by Daniel Fraser
I have had my trip designer’s hat on several times again the past few months. It has been fantastic and has mostly involved testing bike rides or motorcycle routes or finding scenic detours, squeezing hotel pillows, sampling spring rolls, tasting hotel coffee or grilling the local bartender on how to get the keys to the city.
Many of our trips involve hikes and bicycle rides, some as short as an hour and others multiple days. Specifically I have been surveying various hike possibilities lately in far flung places like Isaan (NE Thailand), central Laos, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and more recently in northern, central, and southern Vietnam. I have driven several trekking guides to the point of insanity and we’ve gone back to the drawing board multiple times. I admit that at times I have struggled to explain exactly what I am or am not looking for when it comes to a good hike or bike ride or any day excursion for that matter. So, I’ve come up with a simple quick-list of qualifications that, say a hike must have to get the Smiling Albino stamp of approval.
I’ve omitted the obvious things like ‘carry proper supplies’, or ‘be a friend to nature’, etc., as that surely has been covered already.
Following, in no particular order, are a few steering points that I’ve used when building hikes or bike rides (from 1-8hrs) for Smiling Albino:
1 – Graceful Transitions
This means ideally no driving 45-minutes just to get to the starting point of a hike, or an hour in a van back to the resort when it is finished. Obviously in some regions this isn’t possible, but in the case where any transfer is necessary the hike must be extra special to justify it. Good flow is vital to a perfect holiday, and graceless transitions can upset the otherwise good rhythm of your trip. Now, if the hike absolutely necessitates a commute at the start or finish, or both, then an effort should be made to involve alternative means to get there rather or back than a van ride, such as a bicycle, boat, or even motorcycle taxi. Maintaining good flow is as important to an adventure as the hotels and meals. We are currently planning a couple of hikes in central Vietnam in which we transfer to the start point by a local motorcycle touring club and finish the hike a stone’s throw from a hillside pub – that’s good flow.
2 – Modifiable
As we would like several different types of our guests to enjoy a great hike, it should be modifiable so that Olympian guests can get their burn if so desired, or the leisure stroller can feel like they got what they were after. Shortcuts, scenic routes, fun detours and strategic stops make this possible.
3 – Higher Purpose
Besides a walk in the woods, what is the purpose of the hike?
Smiling Albino does a couple of fantastic hikes in northern Thailand where there is a relevant sub-theme to the hike. We follow village trails once used by smugglers in the former opium trade and use the time discuss the eradication struggles, and witness the new agricultural alternatives the villagers are cultivating. Throughout the hike we’ll discuss the role opium played in the region and how everyone from the Chinese government to the CIA had their direct influence on the villages that feature in the hike.
Not that wandering in the woods and quoting Walt Whitman alone wouldn’t be fulfilling enough, but surely a hike’s purpose, other than getting back to nature and a bit of a workout, must be to connect the hiker with the location. Additionally, bonus points if the hike follows the path of a historic battle, or even traces the migration of a people to a new settlement and the reasons behind it.
A great trip needs multiple layers of connectivity to truly be impactful.
4 – No logging roads or constructions sites!
Although one can’t deny you are still out in nature and far from the city
streets, walking down logging roads or through forest construction sites or mega agro-projects just doesn’t fill the soul’s need for tree-hugging granola moments of bliss. I once did a hike that followed a series of logging roads until we reached a giant gravel quarry, where we had lunch and observed heavy machinery crunch rocks. Needless to say it didn’t make the cut for SA trips.
5 – No staged village visits
For too long in SE Asia hikers have been subjected to the trumped up ‘remote village visit’. Truth is most of the villages accessible on a day hike are not that remote, and as we know unfortunately some villages are incentivized to stage some of their tribal authenticity. I have no problem with being part of equitable fair exchanges between groups (fruit or blankets or basic medical materials in exchange for a visit to a house for a whiskey with the local shaman or a cigar with the village chief, etc.), but to make the villagers themselves the focus of the hike ultimately creates an awkward mercenary exchange in which the visitor is unknowingly paying for village behaviour to appear a certain way to fulfill his/her expectations. Professor Erik Cohen has a great series of white papers on this topic in his White Lotus books publication.
So, only subtle village visits please, and no cultural dance shows unless they were happening that day regardless of our passing through, and no human-zoo gawking and romanticising the moment. Pass through, learn a bit about them, provide a fair exchange if appropriate, and continue with getting back to nature.
6 – Bush, Plant, Bug, Bird
At least some basic learning about flora and fauna and the types of crops growing in the area is needed. Now, most guests that join our short hikes on our Thailand trips or our longer hikes on our Nepal/Tibet trips are not looking for a comprehensive breakdown of species and biodiversity in the region, but they would at least like to learn about a few crops, bushes, plants and other things along the way.
“Hey is that morning glory”? “Yes, and we’ll have some tonight.” “Cool”. Or, “Hey, can you smoke that?” “No, it is pumpkin.”
7 – Snack
Depending on the length of the hike, appropriate food at an appropriate place can’t be underestimated. I was once on a hike (before Smiling Albino existed) and we had a picnic lunch of rice in a box served under a bridge. Zero points for ambiance – but surely even some basic fruit and nuts under the canopy of the jungle would have tied us over until dinner?
8 – Transcendence (in a hiker’s context)
Ideally the hike actually brings you from one place to another, or, in a perfect world, the hike is part of a larger experience carefully woven into the day. For example, sometimes we do a short afternoon kayaking venture down a river in northern Thailand. If the guests are up for it, then we offer the alternative to hike back to the resort rather than a longtail boat (5km or less) just for a change of scenery. In this case the hike is woven into the ongoing events of the day and becomes part of the kayak trip, which becomes part of getting back to the resort. The activities combine to form an afternoon’s experience which goes beyond the simple joy of each element itself. This adds to the vital ingredient in any adventure: flow. Re-arranging the dots, as opposed to simply connecting them, enables our guests to hike right back up to their rooms after a trek in the woods and a paddle down the river. No vans or graceless transfers. That’s some good flow.
9 – Be a friend to local communities
This is vague of course, but it means that there should be some higher learning that the guests gain about the area and the people. A visit to a local school can be a great way for a few moments of innocent cultural exchange, or throwing Frisbee for a few minutes with children from a rural village. No handing out candies or clamouring for photos, just some dignified human-to-human interaction.
10 – Work-out
Lastly, if a hike isn’t strenuous enough to warrant a cold beer immediately upon completion, go back to the woods and start again. You’ve at least got to work up a sweat, or use some muscles that have been dormant for a while, or push yourself even slightly so that that beer at the end feels like you earned it.
A great company will prepare cold beer or your favourite beverage of choice at the end of a hike (unless of course operating a vehicle is still required afterwards).
This isn’t a lecture and no travel company is perfect, but having had my trip design hat on several times the past few months I was not able to find what I was looking for just by using terms like ‘flow”, “transcendence”, “graceful transitions” or “connectivity”. So, I jotted down the basic thoughts which have governed my approach to hikes and I realized the way we approach things at SA involves a great deal more analysis than most people realize. Plus we’re very high maintenance. The small details are enormous.