A Little Happiness…Making a Unique and Merry Christmas Abroad

Last updated on December 9, 2018

The sweat cooled from my skin at 7:30am Christmas morning as I pondered this holiday travel experiment with Ana; on the opposite side of the globe my nephews back home slept in eager anticipation of heaps of presents, but instead of a big traditional Christmas here in Thailand, I gave Ana an entrance ticket into a 10K run in the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon…roughly 6.2 miles of running at 6:00am on Christmas morning…

Not exactly the same.

Okay fine, not even remotely the same.

Lanna bowling Chiang Mai
Ana and I were the only two with cheery Christmas hats.

But I faced a challenge traveling on the road with my niece. How do I illustrate my views on traveling lightly, ditching rampant materialism, and valuing experiences with people over things…all without crushing the spirit of a pretty lively and typical 11-year-old girl who really at the end of the day loves her iPod and hair accessories?

turkey at bake and bite Chiang Mai
Ana enjoys a delicious Turkey dinner on Christmas at the Bake and Bite restaurant in Chiang Mai

I’m not so much with the preachy-preachy about how to go about Christmas, it’s all good whatever works for each of us. And let’s be honest here, I gleefully remember tearing into Christmas presents as a child, with red Santa Claus wrapping-paper wildly flinging around the room as my brothers tackled their new cars/figurines/swords/video-games/etc.

A beautiful Thai dancer in cheery red and greenA Thai singer rocks out some holiday carols on stage.

But from a practical standpoint, it just wasn’t possible for me to buy her heaps of presents because we flat-out don’t have the room in our backpacks. And from the goal standpoint, when I mentioned the six things I hope Ana learns on this trip, gratitude and the seeing the possibilities in the world were in the list. And they’re pretty high on the list, right up there with addressing materialism and the mass consumption model in the US through real-world examples.

So with all this in mind, I worked on crafting a day of experiences and fun events as the focus of our day, and filled red Christmas hat with a few cute (small) gifts as an addition, but not the focus.

Colorful bowling balls at Lanna bowling in Chiang Mai, Thailand.A  bowling ball Christmas tree!

To start the holiday festivities, Ana and I joined a group of traveling friends for Christmas Eve bowling, and what a hoot that was! Lanna Bowling in Chiang Mai is the cleanest bowling alley I’ve ever seen and we spent several hours swapping stories and chatter while I bowled two games in a row that came in well under 80 (yes, how awesome are my mad skills!).

Christmas eve bowling
Ana watches the ball closely as she gets her first strike!

The next day, after a Christmas Day nap to recover from our run, we hefted some of our makeshift cookie supplies over to a friend’s apartment to make some wackily improvised Christmas cookies. There are no ovens in the apartments here in Thailand, so we made do with packaged cookies and wide crackers for the gingerbread houses. Shawna and Chais (of the Full Course Travel blog) provided the mulled wine and Christmas carols while we frosted in contentment, decorating with such delicacies as: coco puffs, chocolate chex, mini-M&Ms, nerds, Nutella, pirouettes, and other fun sweets.

cookie decorating

Which brings us back to the other main event of our holiday, the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon. Yes indeed my friends, I gave my niece a long and tiring run for her holiday present. Ana and I ousted ourselves from bed at 4:15am and met up with Paddy, a friend and fellow expat, for our 6am 10K run.

When Paddy cracked a joke of this being possibly the “worst Christmas present ever” it gave me pause, because even though she was pretty much joking, there’s a truth to it…I would have boycotted this gift if I was given it inside the cozy house I grew up in throughout childhood.

But traveling is different and being only temporarily in one place means the “norms” change– I had to find something neat/interesting/different that wasn’t trying to poorly simulate Christmas back home. And, beyond just the run, the act of training for the Christmas run over the past weeks actually gave us a purpose, and gave us both an outlet for some “joint” alone time as we pounded the pavement with our iPods securely tucked into our ears.

Then there’s the accomplishment aspect of a run.

Ana didn’t think she could do it.

In fact, she really didn’t think she could make it the entire 10K and she made me promise we could stop at 6K (which was the most we ran during our training). But she did finish; we both jogged across the finish line just one hour and 23 minutes after that burst of adrenaline first took us off into the dark, pre-dawn hours of Christmas.

And though exhaustion masked some of the sheer exuberance bubbling underneath, I could tell she was proud of herself at the end.

chiang mai christmas marathon
Paddy, Ana, and I completed the 10K run in 1 hour and 23 minutes, not too shabby for a Christmas morning run!

And heck, I’ll be honest, I type away at least six hours each day, so I hadn’t been sure we could do it either.

But we did finish. And we did it together! It wasn’t typical, and she openly proclaims she never wants to do one on Christmas again to be honest…so, maybe it will take years before she fondly remembers this odd Christmas that involved running, Christmas eve bowling with other expats, and wonky cookie decorations, but I am pleased with how we shaped and changed the more traditional holiday spirit to work into something that embraced the holiday spirit and our current traveling lifestyle!

How did you spend your Christmas? Any fun/unique/out of the ordinary Christmas traditions? Anyone else do a run, I hear Christmas marathons are actually a pretty popular tradition?!

21 thoughts on “A Little Happiness…Making a Unique and Merry Christmas Abroad”

    • Thank you Sandy! It can be tricky as we’re here to find neat and unique things to do, but I think Christmas was a success and we both had a wonderful time :)

  1. Impressed. I wish someone had crafted a holiday like this for me. Instead I worked, to avoid family arguments and drama. Only emerging from my self-imposed exile in my room with laptop, for the very end of Christmas day. We had dinner and dessert and managed to avoid the worst tension with heaps of presents and rampant consumerism. So, kind of a fail all around.

    NYE was my big deal this year. All alone in a foreign country to welcome 2012 was just the way I wanted it.

    • Oh Kirsten, I am so sorry to hear that your Christmas was so frustrating…I often find my family gatherings can head in that direction too…but I am glad that you rounded out the year with some travel happiness…there is something to say about honoring your own impulses on how you like to ring in the New Year! Hugs and hope you have a wonderful 2012  :)

  2. Congratulations to you both on an awesome Christmas run! I always thought it would be fun to take a trip to participate in a race. I love that you just integrated it into your travels. We’re getting a foreign exchange student this semester, and I think a lot about how you and Ana are progressing with your travels and studies. I’m sure she’s getting an awesome education, and I’m hoping we can provide the same when our student comes to live with us. Happy holidays ~ I’m looking forward to following your travels in 2012!

    • It really was a fun to integrate into living here in CM…it’s something I’d do again in a heartbeat (and I got to actually jog around my town in the early morning hours when there was no traffic and wow, what a different experience!). Perhaps your student would even jive with a run? That will be such a fun and amazing semester–I can’t wait to hear more about it, it’s a neat way to bring travel and culture right to your own doorstep, good luck JoAnna! :)

  3. That is what Christmas should be about isn’t it? About doing things over having things. About spending time with the people we love.  The commercialism that for so many families is part of Christmas tradition erodes what Christmas really should be.  I hope that your niece was able to take this experience and learn from it.  Great job Shannon!

    • I agree so much Amy, the family time and her knowing that I cared enough to spend the whole day with her is what I hope she takes away. I hope your own Christmas was wonderful, happy 2012!  :)

  4. My 12 year old daughter and I do one great trip together on own own each year, so I know how challenging it can be coming up with fun, interesting, non-materialistic things to do while traveling. I haven’t embarked on an adventure like yours and when I first found your blog about doing this with your niece,  I was/still am so impressed. I shared your blog with my daughter, along with Ana’s, where I now believe she’s following Ana’s adventure.  

    It’s one thing to do a couple of weeks, or a month with a tween/teen, but it’s another to take on schooling and the adventures that come with traveling as well.   Your efforts for Christmas are way better and will be more impressed upon her than what she got in a pile of gifts at home.  Her Christmas 2011 will be one she’ll remember.  Great job Aunty!    If only more people would impress upon their kids non-materialistic adventures rather than ‘stuff’.  =)  

    • What a wonderful tradition for you to have with her; moments like that with my own father stand out in my memory, so I think yo’re right, it will last longer and is something she will remember later into adulthood. I appreciate you passing on Ana’s site to your daughter, she’s working on updating more often now so she can hopefully inspire other kids! Thank you for sharing your own experiences with tween travel adventures, it really can be tricky to engage them and keep them enthused :) 

  5. After reading the the tweets of super spoiled kids disappointed about not getting the right iPad for Christmas, it’s refreshing to see that it is totally possible to have a Christmas that is about celebrating the season: time with family and friends, fun, and yes, a few presents. While Ana’s memories of early morning sessions of tearing into Christmas gifts might blur together, I certainly think she’ll remember this one–if only for the feeling of accomplishment of finishing her first 10k! 

    • That has been disheartening and frustrating for me to see as well…that parents are allowing this attitude of greed and ungratefullness to take over what is supposed to be a holiday about joyful giving and sharing with those we love… I hope you had a wonderful Christmas Christine!  :)

  6. It must be a bit difficult to travel with your niece, right? A good challenge, I’d say :D Anyway, your cakes and bowling photos make me go out, play and eat! In 2 days once my healthy diet is over :)

    • Hopefully your diet is over now and you can enjoy some sweets! That’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday season :)  Thanks for the support and for reading along!

  7. I was proud to be a small part of your unique Christmas with Ana! And, all jokes aside, was incredibly proud of all three of us with getting up, and getting it done with good humor and willpower — but especially was proud of Ana. Because like you I’m pretty sure I would have boycotted the gift at her age. All in all, an amazing Christmas with the two of you. :-) 

    • Instead of our annual Bahama spring vacation, I took my 17 yo daughter to Cancun.  A 3 hour bumpy ride in a dilapidated bus to Chichen Itza had her complaining.  It was 115 degrees and the inner climb up the narrow stairwell of the Pyramid of Kululcan had her cursing me under her breath.  The steep climb outside wasn’t easy and we took pictures at the top.  Of course it was hard to peel ourselves from the wall and make the descent (afraid of heights – yikes).  But to this day, she is happy that she/we went.  At the time – all she kept repeating was – great – the ruins.  broken down tumbled rocks. Nice Mom…  thanks.   Today, she remembers our adventure a little more fondly and is happy that we shared this experience. 
      Your X-mas may be a once in a lifetime experience for you and Ana – but isn’t that what it’s all about?  Traditions are great but straying from them will stand out in your memories forever.
      Thanks for sharing.

      • Thank you for sharing your story, I have done that bus ride to Chichen Itza and I can only imagine how frustrated your daughter was in that moment, but it is really heartening to hear that she looks back on it a lot more fondly–I truly do think this is what will happen with my niece down the line!  I know on my end, it’s a year I will remember and continue to learn from, so I can only expect it’s the same for her. Cheers and have a wonderful 2012  :)

    • Thanks Miss Paddy! Wouldn’t have traded that early morning run for the world, and so glad we go to spend the day together…and as you said, we pretty much rocked it from an attitude point of view, when we hit the 9K mark I was actually pretty surprised! :)  Hugs and miss you!


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