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Purple Dragon Celebrates a Birthday
Purple Dragon celebrates its eighteenth anniversary this month. It's been a wild ride. Many of those reading this newsletter have stuck with us for fifteen years or longer, so you know what thrills we have had. It all began with the Asian currency crisis when Douglas and John Goss, who owns the Utopia-Asia website, figured out they could earn dollars and spend Baht, which was trading for almost 50 to the dollar. Utopia Tours was born online with a simple website selling package tours in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was an instant success. Another partner joined them eventually and an office was opened in Tarntawan Place Hotel. The company eventually grew to operate in nine countries and is considering two more. The addition of each new flag on the map presented a variety of challenges.
I asked Douglas what the high points have been for him. "All the great people we have met and the friends we have made, the traveling I have been able to do, the months I spent sleeping in a restaurant in Siem Reap, affording to eat Thai food every day" he said. He also mentioned the two years he spent as founding co-chair of Bangkok Pride and the community-building projects he has participated in in Thailand, and now in Bhutan, and writing an advice column here for a decade. And the low points? SARS, bird flu, the tsunami of 2004, political unrest, and, of course, "the great unpleasantness." The later resulted in both original partners being falsely charged and convicted of silly crimes that ended in their deportation and great suffering for the company's staff. "We had to take down our sign and cover our window," Douglas reminded me. "We were harassed by news media. Our bank accounts were frozen. Our license was suspended." That's when the name changed to Purple Dragon. Neither of the other original partners are permitted to return to Thailand. There was eventually another partner in the business but that ended with a serious hangover.
The Company will be dusting off an old brand and adding a "Tamarind Tours" website this year to offer high-end travel to the mainstream market. The boss has a steady stream of new ideas, from new destinations to tomatoes to innovative shoe-stretching inventions.
World's Largest (and Probably Most Erotic) Aircraft Takes to the Skies
An aircraft that could completely change commercial air travel in the future finally took to the skies on 17 August. The Airlander 10 was built in the UK, initially for the U.S. Army. This massive "hybrid" aircraft is part airplane, part balloon, and part helicopter with engines fore and aft that give it great agility and enables it to reach a cruising speed of almost 100 miles per hour at an altitude of 20,000 feet. It is able to land on any surface, including water and ice. Its 1.3 million cubic feet of helium can keep it aloft for months. It dwarfs an Airbus A380, yet is only about 40% of the length of the ill-fated Hindenberg. The Army shelved the project while it was still in development, and this first Airlander 10 is being converted to carry freight and passengers. While its aerodynamics allow it to fly in almost any weather, its "curves" are what make the Airlander turn heads. "Airlander or Asslander?" someone commented online. The Airlander emits a fraction of the pollution of a jet turbine engine, is very inexpensive to operate, carries huge loads, can land vertically and makes very little noise. This innovative concept could change the future of air travel as we know it. Investors expect a return on the cost of building the first of the vehicles in just two years. We can't wait for our first ride on The Flying Bum.
"New" Countries: How We Do It
Recently, we have received several emails from friends who expressed dissatisfaction with the speed at which we were adding some of the new destinations we have been talking about. While we admit that some of our guests may have run completely out of things to do and see in the nine countries where we work, we hope that you can understand and appreciate the complex process we go through to add a new pin to our map.
The countries we most want to add are Taiwan and Sri Lanka. Nepal is also a candidate. These choices are based on what our customers have expressed interest in, gay friendliness, and how well they fit with our other destinations. We have begun exploratory efforts in all three of these countries. We do not like to use local tour operators since this usually increases the cost and relieves us of control of the quality of the product. They usually do not understand the unique needs or expectations of LGBT travelers as we do. In Bhutan (see story below) and Myanmar we cannot employ our own management or guides so we have to improvise. Elsewhere, the first critical step for us when adding a new country is to identify one or two experienced freelance tour guides who are a good fit for our customers and who are willing to work with us.
Together with the guide(s) we begin to sketch out packages and itineraries, beginning with basic primary-city packages. Then one of us visits the country to inspect hotels and take photos we can use on our website. This sometimes requires multiple visits. Individual programs are refined to include more innovative activities. Once we have contracts with the hotels we want to use, we are able to begin determining prices that we can live with for at least nine months. Only then do we begin to craft pages for our website and make them public. This whole process has taken us six to twenty-four months.
With all three countries we are stuck on step #1--finding someone locally who wants to work with us. As hard as we have tried, we can't find gay or gayesque guides in these places. We cannot believe that no such people exist. We just can't find them. So if you know of anyone who might be a candidate in one of the contries we want to add to our collection, we would love to hear from you.
Bhutan Blog #2 and Better Bhutan Opens For Business in Thimpu
In case you missed it, Douglas has blogged about a return trip to Bhutan. This time, it's mostly photos: www.purpledrag.com/blog/August2016.htm
One thing not mentioned in the blog is an event on his final night in Paro. Douglas had dinner with Bhutan Boy and a friend he has known since childhood, who is also a guide and has business smarts. They told him that the government was about to stop issuing tourism licenses and they wanted to open their own office, but needed a mentor. After discussing fine details, Douglas agreed to work with them and, just one week later, he received an email with a copy of the coveted license. In a written agreement with them he has allowed them to use the Better Bhutan name under license, and they will be handling all of Purple Dragon's and BetterBhutan.com's guests. One of them will visiting Bangkok soon for training with Purple Dragon's staff.
Why is this important to you? Purple Dragon will now have greater control over the quality of the experiences our guests have. The new company will use the hotels specifically chosen by Purple Dragon and will only use guides we have approved of and who have signed an agreement to adhere to Purple Dragon's rules and standards. Foreigners cannot own tour companies in Bhutan, and tourism businesses outside of Bhutan must use a local company to handle their clients. We have used three different companies for this purpose, and all have been sadly lacking in terms of accuracy, responsiveness, and their choices of both guides and hotels. One actually made an impetuous post-cocktail-hour choice to cancel all of Purple Dragon's future hotel and flight bookings, prompting Douglas to put his new associates to work immediately rather than wait. Thankfully, none of this will happen again. If you plan to experience Bhutan with us, it will now be truly Better.
August Sale On Gems
We are having an introductory sale on our new Ruby and Sapphire Membership levels. Since this newsletter is about two weeks behind schedule, it's an August/September sale. You have until September 10th to choose the gem you like the most. Choose the three-year Ruby Membership and you will get an extra year free. Or pick the lifetime Sapphire Membership and you can deduct 200% of the value of your former Purple Bonus Points from the cost. Look for the number at the very bottom of the email you received to notify you about this newsletter and multiply by 2 to determine the US dollar value of your discount. If you have traveled (or booked to travel) during 2016 the number in the email might not yet reflect the points we would apply toward the discount. If you are not sure or if I have confused the heck out of you, please send me an email. To read more about rules and the many benefits of these member categories have a look here: www.clubsanook.com/joinform.htm. If you want to upgrade your membership there is no need to join again. Just follow the link above to send me an email and I will make it happen.
Special Brexit Prices for UK Residents
If you live in the UK, regardless of your nationality, we feel your pain. Those who spend Pounds Sterling lost about twelve percent of the buying power of their currency overnight. For many, this has meant that traveling abroad will be less affordable than ever before. For a very limited time we are turning turning back the clock and using exchange rates for the GBP against the dollar and the Thai baht. For readers of this newsletter we are extending the deadline to 10 September to reserve and save money. You can find full details at www.purpledrag.com/brexit.htm.
New Stuff You Will Like
In the last newsletter we told you about two new packages on the Purple Dragon website. We are still in the process of "decorating" them, but you can have an advance peek at what we have planned for you.
The Perfect Circle (thanks to Jeffrey Wood for the lovely title) is an overnight round trip from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng. You travel one way by boat on the Mekong River and the other way by road through a cultural kaleidoscope of rural Laos that most visitors fly over. This was inspired by our popular Road Less Travelled (also a Jeffrey title), our overnight trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. You spend the night in a truly lovely hotel made up of teak cottages that overlook the Mekong. The Perfect Circle includes all transportation and meals, and numerous stops in each direction. If have seen our Way Beyond Luang Prabang trip and liked it but thought it might be logistically difficult for you, The Perfect Circle will be the Perfect Substitute. Oh, the photo on the right is not of our boat, but of a boat taken from our boat. Lao Mekong River boats all subscribe to the same architecture. However, unlike this backpacker boat, ours has a sanitary kitchen, an actual toilet rather than a door overhanging the water, and a skilled mechanic traveling with the boat.
Angkor Adventure is also new, although we are using a recycled name for this trip. In addition to plenty of Angkor sightseeing you get a half day zipline "flight" through an unspoiled forest, and a self-drive all-terrain vehicle trip through the remarkable countryside outside of Siem Reap. Sightseeing includes visits to two temples that "Indiana Jones missed." If you are young and active (or young at heart and active) and want to mix monuments with unique outdoor activities that also give cultural insights, we are sure you will really enjoy this one. Douglas is still working on prices. If you want to be the first to reserve this package send him an email and you will get front-row seats at Phare the Cambodian Circus.
In September Cambodia will begin to offer a three-year multiple entry visa for tourism, business or both. That means you will be able to come and go as often as you like for three years. They just announced this on 19 August and they have not determined a price yet.
Machli, the "Queen Mother of the Tigers" in India's Ranthambore National Park, has died at the age of 19. She was arguably the most photographed of her species. Ranthambore is well known as the home of "friendly tigers" and most visitors are lucky enough to leave with the great memory of at least one sighting. Machli was so famous that she even has her own page on Wikipedia, which says that she contributed at least ten million tourism dollars to India's economy every year just by hanging out where people could see her. She is also famous for having killed a ten- foot-long crocodile. There are plenty of other big cats, rhino, buffalo and other left alive in Ranthambore, which is between Jaipur and Agra, and easily added to a Golden Triangle itinerary.
Indonesia's House of Representatives is considering a bill that would forbid the sale of alcohol in the country. No further comment on this on our part is probably necessary.
You are now allowed to stay up late in Hanoi. Restaurants, bars and other business in Hanoi are no longer required to close at midnight. Clubs in hotels that cater primarily to foreigners can stay open until 02:00. However, in a moment of reckless abandon, the city's communist party bosses have decided to allow folks to party everywhere until 02:00. Actually, this is a good business move since it will add significantly to tourism revenue.
Vietnam Airlines will launch its first routes to North America in 2018.
By early 2017 you will be able to travel from Bangkok to Phnom Penh by train. Construction/reconstruction of Cambodia's rail system that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge has been ongoing for the past several years. The route from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville was recently opened to the public temporarily. The longer route to Battambang and Poipet is near completion, as is the final 6.5 kilometer section that will link Aranyaprathet in Thailand to the Poipet border crossing.
Vietnam has extended its visa waiver program for German, French, British, Italian, and Spanish for another year. If you hold a passport for one of these countries no visa is required through June 2017 unless it is extended again.
Bangkok Airways has launched a new route non-stop between Bangkok and Danang. If you are planning to visit Hoi An or Hue, you can now get there four days a week without having to connect in Saigon.
India now has the fastest growing domestic airline market in the world, eclipsing Russia and the United States. According to the International Air Transport Association, India's annual growth has reached nearly 19% in the past year. Several reasons for this are the crowding of the country's colonial-era rail system and the remarkably low airfares resulting from competition.
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