Off The Path Travel is an American owned travel company that provides responsible, unorthodox travel tours in various locations in Thailand, Mongolia and India. Alex Martin is both the founder, international tour operator and a guide.
We’ll begin with your history of travel. Basically, what inspired you to start, continue and now guide others?
I went overseas when I was 19 to volunteer in Thailand. I spent a lot of time in small villages on my first trip and fell in love. I figured out a way to come back to Thailand and also go to India with a student group, then stay in Thailand and teach myself for the remainder of my college years (long story). I maintained a relationship with the travel program I studied with and began guiding and translating for them.
Upon graduation, I worked for some other companies as the educational tours were only seasonal work and realized that all the group tours that practiced responsible travel were either volunteer or education based. The ‘leisure’ group tour companies that I encountered were basically opportunities for people to have the ‘spring break’ experience in Thailand, going to places like Full Moon Parties, Khaosan Road, and Koh Phi Phi. One of the companies claimed to really want to get into more off the path and sustainable travel, so I tried to develop a tour up north for them going through hill tribe villages. The guides that were brought along turned it into a party tour and even asked me not to talk about the issues refugees have in Thailand because ‘it would bum people out’. I finished the tour and a few more similar situations like this convinced me to quit the company and take my contacts with me. I realized that my problem was that I wasn’t working for myself. I had talked about starting Off The Path Travel for a long time, but it was then that I decided I was ready. My dad and brother were on board and the three of us have been working on it ever since.
Brothers and co-owners of OTP Travel, Justin and Alex. Check Justin’s MBSB article Burn Your Guidebook.
How do you define both responsible and off the path travel experiences?
I think both of them go hand in hand.
Responsible travel boils down to a few key elements. Contribute to local economies, be mindful of what activities you take part in and how it effects people and the environment around you, and don’t manifest your culture on the places you travel, but instead integrate yourself and learn.
A lot of people ask me if Off The Path Travel is just about going where no other tourists go. We tend to do that a lot, but that’s not all it is to me. Going to Wat Pra Doi Suteph is an incredible experience regardless of how many tourists go there. Being an off the path traveler is how you look at everywhere you travel through the scope of what we define a responsible traveler as. I think that the type of people who are interested in our tours are very inquisitive and have specific interests. They don’t just want to see the advertised highlights of a place. They know when to tough the crowds for a worthwhile experience, but also appreciate things the typical traveler doesn’t consider doing.
Alex in Gulmarg, India. Gulmarg is a town within the Himalayas with a population of approximately 664.
Where do people with good intentions go wrong in Thailand?
People take unsolicited advice from other travelers. A lot of travelers think that just because others are travelers, they are kin and have a lot in common. I’ve sat at restaurants and had other people talk to me and after 1 minute, tell me how I just have to go to the Full Moon Party, that I’d love it and it’s the best experience in the world. I think people take the advice because they’re nervous in a new country and it makes them feel like they belong a bit in a place so foreign. People will say that something is responsible, not because they really know, but because another traveler told them and they want to be in on it. I think that you really have to do research before hand and question things when you travel.
Advice for newbie travelers who want to investigate the rarely traveled Thailand?
Sign up with a reputable NGO to volunteer in villages, go on an educational tour if you’re a student, or just pick a random location on a map and get on a bus. Don’t worry that you’ll be unsafe as the rarely traveled locations are the least dangerous parts of Thailand. The places you have to worry about are more popular locations like Koh Pangan, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, and Pattaya. You could also always come on a tour with us.
Off The Path Travel is a fairly new tour company. How has the first year been?
It has been very challenging. Setting up tours and guiding comes naturally to me, but I had to learn a lot of new things like marketing and simple web design. That being said, I’ve learned so many new things about travel, the business world, and myself. Luckily, a lot of people believe in what Off The Path Travel is trying to do, so we’ve had loads of support from friends, family, travel bloggers, and even random strangers.
It’s also been interesting to see how much OTP Travel has changed within in a year. At first, we just wanted to do group tours. Now, we’re running private tours and day trips. We’re even starting an Experiential Thai Language 3 day tour and an Into Living In Thailand tour for new expats.
One aspect I love about your tours is that you don’t release the specific names of your destinations within a country. Can you expand on why this is?
There are a few reasons. A big part of it is to keep our tours unique. A lot of tour companies copy each other and you’ll see multiple groups on the same ‘circuit’. We’re not interested in being a part of that. Our belief is that if we told you exactly where we were going so anybody could follow, our tours wouldn’t be off the path. Also, I like to get to know a group before deciding exactly where I’m going to bring them. If I have a group who seems to really like rugged travel, I might call up a contact mid tour and get us into a village way up in the mountains. There are certain places that we want to bring every group to, but we like to be flexible so when something really cool comes up, we can seize the opportunity. This also works because people can come on the tour multiple times and have a new experience. Also, it keeps things fresh for new people to Thailand, knowing that they aren’t going somewhere that the past 5 groups necessarily went. You still get the sense of exploration even if it is a guided tour. We want each group to feel like they are unique, instead of another ‘herd’ that is going to be shepherded around Thailand.
Is there one moment that stands out from your experience with OTP Travel thus far?
I led the first official Off The Path Travel day tour earlier this month. I had led some free tours for friends before to get our name out there and feedback, but this was the first one where it was a random client. The best part was I didn’t even expect it to happen. I had just finished designing a bunch of day trips and got an email only a couple days after we published the page. Something seemed to have clicked and since then we’ve been getting more emails and interest in tours. People are asking us for group tour dates this summer and we plan to run a 3 week tour in June.