Another reason to avoid tours: people get killed on them. While I was in Vietnam 12 tourists drowned in Halong Bay when their excursion boat capsized in the middle of the night as they slept. While in Thailand an elephant ride went wrong when one of the animals, a male, “went berserk” according to the newspaper, trampling the Swiss tourist who had been riding it to death and sending two others to the hospital.
You get the sense that the tour companies are shoestring operations that are not regulated in any meaningful way. People should not be put onto male elephants nor onto boats that are unseaworthy. Yet neither of the articles I read about these incidents made any reference to regulatory authorities. Both are handled as matters for the police. Nor is it clear that the rampaging elephant was put down. (Orwell famously wrote about shooting an elephant in Burma where he served as a colonial police officer. He shot it, he admitted, in order to avoid being made to appear ridiculous to the locals.)
The other thing about the tours is that you get thrown together with people you don’t want to be with. Yesterday I was a captive audience as my fellow bus passengers had an animated conversation about the shortcomings of toilets in the Far East. Sure they can be a little rough but what’s the point in repeatedly talking about it? An elderly woman from New York took it to another level, however. She said she always travels with toilet paper, toilet seat covers (“if they have a toilet seat!”), handi-wipes and, she claimed, a funnel. There was no explanation for this latter appliance and every time I saw her thereafter my imagination was troubled by images of the possible uses to which that horrible funnel might be put.
One section of yesterday’s tour offered elephant rides. There was a sign announcing that the elephant exhibit included free wi-fi, although it didn’t work for me. The loutish mahouts wear gaudy red and gold uniforms and lay around on top of the elephants, smoking and sleeping. You aren’t supposed to take pictures without paying. The whole thing had a “donkey basketball” feel to it. Nobody on the bus took an elephant ride.