Monks and (inset) Nathan
Leader interview: Nathan - Indochina tours
Originally from Thailand, Nat spent ten years living, studying and working in tourism in London, before returning to Bangkok 18 months ago to work as a tour leader. When we spoke to him he was enjoying a day off work for the Thai King's birthday, and was getting ready to go outside and celebrate with his family.
Nat leads the Bangkok to Hanoi section of this trip. His mother tongue is Thai but he also speaks fluent English as well as Laos - thanks to his Laotian grandmother.
What is your favourite bit of this trip?
My favourite place is Luang Prabang. It's a small town in Laos, in the south. It's quiet and really beautiful. It has old architecture, it used to be a French colony, so all the buildings remain in French style, mixed with the local Lao architecture. Because it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site they can't rebuild anything or have new style buildings, they have to ask for permission from UNESCO before they renovate or rebuild. That's why it's really beautiful.
Luang Prabang (Photo by Rob Young
Do you have a favourite souvenir?
I have so many souvenirs from Laos as everything is so lovely and cute, but the things that my passengers and I always buy are cotton trousers, which we call 'happy pants'! They are made of cotton and they're really light - in Laos and Thailand the climate is really humid but if you go to the temple or travel in the city we are concerned about responsible tourism so you have to wear trousers. You can't wear jeans as they are too hot, so we use the happy pants. You can buy them as souvenirs as they're very light and you can keep them in your luggage. All my passengers said that when they bought them and take them to their family everyone likes them so much because they have so many patterns on them - it's in the Lao style. In Thailand they have happy pants as well but with a different pattern - it depends on the city you visit. But if you buy them in Laos they're better quality, Laos is very well known for cotton and silk.
Happy pants (Photo courtesy of Nathan)
What is the most beautiful view on this trip?
On the way from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng - it takes around 8 hours. On the trip we have a road - the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnam used this track to run away from the USA Republican army. It's like a winding road and the height is 1,500m above sea level, so you can see the scenery all around. It's really beautiful. In that area all the mountain is a mix of normal mountains and the limestone mountains. My passengers take pictures there all the time.
Favourite view (Photo courtesy of Nathan)
Can you share a local recipe?
Thai food and Lao food are really similar, but the really famous food is called larb. It's a famous Lao recipe. It's minced meat, you can use pork, beef or buffalo meat, or chicken or fish. You cook the meat with onion, fish sauce, lime juice and mix together. After that you squeeze the lime juice again and have it with sticky rice. It's gorgeous. My passengers take a cooking class and everyone enjoys cooking larb. It's easy to cook, so when they get home the ingredients are easy to find.
Actually, for me I like the pork because I find the Asian pork tastes different to the pork in the UK. But most travellers like the buffalo meat. In Laos they have a lot of water buffalo, so the meat is very famous. My passengers say it's so much better than beef. It's a little bit tough but they all enjoy it.
Can you teach us a local word or expression?
Lao people are very happy. When they invite you to dinner or lunch, the word I always teach my passengers to say "Oh, the food's so tasty or delicious!" In Lao you say "sap", and "lai lai" means very much. So it means very delicious. My passengers use it all the time. "Sap lai lai". The locals like it when you say that because it means they've cooked very well.
Have you ever been afraid on this trip?
One thing happened to me that I'll never forget. Lots of the journeys are such a long, long way and sometimes there are no proper toilets, we have to go along the way. We call it 'bushy bushy happy room'! Have you heard that before? That means you have to walk and do your own business in a bushy area. So me and a passenger, a gentleman, walked together and we could see a big snake slither in front of us… we were in the middle of our business! We kept looking at each other - it was a really big snake, and I thought it might be a python or something. I have a snake phobia so it was really horrible for me! My passengers kept laughing at me - after we finished we ran to the bus immediately!
All the time if we have to do the bushy bushy happy room, I have to say to my passengers "guys, when you walk to the bush, you have to tap the floor and make a sound. If there are any animals around they will run away!"
Has anything unexpected ever happened on this trip?
My first time in Laos I didn't imagine that it would be so hard. It was the rainy season and there was a landslide on the way. We had to pull over and wait for an officer or the local people to come and clear the land. It took around eight hours! Which means we had to wait on the road all day until they had cleared it. It was my first trip! I didn't know what to do, I was trying to calm the people down. But I had such good luck because the people understood the problem, they said it was ok and I couldn't prevent the natural problems. So in the rainy season now I always bring hot water and tea. And if there's something wrong I can at least make some tea!
Is there anyone you wouldn't recommend this trip for?
Usually the people who come to Laos know about the inconveniences in the country. I think the people that I would recommend not to come would be people with a narrow mind. I did have one passenger like this, she was quite young and she expected that in Thailand or Laos or Cambodia, things weren't that different to the UK. So she had culture shock! She didn't expect it- she preferred hot water but some hotels in Laos don't have hot water - it's a very hot climate so in some areas the hot water is not important.
But I was so sad when that lady asked me "Nat - are we going to take the local bus? Are the people on it going to be local people or are they going to be tourists?" I asked why she was asking me that? She said that if she had to drive with the local people she wasn't going to be happy. But she came to their country!
So I prefer travellers with open minds. You shouldn't come to Southeast Asia if you don't want to be around local people. But actually, in the one and a half years that I have run the trip I always meet people with open minds, everyone enjoys the new experiences.
How do you relax on your days off during this trip?
My trip takes 15 days but I have two days off. My preferred place is in Vang Vieng. It's a small town surrounded by limestone mountains and there is a river. So the view in front is the river, and in the background is limestone mountains. It's very beautiful. There is one small bar around there, they have a hammock, so on my day off I can bring a book or music, lay myself down on the hammock, see the scenery there, and keep myself relaxed from work. It's very good. On my day off I don't want to talk with anyone. In my job I have to talk with the people, I have to be with people for 15 days - so it means that on my day off I have to retrain myself to be alone with nature!
Taking a day off (Photo courtesy of Nathan)