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A Sprinkling of the Best: The Unexpected, Part I

When you take a holiday, everyone wants to know what the “best thing” was about it. It’s easy to pick a couple if you visit Morocco for ten days. However, when your trip spans eleven countries and almost four months, it can be hard to choose.

But I did choose, only because it’s fun to remember the things that went well. Let’s call this list, the unexpected bests. The ones that could have gone either way (love or hate) or were just completely unexpectedly something I loved. This list is in order of travel, not order of love, because I wouldn’t even want to try. All of these were such different experiences.

Ganges Aarti Varanasi Lora Kathleen
Varanasi & the pervasiveness of religion

Oh Varanasi. This is one that, much like all of India, you either love or you hate. When we arrived it was pouring rain and the city was muddy and deserted. Since we only had one night, we headed out anyway into the twisted streets that rise up from the holy Ganges. People sprinted to their next destination. The guru continued to sit in his alcove. The funeral pyres still burned, despite the drizzle. And when it stopped raining, the fog settled in, enhancing the city’s already very holy aura. That night we had front row seats to the nightly Ganges Aarti ceremony at a nearby ghat. The place was packed, but only a handful were foreign tourists, the rest were Indian and many, very devout Hindus on pilgrimage to this holy city.

Darjeeling Railway Lora Kathleen
Darjeeling

Ever since I saw the movie the Darjeeling Limited, I knew I wanted to go to Darjeeling. (Spoiler: The real place is nothing like the movie, but it was awesome anyway.) Plus, they grow amazing tea!

Darjeeling is a precious little mountain resort that lays in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. In fact, you could see Kangchenjunga, the third (or second, depending on the ice caps) tallest mountain in the Himalayas from the doorstop of our local hosts house. Most days it was covered by fog (more on this later), but our last morning we caught a glimpse of the peak. We took a train ride on the famous, narrow-gauge track called the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a functioning coal train, and spent hours drinking the many Darjeeling Teas at Nathmull’s Sunset Lounge. The final morning we visited the Tibetan refugees who’s camp literally looks out over Tibet.

Sunderbans Morning Fog Lora Kathleen
Fog

While I’m talking about India, I have to mention the fog. It followed us EVERYWHERE. But instead of it being a curse, it was a blessing. No one wants photos shrouded in fog, but it didn’t bother me. The monuments were empty. It gave the places we visited a mysteriousness that can be hard to envision when you’re sweating and the place is crawling with people.

Rice Paddies Burma Myanmar Lora Kathleen
Trains!

I don’t have any photos of this (fail) but with the major exception of Burma, we had the BEST experience with trains around the world. India’s trains are top-notch. I did the research and got us on the highest-level trains possible (meaning if there were delays, these would be put through first) so we didn’t have any crazy, multi-day delays. I think the worst was 4 hours, but most of them were on time.

Thailand and China also had most excellent trains.

Bagan Myanmar Lora Kathleen
Bagan

When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I received a travel magazine from my mom and in it were two photos that inspired this entire trip: Mt. Kyakito (Golden Rock) and Bagan. This made Myanmar, a country that had recently been taken off the “do not visit” list, at the top of mine.

It can be hard to fathom, and indeed to photograph, a plain with 2,000 temples spread across it. It was awe-inspiring, to realize what humans are truly capable of when called. At sunset, the pink rock glows under the setting sun. I talked about this a little in my earlier post on the temples at sunset.

(By the way, the United States (including the US Peace Corps) still calls Myanmar by it’s old colonial name, Burma. It is a political choice. I have chosen to call it Myanmar, as that is what it seems to function under in most of the world and my choice is in no way political. It’s just simplest.)

Climbing Crazy Horse Chiang Mai Thailand Lora Kathleen
Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai was not originally on our itinerary, but due to some logistical issues with India’s visa, we ended up with two extra weeks here. That turned out to be a happy change! We LOVED northern Thailand and did so many fun activities. I wrote this up in a post at the time, and after everything, it still rings true. Chiang Mai was awesome and next time we’ll explore more of the surrounding area.

Just a little slice of paradise after a day of diving

A photo posted by Lora Kathleen (@lorakath) on

Scuba!

This was something that Ryan really wanted to do. I was willing to give it a try for him, but I had a ton of concerns. For my Open Water, we used Scuba Junction in Koh Tao, Thailand, and could not have been happier with them. They are such a world class organization and I felt in good hands at all times. It also turns out that I really loved scuba diving. So much so that we added more scuba to the end of our trip when a happy flight cancellation gave us several extra days in Israel. We went down to Eilat and did our Advanced Open Water and Nitrox with Shulamit’s Diving Adventures, another world class dive shop.

And if you are wondering whether to dive Eilat… it was amazing. The clarity of the water was absolutely jaw-dropping and coming up on the wreck in that clear of water was absolutely incredible. And so much marine life!

Also, I do not have one single photo of us in scuba gear, or of the places we scubaed, save the one above I posted to Instagram. That’s how you know I enjoyed something, when I forget to photograph anything.

P.S. Follow me on Instagram!

 

So that covers the first two months of the trip, stay tuned for The Unexpected, Part II coming up next week!

Bathing Elephants

Thailand-4756
I am skipping ahead today because we had so much fun at the Elephant Nature Park on Sunday… here we are bathing one of the elephants!

5 Fun Things To Do in Chiang Mai

Today we are leaving Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand and unofficial capital of the north. I was admittedly a bit apprehensive about visiting Chiang Mai after the mixed reviews, but I fell completely in love. This is a place I will be definitely have to visit again someday.

If you are considering visiting or looking for new ideas, here are five fun things to check out.

1. Meditation Retreat at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Lora Kathleen

Ryan and I spent four days meditating at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a beautiful temple on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. One aspect of the retreat was the “noble silence,” meaning we couldn’t talk, read, write, play games, watch tv or movies for the entire time we were on retreat. It was tough, but a great experience. If you are considering such a retreat, I highly recommend looking into this one.

2. Rock Climbing with Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures

Rock Climbing Crazy Horse Lora Kathleen

If you enjoy rock climbing (or want to take an intro course), check out CMRCA. Crazy Horse Buttress has a great many pitches bolted to international standards. It was my first, serious foray into rock climbing and I had an amazing experience. Great instructor and associate, great climbs and super safe.

3. Cooking Class with Thai Farm Cooking School

Thai Farm Cooking School Lora Kathleen Red Curry

I’m not the chef in the family, but I really felt like one during this full-day course. Thai Farm made everything so easy and fun (shout out to Benny who was great!). Now I know that making a red curry paste isn’t impossible or that I can even roll my own spring rolls.

4. Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park Mahout and his Elephant Lora Kathleen

One of the biggest things I wanted to do in Thailand was play with elephants. Originally I thought I’d like to ride one, but after reading about how horrible the domestication process is for the elephants (breaking them), I decided I wasn’t interested and instead would spend the day at the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center for the elephants.

The park had all sorts of “damaged” elephants. One had stepped on a land mine, one had a broken hip, several were blind, others had injuries that weren’t healing properly… but all were treated with dignity and respect. Each elephant had their own mahout, or caretaker, not only to provide the care and support the elephants need, but also because other people will actually try and steal the healthier ones to use them for logging or trekking (what many of these elephants were saved from). We even saw a new rescue arriving during our visit, although I don’t yet know her story.

This day was really powerful and although the elephants weren’t “in the wild,” they were definitely free.

5. Sunday Walking Street

Sunday Walking Street Lora Kathleen Chiang Mai

The Sunday Walking Street had an almost festival atmosphere as they wandered the streets of the old city. Vendors lined the streets with almost anything you might need… eye masks, jewelry, wooden utensils, purses, clothes, toys, paintings, lanterns, paper goods and so much food.

We almost skipped the Sunday Walking Street altogether until a Thai friend said it was the best of the three big ones. So we went and I am so glad we did!

What are some of your Chiang Mai favorites?