My original plan was to spend a month in the south of Thailand on the Islands. As any traveler knows the first rule of travel is to be flexible and throw any plan you have out the window. With flooding and bad weather in the south, I headed to northern Thailand and enjoyed a few weeks in Chiang Mai and Pai.
The second rule any traveler knows is everything always works out. I made some really great friends in northern Thailand who I might not have ever met, plus I got to experience Songkran. Songkran is the Thai New Year and the biggest water fight in the world. An absolutely crazy amazing time!
By the time I reached Chiang Mai, I’d been traveling for almost seven months. When I first started traveling in September 2010 I had no plan and no clue of where I was going. I found my way mainly by talking to other travelers and asking where they had been. This was a great way to meet people and also cut down on the cost of travel books.
Everyone I met on the first few months of my journey raved about Thailand. So that was a given. I was going there! I heard great things about Laos, but the majority of the people I talked to stuck to the normal tourist route of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. I’ve never been one to do anything “normal”, so I choose to do the Stray Asia tour.
When I originally signed up for the Stray, I was thinking I’d do it for a few weeks and then hit a beach somewhere. I was looking forward to seeing the country, but besides the popular tourist spots I didn’t know what else there would be to do. The third rule of any traveler is to have zero expectations. After spending almost a month in Laos I was blown away by my experience.
Stray is the only hop-on hop-off tour bus in Laos. So what does a hop-on hop-off bus mean? It means you’re not stuck on the tour bus or with the same group of people. If you feel like jumping off the bus to spend more time in a village or go on a trek in the mountains, go for it. Stray has a schedule of times and places the bus will be and all you have to do is be there to meet the bus. Even if you’re the only person (I was a few times), the bus will still continue on the route.
Why did I choose to do Stray and a tour? I heard from friends in the traveling community about their horror stories trying to get places in Laos. They had a hard time communicating with the locals, the bus never showed up, and they felt taken advantage of. With Stray you never have to worry about transportation. That’s half the battle in Laos. You also travel with an English tour guide, a local Lao guide and a local bus driver. They know the locals not just the backpackers. I felt I had a good group of people around me who could handle any of my questions and also help me if I needed to know what food was in the market or where was the best place to go out.
The other reason I traveled with Stray Asia is I did Stray New Zealand. I had an amazing time and made so many friends. I was traveling solo and built in community of friends is a huge plus.
If this isn’t off the beaten track I don’t know what is.
After getting picked up in Chiang Mai by my Stray tour guide, we headed to the boarder town of Chiang Kong. We stopped along the way at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. I wish I could have taken a picture of the inside back wall. It’s a crazy mural of all things evil that could distract from one’s focus. Seeing the White Temple and this mural is not to be missed.
I felt like a local in Chiang Kong as my tour leader, Heather, and I partied late with the locals at Thai karaoke. Something else I highly recommend.
The next morning we got up early to cross the Mekong to Laos. The majority of tourists who cross from Thailand to Laos do so by a two day slow boat that takes them directly to Luanang Prabang. Our crossing was five to ten minutes, putting us in the northwest part of Laos.
Stray is good about stopping every few hours for a bathroom break or food stop. Sometimes we’d stop at very small villages for lunch. It was a great way to sample local food and really see how people live.
After a long bus ride on a road that the word bumpy does zero justice for, we arrived in the town of Nong Khiaw. Set along the Ou river the view from my bungalow was stunning. I loved the view so much, and really wanted to spend all day in the hammock on my balcony. I decided that Nong Khiaw would be the first place I jumped off the Stray bus.
After spending the first day reading in my hammock and admiring the beauty
of the surroundings, I decided to take a trip north. I took the public water taxi up river an hour an half to the town of Muang Noi. Muang Noi is a very remote fishing village that only has electricity between 6-10pm every night. I went on a hike with some people I met on the boat and checked out some caves. We sipped cocktails and enjoyed a fantastic sunset over the limestone mountains.
Knowing another Stray Bus was arriving the next day, I headed back to Nong Khiaw to meet up with my new group of Stray mates.
I must admit when we first crossed the Mekong in under ten minutes I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get the same river experience that people who took the slow boat. My disappointment quickly turned into excitement when I learned we’d be taking a seven hour boat ride down the OU and Mekong River to Luang Prabang. This was perfect. I was going to get my boat fix and not have to stay on the boat for two days!
Luang Prabang was the first Laotian city where you could see the influence the French had on the country, from the architecture of the buildings to all the bakeries. It had been a long time since I had a bagel or croissant. I was in carb heaven.
I jumped off the bus again and took advantage of a few activities Stray suggested. The first thing I did was a Mahoot training course. What’s a Mahoot? A Mahoot is an elephant trainer/ handler. This was amazing! It was a fantastic way to get up close to elephants in a safe and eco-elephant friendly environment.
I also went to the waterfall about 15 minutes outside the city. We got a group together and spilt a tuk tuk ride . You can also hire a scooter or push bike. I highly recommend spending several hours there swimming and hanging out. Make sure you do the rope swing!!
On my last morning in Luang Prabang I got up at 5:30 to watch the monks being fed by the locals. This is a ritual that happens everyday. The monks come walking down the street at 6:00 dressed in their orange robes(no shoes), each carrying what looks like a big container. Villagers and locals line the streets to give the monks rice. This is the only food the monks get all day. It’s truly an incredible sight to see line of monks coming down the street.
After Luanag Prabang we headed to Vang Vieng. This is like no other town in Laos. Vang Vieng is a crazy party town. It’s famous for the river and tubing, though most people don’t tube. If you’re in a party mood, jump off the bus for a few days. I did : ). After a few days of hanging at the river party, I wanted to see what was down river. So, I got a tube and ventured down river on my last day.
Up next was Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It is a big city, really warm, and honestly, I didn’t think there was that much to do. I hired a scooter with friends from Stray and we went to the local water park. The water park was not very crowded, more like empty. Perfect! The sign of what you were not allowed to wear was hilarious.
I had to change my clothes after reading the sign!
Leaving Vientiane, the Stray Bus was packed with a new group of people. That’s one of the great things about Stray; new people getting on the bus all the time.
Two hours south of Vientiane we camped at Tad Leuk waterfall. We camped with tents and cooked on an open fire. It was very rustic. The group spent the afternoon getting to know each other and swimming in the river. The setting was beautiful.
Tad Leuk camp site
Up early the next day, we contined our journey south. Today’s activity was visiting the Kong Lor Cave. I had no idea what to expect, other than it was a cave. Traveling in Laos you visit a lot of caves, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. It was one of the coolest and most unique things I’ve done on my travels. It was incredible!!!
In the southern part of Laos coffee and tea plantations are everywhere. We visited one and got a tour from Mr. Coffee, at least that’s what he calls himself. We learned about the growing and roasting process. The coffee was fantastic.
Mr. Coffee explaining the growing process
The Stray Bus rolled onto a barge to take us to the 4000 Islands and Don Det, our next stop. Don Det is a super chill place. I did some fishing on the Mekong River and laid in a hammock. Pretty ideal day if I say so myself.
I stayed a few extra days in Don Det, jumping off the Stray Bus for the last time and saying goodbye to the new friends I made.
So what did I forget to tell you about my time on Stray Asia? The crazy disco night in Thakhek, the fun times on the bus, the incredible views, all my new friends? Check out the pictures below and video. You’ll get the idea.
If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Southeast Asia, don’t be like everyone else. Stray off the beaten track. You’ll be so glad you did.
For information on Stray and to book your trip go to www.straytravel.asia
Near Nong Khiaw
Afternoon swim at Tad Lo
Sunset over the Mekong in Luang Prabang
If you’re still looking at these pictures and thinking you’d like to do this trip then do it!!!
Here’s more pictures to help push you over the top
In a tuk tuk heading home after a night out with the Stray crew.
Wat Phou temple near Pakse