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.
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.
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.
After finishing up three semesters of teaching English in Thailand, 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. The boat was an excellent way to relax and enjoy the scenery, but it wasn’t honestly always a pretty sight. Life is dirt cheap in Laos, and corruption is a vaguely discussed but a seriously impending issue. I remember seeing one dead and very bloated cat floating down the river alongside our very long boat. It was a moment of awareness, a glimpse into the darker underbelly of the country 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 the capital of Vientienne. Getting from A to B provided a few comical challenges not excluding one incident involving motion sickness after hours on its many winding, unpaved roads.
“...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 world 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.
My trip to Japan, in June of 2018, was the first official solo trip of my life. When I stepped off the plane for my layover in Hong Kong, my home from ages 5 to 14, I had a strange, yet familiar feeling that this trip on which I was embarking, beginning at my childhood home and bringing my life until this point full circle, would be the beginning of the rest of my life.
My family and I are permanent residents of Hong Kong, and return every three years to swipe our ID cards in order to retain this privilege. When we visited Asia last Christmas for this specific purpose, I could not locate that little piece of plastic anywhere for the life of me. Upon discovering it in the depths of my parents’ basement days after returning from Asia, it became the catalyst to my solo adventure, and I declared I would take the first independent trip of my life, with my sole motivation being to check in at the Hong Kong border. The rest was unknown. So, I booked a round trip flight to Japan, with a 24-hour layover in Hong Kong.
Japan, being an island, seems to have preserved and nourished some its finest traits, resulting in a culture so established, and so unlike any other, that each alleyway, meal and transportation experience will leave you elated. Immaculate, orderly and sophisticated are words that I listed in my notes app while roaming the streets of Tokyo my first day. Other initial observances: public bidets in every single restroom, the lack of cell phones in the streets, subways or restaurants, and the overall black, white and light blue uniform that seemed to be unspoken rule.
The food is prepared immaculately, with tiny table boxes of matcha, pickled ginger and soy sauce varieties. A set meal may cost $20 minimum, but you will be waited on and served all nine courses with the utmost patience, precision, and respect. Despite having to commute to work alongside 9 million fellow city-dwellers, the people of Tokyo keep to themselves in the most orderly, unrushed fashion - jaywalking is almost unheard of (one of the biggest differences I noticed from the West, where our restlessness keeps us in a constant hurry, endlessly trying to get somewhere that’s not here). The architecture and the overall ambiance of the city is sophisticated beyond measure. The bullet trains run relentlessly on time, the architecture is striking, yet simple, the world’s largest fish market even has a clear and organized system to it, and the various zen gardens, in the midst of the 9 million, force you to remember to slow down.
If Tokyo was mindful, Kyoto was straight up enlightened. If you google “Zen,” it comes up with “a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.” I would say this is a way of life in Japan. There are mediation pillows facing the windows at museums, with “how to Zen” posters to guide you through your experience. There seems to be a collective understanding that life will go on; that the purpose of life is so utterly simple. It’s just to live.
Despite being out of my element, and completely by myself, I accomplished more in ten days than I’ve ever dreamt of doing on my own. I teared up in gratitude at Senso-ji temple on my first day in Tokyo. I walked through the busiest, most architecturally fascinating, high-fashion district of Ginza and navigated my way through the giant subway system with only one minor hitch. I ate fresh sushi outside the world’s most famous fish market. I traveled via bullet train to Kyoto. I biked 10km outside the city at sunrise to visit the famed Arashiyama Bamboo forest, and had an epic day visiting temples, biking through rice paddies and enjoying a matcha soft-serve ice cream cone. I met a new friend from London with whom I have no doubt I will reconnect in this lifetime. I spent a whole day in a traditional Japanese Onsen, a communal spa bath with runoff from fresh hot springs (ask me about this, as it was quite the experience). I walked around Tokyo for 13 hours on my last day, through winding alleyways and across the busiest intersection in the world. I had a sardined subway experience at rush hour and devoured the crispiest, most authentic tempura one can possibly imagine.
I left Japan feeling strong and accomplished, less afraid and somehow softer, overall more mindful. I returned home with clarity and certainty, for this life, and for our purpose in it. Simplicity is a way of life in Japan, and we could all benefit from a little less complexity in our lives.
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.
After living in Thailand for six months, and knowing a very basic amount of Thai, but enough to get us around, my two friends and I set off on an adventure to uncover some of Thailand’s more hidden destinations. Leaving its famous hippie town of Pai with no plans, we headed west for the border of Myanmar - a fascinating experience where we rode down the river that separates the two countries, with Thailand on our right and land bombs on the shore of Myanmar on our left. From there we hopped on vans, motorbike taxis, buses and trains, making our way east and then eventually back down south to Bangkok through national parks, ancient ruins and temples. This was how we learned the Thai language, really got to know the people, and developed a deeper understanding for the easy-going culture.
One of our last nights off the grid, we arrived at a bus station late at night. At that point, we were seeking out a mosaic temple we had heard about in a province that wasn’t even in the guidebook (see the Temples of Thailand section). We had no hotel booked, but we knew enough Thai to ask the local who was closing her food stand for advice about food and shelter. Not only did she reopen her stand and serve us up a delicious hot meal, but she also rounded up a few local guys with their motorbikes and hitched us each a ride (along with our giant backpacks) to a hotel just down the interstate. That was a defining moment where I took a leap of faith, trusting in the culture and in human nature, and my intuition told me to ride it out. We all arrived safely at our nice, but cheap hotel and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching conspiracy documentaries and discussing the technicalities of the world.
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.
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.
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.
I knew this country was special 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.
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.