From Zagreb to Seoul

Regrettably, we seem to be backsliding into winter here in Moscow. Sure, we’ve had a nice day or two here and there but no great green bloom yet. In fact, it actually snowed on June 1 (#ParisClimateAgreement). This is totally insane considering that we are currently receiving 17.5 hours of daylight as we inch closer and closer to the Summer Solstice. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to seek warm weather elsewhere – traveling to a couple different places in the past month which have more than buoyed my spirits.

Some of you may know that I took on coaching high school tennis this year. I really loved working with high schoolers again and looked forward to picking up my racquet each day after school. Not gonna lie, it brought back some MHS memories (Warriors – TVL Champs!).

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As we don’t have any local schools to play against here in Moscow, our season ends in a tournament which is held in a new country each year. This year took us to Zagreb, Croatia, which proved a gorgeous setting for some exciting tennis.

The capital city, Zagreb is very accessible and welcoming. Walking through its lush green parks redeemed our spring-starved souls. The people were so warm and I really enjoyed the chill cafe scene after tourney hours. The kids do homestays during these trips which gives us the evenings to ourselves. Time to recoup on a school overnight – imagine that!

Happily, our team did even better than expected, taking 2nd place overall. It was wonderful to meet coaches from all over Eastern Europe – Warsaw, Prague, and Sofia to name a few. Already looking forward to the tourney next year!

Now I’ve only just arrived home from the second of the two trips. This one was very near and dear to my heart, one I could not pass up. Making maybe my craziest travel journey yet, I flew to Seoul, Korea for the weekend. I went to see my former students graduate and see off old friends who will soon disperse to new schools around the world. Despite the fact that I was only in Seoul for 48 hours, the trip was a no-brainer.

Nothing can beat the people at APIS, many of whom are like family to me. It was so great to be back to my old city for a hot second and it also made me thankful for where I find myself today.

I’m so thankful to have started my time abroad at APIS, where I learned so many life lessons. Wishing my old students good luck on their journey was a gift and I’m so thankful it was possible (thank you to Aeroflot for having a Moscow-Seoul direct!). Back at school in Moscow, we’re in the homestretch with just a few weeks remaining. The kids are off the walls and so are teachers, frankly. It’s time for a breather, to reset for another school year. For me, it’s moments like this one that really put it all into perspective.

 

The OG troublemakers from Grade 9 Printmaking – we finally got our shot.

 

 

Venice of the North

Italy or Russia? St. Petersburg’s waterways boast a decidedly European flair.

While my parents were still in town, I was able to sneak away for a 3-day weekend to this wonderful spot many call the Venice of the North. As Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg wears many hats – Baltic seaport, former capital city, and European enclave.

St. Petersburg was founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703. Peter, a great fan of the sea, sought to bring European prestige to Imperial Russia by installing a seat of government in the port city. The founder of the Russian Navy (among his many accomplishments), Peter spent time in his youth traveling across Europe. In Holland he learned to sail, which resulted – as my friend Niek informs me – in the inclusion of many Dutch terms in Russian sailing lexicon. The move to St. Petersburg was a calculated one, ushering in a new era of military fortitude which now included the Baltic Fleet and a decidedly European aesthetic.

Today St. Petersburg is considered to be the cultural capital of Russia. The Hermitage, Russia’s most prestigious art museum, is located on the banks of the Neva River. Many famous writers have called St. Petersburg home – Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky to name a few. Today the city remains a haven for artists, attracting like-minded types from across Russia and Europe.

The breadth of art in St. Petersburg is absolutely stunning – from the immense Hermitage collection to the hallowed halls of the Russian Museum, you can find whatever you seek. During our morning spent at the Hermitage, I was most impressed with its gilded architecture such as that seen below. Walking the halls end-to-end, there is simply too much to take in. We opted to flutter in and out of various rooms, catching a few famous works, but mostly drinking in the grandiose feeling of it all. I suspect a highlights tour would be a great way to enjoy the museum in another way.

When many people think of Russia, an image of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow comes to mind. As lovely as that church is, it really does not hold a candle to St. Petersburg’s finest gem, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Engaging from the outside, we were absolutely blown away by the sights awaiting us inside. Stunning mosaics of lapis blue and gold are stunningly beautiful pack the entire church with floor-to-ceiling Bible scenes and Orthodox icons. I’ve seen many churches and mosques around the world but this one absolutely takes the cake. Certainly a sight that cannot be missed.

Following that stunner, we wandered over to the Russian Museum close by. Recommended by a friend, the Russian Museum proved to be truly charming. I would compare it as the D’Orsay to the Hermitage’s Louvre – much more my pace and with an accessibility that would appeal to any viewer. Works by the Russian Impressionists such as Malyavin and Futurists like Natalia Goncharova (my new favorite artist) were placed in timeline order, allowing us to weave our way through Russian Art History with ease. I cannot wait to return to the folk art collection, which is exquisite and deserving of a truly proper look.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral proved another highlight of St. Pete’s. With its gold-plated dome and full columns made of lapis and malachite, the church takes gilded to a whole new level. Preserved during Soviet times as a “museum dedicated to atheism”, this literal gem of St. Petersburg is another must-see.

Getting around in St. Pete’s is quite easy – it’s a walkable city. Should you need a lift, Uber is also available (and highly recommended so not to get ripped off). With all the trekking we managed, we also took the time to enjoy a number of delicious restaurants, both recommended by friends.

Mansarga (seen in the Cyrillic below) is part of the Ginza Project group of restaurants, which boast fabulous reputations in both Moscow and St. Pete’s. With a direct view across to St. Isaac’s gold dome, it’s the perfect setting for a delicious meal with no crazy pretense. In fact, lack of pretense was the name of the game in St. Pete’s. The people were lovely and never did I feel in over my head when out to dinner.

For a special occasion, the restaurant at the Grand Hotel L’Europe is the absolute tops. Saturday night is jazz night and never have I been so looked after by a slew of friendly waiters. One even bothered to bring my father a bowl of borscht so he would not be “lonely” while my mother and I finished our appetizers. Truly a 5-star meal in every way.

We loved our stay at the Hotel Indigo with its panoramic view over the rooftops. Watching a storm roll across the bay one night with a beautiful sunset the next, we could ask for better.

The St. Petersburg trip proved a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Moscow. The high-speed Sapsan train made our 4-hour ride fly by with all the luxury and comfort of a Korean KTX train. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, hopefully in the fall when the leaves are changing. For now, I’ll leave you with this gem of a pic, the latest in Russian fashion. On to the next, my friends!

Privet, comrade!

Moscow Must-Dos

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Having visitors is the perfect excuse to be a tourist in your own city. With my parents in town for a week, I made great headway on my Moscow bucket list and learned a lot more about this country I now call home.

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I arranged a Kremlin tour in English and off we went for a full four hours. Lidia, our extremely kind and knowledgeable guide, gave us a real run for our money. Helping to timeline all of those World History classes (Were Catherine and Peter the Great related? When did the Romanovs first come to power?), she wove us through the wealth of Russian history inside the Kremlin walls.

Much less intimidating inside than the exterior lets on, the Kremlin grounds contain a number of incredibly ornate Orthodox churches, multiple museums, and other government buildings including the Senate Building (constructed in 1776…). With our heads full and spinning, it was time to enjoy another of Moscow’s delights – the gourmand scene.

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View from the bridge above Strelka Bar
Starting at Strelka Bar, one of my personal favorites, we enjoyed plates of cheese, pickles, mushrooms, and other Russian delights. Seafood is prized here, despite Moscow’s inland location, and the port of St. Petersburg plays a pivotal role in Moscow’s foodie scene.

Reservations are key – it’s the first question you’ve asked upon arrival in any restaurant. Most allow you to reserve online through English translation. Little kindnesses await – from locals on the train who volunteer their knowledge of local spots to doting waiters.

We took advantage of Moscow’s culinary delights all over town with dinners at White Rabbit, Jaime’s Italian, and LavkaLavka – a farm-to-table spot dedicated to clean eating.

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While the weather proved challenging (it snowed on May 11) and remained chilly throughout the visit, we certainly made the most of it.

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Taking in my first ballet on the Bolshoi Theatre’s New Stage proved every bit as magical as advertised. I’m looking forward to my next visit already.

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My parents also had the chance to observe the country displaying all its military might. May 9 marks Victory Day here in Russia. Celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War (known as World War II in the US), the holiday is a very big deal here in Moscow. A huge parade takes place on the day itself, preceded by weeks of traffic jams due to parade practice road closures.

From jet flyovers to the debut of the new Arctic ATVs, Victory Day is intense. The whole event is full of pride and military regalia, made clear as we sat watching the events in Red Square online.

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One of the cooler activities of the day is the Immortal Regiment March, a relatively new tradition in which the people gather to commemorate those who served in the war. In Gorky Park, near my house, the parade ends with surviving members holding their various regiment numbers aloft, allowing descendants of their brothers-in-arms to locate them and pay their respects.

Clearly we packed a lot into our time together in Moscow. But perhaps the highlight of the whole visit was yet to come with a weekend visit to St. Petersburg. Stay tuned for tales from the Venice of the North 🙂

 

Portugal

My spring break arrived in early April. As Moscow was showing absolutely no signs of spring, I hopped on a plane to Portugal pronto! Having never been to Portugal, I listened to friends tell stories of this calm, friendly oasis in the south of Europe. Amazingly, the rumors were true – incredibly kind people, delicious wine (port), and gorgeous beaches.

Lisbon’s Central Square

I started in Lisbon, a modernizing city still retaining its old world charm. Squares filled with fruit and sangria stands appeared at every turn. Trolley cars rumbled by and sunshine streamed down 24/7.

Jeronimos Monastery was absolutely stunning.

 

Me snacking on a pasteis de nata, essentially an egg tart. Hot off the grill and oh so delicious!

My friend Anna had flown over from Boston for the trip and we had a fantastic time exploring the sights – botanical gardens, sardine shops, and the Jeronimos Monastery just outside of the downtown. Tilework covered nearly every surface of the town – from cobalt blue floral walls to parks full of wavy stone pathways, Lisbon is a feast for the eyes.

We rented a car and headed up to Sintra, an idealic town only 45 minutes outside Lisbon. Staying in an inn just outside the touristy downtown provided us with a chance to meet some very friendly locals.

Our inn served a huge breakfast from which we would pocket supplies for daily picnics.
Our inn served port on this breezeway each evening. In fact, so did every spot we stayed in!

Highlights from Sintra included the Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, a meandering acreage replete with tunnels, grottos, and lilacs.

Pena Palace, in all its glory
I’ve never seen architecture like this – it seemed to be part Scottish fortress, part Aladdin’s castle.

A grotto of the Quinta da Regaleira

From Sintra we took a day trip to Tomar to see the Convento de Cristo, the original digs of the Knights of Templar. With virtually no crowds, we delighted in this off-the-beaten-path gem. Many hours were spent wandering through the magnificent convent and I took a little time to sketch a bit of the gorgeous architecture.

Anna looking quite at home on the grounds of Convento de Cristo.

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There was an Indian Jones feel about the place.

Next we headed south past Lisbon and into the Algarve. While we went for the hiking, we most enjoyed the views from the ocean cliffs.

Our stay at Très Marias, a gorgeous farm in the middle of nowhere, proved a highlight of the whole trip. Anna had read about the spot years ago in The NY Times and it did not disappoint. Waking up in the valley of poppies was heavenly and we made friends with the resident donkeys.

The view from the breakfast nook at Tres Marias. The donkey pasture and mountains lay in the background.

While we would have loved to see more of the Algarve, my time in Portugal was drawing to a close. After heading back to Lisbon, we made a pilgrimage to the Museo Nacional do Azulejo. Host of a magnificent collection documenting the history of tilework in Portugal, the museum had much to teach us about the Islamic influence on Portuguese design.

Museo Nacional do Azulejo

A fantastic dinner of tapas capped off our trip. As I headed for the airport, Anna took a train north to Porto, a spot I hear is worth the trip. All the more reason to return to Portugal someday!

Yellow light emanated from the street lamps of Lisbon, bathing the city in a warm glow perfect for wandering the cobblestone streets.

All in all, we found the landscape of Portugal to be just as beautiful as the generosity of its people. Affordable, welcoming, and intriguing, Portugal is absolutely worth it.

Back in Moscow, we’ve had a rainy, cold past two weeks, making tennis practice a little challenging. Today, May Day, is the first warm day of the year, bring buds to the trees and hope that the winter is finally over. Much to look forward to in the coming months, most especially a visit from my parents in only a few days! Hope you’re all enjoying spring time, wherever you are. Until next time…

Sunset over Moscow – the end of a wonderful journey.

The land of Moomin

I’ve just spent 3 days in Finland – land of Marimekko, minimalist design, and Moomin. If you are not familiar with the hippo-like character of European and Asian fame, here he is:


And also Marimekko, the iconic Finnish brand:


I traveled to Helsinki with 10 members of Cultural Arts, the after school club that I’ve been running for the past two months. Our school is part of a conference that not only recognizes sports but also the arts, bringing together school groups from all over Eastern Europe. We were joined by teams from Estonia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, to name a few.


We came to Helsinki to celebrate the power of art to bring people together across cultures. 



Many discussions focused on differences and similarities of our various communities. Our group was made up of kiddos from South Korea, the US, Finland, Spain, Poland, and Britain. The other schools were similarly as diverse, bringing great depth to the conversation.


A lot of artmaking ensued and we also traveled to Porvoo, a quaint village outside Helsinki where the artist behind Moomin had a cottage.



A highlight of my time in Helsinki was the Designmuseo. A small but impressive museum celebrating Finnish design innovation, the museum had a lot to offer.


I had never realized the many design inventions to come out of Finland. Fiskars scissors, Aalto chairs, and various bicycles to name a few – enough iconic innovations to forgive them for Angry Birds, I suppose 😉


After three days full days of travel and artmaking, we were united in smiles and exhaustion. We made it back to Moscow safe and sound. Happily, this means that my spring break has begun – Lisbon, here I come! Been dreaming of sunshine and Sintra for quite a while 🙂


Catch you on the flip side!

A week in Moscow

I welcomed my first visitors to Russia this past week – my friend Meg came from Korea and her boyfriend Niek from Holland. They were ace guests and we had a fantastic time catching up. They covered a great amount of Moscow while still enjoying a chill vacation. They didn’t even let the lingering snow squalls get them down! Inspired by their wanderings, here is my Moscow Top Ten.

Roll into town on one of Moscow’s fabulous Aeroexpress trains – there’s one from each of Moscow’s three airports.

Make your way down to Red Square fairly quick for selfies in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (bluebird day on order, of course).

Explore the ridiculously ornate confines of St. Basil’s itself (not what I expected, I’ll admit!) with special ambiance from a men’s choir who just happened to be performing inside. 300 rubles to get in – no line, no waiting.

Book a cruise on the Moscow River out of the Radisson Ukraina Hotel – fine dining and a 2.5 hour tour of Moscow’s sites from the water. Highly recommended: the early evening cruise to watch the lights come up over the city in dramatic fashion.

Not to be missed – drinks at the Mercedes Bar on the 31st Floor of the Hotel Ukraina. Book a comfy couch and enjoy the 360 view of Moscow, including the Russian White House and new Moscow City.

Strelka Bar in the student neighborhood of Bolotnyy is always an exciting spot. From the rich but casual decor to the fabulous food and drink, it’s a stop not to be missed.

After you’ve had your dinner fill, enjoy the breathtaking views across at Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, this site has been restored to its original trappings, in all it’s golden glory. Don’t miss the views from the top deck nor the surprisingly cool crypt below – discovered by Meg & Niek!

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Be sure to tour the Kremlin. With a private guide, my friends hopped in and out of the churches on the Kremlin ground. I’m told you absolutely cannot miss the incredible riches of the Armory. PC: @meg_hayne

If the snow is falling, a tour of the Moscow metro is perfect no matter the weather! My four favorite stations not to miss – Komsomolskaya, Arbatskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, and Novoslobodskaya.

Gorgeous stained glass at Novoslobodskaya

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The Khokhloma handicrafts are not to be missed. I just came across this fabulous video about them today. A trip to Izmailovo Market, in all it’s touristy glory, is not to be missed. Also check out the small but friendly Museum of Vodka while you’re there!
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Gorky Park hosts ice skating in the winter, bike riding in the summer (bring your passport to rent!) and is also the home of my favorite contemporary art museum, The Garage.
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A winter palace of lights outside the Bolshoi Theater

And, finally, #10 – a ballet at the Bolshoi. Although I have yet to accomplish this one, I have a feeling that all may change with the arrival of another set of visitors next month… Book your tickets decidedly in advance! In the event they’re all sold out, the theater offers tours of the venue in English on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m told the line for English forms on the left. God speed 😉

A few other items of note before endeavoring to visit Moscow…

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet really helps – with many letters similar to English, it’s really not hard!
  • Downloading wayfinding apps like Uber (yes, they have it!) and Metropolitan (metro map) will go a long way
  • Buying a SIM card also helps for wayfinding – 700 rubles (roughly $11) for 1 month is available at any airport

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour of my current home city – and that my attempts to entice future visitors will not be in vain (direct flights from JFK, just sayin’…)! I’ve really come to appreciate Moscow and all of its wonderful surprises. Please come see what all the fuss is about – I have plenty of room!

Thailand

Recently, my friend Beth and I staged a jailbreak from freezing, snowy Moscow and hopped an 8 hour flight to Phuket, Thailand for some Vitamin D and R&R with friends. Get ready for a photo deluge, people – Thailand is just too beautiful!

My good friends from Seoul, Tori and Jeff, are living in Phuket now with their adorable son who I call Little G. As you might note from his swagger in the photo above, G wasted no time in securing Beth under his thumb.

Phuket is a tourist town in the south of Thailand but lucky for us, we were able to stay off the beaten path. Jeff and Tori took us to their favorite hangouts and on our first night, we watched the sunset with our toes in the sand (and G in our laps).

Our second day in Phuket was spent on the idyllic Phang Nga Bay. Tori secured us a longboat and a driver for short change and away we went.

Known for “James Bond Island” (AKA Khao Phing Kan), the bay is littered with fascinating formations made from sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Our driver took us island-hopping and we did a little spelunking, too.

Next our motley crew pulled up on an island, deserted save for a bunch of umbrellas calling our name. The pineapples filled with mai tai didn’t hurt either.

We had the place to ourselves for a good hour before the other boats turned up. The good life never looked so good.

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Our day on the bay was an incredible jumpstart to our time in Thailand. Good times, great friends – just another reason why Thailand is a little piece of heaven on Earth.

We spent the rest of our time in Phuket taking it in – brunching, siesta-ing, listening to Little G babble on. His smiles have grown along with the rest of him and he’s just so adorable at this age. It was hard to leave!

We spent a night in downtown Phuket, just a 5 minute drive from Phuket International Airport. I honestly didn’t love downtown but staying across from the beach was not a bad deal. Got in some star-gazing in the equatorial sky as we sat eating dinner on the beach.

Phuket’s proximity to the airport made city-hopping very easy. Having traveled Laos and Thailand by bus a number of years ago, I knew I was ready to leave those days behind any take the easy flight. Beth and I hopped an Air Asia flight straight to Chiang Mai, a cozy city to the north of Thailand.

When you travel to Thailand, they say you only have to pay for the plane ticket. Beauties like this one cost a whopping $2.

I loved Chiang Mai when I first visited 6 years ago and I will admit this chill town still has a hold on me. With no beaches to speak of, Chiang Mai is a university town with the old portion surrounded by a moat. Night markets are plentiful and temples dot the hills surrounding the city. Chiangmai is also known for the hillside villages belonging to the Karen people.

We checked into our hotel (Le Charcoa Hotel – cannot recommend this gem more) and wasted no time hiring a car to take us up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. With many steps leading up to the temple, visitors are rewarded with the incredible gold-drenched temple at the top.

Wat is the Thai word for Buddhist temples or monasteries.

No surprise – I can never get enough of the mosaics in SE Asia. This temple is top local attraction and, therefore, kept up extremely well.

It glows, I swear.
Bells are available for purchase and many visitors walk laps around the temple itself in meditative prayer.

Back in Old Town Chiang Mai, we explored the night markets. I was struck by how much this little city has grown in the past six years. Where there once were internet cafes and coconut stands, swanky hotels now stand shoulder to shoulder, ushering in a whole new future for the people of Chiang Mai. There’s two sides to that coin, I suppose. I really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, including supporting the mission of Lila Thai Massage to help support the lives of newly released inmates back into mainstream society.

Khao soi, an outrageously delicious curry of egg noodles and Burmese spices is not to be missed in Chiang Mai.

One of the main draws to Chiang Mai was the presence of an elephant rescue called Elephant Nature Park. Beth is a huge lover of animals and, while I’m not normally drawn to animal sanctuaries myself, I’ve found that one of the cool things about traveling with friends is embracing new experiences.

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Beth with one of the park’s older residents – a 72 year old beauty.

 

While at the elephant park, we had the chance to prepare food for the elephants and wash them in the river. Definitely intimidating at first, these gentle giants impressed me with their presence and ability to reform family herds, showing love and affection despite the terrible hardships many have faced.

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Every elephant has a story – some worse than others – but all of them in serious need of tender, loving care.

We chose to stay overnight at the sanctuary, which also provides the opportunity to stay longer if you wish to volunteer. I could hear the elephants occasionally trumpeting in the night, seemingly right below our cabin on raised stilts. It was pretty wild!

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Our experience at the park was not all rainbows and sunshine. While watching these elephants enjoy their breakfast, a screech rang out from across the river. In the shadows, we saw an elephant with a man on its back. With another shriek from the elephant, the man forced him to come to a stop and drop to his knees. The juxtaposition between the care we saw at Elephant Nature Park and this other trekking camp could not have been more startling. One works to help elephants heal, while the other works to break their spirit. Elephant painting programs, any elephant riding whatsoever – chair or no chair – these are all programs that “break” elephants using terrible techniques such as beatings and nails to the ears, etc. After this experience, I can’t stress more the importance of doing your homework before taking an elephant adventure in SE Asia.

Our time at Elephant Nature Park was a truly unique experience, one I will not likely ever forget. This organization is expanding into Cambodia soon and working to fight legislation all over SE Asia that still allows elephants to be used as logging labor. I can only hope they succeed.

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On our last night in Thailand, we set up camp on the same beach down in Phuket. We were treated to a sky show – first of clouds, then of lightning – as a storm made its way across the bay.

Thailand was a fantastic journey full of adventures. I’m so thankful for these wild experiences life has laid out. Once again, Amazing Thailand has lived up to its name and I’m already looking forward to the day I get to return.