The Dragoman tour ended for me in Kathmandu. Because most people only signed up for segments of the trip, only three of us and our group leader, Laura, were on the tour for the full loop–we even lost our driver, Bob, along the way. We had one final night together as a group and I then checked out of the Hotel Tibet to stay at a much cheaper joint in Thamel. However, Laura was still around for a couple of extra nights so we got to spend one of the days visiting the Buddhist temple that is a 30 minute walk from downtown Kathmandu.
Swayambhunath is on top of a big hill. Kathmandu valley used to have a huge lake, and the legend is that the massive hill arose from the middle of the lake, and the name of the temple translates into “self-risen.” It appears that the earliest activity on the site dates back to the fourth century C.E. I would definitely recommend the temple, there aren’t too many Tibetan-style Buddhist temples in the area and the views from the top are great as well. The monkeys are also quite amusing.
No knock-off Coke for this discerning monkey, only The Real Thing (TM) will do:
These are shots of two nice people I met while having my final meal in Kathmandu at the Phat Khat. The fellow below is an Austrian truck-driver, and the woman works as a prosecutor in Germany, focusing on drug cases. As you would imagine I talked shop with the woman quite a bit, confirming that Canada is definitely on the wrong side of things when it comes to the punitive nature of our justice system. While we are miles away from what the U.S. does in terms of criminal sentencing, sadly we are much closer to the U.S. than we are to the rest of the western world. From the sounds of things, Germany really does use incarceration as a measure of last resort. She was telling me of people convicted of transporting kilograms of cocaine getting their equivalent of probation as first time offenders:
Well, leaving the Dragoman tour after four months felt incredibly weird. I went from being surrounded by people for most of my waking hours to being completely alone, all the more so because there were not a lot of tourists in the areas I visited next by myself. That being said, I guess I was careful enough to take a fair bit of time on my own during the Drago trip so the transition was not as jarring as you would expect. It certainly helped that I subsequently had a lot more late morning starts, especially when I was relaxing in Pokhara.
Here are my final thoughts on the Dragoman tour. Unfortunately, the feedback form that they provided didn’t really allow me to properly describe the pros and cons of the experience.
Pros: The people that Dragoman attracts, both in terms of the passengers and crew are all very down-to-earth and genuinely nice people. I must have rotated through 30 different people throughout the three months and only one (Janesta) proved to be anti-social and nutty. That being said, she mostly kept to herself, so if that’s the worse that we got, that is not bad at all. Second, Drago does a really good job picking the itinerary. There is no way that I would have ever known about 30% of the amazing places we visited. The ground we covered was varied and truly amazing. Since these are frankly the most important parts of travelling, I would have to say that my experience with Dragoman was overwhelmingly positive as a whole.
Cons: The form asked me whether I would recommend Dragoman to a friend, and they only provided a yes-or-no way to answer. I ticked no. But I would have liked to be able to add that I would not recommend Dragoman for travelling through India specifically. The main reason is that the Drago trucks are integral to the Drago experience, and those trucks are simply not a practical way to travel through the country. The truck is just too bloody big (and we had one of the smaller versions). As I previously noted we ended up hitting a person with the truck (which could have ended very poorly but luckily did not), and we hit a number of low-hanging power-lines along the way (I later learned why John as so upset while this was happening, he’s an engineer and in the course of his career he had several crew members die when their trucks hit low-hanging power-lines). The only benefit of the truck is that it does allow you to keep some stuff on the truck that you won’t need on a daily basis such as your camping gear, but since camping is ultimately impractical and unnecessary in India, the only reason I had that gear in the first place was because camping was unnecessarily integrated into the Dragoman tour. And, I felt that all of the camping with the exception of one night (the night at the dam) was totally forced. Yes, the kitty price would have been slightly higher, but given that I typically only paid $20 CDN per upgrade max, the difference would have been negligible per leg of the trip. The truck was also a very uncomfortable way to travel, it does not have independent suspension and if the truck is full the seats are essentially as bad as the worst seats on an economy flight. Overall, the modes of transportation when I’ve done Intrepid trips have been more comfortable.
The second con is that for some reason, the hotels that we stayed at were generally far worse than the ones I stayed at on my Intrepid tours through China and Egypt. That I felt compelled to use my sleeping bag liner due to poor hygiene about 1/4 of the time says it all. At first I thought that perhaps these sorts of hotels are unavoidable in India at our price range. But having traveled alone through India for a month now, I’m booking bigger and cleaner rooms at 2/3 of the price of the rooms we were getting on the Drago trip. As such, I’m a little puzzled as to why the accommodation was lacking. Perhaps the good budget hotels can’t accommodate such large groups? This seems unlikely given how often I’ve been able to book excellent budget rooms in reasonably big hotels, especially given that Drago can book with far more advance notice than I have.
The third major downside to Dragoman has two related parts. First, and most important, they pay their staff terribly. Depending on who you ask, they get paid anywhere from $8 to $12 USD a day (plus a per diem for food), which is just atrocious. This explains their high-turnover, very few crew-members stick around longer than three years (which given the intensive training, is just a bad business model). I was not comfortable participating in that level of exploitation especially when I was paying approximately $100 CDN a day. Multiply that by 10-16 people and they can certainly afford to pay the Drago crews better. This then led to the second major downside, due to high turnover, NONE of our crew had ever done the India trip before–not Laura, not Bob and not our second driver Yves. As such, they were relying entirely on the trip notes from prior tour leaders. This isn’t a one-off thing. The crew that was departing on the India loop a few days after we arrived back in Kathmandu had also never done the trip before. That is frankly unacceptable. Laura, Bob and Yves did a tremendous job but it was incredibly unfair to them to send them off in what is considered one of the more difficult trips, with neither one of them having done it before. I understand that a new person will have to go through the India trip for the first time at some point, but BOTH of them at the same time?! In terms of the experience for the travelers, part of the benefit of having an experienced guide is that they have personal insight into the minutia of a particular city. They can recommend restaurants, point out the closest ATMs and offer personal views on the various activities in the city. For most of the trip, the best our crew could do was to effectively read off what prior tour leaders had recommended or recommended to avoid, often with no explanation for the recommendation or warning. The latter got annoying in Mysore in particular because two of the best restaurants that I visited in India were listed in the trip notes as places to avoid, with no explanation (Tiger Trail in particular had phenomenal skewers at reasonable prices in a beautiful setting). Other experienced Drago travelers offered that they no longer pay attention to the trip note recommendations and places to avoid in terms of restaurants because they are often just a coded way for one trip leader to tell another that the restaurant doesn’t offer tour leaders a comped meal or discount for bringing in a group. To be clear, Laura had absolutely no idea why the two restaurants were recommended against and it would be stupid for tour leaders to make such a reason explicit in the trip notes given that management has full access to the notes. Given that she is new, she hasn’t clued in to the code yet. And given the atrocious pay, I can’t honestly blame a smart tour leader from gaming the system a bit. It’s like paying a police officer $20 bucks a week and then being outraged when he takes a bribe. In any event, in the last leg of the tour Laura had traveled through some of the cities in the past and the difference in her level of input was tangible. She recommended great places where she could articulate in advance why they were good to allow for an informed decision on our part.
To conclude, I would have to say that while the overall experience of the trip was great, for the reasons noted above, you’re are best off booking a trip through Intrepid if you are specifically travelling through India (note, Intrepid partners up with Drago which is how I ended up on the trip, so be sure to book a trip that is actually run by Intrepid). In my experience the travelers on the Intrepid trips are of the same caliber as the Drago participants, and Intrepid also takes you to some out-of-the-way sites. You just won’t have to unnecessarily deal with the Drago truck and the accommodation will likely be better. Furthermore, on the two Intrepid trips I booked one had a local guide, then second had a guide who had done the trip a half-dozen times. My understanding is Intrepid tries to hire local guides wherever possible.