(This is a story from my flight from Vientiane to Bangkok which was not in any way meant to attack or criticize anyone. Everyone is welcome to share their thoughts at the comments section.)
As the van I hired for a private day tour approached Wattay International Airport, my heart started to feel heavy. I don’t want to leave Vientiane yet. I underestimated Vientiane. I thought I can just go on a day trip for the sake of going and just come back to see Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng for a much longer time. But Vientiane is charming. I liked it there. The people I met surprised me, a lot.
I only had a very little chat with my driver since from my previous attempts to ask questions, I could say he only knew limited English. When he dropped my small grey luggage at the departure area of Wattay, “This is it, I have to leave now. I can’t stay longer. I have a job, and I can always go back anytime.”
The orange-y dusk sunlight was streaming through the airport glass windows, and it was seriously stunning. I was queuing up at the leftmost check-in counter for my connecting flight from Bangkok to Manila. I was the only one at the queue but the whole area was very noisy and it smells like a Grade School Physical Education class. A big group of Chinese tourists are queuing up at the other Lao Airlines counters and most of their flights are bound to Chinese provinces. The closest to my counter was a counter for a flight bound for Changsha.
As I was about to take my turn to hand in my passport to the check-in personnel, two old Chinese me went to my counter, literally pushed me leftwards, and talked to the check-in personnel in Chinese, which of course the check-in guy could not understand. From how I read the situation, they these old guys are agitated with the long queue and attempted to check-in on my counter, pushing me aside.
“Your counter is over there, you can’t check in here. See, this is for a flight to Bangkok”, said the check-in personnel, pointing to the LED sign above the counter that says “BANGKOK” with the Chinese translation next to it (I assume). The check-in personnel offered to check-in my luggage all the way to my connecting flight to Manila, but I declined because I will be flying on a different airline and I’m scared of losing my luggage (which I regretted later and will tell you about it on a different post).
I have a lot of experience having visited some tourist spots with a big group of Chinese tourists, and there are other opportunities to talk more about it. Scenes like that always reminded me of the first scene of the movie The Terminal where a group of Chinese tourists all wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt (probably from Disneyland) is already a red flag to the immigration authorities at the airport. But to be fair, here is an article that could shed light to many things we don’t understand about the Chinese tourist culture.
Wattay International Airport is small, I could compare it to, let’s say, a typical domestic airport in the Philippines, or maybe like Brunei International Airport. I proceeded to the almost empty boarding gate assigned to my flight, surrounded by a few and closed coffee shops and restaurants. On my way to Vientiane the day before, the flight was full, mostly by a big group of middle-aged Thai tourists. I’m seeing a few Western backpackers, some business travelers, and me.
Going to Vientiane was something I took advantage of when I had the chance to go back to Bangkok to present my academic research paper to an International Conference. My trip to Vientiane completed my ‘ASEAN Travel Goals’ bucket list I promised myself way back from high school. It was nice counting countries as a traveler, but I also promised to make it a point to keep coming back to places I fell in love with. I looked for a wi-fi sign around, saw a letter-sized bond paper with the password printed on it, only to find out it’s not working.
I did not buy a Lao SIM card because I was only there for a day, so I was forced to subscribe to my postpaid’s roaming promo because I was really excited to post my photo in Patuxai on Instagram and tell the world that that day marks accomplishing a major item on my travel bucket list. Just like any other social media user, I waited for the likes and congratulatory comments from my followers. As I was doing that, the big group of Chinese tourists started to conquer what used to be the peaceful spot I was sitting with listening to my Westlife playlist on Spotify and scrolling my Instagram feed.
One of them was at the small souvenir shop by the corner and trying to call someone at the other end of the boarding area, around 40 feet away from her. It was so loud that her voice is echoing inside that almost empty hall we’re in. I looked around and met eyes with one of the Western backpackers, we just smiled as if telling each other to just ignore them even though the disturbance they bring just irked everyone inside that room.
The skies started to get darker, and I was thinking what will I do with my 6-hour layover inside Suvarnabhumi Airport. My boarding time was kind of delayed, something that the frequent flyer in me has gotten very, very used to. Just like my lost of trust in people in general *insert black heart emoji*, I no longer expect a lot from the departure and arrival times printed on every plane ticket I get hold of. It was an almost empty flight, so I assumed I could occupy the whole row by myself, but I was assigned to a seat between two men.
The guy at the window seat was okay since he just slept the whole time since he buckled up his seatbelt. The man to my left was an Northeast Asian-looking grandpa-ish guy on this maroon button up shirt with a briefcase. Because of my prior unpleasant encounters with the Chinese tourists I met earlier that day, I initially felt uncomfortable sitting next to him.
At the back of my mind, I was reflecting on trying to understand why Chinese tourists behave that way. “Okay, I’m a traveler, so I have to be compassionate and understanding with EVERYONE, no matter who they are and where they came from.” There were a lot of empty seats inside the plane, but I insisted on staying in my assigned seat and challenged myself to be that kind of traveler who always aimed to open up my mind to the world and all the good and bad.
I unfolded the neck part the black turtleneck pullover that I always wear during flights to cover my face as I try to sleep and hope that my seatmate would not do anything that would annoy me. I was trying to sleep in the middle of the flight when he tried to wake me up to hand me the arrival card. That’s the only time I was able to look at his face and say thank you. “Damn, he’s not with the Chinese tourist group and he doesn’t look Chinese.” I was wrong.
Having studied in a university in Manila where a lot of Northeast Asian students also study, I mastered the skill of distinguishing who among them are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean by their facial features. The man started writing on his arrival card (something I only cram on when I am about to queue up at the immigration counter, plus, it was a night flight and the plane lights are off).
The man was trying to reach out to one of the cabin lights in our row to write on his immigration card. I offered to do it so I had another chance to glance at him, and he said thanks. He was old, and I was assuming he’s traveling alone. My paternal grandpa died when I was little and my maternal grandpa is someone we only see occasionally and he died when I was in college, so I never really grew up with a grandpa, like other children in my country did. I have a soft heart for old people, and seeing him traveling alone, I want to cry.
Oh, I know people maybe the same age as him traveling like that (my Professors, for instance), but I was wishing they were with someone. What if their luggage was heavy? What if they couldn’t walk that long from the plane to the arrival area? I don’t know, I may be underestimating them, but it made me reflect about so many things, real hard.
I was peeking through his seat as he was filling up his arrival card, he started to get his passport. “I knew it, he’s Japanese!”. I saw him fill up his age and his occupation, and I was like, “Ohhhh.”. The cabin crew started distributing our complimentary snacks. The packaging of the snacks were nice. They were inside a very well-designed high-quality carton box and inside were cheese pimiento sandwich and water.
The Japanese guy started to get something from his bag. It was a small compact digital camera with a string at the lower right part and he took a photo of his in-flight snack. I don’t know why, but that touched my heart a lot and I started rolling up my turtleneck shirt again to my face and started catching the tears running through my eyes. Then he started browsing photos he took around Vientiane which I could peek in from his camera screen. I started crying even more.
I have no idea about who he is and I only have the said few information about him, but it got me reflecting about what I am currently doing with my life.
LESSON # 1: I have been out and about seeing the world, but what about my parents and my family?
I came from a very laidback, conservative family in a small town south of Manila, but all the exposure and experiences I had outside home has turned me into someone with a very opposite perspective about the world compared to the rest of my family. I have been very ambitious, aggressive, and unstoppable. Sometimes it frustrates me that instead of support, all I usually get are some nagging and ctiticism (#AsianValues). But again, we could set aside this story in another post.
While I always celebrate my travels on social media and this blog together with supportive friends and followers, I always think about my family whenever I’m seeing new places. I always wish I have the means to take all of them to see the places I saw, and to share the emotions I felt along the way. But none of them are as interested to travel as I do.
I have been ‘influencing’ people to see and learn about the world through this blog and my Instagram page, but I can’t even influence the right people: my family. Nonetheless, I am hoping I could still convince them to travel because traveling solo most of the time can get a little lonely, and I am happy seeing people post their photos on social media having family trips to Hong Kong Disneyland and Universal Studios Singapore. The downs of solo traveling is something I can also talk about in another post.
I have no idea why Japanese grandpa went to Vientiane alone, but it made me realize that from time to time, we all deserve to travel with people we care about and share all the memories with them, not just bring them home fridge magnets and postcards. To those who have traveled with your family, I am very happy for all of you.
LESSON # 2: Life is short. Some will really maximize it, some will take it easy, but everyone has to respect everyone’s choice.
Being the ambitious, aggressive, unstoppable as I have always been, the travel aspect of my bucket list contains counting cities and working hard to earn more from sharing all my travel experiences and stories on this blog and my Instagram page. Yes, my goals are quantified, they are always translated to numbers. I have lived with the idea that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
Like me, some people want to achieve something at a certain age. Perhaps some want to travel to x number of countries before 30, some want to save their first million before 35, and some want to get married and have three kids by 25. Not everyone is inclined to travel, so we must not think differently of people who are okay with seeing the Merlion, or riding a cable car at Ngong Ping.
I have been to less than 20 countries in my late 20s, and while I am not sure if it was Japanese grandpa’s first time in Laos, he got me more motivated to see the world and there is, for sure, plenty of time. I am very young and capable of doing more great things. To those who have limitations to travel like a full-time job, financial challenges, and other responsibilities, just take it easy. We all have our different circumstances, capacities, and timelines.
Next time I will enlighten you more about how I can squeeze in travel albeit having a full-time job. If I can, you can, too!
LESSON # 3: What is the whole point of all of this, really? How do I wanna get old?
“Do I also see myself traveling to Vientiane when I reach Japanese grandpa’s age?” After asking this question to myself, I can’t help but freak out about my whole life and future, being the control freak that I am. Having described the kind of family I grew up in, everything in my life has always been a product of trial and error. I could beat myself up about wasted time and opportunities had someone educated me about specific things about life, but having to surpass almost everything on my own is an achievement in itself. Moreover, the kind of person I am today is something I owe to all the mistakes I did in the past.
Okay, let’s see what my long term plans are: travel the world, find a husband who don’t wanna have kids, nail my career as an academic, have a financially-secured life, have the capacity to do whatever makes me happy, and establish something that can help people solve specific problems.
“So, Sherlyn, you said you plan everything with numbers in them, but I don’t see any numbers in here.” There are numbers behind that list, for sure, but what if I wanna get married by 30 and find myself celebrating my 30th birthday dating no one? What if I am aiming to save a specific amount of money then something happened and I had to use it for another purpose? What if I worked my butt off and stopped my whole life to earn a PhD only to realize I don’t want to be a Professor anymore?
The point is, everyone is welcome to plan their lives. Nobody cares how ambitious or unrealistic they could be, but it’s your life. But along the way, most of us learn that even though we can manage to control as many aspects of life as we can, there will always be things that you don’t have control of. And it’s gonna take a toll on your dreams. It’s gonna ruin all your plans and timelines. But that’s life, and we all should consider this big factor whenever thinking about our future.
All these life reflections because of one flight. One flight can make you revisit things. One flight can change your whole life. Flights are parts travel that people either dread or get excited with. Sitting next to a stranger on a plane without talking to him was an unexpected moment that moved me and changed a loft of my perspectives on life.
FLIGHT FROM VIENTIANE TO BANGKOK TRAVEL STORY: Your thoughts are welcome!
Oh, I see that you’ve reached this far! After all, what’s travel without some drama in it, right?
For more travel articles about Laos and Thailand, click the corresponding banner below: