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Thailand 1B • June 13-July 5, 2017

Farewell to all

July 6, 2017

We traveled east to our last destination, Chiang Rai, to end our trip. We spent the day biking through this small town learning about various agricultural practices as we passed by rice, pineapples, passion fruit and grapes growing all around the trail. Ruthie, Lindsey and Reagan all hadn’t been on bikes since childhood so it was definitely an adventure for them.

We biked to our lunch spot where we were greeted by an assortment of Thai food. It was some of the girls last Thai meals so almost all the plates were cleared. As we were nearing the end of our meal, Evelyn placed a small scoop of Thai chili powder on her dish. Izzy had just “doused” her Pad Thai in it, using a slightly smaller spoonful and commented on how spicy it was. Needless to say, Evelyn was glad watermelon was available to give her some relief!

After lunch, we took a short walk over to the White Temple, a contemporary temple built 23 years ago by a Thai artist. The artist describes the temple as a lifetime project and plans to spend the rest of his life continuing to add to it. The Buddhist Temple reflects many ideals and beliefs of the religion. While the temple is very modern, it was clearly inspired by the older temples throughout Thailand and follows all the same traditions. If you have a moment, take some time to google pictures of the White Temple to take a glance at the story told through the paintings reflecting the struggle of peace and power in the last twenty years. The White Temple sees over 3,000 visitors a day and is projected to continue growing for the next ninety years. Claire pointed out to us that in the future, our great grandkids will say “Hey my great grandmother went there when they were still building it!” The entire area was gloriously constructed- even the restrooms. Sophia was mildly disappointed when we had heard about the golden thrones that Bee had built up so much then waited in line to find just a regular, plain, white throne. The disappoint was mutual. Ariana and Nealy made wishes in a beautiful wishing well just outside of the temple. Nikki bought some traditional Thai coffee on the way out, excited to share with her friends and family back home.

Our guide for the day, Bee, is one of 7 siblings and they have all been running this bike company for 8 years. We were all raving about how great they were and told them we would rate them on trip advisor, only to find out that they already have had the number one rating for the last 6 years. 

Emma’s wow moment from the day was right after we all worked our butts off to get to up a hill, when she watched from the back of the pack as the whole group cruised down a hill on their bikes. Georgia taking her feet off the pedals allowing them to hang in the wind, Franny laughing as she ripped her elephant pants on the chain of her bike, and the whole group enjoying the wind in our faces. While biking proved to be challenging at the beginning of the day, it was so worth it after 17 miles seeing the joy on all the girls faces. 

We ended the day by venturing through town to find dinner and shared some laughs over one of our last meals together. We walked back to the hostel where Emma and Franny led us in our second to last moonup. We treated it like the last, knowing the next one would have to be shared in the airport. Emma concluded it by reading a beautiful poem and then we all lingered singing songs with each other. You could tell that no one was itching to go to bed, all of us very aware it was one of the last intimate moments we would share as a group before starting our travels back home. 

The next day is a blur of lasts. We traveled to Bangkok, checked into our hotel and began to say our goodbyes. This is always the hardest day and that was evident as Izzy and Ruthie said their last goodbyes. We huddled up as a group, hugging one another, all not ready to let go of each other or this trip. Margaret went from crying on the first night from homesickness, to being the first one to cry before leaving. Watching this transition from first airport day when they arrive to last airport as they are leaving is the most impactful to us as leaders. We have spent the last 23 days exploring a new culture and have become a family along the way. Goodbyes are never easy, but we are comforted by all the memories of our adventures through Thailand. 

Climb On

July 2, 2017

Back in Chiang Mai, we have spent the past two days rock climbing and cave exploring deep in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand- an area so deep in Thailand history that monks often come to worship in these caves and will even live in the caves for a while. The first day was spent in two separate groups, Izzy’s team (the Rockstars) and Ruthie’s team (the Hillshire Farms). One group began by repelling 55 meters in an unbelievable cave while the other group did three different rock climbing spots. Franny yet again conquered her fear of heights through her Franny-like way of smiling and laughing away the fear, a truly contagious act that helped ease the fear away from the rest of her group as well. Emma lifted spirits in the same way she always does, a continuous flow of positive cheers, not only is she the best belayer because of her nonstop encouragement but she even cheers on her peers when SHE is the one climbing and should be cheered on. Emma’s loyalty to the overall happiness of our group has been so appreciated throughout the entire trip. Reagan and Ruthie had some fun exploring the cave waiting for the rest of their group and got to have a very entertaining photo shoot. In Izzy’s group all of the girls attacked the climbing fearlessly. Claire especially stood out on this day with her ability to take down any climbing path without any questions, fear, or doubt. Her determination and fearlessness was definitely a large attribute to her groups enthusiasm. We ate our lunch underneath the bamboo hut sharing stories between groups of what we had done and seen that morning before switching after lunch. 


After our day of rock climbing was over, we drove to the hot springs in northern Chiang Mai to stay the night. In our rooms, we were given four eggs in a basket to take to the hot springs to boil and eat! We walked with our eggs over to the 105 degree Celsius hot springs and placed our baskets inside- then it’s just a waiting game. After our eggs were done, we found a nice bench next to some of the hot spring pools and ate our eggs with soy sauce- a new favorite for some of the girls. After soaking our feet in the hot springs for a bit, we returned to tables near a campfire outside our rooms for some dinner. Once we finished dinner, we gathered around the campfire where our rock climbing outfitter, Bo, lead us in some games. He taught us a new group favorite – ‘Yong’. In this game, you get in a circle and one person begins the game by looking at the person to their right and without touching them attempts to make them laugh by just saying ‘yong.’ If anyone in the group laughs, they are out. Surprisingly able to keep a straight face, Ruthie won twice in a row; however, she was immediately taken down after hearing Lindsey scream YONG YONG YONG into Sophia’s ear. Margaret arose victorious in this match as she managed to keep from laughing in the final three between her, Georgia, and Izzy. Next, we were given a real treat by getting to cook Thailand smores over the campfire. Thailand smores are when you take sticky rice, mush it tightly together, sprinkle it with some sugar and salt, roast it on the fire, pour coconut milk on top, then put it back on top of the fire until it’s as crispy as you’d like! Though they varied greatly from American smores, we all really enjoyed finishing a meal with dessert for the first time in a while. Our Moonup that night was led by our LODs, Ariana and Nealy, underneath the stars with our feet in the hot springs. Our LODs put great thought into their Moonup question and we sat deeply invested into each other under the moon for over three hours of Moonup- a memory we will all cherish. We woke up this morning to the sound of Thai music, as a local half marathon was taking place around the hot springs. With an extra pep in our step, we prepared for our over 100 foot descend into a dark cave. Once inside the cave, we turned our headlamps off and experienced complete darkness for a few moments of silent togetherness. We ate our pad Thai in the bottom of the cave with our headlamps before climbing up to zip line across the open cave into our free foot rappelling! Today was a once in a life time experience. Nikki and Evelyn perfectly summed up today’s experience with their quote at Moonup tonight, “I believe that courage is all too often mistakenly seen as the absence of fear. If you descend by ropes from a cliff and are not fearful to some degree, you are either crazy or unaware. Courage is seeing your fear, in a realistic perspective, defining it, considering alternatives, and choosing to function in spite of risks.” Tonight we ventured into Chiang Mai’s weekly Sunday market where we got some of the best Thai food on the entire trip! It was neat to see the night life of Chiang Mai and became one of the girls favorite nights because we treated them to some Thai waffles with coconut, chocolate, honey, and bananas! It has been a long journey and tonight we must rest up so we can all be ready to take on our last day of activities tomorrow- biking through temples in Chiang Rai! 

The Other Side of Thailand!

June 30, 2017

Hello friends and family! 
We know it has been one of our longest stints without an update but we have safely arrived back to Chang Mai which means back to wifi. The last five days in the Karen Village will be hard to sum up in a short update, but expect endless stories when they kids return home. 
We began our adventure Monday morning by lacing up our hiking shoes and hitting the trail. It was so cool experiencing a completely different side of Thailand throughout the trek. Up until this point we had really only seen the beaches and cities of the country, but now we had found ourselves in the dense rainforest that make up the northern region. Our guide, Uncle Chai (the cutest old man we all wished was our grandpa), spent the entire hike sharing his vast knowledge of the plants and animals native to Thailand. He showed us how to blow bubbles using one plant’s stem, and paint our faces red using a ground up leaf of another. He has been guiding groups through the Karen Village for over 30 years, and it was definitely clear he knew what he was doing. It seemed like every step we took there was a new fruit to try right off the tree or relevant fact to learn about the area. For lunch we stopped at a waterfall, went for a swim and enjoyed chicken fried rice and fresh fruit. Belly’s full, we continued on our trek until we finally arrived late afternoon only to find that we would be spending the next five days in the most incredible home. It can only be described as a giant tree house, with bamboo floors and giant leaves acting as roof tiles. It was completely open air, all of our mattresses, tented with mosquitos nets, looking over a breathtaking view of the rice fields below and cloud kissed mountains off in the distance. These words, and the hundreds of pictures we all took will never do it justice. It was the simplest of homes, but somehow complimented the surrounding area so perfectly. Each morning we woke up to the roosters. Maybe earlier than we would have liked, but it gave us the opportunity to watch the sunrise and the clouds part over the mountains. Each night we ate incredibly fresh, authentic, family style dinners as we sat and watched the sunset. As it got darker we watched the stars come out and the Chang Mai city lights glisten in the distance. This was also the first time throughout our trip that we all got to sleep in the same room, so each night felt like a giant sleepover. We played cards, swapped stories, wrote in our journals, read our books, and bonded over a shared fear of the giant spiders and mutual dislike for the roosters that never seemed to be quiet. 
While our tree house was incredible, everyone’s favorite part about our time in the Karen Village was the opportunity to get to know all of the amazingly kind and welcoming people who lived there, and also getting work alongside them throughout our service project. We spent at least half of each day helping them finish building and painting a community kitchen and meeting center. This was a really cool project because the other Moondance group that is in Thailand right now started it and we were able to finish it.   One afternoon we spent learning all about the rice production in Thailand and how important it is to their economy, and then actually got to get our feet muddy and plant in the rice fields. We quickly learned that it isn’t as easy as they make it look, but a few hours into it we got the hang of it. It was so gratifying to be able to look down from our house and see all the planted rice fields, knowing we took part in the process. It also made us appreciate all of the rice we ate so much more, now understanding the extensive process that goes on behind the scenes to produce it. Our last day in the village we got to go into the school and teach classes to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. It was so cool to see how much English the students already knew and be able to share some of our culture with them as well. Not to mention, the comfort of all the familiar faces throughout the classrooms of the kids we got to know in the village. After a few hours of playing games and singing songs with the kids, we were all pretty heart-broken to leave. But our last night in the village really blew us all away. Two local shamans came and held a ceremony for us. Uncle Chai explained that anyone who stayed in the Karen Village for more than a couple of nights was considered family and that the ceremony was to bless us with good luck for the future. He expressed how appreciative the community was in having us and that all of us were welcome to return at any time. It was a beautiful ceremony followed by a lot of singing with the kids in the community and some of the friends we had made. Our time in the village was spent learning so much about the Karen culture and the opportunity to get a look into their day-to-day lives. We got to know the people there by working with them, cooking with them and playing soccer with them every night before dinner. What we learned is that they are kind, generous, loyal to one another and full of traditions. While there was a language barrier between us, we were able to laugh with them, play with them, sing with them and learn from them all the same. It was an incredible time, ended with a moving ceremony. 
This morning we were sad to say goodbye but felt confident we had lived every moment and immerse ourselves as much as we could in the short amount of time we had. The Karen culture has left an imprint on all of us and we will always be thankful for our time with them. 
We asked each student to write their favorite memory from the trip: 
Reagan – Painting the community kitchen and helping add some life to it by helping paint a tree on the back wall. 
Lindsey – Eating more than she ever has in her life and she wanted us to include “you have to say it was good food too” 
Nikki – Playing soccer with the villagers, especially Chok, Cha and Chom.
Evelyn – Playing games with the little girls when we taught at the school.
Georgia – Building bonds with all the kids and how much they inspired her.
Nealy- Getting to cook with the villagers, seeing the way they cook compared to how we cook at home. 
Sophia- Singing with the villagers on our last night after the ceremony.
Claire- Building the house she described it as “exciting, it was rewarding because you get to see the final results and it’s something I’ve never done before” 
Ariana- Drawing with some little girls. Learning each other’s names and drawing shapes 
Franny- Making connections and relationships with kids like May May. It made her appreciate her family even more. 
Emma- Being welcomed in as a family member of the Karen people.
Margaret- Cooking breakfast with them in the morning.
With only a few days left in our trip the group is holding on to the trip and each other a little bit tighter, knowing that this is the last time we will all be here in the place together. Hard to believe this much of the trip has already flown by but we still have a few activities left. The girls will be home in less than a week, excited to share their experience with you all. 

From Sandy Shores to Temple Tours

June 25, 2017

Sewaadee ká! 


When we last left off we were venturing to Bangkok on our overnight train for our tour of the city. We met our lovely tour guide, Nina, at the train station and headed deeper into the city to enjoy a traditional Thai breakfast- more rice and chicken! Spirits were low after hours of traveling under our belt; however, at Nina’s mention of stopping to buy elephant pants before entering the Grand Palace, the mood was instantly lighter! We gathered in a local shop near the palace and each picked out our own fun, colorful pair of elephant pants- Izzy and Ruthie haven’t taken them off yet. Upon entering the gates of the Grand Palace, everyone’s jaw dropped. At each turn was an incredible new sight to see. We are fortunate enough to be experiencing a transitional time in Thailand’s monarchy during our visit. Recently, the Thai king of 70 years passed away and his son took the throne. Thailand takes immense pride in their King and people can be arrested for speaking any ill of the king. Throughout our trip we have seen numerous signs, monuments, and decorations in remembrance of the late King. In Thailand, after a king passes away, the country has one year of mourning for the king where Thai people must wear all black and come to the palace in Bangkok to pay respects for the late king. They will also build an entirely new building for the cremation ceremony taking place exactly a year after the death of the king. 


Throughout our tour we witnessed hundreds of Thai mourners in black coming to express their extreme loyalty and duty to their country almost nine months after the death- an incredible testament to the devotion that is seemingly innate amongst the Thai people. Of the vast amount of space the palace is comprised of, there is only one building that tourists are allowed to enter. This building is a beautifully gold-plated and jewel filled sight that we all agreed no picture did justice (but you should still Google Grand Palace Bangkok to take a virtual look at what we saw)! Each of us took our shoes off before entering the temple, and sat with our legs crossed in front of the largest, jade Buddha in the world while monks kneeled before us worshipping. It was an astonishing moment where we could all bond and grow together, but without having to speak a word to each other whatsoever. Those moments where no words are spoken but thoughts are collectively expressed are some of the most inspiring of all. 


After an incredible experience in the Grand Palace we were forced to experience a not so fun part of Thailand when we sat in 2 hours of, what we later learned, was the worst traffic in the world. At least we can all now check that off our bucket lists! Luckily Nina was still with us and was able to use the time to teach us even more about Thailand and its capital city. When we got back to the hostel we ate dinner and went straight into Moonup from there. Led by our LOD’s, Georgia and Nealy, we got to know each other on a deeper level as we learned even more about each other’s stories. With 11 days now under our belt, the group has grown closer and Moonups have grown more powerful. This night in particular was a Moonup I’m sure we will all remember. 


It was a nice change of pace traveling from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok to entering the markets and mountainous temple of Chiang Mai. After landing in Chiang Mai, we were immediately thrown into a method that would inevitably teach us about the town- a challenge scavenger hunt! The group split into two groups and headed to town in hopes of accomplishing 16 tasks that embody life in Chiang Mai! Franny took hold of her group by taking charge and initiating conversations with many Thai people asking for hints (part of each task was communicating with the locals to get them to help translate Thai words)! Claire and Emma took the reins in their group – Claire with the map and Emma with the translation tasks! Claire also took the lead on Thai FASHION! Throughout our scavenger hunt, local thais asked for her picture as she had bought a traditional Thai headdress, elephant pants, elephant necklaces, and a jade ring along the way! Both groups had to venture towards different markets finding staple food items and get a picture with the people with whom they bought it from. The bamboo sticky rice was a quick favorite snack from both groups, followed behind some fresh mangos and even some BBQ banana chips! One fruit stood out amongst the rest- and that was the notorious for its smell and taste, the _____ fruit. Ariana stood up to the plate for this one and took a big bite, followed by some funny faces and sounds. Nealy was the first of her group to discover the mystery behind one of the big night time scenes in Chang Mai- a boxing club. The scavenger hunt was a great way to emerge ourselves into Chiang Mai and learn things about the town we wouldn’t have if we had been just exploring on our own. Despite how tired we were from a day of traveling and exploring, we still had one last adventure in store for us this day. As an impromptu activity, we took vans to the top of a nearby mountain in Chiang Mai to the most famous temple in all of Thailand. On top of this gorgeous mountain, above over 300 stairs, there is a temple overlooking the mountainous regions and the city below. In the 12th century, an Indian monk carried a bone from Buddha’s body into Thailand. When the bone was delivered, it had cracked into two separate pieces- one of which lies in this temple. After finally reaching the top of this beautiful, spiritual spot, we took our shoes off and began to walk around the temple three times for good luck. Along the way there were bell stations, meditation centers, and detailed statues that could captivate anyone. An old Thai king used to tell his people to follow his elephant up the mountain and follow as the elephant did. Each time, the elephant would walk up the mountain, circle the temple three times, and then kneel in the same spot as if praying. This is why tradition at the temple is in all odd numbers- you ring the bell in odd numbers and walk around the temple in odd numbers. What was more breathtaking than the views from atop the mountain or the wondrous architecture was the ritualistic worshipping of the monks. Being able to each witness the devotion and dedication it requires to be a monk or Buddhist gave us all a new perspective on what we desire to devote so much of our own lives to. That night at Moonup, our LODs, Nikki and Reagan, spoke about how tired they were prior to going to the temple and how they had wanted to simply stay at the hostel and rest. However, after experiencing the beauty, power, and spirit of the temple, they realized the importance of continuing with their cultural immersion and what it can do to rejuvenate a persons thoughts and attitudes on life. 


And finally, today, the elephant day. The day all the girls had been so looking forward to. From the moment we stepped foot in Thailand this day has been referenced over and over again by all the girls as one of the sections of our trip they were most looking forward to. Whether it was Sophia growing up in an elephant themed room, or Evelyn who had seen so many pictures of her friends online featuring elephants, they had all been dreaming of this day. 


It definitely did not disappoint.


Waking the girls up this morning was especially easy and they were already on time. We began the day with breakfast, piled into two van and began our journey into the Karen Village region, where we would first meet the elephants. We were greeted at the sanctuary by two German volunteers, Britta and Marius, and several other guides from the local Karen Village, but they were quickly overshadowed by the giant, majestic creatures waiting just a few yards behind them. We all watched in awe, already overwhelmed by the experience. When Britta and Marius finally stole back our attention, it was well worth it because they were a wealth of knowledge about Asian and African Elephants. They explained the physical and genetic differences between the two species. In fact, we learned that the Asian elephant is actually the only true elephant of the two and its closest relative is the Mammoth. They explained to us that there are only about 3,000 elephants still in the wild in Thailand, and another 3,200 that are domesticated and registered, mostly in sanctuaries like this one. The biggest threat to elephants in Thailand, contrary to popular belief, are not poachers looking for ivory but rather the fact that as cities grow and their borders expand there is just less room and resources for them to survive. All of the wild elephants left in Thailand live exclusively in national parks and protected land. We also learned a fact that sat heavier than the rest. There are no longer any elephants living in Vietnam, and according to our guides that is a direct effect of the war. Agent Orange and land mines scattered throughout the country have created an environment unable to sustain them, and we were seeing the effects of this damage until 2007 when the last living elephant in Vietnam died. Learning all of this made us even more thankful for sanctuaries like this one, that educate people on these majestic beings and treat them ethically, allowing further generations to experience a world with elephants. 


After learning so much more, we finally got to meet them! There were seven elephants, one male and six female. Two were pregnant and you could literally see the baby elephant moving around inside of each of them. We were able to touch them for the first time, which overwhelmed some to the point of bursting into tears of joy (i.e. Izzy). They were calm and gracious, and if you caught their eye it felt as if they were staring into your soul. A special connection I don’t think any of us ever expected to share with an elephant. Then, our guides sat us in a circle and surrounded us with the elephants. They explained that it was a time for them to learn our scent and get to know us, so they would feel more comfortable with us for the rest of the day. 


We then took a short break for lunch where we were able to try a taste of northern Thailand for the first time. It was such a hit! All the girls loved it, each one taking at least seconds. We shared family style rice and curry, with sautéed vegetables followed by fresh fruit. While it was many of the same ingredients we had grown used to, it was prepared in such a different way and it left us all maybe just a little more full than we would have liked. 


But we quickly had the opportunity to walk off some of those extra potatoes we couldn’t resist as it was time to walk the elephants to the nearby watering hole. We were all paired off and given an elephant to walk with the help of our guides. They taught us some of the phrases they’ve used to train them and we were off. While we were all definitely excited to see the elephants I don’t think any of us had considered what the area surrounding the sanctuary had in store for us. It was incredible. As we walked along the road, we were greeted by a warm rain and the most vibrantly green landscape I have ever seen. The sun was still shining through over the fog in the distance and we were surrounded by rice fields in all directions. Margaret, with an uttered simple “wow” as a herd of cattle approached our group. Here we were, in the middle of northern Thailand, a group of 14 young women walking 7 elephants down a winding road, passed by a local farmer and their cattle, surrounded by a lush green landscape in all directions. Margaret had it right, it was a WOW moment for all of us. Next thing we knew Lindsey, Georgia and Evelyn were wearing hats our guides had made out of giant leaves off nearby branches. After about a mile walk we approached the watering hole and the elephants collapsed in the water with a sigh of relief and we soon followed splashing water all down their backs, helping them cool off and rinse the mud of their backs. They sprayed us with water from their trunks and let us take endless pictures and videos as we frantically tried to hold on to these passing moments forever. The next hour came and went all too fast and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. Our time with the elephants had come to an end. We sat under a bamboo hut eating bananas as we watched our guides take them back to their homes, sitting in a moment of silence, digesting the experience we just had. It was an incredible day, and one I know we will never forget.

Rappelling, Rocks, and Railay Beach

June 22, 2017

After spending the first four days of our trip exploring underwater, it was time to start climbing new heights in Railay Beach, Thailand. 

We began our adventure in Krabi Beach, at Glur Hostel. From the moment we walked into the hostel, the girls loved it. There was a pool, sleepover style bunk beds, a ping pong table, and lots of other young travelers to talk to. After a morning ferry boat ride, we spent our first night settling in and resting up before our first day of climbing. We walked to a local restaurant for dinner where we talked and laughed with ease after spending the last week bonding and growing closer as a group. As leaders, it has been so thrilling watching the group transform from the quiet, awkward bunch on airport day, to the silly, rambunctious group full of laughter and smiles. 

In the morning, we met our climbing guides and immediately knew we were in for a fun day. They were young, vibrant, and excited to teach us about a sport they’ve dedicated their lives to. Learning that Railay beach is a place that climbers of all levels travel from all over the world to come climb only made us all the more excited. We took a boat ride from Krabi to Railay where we learned about all the gear, how to tie the necessary knots, and the safety protocols. They walked us to where we would be climbing and we were all in awe. As we ventured through a narrow dirt path, passing signs warning us not to feed the monkeys, it suddenly opened up and we were greeted by intricate rock cliffs on our left and a beautiful sandy beach with the brightest blue water on our right. The image we all drooled over online before this trip suddenly became our reality. A wow moment for sure. Once we adjusted our eyes to the beautiful surrounding, it was time to begin our ascent. Reagan was the first to give it a try and we all cheered on her bravery and determination as she attempted our hardest route of the day. Throughout the morning, Emma was the group’s biggest cheerleader, simultaneously belaying her peers and encouraging them as they scaled the walls. The hardest route of the day was proving to be a challenge for the whole group with one section that no one could get past, until Margaret and Claire showed us how it was done. They scaled past the point of frustration and made the last bit of the climb look easy, giving the rest of the group confidence to give it a second try. Franny, who had come into the trip dreading the climbing, faced her fears and impressed us all by crushing her route. We all watched in amazement as she began her climb hesitant and uncomfortable, and ended touching the ring at the top of the route beaming with confidence of her accomplishment. It was amazing to see how some of the girl’s personalities shine through as they pushed their way up the rock face. Nealy’s relentless determination, Georgia’s hilarious approach to every situation, Evelyn’s contagious positivity and laughter, and Nikki, Lindsey and Sophia’s quiet, yet powerful confidences. Regardless of their approach, every girl was able to successfully complete several routes and we saw their confidence in their abilities grow with each attempt. 

After a few hours of climbing we took a much-needed break for some lunch on the beach. As we sat in the sand enjoying our rice and vegetables and Pad Thai, it continued to settle in our minds how lucky we all are to be on this adventure. To be doing such cool activities in such a beautiful place. After lunch we continued resting, exploring and climbing over some nearby boulders and swimming in the warm, vibrantly blue ocean. As we enjoyed the water and the sun we were satisfied with an adventurous day, completely unaware of unreal experience the afternoon had in store for us.

As the sun began beating down on us the early afternoon, we retreated into the shade of a small path surrounded by trees.   As the path grew steeper and the trail grew rockier we realized we were approaching the mouth of a cave. Headlamps and flashlights became our saving grace as we climbed bamboo ladders and weaved through the wet, humid tunnels of this giant rock formation. After climbing our third ladder our eyes were pierced by daylight and an opening to the cave was revealed with the most picturesque view of the ocean. At this point we had all almost forgotten that we were still wearing our harnesses but were quickly reminded as we watched our climbing guides tying knots and getting their gear ready. They explained that we would be repelling down 60 feet out of the cave and from there, hiking back to the beach. You could hear nervous whispers throughout the group as they realized the reality of what we were about to do. As we watched the guides go down and they talked us through all the equipment that made what we were about to do possible, and more importantly safe, some of the group’s anxieties were put at ease. Slowly, one by one each girl volunteered to go, giving the more anxious students more confidence with each successful attempt. Leaning back away from the rock face, trusting the rope and slowly repelling down was an adrenaline inducing thrill. We all made it to the ground safely, cheering each other on, and I can confidently say none of them will ever forget that moment. It was incredible watching the confidence and joy exude from their smiles at the bottom. Ariana quickly put the experience into perspective exclaiming it was the coolest thing she’s ever done in her life, and most nodded in agreement. 

We ended the eventful day by cleaning up, walking to dinner, and having yet another powerful and bonding Moonup. As leaders, we are so impressed with the girls’ maturity and insightfulness during this sacred, quiet time the group shares each night. It has been such a pleasure getting to know your daughters this far, and we are thrilled that we still have more than half the trip to continue getting to know them. 

Today we sang Ariana happy birthday on her sweet 16, packed our bags, and ventured out to another half day of climbing where everyone was able to get a few more routes in. As our first climbing section is over, I think we are all left feeling accomplished and shocked by our own mental and physical strength. It’s now time to head back to Bangkok as we transition to the northern region of Thailand, and I know that we are all excited for what is in store for us. Tonight, we head on an overnight train to Bangkok, where we will get our first Harry Potter train experience and continue to celebrate Ariana’s birthday! So excited for what is to come! 

En-THAI-cing Thailand!

June 20, 2017

Greetings from Thailand! 

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a week since leaving the Atlanta airport, the days are really flying by over here. 

We began our trip by boarding a 15 hour flight to Seoul, Korea. All the girls were troopers making it through such a long flight filled with what seemed like endless movies and airplane food, only to get on a second plane for another 6 hours to Bangkok and then a bus to our hostel. After getting a much-needed good night’s rest in Bangkok, we woke up and boarded another plane to bring us to a ferry-boat to Koh Toa. Yes, that’s yet another form of transportation added to the list. Expect all of your girls to come home professional travelers by the end of this trip. While the first two days of our trip were definitely long and tiring, it became clear that the journey was well worth it when we arrived at our beach front bungalows on the beautiful island of Koh Toa where we would be spending the next four days scuba diving. 

But before we dove into the scuba diving, it was finally time to experience the food we had all been anxiously anticipating. We walked along the beach from our bungalows to find a restaurant on the water. After two and half days of travel we were all very ready for an authentic Thai meal and that’s exactly what we got. We had everything from staples like Pad Thai and green curry to new dishes most of us still can’t pronounce. It surpassed all expectations and left us with the bittersweet knowledge that we may never find the same quality upon our return to the states. 

The next morning scuba diving began bright and early. We had to complete the PADI classes and watch safety videos to begin our certifications and then in the afternoon we began our open water dives. Franny, Nikki and Izzy who came on the trip already open water certified began their advanced diving certifications while the rest of the group started with the basic skills, getting comfortable using all the equipment necessary to explore the underwater world. The three groups that were new to scuba diving impressed each of their diving instructors with their absorbance of the matter and conquered their first entry without any fear or hesitations! Getting to watch the girls as they learned new skills under the water and swim over beautiful coral and fish for the first time was a WOW moment for the leaders. Each time we came up from a dive all the kids were overwhelmed in their disbelief of what they had seen. They talked about their perspectives changing and how lucky they feel to be their age, scuba diving in such a beautiful, remote place. Though it was Emma’s first time breathing underwater, it was undoubtedly not her first time near the water. Emma was constantly teaching those around her about ocean life, from naming specific fish we had seen to explaining the coral aid blocks seen underwater. Her knowledge was endless! As we rode the boat back to shore after our first day of scuba diving, we witnessed a near magical sunset over the Gulf of Thailand- a sunset we all agreed pictures would never do justice. We arrived to dinner with full appetites ready to experience more of the local flavorful meals. Claire decided to try some Pad Sie-Eiew and basically hasn’t ordered anything else since. Margaret has probably been our most adventurous eater on the trip, trying something new at every meal. We had a peaceful Moonup by the shore before retiring to our bungalows to rest for our second day of diving. The following morning, our leaders of the day, Evelyn and Lindsey, opened the day with a morning huddle in preparation for continuing with their scuba questions and skill-learning. The girls had now become friends with their diving instructors and were even teaching them some things! For instance, Ariana had become fast friends with her instructor, Andres, and taught him how to ‘dab.’ Whenever the camera looked their way under the deep blue, they were sure to be together and dabbing. By the time we reached our third day of scuba, the girls were almost through with their certifications and were able to go on a ‘fun dive,’ forty-five minutes off the coast over beautiful coral filled with sea anemones, various sized jelly fish, barracuda, and much more. We returned to land where the open water certification test began and everyone passed with flying colors and became officially PADI certified! Time to celebrate! With our newly certified students and our third day of scuba finished before lunch, it left us the afternoon to explore the town around us! 

After first getting the freshest smoothies and mixed fruit salads from our favorite sandwich lady, we walked along the small roads of Koh Toa,  passing the local school and coconut-shavings on our way. From a monkey on a leash to an amazon fish in a small pond, we were able to delve ourselves a little deeper into the daily life of the small island. Once finishing our town exploration, we bonded with some group games back on the beach near our bungalows. Nealy led us in a game of mafia, Evelyn taught us the game Signs, and Reagan fulfilled her lifelong goal of learning how to play camp games. With so much of our days so far spent busy traveling and scuba diving, it was refreshing for all of us to get to know each other more with a free afternoon of town exploration and beach games! 

Yesterday, the instructors surprised us by saving the best for last- scuba diving over a sunken ship! Nikki, Franny and Izzy now having completed their Advanced Open water certification were able to go 90 feet below and explore the shipwreck deeper. Some even got to swim inside the ship! As a home to thousands of fish, the shipwreck dive was a great way to end our first portion of the trip! Sophia battled the struggle of little communication underwater for forty-five minutes as she wondered whether or not a fish on the boat was real or not. (It wasn’t. Many others had been having the same thought but Georgia just reaching and picking it up solved the mystery for those few around her.) 

The afternoon was spent eating at our favorite spots in Koh Tao before leaving, as well as more games and story time on the beach. With twelve students and two leaders, our time spent hanging out laughing, talking, and listening can often surpass the amazing activities we do. This day was an incredible bonding experience for our group and it only continues to grow. Our LODs, Georgia and Nealy, lead a meaningful, tear-jerking Moonup under the stars by the gulf putting a perfect end to our time spent in Koh Tao. What an empowering, brave, and spirited bunch that we as leaders feel lucky to have with us on this adventure. 

Until next time!

-Izzy and Ruthie

And They're Off

June 13, 2017

Hi Thailand Families!

We’ve heard from the leaders and everyone’s en route to Thailand! The summer has officially started! Once everyone arrives in Bangkok, the Moondance Office will call all families to check in.

-The Moondance Administrative Team


  • Nealy
  • Reagan
  • Sophia
  • Lindsey
  • Georgia
  • Margaret
  • Claire
  • Ariana
  • Emma
  • Franny
  • Evelyn
  • Nikki
  • Sarah