Booking travel through an agency in Asia is an exercise in patience, forbearance...and an act of faith. Once you have booked and paid your money, you get an education on the limitations of business efficiency and transparency. And there is no such thing as recourse. You don't speak the language and no one wants to claim responsibility for mistakes or misunderstandings.
My first experience with an agency is in Myanmar. Upon arrival in Yangon, I find there is no reliable ground transportation going anywhere and no way to book travel within the country via internet: none of the western banks have relationships within Myanmar so you cannot use a credit card and the bandwidth is too narrow to fill out booking forms online - it will simply time out endlessly.
So, in spite of my desire to limit the amount of money I funnel to the regime and on the advice of my guest house manager, I walk down a dirt and broken concrete street, next to an open sewer, to a travel agency. This, in itself is an adventure. When I walk in the door, there is one agent who speaks limited English. She tells me that she can book domestic flights for me, but if I want hotel reservations I will need to go next door, and if I want international flights there is a third door... In each one, I need to find someone who can speak more than rudimentary English in hopes that I will actually get what I am looking for. Based on my two-day experience in Yangon, I know that lodgings are overbooked all over the country, so in order to coordinate my travel and lodging I begin trekking from door to door, back and forth asking the questions: "If I arrive in Bagan on this date, can you book me a hotel?" "If I can get a hotel on this date in Ngapali, can you get me a flight to Thandwe on that day?" The travel agents do not go to the internet either. They begin making phone calls, asking questions and waiting for calls with the answers. In the interim, they are booking for other clients. As hotels call back and tell us there are or are not rooms available, I am running back and forth between agencies and leafing through room descriptions in the Lonely Planet guide. It is, to say the least, chaotic.
After all of this, upon arriving in Ngapali Beach one week later, I discover that the hotel which I booked - and paid cash for in Yangon has no rooms available. The young woman at reception is quite distressed. Clearly, she doesn't know what to do with me and she looks like she is about to cry. She also looks like a child angel. She is about 4 feet tall, dressed in the inevitable longye and close fitting short sleeved shirt with thanaka smeared on her cheeks - even the most modern of Burmese women wear it.
Her boss is in meetings with some very important Buddhist monks and cannot be disturbed. She tries to call the travel office in Yangon but they are not answering their phone. I have, however, been in Asia for long enough to know that there is nothing to be gained by losing my patience. This is an opportunity to practice surrender. Travelers here learn very quickly that every successful interaction requires that all parties not lose face. And anger is simply unacceptable.... an attitude I hope to retain when I return home.
I ask for a coffee which the receptionist is only too happy to provide. I sit in a shady spot with my duffel, drink the ubiquitous hot, sweet Nescafe, smoke a cigarette, and wait...with a smile on my face. And it is in fact very pleasant here. Through the trees I can see the loveliest beach, there is a nice breeze and I am in no hurry. I make conversation with a German expat sitting nearby. After a bit, synergy begins to happen...
Eventually she gets through to the agency in Yangon who, although they tell her they sent the voucher and its not their fault, they are happy to try to help me. The owner of the hotel comes out of his meetings and they get on the telephone together, find a hotel a few kilometers away that has a room, the owner puts my luggage in his car and drives me to the new hotel - much prettier than the original. He explains my dilemma, calls the agency in Yangon from the new hotel to get the voucher transferred, the Yangon agent apologizes profusely and explains to me that the new hotel room is $15/night more than the original. Can I pay the difference? I am relieved. $15 is a small price to pay and I am truly appreciative of everyone's efforts. I am shown into a bright clean, spacious room with a lovely teak porch facing directly onto the Bay of Bengal. In 15 minutes I am floating on my back in the Indian Ocean watching clouds form in the bluest sky I have ever seen.
Thailand is another story....
Now, I cannot really blame the Thais. We are farang. We come here by the thousands with too much money and too little clothing, wandering around ignoring their customs and sensibilities, expecting them to communicate in our language. We have trained them to see us as walking opportunities to make a few baht.
Three weeks later I am in Chang Mai planning to go into Laos. Luang Prabang is a city built during the French colonization which, today, retains a nice mixture of French and Lao culture. I don't want to fly if possible: I am not against flying - other than being packed into spaces too small for my legs to fit, but I have plenty of time and don't want to miss all of the countryside along the way. So my choices are overland by bus which no one recommends, a one-day speed boat trip which the guidebooks talk about but recommend against as the Mekong is full of rocks and rapids and accidents are common, or a two day ferry ride they call the 'slow boat' down the Mekong. I am not actually frightened of the speed boat, but I don't know if I want to spend an entire day being bounced over the rapids, so I choose the slow boat.
The journey involves a 6-7 hour drive to the border at Chiang Kong, an overnight stay, a long-tail boat crossing at Huay Xai into Laos for immigration formalities and then a two-day ferry journey with a stop overnight at Pakbeng village. This sounds like a lot of logistics, so I decide to book an "all-inclusive" passage through a tour company in my guest house in Chang Mai.
I am picked up at my guesthouse in Chang Mai about 10:30 am. The next hour is spent driving around Chang Mai picking up passengers from other guest houses. There are an assortment of young European backpackers including three girls from the Netherlands who, in their short shorts, tee shirts and tousled, just got out of bed disarray, are intimidatingly beautiful. I burn with envy... There is also a slightly seedy Australian man in his early forties who looks like he was probably handsome - many long nights ago.... He is traveling with his eight-year old son who climbs aboard wearing an Indiana Jones hat, faux leather jacket, cap pistol and bullwhip.
The drive takes about six hours through into and through the mountains. Trust me, you don't want to watch the road... I spend the time looking out at the beautiful scenery, listening to music on my iPod, talking to the other travelers. We make a couple of stops clearly aimed at relieving us of a few more baht; one at a "geyser", a small steamy hole surrounded by broken concrete in the middle of a parking lot with food and souvenir stalls and another at a huge and very tacky newly built white temple...surrounded by more food and souvenir stalls.
At about 6 pm we arrive in Chiang Kong. Our "hotel" is a dirty tile courtyard with geckos running around the cracked walls. (Geckoes are a good thing. They are a symbol of good luck. And they eat mosquitoes!) There a few plastic tables and chairs, a fridge where we can buy beer, surrounded by seedy rooms. We are asked to hand over our passports and wait while they check us into rooms, two by two. When it is my turn, the woman tells me that I will need to pay an additional 200 baht for my room or she will have to put me in a double room with a man coming in on the next bus. The word 'extortion' runs through my mind.... I open my mouth to argue. Then I close it. There is nothing to be gained here and we are talking about $6. Once I agree, the woman becomes sweetness itself and points out that this is a much better room on the deck above where there is a nice open air balcony and I will have air conditioning. I give my best impression of someone who is absolutely thrilled by this transaction and thank her profusely.....
In the morning, the fun really begins. We are fed barely edible breakfast and our passports are returned with Thai departure documents. We walk about five minutes up the road and then down a dirt embankment to the river. I pull my duffel over mud and rocks, really happy I bought the one with heavy duty wheels! Most of the kids are carrying back packs which have a definite advantage here. We throw our luggage into a long-tail boat awash with mud and water and climb aboard for the crossing to Huay Xai. About five minutes later we climb ashore: more mud, rocks a steep embankment and then up a concrete ramp to Lao immigration. The tour operator on this side tells us to leave our luggage on the dock and he will watch it. He says 'we must hurry to get through the queue as quickly as possible!' But there is no queue. There is a shifting, amorphous mass of people all shoving their way closer to the one window where they are processing travelers. And because all of the tours have arrived at the same place at the same time there are about one hundred people here.
After about an hour, during which time the entire office shut down for fifteen minutes so everyone inside can take a break, I retrieve my passport with the new Lao visa. I have found, it is interesting to note, that the more impoverished the country, the more silver foil there is on the visa stamp.
I return to the docks where I find my luggage is sitting in a pile completely unwatched by anyone - except possibly thieves and smugglers. I wheel my duffel up a concrete ramp, have my passport stamped for entry into Laos and find a few members of the group there already waiting for the rest.
When we are assembled, the tour operator rematerializes and leads us into the town and a stall on the street. He tells us we should give him our passports and money so he can change it for us. He says we will not be able to use Thai baht or USD in Laos (untrue!) and he will get us the best rate for exchange. Several of the kids comply, but I am smelling strong rat - I may be slow, but I get there eventually. Instead, smiling politely, I go next door to the bank and withdraw cash in Lao Kip. I return to the group with about 200,000 kip - all of those bills for less than $300 USD! - to wait with the others.
At this point I am completely clear. All along I have understood clearly that every step of this journey is designed to create the highest number of possible opportunities for people to reach into my wallet. And I don't really mind. I am painfully aware at every moment in Asia that I am wealthy beyond any dreams these people will ever have. And if the few dollars they make from me will help them, I am only too happy to go along with the joke. But this is becoming excessive. The travel agent gets a commission from the tour company, the minivan driver gets paid to take us to the tacky tourist destinations, the guest house manager makes 200 baht through extortion, and now our "guide" will funnel us through two unnecessary stops; one for food and one where they will try to sell us rooms in Pakbeng by telling us there will be nothing left when we arrive ( I buy the food and refuse the room booking.) before boarding the ferry which, by the way, will also be completely overloaded. And I probably don't need to tell you that when those kids get their passports and money returned to them at the pier they have been shorted by about 30%.
As always, the Collette story does have a happy ending. About one o'clock the ferries finally leave and the next two days are a languid and lovely journey down the Mekong River. At Pakbeng, with my money in my own pocket I find the prettiest room, all teak and rattan with a private balcony overlooking the river...