Playing with Elephants

For decades, Thailand has thrived on the exploitation of its native elephant population. These gentle giants were once used by tribes for logging, but with industrialization and Thailand’s slide into the tourism industry, elephants quickly became exotic attractions, exploited for the pleasure of European and North American tourists. In order to force an elephant into complacency, starvation and torture are employed to break its spirit. Often, elephants are chained in tiny spaces for most of their lives, starved and mistreated. The huge creatures are not built to carry metal cages or heavy loads on their backs, but for many years, elephant riding was the number one tourist attraction in Thailand. Only in recent years has an outcry gone up against the mistreatment of elephants among visiting tourists, and so the elephant tourism industry in Thailand has begun to adapt.

Elephant sanctuaries that emphasize the freedom of their elephants, encourage interactive activities between elephants and tourists, and forbid riding have grown in popularity. The prominence of elephant riding has steadily dropped as awareness grows, though there are still far too many ignorant tourists who find themselves enthralled with the concept of elephant riding.

I had the opportunity to visit one of these elephant sanctuaries just north of Chiang Mai, and I quickly found that interacting and playing with the elephants in the sanctuary was a far more rewarding experience than riding one.

I took a day tour with elephants owned by the Karen tribe, a tribe indigenous to northern Thailand. We were brought out to an idyllic village nestled in the northern mountains, equipped with traditional Karen clothing and a bag of bananas, before approaching the tribe’s elephants, three adults and two babies, who were wandering, unchained, near the jungle edge.

The elephants knew exactly what we were there for as we approached, and lumbered excitedly to meet us, trunks extended toward the bags of bananas at our waists. Who knew elephants loved bananas so much? When given a command in Karen, the elephants would lift their trunks and open their mouths for us to hand feed them.

The babies were especially playful and would butt you with their heads, trying to bowl you over like an exuberant, few hundred pound puppy. Even thought they’re small, they’re still incredibly heavy!

Elephants feel bristly and rough, not what I was expecting at all. I was amazed how these huge creatures could be so gentle.

After lunch, our next interaction was to give the elephants a mud bath and get muddy ourselves!

Then we all wandered over to the river, bathed the elephants,  as well as ourselves.

Yes, that last picture is of me getting sprayed in the head by an elephant. When is that ever going to happen again in my life?

I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like my day with the beautiful elephants of the Karen tribe. It was absolutely incredible to be able to interact with such massive, intelligent animals. It was definitely a experience I will never forget. If you’re ever in Thailand, forgo the elephant riding in favor of the elephant sanctuaries, as it’s a far more rewarding experience.

Chiang Mai: City of Night Markets

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I arrived Chiang Mai, but unlike Bangkok, Chiang Mai did not meet my expectations. Overall, it was still a city, just smaller than Bangkok and closer to the mountains.

One thing that was not in short supply in Chiang Mai was Night Markets. Every night, just outside the old city wall, a night bazaar springs up from the pavement, but on Saturdays and Sundays the weekend night markets take over. Along a huge stretch of road sellers hawk all sorts of wares, as well as delicious Thai street food from Pad Thai to Mango sticky rice to roti to fruit smoothies to roasted corn to ice cream. Of course, I had to try everything. As the night wore on, the streets became more and more crowded with tourists in their elephant pants,  blind buskers, and local sellers.

The last picture features one of my favorite things about Thailand, Roti. It’s basically a crepe filled with banana and chocolate, topped with sweetened condensed milk which Thais like to put on everything.

Of course, I bought way too many things featuring elephants, but I wouldn’t be a proper tourist without doing that.

I highly enjoyed the energy in Chiang Mai’s night markets, and if you ever come to Chiang Mai, you must check them out. You never know what you might find.


I arrived in Bangkok alone and shaken by the events that has taken place in Shanghai.  I was picked up at the airport by Chip, my old boss’s nephew, who has so graciously agreed to house my plethora of large bags until I return to the US in a few weeks. Knowing I had someone to meet me at the airport when I arrived, alone when I had planned to be with a friend, helped my peace of mind tremendously.

I was told by a friend that Bangkok was similar to Manila, which I visited in February, so I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised. Bangkok is quite metropolitan, with many upscale parts of the city.

My hotel was in a central section, near the infamous Kaosan Road. The streets were thronged with tourists in their elephant pants, street food vendors, and tuk tuk drivers demanding way too much money for a ride. Exhausted, I immediately fell asleep.

The next day I met Kim, a friend of Tamsyn’s, and we hit it off right away. We were picked up at 6am for a day trip out of Bangkok to visit the Bridge on the River Kwai.

The bridge was made famous by the 1957 movie, but historical inaccuracies abound. After the fall of Singapore during WWII, Japanese soldiers forced tens of thousands of Allied POWs and native Malay people to build a railroad through the harsh jungles of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). 20,000 POWs and over 100,000 natives were worked to death. It is said for every railroad tie laid, one person died. It was chilling to ride the train and imagine the atrocities that had taken place here.

It amazes me that no matter where I go in the world, I can find a piece of WWII history. It just underlines the tragic scale of the war.

Our second day in Bangkok, we visited the Royal Palace with the entire population of China, which I thought I’d escaped when I left the country. The palace was beautiful, boasting curling, sparkling architecture unlike anything I had encountered before.

That evening, as the heat faded, Kim and I treated ourselves at the infamous Sky Bar on the 64th floor of Bangkok’s Lebua Tower. This upscale restaurant and bar was featured in the movie Hangover 2, which I haven’t seen, but Kim was very excited about.

The view was absolutely incredible, and though we paid way too much for drinks, it was fun to pretend we were part of the uppercrust of society for a night.

That was the finale of two short days in Bangkok, a city I had heard so many negative things about, and far exceeded my expectations. I will end back up there two more times before the end of the trip, but I definitely will not mind at all.

When the worst happens

Tamsyn and I had planned everything about our trip to Thailand. We knew which days we would be where and where we were going to stay and everything was booked and it was all supposed to be easy and stress free and nothing would go wrong. 

We boarded our flight from Qingdao, giddy with excitement that all our bags were allowed on the plane, ready for the trip of a lifetime. Then, in 15 minutes, everything changed. Somehow, between disembarking our plane in Shanghai and reaching security Tamsyn misplaced her purse–which contained her passport, her camera, her cards, IDs, and a lot of cash. 

We ran to the airline desk and had them call the plane, certain she had left it on board, and certain it would be found. But it wasn’t. An hour passed of running around in a panic trying to locate the bag, until time was up and we had to either change the tickets or I had to get on the plane alone. 

After tearful deliberation, we finally changed the tickets to the next day, and resigned ourselves to a night we had not planned in Shanghai. 

I quickly sent a message to our church group in Qingdao, and the outpouring of prayer and support we recieved was overwhelming. Within five minutes a friend had contacted another friend who lived in Shanghai, and then my phone rang with an invitation for us to spend the night. Another friend had a Chinese friend phone the airline to see if inquiries in Chinese would get anything done. 

That afternoon I sat with our huge bags and notified our hotel and friends in Bangkok of the situation, while Tamsyn ran around doing everything she possibly could to locate the bag. But we had no luck. 

That evening we took a taxi to our friend’s house in the state of shock. How could something like this have possibly happened when we had planned everything so carefully, so perfectly? 

Four days later, the bag still has not turned up. I made the decision to go on to Thailand alone, though the thought made me sick to my stomach. But Chip McDonald, my old boss’s nephew, picked me up at the airport, and Kim Busche, a friend of Tamsyn’s, met me in Bangkok. So I wouldn’t be alone. 

And Tamsyn wouldn’t be alone either. Lee and Cindy not only have allowed her to stay in their guest room, but have even taken her to the embassy and other places she needs to go in order to be issued a travel certificate to get back to South Africa. We are praying she will be able to make it for the final two weeks of our trip. 

So now I’m here, in Thailand, alone. Something I could never have imagined in the past three months of planning and dreaming. 

We may never know why this thing had to happen, but both of us have been working on coming to terms with it, as horrible as everything has been the past few days. I DO know that God is in control, and when things spiral so incredibly out of our ability to do anything, then the only thing we can do is trust in him. 

Tamsyn is still stuck in Shanghai, and probably will be for at least another week. So prayers for a speedy exit process as well as the speedy passport issuing process once she’s in South Africa are greatly appreciated, as well as safety for my own travels. 

So, for all you travelers who don’t take precautions (like splitting up your valuables, wearing a money belt, etc.) because you’ve never had something go wrong, please learn from our experience, because sometimes the worst does happen.  

Say Goodbye

This final week in China has been full of goodbye after goodbye after goodbye, not just to people, but to places and ways of life as well. It’s a long, stressful process that makes me realize just how many people have impacted me and vice versa.

1. Ashia and AJ

One of the first goodbyes happened over a month ago when my good friends Ashia and AJ left for the States for the summer. Since they wouldn’t be returning until after I left, I already had to say goodbye over a month before I was even leaving. 

2. Graduating Big Apple Students

The next goodbyes were later in June with my graduating preschool students. As they were moving on to Elementary school, it felt like a proper goodbye because they were leaving as well, and felt a similar sense of nostalgia.

3. Sunny

Then came the goodbye to my first roommate, first friend, and the first person I met in China, Sunny. She helped me so much in the beginning, back when I knew nothing about life in China. It’s so cool to see how far she’s come as well, and now she’s even married! 

4. Big Apple Students and Teachers

The next round of goodbyes was to my teachers and students. I was treated tomany group hugs, and one class even made me goodbye cards! 

5. My Roommates

Then my roommates took me out to dinner. Even thought we don’t speak the same language, I have gotten to know these girls just through sharing a living space with them every day for almost a year. I was put in such a unique position, one many foreigners don’t get to experience, of living with Chinese who speak no English. 

6. Chinese Corner

Then came a goodbye to the Chinese corner I have been attending for the past 6 months. It was always such a fun way to practice Chinese in a friendly environment with people who had a similar level as me. 

7. Single Friends

I also had a going away dinner with my single friends, but we forgot to take a picture. 

8. Church Fellowship

Sunday afternoon my entire church group took Tamsyn and I out to a huge Chinese lunch. This fellowship has meant so much to me in my time in China. I cannot even begin to describe the incredible love and support I have received from this group in the last two years. 

9. The Purple Pulls

On my last day in China, I had to say goodbye to the Purple Pulls (Pals). These ladies have been my best friends in China the past few months. From bonding over the hell that was hiking Taishan, to Tuesday night dinners, to movie nights and eating watermelon with spoons, I’ve enjoyed every second with Misti, Cindy, and Tamsyn. Misti and Cindy are staying on in China while Tamsyn and I are trekking through Thailand together. We had to say goodbye and it was one of the hardest goodbyes of the week. But, we are already planning reunions in Iceland and Mongolia. 

10. Joel and Jessica

This was the last and the hardest goodbye for me to say. Not only did I meet Joel and Jessica my first full day in China, but they accepted me into their family. From countless dinners,  countless bedtime stories, two Christmases, dozens of birthdays,  days at the beach, and long culture-stress driven rants,  Joel, Jessica and the girls have been an invaluable support to me in my two years in China. I will miss you guys! 

As I am sitting at the airport now waiting for my flight out, I am gripped with both sadness for the end an incredible period in my life, but so thankful for the sadness as well, because it means China and the people in it made an impact on my life. 

Back to the Start

As many of you are aware, I am wrapping up my time in China in less than a week. As I walk through the places I have haunted for the past two years, I am bombarded with memories of the things I love (and sometimes hate) the most about my life in China. 

For example…

I love the feel of the streets around my apartment complex on a warm summer evening, the vibrancy of the people wandering through the market or examining goods hawked on the side of the road or stopping to drink Qingdao beer and enjoy shaokao at the street side barbecues that pop up all over the place in the summer. I love the dancing nainai’s in the guangchang, and I can sometimes even laugh at the kid squatting to pee over a drain or in the middle of the sidewalk. 

I love walking through my market and choosing my own fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables. I love asking my meat vendor for a jin of pork, which she promptly hacks off the hunk of meat dangling from a hook on the ceiling. I love that there are goat’s in a van that give you the freshest milk possible. 

I love the silly grins of my kids as we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time it’s still hysterical. 

I love riding Bus 230 on a clear, smog free day, rounding the curve that connects Heilongjiangzhong Lu to Haier Lu, and gazing at the jagged majesty of Fushan. 
I love practicing my Chinese with taxi drivers and people on the street who are endlessly curious about me and where I come from. 

I love sitting in Pacific Coffee at Damuzhi on a sunny afternoon, sipping my meishi kafei and reading a book. 

I love being able to meet up with good friends after work, trying food from all over the world, walking on the beach, or any of the ridiculous things we do.  I love the freedom of jumping on a bus or into a taxi whenever I want to go somewhere.

I love coming home in the evening and muddling through a conversation about life in Chinese with my roommate Fang Fang, cultivating a friendship that has been so meaningful to me despite the language and cultural barriers. 

I love the fellowship I attend every Sunday, the amazing people I’ve met, and the community and support I’ve received there under the banner of Christ. 

I love how much I’ve grown in the last two years, from learning how to cook healthily,  to learning how to deal with disappointment, to learning that “have you eaten yet?” is a form of greeting in Chinese, not an actual question. 

I am so thankful that I have been able to experience the things I have, to immerse myself in a new culture (as much as a foreigner can), to learn a new, complex, and amazing language, and to gain friends from all over the world. 

As I prepare to leave Qingdao, I’m struck with a sense of nostalgia and loss, but also excitement for the future, because I know God provides for me wherever I go. 

Don’t worry, this is not the end,  as my friend Tamsyn and I will be backpacking Thailand and Cambodia for five weeks!  I hope to update my blog as often as possible. Till next time!