THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA, BEIJING, CHINA

I love airports. I love people watching in airports. I love drinking coffee in airports. I love just being and resting and thinking about the moments I've just experiences or I am about to experience. There have been seasons of my life when airports felt so comforting and familiar. I remember when I got on a plane for the first time in about six months and how I felt emotional going through the security checkpoint.

On our way back through China to return home, we were given the opportunity to take a little layover trip to the Great Wall. We'd already checked so many things off our bucket list in the past two weeks, why not add something else? We booked a layover tour to the Great Wall a few months before we left, leaving time to receive recommendations for 72-hour visas from the tour company. When it came to the day, we landed, stood in line for a few minutes, and in no time we were headed for the Wall (I'm leaving out the part where I lost my passport before exit security and we spent two hours getting it back with the help of Robert, our amazing tour guide).

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Because of our shortened timeline we ended up going to a different portion of the wall, one that was a little less crowded, thankfully. After about an hour drive and some pretty steep hiking, we came to the even steeper wall. There were miles and miles of wall as far as we could see, and the inclines only became stairs when they were "too steep." I didn't expect to be winded as quickly as we became, and the cold was no longer an issue once I was sweating through the million layers I'd piled on to keep warm.

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This little excursion was one of the greatest things I have ever had the pleasure of doing. So glad I bought those gloves in Chiang Mai (strange) and so regretting my choice of footwear (Keds, for the win?). Maybe I'll see you again, China, but this was a grand--no, a great introduction.

BAGAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ZONE, MYANMAR

I've known about the mystery, beauty and ancient history of Bagan for a few years now. I'd only ever known someone who'd been there in the past couple, and when Andrea informed me that seeing the sunrise hot air balloons there was on the top of her bucket list, it became a real goal of mine to see them as well. The city boasts thousands of pagodas, some tiny crumbling brick pagodas, others gold meccas calling to tourists and monks alike. Expectationless, we planned to spend almost three days in Bagan, including two sunrises and two sunsets. four chances to find the beauty so many sought in traveling to the archaeological zone.

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We left Chiang Mai in the afternoon and took a tiny tiny plane to Mandalay, where we were barely able to get fresh air before we were ushered to a taxi (with all the nerves you can possibly imagine) by a local with incredibly clear english, driven by a local with incredibly minimal english. Our three hour drive to Bagan was quiet, dusty and dark. Watching our GPS clearly to make sure we were going in the correct direction, my "Asia-guide" disguise was quickly crumbling down around me. Around midnight, after a little dozing and a ton of jolting and plenty of prayers, we pulled into our hotel in Old Bagan, Bagan Thande Hotel. We paid our driver probably way more than he was expecting (but really we could never repay him for driving us through pretty much half of the country), and we followed the kind staff to our room. We couldn't tell then, but the view from our room rivaled any I'd seen in Southeast Asia so far.

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We started later the next morning, preferring to get some sleep after our bumpy taxi adventure. Our hotel was right next to Gawdawpalin Temple, so we started close by, loving the white-washed stone and the morning light flooding into the building and across the floors. It was quiet–eerie at times, but more so peaceful, you could hear a lot of the sounds from the world still waking up, the rustle of leaves across the tiles and the call of tropical birds you could never actually see.

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We saw several pagodas that day, the most impressive of which were Dhammayangyi, Shwesendaw, and Ananda Temple. We ran across a few crumbling pagodas, and a lot of the temples we were told had great views were under construction due to some earthquakes that had hit in the last couple of years. We rented e-bikes from the hotel, and I quickly volunteered to be the navigator, switching between Heather and Andrea's bike as each of them grew tired of toting me around. The sandy paths (and herds of cattle) made traveling around town difficult at times, but I can say with 100% confidence that these ladies are now pros at mopeds in Asia. No one got injured, but Andrea had a few hand cramps from gripping the handlebars with all the force of the Hulk.

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Because of the long list of temples closed for repairs, we ended up finding a rather large group of tourists waiting on a tall hill for sunset. Because the sun would be just as beautiful whether we were with a huge group or not, we decided to join, and we were rewarded with a hazy, picturesque view of all the layers of Bagan. The temples and plains stretched for miles, and the feeling of being so small came quickly, as awe-inspiring and (un)comfortable as ever.

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With all the construction going on, we asked a new friend who worked at Bagan Thande where we should go for the sunrise. He mentioned Shwe Leik Too, a tiny little brick pagoda that hadn't had any damage from the earthquakes. We left the hotel before any light was in the sky the next morning, the bike ride there was absolutely freezing compared with the hot afternoons we'd been sweating in the days before. We arrived at the pagoda, and per the instruction of a hastily translated sign out front, left our Chacos at the front arch and proceeded to wander the grounds, searching for a way up to the top levels. In and out, we didn't find any stairs and we were worried we'd need to find an alternate watch spot (which we had not even thought about). Less than a minute later, we saw a flashlight burst from the second level of the pagoda and checked the inside of the building again only to find the tiniest little crawl space staircase to climb up. We made it up three levels and perched on the sides of the stupa, waiting for the pink of the day to arrive (and also the forty other tourists who joined us, including an entire business meeting, suits and ties and all).

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Our Thande friend had neglected to mention that Shwe Leik Too was directly in front of the hot air balloon launch site. After a while I had to set my camera down and just enjoy the moment, seeing the dawn creep over the horizon and the balloons launch off to mingle in the sky like they'd stay there all day. The entire event was about two hours, our feet chapped and numb from the cold and the wind, our butts sore from the edges of the brick. Breathless from the beauty of the morning, we reluctantly made our way back down to the ground, shimmying through the little staircase to the solid and welcoming dirt. We made a few friends who asked us for some photos and took a few in turn for us, reminded of how travel connects all cultures and the kindness we all long for.

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Being around all of the temples and religious symbols was sure to bring up a lot of memories and questions. We chatted together about the meaning and confusion behind a lot of Buddhist traditions and rituals. In the past, exploring and visiting temples hasn't really brought up much emotion for me, they represent more history and culture for me than anything else. I do remember a time before Bagan when a friend and I visited a temple city in Thailand, which left me feeling sad and empty. The darkness that place had cast over our time there was jolting, the sense that thousands of people were casting their lives and their hopes before a person and a lifestyle that led them to nothing but a grace-less striving. Bagan had a similar feeling in a few moments, but the throngs of tourists and the spirit of the people we encountered during our time there mixed that feeling with something a little lighter. A heavy place to be, but a reminder that the Lord is at work creating love and grace in the places that seem to be completely lost to his touch.

After we cleaned up from our dust and grime of the morning, we set off to explore New Bagan the city-esque part of the area. We found lunch at the Moon 2, where our server blew us away with his perfect English, and we were equally blown away by the ginger-honey-lime smoothie. We headed to Lawkanada Pagoda, where we relaxed around a little market on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and also where I got pooped on by a bird. They say it's good luck? Whoever "they" is. We made a few animals friends outside a laquerware workshop and were grateful for a few hours to laze around the hotel and enjoy a sunset glass of wine by the riverside before our 10-hour, very bumpy bus ride to the capital. Thanks for the bucket-list memories, Bagan.

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THAILAND • SECOND IMPRESSIONS

I couldn't have imagined when I left Thailand in July of 2016 that I would be visiting less than two years later. As excited as I was to get back, there was a twinge of nervousness to it all. I tried not to expect much: I knew Chiang Mai had changed, I knew I'd forgotten more Thai than I cared to think about. My team there had changed and morphed and so many other little nagging thoughts kept me from fully enjoying the anticipation of planning for this trip. Having friends to take around was probably my saving grace in all of this. Andrea and Heather were two of the best travel companions I've ever had. Seeing Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Krabi through their eyes was the best way I could have experienced the city again.

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One of the primary reasons for this quick (two and a half weeks is quick, comparatively, right?) trip was to celebrate someone near and dear to my heart. My sister and roommate, Katie, married her best friend, Zegame, while we were in country. Funnily enough, I didn't know the date of her wedding until I had already booked our tickets, and after a 24 hour travel day and a super quick "nap" of sorts in Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Mai for the day to be a part of the festivities. 

Seeing Katie, my team, meeting new babes and revisiting old haunts, this day was a dream. January is usually pretty temperate for Thailand, but the day was a hot one, the colors of the church courtyard were bright and beautiful and no one there wasn't beaming. I, for one, was pretty sure my face was going to break from smiling.

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Our first day in the south wrapped up with a sunset kayak at Ao Thalane. We rowed around the mangrove forest and into some hidden lagoons, watched starfish struggle to flip over in the sand. Lek, our guide, reminded me so much of another guide who'd encouraged us to celebrate with every turn of the kayak a couple years ago.

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Andrea is a climber. And a bucket list item of hers, and eventually mine, was to climb the cliffs in south Thailand. We headed to Railay Beach with King Climbers and spent a wonderful afternoon trying to decipher the Thai-English accent of our belay instructor. Exhausted or not, we roamed the little beach market and ate passionfruit before barely missing a storm on our way back to Krabi.

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Another motivation for our trip was a chance I had to meet my Compassion family. I sponsor a child who lives in east Thailand through Compassion International, an incredible ministry that exists to make the name of Jesus known among children and their families around the world. Aom-Am is a six-year-old beauty, and her family is nothing less than amazing. I got to meet both of her parents, her older sister, and the team that leads the school and church she attends during the week. The look on P'Gleua's (my sweet, sweet translator) face when they picked me up from the bus station and I spoke the language were priceless. It had been seven years since someone had visited this project, and I hope that I'll be back before half that time has passed again. 

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Back in Bangkok, A and I spent the day brunching, taking motorcycle taxis and hanging out with friends from other lives. Our favorite brunch place of all time, Roast, was a welcome respite after a week with only one travel-less day.

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Headed into a week in Chiang Mai, I was excited to get up north. There is a charm to Chiang Mai that you can't find anywhere else in Thailand–or the world, really. A third-culture of sorts, an eastern melting pot mixed well with western tech and trend. We relaxed at bougie hotels, we wandered temples and markets. I saw friends that made me cry, ate food that also made me cry, got a little food poisoning and enjoyed every day regardless of what we did. Being back was heaven.

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Every turn in Thailand was met with coffee, color, wheezing laughter and beautiful words exchanged by locals (also the word "farang" incredibly loudly). Being back made me think I'd long to be back for good and forever, and though Thailand has so much of my heart and I was on cloud nine for nigh a week just being around it all again, it was clear just how integral it was in getting me to where I am now, locationally and internally. Thailand, I love you.