Category Archives: Responsible Travel

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also recommended:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

Bagan, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sule Pagoda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I plan on seeing more of Yangon when I return.

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

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

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

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

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

NYT Travel Show: How to Be a Responsible Traveler… and Why

Safari in the tiger reserve of Kanha National Park in central India – tour companies, guides and visitors are tightly regulated. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Overtourism is a growing concern and not just for residents of popular places being overrun and rendered unaffordable and uninhabitable by onslaughts of tourists, possibly assisted by the mad dashes to the next “hot” place, prompted by social media “influencers” and “user generated” posts (‘Look at what a wonderful place I’m in, you should come!”). Governments and municipalities who otherwise relish the jobs created and economic benefits of tourism, are increasingly concerned about the literal destruction of the very thing that so attracts travelers – effectively killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Some destinations are being mindful – Venice is even contemplating charging admission to day-trippers and there are now gates in place that can close off the city to anyone who isn’t a resident or hotel guest at night. Coral reefs are being killed off by snorkelers wearing popular sunscreens with oxybenzone (a travel company, Aqua-Aston Hospitality, won an HSMAI Adrian Award for Leadership in Corporate Social Responsibility for its “Reef Safe” Campaign raising awareness, including giving out 70,000 samples of appropriate sunscreen and ultimately got the state of Hawaii to ban the damaging chemical).

Places like the Galapagos and Macchu Picchu limit the number of people; the National Park Service has a lottery system for permits rafting in the Grand Canyon and people wait years for their number to come up.

Rafting and camping in Grand Canyon National Park are limited by number of permits issued and space © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

People can love a place to death, or just be so selfish and insensitive not to care – look at what happened the Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown, with vandals and marauders destroying trees that take 1000 years to grow, and will take 200 to 300 years to restore the park.

It’s a dual-edged sword, though: tourism, done right, helps sustain the very environment, culture and heritage by providing economic sustenance, so indigenous people can continue to live and work in their native lands, so there is money for maintenance and upkeep of monuments, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. Ironically, some game preserves justify selling hunting permits to sustain the animals. And often, travelers are not in a position to know whether the elephants or camels they ride are “gentle” because they have been conditioned with cruel means.

“I’m shocked how people (Americans) don’t care – until problem is right on them,” an irate Mark Lakin, Co-Founder, Epic Road, said at the New York Times Travel Show panel, ”Sustainable and Socially Conscious Travel: Tips, Advice and Travel Experiences.”

“Think about what drew you to a place – sustainability is defined as preservation of that asset – whatever it is that you want to see, you want your kids to see, you are choosing to make that asset live. I’m surprised more aren’t concerned about travel.” 

“Travel is not a right, travel is a privilege – if you are among those people privileged to travel, you have obligation to preserve [what it is you are traveling to see],” said Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel. “Are you going to exploit or empower? We practice ecotourism – responsible travel to natural places – eco doesn’t stand for economy, which is exploitive, it stands for ecology.

Visitors are up at dawn to participate with indigenous people in the Sacred Maya Journey, on the Playa del Carmen, in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Responsible travelers make an effort to get to know local people and learn about their customs and heritage © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Our purpose for being is to teach people how to travel more responsibly, sustainably to preserve not just the natural but the cultural – languages, music, dance – all the things that make a cultural destination unique. If we are not preserving, they won’t survive. The reason this is important is that if we don’t spend money responsibly when we travel, we risk losing all the things that make the places special.”

“There are two terms fairly loosely used: responsible travel and sustainable travel,” said James Currie, Wilderness Safaris Brand Ambassador. “Responsible travel has now become a word that you have to embrace sustainability to be responsible – yes can travel with a sustainable outfitter – someone who is taking care of the environment, who builds lodges in a sustainable way, but it is up to us travelers to act responsibly – to respect local cultures, communities, distances you go to see animals.

“I genuinely believe that responsible travel is a better form of travel, and once people experience it, you won’t want to travel any other way.”

New York Times travel and lifestyle writer, Shivani Vora discusses socially conscious and sustainable travel with experts Mark Lakin, Co-Founder, Epic Road; Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel; and James Currie, Wilderness Safaris Brand Ambassador © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New York Times travel and lifestyle writer, Shivani Vora, who moderated the panel, Sustainable and Socially Conscious Travel: Tips, Advice and Travel Experiences, at the New York times Travel Show, raised the issue that “so many of us stay in hotels, what does it mean to choose a sustainable hotel?

“There is such a thing as greenwashing – towels, hire locals – that actually saves money,” said Currie. “True sustainability goes so much further. When considering a sustainable hotel in fragile environments (like safari lodges), consider: Is that hotel built in a sustainable manner? Where we operate in the wilderness areas of Africa, you can literally pick our lodges up and there will be little sign of ever having been– there is no concrete foundation, everything is on elevated boardwalks, canvas-style tents, yet you still don’t sacrifice luxury. What are those hotels on the ground doing to have sustainable effect – animals, conservation, local communities? What are you doing for local communities, how are they benefiting from  the tourism dollars going to the hotel, what conservation projects are they supporting? We’ve been operating 35 years – 35 ears of “traveling with purpose” – we pioneered ecotourism in Africa before the word existed. 

“We use life changing journeys to help preserve and restore the wild places of Africa. Wilderness safaris connect with nature, make a difference. We were the first with passion, courage to pioneer sustainable ecotourism as we know it today. We adopted the African schema as a logo, a symbol of pristine and fragile eco systems. We were the first to reintroduce previously extinct species (rhino), to do ground-breaking reforestation in Rwanda habitat for gorillas.

“For us, it’s not just about big game on the savannah – thanks to 35 years of experience, we are able to offer guests authentic, intimate wildlife encounters – 2 million hectares of pristine wilderness areas in seven countries, 40 camps and lodges that epitomize our ideal.

While visiting temples in Cambodia, sketching with local children © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Conservation is also about people. “Our journeys change lives” not just those of guests, but of the staff and thousands of people who live in these communities.”

Among the programs that Wilderness Safaris offers is Youth of Africa, an eco-mentor program, where young people access and can appreciate their heritage and become the conservation leaders of the future. “We change lives now and into the future; our journeys change lives. We make a political impact.”

 “Don’t be afraid to ask the important questions when you travel in Africa,” Currie said. “If they don’t have something tangible in writing, a really good environmental policy, you are booking the wrong hotel or operator.

Bret Love, Co-Founder, Green Global Travel advised, “Certification programs to look for – some are more efficient than others – LEED building certification (if the hotel was built in sustainable fashion, but not if operated sustainable, or community initiatives). The epitome is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (gstcouncil.org), which devises criteria by which tour operators and hotels are judged. But you have to pay to play and small mom and pop operators may not be able to afford certification. Another is Earthcheck (earthcheck.org) which has patented software and systems that have set a benchmark for sustainability reporting for the travel and tourism industry and is used 70 countries. Another is Green Globe and Rainforest Alliance.

“But it boils down to reviewing blogs, authoritative sites like New York Times, what people say. Look for active engagements with the community. 

“We work with international expeditions, leading tours to Peruvian Amazon for years – go to local schools in Iquitos where have conservation education program for kids, who train to become guides and trackers; go to river villages to see water treatment plants they created for villages, sidewalks so don’t have to watch for poisonous snakes – use money from tourism for schools, infrastructure.”

In Kenya, Gamewatchers Safaris & Camps have a connection to Masai. The company pioneered Masai conservancies, just outside Masai Mara where there is more wildlife because the animals are more protected. The local communities own the land which Gamewatchers lease, 90% of the employees are from the Masai and the company pays out $500,000, divided among 1000 local Masai families that own the property. So, look where money goes to community.

“Why it should matter to you is not just benevolence,” said Lakin. “In the Maldives people love those romantic over-water bungalows built on coral reefs. But if you use heavy machinery to build them, you kill the reef. Why should you care? Because when you dive off from your bungalow to the reef, it’s dead.

“The person who comes and serves breakfast. If the wilderness lodge has gone out of its way to build a school to educate that waiter’s child, he  will be happy to have the job, and it will be reflected in how he treats the guest.

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.

“Stop seeking ‘ecotourism’ for ecotourism. You are all curious nomads, seeking out the next great adventure. If you  want adventure to be great, think about how every person, place and thing was treated and hopefully the label of ‘ecotourism’ will go away and it will just be about good business practice.”

Even hotels in urban destinations can reflect sustainable practices and responsible tourism.

“Consider not just how the building was built, but what extra things the hotel does for the local community, visitor experience,” Love said. “Does it have its own rooftop garden where they grow produce used in the restaurant? Does it have a rainwater catchment system so they are not using public water, or a gray water recycling system to irrigate, efficient lighting. Does it make the lowest impact it can make?”

The easiest telltale says Lakin, “Do the plastic test: if you walk into the room and you only see plastic; how many little bottles, pens, cups? “

“Whether a hotel is in Africa or a city, there are tangible examples of what a difference we can make, Currie says. “We had plastic bottles at our lodges until 2012, when we started a five-year plan to reduce plastic in lodges. In five years, we reduced plastic waste by 88%. We also put in reverse osmosis and recycle wastewater for vegetable gardens.

The amount of electricity using solar can save is 5000 carbon tons, equivalent to 600 flights between London and Johannesburg. Ask hotels what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach, Florida, was Florida’s first LEED Silver certified hotel; even the pool was designed to be purified without chlorine. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

“If you travel and see a company not managing sustainably, speak up. As consumers, you have power,” says Love. “We spoke up in the Amazon, where operators were using plastic water bottles which they had to have shipped in and then deal with it afterward. We said, Why not just put a water filter system on the boat, give guests a water bottle with your logo that they can fill up, then you don’t have to deal with shipping. You can make these changes.” 

“Sustainability is a ripple effect,” says Currie. “It starts with the traveler making a difference, which makes a difference for the hotel, which has immense power with suppliers. At Wilderness Safaris, we noticed that a lot of food that was coming in cellophane-wrapped. We put pressure on suppliers to stop wrapping the food in plastic.

But even companies that want to be sustainable, may not know all things they need to do – companies that offer animal interactions, like elephant rides in Thailand, camel rides in Egypt, posing with a tiger, swimming with dolphins or encountering sharks in a dive cage.

Love points to companies that offer a chance to ride an elephant. “We had to educate them that this is not truly sustainable – if you want to use these words and avoid greenwashing – dedicate yourself to educating yourself. Consumers should educate – at website, stories about cases.

“I swam with dolphins before the documentary, ‘The Cove’ came out. No one knew in 2007 about dolphins in captivity – swimming with dolphins was considered ecotourism. The same with riding an elephant and walking with lions. Elephants which are trained to pose for photos or give rides, are put through an extremely brutal training process, designed to break the animal’s spirit and make it a slave to human overseers. If you wouldn’t want something done to a human why would you allow it to be done to one of most precious and beautiful animals in the world?

“Educating yourself about what is behind these things- people see Tiger Temple in Thailand where you can pose with a tiger (which may be shut down). But it has been proven that the tiger has been drugged, that’s why it’s so placid – but people don’t know. If you are touching an animal, posing with selfie, riding an animal that’s not meant to be ridden, probably there is some hurtful process to condition the animal. People don’t know. But if what you are doing is changing the natural behavior of the animal, don’t do it.

Aqua-Aston Hospitality won HSMAI’s Leader in Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its “Reef Safe” Campaign that turned the tide against coral bleaching in Hawaii caused by a chemical in many sunscreens with both a consumer awareness campaign (including giving out 70,000 samples of appropriate sunscreen) and achieving a state ban on the use of sunscreens with the damaging chemical © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even snorkelers can be unwitting killers of the coral, by wearing sunscreen containing  oxybenzone, which is toxic to the living coral.

 “If on safari, game rangers or guides too close to wildlife that puts you at risk, but if something happens, the animal would be shot,” Currie says. “Guides must respect a comfortable distance, and keep park vehicles so they always have an escape route. If you see the guide getting  too close, say something. It’s about your safety but the animal’s safety also. At Ngorongoro Crater there are off road tracks all over because of irresponsible guides.

“The vast majority of animal interactions are not acceptable,” says Lakin. “One of the quickest ways to figure if interacting with captive animal is acceptable, is whether the animal is being bred.

In contrast, you can support organizations that rescue orphans and reintroduce them to the wild.

Lakin points to the David Shelbrick Wildlife Trust, which rescues orphan elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers. They have developed a synthetic milk formula that mimics elephant milk. They may spend 5-7 years rearing the baby elephant before reintroducing them into a herd, but allows visitors, who make a donation, to visit the baby elephants. Elephants have lived on earth for over 55 million years, but in just the last 100, we have lost 92% of elephants to habitat loss and poaching.” 

Epic Road supports the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DWST) which rescues, rehabilitates and reintroduces the orphaned elephants, providing travelers who symbolically “adopt” an elephant with a $50 donation, an opportunity to have a private visit.

“The experience is just better when it is responsible,” Lakin says.

Micato Safaris received HSMAI’s Leader in Corporate Social Responsibility Award for its “AmericaShare” Campaign, where a portion of guest fees goes to subsidize a child’s education, and promoting wildlife conservation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Wherever you go, try to engage with local community, food, culture, history, art, dance, everything that makes unique – don’t just be an observer but a participant – learn the language, learn to cook a dish, sing a song. In the Peruvian Amazon, we taught kids to do the hokey-pokey, in middle of Amazon! You will feel feelings you won’t get from all-inclusive resort, or a cruise. Just engage and be part of the world, embrace the world, that’s what makes travel real, connect across boundaries, understand we are all more alike than dissimilar. 

Overtourism – literally loving cherished places to death – is another problem inadvertently raised by ecotourists who believe they are supporting and sustaining environments and cultures. But there are ways to mitigate the adverse impact: time the visit to the off-season and less popular times when a destination is not being overrun. Even better, seek out alternatives.

The Taj Mahal is over-touristed, but a Responsible Traveler can choose to visit in less trafficked times. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“You might find joy in finding the 2, 3rd or 10th version of that place and not being with so many people,” says Lakin. “That’s not to say Taj Mahal or Victoria Falls are not spectacular but there is something to be said for visiting less trafficked.”

“There is no problem with going to Machu Picchu, which is doing things to limit tourists,” says Love. “But traveler should research and go in off season or shoulder. Machu Picchu is great but there is a whole sacred valley with amazing ancient ruins just as cool. Don’t neglect to see other things – in Czech Republic, Prague was crazy, way too many tourists, but every place outside Prague was great. You don’t want to contribute to mass tourism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit, just avoid peak times.”

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