Cheesy fake plastic plants wound their way up the support pillars, and dangled from every rafter in the room. Posters of models that would fit in at any cheap hair dresser smiled at us from white trellises that awkwardly sectioned the space. Coloured spot lights shone down from the ceiling, illuminating a cluster of mohawks, tattoos, studded jackets, and impossibly tight, ripped jeans.
As the stage lights came on, the crunch of guitars and crash of cymbals filled my head and pounded me in the chest.
Sometimes while travelling, the question hits you.
“What am I supposed to be doing?”
Of course there are things to see - temples, churches, castles, beaches, museums, and so much more. There's local cuisine to sample, culture to absorb, history to learn, people to meet, and yet, there's so much to do that it can be incredibly overwhelming. Sometimes (read: always) you need to make a choice between two options, without the time or money to do both.
What if you make the wrong choice? What if the other option would have been better?
At other times, as happened to me and my girlfriend Vivyanne while travelling in SE Asia, you get sucked into all of the typical tourist sights and activities, and it ends up all seeming just a little bit disingenuous.
In both cases, you end up asking.
“What am I supposed to be doing?”
That is the question that led us to an underground hardcore punk show in Myanmar. But more on that in a bit.
What is the best way to travel? Is there some sort of travel philosophy or or mindset that can be applied to everyone to ensure they get the most out of their time and money while travelling? Being that people share such diverse viewpoints, preferences, and experiences it seems unlikely.
But maybe that's not entirely true either.
The best I can offer is the realization that lead us to an underground punk show, and to get there we have to go back a couple of months.
Vivyanne and I were in the northern Thailand city of Pai, or was is Chang Mai? It's hard to remember now looking back. We had just ran into a young guy from Australia who was cycling into town from the highway and had flagged him down to talk.
We asked him about how his travelling was going, where he was heading to, where he had come from. He was living in Thailand and had decided, pretty much on a whim, to cycle North to a town to visit someone for a weekend trip and figured that doing it by bicycle was the cheapest and easiest way to do so. After all it was only 120 km. I'm not sure that he had taken into account that the 120 km ride was to be done in the scorching heat and humidity that Thailand provides in spades - he looked pretty worn out as we encountered him near the end of his trip.
I left our encounter feeling inspired, as if I had finally figured the source of the gnawing unrest that had plagued me for the first few weeks of our travels in SE Asia. The feeling that there was a better way to travel, to experience the people, the landscape, the culture, and gain fulfillment and contentment while travelling.
So far, it had felt like there was always somewhere we needed to be, like we needed to see everything that our guidebook, friends and acquaintances had recommended to us. It felt like a sin to sit idly reading, or browsing the internet. Things we didn't need to be in Asia for. Things we could do at home.
It was in the moments after talking to this Australian who happened to fancy a weekend ride up the highway that I understood the missing piece.
For me, and I think for a lot of other travellers, we associate traveling with stepping outside our comfort zone. Of doing things differently than we would at home, and doing some things that we would never do at home. Travelling in this way can be incredibly rewarding. It pushes you to grow and experience new things that shape your view of the world. The problem is that keeping that mindset up for long periods of time is difficult, and can even be counterproductive.
The revelation that came to me that day was that fulfilling travel did require stepping out of your comfort zone, experimenting and pushing yourself, but it also required some routine, some grounding, some sense of home. I realized that instead of relying on tourist guides, I needed to look at the things that made me happy at home and find a way to incorporate them into my life while travelling.
I realized there was a lot to be gained from travelling as though you lived in the area. Rent or buy a bike and set off somewhere just to see where the road goes. Find the local hiking community and meet up to explore the local backcountry rather than signing up for a tour with the hundreds of other tourists.
There are people in almost every city in the world who have the same interests as you, do the same things on their weekends that you do on yours at home. The internet has made it easier than ever to find these people, or groups of people and meet up and get a real, fulfilling experience.
Vivyanne and I took this lesson to heart and worked to incorporate more of what makes us happy at home into our travelling. We searched for local hikes and outdoor activities, and we didn't feel guilty about taking a day to relax and not see anything. We spent more time reading, playing cards, hanging out, even going to the movies, realizing that there was more to travel fulfillment then just seeing the sights. In fact we had to be in a healthy mindset to appreciate the sights in the first place.
We were reminded of this lesson months later in Myanmar, where we met Joe on a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Joe was from Iowa and was spending a few months travelling SE Asia much the same as us. He was full of tips, local knowledge, and was passionate about music, specifically hardcore punk. He mentioned going to an awesome punk show in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and was looking into finding shows in Myanmar.
We went our separate ways after finishing the trek at Inle Lake, but as chance would have it, we ran into him a week later on the street of the capital, Yangon. In Yangon, he had met another American, Jared, from NYC, who was also embedded in the punk scene stateside, and Jarod had heard through some people he met that the next day there was a punk show happening at a bar on the far side of town.
Now Viv and I aren't necessarily into punk music. I'm into a lot of heavier music, but punk had never really grabbed me. Vivyanne listens to a lot of folk and indie, pretty much the opposite of the speed and aggression that characterize punk music. Nevertheless, we're both big music fans and love going to live shows. We wanted to experience a local concert in another country, especially one that had been largely closed off to the rest of the world for 50 years.
And then there were the stories we had heard about the punk scene here.
Joe and Jared had heard how punk music was illegal given it's long history of progressive, anti-establishment political content, and there was a lot to be critical of governmentally in Myanmar. The shows locations were often not put out publicly until the day before the show, so that the police wouldn't have the chance to shut it down. While all of this information put us a little on edge – neither one of us wanted to end up arrested in Myanmar – it all added to the intrigue.
We met up with Jared and Joe on a Sunday morning around 11 AM. the show was scheduled to start at noon. We found out that the rumors about the legality of the shows wasn't entirely true. As long as a promoter had the proper permits in order, they could host a show, but evening and night shows were not permitted, hence the odd start time.
We took a cab to the general area of the show, but the driver didn't know the exact location of the beer station. We got out and immediately saw a punk kid walking so decided to follow him, hoping he knew where he was going. He didn't. We walked a couple blocks until we spotted a larger group of punks heading in the opposite direction, so we turned and followed them to the venue.
The crowd was made up almost entirely of bands who would be taking the stage, there were 11 in total. There were a few expats in the crowd as well, mostly English teachers who were pretty excited, almost giddy about the show, as they were infrequent and hard to find.
Despite the image that the punk scene has to those on the outside, the atmosphere was unbelievably positive. There was a camaraderie that ran through the people, a sense of support that bonded the community. Music was something that brought them together and allowed them to express themselves in a country where self expression was looked down upon, if not outright dangerous. It was one of the most inspiring live events I've been to, and I left feeling elated.
We learned that the organizers all played in a couple of the bands that were performing. They owned their own printing shop and printed and designed t-shirts and merch for most of the bands in the scene themselves. They put on shows under bridges when they couldn't find a venue, and fought tooth and nail to promote the scene and help each other out.
They were involved with Food Not Bombs, and would regularly make and distribute free meals to the cities vulnerable, including the homeless, prostitutes, and those with debilitating illness. They explained that they would take the train out to some of the poorest villages around the city to buy vegetables, thus stimulating the village economy before bringing the food back and distributing it in Yangon. These guys not only promoted equality through their music, they backed it up with their actions in their daily lives.
I had no idea what to expect heading into the concert, but what I found there blew away any expectation I could have had. I had found a group of people who faced injustice at the hands of their government, and found a way to counter it through peaceful, positive means. They realized that despite their own disadvantages in regards to the rest of the world, there were people in their country who were worse off than them, and they had the power to help them.
I found a marginalized community, disenchanted with the current system in which they lived, that was brought together by something positive. They had expression, an outlet for their frustration, a community for support, and a sense of belonging. They had found a way to take a bad situation and make it a little better.
I haven't been to any punk shows since I've been back home, and I don't think I will in the foreseeable future. But if I had the chance to spend another afternoon at the Princess and Me Beer Station, listening to Burmese punk music for a few hours, I can think of few more inspiring communities to be a part of, and I would be there in a second.
What are some of your craziest travel experiences? How do you keep sane and balanced while you're on the road? What are your strategies for getting a fulfilling experience when you travel? Share your comments below.
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