South by Southeast: The man from Kathmandu

Everybody wants to talk to you in Myanmar. Almost daily I was greeted by a welcoming committee of friendly taxi drivers, curious adolescent monks and mysterious jobless “men about town” wanting to shoot the breeze. In a country that restricts access to the media, it’s not surprising the Burmese are eager to talk: they seem hungry for access to the outside world. For the most part, the exchanges are entertaining and harmless: a refreshing way to meet the locals. So my walk to the teashop that Sunday in Mandalay was no different than any other. A cloud of trishaw drivers quickly enveloped me, asking “Where you come from?” and offering their services. That is of course, until one posed me an unusual question I hadn’t heard before:

“Have you read Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu?”

I paused. I had of course – I count the book among my favorite travel narratives…particularly for its slice-of-life portrayals of the various cultures of Asia. In one of the book’s most memorable chapters, Pico shares his recollections from Burma, describing the country in all its chaotic, wonderful glory. One character named Maung Maung even invited the author back to his house.

“My name is Maung Maung. Pico featured me in his book. I’m on page 24.”

I was astonished. Here was a man claiming to be a character from Pico’s famous Asian novel, one of my favorites, who happened to randomly meet me as I walked down the block in Mandalay. Doubts filled my head. Could he be some kind of con artist? How many Myanmar visitors have read Video Night in Kathmandu, anyway? There was no way to tell for certain – but like so many other chance encounters I had in Myanmar, I decided to go with it, curious to see what might happen and convinced fate had presented me with an opportunity. Keep reading below to see what happened…

Maung Maung and I took a seat at the local Burmese teashop. The middle-aged man pulled out a cheroot from his shirt pocket and proceeded to regale me for the next two hours with a stream of consciousness explosion: critiques of the Burmese military junta, dirty jokes, stories about his wife – even some anecdotes about his life in Myanmar and time with Pico. It became a tale of woe. He claimed a university degree in Mathematics, but as he told me, the government wouldn’t hire him because of his outspoken political views. Here before me then was a 50-something man, apparently university-educated, who earned his living by pedaling tourists around Mandalay. It was downright sad. Then came his pitch:

“Could you help me out by hiring me for a ride? I’ll take you to meet my family.”

I was torn. Even if he wasn’t telling the truth about the book, I wanted to help him somehow. And visiting a family sounded amazing. But my rational mind said otherwise – maybe this was some kind of setup? Would I end up getting mugged in some back alley in Mandalay? In the end, I figured It was worth the chance. With visions of Video Night in Kathmandu filling my head, I agreed to let Maung Maung pedal me to his home on an antiquated bicycle trishaw.

We started off in the quickly gathering darkness, Maung Maung’s thin frame straining at the pedals down a labyrinthine maze of back alleys. The streets were alive with activity. A cluster of dirt-crusted children kicked a soccer ball in the dust. Mounds of rotting garbage simmered in humid evening air. Silhouettes of women crouched over bubbling pots of noodles, faces lit by cooking fires. The chaotic scene filled me with a nervous mix of excitement and anxiety. Each new turn of the trishaw down the anonymous streets provoked a wave of anxiety that I would be lost and left for dead in the Burmese gutter.

And then we arrived. The house wasn’t much to look at – the home’s sole room featured a stark cement floor flanked by wicker walls. A rickety wooden table and chairs anchored the room’s center. In corner was grungy mirror, a few fading color photos tucked around the edge. A ceiling fan whirled drunkenly from above. His college-age daughter and son stood awkwardly, hands glued to the chair frames. They smiled at me curiously, puzzled by the sudden appearance of a gangly white foreigner in their midst. I don’t know what I had expected, but It was awkward. But then again, the best travel tales rarely unfold like they do in our favorite books. Much like a visit to Myanmar, the reality of our travels is often far more confusing, dirty and inconvenient than we expected. It’s only later we look back fondly at these moments of serendipity, now coated by the glaze of nostalgia and time.

I lingered for a few minutes and asked Maung Maung to leave. I thanked his family profusely, hopped back in the seat of the rickety trishaw and we pedaled off towards my guesthouse. Maung Maung dropped me off, I gave him a few dollars for his services, and just like that he was gone. A work of fiction safely filed back on my bookshelf.

So who was this guy anyway? Did I get “taken for a ride,” parted from my money by a con-artist? Or did I actually spend the evening with a character from one of my favorite books? I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. One thing I do know for certain: the answer to my question is still out there, slowly pedaling its way down the darkened alleys of Mandalay.

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.

Curious to read more about visiting Myanmar? Check out the previous post HERE.

South by Southeast: Taunggyi Balloon Festival

Daily life is a struggle in Myanmar. For the average local, working days are filled with long hours of backbreaking manual labor, meager pay and no weekends or vacation time. Considering this exhausting schedule, festivals and holidays are special times – a chance to kick back, relax and let loose. In Myanmar’s Shan State, one of the most important of these festivities is the annual Taunggyi Balloon Festival.

Over the course of this annual eight-day event, teams compete to design and launch the most impressive hot air balloons: some shaped like giant birds, zebras and cows; others filled with a potent mix of fireworks; still others elegantly lit by flickering candles. Each balloon’s launch is symbolic of Buddhist hopes for the purging of human sin, gently gliding off and disappearing into the heavens. More than 200 such entries are launched each festival season, continually rising throughout the day and night.

Surrounding this magnificent hot-air balloon spectacle is a chaotic and festive carnival sideshow: drunken men shout at giant gambling wheels, open cooking fires sizzle with pots of Mohinga soup and pig entrails and children scream with joy on huge Ferris Wheels (powered solely by jumping men). It’s as if the Fourth of July, Las Vegas and a giant refugee camp had suddenly collided in one huge, heaving, wonderful mass of humanity and celebration.

During my visit to Myanmar this past month, I had a chance to visit the Taunggyi Balloon Festival and get first-hand taste of this awesome event. Wondering what happened? Keep reading below for more…

Getting There
Upon arriving in Myanmar, I immediately began planning my visit to Taunggyi. This was easier said than done: the event is among the most popular in all of Myanmar and hotels in Taunggyi are fully booked for weeks in advance. Even finding a bus to Taunggyi during festival time presents a problem: as many are jammed with eager locals.

As an alternative, I arranged to begin my Taunggyi visit from the nearby Shan State town of Kalaw. The town has its own smaller balloon festivities and is about a 3 hour taxi ride from Taunggyi. Many visitors also consider Nyaungshwe, the main city on Inle Lake, which has plentiful lodging options. Both cities make convenient bases to begin your exploration of the festival. A taxi to/from the event costs around $40-50.

The Balloons
Though Taunggyi is most famous for the nighttime balloons, the daytime balloons are equally impressive. Unlike the evening launches, which explode with colorful fireworks, the daytime launches show off Myanmar craftsmanship, with each colorful entry shaped like a different animal. On the large festival launching grounds, amorphous piles of fabric slowly rise into fantasy creatures of heat and shape: curious pigeons and lazy cows emerge and drift away, carried at the whim of the warm winter breeze. Some entries are not so lucky: an errant gust of wind or careless touch of the torch and the fragile creations are consumed by flame.

Soon the sun began to slip behind the nearby hills, bringing with it a growing anticipation for the evening’s main event: the fire balloons. Before launch each entry is brought to a judging station to be weighed. A typical balloon contains about 75 pounds of explosives, bringing with it the potential for both delight and catastrophe. Several days before my visit an errant balloon exploded too low to the ground, showering spectators with a bath of molten paper that injured 200. My guesthouse owner advised to bring a hat to protect my hair from catching fire.

Suddenly the evening’s first fire balloon began to rise from among carpet of tiny humans, a glowing, undulating mushroom of explosives silhouetted against the blackened sky. The crowd let out an excited gasp. The balloon inflated towards its maximum size, anxiously tugging at its tethering below. The handlers nervously gazed up at months of work and preparation, and released their offering to its fate. The balloon’s rise was unspectacular at first: lazily floating along, unsure of its purpose. Then suddenly, as if triggered by some celestial epiphany, the balloon’s base exploded in a massive powderkeg of light and sound and color and activity.

Nothing prepared me for that first explosion, bigger than any Fourth of July shell I had seen back home. It blanketed the sky and sent me running for cover, awed and delighted by what I had seen. Over the course of the next several hours another 6-8 balloons were slowly launched, but nothing compared to that first explosion. I spent the night lost beneath the festival’s many carnival tents, playing and drinking and celebrating with the locals until dawn. Then it was time to head home. All too soon, the vivid dream I had witnessed at Taunggyi was gone: floating off into my memory like the fragile fire balloons, slowly disappearing in the sky.

Curious to read more about visiting Myanmar? Read the initial post on my recent trip HERE.

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: Who goes to Myanmar?

Who does visit Myanmar these days? For Southeast Asia travelers exposed to a daily diet of CNN, Myanmar is literal no-fly zone, a destination with an infamous reputation for unrest, opium and political repression. Even as other “notorious” Asia destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam emerge into adolescence on the global tourist stage, Myanmar remains largely hidden from view – a mysterious actor shrouded in myth and secrecy.

It’s been nearly two years since Gadling’s Leif Pettersen first visited Myanmar, lifting the curtain on a country of sacred Buddhist shrines, Betel chewing and nary a fast food chain in sight. Not surprisingly, in the years since Leif’s visit, not much has changed. As I soon discovered, everything moves more slowly in Myanmar, from the masochistic 15-hour bus rides to the condensed milk that slowly oozes into your cup of Burmese tea. This “slowness” is further exaggerated by Myanmar’s isolation from the international community and the devastating Cyclone Nargis which hammered the country in 2008. The country’s already-meager tourist industry is still reeling from the shock.

But while Myanmar is indeed a tough place to visit, it rewards persistence. For Southeast Asia travelers willing to move beyond the media reports, one of the most incredible destinations on earth awaits your discovery: deserted temple ruins, gorgeous beaches, awe-inspiring festivals and most importantly, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on earth. And despite what you’ve heard, Myanmar is actually one of the safest places to visit in Southeast Asia. Intrigued? Let’s start with a look at the details (and ethics) of visiting below…

The Boycott
Let me dispense with the “elephant in the room” of Myanmar travel: the travel boycott. In short, the government of Myanmar has a long history of human rights abuses and political repression. This fact has long kept many travelers away, and many governments and organizations continue to urge travelers not to visit.

The pros and cons of visiting Myanmar could make up an article by itself, and there’s no simple answer to this question. Every traveler considering a trip should get the facts on the situation and answer this question for themselves. In writing about the country, my aim is to give potential visitors the information to help make that decision. A great place to start your investigation is over at Lonely Planet, which has a special section devoted to the debate surrounding travel to Myanmar.

Getting In

So what exactly is involved in entering Myanmar? Will you be strip-searched at airport? Taken hostage by balaclava-wearing rebels? Despite my initial misgivings, entering Myanmar was a relatively painless process. All that’s required is 30-day tourist visa available at most Myanmar embassies abroad for around U.S. $24. Any number of travel agencies, particularly those in Bangkok, can also guide you through the process if you’re willing to pay a little extra and/or don’t want to visit the embassy.

Getting Around

Traveling in Myanmar can be (literally) painful. Transportation options are slow, roads are poor and getting anywhere takes time. That said, the main transport options include:

  • Buses – Frequent buses connect the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. Buses are also the option most preferred by independent travelers, due to the fact they are privately (not government) owned.
  • Flights – if you’re not ready to tough it out for 15 hours on a stifling hot bus while your seat mate vomits out the window, flights are a good, if more expensive, alternative. Daily trips on Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways connect Myanmar’s major tourist sights. The state-run airline Myanmar Airways is to be avoided, both for safety and political reasons.
  • Taxis – another potential alternative to bus service hiring a private taxi, which can drive travelers between most destinations in Myanmar.
  • Trains – like much of the country’s infrastructure, Myanmar’s rail system is downright ancient. That said, daily trains are another (potentially) more comfortable alternative to the buses.
  • Boats – the most popular boat service runs between Bagan and Mandalay, with both a “fast” and “slow” boat service. Don’t let the world “fast” fool you: boat trips take anywhere from 9-15 hours.

For a complete rundown of options, refer to Lonely Planet’s excellent transportation overview.

What to See
The vast majority of Myanmar visitors spend their trip at “the big four” – a group that includes Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan. The majority of these attractions, despite their supposed popularity, were relatively empty at the time of our visit. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track however, there’s plenty of small towns beyond these four main sights, begging to be explored. Here’s a quick roundup:

  • Yangon – Myanmar’s capital city until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) remains the cultural and economic heart of Myanmar. Many visitors spend time getting lost in the city’s chaotic street culture and make a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist shrines.
  • Mandalay – the country’s second largest city, Mandalay is home to an intriguing patchwork of Chinese and Indian immigrants, royal palaces and plenty of good day trips, including the famous U Bein teak bridge in nearby Amarapura.
  • Bagan – if you think Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s most impressive temple complex, think again. The temple ruins of ancient Bagan are among the world’s most incredible archaeological sights. Spend your day biking among more than 2,000 deserted ruins, dating back over 800 years.
  • Inle Lake – arguably one of Myanmar’s most popular natural wonders, Inle Lake offers visitors an aquatic wonderland of floating vegetable gardens, jumping cats, and picturesque houses on stilts. A popular way to get around is by hiring your own boat for the day, visiting Buddhist temples and handicraft vendors.
  • Kalaw – the city of Kalaw is a popular starting point for treks, taking visitors past remote hill tribe villages and secluded Buddhist monasteries. Many travelers like to hike the short distance between Kalaw and nearby Inle Lake (around 2-3 days).

Hungry to learn more about Myanmar? Stay tuned…I’ll be sharing impressions and stories from my trip over the coming days.

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.

A taste of Seoul, Korea: Three nights

Korean food is hot! “Spicy” is probably the most prominent flavor in Korean cooking, but it’s also a sign of the increasing popularity of Korean cuisine. Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like someone is talking about Korean food, from New York’s superstar chef David Chang to the insanely popular Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. But for all the buzz Korean food is getting among eaters, many of us know little beyond the Korean basics of barbecue and Kimchi. What exactly do they like to eat in Korea? And why is everyone so obsessed with the food there?

During my recent visit to Seoul, I decided to investigate. Armed with only my camera and an empty stomach, I dived head-first into the sizzling center of Seoul’s food scene, curious to discover what Koreans liked to eat. But before I started, I needed to find some help. As any local will tell you, eating in Korea is a communal experience, with dishes passed and shared among friends. To help me navigate my way through the bewildering array of Korean food choices, I met up with three of Seoul’s top food experts: Dan from Seoul Eats, Joe of ZenKimchi, and Jennifer from FatManSeoul. Over the course of several meals with my hosts, I began to get a sense of the surprising, subtle and savory flavors that make Korean food so special. Want to get a taste of what Korean food is all about? Join along as we take a big bite of Korean cuisine – click below for more.


Up All Night in Hongdae
Hongdae, a youthful neighborhood west of Seoul’s main downtown, has become in recent years a hub for all things fun, young and trendy. Stroll down any side street near the Hongik University metro stop and you’ll be assaulted by cozy coffee shops, raucous pubs and of course, plenty of food.

I started my culinary exploration of Seoul here in Hongdae, with Dan Gray, creator of Seoul food website Seoul Eats. The first stop was a spot simply called “RIBS,” specializing in Galbi, or pork short ribs. These tiny bite-size meat morsels make a perfect accompaniment for drinks are flavored with plenty of pepper and spices. Like many young Koreans out on the town, this was to be the first of several more stops, with plenty of drinking and snacking along the way. We headed to Chin Chin, best known for Makgeolli, an unfiltered rice wine. The drink has a milky, tangy taste to it, with a finish not unlike the yeasty taste of good Hefeweiss beer. Patrons can enjoy the drink al fresco, paired with the buzzing throb of Seoul’s plentiful motor scooter traffic jams.

After a few rounds of Makolli, we were hungry again. Thankfully, Korean food lends itself well to consumption on the street, with literally hundreds of vendors lining the sides of Hongdae’s many alleys. We headed to a Pojangmacha, or tent restaurant to get a taste of late-night Korean snacking, where we enjoyed Gaeran Mari, an omelette-like drinking snack made of eggs, veggies, ham and doused in ketchup.

Roll Up Your Sleeves in Mapo
Hongdae gave me a taste of Seoul’s frenzied late night eating scene. But I was still curious to see what the average Korean might be eating for dinner. To discover more, I met up with Joe McPherson from ZenKimchi, for a mini-food tour of Mapo-Gu, a largely working-class district east of Hongdae. Mapo is also home to Mapo Restaurant Street, a huge cluster of eateries offering traditional Korean specialities like Bulgogi and Bibimbap. They also offer more eclectic fare, including dog meat soup.

We got our hands dirty by starting with a Samgyeopsal eatery, specializing in salt-grilled pork belly. Barbecue is perhaps Korea’s most well-known cuisine. Diners typically gather round a large hole in their tables, filled with glowing red coals, while the meal’s meat is cooked in front of you. Dinner was salt-pork, accompanied by the ever-present Kimchi (pickled cabbage), as well as eggs, which were cooked up using a lip on the edge of our grill and mixed with the Kimchi.

One meal is never enough in Seoul. Like many of my nights there, we moved on to try another Korean speciality, a cold buckwheat noodle soup called Makguksu. This icy-cold dish makes a refreshing contrast to the typical spicy, smoky flavors of most Korean food. We ended our night on a decidedly blue-collar note, stopping by the 7-11 for corn ice cream sandwiches a uniquely Korean frozen novelty.

Taste the Past in Itaewon
I had been snacking till dawn and had a taste of Korean working-class cuisine. But now it was time to get a taste of the past. Korean food has a long and illustrious history, with some unique traditions that set it apart from their nearby Chinese and Japanese neighbors. To get better sense of this, I met up with Jennifer, creator of FatManSeoul and walking encyclopedia of Korean history and culture. We headed to Itaewon, Seoul’s historic district, a throwback neighborhood lined with old-style buildings, traditional Korean handicrafts and tea shops.

Our meal for the evening would be Hanjeongsik, a cornucopia of traditional small plates. No meal goes by in Korea without the ubiquitous banchan, small dishes of pickled vegetables, dried seafood and sauces that are used for dipping and as sides. Hanjeongsik takes banchan to the next level, meant to symbolically reflect five colors (black, yellow, green, red and white), directions, the four seasons and five tastes. Our spread included prawns, tofu soup, fish cakes called odeng, seaweed and plenty of pickled veggies. It’s a decadent and delicious way to sample what traditional Korean eating is all about.

We finished our evening at a tea house nearby. Though many younger Koreans now seem to gravitate towards the ubiquitous coffee shops of Seoul, tea houses will give visitors a taste of the Korea of days gone by. The humbly-named tea house “Second Best in Seoul” in Itaewon takes the traditional Korean tea to the next level. The tea here is less a drink than a dessert, combining fruits like persimmon, nuts and red bean paste into delicious post-meal concoctions. We enjoyed our tea sitting in the shop’s retro 1970’s chairs, digesting our meal. Like so much of the cuisine of Korea, it proved to be a surprising blend of the old and the new, a collection of culinary surprises waiting to be discovered.

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

South by Southeast: In Bangkok? Head to the mall!

Bangkok means many things to travelers. The backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road. The sublime temples of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. The seedy go-go bars of Patpong. But after visiting this crazy Southeast Asian capital for the first time, I’d like to suggest a new highlight in Bangkok: the malls.

You’re probably going to tell me I’m a spoiled Westerner, too acclimated to the comforts of home to get my hands dirty with some authentic Thai culture. But, perhaps it’s time we all take a closer look at what Bangkok is really like these days. The famed “anything goes” destination of old is still there, hiding down back alleyways and puttering along on Bangkok’s diesel spewing tuk tuks. But there’s also an entirely new Bangkok under construction. An emerging city of modern mass transportation and shiny new temples of capitalism.

So what is it about Bangkok’s malls that makes them so special? Like many malls back home, they’ve got all the usual amenities – the department stores, the food courts and the electronics boutiques. But there’s also plenty that makes Bangkok malls entirely unique: outstanding and inexpensive food courts filled with authentic Thai cuisine, special events and top-notch cultural institutions. Sound interesting? Here’s three reasons why you should head to the mall during your next visit to Bangkok. Click below.

The food courts are amazing
When I think of a mall food court back in the U.S., my stomach starts to churn. Greasy Sbarro pizza, unappetizing McDonald’s and gluttonous portions of Cold Stone Creamery. Bangkok food courts are a completely different animal. In fact, one of the best places to experience affordable, delicious Thai cuisine is at the mall.

Whether you want egg noodles with pork and dried shrimp, a big glass of Lemongrass juice or some Thai sticky rice dessert, the food court is where it’s at. Average price for your meal? About $3 U.S. per person. In addition to all the Thai favorites you’ll find plenty of great Japanese, Korean and Vegetarian cuisine, along with a few good old American favorites.

Air conditioning is your friend
Spend more than five minutes outside in Bangkok, and you will be attacked. Your fresh clothes will be drenched in sweat. Motor scooters, tuk-tuks and huge buses belch smoke from all directions. Monsoon rains deluge down from the heavens. Angry and persistent mosquitoes buzz and itch in your ear. It’s enough to make even the most hardened travelers beg for mercy. Bangkok malls will become your oasis from this chaos. The cool chilled air feels like a gift from above. Even if you have no intention of buying anything at the store, Bangkok’s malls offer an easy, cheap way to chill out.

Surprising attractions
Bangkok malls aren’t just for shopping. They boast top-notch culture, special events and surprising creativity. A great example is the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), located in The Emporium Shopping Complex in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area. The center boasts rotating modern art exhibits from Thai artists, typography exhibits, film screenings and a huge library of design books and magazines. On a recent Sunday, I found myself hanging out in TCDC’s slick coffeeshop, enjoying the stellar Bangkok city views while a live jazz band jammed out onstage. Cheesy mall this is not.

The next time you find yourself in Bangkok, take a closer look at what this amazing city has to offer. In addition to awe-inspiring temples and cheap backpacker street food, you’re likely to find a city that has “come of age” on the world stage.

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.