Everyday in our busy lives we rarely take the time to appreciate the small wonders in our world. There’s so much on our to-do list – things we need to do, things we don’t want to do, the things we treat ourselves to: a manicure at the mall, a takeaway on the way home because we can’t be bothered to cook. We binge watch some reality TV, while online shopping and texting about the weekend. Sleep. Repeat.
What if you could entirely remove yourself from this world and experience life lived in the most simple way? Would you start to see the world a little differently? Would you go home and feel different?
As you cross the border into Laos, something instantly feels different. Perhaps it’s the late afternoon light filtering through the trees, the dusty quiet streets, or the soft lapping of the Mekong as we sit riverside with a cold Beer Lao in hand. There are 21 of us and we’re all on this adventure together. We represent so many corners of the globe: United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand and Europe. Tomorrow morning we’ll board a long boat on a 2 day slow cruise down the Mekong River. We’ll be staying overnight in a remote Lao village, where there are no shops, no bars, not even road access, and we’ll be staying with the families who live there, in their homes. We’re all very excited (and perhaps a little nervous) about this adventure.
It will take around 8 hours to reach the village. Eight hours!! What will we do? There’s no wifi, no in-flight entertainment. As we start our journey we look out the windows, watching the locals fishing, boats going by and the river rolling out before us. We see water buffalo bathing in the river, herds of cattle sitting on the sandy river beaches, waterfalls, impressive rock formations and mountains covered in jungle.
The boat gently lulls as it moves downstream. We chat. We play cards. We relax and nap. We read. We sip tea. We drink in the beauty of our surrounds. We start to think how wonderful it would be if more days were like this.
We arrive late in the afternoon at a sandy beach and dock the boat. As we climb the sand dunes, the children of the village come running out to meet us. “Sabaidee!” they call as we head through the village, following our guide.
Walking through the village is eye opening. In this village, people don’t have jobs. Most people won’t earn any money. There is no need, there is nothing to buy. There are no shops, there are no advertisements telling us what we can’t live without. The village teacher and Chief are paid by the government and may earn around $300 USD a year. We pass by chickens running free, pigs in their pens, vegetable gardens, the village temple with young monks in their saffron coloured robes. There is a new home being built and all the men on the village are working together to build it. Everyone helps each other. Selfishness doesn’t exist here.
The Chief welcomes us to the village. He tells us that it means a lot to him that we have come to Laos and to his village. He apologises that it is basic and not what we are used to. Some of the people in our group have never encountered people living so basically before and feel a bit upset, but our guide explains that the people here are very happy and that it is their way of life. Women give birth here in the village and people rarely leave. Everyone works together. Everyone helps each other.
In the evening, we experience a traditional Baci Ceremony. A Baci Ceremony is performed to welcome new people, wish people safe travels if they’re leaving the village and at important events. We file into the village hall where an offering with candles and flowers has been set up in the middle of the room. We sit around it on the floor and the elders of the village sit around us. They are dressed in their best clothing. The women look soft and delicate in their silk blouses and long skirts.
As the Chief prays, we put our hands on the offering in the centre. When he finishes the women start moving around us, offering us sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, bananas and shots of traditional Lao whiskey. The whiskey keeps going around until the bottle is finished. We turn to face the outside of the room. One by one, the village elders move around us. They each tie a piece of string around our wrists and wish us good fortune, good health and safe travels. They thank us for coming to Laos and bless our futures. We are to keep the blessings on our wrists for at least 3 days.
Feeling warm from all the blessings, kind words and the whiskey, we smile at each other and at the people of the village. Suddenly someone gets out a drum and others start clapping. It’s time to party Laos-style! The villagers sing a song and then it’s our turn – it’s a ‘Song Off’! We sing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, “In the Jungle” and the crowd favourite: “The Hokey Tokey!” A 60-year-old Laos woman surprises us by shaking her hips and dancing along with us.
We’re all smiling and yawning as we make our way to our host families’ homes for the night. We fall asleep on mattresses on the clean tiled floor, under mosquito nets, covered with fluffy, freshly laundered blankets that smell amazing.
This experience has bought us together, slowed us down, softened us and made us appreciate what we have and how happy the simple things in life can make us. We’ve had no wifi for 24hours. The world has gone on, but in fact we haven’t even missed it. While we thought that we were a valuable link to another world the people of the village would otherwise never know about, it seems even more pertinent for us to have experienced their world.
If you would like to visit the Mekong River Homestay for yourself, choose one of Stray’s Laos Tours.
Laos – the underdog of South East Asia – is often overlooked by it’s more popular neighbours: Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. However those who’ve been there will say just how great this beautiful little country is! With its hidden caves, lush jungles, terraced rice paddies and rural villages it has all the potential to be a contender in the running for your favourite SE Asia destination yet. Here are just 6 reasons why, if you’re planning your Southeast Asian adventure, you simply can’t skip Laos!
1) Southeast Asia’s prettiest city
Luang Prabang is one of the most charming cities and arguably the prettiest city in South East Asia. This city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is nestled in the heart of Laos, between two rivers. There really is something for everyone here – whether it’s eating and shopping at the night market, climbing to the top of Mount Phousi for spectacular views, spotting Monks in their saffron robes or admiring the glittering temples juxtaposed against French colonial style architecture.
Two worlds collide – Monks and Backpackers
You’ll also find the famous Kuang Si falls located just outside of Luang Prabang. The seemingly never ending pools and terraces of the falls will blow you away. The water is refreshing so jump on in! If swimming in these turquoise waters isn’t on your bucket list already then you need to change that ASAP! The Free the Bears Rescue Centre is located next to the waterfall and is included in your entrance ticket. Watch the bears swinging on their hammocks, climbing and happily play fighting with each other and learn about the work the team is doing to save the Laos Moon Bears.
If you want more information, make sure to check out our blog about Luang Prabang here.
2) The Secret War
To understand Southeast Asia’s recent history, you need to know about the Secret War in Laos. Laos was the most bombed country per capita in history (more than all of the countries during the second World War) and Laos didn’t even participate in this war! The COPE Centre in Vientiane tells the story of a country struggling to overcome extensive bombing during the Vietnam War. So much unexploded ordnances (UXOs) still remain in Laos and still effects people today. While you’re in Vientiane check out the Pha That Luang Stupa – the most important buddhist monument in Laos. Phou Khao Khouay National Park is easily accessible from Vientiane, as is the rather extravagant Buddha Park.
The magnificent Pha That Luang Stupa in Vientiane
3) Stunning Scenery
Visitors to Laos will find themselves immersed in stunning natural scenery. Travel by slow boat down the Mekong River and you’ll see what we mean! Along the river banks you’ll see Cotton Trees, Coconut Palms, lush green jungle, sandy beaches, water buffalos, herds of cows, goats and rock formations.
Vang Vieng is one of the most scenic parts of Laos. Here you can go tubing or kayaking down the clear, Nam Song river. Or for the hardcore adventurers out there you can try cave tubing at Tham Nam! Discover breathtaking landscapes, ride in a hot air balloon, go rock climbing or even abseil down a waterfall…. the possibilities are endless!
It’s true that you’ll meet fantastic humans all over South East Asia but the locals of Laos are some of the kindest, most welcoming people of them all! They are relaxed, light-hearted people with a great sense of humour. Their friendliness is extended to backpackers and foreigners so be prepared for endless smiles and waves from locals. They are so eager to share their culture and traditions with travelers and, if you travel with Stray, you’ll be able to get a taste of traditional Lao village life by staying with a family in their home.
Visiting children at a local village in Laos
5) The Food
“Have you eaten yet?” is a standard greeting in the Lao language and food is just about as central as anything to Lao culture. This might seem strange if you’re used to finding mainly Vietnamese or Thai restaurants in your local neighborhood but, trust us, Lao food is right up there! You can sample the freshest baguettes, steamed fish, bamboo soups and crunchy salads but no meal is complete without sticky rice
6) The Lifestyle
The PDR in the country’s title may stand for ‘People’s Democratic Republic’ but locals will tell you that it actually stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush’. This couldn’t be a more accurate interpretation of the lifestyle here. No-one is ever in a hurry, so don’t be surprised to find a shopkeeper asleep or a bus schedule changed to suit the driver. It’s a shock when you first arrive, straight from the hustle and bustle of the Western world or other Southeast Asia cities like Bangkok or Hanoi, but it’s certainly good for the soul to just kick back and enjoy the laid back vibe of Laos.
Stray’s bus pulling into the local village
Laos is a truly magical country with many ‘off-the-beaten-track’ adventures to be had. It’s a unique place with so much to offer and we urge you to get out there and explore it! You can check out our Laos passes and tours here: https://www.straytravel.asia/passes-and-tours/laos/
Despite it’s dark past, Cambodia is a charming and mysterious country with absolutely everything going for it! There are beautiful beaches, welcoming people, exquisite cuisine and of course – one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions – Angkor Wat. We’ve put together a brief guide outlining all of Cambodia’s highlights and how to make the most of your time there if you only have a week to spare.
Day 1: Siem Reap
Start this trip on a high by visit the breathtaking Angkor Wat. The Angkor UNESCO park is massive and it’s pretty impossible to see it all in one day, so here are our highlights:
Wake up early and catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat
Ta Phrom temple, made famous by the movie Tomb Raider
The Bayon, a temple with giant stone faces on it’s exterior
You’ll probably be exhausted after a full day of playing real life ‘Temple Run‘, so we recommend resting your weary legs with dinner and a show at the unique Phare Circus. Phare was created by a local non-profit troupe that provides disadvantaged young people from the community with the skills needed to be a professional performer. The uplifting energy from the show might give you a second wind, so if you fancy a night out afterwards, you can always rely on Pub Street to bring the party!
Cambodia Bucket List – Watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat and release your inner Lara Croft amongst the Ta Phrom ruins.
A truly magical silhouette – Angkor Wat at sunrise
Day 2: Cambodia Homestay
There’s no better way to get to know the local culture than by staying in a family home, sharing delicious, traditional meals and learning about their way of life and customs – you just can’t beat it! Stray Asia exclusively visits a remote village near Battambang. You’ll also have the opportunity to sit in on a lesson at the local school, help the school kids with their English or join a friendly sporting match. It’s truly a unique experience and the perfect way to immerse yourself in this rural community!
Cambodia Bucket List – Try the local evening drink – home brew whiskey with snake blood! Who knows, it might be your new favourite beverage…
Hang out with the locals – they’ll show you the ropes!
Day 3: Travel to Sihanoukville
We’ll be honest; it’s a pretty long journey from the Battambang countryside to the popular seaside town of Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast but it’s worth it – Trust us! Stop en-route to visit the floating markets in the bustling riverside town of Kompong Chhnang. Then, when you arrive in Sihanoukville, take a dip in the refreshing water and treat yourself to a seafood barbecue on the beach!
Day 4: Koh Rong Samloem
After breakfast at one of the beachfront restaurants, head over to the harbour to get a ticket to the beautiful, chilled out island of Koh Rong. The dazzling blue colour of the water is pretty spectacular against the white sand beaches – it’s a photographers paradise! Make sure to enjoy the peace and tranquility and, when the sun starts to set, find a little bar on the beach for a sun downer and dinner.
Cambodia Bucket List – Head down to the beach at midnight and swim with the bio luminescent plankton. Tinkerbell and her fairy dust have nothing on this experience!
Absolutely stunning scenes
Day 5: Koh Rong Samloem, return to Sihanoukville
There’s nothing like starting the day with some exercise! Hike to to Clear Water Bay (about 2 hours return) and soak up those picturesque views. Or just enjoy a lazy day at the beach on Koh Rong before heading back in Sihanoukville early in the evening. You could get a massage or a mani/pedi at one of the reasonably priced spas, enjoy a few beers or head to Ochheuteal Beach to party with the rest of the backpacker crowd.
Cambodia Bucket List – See how many types of tropical fish you can spot whilst snorkelling!
Two snorkelers or a strange species of fish?
Day 6: Kampot
Just three hours from Sihanoukville, you’ll find Kampot. A quaint little riverside town famous for it’s salt and pepper production (make sure to try their famous pepper sauce on your dinner!).
Head up Bokor Hill for stunning views of the city and ocean below
Get in touch with nature and hike to the Popopkvil waterfall
Board a sunset cruise along the river and marvel at the incredible landscapes
Cambodia Bucket List – Watch the fireflies dance along the Preaek Tuek Chhu River
Cruising on the Preaek Tuek Chhu river – Credit Kelly Semper
Day 7: Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city and a vital stop when it comes to learning all about Cambodia’s harrowing history. The terrible story of the Khmer Rouge is bought to life at the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. It’s heartbreaking when you think that these atrocities occurred not that long ago but it’s inspiring to see how determined the Cambodian people are to keep progressing and developing. They seem to be endlessly smiling and it’s incredibly infectious! If you feel a bit subdued after visiting these important sites you can always wander along the riverside, mingle with the locals and watch the sunset on the Mekong River.
Cambodia Bucket List – Learn about the cultural impact of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime
Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime
From Phnom Penh you can return to Siem Reap for one last memorable night out on Pub Street before connecting to Bangkok (Thailand), or opt to continue from Phnom Penh on to Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). The possibilities are endless!
Want to spend the week travelling in Cambodia with a local Cambodian Guide and other like-minded backpackers? Stray Asia offers hop-on, hop-off travel passes and flexible tours for adventurous travellers. Our travel mantra is to ‘get further off the beaten track’, explore unique and remote destinations and get immersed in local culture. Come Stray Cambodia with us!
Rachael Perkin previously shared just a few of her stories from the road in a Stray Days interview about her time travelling on the Lot pass. We wanted more, so this time she shared her travel diary on one of the highlights of her entire trip: a Two Wheel Experiences guided motorbike tour of Hue in Vietnam.
We arrived in Hue on the morning of a rather dull, cloudy day. As we disembarked from our Stray bus and looked around, we wondered what we could do in this small city to fill our day. It was then that our Stray Tour Leader suggested we take a motorbike tour around Hue. With it being such a reasonable price, and something none of us had ever done before, we decided to go for it – and are we glad we did!
Our guides rolled up at around 1pm just after we’d had lunch. They were all very professional in their green polo shirts and our lead guide Khoa was wearing a huge welcoming smile. We all gathered around the scooters to receive our safety talk and then one by one the drivers picked the person that they would be chauffeuring around the city on the back of their prized possessions, their scooters! I was the last to be picked (flashbacks to my school days when I was always last to be picked for the cricket team!), but I was lucky because I got to go with our Tour Leader Khoa!
When we were all aboard, Khoa told us that we could hold on to our drivers if we liked, but that the most comfortable way to ride was by grasping the handles at the back. Everyone immediately grasped the back handles and I, not wanting to seem too inexperienced, reluctantly grabbed the handles too. We set off and I immediately gripped poor Khoa very hard with my knees, which he noticed right away and quickly asked if I was okay, and if I felt safe. ‘Yes, yes, absolutely!’ I replied, but he could surely hear the quiver in my voice as I said it. He continued to ask if I felt safe every now and again throughout the tour – luckily once I was used to this way of travelling I felt extremely safe. All of our drivers were extremely careful and considerate and for this reason alone I would highly recommend the tour!
Not long after we’d set off, we were zipping through the historic streets of Hue and trying to ignore the clouds that seemed to blacken overhead. Khoa was speaking to me while we were on the bike, explaining certain things about the former imperial city as we passed by and asking me questions about myself. We felt the first drops of rain start to fall and he asked me how I felt about the rain – by that time I was used to the afternoon showers that often come during rainy season so I told him I didn’t mind at all. He informed me that they had packed gear for everyone in the case of rain, but that he didn’t want to stop the tour unless the rain began pouring very heavily. No sooner had he said this than the rain started to really come down.
He signalled to the group and we all pulled over on the side of a small road so the drivers could access their storage compartments and provide heavy-duty, knee-length ponchos for everyone. Laughing at how silly we looked, but now properly kitted out for the weather, we hopped back on the bikes, riding for only 5 more minutes before the heavens truly opened! We heard thunder and lightning and the rain was coming down so hard we could barely see. We were driving through the rice paddies in Hue, during a thunderstorm and everyone was laughing and waving their hands. Rather than being put off, it’s one of my most surprisingly beautiful memories that I will always treasure.
Not long after this, we reached the first stop on our tour – a traditional rice farming museum.
We hopped off the bikes and went inside to discover a museum made by some of the local villagers in Hue to educate people on the more traditional methods of farming and making rice from before machines came in to lend a helping hand. Khoa took us inside and walked us around, offering stories about his own experiences and answering questions from our group. We even received a demonstration of the very old machines by a lovely Vietnamese lady.
Once we’d been thoroughly educated about traditional farming methods, we hopped back on the bikes and headed off to our next destination: a king’s tomb, where Khoa showed us around and explained all about the royal lives of the Nguyen dynasty. Reigning from 1802-1945, the Nguyens were the last ruling family of Vietnam, and many of their royal monuments, tombs, temples and pavilions are the city’s most important landmarks.
As we ventured further out into Hue’s countryside, we drove through a huge red forest and saw the most majestic view of the river and Hamburger Hill …
…before we stopped in a tiny village for a break.
We stopped at a small shop run by a woman who made incense. As she was sat outside rolling and arranging the sticks of incense, our guides asked her to give us a demonstration. We even tried to help her for a few minutes – she was very kind and only laughed a little bit at our awful attempts! Suffice to say, none of us qualified to continue as incense-making apprentices.
By this time the rain had stopped, so we tucked away our lovely ponchos (though we were sad to see them go!) and climbed back on the bikes for a real taste of what life is like in a small village in Vietnam. We just had to hold on and enjoy the ride as our guides expertly handled the scooters, weaving through the village’s tiny roads, up steep hills and down narrow passages. It was an easy and relaxing was to observe every day local life.
To finish off an already excellent tour, we made a stop at the city’s official symbol, the Thien Mu Pagoda, to view the beautiful sunset, followed by a brief ride around the Imperial Citadel before being returned home.
This tour was an amazing way to explore the old capital of Vietnam. Experiencing the crazy traffic, greeting the friendly smiling locals and exploring the twisting alleyways, you immediately feel like a part of this fascinating city. If you really want to explore Hue I totally recommend doing it on two wheels!
“Should we continue to tour in Myanmar in light of the recent civil unrest?”
This is the question that we at Stray have been wrestling with ever since the news broke last year of the escalating humanitarian crisis unfolding against the Rohingya people along the remote western coastal border of Myanmar.
We know Myanmar as a beautiful and fascinating country, home to an incredibly rich blend of Southeast Asian culture, captivating history and friendly people.
Yet the news that this country, which we consider a magical part of our travel network, is also home to some unjust acts against an ethnic minority has challenged us as advocates for responsible travel.
Just as for any conscientious traveller, we as a travel operator have had to carefully consider from a moral and ethical point of view whether we should continue to support a country whose government has condoned this behaviour.
What’s happening in Myanmar?
Since August 2017, more than half a million Rohingya people have been fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. Although there is evidence that the Rohingya have lived in the Rakhine region for generations (since well before modern national borders were created), the Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens.
There is a rather convoluted history of tension and conflicts between the different ethnic groups within the Rakhine state, as well as between the Myanmar military and the Rohingya, but it rarely made international headlines until a particularly nasty flare-up in August last year.
The fleeing refugees reported the burning of villages and malevolent violence as they were chased from their homeland . The Myanmar military’s official stance is that they were fighting radical militants, whereas the United Nations has gone on record as calling the military’s actions a form of “ethnic cleansing.”
The big questions for travellers
Q: “Is it safe to travel to Myanmar?”
Currently, there are no travel restrictions advised for the main tourist destinations. With the Rakhine state located in an isolated area along the northwest coast, hundreds of kilometres away from the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay, there has been little impact to the security in the rest of the country.
Q: “If I travel to Myanmar (or any country with dodgy human rights records), will my visit indicate I support this persecution?”
This is a big question with many views: A couple things to consider are where your tourist dollars are going and if you feel even visiting a country symbolically endorses the actions of the government or military.
Financially, some of your money will inevitably end up in the hands of the government in the form of visa fees, taxes and national park entrance fees. However, as a visitor most of your tourist dollars will likely be invested in smaller, family-owned restaurants, shops and guesthouses. These people depend on tourism for their livelihoods, are not responsible for the military’s actions and may very well not endorse it.
In terms of the symbolism of your visit, if you feel that your presence in the country suggests that you somehow support the violence, then you may wish to save your trip to Myanmar for another time. However, we’ll go over the ways we think tourism can be beneficial in the long run in the next section.
Q: “Should I still travel to Myanmar?”
The answer to this question is really up to you. Stray has made an ethical decision to continue to operate tours and deliver wonderful experiences for our travellers in areas far removed from this conflict. However we encourage every traveller to do their own independent research in order to make the best decision for them.
How tourism can be beneficial
The main reason people travel is to learn more about the world and to experience foreign places and different cultures. Learning more about the world is rarely a bad thing, and remember that as a traveller, you are also teaching people in the places you visit about you and your own culture.
After all the eye-opening international media cover, visiting Myanmar could be your opportunity to get the locals’ perspective on what’s happening and share with them your views. You can be sure that the messages the locals have been getting from their own media will be vastly different from your version of events. Spreading awareness and sharing information on a personal level could be the best way to fully understand the situation and combat future conflict.
As stated in this excellent article by World Nomads, “Oppressors need secrecy and compliance to conduct their oppression.” The fact is, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is not new – it’s just new on the world stage. Remember that Myanmar’s borders were closed until 2011 and tourism was actively discouraged for about 40 years. International visitors turning their backs on Myanmar will not stop the persecution from happening, but rather allow it to simmer and prosper unnoticed.
In this respect having international people continuing to visit Myanmar and engaging in an open and honest dialogue with the locals will be more beneficial in the long run than a boycott.
Stray’s position on Myanmar
It should go without saying, but to be very clear, we at Stray do not support or condone the persecution of the Rohingya minority group.
Despite the country’s troubles, we still believe Myanmar offers an incredibly valuable travel experience to explore a very old, unique and colourful culture. Tourism enables us to support locals whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars and who are in no way involved in the crisis.
Perhaps more important for our travellers is the opportunity for international visitors to have direct contact with locals and gauge a more accurate insider perspective on the situation without the media bias.
As a tourism company, we feel that the best way to combat oppression is with transparency and knowledge, something that you can achieve through travel. Travel should be about breaking down barriers, not building them. We will continue operating in Myanmar so long as we feel we are having a positive impact on both our customers and the local people we work with.
That being said, it is 100% up to you as a traveller to make the decision on whether or not to travel to Myanmar. We strongly encourage you to do your own research on the situation and make an educated decision on what’s right for you.
For additional information, we recommend the following articles as a starting point:
After living and working in New Zealand for a couple of years, Rachael Perkin was ready for a much needed sabbatical to travel and Southeast Asia was conveniently located between New Zealand and her native UK. She decided to spend a leisurely couple months travelling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on Stray Asia’s Lot Pass. Here she’s shared some of her top experiences and stories from the road…
What are the key words/phrases you learnt to say in Asia and how did it help you on your travels?
On our first day we received an awesome list of Thai phrases from our Tour Leader which really helped us! I also made a list in my phone of ‘useful words’. I think my top three were:
‘Kithan Kha’ which is Thai phrase meaning ‘Bill please!’
‘Kop Jai Lai Lai’ which means ‘Thank you very much’ in Lao
‘Chol Moy!’ is the one I probably used the most – this means ‘CHEERS!’ in Cambodian!
What is the weirdest thing you ate on tour and where were you?
Definitely RAT in Cambodia (on the way to our homestay)! Sourced from a lovely lady on the side of the road…they were vegetarian field rats and they were delicious, but it’s definitely an odd experience!
We also went to this awesome restaurant in Siem Reap called the ‘Bugs Café’ and sampled some delicious, gourmet bugs. Our favourites were: Feta and Tarantula samosas and the Silk Worm curry!
What is the most interesting thing you learnt or did while on tour?
The most interesting day for me on the tour was going to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison in Phnom Penh. It was amazing to find out what little I actually knew about the Khmer Rouge. Our Tour Leader had lots of information for us and patiently answered all of our questions.
What are the 3 things you can’t leave home without to travel in Asia?
A great pair of flip flops (I ALWAYS recommend rubber ones, you can wear them in the shower in the more questionable hostel showers!)
HAND SANITIZER (enough said)
What is a handy tip for other travellers thinking about Straying Asia?
MY TIP: Ask your Tour Leader any questions you can think of! They are there to help, and if they don’t know the answer, they’ll find out! One of the best things about travelling Asia with Stray is that you have a guide who is a fountain of knowledge, so use it!
What is your favourite selfie (or group selfie) that you took on the bus and why?
I have two favourite group photos from the trip…
The first is in Hue in Vietnam on our Motorbike Tour which was EPIC!
The second is in Cambodia, we had a party for the 4th July for the only American in our group:
When you look back on your trip, what is the first thing that pops up in your mind?
‘The movements of the sun’ – we had a running joke in our group that we needed to see as many sunsets and sunrises as we could. You will not be disappointed in Southeast Asia!
What is your top tips for everyone who travels for the first time?
Try not to be afraid to try new things! I jumped on the back of a scooter for the first time in Vietnam and had my eyes screwed shut and probably almost bruised the ribs of the poor driver – but now I’m a pro and it really is a great way to get around!
Download a currency conversion app (your head will hurt if you do mental calculations for your whole trip)
Don’t be upset if things don’t always turn out like you planned (sometimes they turn out even better!)
What are your personal hotspots in Asia?
Luang Prabang! I loved this place…the bluest waterfalls I have ever seen, an amazingly chilled out town and the cheapest and largest street food buffet ever!
Da Lat. This romantic town in Vietnam is so picturesque and there is so much to do. I highly recommend the cable car into the Buddhist monastery (as long as you’re okay with heights!). The Crazy House is such a fun way to spend a morning, and then of course a stop in the MAZE Bar at night – it’s the most incredible bar I have ever been to.
Although New Year’s Eve in Asia is actually in April, the locals still think that the Western New Year is a great excuse for a party and you’ll find plenty to do in each of the major cities on the Stray route.
Plan your trip so that you end up in one of these party-places on 31st December!
There’s something for everyone in Bangkok! Family -friendly options include a free concert by Central World Mall, and an impressive fireworks display over Asiatique (an open air mall down by the river). The backpackers usually turn Khao San Road into one massive street party with international DJs spinning tracks til the wee hours. The upper class crowd rub shoulders with the rich and famous and watch the fireworks from some of the best rooftop bars in the city, such as the Moon Bar, Above 11, or Three Sixty (make sure you have a reservation). The Lebua Hotel, made famous in the movie The Hangover 2, will host the Bangkok Ball Drop – modelled on the famous New York City ball drop – which you’ll be able to see from anywhere in the city that you can see the iconic Lebua dome. One thing’s for sure, every bar and night club will be heaving with party goers so plan your night, and where you want to be at midnight, so you don’t have to move around too much.
Want a hassle-free arrival in Bangkok? Bangkok Arrival Packs include private airport transfers & accommodation.
Head to the city square near the Tha Pae Gate where the New Year celebrations will be taking place and the roads will be closed from 6pm. Explore the food stalls, pop up bars, and enjoy the dance performances. In Chiang Mai it’s a tradition to release lanterns into the sky and into the river to bring luck for the new year – it’s a pretty spectacular sight to see! If you’re looking for a place to dance the night away, close to the Tha Pae Gate you’ll find long-time backpacker favourite bar Zoe in Yellow. Monkey Club, Fabrique and Spicy are also popular bars and clubs to get your boogie on.
Although it’s not even officially a ‘full moon’ on 31st December, Haad Rin Beach, home to the famous monthly Full Moon Parties will still be one of the biggest New Year celebrations in Asia, with thousands of people decked out in neon glow paint, slurping cocktails out of buckets, and dancing on the beach at the Koh Phangan Countdown Party. It’s a New Year’s party on steroids! Don’t miss our blog for surviving the Full Moon Party.
For a different New Year’s experience on Koh Phangan, those in the know grab a water taxi off the beach at Haad Rin and leave the neon-clad party goers behind for a ‘secret’ garden party. Eden Garden Party is only accessible by water taxi or four wheel drive. From the beach, make your way over a rickety rope bridge and you’ll find Eden, perched on the cliff overlooking the gorgeous bay of Haad Yuan. We recommend heading over while it’s still light to enjoy the views over some quiet cocktails before getting the party started. You can always get a water taxi back to Haad Rin Beach and join the crowds later in the night.
Start the evening with some delicious Lao food from the night market to line your stomach then head to Utopia for drinks in the garden bar. When it closes, get a taxi to the bowling alley just outside of town which is open until around 2am – trust us, this will be the most fun you’ve had ten pin bowling!
It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to have a wild party in Vang Vieng. Start the day with a hearty breakfast at the Irish Pub, then head to the tube hire shop and spend the afternoon partying like it’s 1999 as you tube down the river, stopping at each of the river bars. When you get back into town, make sure you drop your tube off before heading out to the bars. Hit up the famous Sakura Bar, which often does a happy hour of free drinks! Good luck making it to midnight!
Head to Nam Phou Square by the Vientiane fountain where Tiger Beer will be hosting the countdown festivities with live music, food vendors and, of course, Tiger Beer!
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Countdown party on Pub Street. Photo Source: video still from BrokePinkBloke on youtube.com
The main place to be for a New Year’s countdown in Siem Reap is the infamous Pub Street. Secure a spot early where you can people watch, have something to eat and a few drinks before the party spills out onto the street and Pub Street turns into one huge New Year celebration. Party the night away at The Angkor What?, Yolo Bar and X Bar, or go somewhere a little more chilled: Island Bar towards the back of the Angkor Night Market makes nice cocktails, as does Miss Wong’s, in a little lane just off Pub Street.
Sihanoukville really gets into the party spirit! The area turns into one massive beach/street party for local Cambodians and tourists alike. There will be free concerts sponsored by Angkor (the local) Beer, DJs, food stalls, markets, and fireworks! JJ’s Playground on Serendipity Beach has a reputation for a wild party, or party with the backpacker crowd on Ochheuteal Beach. Otres Beach is the more relaxing place to celebrate.
Head down to the Tonle Sap riverside where there are lots of bars and restaurants overlooking the river. Start the night with a delicious mojito at the Le Moon Rooftop Bar, or take a cruise along the river to observe the festivities from a different perspective. Some of the big hotels, Raffles, Sofitel and Hotel Cambodiana, will be hosting elaborate gala dinners with music and entertainment, but Phnom Penh also has some great backpacker bars to party the night away – try Loco Bar, Cherie’s, and Mad Monkey.
District 1, also known as the ‘backpacking’ district will be the place to be on New Year’s Eve. Check out some of the main nightclubs and bars like Apocalypse, Gossips and Apollo who will all have their best DJs playing and a countdown at midnight. If you’re interested in a fancier type of party where you can wear the one ‘nice’ dress you bought backpacking with you, head to one of the cities best rooftop bars: Chill Skybar,Social Club, or Glow. The Lighthouse rooftop bar is hosting a New Year’s party that claims to be ‘F@%!’ING Epic’.
Although New Year’s Eve in Asia is actually in April, the locals still think that the Western new year is a great excuse for a party and you’ll find plenty to do in each of the major cities on the Stray route.
Plan your trip so that you end up in one of these party-places on 31 December!
There’s something for everyone in Bangkok! Family friendly options include a free concert by Central World Mall, and an impressive fireworks display over Asiatique (an open air mall down by the river). The backpackers will turn Khao San road into one massive street party with international DJs spinning tracks til the wee hours. The upper class crowd rub shoulders with the rich and famous and watch the fireworks from some of the best rooftop bars in the city such as the Moon Bar, Above 11, or Three Sixty (make sure you have a reservation). The Lebua hotel, made famous in the movie The Hangover 2, will host the Bangkok Ball Drop – modelled on the famous New York City ball drop, which you’ll be able to see from anywhere in the city that you can see the iconic Lebua dome. One thing’s for sure, every bar and night club will be heaving with party goers so plan your night, and where you want to be at midnight, so you don’t have to move around too much.
Want a hassle-free arrival in Bangkok? Bangkok Arrival Packs include private airport transfers & accommodation.
Head to the city square near the Tha Pae Gate where the New Year celebrations will be taking place and the roads will be closed from 6pm. Explore the food stalls, pop up bars, and enjoy the dance performances. In Chiang Mai it’s a tradition to release lanterns into the sky and into the river to bring luck for the new year – it’s a pretty spectacular sight to see. If you’re looking for a place to dance the night away, close to the Tha Pae Gate you’ll find long-time backpacker favourite bar; Zoe in Yellow. Monkey Club, Fabrique and Spicy are also popular bars and clubs to get your boogie on.
Although not even officially a ‘full moon’ on 31 December, Haad Rin beach, home to the famous monthly Full Moon Parties will still be one of the biggest New Year celebrations in Asia with thousands of people decked out in neon glow paint, slurping cocktails out of buckets, dancing on the beach at the Koh Phangan Countdown Party. It’s a new years party on steroids. Check out our blog for surviving the full moon party.
For a different new years experience on Koh Phangan, those in the know grab a water taxi off the beach at Haad Rin and leave the neon-clad partygoers behind for a ‘secret’ garden party. Eden Garden Party is only accessible by water taxi or four wheel drive. From the beach, make your way over a rickety rope bridge and you’ll find Eden, perched on the cliff overlooking the gorgeous bay of Haad Yuan. We recommend heading over while it’s still light, to enjoy the views over some quiet cocktails before getting the party started. You can always get a water taxi back to Haad Rin beach and join the crowds later in the night.
Start the celebrations early by hitting the pool party at the La Pistoche Swimming Pool and Bar and making the most of the two-for-one cocktails from 12pm – 7pm. After a quick shower and some delicious Lao food from the night market, head to Utopia for drinks the garden bar. When it closes, get a taxi to the bowling alley just outside of town which is open until around 2am, trust us, this will be the most fun you’ve had ten pin bowling!
It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to have a wild party in Vang Vieng. Start the day with a hearty breakfast at the Irish Pub then head to the tube hire shop and spend the afternoon partying like it’s 1999 as you tube on the river stopping at each of the river bars. When you get back into town, make sure you drop your tube off before heading out to the bars. Hit up the famous Sakura Bar, who often do a happy hour of free drinks! Good luck with making it to midnight!
Head to Nam Phou Square by the Vientiane fountain where Tiger Beer will be hosting the countdown festivities with live music, food vendors and of course Tiger Beer!
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Countdown party on Pub Street. Photo Source: video still from BrokePinkBloke on youtube.com
The main place to be for a New Year’s Countdown in Siem Reap is the infamous Pub Street. Secure your spot early where you can people watch, have something to eat and a few drinks before the party spills out onto the street and Pub Street turns into one huge New Year celebration. Party the night away at The Angkor What? Yolo Bar and X Bar, or go somewhere a little more chilled: Island Bar towards the back of the Angkor Night Market make nice cocktails, as do Miss Wong’s, in a little lane just off pub street.
Sihanoukville really gets into the party spirit! The area turns into one massive beach/street party for local Cambodians and tourists alike. There will be free concerts sponsored by Angkor (the local) beer, DJs, food stalls, markets, and fireworks! JJ’s Playground on Serendipity beach has a reputation for a wild party, or party with the backpacker crowd on Ochheuteal Beach. Otres Beach is a more relaxing place to celebrate.
Head down to the Tonle Sap riverside where there are lots of bars and restaurants overlooking the river. Start the night with a delicious mojito at the Le Moon Rooftop Bar, or take a cruise along the river to observe the festivities from a different perspective. Some of the big hotels, Raffles, Sofitel and Hotel Cambodiana are hosting elaborate gala dinners with music and entertainment. Phnom Penh has some great backpacker bars to party the night away, try Loco Bar, Cherie’s, and Mad Monkey.
District 1, also known as the ‘backpacking’ district will be the place to be on New Years Eve. Check out some of the main nightclubs and bars like Apocalypse, Gossips and Apollo who will all have their best DJs playing and a countdown at midnight. If you’re interested in a more fancy type of party where you can wear the one ‘nice’ dress you bought backpacking with you, head to one of the cities best rooftop bars: Chill Skybar,Social Club, or Glow. The Lighthouse rooftop bar is hosting a New Year party that claims to be ‘F@%!’ING Epic’.
You’ve booked flights to Southeast Asia? Awesome! This is quite possibly the best idea of your life. You’re going to have an amazing time, but in order to be a savvy traveller you need to avoid the most common mistakes that so many first timers visitors to Asia seem to make…
Mistake #1: Buying everything before you get there
There is absolutely no need to go on a big pre-travel shopping spree, buying up bottles of shampoo, books, paracetamol, and cute lightweight tops. You can get plenty of clothes, books and all the usual brands of toiletries and pharmacy medicine in Asia! Why pack a packet of Strepsils ‘just in case’ you get a sore throat when you can pick them up from a pharmacy when you’re there? (The exception of course is any regular medication prescribed by your doctor.)
Top tips: Support the locals by buying cheap as chips t-shirts, sarongs and shorts at the markets, and make new friends by swapping books with other travellers.
Mistake #2: Not researching travel insurance providers
First of all, don’t be foolish enough to think you’re young and you’ll never need travel insurance. Second, don’t just buy the cheapest travel insurance you can find. Do your research and always read the fine print to ensure it offers ‘backpacker friendly’ coverage. By that we mean be sure that your insurance doesn’t suddenly become void the second you take a sip of beer! Also check if it covers you for all the countries you might be visiting, as well as for adventure sports like scuba diving or for hiring a motorbike or jet ski. (World Nomads insurance is a good backpacker option and covers the widest range of activities and adventures sports.)
Mistake #3: Eating/drinking something dodgy
If you’re watching your food be cooked hot and fresh in front of you, chances are it’s going to be fine – and damn tasty! If you’re really worried, the best advice is to avoid chicken, but generally freshly cooked food is fine. Raw foods such as salad leaves can be a problem as they are often washed in local water which can cause grief to travellers’ tummies, so it’s best not to order salad unless you’re in a fancy restaurant or hotel! On a night out, it’s always better to drink beer and canned or bottled drinks, as cheap fluorescent coloured cocktails may be mixed with local spirits or mixers with unknown ingredients or contain dodgy ice made from local water.
Top tips: Stick to freshly cooked food and avoid anything that could be washed or made with local water.
Mistake #4: Hiring a motorbike (if you’ve never ridden one before)
If you wouldn’t feel confident riding a motorbike on the road at home, don’t hire one in Asia! You don’t know the road rules in the countries you’re visiting and there’s a good chance the other people hooning around the corner don’t either! Motorbike accidents are the most common reason why tourists find themselves in hospital (see Mistake #2 about insurance again). Crashing may not even be the worst of your worries – getting burnt on the leg by the exhaust pipe is so common it’s been dubbed the ‘Thai Tattoo’. Stay safe and hire a bicycle instead!
Mistake #5: Paying too much for a taxi
Try to find the official taxi rank at airports and don’t accept a ride from a pretender. If someone approaches you at an airport offering you a ride, chances are they are not even a registered taxi driver. If you’re catching a taxi in the city, insist on using the meter or agree to a price before you ride if there is no meter. That way you won’t get a shock when you arrive at your destination.
Mistake #6: Not paying enough for a tuk tuk
This is a classic mistake that many first time visitors to Bangkok make – in fact, it’s almost a rite of passage. If a tuk tuk driver is offering to take you anywhere in Bangkok for 20 Baht (less than $1) – they’re going to take you to every tailor and jewellery shop in the city, asking you to ‘please just have a look!’ before they take you anywhere you actually want to go. Three hours later you’ll be begging to get out of the tuk tuk. Riding in a tuk tuk is a great travel experience – just let the driver know upfront that you don’t want to visit any shops and you’re happy to pay more for the ride.
Top tip: Get an idea of how much your taxi or tuk tuk ride should cost – if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
While stroking a baby tiger or riding an elephant may sound like an amazing up-close wildlife encounter on the surface, take a moment to really consider the situation. Why is this endangered, wild animal docile enough to be patted or ridden by tourists? Who is profiting from this encounter? How did this beautiful wild animal even get here? If people are making money off travellers from these types of experiences, animals will continue to be exploited and abused for human entertainment. Remember that you vote with your tourist dollars. Support animal rescue sanctuaries and animal welfare organisations instead.
Mistake #8: Buying souvenirs from children
There’s no mistaking how cute the kids are and how harmless it might seem to buy a couple of bracelets for a dollar or two, but the fact is these adorable local children should be in school. However, as long as they’re profitable to their parents, they’re likely to continue to be sent out to work instead of getting an education. Support the local people by buying handicrafts from local markets instead.
Top tip: How you spend your money has a big impact on supporting and shaping local enterprises, so spend wisely!
Mistake #9: Getting soaked with the ‘bum gun’
Don’t know what this is? Well you’re about to find out! Next to many toilets in Southeast Asia you’ll find a hose with a spray nozzle on the end, aka the ‘bum gun’, and you won’t always find toilet paper provided. This nozzle may be your only hope for cleaning up after yourself, so embrace it. The big mistake is not testing the water pressure by spraying it into the toilet first. It can give you quite a shock and a good soaking! Test it in the toilet first, adjust the pressure accordingly, spray, then dry with toilet paper or wriggle dry. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. Good luck!
Mistake #10: Putting Thailand first and Laos last on the list of countries to visit
Yes, Thailand is a beautiful country. It’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s got great beaches, and the party never seems to stop! But it’s much harder to find those off the beaten track places that truly make you feel like an intrepid explorer, where you get a real insight into the local culture, not to mention taking different photos than everyone else who went before you! An increasingly common complaint is how touristy Thailand has become, and yet Thailand’s northern neighbour Laos is often overlooked. Those that have been know that Laos is one of the most enchanting countries in Southeast Asia. Laos boasts stunning scenery, friendly and relaxed locals, a strong commitment to its traditions and heritage and is truly a hidden gem. If you want a less touristy experience, be sure to fit Laos into your itinerary.
All that info made you a bit nervous about your first time in Southeast Asia? We’ve got even more travel tips here!
Stray and Loka set to become the largest Hop-on Hop-off Adventure Travel Network across the Asia Pacific region.
Stray Ltd (‘Stray’) is pleased to announce its recent investment, which will see it become the majority shareholder of Loka Pty Ltd (‘Loka’), an Australian Adventure Travel Operator based out of Byron Bay.
This investment will create Asia Pacific’s largest and most expansive Flexible Adventure Travel Network with operations spanning across New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia.
Loka’s hop-on hop-off network operates up the east coast of Australia
Stray and Loka already share a similar operating model and ethos. They are at the forefront of adventure travel designing authentic, cultural and nature-based experiences with an emphasis on providing access into more remote destinations. Both specialise in a style of ‘hop-on hop-off’ travel, which offers their customer all the benefits of a guided tour along with the flexibility to hop-off and spend time at destinations en-route. This operational model not only supports the way new-age customer like to travel but also aligns closely with current Tourism Boards’ objectives to promote regional dispersal of visitors.
For the foreseeable future Loka will continue to operate under the Loka brand but will be integrated from an operational and marketing perspective into Stray’s wider portfolio.
Neil Geddes, founder and director of Loka said “It is amazing to be working with Stray and to be part of the orange family again. The investment will provide the resources to continue our journey to provide the best experiential trip in Australia”.
Brett Hudson, CEO of Stray said “The deal is extremely exciting as it brings together a huge wealth of experience from both management teams to create a strong and highly dynamic business”.