I try my best to avoid the tour packages offered by travel agencies for reasons obvious to the seasoned traveler. They’re overpriced, the food offered is usually no better than a school cafeteria’s, and more importantly, they lack the freedom and flexibility I cherish from independent travel.
Because of my unfortunate episode in Mandalay, I was not able to plan ahead for my time in Chiang Rai. As a result, I decided to put my faith in the owner of the hostel I was staying at and accepted his suggested itinerary for a tour around Chiang Rai.
I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, I saw more foreigners than locals during the time spent at the infamous Golden Triangle and our visit to the immaculate Wat Rong Khun was disappointingly hurried and impersonal like a doctor’s appointment back in Korea. But, it was the attitude and friendliness of the young tour staff that made the trip worthwhile.
One of the guides was an ethnic Akha, one of the many hill tribes that permanently settled across northern Thailand in the latter half of the past century. After spending time at the border town of Mae Sai, he took our small group to his home village where we marveled at the transformation of former opium fields and enjoyed the dancing – some traditional and some to the tune of “Frere Jacques” – of the local children. Granted, the same children hung on to our coattails afterwards, hoping to leverage their adorableness for a quick sale of a handicraft or two. But, the personal connection to the village and hospitality we enjoyed via our guide was something I probably would not have enjoyed if traveling by myself. For a few moments there, I felt like a guest rather than a tourist.
Though I probably won’t do something like this again in the near future, it was nice to kick back, relax, and let someone else be in charge of the organization and planning for a few days.