Not every day is a great day.

Some days, you make decisions that open your eyes to painful realities. I’m not proud of my decision to ride an elephant on our first day in Bangkok, Thailand. I had always wanted to ride an elephant. The romanticized idea of scaling and sitting astride a gargantuan pachyderm lent itself to my adventurous nature. I envisioned myself roaming the lush countryside atop a majestic elephant, learning how to mount and dismount like a trained mahout. I saw it all so clearly this dream.

However, the opportunity that presented itself in Bangkok was a dismal shadow of the experience I had for so long hoped and anticipated. I should have walked away. I should have trusted my instincts. But I didn’t. I felt a certain loathing in the depths of my being for going through with it. I felt shame for ignoring my conscience. I’m not one for wishing away my life or the unpleasant parts of it, so I will share what I learned.

The elephant camp we visited outside of Bangkok was a disgrace. This wasn’t a place where elephants were rescued to live out their days in protective reserves. This place made a mockery of that idea. Here, young elephants of eight and ten years along with newborn calves and mature adult elephants alike, were penned in close quarters, shackled, ridden endlessly under the heat of a tormenting sun along trash strewn trails less than five hundred feet from a busy, noxious fumes belching highway.

After our ride, we walked away in silence, past the people offering photos and the vendors hawking their wares. Like money changers desecrating nature’s great temple, I felt the urge to erupt in anger and overturn their abusive scheme. Later I would recognize that I was mostly angry with myself for having participated in something that supported a business that abused such magnificent creatures. We took a few photos. I can’t bring myself to look at them, yet alone post them for others to see.

Bangkok, Thailand

Our day continued with a boat tour along a floating market. This too sucked. It was pure contrivance…all of it. We did our best to laugh at our crap situation and find the humor in the idea that we had reaped our karmic harvest. We were tormented. Somewhere, we hoped an elephant was laughing.

Lessons are rarely learned from success. Life’s real lessons are learned the hard way. In my lifetime of travel, I have learned that there are always beautiful moments in even the ugliest of days; that there are redeeming acts even amidst corruption and abuse.

There is beauty everywhere. We have only to open our eyes to see it. I hope you see this beauty reflected in our photos.

Footnote: Needing to salvage our day, we returned to the city and got foot massages. Gotta make your own luck.

The following day we visited the Wat Arun Buddhist Temple in Bangkok. It was extraordinary. Spires constructed of hand painted ceramics reached into the blazing sky in praise of Buddha’s ideals.

The paradox is clear. It’s a tragedy revealed in every age and time. We create magnificent churches and temples to unseen gods while destroying the Garden of Eden.