Shamrocker Irish Adventures- Dublin to County Clare

Hello all! I am in China, slowly melting in the sweltering city heat but having a lot of fun already. We traveled  to southern China this weekend for a work trip and packed a lot into just a couple of days. It was exhausting and hot as you know what but an interesting experience. I will be updating in a couple of days, but for now let’s return to Ireland! Oh Ireland… so cool and green…

Shamrocker Irish Adventures- Giant’s Rocker 5 Day Tour

After an exciting first day in Dublin, we were excited to begin our tour of Ireland! At 8am sharp, we grabbed our enormous backpacks and dragged ourselves out of our hostel in search of the tour office. We quickly found the Shamrocker Irish Adventures office around the corner and hustled down the street in search of breakfast. I needed something more than the sad, dry toast available in the hostel kitchen. No thank you. Breakfast sandwich in hand, we walked back to the office to check in. Nervous and slightly sleep deprived, I fumbled with my passport and money, too anxious to grasp things properly with my fingers. It was going to be an interesting morning.

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Sitting on a curb outside, we waited for the other tour members to show up while slyly checking them out. To our dismay, we saw that we were the youngest people there by far. Oh no, would this be a boring bus ride from sight to sight while being herded by loudmouthed guide waving a flag with tourists in short shorts and fanny packs (aka China)? We sure hoped not. But we feared the worst.

Once everybody arrived, our guide locked up the office and lead us all to the bus. To our relief we noticed a few pairs of people our age walking with the group. Ok, maybe this was going to be fun after all! After a few hiccups in departure, including me running to the bathroom at the last minute and sitting in the hottest and most uncomfortable seat, we were on our way! We would be spending out morning driving west across Ireland from Dublin to County Clare on other coast. ireland1

As the bus left the city center, our tour guide Dave introduced himself and began talking about the history of Dublin as a Viking town. Soon the buildings began to thin out until we were on the open road, surrounded by rolling green hills. And it is true, Ireland is just so GREEN. Like greener than green, if that makes sense. Although it was easy to be mesmerized by the overabundance of GREEN, I dozed off until Dave’s voice jolted me out of my slumber.

We were at a small stone church at the peak of a hill in a sea of green as far as the eye could see. Stepping into the cool air, we walked up the steep steps to this stark structure, reduced to mere walls over time.

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Dave solemnly told us about the Great Famine and the devastating effects this time period had on the entire population. He explained that there are hundreds of bodies buried around the church because there were too many at that time for proper burials. The good news from this terrible time is that about 1 million people emigrated from Ireland which is why people with Irish heritage are so prevalent around the world. My own family most likely emigrated from Ireland to New York City either before or during the famine. Hearing about the famine in Ireland was a sobering and deeply personal moment, one that I will never forget.

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Dave also pointed out a few features that make this church unique including a double cross on the main wall. Local folklore says that this cross signifies a location of a piece of the cross from the crucifixion of Jesus. It is hard to say whether or not this is true. There are also pagan female and male figures on the walls with their…. bits on display. The myth is that if you are able to jump up and touch the figurines, you will become fertile. However the male figure’s member was missing which is probably not a good sign.

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After leaving the church, we continued our drive through County Clare towards the Cliffs of Moher, stopping for lunch in a small town on the way. Somehow Carina and I became the unofficial leaders of our little group of the quiet but cool Americans. How does this always happen to us? All I know is that people definitely congregate according to their nationality which is interesting but not surprising as I travel the world. People long for the familiar in an unfamiliar place. Plus, Americans are just awesome (but I may be biased).

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Before reaching the Cliffs, we visited a small and sacred well dedicated to St. Bridget, one of the patron saints of Ireland. We walked through a small stone corridor covered in memorabilia and photos of dead loved ones to a pool of fresh water bubbling up from the bottom of a stone basin. The water is said to have special healing properties so I made sure to say a prayer and dab some water on my face just in case. After spending time at the well, we each made a wish and tied a ribbon around the branches of a bush growing along the water. It is said that when the ribbon falls off, your wish will come true.

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Once we were sufficiently healed, we boarded the bus to continue through the beautiful landscape of County Clare. Next stop… the Cliffs of Moher!

The tour was about to get good. Really good. Shamrockers know how to have fun.

** A big thank you to my travel partner in crime, Carina, for her wonderful company and for her amazing photos which will be gracing this blog to help round out the stories! Thank you :-)

Fourth of July in Utah

I love America. Living in Asia for so many years has turned me into a patriotic fool, one who will never miss an opportunity to sing the national anthem loudly and wave our flag with glee. So when I had the opportunity to fly out to Utah with my family for the 4th of July, I booked my ticket as soon as I returned from Europe. Don’t worry, Europe photos are coming soon!

Oh Utah, you are lovely. We always ski in Utah, but for the last few years we have also spent the summer enjoying the dry desert air and beautiful scenery. Here’s what we did the long holiday weekend:

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1. Fly Fishing!

The morning after I arrived, we spent 4 hours fly fishing with a couple of guides. At first I was bored out my mind but eventually began to enjoy the steady flow of the river and the warm sun on my back. My family caught a lot of fish… and I caught none. But I took a picture holding a fish so it looked like I accomplished something.

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2. Park City 4th of July Parade

You gotta love small town America parades. Park City has an adorable parade with plenty of small children waving flags and marching bands playing Top 40 chart toppers. I loved it all, especially stopping for a few beers at a local brewery after the parade. Yum.

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Family photo opp!! Together at last :-).

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Sister sister!

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3. 4th of July BBQ and Fireworks

After eating lots of food at our friend’s house, we went to the top of a mountain to watch several firework shows in the area. The dark and foreboding sky was lit up by small bursts of light in the distance. It was magical and definitely memorable. I was decked out for the occasion of course…

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4. Mountain Biking

I absolutely love mountain biking (remember Cambodia?). It is so challenging but I love the adventure! Those uphill climbs suck but the downhill paths through the trees and across beautiful meadows make it worth the effort. This time I managed to run into a fence and slam my bike into my leg, giving me some pretty hardcore bruises, but it is all part of the thrill. I am itching to go again.. maybe in New Zealand?

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5. Rodeo

Do you rodeo?? It is honestly the weirdest event ever. We sat around watching men risk their lives on enormous bucking animals and gasping when they were chucked off like rag dolls. So bizarre. But it was fun? At least the weather was beautiful.

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6. Hiking

We did some normal hiking which is an easy and relaxing trek through the trees. You enjoy the scenery and feel energized afterwards which is lovely.

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7. “For Real” Hiking, also known as mountain climbing

Then there is “for real” hiking, also known as mountain climbing or “omg this is so difficult I am going to die” hiking. On our last day in Utah, we were feeling pretty ambitious and decided to find a more challenging hike. So we parked our car at the top of a mountain and then climbed straight uphill to the peak, gasping for breath in the thin air… and that was just the beginning! We looped around past several lakes, aka mosquito breeding grounds, that had us scrambling over boulders away from the evil swarms. I wrapped a shirt around my head to keep the bugs at bay and was more then ready to return to the car… 3 hours later. It was really tough but oddly satisfying and the views were spectacular. A win in my book, despite the bug bites.

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8. Surprise summer concert with The Punch Brothers

By chance one of Morgan’s and my favorite bands were playing an outdoor concert down the street! Gahh!!! The night of the concert we packed an enormous picnic and arrived a couple hours early to claim our spot on the grass. The Punch Brothers were absolutely phenomenal and such a joy to watch live.  I never thought I’d say this… but I love bluegrass music. It is actually a lot like Irish traditional music… which is awesome! Such a great night!

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Overall it was a short but sweet trip to the mountains. Now it is time to prep for China once again. Oh dear…

Happy Independence Day everybody! Yay America!

Somewhere over the rainbow in Dublin

Dublin. The emerald city.

Well, I don’t know if it is actually called the emerald city but it has a nice ring to it yes? And that is exactly how Dublin was, a shining green star at the beginning of our journey and a wonderful place to start our Eurotrip 2014.

We arrived in the morning, thoroughly exhausted from our overseas flight but unable to check into our hostel for a few hours. So we did what any weary travelers do and headed out for some bleary-eyed sightseeing. This would be our only day in Dublin after all as we were driving to Galway early the next morning with our tour group. So we picked a tentative route to St. Stephen’s Square and set off down the cobbled streets, clutching our scarves in an attempt to shield our necks against the chilly air. It felt good.

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About 5 minutes later, we reached the park, confirming our suspicions that Dublin is in fact the smallest and most walkable (and amazing) city in the world. This was further confirmed when the clouds opened up to reveal the sun, warming our faces and elevating the grass to a whole new level of green. We took our time in the park, sitting in the sunshine among fellow Dubliners, closing our eyes in contentment. We were finally in Ireland!!

Once it was time to check into our hostel, we quickly unloaded our backpacks in our room and rushed back outside into the softening light of the day. We walked in the opposite direction and soon found ourselves at a castle in the middle of the city. No big deal.

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It turned out to be Dublin Castle (well duh), situated next to a beautiful garden with an assortment of flowers and of course, greenery. We walked around in wonder, thrilled to have this beautiful place all to ourselves.

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We continued on our walk and literally ran into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, dramatically lit in the slowly dwindling light. Although it was closing in on 8 o’clock, it was still so light out! We sat on a bench and just contemplated the beauty around us (oh and the Free Wifi available everywhere in Dublin).

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Realizing how late it actually was, we decided that it would be a good idea to find some food. We walked back towards the Temple Bar area, crossing the River Liffy as a light dusting of rain began to coat our hair and shoulders. We turned our faces to the sky and saw an arching prism of color framing the buildings across the river. It was a rainbow, teasing us with the promise of leprechauns and pot of gold at the end of its colorful trail. But we had already found our gold in the cheerful streets of Dublin so we continued on our quest for food and first pint of Guinness. This was Ireland after all.

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We eventually found a great little pub serving delicious Irish food and I devoured a steaming dish of corned beef, mashed potatoes and creamed carrots. Man, it was good. Finally ready for our first drink of the trip, we walked to the famous Temple Bar and ordered two pints of Guinness. Hasty in my need to taste the local delicacy, I grabbed the beer and took a long pull. I was quickly snapped out of my reverie by the bartender reprimanding me for drinking before he had topped it off! Whoops. I definitely learned my lesson that patience is rewarded with Guinness and did not make that mistake again! There were many times to perfect it after all.

The beer was so delicious, like a tall glass of water on hot summers day and it quenched my thirst immediately. I licked the foam from my lips, smiling in trepidation of the days to come. Group tours have the potential to go horribly wrong and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to experience Ireland on our own terms.

But if our first day in Dublin was any indication, Ireland was going to be an unforgettable experience.

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We would just have to wait and see.

Reflections on Europe… how travel heals all wounds

I am back.

Back in Florida after a whirlwind 3 weeks in Europe and I have never felt so satisfied yet so reluctant to be home. On Wednesday I flew from Paris to Dublin in order to catch my return flight to Orlando the next morning. I was sorely tempted to postpone my flight and stay in Ireland for a few more weeks. While traveling I found peace and happiness during a time of great loss and sadness in my life. I was scared to go home, afraid to find those feelings still lurking below the surface. But common sense kicked in and here I am. The sadness is still there and will probably always be there, but I am totally at peace and in a state of utter calm. Everything is as it should be.

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Before this trip I was nervous, hesitant, and not exactly thrilled to go. Both of my grandpas suddenly passed away within a few months of each other and it was a huge shock to my family. My first grandpa passed away on my future wedding anniversary, April 18th, and then my other grandpa passed away on May 24th, the day after I held his hand and fed him his last meal in hospice. It was a really hard time and sadness weighed so heavily on my heart. How could I possibly go on a the trip of a lifetime and enjoy myself through such sorrow?

Despite my extreme reluctance to go, I eventually reasoned that my grandpas would want me to be happy and enjoy my life. Travel was something we connected over so it was only right to embark my life without them with this trip. What I now realized is that this was exactly what I needed to heal and to honor their memories.

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Several times I felt their presence and knew that they were watching over me. In Ireland I almost had a really bad accident while biking around an island and was this close to crashing my bicycle into a fence. I miraculously stayed in control of the bike and just barely averted disaster while silently thanking my grandpas for protecting me. Then in Paris we were eating at a little boulangerie when we heard a jolly old man whistling while opening his shop next door. Tasha started laughing and I asked “what’s so funny?” She said, “Do you know what song he’ s whistling?” I said “Uh no, what?” She laughed and said “He’s whistling, ‘If you want my body and you think I’m sexy…‘” I froze, looked at Tasha and said “Oh my god, that’s my grandpa’s song. He used to sing and dance to it all the time. It was our family joke.” It was the weirdest experience ever and still gives me chills just thinking about it. What are the chances? My grandpas were with me and protecting me during my travels, of that I am certain.

Now before I try to piece together my thoughts and massive collection of photographs into blog posts, let me dwell on our Eurotrip as a whole…

Just like our South East Asia Adventure of 2013, Carina and I visited three different places, each providing a unique experience filled with plenty of excitement, beauty and hardships along the way. But this time we were in Europe, not Asia, and it was just so much BETTER. Not to knock on Asia or anything, but I feel like I belong in Europe, it is in my blood. It is me.

As we traveled, I began to settle into the changing landscape and just let things be. Ireland was where it all began. Although booking a tour seemed like a risky idea at the time, it ended up being the absolute best decision for us. I enjoyed the people on the tour (most of the time) and reveled in the long bus rides with nothing to do but blast music, sleep and watch the green hills roll by my window. We learned so much about Irish culture and history and visited the most incredible places from divided cities to breathtaking cliffs at the edge of the earth.

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During our time in Ireland I felt deeply connected to the people and the region as a whole, especially since part of my family came to New York from Ireland either before or during the Great Famine. I felt most connected to Ireland when listening to live traditional Irish music which is quick, intricate and strong. I could feel the music deep in my soul and my body would move to the beat involuntarily. It is as if my body hums to that frequency of vibration naturally and before I know it, I am clapping my hands, and stomping my feet with the biggest grin on my face. It is pure ecstasy. Ireland, you will never leave me.

And then there was London. We did the typical touristy things and stayed up way too late at night, having a blast with new friends. However, my body began to break down and walking was tough but I pulled through and still managed to enjoy the sights. Truthfully, I am over big cities and looking at an endless number of old buildings. I feel the soul of each nation more in the small towns and countryside than the big cities. I am a country girl at heart I guess, don’t let my ease with a phone booth fool you.

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I was happy to leave London but nervous to visit our next destination, the coastal region of France. I knew absolutely nothing about Brittany, relying solely on Tasha, Carina’s sister who has been living in Brest for a year. The three of us ended up renting a car and driving around for 3 days, visiting different spots along the coastline from jaw-dropping cliffs to small towns full of the nicest people you will ever meet. It was a wonderful way to explore the region and we shoved as much into our trip as possible which was exciting but exhausting at the same time. And having two sisters drive and navigate a foreign country is, well, never dull.

Despite the occasional bickering, we saw some absolutely amazing places and ate some delicious food. Most days we stopped for a typical French picnic on some cliff with a baguette, fresh cheese, pate and some fresh fruit or Nutella thrown in for good measure. Is there anything better than that? Yes, maybe the meals at local creperies with first savory and then sweet crepes. Oh Brittany, you are a lovely region and I will sing your praises from now on. If you are going to France, skip Paris and head on over to Brittany for a truly remarkable experience. France

By the end of France I was in the groove of travel but exhausted from over-stimulation. On our last night in France I camped out in a dark corner for a few hours, trying to find the solitude I so desperately craved. It is ironic though because now that I am back home I crave the constant companionship and movement of traveling with my best friend and the people we met along the way.

And that is the absolute joy of travel. It forces you to get out of your head and experience the world with new challenges that push you out of your comfort zone. It is hard and yet so so good. These 3 weeks in Ireland, London and France have helped heal my soul and release my grief. I feel stronger, happier and utterly content. With life there is death and with sorrow there is joy. Life is the longest thing you will ever do so why not get out there and experience it? My grandpas loved to travel and I know that they are looking down on me with joy. This trip was exactly what I needed and I can’t wait to share it on this blog.

Thank you grandpa C and grandpa T, this is for you.

 

Far over the misty mountains cold… [Bhubing Palace]

At least that was the song stuck in my head when we visited Bhubing Palace in Chiang Mai. Granted we were in Thailand, not New Zealand among the Hobbit dwarfs, but these mountains certainly achieved the same effect. We drove directly from the Hilltribe Village to this royal residence nestled in the mountains and shrouded in a thick fog. The air was blissfully cool, a sweet relief from the dripping heat of the city below. We paid the entrance fee and began our ascent up the stone road towards the unknown.

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First we encountered a bountiful rose garden which we passed by in wonder. How could these flowers flourish in Thailand? The cool and humid mountain air must create the perfect climate for a royal garden. What luck for the caretakers here! Eventually we came upon a big greenhouse full of even more greenery and flowers which we examined with curiosity.

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Finally we found the royal building itself, surrounded by even more roses. But we had only a glance as the path cut away from the road and led us into the forest. We followed the path up the mountain while the scenery changed again from lush forest to a magnificent meadow, thick with fog. It was like out of a dream.

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After wandering around and taking the time to smell the roses (literally), we came upon a ginormous banyan tree.

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We were in awe! That is until we saw the bamboo patch close-by. It was impossibly large, surpassing the banyan tree in size by a mile. Each bamboo stalk was about the same width as my waist and extended to an impossible height, fighting the surrounding trees for optimal sunlight. Well, I think the bamboo won. That thing was MASSIVE.

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We had fun touching and swinging around the bamboo, until I almost squashed a huge and scary looking caterpillar with my palm. These little guys did not look like they wanted to be touched! I slowly backed away to leave them to their caterpillar ways.

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Pleased with our mountain trek through the marvelous fog, we made our way down the paved road to the exit below. Bhubing Palace was a totally unexpected but amazing place full of natural beauty. It is a place worth visiting, if only to stand next to giant bamboo and contemplate your tiny existence while watching the fog roll by.

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Far over the misty mountains cold” ….. Yup, still stuck in my head.

 

The view from a Hilltribe Village [Chiang Mai]

It has been really quiet over here at Kirsten Captures and I am sorry for the complete lack of posts. Since mid-April I have been back in the States after losing both of my grandfathers over the course of a month. It’s been a really difficult time but I have been blessed to be with my family. Did I mention we also went to a wedding? With mourning comes celebration and I am already thinking of ways to honor my grandfathers at our own wedding next year.

In terms of travel, C and I embark on our Europe trip in a week!! We bought some real backpacker backpacks and fly to Dublin next Monday. This trip to Ireland, London, and France will be a welcomed escape and oh. my. god I need to start packing. Just last year we did our big South East Asia Trip and now we are onto our big Europe Trip 2014! A couple weeks ago we were in Maine for the weekend and I finally got excited to travel again.

But before I galavant off to the Irish highlands, here are some more Thailand photos from our South East Asia Trip 2013!  

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After exploring Doi Suthep, the golden temple in the mountains of Chiang Mai, we continued along a narrow and winding road and arrived at a local hilltribe village. We had no idea what to expect and found ourselves walking up a steep road surrounded by a wall of stalls with locals selling various handicrafts and other items. Somehow we discovered the local “museum” which consisted of a few barren huts with exhibits explaining the history of the various hilltribe peoples. The path then led us to an open garden on the hillside with more huts featuring random “exhibits” showcasing the daily activities of the people. It was a little weird but the garden was beautiful and had an amazing view of the village below.

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I loved the random animals running around like this rooster with the most glorious feathers I have ever seen. He strutted around as if saying “Ladies, come and get me”.  There were also little chicks canvasing the grounds and jumping up stone steps with ease while Carina and I huffed and puffed our way up the mountain.

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Eventually we left the garden and walked down through the village hoping to buy some brightly woven souvenirs for us and our families. I honestly felt a little uncomfortable haggling for a lower price in this village where tourism is obviously the only source of income for these people. Were we even doing the right thing by being here in this village in the first place?

We ended up buying a few items from a couple different stalls and refrained from taking photos of the women and the children in their colorful and traditional garb. I have a real problem with tourists taking photos of locals as if they are part of the scenery. If you are going to take a photo of somebody, at least ask them for their permission.

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So instead, the only photos I have from the hilltribe village are photos of the village itself with the fog rolling across the mountainside. It was beautiful scene. One that I am likely never to forget.

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Also…. I want to give a shout out to my sister Morgan who just started a blog! Follow her at Coffee, Hiking Boots, and a Book for her well-written musings on travel and literature. You will not regret it!

The Golden Temple [Doi Suthep]

 

Although we loved Old Town and could hang out there forever, we decided to see more than the inside of every juice bar in Chiang Mai. So we hired a car and driver to take us up into the mountains to see the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the Royal Gardens, and a hill tribe village. We met our driver early in the morning and began the steady climb up Doi Suthep mountain. After, we pulled off the road and arrived at a stunning vista overlooking the city. The air was blessedly cool and the view was spectacular. It felt good to be away from the bustling city and we were happy to be there.

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We hopped back in the car, unaware of the golden splendor awaiting us at the top. Once we arrived at the base of the temple, we rode the tram up to the top, unaware that we could take the long staircase for free. Oh well! Soon we walked up to the magnificent temple and slowly removed our shoes while gazing up in awe of the ornate structure before us.

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Is this inappropriate?

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We walked through the entrance way and were confronted with a golden chedi in the middle of a courtyard. This place has some serious bling! But my favorite were the bells hanging down from the roofs surrounding the entire chedi.

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So much gold, so little time.

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We wandered around for a long time, discovering something new and exciting in every nook and cranny. It was so beautiful and so fabulous. We stayed here for a long time, observing some monks and Chinese tourists in prayer.

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I think the pictures speak for themselves. Photo credits also go to Carina who took my camera for a spin and captured some beautiful shots. We were both pretty obsessed with the eye candy as you can probably see.

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The staircase that we did not climb!

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Eventually we left the confines of the golden courtyard and discovered the open terrace with views over the city. However, we couldn’t see much because a delicious fog had rolled in over the mountain. We shivered in the cold air while exploring the amusing gardens in the vicinity. How could you not love these funny little statues?

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Soon it was time to put on our shoes and leave this magical place. Thankfully this dog took special care of our shoes while we moseyed around.

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We took the tram back down (we had purchased round trip tickets after all) and located our driver who whisked us away towards our next destination. A great start to a great day!

Postcards from Thailand… Hi mom!

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