Photo of the Day (8.1.10)

There’s nightlife, and then there’s Thailand nightlife. In addition to its rich cultural legacy, astounding culinary traditions and stunning scenery, the buzzing nightlife of places like Thailand’s islands continues to be a major draw for young (and young at heart) travelers. Flickr user myeyesareclosed does a great job of capturing the essence of a fun night out on the Thai island of Samui. I particularly love the energy of the photo – the blurs of movement and overexposed light suggest exactly the kind of gauzy dream-like state of a night powered by one-too-many cocktails. It’s all punctuated by menacing bolts of lightning in the upper left. Hedonists, beware.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to Gadling’s group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Photo of the Day (6.27.10)

Vietnam’s Halong Bay is natural oddity unlike anything on earth. Huge limestone rock formations surge from the Vietnam’s coast like looming sea monsters, lending the landscape an unforgettable visual appeal. Flickr user andreakw has put Halong Bay’s unique rock formations to good use in today’s photo. The darkened outlines of limestone float mysteriously upon the horizon like some vanishing dream; a fleeting memory soon to vanish in our subconscious.

Have any great travel photos you’d like to share with the world? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Hitchhiker’s Requiem

My father taught me to never, ever hitchhike because I would die. He illustrated the point with dinner table horror stories starring chopped up teenage bodies strewn along the highway and acid-crazed madmen speeding across America at 120 mph: “Those are the kind of people who pick up hitchhikers.”

I followed his advice until I turned 18, which–in this country–is the legal age to stop following your parents’ advice. I don’t remember my first time, though. I was probably in Europe and it just happened–I stuck out my thumb and got a free ride. It was so easy and I was so hooked. Others chased drugs and girls but I chased cars. Free travel is addictive.

I started small and safe, catching lifts with blonde families in minivans in the Benelux. I branched out and grew bolder in places like Sardinia, Poland, and the Sahara–I shrugged, pointed and thumbed my way across the map. I crossed foreign borders in the backseats of strangers, I rode shotgun in diesel-farting trucks and talked my way onto fishing boats that ferried me between islands. Once, when stranded up in the English Cotswolds, I managed to flag down enough cars to carry myself and ten grad school friends all the way home. I became a legend among my worrywart peers.

I devised a “hitch rate” for countries–the average number of cars that passed by before I got a lift. France has a better hitch rate than Spain, Spain better than Italy, Italian Switzerland worse than German Switzerland. Russians always pick up, as long as you have cash. Scandinavia is surprisingly good. The smaller the island, the better the hitching–unless it’s a British colony. And then there’s stuck-up bourgeois countries like Slovenia, where I waited 2 hours and walked over 10 miles before getting a lift from a bleach-blonde Austrian man who had crossed the border to buy a vacuum cleaner.

It wasn’t always movie montage bliss. I’ve had my fair share of scares:There was the self-proclaimed, card-carrying terroriste in Corsica with his pair of hound dogs atop a pair of loaded shotguns in the backseat. I played it cool, showed great interest in the Corsican liberation movement and nonchalantly pointed to an upcoming crossroads where he could drop me off. He drove past it, turned up unpaved roads that winded higher and higher into the lost mountains of the interior. I panicked and mentally practiced a Dukes-of-Hazard exit from the moving car window but there was no need. Le terroriste only wanted to show me the sunset from his village before driving me on to the next larger town.

There was the Ukrainian sailor in Crimea who rode his little Lada like a speedboat, chain-smoking with all windows rolled up, chewing and puffing on his cigarettes and conversing wildly, dropping inches of grey ash each time he shifted gears. Also, maybe he was a little bit drunk.

And I won’t edit out all the pervy creeps out there, like the beady-eyed, fifty-something French baker who wanted a male friend on this, his day off. Although, the one good thing about creeps is that most of them look like creeps. Hitching is all about judging a book by its cover and I’ve probably refused as many rides as I’ve accepted. I also accept that my own occasional creepiness has worked against me.

Like the time in Polynesia–sweat-soaked, red-faced and unshaven–when I stuck out a thumb and waited hours before getting a lift from a nice old lady in a flowery dress. I promptly fell asleep in her car (oh no, was I snoring?). Twenty minutes later she gently woke me at my destination. I thanked her and wiped the drool from my cheek, feeling like a numskull.

Hitching humbles you and makes you grateful for others. As I got older and wiser and less broke, I stopped taking so many lifts and started giving them.

In Costa Rica I picked up two Nicaraguans-a young mother and daughter who worked illegally in the banana plantations. In Zimbabwe–where a car with gas in the tank is viewed much like a free bus–I managed to fit 15 people in the back of an open truck. My passengers knocked on the window when they wanted to get off, then clapped their hands in thanks. In New Zealand, I picked up two Eurokids at the tail end of their gap year. They pretended everything was cool but displayed classic symptoms of backpacker poverty. They were out of cash and hungry with three more days before their return flight home. I drove them all the way to Christchurch and gave them dinner, then watched from the rearview mirror as they set up their sleeping bags under a bridge. Every true traveler needs to be broke on the road at least once. Everyone else is a poseur.

Like in Iceland when I picked up this soaking pair of entitled German campers with blonde dreadlocks and matching nose rings. They complained about the lack of space in my rental car, dripped their icky hippy wetness all over the backseat and demanded a monetary contribution for their organic, low-impact lifestyle. I offered them a fistful of blue pixie stix and dropped their ungrateful, low-impact asses off in a rainy parking lot. Kids these days; they got no respect.

There are no rules to hitchhiking but there are definite social graces–a delicate etiquette between giver and receiver. In America, that relationship of trust was broken long ago.

I don’t need to spell out all the gruesome ways people have been killed hitchhiking or giving lifts–I have a word limit and besides, you can read it all on Wikipedia, right under “serial killer”. Basically, a lot of people have died hitchhiking in America. It’s just one out of many head-shaking United States’ ironies–that in spite of our great freedom and multiple first amendment rights, imitating On the Road is against the law in most states because you might die. Meanwhile in “repressed” Europe, hitchhiking is legal, a rite of passage and the latest trend in charity fundraisers, kind of like our lamer walk-a-thons but way more fun.

Forget the economic woes, endless war and healthcare mess of the news: The real sign of America’s troubles is that Rousseau’s social contract has failed at this most basic level-between hitcher and driver, lift and lifted.

There’s a hundred ways to philosophize this phenomenon: As a car culture, all respectable Americans own cars or have friends with cars–hitchhikers are Americans without cars and therefore undesirable vagrants of ill character. Or that Americans prize freedom of expression above quality of expression (see American Idol), which inevitably leads to victory of the lowest, loudest element. Whatever the reasoning, something bad happened in my country that turned hitchhiking into a vehicle for death.

I never hitchhike in America, nor do I give lifts to strangers. Maybe my dad’s stories still haunt me, maybe I know better now, and maybe I have my own stories to tell: things that I’ve read in the paper, melodramatic TV newscasts, horrible stuff that’s happened during my own lifetime.

As the English say, it’s a pity really . . . how we’ve squandered this innocence, how we’ve closed the open road just a little bit, how our unfettered wanderlust is lost to precaution and cautionary tales. The American fairy tale of hitchhiking hovers on the verge of mythology–a belief rooted in history that might inspire young travelers, but nonetheless remains a kind of modern fiction.

It’s a pity really because some of my happiest travel moments occurred while hitchhiking. Like getting a ride in Scotland on some long rocky isle in the Outer Hebrides. A farmer motioned me into the back of his pickup and I sprawled out across a pile of freshly chopped logs. Everything smelled like sea and pinewood; the ocean wind whipped my hair wildly. I watched the world pull away from me, backwards, the red-brown moorland swept up into high crags and then over the edge of broken sea cliffs. To this day, this is how I remember Scotland: from the back of a truck.

And that’s still the way I like my travel: from the back of a truck.

* One man’s search for the best pizza in Naples, Italy, the birthplace of the pizza.
* Another man’s exploration into rediscovering a city he thought he knew completely.

Or watch the guys visit the “top of New York” and dive into the spiciest food the city that never sleeps offers. (Spoiler alert: Only one of them ends up sick, in the bathroom.)

South by Southeast: The hill tribes of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Southeast Asia is modernizing rapidly. These days, malls line the streets of Thailand and WiFi signals and cell phones blanket the cafes of Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean the ways of the “Asia of old” have vanished – in fact, in the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a patchwork of hill tribe minorities survive by largely traditional means, subsisting on farming in remote villages. Southeast Asian visitors have a unique chance to learn and help these people through numerous activities, ranging from multi-day hikes to volunteering their time or simply acquiring locally-produced one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Whether you’re trekking through the pastoral landscapes of Myanmar, helping school kids with their daily English lesson in Laos or shopping for handmade textiles in Thailand, getting in touch with Southeast Asia’s ethnic minority tribes has never been easier or more enjoyable. And though the exploitation of indigenous groups remains a problem, there are increasing signs that tourism offers a great way to help these groups survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Ever wanted to sleep in a traditional village under a blanket of shooting stars? Help a child learn to read English? Drink moonshine with a tribal chief? Keep reading below for our South by Southeast guide to the hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

What is a “Hill Tribe?”
Southeast Asia is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including tribes like the Hmong, Pa-O, Akha and Montagnards among many others. Though each of these groups encompasses a unique set of customs, beliefs and habits, typically the groups inhabit high-altitude mountain regions too difficult for traditional agriculture. The history of relations between the governments of Southeast Asia and these tribes has not always been pleasant, ranging from outright conflict to racism and deportation. There is, however, a silver lining, as a thriving tourism industry has provided these groups with a new means of economic improvement and sustainability.

Top Hill Tribe Experiences

  • Trekking – the range and quality of trekking opportunities in Southeast Asia is exploding. Typically a “trek” will provide visitors with a multi-day hike through wilderness, a stop at a traditional village and sometimes a homestay. Though there are hundreds of trekking hotspots across the region, some of our favorites are Kalaw in Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
  • Volunteering offering your time and talents in a hill tribe village can be a particularly rewarding experience and a great way to move beyond “just visiting.” Check out organizations like Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Starfish Ventures in Thailand.
  • Night Markets – another great way to explore the hill tribe cultures of Southeast Asia is by buying their affordable handmade products. From wildly colorful textiles to elaborate carvings, hill tribe crafts are unparalleled in their quality and detail. Check out the night markets in cities like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, where sellers offer all manner of fantastic finds.

Doing It Right
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, someone is trying to offer you a tour to visit authentic local cultures. But not all visits are created equal. In some cases, the tours are organized without the tribes’ permission. Even worse, in more popular areas literally hundreds of visitors pass through a village in a given day. The tours feel less like an authentic cultural experience and more like an opportunity to stare at “those strange tribe people.” It’s important if you’re going to experience a hill tribe you do so in a sustainable way and with an organization that ensures the tribes benefit from your visit. Check out companies like Green Discovery in Laos and Akha Hill House in Thailand for good examples.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Exploring Luang Prabang

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. As travelers, we have a tendency to overload our trips with adventure and movement. This is especially true in Southeast Asia – as I’ve discovered in Thailand and Laos, there’s no shortage of motorbikes to ride or zip lines to catch. But if you truly want to understand this part of the world, it’s not a vigorous itinerary you need. Instead, you need to spend a few days on foot, letting the pungent smells, vivid colors and urgent sounds of the Southeast soak into your subconscious. And there’s no better place for this to happen than Luang Prabang.

Located in the sleepy nation of Laos, Luang Prabang is truly a crown jewel of Southeast Asia. This former royal capital, atmospheric river port and UNESCO World Heritage Site has emerged in recent years as one of the region’s newest must-see destinations. It’s not the blockbuster sights that make Luang Prabang such a fantastic place to visit. It’s the simple act of walking and observing that becomes the focus of your stay: exploring fading French villas and evening handicraft markets, sampling the town’s fresh-baked baguettes or watching a procession of orange-robed monks silently march down the road.

This sensory overload is what makes Luang Prabang a must-see for any Southeast Asian traveler’s itinerary. Curious about visiting this underrated Laotian capital of French/Asian style, vivid color and Buddhist serenity? Let’s take a look at some of the essentials and highlights of any Luang Prabang visit. Keep reading below for more.

Getting There
Luang Prabang is located smack-dab in the middle of Northern Laos, making it easy to reach from points North or South. Overland travelers from Thailand will often stop in the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where a two-day “slow boat” plies the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang. From within Laos, frequent buses connect Luang Prabang with the nation’s capital in Vientiane and backpacker hub of Vang Vieng. Luang Prabang’s airstrip is also served by a number of Southeast Asian regional airlines including Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.

What to Do
Due to its unique location at the confluence of two rivers, Luang Prabang has long been an important religious, political and economic hub. You’ll find the town reflects this historic grandeur, dotted with ornate Buddhist temples and lavish royal palaces. The main highlights include:

  • Wat Xieng Thong – in a city studded with important Buddhist “Wats,” Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most ornate and well-known temple complex.
  • Royal Palace – until they were deposed by the Lao Communist Revolution in 1975, the Lao royal family made its home in Luang Prabang. Visitors can tour the ornate royal complex, peering into the King and Queen’s teak-lined living quarters. Out back is a collection of vintage cars gifted by the French and American governments.
  • Night Market – as the sun begins to set each evening, Luang Prabang’s main street is crowded with an huge array of vendors, selling everything from grilled fish to locally made textiles to handicrafts.
  • Kuang Si Falls – about an hour’s ride outside Luang Prabang you’ll find an impressive series of waterfalls at Kuang Si, as well as a swimming area and a “Bear Rescue Center” for mistreated animals.

Keep in mind that “seeing the sights” of Luang Prabang is only half the story: the longer I spent wandering this picturesque river peninsula, the more I enjoyed simply soaking in the town’s unique atmosphere. Make sure to leave some time to simply explore without purpose.

Where to Stay
There are accommodation options in Luang Prabang to suit just about any budget and lifestyle, from luxurious boutique resorts housed in ancient French villas to clean no-frills backpacker haunts. For those on the thrifty side, you’ll find plenty of simple and clean guesthouses (under $10/night) clustered around Sisavong Street near the Joma Bakery. Those looking to splurge should check out 3 Nagas, a beautiful mansion nestled in the heart of Luang Prabang’s historic district (rates start at $125/night).

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.