We’ve all been on those 40 passenger buses full of tourists (and their selfie sticks or ipads used as cameras). And don’t forget the tour guides with the microphones and flags who spew out all those facts and monotonous spiels you’ll never remember….
So before you jump on the tour bus, here are some reasons (and stories) why you should consider a private guide on your next trip.
When our family visited Bhutan, we had the rare opportunity to visit our guide’s humble home. Him and his wife welcomed us with great hospitality and offered us a delicious, authentic Bhutanese meal as we sat on floor cushions and talked about their daily lives.
In Vietnam, our guide named Happy, led us to a local coffee shop, where we enjoyed his company, learning about his day-to-day life as we drank our coffee the Vietnamese way – sitting on short stools. We even made a trip to a local market to purchase the best coffee for us to bring home.
In 2006, our group of family & friends visited Bali for the first time where we met Iwayan, our private guide. He was so grateful for the generous tip we gave him for his great service, that he continued to stay in touch with me over the years sending holiday greetings and random updates from Bali via email. Nine years later, I returned to Bali with some colleagues and our itinerary was planned by an operator with their own guides, so I reached out to Iwayan and mentioned that although I wouldn’t need his services, it would be nice to meet up at some point during my trip. Him & his son surprised me with flowers and gifts upon arrival at the airport and insisted on driving me to my hotel so we could spend an hour together catching up. He even made a special effort to visit me again during the trip with a basket full of my favorite exotic fruits which he remembered from 2009. And because he couldn’t make it to say goodbye the night before I left, he sent his son and niece to drop off some Balinese peanuts to bring home for my family and friends who he missed seeing again.
On our recent trip to Egypt, we had the opportunity to tour with an Egyptologist. We had access to his incredible knowledge of the tomb inscriptions and temple murals. He even taught us how to read hieroglyphs! And as you can see, the guides always make it fun for all ages.
In Zambia & South Africa, our safari guides and trackers were extremely knowledgeable about the animals and their behaviors, habitats and possible whereabouts. They showed us how they scan the ground for footprints & scat, to identify which animals may have passed by, approximately how long ago, and their possible whereabouts so we could search for them. Our photographer guide even gave us the best tips on taking amazing pictures during our safari. We shared meals daily and met some of their family members as well.
Lending a Hand: The Ability Bhutan Society
ABS supports special-needs children and their families. It provides early and direct intervention and assistance to children with various needs, to help them live independently in Bhutanese society. To learn more, visit http://www.absbhutan.org.
The message on the wall when we entered ABS read, ” If people with disabilities can’t believe in themselves, or if others don’t belive in them, WE will believe in them and hopefully our positivity will spread and encourage more Positivity!
How We Helped
We reached out to ABS in advance of our visit to ask about their needs. They provided a list of items that would be useful but they are unable to source in Bhutan. In partnership with Tarsadia Foundation, Vacations That Matter donated Occupational Therapy kits, several other items and some cash to the organization in person during our visit to Bhutan.
ABS shared a wonderful presentation with us about everything they do, how donor funds are utilized and the lives they have changed.
Each kit had portable equipment and skill-building toys designed for children with special needs, so that the therapists can help children who are housebound, and unable to visit the ABS facility.
We only brought items that would fit in our luggage and could not be sourced locally. The cash donations were used to purchase chairs, tables, and other items that could be purchased locally, in order to support local businesses as well.
It is so nice to see pictures of how ABS is using the items we donated. Seeing the direct impact inspires us to want to do more, so we will continue to support ABS through various travel partners who bring tourism to Bhutan!
Back from Bali
Bali is the “island of the gods.” The Balinese practice of Hinduism is quite different than that of India. They do believe in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and you will see Ganesha and Shiva everywhere; however, the Balinese do not worship any deities. Their temples are simple structures with no idols. Life for the Balinese revolves around rituals, ceremonies, and daily offerings of flowers and rice. Homes and businesses, cars and cows…everywhere you go, these offerings decorate the land.
Bali’s views are spectacular: sunrise on the east coast, sunset on the west coast, and jungles, rice fields and volcanic mountains throughout the island.
Don’t forget the food! Bali’s culinary options are impressive, ranging from the traditional Balinese cuisine served in banana leaves to the finest French cuisine prepared by renowned chefs.
Adventure or relaxation: how about both? Every desire can be fulfilled in Bali, from hiking, biking, and whitewater rafting to yoga, spa treatments and complete relaxation. You can even experience what it’s like to plough a rice field!
So, whether you prefer simplicity or indulgence, Bali is an inviting and remarkable destination for everyone.
To see the entire Album click here!
Back from Bhutan
Ever told yourself you just “want to escape?” To be surrounded by nature’s beauty, unblemished by our modern world? Such heavenly escape can only be found in Bhutan, the Dragon Kingdom in the valleys of the Himalayas.
Isolated from our fast-paced world, Bhutan is where tradition and culture are immaculately preserved.
Nature and society are one.
Spiritual awareness and practice permeates the land.
It is community that makes the Bhutanese some of the happiest people on earth. Where else can you measure GNP “Gross National Happiness“!
The Bhutanese believe in hospitality; they invite strangers into their humble homes, cook up a storm from the freshest organic produce grown on their farms, and engage in conversation like we are all family and old friends.
Their dedication to humanity is unwavering.
If you’re adventurous and wish to experience spirituality, community, and the ancient culture of the Dragon Kingdom, you will love Exploring Bhutan.
CLICK HERE to see more pictures
Housing From the Heart
Do you remember your first home? No matter how big or small, old or new it was, the memories of your first home will likely be treasured forever.
So imagine if you had an opportunity to make the dream of a home a reality for someone and you were invited to the house warming party!
Today, I’d like to share an inspiring story of how Tyler Dillon from Butterfield & Robinson is making this possible.
Out of all the places I have worked and lived, Myanmar takes the cake.
For a number of years I have been travelling, living, and working abroad–in search of what, I couldn’t say. Possibly a further understanding of the world, new perspectives, a sense of adventure. Or maybe it’s just because I cannot sit still and life on the road is one of constant activity.
Inle Lake: A Magic Unlike Any Other
Through all of these travels there is one place in particular that has stood out, and I think always will stand out: Inle Lake and the mountains of the Shan State in Myanmar (Burma). After time spent in lands as diverse and majestic as New Zealand, Ireland, Peru, China, Patagonia and even my home in the American south, after all this, I found Inle Lake had a touch of magic unlike any other. Being there feels like being in a Roald Dahl story: a constant mixture of strangeness and wonder.
In the autumn of 2010, while researching biking and hiking routes in Inle, I discovered that to build a house for a Burmese family cost just US$800. Since it was November and the holiday season was approaching, I decided that, in lieu of Christmas gifts, I was going to build a house in the name of all the folks I would normally have bought presents for. Then I realized they might want to contribute as well, so I began emailing friends and family to explain the project and ask for donations. I quickly started adding more people to the email list, given the cost of the houses and the immediacy of the need, which I could see easily being there on the ground.
Starting to Grow
Emails were sent and things started to grow. In discussions with folks in Butterfield & Robinson’s main Toronto office, a fundraising challenge was made that stipulated that B&R would match the amount I raised. The pot grew (and grew and grew) and by the end of December we had raised upwards of $20,000.
“There is a kindness to the people that is rare in this day and age and it has stolen my heart,” I wrote to my friends and family.
I must admit, it was a surprise, and a bit overwhelming, so we called upon the help of some old friends we had worked with before in South East Asia doing NGO work, the Global Community Service Foundation. With their help, we quickly set up some criteria for selecting families in need, and we hired people on the ground who live in the area year-round to manage and continue to check up on the families we chose.
Today, every group of people that travels in Myanmar with B&R will meet a family and help them move in for their first day in a new home, and a new life. Neighbors come along with monks to bless the house, and of course, we come and hold a grand party, complete with dancing and music. I must admit, I cry every time. It is a beautiful thing that people have the ability to do for each other; it is us being human in the best possible way.
After the first year of houses, Butterfield & Robinson decided to fund a house for every group that goes through Myanmar with the company. Now we have built about 50 houses in various regions around the lake. What the future holds for the program is hard to say; when giving and help one needs to be flexible, and the needs of a community change, so we must be prepared to change with it. Perhaps our future efforts will focus on water treatment, or prenatal care, or any number of things in need of attention in the developing world.
From the Heart
But one thing we know for sure is this: now that we’ve gotten a taste of how we can help, we’re thirsty for more. In the next year we will be starting a similar program in Cambodia, in another wonderfully magical region in need, which is also a wonderful place to visit. We are looking at doing a project for folks who honeymoon there, as a way to offer young couples starting their lives together a chance to provide opportunity for a family in need.
On my last trip to Myanmar I mentioned to a fellow traveler as we finished up a house-building ceremony that I was very lucky to have set this project up. He replied, “It wasn’t luck, it was something from the heart–and that makes all the difference.”
National Volunteer Week
In honor of National Volunteer Week, I’d like to acknowledge the amazing ways in which people throughout our Nation give their time, money and expertise for the benefit of local and global communities and organizations.
As a Voluntourism specialist, I often work with people who share my passion for volunteering throughout the year and specifically during their vacations. Being able to inspire, recognize and encourage people to engage in their own communities and the global communities they visit is an honor and a real privilege.
I’m always humbled by the stories I share of people giving whole heartedly to make a difference.
Today, I’d like to share from JG Black Book’s Black Blog of Travel, the story of Andy Booth who started ABOUTAsia Travel and ABOUTAsia Schools.
ABOUTAsia Schools: How It All Began
At JG Black Book, we see travel as the ultimate means of discovering our individual roles as citizens of this beautiful world. From Europe to Asia and South America, our partners are the catalysts through which travelers connect with another culture, providing guests a heavenly home base from which to explore and absorb.
ABOUTAsia Travel, a South East Asian tour company and member of the JG Black Book Collection, is the epitome of that vision, encouraging travelers to leave their mark and give back to the locals they meet, photograph, laugh and eat with.
ABOUTAsia began when Andy Booth, a former investment banker from the UK, travelled to Angkor Wat 10 years ago, learning that the local community only benefited marginally from tourism and that most of the revenue remained within the hospitality industry.
Determined to make a difference, Booth moved to Siem Reap and dedicated himself to turning tourist dollars into funding for local education, resulting in the establishment of ABOUTAsia Travel. He then ensured that 100% of its profits would go towards ABOUTAsia Schools, a progressive non-profit organization that provides immediate targeted aid to Cambodian children and schools by acquiring school supplies, employing teachers, and recruiting volunteers.
The combined activities of ABOUTAsia Travel and ABOUTAsia Schools support the education of over 53,000 children in 108 schools in Siem Reap Province.
Today, Andy Booth shares a story to give us an up-close and personal sense of what ABOUTAsia is all ABOUT:
We got a call from a lady who runs a restaurant in Siem Reap. She said that there was something awry with the school in her village near Banteay Srei: It had been built under the Jolie-Pitt initiative but was looking a little ‘unloved’. A couple of days later we were standing in the school yard around 9am and the kids were playing all around us, happy as you like but clearly not in lessons. Eventually we got to meet the Principal of the school and we asked him if it was a special day of some sort as the children were not in lessons today. “No”, he told us, “We ran out of chalk ten days ago so there are no lessons”. Within 2 hours we had returned from town with a year’s supply of chalk and the school quickly got back to normal.
Our involvement can range from building the entire school right down to buying some boxes of chalk: The challenge is to use our limited resources and whatever it takes to make the schools work better. After we built Prey Chrouk secondary school, teachers were recruited and the school opened to initially around 540 children in grades 7, 8 and 9…For that first year we were assigned one English teacher by the department of education and he spoke almost no English. We supplemented the program with native English speaking volunteers and that is how we started running the free volunteering program which has been such a success.
Watch the video below to see how volunteers can make a difference:
VIDEO LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VW1wX-CnLs
Vacations That Matter Recommends
In honor of National Volunteer Week
VOLUNTEER Locally or Globally
Whether at Home or on Vacation
With the Intention to Make a Difference or Pay it Forward!!!
Leaving a Legacy
Happy New Year!
This year for me has started with thoughts of leaving a legacy as I cherish memories of my grandma and two friends who just lost a battle with cancer this week.
As my brother shared,”To live in the hearts of those you leave behind is to live forever, ” so we can all live forever in the hearts of those we touch. Whether family, friends, associates or complete strangers, if we can give with a heart, we will be paying it forward and leaving a legacy as my grandmother did.
Today’s Inspiring Story
In the spirit of leaving a legacy, today I’d like to share an excerpt of an essay titled, “Less is More” written by my 12 year old daughter over the holidays.
At first I thought it was going to be a typical family vacation but soon after we arrived in Vietnam, I realized it was going to be much, much more.
The one thing that I really loved about Hanoi was that early in the morning there were groups of up to 100 people of all ages gathered to do Tai Chi or a dance routine, and people playing badminton on courts painted onto the sidewalk. The city and people were so alive…
What also amazed me was the overall happiness of everybody, especially in Cambodia. They were engaged in a brutal civil war which lasted for 20 years… The people instead of being depressed and bitter now, are just happy to have peace… They don’t need a lot to be happy. This is a really good lesson to learn because for lots of us in the United States we have too much stuff. I don’t think I should feel guilty about owning it, but instead help out and share when I can. I just need to be grateful that I am more fortunate than others.
For me the perfect example of sharing was in Vietnam when we were graciously invited into the home of a local village family. We were asked to sit down while they served us food and drink. They gave us a tour of their tiny home. I was amazed at how hospitable the family was even though we were complete strangers. It was a great example of how happy you could be no matter how much you did or didn’t have.
In Cambodia, we had gone to a village to distribute water filters for families without filtered water… We were greeted by a very big but happy family living with just a water pump, and drinking straight from the well. I was amazed because at home, we are all stressed out about our machine and alkaline and purified water. They were getting along pretty well with their pump and it was a good reminder that you don’t need lots of things to be happy. Sometimes, simplicity is the key.
This vacation turned out to be a lot more than I expected. This is the first time I have written an essay about any one of our trips and even though it has been more than a month since we came back I wanted to write so that I could remember just how thankful I felt.
Voluntourism in Vietnam and Cambodia
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since we got back from our vacation to Vietnam and Cambodia over Thanksgiving, and the experience was certainly something to be thankful for. As I reflect on our recent journey, I’m so excited to share the different aspects of this vacation experience including the amazing sights, culture, cuisine and accommodations to suit every need and desire. However, it will take a series of newsletters to cover everything, so for today, I will focus on some of the philanthropic opportunities available in this region. I would like to share some of our experiences with the organizations that we participated with, those that we encountered, and so many more that we learned about during our trip.
As we prepare for the upcoming holidays, many of us generally participate in supporting charitable causes around the world to make the holidays festive for everyone including those who may not have the means to enjoy holiday gifts and feasts as we do. And we certainly should not lose sight of the opportunties to serve during the holidays in our local communities.
Today’s Inspiring Story
We started our journey in Vietnam with a visit to the Birla Village Orphanage in Hanoi. Working with a reputable tour operator with local representatives and guides is essential to ensure that you are not only supporting a legitimate organization with guidelines that are in the best interest of the children, but the visits should be monitored and not disruptive or detrimental in any way to the children.
We visited during play time just before lunch and left right after lunch so that we wouldn’t interrupt their nap schedule. As we toured their well maintained facility, we learned about the kids, their daily routine, education opportunities and even learned that the government has strict standards for food preparation which requires the orphanage to keep a sample of each meal served so that the quality and nutrition guidelines can be monitored in order to prevent sickness and ensure proper health for these vulnerable children.
In addition to the toys, clothes, and school supplies that we had brought to donate, the tour operator also supplied a box of rice and other items which was their way of thanking the orphanage for allowing us the opportunity to meet the children, have a brief but meaningful interaction with them and most importantly learn about their lives and how they are being raised and supported so that they can flourish and be successful in life.
Another project that we had planned into our itinerary was a water filter distribution in a village where wells had already been installed to access the water. The amazing work of the Trailblazer Foundation http://thetrailblazerfoundation.org provides the most basic human need of fresh potable water to drink, bathe and irrigate their fields. The bio soil filters are a low cost, long term solution alleviating water borne diseases and illness, poverty, and increasing the quality of life for these rural villagers in a sustainable manner.
Not only did we learn about how water filters work and the difference they make in people’s lives, but we had an opportunity to participate as a family including our 7 year old who happily shared her cookies and interacted with the local village children. It was a great way to be immersed in their daily lives and to see how they live compared to the way we live.
As we visited some of the major tourist sites such as the Pagoda’s in Vietnam and the Angkor Temples in Cambodia, we encountered many opportunities to support the local people trying to make a living with dignity. We hardly encountered anyone begging. The effects of war, agent orange, land mines and the Khmer rouge are visible and heartbreaking.
There are countless opportunities to buy items such as CD’s, books, and amazing arts & crafts from Artisan establishments set up to support a huge disabled population in both Vietnam and Cambodia. And these quality items make great souvenirs and gifts to bring home for family and friends.
Even the hotels and accommodations we stayed in or just visited provided plenty of subtle opportunity to support the local communities while enjoying their hospitality and service. They hosted local music and dance performances by children from an orphanage to displays of jewelry and art providing funds to local non-profits. Brochure racks included pamphlets for hospitals, orphanages, and a multitude of support organizations some of which I have included links for below.
What amazes me the most about our families experiences on this vacation is the fact that we were able to experience a true vacation to a couple of Southeast Asia destinations where we thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing, architecture, culture, food, luxury accommodations, people who are happy, friendly, and welcoming despite their circumstances, and wonders of the world to UNESCO world heritage sites as you would expect on a typical vacation. But we were also able to give back in so many ways and came home with inspiration and memories for a lifetime. We truly gained more than we gave.
I hope that you and your families have similar opportunities to vacation and experience destinations around the world in such a unique way.