Sueann and I have traveled a good deal but have never taken any kind of a tour. We always felt that wandering around on our own was a gratifying and important part of our travel.
So how did we end up on a tour of Thailand? The answer is that the tour was less expensive by a good bit than we thought we could do it ourselves and also our friend Cynthia had been on the tour and whole heartedly recommended it.
So we signed up with Gate1 Travel for their 12 Day Affordable Thailand tour priced from $1295/person which included all flights, hotels, breakfasts, three days of guide led visits around Bangkok, a 5 day bus tour from Bangkok north to Chiang Mai, 2 days of guide led visits around Chiang Mai and then a flight back to Bangkok before flying home from Bangkok. Gate1 also helped us extend the tour with six additional nights in Chiang Mai at a very reasonable price ($44/night compared with $64/night offered by the hotel on their Website). We would have been better coming straight home rather than spending most of those six days in the hotel room being sick, but of course we didn't know that until it was too late.
We weren't sure how much we would enjoy the organized tour but we went along for the price. What we found was that the tour is a gem. The company, Gate1, and it's Thai partner Diethelm Travel have the tour developed almost as a work of art. Even though there were three buses of tourers, we never felt like we were part of a crush of tourists. They worked things out so that the three buses stayed out of each others' way.
At hotels things were amazingly efficient. You simply got your room key from your guide (i.e., the guide from your bus) went to your room and your bags showed up in a couple of minutes. Same kind of thing as you left the hotel. You left your bags outside your door, checked out of the hotel (which was usually just turning in your key).
The hotels were quite good - 4 Stars hotels where 5 Stars would be the top most luxury class. All of the hotels had excellent breakfast buffets that were included in the price of the tour. Every hotel had a pool, although the pool of the hotel in Lampang, the only lower quality hotel on the trip, seemed to be closed.
But the real benefit of the tour, aside from the price, was the guide. Our guide was Pensii:
Pensii is a Thai Buddhist woman of about 40 years old who has been working with Gate1 tours for 18 years. She conducts about 2 tours a month and she is quite knowledgeable about Thailand, its people, Thai history and all the places and areas through which tours take her. She has an excellent sense of humor which is well suited to her American clients. She knows and understands Americans and quite frequently makes practical remarks that are helpful to us.
On the road between Bangkok and Chiang Mai a typical day might go something like this. You wake up at 6AM get ready for breakfast, pack you bags and are ready to leave for the hotel's breakfast buffet at 7AM. As you leave the room you place your packed bags outside your door and then go to the buffet which offers a large variety of western as well as Asian fare. After breakfast you return to the room to wash up and then down to the bus by 8AM. Before you boarding the bus, you make sure your bags are loaded.
The bus might drive for a couple of hours during which Pensii would regale us with useful and amusing information about the area we were passing through. Then we would stop at some sight, most often very majestic ancient temple ruins. Then a short drive to a restaurant where for 160 baht ($4.50) we would enjoy a Thai buffet lunch - usually spiced down for Americans.
In the afternoon we would drive for a couple of hours before stopping at another sight. Each stop would be about 45 minutes to an hour in length. Finally we would drive an hour or two to our next hotel. Evenings were mostly free and most people chose to wander the night markets and have some dinner at the food court areas of the markets. Nowhere were we told to be careful and nowhere did we feel as if danger was lurking. No one reported pickpockets. I remember in Chiang Rai, Pensii told us not to be worried if our tuk-tuk driver took us on quiet dark roads - those are just tuk tuk favorite routes.
That's all I want to say about the tour except that I give the Gate1 tour an excellent recommendation. Really top notch.
Before we leave Bangkok and head north there are a few sights worth mentioning. The first is The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, situated 110 kms west of Bangkok. From our hotel in Bangkok, we drove by bus for about an hour and then boarded a longtail boat for a 20 minute canal trip.
Longtail boats get their name from the long drive shaft which along with the entire engine is raised or lowered to deal with the depth of the canals and/or obstructions.
Our boat ride concluded as we neared the confluence of several canals and a large landing upon which a tourist market was situated. In the canals around the tourist market were many small boats selling fruit, food and even crafts. Obviously what in the past was an important marketplace for locals is now primarily a tourist attraction. But not to fret - it is a lovely tourist attraction.
The woman in the photo below had such a lovely face that I committed a cardinal sin of Thai tourism. I bought bananas from her and forgot to bargain for a better price. So I ended up paying 30 baht (84 cents) for a bunch of bananas!
Our guide told us that one woman made the best fried banana in Thailand. Our guide buys them every time she visits the floating market.
Later when we were back on the bus the guide provided everyone with these fried bananas and they were very delicious. A real treat.
While we were looking around the tourist market, Sueann looked at some batik.
And now for all of you who wonder if I really was on this trip:
Jeff February 2, 2007
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