South East Asia and Europe provide a connective thread in the life of Cristy Elmendorp.
Born in Jakarta to Dutch-Indonesian parents, she studied in Amsterdam and London, and spent 15 years living and working in Bangkok.
Spells as a TV show host, resort photographer and hospitality marketer were followed by founding her own bespoke luxury travel company, Soma Journeys. Cristy’s client trips took her across Tibet, Mongolia, Java and Iceland.
Now living in the Netherlands, Cristy has published her first travel memoir, Where the Light Begins: A Seeker’s Journey for Truth, Freedom and a Place to Call Home. In conversation with Gary, she reflects on a life in travel, being a mother to her new son Goya and the prospects for tourism in a post-COVID world.
01:36 Talks about a Secret Retreats bespoke event in Bangkok that Cristy managed back in 2013 – featuring a river cruise, garden party and terrace dinner at Chakrabongse Villas
02:30 Cristy was born in Jakarta to Dutch-Indonesian parents, and studied in Amsterdam and London. She moved around a great deal from an early age
“I had a nomadic upbringing, but travel really became a major part of my life when I started my own high-end travel company, called Soma Journeys.”
04:00 Was a TV presenter in Thailand, and later started own advertising company focussing on Thai hospitality and tourism
“I was living in Bangkok when a TV job came up for a local station – and I just went for it. I also wanted to find out more about how post-production worked.”
“I found out that I loved the storytelling behind the camera, maybe even more […] That’s when I co-founded a media company called Visual Works, which produced marketing material for the hospitality and travel sector in Thailand.”
06:00 In 2012, created Soma Journeys, a bespoke luxury travel company offering tailored journeys in remote locations of Asia.
“I travelled a lot on my own and I started to realise that travel is not just a great way to discover the world around you, but also to discover the world within.”
“What was most memorable and essential to me was the spontaneous interactions with the people I met […] I really wanted to be able to provide a space for that [for other people], using travel as a vehicle.”
08:20 Curating the journeys was very personal
“I can only really get people excited about a place if I’m excited about it […]. Curating the journeys was about the places that I was most interested in [which tends to be] remote areas, like getting back to nature and getting out of our unnatural rhythms of life and forgetting our responsibilities.”
09:22 Soma Journeys focused on remote places like Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan – off the beaten track
“I felt strongly that these were the kinds of places where I could provide value.”
“I would travel to these places first to experience them for myself and make connections with people, like a champion camel racer in Mongolia and the nomadic reindeer people […] My work became an extension of my own interests.”
10:51 Clients were well travelled people who really wanted to get back to nature
“They also wanted to have the comfortable standards and high-end experiences they were used to. That was my challenge: to combine the two.”
“It enriched my life in the process, as many clients became close friends, and I am still in contact with many of them.”
13:00 The average Soma Journey trip was between a week and 10 days
“We also had people who’d fit in 5 different destinations and we’d go on the road for about 3 weeks.”
13.38 Organised a horseback riding trip in the north of Mongolia for young professionals flying in from the Philippines, France and the UK, and a winter trip for a family to Iceland.
15.35 Moved from Asia back to the Netherlands in 2015 to spend more with family who live there.
“I used to only visit only about twice a year. It was hard to think about leaving Asia. I’d lived in Bangkok for 15 years [… But] I decided it was time to spend more meaningful memories with my family.”
17:50 Has just published a new travel memoir called: Where the Light Begins: A Seeker’s Journey for Truth, Freedom and a Place to Call Home.
“Originally it was going to be called The Secret Garden, because the book was always going to end in the jungles of Java, which is kind of like a secret garden.”
“I actually had a very religious upbringing, although I am not religious at all […] and I think that led to me always been deeply curious about the existential questions, like ‘Who am I, why am I here, Where will I go?’ – and led me as an adult to search for the truth outside of my Christian upbringing.”
19:54 Cristy struggled growing up to define where home really was
“Was it the country in which I was born, which is Indonesia, or the Netherlands, which is the nationality I hold and where I grew up half of my life, or was it in Thailand where I was living? In the back of my mind, I was always trying to answer that for myself.”
21:20 Documenting her life stories in a book was “scary” and “terrifying” even though the challenge has enlarged her life
“I am actually a very private person… I’d much rather ask the personal questions [than answer them].”
22:05 The writing of the book started while Cristy was working as in-house photographer at a wellness resort in the jungles of Java, and actually took almost 7 years to complete.
23:20 Cristy discusses how she decided which parts of her life, travels and experiences to include – and which to leave out
“The intention of the book was really to share. I felt I had been very fortunate. I’ve been able to receive wisdom, and also been on the receiving end of people entrusting me with their [travel] experiences, and things that really helped me in my own life. So now it was time to give back, but how the story would shape – that was the real challenge.”
“I had no experience of writing a book, but I’d always kept a journal from a young age.”
“The initial manuscript was 120,000 words long.”
25:10 Cristy recently became a mom, with a son Goya.
“One thing that I didn’t expect would happen with this new role was an opportunity to exercise my muscles in the art of letting go. I am very much someone who likes to be in control […] I just assumed that having a new baby would just fit into my schedule […] Having a baby really helped me to be more in the moment […] He’s my little teacher.”
28:20 The world has changed enormously over the past 6 months, especially the concept of travel. Cristy has reflected on the freedom to travel she has enjoyed, and what travel may mean in future.
“Even while I was running Soma Journeys, I always felt very mixed about travel. On the one hand, I actually felt that people should just stay home, myself included, because it uses up so many nonrenewable resources. But, at the same time, travel is an effective way to see the other; different cultures and customs.”
“I would love my son to really experience the world, but then for it to really be a quality experience when we go, and not like ‘Hey, let’s fly down to Italy for pizza’.”
“Also looking more into rail travel. ‘Could we go there by train?’ So that would be within Europe, or if we fly to Asia and then take travel by rail.”
“Travel should be a luxury in every sense of the word, rather than something we just take for granted.”
31:30 Her bucket list isn’t fully completed. There are places not yet visited calling her to go
“Japan, which I regret not visiting while I lived in Asia, and Slovenia for the nature aspect.”