A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels

The Taj Mahal of Agra

I’m not sure why we bothered to visit the Taj Mahal, really. Considering we used to live in a building so similar. Or at least that’s what our old landlord told us. Before we were married, we rented a 2-story duplex in Etna. On the phone when I was setting up an appointment to view the duplex, the landlord told me, You’ll definitely recognize the building. It is the big one on left side of the street. It is so grand that some people call it the Taj Mahal of Etna.

I definitely see the resemblance. Don’t you?

Taj Mahal of Etna

The Taj Mahal of Agra, on the other hand, is really a spectacular building. It gleams, especially in the early morning light in the couple of hours after sunrise. I’m a sucker for symmetry. It’s what I fell in love with on our first house (not the rental) and it’s what I fell in love with on the Taj. I knew the Taj Mahal would be beautiful from afar; I didn’t realize that it would also be so beautiful up close. Its elegance astounded me.

The true test of how amazing the Taj Mahal was its ability to lull us out of our cranky moods. The night before we visited, we went to bed at a decent hour because we planned to get up at sunrise. India had other plans for us. There was some sort of festival going on – always a festival – that involved tinny, haunting music blasting out of a loudspeaker. A loudspeaker that was directly outside our room. A loudspeaker that, true to its name, was so loud that we could still hear it even when we played music through our noise-isolating headphones. The only way to drown it out was to play the most raucous rock’n’roll we had on top volume. Periodically the festival music would die down. Once we realized, we’d turn off our Ipods and settle in for some sleep, finally. Then, chanting would begin, followed by music even louder than before. This special brand of torture didn’t end until 3:30 in the morning – two hours before sunrise. It is a good thing the Taj Mahal of Agra didn’t look a thing like the Taj Mahal of Etna.

Merry Christmas, Thai style!

This is the first Christmas we’ve been away from home, which means it is also the first Christmas we’ve spent in a warm place. Forecast for Chiang Mai for Christmas Day: 86 and sunny. Forecast for Pittsburgh: 29 and snow showers.

Christmas is the one day where we’d rather be in the cold. This year, there’s no Christmas cookies; no decorating the tree; no family get-togethers; no 24 hours of The Christmas Story; and no presents for Fabulous on Christmas morning. Every year, I start the holiday season off by playing my favorite Christmas album, A Very Special Christmas. It is missing from our ITunes collection and I can’t find it on the internet. It’s just not the holidays without the Pointer Sisters pointing out, Whoa! Here we go! Another year gone by!

Yet, this holiday season has not been as different as we would have guessed. We saw Christmas decorations before Halloween. We went Christmas shopping and heard the same Christmas tunes, over and over. We saw lots of twinkling lights and there’s been Christmas trees in the lobbies of most of the places we’ve stayed in December. Santa even knew where to find us, even though we don’t have a chimney and didn’t put cookies and milk out for him and carrots out for Rudolph.  Courtesy of Santa, we’re staying in some fancier digs tonight and tomorrow and may even treat ourselves to dinner at a real restaurant that isn’t on the side of the road.  We plan to finally watch Bad Santa while lounging on our giant bed with multiple pillows (what luxury!)  We even got to watch our first Steelers game of the season today – for the win, nonetheless.  Thanks, Santa!

Santa climbing up MBK Center in Bangkok

Santa the Roaming Gnome roaming through the streets of Chiang Mai

New fancy digs...

...which we better not get used to because after we leave, we'll be spending 2 days crossing into Laos by boat. I hear it is BYOC (bring your own cushion).

Turns out that even though Thailand is 95% Buddhist, there are signs of Christmas everywhere.  Even more so than the occasional Christians or the abundance of ex-pats, I’m guessing that Christmas is popular here because Thais love any type of celebration.  Yep, Christmas in Thailand isn’t half bad, even though our thoughts will be in Pittsburgh. We wish everyone, wherever you are in the world, a very Merry Christmas. FedEx has your presents, so you’ll have to just enjoy scenes from the holidays in Thailand instead:

Thais posing in the middle of a giant snow globe in Bangkok; why, I don't know. I don't ask. I just capture.

Christmas tree in a Bangkok mall

Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, where you could get a neon sign wishing folks Merry Christmas or with a man peeing. Your pick.

Chiang Mai ladies wish you a Merry Christmas.

Homemade ornaments at the Sunday Market in Chiang Mai

Presents. More specifically, presents, on a barge, on oil drums, randomly in the middle of the canal in Chiang Mai. Only in Southeast Asia.

Couldn't do the annual Christmas Eve photo in front of Sean's parents' tree, so one taken in the mirror of the lobby of where we stayed for the past three nights on the way out the door will have to do.

Jumping Ahead to the Future

We’ve been in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, for over two weeks now. Before we came, I had heard that Chiang Mai is a black hole that sucks you in, but if our travel plans were waylaid, I was assuming it would be for fun things, like hanging out with elephants, cooking, and chatting with monks. We did those things – more on that later – but would have been well on our way to exploring the rest of Northern Thailand or even into Laos if life hadn’t happened.

First, our netbook went completely kaput. It wouldn’t start up, not even in safe mode. Luckily, I have constant tech support by my side. Sean worked his computer magic for a couple of days building a bootable thumb drive, recovering important data we never backed-up (like pictures!), installing a new hard drive, giving Windows the heave-ho and installing Linux, and then fine-tuning everything to make sure it all worked with Linux. Or something like that. The moral of the story is, if you aren’t traveling with your own tech support, or even if you are, back everything up NOW because you never know what is going to happen.

Just as we were about to leave Chiang Mai, spiffed up computer in hand, Sean started running a fever with body aches, culminating in his first hospitalization ever! Turns out he acquired a bacterial infection, probably from something he ate, although for the life of us, we can’t figure out what was the culprit, because nothing seemed amiss. He ended up in Chiang Mai Ram Hospital for two days in order to receive IV antibiotics, officially making our decision to purchase World Nomads’ travel and health insurance a good one. They were very on the ball, and worked with us and the hospital to make sure that he received quality care.

I got in BIG trouble for taking this picture...from Sean, not the nurse. I didn't post the one where I'm being given a very dirty look.

The hospital was World Nomads’ recommendation, and other than all of the medical workers being Thai and the retro nursing hats some of the nurses wore, it could have been a hospital at home. Well, except the part where we had to ride in the back of a pick-up truck to get to the hospital. And the part where there was a blaring rock concert outside the hospital on the first night. Or the part where it was super-efficient and cheap. A couple of days before Sean was admitted, he went to the ER to be checked out. We were in and out in two hours, including getting lab results, and the whole visit, including two prescriptions, was only $45. No wonder people come to Thailand for medical care. The two day stay, which was mostly covered by our insurance, came to a grand total of $900. Sean had his choice of private rooms, which came with cable televisions, a kitchenette, and free wi-fi. Once again, he proved to be too tall for Asia – the nurse had to remove the foot of the bed so he could fit. The moral of this story is, for all of our consternation about eating in India, you never quite know how your food is handled anywhere in the world so eat up and get insurance.

Sean's hospital room

View from Sean's hospital room

Once Sean was released, we hung around Chiang Mai for a few more days to make sure he was fully recovered. Just as we were ready to head out, we were waylaid for the THIRD time. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say FedEx and United States Customs are the grinches that stole Christmas. The sordid tale involves non-responsiveness from FedEx, long aggravating phone calls, 3 hours filling out customs forms, and hundreds of dollars in shipping fees, with the end result being that our Christmas gifts for our families were re-routed back to Bangkok, where we are not. Supposedly the package will end up at the Chiang Mai FedEx tomorrow or the next day for us to deal with, so it looks like its Christmas in Chiang Mai for us. The moral of this story is, shipping stuff home is more trouble than its worth (considering our track record includes this fiasco, stolen shoes from a package sent from Spain, broken pottery in a package sent from Morocco, and a missing sculpture last spotted at the Johannesburg post office in a package sent from South Africa).

Actually, the REAL moral of these stories are life happens…no matter where you are.

p.s. Stay tuned for scenes from Christmas in Thailand tomorrow, then next week, more from India to round out the year.

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