkok are always a lively scene and are the best way to see just how locals and tourists alike are feeling. I took a taxi to Siam Square and visited the various malls and shopping centers. The truth is that if I hadn’t known about the bombs there was no indication of the aftermath in downtown Bangkok. All the various stores are open and being visited by large numbers of tourists – it felt very much like a typical Bangkok day.

Bangkok shopping mall
Shopping malls in Bangkok seemed normal.

I met with friends for coffee and they said that people are scared, but life has to go on. They said they felt bad because they really didn’t have any answers for me and didn’t know if there was a reason to be scared and avoid Thailand or not. The general mood was one of sadness and resignation.

In the evening there was a news conference at the Erawan Shrine, the site of the bombing. A police spokesman showed the recently released sketch and explained their reasoning behind this man being the main suspect. After the conference I bought flowers and candles and made an offering at a shrine I’ve made many offerings to in the past, but this time it was with great sadness.

Police at the Erawan Shrine
Police briefing at the Erawan Shrine.

So down to the nitty gritty: The reason I wanted to come here was to be able to offer tangible advise to our travelers. After being here I do think traveling to Bangkok is possible and life goes on as usual, but at the same time, it was the first time that I’ve visited Bangkok during a crisis and felt nervous. The attack on the Erawan Shrine was aimed at tourists and was unpredictable. Unlike the protests, this type of attack can’t be avoided, and no matter how careful and aware our guides are, we could put our guests in a dangerous situation. With that said, the Thai police are clearly searching for the suspect and I do believe they are actively working to solve the situation. Therefore, my advice for our guests is to not visit Bangkok in the next two weeks.

On September 1 we will reassess the situation. Right now we will absolutely support any guests that want to come to Bangkok, and for all the trips we have booked past September we advise waiting for the next two weeks before making any changes.

Tomorrow I’ll explore some more and chat with more friends and my team here. In the meantime if you have any questions on Bangkok and the situation please just let us know.

“People scared,” my taxi driver said wistfully, “but we Bangkok, we be okay.”

T-shirts in Bangkok
The caption on the shirts says it all.

Reflections from the rails: Tips for embracing the adventure

Due to some scheduling issues, I recently found that I was going to be in Sacramento, California – 100 miles from my home and office in Truckee – without a car after a breakfast meeting.

Amtrak station in Sacramento
Waiting for my train.

Rather than give up on my carpool down there and take a second car, I thought that I could use a little adventure and I booked my return trip on the Amtrak train from Sacramento to Truckee. It was just a three-hour train ride (through a beautiful area), and it ended up being a much-needed soul recharge.

As I started to think about why this silly little adventure had turned into a highlight for me, it made me think about how our travelers could really get the most out of trips with Journeys Within as well. So here are my top 5 ways to embrace the adventure and get the most out of every travel experience (written from the train).

  1. Do something new: I’ve driven between Truckee and Sacramento more times than I could count, but taking the train was a whole new experience for me. I wasn’t sure where to catch the train, how long it would take, or how it all worked, but I got on Amtrak.com and then called friends I knew had taken it before and I worked it out.
Train ride with kids
Traveling with the kids.
  1. Remember: I’ve spent a lot of this train ride with memories. I remember my Grandma telling me about the train ride she took to her new home in Malawi when she moved to Africa. I remember riding the train as a kid in England with my mom and sister. I remember riding the trains in China and Vietnam with Brandon, of course in the cheap seats and meeting fascinating people. I remember other trains in Vietnam – to Sapa when my kids were small, and to Hue with Anna (when we acted like kids). Having experiences that connect you to your past and then reveling in those connections is a wonderful way to make travel timeless.
All-in, with my grandma's hat on
All-in, with my grandma’s hat on
  1. Go all in: You know we’ve all rolled our eyes at the tourists dressed up in saris in India and the many conical hats we’ve put on in Vietnam, but the truth is, when you really embrace the experience and show that you’re all in, you get more out of it. I have an old hat my Grandma told me was her train hat. When I booked the train ticket I couldn’t help but think about it, so I packed it and this morning I put it on. Somehow this just made the adventure feel all the more exciting. It helped that I had Anna with me and we had fun with some old photos, but everyone stopped and mentioned my hat. The conductor even sat with me and told me interesting facts about the train I was on. You see, I think people saw me embracing the experience and wanted to be in that moment with me. It was fantastic and I’m so glad I was willing to be a bit embarrassed to really be all in.
Traveling companions
Want to really get to know someone? Take a long train ride with them.
  1. Talk to people: When the conductor commented on my train attire, I explained that I love trains and that it makes me nostalgic and he immediately agreed and we started chatting. He answered all my questions about the train and how it runs, who takes it and how he became a conductor. Isn’t that the experience we all want when we travel, to meet the people and really feel like we made a connection. All it takes is asking questions and then really listening.
  1. Be thankful: This is my new motto for life, but it really becomes true in travel. Appreciate the experience you get to have – whether it’s a three-hour train ride through the Sierra Nevada mountains, or a three-week trip to Southeast Asia – be thankful for those that make it possible and enjoy the moment. When I get back to Truckee I have to go to work; I have to pick up the kids; I know I have to clean the house and the laundry is all there; but for now, I’m on a train cruising through some of the prettiest scenery in the world and I’m wearing my Grandma’s hat. And that’s a moment I’m thankful for.
stairway to the tracks
Stairway to…