Enduring a Tedious Cruise; Enjoying a Stone-Age Encounter

WHAT makes a good vacation? What makes a bad one? After 40 years of extensive travel, Arthur Frommer has some well-tested ideas. In a Monitor interview, he recalled a bad trip and one of his favorites.

Not long ago he and his wife took her mother on a four-night cruise for her 85th birthday. The cruise "was horrendous, a horrible experience," Mr. Frommer recalls. "The entertainment and activity policy was so superficial and so trivial - such an insult to anybody, and yet it was inescapable." There was nowhere you could sit down on deck and read a book.

"All around you are these silly games - of people pushing balls against each other's stomach, dressing up in costume...." There was only a "tiny little library" that was closed most of the time. There were no lectures, no seminars - save a few classes on cosmetics and the like, he says, frowning.

Good travel isn't just geographically memorable, Frommer says, it teaches you something new; it changes you.

One of his most memorable trips was to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet. "It is one of the few places left in the world where, fairly easily, you hire yourself a guide and you go up the mountains - as much as 60 miles in, partially by boat - and you stay with Stone Age people - with hill tribes." There's no electricity, no running water, and the people are "the loveliest people one could possibly meet." Ironically, he says, the tribes are being irrevocably chang ed by tourism.

Frommer and his wife, Roberta (who to his surprise agreed to go on the trek), started out in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They took a 40-mile boat trip up the Mekong River. Then they rode elephants 10 or 15 miles into the jungle ("the most uncomfortable ride of my life," he adds).

When they reached the foot of the mountains, they began what seemed an endless climb. At one point, his wife said she didn't know if she could continue, to which Frommer replied: "What's the alternative?"

It was all made right when they came over the crest of the mountain at 5 o'clock that day. Hill tribesmen in colorful costumes greeted them. And although it took a while for everyone to warm up, Frommer recalls, he and his wife were soon interacting - tasting different foods and communicating. It was the experience of a lifetime.

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