The most Asian thing we’ve ever done

Co-written by Nina has we enjoy a mid afternoon glass of wine in a cutesy cafe. 

Visit any tourist attraction in Southeast Asia and you’ll notice one common factor: it’s all about the photo op. You’ve gotta have the right lighting, the right pose, the right smile (or duck face), and the right outfit. 

Usually it’s a boy friend or husband taking pics of his lady. And usually it’s inconvenient for everyone else (this stretch of sidewalk is not photogenic and you’re in my way!). I’ve also seen many a wedding photo shoot. Sometimes in inappropriate places. 

While checking out the street scene in Georgetown, not surprisingly, there was a line to get a pic next to one particularly well-known work of art. The thing that really held up the line was the couple in fancy dress having professional photos taken. 

So it wasn’t a complete surprise when we entered the Upsidedown Museum and were met with employees ready to take our photo and tell us the best way to pose for the perfect shot. 

The only non-Asian visitors were us and a girl who looked like an exchange student, there with her host family. 

Despite our initial instinct to forgo professional help, we soon gave in and embraced the full experience. And what and experience it was. We did have a great time. 

Each room is designed to look like a room of a house, but upside down. So the bed, toilet, bookcase, motorbike, etc. were all on the ceiling. We were told to pose to make it look like we were hanging upside down. 

If you think about it too much you realize it doesn’t look quite right. But sometimes thinking is overrated. 

It’s basically a museum of social media-worthy photo ops. And if you don’t leave laughing, you did it wrong. 

Goodbye Thailand!

I’ve been to 7 countries since leaving New York almost a year ago. But, Thailand has been my home. Really Chiang Mai has been home, even though the only full month I spent in the city was November. Actually, I camped overnight at Doi Inthanon. So technically, I never spent a full month in Chiang Mai. That, together with the fact that I’ve mostly stayed in hostel dorms, makes me reluctant to admit that I live in Chiang Mai when asked.

Despite being there for almost a year, I didn’t learn a whole lot of Thai. It’s a tonal language, which is very difficult. Each word can have up to 5 meanings depending on how it’s said. And I have trouble differentiating between the tones. There is also such a large expat community, and so many people speak English, that it’s fairly easy to get by. However, people always smile when I use what little Thai I do know.

Here’s what I know:
I can say: hello, how are you, thank you, excuse me, how much, and I don’t want that. I can count to 9,999. I can say chicken and pork. I know the words for mango, passion fruit, and banana, which are the ingredients of my regular smoothie. I can ask for a large, hot coffee without milk and sugar. And I can say one glass of red wine please.
Smoothies, coffee, and wine; I got all of the important stuff down.

Since arriving in Thailand I’ve also gotten better at spicy food. I still don’t see the appeal of being in pain when you eat, but I can tolerate more spice than before. But, I learned how to say “not spicy” in Thai, just in case.

I think I compare every city I visit to New York by default. Is it a city if there are no tall buildings? I never thought I’d miss being stuck underground in a stalled, crowded, smelly subway car on my way to work. But I do miss the subway. Negotiating with song thaews (the red trucks that are the primary mode of getting around town if you’re not driving yourself) seems to be an art that I’m not always sure I’ve mastered. What do you mean you won’t take me where I want to go because you don’t feel like making a u-turn at the big, busy intersection? 4 times the normal price because it’s 10pm?! And why does it seem like when I’m content to walk 10 song thaews honk at me offering their services, but when I’m actively looking for one, there are none to be found? I’ve also missed real bagels. Sorry family and friends, the things I’ve missed most about home have been public transportation and bagels.

I’ve recently (sorta) mastered the Asian squat: when you squat, but instead of putting all of your weight on the balls of your feet, which isn’t comfortable for long, you can rest your whole foot on the floor. It’s a much more stable and comfortable squat.

I saw and did pretty much everything I wanted to do and see in Thailand. I saw temples, tried meditation, ate a lot of mangoes, ate a lot of pad thai, ate a lot of other really yummy things, I made friends with elephants, ziplined, learned to cook, went hiking, swam in some perfectly blue water, snorkeled, learned a little Thai, got a tattoo, didn’t get dengue, traveled to 6 other countries, participated in Loy Kratong and Songkran, met a lot of great people, met some ridiculous people, and made some good friends.
(If you’ve been reading my blog, you know what I’ve been up to.)

Thailand seems to be a popular starting point for people on their SEA (that’s how people in the know talk about Southeast Asia) adventures. It makes sense, the tourism industry is more developed than in a lot of neighboring countries, and people are so nice and helpful. It’s a great way to start your journey. And, with quality health care, it’s a more comfortable place to get sick while your body adjusts. Southeast Asia can be, well, hard. It’s far away, loud, hot, “exotic”. But, it’s also incredible. People are kind and so excited to meet you, everything you see is different and beautiful, and everything you eat is…well no, some stuff I just can’t bring myself to say nice things about. Bugs are a definite no. Fertilized chicken eggs, also a terrible idea. Durian smells like feet, or trash, or feet that have walked in trash. Jessica Chastain brought Jimmy Kimmel some durian to try on his show. Go find the video online for an idea of what it’s like.

So, thanks Thailand. Thanks for taking care of me. Thanks for teaching me. I’m sure I’ll be back someday.


And now onto Malaysia and Sri Lanka!




Sawadee pee mai!
(That’s Happy New Year in Thai.)

Songkran is the celebration of the new year in Thailand. The year is 2560 BE, Buddhist Era. Thai people spend time with family, visit local temples, and offer food to Buddhist monks. People pour water on Buddha statues, representing purification and the washing away of your sins and bad luck. To show respect, young people also pour water over the hands of their elders.

Songkran is also celebrated with a water festival. Which is a nice way of saying it’s celebrated with a city-wide, 3 day water fight. I don’t think it’s quite the same all over Thailand, but in Chiang Mai, no one stays dry. NO ONE. It’s really, really, really hot in Thailand right now. April is generally the hottest month of the year. And it’s the dry season (except it did rain several times). So a holiday celebrated with a water fight is pretty perfect.

I went to Pai for a few days with some friends before the holiday started. It hasn’t changed much, but it’s a nice little town to just chill and people watch. The people watching does not disappoint! Songrakn officially started on our last day there. As we walked down the street we were squirted, sprayed, and splashed by locals, tourists, and even some novice monks (who were probably about 9). Everyone had a smile on their face.

When we got back to Chiang Mai, the real fun began. I’m really glad I bought that dry bag in Koh Tao, and it really did keep stuff dry. The main action happens along the moat that circles the old city. Tons of stands line the streets selling water fight tools: buckets in varying sizes, water guns, ponchos, water-proof phone pouches. Every restaurant and store front has a hose and/or giant bucket out front with someone on duty, splashing every passerby. Pickup trucks and tuk tuks drive around the moat with people throwing water out the back. No one is safe, no one is dry. And this goes on for 3 full days.

Armed with water gun and dry bag, we set out. Buckets of water were thrown at us, hoses were sprayed at us, water guns were squirted at us. All very pleasant until you get hit with the ice water. A bucket of ice water is a little brutal.

melodramatic cat

We found a spot on the moat and hit anyone passing by. For the most part it was a parade of people wanting to splash and be splashed. But there were also people who were just trying to get to where they needed to go. They seemed to be fair game too. At least many were wearing ponchos.

There seemed to be a general understanding that Songkran stopped at the end of the day, and it was safe to go out for dinner without getting drenched. Everyone was able to rest up for the next day.

When you can see the bucket of water or hose aimed at you, and can prepare for the attack it’s not so bad. When you’re caught off guard though, and you’re on the back of a motorbike, and all of a sudden you’re wet…that’s tough. Especially when it’s cold water. People seemed to get immense pleasure from splashing people with ice water. I saw large blocks of ice sitting in large buckets full of water, and even larger smiles when seeing your reaction to the ice cold chill spill down your back.

Speaking of being on the back of a motorbike. I learned that there is an increase in traffic accidents around Songkran. There’s already an incredibly high rate of traffic accidents in Thailand. At Songkran it’s worse. There are more people around (Songkran brings in tons of tourists for the week), more partying, and more water, meaning more potential for slippery surfaces. Driving a motorbike with one hand while squirting a water gun at people with the other also seems like a poor choice.  Drivers getting an unexpected splash of water to the face isn’t so great either. Apparently the hospital was treating people who had been in accidents for free. Yay?

Anyway, fun was had by all. I wonder if it’s coincidence that this holiday evolved into a 3 day water fight during the hottest time of year.

Elephants are Still Awesome

If you had asked me a year ago, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be spending so much quality time with elephants. I’ve spent a total of 6 weeks at Elephant Nature Park so far, and 2 weeks at Elephants World. That’s 8 weeks helping to care for, and bond with the elephants who call these sanctuaries home.

I’ve always been in awe of elephants. Over the years I’ve started collecting elephant tchotchkes like my grandma. However, the coolest elephant mug doesn’t compare to watching a young elephant kick her annoying baby brother in the face, or a blind elephant finally getting a hold of a tree branch she’s been reaching for. Waking up to elephants outside your window never gets old. The fact that it’s fairly normal now to feed watermelons to elephants is pretty incredible.

First Snorkel

I’m on the island of Koh Tao for 3 weeks. We’re learning about marine conservation and coral reefs. More on that later. Today was my first snorkel. 

After learning a bit about what we’d be seeing, we grabbed our gear and got on the boat. Gear included: wet suit, snorkel mask and tube thingy, fins, fish and coral id sheets, and sheet for recording what we see. We weren’t just snorkeling, we had to record all of the indicator species we saw. The conservationists will use the information to help them better understand and keep track of the health of the coral reefs of Koh Tao. 

We took a long tail boat to a bigger boat that took us out to the dive site. We snorkeled, but others scubaed. Scuba is more intense. There’s more gear and training involved. But you can go deeper and see more stuff. I think I’m gonna try it out next week. Stay tuned. 

In order to ensure consistency of data collection, the same section of the reef is surveyed each time. The survey is called an EMP, or Ecological Monitoring Program. A measuring tape is laid between 2 fixed points 100 meters (328 feet). The distance is broken into 20 meter sections and you swim in a zig zag across the section 2.5 meters on each side of the line. As you go you count how many of each indicator species you see. 

I went sans fins, for my broken foot. Swimming isn’t too bad on my foot though. I thought remembering to breathe threw my mouth would be hard, but I did ok. I did swallow a fair amount of sea water though. 

We were in the water for about an hour and saw a lot.  Here’s a list:

  • Boring clams-a type of giant clam. They definitely aren’t boring. They’re beautiful and multicolored. 
  • 2 types of sea cucumber 
  • Neon blue and green fish (I think they were parrotfish.)
  • Sea slugs
  • Longtail bannerfish (remember the fish in Finding Nemo, in the fish tank, the older guy who masterminded the escape?)
  • Lots of coral and algae
  • Butterfly fish 
  • Trigger fish 

It was a successful afternoon. We’re also learning about the importance of coral reefs and their conservation. Tomorrow we’re gonna talk about artificial reef construction, then we’re gonna help build. 

If everyday is like today, it’s going to be an incredible 3 weeks on Koh Tao. 

Turtle Island

“Our ocean, our responsibility.”

My adventures in veterinary medicine continue with 3 weeks on Koh Tao (“Turtle Island”). We’ve partnered with the New Heaven Dive Shop and their reef conservation experts to learn about marine wildlife and conservation. Unfortunately Koh Tao’s namesake, the sea turtle, is endangered and can be a rare sighting.

People come from all over the world to dive in Koh Tao. In fact, it’s the most popular place in all of Asia to get SCUBA certified, second in the world after Australia. You’d think that since the ocean and coral reefs are the island’s main attraction more people would be actively trying to take care of them. You’d be wrong.

Side note: I didn’t SCUBA because I thought the fins would be bad for my healing foot. Also, did you know that SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus? Well, now you do.

Coral reefs are important. They only cover about 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor, but they’re home to about 25% of marine life. Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, and one of the most threatened. So in addition to studying marine wildlife, the students and I also learned all about the important work of the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program. They’re trying to educate people (especially other divers), conduct research, and conserve and protect coral reef ecosystems around Koh Tao.


What made these last few weeks truly incredible isn’t just the new knowledge, which is great, but being able to get in the water and see what we learned in the “classroom.” We talked about New Heaven’s Environmental Monitoring Program surveys, and then we put our snorkels on, jumped off the boat, and conducted said surveys. We learned about different kinds of coral, and saw them in their natural habitats. We learned about giant clams, and went and counted ALL of the giant clams. We also surveyed fish and sharks that live around coral reefs. Parrot fish are a rainbow of neon colors, and they’re pretty big.

Another side note: Giant clams are awesome. I can’t tell you why though because my notes from that lecture just say, “giant clams are awesome!” Also, boring clams are not boring at all. They’re fascinating and beautiful. They have such vivid colors.

One of the ways that conservationists like those at New Heave are helping the reefs is by building new. They cultivate nurseries of corals and when they are strong enough, they transplant the corals to artificial structures, then nature takes over. I’ve seen a few stories about artists building beautiful sculptures that they sink and turn into coral reefs. One artist made several life-size models of very life-like people. There are also projects experimenting with turning old cars, buses, and subway cars into reefs. New Heaven is creating an underwater art gallery of artificial reefs and coral nurseries. Our group designed and built a rocket ship out of rebar that was added to the bay. Hopefully it provides a good home for new coral and all of the creatures who call the reefs home.

Every year the island hosts a festival called the Save Koh Tao festival. Everyone comes together to promote environmentally friendly practices and conservation. This year the festival focused on honoring the legacy of the King of Thailand. During his reign he was very involved in conservation and taking care of Thailand’s natural resources. There was lots of good food and live music. Many of the children living in Koh Tao danced too. There is nothing better than 4 year olds wearing lots and lots of sequins, dancing.


I love boats and being by the water. Snorkeling without fins isn’t easy (stupid broken foot), but it was still incredible. There is a whole complex, beautiful, fascinating world under the sea. There’s so much going on down there.

There aren’t, however, very many sea turtles. So at the end of our time on Koh Tao we headed for the Phuket Aquarium, where the Thai government is running a sea turtle nursery and rehab program.

Sea Turtles!

The students got to swim with two sea turtles and watched them make out. I missed it. But, I got my turtle time when we went to Phuket.

The Phuket Aquarium is home to a sea turtle nursery and rehab program run by the Thai government. Day one we checked out the nursery. Those are some beautiful, healthy looking turtles. They’re being raised big and strong and then will be released into the wild. So few turtles born in the wild make it to adulthood. Head-starting programs help ensure that more do.


We also watched dolphin and sea turtle necropsies. Fun fact: dissections are done in school for learning purposes. Necropsies are basically autopsies, but for animals. The goal is to figure out why the animal died. A dolphin and sea turtle had washed up on shore (not at the same time), and they couldn’t be rescued. So we watched the vets do a necropsy. Once again, something I never thought I’d ever need or want to see: animal autopsies. I can now say that I have seen the insides of a spinner dolphin and a sea turtle.

I enjoyed day 2 way more than day 1. Day 2 was sea turtle check-up day. We helped weigh and measure 12 sea turtles. We also helped draw blood and administer medicine. Most of these turtles weighed over 100 pounds. And none of them seemed super happy to have us poking and prodding them.

Sea turtle vets for a day!


This one tried to make a run for it.

Now I’m at Elephants World, where we’ll spend 2 weeks learning how to be an elephant vet.

Another Visa Run, Another New Country

I went to Laos, with the students I’m working with, to get a new Thai visa that would let me stay in Thailand ’til the spring. Laos is my 21st country. Only 170 ish to go (depending on which official list you’re looking at)! 21 countries is no small feat. And some of those I visited more than once.

From Chiang Mai we flew to Udon Thani, a city in the northeast of Thailand, an area called Isan. I haven’t explored this part of Thailand yet. From Udon Thani we drove about an hour to the border. The Mekong river is the official border between Thailand and Laos. There’s a bridge that connects the two countries called the Friendship Bridge. A quick bus takes you to the other side. We needed visas for our very short stay in Laos too. It takes up a whole page. At the rate things are going, 2017 might be the year I run out of space in my passport (#lifegoals). Our destination in Laos is Vientiane, the capital.

We stopped at the Independence Monument on our way to the hotel. Laos gained independence from France in 1954 and commemorated with a monument that looks a lot like the Arc de Triumph. It’s got some truly SE Asian elements to it though.


It seems like every big city in SE Asia has a night market selling street food and the same cheap junk. A staple is meet on a stick. Lots of different meats and fish on sticks. Lots of different chicken parts on sticks. I ate a chicken heart. Actually I ate 3 chicken hearts served on a skewer. A little rubbery. Apparently they could have been better, so maybe I’ll try again. What I refused to try is something I also saw in Cambodia: fertilized chicken eggs that I think are hard boiled. The guy I met who ate one in Cambodia said it was crunchy because the bones had started developing. My friend who tried one here said it wasn’t as developed, so no bones. Both said they were delicious. No thank you!


*Important fact: The s is silent in Laos. Also, no one says Laotian. The people, the language, the food, it’s all Lao.

I’m going to have to come back to Laos. Not doing much exploring on this trip. No time to see more of the country, and hobbling around town on a broken foot is slow, and difficult, and not super fun. So I’m not wandering around the city and letting myself get lost. And, as some of you might know, I like getting lost, and am really good at it.

For this visa run I needed to do more than just get my passport stamped at the border. We headed to the Thai embassy an hour and a half before it opened to get as close to the front of the line as possible. Our driver said hundreds of people line up at the embassy for visas every day. You could spend all day there. Luckily we were in and out pretty quickly. You leave your passport and all necessary documents at the embassy and go back the next day for your passport and new visa.

Visa success. I can stay in Thailand until May, then I’ll probably have to get a new visa.

Broken foot update: I’m cast free now! Still hobbling around, but NO MORE CRUTCHES. My ankle hurts. Being stuck in a cast for 4 weeks, I think my ankle forgot how to be an ankle. I’ve got a wrap thingy now to support my ankle and foot for the next 3-4 weeks. My foot is still broken, but it’s less broken and can now support my weight. The doctor said I don’t want my ankle to move too much because I don’t want the tendons to move too much and pull the bone apart. I can now shower properly and walk around without crutches. Hooray!

Secret Cookie Selling Nuns

I entered a contest called Around the World in 80 Pages, hosted by Navigator Paper. They chose my story as a finalist! 80 finalists were chosen out of over 1300 entries. My story is going to be published in a book, and I can still win a prize. Here’s the story I submitted, about the time I bought cookies from a convent of cloistered nuns in Madrid:

“You went there by yourself?!” Of course I did. If I had waited for other people to come with me, I’d have missed out on so many awesome things. In this case “there” was the Monastery of Corpus Christi in Madrid. It’s home to nuns who bake delicious cookies. The catch is that these nuns belong to a secluded order. They have little or no contact with the outside world, aside from selling these yummy treats.  When I heard about them on a walking tour my immediate reaction was: MUST VISIT COOKIE BAKING NUNS. However, my non-existent Spanish language skills and terrible sense of direction were going to make this difficult. I am not Catholic and know very little about monastery etiquette, and this wasn’t your average group of nuns. As I walked down the dark, deserted corridor looking for the cookies I worried. What happens if I walk through the wrong door? What happens if I accidentally see or speak to a nun? What happens to her? Does she get kicked out? What happens to me? I found the “bakery.” There’s a window with what looked like a revolving door inside. Instead of glass, the panels are wood so no one can look in or out. There’s a sign in Spanish that I obviously couldn’t read and I heard a voice say something that I clearly didn’t understand. I ordered the first thing on the menu. The revolving door turned and there appeared a box of cookies. I replaced the box of cookies with some money and turned for the door. Then 2 more boxes came my way. I attempted my most polite “no thank you” and headed for the door. The whole visit lasted 10 minutes at most. A group of nuns who have taken a vow not to interact with the public just so happens to be really good at baking cookies. Their convent is fairly hidden. It’s down a small street with no obvious signage. You really have to hunt for it. Of course I went there on my own. Seeing the big sites is fun, but these little interactions and events are what really stay with you long after your trip is over. Those were some of the best butter cookies I have ever eaten!


Two Weeks Learning to be a Vet

I meant to write this when my students left at the end of January. Then I broke my foot and got distracted.

For 2 weeks in January I was the trip leader for another student group. Unlike over the summer, this group was pre-vet. All of the students want to go to veterinary school someday. You’d be correct in thinking I know nothing about veterinary medicine. Dogs are cute, cats are tolerable, but I wouldn’t call myself a passionate animal lover. I have nothing to offer in the classroom, but I can keep students healthy (mostly) and happy, keep them from getting lost (stop laughing dad), and share what I’ve learned about Thailand so far.

We spent the first week at Animal Rescue Kingdom (ARK), a dog shelter just outside Chiang Mai. The students learned about dog medicine, so I learned about dog medicine too. Good thing I like dogs Great thing I’m not super squeamish. Blood and guts are ok, but I don’t like creepy crawlies. I felt a bit better when I learned fleas and ticks don’t generally jump from dogs to people. Rabies though, rabies is scary. Did you know that the only way to say with 100% certainty that an animal or person has rabies, is to cut out its brain. Some signs that a person or animal has rabies are that they like biting everyone and everything, and they are afraid of water. I learned so much at ARK!

Here are some things I learned:
I learned about dog and cat anatomy, fleas, ticks, tapeworms, and mites. I learned about syringes and drawing blood. I learned how to give a dog a physical exam and I listened to a dog’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. I learned a special technique for putting on sterile gloves. And I now know how to scrub in for surgery.


We visited a village nearby with a litter of puppies. I helped weigh and vaccinate a puppy, and gave her a flea bath. She was so, so, so, so little and fluffy and wiggly. I named her wine deng, which means red wine. It was the first Thai word that popped into my head.


I also watched some spay and neuter surgeries. That’s not something I ever thought I would say. It was pretty cool actually. My students gave me a pig heart to hold before they started dissecting it.

All things I never thought I’d ever need or want to know or see.

Most of my coworkers and the other students over the summer either were vets, or were in vet school, or were hoping to go to vet school soon. From what I’ve heard vet school is really competitive getting in, and even harder once you’re there. I recently learned that veterinarians have the highest rate of suicide compared to other occupations. Being a veterinarian is hard work. You need a special passion for animals that not everyone has. And still people ask vets why they’re not “real” doctors. So if you don’t treat people you’re less of a doctor? At least people can tell you where it hurts. And people are less likely to bite you just for trying to help. The vets I’ve met are pretty incredible.

We spent week 2 at Elephant Nature Park. This was my 6th week at ENP. Baby Dok Rak is getting so big. When I said hi to Memphis the dog he licked my face. I’ve decided that means he remembers me. Silly, senile, lovable, dope.

In case you’re wondering, hanging out with elephants doesn’t get less exciting.

I watched a beautiful sunrise the first morning. Since it’s not rainy season this time the sky is clearer, which meant great star gazing!

This time at ENP was different. I went on vet rounds with the students. I spent a lot of time at the dog clinic. There are over 400 dogs at ENP. My favorite part was spending time with the 70 dogs that were rescued from a puppy mill the week before. Most of these dogs are miniatures. We went into the pen and there are itty bitty pup running around yapping like crazy. Normally, I’m not a fan of little dogs, but it was hard not to love these little ones. We spent a good amount of time herding them. We had to catch them to give them medicine. They may be small but they move fast, and there isn’t enough of them to grab onto.

I bonded with one in particular. Her name is Chianti. Yes, I know, there seems to be a theme with wine and dogs, but I did not name her Chianti. I think she is some kind of shih tzu. She has a tuft of hair right above her eyes that sticks out like feathers, which can be styled like a mohawk. Once I caught her, I had to hold her for a while until it was her turn for medicine. She seemed quite content in my arms. Or, she had resigned herself to her fate. Either way, we’re pals now.


When I went on rounds with the elephant vet we didn’t just check on the elephants. We went to see the horses, a goat, and a baby water buffalo too. There are some elephants with wounds on their feet that need to be cleaned every day. Even though Thailand made logging illegal in the ’80s, logging continues near the border with Burma. The use of elephants to pull the logs out of the jungle also continues. After years of conflict along the border, there are a lot of landmines out there. Several elephants at ENP have injuries from stepping on landmines while being forced to work in the illegal logging industry. I looked on while the students cleaned and medicated these wounds for our elefriends. The elephants didn’t seem to mind as long as we didn’t run out of watermelon.


Even though I spent a good amount of time during these 2 weeks feeling useless because I know nothing about veterinary medicine, I had a good time. I learned a lot, got to share what I do know with some very lovely students, and caught up with my elephant friends at ENP.