Friday, June 28, 2013

Ten Things from Thailand

As I promised, I was going to tell you all about my mission trip to Thailand when I got back...and yes, I have a lot to tell! It would be impossible to describe it all in just one or two posts, so I'm going to do it in segments. My plan is every Friday, until I have no more to say, I'll tell you a little more about Thailand - both the experiences and the reflections - so you are not bombarded with it all at once with nothing else to read about. Anyway, this post is going to be a bit of an ice-breaker so you get an idea of what the trip was like for me. So without further ado, the top ten things I got out of Thailand... (warning: this post is longer than usual, so I hope you bear with me...)

10. Bangkok and Chiang Mai

...were fantastic! Bangkok in case you did not know is Thailand's capitol and its biggest city, with over 12% of the country's population. We stayed in a hotel for one night not too far from downtown, and the next morning we got to talk a walk down the streets. In some ways Bangkok was very similar to any other city I'd been to before: noisy, dirty, smelly, full of people and sights to see. But it was also quite different. I've never smelled raw fish in such numbers and in such close proximity as they were sold in the market, some fried and some still writhing on platters. Neither have I seen sidewalks full of vendors selling everything you can imagine: watches, Buddhist trinkets, American and British goods, all kinds of fresh meat and fruit, and lots of clothing.
View of Bangkok from my hotel room window...
Chiang Mai, however, left a better impression on me, why? Because on Sunday, June 23, we got to experience the lively nightlife of Chiang Mai - that is, the night market. The night markets were a bunch of vendors and booths all over the city square and up and down the streets. If you love elephants (I do!!) you would not have been disappointed...elephant souvenirs were everywhere. I spent half the night trying my first hand at bartering, which I have to say, everyone should try some time in their life. By 1:00 am, after three hours of shopping, I had two figurines (an elephant and a tiger), various clothing including a pair of Thai fisherman pants, an elephant purse, elephant earrings, and a soap flower carving for my mom...and I probably spent under 50 US dollars!

9. Thai bananas are so much better than the bananas we eat here.

They're juicier, gooier, and much sweeter! Seriously, I am not a banana person, but I tried one of their bananas and I was hooked. If you think you love bananas now, you must go to Thailand! Now that I've eaten authentic Thai and Japanese food, my dislike for American fast food has only multiplied itself. I haven't eaten like that in years and I probably won't for a long while. In most Thai restaurants you can get a decent meal of pork or chicken, soup, rice, and noodles for only 30 baht, the rough equivalent to $1! The same amount of money here would get me a sloppy, chemical-ridden cheeseburger from Kwik Trip, how disgusting. So needless to say, I'm going to miss Thai food.

8. Take jet lag seriously

I made this mistake in Chicago. I let myself sleep too much on the flight back, so I was in a half-awake delirium for the rest of the day. Now my clock is all off...I'm ready for bed by 5:00 pm, up by 2:30 am and can't get back to sleep. Hopefully I can get readjusted soon and finally get things back to normal. But lesson learned. If you are traveling over the international date line, think twice about what time of day you are going to sleep! I am learning that one the hard way...

Sunset on the Pacific Ocean, on our flight from Tokyo to Bangkok...
7. Thailand is a beautiful country!

It's one thing to see mountains or jungles in a photograph or hear someone describe it (like I'm about to). But now that I can speak from experience, it's another thing entirely to see it for yourself. To hear the wind whistle in the banana trees with your own watch mist settle over the rolling hills with your own smell the clean air and listen to the wildlife deep in the jungle, and feel the dry ground beneath your steals a part of your heart. I can remember the moment I realized how much I loved the country; it was while I was riding in the back of a pickup truck to a destination deep in the wilderness which I'll talk about later. But as the wind was pulling back my hair and the jungles were whizzing by me, I really began to fall for Thailand. Where I live in the Midwest, sometimes I imagine a tree line in the distance as a mountain...there was no need for that in Thailand. I miss it a lot.

Caught this beauty about thirty minutes from Mae Hong Son. Breathtaking!
6. Never take clean water, air-conditioning, a hot shower, or a pair of shoes for granted.

Those were things I always have in my home, and which you probably do too. I knew some people in the world didn't have them, but since I never went without them, it never really sank in for me that sometimes they were literally inaccessible. And that's okay; if you've grown up with all of them it's hard to imagine that. But in Thailand, we had to always drink from bottled water if we did not want to get really sick. I only got air-conditioning a couple times, and that was in the airports and one of the malls. Otherwise, for two weeks straight in the blazing heat and high humidity, all we had were fans and frozen washcloths. I only got in a couple hot showers because not heating the water saved on electricity, so it was a rare treat. And finally, while we were in Bangkok, I saw somebody walking the street - a street littered with garbage, animal excrement, broken glass and other dangerous items - without a pair of shoes. That evening was the first time I ever found myself grateful that I had a pair of shoes. In other words, when you actually see the probability that you would not have all the blessings you have right now, they greatly increase in significance.

5. Our children are dangerously spoiled.

Oh, Lordy, I knew this one already, but Thailand confirmed it in spades. Through a couple small volunteer jobs, I get to work with some little kids, mostly ages from 7 to 10, and a lot of them are very irritable and have short attention spans. They complain when their parents take video games or movies away from them and almost never want to go play outside. Then I come to Thailand and work with the kids there, they are the polar opposite. The little ones thought it was the funniest thing to get their picture taken, and if you did, you were their new best friend. They could play checkers with some pebbles and a couple leaves. If they waved at you and you waved back, you made their whole day. I'll never forget the squeals and cries of delight when we got out the chalk and they spent hours drawing on the concrete floor of one of the buildings...and shared their pieces of chalk with each other willingly. These kids did sometimes have televisions and computers in their homes, but I almost never saw them in use. The kids in our culture are fed so much luxury and technology they have become self-centered and entitled.

4. How important humility is.

Thailand was probably one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had, and for several reasons. I can't go into all of them now - it would take too long to describe - but I can say that there were many times that I felt it to the point of being ashamed. I came to serve these people and instead they treated me like a king, and I give so little in return. It left me with a lot of questions about what being a servant means and how we should humble ourselves. I can never repay those people for how kind they were to us in those short ten days, but I do know that I've come home with a different perspective on how I should treat others. It's easy to get caught in the mentality of always trying to "bring ourselves up", make ourselves feel better about our flaws and insecurities, get the perfect image about us. Even if it means bringing others down. But I got the polar opposite in Thailand. We should not think of life as a rat race to see who looks the coolest, the most attractive, the most experienced or the smartest, because there will always be someone better who cuts in front of you. Instead, why don't we decide to become more transparent and more gracious with what we have? Wouldn't it be cool if when people looked at you they didn't see "you" with all your mistakes and weaknesses, but they saw something greater and higher that you represent? And when we are humble in the way we live, we can do just that. I think that would be awesome.

3. What it really means to serve.

Like I previously said, we came to Thailand to serve them. But the people in Thailand, I think, served us much more than we served them. We were fed meals that cost them a fortune; we were warmly welcomed to their church services even though we were foreigners who didn't know a word of Hmong; they made sure to protect us from contaminated water and dangerous neighborhoods when our hotel rooms in Bangkok and Chiang Mai were reserved; and transportation and food were provided daily. And I thought I go out of my way to help somebody by giving them an hour of my time for one day?? I think our western culture's perspective of service is twisted and many of us are unwilling to give so much to another person. At the same time when we see someone who gives up what we will hold onto, we give them all due honor and respect (we even have two holidays for a specific group of these people, called Memorial Day and Veterans Day).

So what's holding us back from giving that much service to others without expecting anything in return? Why are we so clingy to our time and our stuff? Well, I'm getting there...

2. What emptiness feels like.

What's the answer to my previous question? Warning: I'm about to dig pretty deep. Without a mask...whether it's an online persona, favorite fictional characters or fandoms, physical comfort, and especially the drug of "busyness" every person in western culture seems infected with (how many times this week have you heard someone say they're so busy?) have nothing to hide behind. You don't have something to distract you or be your solace. It's just like the Evanescence song "Everybody's Fool". Instead, you are just left with who you are. And sometimes, we don't like who we are. We may even hate ourselves. But by getting thirty new followers on Instagram, obsessing over TV shows, always buying our favorite foods or drinks, and staying "so busy", we can forget how much we don't like ourselves. Or rather, we can forget all the junk and the hurt that has built up in our souls. And that is exactly what I went through in Thailand. There were a few days where, with none of those masks or distractions, I had to come face to face with a lot of garbage built up in me...old demons from years ago that feed lies I don't want to believe in anymore. Left with nothing else, I had no choice but to finally face them head on instead of letting them keep gnawing in the back row. All in all I felt very empty for a few days, but I've come out with a new level of self-awareness. I have to be careful as I return to my normal life and back into routine and habits. And finally...

1. Dependence on God must be consistent, not a pit-stop whenever we burn out.

I don't often talk about spiritual things, but this one struck me so hard in Thailand I have to bring it up, so hang in there. During the whole "emptiness" phase I discovered the only way I could get through each day was to dig through my Bible and open up to God in honest prayer ("honest prayer" is not counting your blessings and whatnot; it's ranting, swearing, and putting your heart on the table). For my mental and emotional survival I had no choice but to do those things, sometimes more than once, and consistently. Otherwise my day was done before noontime. And God pulled me through that emptiness and showed me my own masks and distractions. I couldn't have done that without depending on God for patience and endurance.

So, in conclusion, I think a lot of "Christians" treat time with God or church attendance like a gas station. Meaning, we only use it when we are burned out and have nowhere else to go to renew our spirits. All the masks and distractions are the first ones we use and God is our last resort. When people ask us how our spiritual walk is doing we respond with "pretty good" when we haven't read our Bibles or actually prayed in months. I don't think the spiritual walk is about turning to God only when we have run dry and tried every other temporary antidote; I don't think we should treat God as a gas station. I think we should think of him as the engine that keeps us going. We don't need God just when we feel dark and hopeless; we need him every single day!

And that's why we have to depend on him constantly, find our worth and beauty in him alone, and not in other things. Otherwise, our "walk with God" is more like a car thinking it can run without gas...we think we're fine when the ride is coasting along down the hill, but when things get uphill we stop or even fall backwards...then we quickly "fill up" on God stuff and run along leaving him in the dust. I  think there is a better alternative. A better way to live our lives. Psalm 91:14 says: "The LORD says, 'I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.'" Who wouldn't agree that we could all use love and protection every single day?

OK, so that was a basic summary of my main thoughts coming home from Thailand. Sorry I wrote so much. Hope you enjoyed! Next time I'll talk some more about our service during the trip, some of the cool things I saw and experienced, and how this mission trip has changed my thinking (and more pictures!). See you later!


  1. I'm glad you liked Thailand! :) I really wanted to meet you, sorry, I just came back from Pakistan! It's a shame, really.
    Yes, Bangkok is dirty, smelly, etc. I enjoyed Chiang Mai much more.
    Oh, yes. Elephants. :P
    Honestly, I might have grown up in Bangkok but I'm in a better section of the towns, and I must admit we're spoiled too. As a little kid, though, I did find even a mere camera fascinating, but now I'm on the Internet for so long just like most American kids, I guess.
    I can't sleep without air conditioning. Warm water I don't usually have, and if I do I don't use it due to the hot whether. Honestly, the whether here sucks.
    I travel a lot so I never really had the experience of jet lag, but I want to once :P
    PS- I'm eating a banana right now. Every time I come back to Thailand I never take bananas for granted.
    PPS- We should still Skype sometime. We can talk about soooo much!

    1. Yeah...really wish that could have worked out! But hopefully we'll be back in a couple years, so maybe then?
      Of course; the kids we were working with lived up north in the villages so they didn't have as much as the people in the city.
      Well, jet lag sure does mess with one's inward clock...this was my first time traveling internationally but I'm used to traveling on the road a lot. Big difference though :)
      PPS - Yes we should!

  2. I'm so glad you're home and I am even more glad that you learned so much! I'm sure God used you while you were in Thailand! Thats such an incredible opportunity!

    1. I hope he used me in some way; I know we made a deep connection with the kids, and I really want to see them again! I was so blessed to go there; it WAS incredible!

  3. Sounds like you had a good trip. Thailand sounds like a beautiful place, and the banana's sound delicious!
    -Robyn :)

  4. Wow, Stilwater! This was an amazing post, and I hardly know how to do it justice in a comment, but I will try.
    -Yes, open-air markets and the barter that goes along with them have a certain charm that nothing else can compare with. I'm so glad you liked those cities, and your descriptions made me want to visit them too!

    -Noted. Usually I REFUSE to eat bananas, but I will be sure to try some Thai bananas when I finally get to visit that country. It would be nice to have my usually, ahem, negative opinion of bananas changed.

    -Jet I remember at the end of this school year I totally threw my sleeping schedule off by staying up all night all the time to study, and when I started going to bed at reasonable times again, I couldn't sleep for hours.

    -Yes...that picture is simply beautiful. I love the scenery and I'm so glad you enjoyed Thailand's natural beauty so much. Cities are nice and all, but sometimes nature is just better.:)

    -What an important's amazing how we take so many things for granted, and it's kind of amazing when it hits you that those things are things many others don't have and that they are actually worth being very thankful for.

    -Ahhh...all I will say is that that is far too true for comfort.

    -God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. That part of your post was really encouraging and uplifting, as pride is something I struggle with continually., that was powerful. One of my prayers is that the Lord will help me to cultivate a true servant's heart...I am often so selfish with my time and energy, spending most or all of it on myself.

    -Absolutely right!

    -Wow....your last one was a spiritual, uhm, sucker-punch? Needless to say, that was truly wonderful. It is sad, and it's a pitfall I've been guilty of: treating God like a gas station I need only occasionally, instead of a steady source of sustenance that I need every day, every minute.

    Amazing post!:):)

    1. Whew, thanks for the awesome comment!

      Both Thailand's cities and wilderness were very enjoyable, but I think I favored the natural beauty more.

      You're right; it's hard to see someone who is content with what they have - even if they have so little - and think of them as "poor". Actually it's easier to think that way about someone who has a lot but isn't content with it! (but, hm, another post for the near future)

      Pride has always been an issue for me too. I don't like to lose; I don't like to be talked down to or forced to submit to an authority. I like to "do what I want". So humility is a big pill for me to swallow but it is worth it.

      Treating God like a gas station has become something I'm slowly, but surely, growing out of as I get older, but it's still a struggle. Sometimes I like to think of time with God as calling a friend or parent; it's not enough just to call them when you're in a tough spot. If you want a real relationship, you have to call them just for the sake of conversation. I think we're all guilty of it :) Thanks! I enjoyed your comment lots!

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