Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Changed by Chiang Mai: A Series of Corny Goodbyes to the Land of Smiles

My last day here in Thailand has finally arrived, ending the craziest journey I have ever experienced. Not just crazy because I got to do and see some wild things (go rock climbing in Vietnam, feed elephants, have a huge spider land on my head, etc.), but also because, as cheesy as this sounds, I was able to discover so much more about myself. This list ranges from that yes, in fact I can survive the hottest season in the tropics, to that being in nature is where I'm most happy, to expanding self-love. It is also where I found and got to meet so many amazing people, especially those within my program (I'm counting both TEAN and IPSL), and those that I only shared brief moments with but who added to my wonderful experience. Love you all so much! So here's to Thailand, a place that will forever be in my heart ❤

A series of goodbyes to Thai things I'll คิดถึง (miss) the most:

  • Goodbye gorgeous flowering trees, with red, pink, and yellow petals
  • Goodbye to all the welcoming Thais who patiently listened to me as I attempted to speak the language (sorry if I ever used the wrong tone and said something offensive!)
  • Goodbye markets, where I could purchase perfectly ripe mangoes, papayas, and bananas
  • Goodbye gorgeous treks with gushing waterfalls 
    Doi Inthanon - swimming with Elyse!

  • Goodbye Phrathat Doi Suthep whose golden glow could always be admired at night down below
Monks participating in evening chant at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
  • Goodbye adorable coffee shops and also serve Thai tea
My first ever Thai ice in Thailand!
  • Goodbye delicious cheap meals (curries, khao soi, summer rolls, suki), and where treating myself to a nice restaurant might cost me 6 USD
Khao Soi with omelette 
  • Since I'm on a food rant, goodbye mango sticky rice stalls and coconut ice cream carts with fun umbrellas. You were always a highlight when trekking back from class and gave me motivation to conquer Suthep Soi 7 (my alleyway) when the sun was at its peak
  • And although I may hate to admit it, goodbye to the 7-11's on every block - I will miss your convenience, that you're open so late at night, and your selection of snacks (purple sweet potato toasties, wasabi flavoured nuts, green tea flavoured Oreo-style cookies - the list continues)

It has been a blessing to have been able to experience Thai culture and to live in a place so different from back home. Please, please visit if you ever have the fortune to do so. The experience will be sure to include many amazing surprises :)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mediation Madness: My Experience Attempting a 10 Day Retreat

Today I returned to the heart of Chiang Mai after attending a meditation retreat at Phrathat Doi Suthep. It's funny writing this in a bustling cafe after descending from Doi Suthep ("doi" in Northern Thai dialect means mountain) considering that one of the major rules at the meditation centre is no talking. Other rules include no eating after 12:01 pm, no reading, no writing, no listening to music, and no using your phone or the internet - meaning you are completely unplugged as well as have nothing but your thoughts for the majority of your entertainment (I did end up breaking a lot of the rules - oops). 

The main temple -
We were part of a Buddha Day ritual in which we circled
the stupa (golden structure) holding incense and a lotus flower 

I had signed up for ten days and stayed for eight. The major reason I left? I was thinking too much about coming home (it will be nearly 5 months of being away when I return this week) and the people I have dearly missed. I would be attempting to meditate, and images of friends and family would flit into my mind. For those back home reading this, I have missed you so very much and I'm over the moon to see you when I return ❤ 

Not going to lie, I was also thinking of all the types of food I was going to eat once getting back to the city centre and back home (burmese salads, chocolate chip pancakes, french toast, pizza, and burritos to name a few). At the meditation centre we received breakfast at 7:00 am after a 5:30 am Dhamma talk in which the head monk would explain Buddhist teachings relating to meditation, and then lunch was at 11:00 am and was served buffet style (about three dishes and white rice). There was also a small shop that had a few snacks and I would indulge in a sweet treat like a small Snickers after lunch. For the rest of the day it was just water. Of the eight days I was there, I followed the no eating after 12:00 rule for 7 of the days (I broke on the last day when I had the other half of the KitKat I gotten at lunchtime). 

Sleeping Quarters 
Cute mama cat and her kittens that lived at the centre and would brighten my day

Some people during the retreat didn't really experience hunger - I was the opposite. I was hungry the majority of the day. Now I'm not a person who handles hunger the in the most eloquent manner (meaning I can easily get hangry - angry when hungry (or in my case emotional too). My friends joked about the looks I would shoot fellow meditators when I was in this state, and it was this side of me that I was trying to get under control, along with trying to gain more mindfulness. It was the reason I stuck to the no eating rule for as long as possible. 

I was also having really these realistic and vibrant dreams and at the end feeling really antsy. 

So those are the reasons I left. But what about the reasons I stuck it out for eight days?

While it was difficult to do four to five hours a day of combined walking and sitting meditation per day, through the guidance of the lead monk, his words of wisdom, and my determination, I have learned the key to my happiness. Me. Which may sound self-centered, but hear me out. This world is ever changing and there is so much out of my control. But the one thing I can control is myself, through mindfulness. 

Attempting sitting mediation in the centre (our uniform was to wear all white)

If you can find happiness within your mind, you have happiness for life. As the monk would tell us, "Believe in the power of you." I truly do feel that my time mediating has provided me with a greater ability to recognise negative thinking and move on (repeat feelings or their causes three times ex. "Anger, anger, anger," or "Hunger, hunger, hunger" in my case, then "Let it go"). 

Other lessons we were taught include "do good, not bad" (basis of karma), intention is what is most important, and caring for the health of the mind is super important. As part of Buddhist belief, the self as 5 parts - physical, feeling, recognition, mental formations, and consciousness. According to that way of perceiving the self, that means 80% of our being is dependent on the mind. I have become even more of a supporter of mental health after my stay. And I do truly believe that meditation is a great tool for relaxation, taking "me time," and caring for yourself. 

So, in summary that was my experience. Would I do it again in the future? I feel like my time spent there was enough (I want to integrate meditation into my daily routine). If I had a chance to do it over? 100%. It was an incredible experience to study Buddhism as a course for a semester and then be able to practice an aspect of the religion, putting the teachings I believe into action. I also feel like I've gained so much from the retreat, mainly self-empowerment, and will be forever grateful for my time spent at Phrathat Doi Suthep. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Capital City

Mel and I walked around the bus terminal to stretch our legs after an eight hour ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. We stood in a long line waiting for a taxi to take us to our hostel to drop off our bags and begin our day (we arrived in Bangkok at 6 am - true to my style of starting the day early when travelling). 

After hearing mixed reviews of Bangkok we didn't know what to expect our three days there to be like. However, somehow the stars aligned and we seemed to time and plan everything perfectly - it was actually quite odd how well the pieces our trip fit together.

It started with us weaving through the streets to reach our first destination - the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. After being warmly greeted by the security at the palace, we entered into the complex. An overwhelming feeling of amazement and respect hit us both. We both kept remarking, "I can't believe we're here." The wats were ornately decorated with vividly coloured mosaic pieces, a style I have not really seen in Chiang Mai.

Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pantheon)

Mel and I at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha
The Grand Palace

As part of our ticket to tour the wats and grounds of the Grand Palace, were tickets to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, where we admired the detailed traditional khon dance costumes and learning about the art form Her Majesty has worked to revitalise and conserve. We then made our way to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha, who took up the whole hall.

The Reclining Buddha

Chedis at Wat Pho
The rest of the day was spent manoeuvring through Chinatown and Little India, an excursion that lead to us getting lost multiple times, steamed buns, me buying a cute pillow in the shape of a teddy bear which I then christened Sleepy Bear (super creative I know), and me devouring multiple types of Indian sweets that were either dosed in saffron flavoured syrup, made of coconut, or a type of milk fudge.

The next day we travelled to a floating market in the morning, where vendors prepared dishes in their boats. We decided to do a sample style breakfast which included dried mango (think mango fruit leather), mini coconut pancakes, deep-fried banana, khanom buang (small crisp crepes with meringue and shredded sweetened egg yolk sprinkled on top), and durian. Yep, you read that right, I finally tried durian. What was my reaction to this renowned fruit, known for it's strong smell that is reminiscent of trash? Well, after doing my best not to smell it before eating it, a piece of advice I received from a durian lover, I tried a small piece and let's just say that it is an acquired taste that I unfortunately don't have. Durian has a cream texture and is described as mostly sweet when good quality, and is many people's favourite fruit, but seems to have a harder sell when it comes to foreigners.

Next on the agenda was JJ Market, an outdoor weekend market spanning 27 acres, with multiple sections such as art, pets, clothes, and food. It was interesting to see the diverse offerings of the market, from high-end art to sugar gliders.

Then we were off to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Here the emphasis of how strong Buddhism has on the present day culture was emphasised, with the majority of the art involving Buddha, gods, and other characters from myths.

Beautiful sculptures at MOCA

We ended the night with watching a Muay Thai at Rajadamnern Stadium. We watched intently as fighters jabbed, kneed, and kicked their opponents, sometimes resulting in a throw down. For a while we were mixed in the crowd of energetic older Thai men placing bets, however we were instructed to move to the side where the rest of the other foreigners resided. During the fighting a small band played with the music getting faster as the fighting became more intense. Most of the fighters representing local gyms were young, with almost half of the 18 of them under the age of 15. However, their power and skills had us reviewing our own workout routines (or for me, my lack of).

สู้ๆ (Pronounced "Su su!" - means fighting in Thai and used as words of encouragement)

On third day in the capital was spent in the heart of the city, exploring the themed mall Terminal 21 (most museums are closed on Mondays in Bangkok) which consisted of 6 floors and structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco themed floor and statues and fountains for the Rome themed floor. Taking a break from the mall, we walked around Bangkok's largest park, Lumpini Park that had gorgeously trees and bushes, with multiple ponds that had benches bordering them. Needing the A/C once again (it is currently hot season in Thailand which means most days get up to the mid-90's or higher), we headed back to Terminal 21 via the MRT to catch a showing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The rest of the night consisted of a quick dinner and rushing to make our bus back to Chiang Mai (we made it with less than 5 minutes to spare). Thinking over the past three days I was thankful for a wonderful jammed packed trip with an awesome travelling partner and friend <3

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Spring Break: Solo in Vietnam

While travelling with friends creates great times and memories, solo travelling has a self-discovery quality that is difficult to replicate. For fours days, I took on Cat Ba, Vietnam by myself and within that short period of time I learned a lot. Along with lessons on booking tours and bus tickets, came lessons on self-confidence, the kindness of strangers, and the biggest lesson of all - that I know nothing. 

The last lesson may seem like an over-dramatic statement, but in the grand scheme of what this world holds, it is pretty accurate. I also don't mean it in a negative way. My eyes were opened to the diversity that exists to learn about and explore, and the wonders that come with it. 

Cat Ba Island and its many small islands is mainly a touristic fishing town. My first day of my travels was spent on a bus, then boat, then another bus. Figuring out what main station to catch my bus proved to be my first challenge, and resulted in my first motorbike ride (the station was 20 minutes from the hostel we were staying at and the gentleman at the front desk called me a bike taxi). I felt oddly comfortable zigzagging through the hectic Hanoi traffic, seeing parts of the city fly by. 

Docked Fishing Boats
After catching my bus-boat combo and arriving in Cat Ba, I checked into a hostel and sat down at a nearby restaurant to have my first ever bowl of pho. The broth was delicious, having been seasoned with cinnamon and star anise among other spices. 

Vegetarian Pho

The next day was when my adventures really began. I had booked a two day tour with Asia Outdoors, and scheduled on this day was rock climbing. I had climbed two times previous to this trip, including the climbing I did at Krabi, which to my frustration had not gone well (I wasn't able to make it to the top with any of my attempts). Warning my two instructors that I was an absolute beginner, I started with the second option along the limestone cliff, which looked like the harder of the two. Haven been given the tips to mostly use my legs and that the wider my stance, the more stable I would be, I set upon my ascend. With the help of hand hold and foot positions to my amazement I made it up to the top, with a couple of slips, taking time to look over my shoulder to admire the view of bright blue water and vegetated cliffs behind me. I would then complete the next two climbs, with the last one taking many attempts. The exhilaration of scaling these gorgeous rock formations and the resulting sense of concentration and staying in the moment was nothing like I have ever felt. Hopefully I will be able to continue this new found love of climbing back in the States.

After becoming hot and sweaty I dipped into the water. Treading water and occasionally floating I looked around and took in the surrounding cliffs and spotted a bird nest. I smile just thinking of how perfect that afternoon was. 

The area I was climbing in 

Enjoying a boat ride
That night I stayed in a resort with my own hut in a nearby village, waking up earlier the next morning for a full day of kayaking through lagoons and around the sky-reaching cliffs. My favourite was when we paddled under a naturally formed archway into a hidden lagoon where it felt like an undiscovered part of the world. 

My fourth day was a half-day since I had to catch the bus back to Hanoi at 1:00 pm. I decided to knock off one thing from my top-things-to-do-while-abroad list and trek through a national park. The round trip of the hike took me less than two hours and resulted in one of the most beautiful views and spotting all different kinds of butterflies and bright red land crabs scurrying along the rocks. 

Cat Ba National Park

On the five hour trip back to Hanoi, I reflected on the time travelling alone. I thought back on the multiple people who had given me directions even with the language barrier, the realisation that I want to take time to become educated on a range of topics (from current politics, to the modern history of Cambodia, to more about plant identification, and more), and wanting to push myself to become less shy. I have a lot of people (mostly complete strangers) to thank for a great trip, so I feel like I can't take credit for the adventure I had. But at the same time I feel pride in stepping outside of my comfort zone and accomplishing something I doubted I could do. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spring Break: Unforgettable Day

Having just come back from Spring Break almost a week ago now, I've had a little bit of time to process what an awe inspiring journey it was. From Thai islands to Cambodia to Northern Vietnam, I had the great fortune to get glimpses of paradise and of rich cultures.

One day for me, however, truly stands out.

Journal entry 13/4/2560 (day/month/Buddhist year):

"Today was an amazing day. Like I'm not talking a "found-a-quarter-in-your-back-pocket" or "had-a-slice-of-chocolate-cake-after-dinner" sort of amazing days. I'm talking about those rare beautiful days where life feels magical - a "you-can't-keep-a-smile-off-of-your-face" sort of day."

So what is the location that had me quickly scribbling in my journal, unable to contain an overflow of excitement? Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat, delicious curries, welcoming individuals, and the Khmer New Year.

The day started off with a 4 a.m. alarm sounding off. I lay in bed an extra 5 minutes warding off deep sleep and fighting exhaustion having gotten to our hostel a little before midnight. I managed to drag myself out of bed, get dressed, and shove a granola bar into my mouth. I went downstairs to the lobby, the location where the three of us doing the tuk-tuk (a form of motorbike taxi) tour of Angkor Wat, one of the top ten wonders of the world, was meeting. After buying our tickets we raced to the temple complex to get there to witness the sunrise, which turned out to be mediocre, but the temple itself was extraordinary. The impressiveness of Angkor Wat lies in the carving of the pillars and the vast size (Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious site). The temple had been designed as a Hindu place of worship and then had transitioned into a Buddhist temple. From the top you could see the whole layout.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

If I thought the architecture of Angkor Wat was stunning, I was in for a surprise to find that the smaller temples were to me even more spectacular. Since my writing cannot do these ancient monuments justice, please check out the pictures below.


Baksei Chamkrong

Tomb Raider Temple

Having returned to the hostel after the tour, I indulged in a quick nap, to be awaken by the sound of bells and singing. Peering out my window, I saw a group of Cambodians in striking costumes going door-to-door performing a type of dance, involving a deer and a hunter. I would later learn that this form of dance is called a trot dance and has been performed to start off the Khmer New Year for over 1000 years! Awake and now ready to explore, I stretched my legs by wondering through the small but bustling downtown area of Siem Reap, stopping at a few touristy shops and a Made in Cambodia Market, where I purchased pepper tea and a lotus bud shaped bronze ring. Later that night the group of nine of us who were all traveling together had dinner at a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen, where I had the best coconut based curry with tofu and pumpkin that I have ever placed in my mouth. Ending the night was the start of the New Year celebration, also known as Songkran and celebrated in Thailand, which involved a street wide water gun fight and dance party, with people smearing baby powder on our faces wishing us a "Happy New Year!" I hadn't had that much fun at a celebration for a really long time.

Aftermath of Songkran

So that, in short, is one of my most unforgettable days I've had studying abroad. From gorgeous ancient temples, to watching a traditional dance, to shopping at a craft market, to eating the most scrumptious meal I've had in Asia, to an outstanding party, how could I have gone wrong? My love for this day and experience has peaked my interest in learning more about this captivating country's culture and history, a place that had previously remained under my radar. Just goes to show you that you never fully know what to expect when travelling and what will end up being your favourite memories.