Turning thirty – my birthday month. | Asia 2018

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Thirty.

“So, how does it feel to be thirty?”

Turning 30 in Laos

It’s the evening of my birthday in November 2018 and I’m sitting at a hostel terrace in Laos, wearing my favorite summer dress, asking myself that question. A few weeks ago, I had decided I want to spend this day by myself in Asia, managing one task and one task only: taking care of myself. A real challenge for me, that one. But I am working on it.

Yes, it is going to be a whole month. To me, turning thirty feels like a big thing, even though many people try to convince me otherwise. I just wasn’t sure in which direction it would go. So I took a vacation for several weeks and decided to give myself the birthday present of spending a month in Asia.

Even though it has been dark for a few hours now, it is still around 28 degrees Celsius outside. Also the humidity is just like I love it: high for European standards but dry for South East Asia. I am having a nice meal, my first real Laotian curry, taking a sip of my self-made Radler with Beer Lao. The day had been nice, nothing special and full of many nice little moments at the same time. “So, how does it feel?” I start scribbling on a piece of paper.

Liberating! Yes, I feel liberated right now.

One day of doing nothing. Well, nothing but taking care of myself in a new environment – and that is a big task after all: nurturing my body, drinking enough to adapt to the tropical heat, eating carefully not to get digestion issues, looking around who I can trust to connect with, getting information on how to get from A to B. There is nothing to worry about apart from: How can I treat myself nicely and enjoy my freedom the most?

Awesome. This birthday present to myself is working out perfectly.

Waking up in Vientiane

I’m thinking back to my birthday morning: Today, I woke up in a tiny bedroom in Vientiane. When I say tiny, I mean t i n y. There was no space between the walls and the bed, it was one entity altogether and there was just enough room between the bed and the door to open the latter. The window was closed in a way one could not open it, protecting me from the sun, the heat and the polluted air in the city.

memory bubbles - kerstin schachinger - laos 2018 - 1 1000
Waking up in Vientiane.

“Wow, did I sleep well”, were my first thoughts. The day before had been full of long trips, twenty five hours in total I had spent on planes and airports, making my way from Berlin via Oslo and Bangkok to the Lao capital. Finally leaving the plane made me smile immediately: I just love the tropical climate. I am ready for my birthday month.

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True minimalism. What else would I need?

Yes, it is going to be a whole month. To me, turning thirty feels like a big thing, even though many people try to convince me otherwise. I just wasn’t sure in which direction it would go. So I took a vacation for several weeks and decided to give myself the birthday present of spending a month in Asia.

The past year had been crazy in good and bad ways. The bad ones1 let me feel that I am not immortal and, also, that as long as I live I need to take better care of myself, something I am quite bad at. The good ones2 have brought me closer to who I am and also to the process of daring to show that. It took me that long, yes. It is actually still an ongoing process every day.

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A room to myself – pure luxury.

So the direction is pretty clear now – closer to myself – and the past few turns this took have been pretty exciting. People I met have shown me who I do or do not want to be. Who I feel comfortable with and who stresses me out. Whose company I enjoy in which situations. Tasks have shown me what I do and do not want to use my skills for. Responsibilities have shown me what I want and need to learn for reaching my goals. Silence has shown me how to keep myself company and still like it without the next distraction around the corner.

So, there I am, a full month for me only. A full month of spending time with myself, treating me nicely and giving me the space and time I need to relax. Giving me what I need to discover a new environment and my true self in three countries: Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. After tidying up my room and putting on a dress (yay, summer!), I’m heading down for breakfast in the common room. People. Let’s meet some people.

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Reading & meditating in the backyard of the hostel in Vientiane.

After breakfast I find out that my bus to the north gets delayed so I spend a few nice hours in the backyard garden, meditating, writing, making some friends. It’s just me and I can do whatever I want, I am still getting used to that feeling. What do I care about?

I care about spending time in nature and connecting with locals. So, landscape of Laos and people of Laos, here I come! Looking forward to getting to know you ♡

“I didn’t plan a lot for my trip, I don’t like planning and traveling with expectations in general when I am backpacking.”

Heading north

Finally I am on the bus heading north and out of the city. I am not a huge fan of Vientiane since it is a city in Asia and I am not fond of them in general (There are some exceptions, like Ha Noi for example and I am sure I will discover more in the future.) I cannot believe my luck when we are finally driving through rice fields and green, green landscapes. There we go, that’s where I wanted to be for my birthday.

I didn’t plan a lot for my trip, I don’t like planning and traveling with expectations in general when I am backpacking. I love going with the flow and discovering nice places on the way. What I did plan though were the first few days: My idea was to stay in a tree house for my 30th birthday. I love tree houses, since one of the most special places I have ever been at was one called Enigmata in the Philippines in 2011, if you are are interested, you can read more about it here.

Since my bus got delayed, I am on the road two or three hours later than expected. Now I get to learn another thing about Laos I had not calculated into the few plans I had: The streets are beyond bad. I had read about that before, but experiencing it is a whole different thing. The potholes – which are practically all over the streets, there are more holes than street – do not only train my belly and back muscles but slow us down immensely. What looks like a 3.5-hour-drive on Google Maps turns into a six-hour-drive which makes me arrive in Vang Vieng when it is dark already. It turns out I end up spending my birthday on a mini bus in the streets – or rather the potholes – of Laos. Definitely something I would never have anticipated 😉

My birthday dinner

It is too late now to move on to “my” tree house, which is another drive into the jungle away. I start walking towards downtown Vang Vieng, which is a small but very touristy town. The first hostel that looks friendly and calm to me is my choice and there is a free bed. Lucky me.

I make myself comfortable, put on my most favorite dress (Happy Birthday me!) and go for a walk. I take it all in: You are thirty now, my friend. And you get to walk around at 28 degrees Celsius at night (in November) in the streets of a small mountain town in Laos. You have a full month ahead of you with your favorite things: eating delicious Laotian, Thai and Burmese food, meeting lovely locals and fellow travelers, learning about the world and discussing about philosophy, cultures and life with strangers who can become friends. Pretty awesome.

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Self-made Radler with Beer Lao.
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My birthday dinner.

I walk through my first Asian market for this trip, get a small bag for my phone and my wallet, head back to the hostel to have my birthday dinner: delicious vegetable curry & self-made Radler with Beer Lao. ບໍ່ດີ! Cheers!

Good morning, Laotian countryside

The next morning I finally get to see all of that Laotian beauty. No words needed – I would not like to be anywhere else right now.

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Good morning, Laos.

I ask the receptionist to call the tree house and explain why I didn’t arrive last night. He tells me there is no public transport to the place, they are going to pick me up. Alright then 🙂 While I am waiting, I get to talk to Tami, who is not only the receptionist, but actually runs the hostel.

“When we were kids, we could run around the area and go in and out of neighboring places. Now it’s different. Everything is about business. People might think we steal some ideas from them. So everybody rather stays to themselves.”

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I get to meet Tami, who runs the hostel.

Talking to Tami about different times

Tami is 23 years old and took over the responsibility over the whole place this year (2018). He asks me about Europe because he would love to go there one day. “Why? What are you interested in?”, I want to know. “I would love to see Real Madrid play. Or Manchester United.” There we go, a real football fan.

The young business owner lived in the US in his teenage years and came back to Laos with his mum, who had originally opened “Pan’s place” (“Pan” is a god for the nature and the wild from ancient Greek mythology) as the first backpacker hostel in Vang Vieng in 2006. In those days, only a few tourists came and everybody had to find their own way. No guided tours, no groups. “It used to be peaceful”, Tami remembers.

“When we were kids, we could run around the area and go in and out of neighboring places. Now it’s different. Everything is about business. People might think we steal some ideas from them. So everybody rather stays to themselves.”

“I get tired of working with drunk people.”

Tami’s mum tried running the hostel for a few months when they came back, but didn’t like it. “Mum is 49 now, it’s too much work for her.” She went back to the US and has been working in a factory since. Now Tami is running the place on his own. He doesn’t like how many drunk tourists roam the streets of Vang Vieng, he tells me. “I get tired of working with drunk people.”

It’s all about respect

Unfortunately, Vang Vieng has a bad reputation for attracting irresponsible tourists including many stories of bad endings of substance abuse. It has become better the past few years, since the authorities have become strict when it comes to drugs, there are signs up everywhere warning about severe penalties. Still today though, Vang Vieng is a place attracting party people who are not interested in the environment or the local culture, who don’t care about their negative effects on the local population or the surrounding areas. 

If I had not stranded here due to my late arrival at night, I would not have chosen to stay there. I am glad I got to meet Tami and learn about his story but I am very glad to leave, too. For those of you who read this and should go to Vang Vieng one day: Please act responsibly and respectfully. Activities like tubing destroy the local landscape: One of the locals told me that they used to produce silk scarves but recently the noise from the nearby drunk partying tubing tourists have resulted in the silk worms become extinct. We only have one planet and every landscape like this is precious, let’s enjoy it, as long as we can – and we do not always need alcohol and party music for doing so.

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The countryside around Vang Vieng is precious. We have to act responsibly though to keep it like that.

Talking to Tami has been a blast, but I am hardly finished with breakfast when the driver from the tree house picks me up. Yay, finally, ready to go!

The tree house & meditating in the rice fields

When I arrive at the place where I expect the tree house, I see a little cave, some water and a lot of tourists in full-body swim suits screaming as if they are experiencing being inside water for the first time. Well, maybe they are. It’s still too hectic for me here and the noise is unbearable, such a lovely place, could you just shhhh! No, they cannot. So I decide to go for a walk and end up in the rice fields around, next to buffalos, loads of butterflies and many little ponds.

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Fresh tangerines.

The sun is quite strong so I make myself comfortable at one of the ponds, watch local kids swimming and start meditating below a tree. It is one of the things I want to practice that month, since I have heard so much about how it is supposed to help with stress. It is quite comfortable not having to think what do I do next all the time, but actually taking doing nothing and thinking of nothing as an activity. It also helps with my back problems and I feel like it supports my body adjusting to the climate around here.

After a few hours I head back to the garden of the tree house where I get to pick fresh tangerines: This is how they look like when you don’t buy them in the supermarket but get to pick them right from the trees.

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I meet a Japanese couple who are not only extremely nice but also well-travelled. They are excited to meet me, a real Austrian because they have been to Vienna, Salzburg and other places close by quite often. I feel like they know my country better than I do 🙂 Luckily, they are also going to spend the following night in the treehouse. Good news, since I would have been alone up there otherwise. The owners do not stay, they go home to their families at night.

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Japanese travelers keep me company at the tree house.

The strong white woman gets the responsibility

“You will be fine!”, Chan says, who runs the place, and heads off to get some flashlights. “You are one of those white women traveling by herself, you can guide the Japanese couple.” Ehm, excuse me, what?

“I lead since I have the flashlight and act as if I am completely confident. After all, Chan gave me the responsibility…”

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Chan has confidence in me. “You will be fine!” he says and is happy to return to his family at night.

It’s not the first time I hear something like that: Traveling by myself in Asia as a woman I have learned that to the locals that phenomenon is still quite strange and we – that is women traveling by themselves – are a special “group of people” to them. The stereotype, as far as I know so far, goes like this: “white, strong, rich, independent, doesn’t want help, carries her luggage by herself, doesn’t want guidance or advice”. And they probably add something like “doesn’t value family” or “cannot find husband” because why else would a woman be by herself and not with a man? Laotians in 2018 take it a lot more relaxed than Filipinos in 2011 though, this time I do not get stopped and asked if they can take a photograph with me 😉

Orientation in the nightly jungle

There we go, it is almost completely dark and the Japanese couple and I head up the mountain to reach the tree house, where we are going to sleep. I lead since I have the flashlight and act as if I am completely confident. After all, Chan gave me the responsibility to look after the Japanese couple and they are probably as old as my grandparents, so I actually do feel responsible. I just don’t feel confident or as if I knew what I was doing – but well. Let’s go with the flow, right?

“So much for the stereotype about strong single white women – the Japanese ladies are the real badass heroes if you ask me.”

The Japanese lady (I unfortunately forgot to write down her name) turns out to be a lot more courageous than I am. She keeps smiling, even though we are all exhausted and have never been here before. Whenever there is a crossing and I turn around to ask them where they think we should go, she just nods at me encouragingly and full of energy. Wow. I want to be as fit as they are when I am their age, I am thinking.

We finally arrive at the tree house and I am so happy we are safe that I just crawl under the mosquito net onto my mattress and rest. Damn it, I need to pee. I hear the others climbing to another place where the showers seem to be hidden. I don’t have the nerves for another adventure, so I am just happy to find out that there is actually an open air toilet around the corner. I just hope there are no snakes or spiders around and then I go to bed. So much for the stereotype about strong single white women – the Japanese ladies are the real badass heroes if you ask me.

Waking up to the most stunning view

There is nothing better than waking up in the wilderness: Even before the sun comes up I wake up to the sound of loads of crickets and other jungle sounds and the freshest air you can imagine. I am so excited, I take my camera and my tripod and make myself comfortable on the deck.

While the self-timer takes a photograph every other second, capturing the sun coming up slowly – or actually quite fast in retrospect – to the beautiful Laotian countryside, I start stretching with some self-made yoga moves (I can never remember any of them so I just come up with my own, which is probably only called stretching) to wake up fully. Then I just sit, watch and enjoy.

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Taking my first shower being 30 – in the jungle

Now I see where the Japanese couple had taken their shower last night – in the complete dark, might I add. The bathroom is located in another tree house which is connected to ours by a hanging bridge. Walking over there at daylight is almost more exciting than at night because now I can actually see that this is not the most stable construction. No time for worrying, this is what I had wanted after all 🙂

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There is running water up here (solar power magic) and while taking my first outside shower in a long time, I can enjoy the greatest view over rice fields and mountains in the middle of the jungle 🙂 That’s it, I am hungry and ready for breakfast. Lucky me, Chan has arrived already and prepared breakfast for us. He also brought a surprise: his son Dao, who is only 10 months old. Now we enjoy some fresh Laotian fruit, eggs and coffee together. Could this birthday be even more perfect? I think not.

“I finally understood I need self-compassion to take care of myself emotionally for staying healthy. Grown-up in a good way – so that I can be as childish as I want.”

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30s – here I come

That was seriously the best present I could have given to myself. Thanks to all of you who have made my arrival to Laos special and of course to all of my beloved friends and family who sent me birthday wishes to remind me of where my home is 🙂

I am looking forward to a lot more days like this within my birthday month and a lot more months that feel like birthday months after that. I never thought I would say this but I am actually looking forward to my thirties.

Finally, I have the feeling I can take complete care of myself. I have the skills and the experience to care for myself financially, and I finally understood I need self-compassion to take care of myself emotionally for staying healthy. Grown-up in a good way – so that I can be as childish as I want. Relieved and liberated. This is what it feels like.

More stories from that journey

My birthday month and my liberating adventure of taking care of only myself and the next few days went on for another 3.5 weeks and I will publish more blog articles telling you about my adventures in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Thanks for reading 🙂

Where I stayed at

Please note that I do not see my blog posts as travel suggestions for you but merely as sharing my experiences. Traveling is different for every single one of us and you might have completely different expectations towards places you stay at or you visit, so chances are high you might not like what I do. If there is something specific you are looking for, do your research thoroughly and always be open to a different outcome: Areas change quickly – especially in South East Asia. So even when you go to the exact same place as I did, you might have a completely different experience and meet completely different people. In general, wherever you go as a backpacker, always be open to change and have as little expectations as possible, then you will be a happy traveler 🙂 Enjoy!

Photos & Text: Kerstin Schachinger

Feel like more?

  • more memory bubbles from Laos
  • more memory bubbles from Asia

 


1 anxiety attacks, concentration issues, car crash, ongoing concentration & overload problems, burnout. I am not mentioning these to ask for pity, but to speak openly about tabu topics, so if you have questions about it, feel free to ask.  | 2 Support from family & friends, from some colleagues, from strangers I met along the way. Regaining the trust in my body and my capacities.

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