When I first started traveling I quickly learned that it’s good to have a mentor. Someone to give you inspiration, who can push you a little further than you’d normally go, even if it’s someone you’ll never even meet. For me, that someone is Anthony Bourdain.
When Bourdain finally hangs up his fork, I want to be the one to pick up where he left off…no, scratch that–I want to be him now. But since a Freaky Friday swap is unlikely, I’ll settle with eagerly watching his adventures and doing my best to find my own moments of travel glory.
There’s something in the cadence of the man’s voice that lulls me into a sort of travel trance. When Bourdain narrates his shows he meanders from place to place, unhurried, on a slow search for something new. A lot of the time it’s food, but one of the great things about his style is that he always puts it into some sort of context.
Yes, his shows are about food, but also about people, cultures, history, poverty, crime–everything that contributes itself to local flavours is there. No Reservations was a fascinating series that I still enjoy watching no matter where he is.
Bourdain’s newest series is Parts Unknown, a look at the often ignored places where incredible dishes can be found. And it kicks off here in Asia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. For all its travellers and tourists, the largest continent in the world is remarkably unexplored by western eyes. For Myanmar, this is doubly true.
The nation has been sealed to the world for decades. Previously known as Burma, the nation has been under military rule since 1962. Life there has been hard. Much like North Korea, the government shut the nation away from the rest of the planet, jailing anyone who even whispered about freedom and perpetuating a litany of human rights abuses. 80 million people under the gun.
Bourdain speaks with many for whom the past carried with it a lot of time behind bars. Not murderers or terrorists, but ordinary citizens who spoke out against the government (or were even thought to have done so). And what’s most puzzling about his encounters with these citizens is their smile, their sense of humour. For people living under an oppressive regime, they’re remarkably optimistic about the future. Myanmar might be relaxing the rules for now, but there are no guarantees that the military won’t just suddenly decide to shut the doors to the world once again.
“It’s a very special moment when you arrive someplace, look around at a vista that is clearly, awe-inspiringly fantastic and realize: “Holy ****! Almost no one else has SEEN this!”
– Anthony Bourdain on Myanmar
I’m getting the idea that Asia is probably Bourdain’s favorite destination for food. The spicy, the savoury, the sweet–he’ll take it all. And I’d have to agree. A lot of this continent may be poor in many things, but culture and flavours put Asia on top of the world.
There’s a certain honesty to food here. While the vast majority of food we eat in the west is now processed and chemically preserved, in the more underdeveloped nations of Asia, particularly in the southeast, food is made from basic ingredients. Meat, often slaughtered in that very neighbourhood, vegetables pulled from the ground not so far away, spices made from exotic plants, and cooking methods that don’t involve microwave ovens. For many people food is all they have, and they make the most of it.
Romanticized? Perhaps. But when you’re eating in Asia it’s hard not to fall in love.
Parts Unknown airs Sundays at 9pm EST on CNN.
You can watch the full episode in Myanmar for free on CNN here.