The "Friends + Family" Post

First of all, we have to apologize for neglecting our blog and photo uploads for nearly two months. Since we last posted, we have been lucky to spend almost every single day with friends or family (and sometimes both simultaneously!). And as it turns out, when you’re adventuring around Thailand, Hong Kong, and New Zealand with some of the people closest to you, your blog tends to fall to the wayside. Sorry about that!

We spent our last two weeks in Thailand on the beach with wonderful friends, Scott and Sean. Having been in the country for about a month already, Cole and I felt like pros and eagerly played host. We taught them how to speak Thai (specifically, we taught them to say hello and thank you, which is as far as we got), created a checklist of the Thai food they had to try (mango sticky rice, penang curry, pad see ew, and larb moo are among our favorites), and shared our newfound knowledge of Thai cultural norms. Thailand is a place of where manners are taken seriously and tourists constantly blunder through offending the locals who are too polite to say anything. Beckon someone or hail a cab with your palm facing down, not up; be very aware of your appearance, dress well and don’t look disheveled; never say anything bad about the king (or risk ending up like this guy who is facing decades in prison for mocking the king’s dog—the dog); don’t touch or point at anything with your feet; maintain a smile and even temper in all situations (or risk losing face). Though maybe not natural for me, I only violated this last one once, when a Bangkok cab driver took me—alone—45 minutes out of the way to the wrong destination despite my pleas and manic gesticulation towards Google Maps, but that’s another story…

Scott arrived first, and he was a sight for sore eyes—not least of all because I had sent him tampon shopping stateside (you’re a champ, Scott!), and he brought cigars for Cole. He was on a short stopover after business in Hong Kong, but we made the most of our time hopping around Koh Samui. Samui is the largest of the three major islands in the Eastern Gulf of Thailand, and is the only one that seemed (to me, anyway) to have adequately paved roads that made most of the island accessible by rental car (many braved the hilly dirt or half-paved roads on the other islands by motorbike, but after our hotel van driver laughingly told us about the 18-year-old Russian guest who had snuck out in the morning on his motorbike and landed himself in a coma, I put my foot down). On one day, we drove to the Southeast of the island where we found a beach to ourselves, clear water on white sand. The next day we almost died in An Thong Marine Park, where our guide insisted that all three of us should enjoy the two person kayak, only to discover that yes, in fact, it was only built for two. Having survived, we treated ourselves to delicious mango sticky rice later that night.

Sean had a bit more time in Thailand, so we were able to island hop around the Gulf. We stopped first at Koh Tao, the smallest of the islands and the farthest from the mainland. It’s also paradise if you’re an 18-year-old on a gap year, and while we certainly stood out as the creepy older people at the beach parties, we easily entertained ourselves—mostly by drinking beers alone in our plunge pool. After Sean’s first scuba dive and a boat ride around the island with Flash (a 30-something British Star Wars junkie who told us snorkel-themed ghost stories), we moved along to Koh Phangan. Koh Phangan is known for its Full Moon parties (and Half Moon parties, and Black Moon parties, and Jungle parties, and Waterfall parties, and Night Nature parties, and really Any-Occasion-Where-Tourists-Will-Do-Drugs-And-Have-Sex-On-The-Beach parties), and the island accommodates something like 30,000 tourists for the major events. Knowing this, we were obviously worried Koh Phangan might be too staid for our taste. Nonetheless, we spent two stints on the island (before Sean arrived, Cole and I had been for yoga and diving) and managed to steer clear of the beach party scene. In fact, we felt pretty isolated most of our time there, and it ended up being our favorite island. This time on Koh Phangan with Sean, we focused our efforts—and our location on the island—on kitesurfing. And when I say “we,” I really mean Cole and Sean. I spent my time pretending to watch them kitesurf while sipping piña coladas, getting massages and listening to podcasts in the sun (side note: I am really into podcasts these days—current favorites include Startup (thanks, Arad!), Reply All, Radio Lab, and Modern Love—and am always looking for new ones; if you have any you love, please write them in the comments section!).

Vacation continued in Hong Kong—a city that had all the trappings of home, including my parents, who came to visit us almost exactly halfway through our trip. It was my parents’ inaugural trip to Asia, so it was especially interesting to watch them wander through (and smell) the open-air markets, uncover the cultural differences, and experience being a minority for the very first time. After four months traveling around the continent, Cole and I had begun to take some of these distinctions for granted. Hong Kong is a bustling, international city with packed streets, great shopping, a beautiful waterway and access to outdoor activities, and insanely delicious food. The weather wasn’t particularly cooperative, so we spent most of the week moving from meal to meal, eating our way across the city and catching up (though my mom would argue that thanks to WhatsApp and FaceTime, she didn’t really miss me or need to catch up at all, but I’m pretty glad she and my dad came to visit anyway). And when we weren’t eating, we were planning what we would eat next: noodles, Peking duck, bao, sushi, scones with clotted cream, and doubling down on dim sum. Hong Kong was a culinary dream, and we were living it.

We were also so lucky to see close friends in HK, which also made us feel at home there. Katherine—one of my bridesmaids and best friends from high school—took vacation in the city with Joe, her amazing boyfriend who proposed to her at the top of a gorgeous rooftop overlooking the skyline. It was such a privilege to see them make it official (and to try to stealthily take photos of the proposal without freaking out the restaurant staff), and we celebrated afterwards with truffle soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung and karaoke. It was perfect. Fiona—a close friend and fellow soprano in my college a cappella group (beeeyouuuuweeeepp, SfK)—invited us into her inner circle of family and friends in Hong Kong, her home city (Fiona had also generously brought our a cappella group to Hong Kong in 2009). She included us in her boyfriend’s raucous birthday party on Lamma Island, where we met a fun group of both locals and expats. Later in the week, Fiona and her family shared the most divine, authentic Cantonese meal with my parents, Cole, and me at her family’s home in the mid-levels neighborhood. Experiencing Hong Kong with some of my favorite humans made me love the city even more—it just felt so natural for us all to be there together.

We were passed from one set of parents to another when we landed in New Zealand after our redeye from Hong Kong. Cole’s parents picked us up at the airport and whisked us to beautiful wine country in the Hawke’s Bay region of NZ’s north island. The scenery was breathtaking—and it became immediately clear that New Zealand would be one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. Consistently. The place is just consistently stunning. It’s barely real. We had an amazing time relaxing on the beach, checking out vineyards and views, and being fed homemade lamb chops thanks to Libby (you guys—lamb here is $1 USD per chop at the supermarket. It’s NUTS). We then drove down to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Wellington sits on the water at the southern tip of the North Island and has tons of delicious seafood and hikes that you can start from the middle of the city. With a population of 398,000 people, NZ’s capital is the size of the 93rd largest city in the US, which is—you guessed it—Greenville, South Carolina. We loved the city, but we couldn’t help but notice how completely empty it felt. There were basically no people there to enjoy the outdoor bars or the stingrays cruising through the crystal clear water in the marina. Minus the slight feel of zombie apocalypse emptiness, we loved Wellington and were happy to have it to ourselves.

Since Cole’s parents left, we’ve been hanging with Cole’s best friend from middle school, Alex, and his fantastic partner Annabeth. The two are generously hosting us here in New Zealand. More to come on our adventures here later (seriously, we promise!!), but in the meantime, make sure to check out our new photo galleries. We’ve finally uploaded pictures from our time in LaosChiang MaiBangkokTaipei, and the Thai Beaches. Hong Kong and NZ photos to come shortly!

- Alex