Watch out for Speeding Elephants

by Rachel Ackerman, Gibby-Cutler Scholar ‘12

During this past winter intercession, I had the joyous opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia for the purpose of teaching English to students in Thailand. I also worked in Cambodia with a Non-Governmental Organization dealing with environmental issues and sustainable living. This unique experience will stick with me throughout my remaining years, and what I have learned will ultimately contribute to my future career as an educator as well as any other path I choose to traverse in my lifetime.

Bangkok’s lingering impression on my privileged mind is a twisting concoction of roads with no apparent organization and no functional payphones. Children prowl the street with flowers and hand-made crafts in search of patrons as legless men tug trousers for change; the experience drew not only pity for my fellow humans subjected to such dismal existences, but also inspiration from their will to live and make the most with what little has been provided to them.

Rachel AckermanIn all of SE Asia I crossed, identical packaged commodities were dispersed by unique holes in the wall; this analogy has never seemed so appropriate as shops and restaurants are nestled into front porches and distinctive family kitchens of homes on every corner. In my home city of Ayutthaya, I eventually found homey comforts in a golden coffee shop where I sipped blueberry-cantaloupe milk shakes and talked with fellow travelers about the beauties of life.

After city living became too overwhelming, I spontaneously hopped a bus to Ko Sichang Island. There, I lounged in the sun and tried my best to avoid the fat tourists in ‘Speedos’ before hiking atop a rainforest island mountain. After detecting a glorious rock protrusion not far off, I wanted nothing but to be there and wonder at the view. After a short while of intense bushwhacking (and instances with fire ants and snake skins) I have never wanted to be out of the woods more in my life and was ready for my next step from this Thai island excursion onward to Cambodia.

My home-stay city of Pursat, Cambodia, was a pleasant middle-ground between the chaotic monstrosities of tourist town Ayutthaya, disgustingly urban unorganized Bangkok, and the many humble villages spread out along the national highway which we passed through to get into Pursat.

In Pursat I began to feel at home. Darkness set in around 6 o’clock in the evening, at which time everything shut down and relaxation mode ensued. Cheap and delicious fruits were sold at every stand I passed; I had a paw-paw-esk commodity called milkfruit which left my lips glued together but still wanting more. Jackfruit is a bizarre cross between a banana and pineapple and the hot pink skin of the dragon fruit, once removed, unsealed a black and white kiwi-like consistency of refreshing goodness.

Overall, my travels through SE Asia passed by all too quickly. I still crave rice after eating it three times a day for six weeks and I miss the insistence upon bare soles at every indoor facility. Surrounded by non-English speakers, I learned to communicate without words; I am trying to maintain the search for deeper, non-verbal connections with my fellows. The once very foreign culture became my personal norm; at the LA airport, for instance, I ran into some family friends and upon departure, I naturally bowed with my hands pressed at my heart. My advice to all who travel to Thailand or Cambodia; eat as many insects as possible, meditate in an ancient Buddhist temple, ride a motor-bike with the locals and watch out for speeding elephants!

Photo: Rachel Ackerman in Kompong Chnang, a city known for their red soil clay ceramics.

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