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Escorted and General-Interest Trips

Among the most experienced and knowledgeable tour operators specializing in Southeast Asia are Absolute Asia and Asia Transpacific Journeys. In-country tour providers Diethelm and Exotissimo can do anything from arranging deluxe tours to just helping out with small details or bookings. Most companies allow clients to design their own trip or deviate from exact schedules (often at a small cost). Companies such as Intrepid, among others, offer unique itineraries for solo travelers.

Here are the top outfitters:

  • Abercrombie & Kent (1520 Kensington Rd., Ste. 212, Oakbrook, IL 60523; tel. 800/554-7016; fax 630/954-3324; www.abercrombieandkent.com) offers Southeast Asia programs with numerous comprehensive itineraries. This well-known luxury-tour operator can take you to Thailand (on spa tours, too), Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Laos, with stays at the finest hotels in Southeast Asia, such as the Oriental in Bangkok and the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi.
  • Absolute Asia (180 Varick St., 16th floor, New York, NY 10014; tel. 800/736-8187; fax 212/627-4090; www.absoluteasia.com), founded in 1989, offers an array of innovative itineraries, specializing in individual or small-group tours customized to your interests, with experienced local guides and excellent accommodations. Talk to these folks about tours that feature art, cuisine, religion, antiques, photography, wildlife study, archaeology, and soft adventure -- they can plan a specialized trip to see just about anything you can dream up for any length of time. They can also book you on excellent coach programs in Indochina.
  • Asia Transpacific Journeys (2995 Center Green Court, Boulder, CO 80301; tel. 800/642-2742 or 303/443-6789; fax 303/443-7078; www.asiatranspacific.com) coordinates tours to every corner of South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It deals with small groups and custom programs that include luxury accommodations. The flagship package, the 23-day "Passage to Indochina" tour, takes you through the major attractions of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia with a well-planned itinerary, and it is but one of many fun tours that promote cultural understanding. It's a model of sustainable tourism and a highly recommended choice.
  • Backroads (801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA 94710; tel. 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555; fax 510/527-1444; www.backroads.com), the cycling and hiking specialist, has an 11-day bike tour of Vietnam and Angkor Wat, an 8-day Thailand Golden Triangle tour, and others. Check out the website; Backroads is always coming up with innovative itineraries in the region.
  • Diethelm Travel (Kian Gwan Building II, 140/1 Wireless Rd., Bangkok 10330, Thailand; tel. 662/660-7000; fax 662/660-7020; www.diethelmtravel.com), a Swiss-based tour company, has offices throughout the region (it's a popular choice for European tour groups). The folks here are friendly and helpful; they also operate as de facto tourist information centers in places such as Laos. Diethelm has full tour programs and, like Exotissimo , can help with any details for travelers in-country, arrange car rental or vans for small groups, and offer discount options to all locations.
  • Exotissimo Travel (40 bis, Rue du fg Poissonniére, 75010 Paris, France, tel. 149/490-360, fax 149/490-369; or Saigon Trade Center, 37 Ton Duc Thang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tel. 08/825-1723, fax 08/829-5800; www.exotissimo.com), a French outfit and outbound (in-country) agency with offices in every major city in the region, has excellent guides on-site. Agents not only can arrange all-inclusive tours, but also are helpful with all travel details, from ticketing to visas. See the office locations in each chapter.
  • Imaginative Traveler (1 Betts Ave., Martlesham Heath, Suffolk IP5 7RH, U.K.; tel. 0800/316-2717; fax 0280/742-3045; www.imaginative-traveler.com), a U.K.-based firm, gets rave reviews for organizing all sorts of bicycling, trekking, and motorcycling adventures throughout Southeast Asia, particularly Indochina.
  • Intrepid Travel (11 Spring St., Fitzroy, Victoria, 3065 Australia; tel. 613/9473-2626, or 877/488-1616 in the U.S.; fax 613/9419-4426; www.intrepidtravel.com), a popular Australian operator, is probably the best choice for an off-the-beaten-track tour of Asia. Intrepid caters trips for the culturally discerning, those with humanitarian goals, those in search of comfort and adventure, those on a budget, or those looking for a looser structure and lots of options. Its name is its motto, and with some of the best guides in Asia, these folks will take you to the back of beyond safely, in style, and with lots of laughs.

Special-Interest Trips

For cultural tours and museum tours, contact any of the smaller local travel agents listed in each chapter. For the amateur ethnographer, contact any of the ecotour outfitters below or those listed in specific sections (particularly in the north of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, or western Cambodia).

Outdoor Adventures & Ecotours -- Adventure-seekers can find any number of small outfitters in many parts of Southeast Asia. Consider first what kind of terrain you'd like to explore -- the choices are anything from jungle to dry plains, coastal estuaries to inland rivers. The best areas to get out and get your boots wet are in the farthest reaches of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

In the north of Thailand, go with Contact Travel (420/3 Changklan Road., Chiang Mai; tel. 05320-4664; fax 05327-9505; www.activethailand.com) for cycling, off-road, and other ecoadventures. In the far south of Thailand, Paddle Asia (9/71 Thanon Rasdanusorn, Phuket; tel. 07624-0952; fax 07621-6145; www.paddleasia.com) has some of the best nature kayaking trips -- you're guaranteed to see some exciting wildlife.

In Laos, Green Discovery (P.O. Box 9811, Hang Boun Rd., Ban Hay Sook, Vientaine; tel. 021/264528; www.greendiscoverylaos.com) runs great rafting and kayaking adventures anywhere in the country and has some unique village and cultural tours as well.

In the north of Vietnam, the folks at Handspan (78 Ma May St., Hanoi; tel. 04/3926-2828; fax 04/926-2383; www.handspan.com) as well as Buffalo Tours (94 Ma May St., Hanoi; tel. 04/828-0702; www.buffalotours.com) put together exciting kayaking adventures in Halong Bay, hiking trips to Sapa, and jeep trips up to Dien Bien Phu. In central Vietnam, the old French colonial hill station of Dalat plays host to a great outfitter, Phat Tire Ventures (73 Truong Cong Dinh, Dalat; tel. 063/829-422; fax 063/820-331; www.phattireventures.com), which can help you rock climb, mountain bike, or trek with the most professional guides and experienced technicians.

In Malaysia, Asian Overland Services (tel. 03/4252-9100; fax 03/4257-1133; www.asianoverland.com.my) offers homestays in Taman Negara national park, Lemanak longhouse stays (Sarawak), diving off Sipadan Island, and a number of diverse tours planned with sensitivity to the environment and local cultures.

In Bali, Sobek Tours (tel. 361/287059), Bali Discovery Tours (tel. 361/286283; www.balidiscovery.com), and Bali Adventure Tours (tel. 361/721480; www.baliadventuretours.com) can both arrange fun day and overnight itineraries to volcanoes, the jungle, and rural villages.

The folks at Exotissimo Travel have offices throughout Southeast Asia and are the best for arranging all kinds of rural adventures.

Diving Trips -- There are more dive outfits in Southeast Asia than we could possibly list. Be sure to choose a PADI-accredited dive company and ask lots of questions before any trip: What is the ratio of diver to instructor? Does the company have its own boat?

In Thailand, look under Phuket or Ko Tao; in Vietnam, try Nha Trang; in Cambodia, Sihanoukville; in Malaysia, Langkawi.

Cooking Schools -- The varied cuisine of the countries of Southeast Asia is a veritable banquet for the gourmet or the fearless eater, and there's no better way to learn about and participate in a culture than to take a cooking class. Opportunities abound.

In Thailand, a favorite option is the upscale Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School (233 S. Sathorn Rd., Bangkok; tel. 02673-9353; www.blueelephant.com), set in an old mansion in the heart of the city. The restaurant is a popular luxury chain from Europe that has returned to its roots and set up shop in the Thai capital. It's not to be missed. In the north of Thailand, try the Chiang Mai Cookery School (47/2 Moonmuang Rd., Chiang Mai; tel. 05320-6388; www.thaicookeryschool.com). In the far south, there are lots of small resorts with cooking schools attached.

In northern Laos, enjoy a fun and informative day at Tamnak Lao Restaurant and Cooking School (Sakhalin Rd., Ban Wat Sene, Luang Prabang; tel. 071/252-525), where you'll not only get the dish on Lao specialties and some unique derivations, but also learn a good bit about local culture, history, and language.

In central Vietnam, Ms. Vy, who runs the Mermaid (Nhu Y) Restaurant (02 Tran Phu St., Hoi An; tel. 0510/861-527; www.hoianhospitality.com) and several other establishments in town, offers great cooking programs of varying length.

Gourmands in Singapore shouldn't miss a chance to take a quick course at the Raffles Culinary Academy (tel. 65/6412-1256; www.raffles.com). Whole-day courses on Asian and Western haute cuisine are led by chefs from the grand hotel's acclaimed restaurants.

In Bali, try Bumbu Bali (tel. 361/774502) in the south for Heinz von Holzen's informative cooking classes. The Alila Manggis' Sea Salt restaurant (tel. 363/41011) holds cooking classes with chef Penny Williams. Executive chef Chris Salans gives gourmet French-Indonesian cooking classes at his restaurant Mosaic (tel. 361/975768), which is also well worth a trip for a meal.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.