Wine Not? Kicking off A Thailand Wine Weekend at GranMonte Vineyard

Think Thailand and drinking, and it’s likely you’ll conjure toasting to the sunset with one of the country’s internationally famous beer brands, Chang or Singha. Or perhaps dancing on the beach with a brightly colored pail of cheap whiskey and soda with a handful of straws chucked in. Or maybe sipping an overpriced cocktail at a rooftop bar a la The Hangover II. But wine?

Wine not?

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Yes, Thailand grows grapes. I can’t quite recall when I became obsessed with the idea of taking a grand trip around Thailand’s burgeoning wine country, covered as a quirky oddity in the occasional wine or travel publications. But like most trip ideas, once it took hold, I couldn’t quite let it go until I was packing my bag.

It was a tricky trip to plan mostly due to the fact that I had no idea where to start. Even compiling a list of Thailand’s working wineries that accept visitors was tough; figuring out how to get to them, where to stay and when to go was a one way ticket to spreadsheet city. Like other trips I’ve taken that aren’t detailed in guidebooks or elsewhere on the world wide interwebs, I’ll have a comprehensive guide coming up for those who might want to follow in our tipsy footsteps. For now, I’ll just try to convince you you should.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

While there are actually a handful of wineries scattered throughout various corners of Thailand (again, stay tuned for more info in my upcoming guide), I decided to focus our trip on the Khao Yai region, where four different vineyards add up to the greatest concentration of wineries in the Kingdom.

Khao Yai is about ninety miles and two hours northeast of Bangkok, and is also home to the stunning Khao Yai National Park that I visited a few months prior — in part as a recon trip for this journey. The rural countryside and cooler temperatures are a literal breath of fresh air for anyone traveling from the capital.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

It was also quite the contrast coming from our little island home of Koh Tao. For the last few years I have made it a priority to get my friends off the island and on a little annual getaway somewhere, a tradition that has earned me a fictional travel agency called Wanderland Travels. As in, “I can’t wait to see where Wanderland Travels brings us next!,” while I daydream from the next bar stool.

In the past we’ve hunkered down in villas on Koh Samui and on Koh Phangan, and coming up this year I’m planning to round everyone up for a big festival in Pattaya. But this trip? This will be hard to top.

When I plan a Wanderland Travels excursion, there are a few ground rules. The have to be in Thailand, since we all have different visas with different restrictions and it’s too hard to coordinate a mass exodus. They have to be short and sweet, since much of my crew have businesses to run back on the island. And they have to involve booze (okay, that last one is an unspoken rule, but I think we can all agree it’s pretty foundational.)

This trip hit all the marks. After months of coordinating and dreaming and sending each other wine-drinking memes, I thought I was going to faint of excitement when departure day finally arrived.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We had quite the wine appreciation team assembled. Nine of us had traveled together from Koh Tao, with vino-lover Heather flying in from Bali to meet us, and over-pourer Ian’s parents joining us all the way from Canada.

My first instinct was to put us all on a night boat, hop an early flight on the mainland and get picked up by a driver at the airport and be at the wineries before lunch. However, once someone suggested tacking on a wild night on Khao San Road, it would have been rude not to. And so we we left Koh Tao on a cheap ferry and bus combo, took up every bed in a ten person hostel dorm at the chic and highly recommended Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and spent Friday night in true Khao San fashion — drinking whiskey, singing along to Thai pop songs in an underground nightclub, and engaging in some street side-retail therapy.

The next morning, the driver I’d arranged arrived to whisk us off to wine country.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Our first stop was GranMonte, a pioneer in the Thai wine industry. The Granmonte vineyard, once a cornfield and cashew plantation, was bought by the Lohitnavy family in 1999 with the hopes of producing wine.

It is a true family operation. Visooth Lohitnavy, founder of the Thai Wine Association and CEO of GranMonte, has passed the torch to his daughter Nikki Lohitnavy, the in-house oenologist — and the first and only female Thai winemaker. I was incredibly excited to visit a winery helmed by a woman, and was touched when she took time out of her busy harvest season to greet us during our visit.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We kicked things off with a group tour in an open-air tram of the vineyard’s 40 or so acres, primarily filled by Chenin Blanc and Syryah grapes but also Viognier, Cabinet Sauvingon, Muscat, Semilion, Durif and Granache.

Our sweet young guide was lovely, and valiantly did her best to give a bilingual tour for both our group and some Thai families that were onboard. However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally trailed off with a shrug and sighed, “…because France.”

Everyone, including the guide, erupted in giddy laughter and “because France” has become one of our signature sayings ever since.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Next up? A spin though the Asoke Valley Winery facilities, which opened in 2009 and produce over 120,000 bottles of wine per year. Here we learned about Nikki’s studies in Australia, admired the fancyequipment imported from Europe, and got to take a peek at the production of wine produced against all odds in the tropics.

And we got a little silly.

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Finally, we made our way to the tasting room to get our hands on the award-winning wines we’d been hearing so much about. Our favorite award, one of many proudly on display around the room? “Best Pairing with Kung Pao Chicken.” I think we all can agree it would be an honor.

After a short video, we got down to sipping. My favorites were the Sakuna Syrah Rosé, the Spring Chenin Blanc and the Busaba dessert wine.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

After the tasting, it was time to break at Vincotto Restaurant for lunch in the lush Thai countryside. Vincotto once again keeps things in the family, run by Nikki’s mom and Visooth’s wife, Sakuna.

I’d agonized over the menus and ambiance of this restaurant and the one at the next vineyard we’d be visiting, but after our meal, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with our choice. Because we were a group, Vincotto had several menus we were able to choose from. We settled on a three course set menu, mixing and matching with our favorite wines from the tasting.

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

I chose pumpkin and mustard seed soup for my starter, braised lamb in red wine for my entreé, and grape  pie for dessert — and not to brag, but I think I won the meal.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Once we were good and tipsy on lunch wine, it was tie to unleash ourselves in the onsite gift shop. Here we purchased not just wine (I got two bottles) but also high-end grape juice and handmade  fruit jams, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. It was an expat’s dream come true!

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Want to visit GranMonte yourself? Good choice! Granmonte’s vineyard and winery tour has received the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s award for Agrotourism three years in a row — we could see why. While we didn’t absorb tons of technical information due to the language barrier, the tour was efficiently organized, the vineyards and winery were immaculate, and the tasting was well-run. It was the perfect introductory stop of our weekend.

The tour is approximately one and a half hours and costs 300 baht per adult, 220 baht per person under twenty (with grape juice instead of a wine tasting), and free for children under five. During high season, tours are offered every day, but throughout the rest of the year they are offered only on weekends — check the website for details.

GranMonte holds various festivals and events throughout the year, so it might be worth scheduling a visit around one and hunkering down at the onsite guesthouse. For more information on visiting the wineries of Khao Yai, including where to stay, how to hire a driver and more, stay tuned for my upcoming guide to the region.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

GranMonte Winery Thailand

As for us? We had places to go, people to see, and wine to guzzle. Stay tuned for our next stop on the wine squad tour!

After all… wine not? Did you know Thailand had a wine industry?

Celebrating Yi Peng and Loy Kratong on Koh Tao

This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!

It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.

I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.

Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.

On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d spotted being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.

And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.

The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.

The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.

Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunningly beautiful.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)

I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

I’m anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.

There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.

While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!

Howl’oween Is For The Dogs

When I decided to spend Halloween in Los Angeles over New York, I had one major motivation. Yes, memories of cold, rainy nights in a damp costume certainly dissuaded me from my East Coast option. But Los Angeles? Los Angeles had Tucker. Game over.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Tucker has always been pretty down for dress up time — or perhaps he’s just learned to humor us after a lifetime of it. Easter? We’ve got a pair of bunny ears on him. Graduation? He needs a cap and gown too! Prom? Don’t worry, I got rush shipping on the cocker spaniel tuxedo I ordered.

So it always really burned at me that we rarely got to spent Halloween together anymore. When I was living in Brooklyn I used to go to the Tompkins Square Park Dog Parade, but I’d always leave wistful that I didn’t have my own little man with me. (Wondering where I find all these events? Bring Fido is my go-to — and no, they are sadly not a sponsor of Alex in Wanderland, at least not anywhere other than my dreams.)

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Hence, I was more than willing to plan my Los Angeles weekend around attending the Haute Dog Howl’oween Parade in Long Beach. Tucker was pumped.

We went for a sea creature costume theme, inspired by an old lobster costume Tucker had lying around and a pair of gold mermaid legging I’d recently purchased. I spruced up Tucker’s look by dying the lobster suit a more sophisticated color and adding some painted shell eyes, while a trip to the local craft store whipped me into a frenzy of spray paint, shells, hot glue and inspiration for our human ensembles.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Honestly, I thought we were looking pretty cute, but little did I know we were amateur hour compared to the creative canines that were about to strut their stuff. My friends Lindsay and Asher had joined my dad and I for this fabulous furry day, and so we’d all decided that rather than walk in the parade, we’d instead snag front row seats and enjoy being spectators. Seats are $10 in advance or $5 on the day of, if there are any left. Dog registration runs $10 per dog in advance, $20 on the day, and $35 for Very Important Pooch registration. Best of all? It’s all a fundraiser for a local animal non-profit!

We settled in and got ready to be wowed.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

And dang, were we ever. I can’t believe the creativity and energy that went into some of these costumes! It made me so heartwarmed and happy to think of families and friends and fluff-balls all hanging out, dreaming up and bringing to life these lovely creations.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

The Frenchie Fries, above, was one of my favorites of the day! I absolutely adored watching Tucker watch the parade — he was so alert and attentive, carefully watching each and every group go by. Nine out of ten he’d just track with his eyes, but then every so often he’d burst up out of his seat to go wag at and sniff a dog walking by in the parade. It was so sweet!

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Isn’t it amazing what a fabulous job these women in the purple did dressing their dog up as a chicken? It’s uncanny! (In case you’re reading this on a phone or other tiny device, I’ll just go ahead and explain the joke: it’s not a dog. It’s an actual chicken. That is, for better or for worse, all the information I have.)

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

It was fun to watch some of the themes emerge. We saw many costumes based on Star Wars, several inspired by the show Stranger Things, and quite a few riffing on the (then) upcoming election. Angelenos are a creative bunch!

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

I have to give kudos to the organizers of the event, it was awesome to really be able to get a good view of the costumes and the adorable pups! The parade route was long and winding and lined with a row on each side of official seating, and onlookers were welcome to bring their own chairs to set up behind those, or just to stand and watch. There was quite a crowd, and it didn’t look like anyone was straining to see.

With over 400 dressed up dogs, they claim to be the largest Halloween pet event in the world!

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

I couldn’t help but whoop for the above costume, inspired by the Dia de los Muertos celebration I’d attended the night before! They would have fit right in.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Pupperoni pizza? Sign me up for a slice!

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

And even more Dia de los Muertos fun — you definitely feel the Latin American influence in Los Angeles.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

And how cute is this mother daughter pair? My heart melted!

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

However, there’s only one group that can take home the ultimate grand prize, which in this case was a year’s supply of dog food. And from the moment we lay eyes on them, we knew who it would be.

Behold, The Boston (Terrier) Tea Party. I salute these fabulous patriots for creating a masterpiece.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

However, I think if the Baackes family ran the voting committee there’s no question who would have won. In our hearts, the Cutest Dog Around Competition will always be no contest.

After the parade, we spent an hour or so wandering around the various vendors (pet photographers, pet psychics and organic vegan dog treat makers were all present) and contemplating adopting a rescue puppy, and eventually capped off the day with cheap tacos nearby. While we’d sadly missed the big pumpkin drop due to our late arrival, we definitely feel we made the most of the day otherwise.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

And I have to admit, the day started as a total disaster. We were late. We brought the wrong dog collar. The masks I made started to fall apart. My phone was dying. I was running late (as usual) and underestimated how much time I needed to get ready (as usual) and ended up running out the door in a complete frenzy with my hair half crimped, planning to finish it in the car, a plan that was crushed when the mobile outlet wouldn’t turn on.

Thankfully my dad has survived raising four daughters so it’s probably not the first time he’s been stuck in the car with one of us having a mental breakdown over having a half-crimped, half-straight head of hair, having packed incorrectly, and beating ourselves up over why we can’t be on time to anything in our dang lives even things that are important to us and we weren’t even doing anything significant anyway before we left! Ah, family.

But all is well that ends well, right?

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles

The next day was actual Halloween, and the day of the big West Hollywood parade that had inspired me to be in Los Angeles in the first place. All day, I planned to go. But I’d been feeling extremely overwhelmed and frazzled by work, and just having one of those weeks where I felt I was half-assing everything. And so rather than half-ass one more event, I made a last minute call to stay home and have one low-key last night at home with my dad and Tucker before flying back to New York.

We put Tucker in his back-up hot dog costume to bark at Trick or Treaters, and agreed that we’d really had all the Halloween fun we’d needed to over the weekend, anyway.

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

Howl'oween Dog Parade Long Beach Los Angeles 2016

In short, I think Los Angeles may be my new Halloween home base from here forward! Between Dia de Los Muertos, Howl’oween, and the promise of someday — in a less frazzled state — attending the West Hollywood Parade, I don’t think I could imagine anywhere better to be. My dad and I have already started brainstorming ideas for our next set of costumes.

Any ideas? Leave them in the comments!

Aside from Tucker (duh!), who would you give the Howl’oween grand prize to?

Day of the Dead in the City of Angels

Jumping ahead to bring you some close-to-real-time coverage of my favorite holidays, since apparently some people don’t like reading about Christmas in July.

When I was messing around with my fall calendar, trying to figure out when to be where, one date stuck out to me as important: October 31st. As one of my favorite annual explosions of creativity, I wanted to spend Halloween somewhere special. I settled on Los Angeles.

Once the tickets were booked, I started researching for the best ways to celebrate. The famous West Hollywood Halloween party would fall on the actual holiday of Monday, October 31st, which left the weekend wide-open for alternative ideas. As I’m sure you can imagine, in a city like Los Angeles, I had plenty of options!

When I stumbled across the LA Dia De Los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, just a ten minute drive from my dad’s place in Koreatown, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Dia de Los Muertos Los Angeles

And yet I actually almost did miss it. My first few days back in Los Angeles were spent more or less in hibernation and to-do list mode: sleeping off my Hawaii jetlag, procuring my Thai visa, crafting costumes, and catching up on work. So by the time Friday night rolled around, I was pretty ready to let loose and enjoy the weekend I’d rechristened “El Fin De Semana de Los Muertos.”

And let loose I did at the cocktail tasting at The Walker Inn, where my badass friend Amy is one of the bartenders. The two hour tasting menu changes every two months or so, and the current theme is “childhood science experiments,” hence our stylish lab goggles. I went with my friend Amanda, a fellow blogger who I met in Bangkok last year at TBEX and immediately clicked with. She went from one City of Angels to another, and I couldn’t be happier to have another friend in my West Coast HQ. We were seated with two other cute girls who we loved chatting with and getting to know. It was perfect.

I went into The Walker Inn literally knowing nothing other than the fact that my friend Amy works there and was surprised and was so delighted by the whole experience — and I don’t want to ruin the surprises so you can feel the same way. If you are heading anywhere in Los Angeles anytime soon, just trust me. Make this a top priority. Reservations are tough to get so snap one up early — it’s one of the coolest things I’ve done in the city!

The Walker Inn Los Angeles

However, I paid for it dearly. I woke up on Saturday with one of the worst hangovers I’ve had all year, which I attribute to the wine I consumed when Amanda and I stuck around until well after closing. I had planned to hit up Hollywood Forever around mid-afternoon, but when finally peeled myself out of bed I was thinking more like maybe 2017 would be a more realistic goal.

I tried to find strength in donuts.

California Donuts Los Angeles

California Donuts Los Angeles

I’ve been wanting to check out California Donuts for a few different trips now, and Halloween weekend was the perfect excuse to finally indulge in their fancifully decorated creations. This retro bakery is walking distance from my dad’s place — though like true Angelenos we drove — and we were not disappointed by the festive results.

California Donuts Los Angeles

California Donuts Los Angeles

California Donuts Los Angeles

Around 3pm — you know, the time I’d planned to actually arrive at Hollywood Forever Cemetary — Amanda and I exchanged guilty texts and decided to rally.

She headed over and we quickly abandoned all hope of digging deep into our artistic souls and creating beautiful face paint masterpieces and instead pretty much copied my previous Dia Del Los Muertos look with a half-hearted change in color scheme. Our barely-clinging-to-life moods at least matched the theme of the night!

Dia De Los Muertos Los Angeles

The sun set right as we were finishing the last touches of our face paint, dashing my hopes of arriving in time to get daylight photographs. But alas, my disappointment was quickly replaced with excitement as we approached the cemetery and were suddenly surrounded by face-painted revelers as we inched towards the entrance in traffic.

As we made our way through the gates, I felt I’d left Los Angeles entirely.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is not Halloween — it just happens to be around the same time, and also involve dressing up. The holiday originated in Mexico, though it is now celebrated throughout Latin America — and beyond. Los Angeles, with its large Latin American population, was the perfect place to get a primer. As I’d learn throughout the night and the through the reading I was inspired to do later, Dia de los Muertos is a rich, beautiful tradition that celebrates the lives of those who have passed — but who return to the community for one special night per year for a post-mortem party with their loved ones. Personally, coming from a culture that fears and dreads death, I found the concept of embracing and accepting it as part of the natural cycle of life to be refreshing and beautiful.

We spent our first few hours at Hollywood Forever wandering the gorgeously manicured grounds, soaking in the ninety or so detailed altars. While some were created in honor of the creator’s friends or family members, others were tributes to groups that have made tragic headlines — victims of police brutality, animals that have died in cosmetics testing labs, the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, undocumented workers who have died without access to health care, and the victims of the San Bernadino shootings were just a few that moved me to tears.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

As we were staring reverently at one altar in particular, I felt a tap on my shoulder and someone asking me if I spoke Spanish. “Un poquito,” I replied apologetically, thinking I was about to be asked for directions.

“Bien,” was the reply, as the lights of a news camera suddenly blinded me and a beautiful woman shoved a microphone in my face and asked me about my night and my understanding of Dia de los Muertos. I did my best, and then later laughed imagining myself as the punchline on a Late Show-esque compilation of silly gringos struggling with Spanish.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

I remarked to Amanda many times that I couldn’t stop thinking of Burning Man. The alters reminded me of the heart-wrenching and beautiful notes left behind in The Temple, while the elaborate costumes left me reminiscing about the wild acts of self-expression on The Playa.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Eventually we found a spot in the grass to relax and take in some of the performances and music taking place on the half a dozen stages dotted throughout the event. We gorged ourselves on taquitos, churros, agua fresca, horchata, and as many other delicious  Mexican treats as we could get our hands on. Meanwhile, festival vendors and talented face painters tended to the masses.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia de los Muertos was, truly, a celebration of so many things I cherish in life. And — due to our delicate states — there was so much more we didn’t even experience! The doors are open from noon to midnight with a procession starting at 2pm and music on the stages firing up around 3pm. Next time, I vow to get there around 1:30 to take it all in. While the atmosphere at night was magical I think we missed out by not getting to admire the altars in the daytime, as well. And we simply didn’t have the energy to wait in line to see the Cathedral Art Exhibit inside the Cathedral Mausoleum, a wait I’m sure would have been much shorter had we arrived earlier. Moral of the story? You’re going to pay $20 to get in, you might as well make the most of your money and arrive as early as you can.

Other tips? Buy your tickets online ahead of time to skip at least one line. Come hungry and bring small bills for snacks — some booths accept credit cards but lines are long and you’ll speed things up by paying with exact change in cash. Take an Uber or Lyft rather than attempting to park. Definitely get in the spirit by dressing up — almost no one was not in costume, although levels of wow-dom obviously varied. Get your face painted onsite if need be. Prices ranged from $25-40. And once you’re looking fresh, get in line for the free photobooth!

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

While I was disappointed by our late start at my half-hearted costuming, I’m so glad we went. The night really summed up everything that has slowly won me over to Los Angeles — diversity in culture, an atmosphere of creativity, and a flair for the unique. I learned so much about this special holiday and fell in love with this event which I hope to attend over and over again.

And it was just the beginning of the weekend’s festivities. Need more? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on Dia de los Doggies.

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Dia De Los Muertos Hollywood Forever Los Angeles

Happy Dia de los Muertos, amigos!