Unbrave Girl over the Hill: Contemplating Life, Death & Pension Plans in Laos

September 21, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately that I may be a bit too old for this world travel thing.

Being in my thirties didn’t seem all that ancient when I lived in Japan, where the average life expectancy is like a million years old or something. Heck, when I turned thirty in the States four years ago, I didn’t feel all that old, either. After all, aren’t the thirties supposed to be the new twenties?! If Carrie Bradshaw and the gang can get away with wearing day-glo tulle while in their forties, I can definitely get away with pretending like I’m twenty-two and jaunting around the world for a bit, right?

In fact, I didn’t even feel all that old until about two weeks ago when I checked into the backpacker’s hostel in Luang Prabang, where I was surrounded by kids who could have been my kids. (Well, that is if I had started having children when I was twelve years old… which is rather unlikely as I didn’t even start dating until I was twenty. I was what my mother used to call “a late bloomer” and my brothers used to call “a big, fat dork”.)

While I never felt particularly old in the States or in Japan, I can’t help feeling more than a bit over-the-hill while on the road. Being surrounded by perky twenty-somethings on gap years can have that effect on you. Their idea of fun usually includes white water rafting, bungee jumping and the occasional recreational drug. My idea of fun involves napping — a lot of napping. These kids have ankle tattoos and dreadlocks. I have a bad knee (thanks to an Ultimate Frisbee accident back in the tenth grade) and lots of grey hair (thanks to bad genes and my general mistrust of Asian hair care products). These gap year boys and girls are just taking some time off between college and careers. I’m just… well… I’m just not sure what it is that I’m doing.

Most of my friends my age are married with kids, mortgages and stable careers. I, on the other hand, still haven’t figured out how to talk to boys. I can barely get my own self dressed on a daily basis without throwing a tantrum. I’m not exactly sure what a mortgage is. The only word that could describe my career at this moment is “nonexistent.” Some days I think maybe I should just give up on this silly travel thing and head back to the States to do something responsible and mature… like invest in a Roth IRA… or even figure out what the heck a Roth IRA is.

On my third night in Luang Prabang, after giving up on the hostel and checking into a quiet guesthouse down a subdued side lane more suitable for folks of a certain age (like, say, anyone over twenty-two), I decided to drown my self doubts and fear of pending senility with a Beer Lao and some night market food. As I was sitting at a long picnic table at the night market about to tuck into a pile of vegetables I couldn’t recognize, two twenty-something American guys showed up at my table. Looking as if they had just stumbled out of some college frat party, they carried plates piled high with spring rolls and roasted chicken and clutched big bottles of Beer Lao in their hands. They looked hopefully at a gaggle of pretty French girls sitting at the opposite end of the table from me and tried to strike up a conversation with them. When the pretty French girls turned up their pretty French noses at them, the boys sat down at my end of the table and began talking to me and a New Zealander who was sitting across from me.

After we chatted for a bit, a young German couple whom the American guys had met on a bus earlier in the day showed up at the table and joined us. They had all come to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng, a backpacker haven a couple hours north of Vientiane, known for its free flowing drugs, booze and inner-tubing. The town has been not so delicately described as “tourism at its worst” and “a nightmare.” While many travelers in Laos, make the stop off in Vang Vieng before heading onward to Luang Prabang, I had chosen to skip over the town entirely. While I like my occasional margarita, I’ve always been kind of scared of drugs… and, ummm, inner-tubes.

Over dinner, the Americans and Germans recounted stories from Vang Vieng. The Germans informed me that someone had died that weekend while tubing (Sadly, this is not an all together uncommon occurrence. Several people die each year while tubing in Vang Vieng, due to the strong currents in river and the even stronger booze on offer at the riverside bars.) The Americans told a rollicking tale about the time they got lost trying to find their guesthouse after eating too much of something called “space pizza.” Everyone at our table laughed. I tried to pretend like I knew what the heck they were talking about.

The next morning I woke up woozy and sick. I’d only had two beers the night before, but maybe that had been one too many. After all, my liver couldn’t be expected to keep up with the livers of those whippersnappers! Maybe something I’d eaten at the night market had reacted badly with my stomach. Wasn’t it about high time I switched to a diet of Ovaltine and oatmeal? Maybe one of those young kids had slipped me a roofie or some of that so-called “space pizza”. I should really be more careful about the company I keep especially now that I’m getting on in my years. Maybe those kids were just trying to befriend me so they could drug me and coerce me into putting them into my will (that is if I had a will… or anything worth any value to will anybody).

I spent the next couple days tottering back and forth to the bathroom and napping. My plans to leave Luang Prabang were put on hold while I rested and recuperated and drank herbal tea. I spent so much time in my guesthouse room that I feared the owners of the guesthouse would suspect me of cooking up crystal meth in there… or, more accurately, judging from my excessive grey hair and creaky knee joints, they probably just thought I had fallen and couldn’t get up.

The one and only time I started to feel better, I decided to go hang out at an outdoor cafe nearby my guesthouse. While I was sipping on an iced coffee, I struck up a conversation with a young Australian woman sporting a nose ring and what I believe the kids these days call a “faux-hawk”. She informed me that she was doing a little traveling while deciding on what she wanted to be (you know, when she “grew up”) and she was worried that she might be starting her career a bit too late… at the ripe old age of twenty-four. I instantly started feeling queasy again. I hoped it was just the return of my stomach bug… and not, say, Early Onset Death.

When I finally recovered and managed to muster up enough energy this past Friday, I decided I needed a change of scenery (and hopefully a slightly older crowd). I chose to go to Phonsavan, a small city north of Luang Prabang, which is famous for its magnificent Plain of Jars. The sites which contain massive stone jars, some of which weigh up to six tons, are believed by many to be ancient burial grounds. Figuring anything ancient and related to burial was right up my alley, I bought a ticket for the six-hour minibus ride to Phonsavan and sincerely hoped both my stomach and my creaky knees would be able to last the trip.

On the minibus, I sat next to a young Canadian guy sporting an eyebrow piercing and a barcode tattoo on his left wrist. I tried to strike up a conversation with him, which he politely participated in (you know those Canadians — always so polite… even when they really don’t want to be), before promptly turning on his iPod and tuning me out.

Later, while stopped at a rest stop, I had better luck talking with an American guy, who had also spent some years teaching in Japan, and a friendly Dutch couple, who were on a month-long holiday in Laos. They were all in their thirties. They, also, exhibited a keen disinterest in anything inner-tube related. I knew instantly that we’d all be friends. (Okay, so maybe I knew instantly that I wanted them to be my friends. It’s possible the feeling may not have been mutual. But, luckily for me, Phonsavan is a pretty tiny town and only offers a handful of guesthouses. Plus, it’s low season, so there weren’t too many tourists around. All of this made it pretty hard for them to hide from me!).

We all ended up at the same guesthouse and signed up for the same tour of the Plain of Jars sights for Saturday. We spent a pleasant day together, entranced by the green rolling hills, the tinkling of cow bells and the massive stone urns. Later that evening we ate Indian food, drank Beer Lao and talked about our future travel plans. The American guy was planning to head on to Vietnam next. I had decided to return to Vientiane to spend some time with my friends before going to my next volunteer gig. The Dutch couple would be leaving Laos in a week or so, but they had hopes of quitting their jobs soon to do a year of traveling. They confessed that they worried that quitting their jobs might interfere with their pension plans. I confessed that I should maybe actually figure out what a pension plan is… and how to go about getting one.

It was nice to hang out with people my own age. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only thirty-something out there on the open road. It was also nice to know that all I have to do to get a pension plan is marry a Dutch man (or some other guy from a nice European country that has a stable economy and a good pension program).

On Sunday, with some time to kill in the afternoon and not a lot to do around town, we decided to sign up for another tour. The tour promised a visit to a nearby Buddha cave, a local village and something called a “UXO field.” We were all so intent on seeing the cave, that we didn’t give much thought to the UXO field until the driver stopped his minivan (a decrepit vehicle with no power steering and the words “No Pain, No Gain” scrawled in permanent marker above the rearview mirror) next to a sprawling pasture. He turned to us and informed us that this pasture was where a cow had exploded a year or so ago after accidentally munching on a land mine.

You see, in addition to being famous for the Plain of Jars, Phonsavan is also famous for being the most heavily bombed territory in Laos during the so-called “Secret War” the CIA-backed civil war in Laos that served as a prelude to the Vietnam War. From 1963 to 1974, over 270 million bombs were dropped on Laos; of those bombs, it’s estimated that 80 million of them failed to explode. Millions of these unexploded bombs or UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) still riddle the landscape of Laos — most especially the fields of the Phonsavan region.

And, here, we had just signed up for a tour of one of those fields. As we all piled out of the minivan and started heading towards the pasture, I thought to myself that maybe I didn’t have to worry about that pension plan after all. Our tour guide, a man who regularly goes on bomb-finding missions in his spare time, confidently led us through the pasture, pointing out UXO’s marked with blue spray paint. We tentatively tiptoed behind him. As we were heading towards the middle of the field, he informed us that, while the UXO’s in the field had already been detected and identified, there was really no way to detect land mines since they’re made out of plastic. This was not exactly something any of us wanted to hear.

After all, we were not a bunch of bungee-jumping, space-pizza-eating, tubing, twenty-somethings who mistakenly thought nothing could kill us. Oh no, I was pretty certain I was going to die at any moment. And I knew exactly what would kill me: one of those land mines… or possibly heart failure as my heart felt like it was going to explode at any moment, just like that poor, unfortunate, land-mine-munching cow. I can honestly say I have never felt so terrified in my life (and this means a lot coming from a girl who is scared of everything from inner-tubes to tube tops!).

Judging from the expressions on the faces of my newfound friends, I was not alone. They all looked simultaneously scared of both blowing off a leg and losing control of their bowels. Luckily, we managed to make it through the field unscathed (and unsoiled). When we piled back into the minivan, we all agreed that the experience was much better after it was over and we had managed to live through it (kind of like high school… or Internet dating). It would make a good story to tell the grandkids… that is, if I ever have kids (which is rather unlikely given my whole inability to talk to boys and the fact that it’s possible all my reproductive organs have withered up by now).

The next day, I left my new friends and Phonsavan and grabbed a minibus bound for Vang Vieng, the home of the aforementioned inner-tubing and “space pizza” (whatever that is). After two weeks of adamantly refusing to go anywhere near Vang Vieng, I wasn’t sure why I suddenly wanted to go there now. Maybe it was my brush with near death in the UXO field, that made me think I could live through anything — like a town crawling with drunken twenty-year olds. Maybe it was the knowledge that I knew my creaky knees wouldn’t be able to survive the twelve-hour bus ride from Phonsavan to Vientiane, and it would be better for me to stop halfway in Vang Vieng for a bit. Or maybe it was because I’d finally gotten over my fear of tubing (or maybe not… yep, definitely not).

In Vang Vieng, I dragged my luggage through town looking for the hotel suggested by the American guy as he said it was far from where “the kids hang out”. I passed by tuk-tuks with yellow inner-tubes piled on top and sunburnt Europeans piled inside. Bars sported signs advertising Beer Lao, whiskey by the bucket and something called “Magic Shakes”. Episodes of Friends and Family Guy blared from open restaurants, where blonde twenty-somethings lounged on pillows, ate pizza (most likely of the “space” variety) and drank beers. Carts selling crepes, baguette sandwiches and fruit shakes plied the streets. A girl walked by me in pigtails, a string bikini and Ugg boots. Written in body paint down her left leg was the simple instructions to “Get Fucked.”

I suddenly felt out of my element… and overdressed… and really, really old (and a little bit offended… I mean, that girl doesn’t even know me!)

I veered off the main drag, and headed down a dusty road where three cows were loitering in the middle of the street. This road looked more my speed. Past all the crepe stands, I found a guesthouse with a surprisingly clean, quiet room facing the river and some magnificent limestone cliffs. I locked myself in the room last night, and really haven’t bothered to leave it much besides to go get my meals. I wouldn’t be surprised if the guesthouse owner sends someone up here to check on me. It’s possible they think I’ve set the furniture on fire and started baking up some of those “space pizzas”… or maybe they just think I’ve broken a hip.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On December 10, 2010 at 7:27 pm Phong Huynh said:

    Thank you for sharing these honest and down-to-earth thoughts. We share some similarities which makes reading your words reasuring.
    I am also in my mid-30s and recently decided to try my hand at international aid work. Sadly, changing of career means starting over. However, this kind of start is a pretty good one, except for the occasional lonely and self-doubt times. However, for the most part, the perks definitely outweigh the costs.
    I just spent my 4 days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Now, I am heading tthis morning (in 10hrs) to Luang Prabang, Laos for a 1month volunteering stint. It will serve as my second intercultural experience (first was this summer in Iganga, Uganda) to get into UPeace MA program.
    It is wonderful to be able to read words like yours as they provide the uplift that all prolonged travellers need when culture shock just seem to be too much and we just want to spend a day crawled up somewhere to reacquaint ourselves of what we used to know while in the States.
    Thanks again and safe travels.

    • On December 11, 2010 at 2:03 am Unbravegirl said:

      Your career change & upcoming volunteer stint sounds awesome. Good for you! Do you write about this in your blog? I’d look forward to finding out more about what you’re doing.

  2. On February 4, 2011 at 10:03 am Lisa L | LLWorldTour said:

    Awesome. Just found your blog. Right on. I was 34 when I started my RTW trip. Now I’m a geezer compared to you at thirty-freaking-eight!

    I have definitely had moments like you described above. I have met very cool, interesting 20-somethings too, but also have found myself avoiding that scene more and more.

    “…Simple instructions of Get Fucked.” Classic.

    You still in NY at Wegman’s? Great store. SO big and overwhelming and American too. Off to go eat some of these new Keebler cookies that are rip offs of Girl Scout cookies. Mmm Samoas…(the 2nd best seller!)

    Anyway, nice to meet you UBgirl. 🙂

    • On February 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm Sally said:

      My eyeballs had little heart attacks last time I was in Wegmans (all that CHEESE! How can I ever return to Asia?). I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back… but now that you mention these new cookies, I may have to plan a return trip!

  3. On February 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm Tawny said:

    I only stumbled upon your blog just yesterday and I am an addict! You might have to print these vignettes out a make a book someday. I have to limit myself of ppd (post per day) or I wouldn’t get any work done.

  4. On September 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm Ben said:

    You really crack me up. I just found your site today and haven’t stopped for three hours now. Lucky for me I’m unemployed (not all my life mind you but after 25 years of full time employment) and still looking. I’m 53 and hoping to start traveling RTW at 57 when I grad my know it all son from high school and goes off on his own to college (hoping he doesn’t flunk cause that will set me back). Then you will be really happy not being such an old traveller after all. I hope you will still be traveling then and we can have a picture together for proof. I really love your gift of writing and believing that a gift like that sometimes come to compensate for something else, I am starting to believe you when you say that you have no ankles! Lol! I’d take your gift of writing over lack of ankles anyday! Really love your site…

    • On September 9, 2011 at 6:27 am Sally said:

      Thanks, Ben! So glad you’re enjoying my blog. Yes, it is a well known fact that girls without ankles must compensate in other areas. Seeing as I can’t cook anything besides breakfast and I have no athletic skills, I have to compensate with blog posts. 🙂

  5. On April 21, 2012 at 4:02 pm Lily said:

    Discovered your blog and haven’t stopped reading! 🙂 Nice to find another fellow 30 something female traveler…Oh how I identify! 🙂 I do have a 401k from the job I left, but it’s looking so tempting to cash it all in right now and go RTW again…lol. Keep writing, it keeps us all sane to know we’re in this together!

  6. On May 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm Jacky said:

    I will be moving to China in August, and stumbled upon this website while searching the internet, in a mild (?) state of panic over if I would be able to use facebook or not once I arrived. I am now going on hour two of reading your blog and have no intention of stopping anytime soon. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve told myself I’m an idiot for moving to China, I’ve told myself I’m a genius for moving to China… let’s see what hour three brings 🙂

    • On May 4, 2012 at 1:31 am Sally said:

      You’re going to LOVE China. Trust me. (Even though, I realize by now you’ve read enough of my blog not to trust me… but still.) Which city are you going to be in?


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