To say the thought of embarking on my first solo trip around the world was daunting would be an understatement. I had visions of spending time sitting in a darkened room alone, scared and wishing I was home with my friends. Everyone told me about how easy it would be to meet people, and that I would never have to be on my own unless I wanted to, but I didn’t believe them! (of course, they were right)
I had a very positive experience with Trek America a couple of years ago. My friend and I wanted to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time and also make guaranteed friends for our time away. We also figured that it would be an easy and convenient way to get around, do a whole load of things you might not have considered before and have the constant help and advice of a guide. I knew that a tour would be perfect for my first solo adventure. My only complaint is that sometimes sticking to a day-to-day schedule became tiring and it was difficult to stray from the itinerary and make your own discoveries. Also, although I was lucky with my group I was aware that being stuck with the same people for an extended amount of time was a risk.
There are several tour companies offering guided trips around South East Asia but I discovered that they can be very pricey, and I wanted a bit more flexibility. That’s when I discovered Stray Asia which claims to be ‘Organised, reliable transport that gets you off the main roads and tourist traps, freedom to hop-on and off, the chance to make amazing friends and have the time of your life!’. It was the freedom part that sold it for me. That way you get the best of both worlds – a bus that takes you from door to door and books your accommodation (if you want them to), has added activities and someone to ask for advice, but that also lets you leave and do your own thing whenever and for however long you want. To me the main appeal was that I was guaranteed to meet people and find my way around easily in an intimidating new country.
My first few days were a struggle. Exhausted, lost, homesick and terrified, my first meeting with my guide was such a relief that it resulted in bursting into tears as soon as he said hello. Not the best start to the trip! Basically my flight cancellation meant that I had missed the start of the tour in Bangkok and I had to catch up with the group in Sukhothai using public transport. I rang the office from a Bangkok bus station, basically having a small break down. They were brilliant and eventually with their help I ended up in the right place. They were also quick to reply and reassure my extremely worried mother who had emailed them asking if they knew where I was (my last text to her explained how I was lost, confused and alone before my battery died and I didn’t get my phone up and running again for several hours – sorry mum!). All in all the communication between the company and I was great. I knew exactly where and when my tour was starting and what to expect, the website and bus schedules were easy to use and they were always quick to reply to my emails (the same can’t be said for other tours I tried on my trip).
Due to a rocky start and extreme homesickness I wouldn’t rate my first week in South East Asia that highly. That was mainly down to my own problems but I did have a few minor issues with Stray. The best part about the bus was that I automatically met a group of like minded travellers who became instant friends. Although not all of them were travelling alone I would say around 50% were in my position and so were sympathetic to the way I was feeling. Having a ready made group of people to explore with definitely made the transition from home to solo traveller easier.
Although my first guide was initially sympathetic, his patience was obviously wearing thin at the time of our tour. A small request to be placed in the same hotel as my new friends (rooms had been held at two places) was completely ignored. At a time where I was really struggling to adapt, little details like that really got to me. He was knowledgeable and organised, but I felt he lacked the patience for our questions and at times he would snap back at us. It was a little unprofessional. I later found out he had been ill. Of course I have some sympathy for that, but on the other hand when I’ve paid for a service I don’t expect someone to take out their bad mood on me. He did make up for this in Vang Vieng by acting as our guide and drinking buddy even though he wasn’t working at the time, and maybe if I’d caught him in another week I might have been more impressed, but as it was I didn’t really rate him as a tour guide. My guide for the second part of my tour however, made up for this.
As a newbie (we were his first tour as a solo guide) I felt he was eager to impress and would go out of his way to help us and enhance our experience. After one particularly long, hot and stressful journey across Laos which ended up taking us hours longer than expected, we were all disappointed to arrive at our destination after the sun had gone down. We had planned to go to a nearby waterfall and see the local elephants and felt let down that we wouldn’t be able to go (although Stray Asia weren’t at fault for most of the obstacles on our journey, we were less than impressed by the broken air conditioning on the bus). Our guide automatically decided he would get up an hour earlier than we needed to and take anyone who was interested to the waterfall in the morning.
For me that was him going above and beyond his job and really caring about our experience. 4 of us travelled back to Bangkok with him (where the tours begin and end) and he became our guide and drinking buddy for the city for a few days even though he wasn’t working. After experiencing several guided tours all over the world I’ve realised that having a good tour guide can have a big impact on your trip – in both positive and negative ways.
As well as a tour guide you also have a local guide on your bus. This was one element of the tour that I think really made it stand out. The tour guide was brilliant for organising accommodation, showing you the local nightlife and basically being someone to follow around when you’re too tired and hungover to think. But the local guide was full of interesting stories about the surrounding areas and his way of life. He also acted as an interpreter between us and the locals. Between the two of them they really did have everything covered and it made travelling so easy!
I know that a lot of people in the travelling community are skeptical of guided tours, but personally I believe they have their place and can be an even more valuable experience than going it alone. Ready-made friends and the amount of time you save not having to map read, figure out how to get from A to B and wander around aimlessly looking for a place to stay are massive perks. Being part of Stray Asia meant I was picked up at the door of my guest house and dropped off at the door of the next one, so there was barely any lugging around massive backpacks in 35 degree heat. I always knew where I was going and what time I had to be up. If I didn’t have those 6am wake up calls I probably would have wasted a lot of time lying in and not seen half the things I managed to see.
Admittedly, if you were finding your way around alone you might come across sights and activities that might not be included in the itinerary of a tour, and since I have done some solo travelling I have grounds for comparison. For me, Stray Asia was a perfect middle ground between tours with a strict itinerary and going it alone. You have someone to follow around and ask for advice when you choose, and guaranteed decent transport (a big deal in more remote areas of South East Asia) but when you want to go and do your own thing you have that option too. You can stay at each stop for as long as you want before booking in and picking up the next bus on the timetable.
Unfortunately, I was on strict time restraints that meant I didn’t get the opportunity to do that. In the more remote areas of Southern Laos that was fine, as everyone moved on with the next bus every day to avoid being stranded in the middle of nowhere. But I would have loved to have stayed in some places for longer (it was actually painful leaving Vang Vieng after 1 night!). 2 and a half weeks of mainly 6am starts every day really started to take their toll on me by the end, so I would recommend allowing for a bit of flexibility with your time if you were to get a Stray bus pass. For those who still remain skeptical about the things you might miss out on seeing with a guided tour, if I had gone alone I would have missed out on a lot of experiences such as these:
Although admittedly I may have discovered some of these alone, with public transport we never would have stopped at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, visited tiny Laos villages, camped in central Laos or stayed in a genuine Laos village to name a few. Not to mention the time I would have wasted researching where to go and/or getting lost trying to find them.
Of course it works out more expensive than if you were to find your way from A to B alone, but it makes everything so much more convenient and mainly, so much safer. It made a scary first 3 weeks so much less daunting and I wouldn’t hesitate to book another hop on hop off tour (especially after another positive trip with Kiwi Experience).
When I arrived back in Bangkok, I spent a lot of time being lazy and aimlessly wandering around (partly because I was so worn out from the last 2 and a half weeks). I really missed my tour and everyone that was on it. I was lucky to still have our guide there for a few days, and 3 friends from the tour, but when they left I felt a little well…lost. The next two weeks I found my way around alone, and that had it’s benefits too, but for someone embarking on their first solo trip I would whole heartedly recommend Stray.