Honeymoons with Heart
Press Releases and News
By Carla McLeod
This article begins with a discussion of the personal experiences of five couples who spent their honeymoons making a difference, and closes by listing who to contact, including the advice to “consider working with a reputable nonprofit . . . such as Globe Aware . . . which has years of experience
40 Trips To Change Your World
By Jennifer Bain
Whether it’s building houses in Jordan or meeting the feathered residents of Antarctica’s Penguin Island, these dream journeys are guaranteed to make a difference in your life, and the lives of those you help along the way.
Sustainable travel. Ecotourism. Fund-raising expeditions. Educational tours. Voluntourism.
The lexicon of travel is expanding as quickly as the world is shrinking. For many, it is no longer enough to return home with a Turkish carpet or tales of an exquisite atoll. Travelers still want to explore Chile or the Loire in style, but they also want a deeper experience, and one that doesn’t leave a footprint, carbon or otherwise. In the post-9/11 world, travelers want to make transformations of their own.
A range of organizations are answering that need, including luxury outfitters like Butterfield & Robinson, environmental watchdogs such as the Sierra Club, and new groups like Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), which places volunteers in 12 countries. As with other vacation packages, there is staff to take care of the detailsÃ¢â‚¬"arranging airport transfers, setting up accommodations (a converted riad, a Maori lodge, a stateroom on an Amazon sloop), and coordinating work assignments.
Whatever these trips might cost, all of them give backÃ¢â‚¬"to the travelers themselves as well as to the communities they visit. Debby and Tom Glassanos of Pleasanton, California, spent three weeks in Morocco with CCS where Tom, a Silicon Valley executive, worked with local women to increase their computer skills. Now, long after the couple’s return to the United States, he continues to share his expertise with his old students in a stream of e-mail exchanges. And interior designer Joe Naham and his partner, Jeffrey Fields, carried away from their trip to Costa Rica a lasting impression of the camaraderie that can develop between “voluntour” travelers of disparate backgrounds. Their group, including a financier, a CNN anchor, and a coffeehouse owner, discovered shared interests along with the new bond of their shared experience abroad.
Volunteers also describe the rewards of contributing beyond writing a check, although the dollars these programs provide to communities and causes are significant and often crucial. The itineraries that follow have the potential to make a difference in both your world, and the world.
Teach basic English and computer classes to children living in the remote mountain village of San Pedro de Casta, north of Lima. Those with carpentry skills can help with community housing repairs and build simple Lorena stoves. When the workday ends, hike or horseback ride to the majestic stone sculptures on the Markawasi Plateau.
Trip Tip: Take an Andean cooking lesson while you’re there. Pachamanca, a traditional dish of meat wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a hot stone oven, is a must-try.
Luxury Level: Volunteers stay at the central village lodge with basic amenities. Those who tend to get the shivers should bring an extra blanket or two.
Key Voluntourism: Globe Aware; 877/588-4562; globeaware.org; one-week tours from $1,090 per person.
Giving back 7 Surprising Reasons to Volunteer
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no better feeling than knowing you had a hand in improving someoneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Brae Hanson, managing broker of Starck, REALTORSÃ‚Â®, in Barrington, Ill., and an avid volunteer.
So before you say you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have the time or energy to take on a volunteering task, consider these seven reasons why you should start giving back now.
Reason #1: It Will Boost Your Visibility (for Free)
Volunteer to benefit your business? That doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sound very altruistic. And while that probably shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be the primary reason to volunteer, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s certainly a nice perk.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Real estate professionals always want to be doing more selling and prospecting, but many donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t realize they can do both of those things while giving back to the community,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Robert Rosenthal, a spokesperson for VolunteerMatch, a San Francisco nonprofit that matches volunteers with charitable groups.
Cappy MacPherson, a salesperson with Watson Realty Corp, Hidden Hills, Jacksonville, Fla., says volunteering is one of her best Ã¢â‚¬" and lowest cost Ã¢â‚¬" marketing tools. Instead of spending money to get her name out in the community, she gains exposure by volunteering with local charities, including HabiJax, the Jacksonville Habitat for Humanity branch.
At ever volunteer job, she wears T-shirts promoting previous volunteer events, along with a name tag that identifies her real estate business.
The strategy acts as a conversation starter and gets her name circulating in the community. Since 2006 itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s landed her four buyers and generated leads for two potential listings. Ã¢â‚¬Å“These are six prospects I would never have had,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a wonderful way to market without breaking the bank.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Reason #2: YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll Sharpen Your Business Skills
With so many volunteer opportunities out there, you can select the ones that will help you improve certain business skills.
For example, Hanson, of Barrington, Ill., has perfected her marketing skills through 20-plus years of fundraising and promoting charities. Volunteering also has forced her to refine her time-management skills and has given her more financial know-how.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve never been fond of reading financial statements, but IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve gotten better at budgeting and understanding profit and loss statements just from reviewing them for charities,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says.
MacPherson, meanwhile, has improved her knowledge of home-improvement tasks Ã¢â‚¬" knowledge that comes in very handy when working with buyers and sellers. Through her Habitat for Humanity work, sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s learned the finer points of painting, roofing, and caulking, as well as an understanding of how buildings come together properly.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m now able to see subtle problems in houses and know when to suggest further inspections,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says.
Reason #3: It DoesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Require a Huge Time Commitment
If you read the stories of this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s five Good Neighbor Award winners, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be taken aback by how much time they devote to their causes. For a rookie volunteer, it can be downright intimidating. But such a large time commitment isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t necessary.
Start small by volunteering for a one-time event or scheduling just a couple hours per week. Check out volunteer opportunities in your ZIP code by searching on Web sites such as VolunteerMatch. Each listing includes the estimated time contribution required, so you can be choosey about which jobs you take on.
Another option: Take a volunteer Ã¢â‚¬Å“vacationÃ¢â‚¬Â to a developing nation or to a city in the United States to build a new school, restore the environment, or help on a medical mission. You can learn more about volunteer vacations at Web sites such as GlobeAware or CharityGuide.org.
Or, volunteer from the comfort of your own home. Instead of watching an hour of TV at night, log in an hour of virtual help to an organization of your choice. Learn about virtual volunteer opportunities at ServiceLeader.org.
Once you find a volunteer job that you really enjoy, making time for it will come naturally, Hanson says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When something is important to you, you find the drive to get it done.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Reason #4: Make Meaningful Community Connections
Weekly Rotary Club meetings put Lisa L. Bass, president and broker of California Commercial Corp. in Brentwood, Calif., and president of her local Rotary Club, in touch with local businesspeople and city council representatives.
Through in-person conversations and club projects, she built meaningful relationships in her community that could never have been made via e-mail or phone. Some recent Rotary activities have included donating dictionaries to local school kids and providing wheelchairs to people in Mexico.
When fellow Rotary Club members have commercial real estate needs, Bass is their go-to person. But she says the biggest benefit of volunteering is the pick-me-up she gets from doing good things. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The meetings give me purpose that I look forward to, especially when IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had a difficult week,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Bass.
In todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s high-tech age, Ã¢â‚¬Å“itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to feel connected on a deeply meaningful level,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Rosenthal, from VolunteerMatch. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Volunteering is an opportunity to connect with others who share a similar cause.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Reason #5: It’s Time to Expand Your Professional Horizons
In the early 1990s, Saul Klein, E-ProÃ‚Â®, GRI, owned a real estate brokerage, property management firm, and a financial-planning business, yet he was becoming increasingly interested in finding a new avenue for his real estate skills.
At the same time, through his volunteer work with the San Diego Association of REALTORSÃ‚Â®, including a post as president of the group, he uncovered a zeal for emerging real estate technologies. He used his newfound passion as a launching pad for the next chapter of his career.
Klein now educates other real estate professionals on how to use technology, does speaking engagements around the country, has written real estate courses and books on technology, and is a founder of InternetCrusade, a San Diego company that manages the e-ProÃ‚Â® designation for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORSÃ‚Â®.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Volunteering really has paid me back,Ã¢â‚¬Â Klein says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I love being able to take a message to people that I believe is valuable and that will make differences in their lives. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very rewarding when people tell me my advice is valuable.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Volunteering can do the same for you; perhaps it will open the door to a new business niche or help you uncover a new path for your real estate career. You also can use volunteer opportunities to learn about a business specialty. For example, if you specialize in waterfront properties and you want to learn more about the issues that local residents face, volunteer with a beach clean-up organization. Or, if your aim is to develop a niche selling green property, consider volunteering at an environmental awareness group. There, you can learn more about the movement and meet prospects interested in environmentally sound homes.
Reason #6: YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll Appreciate What You Have
Life seems tough when you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have an iPhone or you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford to hit Starbucks every morning. But when you see firsthand how families live without heat, electricity, or indoor plumbing, you might feel a little better about your present situation.
Sean Waters, a salesperson with Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty Boston, Mass., says heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s witnessed such living conditions for the first time during a Ã¢â‚¬Å“magical and enrichingÃ¢â‚¬Â volunteer vacation to Cuzco, Peru withGlobe Aware, earlier this year. There, he rehabbed an orphanage and taught children English and baseball.
Despite lacking many comforts that Americans take for granted, Waters was amazed to see that Peruvians live happy lives with an intense love for and focus on family and friends. That realization sparked changes in WatersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ life when he returned home. He now makes more of an effort to spend quality time with his loved ones. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We work so hard, yet weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re lacking so much in terms of having time for each other,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Waters.
The trip also served as a business motivator. Waters recognized that he needs to ramp up production to finance more service trips (next up is India) and to visit out-of-state relatives.
The other business benefit: Waters says the experience broadened his world view and will help him better connect with some of his sophisticated, well-traveled clients. At the very least, travel talk beats the weather as a topic for chit-chat.
Reason #7: YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll Feel So Good About It
A growing body of research links volunteering with better health. One study, The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, by the Corporation for National and Community Service, says volunteering improves longevity, lowers depression rates, and reduces the rates of heart disease.
Indeed, many volunteers cite a phenomenon commonly called, Ã¢â‚¬Å“helperÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s high,Ã¢â‚¬Â in which they gain feelings of exhilaration and energy from volunteering. MacPherson says she likens the feeling she gets from volunteering to the endorphin rush after a workout.
Hanson agrees. She says her post-volunteering highs frequently last five days and translate into greater enthusiasm for her work and life in general.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Happier people live longer, and happier people are going to sell more real estate than grumpy ones,Ã¢â‚¬Â MacPherson says.
The research evidence pleases, but doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t surprise, Rosenthal. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need scientific validation for people to know that the world needs them,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says.
Double duty: Both sides reap the benefits of volunteer trips
KRASANG ROLEUNG, Cambodia Ã¢â‚¬" Andrew Krupp doesn’t speak a word of Cambodian. And, for the most part, the dozens of happy-faced children racing across the dusty schoolyard to greet him don’t speak a word of English.
But that doesn’t stop Krupp from winning them over immediately.
It doesn’t take much, after all, to get across the basics of the hokeypokey, which it turns out is just as big a crowd-pleaser in the poorest thatched-roof villages of Cambodia as it is in the manicured suburb near Chicago where Krupp lives.
“I’m like a novelty act riding into town,” says the 39-year-old manufacturing executive, laughing as his frenzied “right foot in” sends the children into hysterics. “Everybody loves a lunatic.”
A lunatic with a mission. With the ever-energetic Krupp occupying the kids, his five traveling companions are free to grab hammers and saws and get down to the real task of the morning: building new eraser boards for the rural school’s ramshackle classrooms.
It’s a lot of work.
It’s also their vacation.
A volunteer vacation, it’s called Ã¢â‚¬" a type of trip that has gone from being on the fringe to the mainstream in just a few years.
Krupp and the others have signed up to visit Cambodia with GlobeAware, one of a growing number of organizations that design vacations for people who want to spend as much time helping in the destinations they visit as they spend seeing the major sites.
People such as Mary-Ellen Connolly, 46, of Chelsea, Quebec.
“I’m so sick of going to typical tourist attractions and doing the same old tourist thing,” says Connolly, who volunteers at home teaching the visually impaired to ski and thought it would be fun to combine voluntarism with vacation.
Like the others here, Connolly says she wanted to “give back.” But she also saw the allure of volunteering as a way to experience a country on a deeper level.
“I wanted to meet the local people,” she says, “because that’s the way to really know a country.”
A scene from a Dickens novel
Connolly, a part-time accountant who left her children with her husband to take the trip with a friend, is talking outside an orphanage where the group spends every afternoon. In Siem Reap, the region’s tourist hub, the tiny, run-down building houses 23 children in two rooms Ã¢â‚¬" one for girls, one for boys.
Many of the kids are barefoot, their hair a mess, their clothes stained Ã¢â‚¬" a Cambodian version of a scene from a Dickens novel. But however bleak their situation, they, like kids everywhere, relish the chance for a little adult-sponsored goofiness. Encouraged by GlobeAware’s local coordinator, Sophanit Prin, 26, who serves as guide and translator, Connolly and the others quickly organize lessons in such life-important skills as playing “duck, duck, goose” and “hot potato.” The sad faces turn to smiles.
Like the thousands of other tourists arriving each week in this low-lying region of rice paddies and rural villages, famed for its 1,000-year-old temples, Connolly and her companions spent a day or so of their one-week trip exploring the legendary ruins of Angkor Wat and other remnants of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire. And like other Westerners, they’re staying in Siem Reap, which has mushroomed with hotels, restaurants and nightspots over the past decade as tourism rebounds from years of violence.
But that’s where the similarity ends. While other tourists lounge at $200-a-night resorts around Siem Reap Ã¢â‚¬" in sharp contrast to the region’s still-widespread poverty Ã¢â‚¬" the GlobeAware group bunks in a no-frills, $15-a-night guesthouse a short walk from the town center. They’ve paid $1,200 each for the trip, but much of that money goes to the local institutions on the group’s itinerary.
In addition to spending time at the orphanage, the group takes on at least one, sometimes two more volunteer activities each day. On one sunny morning, the group assembles wheelchairs for some of the war-ravaged country’s thousands of land-mine victims. On four nights before dinner, Prin leads the volunteers down a dusty road to a Buddhist monastery to help teach English to locals.
The mix is typical of the new breed of short-term volunteer vacations, which often follow a “little of this, little of that” format that gives volunteering newbies a chance to try a lot of things to see what clicks. Krupp dubs it Volunteering 101, “a survey course of the options available” for those considering a longer-term commitment.
Krupp quickly decides that teaching is by far the most difficult task of the week. Welcomed at the monastery by monks in orange robes, the six GlobeAware volunteers are ushered into stark, barely lit classrooms, introduced to rows of wide-eyed students and then, for the most part, left on their own.
It’s trial by fire. But as Krupp notes, it doesn’t take long to realize the students, many of whom hope to become English-speaking tour guides at the nearby temples, a relatively high-paying job in the region, want little more than to hear the correct pronunciation for words they’ve only seen in books.
Despite an influx of tourist dollars in recent years, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Years of war and genocide under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s devastated the population Ã¢â‚¬" by some estimates, 2 million people died Ã¢â‚¬" and the violence and chaos continued well into the 1990s, stunting economic development.
A difficult life for most
At the Angkor Participatory Development Organization, a small non-profit agency that partners with GlobeAware, director Savuth Tek-Sakana explains that a typical job in the region pays only $100 a month. Those who speak English, however, can find work in tourist hotels paying as much as $250 a month, a small fortune in an economy in which more than a third of the population subsists on less than $1 a day.
Still, even for the higher earners, it’s a rough existence Ã¢â‚¬" a point that hits home when Tek-Sakana and Prin whisk the group into the countryside to visit a typical village.
The destination, Kravan, is less than a mile from Ta Prohm, the magical, jungle-covered ruins made famous in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, and just steps away from Prasat Kravan, a lesser-visited Hindu temple built in 921.
Leading the way down the muddy path that serves as the village’s main street, Tek-Sakana points to the rickety, one-room huts that house families of five, six or even eight people. Built on wooden stilts to keep occupants dry during the rainy season, the thatched-roof huts have flimsy walls made of palm leaves. There’s no electricity, running water or toilets. And the “kitchen” is a fire circle in the dirt.
“I’m at a loss,” says Krupp, echoing the shock of other volunteers at the sight of children running barefoot through the same muddy puddles that serve as latrines for roaming chickens and pigs. “I’ve seen poverty, but extreme poverty like this is so mentally conflicting. It makes it hard to enjoy life seeing and feeling how some people are forced to live in the 21st century.”
Much can be done in a week
Visiting such sites long has been part of the volunteer vacation experience. But it also has brought criticism from some who see it as little more than voyeurism.
Even some of the participants on this trip are conflicted. “I felt a bit embarrassed, like it was a show for us,” says Gabrielle Duchesne, 26, of Toronto. “But I think it’s good that we see it. If we can go back and find a way to volunteer, to donate, to integrate giving into our lives, then it was worth it.”
Like others on the trip, Duchesne says she was hesitant to sign up fo r a volunteering experience that was so short, concerned that she wasn’t going to be able to do enough.
But “it takes a lot of people doing small things to make a big difference,” says Duchesne, a fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. And she and others on the trip are surprised by how many small things they can get done in a week and, indeed, by the difference they seem to make.
The proof comes on the final day, when the group meets grateful recipients of the wheelchairs assembled during a single morning. Awkward at first, the “wheelchair party,” as GlobeAware’s Prin has dubbed it, loosens up as Duchesne distributes snacks, and the recipients begin to tell their stories. Some have waited years for a wheelchair, which costs many times the $20-a-month stipend that one disabled recipient says he has received since stepping on a mine in 1987.
“At first I was nervous, but it was a happy occasion, not sad,” Duchesne says afterward. The wheelchair recipients “left better than they had arrived, and that’s the reason we’re here.”
IF YOU GO
GlobeAware offers volunteer vacations to Cambodia year-round; 13 departures are planned for 2008.
The seven-night trips feature five days of volunteering in and around Siem Reap and a day visiting the nearby ruins of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and other ancient Khmer Empire sites. The cost is $1,200 per person, based on double occupancy, including lodging and meals. Singles will be paired in rooms.
GlobeAware has similar programs in 11 other countries, including Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Costa Rica, Peru, Romania and Ghana. Costs: from $1,080 to $1,390 per person.
Information: 877-588-4562; globeaware.org
A spring break volunteer is shopping for fruits in Peru.
Voluntourism | Conde Nast Traveller
Voluntoursim by Dorinda Elliott p. 290-302
Globe Aware is listed amongst those the writers call "the global leaders, vetted by voluntourism experts."
n 1: the act or practice of taking a trip or holiday that includes volunteer work usu. Seen as giving a sense of purpose to an otherwise privileged life 2: big, rapidly growing trend spawning a whole new industry of experts and a plethora of tour operators 3: an emerging phenomenon raising such questions as does it benefit the people on the ground or simply make the traveler feel good
voluntour vi 1a: to go on a volunteer vacation b: to travel someplace and work as a volunteer or to add such work onto a holiday c: to travel with a purpose after careful research " see ' 10 East Steps to Do-Good Tripping," page 294 2: to follow a volunteer itinerary, often mapped out by a tour operator' see "Do-Good Specialists," page 299 3: to go on a work-and-play vacation' see "Working Wonders," page 292
Peter Greenberg: The land of Laos – Affordable and undiscovered
Laos is a true magical mystery tour. Few Americans visit. Fewer understand it. However, more and more savvy travelers are slowly discovering this small country.
Not too long ago, Vietnam was like this – before diplomatic relations with the U.S. were restored in the 1990s. The same could be said for Cambodia. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have recently exploded as tourist destinations
And now it’s this former kingdom’s time to enter as a preferred destination in Asia. Ten years ago it was a backwater country, still trying to recover from its own 1975 revolution, which ended a 600-year-old monarchy.
The government – slowly but surely – has opened the doors to the outside world. And the world is curious to see what is there.
Laos is a landlocked country between Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and China. It’s lifeline is the Mekong River, which forms a large part of Laos’ western border with Thailand. Centuries ago, it was the Kingdom of Lan Xang, or Land of a Million Elephants.
On the surface, little has changed. Laos is still a farming country specializing in rice. The official language is Lao, but English is widely understood in the cities.
The best part about traveling to Laos is that it’s affordable, but not overrun with tourists. But word has spread about Luang Prabang, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the Shangri-La of Southeast Asia,Ã¢â‚¬Â so it’s more developed and filled with backpackers and vacationers. This 700-year-old town can get very crowded, and it is quickly transforming into a more structured, organized tourist destination. But not all travelers make it to the current capital city of Vientiane; southern Laos is practically undiscovered so you’ll find even fewer crowds and better deals in places like Pakse.
To travel to Laos, you will need both a passport and visa. Thirty-day visas cost $50 and must be used within two months of issue. (Visit laoembassy.com for more information.)
One of the smart ways to travel to Laos is to combine the trip with visiting Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam. It’s a very affordable destination – Geographic Expeditions estimates that you can travel through southern Laos for about $300 a day, including meals, accommodations, a private car and English-speaking guide; Luang Prabang and Vientiane will cost about $400 per person per day as they have higher-end hotels.
Another suggestion is to invest in an RTW (‘Round the World) ticket that allows you many destination options. A company called Airtreks (airtreks.com) sells a number of these multiple-destination RTW tickets that start at $1,650. Here’s one sample itinerary: San Francisco, Singapore, Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Angkor Wat (Siem Reap), Bangkok, Xian, Beijing, Tokyo and San Francisco. Promotion code: HAT559079; airtreks.com
Laos has three airports: Wattay International Airport in Vientiane; Luang Prabang International Airport and Pakse International Airport. When traveling within Laos, the only domestic airline is Laos Airlines. A flight between Vientiane and Luang Prabang takes about 35 minutes. You can also travel by bus – but don’t say I didn’t warn you. You can expect to spend at least 11 hours traveling from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, but you’ll catch some beautiful mountain scenery. You can travel by boat or river taxi for shorter hauls around the country, but not all the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
Geographic Expeditions: The majority of this company’s Laos tours are customized small-group trips. Existing tours include the 27-day Mekong from Top to Bottom (this includes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) for $12,999. An 11-day trip to Southern Laos costs $3,295 and includes Pakse, Sekong, elephant riding and a river trip to the Khong Islands. 800-777-8183; geoex.com
Distant Horizons: Check out a tour called A Reflective History: Myanmar and Laos. With Myanmar in the mix, this is certainly a trip for curious travelers. Led by Julian Brown, currently a researcher at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, this tour takes you through Mandalay, Sagaing and Pagan – then flies you back through Bangkok to Laos to see Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Then you travel by boat along the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves. 800-333-1240; distant-horizons.com
Intrepid Travel: This Australian-based, small-group operator focuses on off-the-beaten track, immersive tours that involve homestays and local transportation (i.e., tuktuks instead of private motor coaches). The shortest group trip to Laos is 15 days, and includes Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, starting at just $1,010. Trail of the Khmer starts at $1,400 and includes Bangkok, Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Airfare is NOT included but Intrepid is known for having affordable tour prices. intrepidtravel.com
Globe Aware: This company has volunteer vacation programs in Luang Prabang, in which volunteers primarily work with children in an orphanage. Projects include improving the facilities, teaching English to the children as well as monks in a local monastery, and simply playing with the children. Accommodations are in a hostel along the Mekong, which is walking distance from most major sites. Airfare is NOT included, but Globe Aware is one of the more affordable volunteer programs, with rates starting at $1,140 for eight days. globeaware.com
When to go
Peak season is November through March. For the best weather, go between November and February, when it’s not too humid and rainy. Not surprisingly, that’s also the best time to go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. March to May is also good as it’s hot but still dry.
Luang Prabang can get crowded, so book early. Vientiane, Pak Se and vicinity won’t have that problem.
Settha Palace Hotel: This is a luxury boutique hotel in a French colonial building. Rates start at $180 a night. Pang Kham Street, (856-21) 217581-2; setthapalace.com
Vientiane is not always the first stop for tourists visiting Laos, and in fact, some visitors skip it altogether. The capital city has its charm and plenty of local activity, but you won’t need more than a couple of days to get a good feel for the place before moving on. Much of the city’s culture and history was wiped out when the Thais sacked it in 1828, and many of the temples you see are restorations from the 20th century.
Pha That Luang: This monument is the national symbol of Laos. It is a Ã¢â‚¬Å“golden stupa,Ã¢â‚¬Â or a moundlike structure containing Buddhist relics. The 16th-century monument was destroyed by the Thais and later restored to its former glory.
Wat Sisaket: Built in the 19th century in a Thai style, this temple was not destroyed by the Thais in 1828. Small carvings in the walls hold more than 2,000 silver and ceramic Buddhas, and about 300 larger statues fill the space. Outdoors, golden shrines also honor the Buddha.
Ho Phra Keo: This museum was formerly known as Wat Phra Keo and was the former site of the Emerald Buddha, which now lives in Bangkok. It was built in 1565 for the Emerald Buddha, which the king had taken from Thailand (and reclaimed by the Thais in 1779). This historic museum includes works of religious art, many Buddhas, and in the garden is a jar from the Plain of Jars.
National Museum/Museum of Revolution: Much like a visit to similar museums in Vietnam, this museum is all about history from a Lao point of view. Located in an old government office, it showcases the Lao struggle for independence against France and America.
Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple): This is one of the most important temples in the country, built around 1560 on the banks of the Mekong River. It was a royal temple until 1975, and was restored in the 1960s. A mosaic of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Tree of LifeÃ¢â‚¬Â patterns the back wall, and much of the restored temple has been gilded and lacquered.
Wat Sokpaluang (herbal sauna): Don’t miss out on this experience. Wat Sokpaluang, or Forest Wat, may be the Ã¢â‚¬Å“originalÃ¢â‚¬Â herbal sauna in Vientiane, formerly operated by monks. You’ll step inside a bamboo hut where steam rises, infused with a secret combination of herbs and flowers. You can also opt for a massage for just a couple of dollars. Just watch out for mosquitoes!
Talat Sao (morning market): This two-story, covered market is where you’ll find all the handicrafts and souvenirs you want – textiles, jewelry, religious ornaments, herbs and flowers. Nearby is the Ethnic Handicraft Market, which focuses on Lao-only items.
Shop for textiles: Lao textiles are renowned, and you can find incredibly high-quality silks in Vientiane. Visit Carol Cassidy, located in a renovated colonial-era workshop in the city. She employs locals and together their works are showcased around the world. laotextiles.com
Watch the sunset on Phousi Holy Hill: It may be a life-changing experience. You’ll have unparalleled views of the town and its temples, and a breathtaking view of the sunset.
Morning alms: Definitely get up early to participate in this daily religious ritual. Monks wander through the town blessing those who give them offerings (sticky rice will do). You can do this at Wat Xieng Thong temple at 6 a.m.
Pak Ou Caves: The caves of a 1,000 Buddhas are located within limestone cliffs. There are two levels filled with statues of Buddha in all sizes and materials – the lower Tham Ting cave and the upper Tham Phum cave. It’s located outside of Luang Prabang, so to get there, you can take a day-long riverboat trip.
Plain of Jars: Thousands of stone jars lie scattered among a 500-square-mile region in northern Laos. These containers were created by a now-extinct race of people from nearly 2,000 years ago, and may have served as burial urns. The Plain of Jars refers to the area of land, which is a highly strategic area – bitter battles over this land have transformed it into a desolate, flat area, but it remains a top tourist attraction. A drive from Luang Prabang takes about five hours.
Pakse: This is the largest city in the south. It’s very tranquil and has small hotels and laid-back villages. This is a spot for true eco-tourism, with great hiking, waterfalls, tea plantations and small eco-lodges.
Cuisine in Laos will be familiar to enthusiasts of Southeast Asian food, particularly Thai dishes. Flavors include chili, fish stock, lemongrass, peanuts, mint, lime and tamarind. You’ll come across lots of sticky rice, minced meat called laab (very similar to Thai larb), and Vietnamese-style pho and other noodle soups.
Vientiane has a multitude of little tent restaurants along Mekong River that allow you to lounge and eat cheap food along the riverbank while enjoying the night and some music.
In Vientiane, a surprising amount of French cuisine exists, thanks to colonialization. Baguettes and good coffee are a staple, and a few restaurants offer French-influenced meals. Le Silapa is a high-end dining experience that would costs hundreds of dollars in France or the U.S. Diplomats and ex-pats flock to this establishment for fine (and rich) French cuisine. And don’t feel bad about not eating Ã¢â‚¬Å“local.Ã¢â‚¬Â Part of the restaurant’s proceeds to go charity. 17/1 Sihom Rd, Vientiane