Vientiane and Southern Laos
I posted many details of our tourist travels through Laos last week and we have continued to fall in love with the country and its people through our remaining few days in Southern Laos. We have only scratched the surface of what there is to discover and explore, but there is no rush. I have always tried to do everything, see everything, to rush rush. Being on this journey with the boys has taught me that there may be more to learn in travel by taking a more measured and unhurried pace.
Travel shouldn’t be about compiling an inventory of places you’ve visited in the world, but about finding those places that you enjoy, that are able to teach you things about others, about yourself. If you like what you see, return for more.
Since my last post our pace has indeed been slower, more relaxing and taking time to just “be”. Our last day in Vientiane was exactly this – moving slowly, soaking up the ambience and being observers rather than tourists. Peeking through doorways, observing rituals and formalities.
Our journey is one of many influences, and one you may remember me mentioning is my thoughts of transitioning into more impactful work. I had previously made contact with a fascinating social enterprise, Digital Divide Data, which I had stumbled upon during one of my regular hangouts in cyberspace. DDD deliver high quality digital content, data and research services to clients worldwide, but through a social model which gives talented youth from low-income families in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya the opportunity to complete higher education while they gain work experience with DDD and are trained to deliver these core services to clients all over the world. I discovered they had an office in Vientiane and to my delight they were willing to spend time introducing me to their business and learning more about their services and their social impact.
Expanding your comfort zone
It was only last year that I really understood the concept of expanding your comfort zone. This is a core value of what me and my family are living by here in Cambodia. Your comfort zone is essentially what feels familiar, safe and secure. However, if you remain in your comfort zone, you may never discover your true potential and what you may be capable of achieving. Moving out of your comfort zone involves stretching yourself, pushing your limits and discovering something new.
As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.
Robin S. Sharma
Be willing to step outside your comfort zone once in a while; take the risks in life that seem worth taking. The ride might not be as predictable if you’d just planted your feet and stayed put, but it will be a heck of a lot more interesting.
Edward Whitacre, Jr.
When you stretch your comfort zone, you grow as a person. It involves feeling awkward, uncomfortable, but you don’t ever go back, you have a new normal, a wonderful new stretched comfort zone which is bigger, greater, richer.
You see the next time my boys go to a developing country, or meet a disabled or injured person, or be have to communicate when no-one speaks their language, they won’t nearly have the same level of shock that they experienced those first few days here in Cambodia. This is exactly why we are doing this. I hope to lay the foundations for them to accept they must take risks, that feeling uncomfortable can be okay, to challenge themselves to always look to discover and learn more. If you don’t enjoy the moment, the experience, you still have learnt from it. That’s the Sunflower Journey.
Travel by Sleeping Bus
My talk of comfort zones is all relevant to our last day in Vientiane. As the afternoon drew to a close we became more anxious about our decision to take a “ Sleeping Bus” 10 hours through the night from south to Pakse. There is not much online other than a few bad reviews, and some not quite so, but it was worth the inevitable experience it was to be.
We loaded into a TukTuk Truck with a pile of backpackers already on board. Although seemingly already full, still they crammed in a few more and it didn’t bode well. It was pelting down with rain, dark and late, and by the time we had reached the bus station Oscar clambered out of the truck and announced “I Quit. I absolutely Quit. I will NOT be going on a bus and I want to catch a plane. I am absolutely not doing THIS”. Okay, a stretch to far and entering into the panic zone. Bus stations are confusing wherever you are in the world, and particularly so when you don’t speak the language, its dark and its chaos.
We were led to the bus, our bags chucked on board as we then were also. I have never seen anything like it (obviously my backpacking days were far too tame!), up to the top floor of the bus which is basically a row of cubicles with foam mattresses. You can’t stand up, you get in and lie down and get ready to “sleep”. Our spot at the back of the bus was basically a standard size double mattress to accommodate 5. Note the 5, Team Legge only being 4, we had company.
Every bone in my body wanted to be back out of there, not that it was unsafe but it felt unsafe, confusing and very daunting. Both boys were anxious and begging me to organise a plane. I so wanted to do that for them, for me, but it was too late, the practicalities of getting off, getting a hotel, getting a plane seemed a far bigger problem in that moment.
Eventually the bus left around 9pm and we were issued with a pillow, blanket, a bottle of water and a carton of soy milk (!!?), and to our astonishment both boys were asleep within a matter minutes. I can’t say J or I slept at all, especially with the ticket man joining our mattress. It was dark, the roads terrible and we drove at one hell of a speed, braking only to swerve round the potholes. I didn’t dare look outside for fear I would realise how fast we were really travelling. I needed to pee around 2 in the morning, and there was no option until we arrived at 7am.. now that was a stretch too far and bordering on panic!
I noticed Oscar awake and looking afraid after a couple of hours, so we rigged him up with an audiobook on the iPad (thank you Apple) and he found safety and security in listening to a favourite audiobook. Zachary on the other hand awoke AS we arrived in Pakse. Incredible. A 9-hour sleep looking happy as Larry, whilst the rest of the team looked and felt like we had been in a blender for a week.
You know what, this was a comfort zone stretch and despite the negatives, I would actually take a similar bus journey again – it got us where we need to go, it was cheap, it was full of other Western travellers and makes you once again appreciate the small things and the luxuries of travel we take for granted back home. I am so incredibly proud of those boys, they rose to the challenge, they stretched their comfort zones just that little bit further
Rain, rain, rain
Now just as luck would have it, or not should I say, Southern Laos was in the middle of a 5 day weather blip / storm and the rain was simply unrelenting. We had to expect that travelling in the rainy season, but still a little wave of disappointment amongst the Team. We were met at the bus station and transferred 34km south west of Pakse to the small town of Champasak on the west bank of the Mekong River. This area was once the royal capital which ruled much of Southern Laos.
Being my birthday we decided to do what Legges do best and go for the extremes. Sleeping Bus, followed by the delightful River Resort. Talk about luxury and this is what I love. Mix it all up. Make choices and sacrifice for a reward. Taking the sleeping bus cost us $25 each, versus a flight to Pakse for over $150 each. This meant we could choose to spend our budget instead on 2 nights at the River Resort, overlooking the Mekong, in an incredible bedroom and treated like royalty for my birthday. To be fair the kids are treated like royalty wherever they go, but particularly at this delightful friendly resort who were happy for the boys to follow their daily tasks and have a little fun with them.
Despite the rain, this was the most relaxed I have felt in a long time. We had all been intellectually stimulated by our travels in Laos, and it was time to now incubate all we had seen and experienced and just enjoy “hanging out”, taking in a leisurely breakfast and letting the day unfold.
Champasak is a sleepy town and attracts visitors due to its proximity to Wat Phu Champasak, named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001. Wat Phu, meaning Mountain Temple, is located in the foothills of the Lingaparvata Mountain. We had a wonderful explore of the temples during which the rain took a well earned break.
Our visit to River Resort was also to celebrate reaching the ripe old age of 41. This birthday was one of the the best in a long time with its pure simplicity. I felt like a Queen, and I was sure as hell treated like one. The boys had spent hours squirrelling away righting messages and birthday cards, and choosing little gifts from the night market back in Luang Prabang. I woke up with an energy, a passion for what my next few decades are to be.
I could never admit to really having had a midlife crisis but maybe I actually did, my 40th year was one for major transition and this birthday was about making a bloody big leap and refashion for the next 40 years.
Return to Cambodia
Our return to Cambodia was indeed by plane fearing the bus down through Cambodia and back to Siem Reap maybe stretching the comfort zone a little too far for now. We flew Pakse to Siem Reap and back to our now-favourite-hotel, the Saem Siem Reap.
I have learnt on this journey the pleasure in returning to something familiar. Having taken ourselves away from everything we know, we realise the value of the familiar, those elements of our comfort zone. I have spent so many years discovering the new and the different, and yet now I learn the simple pleasures of familiarity. The boys were delighted, same hotel, same room, same staff.
We headed out to purchase up suppliers for Battambang – a list of stocks including pasta, pasta sauce, marmite, chocolate spread, mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, herbs, stock cubes, baked beans, tuna, cheese slices (couldn’t resist). What more could a family need!?
Having squeezed stocks into every crevice of our rucksacks we headed back by bus to Battambang. Again, amazing how we adjust to what at first seemed a rather arduous journey, now each of us just settled in for the ride with our books.
Back to Battambang and a few hours to get ourselves sorted on a Sunday afternoon in our self-catering, very Western condo. Only one room, we purchased 2 mattresses for the kids and restocked with fresh milk and snacks.
It felt strangely comforting to return but also this creeping guilt of choosing to live in a Western way.
I forget this journey was to learn our own needs and what part of our former lives we want to maintain and what we are prepared to remodel, stretch and discover.
We didn’t sleep well at all, a new home and a mattresses harder than the floor. I woke with a heavy heart wondering truly why I had decided to return, and not to continue with the safety of travel. For travel is safe in a way, it is transient, you move on, change it up a bit, with the stimulation of everything new and changing around you.
Now I realised this was for real, we are on our own, with no support network, and making of it what we can. We are responsible for the happiness and continuing education of our 2 young boys. J was up and gone for his first day and I felt the gargantuan weight of this responsibility. Oscar too woke with a heavy heart and we were not a good match for each other as we struggled in our own ways to come to terms with the return.
I suppose you could say it was post-holiday blues, but this is more extreme than that because we are not simply returning “home”, this isn’t our home, but where we have chosen to stretch our comfort zones and to be stronger as a family and individuals as a result. We navigated our way through the day as best we could, but I don’t feel proud of my lack of ability to make it a happy, fun and welcoming return.
I the past couple of days we have made progress and some positive steps towards a meaningful term at Sunflower School. I will share these with you in my next post once I can more clearly articulate these and where we are now heading, our comfort zones stretched just that little bit further.