A dirt path snakes discretely through the manicured farmland of Ywa Thit village in Myanmar. Barely a speck on Google Maps, this quaint village is home to exactly seventy-eight inhabitants.

ywathitmonasteryPerched at the end of the path, a teak monastery looms hauntingly over decayed wooden pilings. A spring breeze rustles nearby trees, carrying the earthy scent of damp wood. The monastery, with most of its shutters open, reveals a dark and quiet interior. The structure sits seemingly abandoned.

A lone figure appears from the dark void behind the window, revealing an elderly monk with flowing robes, a weathered face and tightly pursed lips. We take a step back, cynically anticipating a stern “Get off my lawn!” from such an imposing Mr. Wilson-like figure.

Instead, he smiles and motions. Come! Come!

Gestured inside, we’re greeted with a dimly lit and cavernous room enclosed by the same teak boards adorning the monastery exterior. Shards of sunlight, filtered by trees just outside, dance luminously across the floor.

Sitting cross-legged next to the monk, his robe folded neatly around his knees, he struggles in broken English, “Where you from?”

“We are from the United States. Near New York City. My name is Steve. This is my wife Joyce,” I enunciate slowly.

“Ah, yes. New York City. Big city! My name, Kon Da La. This is 120 year old Ywa Thit Monastery. I am head monk. You welcome here,” he warmly proclaims.

Kon Da La led the conversation, passionately walking us through the history of the monastery and once or twice stopping to smile and silently reflect on his role in the community.

Head monk, Kon Da La, of the 120 year old Ywa Thit Monastery

Head monk, Kon Da La, of the 120 year old Ywa Thit Monastery

Periodically, hard lines would return as the smile melted away from Kon Da La’s face. His gaze, fixated on some arbitrary point in space, signaled a deep complexity beneath the surface.

I wondered about this man’s past. What were his experiences in a country that had only recently emerged from military dictatorship, political repression and corruption? How did he fare in a society where monks, participating in an infamous peaceful protest known as the Saffron Revolution, were met with a brutal crackdown?

In the warmth of this monk’s home, I dared not intrude with any of this inquisitive darkness. Instead, Kon Da La steered the conversation into the unlikeliest of topics – his passion and love for old American muscle cars, a ubiquitous sight in Myanmar until the implementation of U.S. trade sanctions.

As Kon Da La described the beauty, flowing lines and guttural engine growl of the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, I couldn’t help but bask in the serendipity of our chance meeting. A random escape from our travel plans led to the most profound and transformative type of travel experience – a genuine personal connection.

Saying goodbye to Kon Da La.

Author notes:

The Ywa Thit monastery has a physical mailing address. I’ve mailed Kon Da La a package with the photos shown here in this blog post. While I’m sure he’ll like the photos, I’m certain he’ll love his new 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.


On the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalizes same-sex marriage across the country, the full weight of this ground-breaking decision was felt on the streets of New York City during the 2015 NYC Pride Parade. Well over 2 million people participated in this year’s festivities, making it the largest and one of the most celebratory crowds in the parade’s forty-year history.

Scenes from the 2015 NYC Pride Parade:

Coney Island’s 33rd annual Mermaid Parade, held this Saturday, featured tons of glitter, shells, colorful wigs, body paint, and a festive sea of individuality. Poor weather loomed over Coney Island for most of the day, but failed to dampen the spirits of countless lobster princesses, King Neptunes, Poseidons, mermaids, mer-men, and tens of thousands of other participants and spectators.

Tray Tables up was there to photograph the fun, festivities and wonderful costumes!

Note to Participants: If your photo is in the above album and you would like a high-resolution copy of your image (for free), please email Stephen May at: steve@traytablesup.com.  We’ll be happy to provide a download link for your image and any other images we may have taken of you during the parade.

Event Vitals:

Coney Island Mermaid Parade Website


How do you pick your travel destinations? This is the most frequent question we get, just behind, How much underwear do you pack?

Running a travel blog, we get our share of comments on lodging, destinations and food. However, there’s always an omnipresent buzz-kill of not just readers, but some friends and family, who ask: Why would you travel to that country? I would never EVER want to travel there because of ______!

It’s true. Many of the countries we’ve traveled to have turbulent pasts – countries that have been responsible for the genocide of millions, persecution of its own citizens, and others that have evicted hundreds of thousands of its own people in the name of religion. We’ve also traveled to countries that are politically, or even culturally, at odds with our own ideologies.

So, why do we do it? And, more importantly, why should you?

1. You’ll learn that a country’s citizens aren’t responsible for the past actions of their governments

The Japanese occupied Nanking, a Chinese city, during World War II and subjected its citizens to rape, pillaging and murder, accounting for more than 300,000 lost lives in a matter of a few weeks. The atrocities were so inhumanely mind-boggling that a loyal Nazi party member implored Adolf Hitler to encourage Japan’s government to put an end to the slaughter.

Being half-Chinese, this incident reverberated through several generations of my family. Somewhere along the way, I learned just how easy it is to allocate blame on those that are several generations removed. I have many wonderful Japanese folks as my closest friends that are no more culpable for The Rape of Nanking than I am for the brutal Indian Removal Act in the United States during 1830.

I could not imagine directing any degree of anger or hatred toward my Japanese friends or Japanese people in general. I also couldn’t imagine not advocating to anyone that Japan, with its rich culture, warm people, and amazing cuisine, is a country not worth visiting.

2. You’ll discover historical context and alternative points of view

Kayaköy was abandoned in 1923 as part of a population exchange with Greece.

Kayaköy, Turkey – abandoned since 1923 after the eviction of Greek Orthodox residents.

Just south of Fethiye in Turkey, dilapidated ruins echo a vibrant past in the abandoned ghost city, Kayaköy. Once a thriving Greek Orthodox village, its citizens were evicted by 1923 after the Greco-Turkish War as part of a larger brutal persecution against Christians and Ottoman Greeks. This was one of a few sad chapters in the history of the burgeoning Turkish republic and also an incident that was suggested to us a reason to avoid visiting Turkey.

In Turkey, we had the opportunity to chat with many local citizens. The general sentiment was one of critical regret toward Greek treatment and persecution. Many described the burden of shouldering this painful history. This experience helped us put the incident in context so we could see its impact on local culture and those who have inherited this history.

3. Opening your mind will expose you to unique experiences

Early one morning in March 2009, we were ushered into the packed Ajmer mosque at prayer time in Rajasthan, India. In an instant, a tsunami of sound, pungent smell, and commotion crashed over us. Once prayer commenced, chaos evolved into something purely magical. People were swept into trance-like states. Some quietly had tears streaming from their eyes, others sat with lips silently mouthing the words of prayer.

As an atheist (with a Christian-upbringing), this sudden placement into a mosque in the midst of prayer was the epitome of a fish-out-of-water moment. We were immersed into a raw, emotional and powerful sliver of time that wasn’t our own. It didn’t make a difference that we didn’t share the same religious belief or that we even agreed with the tenants of their religion. It was simply amazing to touch, see and feel human conviction and connection to faith in a different format. This was an experience we nearly missed since we almost opted out of the trip.

4. Otherwise, there would be so few countries left to visit

If you dig deep enough, every country has some tumultuous or negative component to its past. Heck, even Canada produced Justin Bieber in the 1990s!

Living in the United States, I don’t have to look very far back for the unpleasant aspects – whether it’s the persecution of Native Indians, slavery, or a whole slurry of other issues, these incidents are unfortunate, but part of the evolution of our nation and a permanently woven aspect of our historic fabric. It’s also something that we’ve (in all sincere hopefulness) learned from as a society.

I would be remiss to judge and dismiss entire cultures for actions echoing from their country’s past. Harboring this sentiment would eliminate just about every country and culture from our “want to visit” list. Similarly, it would be unfair for others to judge or dismiss my culture based on any aspect of my country’s historic evolution or even on my government’s current actions, some of which I am completely disagree with.

I also don’t mean to suggest that any egregious historic action by a country be forgotten. On the contrary, it’s imperative that we remain aware of the impact of our actions, whether as an individual or a society so that we never forget. Traveling with eyes wide open helps you do that.

Don’t set aside your preconceived notions. Instead, set out to explore them head on. I’ve found that we have a lot more in common than ever imagined with the many people we’ve met during our travels and I think you will, too.