From fall to winter in two hours

A journey that began the morning of June 3rd ended last night when my flight landed in Minneapolis. Two and half years – that’s how long it too me to fly around the world. But I’d say I got a good amount done during that time. I’ve also seen an incredible amount of the world.

According to TripAdvisor I’ve seen 6% of the world with Chandler, and even more when factoring in what I’ve done on my own. The map below recounts everywhere we’ve gone together – which is literally everything I’ve done the last two year and a half years, with the exception of my trip to Italy summer of 2013 with my mom and sister.

Map of tripThese last two weeks were spent in DFW, Texas…the area that Chandler’s always considered home. It was really exciting to be somewhere that was familiar to at least one of us. I got to meet his family and friends, see where he grew up, and go to some of his favourite spots.

One of the first things we did was go to the Gaylord ICE Show featuring Frosty the Snowman. It was hilarious seeing people not accustomed to cold/ice go through the exhibition – and lest you think I’m mocking Texans, I’m far from used to that same cold and I’m sure I looked just as silly!

But really, the sculptures were stunning – the attention to detail was amazing and the Frosty theme was so much fun. They even had ice slides for the kiddos…which only made me want to click my heels three times to be sledding back home in Brainerd.

Gaylord ICE 1Gaylord ICE 2Aside from that afternoon, we had strictly fall weather in Texas…which was awesome given it’s my favourite season and I knew I had definitely missed it in Minnesota this year!

I spent Thanksgiving with Chandler’s family – it was lovely to be surrounded by a family during a holiday! The following day Chandler, his brother, and I went to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, all of which was lovely, especially the Japanese Garden. The trees were stunning and the site of them being reflected on the water was incredible.

We spent the afternoon wandering through the grounds, feeding the fish, and goofing off. All the while, the temps were high 60s, low 70s – a perfect reminder of why I love this season.

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An American Girl:

I’m back!

And honestly, it feels like I never left. I don’t quite feel “at home,” which makes sense since I’m currently in Dallas/Fort Worth after visiting Los Angeles, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas – all places I’ve never been before.

But really, I’ve had an incredible couple of weeks back in the US. Our friend Sam (RPCV, Ethiopia) picked us up at LAX on November 9th and we had an intense couple of days trying to readjust…to the amount of sugar put in packaged bread, the giant portions at restaurants, and the faster pace of life here.

Some things were realized…I can no longer eat donuts, Chandler & I have to split one menu item per meal, and I should probably get a job instead of continuing to chop my money.

But other, more fun things, happened as well. We went grocery shopping…a lot. Which meant we were able to cook…a lot. Two things we had missed an insane amount – three months of eating every meal out isn’t as great as it may sound.

Sam also took us to the Santa Monica Pier. Even though I’ve spent the last two and a half years traveling, I had never seen the ocean from American soil. (So thank you, Sam!)

Santa Monica Pier 1

Santa Monica Pier 2

And after three days in LA, we began our road trip to the Grand Canyon, with our first stop in Flagstaff, AZ. The first thought that ran through my mind when we stepped into our room at the Super 8 Hotel was, “Man, American hotel rooms are NICE!” I had definitely forgotten how comfortable a bed could be – Sam was kind enough to blow up an air mattress for us, but nowhere I had been in the last two and a half years had a bed that could compare to Super 8’s.

The next morning it was up and at ‘em as we made our way to the Grand Canyon – none of us particularly dressed for the occasion. Sam had forgotten to pack pants and Chandler and I were seriously lacking in warm clothing as well.

Luckily, my boyfriend had an (albeit dirty) fleece that he let me wear along with a hat and scarf I had bought in Bangkok. That was another thing I hadn’t fully grasped about the US – how cold I would feel here. I got the shivers in LA – when it was 65 degrees. Which meant the Grand Canyon – at a less reasonable 45 degrees – felt downright freezing.

But we soon forgot the cold as we took in the spectacular sights all around us. We only had the morning at the Grand Canyon, but it definitely filled me with a desire to return. Next time, I plan on making more out of my trip by spending a few days camping on the canyon’s base – I’ve even convinced my boyfriend to join me : )

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I watched the sun set…twice

I’m officially back on American soil, and I have to admit, it feels pretty great. However, the 23 hours it took to get us from Chiang Mai to LA were less than great. About 2/3 of it was spent in the air, the other 1/3 in airports. But one fun fact, we went back in time when we passed the International Date Line. Which means, essentially, that I got to watch the sun set on the same day twice. Once flying over China and the other flying into LA.

But that’s hardly the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last week. Chiang Mai experienced two festivals from November 5-7: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng. We got to participate in similar festivals in Luang Prabang earlier on this trip, but to a much smaller scale.

Loi Krathong is celebrated by floating boats (made of banana trees, leaves, flowers, and a candle) down the river, which symbolizes letting go of negative thoughts, actions, and karma. It’s essentially a request for a fresh start.

On Yi Peng, swarms of Lanna-style paper lanterns (made of rice paper, bamboo, and a kerosene soaked disk) are released into the sky. A tangible way of sending your wishes into the universe.

In northern Thailand, these festivals coincide on the full moon of the twelfth month (Thai calendar) and second month (Lanna calendar). Many cities have massive celebrations – Sukothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, and Phuket, but no one does it like Chiang Mai.

Celebrations started on the 5th of November this year and officially went through the 7th, but the holiday spirit could be felt for days before and days after. The first “official” event that we went to was the Hot Air Balloon Competition.

It’s not hard to see why the balloon below was my favourite – The Little Mermaid, anyone? And it was icing on the cake that when the rockets were launched from the balloon, they looked like a giant octopus.

Hot Air Balloon 1

Hot Air Balloon 2

After that we wandered around the city, taking in the various sights and decorations. We made our way through Talat Tonlamyai, the flower market, and past tons of temples, all of which had put up numerous lanterns.

The city was packed with people from all around the world and we were just two in a crowd of thousands.

FlowersPaper Lanterns

But that night was when the real magic happened. Despite the ban on lanterns before 9 pm, the second that sun set, the lights started rising one by one. An hour later and the sky was covered in lanterns that shown like diamonds in the night sky. Luang Prabang was just a teaser, because I’ve never seen anything like this before:

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Phuket: Time for another change in our itinerary!

At no point during this trip have we felt like we needed to stick to any sort of concrete schedule (airport days aside!), so when we cut the bottom half of Laos, we decided to do our second trip to Thailand in reverse: south to north.

We were going to start in Bangkok, make our way up through Ayutthaya to see some temples, move on to Sukhothai for yet more temples, then head to Chiang Rai for – you guessed it – another temple, before ending our trip in Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festivals.

We knew each of these cities was going to be amazing, but let’s face it, at the end of a three-month journey, there’s only so much you’re still craving to see. So we decided to leave a few temples for the next time we find ourselves in Thailand and we began purchasing flights instead of bus tickets!

Of course, we still spent plenty of time in Bangkok, and we still popped up to be wowed by Ayutthaya’s sites, but after that, we decided to fly down to Phuket for a week before flying up to Chiang Mai.

Let me tell you – a week on a beach was exactly what we needed! Sunset after beautiful sunset…

Sunset 1

Sunset 2 And we couldn’t have picked a better beach for the week. We decided to bypass the craziness that is Patong Beach (Phuket’s main beach), choosing to head just south to the quieter Karon Beach.

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Thailand: The second time around

It’s been 95 days since I left home to begin this journey – and it’s not a home I’ll be going back to. I hopped in a friend’s car at 6:30 am on July 31st and have been slowly making my way east ever since.

It’ll take me another 29 days to reach the place I used to call home, Minneapolis. But for the first time in months, it finally feels like I’m coming to the end of things. All my flights have been booked, all my days have been planned, and I’m seriously looking forward to seeing my sister’s face at MSP International Airport on December 2nd.

At the same time, it feels odd to remind myself that this trip isn’t finished. I’m not hopping on that plane tomorrow – well, I am hopping on a plane tomorrow, but that’s to Chiang Mai! And I have to admit, I’m beginning to lose steam on these blog posts.

We’re spending more and more time in each place we go (nine nights in Bangkok, two in Ayutthaya, seven in Phuket), but I’m finding that I have less and less to say. Guess that’s how you know you’ve planned a trip a little too long! Because it’s certainly not the fault of anyplace we’ve been – Bangkok is easily one of our favourite cities (throughout this trip we’ve spent a total of 16 nights there).

For these ten days in Bangkok, we did a lot of shopping, mostly at Siam Center, Siam Paragon, and Siam Discovery. What can I say? After two years in Ethiopia, we both needed serious wardrobe upgrades.

We then spent the rest of our days wandering around the area near Koh San Road (though avoiding the road itself!), eating cheap pad thai, drinking fresh pomegranate juice, and stocking up on real books to read during our upcoming beach days.

Then, we took a quick trip up to Ayutthaya. Many do this as a simple day trip, but we decided to spend a couple of nights in the town. We didn’t even bother to leave our hotel, Tamarind, that first night (with the exception of grabbing dinner at the night market down the street).

We purchased some street popcorn, corn on the cob, waffles, cantaloupe, and a Coca-Cola to split and settled into this room to enjoy our spoils and watch The Shawshank Redemption:

Tamarind Guesthouse

The next day we were rested up and ready to check out the ruins that make up Ayutthaya’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767, when the Burmese army destroyed the city, effectively collapsing the kingdom.

We started at the sites closest to our hotel and worked our way out. First came Wat Ratchaburana. Founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II, it was built on the cremation site of his two older brothers. The two brothers had fought to their deaths in a duel for the royal succession to their father.

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I’m too old for this shit

I’ve heard people lament and complain about how touristed Thailand has gotten. Even Vietnam and Cambodia, to some extent. But everything I’ve heard and read about Laos claims it still feels like the promised land. Uncorrupted locals, an authentic way of life, gorgeous scenery…

Do you know what Laos reminded me of? Ethiopia.

In the sense that someone once told them, “Hey, you should try out this thing called tourism,” but they haven’t quite figured it out yet. Luang Prabang is an obvious exception, but I don’t feel like Vang Vieng or Vientiane (Laos’ capital) are.

My last post was filled with reasons why Vang Vieng wasn’t the place for me, but I was surprised to learn that neither was Vientiane. We checked into Sihome Backpackers Hostel and immediately felt out of place. Now, I know I was never enough of a “people person” to really feel at home in a hostel (we had a private room here, by the way), but this was more than that – they made me feel old. But in a good way.

I’m sure the hostel was fantastic for 18-to-21-year-old, socially apt people, but for a 24-year-old nearing the end of a 3-month trip, it was rough. Everyone around me was young, loud, and forgive me if I sound rude, but a little bit ignorant. The things they loved about Laos were the very things I struggled to cope with in Ethiopia.

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I went to Laos and all I got was bacterial conjunctivitis

Well, it didn’t take long for the Laotian feel-good vibes to fade. Actually, that had already started in Luang Prabang.

You see, what I only slightly touched on in my last post was that while we loved the festival and the people we met, Luang Prabang was damn expensive. Like, not slightly more costly, colossally more.

The room at our guesthouse was barely lit, we shared a bathroom with seven others, the walls were paper thin, and it was still one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed during this trip. The owners were quite lovely though, so we didn’t feel too grieved about all that.

Let’s move on to the food. Nowhere is as cheap as Bangkok, we learned that the hard way, the day we left, but food had steadily been costing more, the less developed the areas we went to. The all-you-could-fit-on-your-plate in Luang Prabang was a good deal, if you prefer your food cold, but restaurants were pricier than we were used to.

And then the souvenirs/knick-knacks…you don’t even want me to get started on those. The Handicraft Night Market had good prices, but the shops themselves were atrocious! We watched a woman pay $130 for two small figurines (and that was after bargaining!). We’ve long since learned that if we’re being quoted in dollars, they’re trying to rip us off.

Anyway, we’d heard Luang Prabang might be a little more upscale, so we were looking forward to chilling in Vang Vieng for a few days before moving on to the capital. Only, I woke up around 3 am on the morning our bus was to leave with pain in my eye that felt like a rock was in it. And not a little pebble either – I almost shouted at Chandler (after I had woken him up – I know, I’m a terrible girlfriend), when he couldn’t find anything in my eye.

About an hour later I fell into a fitful sleep. When our alarm went off a short while later, I awoke to the same pain. After Chandler did some more digging around in my eye (stupid on our part, in retrospect), he voiced his fears: pink eye. I immediately thought of the snot-nosed kid downstairs and started cursing.

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