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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Shanghai Spring [it's a beautiful thing]

As you have probably heard, Shanghai is a very large and very polluted city. Each time I have lived in China, the weather has been either crazy hot or very cold and damp. There is also a constant haze that blots out the sun and burns your eyes. This is the China I know.

Well, this fascinating city never ceases to surprise me. When I arrived this weekend, I was astounded to see blue skies and feel a cool and pleasant breeze through my light jacket. The weather was absolutely perfect. We are lucky now to live in a quiet neighborhood of apartment buildings surrounded by small paths winding through grass, trees and small ponds teeming with tadpoles. So far I have spent a lot of time strolling across the grounds, marveling at the incredible flowers in bloom. Shanghai is truly magical in the springtime. Take a look. 

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Do you see what I see? Our neighborhood is full of stray cats that patrol the grounds and feast on bowls of food left outside by friendly neighbors. The cat below has stunning green eyes and is quite friendly with the black cat that hangs out by our building.

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Amazing right? Although the haze has settled back in this week, the flowers are still in full bloom and the air is perfectly warm during the day and cool at night. I am going to soak in this weather as long as I can before the heat of summer takes over. March-April is truly the best time of year to be in Shanghai.

When I am not strolling around and smelling the roses, I am eating! Peter and I found this great dumpling place down the street and already have plans to return asap. On Sunday we feasted on steaming bowls of noodles and bean curd in beef broth and a dozen soup-filled dumpling, a Shanghai delicacy called xiaolongbao. Learn more about xiaolongbao here.

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Last night we met our friends at the Shanghai Mercedez-Benz Arena for the Lionel Richie concert! The stadium looks like a spaceship and is located next to the expo. I didn’t know much about Lionel Richie music going in but soon realized that I know and love most of his songs! He played all his greatest hits including Brick House and had everybody dancing in their seats (and on the ceiling)! We had a lot of fun, except for the fact that I sat next to this Chinese guy who RECORDED THE ENTIRE CONCERT ON HIS IPAD. His flippin’ Ipad! It was so hilarious and yet so terribly obnoxious. It didn’t take away from the show but it was ridiculous!

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The subway ride to and from the concert was really long but we kept ourselves entertained. Overall we had a great time at the Lionel Richie concert. We’re big fans.

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That’s all there is to say in this little Shanghai update. Things are good. Next up, Thailand!

Exploring the many markets of Chiang Mai

It seems only fitting that I am posting these photos from Chiang Mai just a few days before I return to this incredible city! Looking back over these photos just makes me more excited! I cannot wait to participate in the Songkran festival and feel warm again. Yes, I am back in Shanghai and it feels… familiar and different all at once. Or maybe feeling different is what is familiar. But anyways, I am back in China and excited to travel back to Thailand this weekend.

Until then, here are more photos from my trip to Chiang Mai last year. One day we visited all the markets the city has to offer, including the flower market and the famous Sunday night market. It all started in Chinatown, like always.

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Of course we found a Chinese temple which is always comforting to see. But before that we purchased the infamous Thailand tank tops donned by most foreigners with special phrases like “Same same but different” emblazoned on thin cotton. Although we felt ridiculous dressing like every other foreigner in town, we certainly felt cooler in the simmering heat of the streets.

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Next to the temple we found the flower market, full of wilting blooms and… rats? Yes, I definitely saw a rat scurrying in the back stalls. I guess all creatures can appreciate the beauty of the flowers.

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As we walked, flower stalls turned into fruit and vegetable stalls which led us to an indoor market selling everything from cloth to pirated DVDs. A lady coerced me into buying an absurd amount of dried fruit which was annoying but fine. We would probably eat it all anyways. We also purchased bottles of water which we sipped with brightly colored straws. Everything tastes better through brightly colored straws.

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As the day wore on, we make our way back to the center of town for the start of the Sunday Market Walking Street. We were amazed to see the main streets blocked off to traffic and bustling with vendors and their makeshift tents. There was so much to see and we set out with the mission to purchase all our gifts for family and friends. We were successful but eventually exhausted from the walking and haggling.

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As the sky turned dark, we were almost pleased to hear thunder, signaling an incoming storm. It was time to seek shelter in a bar and drink Chang Beer! Chang Beer is absolutely delicious and a must-drink in Thailand. Trust me. As soon as the rain stopped we headed back into the night, more than ready to return to our guesthouse and leave the bustling streets to the other tourists.

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All of the markets in Chiang Mai are incredible and a great way to explore the city. We discovered some new parts of town and found some fun gifts for our family. Don’t forget the Chang beer, another highlight of the day. Another great day in Thailand!

Wanderlust and My 2014 Travel Plans

Do you know what happens after living in the United States for 7 months straight?

Restlessness. Wanderlust. Crazy travel plans.

Yup. This is going to be another big year for travel. And you know why? Because why not? And with our impending wedding in April 2015, I am trying to shove as much travel in before life gets in the way. Hopefully our lives will not change too drastically as a married couple, but why not take advantage of the opportunity now?

Here are my tentative travel plans for 2014!

April- China and Thailand

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Yes everybody. I am headed back to Shanghai! Peter has been working there for a month now and I have been patiently waiting for him to get a residency permit so I could apply for a visa! Well he still doesn’t have his permit so I applied for my visa this week using our Malaysian friend’s work visa information to apply. This has been a month-long nightmare that for now I must sit and wait out. My plane to Shanghai leaves Friday, April 4th so we shall see if I am on board or not!

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We are also taking a weekend trip to Chiang Mai! Peter and I are meeting up with some of our friends from Singapore for the Songkran Festival on April 13-15th. It is their new year celebration also known as a huge water fight with people chucking buckets of water at one another or with water guns. A chance to return to one of my favorite cities in the world for a huge water festival? Count me in!

May- Florida and Maine

In early May, I fly back to Florida for some wedding planning and to get my wedding dress fitted! Peter and I also plan on registering and finalizing major vendors. Oh boy.

For my birthday weekend I am flying up to Maine for a college roomie reunion! I haven’t been back to Maine in probably 4 years (wow). Two of my bridesmaids and I are staying in a cabin on a lake and I am so excited! We also might do some bridesmaid dress shopping. It is going to be marvelous!

Then I am back in Florida for a Memorial Day weekend wedding that Peter is in. My friend and I are singing the song for the bride and groom’s First Dance so I need to start practicing! Yikes.

June- Ireland, London and France

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Carina and I had so much fun on our Southeast Asia adventure that we are planning another big trip! Our plan is to fly to Dublin and spend time in Ireland (one of my dream locations!), make our way to London to explore the city and surrounding areas, and then fly to Brest, France where her sister is living. We are then going to spend a few days driving around France. No big deal.

Omg!!! So excited! Planning this will definitely take some time but we are up for the challenge.

July- Florida and Utah

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After Europe, I will return to Florida and finish up more wedding planning and possibly go to Park City, Utah with my family. My parents are renting a place there for a month and there is no reason why I should not go!

August-December- China, New Zealand, Florida and Canada (Hawaii and Italy?)

middle earth

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In August, I will head back to Shanghai to be with Peter. We are planning a trip to New Zealand which is at the top of my travel dream list. Peter will be working in Auckland but I hope to explore the surrounding areas. We are going before he meets up with his guy friends for a 2 week bachelor party trip. They will be driving through New Zealand and hitting up the major Lord of the Rings locations. I am very jealous.

For the holidays we will most likely be home in Florida. However, Peter’s parents live in Hawaii and Italy so we might go visit one of them. Also, Peter won a weekend trip to Vancouver so we will either go at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. I have never been to British Columbia and am really excited.

Like I said, 2014 is a big year for travel. 

It is also a big year for wedding planning and preparing for my life together with Peter as man and wife.

It’s going to be a great prelude to an even greater 2015. Let’s do this!

Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai

I have always loved elephants. As a child, I remember being completely fascinated by their enormous size and gentleness which at the time seemed contradictory. I rode my first elephant at the Renaissance Festival in Tampa, which makes me sad thinking back to the conditions of the animals. They were stuck in a circular pen, forced to walk in circles with tourists riding a bulky seating platform on their back.

In Thailand, elephant riding is a tourist must-do and the conditions of the elephants are poor at best in most places. So I did my research, knowing that I wanted to ride an elephant but in a way that was ethical. Enter Baan Chang Elephant Park. The park is about a 45-minute drive from Chiang Mai Old Town and provides a home for exploited and abused elephants. To manage the cost of care, visitors come to learn how to be an elephant trainer, or mahout, for the day and are able to ride elephants bareback. This seemed like a good-enough policy to me, even if this makes me a terrible tourist. However, you do what you can.

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Carina and I woke up brutally early in the morning, sleepy but excited. After waiting for our driver at the wrong location for half an hour, we eventually found him with the rest of our group who had been waiting for us! Whoops. We boarded our bus full of other tourists from Switzerland, France, and Scotland and made our way out of the city at break-neck speeds. About 45 minutes later we arrived in a forested area at the base of a hill which opened up to reveal a grassy field of ambling elephants. “Look! Elephants!” we all whispered to each other in hushed tones of excitement.

Our bus pulled up to a large open-air metal roof with picnic tables full of other tourists in matching faded blue smocks. We sat at table as our guide began to talk about the park and our itinerary for the day. We nervously sized up the other tourists and slathered sunscreen onto our faces and exposed limbs. It was going to be another hot and sunny day. We were handed our very own blue shirts and shorts and directed to a small room to change. Carina and I made friends with a Swiss girl who immediately stripped down to her birthday suite while chatting with us amicably. Americans really are prude!

As soon as we were all dressed, our guide led us to a dirt area full of elephants just waiting to be fed!

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I immediately noticed that the elephants had their ankle chained to ground which made me a little uncomfortable. But then we dug into bushels of sugar cane and bananas and I felt a little better knowing that we would be feeding these animals in a safe and spread out fashion. All of the elephants at the front refused to let us pass so we obliged by putting food into their outstretched trunks. Eventually we snuck past the selfish front line to feed the elephants at the back.

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Some of the elephants were so lazy that they lifted their trunks and opened their mouths, just waiting for you to drop food into their mouths. Well played!

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Triple fisting!

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We fed them every last banana and touched their rough trunks with affection and wonder. How could anyone mistreat these incredible creatures? One look into their gentle eyes and I was a goner.

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Once the feeding was over, we walked over to an enclosed arena a few trees. On the way, mahouts played with their elephants, rolling in the dirt or hopping on their trunks to be lifted onto their backs. Many of the mahouts have been with their elephants since they arrived at the park and their relationship is fascinating to watch.

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In the arena, we had a rundown of how to ride an elephant bareback and as well as how to say the basic commands of Stop, Go, Left, Right, Up, and Down in Thai. After this quick lesson, it was time for each of us to mount an elephant! Using the command for Down, the elephant knelt, allowing us to grab his ears and scramble onto his neck before he lumbered to his feet.

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While Carina was up on his back, this sly young male elephant picked up her flip flops which she had left on the ground! He then reached forward and presented her shoes to me in one generous swoop. We laughed so hard!

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I was the last to go up and it was amazing to feel the elephants prickly head and rough skin. After a few minutes I could feel his steady breath filling up his entire belly like a balloon. It was pretty amazing.

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Best buds.

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Afterwards we all had the chance to ride an elephant around the track using our newly learned commands. I think the elephants were just following their mahouts but it was fun anyway. Walking over the dusty terrain, you could feel the elephant shifting his entire weight from foot to foot, creating a gigantic roll from side to side. The only way to stay upright was to jolt your hips from side to side in an exaggerated dance. We were moving with the elephant in a way that was exhilarating and exhausting.

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And then it was what we were all waiting for, a long elephant ride through the jungle! Carina and I shared an elephant, a glorious large female who had a tendency to walk very slowly and steadily behind the others. At least we were able to see more than the rump of the elephants in front…

I first sat on her neck to lead while Carina sat on her back, holding onto a rope tied around her belly. We soon realized that the jungle trek was more like a lap around the center. However we did climb up a hill, over some rough terrain and under low branches. At a middle point, Carina and I switched places so that she was leading our elephant. We quickly made our way back to the start and continued for another lap!

At this point the rough skin and prickly hair on our elephant’s back began to chafe my skin in an unpleasant way. No matter which way I shifted, her rough hair scraped at at my skin like barbed wire. At the same time my muscles began to tire from clenching to stay upright. Let’s just say that the second leap was rough and I couldn’t wait for our trek to be over!

Sweet relief came once we dismounted our elephant at the watering hole where it was time for a bath! We grabbed a bucket and brush and followed our elephant into the water. She lay down and happily rolled onto her side in the shallow water as Carina and I began to pour water over her warm skin and scrub her flanks with gusto. A few of the mahouts got a little frisky and began to spray water at all the foreign girls so by the time we we left the water we were drenched! However Carina and I ignored their flirtatious ways and focused all our attention on our elephant while she closed her eyes in bliss. Bathing our elephant in such close proximity was a truly wonderful bonding experience and unlike anything I have ever experienced before.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to our elephant and headed back to the center. We took a shower, changed, and sat down to an amazing Thai lunch. Food never tasted so good! Then it was time to leave. It was really sad to leave these beautiful animals behind. But I know that this is one experience Carina and I will never forget.

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Click Here to read more about Baan Chang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.