Category Archives: Adventure Travel

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 7: Greek Orthodox Easter in Athens

Athens celebrates Greek Orthodox Good Friday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Athens is a relatively easy Par 2 on the Global Scavenger Hunt. We had just 30 hours here, distinguished by the celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter. We arrive on Good Friday and one of the challenges was to experience the distinctive celebration. You can’t miss it. Every church had a similar ritual. I walked down from the Grand Hyatt to the Plaka, stopping to reflect on Hadrian’s Gate before I took the narrow street that led me to the 11th century Byzantine church, where devotees were coming. We were told that at 7 pm, the priest comes out and the faithful ring the church. The service begins at 7 pm that we can hear from outside; the crowds really thicken and about 9 pm, the priest came out, leading a procession. People light candles and follow the procession of the cross and a funerary flowers. We join the crowd as they wind their way through the narrow streets below the Acropolis, and when we turned to a different direction, we would meet the procession again. All the streets were flooded with similar processions – candles moving like ripples of water. People jammed the outdoor restaurants as well. We went into another small Byzantine church where the frescoes were absolutely stunning.

Athens celebrates Greek Orthodox Good Friday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next day, I immersed myself in Athens (some of the scavenges led teams out to the Peloponnese and the Theater of Epidaurus, and to accomplish them in the brief timeframe, rented a car).I just wanted to soak in Athens. I had a list of four major places to visit, starting with the Acropolis, then the Roman Agora (one of the most fascinating museums, contains artifacts that were gathered just from the Agora, including the tiny medicinal ceramic cups that were found at the jail, with which prisoners could take hemlock as their means of execution; one of them was Socrates; but the Agora is also really significant as the place of the first “parliament,” and you can see in the museum elements of democracy, including the ostracism pottery, where the name of a leader they wanted removed would be scratched into pottery); next the flea market at Monasteraki (originally the Jewish quarter), and the National Archaeological Museum, which I found has a special exhibit examining the concept of “Beauty.” The museum (which closed at 4 because of Easter Saturday) has the most astonishing collection of gold from Mycenae (including the famous Mask of Agamemnon); statues, bronzes, an amazing bronze 1000 years old of a jockey on a horse that looks like it could run away. The walk was so fabulous, also, because it took me through neighborhoods. I walked back to the hotel to meet several of us who were sharing a van to the airport.

Walking back through the Plaka, I bump into Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, Pamela and Luka – it turns out to be a team challenge to photograph them.

Onward to Marrakech.

See more about the Global Scavenger Hunt at www.globalscavengerhunt.comhttp://www.globalscavengerhunt.com

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 6: Petra, a True Wonder of the World, is Highlight of Jordan Challenge

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan in the early morning © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the start of Leg 6, in Amman Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt are still in contention to win, many of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for planning and booking, get help from the concierge.

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 is requiring to go one way to or from Petra along the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take that route, the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.

All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen different means to get there. I find myself on the Jett Express Bus, departing 6:35 am, with three of the teams including one that is in second place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Another 5 of us hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and son Luka are traveling separately. Each of us left 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 at a New York Times Travel Show talk about Petra at night, I have decided to arrange my own overnight stay. I learn that the Petra at night is only offered twice/weekly and am lucky enough to be there for 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. 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 pm.

While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, knowing I will return the next day. The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus – arrives at around 11 am. I use our Jordan Pass (which gives 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).

I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view that comes into focus as you walk through caverns with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then come upon the teaser of The Treasury through the opening, is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra was 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 in the Roman era had been built (The Great Temple, the colonnade). 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). 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 amazing views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again.

I decide to reserve that for the next day.

The “park” closes at about 6 and reopens for the 8:30-10:30 night program at 8 pm (it is operated separately and privately from Petra) – I still have to get my pack, which I have left at the Exchange ($5 tip), and get to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (.7 mile), but turns out to be totally up hill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate).

My el cheapo-supremo hotel turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part os the name and front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I thought the fellow made a mistake and brought me to a room under construction (or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that was falling apart, only a bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that were too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night (considering I had left behind in Amman the five-star, ultra-hip and luxurious W Hotel).

I head out just after 8 pm, walking down the hill into the park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how dramatic and wonderful.

After 45 minutes, arrive at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1000 people sitting on carpets. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the event. 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 shown on The Treasury, completely destroying the mood. And then it is over. 9:30 pm (not 10:30 pm). People start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so leave also. I hike up the hill to the hotel.

My adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to return to Petra as early as 6 am. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. When I arrive, who should I come upon at 6:14 am but the last team (Lawyers Without Borders). What are the odds!

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 for selfies and posing. And once inside, there was perfect peace also at The Treasury – the camels posing just perfectly.

A word about the guides – I didn’t use one and they try to convince you that they will take you places you couldn’t go yourself – but what I observed was that they were 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 provided the camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work exceptionally hard (the animals work even harder). And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize, 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.

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% and hope I will be able to do the Monastery trail.

I go through the park again, this time to the Monastery trail – get some scouting information and begin the ascent. 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 stands set up along the way.

And the Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger than The Treasury – the largest structure carved out of a rock face (if I have that right). So worth it.

But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive after the 8 pm deadline but have informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 pm, and I won’t miss a flight, will I?)

I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the entrance to the Monastery Trail, 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 had in the early morning – some 2,000 passengers off the MSC cruise ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC cruise ship, and hundreds more off a Celebrity ship look like invaders – led by a guide with a number (50) for their group.

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 prie).

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) – that explains extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering, then the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts including art as wlel as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age, are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and clear.

I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the 3 hour trip back. The driver is excellent, but apparently, a taxi driver has accused him of knicking his cab and the entire bus has to go to the police station. Surprisingly, this is handled within 20 minutes and we are on our way.

The bus station is not even a mile from the W Hotel (15 minute walk versus 5 minutes by cab) and I considered getting an Uber (much, much cheaper than a taxi), but started walking instead. I am trying to get my bearings when a taxi driver who solicited my business at the bus station pulls up. I reluctantly agree – we settle the price and set out – in the wrong direction. What should have b een 5 minutes, I see on my GPS is taking me 8 km away from the hotel. The driver drives frantically, going the wrong way down one-way streets, zipping here and there but essentially driving in circles that go further away from the hotel. I show him the card, show him my GPS with the hotel address. Finally, in frustration I think, he tries to dump me at another hotel, saying, “W.”  Perhaps he thought I hadn’t been there yet and would be convinced this imposter was my hotel. I tell him he is going the wrong way, the wrong hotel. Finally he sets out again, and what should have taken 5 minutes, has taken 30.

I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt. My teammate has texted the answer: Athens.

In the Throes of Competition

It is so amazing to listen to everyone’s separate adventures and experiences – even those who aren’t competing any more still pick up on Bill’s 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. And since the competition is intended to crown “World’s Best Traveler” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for logistics.

Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, of Houston, has now done this trip more than a dozen times, in addition to being well-traveled adventure travelers on their own. But 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.

The Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise). Rainey explains that a lot is luck, 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. Play t”he game. The sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot,” Rainey says. “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.

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, 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.

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’s daughter who couldn’t come), and for the “beastie” challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he said.

But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but not Rainey (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)

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 which ended with a “leap of faith.”

We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

Here are the points after the Amman, Jordan leg:

5th place, Transformed Goddesses with 13 scavenges, 4 bonus, 1065 points

4th Slow Folk with 15 scavenges 3 bonus, 1150 points

3rd Order & Chaos with 25 scavenges 8 bonus, 1860 points

2nd Lazy Monday with 25 scavenges, 9 bonus, 2045 points

1st Lawyers Without Borders with 22 scavenges, 12 bonus, 2190 points

So the standings in the Global Scavenger Hunt so far (where like golf, the low score wins):

1 Lawyers Without Borders 25

2 Lazy Monday 30

3 Order & Chaos 57

4 Slow Folk 66

Still 4 legs, 6 countries to go

“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, our Chief Executive Officer and ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt says.

And we’re off to Athens for a 30- hour leg.  

See more at https://globalscavengerhunt.com/

Global Scavenger Hunt: Searching Abu Dhabi

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © 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 was yet another instance of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself.

Yes, it 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 out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures that have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.

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.

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) – both artful 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 just seems to be going on.

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

And then you consider: 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. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th century, despite earthquakes and world events.

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.

Hall of Artisans, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, I went 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.

I found myself dashing to get to the 2 pm tour I had to pre-arrange at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which was at a surprising distance, a 35-minute drive.

This proves most fascinating to learn how these prized birds are handled. We are taken into a waiting room, surprised to see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room. Their owners have dropped 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 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.

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 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), which have to be the exact same feather, 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”).

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 they are very kind and gentle, and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – the falcons can fly with their owner in first class, have their own seat and their own menu (fresh killed meat).

Next I go to the 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 (one of the largest mosaics in the world), 51,000 worshippers altogether for such high holy events as Ramadan over 55,000 sq. meters – the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world.

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

The experience of visiting is also surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar). Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free); the public tour (an absolute must) is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. When you arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you go underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).

I timed the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm – and go first to what is labeled as the Visitors Happiness Desk – how could I resist? The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who were natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) were extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who should arrive but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small world!), so we visit together, and fortunately, she managed to get us on the public tour which had already left.

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

We left just at dusk, with the lights beginning to come on, and a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that made the structures even more beautiful if that were possible.

I asked the Happiness guys where to go for the best view of the mosque after dark, and they directed us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view was spectacular.

We arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flew 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 a day is), so for us, it felt like 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt said that this was the most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline time).

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 designation “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 cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in the 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 was 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.

Other possibilities: ride “the world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom did that, she said it was like 4G force); visit the Emirates Palace, walk it 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 Prsidential Palace, only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan (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. One of the scavenges here was to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).

A lasting impression that I will carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi: the theme this year is “Year of Tolerance.“

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, 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!

Global Scavenger Hunt: Leg 3 Concludes Back in Yangon

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt. Returned from Inle Lake to Yangon. Got back to the Shangri-la Sule Hotel (tried to take the public bus but after two buses went by, hopped a taxi).

Planned a day that included a visit to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the last synagogue in all of Myanmar. By the time I got there, it was 1:40 pm (it was just about 15 minute walk from the hotel) – so lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday). 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.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting there was interesting, going through all these street markets with sounds of chickens (for sale), live fish for sale (one almost got away), and the scent of spices.

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 was surprised at 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 came upon a seller of interesting post cards, and found the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel).

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

Went back to the hotel, which was just a few blocks away, to refresh (it was 104 degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt was to visit at dawn or dusk), to 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. Fortunately, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to Inle Lake, had to take a taxi back to Yangon (snafu with air ticket and all flights booked, ironic because I had a ticket that I wasn’t able to cancel when I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures), but luckily, walked into the room at 4 pm, so we could go off together.

Margo cleverly hired a guide to show us around and it was fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, and is one of the most magnificent, and also considered one of the most sacred. It was built between the 6th and 10th centuries. We watch as workers on scaffolding work to restore the 60 tons of gold that decorates the tower. Most interesting was coming upon a procession of family celebrating the indunction of two young boys into the monastery. (The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived – was it four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of breathtaking.   

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

We dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group a few minutes past 6 pm (we aren’t competing to win the challenge so we did not have to turn in scorecards).

After a hosted dinner (Japanese), where all of us traded our stories of exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, we return to the hotel to learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next:

Out the door at 5:15 am (we will be provided breakfast boxes), on to Bangkok, for an eight-hour layover challenge, and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.

I realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed, ordering our day.

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: A Perfect Day in Inle Lake, Myanmar

The distinctive way the boatmen paddle their wooden boats with their leg. 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, began the night before, on the JJ Express bus that left Bagan at 10 pm and arrived at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am, where those of us bound for Inle Lake were picked up in a jitney. The jitney dropped me at the Sanctum Hotel Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk called in housekeeping early so we could get into rooms by 6 am.

I am on my own – my partner on this 23-day “Blind Date With the World” mystery tour – went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. One of the nine competing teams is also here in Inle Lake (I got the idea to come from them and learned of the JJ Express Bus, but this also involves unraveling my previous plan to go to Mandalay and get back my flight from Inle Lake to Yangon while bouncing in the bus and texting my son to call the airline), but has to be scrupulous about following rules (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so have arrived 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.

But the kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of an 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor) 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, floating markets, and the fishermen fish I a distinctive fashion, paddling the oar with their leg and casting nets.

The Sanctum Hotel is on the list that was provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com. I am delighted to find it is a five-star luxury resort, and just being here fills me with a contented peace (Maing Thauk Villge, Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe Township Shan State, Myanmar, info@sanctum-Inle-Resort.com, www.sanctum-inle-resort.com). But that is only the beginning.

The resort is situated on the bank of the lake, and to begin the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the competing team cannot), I am walked down to the hotel’s own 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 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).

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

It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake. During the course of it, we encounter a young fellow fishing, go through an entire village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit (I see how, unique to Inle, and one weaver whose techniques were devised by a woman now more than a century old, producing thread from the lotus flower, and get to see looms that are common across cultures for centuries; silversmith; the maker of the traditional wooden boats); important pagodas and temples on the lake. It is incomparable.

A village on stilts. Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

I am back up by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the hotel into the nearby village of Maing Thauk, where I come upon a high school holding a sports competition that has drawn 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 asked the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, where I have been told is ideal for watching the sunset (and so much more), because he directs me to turn left (I would have gone straight).




Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Bridge turns out to be more of a pier over the water, from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, as well as link some restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.

What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what 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. That’s 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.

 What I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness,  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.  

Here are just a few highlights from my visit in Inle Lake, Myanmar:

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 (an ancient city with 3000 temples), 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.

The final challenge of this leg is to get back to 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.

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 2 Brings Somber Confrontation with Vietnam War History

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our second day in Saigon, Vietnam. I am lucky enough to get on a Saigon Tours half-day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, 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.

(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 take a commercial tour, or 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. I knew that even though the visit was one of the “Bonus” scavenges, I wouldn’t get points, also my teammate Margo, was doing her own thing in Saigon, visiting the Botanical Gardens.)

Much of the visit to Cu Chi Tunnels is interactive; a little girl gets to feel what it is like to hide underground (c) 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). 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 community under ground, planting boobie 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 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. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47, M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what they were living through. There was a hospital, a wardrobe sewing area, we watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper. At the end is a film that uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression.

A visit to Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the way back, the guide offered to make a detour to take us to 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 produced cigarettes, but today, they produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered and inlaid items.

The trip provides an excellent opportunity to see other Vietnamese communities outside of the urban center.

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), then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), then on to the War Remnants Museum, where I visited until it closed at 6 pm, because there was so much to see and take in.

The Pulitzer-prize winning photo, “Napalm Girl,” had great impact in ending support for the Vietnam War (c) 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. The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context, 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 American soldiers walking along and one who looks like he is casually lighting a cigarette as this young girl is coming down the road in terror. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame.









The impact of Agent Orange in graphic display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam (c) 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, with the caption that noted 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 in noted 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.

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

I looked 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 was particularly telling: it showed an American hauling off an ethnic minority and noted that “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 left feeling that the experience was close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.

A gallery of war correspondents and photographers who were killed covering the Vietnam War (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 1 global scavenger hunt: practice run in vancouver bc

Selfie of the Margo Polos (Karen and Margo) to prove we found the Hotel Europe, in historic Gastown, Vancouver BC. The first day of the Global Scavenger Hunt was a practice round for our 23-day around-the-world adventure (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We gather at 9 am on the first day of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, a “Blind Date with the World,” where 10 teams of two people each don’t know where we are going until Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt Ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, tells us. We have come to the meeting prepared for anything – a 4 hour notice to pack up to our next destination, perhaps? – and learn that we will spend the day doing a practice scavenger hunt, to level the playing field between newbies (me) and troopers/vets (one of the teams has done it 12 times). He has prepared the same kind of booklet and score sheet as we will get on arrival at every mystery destination.

We can choose the scavengers out of the selections – they each have different points . Among them are a choice of “mandatory” including at least one “experience”.  During the course of this day, we will have to complete 10 scavengers by 8 pm when we get together again. We are told this is a Par 1 in terms of difficulty, which can go as high as Par 6.

We start in search of “Affluent Alley” – after all, we are staying in Vancouver’s famous Hotel Vancouver in a toney boulevard off Robson Street where we were told you had to drive a Rolls or BMW in order to park on the street. We look at a couple of streets which are called Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue and Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive. We are only allowed to ask locals – not the hotel concierge or any actual guide – but no one has heard of Affluent Alley – possibly because everyone we ask is either too young or a transplant. One woman at a bus stop is extremely helpful when we ask where a certain shoe store is located, and about how the bus system works. As for Affluent Alley, I suspect that it actually refers to the opposite (maybe East Hastings), or is the red-herring (and doesn’t exist at all).

But we are in search of the high-end shoe store, John Fluevog – go into several stores, finally Coach, and the salesperson directs us… We walk the several blocks to the store – unbelievably wacky, creative, magnificent (better art than the modern art I had seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery). We learn we are the 6th team to ask

Walk to Olympic cauldron, take our selfies, record the time. Pouring rain now when we walk to the bike rental shop on the list to rent bikes to ride around Stanley Park’s seawall, find the Totem Poles, stop at the Teahouse (fantastic carrot soup to restore our energy). Go to Gastown to find more scavenges (Hotel Europe, Angelo Calori built 1908-9, no longer a hotel, is “social housing,” ad haunted, looks remarkably like a smaller version of the Flat Iron Building in NYC), see the statue of Gassy Jack, the garrulous bartender that  gave Gastown its name, and, of course, the steam clock.

Scavengers give purpose to your wandering – more than that, they become a platform for a completely different perspective on a place and people. The Global Scavenger Hunt is designed to have us interact as much as possible with local people, to trust strangers, which we have been doing all day long, and finding how incredibly friendly and kind the Canadians are (even the many who have come here from all points of the globe and made Vancouver their home.

One of the scavengers is to write a haiku, and with time running out to our 8 pm deadline, I write:

What a way to see

Vancouver’s many treasures.

By bike, bus, on foot.

We gather at 8 pm, and Bill,the Ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt (he also refers to as a traveling circus) tells us we are off tonight on a 2 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, hands us our airline info and visas, and we are off.

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

Riding a scooter through the countryside © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a whirlwind destination wedding in New Orleans and a relaxing mini-moon in St. Lucia, we took a few weeks to recover at home, and then embarked on a 3-week adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia. After researching some 30 different destinations, we chose this combination for a number of reasons: the landscapes (according to Google image search) are varied and breathtaking; the climate is still warm in December, but not swelteringly hot; the food is supposed to be unbelievable; we can do some sightseeing and also indulge in some down-time (Bai Tu Long Bay cruise in Vietnam and island-hopping in Cambodia); we heard the people are incredibly kind and traveling around the country independently is fairly easy even with the language barrier; and we would be able to live well and splurge when we wanted to without breaking our budget (as opposed to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Maldives and other honeymoon hot-spots).

Our honeymoon to Vietnam and Cambodia proved to be all of the above AND MORE. The following are from emails we wrote home to our families, with names added afterwards for reference…

Subject: Update from Vietnam!

Hi fam!

Sorry to not have written earlier! We’ve been having an incredible time in Vietnam. Seriously every place so far has been a highlight, it’s pretty unreal. We’ve taken about 2000 photos each already so we’re starting an album of some highlights. 

One of our favorite lunches (marinated fried catfish hotpot with fixings), Chả Cá Thăng Long, Hanoi © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We started with 2 days in Hanoi walking around the old streets and eating some amazing food, and egg coffee, which is surprisingly delicious. Our first night we went with Hanoi Street Food Tours to sample some of the awesome street foods we wouldn’t have otherwise known to order.

Hanoi © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The second night we took a $1 Grab, (the Vietnamese Uber that costs $1 to go almost anywhere) to Chim Sao, this non-touristy restaurant out of the city center, and had an incredible dinner of traditional specialties like water buffalo, mountain sausage, banana flower salad, baby mussels, and rice wine. Food here is out of this world—very different from American Vietnamese and we are constantly surprised by the dishes.

View from our room at Ham Rong Homestay © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We had a great experience with Hanoi La Castela, the hotel we ended up in after we decided to leave our not so clean Airbnb. The staff at the hotel was incredibly friendly and helpful and their breakfasts were huge and delicious. They set up a car & driver for us to go to Ninh Binh, the gorgeous region about 3 hours west of Hanoi in the countryside. Lots of beautiful karsts (those tall mountain things jutting up from the land that you see in all the photos of Ha Long Bay). We stayed in a beautiful secluded homestay, Ham Rong, where the only sounds we could hear were the animals and insects around. We arrived just in time to hike the 500 steps of the mountain-top above Mua Caves and catch the sunset over an incredible panorama of Tam Coc and Ninh Binh.

Mua Caves, Tam Coc, Ninh Binh © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next 2 days we rented scooters from our homestay and had an amazing time riding around the countryside. Don’t worry, Dave was sure to drive very slowly and carefully, and it was all country back roads so very safe. We took a little boat ride through the karsts and caves in nearby Trang An, wandered through the back roads of the little villages, and visited some very cool temples built into the sides of mountains, like Bich Dong Pagoda. We also visited Bai Dinh, apparently the largest temple in all of Southeast Asia with a giant gold Buddha in one of the main halls–the whole complex was pretty ostentatious and absurd, and very cool to see, especially all lit up at night.

Along the road in Pu Luong, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our homestay arranged for a private car to take us to Pu Luong, where we stayed for 2 nights and absolutely need to return. It’s a phenomenally gorgeous nature reserve with self-sustaining villages that was totally unknown to foreigners before about a year or so ago. Some people have caught on and now some of the villages have started making homestays for visitors, but it’s still very rare to see any other white people outside of the homestay. There’s no tourism infrastructure (yet) aside from these few clusters of homestays so it feels like a very special peak into authentic traditional Vietnamese village culture.

Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rice terraces of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the time you’re just surrounded by spectacular landscapes of terraced rice fields and mountains with scattered people tilling soil, herding water buffalo, cutting bamboo, harvesting rice, etc.

A village of Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout the national park there are amazing little villages with everyone out working together, and everyone was so sweet to us when they’d realize we were foreigners. Anytime we’d go through a village all the little kids would very cutely run out to say “Hello! Hello! Hello!” until we passed.

Our treehouse at Pu Luong Treehouse, Don Village, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stayed at Pu Luong Treehouse, the first night in an actual treehouse with the most gorgeous view, then upgraded the second night to a bungalow at the same place (same view) with private bathroom and a bigger space which was really gorgeous and probably one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. The host, Zoom, is from Hanoi, went to school in Alaska, has traveled the world, and has amazing taste so the whole little retreat she’s created is designed into the landscape with beautiful details everywhere. Basically everything is made of bamboo or branches, all the linens made herself with traditional textiles and weavings from Pu Luong. The chef she hired from the village is also incredible so we’ve been eating VERY well (several course meals 3 times/day). 

Traditional weaving in Don village, Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Incredible lunch stop at Nhá Tung homestay near Les bains de Hieu, Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We’re currently in a car back to Hanoi with Zoom (who’s 8 months pregnant and had to return home for a few days) and two great Australian girls who were also staying at the homestay. All 7 of us staying there got pretty close over the past 3 days, which seemed to be a function of the sweet energy Zoom’s created at the homestay, and I guess the type of people this very random, very peaceful province attracts, as it takes a good amount of research to get there. We’re sad to leave, but so excited for each next part of the trip!

Dragonfish meal with morning glory at  Nhà hàng 1946 © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Spending tonight in Hanoi and leaving tomorrow morning for Bai Tu Long Bay (Ha Long Bay’s apparently less touristy, equally beautiful sister). We’ll be on Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend for 3 days, 2 nights.

Love yous! Us

Subject: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Hi fam!

Angkor Wat, 12th century Buddhist temple, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Photo: Senghuat Boun

We’re currently on a small prop plane from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville to catch a boat to Koh Ta Kiev, a tiny island off the southern coast of Cambodia. We had an amazing (but too short) 2 days in Siem Reap exploring the Angkor Wat complex. We hired a private guide/driver (Senghuat Boun) on the recommendation of a couple we met on our cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, and he was amazing.

Dave playing his guitarlele with the children of the Temple guard at Ta Nei © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini watching the kids draw in her sketchbook at Ta Nei
 © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We saw all the main temples plus a few smaller “off the beaten path” ones, including Ta Nei in the jungle, a small temple that hasn’t yet been restored and is amazing to see how it’s been reclaimed by nature. When we were there this afternoon it was just us, the temple guard, and her 2 ridiculously cute children who played guitar with Dave (he has his guitarlele with him) and drew with me. It was a really sweet way to end the temple circuit.

First Light over Angkor Wat © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
South Gate of Angkor Thom © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Afterwards we had our driver drop us off at a restaurant we found last night but was closed then, and our lunch there today was actually one of the best meals either of us have ever had (Pou Kitchen & Cafe). In NYC it would have a 6-month waitlist. Four incredibly inventive dishes plus dessert and fancy iced coffee came to $22.

Preah Kahn, 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father. Photo: Senghuat Boun

Before Siem Reap, the cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome. Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend is a 4-star ship with amazing food (and a ton of it), and makes an extremely relaxing experience on the bay.

Aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini relaxing aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sailed to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposed to be less touristy and cleaner than Ha Long Bay, and we barely saw another boat on the water except for when we docked to sleep, since boats are only allowed to dock overnight in one specific spot). It was actually a luxury 45-person cruise ship, but only 14 people were on board so it was very sweet and intimate, and the perfect amount of people for the short day tours (kayaking, visiting a fishing village, learning about oyster harvesting). I loved spending the afternoons drawing and reading Adam’s book and Dave got to play a lot of guitar.

Hoi An, rainy season © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a quick overnight in Hanoi the night we returned from the cruise, we went to Hoi An, about an hour flight south of Hanoi. There was torrential downpour from the time we arrived until 2 days later (completely forgot this is rainy season in the south). But it gave us a night in to chill at our beautiful hotel (Ocean Breeze Villa) in An Bang, the sleepy beach town just out of the city where we were somehow able to order delivery from Morning Glory, one of the city’s best restaurants.

Takeout from Morning Glory during the storm in Ocean Villa Hotel, An Bang, Hoi An © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We took another $1 Grab into the city and got an incredible 2-hour massage and scrub at 5 Senses Spa during the heaviest rains of the 2nd day ($26 for a 90 min massage!). 

We try on our new clothes
at Thong Phi Tailors, Hoi An

The rest of the time we mostly spent shopping and eating, since this is the town known for their great tailors, which are all indoors. From one shop we went into the first day, Thông Phi Tailors, Dave got a nice black suit, chinos, and 3 dress shirts, and I got 2 linen jumpsuits and a pair of linen trousers, all made to order with a few rounds of alterations so everything fits perfectly. The last day Dave started talking to a shop person at a different Tailor (Bai Diep) while he was waiting for me next door and he ended up getting 4 more shirts and an awesome patterned blazer for me all tailored and altered in just 3 hours!


Bahn Mi assembly line during the lunch rush at the Parts Unknown favorite, Bahn Mi Phuong, Hoi An, Vietnam
© Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of that last day was finally sunny so we were able to see the beautiful colored walls (mostly rich yellow) and multi-colored lanterns emblematic of the city without all the rain. You can look up #hoian on instagram to get a sense. The city is wild–it’s one of the oldest looking towns because the whole ancient quarter is a registered historic site so they can’t do anything to alter its appearance, though the entirety of this old town is catered to tourists, with shops selling clothes, leather, tailored goods, and other stuff in just about every storefront. It was great for a rainy 2 1/2 days. 

Sampling street food in Hoi An, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

So now we’re off to 5 days/nights on an island to do nothing but read and veg. We’re most likely spending 2 nights in Koh Ta Kiev, the small island with no electricity, so we’ll be out of touch for at least a few days. If we love it there we’ll stay longer. If we decide we want a hot shower or fans we’ll head to Koh Rong Samloen, another beautiful small island that’s slightly more developed with Bungalows with real walls, showers, and AC. We’ll be in touch when we’re back in wifi zone! Can’t wait to catch up with you all!!

Miss and love yous! 

Us

Subject: Re: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Crystal clear waters at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia

Hi guys! Just wanted to let you know where we landed…  We’re at Lazy Beach in Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia until we head to the airport. We have a perfect pretty large bungalow with a beautiful view of the water and the beach is quiet and awesome.

Morning to ourselves at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In total contrast to construction-hell Sihanoukville and even Koh Rong Samloen’s Saracen Bay that’s beginning to be pretty built up, all that’s built on this side of the island are about 15 bungalows stretching along the shore and one open-air restaurant where we’re able to order all our meals from an extensive menu of both Western and Cambodian specialities (the owners are from the UK, the kitchen crew is mostly Cambodian). Everything is wonderful. We feel very lucky to be here. No WiFi on this part of the island, but Dave’s phone seems to get sporadic service so text him if you need us. Otherwise we’ll be back in touch on the 18th when we land in JFK! 

Love yous! 

Us

_____________________________

© 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

From African Safaris to Chernobyl Nuclear Site, NYT Travel Show Showcases a World of Travel Experiences

Katoryna Aslamova, the chief guide for Chernobyl Tours, who has been leading tours to the Chernobyl nuclear site for years, at the New York Times Travel Show. Last year, 70,000 people toured Chernobyl, and the numbers have been increasing 30 percent a year © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The New York Times Travel Show, which takes place each year at the Javits Center in New York City, is the largest consumer travel show in North America. Essentially, in the course of an afternoon, you can travel around the world on a single floor and 1000 steps.

The three-day showcase features global cuisine tastings, cultural performances, travel book signings, one-on-one conversations with travel experts, travel seminars and special discounts and offers from 600 exhibitors.

Here are some highlights from our “tour” around the floor at this year’s show:

Chernobyl Tour, Ukraine

The world’s largest radiation catastrophe at a nuclear power plant took place at the now infamous Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. An area the size of a small state was abandoned. Today, it is a tourist attraction, visited on daytrips and multi-day trips.

I meet Katoryna Aslamova, the chief guide for Chernobyl Tours, who has been leading tours there for years, and asserts that visiting is absolutely safe.

Though people love to post selfies of a Geiger counter beeping when it hits 0.3, she notes that the level of radiation during the course of a full day tour is equivalent to what you experience on an hour-long airplane flight (she says that the flight from Ukraine to London showed 2.82; to NY 3.91); 160 times less than a chest x-ray; 3600 times less than a whole body CT scan. It is even safe for pregnant women. The only ones not allowed are people under the age of 18, mainly because they cannot be legally prosecuted if they break rules, take out any of the rocks or disturb the soil (that could unleash damaging material).

(You can order a personal dosimeter “it will make your experience more enjoyable and memorable by making the radiation level visible and show your exact radiation dose at the end of the trip.)

 “It is so easy to set up the mood, the perception that visiting Chernobyl is risky. There are some hot spots on the ground– the size of a coin or tennis ball and the closer you come to it, the higher the radiation. But it can’t influence health because it would need long term exposure. Even if you measure a hot spot in the radiation zone, no place is high enough to risk health. The only place that would be dangerous would be inside unit, which is covered (double-sealed).

What could be risky hypothetically is the radioactive dust  (that give off alpha rays) that is still in ground have particles  –“ if you would dig it up or ingest it, that would cause dangerous exposure – so it is prohibited to dig or plant there.”

There is no restriction for pregnant woman if not prohibited to fly.

To take the tour, you are picked up in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, at 8 am for the 1 ½ hour bus ride. Over the course of a full day (the bus returns about 8-9 pm), you visit several sites.

The first stop is the village of Zalissya, which was the biggest in the area. “We are trying to tell not only about the accident but how people lived.”

Next the town of Chernobyl, which is 18 km from the powerplant (and not the ghost city that is so frequently pictured). People still occupy Chernobyl – scientists and foresters – who live there for 15 days a month in dormitory. “It is a unique place for research.” Visitors who do the overnight tours stay in hotels in Chernobyl.

There also are “self-resettlers” here and in other villages in the contamination zone – people who were evacuated after the accident “but sneaked back into the houses in the zone. They were homesick or had no place else to go.”

The accident took place in 1986, and many believe it contributed to the collapse of Soviet Union. “People stopped trusting government and the economy collapsed.”

She notes, “Nobody knows how many affected by Chernobyl explosion – the Soviet government tried to hide.”

The tour visits Radar Duga-1, a secret Soviet base known as Chernobyl 2 –which would have launched nuclear weapons. It is the only remaining antenna.

This reminds me of a documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about a Russian Lt. Colonel, Stanislav E. Petrov, who on September 26, 1983, despite radar showing the United States had launched nuclear missiles against Russia, refused to give the order to launch Russia’s missiles, literally saving the world from nuclear holocaust (for which he was disgraced and lost everything). No one knew of him for 25 years, but she knows of him. “He was a hero but not appreciated.” In that moment, I had such a sense of connection with this young woman from the Ukraine through our mutual knowledge and appreciation of Petrov.

The tour continues on to Kopachi Village which was buried under ground because there was too much radiation, but there are still some buildings (that’s where the famous photo of a kindergarten is from). You come up to the side of the power plant – 300 meters from the accident (but still, she says, 4x lower radiation than on an airplane.” 

Then the Red Forest, famous because it was consumed by the cloud. “We don’t go inside, but measure radiation.”

Then on to the famous ghost city of Prypat. This is not just where people lived – it had a population of 50,000  – but was a model city of the Soviet Union. The average age was 26 – every third person was a child. They were employees of plant. It was supposed to be model of the great Soviet life, if Communism would have worked.”

Chernobyl was biggest nuclear accident ever, but what does the whole world know? That there was an explosion, people died, it can’t be inhabited. But it is also a story of victory – of the mitigated areas.

All of this in one day, but there are multi-day tours, as well.

Every year 30% more people come on the tour (which is offered year round). Last year 70,000 people came (there are at least five tour companies, of which Chernobyl Tour is the largest.) Most take the one-day tour $89 – includes insurance, transfer, guard, permissions (can book day before, but it costs more).

There are also tours inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and other limited access facilities; airplane and helicopter tours over the Chernobyl Zone and Ukraine; military tours to the shooting ranges, rides on armored vehicles and visits to a nuclear missile base; underground tours in the drainage systems, subway, tunnels and caves, and sightseeing tours in Ukraine.

Chernobyl-Tour.UA, 11 Andriivskyi descent, Kyiv, Ukraine, tel. 888-752-0336 (US), www.Chernobyl-tour.com.

Americans Continue to Visit Cuba

Travel from the US to Cuba is expected to rebound in 2019 after declining in 2018 after Trump renewed restrictions on travel and issued a State Department warning. That didn’t deter visits from Canada, Europe and Russia, and visits to the island nation increased. Cruise arrivals continued to increase in 2018, and were expected to exceed 850,000, with 70% of the cruisegoers coming from the US. Travel companies continue to offer tours that meet the Trump requirements, and all forms of “purposeful” travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain in place (heritage, family, journalists).

Independent travel by individuals, families and friends is largely unchanged but now falls under the rewritten license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People to People.” But Americans are cautioned not to stay or use facilities that support the regime; staying homes (Air BnB), is okay. “Keep your receipts for five years,” a woman who traveled independently through Cuba in 2017 tells me.

“I used Air BnB, stayed with beautiful families, visited schools, brought school supplies,” Shay Pantone of NY, who traveled to Cuba in 2017, tells me, adding “You need to speak Spanish if you are going to travel independently.”

Despite the Trump Administration’s branding Cuba with a Level 2 travel advisory (“Exercise Increased Caution”), the same status as 57 other countries including 12 in the Americas and 7 in western Europe, Cuba is judged by most as one of the safest destinations in the region with less crime and disease.

How to go? The Fund for Reconciliation and Development (www.ffrd.org), a group that has been advocating for opening travel and overturning sanctions against Cuba for years, advises:

  • Book nonstop to Havana on Jet Blue from JFK or on United from Newark; American, Delta and southwest have connecting flights. American or Jet Blue flies from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Holguin, Varadero, Carnaguey and Santiago (from May 3).
  • Select “Support for the Cuban People” as the appropriate license category from the airline menu.
  • Use Air BnB or Trip Advisor to reserve a room or apartment (casa particular) from a private owner.
  • East in private restaurant (paladar)
  • Buy handicrafts, art and clothing from self-employed craftspeople and creators (cuento propistos).
  • If you need a guide, hire privately (preferably in advance)
  • As much as possible, use private taxis (also available between cities)
  • “Whatever you do, wherever you go, be intentional and responsible that your goal is ‘a full time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people.. and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.’ (The judgment of what qualifies is yours.)”
  • Apportion recreational activities like concerts, dancing and the beach as in a normal work week.
  • Keep a journal or list of your ‘meaningful interactions’ for five years.
  • If you are on a cruise, exercise your right to explore independently or with a local guide.

More information:

Current US government regulations: tinyurl.com/regsnov2017

Essential information for independent travelers: tinyurl.com/Cubabasics

Fund for Reconciliation and Development is offering a fam trip May 3-10 to explore Santiago and Guantanamo; and for Carnival, July 20-28.

Fund For Reconciliation and Development, 917-859-9027, director @ffrd.org, www.ffrd.org.

Safaris with Social Benefit

Zulu Nyala promotes animal conservation in its six-day, six night safari packages using four-star lodges, in its own safari park the family has had for 35 years. “The owner was out with his family and stopped to look at a giraffe, saw a for-sale sign, and bought 15,000 acres.” The park accommodates up to 300 guests in three lodges (50-units, 56 suites, 48 safari tents). The all-inclusive program is hosted by a game ranger and offers two activities a day (walking or driving). (www.zulunyala.com).

The organization also offers the opportunity for organizations to use the $6,000 safaris as a charity fundraiser – for example, starting the auction at $2500 for two for a six-night stay, where the organization keeps 50 percent and gives the safari company 50%.

“There’s no money or risk on the part of the organization; we’ve been doing it for 15 years, and supported hundreds of American organizations.” (Contact Debbie Bosman, African Safari Donations, 800-595-5810, www.safarisforcharity.com, bosman@zulunyala.com).

Off Season Adventures: The idea here is to safari in Tanzania and Zanzibar off-season, when there are fewer people, it is less expensive, while also supporting local communities. The company reserve 5% of clients’ total package cost to invest in the communities and wildlife through a 501(c)(3) public charity Second Look Worldwide.  “These community and environmental investments are tangible projects which our clients can see during their trip. All projects are determined by the communities and dependent on their most direct needs, however, we are focusing on projects that support water management solutions. Our goal is to become a sustainable, net-positive travel company by replacing and building up all resources used by our clients during their tours.”

The company’s first community initiative, the Kakoi Water Project , is a project that will provide a year-round source of water to the village of Kakoi and its surrounding communities, which include three other villages, two schools, and a dispensary. “By supporting these local communities that border Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, we contribute to their well-being and encourage them to make an extra effort to protect animals in the area.”  The tours include an excursion to the Kakoi Water Project. Visitors get to visit a relative of theirs – go into hut, gather honey, seeds, roots, experience how live.

Off Season Adventures not only times its safaris in Tanzania and Zanzibar in the off-season when there are fewer people, it is less expensive and less stressful for villagers and wildlife, but also allocates 5% of tour price to support local community; this year, supporting the Kakoi Water Project to provide a year-round source of water for the 1000 people of the Kakoi Village and surrounding villages, and brings its guests to see it.

The tour company also offsets all carbon emissions through a partnership with Carbon Tanzania, which conserves huge tracks of forested land in Tanzania, a more productive way of offsetting carbon.  “To date, we have offset 83.84 metric tons of CO2 and protected 69 trees by helping Carbon Tanzania preserve 35,000ha of forest in the Yaeda Valley, an area that the Hadzabe tribe have called home for thousands of years. This way of offsetting not only has a positive environmental impact, but also has a positive impact on the local population of the Hadzabe.”

“Travel has the power to transform not only the traveler, but also our world. This belief forms the foundation of our business. We have a deep commitment to protecting and preserving the destinations we visit, and building a better world through sustainable travel.

“We believe in integrating sustainability into all components of our business. We are committed to providing experiences that have a positive impact on the environment, community, and economy of each destination visited. We work closely with our local partners to ensure that travelers are respectfully visiting in a way that showcases authentic experiences.”

(Off-Season Adventures, 100 Marshall Street #416, Hoboken, NJ 07030, 619-971-0823, offseasonadventures.com). 

Tours by Locals

Tours by Locals has now grown to a network of 3100 independent-contractor guides. The company facilitates the trend toward independent, “authentic,” experiential travel. The company marked a milestone: 10 years and 1 million travelers. You can find a guide for Vietnam ($50 US for 8 hours private, with car; less if walking or cycling city). The most northerly guide in the registry now is in Svalbord, Norway (where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located); the newest is in Mogadishu, Somalia (the guide comes with security); and there is an uptick in requests for guides in Cuba.

Israel for Foodies

I found it intriguing that Israel was the sponsor of the Taste of Travel section for the second year. Israel, after all, is not top-of-mind for cuisine. 

“Israel has wonderfully diverse gastronomic. We have James Beard Award-winning chefs,” Chad Martin, Northeast Region Director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (www.israel.travel), says. “Israel is 70 years old- we now have fourth and fifth generation Israelis. Israel is a pot that hasn’t melted – In Israel, you might have four grandparents from different ends of the earth: Argentina, Morocco, Russia, East Asia – all Jewish and intermarrying. They borrow the best recipes from every grandparent, the spices mix together

What is Israeli food? “Israeli food is a mix of 70 cultures. The combination of cultures and innovation together – Israel, after all, is the Innovation Nation with the most start-ups.- it has a culture of creativity and that manifests in the food. We invented the cherry tomato. We’ve made numerous innovations in agriculture – we made the desert bloom, and there, things grow sweeter.

“The Israeli food scene is based around fresh ingredients. We are the size of New Jersey but have our own vegetables.”

At the New York Times Travel Show, Israel shows off its diversified offerings for travelers beyond heritage and pilgrimage experiences, from culinary to adventuring © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Culinary experience is just one of the ways Israel is reaching out beyond the most traditional sources of visitors- Jewish Heritage and Christian Pilgrimage. For the first time, Israel surpassed 1 million visitors from the North America, posting 42% growth over a two-year period. People are coming for food and wine experiences, meetings and incentives, even adventure and outdoors travel – mountain biking in the Negev where the country’s first Six Senses resort is opening and a new airport is opening in Eilat. Hikers can travel Trail Israel – it takes a month – and kayak in the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra, a geologic formation on the border between Israel and Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea coast in the Western Galilee.

“40% of our visitors are returnees, but not just for heritage, but because they realize that can’t really ‘do Israel’ in one trip. The ‘sophisticated travel’ segment has skyrocketed.”

The New York Times Travel Show brings culture from around the world to entice travelers to discover © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The New York Times Travel Show, now in its 16th year, is the largest and longest-running trade and consumer travel show in North America, hosting 10,000 travel professionals during a Travel Industry Conference, and some 22,000 travelers at Consumer Seminars, Meet The Experts Pavilion and an interactive Exhibition with more than 600 exhibitors representing travel to all seven continents, positioned within 16 pavilions (including Adventure, Africa, Asia, Australia/South Pacific, Canada, Caribbean, Cruise, Europe, Family, Global, Latin America, L.G.B.T.Q., Mexico, River Cruise, Travel Products, and U.S.A. Pavilions). In addition to discounts and special offers, the show provides educational seminars and live entertainment for families, individuals and couples and seniors.

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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

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.

There are several ways to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide, Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.

With four days or more, you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion from that point.

Our main advice is to budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic itinerary:

Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…

Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou

This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.

Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.

Our tips:

  • Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
  • Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).      
  • Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
  • Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.

Day 2

Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.

Our Tips:

  • If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
  • If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.

Rachid then took us to Todra Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves.  (Rachid Haddi: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • The range for rugs in each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals $104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they meet you close to your price.

Day 3 Continued:

After lunch we left Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger roads if slightly less direct.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1 in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals $104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style beds with sheets in large private tents.

            Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500 MAD/person.

            Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid 900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
  • Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
  • Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
  • Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.

Our lodging tips:

  • Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
  • Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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