Africaniversary (500 Words)

I can't believe it's been three years since my first volunteer trip to Kenya, Africa. I'm feeling nostalgic so here are a few of my favorite pictures and excerpts from the original tumblr that I managed during our trip. I can't wait to return here and explore other parts of this beautiful culture and continent. 

Day 1: Yep, it’s 4 AM in the morning and I haven’t been able to sleep all night. Partially because I am so excited/anxious and partially because there’s a few things I still need to wrap up before I leave. I am unfortunately quite the “packrastinator.” My whole life it’s been nearly impossible for me to pack more than a day in advance. I wonder if my fellow WFM team members are nestled, all snug in their beds, while visions of the Serengeti dance in their heads...

Day 3: Today...We got to visit a village benefitting from the One Acre Fund micro loans. They were so friendly and we were all touched by their hospitality. We learned about their work and culture and also participated in harvesting millet and planting trees...  

Day 7: Thursday, our fantastic host/tourguide Ruby Ruth showed us around Maai Mahui and introduced us to CTC and the Malakai Moms that expertly craft and sew the lifeline products we sell in our stores. We learned all about CTC’s mission and multiple initiatives including Community, Environment, Education, Health and Economy. And the kids there were adorable, of course!

Day 8-9: Friday and Saturday were spent exploring the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya. Truly a once in a lifetime experience where we got to see elephants, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs and even ultra endangered white and black rhinos…

We are all still in awe of Africa - everything we’ve seen and experienced, everyone we’ve met and the memories we’ve created.

Day 12: Tuesday, we laced up our shoes, put on our gloves and went to work transplanting trees… [and] painting the bakery floor bright blue…. and built a berm to help block the bakery from the evening wind, (Maai Mahiu can get very windy!)...

Day 14: I can’t believe this incredible journey has come to an end. And what a memorable end it was! … We took a bumpy road out to one of the Massai villages where we met and mingled with the kids and were so graciously invited into the home of one of the grandmothers. This was personally one of the most memorable a experiences of the trip.


Day 15: Friday morning, we all headed to the CTC bakery for a lovely breakfast… [and] got ... Cafe Ubuntu painted on the wall before having to head back to ... the Nairobi airport.
It was hard to say goodbye as we all felt like we had become a family the past two weeks. We all created lasting friendships, gained valuable insight and created amazing memories that we can’t wait to share with our teams, families and friends back home!
Asante Sana!
Love, Team Rafiki

If you've been to Africa, what are some of your favorite memories? If you haven't been yet, where would you like to go?

Paris is Always a Good Idea, Except For This One Time (600 Words)

I'm pretty late to the Paris party. Many friends have traveled here before me and most can't stop gushing about the place. In the words of Audrey Hepburn "Paris is always a good idea." 

...Except for this one time

...Except for this one time

Except when it was my idea. My timing turned out to be te-rri-ble. 

It all started when I went to reserve my seat on a train from Rotterdam to Paris. The ticket agent refused to book the seat since they couldn't guarantee the train would arrive due to a railway workers strike in France. So I just had to show up at the platform later that day and hope that the train did too. 

Thankfully I boarded said train and eventually met my sister and a friend at Paris Nord. We had a decent dinner. Not the Fall-Out-Of-Your-Chair flavor that everyone raves about but palatable. I like rose wine and cider so I ordered a rosé cidré hybrid but it tasted awful like partially composted flowers and apples. 

Despite it being the beginning of June and supposedly summer, the weather was cold and slightly wet with temperatures hovering around 14°C. 

The river Seine was too high for the boats to pass under the bridges.

The river Seine was too high for the boats to pass under the bridges.

The three of us did a free walking tour of Paris the next morning. We assumed the media-hyped strike would paralyze all the metros until our guide told us that "No, of course the metros are working. The city cannot just shut down." 

Except the city did partially shut down later that evening. My friend and I arrived at the Musé d'Orsay to find a note taped to the ticket office window announcing an early closure. 

So we headed back to Marais to do some thrift shopping, for all of 30 minutes, because all the shops apparently close at 19:30. 

At least we got to see the outside

At least we got to see the outside

The next day we were scheduled to visit the Louvre at 13:00 with our pre-purchased tickets. However the top story on my BBC news app announced that the worlds most famous museum would be closed all day while employees moved art & artifacts above ground since the river Seine was on the rise after heavy, unseasonal rains. 

We decided instead to take the metro/train west to the Palais of Versailles. When we went to change trains at Invalides, the entrance to the C-line was blocked with a notice that the line was closed; another precaution due to flood fears since the main line to Versailles ran along the river. 

Everything makes you feel small in Versailles

Everything makes you feel small in Versailles

We figured out a detour and took at least an extra hour but eventually we arrived at our royal destination. After about four hours wandering the palace and gardens, we walked back to the station to discover there was only one train per hour heading back to Paris due to some combination of striking and floods.

Again it took extra time and effort but we finally got back to the city and climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower. It was like the final challenge in an obstacle course and we reached the pinnacle of it victoriously despite so many struggles along the way. 

It all seemed a bit surreal because if you went by the media coverage alone, you'd think the streets of Paris were filled with soggy, angry chaos but not once did I see a protest or floods or even moderate rain. 

The transport strikes have been a pain for many people but I know the taxi and uber drivers at least are benefitting from it because I had to pay €81 to get from the city to Charles de Gaulle airport early on my last morning. 

Guess I'm just gonna have to go back to Paris at some point. ;)

Mini Guide to Marseille, France in 300 Words

Second largest city in France, located on southern coast. 

Ancient; first Greek settlement in France = Massalia. 

Very diverse, at least 50% immigrants. 

Relatively walkable but also a metro, tram and busses. 

City is old, dirty and kinda stinky in some parts but still many diamonds in the rough. 

 

St. Charles = Main Train Station

Vertigo Centre Hostel is super close. Clean and comfy enough. Breakfast (extra 5 Euro) is good if you like bread. 

Vieux Port: Packed with boats and people

Ferry to Chateau d'If around 11 euro

Inspiration for Count of Monte Cristo. I ran out of time before I could do this. :(

 

Le Fort Saint-Jean

muCEM 9.50 Euro but so worth it

Incredible, inspirational collection of Pablo Picasso 

Well executed, educational displays on Mediterranean history

Historic architecture and cathedrals

 

Basilisque Notre Dame de la Garde

NOT the famous/Hunchback one (it's in Paris)

Hike up a hill and lots of stairs, nice architecture and interior decor

 

Cours Julien

The bo-bo (bourgeois-bohemian) community

I serendipitously stumbled into the street art capital of France. 

I spent hours meandering around the streets & admiring many murals. 

 

Musee de Beaux Arts / Musee d' Histoire Naturelle / Palais De Longchamp

The building is more interesting than anything inside. Save yourself 11 euros and just admire the architecture and Longchamp park behind it. 

 

Parc Nationale des Calanques

Beautiful national park less than an hour from the city center. 

It's huge and there are no signs so I highly recommend a map

No entry fee and can be reached by public transport (1.60 Euro each way)

    Metro red line towards Santa Marguerite

    Change to Bus 21 at Rond Point du Prado (walk left out of station, cross street, bus in front of big stadium)

    Ride until the last stop at Luminy (University) and walk past the traffic circle towards the giant rocks and you'll eventually run into the trails. 

    

10 Simple, Free or Low-Cost Things to Do For More Authentic & Adventurous Travel (125 Words)

Here's my mental cultural checklist for each country I visit. I'm not super strict about it. I just try to let things happen naturally and I've rarely regretted it! 

• Ride a public bus and/or train

• Eat something local from a street vendor (preferably cooked/avoid meat)

• Buy & try local fruits, veggies (preferably peelable) 

• Learn to say Hello and Thank You in the local language

• Talk to at least one new person each day 

• Visit at least one museum

• Visit at least one park/green space 

• Look for local street murals and/or public art

• Drink a local beverage (non-alcoholic, usually tea) 

• Participate in local events/festivals or volunteer for local organizations when possible

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

What's something you enjoy doing to enhance your travel experience? 

Much Love,

My Fortune Telling Fail in Myanmar (225 Words)

Today I decided to sweep around the stupas because stepping on small rocks and sticks significantly detracts from the benefit of walking meditation. It was barely 8:00 but beads of sweat were already dripping off my nose and forehead like a leaky faucet. 

I was approached by an old Burmese man who invited me to come sit in the shade for a bit. He had very limited, broken English and there was hardly any comprehension happening on either side of our conversation so I tried to thank him and shake his hand so I could get back to work. Instead he grabbed my hand and flipped it over to study my palm. 

I was excited and fully expected an insightful, prophetic, Eat, Pray, Love or Holy Cow type of experience. Instead, the only words I could comprehend as he pointed to different parts of my palm were water, small sister and sleep. So I have no idea what my supposed fortune means other than perhaps my younger sister is planning to purchase a waterbed?

Also I'm pretty sure he was drunk for three reasons. It wasn't a familiar scent but I think his breath faintly smelled of foreign liquor, he very clearly said the word "alcohol" during our nonsense conversation and he said repeatedly "I love you more than words can say."

So, yeah. 

Anyone else had funny fails while traveling? Let me know in the comments so I can LOL.

Much Love, 

Pashupatinath & Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal

This actually happened a few weeks ago when I was still in Nepal. Better late than never, I guess!

Pashupatinath is the oldest and most well known Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means you will get charged 1,000 rupees ($9.50 USD) to visit. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the actual main temple but you can walk around and enjoy the sights and take pictures. You can get a really good panoramic view of Kathmandu here as well. 

Myself and three others from my home stay visited here and were immediately approached by a youngish Nepal tour guide. We saw temples devoted to Shiva, Hanuman the Monkey God and several cremations happening along the river. 

The Hindus have a much more pragmatic view of death; it's just another part of life. There are specific rituals start differently depending on the age, gender and caste of the person who died but everyone ends up as ash in the river. Our guide said it can take two or three hours for a body to burn completely. 

We met a group of Sadus hanging out around the temple who speak English and will ask for money in exchange for blessings or photos. I'm not sure if they were legit or not but our guide assured us that they use the money to buy food for themselves and the poorer communities in the area so I obliged. On the other hand, I was really annoyed by the vendors that kept approaching me and trying to sell me crap that I didn't want or need. 

Our guide also took us to a nearby elderly complex where Mother Teresa used to work. The old ladies and gents were lined up for their lunch and had colorful laundry drying all around courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a temple with a bell that one old woman rang incessantly for several minutes. 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

At the conclusion of our tour, we tipped our guide and headed in the direction of our next destination. A black temple dog with white paws that we called Puppy escorted us as far as he could but had to leave us and turn back when we got to main road because that turf apparently belonged to other dogs. 

We walked a long time before arriving at Boudhanath. I didn't realize I had already been there during my first day long tour of a color-coated Kathmandu but didn't mind visiting again. The stupa was still covered in scaffolding so I didn't even bother trying to get a good picture of it, but there are plenty to be found of the beautiful Boudhanath online.

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

We did enjoy exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temple situated next to it as well as our vegetarian, rooftop lunch. Then we walked. We walked a lot. It was a long way back to Thamil and I ended up taking a cab the rest of the way back to the home stay from there due to both mental and physical exhaustion. 

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

Rural Life in Changu Narayan, Nepal

After the trek, my next destination in Nepal was a home stay in a village outside Kathmandu called Changu Narayan that I found on Workaway. I wasn't given an address or phone number but I had pictures of the host and his house from the workaway website so the driver was able to get me where I needed to go by pulling over and letting me show said pictures to locals, who pointed us in the right direction. The only option was the long and windy way uphill and we drove until we ran of road and I had get out and walk the remaining few hundred meters with my bags.

I was surprised to find several other workawayers at the home when I arrived, and even more surprised that the majority were from the US. There was also a couple of gap year kids from England, a girl from China and a guy from France. Add to that the other four girls from the States, which brings the total number of guests to nine. A few people were ill, one guy so much so that I didn't see him emerge from his room until 3 days later. 

The house had a lovely facade but was quite modest on the inside. My room on the second floor had two mattresses on the floor each with a  blanket and pillow and a glass coffee table. Standing on the balcony outside, I got a pretty good view of the surrounding hills and Kathmandu city in the valley below. 

I claimed the mattress closest to the window and was thrilled that there was enough space for me to roll out my yoga mat next to it in the morning. Across from me were two rooms, each with actual beds and mattresses and a bit more furniture. We had a rather large balcony and a semi-functional bathroom which became non-functional the next day. 

Cooking on the wood stove

Cooking on the wood stove

The menu and meal schedule was the same each and every day. A hard-boiled egg and two chapati for breakfast around 7:30, then first dal bhat with rice and potatoes around 10:30 then second dal bhat with rice, potatoes and maybe eggplant or zucchini around 7 pm. I bought some bananas in town to supplement the standard fare. 

Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

I know it's rural Nepal and I'm not expecting to have all the comforts of home but I would at least like the toilet and shower that are advertised to work. The water pump was broken so the toilet could only flush after a bucket of water was poured down the bowl. And if you wanted to bathe, it was out of the same bucket. In both cases, you would have to take the bucket down to one of the community wells where water trickled out of a spout at a snail's pace. It could take at least 45 minutes to fill said bucket and you'd have to stand there to make sure no one moved your bucket off to the side so they could get water. I also filled my water bottle here and treated it with purification drops. Even though the water appeared fresh and clean and cold, I wasn't taking any chances. 

One of many trickle wells in the area.

One of many trickle wells in the area.

But back to the bucket. After filling it up, you have to lug it back to the house and and use the water for flushing or bathing. So you can conclude that the toilet doesn't get flushed all that often since it's such a process - maybe once a day. And my room happened to be adjacent to the bathroom so the stench of everyone's accumulated waste gently wafts into your room all night. 

Power cuts are pretty standard in Nepal but they were the worst here. We were lucky if we got 2-5 hours of power per day, but it was enough to charge my phone and I was glad there was occasional wifi. 

Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

Then came the work. Instead of the gardening or helping around the house or village like that was suggested on workaway, the host expected us to cut down huge mother flippin' trees. The first day, we walked precariously through a field to a site far away to fell a tree. We all had to pull the tree down via rope so that it didn't fall on a nearby house. Then there was only a single saw with handles on each side so we would take turns sawing off branches and sawing the tree into sections. Turns out, I really don't like cutting down perfectly good trees in their prime, physically or emotionally. 

Then, they decided they wanted to cut down another tree, this time surrounded by a jumble of power lines. By this time the sun was getting close to setting so if we stayed much longer, the arduous walk home would be in the dark. Three of us decided not to take any more risks and walked home while it was still light. 

The next day, we returned to the spot and it started raining soon after we arrived. And not just rain, there was thunder and lightning too and the temperature dropped while our host expected us to continue using the metal saw. I gave up on the saw because I was not about to become a lightning rod but we soon went inside a nearby house to wait for the storm to pass. The family there was very kind and made us tea and gave us cookies and fresh peas from the garden. Then, our host and another guy popped cigarettes into their mouths and just as they were about to light up, I asked if they could please wait and smoke outside later because I am allergic to the smoke. (Seriously, I get a painful, throaty cough when in the presence of cigarette smoke.) They lit up anyways so those burning cigarettes might as well have been a couple of middle fingers. I walked outside and sat by myself under a makeshift tool shed.

The reason we were cutting down trees in the first place was so that the host could turn it into lumber and build an addition on to his house to accommodate more people. But I think he could barely handle the amount of people he already had. I understand how after losing his previous guest house to the earthquake last year, he was kind of desperate for money so I think he was taking as many people as he could get but the more people you have, the harder it is to keep everyone happy. He and his wife were sleeping in the kitchen and two guests were in their bed. The kitchen leaked in several places when it rained. The second floor bathroom didn't work properly and the house was not cleaned regularly, which is extra troublesome when you have so many people getting sick.  

I think there should have been a bit more concern for health and safety. The family here no doubt has good intentions and all the other guests were friendly but overall I did not enjoy this experience. And that's ok. Not every day of traveling is going to be sunshine and butterflies. It does make further appreciate things like eating a variety of meals and functional indoor plumbing. 

These are just some snapshots of rural life in and around the fields near the house that I liked and wanted to share: 

My Long, Laborious Layover in Bangladesh: Worth It?

I knew flying from Kathmandu to Yangon on Bangladeshi owned & operated Biman Airlines would be a bit of an inconvenience but I never dreamed it would turn into the such a nightmare. The actual flights were fine, it was everything in between that was burdensome. I spent a lot more time and effort to save some money, but was it worth it? I experienced and documented this ordeal so you can decide for yourself.

Just to provide some context, there are no direct flights and no easy way to get from Kathmandu to Yangon. Here are your options: 1. Book cheapest ticket via Biman and deal with the 21 hour layover. 2. Pay nearly twice the cost to fly one of the Middle Eastern Airlines all the way back to UAE or Oman or somewhere, wait 6-8 hours then fly back past Nepal to Myanmar. 3. Take a bus a cross over a land border, which complicates things because you cannot use the online pre-approval letter  - which I have - for land borders. It can only get you a visa when arriving at certain airports. Instead you must have a visa approved by an embassy or consulate and there isn't one in Nepal so you'll have to go to another country first like Thailand. 

Here's what to expect should you book the same itinerary that I did. 

Step one: book flight online. The Biman website is pretty terrible so I had to go through a third party, cheapoair.com. Total cost: $268.05.

Fly Kathmandu to Dhaka. There is a vegetarian meal option despite the fact you cannot specify it in advance like every other airline and no one from customer service answered your email prior to the flight. Sandwich served is 98% bread, 1% cheese, 1% mayo. Pretty sure it is the meat option sans meat, or, a culinary afterthought. The sandwich is accompanied by Pepsi (seemingly the official corporate sponsor of the entire country), vegetable crackers with all the nutrition that wheat, sugar, flour & "vegetable flakes" has to offer, one packet of ketchup and a strange but sweet noodley dessert thing. 

Arrive Dhaka airport. Do not go to VOA desk.  Instead go upstairs to the Transit area which you are supposed to inherently know how and where it exists despite there being zero signage. Talk to someone at the desk. Good luck because they each have different levels of English so it's like a game of roulette, really. And even though there is clearly a no smoking sign, at least half of employees will have lit cigarettes between their lips. 

Choose your fate for the 21 hour layover:

1. Stay in the airport and Biman covers the cost of dinner that night and breakfast the following morning. You sleep in the airport. Theoretically, it's free, but uncomfortable. 

2. Pay $21 for a transit visa and $30 to stay in a hotel overnight. Transportation to and from the hotel as well as dinner and breakfast are included in this cost. 

I chose the latter option while two Danish girls on the same flight chose the former. There is no wifi in transit area.   

See two cats mating on the floor. Stop, do double-take. Yes, two cats are indeed mating well inside the airport before you even get to customs or baggage claim. 

Receive red, plastic token for Sky Link hotel. Have exactly $51 US currency or you will be waiting over an hour for change. Wait another hour for airport to contact the hotel. Get escorted by a transit employee downstairs to the desk next to the VOA desk for transit visa. Receive paperwork. Get escorted to customs to stamp passport. Get escorted to baggage carousel to retrieve bag which arrived long before you did. Get escorted outside into the heat & humidity to wait for hotel shuttle. 

Shuttle picks you up and gets stuck in traffic on a road that smells like dirty diapers. You must keep the window open for a breeze because the air con on the van doesn't work and it is stiflingly hot so you tolerate the stench. 

Arrive at hotel and hand over passport to check in. Get escorted to your room which surprisingly has a full bed, functional tv, power outlet, electricity, weak Aircon, ensuite bathroom including shower and western toilet (but no toilet paper) and your choice of cold or nearly warm water. Wifi is free and astonishingly fast. 

You are told to report for dinner on the 6th floor at 8:30 - you must specify vegetarian or you will automatically be served meat. You receive a call in your room at 8 saying your dinner is ready now. You are alone but a meal to satisfy a family of four is prepared and served. It is spicy. The seal on your bottle of water is broken so you know it's been used before and refilled. You drink it anyways. 

You eat as much as you can, which is not nearly half, and return to your room with an employee who sprays your room with chemicals to deter mosquitos. You are pretty sure you are the only guest in the hotel. 

Get ready for bed. Notice cigarette burns in sheets and cigarette butts in bathroom. Sleep is actually ok as long as you have an eye mask and earplugs because the traffic outside is noisy and nonstop and there is a weird, green orb glowing above your bed. 

Wake up dazed and confused. Remember you are still stuck in Bangladesh. Call reception to ask when Breakfast is served. He says Breakfast is at 8:00 and the shuttle will leave for the airport at 10:00. Receive call at 7:30 that Breakfast is ready. Eat a light but satisfying meal. Return to your room to use Internet and revel in the calm before the transit storm. 

There is a knock on the door at 9:30 to tell you the shuttle is already here. Quickly pack and come downstairs to board shuttle. The ride is between 20 and 30 minutes back to the airport. You are told to go inside to Row D and left to fend for yourself. 

You find Row D which apparently stands for Deserted, Dysfuntional, Difficult, or many other possible disappointing D words. You are told the computer system is down so you must go to another Row. Go there, wait in line, get escorted by airport employees out of line to fill out customs departure form. Get back in line, reach counter where employee checks your ticket then refuses to check your bag and sends you back to Row D to wait for a special Transit employee. Wait several minutes for said employee to arrive who magically uses computer system to print your boarding pass but still does not check your luggage.

Get escorted through special transit area and get passport stamped again. Agent does not take customs form that you were specifically told to fill out. Transit employee abandons you and tells you to "walk that way" (left.) 

Walk "that way" lugging both bags. Check boarding pass for gate. It is a blank space with no number. Go back to transit area and ask which gate to go to. You are told that the gate will be announced and to sit and wait. 

See stray airport cats again, but separate and not mating this time. 

Announcements are unintelligible over the intercom so you keep checking the monitor, which is staticky and barely readable. Finally monitor claims your flight is boarding at gate 6. Lug both bags to gate 6 and stand in line. Get told to go to gate 6A instead. Walk to gate 6A and stand in long-ass line. Give up on carrying rucksack and kick it along the floor as the line moves. Very. Very. Slowly. 

One hour later, reach front of line and hand ticket to employee. Employee tells you gate has changed and to hurry to gate 4. You want to punch someone but you refrain and hustle to gate 4 and wait in another line. See Danish girls again who say they had a much simpler and less eventful experience. You envy them. You are told you cannot take water so you drink it all while in line. You realize your flight will not be leaving on time. 

You send bags through security screening  which includes your supposed-to-be-checked-bag full of liquids. No one seems to care. You get frisked by a female employee behind a curtain.  You enter another waiting area. You wait impatiently because now you have to pee since you drank the entire contents of your water bottle and there is no toilet even though it now appears that the previous no water warning was empty rhetoric. You curse the engineer that designed security screenings at the individual gates. Your flight should have left 30 minutes ago yet no one has even boarded the plane. 

Later someone says it is time to board. You follow the herd downstairs and a board a bus that takes you to the plane. You shove your rucksack and backpack into the overhead bin. The plane is over half empty so you can choose a row all to yourself. But the legroom leaves much to be desired and can only comfortably accommodate someone under five feet tall or a double amputee. (Literally only 5 or 6 inches between you and the next seat.) Your plane takes off over an hour late. 

The same meal is served, only this time with a small bag of peanuts so that you don't starve during the additional hour of flight time. You finally land in Yangon, grateful that you and both bags have finally arrived. 

Total cost: $319.05. Total time: 26 hours. You vow never to fly Biman nor to travel through Bangladesh again. 

 

Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative. 

Solo Travel & Stuffocation

Packing light - or at least attempting to - has been somewhat of a challenge for me. The weight of my pack(s) decreases with each trip, but I still have too much stuff. I mean, did I come here for new and exciting experiences or to lug a bunch of stuff around like a boat anchor? 

Stuff in Nepal

Stuff in Nepal

I also had some insight into my own hypocrisy. I want to live and travel minimalist, yet I still fall into the trap of buying souvenirs for myself and for others. At least half a dozen times during this trip so far. The stuff is really hard to resist. At first glance it's shiny or colorful or exotic or "such a bargain." But in reality you just end up with cheap junk. I've been to many markets in many different countries and it's all the same: local handicrafts that will end up sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, cotton elephant pants and t-shirts that don't last, jewelry that just gets added to an overwhelming pile and ultimately ends up getting sold at garage sales, brand name counterfeits and knock-offs, and the list goes on. Not to mention the vendors can be incredibly aggressive or persuasive and it's easy to get guilted into buying things you don't even want in the first place. 

Stuff in Sri Lanka

Stuff in Sri Lanka

With nothing but the best intentions, you attach the amazing experiences that you saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted to the things you buy. So you attach feelings of fondness to these inanimate 'gifts.' But the recipient did not experience these things so she/he will appreciate the sentiment but the thing will probably get used once or twice then disappear into the darkest depths of the closet. Or the thing may not get used or appreciated at all. 

Stuff in India

Stuff in India

For Christmas last year, I gave my mom a silk scarf from Cambodia and a jade bracelet from Vietnam and I have yet to see her wear either gift. I knew she already had piles of jewelry and a collection of scarves before I purchased these things but I felt obligated not to come home empty-handed, especially around the holidays. I'm not upset and it's nothing personal against my mom - it's human nature to want more than you need and to not use all that you have, at least in the West. With regards to the holidays, I'm sure my mom appreciated my gifts of time and effort like cooking, chauffeuring, conversing, teaching yoga and even a foot rub or two more than anything tangible that was under the tree. 

Stuff in Singapore

Stuff in Singapore

Not to mention unplanned souvenirs and gifts can easily blow your travel budget. If you're on a tight budget, you're gonna buy cheap stuff that is mass produced so that a thousand other tourists can buy it too. If you have a bit more money and want to buy some exotic furniture or decor for your home, the item itself may seem like a steal but the shipping costs and risk of damage during transit quickly add up. 

So here's my solution. It's unrealistic and setting myself up for failure to think that I can go the rest of this trip without buying anything else. So after Nepal, I am limiting myself to one item per country. Quality over quantity, one of my core values. Each thing also has to be useful and lightweight. And I have to like it, love it, can't live without it. No buying it even if I'm on the fence or have an inkling of doubt. 

And no more junk for family and friends either. There are several reasons why I've determined postcards are vastly superior souvenirs.
1) Each is handwritten and personalized for its intended recipient.
2) It's a nice, somewhat nostalgic surprise that stands out among the monotony of junk mail, catalogs and local advertising.
3) It's cost effective - most often less than one US dollar for the card and postage.
4) If you look hard enough, you can find unique cards that still support local artisans/photographers.
5) If the recipient doesn't feel the need to keep it, it can be recycled.
6) They are sent right away and don't weigh you down, taking up precious space in your backpack.
7) The personal connection of seeing a picture and hearing how much you loved traveling to a place is more likely to inspire someone else to travel there too instead of a generic trinket. 

Awesome Postcards 

Awesome Postcards 

I'm leaving some stuff behind in Nepal but I'm still stuck lugging around a bunch more junk from home that I've since decided I can live and travel without.

This lesson I've learned from long-term, solo travel is so applicable to the rest of life too:

You can do more when you have less stuff weighing you down. 

My Taj Mahal Experience

Greetings from one of the most famous and most photographed places in India. 

Our train was a couple hours late arriving at the station in Agra so our Taj time was cut short but I still managed to get some decent shots. Except one. I started doing a handstand and was stopped by a guard. Apparently you can only stand upright for pictures here. 

The money shot, sans scaffolding

Taj Mahal translated from Arabic means Crown Palace, which is misleading because no one actually lived here. Quite the opposite, actually. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum built in 1632 to house his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. He was later buried there as well. 

I always thought it was just the white centerpiece and surrounding four towers topped with minarets but the complex encompasses 42 acres and several other structures. It's flanked by two red sandstone structures on each side; one is a mosque and the other is thought to be a guest house. It took 20,000 workers over 20 years to complete the project and would cost 52.8 billion rupees ($827 million USD) by today's currency (source: wikipedia). 

One of the reasons for this insane pricetag is that all the colored details are not painted but in fact it is inlayed marble. No wonder this incredible piece of architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Don't forget to look down

Don't forget to look down

Tokyo, Japan

This was not part of my original itinerary. Initially, I just had a layover scheduled here during the course of my final flight home in December, but I extended my stay for a few days, because: Tokyo. I've heard so much about this city, I just had to see and experience it for myself since the opportunity had presented itself. 

I had an exhausting flight from Hanoi to Tokyo that departed just after midnight and arrived around 7 AM in the morning. I suck at sleeping on planes so I was dragging my feet in a daze through the Tokyo airport. The only upside was that a new friend happened to be on the same flight, but we parted ways in the airport because she was flying all the way back to the States. 

I was too tired to function so I ended up in a capsule hotel called 9 Hours that was attached to the airport. The capsules were just as cool and compact as I had expected, but turned out to be far more expensive. It was like $20 bucks for just three hours. After some semi-lucid sleep, I collected my bags, bought some subway tickets, got some yen from an ATM, ate an overpriced lunch and then headed from the airport to my hostel. 

Tokyo is huge and overwhelming and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had booked only one night in a cheap hostel near the Akobonobashi station in Shinjuku. I was the only girl in a fully booked room full of 10 beds and nine other dudes. There were stains (possibly blood or some other bodily fluid) on the floor and my bed was in the middle of the room, nowhere near an outlet. The room smelled like stinky boys and the bathroom was even worse. This is why I usually book female dorms when traveling: the smell(s).

The silver lining of this place, though, was that they had great internet. So I was able to plan out the rest of my days here, as well as book another hostel in the Asakusa area on the recommendation of a friend form college. That night I went to bed relatively early and got up super early around 5:30 AM, excited for my first full day in this crazy city. 

I took a couple different lines on the metro subway to get to Hiro-o station and tried to find a temple that supposedly hosted foreigner-friendly morning zen meditation sessions. The directions on their website were not great and I wandered for a while and found a traditional-looking temple-ish place and lingered outside. An elderly Japanese lady noticed me lingering outside and invited me inside, but neither she, nor the other handful of people there, spoke any English and I knew I wasn't in the right place. She fumbled through a pile of brochures in just about every other language but English, so I still don't know where I was. I bowed graciously and said "Arrigato" and left as politely as I could.  

I remembered seeing a tree that obscured part of the temple in the picture online so I started searching for trees, thinking it would lead me to the temple, but instead I ended up at Arisugawa-No-Miya Memorial Park. It was a big and beautifully landscaped area complete with a pond, bridges, trails, trees and tons of sitting areas. I decided to just sit here and meditate instead since I gave up on finding the temple after at least an hour of wandering around. The chill in the air was refreshing and definitely felt like December, but the fiery foliage made it feel like the beginning of fall. After about an hour of mediation, I walked around the park watching other people walking their dogs, feeding pigeons, chatting in pairs or getting in a quick morning workout. 

I was impressed with and enjoyed the Tokyo Metro subway system. Despite being the world's busiest railway, it's one of the most organized and easiest to navigate in my experience. I even survived Shinkjuku station, the world's busiest rail station. But once I got above ground, it was a different story. Tokyo addresses are super confusing with like 3 different numbers and I really had trouble making sense of it.  I only had my little samsung with limited battery life and no sim card so I couldn't completely rely on GPS so I had to supplement my navigation with old fashioned paper maps and directions. 

One of the things I wanted to do most was to find a traditional zazen temple and learn about zen buddhism and meditation. It first piqued my curiosity after I heard all about how much Steve Jobs was into it when I read his biography last year. Let me tell you how many times I tried and failed to make this happen. 

1. Before I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to book a temple stay in advance. I got responses from temple in Kyoto, but apparently they are pretty popular this time of year and I couldn't book two consecutive nights. And, as awesome as it would have been to take a bullet train to Kyoto, it would have been a lot of extra strain in terms of time and money so I abandoned that plan. 2. I found a few spots supposedly in Tokyo but received no response from the ones I was able to email. 3. I attempted to find Kourin-in temple for morning meditation near Hiro-o to no avail. Found the park instead. 4. Found a recommendation for the Buddhist English Academy online. . I went to Nishi Shinjuku anyways and walked around for at least an hour looking for this place, only to discover that the address was for an apartment in a residential building and that the phone number provided was not in service.  5.Took the metro all the way out to Myogadani Station for a Wednesday night Zen meditation intro class, only to find the temple non-existent. It was literally razed to the ground with the empty lot surrounded by a white tarp. Supposedly a new temple is going to be built in its place. 6. I found another local Zazen meditation experience through Voyagin.com but it turned out to be "currently unavailable" when I inquired about it.

So after wasting so much time and effort in my quest for zen, I decided it would have to wait until a later date when I could not only plan a proper trip in advance, but confirm it in advance as well. 

But back to the more successful stuff that I did. I was glad I moved to Asakusa because it was a livelier and more artistic area. I booked a few successful activities via Voyagin. The first was a customized art and design tour of Tokyo with a local designer named Kota. He met me at my hostel and showed me around the city. It was such a relief to be with someone who knew where he was going and spoke Japanese! Plus he was good company as well. We started at the famous Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest in the Tokyo area. It was free to enter and explore, but teeming with vendors and tourists. Next we went to Jimbocho Street which is know for it's abundance of book stores. We spent a surprising amount of time perusing old books and scrolls in the stores, and I ended up buying a book of poetry from the 1950s for a friend back home. 

Our tummies were starting to grumble, so Kota took me to a little place that had VEGAN RAMEN! It was delicious and apparently hard to find according to other friends who have visited the city, so I'm eternally grateful. The last stop was the Advertising museum, built in the basement of a mall in the shadow of Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency.  I couldn't stay long because I had to head to my next appointment with a local lady to learn Japanese calligraphy. I made it to the subway station with no issues, but then I got lost several times between there and her house, with people on the street giving me terrible directions. One girl even walked me to the police station, when I thought she was walking me to the house. Anyways, I showed up 30 minutes late but still managed to get some good practice in and paint a satisfactory character for the word "wisdom." Definitely better than any souvenir I could have bought on the street. 

My last day in Tokyo was a bit of a blur. After so many days surrounded by sky-high concrete I was craving some nature so I headed to Mount Takao, located less than an hour outside the city by Express train from Shinjuku. It was colder and more precipitous than I anticipated so I ended up buying a hat and gloves at the base. A sporadic mix of rain and snow fell from the clouds above. My left foot (the one injured in Bali) had been hurting for a few days so I opted to take the cable car part way up the mountain, then walk the rest of the way. There were tons of other locals around, but hardly any other obvious foreigners. There were several shrines and one large temple complex along the way. 

If you reach the top on a good, clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, but my view was thoroughly obscured by the weather. I was pretty hungry so I ordered Honshimeji Kake (soba noodles with mushrooms) and Amazake (warm fermented rice drink) for lunch at a small shop. There, I met a fellow American that was in Japan for a few days en route to visit family in Vietnam. We chatted and walked back down the mountain together and shared an affinity for steamed red bean paste buns. Drool. I really enjoyed some delicious food in Japan!

Once I got back to the city, I headed straight for one of their famous Cat Cafes. I arrived, ready to be showered with love and affection from exotic kitties, but was kind of underwhelmed. There were way more people there than I expected and the cats were only interested in you if you had food. I tried several different toys, but none of them were interested in playing. Just food. You pay by the hour at these places (there are also owl cafes and bunny cafes) and I was about to leave when I met a group of Americans. One or two were marines stationed elsewhere in Japan and the others were just visiting. They invited me to karaoke and the infamous Robot Cafe show, so I figured WTH since it was my last night. 

We rented a traditional private booth at a karaoke bar to kill time before the robot show. Apparently unlimited drinks came with the rental, no doubt to supply liquid courage to shy singers. One dude was confident in his skills without an alcoholic crutch and sang a pretty legit Sinatra. The rest of us, were your typical tone-deaf karaoke-ers. This was my first time ever singing Karaoke but I've known the song I would sing for years now: Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood. If you know me, you know this is an odd song choice because I am no fan of country music; in fact I think this is the only Carrie Underwood song I know. It's just fun to mock-sing with a raspy drawl. So, check that off the bucket list. The other musical selections spanned several genres and decades including Britney Spears, TLC, Missy Elliot, Shaggy and some other more recent songs that I didn't know because I rarely listen to the radio these days. 

So last but not least was the robot show, which I will attempt to describe but honestly you just have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's not cheap but one of the guys offered to pay for my ticket so that was awesome. We were front row for all the crazy, loud, neon, random action. It was like a mashup of Japanese pop culture; like a live action anime featuring a variety of costumes, robots, epic battles followed by energetic dancing and singing. And some weird skit about a couple of Santa's reindeer beating the crap out of him. (Not sure which two but my money would be on Dancer and Prancer.) 

It was a late night to say the least and I didn't get much sleep so my final challenge was getting myself and my luggage back to the airport for my 11ish flight back to the states. I grot a seat on a shuttle bus and everything went smoothly until I arrived in Dallas. It's so stupid that you have to recheck your bags and go through security again when you literally just came from an international flight. I narrowly arrived at my connected and then a few hours later I landed in Charlotte. My bag didn't make it onto the same flight as me, but the airport promised to fly the bag to GSP and then have it delivered to my parents house the next day. Annoying, but really not a big deal in the gran scheme of things. Traveling solo for so long has really helped me put things into perspective. 

Saigon/HCMC, Vietnam

I arrived via the airport in the biggest city in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, traditionally known - and still widely referred to today - as Saigon. I took a cab to my hostel in the heart of the backpacker district on Bui Vien street located in District 1. 

Saigon has about twice as many districts as Panem in the Hunger Games. The city has 24 total: 7 named urban districts, 7 numbered districts and 5 outer, suburban districts. And each had its own kind of identity. Districts 1 and 3 are in the heart of the city where most of the action is. I later stayed at a friend's place in District 2 which is a short ride from the city and packed with ex-pats who want to live in a quieter area. 

And once I visited the 250 km Cu Chi tunnel network in a village about and hour and a half outside the city, I was like "OMG there's even an underground "district" strategically used to win a war - just like District 13 in the book!" FUN FACT: Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins' father actually did serve in Vietnam so my theory is totally plausible! 

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Despite the infamous war ending exactly 40 years ago, there are reminders of it everywhere and the tourism industry thrives off of it. Much of the art in the Museum was obviously influenced by it. The War Remnants Museum is a must-visit and it was incredible to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective. There were some pretty graphic pictures and stories and also some pretty staggering statistics pertaining to the death and destruction that took place here. My favorite display was the collection of anti-war protest and vietnamese propaganda posters from around the world - some great graphic design pieces there. It seems humanity just can't learn from it's mistakes because there is still so much unnecessary war and violence today. Oh, and despite being American, never did I feel like I was resented for my nationality. I encountered so many people that were just genuinely nice and hospitable. 

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

The most prominent of these awesome people was Tat. So here's how that connection happened: A girl from America (me) meets another girl from London at a meditation retreat in Thailand who's brother was best friends with this guy from Vietnam who also lived and studied in the UK. And Kevin Bacon probably fits in there somewhere too. She introduced us on Facebook and I ended up staying in his otherwise vacant apartment for a few days which I totally appreciated beyond words. Even though I would do the same if the situation were reversed, and I did host several friends and family at my homes in Florida over the years, I have trouble accepting others' sincere generosity like I don't deserve it or something. 

Anyways, every Tuesday, Tat buys pizza for the local orphanage and organizes fun, engaging projects for them. I helped distribute the culinary treat, topped with cheese, shredded shrimp and quail egg, to about 40 orphans ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. Then he led a project instructing the kids how to make multi-colored origami stars which only about half the kids that started had the attention span to actually finish. I made two and gave mine away to the littler ones. I practiced a bit of English with some of the older ones and the smaller ones just wanted attention and often tried to climb me like a tree. Kids just want to be cared for and about no matter what country they're from so I'm glad I could make even the most minuscule impact on their lives. 

I serendipitously met another really cool dude from Nepal at a Vegan restaurant near my hostel. His name is Sramdip and he's a tattoo/street artist as well as fellow vegetarian so we were fast friends. He showed me around the two main street art areas in Saigon. 

The second was a food and music venue called Saigon Outcast which ended up being only about 5 km away from Tat's place in D2. I ended up changing my flight so that I could attend at least the first day of a two day Melting Pot music + arts festival taking place here over the weekend. My favorite of the musical performers was Suboi, a pretty cool and widely-known female Vietnamese rapper. I definitely had to do something artsy/cultural that week because I was missing my own beloved Art Basel back  home in Miami for the first time in several years. 

Anyways, Sramdip (@sramdip on instagram) and another artist Kris alias Frenemy (@frenemylife) from Austin, Texas did some impressive live painting during the event and the air was perfumed with the familiar smell of spray paint fumes. I also met Jimmy, an ambassador for Lovebot (@lovebottherobot), a street art group based out of Toronto that wants to spread love and kindness across the globe. 

I also saw Dennis - alias My German Stalker (lol) - again as this is city number three in which our paths have crossed. We had a drink and caught up at a rooftop bar which overlooked the park, which was packed with people and pop-up venues so we decided to check it out. We took the lift down to street level then explored what turned out to be the Taste of the World Festival, where they had neon-lit kiddie rides, food and drinks from a few other countries and a main stage with a variety of performances from trick bar tending to fire twirling to salsa dancing. 

I spent one day touring the Mekong Delta well outside of the city. I was pretty disappointed not to see a "lively" floating market as promised but the boat and bike rides around the river were ok. I'm glad I got to experience it, but it's mostly just muddy water that seems to flow forever in all directions. 

Altogether I spent a full week in Saigon and miraculously managed not to be trampled by any of the herds of wild scooters roaming the city streets. It's really not a pedestrian-friendly city so I ended up using cabs and Uber (no tuk-tuks here) for the majority of my transportation needs. 

I Heart Street Art | Chiangmai, Thailand

Found quite the collection of Street Art in Chiangmai, Thailand so far. There are also some galleries and lots of tattoo shops so I'd consider this a pretty creative city.

I guess I like street art so much because it challenges the traditional idea of art being hidden away in a gallery or museum and/or only accessible to a privileged few. It's often a healthy dose of civil disobedience and it's up to the artists themselves and the public to deem what is art, not just a few critics or curators. As long as it's not outright offensive, and especially if it has a good message behind it that can provoke thought and conversation, I like that street art is free and always available to the masses.

Many times, I prefer it to the 'modern art' (ex. a straight up piece of rope nailed to the wall) or rather homogenous antique paintings that I've seen in legit museums. Don't get me wrong, museums and galleries are cool too but you expect to see art when you go there. I like turning a corner and unexpectedly seeing a mural like "Oh hai! Here's a little eye candy for you. You're welcome." If I find a few murals here and there, it becomes like a little urban treasure hunt and I always try to find more! 

Thailand Temple Time: Part II

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

The border mountains with Burma

The border mountains with Burma

Thailand is the cleanest Asian country I’ve visited. (Well not counting Singapore which is almost sterile since everything is concrete or indoors.) In the past few countries, there is rubbish everywhere and people tend to put it in piles and burn it from time to time. Bleh - the smell of burning plastic is the worst. But not Thailand - they even have recycling! And I didn’t believe this at first but there are also people that make a living by going through the bright blue garbage bins and taking out anything that is recyclable as well.

Recycling makes me happy! 

Recycling makes me happy! 

I was surprised  that the traffic here is pretty much a parade of pick-up trucks. While waiting at a bus stop one day, I counted and there is literally about one sedan for every 20 trucks. Then at the other extreme lots of people buzz by on motorbikes as well. Maybe it’s just Fang but I just expected mostly motorbikes with some small cars mixed in and even tuk-tuks.

image source: thaizer.com

image source: thaizer.com

There are pictures of the royal family everywhere. On calendars in shops and restaurants, framed in the middle of street medians, on giant billboards. But most of them are not current and show especially the king in his much younger days. Not that I would have any reason to, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions not to insult the king as Thai people are very patriotic and hold their king in high regard.

THE TEMPLE TOUR

I thoroughly enjoyed the little temple tour that was arranged for us on Sunday. Oui, a Thai lay person that runs a canteen at the nearby school and helps out around the temple, drove us around in a truck to three very different temples north of Fang. The first was a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple which is not out of place since there’s a pretty significant population of them in Northern Thailand. It featured the traditional style architecture with the sloping roofs, lots of red and gold, paper lanterns and dragons draped over everything. There was also a ginormous Budai statue, or the Laughing/Fat Buddha that most people recognize in the West because they are always in Chinese restaurants and nail salons. Budai was a Chinese monk who was so well liked and admired that the Chinese consider him a Matrea or Future Buddha. Not the same at all as the original calm, cross-legged, meditating Buddha that lived in India 2500 years ago.

Budai 

Budai 

Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The second stop was an immaculate meditation retreat (open to Thai only) with a golden pagoda that you could see shining amongst the green mountains from far away. As we were driving up the last incline to the entrance, the left and right sides of the road were lined with adorable, lotus-shaped huts that house the resident nuns and guests. The circular temple was gorgeous inside and out and had a series of paintings of the Buddha’s life and legends on the inner walls and a lotus mural carved and painted all along the outer walls. In the center of the temple was a delicate looking glass structure that made me feel like I was looking at a scale model of the Emerald City from Oz. Strategically placed throughout the property was a collection of statues of Buddha, devas and nagas like an outdoor art gallery.

Golden pagoda

Golden pagoda

Mini Emerald City? 

Mini Emerald City? 

After this we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and I had pad see ew - the closest thing they served to pad thai. It was basically big, flat noodles with veggies. I was craving a salty snack while they prepared my food so I perused the racks of potato chips that they had to offer - and even 90% of these were meat flavored! There was pork, shrimp, chickend and even cuttlefish flavored crackers or chips, along with like two regular potato flavors and one bag of Thai Cheetohs. I ended up skipping the junkfood appetizer.

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Our last stop was an impressive, seven level Forest Temple that was about as close to the Burma border as you can get. The mountains to the west form a natural border with Burma and Graham even pointed out a military base in a clearing atop one of the peaks. I was probably way too excited to see a cat which was pretty scraggly looking and was missing an eye, but still… kitty!

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

There was an amazing little meditation path the wound through the woods and ended at a giant concrete ‘boat’ overlooking the Me Kok river. The panoramic views of the landscape were incredible from this vantage point. As we walked along the path, Graham told us that some of the older monks can recall the days when wild tigers and elephants used to roam the area but of course they have long since disappeared. The trees would be gone too if it wasn’t protected temple land, and even then some loggers still try to force their way in sometimes.

Wat Thaton

Wat Thaton

This is also the location of Wat Thaton, an impressive, rainbow colored temple that houses a variety of Buddhist relics, so it’s kind of like a museum too. There are even ornamental baby Buddhas outside. We took a break here before heading home and I indulged in ice cream, thai iced milk tea and had a cup of traditional hot tea.

FRIDAY FEELS

So many feels today! I decided to have lunch at the canteen that Oui and his wife manage at the school. Yesterday he invited me there for lunch and said his wife would cook me something vegetarian but I wasn’t feeling great yesterday so I just had toast here instead. Today I walked over at a quarter past 11 and all the monks were heading to lunch as well. Oui wasn’t there but his wife was and she was very cute and very pregnant. She offered me iced thai green tea which is very sweet and loaded with condensed milk. Then she cooked me a simple meal of some sort of greens and sprouts with sauce on a bed of rice. I covertly added my usual handful of peanuts for protein and flavor. (I always do this at alms breakfast as well.)

I sat by myself at the end of a picnic style wooden table. It was just like sitting in a cafeteria back home except the students were all boys with shaved heads, wearing bright orange uniforms. One monk cautiously walked past me and said hello. I responded “hello” enthusiastically and eventually he sat down at the table - as far away from me as possible on the other side, but still. He had pretty good English and I found out he was 18 and his name is Kon. After a few moments, another monk shyly approached, said hello and politely asked permission if he could sit across from me. “Yes, of course!” He was very eager to practice his English and was so honest that he admitted he was nervous to practice with me and that he needs to work on his confidence. I assured him that his English was very good. His name is Long and he is 17. He practices a lot because he wants to study English at University and I don’t blame him. It will definitely open up a lot more opportunities for him. The two boys were in the same class and they have been monks for 5 years.

By this time, it was time for them to go back to class so they excused themselves and I thanked them for talking with me. The temple gets plenty of guests but I doubt most of them interact with the monks so much. I really hope I gave those two kids some confidence after our little chat!

School for Monks

School for Monks

When I was finished with my meal, Oui’s wife offered to refill my tea and I asked her how much for lunch and she insisted it was free. I had a 100 baht note (about $3 USD) in my pocket and tried to hand it to her but she refused until I insisted she take it for the baby (in her tummy). She finally accepted it with a wide grin and I walked away with a smile, myself. It can be a bit intimidating being the totally obvious, odd person out but all the Thai people I’ve met so far are so nice so it really hasn’t been bad at all.

Another English-speaking monk actually added me on Facebook last week which I thought was a bit strange at first but then I thought they are just people that want to make connections like everyone else. I'm pretty sure he's going to University soon and may not even be a monk after that. Who knows? 

Longtail, our resident roadblock

Longtail, our resident roadblock

As of today everyone else is gone, even the coordinator, Graham (but he has a good excuse: he’s getting married.) So it’s just me and Longtail, our resident temple dog who I sometimes prefer to call Roadblock because she is always laying across one of the top stairs so that we have to step over her completely. She rarely moves - I think because the other dogs tend to bully her but she’s got it made and gets her own food and water and far more attention than all the others.

I'll be leaving on a mini bus to Changmai city on Sunday but I'm super thankful for this incredible, unique and inspiring experience.