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Shit happens. And then it doesn’t.

Consumerism! Luxury! I’ve contradicted a few core assumptions about myself in Bangkok.

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For one, I usually hate shopping. I’ve never liked the sanitized endless store choices found under hard white fluorescent lights at malls, and I bristle whenever I have to pay more than $20 for an item of clothing (seriously — I very rarely do this, and when I do, it’s painful for me). Ergo, I usually shop at my tried-and-true discount and thrift stores, or score free hand-me-downs from friends.

There are still endless choices in Bangkok, and yes, they too have fluorescent lights, but at places like MBK (our first stop after dropping our bags at our hotel, sweaty and warm) and the Chatuchak weekend market (our first activity on day two in Bangkok), there’s this chaotic organization to everything, and, when compared to USD, everything is cheap.

MBK contained hundreds of stalls/stores (I’m not sure what to call them) set up indoors, with  narrow walkways for shoppers. When we ventured off the main drag, we had people soliciting us, trying to sell us an old iPhone 5 at a discounted rate. There were bright flashing lights and stacks on stacks of stuff, and it was somewhat easy to get lost if you weren’t paying attention; for us, it was frenetic and fun. While there were many options, we saw that many vendors were selling the same items for the same prices, so it became a matter of who spoke English (or who wanted to try to sell to English-speakers).

Did you ever see that episode of Community where the make the giant blanket fort? That’s immediately what came to mind at the Chatuchak weekend market. Again, it was easy to forget your relative position as we navigated the open-air narrow corridors between stalls. When we would want to venture off the the main streets, we’d turn to the other and say, “Let’s dive in here.” Dive in. That was the best way to describe it, side-stepping and pushing past the throngs of people to the relative calm inside the blanket fort-esque market (for the record, there was a roof — it was not a blanket). There was more variety there than at MBK, but I don’t think it was nearly as wild as we anticipated (we tried and failed several times to find where they sold the live animals). We had one traveller tell us that the Chatuchak market was too touristy and expensive, but I loved seeing beautiful jewelry and clothing for 100 baht (approximately $2.75 USD). And yes, I did buy myself a pair of Thailand tourist pants because I had always wanted a pair and it seemed like the thing to do.

2017_01_13_0940Sampling a delicious coconut treat at the Chatuchak market

 

Secondly, I’ve never considered myself high-maintenance (and, as recent evidence of this, see the Bumdra Trek post). When booking a hotel, especially while traveling, I’m apt to say, “Don’t book anything nice; we won’t be spending much time in the hotel room anyway.”

Josh obviously didn’t do that with our first hotel in Bangkok, SO Sofitel.

2017_01_13_0968Chilling in the lobby with our welcome drinks at check-in

 

Holy moly, was it fancy! And hip, too. They played this mellow techno music in the lobby, and perfumed it with lemongrass so that it hit you like a sweet-smelling club the moment you stepped off the elevator. The whole place touted a design theme of elements (earth, wood, water, and metal), and their claim was that no room looked the same. Lil’ old austere me was giddy.

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Our first hotel room in SO Sofitel. I gleefully snapped and shared a pic the moment we arrived. 

 

Unfortunately, this is where the shit happens. We came back after our first full day out and about (Chatuchak market) to find three dead/dying cockroaches in our room. Our bed was freshly made and our fridge stocked (they stock it with free bottled water), so we figured that the hotel had recently sprayed for cockroaches. They were cleaning the room next door to us, so when I asked one of the women to come over, she repeated, “I’m so sorry!” when she saw the roaches and hastily scooped them up with a trash bag. No harm, no foul. We were both shrugging, assuming that cockroaches were normal in a warm climate like Bangkok’s.

However, as we were getting ready for our dinner plans, a very much alive cockroach scurried out of the bathroom. As Josh attacked it with one of the hotel slippers, I ran downstairs to notify the front desk. They were absolutely horrified and told us that they would immediately move us to a new room.

2017_01_13_0329New room on an even swankier floor — our windows overlooked Lumphini park
2017_01_13_0327There were cool lights outside the door of our new hotel room — like a new media installation in the middle of our floor.

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The next day is when shit didn’t happen. Tune out now if you’re squeamish about bodily functions .

Basically, I hadn’t pooped for 7 days and was starting to panic a little. When we were up on the mountain, I had taken some pills to stop some traveller’s diarrhea, and hadn’t had a BM since.

To help things along, Josh and I went for a humid run in Lumphini park. Then, I grabbed a grande hot coffee from Starbucks, and we lounged at the pool, drinking lots of water. On Instagram, I did a little social media makeover, posting a pic of me at the pool and saying that we were having a lazy day. In reality, we basically put one day in Bangkok on hold for my body to figure shit out.

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Instagram is full of partial truths, amirite?

Great news: shit happened! I’d like to thank that hot, strong cuppa joe from corporate America.

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D*ck pics, and other photos

The content of this post is cultural, I swear!

Josh and I had two more days in Bhutan without Kevin. After stomaching some car sickness on the twisty tiny mountain roads, we arrived in a town devoted to the Divine Madman. While the wikipedia page is delightful, I’ll sum him up as best I can: The Divine Madman was a monk that eschewed the traditional strict and staid lifestyle of religious men at the time, choosing instead to find enlightenment by drinking, carousing with countless women, and singing around the town half-naked. He subdued some very evil demons, and performed some miracles, which made people believe he was actually divine and not just a crazy hedonist. As the story goes, he subdued the evil spirits with his, well, phallus.

Now, people in Bhutan use wooden phalluses to ward off evil spirits. When we visited the Divine Madman’s monastery, the monk there tapped us both on the head with a small wooden phallus as a blessing. A visit to the monastery is supposed to help couples who are having trouble conceiving finally get pregnant. There were also pictures of phalluses everywhere around the town, I think to do the same thing (ward off bad spirits/bless people/bring fertility to the household on which it is painted).

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2017_01_06_0038.JPGJosh didn’t know that I put him in the picture, too. He was trying to get me to take a picture of the 3D art…

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2017_01_06_0028.JPG2017_01_06_0023.JPGPhalluses for sale

Josh and I visited other monasteries, did a few more hikes, and ultimately ended up back in Paro where we originally started. I’m posting images rapid fire because as I’m writing this, we’ve already had two full days in Bangkok and I have yet to post about that wonderful city!

2017_01_06_0049In front of the Dzong (or fortress) in Punahka
2017_01_06_0099A beautiful monastery designed by Sonam’s Swiss architect husband(!)
2017_01_06_0004While driving on the mountain roads, we saw monkeys!
2017_01_06_0383The Dzong in Paro, at night

The night before we left, we were back where we started, at that first room at the Gangtey Palace in Paro 

We have a very soft spot in our hearts for Bhutan, but we’re ready to get out of the relatively chilly temps for some warmth in Thailand.

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Bumdra Trek

Unlike any camping trip I’ve ever experienced.


With only daypacks filled with the “warmest of the warm” clothing (our tour company’s words) we began our ascent at around 10am on the first day of 2017.

A day before, Josh had joked while on a run in Paro, “That’s our turnaround point.” He was pointing to a faraway monastery on a mountain, literally the highest point of civilization that we could see.

On Jan 1, that monastery was our lunch stop.

Getting there was much tougher than any of us had anticipated. They say that the physical prowess of Bhutanese men was once judged by the size of their calves. Breathing heavily, we trekked single file, getting glimpses of our impossibly high midway point between the trees. We stopped to take breaks and take off layers.

Once we reached the monastery, we greeted with a hot lunch prepared specifically for us, as well as the mews of three kittens and the smiles of a monk cradling a puppy.

I got to hold the puppy, who whimpered if he was left exposed to the wind on the cliff. After he left my lap, he tucked in under Josh’s coat. Josh says he thought the monk called him “Munchow” but also noted that it could be a directive like “Come here,” for all we know. 
2017_01_04_0103Relentless beggars, those kittens

After lunch, we continued on for about another hour or so, reaching the campsite below the Bumdra monastery. While 12,690 feet is not the highest we’ve ever hiked, it’s certainly the highest we’ve ever slept (that number was obtained through a non-connected smartphone, so not sure how accurate it is, but from what our guide told us, it’s close enough).

2017_01_04_0159Bumdra monastery 
2017_01_04_0151Our campsite

The accommodations were fantastic. Our tents were double layered and big enough to allow for a little bit of walking space around a queen-sized mattress in a wooden frame. There was a separate smaller tent for the toilet, which actually flushed once you filled it up with water (there were two barrels inside). We were the only ones at the campsite save for our guide Chador, our campsite-specific guide Vishnu, a cook, the cook’s assistant, and maybe one more assistant whom we never saw, but heard playing the guitar and singing top 40 songs. We were served full hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a separate dining tent, the only one to contain a small gas heater. A typical meal consisted of rice, meat, vegetables, chilies in cheese (a local favorite), and fruit for dessert. We were hardly “roughin’ it” save for the cold and elevation. I don’t think any of us changed our clothes for 3 days because it was too unbearable to strip down, even in the tents.

img_0644Hanging out in the dining tent before dinner with new best friend, propane heater

Even with the cold, we were euphoric that first night. At dinner, Chador told us stories about Bhutan and the various treks that Yu Druk (the tour company we chose) provides. On one trek, he told us that he saw what looked like an oversized human footprint, with seven toes, in the snow. When he showed his trekkers, they laughed, thinking he had made a “yeti” footprint as a joke.

Sleep was fitful that first night. We slept in 30-90 minute intervals, waking up frequently because of the cold, altitude and incessant barking from one of the dogs hanging around our camp. At around midnight, it sounded like some kind of animal was pacing outside of our tent, trying to get in. It took us awhile to realize that it was just the wind catching on the second layer of the tent.

In the morning, we experienced a wave of altitude sickness. With so little oxygen at 12,000 feet, we discussed our mutual headaches and nausea at the breakfast table. Our cooks whipped up some garlic and ginger to help the stomaches, and we took deep breathes (and some ibuprofen) for the headaches. (Editor’s Note: only Kevin and Haley experienced headaches and nausea and consumed food or medication to alleviate the pain. Josh didn’t do anything because he’s a manly man, impervious to his very slight headache.)

We visited the monastery in the morning, where Kevin partook in a full hour of meditation. Josh and I left early, but not before we spied a very fat and cute mouse nibbling at something beneath the offering table. It scampered away if we moved our heads even slightly.

After a few rounds of khuru (basically darts, but the darts are about as long as your hand, made of wood and metal, and you throw them maybe 30m or so, trying to stick them in a log), lunch, and a bit of rest, we started our hike to the sky burial site at the top of our mountain.

2017_01_04_0147It’s hard to make out in this photo, but the peak in the middle is our mountain, and at the very top you can see an assortment of white flags. When a loved one dies, white prayer flags are erected in their memory, usually near homes, monasteries, or in places of nature, like mountain tops. 

When adults die in Bhutan, there’s a lengthly cremation process that takes several weeks. However, when children die, it’s custom to leave their bodies at the tops of mountains at sky burial sites. There’s no actual burial; the bodies are left out in the open, and it’s expected that wild birds, like Himalayan griffons (aka vultures) will consume the body.

Personally, I was slightly horrified that I might accidentally step on a child’s partially eaten corpse during the hike. But Chador told us that we didn’t need to be careful.

As I approached the top, my western mind became increasingly saddened by the steep incline and arduous ascent. If it was difficult for me, a happy 25-year-old not carrying anything, it must be even more difficult for a mourning parent to carry the body of their child up the mountain.

We didn’t see any sign of human remains. The sky burial site was hauntingly beautiful; up there, all you could hear was the gentle flap of hundreds of prayer flags in the wind.

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On our way back down the mountain, it started to snow big, fluffy flakes. That night at dinner, one of the assistants brought a small bit of Bhutanese whiskey to the dining tent. The guys drank most of it to ward off the cold.

Getting into bed on the trek was the hardest part of the day. Once you were under the covers, it very gradually got warmer, to the point where you were shedding layers in the middle of the night. You’d pray that bathroom urges would wait until daylight (of course this wasn’t the case).img_0705

2017_01_04_0089Josh playing khuru in the snow

On day 3, we packed up our things, said good-bye to our caretakers, and headed down the mountain. I slipped and landed on my butt only twice on the snowy paths. We passed several monasteries in our descent, including one that had litter of puppies playing in the yard. A little over an hour after we left the camp, we arrived at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, undoubtably Bhutan’s most iconic attraction built into the rock face of an otherwise sheer cliff.

2017_01_04_0047Three sleep-deprived yet victorious mountain dwellers after three days of not showering. Tiger’s Nest monastery in the background. 

For the first time in three days, we were encountering other tourists. We saw a yak on our hike up the mountain — that was it. Besides Chador, Vishnu, and the rest of our crew, we felt like the only people on the trails. Tiger’s Nest was crawling with people, and rightfully so — there really is no monastery as grandiose or as beautiful the Tiger’s Nest. The story goes that the man who would bring Buddhism to all of Bhutan rode on the back of a tiger to where the monastery is now located. He then proceeded to meditate in a nearby cave for 3 years. Several centuries later, the governor of Paro constructed the monastery in his honor. You’d never know that the monastery burned down in the late nineties. Each room is still impressive and intricate. Larger than life golden statues are seated in one room, honoring the men(/deities) most influential in the country’s religious foundation.

We still had to hike downhill a bit more after our visit to the Tiger’s Nest. The bedraggled hikers going the opposite way (up) continuously asked us how much longer it was to the monastery.

Happy, slightly sunburned, and thoroughly exhausted, we piled into Harka’s van at the end of the trek. It was about an hour drive to our hotel in the country’s capital, Thimphu, where we finally got that glorious hot shower.

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Hello from Hong Kong 🇭🇰 

Hello from the balcony of our Airbnb!

Josh and I didn’t sleep a wink during our 16-hour direct flight, but we watched plenty of movies (favorite was definitely the recent-release suspense film 10 Cloverfield Lane). We saw daylight, darkness as we approached the arctic circle, daylight as we flew over barren Siberia (yes, we could see Russia!) and then darkness again as we landed in Hong Kong at 7pm.

We hoppped on the airport link train and were downtown in 24 minutes. Navigating downtown proved to be surprisingly intuitive/lucky. We followed an open-air pedestrian walkway all the way to our neighborhood. Finding the airbnb was slightly difficult (the street was winding and g-maps defaulted to the wrong location) but we figured it out. 

As you can see, our neighborhood isn’t shiny or perfect or even bustling, but it is clean despite its dinginess, and it feels very safe. Initially, Hong Kong feels so much more compact than comparable cities like New York. The streets are tighter, the noise seems more contained, and the neighborhood is filled with skyscrapers containing apartments.

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