Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand

IMG_7139We spent a day and a half in this lovely province that is not far outside of Bangkok. The area is most visited for it’s World War II historical significance – it was the base for construction of the infamous Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” which was ordered by the Japanese as a strategic transportation line to supply their troops for a planned invasion of India. Many thousands of European POWs and local laborers alike died while attempting to build this railway, due to inhospitable living conditions, disease, and brutality from their Japanese commanders.

Besides the historic significance of Kanchanaburi, the surrounding area has a lot of natural beauty as well, including Erawan and Si Nakharin Dam National Parks, where we spent the night on in a raft house. Here a few highlights from my time Kanchanaburi.

Kanchanaburi Bike Tour

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We did a half day bike tour of Kanchanaburi where we hit all the major World War II sites, including a couple of cemeteries where foreign POWs who died during the railway construction were buried, as well as the Death Railway museum, which was really well-organized and informative. It told the story of the railway and it’s victims with murals, plaques, artifacts, films and reconstructions.

IMG_7131The museum is definitely is worth a visit before seeing all the historic sites to give you a sense of what life really was like for the men that slaved away and died for a railway that took 16 months to complete and ultimately ran only about 4 years before shutting down

It’s said that one man died for every railway sleeper that was laid. The idea that so much meaningless death occurred in the name of constructing something meant to cause even more destruction is so shameful to me. I can’t help thinking what kind of amazing, wonderful things so many men could have constructed that may have helped humanity and created better lives for future generations instead.

After the museum, we rode around the town a bit, along rows of flowering Golden Shower trees, the official tree of Thailand (with a name that means something entirely different in the states!) I was finally getting comfortable on a bike, and thankfully the town of Kanchanaburi is incredibly tame compared to Bangkok. It was especially nice when we got out of the main town to some beautiful country roads that ran along the river.

Biking down roads lined with golden shower trees.

Biking down roads lined with golden shower trees.

At one point we reached a gorgeous overlook of the River Kwai and then visited a small cave nearby that was used to store gunpowder during the railway construction. There were several Buddha statues inside, but I think we all found the cave a bit of a let down – it had graffiti and colored lighting inside with too much signage and trash. Not a very authentic or interesting cave…

Afterwards we rode to the last stop, which was the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. You can actually climb up and walk across the bridge itself, and even though it was crowded with tourists, it was still pretty amazing. It definitely helped that it was a gorgeous day (sweltering heat aside) and I found a nice quiet spot away from the crowds under a tree along the riverbank.

The bridge over the River Kwai. Yes, THAT bridge.

The bridge over the River Kwai. Yes, THAT bridge.

Walking across the bridge.

Walking across the bridge.

Raft House

After our bike tour, we hopped in our van that took us to Si Nakharin Dam National Park, where we boarded a raft house, our home for the night. As the speed boat towed us out onto the reservoir, we sat with our feet up, drinking beer and admiring the hazy hills surrounding the reservoir.

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Once we were safely parked near a large rock outcropping, we all hopped in the water for a swim and we bobbed around for an hour or so chatting with each other about our lives back in our respective countries. We watched the sunset and enjoyed being the only people on the entire lake. It felt like we were on another planet, to be honest. It was wonderful, apart from the fact I couldn’t stop thinking about how my doctor told me not to swim in any freshwater rivers or lakes…..whoops. Oh well. Maybe if I get a parasite it will help get rid of the massive amount of Thai food I’ve been eating since I’ve been here.

Sunset on the raft house.

Sunset on the raft house.

Speaking of food, our guide Neung cooked us an amazing Thai meal on the raft house that we ate together under the stars. She made baked fish, panang curry, glass noodles and morning glory. Everything was incredible, and it was a fitting end to a fabulous day.

Eating dinner on the raft house.

Eating dinner on the raft house.

Erawan Waterfalls

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The next morning we headed to Erawan National Park, where we did a hike along a series of 7 waterfall, each level a bit harder to reach than the next. Technically we could swim in the pools beneath the falls at every level, but we decided to do the full 2.6 km hike to the top, where we would finally be rewarded with a swim in the 7th, top most tier. The trail was pretty busy with other tourists and families, but the crowds thinned a bit as we got higher. We passed monkeys on the second level that were trying to swipe food from some picnickers, and throughout the trek there were hundreds white and multicolored butterflies flying in seemingly linked chains.

Monkees!

Monkeys!

When we finally made it to the top, we stripped down to our swim suits and submerged ourselves in the refreshingly cold water. There were spa fish in the water that nipped at the dead skin on our legs and feet and I found myself constantly moving to keep them at bay….I know that people pay a lot of money to get that treatment at spas but I don’t like the idea of fish nibbling on me!

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After the waterfall hike we relaxed over some lunch and are now headed out to Ayutthaya, where tomorrow we have another bike tour of the former capital city. After several weeks of trekking, biking and being much more sporty than I have ever been at home, my legs are a bit achy but I’m actually excited to hop on a bike one more time. Maybe I’m getting the hang of it!

Biking In Bangkok

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For the first day of our two week active trip through Thailand, we started with the activity I was dreading the most – a half-day bike tour of Bangkok. As soon as I landed and saw the manic zig-zagging traffic of this city, I immediately started worrying about this bike tour I knew I’d be doing in a few short days. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t muster an appetite for breakfast and just sat in silence, working up the courage I would need to mount myself on two wheels and compete with massive tour busses, tuk-tuks, street food carts, motorbikes for pavement space on the streets of this vibrant but often hectic city.

When we got to Grasshopper Adventures, a company that runs bike tours in many major Asian cities, I was started to calm down as I strapped on my helmet and took my bike for a spin down the sidewalk.

Let me be clear – I do know how to ride a bike. I did it all the time as a kid in my suburb in Texas, navigating the neighborhood, racing my younger brother and even doing occasional “jumps” off of small ramps that our neighbors had. But as an adult, I’d done very little cycling, especially not in LA for fear of the infamous traffic and aggressive drivers that seem to have very little patience for those on two wheels.  I’d rented bikes in San Fran a couple years ago and discovered how out of practice I was as I wobbled my way up and down the bike paths (no cars nearby!) to the Golden Gate bridge. I’ve stuck mainly to stationary bikes at the gym, where I don’t have to worry about being hit by a bus or an unapologetic studio exec on his way to an important meeting.

So cycling in a big, fast-paced city like Bangkok terrified me, but I wasn’t going to let a few nerves ruin my epic Asian adventure, no matter how much my knees were rattling when I mounted that bike. That’s why I’m here right? To turn and face my fears in the face, to challenge myself, to discover what I’m capable of, to seek out some real adventure.

A home on stilts to the left.

A home on stilts to the left.

And that is exactly what riding a bike in Bangkok was – a real-life adventure. Even following a guided group, it was terrifying at times (at least for me), especially when we entered a large busy traffic circle or changed lanes between giant tour buses. But it was such a thrilling feeling knowing that I was experiencing the city as a local might.

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Out of the way temple somewhere in Bangkok.

Out of the way temple somewhere in Bangkok.

Even better though, we saw so much of the city that I never would have seen wandering around on my own. Thankfully for my own nerves, we stuck most of the time to less crowded side streets and a good deal of the ride was spent navigating narrow alley ways, where we saw locals cooking breakfast and hanging laundry, vendors setting up at small markets and children chasing stray cats. We crossed the river on a giant suspension bridge and crisscrossed canals, making our way to little out-of-the-way temples that had no other foreign visitors and whole areas built entirely on stilts over the canals in the traditional Thai way. We rode past food carts emitting glorious smells of curries, tom yum soup and kebabs and stopped to eat some small Thai sweets covered in coconut.

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My heart was pumping with bursts of adrenaline the entire time, and I was actually sad for the tour to be over 4 hours later. Well, most of me wanted to keep going anyway. My ass that isn’t used to sitting on a bike saddle was happy to be finished. But guess what? I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. What an incredible experience!

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I didn’t die!

After our tour we hopped in a bus and made our way a few hours North West to Kanchanaburi to a resort that will be home for the night. We swam in the pool and ate a delicious dinner on patio overlooking a sunset on the River Kwai, and I feel so grateful that my group is made up of such amazing people that are so similar to me. Tomorrow we do another bike tour and this time I have a feeling I’ll be able to eat breakfast in the morning. BRING IT ON!

 

Adventures in Bangkok – The Royal Palace and Wat Po

Stupa at the Royal Palace

Stupa at the Royal Palace

After a strange travel day filled with more monkeys in the airport, delayed flights, new friends made while waiting for said delayed flights, and a desperate sprint through Delhi airport to make a connecting flight, I finally made it to Bangkok. As soon as I walked out of the airport I was smacked in the face with the dizzying heat of Thailand. The air is so thick with disarming humidity that you almost have to wade through it like you would a swimming pool. Having come from two weeks trekking in snowy mountains and still wearing several layers, it took me a bit to adjust.

My first day in Bangkok I wandered around doing the most common things tourists do on their first day there – I took a train and a tourist boat to the Royal Palace, followed with a visit to Wat Po and it’s giant reclining Buddha statue. Both places are huge tourist draws for a reason because they really have spectacular architecture and beautifully ornate details, but the crowds were a bit overwhelming.

 

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is a huge compound and was the country’s administrative and religious center for around 150 years as well as the home of the Thai royal family up until 1932. I’ve seen some beautiful palaces in Europe in the past, but this place was something else. The mirrored glass and ornate materials used on the exterior of the palaces glimmer in the bright Bangkok sun in a way that I imagined palaces in heaven looking like as a kid. There were statues meant to decorate and in some cases protect the home of the royal family, and some were quite menacing while others were hilarious (especially the ones wearing top hats). 

The figures surrounding Wat Phra Kaew.

The figures surrounding Wat Phra Kaew.

By far the most spectacular thing at the Royal Palace was Wat Phra Kaew, a temple that houses the most holy of all Thai Buddha images – the Emerald Buddha. It is housed in a temple with hundreds of statues surrounding it to protect it, and there are three doors to the main temple, the middle of which can only be entered by the holy family. The tile and mosaic work on the temple was incredible and I sat with tourists and Thais alike on the floor in the temple to admire the buddha for myself. Even though it is made up of jade and not actually emerald and isn’t more than a few feet tall, it is still stunning with it’s bronze attire, which is changed 3 times a year in a ceremony by the king, the only person allowed to touch the statue. 

Only the king can enter thru the center door.

Only the king can enter thru the center door.

Wat Po tiled beauties.

Wat Po’s rows of Buddhas. 

After checking out the rest of the palace grounds, I walked next door to the giant temple Wat Po, another set of stunningly beautiful buildings, the largest of which holds the giant bronze reclining buddha. This buddha is massive, with the bottom of it’s feet being the most interesting thing of all – inlaid mother-of-pearl in 108 panels depicting the 108 auspicious signs of the buddha.

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Having exhausted myself temple gazing, I wandered down by the river, where I ate some delicious papaya salad from street vendors, even after a passing your guide from another group stopped to tell me I was crazy for ordering it because it would be too spicy for me and I’d get sick (neither were true). I met up with a friend who lives here and played drinking games at his hostel, where I met some amazing people from all over the world, and I managed to stay out until 4am, where I realized I could no longer keep my eyes open in the Thai nightclub I was in and finally took a cab back to my hotel.

I spent the next day resting, nursing a massive hangover, and only managed to write my long post about my trek in Nepal before meeting up with the group I’d be joining for 2 weeks for an active trip around Thailand. The group is awesome – made up of 6 other people plus myself, all about my age from England, Ireland, Denmark and Australia – and I’m so excited about what the next two weeks holds for us as we hike, bike and kayak our way around this awesome country I’m growing to love!

Trekking in The Himalayas: Sherpa Villages, Monster Mountains and Very, Very Sore Legs

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We did it! We survived our 9 day trek in the Himalayas and returned to Kathmandu smelly and achy but feeling incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing experience in the mountains. We had great weather the entire time and our guide and porters were so helpful and knowledgable. While we may have been the only people on the trail not going all the way to Everest Base Camp, we really loved veering off the beaten path to lesser visited villages and learning about Sherpa life and culture.

Here are a few highlights from each day of our trek!

Trek Day 1 – Flight to Lukla and Trek to Phakding

Ready to escape the madness of Kathmandu, Kayla and I were up early to meet with our guide at 6am and head to the airport to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport – Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, where we’d be beginning our trek. The night before, our trip leader warned us that there was a chance that all the flights to Lukla would be cancelled because the weather and/or the winds were iffy. Even though the flight only takes about half an hour, apparently they are very often delayed or cancelled because of the weather, which can make an already dangerous landing even more iffy. Search on YouTube for landings at Lukla Airport and you’ll see what I mean (except you Mom – just pretend you didn’t read that part).

Monkey in the airport!

Monkey in the airport!

Already anxious about the flight, we got to airport and ended up waiting for 6 hours as flights were delayed and cancelled. The Kathmandu airport is as chaotic as the city itself and at one point a monkey even came into the terminal and started eating food out of people’s bags before a security guard ran it off!

A couple hours in to waiting, we were suddenly rushed onto a bus to go to the plane to take off because there was a break in the bad weather, and then we were rushed off the bus shortly after because the winds had picked up again. By the time we did finally get to board the plane, our palms were sweaty and I frantically read the plane’s safety card, wondering if I should just stay in crash position for the entire flight.

But despite our fears, the flight was actually really smooth. Just when I thought it was safe to pry my fingers off the arm rest and relax, I saw the Lukla runway out of the front window and got terrified again – it looked so short and impossible! But obviously, we landed safely and it was actually one of the smoothest plane landings I’d ever experienced. That flight and the accompanying adrenaline rush ended up being one of the highlights of the whole experience.

A sherpa carrying a ridiculous load...there were so many of these guys all over the mountain and they weren't nearly as out of breath as we were!

A sherpa carrying a ridiculous load…there were so many of these guys all over the mountain and they weren’t nearly as out of breath as we were!

After a nice lunch in Lukla next to the runway, we started our 2 hour trek to Phakding, winding through villages, passing by prayer rocks, crossing paths with lots of trekkers from all over the world, as well as Sherpas who all carry crazy huge loads on their backs and heads. Our guide told us they can carry up to 200 pounds on their backs and I internally decided I would never complain about my day pack being a little heavy again.

Hiking through villages.

Hiking through villages.

We got to Phakding shortly before sunset and settled into our lodge. At dinner we got to know more about our Sherpa sirdar and guide, Kale. He has two daughters, lives in Kathmandu but used to live in Namche, where we were going the following day. We listened to his stories about Sherpa culture and met the rest of the crew that we’d be traveling with in the mountains.

Because this was supposed to be a bigger group trip, there were a total of EIGHT Sherpas on the crew – Kale, our assistant guide Bidur, a cook, three kitchen boys (they cooked all of our food for the whole trek) and two porters. As we would come to find out after speaking to other trekkers, this is a hilarious and embarrassingly large number of people helping us up the mountain. Most people hire a guide for two people and maybe a porter or two to carry their stuff, but we were really grateful to have all of our food prepared for us on the trail. We never got sick and all the food was pretty good, plus the guys were all super nice.

Suspension bridges...there were many and my heart skipped a few beats every time we crossed one.

Suspension bridges…there were many and my heart skipped a few beats every time we crossed one.

Trek Day 2 – Phakding to Namche

We woke up the next morning to gorgeous views of the mountains around us that were hidden by clouds the previous day. That seemed to be the general rule for the mountains – the skies were clearest and the views were the most spectacular in the morning, and then in the afternoon clouds would set in.

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Dudh Kosi River

Dudh Kosi River

This was the hardest day of hiking with the second half after lunch being basically straight uphill to Namche. The views were gorgeous, but with the rocky terrain and the endless amounts of yak poo on the trail, it was hard to take our eyes off the ground in front of us. Every time we stopped take a breather, which was often because even though we are pretty fit, we were ascending to well over 11,000 feet, we took in the views of the Dudh Kosi River (Milk River), the gorgeous snow-covered mountains and I felt like I couldn’t believe we were actually here.

At one point before our straight uphill ascent to Namche, we were walking along the river and I spotted two suspension bridges spanning the river very, very high up in the distance. They looked like something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones. I pointed them out to our guide and said, “We aren’t crossing either of those are we?” He said, “Yes, we cross high bridge now.” You should have seen the look of disbelief on our faces!

See those bridges? From this point we walked up and crossed the top one!

See those bridges? From this point we walked up and crossed the top one!

That was another trend on the trek. Kale would point to something way in the distance – a small village or a stupa that looked infinitely far away – and tell us that we would be hiking to it. Despite this trek being pretty physically exhausting, it was really empowering to reach these places that had seemed utterly impossible to walk to in a one day. Living in a place where you drive nearly everywhere, you sometimes forget how far your legs can take you in only a matter of hours. It’s pretty awesome….except for the blisters.

When we finally got to Namche, we were greeted by a larger village on steep ridges in semi-circle with a Buddhist stupa at the base. We were so exhausted that we hit the hay following dinner.

Namche from above.

Namche from above.

Trek Day 3 – “Rest” Day in Namche

We woke up to yet another gorgeous mountain view from our window that hadn’t been there the cloudy evening before. Thomserku gorgeously loomed over one side of Namche, Kongde Ri over the other. This was supposed to be a rest and acclimatization day, but we did have a hike to the Everest View Hotel and back, which I wouldn’t describe as restful, in ANY way! Maybe it was the elevation or our sore feet but we were surprised by how much trouble we had going up and over the hill behind Namche to the hotel.

View from the Everest View Hotel.

View from the Everest View Hotel.

The day was mostly clear but we were disappointed when we got to the hotel to find that, while most of the other mountains were visible, there were clouds covering the tip top of Everest. We were a little bummed because we’d hoped that we’d be getting our first view of it today, but we were still in awe of the other massive mountains that surround it. My favorite was Ama Dablam, which has a jaggedy double peak and looked the most formidable I thought, even though it tops out at 22,493 feet (Everest is 29,029).

Ama Dablam

Ama Dablam

We sipped tea and took in the views before heading back to Namche, where we decided to go for an Everest beer at a place called Liquid Bar, where we met Raju, the awesomely friendly owner. We stopped ourselves after two because we knew we had another formidable hike the next day but we decided that on the way down we’d come back here for more.

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Trek Day 4 – Namche to Tengboche

We set out in the morning towards Tengboche Monastery and after rounding a corner shortly after leaving Namche, we suddenly got our first view of epic Everest! We stopped at the stupa there and took a million pictures, so excited to finally see the top of the giant mountain peeking over the smaller peaks around it.

So happy to finally see Everest!

So happy to finally see Everest!

What is crazy about Everest is that it is so high that it disrupts the jet stream and there is always what looks like a blast of snow coming off of one side as a result. It really does seem massive and formidable, and because we both read Into Thin Air while on the trek, I knew that it was incredibly difficult to climb and you can’t help but have so much respect for it, as well as the massive ones alongside it. I started to understand why the Sherpas treated the mountains they lived in with so much respect and had many spiritual practices to honor them. If I lived with these beasts surrounding me every day, I’d regard them with such spiritual awe too. I feel like I already do!

Spinning prayer wheels.

Spinning prayer wheels.

Speaking of Sherpas, another thing we saw on this day for the first time was an actual yak. Up til this point, the trains of animals that passed us up and down the mountain were actually jokyos which are cow/yak crossbreeds. At the higher altitudes, such as Tengboche at 13,000 feet where we were headed, are where the Sherpas use yaks to transport supplies and goods to and from the many villages. Our guide called the lines of yaks that passed us “Himalayan Trains” and we always had to closely hug the mountains when they passed to avoid being gored by their horns or accidentally pushed off the mountains. It was a bit hairy at times, especially on the narrower parts of the trail!

Yaks!

Yaks!

We got to Tengboche in the afternoon and visited the gorgeous monastery there, which was a beautiful place. We were lucky to have a room at one of the handful of lodges actually in Tengboche, and our room even had a view of Mount Everest! I watched the sunset beside some prayer rocks and stood there shivering as a cloud came up and engulfed me as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip and probably the time that I felt the most grateful for this incredible experience.

Tengboche Monastery

Tengboche Monastery

Trek Day 5 – Tengboche to Kumjung

Today we veered off the main trail towards Everest Base Camp (leaving all the trekkers we’d met on the trial behind as everyone was headed to EBC) and headed to the small village of Kumjung. There were far less foreigners on this trail and in this village, and we visited the Hillary School that Edmund Hillary had set up for the villagers there. We watched local kids play cricket next to a stupa and women dig for potatoes in the areas around our lodge.

Potato fields with compost for fertilizer.

Potato fields with compost for fertilizer.

Though the monastery was closed and we never saw the supposed yeti skull that was there, Kale told us a great local story about the mysterious Yeti. Supposedly at one point there were many Yetis living high in the mountains, and they would watch the villagers all the time, copying everything they did and stealing things from them, including crops and food. After one very upsetting episode involving the yetis coming down in the night and stealing all the potato crops from the village and then replanting them in their village in the exact same way, leaving the Sherpa village with very little food for the coming winter, the Sherpas came up with a plan. The next day, they made fake weapons and pretended to kill each other with them. Then they left out lots of real weapons overnight and the yeti came down and did what they always did – stole the weapons and copied the exact actions of the Sherpas, and ended up actually killing each other, leaving none alive save for one yeti woman who was pregnant and had stayed behind. After that, the yeti woman left for higher in the mountains and never bothered the Sherpa villagers again. A strange story but for some reason I really liked it!

Statue of Hillary at the school he founded.

Statue of Hillary at the school he founded.

Trek Day 6 – Kumjung to Thame

This was our favorite day of the whole trek! We hiked a somewhat easier, more level trail through forests to Thame, even further from the beaten path. This was the childhood home of Tenzing Norgay as well as Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest a world record 18 times. Thame is nestled in a beautiful valley and above the town is a monastery that is built into the mountain that is over 500 years old.

Thame Monastery

Thame Monastery

The monastery was the most beautiful place we visited. With clouds swirling around it and the way it seemed to grow out of the side of a cliff, it was breathtaking and it seemed like the perfect place to build a spiritual enclave.

Trek Days 7-9 – Thame to Namche, Namche to Phakding, Phakding to Lukla

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The last three days of the trek were really taxing but luckily were mostly downhill. I’ve never hiked for 9 straight days and I was definitely feeling it in my thighs and with the blisters on my feet. But I also knew I’d miss the mountains so much once we were done with the trek, so I tried to appreciate every painful moment!

In Namche, we went back to Liquid Bar and watched the Everest IMAX movie, ate popcorn, drank Everest beer and met some amazing fellow trekkers on their way back from base camp. We also visited the Bazaar there, the biggest local market day where people sold everything from food, spices, and meats to sneakers and trekking/climbing gear.

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We spent the last night in Lukla at a beautiful lodge at the edge of the cliff next to the runway, had a farewell dinner with our amazing Sherpas, and we went to meet some friends we’d met on the trail at a Scottish Pub. We celebrated and I felt really proud of how much ground we covered the last 9 days. The views never ceased to be spectacular the entire time, and even though I was tired I was sad to think we would be flying back to Kathmandu the next day.

That being said, I was honestly glad to know we were done walking up and down hills. I don’t think my legs could have made it another day!

Kathmandu: Colorful and Beautifully Chaotic

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I feel like there is no way I can explain the atmosphere of Kathmandu to anyone and do justice to just how much of a hot mess this city is. It is something one must see to believe. It is, as the title of this post states, beautifully colorful and extremely chaotic, but that only scratches the surface. Kathmandu is by far the most fascinating place I’ve ever been in my life up until this point.

Landing in Lukla

Landing in Kathmandu Valley

I got off the plane yesterday afternoon, was greeted by my driver and drove to my hotel, and the entire time all I could think was, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?!” The streets were madness – cars, trucks, vans, tuk tuks, and what felt like hundreds of motorcycles were all weaving in and out of traffic, missing the crowds of people walking down the street by mere inches. There are no stop lights, stop signs, or even lanes on the road. It is literally a free for all, with aggressive horn honking that made NYC cabs seem tame. I saw a motorbike holding 4 adults and a baby, cows wandering down roads and cars honking at them to move, chickens, stray dogs, goats sitting on piles of bricks, huge groups of school children, buddhist monks, outdoor markets and colorful buildings, prayer flags, stupas…..it all flashed so quickly in front of my eyes that I couldn’t keep up with it all!

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I got to the hotel, where I met Kayla, my old friend who is spending my 2 weeks in Nepal trekking and exploring with me. We went for a Nepali beer at a local restaurant and wandered the streets, trying to make sense of it all. We’re in the tourist district called Thamel, with shops selling prayer beads, tibetan bowls, beautiful pashminas, saris, buddhist paintings, spices, teas and every other brightly colored exotic object you can imagine. Everything around us smelled of incense and exotic spices. We fell asleep last night with the sound of thunder crashing on the mountains around us.

Ghorka - Nepali beer. Yum!

Ghorka – Nepali beer. Yum!

The view from our hotel room window!

The view from our hotel room window!

Today, we got an up close and personal look at the best sights this city has to offer in our city tour. It turns out, we are the only two people on our REI tour group, so essentially we have our own personal guide (and trekking crew!) the next two weeks as we explore Nepal – how amazing is that! Our guide, Narayan, was super friendly and let us go at our own pace and answered all of our questions with a smile.

The three areas we visited were Boudhanath Temple (a Buddhist stupa), Durbar Square in Patan, and the Swayambhunath Temple, or the Monkey Temple. All of these sights hold both Buddhist and Hindu religious sites, and I found it amazing that the two religions overlap so much here so peacefully. Imagine if the different religions in America were asked to openly worship in the same space…..somehow I feel like it wouldn’t be quite as peaceful.

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We are exhausted and need to wake up at 5am to fly to Lukla to begin our trek tomorrow, so I’m leaving you with some photos to get an idea of the incredible things we saw today. Enjoy!

Today was the first day so far in my trip that I feel like exceeded my expectations and lit the fire of adventure in my heart that I have been seeking for so long!

Boudhanath Temple and prayer flags.

Boudhanath Temple and prayer flags.

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The monastery at Boudhanath Temple

The monastery at Boudhanath Temple

Durbar Square in Patan.

Durbar Square in Patan.

The monkey temple on a hill overlooking Kathmandu.

The monkey temple on a hill overlooking Kathmandu.

Monkey Temple.

Monkey Temple.


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Monkey love!

Monkey love!

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We’ll be back in Kathmandu in 10 days after our trek, and fingers crossed the weather will let us get that #everestselfie we’re dying to get!

Kayla is ready for the mountains!

Kayla is ready for the mountains!

A Quick Overnight in Kuala Lumpur

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It’s amazing how quickly I could tell a difference in the friendliness of the people as soon as I stepped off the plane in Kuala Lumpur! Everyone from the Malaysia Air flight attendants to the immigration agent to the people at my hotel in KL were all so friendly and welcoming. Landing a bit late, I was worried I’d miss my pre-arranged hotel pick up, but immigration and customs was super easy and since I’d checked my bags all the way through to Kathmandu and didn’t need to wait for them, it was easy to find my driver. The most hilarious thing was we’d arranged a few months ago to meet next to the Dunkin Donuts stand, and sure enough, there it was – a little bit of home right next to the baggage claim!

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My driver was a bit quiet, and I slightly worried for a second about getting in the shuttle alone with him, even though he was scrawny, wearing a hotel shirt and the van was clearly marked with the hotel’s name (hey, after the Shanghai scammer debacle I’m a bit jumpy!) However, as soon as we got in, he started sing along with Taylor Swift on the radio, LOUDLY. I figured at that point the chances of him being a murderer or a rapist were slim to none.

The hotel I chose was called youniQ, a trendy, off-beat and clean one near the airport that costs half as much as the one actually inside the airport, perfect for my quick overnight layover. The workers were all super friendly and it even had some coffee and toast in the lobby in the morning. This was when I discovered kaya, which is apparently a fruit curd made from coconut milk, sugar and eggs. It is unbelievably delicious on toast and I’m pretty sure it has crack in it, it is so addictive.

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On the shuttle ride to the airport, I caught a gorgeous sunrise over the large groves of palm trees and have decided that someday I’ll return to Malaysia for a proper visit. The people are far too nice and the weather was far too lovely to not come back and explore it further. If only so I can have more kaya…

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I’m now 40 minutes from landing in Kathmandu, where I’m meeting up with my childhood friend Kayla for two weeks of trekking in the Himalayas. I’m feeling blissed and looking forward to the companionship of an old friend.

Namaste!

36 Hours in Shanghai

View from the top of the World Financial Center.

View from the top of the World Financial Center.

Sorry for the long post – I’ve been writing this for a couple of days but haven’t been able to post anything because WordPress (as well as Facebook) is blocked in China.

In the last 36 hours, I’ve walked over 5 miles around the city of Shanghai, rode the subway 8 times, used my first squat toilet, visited a museum with some beautiful Chinese art, been asked by a Chinese businessman if I was in to S&M (I think), walked down the busiest street in the world, been scammed by four people that I thought I had made fast friends with, sloppily ate several rounds of soup dumplings, visited the world’s highest observation deck, and had three nose bleeds from breathing in the horrific air pollution.

All I can say is, it was a bizarre start to my epic adventure!

Shanghai isn’t a place that I’d initially dreamed of visiting. It was meant to be a quick stopover because I’d used my miles to book an essentially free flight from LA – I figured I could use miles to get to the continent and then take advantage of all the cheap flights around to the places I really wanted to go. But somehow I talked myself into staying a couple of nights in Shanghai because I thought, why not? China seems like a fascinating place to me and I’m already there. Why not check out what one of it’s biggest city has to offer?

I arrived at my hotel on high note – the room I’d booked at the Dorsett Shanghai was incredible. For around $75 a night I’d somehow booked an amazing suite with a bedroom, separate living room, two balconies overlooking Century Park and two huge bathrooms, one with a giant Jacuzzi tub. Score! I hit the jackpot my first time using Jetsetter.

After a sub-par nights’ sleep (I blame jet lag and the malaria pills)  I woke up extremely excited to hit the town. I hit up the Dorsett’s huge breakfast buffet, which mixed Western stuff (bacon! Yay!) with some Chinese items, most of which I didn’t recognize but tried anyways. I had some delicious dragon fruit and fried thingys with red bean paste inside, but I didn’t try the congee – I couldn’t figure out if it was oatmeal – or the soy soup.

I jumped on the subway and headed towards the People’s Square Station, where I planned to start wandering. The subway is very cheap ($0.97 each way!) and surprisingly easy to navigate, with everything in both Chinese and English, and is really no problem if you’re familiar with any major city subways – London, New York, etc. And the cars were packed with people, who were all strangely silent, and I noticed several people in business clothes fast asleep.

Once I got to People’s Square, there was plenty to see and I wandered through the People’s Park and the square. The area reminded me a lot of any big European city, but it being around 9am on a Wednesday morning, there weren’t a lot of people out and about. Thankfully I had downloaded this app called CityMaps2Go and in it a saved map of Shanghai. I used my phones GPS to easily navigate around and even used it tell my taxi driver where to go the night before. It is a MUST for international travelers!

People's Square

People’s Square

At one point I made a pit stop at a public toilet, only to discover that each stall held squat toilets! I had prepared myself for these and expected to encounter them in Nepal and the remote parts of SE Asia I’m visiting, but not on my very first day in a massive city in China. I wish more than anything I could see what my face looked like when I first saw them! I wasn’t entirely sure how to use it, but I looked at the feet of the people in the stalls next to me and figured it out. I of course dropped my $5 sunglasses into it after it flushed itself and decided to leave them behind. I bought 4 pairs of cheap sunglasses because, well, I know myself.

I visited the Shanghai Museum, which was free and had some lovely Chinese sculptures, scrolls, jade work and my favorite, a selection of traditional clothing from many of Chinese ethnic minorities. It was nice, apart from the nervous, well-dressed Chinese businessman who approached me in the atrium. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him America, he responded with “Are you familiar with the game S&M?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, so I asked him to repeat it, and he said the same thing again but slower. I just looked at him oddly and said no, and he suddenly became super apologetic and excused himself. Uhhh…..WTF?

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After the museum I was on my way to eat some dumplings when a group of young casually dressed Chinese students asked me to take a picture of them, which I did. We got to chatting (their English was pretty good) and they asked me where I was from, and we totally hit it off right away. They were from Nanjing, and they were visiting Shanghai on vacation. Besides them, I’d hardly spoken to anyone in the last 12 hours since I’d arrived (besides creepy S&M guy) so I was really excited that I could finally have a friendly conversation with someone. They asked me if I wanted to come a long to tea festival with them, and I did – which I found out later on was a massive scam and they’d been lying the entire time. I am considering writing an entire blog post dedicated to this elaborate scam, which really tarnished my entire experience in Shanghai, but suffice it to say that if you ever go to Shanghai, don’t trust anyone who is super friendly. I hate to say that, but after spending a couple days there I realized that the Shanghainese (in my opinion) are pretty reserved, especially towards foreigners, and after reading up on this scam extensively after the fact, it seems that anyone who is outgoing in any way is more than likely out to scam you or push you into buying something from them.  Don’t worry, I was never in any physical danger, I got most of my money back and even got an apology email from one of the scammers (I know, a guilty scammer, hilarious!) but the entire thing was a harsh kick in the stomach and a hard lesson to learn on my first day!

After recovering from the emotional blow of finding out my four new Chinese friends were just unbelievably good actors (seriously, Meryl Streep could learn a thing or two watching them) I went back to the hotel for a quick recovery cup of coffee and headed back out.  I wasn’t going to let the scammers or the pouring rain stop me from doing the thing I was most looking forward to – eating traditional Shanghai soup dumplings!

I made it to Yang’s Dumplings, a place I read about on a couple of travel blogs that seemed right up my alley. These dumplings have soup cooked inside them and are delicious, even if you can’t figure out how to properly eat them (guilty). They are too big to eat whole, but if you take a bite into them the soup goes everywhere. I tried watching the locals, and I think it’s some combination of piercing the dumpling, sipping out the soup, and then biting into them, but who the hell knows. And yes, I was the awkward American sitting in a place full of locals staring at them all, confused. But they were suuuuuper tasty, and they only cost 6 RMB for 4 of them (less than $1). They really hit the spot on a rainy day.

Yang's Dumplings......mmmmmm.

Yang’s Dumplings……mmmmmm.

After that I did some serious walking, all the way down the pedestrian Nanjing Road, the supposed busiest street in the world. Even though it was raining, it was quite crowded. I’d heard there would be some good shopping and markets to be had here, but all I found was basically Times Square, but in Shanghai. All the typical American shit was there – Forever 21, Starbucks, Nike – you name any store found in the Beverly Center, it was there. I didn’t stop at all because I didn’t come to China to buy overpriced shit I could get at home!

I kept walking about a mile down to the Bund, which is the waterfront park that overlooks the newer area of Shanghai across the river. It was definitely an area I would have spent a lot more time if it wasn’t pouring rain, because it was a beautiful view of the Shanghai new area across the river and all the incredible skyscrapers it boasts. The Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center (aka the Giant Bottle Opener) and the to-be-completed-this-year Shanghai Tower are a pretty incredible sight, even in the rain and impenetrable smog. What is amazing to me is that area was supposedly just farmland 25 years ago, with most of the giant skyscrapers having been built in the last 15-20 years.

View from the Bund in the rain.

View from the Bund in the rain.

The next morning (after a restless night’s sleep and another hearty hotel breakfast) I set back out to that Pudong new area to visit the observation deck on the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. Today, it was supposedly sunny, according to all the weather sites I checked…..but I think this is as sunny as it gets in Shanghai, where the air pollution is so bad that some days you can’t see 10 feet in front of you. I took this picture at sunrise from my balcony. Let me know if you see the sun, because I sure as hell didn’t spot it the entire time I was in Shanghai.

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IMG_1603At the observatory, the view was still impressive, despite the smog. The 100th floor is called the “Sky Garden” and it at the top of the “bottle opener” meaning it was all glass with a floor that was mostly glass too. What a trip! And I mean that literally….I got vertigo for the first time in my life looking down and I struggled to move steadily on the glass bits. At times I couldn’t tell if the building was swaying or if it was just in my head, but it was still an incredible experience being able to spy with my zoom lens over all the bits of the city surrounding the Pudong area. The Pearl Tower and Jin Mao Tower were awesome to see from so high up, and seeing the rows and rows of apartment buildings with colorful roofs was so interesting. I sat down with my zoom lens and spied for a bit on the city below.

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View down from the glass floor - look how small the street and cars look!

View down from the glass floor – look how small the street and cars look!

Close up of the Oriental Pearl Tower from the SWFC.

Close up of the Oriental Pearl Tower from the SWFC.

After descending in the ear-popping elevator back to earth, I made my way back to the hotel, grabbed my bags and headed to the Maglev for my train ride back to the airport, and now I sit here on my way to Kuala Lumpur for a quick overnight layover before flying to Kathmandu tomorrow.

It was definitely an interesting day and a half in China. Most of the time I felt like Arthur Weasley, fascinated and enchanted with the strange customs of the people of Shanghai, wandering around with a kind of dumbfounded look on my face (if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you know what I’m talking about). I’ve resolved that going forward, I’m going to act less like a newbie and more like a consummate world traveller. I figure, fake it til you make it, right? I’m sure at the end of my two month journey, I’ll be more seasoned (and far harder to scam!) but for now, I’m taking the tough lessons I learned in Shanghai and forging ahead, still smiling and embracing what is to come.

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