Stress, be gone: Celebrating my 40th in Thailand was the responsibility reprieve I needed

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My Flash Pack trip to Thailand in November coincided with my 40th birthday – it was also the first time in five years that I didn’t think about my business. Not ONCE. 

I run my own optometry practice in the small mountain town of Durango, Colorado. I retrained from a cushy marketing career in my early 30s in pursuit of something more meaningful. I’m now responsible for a growing team of staff. 

Due to the responsibility in my day-to-day life, I rarely get to switch off, even on the odd weekend away with family or friends. I’m constantly troubleshooting and making decisions, small or large.

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Back home, I run a business – so decision fatigue is huge

When I do go away, I’m quite an independent person. I’ve travelled everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Honduras, Ecuador and Malawi before, on various solo trips and volunteer projects.

I was actually a little apprehensive about the group nature of Flash Pack before I tried it. I like to do things in my own way and off the beaten track. But equally, decision fatigue is huge for me. So, the idea of having this lovely curated experience, without having to be the one in charge the whole time, was really appealing. 

It felt like the greatest gift to myself, being able to explore a country like Thailand – an area of the world I’m not familiar with – while trusting someone else to handle all the logistics for me.

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I felt immediately at home with my fellow solo travellers

That “someone else” turned out to be Gong, our guide and go-to connection to the people, places and cultures of Thailand. With Gong in charge, everything was super easy and comfortable. He’s so enthusiastic about his country and introduced us to locals wherever we went. He took us to all his favourite spots and explained little-known traditions, so the whole experience felt the opposite of a cookie-cutter travel experience.

Gong was down for having a good time, too. He made sure everything ran smoothly but he also joined us for dinner and dance parties in the evenings. We felt part of his family and he cared for each and every one of us equally. 

I felt immediately at home with my fellow solo travellers, as well. From the outset, everyone was chilled and fun. It was easy to chat to the group and I knew we were going to have a genuinely good time together.

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That sense of being carefree continued throughout the trip

On our very first evening in Bangkok, we took tuk tuks together to a welcome meal. None of us had any idea where we were going and that was actually a wonderful feeling – it was freeing to throw caution to the wind and simply trust in the process. 

That sense of being carefree continued throughout the trip. I’m a mountain girl at heart. Being off-grid is my jam – it’s why I live in the middle of nowhere in Colorado. 

So, one of my favourite experiences in Thailand was staying in the floating raft houses of Khao Sok National Park. There was only power for a few hours a day and it felt completely cut off.

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We rode jet skis to private island along Phuket’s coast

We got to really connect with nature on a spectacular waterfall hike in the jungle wilderness. I felt like a little kid again. It was so liberating – I practically skipped along the route. 

I enjoyed the jet-ski safari along Phuket’s coastline more than I expected, too. We pulled up at this tiny private island midway along the adventure and found an incredible cocktail bar. 

There we were, covered in sunscreen and saltwater, sipping these gorgeous creations that took about five minutes each to make. It was one of those surreal moments; something we’d never normally expect or get to experience.

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Thailand was a chance to reconnect with myself

We had an impromptu dance party that day, too, and we also shared lunch on a little floating platform. It was just us and a bunch of local fishermen in the middle of the sea. 

Coming from a small town, a lot of people back home are traditional in terms of having families and settling down, which is great. But if you want to do something different, you have to seize the initiative and do it yourself. And that’s how I ended up picking the trip to Thailand: I turned 40, I wanted to do something awesome and I didn’t have people to do it with. 

I’ve been so wrapped up with running my own business these past years. But I used to do a lot more travel and the adventure reminded me of the freedom that comes with just taking off, without a care in the world. It provided an important chance to reconnect with myself again.

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I wasn’t looking for a relationship. It happened naturally

I said to my roommate, Natalie: “This is the first time in ages I feel like I can let go, breathe and relax.” I was without all those micro-stresses. You’re not always aware of them in daily life but they’re baggage all the same. 

I met my partner on the trip, too: James. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but it happened anyway. Like me, James is something of an introvert. 

He’s British, so he’s someone I wouldn’t have crossed paths with ordinarily. It’s different when you’re travelling as you’re much more open to new experiences and friendships. You leave a lot of limiting c**p that normally floats around in your head behind.

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It was sad leaving the group after they supported us

From the get-go, James and I connected: we just wanted to be around each other the whole trip. At the same time, we both made close friends with other people, too. Everyone was so supportive. They encouraged us every step of the way. 

Since that trip, James and I have met up twice; I’ve flown to London and he’s schlepped out here to Colorado. Soon we’ll be meeting again on the Caribbean island of Aruba – and I’ll have my family in tow this time, too. Having a long-distance relationship isn’t easy, but much like Flash Pack, it’s an adventure. We’re cautiously optimistic.

Naturally, the whole flight back from Thailand was really sad. It was daunting to re-enter ordinary life. We’d all shared this beautiful experience together during a week of non-stop adventure and joy. 

Gretchen Arneson lives in Colorado and travelled with Flash Pack to Thailand

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Images: Flash Pack

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