On January 5, 2013 Carol and I called Overseas Adventure Travel and spoke with Patrick. We had an idea that as “most time” RVers we would not be troubled by being away for an extended period of time. Our previous experience with OAT suggested they were the company to use and we began our conversation with Patrick with a laundry list of places and a time frame of October through December, give or take a week. I don’t remember the details of how we got to the itinerary, but it seemed reasonable to travel East then South and so we booked a back to back to back trip with 5 trip extensions leaving us 3 days in Bangkok on our own. I’ve posted the detailed itinerary as we went so just briefly, we started in the Baltics, on to China and then Thailand and Vietnam with extensions in Cambodia and Myanmar. As I write I am at 36000 feet 7 hours in to a 12 hour flight that leaves us in London overnight.
Probably the first thought that a look at the itinerary would generate is: how can you maintain the pace for so long? OAT trips are not leisurely affairs, Days start at 8 or 9 and frequently end after dinner with a 2 hour break in the afternoon. This assumes one takes all the optional tours. We slipped into a pattern so that unpacking in a new hotel room and packing to move on in 2 or 3 days was as much routine and patterned as setting up the coach and prepping to move on. The most difficult part was so many different beds and starting in China such hard beds. We counted 20 different hotels and four different stays at Pantip Suites in Bangkok, not our favorite. As each tour approached its end many of the participants were looking forward to getting home. They asked us how we felt about going on. Each time we asked ourselves and agreed we were not in the least ready to get back to the US. Don’t get me wrong we certainly miss the family and our own comfortable home on the coach. We had enough face time with the family via Google Hangouts to keep us in the loop.
Would I recommend such extended travel to others? Most certainly, if you like to be on the move, see new places and are willing to put on your sense of adventure and are prepared to deal with the logistics of being away from postal mail, doctors and your home neighborhood. I will be happy to discuss financial logistics privately with any who might be interested. The key is having good Internet connectivity and equipment to use it. This is all done on a Samsung Tablet and every hotel had wifi, even in Tibet and northern Vietnam and Northern Thailand. For that matter the river boat on the Yangtze had excellent connectivity. The other prerequisite is a wonderful daughter-in-law who was willing and able to keep the financial files up to date. Being RVers, set up for constant movement, helped. If you are nester, and like to be surrounded by the comforts of home this kind of extended travel is not for you.
Would we travel with OAT again? We already have plans for 3 weeks in Japan in April. We are very likely to book other trips with them. They provide great value and access to areas and people that no other travel company I am aware of provides. In Vietnam we were able to visit a Montagnard village in the mountains that required government permits and a minder. This was a difficult drive on back roads with a final mile in a cart pulled by a tractor with a pto drive to the axle on the cart. In China we stayed in a farm village in a private home (actually 4 private homes). In the Baltics we visited a farm village and had lunch prepared by a villager in her home. OAT has made the arrangements for all their tours and the locals are paid for their efforts and in some cases Grand Circle Foundation has donated money to the location for schools or community facilities to improve the community. I have not detailed all the special times with locals that we experienced. Many were spontaneous and others were the result of the tour leader keeping an open eye out for opportunities that presented themselves. Is this a commercial? You bet. And use my name as a referral if you decide to travel with them. You get a finncial gift and so do I. Do not travel with OAT if you like 5 star hotels and would prefer a Hyatt Regency to a local 3 or 4 star in an interesting neighborhood. Also avoid these trips if you want to lie by the pool or on a beach. Shopping opportunities are plentiful, but that is a byproduct not a goal in most cases.
I keep ducking around what I want to write because it is easier to describe things than express feelings. We traveled with many travelers, I think 34 other people. I call them travelers, OAT’s word actually, because like RVers, they are prepared for adventure and travel. They are willing to get out of their comfort zone. One traveler with serious acrophobia rode up on an elephant trunk and then rode the elephants head before boarding the houdah. Another with claustrophobia that wouldn’t let her board a crowded elevator, went down into the Cu Chi tunnels through a passage that I just barely could squeeze through. Others tried foods that were new experiences and still others got into boats that were scary for non water people, even a little scary for small boat people like us. They were in no way homogeneous, but they are travelers.
Carol and I have done so many new things, been so many new places, experienced so great a range of emotions that it is hard to believe. We have stood on killing fields in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and in Cambodia and Myanmar and G-d knows in Vietnam. We have seen men shattered by war and landmines. We have seen more weddings in our travels than I ever would have imagined from Ukraine to China to Thailand and Vietnam. On the streets of Ukraine and Russia people’s faces are downcast and there appears to be little joy. The people in the Baltics go about their day smiling. In China they never make eye contact and they will walk right through you. Definition of an Asian queue, a mob shoving to get through a gate. In China, especially, we felt shoved and ignored. One example, in Vietnam we were queued for the men’s room and a Chinese tourist shoved past the line to an empty urinal just as the next in line was walking up to it. Not even unusual. This may sound like bias on my part, but it was observation. The Chinese we met personally in our travels were warm, friendly and helpful. Their behavior was not just towards us, it is how they need to be too live in their densely packed living space. They don’t have room for our more open sense of personal space.
Comparisons from country to country and region to region could take a book. A book I am not qualified to write. Aside: their goes Tbilisi under us. The Baltics are in various stages of independence and recovery from Soviet rule. Their economies are strapped because they have too few people working to carry the pension burden of the elderly and their best and brightest are going elsewhere to make their fortunes. Ukraine is too much in the news and I fear for the wellbeing of the people we met, most of whom are pro EU and strongly against making arrangements with Russia. We are given to understand that only about 30% actually support the regime. China is a very repressive regime. Their firewall prevented access to many of our familiar news sources like NYTimes, CNN, Facebook, much of Google and much more. Our guide was cautious unless he knew we were alone as our drivers were government employees as were many of the hotel staff. Many topics never made it on to the table even though OAT guidelines say everything is fair game for discussion. We never did talk about human rights in China. Cambodia and Myanmar are newly sort of independent, both have strong military involvement in the government. They are the least developed that we saw. Thailand seems to be burgeoning economically, but they have real issues between the working class farming regions in the north who have the votes to keep the current government in place and the southern business class who have economic power but not the votes. Vietnam is a strange mix which proclaims itself one of the four remaining Communist countries yet is permitting a wide range of private enterprise to develop so long as it does not compete with government enterprises. Hence Vietnam Air has a monopoly on tour group travel into and within Vietnam even though Viet Jet is competing for other traffic.
Two days later, in Covesville, VA: There is much more I want to write about but I fear I have already tried everyone’s patience so I’ll stop here for now. If you have read this far, know that there will be more about this trip as we go. For now we are experiencing much cold in Covesville and enjoying spending time with family. My leg has finally healed and the swelling is almost gone (this episode was a bit more frightening for me than I have let on).
Rereading this I see it is a bit of a hodge podge of experiences, impressions and a pitch for OAT. Now I m going to go on to write more specific memories that have not been written elsewhere, I will publish as I see fit and as I have images to include.