Travels In Myanmar: Under A Night Sky

I had no idea what to expect that morning in Yangon. Inside the city’s once grand but now decrepit train station, a few lonely bulbs fought weakly against the dark. Across the arrivals hall was the silhouette of my transport, an intimidating iron locomotive. I moved hesitantly towards this slumbering rusty giant, past anonymous passengers squatting on the cracked cement floor, huddled in the chill of pre-dawn. The station’s shadows whispering with nervous energy. Who knew where this day was headed?

In the vague outlines of my journey, only one detail was certain: I was in a country called Burma (or was it called Myanmar?) and determined to witness a mysterious festival of “Fire Balloons” in a distant Shan State town of Taunggyi. Beyond that, I knew little. The previous day I had wandered into a travel agency hoping to find a way to get to the festival. Buses and flights there were full, and the agent had suggested heading north to the rail depot at Thazi to arrange further transport. It sounded like a half-baked plan. But with dwindling options and a burning desire to witness this strange festival, I had agreed.

As I considered my uncertain itinerary, the shaky locomotive rumbled its way out of the station in a fog of anxious dawn. The ancient carriage embraced a landscape of endless, monochrome-green farm fields, shrouded in a mist of faint light. A treacherous white-hot sun soon pierced the horizon, igniting a furnace of unrelenting heat. Out the window I could make out distant water buffaloes lumbering across shimmering rice paddy fields, trailed by men hidden beneath sun hats. Amtrak this was not.

Inside the train car, red-robed monks stripped to the waist in the warmth, fanning themselves with wilting sports pages. Meanwhile, men puffed on fragrant cheroot cigarettes, the smoke curling its way into every orifice and fabric. Young boys roamed the aisles hawking glistening nooses of freshly plucked chickens, while the heat painted sweat stains in mosaics on my pants and shirt. I sat stewing in this pungent mixture of sweat, billowing cheroot smoke and grease, drowning in second thoughts as the reality of the unknown journey inched forward.

My motivation for visiting Burma had so far escaped introspection. Romanced by visions of countless travel writers and the exotic, I had left my job and life behind, traveling alone to this reclusive Southeast Asian nation in search of something different. I wanted to have an adventure and discover some deeper meaning to my journey. But as the hours bobbed and squeaked past tiny wooden villages and muddy brown farm fields, fat and thick with monsoon rain, I felt invisible and wracked with uncertainty. I desperately craved something familiar – an anchor to the reality I had discarded far behind in my relentless search for discovery.

Twelve dripping, exhausted hours later, a small triumph shook me from my daze. Thazi! I made it! But Burma wasn’t ready to let me off easily. The plan was to meet some other travelers in Thazi and find a ride – but I was the only one there. Come to think of it, Thazi didn’t even have a bus station. It was no more than a dusty main road littered with stray dogs and wobbly Japanese pickups. It was nearly dark and I was fenced in by my stupid choices. Growing nervous with dwindling options, I stumbled to a nearby pickup truck owner and pleaded for assistance.

“Can you…take me to Taunggyi?” I asked haltingly. The man sized up the tall foreigner in his midst, grinning at his luck.

“Maybe tomorrow. 20,000 kyat.” he spat out, with a smile.

My shoulders sagged. The vehicle was barely upright, let alone roadworthy – the cream-colored exterior was polka-dotted with rust. Four balding tires looked ready to deflate or burst, I couldn’t tell which. But the prospect of spending the night in that strange city, alone, drove me to further action.

“I’ll pay 10,000, and I want to leave tonight,” I countered.

The owner grimaced and crossed his arms in thought. Meanwhile a visibly intoxicated man and several kids crowded behind us, intrigued by the transaction. The cost was worth less than a dinner back home, but it felt like something large was at stake.

“OK, we go – but very far. You pay 15,000.”

Adrenaline surged. Taunggyi was now within my grasp! How naive I was. The truck still needed to fill with passengers and goods before it would depart. We waited for what seemed like hours. Six women climbed into benches in the back. Three more men perched themselves above the truck’s metal scaffolding. A precariously stacked bundle of wicker baskets was lashed to the roof. The truck looked less like transport than a vehicular Jenga game ready to topple. I sat on the curb, eyes wide and mouth agape. The drunken man from earlier hovered over me babbling, gesturing at the pickup and chuckling.

The evening was well under way before we departed. I climbed into the pickup’s front cabin with the owner and a young camouflage-clad man named Mikey, my knees jammed against the dash and head poking against the cabin’s roof, backpack shoehorned beneath my knees. The intimate seating arrangements encouraged Mikey to strike up a conversation.

“Where you come from?” Mikey inquired in his halting English.

I got asked this question a lot while I was in Burma. Frequently the desired answer had less to do with learning your citizenship than simply conjuring your state of mind.

“Man, it’s been such a long day, I can’t even remember anymore” I groaned.

We set off shakily, our pickup struggling to gain speed with its massive load. A horse-drawn cart rolled past, leaving our shaky vehicle in the dust. Shortly after departing Thazi, the pickup had its first breakdown. An hour later, the owner stopped to secretly siphon gas into the tank from a roadside oil drum. As we drove, Mikey chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes blowing smoke in my face in between eruptions of flatulence and cackling giggle fits with the driver. Spending the night in Thazi began to look like an attractive option.

Despite the setbacks, I realized my earlier anxiety was gone. Each unexpected stop seemed less like a challenge than a bizarre novelty. I found myself smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. Mikey even bought me a can of iced coffee, trading a grin and thumbs up of solidarity. As I sipped my shockingly sweet Coffee King beverage, I happened to glance up at the night sky, which had unfurled itself behind the Shan foothills like a blanket of twinkling brilliance. Sparkling meteorites zipped and swooshed with startling frequency. Distant constellations seemed to pulse and move like the rhythm of a cosmic ocean. In my semi-lucid state, I stared in wonder, mouth agape. At that moment, all the doubts, insecurities and vanities of my journey faded. This was exactly where I needed to be.

After each repair, we were back on the road, our ride wobbling ever higher in the foothills of Shan State. The smooth pavement became a dirt road treacherous with potholes. It was not much more than a single car wide, and we had to share with the hulking Chinese semis lumbering past, showering our vehicle with aromas of diesel fumes and dust. It was all I could do to keep from gagging on these noxious clouds, fortifying myself with the knowledge that clean night air would soon return to my window, along with that luminous sky.

Seven hours passed before the lights of Taunggyi shined in the distance, glittering like a city on a hill. It had been over 20 hours since I left Yangon that morning. I found the nearest guesthouse, banged on the door until it opened and collapsed on a bed. My longest day soon faded into the memory of the stillness of night.

Life frequently requires us to make decisions without fully understanding their impact. I keep asking myself the same questions about my purpose and finding no clear answers. Where am I headed? What’s the point? With so much uncertainty and doubt, it’s easy to believe I’ve lost my way. Except that I haven’t. Whenever I have these moments of doubt I remind myself to take a deep breath, and look up at the night sky. Suddenly I find myself transported back to that night in Burma when I rediscovered my purpose, gazing up at a blanket of stars shimmering with light.

South by Southeast: Coming home

Long-term travel forces us to face our fears. Whether it’s eating something unfamiliar or visiting a place that scares us, we’re forced to rely on our wits and abilities in ways we never thought possible. But of all the daring activities that occur during a long trip, none is more frightening than the simple act of returning home.

After spending five months on the road in Southeast Asia, it’s a dilemma I’ve faced as the days and hours counted down to my return. Much like the forces of gravity, the best-laid plans and biggest travel budgets are eventually laid bare, pulled back to earth by the relentless tug of reality. How will your friends and family react to your adventures? Will they care? Is there a job waiting for you, or will you need to look for work? The answers to these questions don’t come easy.

But the end of a life-changing trip doesn’t mean your journey is over. There are ways to translate the lessons of travel into a new way of life. How do we use an amazing adventure to change our lives at home for the better? Keep reading below…Save time to reflect
The minute you step off the airplane at home, the assault begins. Friends and family will unexpectedly show up, wanting to hear about your crazy travels. There will be a huge stack of bills to open. You’ll probably need a new place to live that isn’t a $5/night hostel. In other words, the realities of home will demand your attention.

Before the ritual of daily life sets in, it’s important you set aside time for reflection on your trip. What made you the happiest? Did you have an experience that’s made you think differently about the world? Without this reflection, it’s difficult to translate the experience of travel into new behavior.

Go easy on the stories
Dude, did I tell you about the time I was rock-climbing with endangered spider monkeys in the jungles of Laos? Everyone is going to want to hear about your trip when you return, but there’s a difference between sharing your stories and bragging. No matter how many amazing adventures you had, resist the urge to share everything and anything. Your friends and family are genuinely interested in what you did, but their eyes will glaze over after too many tales. Keep a few of your favorite experiences just for yourself.

See the world with “travel eyes”

Remember that first moment you stepped outside in a new place? It was like being a newborn, thrilled by an alien world of strange stimuli waiting to be explored. Why doesn’t that happen when we come back? By instinct, our brains tune out the familiar – resist the urge to “tune out” when you come back. Try to look at home the way you looked at your trip – as a world of new experiences, people and places that are dying to uncovered.

Don’t fall into old habits
Taking a long-term trip is like going through a time machine. You’ll come home a different person than when you left, but the people and places left behind are still the same. Before you get too cozy, don’t forget what you learned. Maybe you want to change your career. Maybe you’ve discovered a new activity or skill you want to develop. If you don’t make it a priority, then nobody else will – take the initiative to incorporate your travel experience into life at home.

Don’t expect travel to change you
Books like On the Road and movies like The Beach condition us to believe travel is a “transformative” act. Except it’s not always true. Sometimes an amazing trip is simply that and nothing more. Despite everything I mentioned above, you might come home and realize you like your life the way it is. Be satisfied with the accomplishments of what you’ve done and leave it at that.

After more than five months and nine passport stamps in Southeast Asia, I’ve had the privilege to experience a region in flux. But it’s time to return home. Southeast Asia isn’t always a non-stop exotic adventure. But neither is it a place that’s been sanitized and homogenized, lost to the “tourist hordes.” The truth instead, is somewhere in between. Much like our greatest travel fantasies, it’s region that becomes whatever we want it to be. Remember, wherever life or your travels take you, make sure you chart a course “South by Southeast.”

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann just got home after five months in Southeast Asia. He’s excited to be back, eating cheese again and looking forward to catching up with family and friends. You can read all the posts from his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Top 10 Southeast Asia

There’s a lot to see in Southeast Asia. Over the past five months, as I’ve traveled through this amazing region, it’s something I’ve experienced firsthand. From mind-blowing jungle ruins to outstanding food and world class beaches, there’s a never-ending wealth of curiosities for visitors. But with so much to see and do, it’s hard to know what to prioritize. Is Angkor Wat really as awesome as you’ve heard? Where should you go in Vietnam? Is it safe to eat the street food?

If you’ve been thinking about that dream trip to Southeast Asia but didn’t know where to start, today’s post is for you. We’re going to run through ten of Southeast Asia’s most amazing attractions, from the outstanding food to the best adventures and most awe-inspiring sights. Expect to find a few of the Southeast Asia’s most famous spots, along with my favorite “off-the-beaten path” Southeast Asian destinations from more than five months on the road. Ready to visit one of the world’s most fascinating regions? Keep reading below for our top ten picks…#10 – Bangkok’s Khao San Road
You simply can’t make a top 10 list on Southeast Asia without mentioning Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Love it or hate it, it’s the standard first stop for most Southeast Asian itineraries. The sheer volume of travelers, sizzling street food and range of shady characters ensure there’s always a good time and a story waiting to happen.

#9 – Street food in Ho Chi Minh City
The variety, quality and value of eating in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is beyond compare. From the freshest ingredients to crispy French baguettes to the most extreme culinary adventures, the food scene in Saigon is sure to amaze and delight. Check out Gadling’s “South by Southeast” investigation of eating in Saigon if you want to learn more.

#8 – Thailand’s Tarutao National Marine Park
It’s really hard to pick a favorite island in Thailand. There’s literally hundreds of them. But when we saw the secluded beauties that make up the Tarutao National Marine Park in Southern Thailand, we were hooked. This chain of wild, jungle islands offers beach camping, peace and quiet and some amazing snorkeling. Though Ko Lipe has gotten rather busy, Ko Adang, Ko Tarutao and Ko Rawi remain delightfully undeveloped.

#7 – Exploring Angkor Wat
With almost two million visitors a year, it’s clear that Angkor Wat is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist attractions. When you first set eyes on the stone giant that is Angkor’s main temple, you’ll understand why. The intricate carvings and sheer size of this ancient archaeological marvel are simply mind-blowing. If you’re heading to Cambodia for a visit make sure to check out our 5 Angkor Wat tips.

#6 – Burma’s Taunggyi Balloon Festival
Burma (Myanmar), is the forgotten country of Southeast Asia. Visitors stay away because of the country’s hard-line military government. But those who make the trip inside this cloistered country come away awestruck by the sights and humbled by the friendly, welcoming citizens. This is particularly true at the annual Balloon Festival at Taunggyi, where hundreds of giant hot air balloons are launched into the sky over an eight day event. Make sure you read up on responsible travel to Burma if you want to go.

#5 – Wandering Luang Prabang
Is Luang Prabang the world’s most beautiful city? Achingly beautiful colonial French architecture, serene Buddhist temples and elegant palaces make this former royal capital of Laos a must on any Southeast Asia itinerary. Make sure to enjoy the town’s top-notch eating at spots like Tamarind and enjoy Luang Prabang’s buzzing night market.

#4 – Motorbiking the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle, a remote region bordering Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma, just might be one of Southeast Asia’s last great exotic destinations. The area’s curvy mountain roads and remote villages make it haven for motorcycle trips. Increasingly popular routes, reliable maps and cheap bike rentals make it easy for even novice cyclists to grab a helmet and hit the open road. Check out our guide to motorcycle trekking to get started.

#3 – The Gibbon Experience in Laos
Want to feel like a kid again? Try sleeping in a tree house and flying around on zip lines in the jungles of Northern Laos, home to the legendary Gibbon Experience. This one-of-a-kind eco park is pioneering a new model of forest conservation and sustainable tourism. Not to mention you might get to see some wildlife and it’s a crazy good time too.

#2 – Trekking in Luang Namtha
Chiang Mai has Southeast Asia’s most popular treks, but they are often overcrowded and disappointing. Instead, head to Luang Namtha in Northern Laos, an increasingly popular base for hikers looking to visit remote hill tribe villages. Imagine waking to the sound of roosters, bathing in a river and drinking moonshine with a village chief.

#1 – The ruins of Bagan
Move over Angkor Wat. There’s a new champion in town. The ruins of Bagan, a stunning complex of over 2,000 deserted temples in Myanmar, is quite possibly the world’s most amazing sight. Spend your days exploring the ghostly structures by horse cart or bike, discovering ancient Buddhist murals and climbing hidden staircases to gorgeous 360 degree views. If you want to read more about Myanmar, check out our guide to ethically visiting this fascinating country.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann spent the last five months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

South by Southeast: Picking a beach in Thailand

The allure of Thailand’s islands and beaches is immense. Sugar white sand. A wealth of activities, from diving to rock climbing to sailing. Raucous beach parties. But all these pleasing options can actually cause a big headache. With literally hundreds of beach and island choices, spread between Thailand’s west-facing Andaman Coast and the eastern-facing Gulf of Thailand, visitors will be hard-pressed to choose where lay their towels. Not to mention many of us have limited vacation time and budgets.

So how do you properly choose the right beach for your upcoming Thailand adventure? It was exactly the problem I faced last month as I began the last leg of my trip through Southeast Asia. Fortunately, I had the luxury of time on my side. I would check out as many beach spots as I could. From the upscale to the budget, from peaceful to packed, I was on a mission to uncover Thailand’s perfect beach. It was truly a dreadful task, I assure you dear reader, but I suffered through my investigation as best I could.

So did I finally uncover the perfect beach in Thailand? If you’ve ever wanted to take a Thai beach vacation, keep reading below for South by Southeast’s handy guide to picking the perfect stretch of sand.Finding the perfect beach in Thailand is all a matter of what you’re looking for, whether it’s partying till dawn, partaking in some active pursuits or getting in touch with your inner castaway. To help you figure out what’s best for you, consider the following categories:

Get Away from Me, World
Thailand’s islands and beaches are firmly on the tourist trail these days, but there are still a few spots you can get “off the beaten track.” For the best chance of success, consider sticking to the Andaman Coast, particularly the islands closer to the Malaysian border, like Ko Adang and Ko Bulon Lae as well as Ko Chang (the one on the Andaman Coast, not the Gulf of Thailand). Though there are still visitors, these are the types of islands where it’s still possible to grab a quiet bungalow, get lost and have a swim on a deserted beach.

I’m on a Budget
With all the exclusive resorts going up on islands like Ko Samui these days, you might get the impression that finding a beach paradise in Thailand is going to be expensive. But it’s not. For backpackers watching their dollars, check out islands like Ko Phangan, which manages to maintain scattered bungalows that are a downright bargain. Another good choice is Ko Tarutao, a protected national park island where you can score a tent or longhouse for less than $10/night.

The Active Adventurer
Does sitting on the beach make you antsy? In addition to nice stretches of sand, Thailand’s beaches are also the perfect place to enjoy a variety of active pursuits, ranging from kayaking to rock climbing to scuba diving. The limestone rocks at Railay are among the best spots in the world to try to some climbing. Is diving more your style? Check out Ko Tao or the Similan Islands, home to teeming schools of fish, turtles and sharks. And for kayakers? Head for either Ao Phang Nga or Ang Thong National Marine Parks.

I Came Here to Party!!!!!
Thailand is home to some world-class nightlife, and the country’s beaches and islands certainly don’t disappoint. For all the fire twirling, dance music and whiskey buckets you can handle, check out the islands of Ko Phi Phi, Ko Phangan and Ko Samui. Some travelers hate these islands. Others think they’re paradise. We’re not here to judge…just give you the facts. Check out this account of Ko Phangan’s infamous Full Moon Party from Gadling writer Stephen Greenwood for more info.

From raucous Full Moon Parties to deliciously deserted beaches, Thailand has the beach for you. With all this choice, the problem isn’t finding what you want – it’s trying to pick. Have any favorite island experiences or tips that we missed? Share them with us in the comments.

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.

Hong Kong goes retro

Hong Kong is truly the city of the future. The city’s ubiquitous skyline of shiny beveled-angle skyscrapers towers above you like a giant wall of steel and glass. Meanwhile, residents tap their Octopus cards at cash registers, magically paying for purchases without bills or coins. Yet lying beneath Hong Kong’s fancy neon wizardry is a puzzling trend. It seems these days, Hong Kong is not looking to the future. Instead, the city’s residents have decided to look to the past.

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a city as amazingly dense as this bursting Asian megalopolis. The city sits on a series of tiny islands leaning precariously onto the South China Sea, meaning there’s simply never enough space. The city’s modern skyscrapers and futuristic bridges exist side-by-side with ancient colonial tenement homes and incense-shrouded Buddhist temples. But whether you’re in search of a souvenir, checking out a museum or simply looking for food and drink, you’re likely to encounter a slice of Hong Kong’s growing love for all things vintage.

But “old and musty” vintage this is not. Hong Kong retro is all about reinventing and reusing the pieces of its textured past, providing visitors with a unique slice of checkered history in a decidedly modern way. If you’re in search of a unique taste of days gone-by or a one-of-a-kind souvenir, Hong Kong’s retro style is ready to be discovered. Keep reading to see where to find it…Retro Dining
For many food is the ultimate source of nostalgia, a reminder of our youth and days gone by. It’s a fact that’s been well-absorbed in retro Hong Kong, where a cuisine of fresh ingredients and age-old family recipes prevails. Nowhere is this better evident than at Kowloon’s Tai Ping Koon restaurant, an eatery defiantly still around after more than 150 years of business. But this is no tourist trap. Each evening Tai Ping Koon’s elegant Mid-Century modern dining room is packed with locals enjoying the restaurant’s signature chicken wings in Swiss Sauce and its light, puffy souffles. It’s the original example of East vs. West eating – a distinctly Hong Kong take on Western food.

Retro Shopping
Those looking to experience Hong Kong’s retro past need not only find it on a plate. These days, Hong Kong’s high-energy shopping experience is going retro too. It all starts at Goods of Desire (G.O.D.), a popular home goods store dedicated to “increasing interest in Asian lifestyle and culture.” The products for sale at G.O.D. aren’t your average spatula or cooking utensil. Instead, many items like the store’s retro textiles, kitschy selection of Mao Zedong postcards and old-school furniture pay homage to an earlier era of Hong Kong, a time when it was “the world’s factory,” producing cheap goods for sale in Europe and the U.S. It’s a great place to learn more about the city’s history and pick up a unique souvenir.

Just down the street from G.O.D. is Shanghai Tang, a clothing store that references Hong Kong’s famous reputation for custom-made clothing. The chain takes much of its inspiration from traditional Han Chinese apparel, updated with modern touches. Inside the stores’ Art Deco interior you’ll find both men’s and women’s clothing as well as an array of leather goods, stationery and household goods referencing traditional Chinese symbols and design.

Retro Drinking
The Pawn in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighborhood offers another example of the city’s reverence for its historic roots. Pawnshops are a particularly iconic fixture of Hong Kong life. Long before the city’s mammoth banks like HSBC were established, pawn shops played an important role as money lenders for a growing city of merchants and traders. The spartan interiors, high counters and darkened lighting have became a common sight for the city’s residents.

These days, many of Hong Kong’s pawn shops have been replaced, or as is the case with The Pawn, remade into fun hangout spots. The Pawn’s comfy interior pays tribute to Hong Kong’s days of old, offering visitors a wood-paneled interior, leather armchairs and old-school rickety foosball table inside what used to be a working pawn shop. A selection of international beers and cocktails rounds out the menu.

Hong Kong might be the city of the future, but it’s a place that hasn’t forgotten its unique past. From retro eating to shopping to drinking, visitors will find opportunities to enjoy a one-of-a-kind trip through time in this world-famous city.