Review of Phone Noy / Stray Asia

Cindy Fan of SoManyMiles.com is a travel writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia. She recently travelled on Stray Asia’s Phone Noy pass through southern Laos.

Cindy Fan is a travel writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia.
Cindy Fan is a travel writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia.

Describe the trip through southern Laos in one sentence.

An eye-opening adventure through stunning natural landscape.

You live in Laos. So why did you choose to travel with Stray?

Living in Laos, you learn very quickly just how bad and unreliable public transportation is. The last time I took a “VIP bus,” what was supposed to be a 10-hour ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane turned into a 15-hour odyssey when the bus driver decided he wasn’t going to go all the way to Vientiane. I was completely stranded. I ended up having to hitch in the back of a pickup truck for four hours on broken, dusty road. Not fun.

Typical Lao transport, sunroof included.
Typical Lao transport, sunroof included.

I travel a lot for my work but I’ve used Vientiane as my base for almost a year now. I’ve backpacked northern Laos many times but have never visited the south.

Riding in an air-conditioned Stray bus, having a local guide explaining things and not having to worry about whether I would actually get to my next destination was a relief. It was stress free. I could just concentrate on having fun and being a traveller with a bunch of new mates.

The Stray bus gingerly disembarking the ferry on our way to Don Det. All part of the adventure!
The Stray bus gingerly disembarking the ferry on our way to Don Det. All part of the adventure!

How easy is it to get there and how long does it take?

There are lots of ways to get to Laos. You can start your Stray trip in Bangkok or Chiang Mai and so you’ll have mates to travel with on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The Phone Noy southern Laos trip picks up in Vientiane and you can fly there with Air Asia or Lao Airlines, or take a comfortable, cheap overnight train from Bangkok.

What were the top 3 highlights of the trip?

  1. Tad Yuang waterfall – I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life but Tad Yuang is the most spectacular one I have ever experienced. Take a look at the photo – I got to swim under that. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And the restaurant at the falls was just as memorable: delicious food and the owner kept fueling us with laolao whiskey. It was only 1 pm and we were all tipsy.
  2. Zipping through pitch-dark 7 km long Kong Lor cave in a motorboat. It was like exploring a lost world. I wrote about the experience here.
  3. Seeing Laos during rice growing season. The world was alive, fresh and green. Entire villages were toiling in the paddies and I went out and tried rice planting. Everyone was laughing at me.

Okay, I’m cheating. Here’s a fourth: the homestay. It’s the only way for a traveller to truly understand the country and culture. The homestay Stray arranged was so special. If you are new to the idea of homestays or have reservations about trying it, you can read more about it here.

The Stray group heading down for a swim in Tad Yuang waterfall.
The Stray group heading down for a swim in Tad Yuang waterfall.
Stunning rice fields near Kong Lor cave.
Stunning rice fields near Kong Lor cave.

What sort of traveller is southern Laos best for?

Those with an open mind, those who want to see the Lao way of life, travellers who are willing to live without luxuries for a few days knowing that it’ll be worth it.

Do you have any tips for travelling in Laos?

Laos is different than its neighbours. I see tourists coming in from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with a chip on their shoulder and they bargain aggressively because they think everyone is trying to rip them off. Laos is a bit more expensive as most things are imported (but still extremely cheap by Western standards!). That’s just the way it is, so relax and smile: it’s not cool to loose your cool in Laos.

Respect the local culture. Dress is more conservative in Laos. Don’t wear what you would wear on a beach.

What was the most surprising part about this trip?

The most surprising part of the trip was the fact that I was surprised. After living and travelling the north so many times, the south was a revelation. The landscape is totally different – flat, vast and open. I can’t believe how someplace so beautiful is still relatively unknown. We went well off the beaten track.

Do you have any memorable moments from the trip?

Getting chased by monkeys, swimming in Tad Yuang waterfall, getting to know the entire group, trying my hand at rice planting, Stray group rockin’ the karaoke bar in Pakse with Bohemian Rhapsody, showing the group how to eat a mangosteen, playing games with the kids at the village homestay and seeing Irrawaddy dolphins in Don Det. Most of these moments involved plenty of Beerlao.

Stray Asia tour leader “Scrub” making friends at the Monkey Temple, Xe Champhone.
Stray Asia tour leader “Scrub” making friends at the Monkey Temple, Xe Champhone.

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