Phrapradaeng was my humble and beautiful home for a year and a half. A 20 minute taxi ride from Bangkok and nestled in between two nearly-touching bends of the Chao Praya river, Phrapradaeng is an unexpected, little-known gem. Its banks of the river are flooded with people every November for Loy Krathong, the lantern festival, and its streets draw the second largest crowd in the country for Thailand's annual country-wide water fight to ring in the New Year.
Kee Ann, a kind and proud chef, pictured here, fed us every lunch and dinner (a dollar a meal) for 16 months. Her house and family-run store/restaurant underneath our apartment quickly became our second home. Kee Ann's English was very poor, so we found ourselves fully immersed in Thai language and culture almost immediately.
Havana is a hodgepodge of race, culture, food, and architecture. Of the many places I’ve been, this Caribbean island struck me as the most ethnically diverse. Spanish and French-inspired squares contrasted by Afro-Cuban dances and rituals highlight the country's various influences from nearly every continent. Despite its complex history clouded by dictatorships, corruption and unrest, the Cuban spirit persists.
Vibrantly colored vintage cars and colonial buildings transport visitors back to the 1950's. Music can be heard on every street corner and spontaneous dance-offs are a common occurrence. We witnessed an African rumba in the famously crowded alley of Callejon de Hamel and attended a dinner concert where old members of the Buena Vista Social Club boogied the night away.
Visiting temples in Thailand constructed a clearer sense of what the word "spirituality" means to me. The magic that occurs when the sun catches the tiles is indescribable; the mystery that presents itself when attempting to fathom the construction of these places of worship is ineffable.
Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, a mosaic temple pictured several times here, was quite literally breathtaking. The relatively new temple (opened in 2004) is located in a province called Petchabun that does not exist in the guidebook. To say it is off the beaten path is an understatement - a pilgrimage site would be more accurate. We spent five hours exploring this wonder and even got trapped at the top while waiting for a monstrous storm to pass. When the skies cleared, animals flocked to the temple in masses. Peacocks appeared seemingly out of nowhere and begun calling to each other in their high-pitched, sing-song way. It was a fairytale of majestic proportions and a day I will never forget.
Other temples pictured here include Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Wat Arun and and Burmese-style temples close to the Myanmar border.
The intense juxtaposition between the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the peacefulness and the chaos is what struck me most about this country. Eight days in Myanmar truly opened my eyes to the rampant strife in parts of the world and some of the wildly disparate ways human beings go about their daily lives on Earth.
After a quick visit to Yangon, the former capital of Burma, we headed to the countryside to motorbike through the ancient ruins of Bagan as far as the eye could see. Inle lake, however, was a true depiction of one of the most utterly raw cultures in existence. Starting at sunrise, we took a long-boat tour of the lake and stopped at a silver smith's workshop, visited a long neck tribe, explored a floating market, cruised through a local fishing village, went to a cigar making shop, ate a local Burmese style meal, stopped at an ancient pagoda, boated through a floating garden and toured a floating monastery.
India is indescribable. Its crowds, colors, smells, chants and prayers attack the senses in the most insatiable way. We were awed by caves from 5th century B.C., floated down the holy Ganges river, witnessed bodies being cremated and danced amongst bursts of bright colors during the Holi Festival.
Three short weeks in India were simultaneously peaceful and exhilarating. It felt as though we had spent a lifetime there, and yet I still craved more time. Overall the trip was completely life changing. These few photos could never hope to portray an entire culture or country, but attempt to present a small glimpse into India through the eyes of a foreigner.
Thailand is an especially unique place. From the sparkling waters of its pristine beaches and the tropical rainforests of its national parks to the crowded hustle bustle of Bangkok, this country has it all. Above all, however, Karma is palpably real and exists in its purest form in Thailand, with 95% of its population Buddhist. People are genuinely kindhearted and trustworthy to the point where I often felt safer in the most foreign, remote towns of Thailand than I sometimes do in my own hometown.
I'll never forget this little shack of joy known as the "Happy Kids Center," which has brought great happiness and opportunity to so many young lives devastated by the impact the 2015 earthquake had on their community. I spent two weeks volunteering at the center, located in Bhaktapur, an old capital of Nepal.
The town is off the beaten tourist path and paints a beautiful portrait of the resilient and passionate people of Nepal. I met friends here and made memories I know will last a lifetime. Aside from volunteering at the center, we visited a Tibetan shaman, trekked to a nearby temple, witnessed a local wedding, and attended a "chicken party" where we helped a local farmer pluck, skin, clean and prepare a chicken dinner.
My friend Liza is the adventurous soul who encouraged me to apply to teach in Thailand with her. She is also the genius who suggested I get an ENO hammock before we left. Purchasing that pink and purple double-nester was the best damn decision I ever made. Our ENOs quite literally became our homes. After our first night's sleep in our hammocks on Koh Samet, “ENO” became a verb. Thus began our quest to ENO far and wide. Over the next few months, we ENO-ed in parks (local and national), sunflower fields, on many a beach, jungle, and even, stupidly, on dimly lit riverside street corners.
We learned a lot in our early ENO days, the main lesson being to trust our instinct. If a gut feeling told us not to ENO somewhere, we didn't. In fact, the biggest source of danger we ever came close to encountering was animals: monkeys, killer ants, mosquitos, baby sharks and insects I previously never knew existed. We built up our ENO skills for months in preparation for an ENO trip of a lifetime. We spent the first two weeks of summer vacation in utter bliss, island-hopping, sleeping in our hammocks, bathing in the ocean and living mostly off rations of nuts and berries we had carried with us.
Portugal is a photographer's dream. Lisbon is one of the most unique, enticing, beautiful and culturally rich cities I've ever encountered. The colors and patterns etched into the walls paint a picture of a deep and twisted history wrought with invasions and wars, and yet a great sense of patriotism prevails. The crystal-clear water peeking out between each tiny, winding alleyway, trinkets adorning every wall and street art marked with irony and zeitgeist are all an added bonus.
After finishing up three semesters of teaching, Laos was the first stop on our three month journey through Asia. We spent two days on a slow boat chugging down the Mekong river into Laos from Northern Thailand. Having yet to be overrun by tourists, the rugged Laotian landscape juts out behind old French buildings and local fishing boats and the small hillside towns illustrate the simple way of living.
The rivers and mountains running through Laos invite and incite the adventurer within. We kayaked, motorbiked, zip-lined and tubed our way from Northern Laos down to Vientienne. Getting from A to B provided a few comical challenges but we adapted to changes in plans by exploring local markets lining every street and basking in vibrant sunsets that dominated every evening.
Angkor Wat is without a doubt one of the most photographable destinations on this planet. I took over 2,000 pictures in under 3 days of exploring the UNESCO world heritage site. At least 8 hours a day were spent investigating 12th century ruins of the fallen Khmer empire in the largest religious complex in the world. We watched multiple sunrises, climbed thousands of stairs, snuck our bikes into the park before it was open, tuk-tuked through a marathon, enjoyed local Cambodian cuisine and engaged with the locals.
“...the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.” - Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
This book helped ensure continuous growth and change from within during my five month trip. You know that speechless feeling that arises when witnessing a remarkable sunset? Or entering a creative zone? Or hiking through the wilderness listening to the silence of birds chirping and leaves rustling? Tolle reminds us these are moments we have come to accept as far and few between in our modern, fast-paced lifestyles.
In reality, we should be experiencing moments like this, existing in a state of “no-mind,” every day. In fact, almost all the time. This is what our five day trek through the Himalayas helped me to discover. Never before had I been so appreciative of nature or curious about cultures that sustain themselves solely off their land. Never before had I found my thoughts, worries or anxieties so scarce. The simple act of continually placing one foot in front of the other led me to appreciate, understand and live in the "now" with each step.
I knew this country was unlike any other when the first monstrous gust of wind hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. This tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled within the Himalayas measures its wealth in happiness rather than GDP. We spent 5 days trekking from Paro to Thimphu and learned about Bhutanese culture each night from our wise young guide illuminated by the light of the camp's bonfire.
Every year the country celebrates the King's birthday by planting thousands of trees and Bhutan holds the world record for the most trees planted in one hour - 4,900. A whopping 72% of its land mass remains forested. Houses are built from mud and the entire village gathers together while building to sing, dance and pound the bricks. School is free, traffic lights don't exist, GMOs are illegal and "modernization" is heavily resisted. The West could learn a lot from this spiritually endowed little country.
Whether my love for the sea stems from growing up on an island or visiting the Outer Banks every summer of my life, it was certainly solidified when I arrived at the University of Miami. After being certified in the Floridian keys, I truly came to love the sport in Thailand. The silence that exists underwater in unlike any on land; the inability to speak leaves you alone with your own thoughts. Koh Tao, specifically, provides awesome reefs and cheap day trips. I then took my certification one step further in Indonesia where I became deep-water certified.
Wonderfruit: A Celebration of the Arts is an extraordinary melting pot of infinitely talented artists, artisans, crafters, chefs, dancers, musicians and performance artists from all corners of the globe. We were lucky enough to experience Wonderfruit in all its glory its first two years open. We frolicked in tapioca fields, participated in a mandala carving workshop, practiced yoga, danced with members of an Indian folk band, witnessed drum circles, lounged on waterbeds inside an inflatable bubble-maze, enjoyed breakfast tacos in the morning and fell asleep in our hammocks every night to the sounds of birds chirping and music still blasting.
My students are the sole element that made my time in Thailand fully complete. I’ve never had a job prior to this that excited and inspired me so when I awoke each morning. If I was homesick, actually sick, or simply in a bad mood, I could always count on my students to cheer me up.
Every time I walked into the classroom, someone screamed, “PLEASE STAND UP!” Followed by, “GOOOOD MORNING, TEACHA!” It was intensely refreshing being faced with a group of young humans who were so genuinely and collectively happy to be right where they were at any given moment. And better yet, I was in charge of what and how they would learn that day? Bring it on.
I was lucky enough to teach the same group of about 110 students for my entire 3 semester stint at Amnuayvidhya School. I moved with them from second to third grade and enjoyed watching them blossom socially, mentally, physically and educationally.
Despite having grown up in Hong Kong and traveled to a few of the farthest corners of the world, Richmond, Virginia will always be home. Richmond has come a long way in the past 10 years and has a lot to offer. I love the old town houses of the fan, the constant buzz of VCU, the tranquility of the James River and the consistently expanding restaurant, bar and music scene. The city is the former capital of the confederacy and the Robert E. Lee monument directly behind my house is a constant reminder of the history and significance this state capital holds.
"They tried to bury us but they didn't know we were seeds."
Coming away from this monumental day in history, I still had qualms over whether or not to write an opinionated political post. But in hindsight, it is more clear than ever why this fight for social justice can and should appeal to everyone. Regardless of race, class, gender or sexuality, we should all believe in equality. Never before have I been a part of such a peaceful crowd of such high numbers all rallying together for social justice (a whopping 600,000 people marched on Washington alone).
It wasn’t until after the march that I was acutely aware of why I marched. I marched for human rights. I marched because I believe in a future for our planet and because I want to raise children on this Earth. I marched because I believe in unity through diversity. Love, warmth and acceptance were palpable in the air on this historic day.