Haggling over the price of a tuk-tuk, trying to figure out which of 15 platforms your train leaves from, wondering when to get off the bus, spending hours confirming simple information like when you should arrive at the station, not being able to find the hostel you researched because it is closed/moved/was always at a different address/never actually existed/was transported to a Turkish holy site by the Holy Spirit. (Hey, it happened to Mary’s home and we’ve found no better explanation.) Many would say it’s part of the adventure of travel; we certainly think so.

But after four-and-a-half years of travelling without doing a tour, we thought it might be nice to have someone else doing the donkey work for a while, especially since we’re cutting our time in South East Asia to fulfil some family obligations back in Australia and New Zealand. And so for ten days we’re on a Stray Pass through Thailand and Laos, getting a quick look at things we wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to see while they pick up the transport costs and supply a great group of people to hang out with.

stray backpacker bus thailand laos buddha statue with little gilding left
An antique Buddha statue with little gilding left

Stray have been running in New Zealand for several years, providing hop-on, hop-off bus itineraries nationwide and serving mainly a 20- to 30-something age group (although their oldest client was in her 90’s). The goal is to create a travel community on the road, provide comfortable transport to places you must-see and might-not-have-heard-of and generally show people a good time through a network of fun, local drivers, good accommodation and helpful guides.

About three weeks ago Stray ran their first trip through Thailand and into Laos. Regular Indie Travel Podcast listeners and commenters Tina and Matt Steiro-Kelly were on the trip and they had a blast. We’re following in their footsteps with a Tom Yum pass which loops from Bangkok and back again with a few stops in Thailand and several in Laos. You can take up to a year to connect all the dots on your Stray passes but we’re zapping through this one in the minimum 10 days … arriving with a day to spare in order to catch our flight down to Melbourne, Australia.

Day one of the Tom Yum pass takes you to Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand and a UNESCO heritage site.

stray backpacker bus thailand laos 02
We visited the historic city of Sukhothai on our first day of the Stray Tom Yum Pass.
The great advantage of a hop-on, hop off pass is the ability to get off and explore by yourself. However, if you’re in a rush like us you get all the advantages of someone else doing the organising (especially saving time in planning and preparation) without having too many constraints. If you want to do something in particular, your guide or driver can put it together for you. If you want a friend to do it with you, you’ll probably find willing bodies amongst your travel companions. We’re certainly seeing more than we normally do because of the ease of doing it and the social pull of hanging out with our equally straying friends.

Stray Asia is a really interesting beast right now, as their iconic orange buses are only operating in Laos. The constraints of operating in the country mean their buses can’t cross the border, local guides have to be employed and a chunk of the company, and the buses themselves, are owned locally. They’re working towards 100% local guides, but at present tour leaders also accompany the group, meaning two support people for every bus. In Thailand, the transport comprises tuk-tuks, song thaew, and trains with all the payments being handled by a guide who travels with you. Our guide, Nicole, is French-born of Lao, Thai and Cambodian descent. She’s a great companion with local knowledge from years of living here along with an international perspective.

stray backpacker bus thailand laos - view from a song theau

In a few weeks we’ll review our experiences with the Stray Asia Tom Yum pass and see what it’s like to travel on a backpacker bus in South East Asia.
Note: Stray Asia is offering big discounts for tours booked before the end of the year. Find them here.

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