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Guest Review from Susan Fossum

An editor asked our guests for comments on whether they felt that travel agents are still relevant.  For us this is a bit of an existential question, but our guest and ambassador, Susan Fossum, sums it up very well – thank you Susan!

Dear Editor,

I am someone who has used the services of a travel agent and since I heard that you were looking for information on the subject of whether the use of these type of services were still relevant I thought that I would respond to you.

Honestly, until this past year, I have not used the services of a travel agent, but I must tell you that the services that I used this past year with Journeys Within were invaluable and I would use their services again.  In fact I have referred them already and they are being used by friends of mine as they also are impressed with what this company offers.

I am a frequent traveler -as not only do I love to travel- but I am also an RN who goes on frequent trips with 2 non-profit organizations, traveling throughout the world providing free reconstructive surgical care to children with cleft lips/palates and burns.  This past year I traveled with teams to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Tanzania.  I also am involved in organizing and putting on international nursing conferences around the world, last year one being held in Glasgow, Scotland and previous ones in Canada, Ireland and Denmark.  So lots of travel to the dismay of my 3 dogs and horses!

This past year my surgical trip took me to Takeo, Cambodia – a small village in the southern part of Cambodia.  My husband wanted to join me at the end of my 2 week surgical trip for a vacation in Southeast Asia.  As this was a different part of the world that we had not explored before, and the fact that I would be very busy up until the final day of surgery, we decided to look at using a travel agency to help us plan our trip.  Our plan was to travel not only to Cambodia but also to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  My husband happened on information in a travel magazine that mentioned Andrea Ross and her company Journeys Within.  In reading about this company we found that Andrea had spent many years in Cambodia, was familiar with the land and culture and also was supportive of the people and agencies that helped the local towns and villages.  This was impressive to us – so we contacted Andrea to find out about her travel agency and whether this would be a good fit for us.  As I mentioned, we have done most of the planning and organization of overseas trips for many years – over 20.

We came up with an itinerary that we were looking at and then sent that off to Andrea – our goals included not only sightseeing, but adventures out in the countryside that would allow us to mingle with the local peoples and cultures.  The itinerary that we ended up with was perfect for us.  All aspects of our tour were covered – we were met at airports by our tour guides, movement through the airport was smooth, all transportation, cultural events were taken care of.  Our accommodations were beyond what we had expected and supported the local communities.  And – a plus – Andrea and her staff worked with me to coordinate my surgical 2 week trip schedule so it would coincide with flights and lodging for my husband.

Using Journeys Within saved me (us) much needed time and energy.  In looking at costs, which are always relevant, for the time in country, airline flights and the experiences that we had – our trip was within a budget that we had expected.

This is a long letter and probably more that you were expecting – but I wanted to get across the point that for someone who has not used a travel agency in more that 20 years of travel – using the expertise of Andrea Ross and her staff of Journeys Within exceeded my expectations.  Thank you for the opportunity to write you and provide feedback on my experiences.

Susan Fossum

Photos provided by Susan Fossum

Trip Review: Cambodia & Myanmar Vacation

Here’s what a recently returned client, Debbi, had to say about her experience on a Journeys Within trip to Cambodia and Myanmar:

Thank you all so much for everything you did to make our Cambodia/Myanmar vacation wonderful. We had a great time, and learned a lot about Cambodia and Myanmar, but also about ourselves. It was a great adventure.

I wanted to tell you about some of the things that we particularly loved about our trip, and we have a couple of suggestions for you as well.

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First, some of you (April!) spent a lot of time with me on the phone and via email prior to the trip, which I really appreciate. I think it was April who answered my panicked phone call from the plane when United delayed the flight by 3 hours, first for mechanical reasons, then for paperwork, and finally, they had to reboot the plane (yes, they had to call the IT guy to come reboot the plane!) As I watched our once comfortable 5 hour layover in Seoul vanish, I had visions of my whole trip getting pushed out. April, thanks for checking options, for reminding me that trip insurance would take care of it if we missed our Seoul-Siem Reap flight, and generally keeping me sane. As it turned out, with the use of “airline math” we were only 90 minutes late when we landed, plenty of time to catch our Korean Air flight to Siem Reap.

Thank you Narla for picking us up at Siem Reap airport. It’s always a little disconcerting to be in a strange place late at night wondering if your ride will be there, and you were!

Thank you Dar Le for the longyi and the thongs. I used mine at the temples, much easier than my shoes to get off. George is still working on figuring out just how to get his longyi tucked in. We will send pictures!

Alex, I know you are the behind the scenes miracle worker, so thank you.

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Hotels

We LOVED our hotels (with one exception). The staff at the Shinta Mani was amazing, made us feel right at home and of course the hotel itself is just beautiful. It was a great base for our visits to temples, villages, more temples, and we loved having dinner walking distance…although after a couple of tries to cross streets without getting killed, we discovered the great value of tuk-tuks.

La Villa, in Battambang, was a lovely choice. Corrinne the manager is a sweetheart and we loved her little dog too (gave us our dog fix). There was a huge festival going on, which music blasting from several stages from about 10 am to 10 pm … it literally rattled the windows. Fortunately we were not in the hotel most of that time, and it was fun to watch the locals from the upstairs balcony of the Kitchen restaurant, but our first suggestion would be: check to see if there are any festivals happening when booking. If the music hadn’t stopped at 10 it would have really been a problem, and of course the craziness and masses of people directly across from La Villa created a very different impression that what I assume one would normally get.

La Villa Paradiso in Phnom Penh was another hit. The room was huge, and segmented by a screen so we had a very comfortable sitting area. The food was very good and the staff super helpful. It was a peaceful oasis in the middle of the madness that is Phnom Penh and we greatly appreciated it’s serenity. Their welcome drink was great; I have to get the recipe!

And then there was the 4 Rivers Floating Eco Lodge; what an amazing place. Very romantic tents, and we loved the towel elephants on the bed. The setting has to be the most beautiful of anywhere (well, Ngapali Beach is pretty spectacular too!) The staff was wonderful, and we loved our trip to Tatai Waterfall. Unfortunately it was a full moon and also very overcast, so the fireflies were a bit shy, but we did manage to see a few, and we had one special sunset. We also took their first Jungle Hike of the season, where George managed to acquire a leech (a big one!) while walking through the rice paddy. How close to nature can you get! Our biggest challenge that it was more relaxation than we could handle (one of our learnings … 3 days relaxing is about 1 1/2 days too many!). Four Rivers is a very special place, and I can see that those who like hanging out would be quite happy doing so there.

On to Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon. Another beautiful property, and we took advantage of the wooden bridge to get out and take a walk (which was hard to do in some of the other locations. We got a giggle out of the tourist guidebook in the room with rules for visiting Myanmar, and experienced our first power outage. It only lasted a couple of minutes before the generators kicked in, and the hotel had left information in the room about what to do in case of a power outage, so we added it to the list of “what til they hear about this back home” stories. When we had a very early departure, the hotel provided a box breakfast that can only be called lavish. We certainly didn’t starve and it was better than anyone else had on the plane. The only complaint (minor) is that the room was very humid. We asked for (and received) a dehumidifier, and in the first 30 minutes George emptied a gallon of water from it. He emptied it a few more times that evening and it really helped. Unfortunately, they took it back the next day in spite of his note on it asking them to leave it, but they did bring it back when requested.

Our home away from home in Bagan was the Oasis Hotel, and the only disappointment on the trip. While the staff was wonderful (I think all the people we met were wonderful) the room was very spartan, and there was no place to sit other than the bed. A couple of chairs in the room would have made a big difference, and the room was large enough to accommodate them. To add to the atmosphere, a few blocks away was a temple with large speakers blaring songs, chants and political chatter from about 6 am to 9 pm every day. When George walked over to see where the music was coming from, he saw the temple, and not a single person was there! So the noise seemed to be for no one. The morning we left for Inle Lake, the staff told us they would have coffee and bread we could take, since we were leaving too early for breakfast, but they forgot. On the plus side, the Oasis had the best water pressure and hot water, and, it was easy walking distance from lots of restaurants. Still, its not one I would stay at again.

Viewpoint Lodge on Inle Lake, on the other hand, was a place I didn’t want to leave! The cottage was gorgeous, we loved the Shan mini bar, having a deck to sit on and watch the ducks was wonderful, and the restaurant was great. I had planned to use the natural shampoo bark and fixings, but ran out of time (you have to let the bark sit in water for 15 minutes, which requires planning!)

The last hotel was Amazing Ngapali Beach Resort. This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Again we loved the staff, the view from our deck, the soft sand beach that was like powder … just a lovely place. We were there for the weekend, and the staff showed off the purple mark on their finger from voting (those who voted).

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Air Travel

I’m not sure who organized the travel within and between Cambodia and Myanmar, but the flights were great (early!), so thank you. Flying in Myanmar was an adventure we’ll dine out on for months! Boarding passes without our names on it, seat assignment noted by sticking stickers on it, a bus that takes you 20 meters from the terminal to the plane (guess they thought we couldn’t walk that far), a flight notice board that said “please reboot,” the gate agent with his sign like a tour guide, only with a flight number … just an adventure.  When we left Yangon to come home, there was a power outage at the airport just as we were checking in … I felt sorry for the airline staff, but the computers had battery backup, and by that time we were old hands at power outages (glad I brought a flashlight). Besides, it was part of Myanmar charm.

Guides and Drivers

I had wondered why flew from place to place in Myanmar, particularly when the cities weren’t that far apart. Now I know! Our wonderful (and fearless) drivers, got us safely and comfortably from place to place, in cars without seatbelts, and where people don’t use their headlights in the dark, don’t stop at stop signs, and there are few lane lines. Oh yes, and in cars with right hand drive where you also drive on the right, which makes passing on the left a heart stopping event. And then there are the moto’s, ox carts, bicycles, horse drawn carts, oh yes and other cars to contend with. I no longer worry about getting on a plane with just a sticker on my shirt and a boarding pass without my name!

Our drivers in Cambodia were just as wonderful, and with more crowded and crazier circumstances: Chinese water buffalo (those ubiquitous devices that look like they belong on a farm, but can drag behind it any kind of flatbed) , tuk tuks, motos, bikes, cars, overly laden trucks, SUV’s, and people driving in both directions on both sides of the road. At least no one was going very fast, and everyone was very polite when overtaking someone on the shoulder of the road with a truck coming up fast the other direction …Wow! Did you know that a motorbike can transport a family of 5 at one time? And that a tuk tuk made to carry 4 to 6 people can actually fit 13? Well we saw that and more! How many Cambodians can travel by Chinese Water Buffalo? Depends on how high you want to stack them! Need to bring a couple of pigs somewhere? No problem, tie them on the back of the motorbike! Every ride was an adventure, but our drivers always kept us safe.

PigsOnMoto

Our guides were all wonderful too, and very accommodating. Seti, our guide on our first day, took us to his local village … what an eye opener, and a great way to start our tour.  It was also an immediate introduction to the warmth and generosity of the Cambodians. We heard that there was one winery in Cambodia, and Bat knew where it was, so after seeing the rice paper factory, the water jar factory, the fish paste factory (eeewwww, smelly!) and the terra cotta factory, we swung by the winery for a tasting. I KNOW that no one else we know who’s gone to Cambodia has done wine tasting!  In Inle Lake, we went to Red Mountain winery for tasting, a big thank you to our guide EE for making that happen. I think it was an adventure for her too.  Lin, our guide in Bagan who substituted at the last minute for another guide, did a wonder job of showing us at least 2000 temples. Ok, it couldn’t really have been 2000 but it felt like it! His passion and enthusiasm kept us going, and he really know what he was talking about.  Mr. Santhou, our guide to Siem Reap, helped us understand the historical and political realities of what we saw, as well as teaching us more about Cambodian life. Lily, in Phnom Penh, had the difficult task of taking us to the killing fields and the Choeung Ek Memorial  and Tuol Sleng Prison. Wow. And the guide who met us briefly in the Myanmar Life Hotel (I didn’t catch his name, although he gave it to us) even though he was getting married! That’s devotion! (I gave him the Myanmar feedback forms and the Balloons over Bagan tickets, hopefully they have made their way to you).

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Other things we enjoyed were the bamboo train (not at all what I expected), the village and factory tours, and the sunset activities. For the most part, the bugs were kind enough not to bite us! We were disappointed at not being able to do Balloons Over Bagan, but do understand; they were cancelled three days in a row, and you can’t control the weather!

This is getting way too long, so I’ll get to the important stuff. Things that we thought worked very well, and would encourage you to continue with include:

  1. The arrival kits and cheat sheets. We received one of these each time we entered a new city in Cambodia, and they were very handy. The cheat sheets in particular were handy especially in finding places to eat (one of my favorite things). In most cases, the guides also gave us a card with their name and the driver’s name, and contact information. While we never needed to actually contact a guide, as we were getting used to names, the cards were a handy reference.  In Myanmar, we didn’t get the arrival kits until our last day at Inle Lake, which was really to late to be useful, unfortunately. And our guide changed in Bagan, so we didn’t know his name, and still aren’t convinced we got it right (but we think it’s  Lin!).
  1. Assistance checking in at the airport – This was a great service! Without our guides checking us in at the airport, I an convinced we would have ended up on at least one wrong plane or missed a flight.
  1. Pr-departure kit and final departure kit – these were both very helpful, and in fact we brought them along with us. The heads up about things like power outages, what not to do, and having perfect money for Myanmar were all right on. I also appreciated having all the contact info, flight info, hotel info, and itinerary all together, and ahead of time.
  1. Having a sense of humor – I think I saw something about this in some of materials, but if not, making sure travelers know they need to have a sense of humor is very helpful. Instead of getting frustrated because the power goes out, or it takes 3 days to figure out why the hot water isn’t hot, adding it to the list of adventures with a laugh makes it something to write home about, a part of the experience, rather than a frustration.

A couple of things you might think of doing:

  1. Having the arrival kits on the first day of each city in all countries would be helpful
  1. Checking to see if there are festivals, elections, etc. around the time of the trip would help travelers know what to watch out for. Although the State Department said avoid Myanmar around the election, we were happy to be there, and hear from Myannar’ans about what they hoped would happen (and it did!). George even got an NLD tee shirt! And knowing about the festival in Battambang would have helped us be prepared.
  1. Providing the guide and driver’s contact info on a card along with the welcome kit.

Sorry this is so long, but it was a wonderful trip and there was a  lot to say! But now I think I need to get back to figuring out which of my 1500+ photos are going to make it into my photo book.

Thank you again for all the effort you put into making our visit to Cambodia and Myanmar so wonderful, and please pass my thanks on to the guides and drivers. You have a stellar team!

Connecting Across Continents

Gerald and Lesley Robinson in Luang Prabang, Laos

By Courtney Ridgel

Journeys Within strives to provide personal connections with every tour experience and we love it when our guests return home feeling they have truly made a connection on their trip.

Such was the case for guests Gerald and Lesley Robinson when they traveled to Laos last November as part of their Southeast Asia adventure. Near Luang Prabang they visited the village of Ban Xing (the “Lion Village”) and met with the local elders. As part of their visit they participated in a traditional baci blessing ceremony in the home of Mr. Bouaphan.

After their visit we received the following message from Gerry and Lesley:

How have you been? Lesley and I still talk about our trip; it truly was a trip of a lifetime, thanks to all of you. All our guides were wonderful. They were personable and knowledgeable. We felt like we were with old friends the whole time.

We would like to have the name of our guide in Laos since we have forgotten it and how to contact him. Lesley promised to send some items to him for his children. Also, she has some items for the family we met at a village ceremony, which was a definite highlight. We really bonded with the village elder and his family.

Thank you very much.

Gerry/Lesley Robinson

Gerry Robinson and Bouaphan
Gerry Robinson and Mr. Bouaphan in his home

Happily the timing worked and Andrea was able to carry their gifts in her luggage during her last trip to Laos.

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Mr. Bouaphan receiving gifts and photos from Gerald and Lesley.
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Mr. Bouaphan wearing a necklace sent by Gerald and Lesley

Phaeng and Sone from the Journeys Within Laos Office delivered the gifts in person to Mr. Bouaphan. He was very moved and wanted to write back to Lesley and Gerald to thank them. Here is a copy of his very sweet letter:

Hello Gerald and Lesley!

Long time ago that you were gone from Laos, even that we are still thinking of both of you. First of all I need to say thank you very much for your gifts that send to me and my family, I had received that on 24.March.15 that delivered by Mr. Phaeng and Sone from Journeys Within. I’m very glad to get those gifts from you, even though you are so far but you still charitable me and my family. So I don’t know how to reward anything for your kindness besides say Thank you so much and we will remember you and your family in our hearts forever and if you have time to come back Laos again please come to visit us, we really honored to welcome you and your family to our village. Finally I need to wish you and your family have a good health and successful with your work and life.

Best Wish,
Bouaphan.

Thank you Gerry and Lesley for your thoughtfulness and we were so glad to help facilitate this bonding across the continents and cultures.

A Guest’s Experience: Our Adventures in Myanmar

We always love it when guests write back to us, telling us of their great, once-in-a-lifetime experiences with Journeys Within in Southeast Asia!  Below is an email and photos we received from Janet and Bob Schmuck who just returned from a trip with us to Laos and Myanmar.

Hi Andrea, I just wanted to follow up from the evaluations we did on the trip and give you some general comments.  It was a fabulous, fabulous trip.  I am still thinking about how wonderful the people were in Myanmar.  Our hotels were all good…even the funky one at Pindaya.  I enjoyed the quiet…Bob was sick by then but he made a quick recovery the next day.  We also really liked the Mekong River View Hotel in Luang Prabang.  The manager was delightful as was his staff.  We met many of the other guests at his little wine party.  The guides in Yangon (Simon) and Bagan (Win Bo) were the best.  I know I mentioned Win Bo in my evaluation.  He was such an interesting young man.  Bob and I enjoyed our time with him particularly and would seek him out if we ever go back to Bagan.  What else?  I was not a big fan of the food we had in Myanmar until I got to Pindaya where there was less grease.  I am sure there is really good food to be had…and we did have some good meals….but most were very similar and just so so.  This may not be a valid criticism, however, since I have found as I get older, I don’t need as much food.  We were fed three times a day and that may have been more of the issue.  I need to keep this in mind for future trips and maybe request that we only get two meals a day.  People keep asking me my favorite part of the trip.  I always say Bagan but Inle was right in there.  Mandalay…not so much.  I have to laugh though…the best part of the trip really was the journey up to the Golden Rock. It far exceeded the “Rock” itself.  If you haven’t been, I highly recommend it.

Janet chose the 'Cleopatra' style of travel up Mt. Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock)

Hope all is well.  Thanks so much for your efforts and making this trip a big success.  We will be in touch.  I am thinking of returning to Indonesia in the next few years and hope you can do something there.  Best to you and your family and please pass along my appreciation to your staff in Truckee and in Luang Prabang.

Janet and Bob

Below are a few of the memories Janet and Bob captured on their trip to Myanmar:

Boatmen on the Irrawaddy River at sunset, Bagan
Shewdagon up close
Shwedagon from across Kandawgyi Lake
Golden Rock at sunset
Bagan 'Land of 2,000 stupas, pagodas, & temples