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Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

12/29/09: Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia

I expected to learn a lot about myself on this trip, but our time in Thailand taught me two things that I never expected to learn:

  1. According to Zhou, when I get worked up I angrily jab my finger like I’m standing next to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
  2. When I no longer trust anyone, I simply lower my head and start walking with no destination in mind.

More on that second item later.

This morning we left Bangkok for what will hopefully be the last time ever. In order to sneak out without saying goodbye, we caught the 5:55am train to Aranyaprathet and long before the sun rose we were gone. This train wasn’t like the ones we have become used to riding, but the lack of cockroaches surprisingly didn’t make for a more enjoyable ride. Instead, as it turned out, we traded in the cockroaches for an overcrowded car with incredibly rigid benches and open windows that let in almost biblical amounts of ash twice during the ride (where the ash came from, we have no idea). To top it all off, the nice lady in the bench facing us had the thirstiest six-month old I’ve ever seen. Where does etiquette state that you should look when a quarter-naked mother is sitting directly across from you for six hours?

When we finally escaped the train, memories of Bangkok took hold of me and I began walking. Assuming every person was out to scam us, I quickly began ignoring every living thing that came within ten feet of Zhou and me. The problem was, we needed a tuk-tuk to travel the six kilometers to the border, and I was walking with my head down and no clear plan on how to get a driver while ignoring everyone. Zhou finally talked a little sense into me, and I picked the fourth tuk-tuk driver we talked to after not trusting any of the others.

On the short ride to the border, I shifted my head to the up position so I could watch all signs and turns that the driver was making. With me glaring angrily from the back seat, we actually made it to the border… almost. We pulled into a parking lot next to a poorly built hut labeled “Cambodian border and visa service.” A man wearing a name tag and carrying a clipboard approached us and told us we were at the border. Zhou and I have now been to almost twenty border crossings, and not one has been a rickety shack, so I about lost it. I made it clear that we already had our Cambodian visas (even though we didn’t) and that everyone was a dirty rotten liar because we weren’t at the border. I left Zhou in the tuk-tuk (sorry Zhou!) and once again I put my head down and started walking.

A minute later Zhou came to the street, followed closely by the liars and the cheats. They wanted me to pay for the tuk-tuk ride, but I refused because we weren’t at the border. They insisted we were, and pointed to the police station and told me to ask them for myself. I confidently went inside knowing I was right, and found out I was wrong. We were as close to the border as the drivers were allowed to take us. It just so happened that this particular fake border crossing was very near the real one. I paid the driver and we walked to the official building and checked out of Thailand.

Between Thailand and Cambodia, on the casino-lined streets of no man’s land, I went into walking mode again, ignoring anyone who spoke to us. We walked right past the real Cambodian visa office as I hastily replied “no” to the man who asked us if we already had our visas. A few seconds later it was Zhou again to the rescue, walking back to the man and telling him we actually didn’t have our visas – I don’t think she realized my plan was to unleash a swarm of bees on the border and then sneak into Cambodia without ever trusting anyone for help.

We filled out our forms, bribed the border patrol with 100 baht (we decided our time was more important than our principles, so we paid the corrupt officers $3 rather than wait them out), got our visas stamped and then, you guessed it, started walking.

We ignored all the people telling us that we needed to catch a bus to the taxi stand, despite the hoards of gullible tourists sitting there waiting on the free shuttle. (Zhou had read about this scam, where they take you to the middle of nowhere and then overcharge you for the cab. I just had my head down.) We walked past all the cabbies trying to get our fare for the 150 km journey to Siem Reap. We must have walked for close to ten minutes before we realized we were running out of street and had to get a taxi soon. Two guys who had been following us were coming to the realization that we weren’t going to mess around, so they offered us a fare with the stipulation that we would only need to pay if our first stop was at our guest house. It was as good of deal as we were going to get, so we nervously got into the cab and kept our fingers crossed that we’d soon see Siem Reap.

I don’t like this person I turned into today. I’d much rather be over-trusting than under. But we’re here in Siem Reap now and we made it with relatively little hassle, so I don’t regret it. Zhou, you can breathe a sigh of relief – I’m ready to relax and have a good time.
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Picture of the Day: Zhou and her enormous dead fish at Dead Fish Tower, a quality recommendation from Gavinmac. Thanks!

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12/28/09: Bangkok, Thailand

Having enjoyed the relatively cool weather in Chiang Mai for the last five days, stepping out of the train into the sticky Bangkok heat this morning was quite the shock. By the time we walked the ten minutes to our guesthouse, Kevin was dripping with sweat and I was even glistening a little.

So we decided against doing any real sightseeing – the air-conditioned indoors being a more attractive option. Mindful of what happened the last time we wandered around Bangkok with no itinerary and a map out, we spent a few minutes planning out what we were going to do: MBK, Siam Paragon, King Power.

What, you say? Those are all malls?

Hm, what a coincidence.

Even though we never actually shop in malls, we like visiting them because 1) they are air-conditioned, 2) every mall has a food court, usually good, and 3) in Bangkok, they give tourists free stuff!

Our first stop was MBK, one of the biggest malls in Bangkok. We came here once before, but didn’t have our passports on us and so couldn’t get our free drinks. But this time we were prepared! We stopped by the fifth floor “Food Avenue” and finally got our two free glasses of Thai iced tea. Yum.

Our next stop was Siam Paragon, about ten minutes away from MBK. Paragon is my favorite mall in Bangkok because it has THE best pad thai I’ve ever had. And for 50 baht (less than $2), it’s also a pretty good deal.

After we ate lunch, we decided to watch a movie. What can I say? We like to live like the locals. Bangkok is said to have some of the nicest movie theaters in the world. The Cineplex at Siam Paragon had tickets ranging from 140 baht (roughly $5) to 3000 baht (about $100). I’m not sure what they give you in the 3000 baht seats, but if it doesn’t come with your own puppy that sits in your lap during the movie, then in my mind it’s just not worth it. There were at least four or five different theaters, one of which looked more like a nightclub than a movie, another that had seats in pairs in their own little booths and a third that looked like a super-fancy opera house. Kevin and I splurged (shocking!), spending an extra 30 baht for a seat in the digital theater. I have to admit that when we first walked into the theater, I was a little disappointed. There weren’t any puppies or even any blankets – it was just your plain, old, ordinary movie theater.

After 25 minutes of previews and commercials, the movie was finally about to begin. Oh – wait – except it wasn’t really about to begin. We looked up at the screen and instead of seeing the beautiful faces of Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr., we read, “Please stand to honor the king as we play the national anthem. (Feel free to sing along.)” And then, of course, they played the Thai national anthem to a montage of footage of Thai people with – get this – not the king, but PICTURES of the king. Like there was one scene where some business people stopped to help some other people push their bus that had broken down and in the background in the grassy median in the intersection, there’s this huge picture of the king looking upon the whole thing benevolently. And another scene where there was a flood and an old woman is being rowed out in a canoe with all of her belongings, looking heartbroken but hopeful as she clutches onto the frame of – you guessed it! – a giant picture of the king.

Is it just me or is all that a bit weird?

Anyway, after the anthem was over, the movie finally did start. The movie itself (Sherlock Holmes) was enjoyable – and paying that extra 30 baht for digital was definitely worth it. The picture quality was amazing, no crackling at all. It was like watching a gigantic HDTV.

After the movie, we went to King Power mall to shamelessly pick up a free keychain and free drink but not buy a single thing. Because that’s how we roll.

Meet my new elephant friend.

We ended the day with two giant bowls of noodles at Grandma’s Noodle House (recommended) near King Power. It’s our last day in Thailand, and though we’ve had a couple of not-so-good experiences here, we’re both a bit sad to leave. I think someday we’ll probably come back – but when we do, we’re coming in mango season.

If you are travelling to Thailand be sure to check out many Bangkok holiday deals and special offers in order to to save money and time. (Sponsored by Flight Center.)

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Puzzles for Postcards

Rhyme Time! (Solve all four of these building-related rhymes)

An addition onto Mel Gibson’s estate
A large, wide or college-ruled metropolitan tower
Sitting Bull’s home, after being taken over by witches
A stick protruding from Butch Cassidy’s pad
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Picture of the Day: I had never seen a section thusly labeled in a bookstore before this.

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12/27/09: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Today was our last day in Chiang Mai.

Our last day in our little hotel heaven with the bathrobes and DVD player and two shower heads in the shower (one was detachable). Our last day with the candies on the pillows and the stocked minibar we never used but liked to periodically look at to remind ourselves that those things come in real hotel rooms. Sigh.

I think the staff at Ayatana would have let us stay in our room until our 9pm train to Bangkok, but they apologetically kicked us out this morning because our room had already been booked for tonight. But not to fret! One of the things I’m slowly learning on this trip is optimism – which to me translates into looking at something and making it out to be good when it’s actually not – e.g., “oh, it’s actually good we couldn’t stay in our room and watch DVDs or lie by the pool or nap all day, because it’s so much more fun to walk around Chiang Mai for eight hours!” I told you, it’s a slow process, this whole optimism thing.

But that’s what we did on our last day in Chiang Mai – just walked around the city all day. Kevin loves to walk. Myself, I’m more of a stroller. It’s a difference of philosophies.

After spending an afternoon shopping (and yes, even buying some things) at the Sunday Walking Street, we were headed back in the direction of our hotel when we happened upon a breaking competition. (Apparently breaking is the preferred term for what we squares would otherwise call breakdancing. Thanks Wikipedia, now I know that I am officially uncool.)

Not sure what is going on here, but it involves legs moving wildly in the air.

So we sat down and watched it for an hour. Totally random and totally awesome.

Then we walked back to our hotel. We planned on eating at one of the stalls on the main road by our hotel. The only problem with this plan was that since we weren’t in the touristy part of Chiang Mai, everything was written in Thai. We stopped at the busiest stall on the street – and this place was completely packed at the relatively early hour of 6pm – and tried to figure out what to order. Unfortunately our old standby of ordering pad thai at any place that doesn’t have an English menu didn’t work because this place didn’t serve pad thai. Only noodle soup. Fortunately for us, one of the women at the stall explained the whole noodle soup thing to us. Because it wasn’t clear as we were staring at all the noodles and the soup. Anyway, it turned out to be some really really really good noodle soup. Probably the best noodle soup 25 baht can buy.

As we walked back to our hotel to get our bags before heading off for the train station and yet another overnight ride, we talked about how much we enjoyed Chiang Mai. Kevin summed up his sentiments by saying, “I just wish we could have stayed here one more night so we could go back to that noodle soup place.”

Me too.
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Picture of the Day: Chiang Mai sky at sunset.

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[Editor’s note: This is the second post today in the last of our “Two for Tuesdays” series, as we have learned we won’t be able to access the blog in China and thus need to keep a ten-day lag.]

12/25/09: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, Zhou and I awoke at 6:30am and ran downstairs in traditional Christmas morning fashion. It’s what happened after this that sets this year’s Christmas apart from any other. We were greeted by a man awaiting to take us to the Thai jungle for a morning of ziplining from treetop to treetop.

Upon arriving at the “Flight of the Gibbons” office in the jungle, this morning became my present to Zhou as I was the one who pulled out the wallet and paid for it. (Zhou, where’s my present?) Also, as we’re still in our honeymoon period (unlike Obama), I requested the temperature of the jungle be turned down to remind us of Christmases back home. If only I had remembered to remind Zhou to wear her fleece, she might have appreciated my efforts.

The ziplining itself was billed as the top attraction in Chiang Mai, but unfortunately I think they used the word “top” in it’s most literal meaning of “highest.” Don’t get me wrong, we had a good time and would recommend it for families traveling with kids, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as we expected. There were ten different ziplines, three spots where we abseiled down trees and about thirteen places where I yawned. I guess in my head I’ve always pictured ziplines as wires that could transport you from the top of the Empire State Building to Atlantic City.

The morning’s activity was followed by a hike up a waterfall which turned out to be more of a babbling brook at an angle. After a ten minute climb we reached the unscenic apex: a small sign that said “do not pass.” All we could do was shrug our shoulders and head down to lunch.

Before leaving on our trip, Christmas Day was the one day that I was dreading most. For 24 years, Christmas has been the one constant in my life. There’s hotpot with my mom’s side of the family, games with my dad’s and a morning of Steve, me, Mom and Dad alternating opening Christmas presents youngest to oldest, one at a time. Steve always dons a Santa hat and passes the mountain of presents out from under the tree that our family decorated together, and after the festivities we grab the cats out from under the wrapping paper they’re playing in and force them into our family picture. This year was obviously a bit different. As cool as Thailand is (not literally), it wasn’t easy to be away from home during the one day I could always count on being at home.

However, Christmas is a time for spending with family, and I was able to do that again this year. Not the family that I have known my entire life, but my new family. I spent today with the one person who understands me better than any other and the only one with whom I could survive an 11-month trip with. It’s been 3.5 months now of spending all day every day together and we haven’t had one argument. Not one. Sure, we’ve had our differences of opinion on things, but we have yet to let them get in the way of the great experience we’re having. Not everyone can be so lucky.

So although today may have been difficult emotionally, it was also really special: it’s the first of many Christmases with my wife (I’ve promised her at least three). No need to worry though Mom and Dad – next year we’ve vowed to return home and celebrate with both our families, because after all, that’s what Christmas is about.

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Thought of the Day: I haven’t heard the new holiday CD, but I feel like David Archuletta’s sole purpose in life is to make Christmas albums.
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Picture of the Day: A tasty western Christmas dinner of ribs and burgers at The Duke’s.

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12/24/09: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Did you know that it’s not mango season in Thailand? It’s something that didn’t occur to me until we were at cooking school today, reading through the little cookbook they gave us. On the mango sticky rice page, it says, “This is one of the most popular Thai desserts and many foreigners who come to Thailand regularly make sure that they come in the mango season so that they can have this dessert every day!”

Huh.

This one sentence illuminated several important things for me: firstly, that I am NOT alone in this intense mango sticky rice love and therefore slightly less crazy than Kevin thinks I am; secondly, that it must not be mango season, because I have yet to see any mango sticky rice carts; and thirdly, that my image of Thailand as a magical land with mounds and mounds of mango sticky rice everywhere is still intact. When mangoes are in season, of course.

Anyway, back to the cooking class. Kevin’s awesome groomswoman (and good friend from high school) Rachel got us a cooking class from Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School as a wedding present. Hi Rachel! We love you!

I think Kevin has mistaken his knife and pot for a pair of maracas.

Don't mind my menacing look.

Our morning activity was carving things out of tomatoes and the largest carrots I have ever seen in my life. First we made tomato-peel roses.

One plate has my rose and one has Kevin's.

Then we made lotus flowers out of tomatoes (Kevin says mine looked like Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors.”) and carved leaves from carrot slices. Another bonus from today: I have finally found something that I am better than Kevin at – carving flowers out of fruits and vegetables! It’s not much, but I have to take what I can get.

Then we started our cooking. (And eating.) In less than five hours, we cooked (and ate):

Clear soup with minced pork and glass noodles.

Vegetable spring rolls.

Roasted duck red curry and ginger chicken.

Chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves.

Mango with sticky rice.

[Full disclosure: we didn’t actually get to cook the mango sticky rice, which I was kind of bummed about, but we did get the demonstration. When we get back home, the first thing I am going to buy is a steamer.]

The actual cooking part was like cooking boot camp – the instructors walked around our stations telling us what to do, barking out orders like, “Add the eggplant now!” and “Sauce, sauce! Sauce now!” A few times I was calmly stirring things around in my wok when an instructor would come by and shout, “Done! Done!” which was really dangerous because I then frantically tried to simultaneously shovel everything from my wok onto a plate and turn off my gas burner at the same time. I know it would make more sense to turn the gas off first, but it’s really difficult to think clearly when you have a small Thai woman shouting “Done! Done!” at you.

The food ended up being really good – we ate every single thing that we cooked, which would have been enough food to feed four normal people for an entire day or two semi-hungry people who never know when to stop eating. So basically it was perfect for us. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve already wrestled a promise from Kevin that we’ll do a cooking class in Siem Reap next week and in Beijing next month.

Thanks again for the awesome wedding present Rachel! Now if someone will only get us a steamer and a couple of bamboo baskets…
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Thought of the Day: I’ve never had brain freeze. It must be a myth.
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Picture of the Day: Wat Arun in Bangkok has some of the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen. (They’re not crooked, the photographer is.)

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12/23/09: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Oh what a difference a day makes. Last night we slept on a crowded, smelly, grimy train filled with cockroaches. Tonight we’ll stay in a tropical paradise known as the Ayatana Hamlet and Spa.

How could two budget-conscious backpackers possibly afford to stay at sucha nice hotel? Three words: Mom and Dad (I suppose that could have been two words depending on how you look at it). Thanks to an amazing Christmas gift from my parents, we will live in the lap of luxury during our stay in Chiang Mai. In my pure, unadulterated excitement for the days that lie ahead, I’ll make you sit through my third consecutive post that contains a list as I describe a the top ten things here that we hardly recognize any more after 3.5 months of hostel living.

  1. Q-tips: The way I see it, I’d much rather go deaf from Q-tip overuse than from this massive buildup of earwax.
  2. Shower curtain: It’s this drape-like thing that blocks the water from getting the entire bathroom wet while you shower.
  3. Bathroom phone: Joey on Friends taught us never to underestimate the importance of a phone near the toilet.
  4. Mouthwash: Is it kosher to spit out your used mouthwash into the bottle to reuse it again?
  5. DVD player: This in itself isn’t that great, but it comes with a whole library of DVDs to watch.
  6. Scale: Everyone can breathe now – we aren’t slowly disintegrating. We weigh the same as we did when we left.
  7. Fitness room: This would be higher on the list, but there’s no chance either of us will use it.
  8. Sewing kit: I kicked a huge hole in our sleeping bag liner on day one, and Zhou hasn’t been able to get it fully sewed-up since. Until now.
  9. Maid service: Someone will come into our room everyday and replenish our q-tips, mouthwash and sewing kit! She’s going to think we have the cleanest mouths and ears and the most torn-up clothes since Maggie Grace in her short run on Lost.
  10. Other complimentary items: Candies on our pillow, bathrobes, slippers, shampoo and conditioner, and a breakfast buffet complete with omelet station.

We’ll spend the next four nights living like I can only imagine Macaulay Culkin did in his prime. Then, like Macaulay we’ll head back to our crowded, smelly, grimy life filled with cockroaches.
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Puzzles for Postcards

Why Do People Spend Time Here? Anagram

Light Oak And Bank
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Thought of the Day: If I were a shoe thief like Rupert from Survivor, I would permanently relocate to Thailand. Every temple, hostel and bowling alley has you take your footwear off, and not one claims responsibility if it is stolen.
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Picture of the Day: If I were a shoe thief like Rupert from Survivor, I would steal from everywhere but this temple.

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12/22/09: Bangkok, Thailand

In the aftermath of our first big scam incident, I can only think of one thing: scams. Perhaps we were a bit too naïve (ok, so ‘perhaps’ is not the correct word here), but they really are everywhere in Bangkok. Now that our first scam-perience is in the books as a victory for the good guys, I’m glad it happened to us because it really opened our eyes to, as Aladdin would put it, a whole new world.

Narrowly Avoided Scam #1: Last night we went to the train station to book our now-needed tickets to Chiang Mai, using, of course, a small portion of our newly-pocketed 7,400 baht. Upon arrival, a blue-shirted man at the information desk outside the station came forward to help us book our seats. Remember how I said that the scamster from before was a nice man? This man was really really nice. If he worked at a restaurant where customers tip, he’d be a millionaire. Anyway, he led us to the inside information desk (one with bars separating passengers from the window attendant, so it had to be legit), where he had the lady look up our train schedule. “Sorry, no seats left on your train? Would you like to take a bus?”

Now a bit suspicious of bus travel, we didn’t really want to, but let him lead us upstairs to the tourist travel agency that booked buses. Each seat would cost about $11 more than if there was room on the train. We both waited for the nice nice man to leave, before looking at each other skeptically and then walking right back down to the train ticket window. Sure enough, 159 seats left on the train. Hmmmm.

[Side note: Shortly thereafter, I watched an “official” looking man in a green shirt talk to another lost-looking backpacker who had come to the train station, presumably to book a train. After a bit of conversation, the tourist followed the man upstairs to the travel agency next to the one we were taken to. Hmmmm.]

Narrowly Avoided Scam #2: This morning we went to the Grand Palace, one of only three reasons to visit the hole that is Bangkok (the other two being Wat Pho and the city’s impressive movie theaters). As we walked from the ferry station to the awe-inspiring conglomerate of gold-plated temples and mansions, a man asked us if we were going to see the Grand Palace. We tried to ignore him, but he kept talking, saying how Zhou wouldn’t be allowed in since her dress didn’t cover her knees, or something like that. Had this been before we did all our scam research, we might have believed him. Now we knew that we was going to try and direct us to another temple, probably with a tuk-tuk driver friend of his who could make a side stop at a gem store. This being the case, I took the man by the throat and told him we’d been messed with one too many times and weren’t going to stand for it anymore. Just kidding – we simply kept walking, and I said in passing she was let in the day before wearing the same dress.

Narrowly Avoided Scam #3: Still having not reached the main gates of the Grand Palace, a man standing by a smaller, unguarded set of gates was shouting to passers-by, “entrance to Grand Palace this way!” I looked down the alley and saw at the end of it one of the complexes impressive buildings, albeit past a fence. It seemed like the truth, but at the same time it seemed odd. We kept walking and soon after found the real entrance. At the bottom of the sign outside? “Do not trust wily strangers.”

After noticing a few other oddities – merchants renting long pants and sleeved shirts for 30 baht literally 30 feet away from where they were being rented for free inside the main entrance, men in fake name tags helping strangers before they reached the ticket line, etc – we are glad to be leaving Bangkok today. However, we still have the biggest scam of all to overcome in a week: trying to cross to border and get to our already booked hostel in Siem Reap. We’ve done a lot of reading on the subject and now think we have a good grasp on the best way to cross into Cambodia, so we’ll let you know how it goes at the end of December.

[Addendum: We have recently learned of the newest scam, “push-pocketing.” Someone drops their cell phone or wallet into your pocket or luggage and then confronts you for having stolen it. They have a friend who “witnesses” the whole situation and they threaten to call police if you don’t give them some money. Obviously a tourist in a foreign country doesn’t stand much chance with the police against two locals, so this one seems like a tough one to stop. Hopefully we won’t run into it.]
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Thought of the Day: People in a hurry never seem to understand elevator theory: if you get in first, you’re going to be the last one out.
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Picture of the Day: I’m not a big fan of short people who carry umbrellas around in the heat because I often get jabbed in the neck by them, but I’ll make an exception for Zhou.

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