All posts by krubin723

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 7: 30 Hours in Athens

Celebrating Greek Orthodox Easter, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Athens is a relatively easy Par 2 on the Global Scavenger Hunt, now midway through the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. We have just 30 hours here, but our visit will largely be shaped by the celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter (we seem to be hitting all the destinations on a religious holiday). We arrive on the Greek Orthodox Good Friday and one of the challenges is to experience the distinctive celebration. It’s hard to miss. Every church has a similar ritual. I walk down from the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we have arrived in the midday, to the Plaka, stopping to reflect on Hadrian’s Arch before I take the narrow street that leads me to the 11th century Byzantine church, where devotees are coming.

A glimpse of the Acropolis from the rooftop of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hadrian’s Arch, Athens© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is particularly interesting, since so far on the Global Scavenger Hunt we have been immersed in Buddhist culture, then Islamic. Athens is Christian, but it is also the birthplace of democracy and Western Civilization, as it is known, and the entranceway to Europe.

Temple of Zeus, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I feel very at ease, very comfortable here – partly because this is my third time in Athens and I have spent a relatively lot of time here, but also because it is, well, European, modern, hip, artful – even with its ongoing economic and political problems (though it seems to me the economy has much improved since my last visit).

Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I am waiting and watching, another of our GSH teams, Transformed Travel Goddesses (aptly named in Athens), comes up the street and we watch together. It turns out to be quite a long wait. I had been told that at 7 pm, the priest comes out and the faithful ring the church. The service is underway at 7 pm that we can hear from outside; the crowds really thicken but it isn’t until 9 pm that the priest comes out, leading a procession. People light candles and follow the procession of the cross and funerary flowers through the streets.

Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We join the crowd as they wind their way through the narrow streets below the Acropolis, and when we turn to a different direction, we meet the procession again. All the streets are flooded with similar processions – candles moving like ripples of water through the narrow streets. People jam the outdoor restaurants as well. We visit another small Byzantine church where the frescoes are absolutely stunning.

Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, Plaka, Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Procession through Plaka, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next day, I immerse myself in Athens (some of the scavenges lead teams out to the Peloponnese and the Theater of Epidaurus which I visited on a boat/bike tour some years ago, and to accomplish them in the brief timeframe, rent a car).I just want to soak in Athens. I have a list of four major places to visit, starting with the Acropolis, then the historic Agora, the flea market at Monasteraki (originally the Jewish quarter), and the National Archeological Museum.

Theater of Dionysos © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tourists at the Acropolis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Acropolis, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk from the Grand Hyatt to the Acropolis. I don’t have the luxury this time of organizing my visit for the end of the day when the sunlight is golden and the crowds are less, so fold myself into the crush of people, satisfied that so many appreciate history and heritage.

Tower of the Winds, also called Horologium or Greek Horologion (“Timepiece”), in the Roman Forum of Athens was erected about 100–50 BC by Andronicus of Cyrrhus for measuring time. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can see the historic Agora from the Acropolis that commands Athens’ hilltop, and I walk down the stone promenade.

The historic Agora is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites and museums anywhere and tremendously exciting to “discover” as you walk through the paths lined with colonnades, statues, and come upon the ruins. Here you see the ruins of what is in essence the “downtown” and Main Street of ancient Athens. The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a gathering place, also became a commercial center. Courts were held (though capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’ hands not pollute the public space).

Arrayed are the important institutions including what might be called the first “parliament,” the Bouleuterion, where those participating in the Assembly of the Five Hundred sat. I actually find it more intriguing and interesting to explore than the Acropolis. Here in this one site, is the essence of the Greek Republic that birthed democracy.

Walk down the boulevard lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either).

The homage Athenians paid to him is indicated by the decoration on his breastplate depicting the goddess Athena standing on a wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated. The Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500 representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first House of Parliament.

Temple of Hephaistos in the Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.” (I learned this on my previous trip, during a Context walking tour, which then led me to The Jewish Museum of Greece, where you learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens, Greece, info@jewishmuseum.gr, www.jewishmuseum.gr).

You should allocate at least an hour  or two at the Ancient Agora in order to have time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd C BC building that was restored in1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site.

Museum of the Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Museum of the Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Late Geometric pyxis and lid with handle in the form of three terracotta horses, 725-700 BC, Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Museum of the Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Artifacts on display show how citizens (a minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician accused of corruption. You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors (they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if selected, would receive a drachma pay), and the devices used to record their verdict. There is an intriguing collection of small cups that were used by prisoners sentenced to death to take hemlock, considered a more merciful end; one of these cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which makes me think he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already established in Athens).

Lottery machine, Museum of the Agora © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Combination tickets are available that provide access to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, Ancient Angora and several other important sites.)

National Archaeological Museum

Monasteraki, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk through the flea market at Monasteraki, which, interestingly like the market next to the synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar, was originally Athens’ Jewish Quarter, and through neighborhoods and shopping districts to reach the National Archaeological Museum. The museum (which closes early at 4 pm because of Easter Saturday, forcing me to rush through) has the most magnificent collection of gold from Mycenae; statues, bronzes. I also come upon a special exhibit examining the concept of “Beauty.”

Mask of Agamemnon, National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae in 1876 (which I learned from my last visit’s tour with a docent is actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for “marketing” purposes), and spectacular gold ornaments and funeral objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife.

Jockey, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are two of only five full-scale bronzes left in the world: one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon, it isn’t clear because the tool he would have held, a lightning bolt or a trident, has been lost) was saved because the boat sank that was carrying it to Rome to be melted down for weapons, and was found in 1926 by fisherman; the other is a magnificent bronze statue, 1000 years old, of an African boy on a racing horse made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art, that was saved by being shipwrecked – it is so graceful, so elegant, so charged with energy, it looks like it could run away.

There is also a vase with the first sentence (or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter, the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in Greek.).

An examination of “Beauty” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
An examination of “Beauty” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
An examination of “Beauty” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I stay in the museum until they literally kick me out, fascinated to read the descriptions, which I find enlightening and surprisingly current, with lessons for today in the interplay between trade, migration, innovation, science and social and political movements:

“In the 6th C BC, the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean and the Black Sea….The impressive dispersion of the Greeks and the founding of new Greek colonies and trading posts were the result of long processes of migration…

“The nature of the economy underwent a radical change as a result of the growth of trade. A new class of citizens emerged who were conscious of liberty and its potential and now demanded the right to play an active role in the running of public affairs. The 6th C BC saw the consolidation, after major social upheavals and political changes, of the distinct personality of the Greek city-state. Intense social disturbances set most of the cities on the road to democratic constitutions, making an important stop along the way at the institution of the tyranny.

“The liberty that was characteristic of the Greek way of life and which governed their thinking finds eloquent expression in their artistic creations…Works of art and artists moved freely along the trade routes. The wealth and power of the city-states were expressed in the erection of monumental, lavishly adorned temples and impressive public welfare works.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
National Archaeological Museum, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Greeks turned their attention to the natural world and to phenomena that gave rise to philosophical speculation, formulative ideas such as those of matter, the atom, force, space and time, and laying the foundations of science. Flourishing Ionia was the region in which philosophy and science first evolved. By the end of the century, the thriving Greek cities of Southern Italy and Sicily, known as Magna Graecia, were sharing in these astounding intellectual achievements. At the same time, the first prose works were written, taking the form of local histories or geographies containing an abundance of mythological elements and continuing the brilliant tradition of 7th century poetry.”

(Because of the Easter holiday, and our limited time, and the fact that I have visited twice before, I miss an otherwise not-to-be-missed Athens attraction, the New Acropolis Museum.)

The walk through Athens is fabulous, taking me through neighborhoods, and I get to see Athens’ gallery of street art, with its political and social tinge. Indeed, taking photos of at least five street art murals is one of the scavenges (you have to explain where you found them, 25 points).

Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street Art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street art, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking back through the Plaka, I bump into Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, Pamela and their son Luka – it turns out to be a team challenge to photograph them (whichever team sends in the photo first wins the points).

It’s been a challenge to “see” Athens in just 30-hours, let alone venture out to the Peloponnese. But our quick visits, one country, one culture, after the next, paints the rarest of pictures of our common humanity in our mind’s eye. We are becoming global citizens.

Chalmers helps us along with the design of his scavenges, and in each location, he provides language sampler (for Athens, he offers “I am sorry”, “what is your name,” “Can you speak more slowly,” as well as icebreakers to start conversations with a local, and questions to ponder.

Rooftop pool, Grand Hyatt, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk back to the hotel to meet several of us who are sharing a van to get back to the airport. Our deadline and meeting place is 8:30 pm at the airport.

Onward to Marrakech, Morocco.

Excellent visitor planning tools of Athens are at www.thisisathens.org. Also, the Athens Visitor Bureau offers a wonderful program that matches visitors with a local Athenian volunteer who goes beyond the traditional guidebook sights to take you to local neighborhoods, http://myathens.thisisathens.org/

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: In the Scramble to be Crowned ‘World’s Best Travelers’

Returning champions SLO Folks, Tom and Paula of California, hire a boat to complete the Global Scavenger Hunt challenges in Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is marvelous to listen to the other nine teams in the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day mystery tour around the world where we don’t know where we are going until we get the call to get to the airport – excitedly relate their separate adventures and experiences. This happens when we gather at airports (which the teams use as time to do peer-review of each other’s lists of scavenges completed and points won), on the bus to a hotel, at breakfast, or when we come together for the meetings where we get our booklets describing the challenges in a destination or find out where we are going next. Indeed, even though this is in a theoretical sense a contest, a competition, it is a friendly competition and people are helpful even though the rules prohibit actual collaboration.

Even those who have dropped out of the competition still pick up on organizer Bill Chalmers’ (the Chief Experience Officer and ringmaster) challenges because they invariably lead us to wondrous and fascinating things that we may not have considered, or some experience at a highlight that we might not have considered that prompts new perspective and understanding. And since the competition is intended to crown “World’s Best Travelers” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for logistics and handling the inevitable trials and tribulations of travel. That’s the sport.

Rainey & Zoe of Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, and Vivian and Sal of Team Order & Chaos, from California, do their peer review at the airport in Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, of Houston, has now done the Global Scavenger Hunt more than a dozen times and won it five times, in addition to being avid adventure travelers on their own. But they appreciate the difference in traveling this way – first as a mystery tour, so you have no ability to research or plan in advance what you will see or do at a destination; second, the challenges force you to experience things or see things from a different point of view and become immersed, even in an abbreviated way, in local culture and society; and third, the rules (such as not being able to use your cell phone or computer to research or book, not being allowed to book through the hotel’s concierge, not being allowed to hire a taxi driver for more than two trips) are aimed at making you “trust in strangers” and interact with local people.

Midway through our adventure, the Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise). Rainey explains that a lot is luck (for example timing), but I think it is more art and willingness to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an ability to plan so effectively you can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point scavenges, and simply amass points. The problem is, if you fail to achieve any of the “mandatory” challenges, you don’t get any points at all for that leg.

“It’s different than regular travel,” Rainey tells me. “Play the game. The sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot. It’s a brilliant way to see things… You decide how many to do, but you turn to look and find another.  How between trains you might have an hour, and get 3 scavenges done. It’s an experience to get it done. I feel pity for those who are just there – no points.”

Global Scavenger Hunt “Lazy Monday” team of Kathryn & Eric of California race to complete the scavenge challenge in Petra, Jordan. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Innocuous things bring a sense of accomplishment (like identifying local fish at the market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have been lucky this year,” he says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges in Jordan was to be at the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they had to get there from Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only to discover the Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them in: they paid the guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as proof at sunset. “We would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us in.”

At the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim, it was nighttime when they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of strangers, is a theme of the Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the required dip.

At Wadi Rum in Jordan, where they stayed in a tented camp, another mandatory was to be on a camel wearing headdress. But it was night and camel rides were no longer available. They found somebody to provide the camel and even let him put on his headdress. They then paid a guy with a pick up truck to bring them fro the tented camp to a taxi at 3:40 am to get to Petra by 6:15 am (when I met them). They completed the challenge of making it all the way through Petra, hiking up the Monastery Trail (about 8 miles altogether) by 9:15 am when they dashed off to Jerash (by 2:30 pm), accomplishing in three hours what it takes most 4-5 hours.

Sally Silverman of The Fillies team, at the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

They had to sit through an hour-long church service before the required element would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke a hooka, ate falafel at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra to Petra (Bill and Pam Chalmers’ daughter who couldn’t come on the trip), and for the “beastie” challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he tells me.

But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but Rainey did not (again, they had to be back in time for the 6 pm deadline). Rainey was 30 on the waitlist, when a man offered his place on the plane. “I had to run to an ATM down the street to get the cash to give him.” (Read Zoe’s blog: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com)

A few of the Global Scavenger Hunt teams gather for dinner in a local restaurant in Amman, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook in pursuit of The Holy Grail, which ended with a “leap of faith.” (If the trip sounds a lot like “The Amazing Race,” that is not coincidence – rumor has it that the reality TV show producers got the idea from the Global Scavenger Hunt.)

I think upon Chalmers’ pep talk during our 8-hour layover challenge in Bangkok:

You escape the airport albeit for a short time with only one rule…don’t miss your flight!
…you embrace this short window of opportunity
…you take a mini-excursion…explore a neighborhood…see something you’ve always wanted to see
…you stretch your legs in an exotic location
…you go out and see and do as much as possible
…you maximize your exposure to a new place, a new culture
…you engage with real human beings
…you have a good time
…take a whirlwind hit n’ run no-time-to-waste tour
…but the clock is ticking— you have to be time sensitive
…you won’t turn into a pumpkin—but you will miss your flight!
…so efficiency matters…you have to know when to walk away—it’s just not working out
…forget lines and mass tourism spots
…our layover challenges test their Travel IQ…their situational awareness…
…but they have to be careful, be smart
…remember the vagaries of local logistics
…and the airport boogaloo awaiting them: check-in, security, customs & immigration queues…
Remember: don’t miss your flight!

Indeed, Chalmers’ blog that follows our trip, which picks up on the highlighted experiences of all the 10 teams is thrilling and a tutorial in what it takes to be “World’s Greatest Traveler” – https://globalscavengerhunt.com/category/2016-event-blog/.

We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour and en route to Athens for a 30-hour challenge.

“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, says.

Catching Bill, Pamela and Luka in the Plaka, Athens (one of the on-the-go Global Scavenger Hunt team challenges) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chalmers created the Global Scavenger Hunt not just to promote the benefits of international travel to cultivate Global Citizens, and all the benefits of travel – from providing economic foundation to sustain places of history, heritage and culture that might otherwise be abandoned, provide jobs and improve the living standards for communities and societies, and promote an exchange of understanding and ideas just as Marco Polo did centuries ago, where we are also encouraged to engage in voluntourism projects along the way – but serves to support The Global Scavenger Hunt’s cause-related, charitable purposes. The annual event raises funds for GreatEscape Foundation’s twin goals: building co-ed elementary schools in low & middle income nations, and distributing interest-free no-fee micro-loans to budding global entrepreneurs (mostly mothers).

“Both our methods of helping others help themselves are designed to facilitate their great escape from the cycle of poverty—one person at a time! Happily, we have improved the lives of thousands: building a dozen schools, a mid-wife training facility, and funding thousands of mothers wanting to make a better life for their families,” Chalmers writes.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Ancient City of Petra is a Highlight of Global Scavenger Hunt in Jordan

Coming to The Treasury in Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the start of Leg 6 of the Global Scavenger Hunt in Amman, Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing are still in contention to win, so several of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for planning and booking, get help from the hotel concierge, and be generally unrestricted by the rules but still enthralled by the challenges of the scavenges.

But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that proves problematic requires the team to travel one way to or from Petra along the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take that route and the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.

We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Amman W, have our meeting and get our booklet with the scavenges, and a bunch of us (no longer competing) pack into a taxi to visit an ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD. We cross the street to a local restaurant, where we enjoy a meal of rotisserie chicken served with rice, and get a sense of this ancient city.

The artful, chic Amman W Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Whereas Abu Dhabi seemed unreal in many respects – a modern invention, manufactured even – Amman, the capital of Jordan, is very real and reflects its age as an early city. Jordan is where one of the largest Neolithic settlements (c. 6500 BC) ever discovered in the Middle East exists; Citadel Hill contains early Bronze Age tombs (3300-1200 BC). By the beginning of the Iron Age, Amman had become the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the Bible as Rabbath-Ammon (“rabbath” means capital, or “king’s quarters”). We can look out from the high floors of the hotel to the hillsides crammed with houses and imagine what it might have looked like.

The ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD, in Amman, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen various means to get there. I find myself on the 6:35 a.m. Jett Express Bus with three of the teams, including one that is in second place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Five others (including my teammate) hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and teenage son Luka are traveling separately. Each of us leaves at a different time by a different conveyance. But what a surprise! We all wind up at the same mid-way trading post at the same time. Hugs all around.

Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and then by hearing a New York Times Travel Show talk about “Petra at Night,” I decide to arrange my own overnight stay so I don’t have to rush back. I learn that the Petra at night is only offered twice weekly and am lucky enough to be there for a Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it within seconds.

The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5 p.m.

Rose-Red Ancient City of Petra

We travel 240 km south from Amman (120 km north of the Red Sea city of Aqaba – the trip through the countryside is interesting – the vast emptiness, the sand, flocks of animals. Wind turbines!

Wind farm, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Road to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus to accommodate all the passengers – arrives at the Petra bus station next door to the entrance to the archeological site at around 11 am.

I use our Jordan Pass (which Chalmers had obtained in advance, providing pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).

Musician, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, they don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point of coming at all?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, immersing myself in the scenes and the details, knowing I will return in the evening and the next day.

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view of the Church painting (and Indiana Jones movie) that comes into focus as you walk through the cavern (known as the Siq) with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then the teaser of The Treasury through the opening. It is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra is a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much was built during the Roman era (The Great Temple where Brown University is doing archaeology and the Colonnade).

Waking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance – it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury (an electric cart is available for those who have difficulty walking in addition to horse-carts).

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable. Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking place – you can take trails that bring you up to fantastic views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again (and one of the challenges on the scavenger hunt – in fact, visiting early and doing the hike is worth 500 points).

The iconic view of The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I decide to reserve that for the next day.

The city of Petra, aptly known as the Rose-Red City for the luscious color of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved, was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs, and is today one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

The Siq, the main road that leads to the city, starts from the Dam and ends at the Treasury. It is a rock canal 160 meters in length, 3 to 12 meters in width and reaches up to 80 meters in height. The main part of the Siq is created by natural rock formation and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

If you look carefully, you can see a channel carved from the rock to capture and even filter water – the secret to how Petra was sustained. At the start of the Siq the original Nabataean dams are visible, and these prevented flooding in the Siq and collected water for use.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then, through a narrow, curving break in the rock, you get your first teasing glimpse of The Treasury, just as Frederick Edwin Church painted it in 1874.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the website, www.visitpetra.jo, it is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices (stalls sell the spices).
Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD. The earthquake, combined with changes in trade routes (and politics), eventually led to the city’s downfall.

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The city was pretty much abandoned by the middle of the 7th century and lost to all except local Bedouins,” according to the website, www.visitpetra.jo. “But in 1812, Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt set out to rediscover Petra. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting visitors and continues to do so today.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded street and churches” the ruins of which we can explore.”

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I climb the path up to the Royal Tombs and go into cavernous rooms – I can’t tell if it is the rock’s own configuration or whether the surface has actually been painted or carved to expose swirls of different colors and textures, but they are exquisite.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city, human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra, where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge,” according to the website.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking back out through the Siq, you have to keep moving to the side to let pass the horse-drawn carriages which go through at quite a clip.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park closes at about 6 p.m. and reopens at 8 pm for the 8:30-10:30 night program (it is operated separately and privately from Petra). I still have to get my pack, which I have left with the fellow at the CV Currency Exchange, just before you enter ($5 tip) and get to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (0.7 mile), but turns out to be totally uphill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate since I don’t have very much local currency).

Soldier reenactors guard the entrance to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My el cheapo-supremo hotel (more of a hostel than a hotel), The Rose City Hotel, turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part is the name and the front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I think the fellow made a mistake and has brought me to a room under construction (or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that is falling apart, only a small bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that are too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night, I think, laughing to myself about my room at the five-star, ultra-hip, chic and luxurious W Hotel (which is like living in art, it is so creatively designed) I had left behind in Amman.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I head out just after 8 p.m., walking down the hill into the park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the mile-long stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how dramatic and wonderful. It turns out to be the best part of the evening.

Walking into Petra at Night, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After 45 minutes of walking (it is dark in the cavern), I arrive at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1,000 people sitting on carpets. I stuff myself into a place. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the event, but The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then garish neon-colored lights are projected against The Treasury, completely destroying the mood. And then it is over at 9:30 pm (not 10:30 p.m.). People start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so I leave, too. I hike back up the hill to the hotel getting lost so a fellow very nicely leads me to where I need to go. I fall asleep to the meowing of feral cats just outside the window.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Early Morning Solitude at Petra

My overnight adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to return to the archaeological park as early as 6 a.m. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. I take my pack with me and find a nice man at one of the refreshment stalls at the bus station who offers to hold it for me for the day.

When I arrive at Petra, who should I come upon at 6:14 a.m. but the Lawyers Without Borders team! What are the odds! (Literally on the run, so not to lose time, Zoe tells me of their amazing adventure in a tented camp about two hours away where they could get their scavenger points being photographed on a camel, so they were up at 4 a.m. and had to organize a taxi to get here by 6 a.m.). Rainey and Zoe have to literally race through Petra and do the strenuous hike up to the Monastery in order to earn their 500 Global Scavenger Hunt points.


The Global Scavenger Hunt “Lazy Monday” team of Kathryn & Eric of California race to complete the scavenge challenge in Petra. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I could be more leisurely because I am not trying to earn points. Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points. There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of people stopping and posing for selfies. And once inside, there is perfect peace also at The Treasury – the camels perfectly positioned to re-create the 19th century paintings of the scene.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As soon as you arrive, though, you are swooped upon by a legion of guides. One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100 percent and hope I will be able to hike the Monastery Trail if I take it slow.

Nabataean and Roman ruins at Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A word about the guides – they try to convince you that they will take you places you can’t go yourself, which is highly dubious– but though I don’t hire any, what I observe is that they are very knowledgeable, very considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provide the camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work very hard (the animals work even harder). Later, though, I see guides leading people up the Monastery Trail that spend their time on their cell phone coordinating their next gig.

Souvenir Stand improbably set on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize that Petra was a trading center, a stop along the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have looked like even then. And I am sure the experience was the same for the early European tourists 150 years ago, guides, merchants, donkeys, camels and all.

Hiking up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk through the park again, this time to hike the Monastery Trail at the other end of the park. I get some scouting information from people coming down and begin the steep ascent up stone steps. It is a very interesting hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors and the views back down, but because of the market stalls and refreshment stands set up along the way. (You can also take a donkey up, which means that hikers have to keep moving aside for the donkeys). I wish I had my hiking sticks with me (the hike reminds me of the Bright Angel trail up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon) – a fellow from Spain hiking with his mother, offers a hand when I trip (then we take a wrong turn and find ourselves scrambling over boulders, instead of climbing the stairs).

New friends from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding a donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger than The Treasury – one of the largest structures carved out of a rock face (if I have that right). The hike is absolutely worth it and feels so satisfying when you make it to the top. There is a lovely rest stop at the top (as well as stalls improbably situated along the way and a refreshment stand picturesquely set about two-thirds up the trail with a stunning view).

The Monastery, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Refreshment stand on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive at the W Hotel after the 8 p.m. deadline for the Global Scavenger Hunt teams but have informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 p.m., and I won’t miss a flight to our next destination, will I?)

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the entrance to the Monastery Trail, a veritable oasis, where I sit outside under trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I have had in the early morning when I had Petra to myself when I see coming at me some 2,000 passengers off the MSC ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC ship, and hundreds more off a Celebrity cruise that look like an invading army. Each group is led by a guide holding high a numbered sign (I spot the number 50) for their group.

The new Petra Museum, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate price).

Some of the artifacts on display at the new Petra Museum, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum, sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – with some 250 artifacts and displays that explain extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering and the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts including art as well as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and informative.

Petra was designated a World Heritage Site on Dec. 6, 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named Petra one of the 28 places you should visit them before you die.

(More visitor information from Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, www.visitpetra.jo)

I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the three-hour trip back.

More information on visiting Jordan at the Jordan Tourist Board, http://in.visitjordan.com/.

By the time I get back to Amman, I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt and departure time. My teammate texts the answer: Athens.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
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Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 5: Discovering Abu Dhabi

View of the Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Abu Dhabi is one of those places where the impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At least for me. Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt is yet another instance of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself, and undoing stereotypes and caricatures.

Yes, Abu Dhabi is about conspicuous ostentation. That part of the pre-conception seems validated.

But what I appreciate now is how an entire nation state was built relatively recently out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first awareness comes visiting Fort Hassan, the original defensive fort and government building, and later the sheik’s residence built around (it reminds me of the White House, which is both the home of the head of government and government office). Fort Hassan has been restored (not rebuilt) and only opened to the public in December 2018. It provides the history of Abu Dhabi (https://qasralhosn.ae)

Qasr al Hosn, as it is properly called, is the oldest and most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It consists of two major buildings: the Inner Fort (originally constructed in 1795) and the Outer Palace (1939-45). Over the centuries, it has been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.

Transformed into a museum in 2018 after more than 11 years of intensive conservation and restoration work, Qasr Al Hosn is a national monument that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to a modern, global metropolis, with displays of artifacts and archival materials dating back to as far as 6000 BC.

Fort Hassan, recently opened after restoration, tells the history of Abu Dhabi, ringed by modern skyscrapers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You see photos of how the fort/palace looked in 1904, with nothing but desert and a couple of palm trees around it. Today, it is ringed (yet not overwhelmed) by a plethora of skyscrapers, each seeming to rival the next for most creative, most gravity-defying, most odd and artful shape. It is like a gallery of skyscrapers (New York City Museum of Skyscrapers take note: there should be an exhibit) – for both their art and engineering. I note though that as modern as these structures are, they basically pick up and mimic some of the pattern in the old fort. And the building boom just seems to be going on.

And then you consider this: it’s all built on sand (and oil). “In 500 years from now, will these be here?” Bill Chalmers, the organizer of the Global Scavenger Hunt for the past 15 years, remarks. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th century despite earthquakes and world events, and Yangon, where we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda that dates back 2,500 years.

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is also a Hall of Artisans which begins with an excellent video showing how the crafts reflected the materials that were at hand (eventually also obtained through trade) and then you see women demonstrating the various crafts, like weaving. (Indoors, with very comfortable air-conditioning and facilities.)

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, I walk to a “souk” at the World Trade Center that had stalls of some traditional items – wonderful spices for example – but in a modern (air-conditioned comfort!) setting, and directly across the street from a major modern mall promising some 270 different brand shops. Souks are aplenty here.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My walk lets me revel in the skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Falcon Hospital

I find myself dashing to get to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where I had pre-booked the 2 pm tour. I didn’t realize how far it is from downtown – a 35-minute drive. The taxi driver, who I learn was recruited to come work in Abu Dhabi from his home in Ghana along with many other young men, and lives in an apartment building with other migrant workers, has to stop for gas and I worry I will miss the tour altogether.

Prized falcons wait patiently for their appointment at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit to the Falcon Hospital is truly a highlight of a visit to Abu Dhabi. It is fascinating to learn how these prized birds are handled. We are taken into the treatment area, surprised to see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room for their “appointment”. Their owners drop them off for the day for whatever checkup or healthcare they require; others stay in the falcon hospital (the biggest in Abu Dhabi and one of the biggest in the world), for months during their moulting season, when, as wild falcons, they would otherwise live in the mountains for six months. They are provided the perfect cool temperatures they would have in that habitat, before coming to the desert in spring to hunt, and later to breed.

A doctor anesthetizes a falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get to watch a falcon being anesthesized – they quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws into the gloved hand holding him, and his face is quickly stuffed into the mask and put to sleep. His claws, which normally would be shaved down in the wild, become dangerously overgrown in captivity; the falcon doctor also shows how they can replace a feather that has become damaged, possibly impeding the bird’s ability to fly or hunt (they can carry prey four times their weight). The feather has to be an exact match, which they match from the collection of feathers from previous moultings. Then we get to hold a falcon. Not surprisingly this is one of the scavenges on the Global Scavenger Hunt (worth 35 points in the contest to be named “World’s Greatest Traveler”).


A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the first public institution in the United Arab Emirates providing comprehensive veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. It was established by the Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and opened in October 1999. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become the largest falcon hospital in the United Arab Emirates and in the world, caring for 11,000 falcons a year and more than 110,000 patients since its opening.

A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From being established as a purely veterinary facility, the ADFH has expanded in the fields of education and awareness, training and research. Due to the huge demand the falcon hospital has became a full-fledged specialized avian hospital for all kinds of birds and poultry species in 2006. In 2007, it added services for a wide variety of VIP pets and in 2010 opened an animal shelter. In 2011, it began its own falcon breeding program and breeds Saker falcons for the H.H. The Late Shk Zayed Falcon Release Program.

In 2007, ADFH opened its doors to what has become an award-winning tourism program and has become the most important tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi – for good reason.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become one of the most visited attractions in Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a thrilling and unique experience. I meet a woman from Switzerland who is engaged in a four-week internship at the falcon hospital, learning how to handle and care for the falcons – information she will bring back as a high school teacher. She tells me the falcons are very kind and gentle and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – these prized falcons, which can cost up to $1 million, can fly on an airplane in the first class cabin with their owner (they have to have their own passport to prevent illegal trafficking), have their own seat and their own menu (fresh killed meat).

The Grand Mosque

Next I go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – an experience that is not to be believed. If you thought the Taj Mahal was magnificent, a wonder of the world, the Grand Mosque which was built in 1999 and uses some of the same architectural and decorative design concepts, vastly surpasses it, in architectural scale and in artistic detail. Not to mention the Taj Mahal is basically a mausoleum, while the Grand Mosque is a religious center that can accommodate 7800 worshippers in its main sanctuary, 31,000 in the courtyard and altogether up to 51,000 worshippers for such high holy days as Ramadan. At more than 55,000 sq. meters it is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. And every cubic meter of it spectacularly decorated – the courtyard is one of the largest mosaics in the world.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I time the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm in order to be there at dusk and sunset – and go first to what is labeled “the Visitors Happiness Desk” – how could I resist? The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who are natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) are extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who should come down the escalator but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small world!), so we visit together.

Your visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi starts at the Visitors Happiness Desk© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The experience of visiting is surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (especially after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar where even when the stones are hot enough to fry an egg, you have to walk completely barefoot). Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free). (I look like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

Indeed, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque “aims to cultivate interaction between Islam and world cultures… Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the Grand Mosque was to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity by creating a haven that is truly diverse and inspirational in its foundation. The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and drew design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries, to create this glistening architectural marvel accommodating 40,000 worshippers and visitors at a time. 

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The open-door policy invites tourists and celebrants from all around the world who can witness the spectacular onion-top domes, the reflective pools that engulf the courtyard and the iconic prayer hall, which not only overflows with blissful sunlight, but also houses the world’s biggest chandelier and carpet, both meticulously handmade. Be sure to spot the calligraphy encircling the hollows of the domes, etched with verses from the Quran and painted with gold leaves in An-Naskh lettering.”

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When you arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you walk underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (an electric cart is available for those who can’t walk distances; it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).

Definitely take the public tour of The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The public tour (an absolute must) is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. (Fortunately, Margo manages to get us on the last public tour of the day which had already left, getting the guard to let us slip under a barrier.) Our guide is a delightful young woman who cheerily walks us through and points out the amazing art and details. The mosque is massively large in scale, but looks remarkably delicate.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just as we leave a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that make the structures even more beautiful, if that were possible. By the time we get outside, the lights have come on (www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/Home ).

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at dusk © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I ask the Happiness guys where to go for the best view of the Grand Mosque after dark, and, instead of the adjacent hotel where I had first been directed, they point us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view is spectacular.

View of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Global Scavenger Hunt Challenges

We had arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time the night before, after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flying an hour to Bangkok where we had an eight-hour layover challenge (I only managed to do a water taxi on the canal and explore the Golden Mountain and some buildings and watched preparations for the King’s coronation (I later heard it was for a parade that day). Then flew six hours to Abu Dhabi where we gained 3 hours (that is how we make up the day we lost crossing the International Dateline and why it is so hard to keep track of what day or time it is), so for us, midnight was 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt tells us this was the most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline trip).

We have had a full day in Abu Dhabi to do our scavenges. Tonight’s scavenger hunt deadline is 10 pm, when we will learn where our next destination will be on the 23-day day mystery tour. Only five of the original nine teams are still in contention to win the title, “World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next year).

The scavenges are designed to give us travel experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to people and immerse us in cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in their home. “It is always a good thing to be invited for dinner with a family in their home. If you are, and you do – please do bring something nice for them, be patient and be gracious. Of course, we want proof.”

Another is to “hold an informal majlis with actual locals (people actually from UAE and not at any hotel) over an Arabica coffee; talk about a few things like the future of Abu Dhabi, oil, tourism, arranged marriages, Western values, etc.” That would earn 35 points.

View of the Presidential Palace at night, from the roof of the St. Regis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other possibilities: ride “the world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks and returning champions, did that and said it felt like 4G force); walk the Emirates Palace from end to end and have a “golden cappuccino” (they literally put gold flakes in the cappuccino, this is Abu Dhabi after all) for 35 points; take in the grandeur of the Presidential Palace, only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan, a building within the compound dubbed “’Palace of the Nation” (complete with huge white domes, lush gardens and dramatic chandeliers, the new landmark is intended to give visitors a stronger understanding of the UAE’s governing traditions and values. There is also a spectacular nightly show.)  (50 points).

Many of the scavenges (including mandatory ones) have to do with local food, because foods and food preparations are so connected to heritage, culture and environment and bring people together. One of the scavenges here is to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).

Unfortunately, an attraction we all wanted to visit, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was closed. The museum, which opened in November 2017, is a collaboration with the famous Louvre of Paris, France, and intended to be a “universal museum in the Arab World,” focusing on “what unites us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures or civilizations, times or places.”

The pioneering cultural project combines “the UAE’s bold vision of cultural progression and openness with France’s expertise in the world of art and museums.” The museum was expected to exhibit Leonard Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, considered the most expensive painting in the world (purchased for $450 million at auction in November 2017, believed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sulman), but delayed the exhibition. (www.louvreabudhabi.ae)

A lasting impression that I will carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi is that its theme this year is “Year of Tolerance” which also goes to what we have experienced here: attractions and programs intended to promote understanding of Islamic history, heritage and culture.

Our accommodation in Abu Dhabi is the five-star St. Regis (just about all the accommodations arranged for the Global Scavenger Hunt are five-star), which serves the most extravagant breakfast. Purposefully, our ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, has arranged it so we will have two, lavish breakfasts here, much to our collective delight.

Grand lobby of the St. Regis Abu Dhabi hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel has a stunning rooftop pool and bar (what a view!) and is connected by a tunnel under the busy boulevard to the beach on the Persian Gulf.

We gather together at 10 pm in the lavish lobby of the St. Regis, excitedly trade stories about our travel adventures during the day. Inevitably, I am jealous of the things I didn’t do, couldn’t fit in to do – like visiting the Fish Market, the Iranian Souk, the Presidential Palace! (can’t believe I missed that), built for the tidy sum of $5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30 pm).

And then we learn where we are going next: Jordan!

More information on visiting Abu Dhabi at https://visitabudhabi.ae/en/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt 8-Hour Layover Challenge in Bangkok, Thailand

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the organizer for the past 15 years and inventor of the Global Scavenger Hunt, “a blind date with the world,” notes the rare backtracking to Bangkok from Myanmar. “Oddly, we had to fly slightly east to further our westward global trajectory…Myanmar is still hard to get into and out of with limited connections to mostly its regional neighbors…especially Bangkok and Singapore. Today we chose Bangkok as a more interesting layover in our exit strategy. Thus we a have fun 8-Hour Layover Challenge…but I am getting ahead of myself.”

We scurry about the Bangkok airport, finding a place to check our luggage for the precious few hours, finding an information counter with a map and information about how to get downtown (we discover a rail link into the city).

Besides figuring out the logistics of Bangkok without any prior preparation (because that is the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt, an around-the-world mystery tour to determine “World’s Best Travelers”), our visit is complicated by preparations for the coronation of the new King.

Also, my teammate Margo has her own scavenger hunt going: she is trying to find chips from Harley Davidson Motorcycle dealers in every place we go. Her hunt brings us to one of Bangkok’s major urban shopping malls – every luxury and brand name in the world is represented. Harley is on a floor with Jaguar and other luxury cars. It is an amazing opportunity to view local life of Bangkok on a Sunday. (The movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” immediately flashes in my mind.)

Harley Davidson shop in high-end mall in Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Food court at the shopping mall, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo goes off to do sightseeing by the Hop On/Off Bus; I am determined to take a water taxi. But I learn that the city has already closed off river access to the major attractions and sites that are along the river, including the Palace, and there is, in fact, a giant security cordon from the Grand Palace (later I learn that the Palace was open to visitors earlier and we just missed it).  But the water taxi along the canal is still operating.

Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go walking (in the intense heat) toward where I can pick up the water taxi. The time is ticking away and I have to calculate the amount of time to get back to the airport in time for our flight to Abu Dhabi. I pass interesting places, like the “Anti-Money Laundering Office”.

Anti-Money Laundering Office, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

It is fun to ride the water taxi and I take it to a place close to the Grand Palace where there is an important temple, the Golden Mount (Wat Saket). A very nice fellow coming off the water taxi points me in a direction to the Democracy Monument. I learn that it was commissioned in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d’etat which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom of Siam. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram saw the monument as the center of a new Westernized Bangkok, akin to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I see literally thousands of police, military, and what appear to be volunteers in colored shirts, the streets decorated for a parade (the administration building is nearby)– but no people on the streets waiting for a parade. The coronation is taking place in just a couple of weeks time. I assume that they are doing a rehearsal.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Mount (Wat Saket), Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I contemplate hiring a little jitney taxi to take me close to the Grand Palace, but looking at the time and calculating how long it would take to backtrack to the airport, I just head back to the water taxi, walk through a broad shopping boulevard (big portraits of the King and Queen), to the train to the airport.

This moment in history, in fact, becomes the theme for my Bangkok visit.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of it, though I did not get to see the Top Attractions of Bangkok, I fulfilled the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt: I immersed myself in the everyday rhythm of this place and these people, exotic no longer.

(For more travel information, visit https://na.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Bangkok.)

We are off to Abu Dhabi!

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: Back in Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final day on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, in which we set out from Yangon to travel about the country, making a triangle that takes me to Bagan and Inle Lake and back to Yangon to fulfill the Par 5 challenge on this a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

The 45-minute taxi ride from the delightful, five-star Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle Lake is wonderful – I catch people driving oxcarts and donkey carts and people riding the backs of trucks, villages and pagodas. But I have some trepidation about Heho Airport because of the snafu in booking my ticket, resolved long-distance by text to my son in New York to phone the online booking agent, as I bounced around on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. But I arrive, am checked in to Golden Airlines without incident, and relax during the 45-minute flight back to Yangon.

The morning flight gives me time to explore Yangon which I didn’t have when we first arrived on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt from Vietnam, and were given our challenges, to travel around Myanmar and return to the Sule Sangri-la Hotel by the 6 pm deadline.

Leaving the airport, I attempt to take the public bus back into downtown, but after two buses pass me by, I take a taxi instead.

Riding back, I review a brochure I picked up at the airport which mentions a synagogue in Yangon – in fact, the last synagogue in Myanmar. So I resolve to find it.

It turns out it is only a 15-minute walk from our hotel, the Sule Sangri-la, bringing me through various bustling market streets and shopping districts. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue itself is set on a busy market street where there are chickens and fish for sale – the chickens clucking, the fish squirming to get out of their container (I see one jump out of its container), the rich scent of spices, and every other manner of item you can imagine.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar’s last synaoguge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By the time I arrive at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, it is 1:40 pm – which proves extremely lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday). Inside, it is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. At one point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the mass migration of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for generations, a plaque notes.

One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I am surprised to see all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I come upon a seller of interesting post cards, and find the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel is to send home postcards, which not only have stamps, but mark the date and give some visual and personal notes). Also, I have been impressed by the absolute lack of political messaging in the streets, but here in the market is one art seller who has images of Myanmar’s most famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wondering about the name, I later learn that Bogyoke Aung San market is named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San.

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, is named for Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon, Myanmar’s major marketplace since 1926 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A likeness of Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi for sale at Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwedagon Pagoda

I walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away, to refresh (it is 104 degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which I have been saving for the late afternoon (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt is to visit at dawn or dusk), so that I will be there at dusk (but back at the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges), but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of seeing it.

Just as I am about to leave, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to Inle Lake, walks in. She relates that after a snafu with her airline ticket, she had to hire a taxi to drive her back to Yangon (ironic because I couldn’t get the airline to cancel my ticket when I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures). We go off together to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located west of the Royal Lake, on the vast, 114 -acre Singuttara Hill.

Margo cleverly hires a guide to show us around this vast, vast complex and it is fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, he tells us.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking.  © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. It is breathtaking.

Workman restore the gold to the Shwedagon Pagoda’s dome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

The Shwedagon Pagoda stands 326 feet high, its dome covered in 60 tons of gold (we watch  workmen on scaffolding replacing some of the gold plates). At the very top, too small to be appreciated from where we stand at the base, is an orb, 22 inches high and 11-inches wide, encrusted with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. The base is surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side. There also are four sphinxes, one at each corner, with six leogryphs (a lion-like creature). Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda. are Tazaungs (shrines) in which are images of the Buddha and where offerings are made.

There are also figures of elephants crouching and men kneeling and pedestals for offerings all around the base. In front of the 72 shrines surrounding the base of the Pagoda, there are images of lions, serpents, ogres, yogis, spirits, or Wathundari. Among the most dazzling art is a Jade Buddha. There are also mystical and mysterious places, like the well where Buddha’s sacred hair was washed and Buddha’s foot print.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

Representing the highest achievements of Myanmar’s sculpture, architecture and art, there are hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues spanning nearly 2500 years. It is known as Shwedagon, “the Sanctuary of the Four,” because it contains relics of four Buddhas who had attained Enlightenment.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

We move among the bustling activity of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers, worshiping, and meditating. 

Most interesting is coming upon a procession of families celebrating the induction of two young boys into the monastery.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

(The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived in Yangon – was it just four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of magnificent.)

(See more information on visiting Schwedagon Pagoda, www.shwedagonpagoda.com).  

You could easily spend hours here, but we must dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group, arriving a few minutes past the 6 pm deadline (we aren’t competing to win the challenge to be the “World’s Best Travelers,” so we did not have to turn in our scorecards documenting our scavenges, though, in fact, we have been doing as many as we can.

At a hosted dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all of us trade our stories of adventure and exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. One of the scavenges invited the teams to take part in a volunteering opportunity and Lawyers Without Borders, the team from Houston, volunteered at a Youth Development monastery in Yangon.  “The monks take in, house, feed and educate orphans from far-flung and remote villages around the country,” Zoe Littlepage writes on her blog (http://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com). “My favorite part was eating lunch with the kids. They sing their prayers before they can start eating.. magical.” (Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Houston, are on their 12th Global Scavenger Hunt, and are five-time champions, and their law firm helps support the philanthropic works of the Global Scavenger Hunt Foundation.)

We return to the hotel to get our four-hour notice and learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next: an eight-hour layover challenge in Bangkok and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.

We are out the door at 5:15 am (the hotel sends us off with breakfast boxes), to get to the airport.

It is worth noting that in addition to having a unique alphabet and language, Myanmar (formerly Burma) asserts its identity by keeping its clocks half-hour different from its timezone.

I realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed ordering our day, a concept rather than an invention. We lost a full day crossing the timezone during that first flight of more than 14 hours, and have been picking up an hour or so here as we go.

Global Scavenger Hunt teams Lawyers Without Borders (from Houston) and Order & Chaos (doctors from California) do their peer review at the airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of this Par 5, Leg 3 dash through Myanmar, SLO Folks, a team from central California who are the returning champions from last year’s Global Scavenger Hunt, earned the second most points with 37 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan and the point rich area of Inle Lake for 2,055 points; and Lawyers Without Border, a team from Houston on their 12th Hunt (they have won it five times) had the most, completing 52 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan & Inle Lake earning 2,745 points.

More Myanmar travel information is at http://myanmartravelinformation.com/top-destinations/yangon.html.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3 Continues: The Enchantment of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, begins the night before, on the JJ Express bus that leaves the temple city of Bagan at 10 pm and arrives at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am. It is complete darkness, not a sound or stirring besides ourselves as the bus pulls away, leaving us there. For a moment, we feel stranded. Then, out of the shadows, two tiny jitneys – like small tut-tut open-back vehicles – appear. The drivers ask which hotels we are bound for so we divide up based on which side of Inle Lake we are staying. We settle the fare (we are in a very limited position to negotiate) and climb in.

The jitney drops us at the Sanctum Inle Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk calls in housekeeping early so we could get into our rooms by 6 am (when 2 pm would have been normal check-in time). This five-star resort makes me feel like I have been dropped into paradise.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am traveling on my own at this point, though at least one other of the 10 teams, SLO Folks, on the Global Scavenger Hunt are here  – my teammate went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. SLO Folks (last year’s “World’s Greatest Travelers” GSH champion) has been scrupulous about following rules of the contest (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or to get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so they arrive in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points in the limited amount of time.

Indeed, this challenge, Leg 3 of our trip, is to depart Yangon (the city formerly known as Rangoon when the former British colony was known as Burma) and complete a triangle of cities (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake), allowing only two legs by air and return to Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday, making our own arrangements for transportation and hotel (we are reimbursed $200/night/team). I had planned to go from Bagan to Mandalay with my teammate, but after hearing about Inle Lake from another team (Lawyers Without Borders, a Houston team that has done the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times) who had been here before, I was enchanted to see it; then, overhearing SLO Folks planning to take the overnight bus, I was determined to see it for myself.

The description enchanted me: Located in the middle of Myanmar, in the Shan State, Inle Lake is set in a valley between two mountain ranges, with whole villages of wooden houses built on stilts in the middle of the lake, floating gardens, boatmen who steer standing up, wrapping one leg around a tall oar. There are 10 different Shan ethnic groups living around the lake and the surrounding hills, home to many different minorities who come down to sell their goods in the villages – like the Long Neck Ladies. Inle Lake was designated a wetland wildlife sanctuary in 1985.

Inle Lake feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar, indeed, it seems like an enchanted Sangri-la.

The Sanctum Hotel (Maing Thauk Village, Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar) is on the list of suggested accommodations provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com ($101 for the night). I am delighted to find it is an absolutely gorgeous five-star luxury resort (the infinity pool on the grounds with views to the lake is breathtaking), and just being here fills me with a contented peace.  But that is only the beginning.

The kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of the hotel’s 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor as well as the boatman’s long oar) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating gardens which are really aquatic farms; floating markets; the fishermen fish in a distinctive fashion with nets and the boatmen paddle standing up, with their leg wrapped around the tall oar. The temples and other major attractions – silversmiths, weavers, boatmakers – are all reached by the boat.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The full-day tour will take me to the Five Day Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inn Paw Khone Village, Ywa Ma Village, Nam Pan Village (where we visit workshops to see crafts – silversmithing, weaving, boatmaking), Floating Gardens, Nge’ Phe’ Chaung Monastery and Indein Pagoda – essentially enabling me to see all Inle Lake’s highlights in a one-day visit ($35), though there is so much to see, Inle Lake is worth a two or three day stay.

The Sanctum Inle Resort is situated on the bank of Inle lake – a shallow lake that’s over 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide – and to begin the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the competing team cannot, so they go off to find where the boatmen keep their boats), I am escorted down to the hotel’s dock where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so this is essentially a private tour. The boatman, a young fellow named Wei Mo, speaks only limited English – enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient, I just don’t expect to get any commentary.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake, the fresh air and cool breeze rushing over me, especially after the debilitating 108-degree heat of Bagan. Inle Lake is notable for the Intha, lake dwellers who have a distinctive way rowing their wooden boats by wrapping their leg around a tall oar. At first, the mechanics make no sense. But I realize it is a way of standing and using such a tall oar and keeping the weight balanced on the tiny boats.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the course of the boat tour, I encounter a young fellow fishing (though you have to get out pretty much at sunrise to see the fishermen), boat people harvesting from the lake, go through an entire village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit. One stop provides an opportunity to visit with the Long-Neck Ladies (actually only one), who come down from their secluded village to pose for photos with tourists for money. We also visit important pagodas and temples on the lake.

Long Neck Lady, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is remarkable to see how the Inthar make the most out of the lake – even creating farmland where none existed. They build floating gardens out of lake-bottom weeds and water hyacinth and grow crops like squash and tomatoes, anchoring them with bamboo poles. I learn that these floating islands can be cut, dragged by boats and even sold like a plot of land. Floating gardens can be found mostly in Kaylar, Inchan and Zayatgyi villages.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love visiting the various workshops in the various villages – it seems each has a specialty. We visit a silversmith workshop where I watch the intricate process before being led into (what else) an elaborate shop, filled with stunning creations.

Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wei pulls up to Inn Paw Khone Village, famous for its weaving workshops, but most notably, weaving silk from lotus. Silk weaving in Inn Paw Khon began 100 years ago. At first, they wove from cotton fiber and then changed to silk and finally lotus fiber. and I am told that the technique of making silk from lotus was begun by a woman now more than a century old.  I get to watch how a woman delicately pulls a strand from the lotus plant which is wound on a spindle into thread.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the boatmakers, I learn how each one is designed differently for their purpose – a family boat, a fishing boat (7.8 meters), a boat designed for the Long Neck people. “A boat lasts 25 years. Only men make the boats, they need to be strong. It takes 20 days to make a boat; they make lacquer from a tree to paint, wood powder and cotton. It takes two people to cut the teakwood,” she tells me. There are absolutely stunning wood carvings to purchase. But I must travel light.

We stop in several of the region’s most important pagodas.

Shwe Indein Pagoda Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwe Indein Pagoda is the most impressive of the attractions visited. You walk up a covered walkway lined with beautifully painted columns, up a hill, flanked by an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas, some of stone, some intricately carved, some gilded. Many have been restored but you also see many crumbling with age and being reclaimed by the jungle.  (There is a camera fee, 500 kyat, which works out to about 30 cents).

Shwe Indein Pagoda on Inle Lake, has an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to atlasobscurba.com, “These structures date from the 14th to the 18th centuries and are typical of Burmese zedi. Like others found across the region, the stupas feature fantastical creatures like chinthe – mythic lion-like beings that protect sacred spaces. These were (and remain) sites for contemplation and meditation and many contain relics inside their bases. The first stupas at Indein were likely commissioned during the reign of King Narapatisithu, although according to legend, it was King Ashoka – the Indian emperor responsible for spreading Buddhism across much of Asia – who first designated this as a site of particular spiritual importance. Hundreds of years later, that distinction is completely obvious. The sea of ornate spires coupled with the view over the lake and surrounding calm lend this spot an unquestionably mystic, reflective air.” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/shwe-indein-pagoda) It is breathtaking to see. Inside, people are gathering for a communal feast.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, just crammed with boats and worshippers. The pagoda houses five small Buddha images which are much revered by the lake-dwellers. Once a year, in late September-early October, there is a pagoda festival when four of the five Buddha images are taken on an elaborately decorated barge towed by several boats of leg-rowers, rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water.

Ngaphechaung Monastery, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ngaphechaung Monastery is a beautiful wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s, the biggest and oldest monastery on the lake. The monastery is known for a collection of old Myanmar’s Buddha images from different eras.  It is also notable because the monks have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops (that is the reputation, but I don’t get to see any cats).

I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.

Sanctum Inle Resort’s infinity pool, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I indulge in Sanctum Inle Resort’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools in the world – an infinity pool of black and silver that shimmers as you swim, magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is also one of the most magnificent places just to lounge. I meet families from around the world.

I am back in my room by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the resort into the nearby village of Maing Thauk. I am bound for the Friendship Bridge where one of the scavenges is to watch the sunset. I love to see the Burmese alphabet, with its circles and curley-cues, on signs (few have English translation, except for the Noble Aim PreSchool, my Rosetta Stone, and a traffic sign with a drawing of a parent holding a child’s hand, indicating a school crossing). I come upon a school holding a sports competition that has drawn a tremendous audience. Even though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is going on? Where is the bridge?). It’s a good thing I ask the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, because he directs me to turn left on the next corner (I would have gone straight).

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Bridge connects many structures and from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, especially to offer sunset “cruises”, as well as walk to several restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what GSH’s organizer Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Boycotting destinations because of their governments, isolating people from one another, cutting off the exchange of ideas and people-to-people engagements is not how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a warmth of spirit, a sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children, how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how helpful people are.  And how readily they smile.

This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan, Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth. But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do immerse ourselves in Myanmar, though our itinerary most properly should be done in 11 days (there are several operators who offer such trips).

The challenge of the Global Scavenger Hunt is important to mention because Inle Lake is worth at least a two or three day stay to be completely immersed in its spell. There is a tremendous amount to do and experience.

You can reach Inle Lake by air, bus (Joyous Journey Express, known as JJ Express, provided excellent service; travel on the first-class bus geared to tourists, www.jjexpress.net), or hire a driver to Inle Lake from various other major destinations in Myanmar (Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon). The closest airport to Inle Lake is Heho airport (HEH) which is 45 minutes away from the lake.

The final challenge of this leg is to get back to our hotel, the Sule Shangri-la, in Yangon by 6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will go next, and where we will all compare experiences.

See more travel information, http://myanmartravelinformation.com/where-to-visit-inle/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3 in Myanmar Continues: Bagan, City of Temples, Newly Named UNESCO World Heritage Site

Bagan, Myanmar, city of temples (there are 2,000) has just been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Having set out from Yangon, Myanmar on our Par 5 Challenge on the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour in which we solve scavenges to amass points in order to win the title, “World’s Best Travelers,” we arrive at Bagan airport.  

Moments after arriving at the Bagan airport in Myanmar (and paying the mandatory ticket to the archaeological zone, 15,000 Kyat, or $12), we see why Bagan was only this July was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site: known as the city of Temples, Bagan has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas within 16 square miles, its ancient ruins rival Angkor Wat in Cambodia, though in Cambodia, the prevailing colors seem grey and green, while here, they are the red, orange and beige of sandstone. Temples here are as common as skyscrapers in Manhattan, dotting the plain.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The profusion of temples is astonishing. The stunning architecture and the fact that they are centuries old is mind-boggling. On top of that, you realize they have survived earthquakes as recent as 2016 when nearly 200 temples were damaged by a 6.8 magnitude quake.

Considering that Myanmar was shut off from the world for 60 years, only reopening since 2011, Bagan is still relatively unknown and draws fewer tourists than so many of the world’s great archeological sites that are endangered by their very popularity. In Bagan, you have the feeling of discovery and authenticity. Here, local worshippers vastly outnumber Western visitors and you can be immersed in the rituals.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are so many temples, some are just out in overgrowth that makes you think of fairy tales with the castle buried by a forest. Some of the most breathtakingly beautiful architecture comes immediately as we set out. We stop the taxi to explore.

Luen, the taxi driver who takess us from the airport, is a delightful man who speaks English very well, and immediately expresses appreciation for us coming to visit his country. On our way to the hotel, he stops where we ask to take pictures. We decide to hire him to take us around and make an appointment for him to come back at a certain time. (Had we been competing for points and to win the crown, we wouldn’t be allowed to hire a taxi for a whole day or use the driver as a guide).

The hotel, Aye Yar River View Resort in Old Bagan, inside the city walls, which I booked on hotels.com, is absolutely lovely – walking distance to several of the places I want to visit (such as the Archaeological Museum) and some of the temples, with an absolutely lovely pool (so welcome in the heat that exceeds 100 degrees), and open-air restaurant.

But instead of racing out to start on the scavenges as other teams have done (some racing from the airport to Mount Popa, an hour’s drive away), I find myself losing a frustrating couple of hours trying to switch my travel arrangements from Mandalay to Inle Lake. Making the reservation on the overnight bus (first class!) to Inle Lake turns out to be easy on the JJ Bus website, www.jjexpress.net); booking the hotel which I select from the list Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt organizer and ringmaster, has provided, on hotels.com is a cinch, but the flight to get back to Yangon on Saturday in time for the 6 pm deadline in is the real problem. Because of the national holiday, I can’t get through to the airline itself, not even the hotel manager who does her best, in order to change my booking on Golden Airlines from Mandalay. I can’t even book a new flight. But finally, I make the booking through an on-line agency.

Shwe-gu-gyi  Hpaya Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While the others are having lunch, I only have to stroll out the front gate of the hotel to come upon temples and archaeological sites. I wander over to the Shwe-gu-gyi  Hpaya (temple), which the sign (in English) notes was built by King Alaungsithu in 1141. The temple is built on a high platform, topped by a sikhara, or curvilinear square-based dome and has a projected porch, or vestibule.. A stone inscription describes the merit of King Bayinnaung in 1551.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Also in this immediate vicinity, walking distance from the hotel are: Mahabodhia Pagoda (1215 AD); Shwe Hti Saung Pagoda (11th C), Saw Hlawhan Pagoda (598 AD), and the Lacquerware Museum.

I take note of a tourism school and a sign that says, “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists.”

Finally, we set out with our taxi driver, San Luen, to visit some of the notable temples (there are 2,000 in Bagan) – we only have a day. It’s 108 degrees (116 with heat index).  We set out initially following some of the scavenges which steer us to prime places and experiences.

Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our first stop is Dhammayangyi Temple, one of the most massive structures in Bagan and one of the most popular for visitors. It was built by King Narathu (1167-70), who was also known as Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’. Luen drives us to a side entrance so we will have a shorter distance to walk over the extremely hot ground in bare feet (not even socks are allowed in Bagan). Here in this holy city, strict rules mean we can’t even wear slippers or socks into the temples, but have to walk over intensely hot sand and stone, baking in the 108 degree heat.

Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Luen calls it “the Temple of the Evil King. I later learn that Narathu ascended the Bagan throne by murdering his father, the king, and built this temple as penance. “It is said that Narathu oversaw the construction himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between bricks they had laid. But he never completed the construction because he was assassinated before the completion.” Apparently he was assassinated in this very temple in revenge by the father of an Indian princess who Narathu had executed because he was displeased by her performance of Hindu rituals.

I guess thanks to Narathu, the interlocking, mortarless brickwork at Dhammayangyi, is said to rank as the finest in Bagan.

Side-by-side images of Gautama and Maltreya, at Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We wander about what feels like a labyrinth of narrow hallways to discover the art inside. The interior floor plan has two ambulatories. Almost all the innermost passage, though, was filled with brick rubble centuries ago. Three of the four Buddha sanctums also were filled with bricks. What we see in the remaining western shrine features two original side-by-side images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas – they are magnificent.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Coming out of the temple, we come upon some of the most wonderful pastoral scenes of women leading a herd of goats, temples in the background.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A short distance away is another temple, Sulamani Phaya, “The Ruby of Bagan”, which dates from 1183 AD. Considered the most frequently visited temple in Bagan, the Sulamani was built by King Narapatisihu, who found a small ruby on the ground on the Bagan Plains and built a temple in its place. A description notes, “The word Sulamani means ‘small ruby’ and is a fitting name for this sand-orange and elegant ‘crowning jewel’.The temple is surrounded by a high wall; its layers of terraces and spires give the structure a mystical fairytale appearance. Inside, intricately carved stucco embellishments adorn the doors and windows.”

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive passed the Ananda Temple, known as the “Westminster Abbey of Burma” for its elegant and symmetrical design, intending to return to visit. The golden spire on top can be seen from miles across the Bagan Plain and is lit up at night by spotlights, creating an impressive beacon in the sky. The temple is known for its four gold-leaf Buddha statues, each standing an impressive 30 feet tall. Built in 1090 AD, Ananda Temple is one of the largest and best-preserved temples in Bagan and is still very important to local people. The temple was damaged in the earthquake of 1975, but has been fully restored and is well maintained. In 1990, on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of its construction, the temple spires were gilded.

Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Also recommended:

Shwesandaw Pagoda is considered one of the most impressive temples in Bagan. Standing 328 feet high, it is visible from a great distance. You can climb to the top for a wonderful view of the plain. It also is an excellent place for interacting with locals as they come to worship. One of the first to be built with what has become a classical golden bell shape, Shwesandaw became the model for Myanmar’s pagodas. The pagoda has survived invasions and natural disasters but has undergone renovations.  

Thatbyinnyu Temple is distinctive because it is one of the earliest two-story Buddhist temples and, unlike many other temples in Myanmar, is not symmetrical. At over 120 feet tall, Thatbyinnyu towers above nearby monuments. The area around it is picturesque and offers a panoramic view of Bagan.

Gubyaukgyi Temple is known for having the oldest original paintings in Bagan. According to notes, “The interior walls and ceilings of the temple are covered with ancient murals that tell stories from the previous lives of Buddha. The murals have been well-preserved because the temple is lit with natural lighting from large perforated stone walls. Each mural is paired with a caption written in old Mon. These captions are the earliest examples of Old Mon in Myanmar making it an important site for the study of the ancient language. No photography is allowed inside the temple, in order to preserve the murals for future generations.”

The refreshing pool at the Aye Yar River View Resort in Old Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The heat (114 degrees with the heat index) has gotten to Margo who wants to go back to the hotel. After a swim in the gorgeous pool at the hotel, I set out again with Luen at 4 pm to take me to a nearby village known for crafting the lovely lacquerware. I wander around – seeing the crude living conditions (they don’t have running water but they have electricity), and am invited in to watch people as they craft. At the entrance to the village, there is a large retail shop and workshop of master artisans.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m on my way back from the village, about 5 pm, when I see a message on my phone from the online booking agent that the airline booking from Inle to Yangon did not go through – I basically would be stranded. The booking app gives me a California 24/7 help number to call.

That interferes with my plan to see the sun set and watch the golden light take over the dramatic landscape.

The setting of the temples on the Bagan Plain make for expansive views – one of the reasons you should look for opportunities to get to a height, preferably at sunrise, or late afternoon toward sunset, when the light and the colors are most dramatic.

For this reason, one of the popular ways to see Bagan is taking a hot-air balloon ride is an incomparable experience to see the thousands of temples scattered across the Plains of Bagan, Balloon tours normally begin at 6:30 am, just a few minutes after sunrise. They offer a bird’s-eye view of the monuments in the misty orange morning light. The picturesque spectacle of the temples at sunrise from red balloons above, has become iconic for travelers in Myanmar. Hot-air balloon flights in Bagan normally cost around $330 per person and are seasonal (from October to March; book in advance).

Another is to drive about 1 ½ hours outside of Bagan to Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, climb to the top and see down at the whole plain laid out in front and visit the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery at the top. Several of our group did that, literally racing by taxi from the airport so not to lose valuable time for our all-too-brief stop here on our Global Scavenger Hunt.

There are also river cruises, an archaeological museum, crafts like cotton weaving and lacquerware, oil processing, palm sugar production. Almost none of it am I able to take advantage of because I have abbreviated my time here and frankly, my experience in Bagan proves a lesson in the frustration of poor planning, but a learning experience, none the less.

Many of the scavenges bring us to these important sites, but also to experiences. Among the mandatory experiences in Bagan is to try toddy juice or Black Bamboo; finding the “Rosetta stone of Myanmar” in the Bagan Archaeological Museum, where you learn the interesting origin of Burmese distinctive alphabet of circles and curleycues; rent a horse cart for half a day to compete 3 scavenges.

Even though Bagan is surprisingly compact and it doesn’t take long to travel from one incredible sight to another, seeing Bagan properly would require planning and sufficient time. I don’t have either but I chalk up my visit to a preview for a future visit. You should spend at least two or three days here.

Back at the Aye Yar River View Resort, the manager again tries heroically and fruitlessly to reach the airline directly but says the office has already closed. (I highly recommend the Aye Yar River View Resort, located Near Bu Pagoda, Old Bagan, Nyaung-U, MM).

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I meet up with Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks team from California who were last year’s Global Scavenger Hunt champions, who are also going to Inle Lake on the overnight bus and we go together to one of the two restaurants listed in the scavenger hunt (more points!). The first is closed; the second is a lot of fun. (Many of the scavenges involve food.)

Luen, the taxi driver, picks us up to go to the bus station.

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I ride on the night-bus to Inle, at 10 pm, bouncing and rolling on the roads that quickly turn into mountain passes, I text my son in New York to call the airline in California. The texts go back and forth. “There’s no ticket, no seat.” “We got you a seat, yay!” “No seat, he made a mistake. Drat.” “A seat, yay!” (On the same flight as I originally booked! Yay!).

The adventure continues as I bounce along the overnight bus on twisting, winding roads through the hills and darkness to Inle Lake.

The Joyous Journey Express (JJExpress) bus is actually geared for foreign tourists – first class modern buses with comfortable reclining seats, providing passengers with a blanket, bottle of water and snack, even some variation of a TV monitor which I couldn’t figure out (but no onboard bathroom – the driver stops when necessary). In busy season, they even do a pick-up at your hotel. (www.jjexpress.net)

For planning information visit Myanmar Tourism Organization, www.myanmar.travel, info.mtm@tourismmyanmar.com.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: Myanmar, the Golden Land, Comes from Darkness into Light

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is only a two-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), Myanmar, the third leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Sule Shangri-la, around noon. We will have our meeting at 2:30 pm when we will get our booklets, spelling out the challenges we will face in the Golden Land.

After 60 years closed to the world, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was only reopened to the outside world in 2011, so I am most intrigued to see it for myself. The country has also received horrible press over the persecution of the Rohingya people, which raises controversy for Bill Chalmers, who meticulously organizes the Global Scavenger Hunt. But it encapsulates his philosophy, bordering on religion, that appreciates travel as a way of forging understanding, bringing people together and yes, fostering progress and change.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout this Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date With the World” – where we don’t know where we are going next until we are told when to go to the airport or get ourselves there, and along the way, complete scavenges and challenges – we are encouraged, even forced, to “rely on the kindness of strangers,” to interact with local people even when we can’t understand each other’s language. (Towards this end, using cell phones or computers to research, access maps or GPS is not allowed.)

Though it is a conceit to think we can parachute into places and understand the nuances of complex issues, travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In very real ways, travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Isolating people is not how change happens – that only hardens views and makes people susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.

Chalmers offers this to ponder: The point of a travel boycott is to force a government to reform their ways (corruption, human rights, democracy and such) is based on the concept that tourism income mostly goes into the hands of government, not the people, so enables their power and policy. But others believe that tourism is not only economically helpful to locals, giving them the means to improve their living conditions, but vital to pro-democracy, humanitarian movements because of the two-way flow of information.

On balance, Chalmers tells us, “I don’t like the idea of a boycott. Travelers are serving as ambassadors, doing fact-finding.  This country is emerging from decades of isolation – there are problems, humanitarian problems on a large scale. It is a troubled country with great suffering.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Bear witness for yourself. Enjoy the rich culture, the people, play journalist, bea  reporter, have conversations, learn and gain perspective. Parachuting in can’t give you full expertise. All acquire more accurate idea, local perception. Talk with locals, see for yourself.

“The issue with not coming is you paint a broad picture about everyone. When we travel, a lot of people disagree with our government but don’t take it out against us as individuals. We practice diplomacy of engagement. Not coming won’t change minds but possibly, coming can help change minds.” I contemplate that point: imagine if the people we meet as we go around the world held us personally responsible for caging migrant children and keeping parents separated in conditions that wouldn’t meet the Geneva Conventions requirements for POWs.

“Myanmar is breathtakingly beautiful,” Bill tells us. “Say yes to things. There are extraordinary sights.” But he isn’t naïve. Anticipating the problems, frustrations we will have, he gives us a list of to-do’s and don’ts (buy food and water before getting on a train, ferry or bus; Myanmar roads are among the most dangerous;  have a safe word between teammates that is code for “danger.” Travel, he says, is about “conquering fears, heat, holidays.” Indeed, the fact it is Myanmar’s New Year’s Day and many services are closed becomes a major issue for me.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is also about teamwork, and one of the rules is that you can’t separate from your teammate (Chalmers actually feels very guilty about the possible friction the competition can foment in couples). So, though we are not officially competing for points, I go along with my teammate, Margo, who wants to travel to Mandalay instead of Inle Lake, which I become extremely excited to see after hearing about this enchanting place, after visiting the temple city of Bagan.

We learn that the Myanmar leg is designated a Par 5 (very tough, the highest is Par 6). The challenge we are given is to spend the next two nights on our own, that we have to go to two of the three cities (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake), but can only take two flights (necessitating ground transportation between two cities of the triangle) and have to be back to The Sule Shangri-la in Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday. Chalmers spends much of the time spelling out the special rules for this leg of the contest, the winner of which is designated “World’s Greatest Traveler”.

“Today the real travel test will begin. Our teams collective travel savvy and travel IQ will be tested here in Myanmar… in this daunting, breathtaking, frustrating, exhilarating haunting, sacred, dynamic, traditional, thrilling, rapidly changing (and I could go on and on) destination! It will be an interesting four days. Have fun and be safe folks,” Chalmers writes on the Global Scavenger Hunt blog.

We spend the next 3 1//2 hours organizing where and how we will travel to Bagan, Mandalay and back to Yangon. Under the rules of the contest, we are not allowed to use our own computers or phones to book flights or hotels, or even the hotel concierge, but have to go out and find a travel agent. That proves problematic because of the holiday, but Kim says that a fellow on the street has told her where there is a travel agency. Sure enough, he is waiting for us on the street (internal warning light goes off) to walk us down dinghy alleys to the agency which looks and smells like a hovel.  Another team is already there, handing over a wad of cash, since the agency isn’t accepting a credit card (ostensibly because of the holiday). I get nervous and suggest we leave, and make the bookings on our own (since we are not competing, we can use our computers). But this proves an interesting experience.

Sule Pagoda

By the time we finish, I only have time to walk down a modern boulevard to the Sule Pagoda, which sits at the center of the city as well as the city’s political and economic life.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to legend, the stupa was built even before the more famous Shwedagon Pagoda during the time of the Buddha, which would make it more than 2,600 years old. The Sule Pagoda served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s the last day of the New Year celebration and place is packed with people bringing offerings, lighting candles and spilling water at their Weekday shrine. It is dusk when I arrive, and I watch the moon rise and the sky deepen in color to azure blue, the brilliant gold of the pagoda a blazing contrast. A guide immediately comes up to me to offer to take me around and checks his book to see exactly what day of the week I was born, so I know which is my shrine (Thursday is my shrine; the mouse is my animal); he shows me a photo of President Obama striking one of the bells during his visit here.

Guide, Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Photo of President Obama at Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the way back, I walk across a bridge that spans the boulevard for a sensational photo of the pagoda.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have yet to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Fortunately, I will have more time to explore Yangon when we return on Saturday.

We are up at 4 am to leave at 5 am for the airport for a 7 am flight to Bagan on Golden Airlines. The hotel has very kindly packed a to-go breakfast. It turns out several of us are going on the same flight to Bagan.

This morning in clearer light, having become entranced by the description of Inle Lake, a villages built on stilts and only accessible by boat, and hearing one team discuss the overnight bus they will take from Bagan to Inle Lake, I decide to go on my own to Inle Lake instead of to Mandalay. But that depends on whether I can get seat on all-night bus, a hotel in Inle Lake and a flight from Inle Lake on Saturday morning to be back in time for the 6 pm meeting/deadline.

I plan on seeing more of Yangon when I return.

More travel information is at http://myanmartravelinformation.com/top-destinations/yangon.html.

For planning information visit Myanmar Tourism Organization, www.myanmar.travel, info.mtm@tourismmyanmar.com.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Two of the Global Scavenger Hunt teams, Lawyers Without Borders from Houston, and Lazy Mondays, doctors from California, do their peer review while waiting in the airport for the flight to the next leg of the 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour to determine “World’s Best Travelers.” (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 2: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Traditions Survive in Modern City, as Does Reckoning with Past

Much of the visit to Cu Chi Tunnels is interactive; a girl gets to feel what it is like to hide underground © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Saigon is the second leg of nine during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date with the World,” where we don’t know where we are going until we are given 4-hour notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you are not allowed to use a phone or computer for information or reservations, hire a private guide, or even use a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to force you to interact with locals. Though we were not officially competing for “World’s Best Travelers,” my teammate, Margo (who I only met on this trip) and I basically followed the rules in Vancouver and during our first day in Vietnam, but we had to deviate on the second day.

It is shortly before 4 pm in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, by the time we have received our book of scavenges from Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt ringmaster (as he likes to be called), who has ranked Vietnam a “Par 3” in difficulty (on a scale of 1-6), strategized what scavenges we will undertake, and after a swim in the hotel’s pool (so hot even the pool was like a bathtub), we head out of the Majestic Hotel, a five-star historic property, toward Ben Thank Market, one of the scavenges on the list.

Built in 1870 by the French who colonized Vietnam for 100 years, it is where then and now, you can find locals and tourists alike, with row after row after row chock-a-block full of almost everything imaginable. (Be prepared to bargain aggressively; the shopkeepers are even more aggressive). I come away with a few things I can’t bear to pass up, when Margo realizes a second scavenge we can accomplish: tasting three separate fruits (there is heavy emphasis on “experience” scavenges that involve food, and Vietnam, Bill says, is one of the great food places in the world).

At bustling Ben Thank Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we see and taste fruits we had never seen before © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find a fruit stand and sure enough, there are fruits I have never seen before, including one, called dragon fruit, which looks like it was divined by JK Rowling for Harry Potter; the others we sample: rambutan, mangosteen, longan. We are standing around these ladies, asking them to cut open the various fruits so we can sample them to complete the scavenge, taking the photos we need to document.

Dragon fruit, at Ben Thank Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, seems like it was invented by JK Rowling for Hogwarts, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the other scavenges on the list here in the market: to find a cobra in jar of alcohol; the tackiest souvenir in market; and a wet market (which befuddles most of us and turns out to be the meat market which is hosed down).

We ask locals for directions to our next stop: the Water Puppet Show of Vietnam at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. It seems walkable but we get lost along the way (technically we can’t use the GPS on the phone, but we aren’t competing – we still get lost) and are simply amazed at the rush and crush of mopeds (mainly) and cars in this city of 9 million where there are an estimated 7 million scooters, and the range of what people carry on them without a second thought. I literally stand in a traffic island to get the full view.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
There are an estimated 7 million scooters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traffic, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are also amazed we are able to function having departed Vancouver, Canada, for Vietnam at 2 am for a 14-hour flight to Taipei, followed by an hour lag time before a 3-hour connection to Saigon. Time has become a very fluid, meta thing.

But we forge on (the secret to avoiding being taken down by jet lag is to stay up until bedtime). This is also on the scavenger list and as it turns out, we meet several other teams from our group.

Scene from Water Puppet Theater, a marvelous display of traditional Vietnamese culture at Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The performance proves fabulous and unexpected – the puppets actually emerge out of water; water is their platform. There is musical accompaniment on traditional instruments and the musicians also become the characters and narrators and sing. This is quite an outstanding cultural performance – the artistry and imaginativeness of the puppets (who swim, fish, plant rice which then grows, race boats, dance, catch frogs and do all sorts of things with incredible choreographed precision, is incredible.

The puppeteers of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater take their bow, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

These seem to be folk stories, and the music is traditional. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Vietnamese. It confounds me how they do such precise choreography from the water (the puppeteers are behind a gauze curtain; controlling with bubble wands horizontally). The artistry is magnificent and the experience an utter delight. (Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 558 Ngyuyen Thi Minh Kahi Street, Dist.1, HCMC, www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com).

View from Saigon Skydeck atop the Bitesco Financial Tower © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, we take a taxi to hit another scavenge, going to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitesco Financial Tower, which affords beautiful scenes of Saigon. From here, all you see is a very modern city. Many of the buildings below are decorated in colored lights. This is an example of modern Saigon that is rising. (Skydeck senior rate $5; some places have senor rates, others don’t, so ask)

View from the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the Hotel Majestic, we go up to the 8th floor M Club, a delightful rooftop bar, where there is a band playing. The open-air views of the Saigon River and the skyline are just magnificent. Margo orders a “Majestic 1925” which is Bourbon, infused orange, sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitter, orange zest, and smoked – the whole process done on a table brought to us, as a crowd gathers to watch the mixocologist light a torch to generate the smoke. Quite a scene.

Preparing the Majestic 1925 cocktail at the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2 in Vietnam: Confronting the Horrors of War

Whereas my first afternoon and evening in Ho Chi Minh City was devoted to seeing the city as it is today – albeit dotted with centuries old buildings, markets and heritage – the second day is a somber, soul-searching journey back in time. Indeed, as I wander around the city, you don’t see any obvious scars of the Vietnam War.

One of the signature sights of a visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels. My teammate Margo has already been there and doesn’t want to return, but I feel duty-bound to see it for myself.  I wake up early and go down to the hotel concierge to see if I can get on the 7:30 am half-day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The concierge calls the tour company and says there is room on the bus and that they pick up right at the hotel. I am off. (545,000 Dong, about $25, www.saigontourist.net, www.e-travelvietnam.com)

As we travel outside through the city, the guide points out sights and gives us a history of Vietnam, going back to the Chinese who came in the 1600s, the French who came later, the Vietnam War and the aftermath,  while hardly disguising resentment of the North Vietnamese who have flooded into the city since the war. Ho Chi Minh City has grown from a city of 2 million to 9 million today, with 7 million scooters (here, instead of Uber car, you summon a Grab scooter).

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, shows French colonial influence © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s an opportunity to see more of the city and soon we are in the countryside, traveling through small villages and farms where we see cemeteries, markets, houses, a few animals, rubber plantations. We see new agricultural techniques being used on farms and pass an agricultural research center. It is about an hour’s drive. 

A demonstration of rice paper making at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which the Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the Vietnam War. The site has over 120 km of underground tunnels with trapdoors, living areas, storage facilities, armory, hospitals, and command centers, and were used going back to 1948 against the French, and later against the Americans.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit is profound, and though the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple, especially not in the world of geopolitics).

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You have to appreciate the commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they did – creating a virtually self-sufficient underground community, planting booby traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give away the location of the tunnels).

We get to climb into a tunnel, and can go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. It is hot, uncomfortable, you feel claustrophobic and it is a bit terrifying.

Our tour guide leads us through – he is incredibly kind and considerate. He gives special attention to the children who are visiting – grabs them when they want to go down into a tunnel where he fears there could be scorpions (he shows us carcasses), snakes or rats.

There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47 or M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what the people were living through. There was a hospital, a sewing area where they would make uniforms, there is a trap door to escape. We see where they would have made sandals from old tires. We watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper; another at a sewing machine where she would be making uniforms, a rifle hung close by on the wall.

All of these things which we see above ground are recreated from what they would have looked like underground.

There were also constant bombings – B-52s could fly from the base in just two minutes time.

Scene from documentary film at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get a sense of that in documentary-style films that are presented at the end. The film uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression, which basically depicts much of what we have visited in the tunnels, but as these places were used during the war. I must say that as gruesome as the film is, the only “propaganda” element is that it does not discuss the civil war between North and South Vietnam, only that the war was perpetrated by the Imperialist United States.

Scene from documentary film at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many of the scenes show women and girls as soldiers. “They took unexploded bombs and turned them into their own weapons; they took from the Americans the new guns but never stopped using traditional weapons – the traps devised to hunt animals were used against the American enemy… Every person can be a hero. They had to live in poverty but wouldn’t retreat. A rifle in one hand, a plow in the other. Attacked in the morning, they farmed at night so they had enough food to win the war. The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead zone, but they lived underground.”

But what we see in the film looks exactly like what was put on view here. We see people climbing through tunnels to the sound of gunfire.

“Male and female enrolled to kill enemy..Cu Chi guerrillas would rather die and become hero for killing Americans… never afraid of hardship to kill Americans. In hardship, they came together.”

Believe it or not, they actually make the experience as pleasant and as comfortable as possible, which somehow masks the terror of the place. Children smile and laugh as they get to descend through the camouflaged openings in the ground.

We leave the tunnels after spending about two hours here.

On the way back, the guide asks if we would like to make a detour to visit a factory, created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory, 27-7 HCMC.Co.Ltd, produced cigarettes, but today, Handicapped Handicrafts produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered and inlaid items.

Working in Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A visit to Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards, buying stamps and writing the cards, the sweat streaming down my face and stinging my eyes so that a nice lady hands me a tissue). Then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), so I go on to the War Remnants Museum.

Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Picking up kids from school, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street artist, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have trouble following the map, so when I ask directions of a young man, he leads me through back alleys to the entrance of the museum, which I visit until it closes at 6 pm, because there is so much to see and take in.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war.

Display of war correspondents killed covering Vietnam War, at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context of the image, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the soldiers walking along as this young girl is coming down the road in terror, their demeanor in such jarring contrast to these fleeing Vietnamese. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame and wonder why there has never been accountability for war crimes.

The impact of Agent Orange in graphic detail at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.

The first floor, which should be visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the place where American prisoners of war, including Senator John McCain, were kept. Here, though, is where it can be said the propaganda offensive takes place – there are photos showing a female nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds, the caption noting how she had put down her gun in order to care for him. This exhibit brings things up to date, with the visits of President Clinton in 1994; in another section, it notes that Clinton’s visit brought the end of economic sanctions, and with the country’s shift to market economy, produced revitalization, as measured by the boom in mopeds.

But on the bottom floor, they show photos of Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.

This floor also has an exhibit devoted to the peace movement in the US and around the world, with some famous incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State four. There is a photo of John Kerry, who went on to be a Senator, Secretary of State and candidate for president,  testifying to Congress in his military uniform,  on the necessity of immediate and unilateral. “how do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

The photo that had such impact on focusing American public opinion against the Vietnam War, on display at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A special exhibition, “Finding Memories” attempts to recreate the struggle of the people of Hanoi and Haiphong to overcome the pain and loss of war. “It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in the ‘Hilton-HaNoi’. Finding Memories is an opportunity for Vietnamese people to develop greater pride for their victory – a 20th century miracle; for American pilots to recall a serene period of their lives; as well as for each and every visitor to understand the severe destruction and painfully grim nature of war, in order to call for all people to work together and dedicate our efforts to build a world of peace and love.”

A poster in the Peace Movement exhibit at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Outside are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.

I look around for an American who might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption is particularly telling: it shows an American hauling off an ethnic minority, noting “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.”

I leave feeling that the experience is close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We meet at 8:30 pm to hand in our score sheets and share stories – one team got up at 5 am in order to get to the floating market; a team was able to get on the street market food tour, where they take you around by scooter (they only take 8 and it was closed out); another took a cooking class.

We get our notice of where we are going next:  be up at 6 am for 7 am bus to airport for 9:35 flight…. to Myanmar!

More information on travel to Vietnam at www.vietnam.travel.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

See also:

Cities, Mountains, Boat and Beach: Letters Home from Honeymoon in Vietnam & Cambodia

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures