Stray Travel's Long Thaang Pass Bus Tour - It is a tour, but it is not a tour but it is a tour... Ok, it is an alternative mode of transport with tour guides that can take you into the most remote parts of Laos.
Stray Travel is actually a hop-on hop-off adventure network of buses and tour guides all through Laos and Thailand. Unfortunately, we didn't get to experience the whole hop-on hop-off aspect of Stray's travel philosophy. The pass we took the "Long Thaang" was only running once every fortnight. So, if you wanted to hop off the bus, you would have to stay in that place for two weeks. Maybe longer if the tour wasn't running.
So, instead of it being a hop-on hop-off adventure, it was a bus tour. Five days of experiences, cultural diversity, and fun on a bus.
What did we get up to with Stray Travel's Long Thaang Pass Bus Tour:
Organising ourselves to get on the Stay Travel bus tour was painless. Extremely easy. Then we just had to wait for the Long Thaang Bus Tour to start.
Day 1 of 5 involved meeting the people we would be spending the next five days with. We also went through what we could expect of the Stray company guides, what was expected of us, and what we should expect from the tour. We also visited a primary school and went tubing, fishing and drank a lot of Lao Lao.
Day 2 of 5 started with a very hung over Andrew, a visit to the Pathok Caves where the local Lao people lived during the war, then on to Vieng Thong for a touch of hot spring action and enjoying the quietness of a very remote town.
Day 3 of 5 and we visited the Hintang Archaeological Park and then headed to Vieng Xai to check out the Communist Caves. Unfortunately we didn't get to spend enough time checking out the caves. Next time. Our night ended with a lot of Lao Lao and a meal of bamboo rat. What a fun night.
Day 4 of 5 and we were both sick of the bus. Too many hours spent in a bus to see something for no more than an hour or two, or so it seemed. We got to check out Sam Neua and then headed straight to Phonsavan where the MAG office is set up. Lovely town Phonsavan.
Day 5 of 5 and we were on the home stretch. The last day and we checked out two Plain of Jars sites, a "Bomb Spoon" village and a dog and cat who are best friends, before we headed back into Luang Prabang after a lot of driving.
What did we like most about Stray Travel's Long Thaang Pass?
Organised Chaos - Stray Travel's website has photos and details of every hop-on hop-off bus / train / boat option that they offer. It seems to be designed to pull in a younger demographic, under 35, with the tour guides being around that age. It also promises all sorts of spontaneous fun and the opportunity to plan your own trip to suit your own pace. Each person is going where they like whenever it suits them.
Despite their easy going appearance, the company is very well run. All the information is provided for you so that you can make an informed decision before buying a pass. And while you can be as spontaneous as you like Stray Travel does seem to have planned for all eventualities.
Small group so we got to know people - Not sure if this is just because the Long Thaang Pass doesn't attract as many people as the other passes but there was only seven passengers on our minivan. We were able to get to know people and enjoy each others company. They were very nice people too.
Access to hard to reach places - We did a lot of research before deciding to contact Stray Travel about this bus tour. We really wanted to go to the Plain of Jars and the Communist caves but it was going to a bit of hassle to get there easily on our own. This is where Stray Travel came in handy. They took the hassle away and delivered us to the Jars and the Caves easily. And we got to see a lot of hard to reach places in Laos that we probably never would have thought to stop on our own.
Knowledgeable Guides - Both Simon (our Australian guide) and Noi (or Laotian guide) were able to answer most of our questions. The stuff they didn't know, they found out. We appreciated the effort put in to making the tour easy and educational for us.
Accommodation was organised for us - One thing you start to dislike when travelling is the constant need to find accommodation. For five nights we didn't have to worry about a thing. Our accommodation varied quite dramatically over the nights but they were all booked for us and the prices were fair. All we had to do was fork over a few bucks in the morning. Sweet.
We were comfortable - Our mini van had comfortable seats, working air conditioning and we were able to stop whenever we wanted to use the Lao bathroom (apparently everywhere is a toilet in Laos). Our bags were stored inside the bus, not on the roof like some other bus companies. What more do you need to be comfortable when travelling long distances? Perhaps a karaoke machine on board. That's a joke by the way.
What do we think Stray Travel's Long Thaang Pass could improve on?
Too much driving - Our five day bus tour could easily have been stretched out to seven days. We did not have enough time at the Communist Caves in Vieng Xai. A full day in Vieng Xai would be good. There really is a lot to see. Another day could easily have been spent in Phonsavan checking out the Plain of Jars and the town itself. Perhaps there is somewhere else Stray Travel could find to spend a night between Phonsavan and Luang Prabang on the way back. The last day is too long.
Better organization of the information about the stops - We've met guides elsewhere who simply had canned introductions to each location committed to memory. On the Long Thaany there was a lot of "oh yeah, one more thing", often when people were getting their gear together and not paying attention. It never caused any major problems but it inspires more confidence when the guide gets everyone's attention, confidently says "ok, there are four things you need to know before we arrive" then rattles off the information. If these items are simply memorized so they can be regurgitated on command then its also one less thing for the guides to have to think about.
It also would have been nice to receive more information about future events. Going through the days schedule over breakfast would be enough. When you get on the bus you want to know whether you're going to be on there for 20 minutes or 3 hours.
One more thing about knowledge. We realize that Stray Travel is not an old fashioned tour company. The guides are not really guides as such. Despite that, when an English speaking guide or written information isn't available, such as at the Hintang and the Plain of Jars, it would be great if the Stray Travel guides could fill the gap. This would really take Stray Travel to a whole new level.
Money, money money - The Stray website advises each passenger to have at least $30 USD per day for accommodation, food and activities in your pocket. ATMs are very hard to find out on the Long Thaang Pass bus tour. It would be wise to have the Stray guide remind us about money and then a quick stop before leaving Luang Prabang to get a last minute cash withdrawal from an ATM.
Pro Tips For Anyone Doing the Long Thaang
Bring food. And lots of it - Leave the cakes and cheese behind but take a massive bag of nuts, dried fruits and crackers with you. And anything else you may want to eat over the next five days. If you aren't into eating fried rice or noodles for breakfast, bring some muesli and mini containers of milk for your breakfast. Quality and hygienic food can be hard to find in the the remote areas of Laos. No one got ill on our bus tour through, so you should be fine.
Drink a lot of water and bring toilet paper - Just because you are sitting on a freezing cold airconditioned mini van for up to eight hours a day, doesn't mean you don't need to drink water. And, don't forget your toilet paper. Clean bathrooms are far in between, so the bush land of Laos will be your toilet on most days.
Bring Warm Clothing - Although Laos is generally warm it does get cold up in the mountains. Particularly at night or first thing in the morning. Bring some warmer clothes.
We really enjoyed this tour. It is a pity that the Long Thaang Pass only runs once or twice a month, so the hop-on hop-off aspect of Stray Travel's philosophy is forgotten. Thanks everyone for a great time!
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Pre Day 1
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Day 1
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Day 2
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Day 3
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Day 4
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Day 5
- Stray Travel's Bus Tour - Long Thaang Pass - Review