Welcome to Working in Asia, a series featuring people doing all types of interesting jobs throughout Asia. Some people work as English teachers, tour guides, masseurs, or run their own companies. The opportunities and options are endless in this part of the world! If you work in Asia and would like to be featured in this series, please contact us.
Working as a Tour Guide in Southeast Asia
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
First off, thanks for asking me to do this. I feel honored. I don’t think I have ever been asked to do an interview before!…In a professional sense anyway. My name Andy and I work as a tour leader guiding groups of travelers from all over the world through SE Asia. I still call Arizona in the good ole’ USA home but technically I am homeless. I took that memorable one way flight to Bangkok almost exactly a year ago and have been living a vagabond life ever since.
When did you decide to become a tour guide? What led to that decision?
Well it wasn’t a life-long dream that is for sure. Last year I was traveling solo around Southeast Asia and I came to the point where I knew I wanted to continue to travel, but needed a way to generate income while I did so. I knew there were options out there but the tour guide role was something I hadn’t considered. Honestly, I didn’t know tour packages like the one I run even existed until I was out with some acquaintances in Bangkok and I met a guy named Scott who was tour leading. After explaining to me what he did I realized it would be the perfect solution.
What skills do you have that helped you get the job?
I think my boss would agree that the most important skills are leadership and management traits. You can have the best customer service skills, be the most enjoyable person to be around with all the knowledge in the world but a tour will fall apart real quick if you don’t have the group where they are supposed to be or can’t handle them when a curve balls come your way. For me, I have some military experience under my belt along with a bit of management experience in a customer service setting. So really, it was just a matter of combining that “think on your feet” military mentality with the customer service skills I used to teach in the call center.
Where do you go on the tours? How long do the tours last?
Our tours are broken down into 1-2 week sections all over SE Asia so it really depends on the schedule. Generally they are able to keep us tour leaders on a consistent route that starts in Hanoi, Vietnam then makes its way south to Ho Chi Minh City. From there we head west through Cambodia and into Bangkok, Thailand. Next is call the “Laos Loop” where we head up to northern Thailand, cross into northern Laos and make our way back south via Laos finding our way back to in Bangkok. Then it is down to the beaches of Thailand continuing south through Malaysia with a final stop in Singapore. The whole trip takes 7 weeks with about 26 different stops along the way through 6 different countries.
For those not familiar with the area here is a little route map:
How many people typically go on a tour? Where are the travelers in your groups from? What are their ages?
It really depends on the time of year. During the winter time, when it is peak tourism season in SE Asia, I have had tours with 20+ people. The summer time heat and monsoons bring in a bit less business with around 4-8 people. The seasons also tend to affect where our customers hail from as well. A lot of western hemisphere travelers come from the UK, Canada and the States during the winter months. This summer I have had the pleasure of sharing the experience with mostly Aussies, Kiwis and a handful of Swiss. Seems people are always running away from the cold….The age range really varies as well. The tour I run is advertised to a 35+ years plus crowd but there is no age restriction which results in me having everything from your 21 year old adventure seekers to 70 year old exploring retirees. It has never caused a problem though. It can be a little awkward in the beginning as the younger crowd learns to appreciate the enthusiasm for museums and the older group remembers what a hangover feels like, but in the end we become a big family. It’s quite fun to watch and be a part of. Sad when it’s all over and time to start a brand new group through.
Since your groups are so diverse do they tend to get along? Have you had any outstanding experiences with groups, great or terrible?
I have had some incredible experiences meeting random personalities from all over the globe. Of course there will always be people that won’t be friends after the tour but I have never had any major issues. The bigger groups are easier since people can gravitate towards others with shared interests. With the smaller groups we are forced together, so there is a greater chance of conflicting personalities, but I take it as a learning experience and try to impress upon the group to do the same.
Where do you get the information you share with travelers? Are you their guide for every place you go?
Ahhh the age of the internet! Most of the information I share is from prior experiences, whether from previous tour trips or solo experiences, and travel websites. Wikitravel and Wikipedia are godsends. Technically they call my role a “Tour Leader”, meaning my job is more to guide them from place to place, ensuring no one gets left behind, gets hurt and has all the general information they need to have a positive experience (when is the next toilet stop Andy!!?!!). Since we visit so many different places it would be very hard to be an expert on every historical detail but that doesn’t stop me from trying to pick up as much information along the way. Now only if this old brain was better at retaining it all…
Working with tourists can be exhausting-people can be whiny, sick, stubborn, tired, hungry. How do you maintain your energy when you are with a group for days or weeks at a time?
Beer! Just kidding…well sorta…… There are definitely different types of travelers out there with different tolerance levels for what these countries will throw at you. It can be draining at times, but I try to set honest expectations up front and that helps a lot. I also don’t spend all day, every day with my group. There is a healthy balance of open days on tour where, if I do my job well, and set the group up with optional things to do, it means I am free to sneak back to my room for some extra R&R or go off and explore things on my own. I explain this upfront as well and they understand. They can get just as tired of me and each other as I can of them. It is funny how all it takes is one day where everyone goes off and does their own thing to bring the group right back together.
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
The people I get to meet and the things I learn from them. Just when I think I have had every walk of life join me on tour I get a new group, with new personalities, and new home towns and new past experiences to share. In the beginning there was a time when I felt a bit anxious about my ignorance of the rest of the world. A lot of our customers are very well traveled where most of my experiences outside of the U.S. are just in SE Asia. Then I realized that it was stupid thought and to embrace my ignorance. So many long bus rides with nothing to do but talk and share stories.
What are the downsides of your job (if any)?
The living out of a backpack and constant moving can be draining. We generally spend only 2 nights in each location, sometimes only 1, and there are times where the night is spent on a train or bus. So being on the move takes its toll. When I was traveling around on my own I wouldn’t move around this quick. Generally I would explore a location until I felt it was time to move on, and then take one extra day to recharge and research my next destination. With this job I don’t have the freedom to slow my travels when I want.
It also proves to be difficult in making friends and developing those relationships. Whether it be those I have on tour or local people that I work with along the way. I make a ton of acquaintances but my nearest close friend is 7,000 km away. People back home may not believe me since I haven’t been so great staying in touch or updating where I am but I really miss my relationships at home. Believe it or not, this job can be quite lonely at times.
Is being a tour guide a sustainable career? Do you see yourself doing it long-term?
If it is, it’s a young mans game. I am certainly starting to feel my age. We have a few guys that have been tour leading for 10+ years but they have local homes here in SE Asia. They aren’t doing back to back to back tours. I am taking my first contract year as it comes, not committing to anything longer yet. I may go back to the states and realize that I don’t quite fit back into American society. Life on the road may be what’s for me and I’ll head back out for another year, possibly, in another part of the world than SE Asia, just have to see.
Can you tell us about some interesting/fun/amazing experiences you’ve had on or off the job?
Man, where do I start? Every tour there are countless memories shared but a special one for me was spending Christmas Eve with my group. We had an overnight train scheduled for that night so we set up a time to meet at the hotel to hold a little party and do a White Elephant gift exchange beforehand. For those of you that don’t know what that is, it’s when everyone buys a wrapped gift, puts it in a pile, and then the group takes turns choosing an unknown wrapped gift or stealing from others that have already chosen. It can turn pretty wild when there are a few “hot” gifts floating around that everyone wants. And of course there are a few lame gifts that were unwrapped that people desperately try to get rid of. I have seen the Secret Santa gift exchange before, but I have never seen anyone else play the White Elephant gift exchange the way I was taught as a kid. It is kind of a family tradition from my parts of the world.
The gift exchange went just as I remember growing up. Some really great gifts making the rounds, some not so great that caused a bunch of laughs and everyone eventually having something for Christmas. To share a personal family tradition with people from all over the world, some that don’t even celebrate Christmas, and watch them have so much fun with it, was pretty damn cool.
Afterwards we piled the group onto the overnight train and rang in the early Christmas morning rocking our way down the Vietnam railway. Between our decorated cabins, drinking too much of a few “gifts” and getting kicked out of the restaurant car for being too “Jolly”, I think the Vietnamese have a whole new idea of how to celebrate our western holiday.
What are your benefits, holidays, breaks and pay like? Are you able to save money?
In between tours is when I get a break and after 7 weeks of traveling, it isn’t a long one. Usually just a weekend off before picking up a new group and starting the adventure all over again. Technically I am working 24 hours a day for those 7 weeks straight but that’s why I find time during the tour for myself. Recharge the batteries as I go. Some days it feels like work, but most days it’s just being the one in charge of making sure everyone is enjoying their time. With a good group it hardly feels like work at all.
While on tour, all the business expenses are paid for (bus tickets, visas, entry fees to included excursions, etc.), and there is a small amount of tour money allocated for food and personal supplies but it doesn’t go far. There is a salary as well, comparable to local wages, but I try not to touch that. I have found if I am smart, and use the tip money given wisely, I can survive on tour just fine. That should allow me to save up for some more solo traveling after my year contract is finished. The goal is to head to Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. Maybe hike my ass up to base camp of Everest if the earthquake damage doesn’t prevent me. Hell, maybe even stay a while and help rebuild, I will see when the time comes if there is an opportunity.
Can you describe a typical day on the job?
The great part about this job is that there really is no “typical” day. A typical day is having an adventure with people using their vacation to explore new countries. Some days that adventure may be taking them kayaking down the Mekong river in Laos, other times its grinding through an 8 hour bus ride in Cambodia. It really just depends on where we are in the tour.
Generally there are 3 types of days:
1. Transportation days, where life is spent on a bus, train or boat. These are obviously the least exciting days but allow me to catch up on paperwork, some sleep or a good book if the road isn’t too bumpy or windy.
2. Included Excursion days, where I am joining the group for an inclusive adventure like visiting Angkor Wat or crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels. These days are pretty fun but can be a bit repetitious (there are only so many times you can be excited about some Buddhist temples in the sweltering heat).
3. And free days, where the group is free to go off and do what they like, whether it is museum hopping, shopping or quad biking through the country side. The free days are for me as well to recharge and do the side work that keeps the tour running. Today I am caught up so I am going quad biking.
Do you have recommendations for anyone who wants to pursue the type of work you are doing?
I would say first you need to have traveled a bit to make sure you love being on the road and constantly on the move. It can be draining and if you aren’t passionate about it, it will become old quick and you will crave going home to normalcy. Some management and leadership experience is a must. While doing some personal traveling, if you find yourself naturally taking charge of the people you are with, then the job is up your alley.
Then do what I did, apply, interview well and kick ass while on tour!
Huge thanks to Andy for providing such an interesting and inspiring interview!
What do you think? Would working as a tour guide be a good fit for you?
Traveling to Cambodia?
Sign up to receive our free guide for ten awesome places to go in the country!