Fourteen days, three countries
Ben Groundwater puts aside his preconceptions to join a Contiki tour through South-East Asia. The reporter travelled as a guest of Contiki.
Putting preconceptions aside, The Backpacker joins a Contiki tour through South-East Asia to see what the youth travel company is offering these days.
This is the real test, and we're one man down. It's 4.45am, a ridiculous time to be awake, unless you never went to sleep. The bus is idling out the front of the hotel, waiting to transport us through Siem Reap's quiet streets to one of the wonders of the world.
The test is this: will our group show as much enthusiasm for a pre-dawn trip to Angkor Wat as they did for a late-night trip to Angkor What? - Cambodia's wildest bar? Are they as keen on culture as they are on cavorting? Apparently, yes.
All but one of us has stumbled out from our rooms at this crazy hour, excited about taking in one of the highlights of the tour. Only Boris, the ukulele-playing German guy, has failed to show, which he'll later blame on a late night and a hangover that was only just taking shape.
It's a Contiki tour. In Asia. Given what I wrote a few years ago when the company first kicked off its south-east Asia operation, you might be wondering what I was doing here. So was I.
But the official word from Contiki Asia is that it's not the Contiki Asia I was picturing. There's no tour bus emblazoned with logos here. There's no pack mentality. No drunken buffoonery. So I'm here to be proved wrong. (Or, you know, right.)
The tour is called the “Asian Adventure”, a 14-day odyssey through some of south-east Asia's most popular destinations for young travellers. Thing is though, not everyone on the tour is what you'd call young. It's a spread of ages - the average is 27. I'd expected to be the creepy old guy, but I'm not. (Quite.)
And they've travelled, too. There's an American on board who's been to 60 countries. Another woman is midway through a four-month holiday that will take in three continents. These tours aren't just for rank amateurs or raging drunks (although, admittedly, there are a couple of both here) – instead, they seem to appeal to travellers who like a little less hassle, a little more comfort and a little more security than the traditional south-east Asian backpacking experience.
It's strength in numbers, but that can have its downsides. There's a danger in having 30 like-minded folk roaming a quiet continent together, which was what I was worried about when I first heard of the Contiki invasion. After all, one drunk person is funny; 30 drunk people is a nightmare.
But these guys, it turns out, aren't a nightmare. And our group barely makes a dent on the bustling south-east Asian tourism scene. There has got to be about 500 people settled in to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat on the morning we arrive. Without us, there'd be about 471.
There are parties, of course. On a train in Thailand the once-quiet restaurant car becomes an impromptu nightclub thanks to a couple of enterprising American guys and some willing Thai staff. And there's an '80s theme night in Chiang Rai that must baffle the local population whenever Contiki is in town.
There's even a stopover in Vang Vieng, although that's a funny one. This is the Laotian village now infamous as a party town and the home of tubing, where wasted backpackers float down the river. But on no part of the Contiki brochure will you find a reference to tubing. Tubing? What tubing?
That's probably out of a desire to see everyone come home safe, and it works: the omission, coupled with a detailed warning from Jonny the Tour Manager, ensures only half our 30 passengers roll up with tubes under arms on the big day.
No one goes too silly. No one gets hurt. Mission accomplished.
Anyway, back to the task at hand: our trip. At the briefing on the first night in Bangkok, Jonny lays it out for us: “Remember guys, this is a tour, not a holiday.”
That's meant to prep everyone for the late nights, early mornings and jam-packed days that lie ahead. It really is a whirlwind - Thailand, Laos and Cambodia in 14 days; the sort of trip you could take six months to complete if you wanted.
But this is designed for people who don't have six months. Some of these guys only get two weeks holiday a year. They want to cram in as much as possible. And they do.
We start at a gentle pace in Bangkok, but the tour is like a giant boulder rolling down a hill, gradually picking up speed until it's a blur of motion. Experiences flash past before you can grasp them, with only the biggest and best staying around long enough to imprint themselves on your memory.
It's often the journeys that are the highlights. The night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a great local experience. A two-day boat ride from the Thai-Laos border to Luang Prabang provides one of the few moments to pause and breathe it all in, to gaze at the simple beauty of hazy mountains and rocky riverbanks.
The winding, bumpy bus trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is typically hellish but fascinating, and you don't hear a peep of complaint from the passengers bouncing around inside. It's part of the journey – part of the adventure.
Other experiences that stick: a morning elephant ride in Luang Prabang; sunset beers by the Mekong in Vientiane; a walk through the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh; Thai New Year celebrations in Bangkok; that dawn journey to Angkor Wat.
Time is made in this whirlwind to learn about your surroundings. Group travel might mean losing some of that day-to-day interaction with locals, but what you get instead is a guide from each country to bombard with questions.
Why are they doing that? What's he eating? How do you get over there? Why is this different? Where are we again?
Places start to make more sense. I've been to all of these destinations before, but I'm still gleaning new information from TM Jonny and the local guides who join us for each section of the tour.
Everyone else seems to be taking it in as well, managing to mix education and inebriation. A little bit of culture here, some knowledge gained, and then wind down at a bar in the evening. It's the same thing most backpackers in south-east Asia do, only with 29 of your new closest friends joining in.
And that's what sticks with this trip. It really is the same thing most backpackers do in south-east Asia – it's just a little more organised. For those who don't mind being told what to do every now and then, that's perfect.
Our tour, at least, isn't a menace to general society. There's no giant coach, so it's inconspicuous. And no one even hooks up, so it's certainly not the stereotypical European-style shag-fest.
It's just a bunch of people travelling together. Seeing the sights and going to a few bars. And, mostly, getting out of bed on time.
The writer travelled as a guest of Contiki.
Contiki's 14-day Asian Adventure departs from Bangkok and finishes in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Tours start from $2115, twin share.
For bookings and more information, head here.
Have you ever taken a Contiki tour? What was your experience like? Post a comment below.
More from Ben Groundwater at The Backpacker blog