Ken, Ellen and Bei in China

Ken, Ellen and Bei spent a year in Lijiang, Yunnan teaching English. This is a place where we kept in touch with everyone while we were away. If you'd like to comment we'd love to hear from you on e-mail. Send to You can view more photos on Flickr at

Location: Laramie, Wyoming, United States

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Yes We Work Too (Teaching)

29 March 2006

Alone with a frightened student in a cold stark classroom under flickering fluorescent lights, an encouraging smile pasted on your face, you grasp desperately for a limited palette of simple, understandable (and boring as hell) oral exam topics. The too obvious choice is “tell me about your hometown” and you fall back on it over and over again. Your body tenses in anticipation of the inevitable answer, delivered in an accent so thick that you strain to understand:

“My hometown is very beautiful!! The food is delicious!! The people are friendly!! Welcome to my hometown!!!” (though the student’s home is at least 36 train hours away).

Mixing that “conversation” with weak Chinese beer on evenings after exams produces satisfying revisions. In a recent e-mail I teased our friend Tony, who until two weeks ago taught here with us but bailed to his native Australia in part to fulfill a 50th birthday resolution to “avoid jobs that feel hopeless”:

...Ironically, the Oral English students reported today that they previously had been "taking the piss" out of the foreign teachers when in truth they "speak a refined formal English that is a hybridized but jaunty combination of American, Australian and British dialects with an occasional naughty Sino-English twist of phrase" (in their words). The students went on to say that "now that we've 'weeded the garden' of less committed foreign teachers [Tony] we are ready to get down to business and engage in a discourse from which a real cultural and international understanding can be reaped, much like the local peasants reap winter wheat from their verdant fields."

We all had a good laugh together about their ingenious use of tired clichés as tools for driving foreign teachers to distraction. "The food in my hometown sucks and the people are real bastards," one student reported, laughing. "And there's so much friggin' pollution that you can barely see the mindless sprawl of white tile and blue glass communist-style buildings." He went on: "If my mother could cook, maybe I'd go back, but she can’t even boil water. I'm outta there for life. Welcome to shit!"

Second year English majors taking a vocabulary exam.

Teaching at the Lijiang Culture and Tourism College. This multi-media classroom features...a blackboard. And chalk that breaks every time you try to write. The blackboard itself is a rough piece of slate that was painted black to make it look more like a blackboard.

Our college, the Lijiang Culture and Tourism College of Yunnan University (try writing that in Chinese and you’ll understand why the college doesn’t sell many sweatshirts) is an unusual product of China’s changing society in that it is a privately managed business with only loose ties to the public Yunnan University in Kunming. Students here have had the misfortune of failing their college entrance exams and therefore losing the opportunity to attend first- or second-tier colleges in bigger cities. Many of these students failed for reasons like 1) extreme slacker-ness, 2) refusal to study while getting their hair puffed up, 3) unwillingness to give up their hobbies -- watching TV and sleeping, or 4) devotion to attaining personal-best scores on their favorite computer games. These are the students who come from beautiful, delicious, friendly hometowns—the ones who sit in the back of the room, talking to each other or looking at their ever-lengthening fingernails while us teachers try to find a way to give the other 30 - 50 students a chance to learn something new about using English.

As one slacker wrote last semester:

“I like to learn English, but I’m always lazy to increasing my English vocabulary. I think it’s very difficult. But I’ll try my best in learning English. And I hate cockroach very much.”

Others, in response to an exercise where I asked the students to close their eyes and sit in silence for 1-minute and then write about their thoughts, provided this scintillating window into their lives:

“Just now I closed my eyes for one minute. In this moment, I found one minute is a really long time. You can think a lot of things.”

“I just counted numbers from one to seventy-eight. Nothing to think only taking a rest of my eyes.”

“I think nothing but count the seconds when I close my eyes.”

“When I closed my eyes I found myself in a dark world that is so lonely.”

Honest, but not terribly encouraging in terms of getting students to be creative, though perhaps the last one has possibilities.

In fairness, other students were somewhat more interesting...and psychotic:

“When I closed my eyes I imagine I was in a very beautiful world. In the world a river run through a bridge and to a grand castle. I was stood on the edge of the castle and looking to the end of the sky. Suddenly, a very huge and horrible devil was flying to my land, I picked up my sword and fight with the devil.”

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at a school like this is a little like trying to get George Bush to use big words correctly. Even a well qualified team of “handlers” can expect a lot of repetitive exercises, some serious screw-ups and no shortage of “misunderestimated” frustration.

The system itself is self-defeating. As Tony put it only half-jokingly before he left: “student grade sheets have three columns—the student’s academic mark, their parent’s income and their final grade.” Cynical, but not far from the truth. Students who pay the tuition do not fail no matter how poorly they do academically. Students who never attend class and fail are given the opportunity to take a 5-minute makeup exam (oral) by a different teacher from the one who failed them, and if they survive that they pass the entire course. If they fail this makeup exam, the school still has the ultimate last word, and the kids are almost always passed. The system amounts to a pay-for-a-degree program requiring 4 years of tuition. Merit is not crucial. As a teacher, it can make you crazy.

In China failing the college entrance exam usually means not only no college but also a bad job...unless you can find a school like ours that, though not high on the academic totem pole, accepts students who cobble together the extravagant tuition and buy their way in. Ten-thousand yuan a year (about $1250 USD)–a small fortune for many Chinese—is the cost for one year at our school, compared with much lower fees at academically better, state-run institutions in big cities like Beijing, Tianjin or Nanjing.

Not all of the students here have rich parents. Some come from poor farming families who struggle immensely to send their kids to this college. It is to protect these students that we come down harder on the insolent kids that don’t apply themselves because they have never had to. I have kicked kids out of class in China for misbehavior, something I have never done in the U.S. It is necessary if you want to give the hard workers a chance—ones like the students who wrote these passages about their home life:

“In 2002 my father leaved home and drove a bus in a village. He began to live by himself with no good friends, no TV and no normal power. I think he often felt alone. He always went to bed at eight if the bus needn’t repair. He didn’t enjoy the Spring Festival with us for four years.

During this time
[this year’s holiday] my sister and I went to the village. We accompanied our father to spend more happy time. I always help my father to wash the bus. If he will repair, I would help him at any moment. I didn’t talk a lot with my father [before this holiday], but we talk far more in Spring Festival. We talked about my future, the farm work, and the others. We changed different ideas, had a good talk. We are believed each other. We are understand each other. I think that was very important for this winter vacation. I have a good time in this Spring Festival because I spend more time with my father and help him do more work”

"First I miss my mother. She is very warm hearted even though she has the hot temper, but she loves me very much. She often told me something about what I should do. I miss her everyday. I miss my father too. There are four children in my family. My brother sister and I are students. Every day we cost so much. In order to let us study, my father work day and night. I think he is the great man in the world. I love and miss he very much. I can use word to express my feeling. Every day he told me study hard."

Also, unlike George Bush, many of the students are genuinely nice and it’s often the poorest students, the ones whose families are living hard so that their child can get a better education, that are the most generous and motivated. These are the students that make it worth trying to do a good job and these are the ones that say “welcome to my hometown” not to fill dead air, but because they are desperate to show you how they live and how generous their families can be.

“I was born in a poor village, 1980s. My family was poor, too. One day, it was dark but my parents still working hard on the farm. My sister and I couldn’t stay at home because there was no lights (our countryside was no electricity at that time). We were sitting at a corner of the ground of my house and crying. About half an hour past, my parents came back. They lighted the oil lighter. I saw their clothes was so broken, then I went to the corner and crying again. I pledged to be a useful man in the future. I must study hard.”

The educational system is much different in China than in the U.S. too (though increasingly we Americans also ‘teach to the test’). To some extent, one understands the predisposition for coasting among students who, as children, attend primary school from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and then stay up until 9 or 10 at night doing mandatory homework. College for many of these kids is a time to relax and have fun, far from the pressures of senior middle school (though they are often homesick).

My understanding of education in China is that students struggle through primary, junior and senior middle school in anticipation of the feared college entrance exam which is taken during their senior years. The entire system focuses on preparing the kids for a battery of standardized tests that they take periodically throughout their school years. It’s no wonder that kids are sick of study by the time they reach college. As one of our Chinese friends here put it (while her 10-year old studied), “nobody here likes the system but nobody changes it.”

One student described school life like this:

“Many years ago when I still studied in primary school, I lived through a very ‘hard life.’ Because my mother was a severe person and my father was more severe than her.
Therefore, they told me the first thing when I back home from school is study. I must have good scores on the exam, otherwise I would be blamed. So I had few time to play with my friends.

One day, my father taught me Chinese pinyin. I read it ‘p,’ but my father said the opposite so he thought it was “b.” So he yelled to me. ‘So fool mistake.’ I was so sad and cried. Fortunately my mother found the reason and told my father. After a few minutes silence, my father told me: ‘you can play all day.’

That day was one of my happiest days in my childhood.

China’s educational philosophy hinges on the importance of rote knowledge frequently at the expense of individual problem solving and critical thinking. We jokingly refer to “the collective brain” in our classes where correct answers can be dredged out of the class as a whole, but few individual students do well on, say, a simple vocabulary test.

I read an article recently (I can’t recall where and I don’t have copy of it in my notes) that said that although Chinese students often excel at math and science in school, they fail to achieve a proportionate level of success in their careers (for example publishing in prestigious journals, winning Nobel prizes, etc.) because, the article surmised, on the whole they lack the creativity and independence in their thinking that leads research in new directions and bears professional fruit.

Peter Hessler, in his book “River Town” describing his experience teaching in Sichuan in 1996, was frustrated by the lack of individual thought regarding the then impending return of Hong Kong to China. Paradoxically, he discovered that uneducated people in Fuling, where he taught, were more likely to have an original point of view than his better educated students:

“Two or three times a week I stopped to chat with Ke Xianlong, the forty-seven-year-old photographer in South Mountain Gate Park, and the more I got to know him the more I was surprised at his political views. He was completely uneducated but he had interesting ideas; sometimes he talked about the need for more democracy and other political parties, and these were views I never heard on campus...

I realized that as a thinking person his advantage lay precisely in his lack of formal education. Nobody told him what to think, and thus he was free to think clearly.

It wasn’t the sort of revelation that inspires a teacher. The more I thought about this, the more pessimistic I was about the education that my students were receiving, and I began to feel increasingly ambivalent about teaching in a place like that...”

There are blackboards outside of the classroom buildings on our campus where each semester students from different classes (students pass through college as a member of a single class of 35-60 students that take all of the same classes together) paint or use colored chalk to express themselves on whatever topics they choose (and they choose some odd topics). Ironically this semester, outside of the main classroom building, a class insightfully (or randomly??) chose the lyrics from “Nowhere Man” for their board:

He's a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his nowhere land,
Making all his nowhere plans
for nobody.
Doesn't have a point of view,
Knows not where he's going to,
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

After a hard day in class trying to get students to actually debate two sides of a topic, this message brings a bit of wry comical relief.

The Nowhere Man class chalkboard outside one of the classroom buildings.

Sometimes the lack of critical thinking can be infuriating. In response to a midterm exam question asking whether students thought that gay marriage should be allowed in China, one of my students wrote (unfortunately, I don’t have the exact quotation) that China is very susceptible to fashion trends and that since being gay might be seen as fashionable, if gay marriage were allowed all Chinese might decide to become gay, thereby ensuring the demise of China since there would be no next generation (because gays can’t have children).

I’m not kidding. That was from a 20-something-year-old second-year college student on a midterm exam.

Hessler, who usually had an admirably optimistic attitude about his teaching, wrote:

“...I realized that I was not teaching forty-five individual students with forty-five individual ideas. I was teaching a group, and these were moments when the group thought as one, and a group like that was a mob, even if it was silent and passive.”

So teaching here is a daily struggle between a sense of ineffectiveness and frustration on the one hand and responsibility to the twenty percent or so of the students who are motivated to learn on the other. For Ellen and me, being here is enough of a reward and teaching is the price we pay, so we make of it what we can. There are good days and bad days. As students have said in "position" papers: “every sword has two blades.” (??!!)

Ellen writes on the blackboard with self-destructing chalk. In a two hour class one typically uses 10-15 pieces of chalk.

And in truth, though it’s fun to wax cynical, I’m not complaining. Really. Each foreign teacher at our college is responsible for 14 classroom hours per week. For me that means five two-hour Oral English courses for non-English majors and two two-hour writing courses for English majors—altogether about 350 students. The writing courses are fun, and I feel like I accomplish something with the students, who are more motivated than the non-English majors. In the end, it amounts to only a 20-25 hour work week with lots of free time. Not at all a bad way to reside in a place like northern Yunnan, where a 2-hour bike ride can take you through villages that people fly halfway around the world to see.

And when we feel the most cynical, we go back and read what these nineteen to twenty-year-old kids write, sometimes for the humorous mistakes but more often to remind ourselves about how amazingly comfortable our lives are in the U.S., while much of the rest of the world still struggles.

Dear Ellen,

I’m Kid. Glad to write to you.

I’ve come [been] here for one month. I thought everything [would be] here, including my future. But the fact make me feel intimidate.

I come from a small village. You know, most of villages in China are not very well. As many students, I used to work on the farm for few years. There are only ten boys got access to the college for their future education in our country
[region] this September. As a lucky dog, I felt very happy. But after a month’s classes I found that many students were not very serious with the study and their English was very poor. What a bad luck! Luckily, I am not the one in them. After a six years study I have learned most of the basic grammar, words (few) we use everyday.

You know, learning a foreign language is difficult for a foreigner. Like you and me. But now I think I have hope. Because I meet you. The God is great. He arrange us meet here.

So I will not quit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Railay Beach, Thailand (Brief nudity)

22 March 2006 (Looking back to late January)

When the tsunami of December 2004 swept into the Railay Beach area, climbers scrambled up cliffs and sunbathers ran for the jungle to escape the surge. Unlike many areas, Railay was partly protected from the worst of the waves by islands and reefs, so there was less damage and death there than elsewhere. Nevertheless, the official Thai tsunami website reports 721 dead in the Krabi area and includes an eerie list of unidentified victims (with descriptions) as of a year ago when the site was last updated. Sam Lightner, a Jackson (Wyoming) friend who authored a climbing guide to the area and lives there part of the year, wrote that although few climbers were apparently killed at Railay, many may have perished snorkeling or visiting nearby areas like Koh Pi Pi, which was devastated. Sam tells (in his guidebook) of finding a climber’s t-shirt at the base of an island cliff that received a direct hit from the wave. Another climber (in Boulder) told me of barely escaping the wave while on a snorkeling trip, thanks to his alert boatman who managed to push his longtail boat at full throttle, just ahead of the wave, to the shelter of an intervening peninsula.

We arrived at Railay just slightly more than one year after the tsunami and for us it was difficult to see any residual damage. In fact, there is so much new building in the area to accommodate the returning hordes of tourists that the construction has overwhelmed any obvious tsunami debris. A few damaged longtail boats abandoned on the fringes of some of the beaches and a broken sailboat keel in the shallows between Railay and Tonsai were the only signs I saw of the chaos of a year earlier. It feels a little odd to be a hedonistic tourist in an area that so recently suffered natural disaster and loss of life, but the economy of the area depends on people visiting and so perhaps our tourist dollars contributed. Sam Lightner reported that, to their credit, climbers were a strong part of the small subset of tourists that stayed in Thailand after the wave to help with the recovery.

We spent two weeks at the Railay/Tonsai/Phra Nang Beach area climbing, swimming, eating, lounging and socializing. Despite our shockingly poor climbing fitness after a workout-less semester in Lijiang, we had a great time groveling up easy climbing routes on the stunning limestone cliffs that rise directly out of white sand beaches. And Bei had a great time reacquainting herself with water, which she loves. It was all we could do to pull her from the ocean or the pool, where she quickly regained and then surpassed her previous swimming skills. By the end of the two weeks she was happily paddling all over the pool by herself without the need for parental support.

On the hedonistic side, we found that we could still excel at luxury eating after a half year of Chinese rice and stir-fry. I’m certain that we gained weight at Railay despite constant sweating in the relentless tropical heat. For me, Thai cuisine is as big an attraction as any other aspect of the country, and I stuffed myself daily with fresh fish (red snapper, marlin, king), curries (coconut, green and red) and milkshakes (coconut, chocolate, vanilla). We spent what little time remained after meals and pool sesssions with Bei wandering the area in search of obscure cliffs with easy climbs so that we could feebly ascend in quiet anonymity, far from the judging eyes of younger, fitter climbers.

Here are some photos:

Bei reveled in water. After months in Lijiang, where swimming is limited to ineffective splashing in the bathtub, she attempted to stay wet for the entire 2 weeks that we were at Railay. We forced her out for meals, sleep and our occasional attempts at climbing.

Ellen and Bei on Tonsai Beach, just around a point from the main Railay beach area. Tonsai has become a climbers village (ghetto?) due to the high concentration of great cliffs there, but the beach is not bad either.

Railay is accesible only by water. The local "longtail boats" are the primary mode of transportation to the area from the nearby towns of Krabi and Ao Nang. They are as much a part of the scenery at Railay as the beaches themselves.

And the beaches. Though longtail boats are attractive, they aren't always the most distracting visual. Europeans come to Railay to tan all parts of their bodies despite the Thai distaste for public nudity. Bei uses a prop to illustrate, though Barbie's famous proportions do not tell the whole story. Portly German men in thongs also explosed themselves the sun and our heads snapped quickly back to the longtails, which had more pleasing craftsmanship.

When I lived at Railay for 2 months in 1996, Tonsai supported one small set of bungalows--primitive bamboo affairs hugging the boundary between beach and jungle. In the intervening 10 years, it has become a climber's mecca, and roads hacked deep into the once pristine jungle now lead to more bungalow complexes than I could count, along with restaurants, climbing schools and convenience stores. Although we are all part of the pressure that leads to this kind of development, most of the climbers I talked to who had visited Railay in the past lamented the changes. Here, climbers mill about beneath the main Tonsai cliff where perfect steep routes emerge from the sandy beach.

Bei enjoying one the beaches at Railay West.

Vendors rest in the shade at the entrance to Phra Nang Beach at the end of the Railay Peninsula.

Boatmen unload bundles of Bird-of-Paradise flowers to be used for decoration in one of the expensive Railay resort hotels. Each morning Thai workers ride the boats from Krabi and Ao Nang--the two closest towns--to Railay and march across the muddy tidal flats to their jobs in these hotels. Many work hard unloading boats in the hot sun while others cook or clean or greet guests. Amazingly hospitable, the workers seemed to have an almost inhuman ability to smile in the face of sometimes classically rude foreign tourists. In the evening they load back into the boats for the trip home.

The rock at Railay is nothing if not striking. Limestone cliffs dripping with huge stalagtites hang over green jungle, white beaches and turquoise water. It's no wonder that climbers are drawn to this area, where the climbing routes can be as incredible as they are beautiful. This cliff looms above the jungle behind Tonsai Beach.

Luckily for us, not all of the climbing was this steep, though it was fun to watch locals scamper up brutally difficult routes. Diminished by age and by months in China with no climbing, we could only watch and wish that we were strong enough to pull up onto these overhung routes. Instead we puffed and sweated our way up easier climbs on less public cliffs where we were less likely to be laughed at. The tsunami would have submerged this climber, about 20 feet above the beach, when it hit a year ago.

The upper portion of the climb shown in the previous photos. Difficulty and unrelenting steepness are only part of the story here. Remember that all activity takes place in 90+ degree temperatures and high humidity. Just sitting by the pool at the bungalow can sap your will to slog to the store for a soda.

A climber rests on the rope while looking for holds on the rock above. We struck similar poses on rock that was vertical or less.

Monkeys are a big part of life in southern Thailand. At a Buddhist temple complex called Tiger Cave about 10 km from Railay this monkey and others like it brazenly swoop out of the forest to steal ice cream from startled visitors. Bei cried for 15 minutes after a monkey that we had naively watched in delight as it watched back from a nearby perch suddenly dove headlong onto our table, spilled a bottle of gatorade onto her lap and snatched her ice cream before dashing back into its tree. Later we saw an entire family of monkeys contentedly licking ice cream bars.

I'd feel this way too if I ate 10 ice creams a day.

Even after ice cream these little monkeys can outclimb even the fittest young human.

The monk and the monkey. This old monkey had long ago given up the bad karma of its ice cream stealing ways and befriended the monks at Tiger Cave. From what we could tell, his biggest joy in life was having his furry belly scratched by whomever would succumb to big, pleading monkey eyes.

We were among the succumbers. After I scratched and rubbed the old man's belly for 10 minuted it reciprocated by picking through the hair on my legs in search of nits or whatever it is that monkeys search for on one another. Disturbingly, it seemed to find some, which it ate to Bei's delight.

Climbing was not Bei's favorite activity at Railay since it required her to be out of the water for several hours at a time. We tried our best to maintain peace by dragging Barbies and food to the cliffs. Bei usually managed to engage whoever she could in Barbie fantasy play--women climbers were the most common victims.

Longtail boats at Tonsai beach.

A lizard along a jungle path behind Tonsai beach. Lizards in southern Thailand range from little ones like this to huge water monitors that can be many feet long.

Yes, we did it again. We rented a scooter for a day trip to the Tiger Cave temple area. But to our credit, the traffic in this more rural area was not scary like in Chiang Mai and there were three of us on the bike, so Bei was safely pinned between two adult crash pads. And the helmets fit better than the Chiang Mai helmets we had used.

A scene from the Reclining Buddha cave near the town of Ao Nang. A large Buddah statue rests comfortably in a shallow limestone cave looking out onto the nearby highway. We stopped to have a look around on our way to Tiger Cave.

Small stuppas in front of a plantation of rubber trees. Rubber trees occupy much of the accessible land along the roads of southern Thailand.

A Buddha at the Tiger Cave temple complex. Monks live in shallow caves along a cliff in the jungle.

A painting on the limestone at Tiger Cave.

Even monks need to make phone calls. What! No cell phone?

Bei and Ellen exploring in one of the deeper caves at the Tiger Cave area.

Huge jungle trees have been spared from harvest by their location in this Buddhist sanctuary. Although logging is illegal in this part of Thailand now, it is uncommon to see such large trees, at least near roads. Perhaps there are many in the deeper jungles, but one would have to risk wrestling with cobras to find them.

Another big tree at Tiger Cave.

Roots adorned with silk sashes in the jungle.

And a final shot of the ubiquitous longtail. We trundled our considerable luggage back into one of these boats at the end of our stay to begin our journey back to China via Bangkok. A 15- minute ride across the placid Andaman Sea deposited us on a concrete pier that led to a waiting van which whisked us off to the airport.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Chiang Mai, Thailand

15 March 2006 (Looking back to early January)

From a window of the new 3-story Starbuck’s I watched the chaotic rush of Thai traffic hurtling along concentric roads that circle the crumbling remains of the old Chiang Mai city wall. Like ancestral beltways, the ring roads were a tangle of cars, trucks, motorcycle taxis and bicycles, with potential conflicts miraculously mediated by honking horns. Less than an hour before, Bei and I had been in that traffic on a rented motor scooter experiencing what I had thought sounded like a fun way to get out of town to see a little of the famous hill country surrounding the city. But acclimating to driving on the left side of the road where you can’t read the signs in serious traffic on an unfamiliar motorbike with a 4-year-old pinched between your knees is neither relaxing nor especially fun (though there were moments of exhilaration).

After a token stop at Wat Jet Yot (a temple) on the outskirts of town (Bei: “Papa! Can we ride some more??!!), where we shared an ice cream and a soda (and a walk), Bei and I headed back into town. I was beginning to feel comfortable on the bike just as we found our way back through the maze of streets to the rental shop near the Midtown Guesthouse where we were staying. On another day, we saw two western women picking themselves up off a road after crashing their motorcycle. Apparently only abraded, and with bike damage limited to cosmetics, they were lucky. I read later that many Westerners meet more serious fates riding rented iron on the twisting back roads of northern Thailand, where blood transfusions might not be the most desirable option (though I think the big city hospitals are good). For one thing, it’s difficult not to revert to instincts cemented by decades of driving on the right side of the road. With harrowing results. Anyway, Bei and I got off easy and I acknowledge a less than insightful parental decision.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand but much smaller than Bangkok. Established in the 13th century (according to a web source), it is thick with old temples and remnants of times past. But the biggest draw for most visitors is the famous northern Thai hill country that surrounds the city and is home to ethnic groups, including the Hmong, Karen (a subgroup of whom are the long-necked tribes that use metal rings to push their shoulders down so that their necks appear longer), Lahu, Akha and Yao tribes. My ambition in Chiang Mai was to see some of these tribal villages and to do a little exploring in the hill country, but our time was limited and I had promised Bei that when in Thailand we would ride elephants, an activity that can be had for the price of a day tour. So time for ‘off the beaten path’ exploration didn’t really exist.

In the end, we spent a scripted, touristy (but mildly fun) day taking in made-for-visitors hill country sites and accomplishing an elephant ride and some minor bamboo rafting on a small stream, both to Bei’s delight. And we dinked around the city for half a day (sampling real pastries at the Starbuck’s, for one thing) before heading back south to meet Ellen in Bangkok. Chiang Mai is nicer than Bangkok in some ways (less urban) and with more time one could have some good adventures. Perhaps we will return someday, though the lure of southern Thailand climbing is stronger for me.

Here are some photos from our brief visit...

Pushing the envelope: this crumbling temple, called Wat Jet Yot (which in Thai means "at the edge of the death traffic zone"), was as far as Bei and I got on our rented scooter and I thanked the Buddha that we were halfway through our riding adventure without serious abrasions or loss of life. We sat in the shade eating chips and ice cream and then wandered around the peaceful grounds while Bei lobbied for more traffic adventures and I wrestled with my blood pressure.

Temple architecture at Wat Jet Yot.

What could I tell a monk in a "monk chat"? That I'm a bad dad for taking my 4-year-old daughter on a scooter ride in Chiang Mai traffic? That I won't do it again? That I'm sorry??!!

Temple trees in Thailand are often wrapped in silk to show reverence. At Wat Jet Yot these white-painted, forked sticks were also common and were propped around the huge old trees that provided the only shade for monks and tourists.

Our nod to motorcycle safety. In a high speed collision, at least our heads would have been intact.

A typical temple statue. Often there were long rows of identical stone carvings like these, or collections of people and animals.

On the first stop of our hill country tour, we descended from the road into the jungle to walk for half an hour to a Hmong village. In the past, the Hmong were notorious opium growers, but have since switched to legal crops. Bei enjoyed the swinging bamboo bridge along the way to the village, which was not pristine, having succumbed to the lure of the tourist dollar offered by people like us trying to catch a packaged look at life among the tribes.

These Hmong boys offered a glimpse of pre-tourism village life as they played a game that involved setting a conical stone spinning by quickly unwinded a long leather cord (much as you would start a lawn mower) and then running back to a line in the dirt from which they hurled other stones in attempts to hit and topple the spinning stone.

Our next stop was at a Karen tribal village, also tainted (economically uplifted?) by the constant stream of Chiang Mai tourists. This woman worked on traditional weaving for our benefit as we traipsed through the small village which consisted of a collection of decrepit wooden huts and a lot of modern trash.

The highlight for Bei, and our primary goal during our stay in Chiang Mai, was the promised elephant ride. Northern Thailand hill tribes have traditionally used elephants as beasts of burden, though their burden now is people like us rather than tropical hardwoods (most logging is outlawed). Bei and I rode this small bull elephant for about 40 minutes through the forest and across a small river, much to Bei's delight. The drivers were friendly to us and kind to their animals, though I do not envy the life of the elephants whose fate is to slog along the same forest circuit each day.

An elephant-riders-eye-view.

Crossing a small river on our way back to the tourist loading dock.

Bei LOVED being on the elephant's back. Along the "trek" were elevated stands where old tribal women sold small bundles of elephant food--bananas and sugar cane--to the tourists atop the elephants. Bei couldn't get enough of feeding our mount. The procedure is to lean as far forward as you can from your platform and gently tap the elephant on his ear with a banana--the signal that food is waiting. In response his trunk snakes backwards as far as he can reach to gently receive the offering, which is then devoured with a loud grinding noise from below.

A trunk seeking sugar cane.

The elephant drivers wore hats folded from leaves. Our driver made one for Bei.

Back in Chiang Mai, food stalls offered mouth watering treats, here displayed on banana leaves in the Thai tradition.

More Chiang Mai food.

We were only in Chiang Mai for a couple of days before heading back to Bangkok to meet Ellen on her return from the U.S. These train station phones reminded me of 50's era cars with their soft curves and retro styling. I happily photographed them while our comfortable sleeper train pulled out of the station on its way south--I had casually read our departure time as 6:30 p.m instead of 1630. So after a longer than anticipated wait at the station I endured a long night on a non-sleeper train to Bangkok (12 hours) while Bei slept comfortably on my lap, dreaming no doubt of floating through the forest on the back of an elephant.