Journeys Within Tour Company specializes in customizing a dream Southeast Asia vacation | SierraSun.com

Journeys Within Tour Company specializes in customizing a dream Southeast Asia vacation

One local tour company is actively working to keep plastic bottles from washing up along the shorelines in Cambodia.

Journeys Within Tour Company has a brick-and-mortar location at Donner Lake Village Resort, as well as teams on the ground in the Southeast Asian countries for which they curate vacation tours.

Through their Refill Not Landfill campaign they are helping to alleviate the pollution impact that travelers have on environments of developing countries.

"This whole project is born of having tried not to use plastic bottles for 15 years," said Andrea Ross, owner of Journeys Within Tour Company.

"When I lived in Cambodia I saw that there is no recycling, no great dumps even. No one is reusing, and this is terrible for the country's environment," she said.

Through trial and error, Ross and her teams in the United States and Cambodia created the Refill Not Landfill campaign.

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Refill Not Landfill takes plastic water bottles out of international travel by equipping tourists with reusable bottles.

Fresh water is often difficult to come by, which makes using plastic bottles an easy solution for hospitality agencies across Southeast Asian countries. Now, guests can refill their complimentary bottles at stations in nearly all of the areas they'll be on their tours in major cities.

"In the hotels we used glass bottles and at meals we could give people with cups, but you just couldn't avoid the plastic bottles in vehicles — we had to give people water and were constantly using plastic bottles," Ross said.

She said that the campaign hasn't been without its challenges in getting people to move away from the convenience of the detrimental plastic bottle.

On one tour, she saw a reusable bottle being filled from a plastic bottle and wanted to ensure that they could authentically make this change — deciding to have refill stations readily available at hotels and tour points of interest.

"Refill stations changed everything. It allows you to walk into the hotel and hand them your water bottle, and they have the big cooler jug and can fill your bottle from that. Slowly, as it gained momentum at restaurants, the circus and coffee shops started doing it, then some stores and now the majority of places in Siem Reap are going to fill up your water bottle for you," Ross said.

As a former, full-time resident of Cambodia, avid traveler and steward of the environment, Ross is trying to encourage people to stray from plastic bottles as much as possible.

"I think it does have a huge impact, especially in these developing countries. They don't necessarily have the resources to take care of the pollution problem like the U.S. — and we haven't even solved it. Lots of places don't have recycling or landfills that are sustainably managed so micro-plastics are getting into the ocean, rivers, lakes and bodies of water and damaging the environment," she said.

She added that when traveling, in general, it's important to look at your impact on the local community beyond the money you're spending while on tours.

"Beyond just being there and I know it's easy to say, 'I'm contributing with my tourism dollars.' And I do think that's true, but I think there are smart ways of contributing above and beyond, and this is such a simple way to do that. Feel free not to use plastic bottles in America, too," Ross said.

Refill Not Landfill is just one of Ross' philanthropic efforts through Journeys Within Tour Company between financing youths education and even creating a school in Cambodia.

"There are tangible ways to make sure you're having a positive impact rather than just being there," she said.

Part of what makes Journeys Within so unique is that they make philanthropic opportunities available to tourists while visiting their host countries. Guests can have life-changing experiences while also changing someone else's.

Kirsten Kuehne is a North Lake Tahoe local, who went to Cambodia for two weeks with Journeys Within, and says her experience was much more emotionally fulfilling than just a relaxing vacation.

"Andrea started a school and we got to see hundreds of children in this program, which is supported just from Journeys Within so that was one of the coolest parts for me, I'm a preschool teacher so I got to read a story with an interpreter to the school children and that was one of the more rewarding parts of the trip," Kuehne said.

Journeys Within curates a dream, Southeast Asian vacation and allows people to help the locals who live there. They specialize in adding a personal touch to every aspect of planning the trip.

"Americans want to feel like they're traveling with locals or with people who know the area they're visiting, and they have high standards of service. We knew what people expected on their vacation, and we lived in Siem Reap full time so we also knew the area," Ross explained.

She merged her experience and relationships in the travel industry with her experience living abroad to create a tour company that worked as both a ground operator and a tour operator, meaning they handle every part of a trip from start to finish.

"I got a very nice pre-departure kit with great information about local customs, do's and don'ts, immunization, what to pack, and a full itinerary," said Kuehne about preparing to leave for Cambodia with Journeys Within.

"It was all very informative and I had never done a trip like that before, so it was especially helpful for someone who isn't that well traveled in that part of the world," she added.

Kuehne said that the Journeys Within team never left her questions unanswered and that she had a contact in Cambodia, even before arriving there, whom she could consult with any questions she might have.

Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at cwalker@sierrasun.com, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.

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