It's often a struggle to book a holiday. One option is to use a tour agent in your home country but I always feel you pay way too much for what you get. Essentially you're paying for a lot of marketing and sales overhead for a bulk travel product. You can also do it all yourself but it takes a lot of time and research and it's hard to get the itinerary all lined up nicely. You can easily end up paying rack rates and wasting a lot of time.
So an alternative is to find a local travel agency in the country you're visiting. The problem is finding one you can trust not to rip you off and that will customise an itinerary to fit your needs and interests rather that push you through bulk travel tours. The big drawback to these local agents is that you don't have much legal recourse if things go wrong so trust is a major concern.
We arranged our tour of Cambodia through AboutAsia Travel which is quite a unique tour operator run by Andy. Andy lives in Singapore and creates the custom itineraries while his head guide is based in Siem Reap and handles all the ground co-ordination. What is truly unique is that 50% off all the profits from a tour is donated to the Sage Foundation which helps children in Cambodia.
The cost of the tour was very reasonable but even if you think you're paying too much, it feels good to know that half of the profit is going to a good cause. What convinced me to go with AboutAsia Travel was a phone call I had with Andy where we discussed how to structure the itinerary and he clearly knew how to avoid the main tourist traps and offered ways to see Cambodia that many tourists missed. What really clinched it was that he could arrange with the Sage Foundation for a day of volunteer work for our family.
I arranged to pay on arrival rather than a bank transfer but in fact no one asked me for any payment when I got there. After a few days, I insisted it was time to pay and visited their office. Our guide told me it was considered a bit rude to ask for the money up front!
There were a couple of minor mess ups but nothing serious and nothing that they didn't bend over backwards to rectify. Overall, it felt like you were being looked after and that feels very relaxing after being so used to doing everything ourselves.
I managed to meet Andy before I left Siem Reap and had a interesting chat about the business and his work with the Sage Foundation. It's a great business model as it allows tourist dollars to have a direct impact helping local people. Today it's successful without any marketing and a lot of dedication from Andy. His challenge is to scale the business without him putting so many hours into it. Once the business model is proved and runs smoothly, then it can be replicated across Indochina and other developing countries.
So if you're thinking of visiting Angkor Wat, it's well worth your while contacting AboutAsia Travel and seeing what itinerary they can put together for you. Hopefully one day you can travel elsewhere with them.