Chaotic, humbling, joyful (the moment you stumble upon a clean Western-style toilet)… Southeast Asia is a traveltopia of temples, tuk tuks, big beers and woefully misguided clothing choices.
We were therefore naturally delighted to travel on Stray Asia’s flexible hop-on hop-off network in Thailand and Laos recently. Here are eight reasons why you should too.*
*Footnote: There were formerly nine reasons, but the ninth (simply entitled, “One night in Bangkok”) was removed by the advertising standards agency. Unreserved apologies to all involved.
The claim – Getting off the beaten track
A much overused travel term, we can admit to being suspicious in a deeply British way about Stray’s claim to getting off the beaten track. After all, Southeast Asia is pretty well-travelled, and so hardly known for its surprises. Unless of course, you count waking up wearing someone else’s shoes, but that’s just Chang Beer and not really a surprise after the first time it happens.
But via a mixture of authentic transport (houseboats, buses, trains, tuk tuks), flexible hop-on hop-off stops, homestays and truly legendary local guides, Stray genuinely does get you to places that no one else does.
The judgement: Words, fully eaten.
Unique stops – Ban Pak Nguey Homestay, Laos
The Stray network is full of unique and out-of-the-way stops. On our route, we were lucky enough to stay overnight in Ban Pak Nguey, a wildly remote village on the Mekong. Here’s what went down.
After being physically tackled by locals (a football game involving shamefully talented six-year olds), a sunset swim in the Mekong, and a rather emotional ‘Baci’ blessing ceremony (the local whisky perhaps contributing to the sentimental nature of this), we responded to our hosts’ kindness as only travellers know how. The great cultural exchange… the Macarena.
The whole homestay experience was beautiful, moving and unforgettable. And we’d therefore like to sincerely apologise for inflicting our 90s dancefloor offences on your wonderful and gracious village.
Cultural exchange with locals: Travellers 0, Villagers 1, reasons to go 100.
Nature – Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang
We’ll keep this one short and lyrical. TLC told us not to go chasing waterfalls. They were wrong. Kuang Si Falls are wicked. And there were swimsuit mishaps. And bears. In a rescue sanctuary.
Cultural things – Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai
Whilst going to Asia and not visiting temples is possibly some form of travelling hate crime, we get that after several (hundred) your feet start to ache, your mouth feels dry, and while you should be part way through a spiritual awakening, you’re actually thinking about dinner, beer, or both.
Up in Thailand’s northernmost city, Wat Rong Khun is not your average temple. A glittering disco ball of a site, it may look like the brainchild of Barbie and Buddha, but close up, it’s seriously badass. An ode to Buddhist mythology and 1990s sleepovers, it features baddies such as Hellraiser, Freddy Kruger, Terminator and… Hello Kitty? While not pretending to understand the last bit, the effect is awesome.
Templed out? Never. Also, the toilets were an absolute delight. And when you find a good one in Asia, you really need to shout about it.
Fun stuff – Flight of the Gibbons, Chiang Mai
It’s a universal truth that all great things start with a flight. Every trip you’ve ever done, the 80’s epic Flight of the Navigator, the melodic monotones of Flight of the Conchords…
It therefore followed that Flight of the Gibbons would do the same. The day started with an insanely beautiful drive into the mountains, and ended with wild furry dudes (gibbons) watching in what we suspected was mild amusement as we attempted to reverse the evolutionary clock by swinging along 7km of ziplines. Only with harnesses and slightly more opportunity for camel toe.
Also, pretty sure one gibbon was pleasuring himself up a tree – although we can’t promise that this will happen on your visit.
Greatness? Yes, our ‘flight’ theory is complete.
Deep stuff – Mekong River Boat, Laos
Lao’s so cruisy, that before we happily slip into a sticky rice and sunshine coma, we need to mention the Mekong. Spanning seven countries from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, this mighty river curves through the mountains and marigold-strewn heart of Laos.
Once on board the local houseboat used by Stray, it took a good 20 minutes of indignant phone tapping before realising that your satellites are no good here, Mister Google. This is the Mekong, and it owns you. For two glorious days. Home to an esky of Beer Laos and some of the most spiritual and humbling scenery on the planet, shit got deep. In an incredible way.
Prediction: You’ll be in a pair of genie pants before you can say Aladdin, and not just because they make comfortable boat wear. Namaste indeed.
Booze – Laos-Laos whisky
Technically not an official highlight of the trip, more a personal lifestyle choice, drinking is nevertheless an important point to raise. Unlike Thailand, Laos is pretty snoozy. With most locals firmly tucked up in bed by sundown, it’s also virtually impossible to find a beer after 10pm (unless you’re in Luang Prabang, then your only hope is the knowledge of your local guide and bizarrely, the town’s bowling alley).
Laos may be sleepy, but don’t be fooled, it’s far from dry. Lao-Lao whisky is a staple here. And is a little like being socked in the face by supermarket tequila. And Sambucca. At the same time.
Verdict: Thank you whisky gods. (However, can we please have the feeling back in our faces now? Cheers).
Good stuff – Rice is Life Project, Luang Prabang
Rice, the blandest of carbs, what’s to know? Other than it tastes better drowned in curry sauce or fermented into some kind of mind-altering moonshine.
An optional extra with Stray, this community enterprise was truly amazing. Not until you’ve been thigh high in a paddy full of buffalo poop (belonging to amongst others, a buffalo named Suzuki – genius) will you appreciate the work that goes into producing this humble little carb.
Personal admission: You’ll never look at rice in the same way again, you cynical fool.
This was part of Stray’s Tom Yum Pass, and you can buy your pass at any of our Backpacker stores in Thailand or Australia.