Category Archives: Global Scavenger Hunt

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.