Tag Archives: international travel

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are off to Abu Dhabi!

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

________

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

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shwedagon Pagoda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

State Department Implements New Travel Advisory System, New Info Hub for US Travelers

A biking and wildlife safari in rural India: India has been issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory, with a particular warning for women not to travel alone since rape is one of the fastest growing crimes. Also it warns of terrorist or armed groups active in East Central India, primarily in rural areas. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

On January 10, 2018, the Department of State launched changes in how information is shared with U.S. travelers, replacing Travel Alerts and Warnings for countries that warrant them to a new system where every country has a Travel Advisory with a level ranging from 1 to 4.  The advisories are hosted in a redesigned hub for traveler information, travel.state.gov.

“These changes are intended to provide U.S. citizens with clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information worldwide,” the State Department stated in a press advisory.

  • Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. There is some risk in any international travel. Conditions in other countries may differ from those in the United States and may change at any time.
  • Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 3 – Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 4 – Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.

The Travel Advisories for each country replace previous Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts. While the State Department will issue an overall Travel Advisory level for every country, levels of advice may vary for specific locations or areas within a country. For instance, U.S. citizens may be advised to “Exercise Increased Caution” (Level 2) in a country, but to “Reconsider Travel” (Level 3) to a particular area within the country. Detailed Travel Advisories also will provide clear reasons for the level assigned, using established risk indicators, and offer specific advice to U.S. citizens who choose to travel there:

  • C – Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
  • T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  • U – Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  • H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present. The issuance of a Centers for Disease Control Travel Notice may be a factor.
  • N – Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  • E – Time-limited Event: A short-term event, such as an election, sporting event, or other incident that may pose a safety risk.
  • O – Other: There are potential risks not covered by previous risk indicators. Read the country’s Travel Advisory for details.

The State Department stated it will review and update each Travel Advisory as needed, based on changes to security and safety information. Additionally, U.S. embassies and consulates will now issue Alerts to replace the current Emergency Messages and Security Messages. Alerts will inform U.S. citizens of specific safety and security concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends, and weather events.

Revamped Website, Travel.State.Gov

The Department’s newly-redesigned hub for traveler information,travel.state.gov, will host all Travel Advisories, recent Alerts issued for each country, and an interactive map in mobile friendly formats.

Country pages on the site will continue to include all travel information currently available, including details about entry/exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, transportation, and other relevant topics.

To receive security and other important updates while traveling, U.S. citizens can enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (step.state.gov), and follow on Twitter (@travelgov) and Facebook (facebook.com/travelgov).

Enjoying a sailing adventure in the Philippines. The State Department issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory for Philippines: Terrorist and armed groups continue plotting possible kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks in the Philippines. Terrorist and armed groups may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We posed additional questions to a spokesperson for the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs:

How was the new Travel Advisory system created? How has it been received by travel professionals and travelers?

“Over the past year, we received feedback about our consular safety and security messaging from State Department colleagues throughout the world and from our many outreach activities to the public and other government stakeholders.  This feedback helped us tailor our new Travel Advisories to the information travelers need most.

“The revisions to consular safety and security messaging improve the Department’s ability to inform the public in an efficient and comprehensive manner.  Information is easier to find, understand, and use. Travel Advisories ensure U.S. citizens receive important advice for every country, applying a consistent worldwide standard.”

“Our goal was to improve our communications with U.S. citizen travelers to provide clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information worldwide. So far, the feedback was been positive.

“One thing I’d point out: it’s important to read the full Travel Advisory for the country your visiting.  In some cases, we have different Advisory levels for different parts of the country.  Mexico, for example, is a Travel Advisory Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution, but some areas of Mexico are Level 3 and 4.  So it’s important to read each Advisory carefully.”

How do you determine the overall level for a country?

“We consider many factors to determine the Travel Advisory level for each country, including crime, terrorist activity, civil unrest, health, natural disaster/weather,  and current events.  We clearly explain the reason for the Travel Advisory level and describe the safety and security concerns.

“The information used to formulate Travel Advisories is collected from a range of sources, such as crime statistics and other information that is publicly available, information gathered from U.S. government sources, as well as assessments by our embassies and consulates.  Travel Advisories also take into account decisions made to protect the security of U.S. government personnel overseas and ensure that U.S. citizens receive appropriate security information.

“This analysis is undertaken without regard to bilateral political or economic considerations.  Travel Advisories represent our commitment to protect U.S. citizens traveling  and residing abroad by providing them important safety and security information.

“Travel Advisories are based on safety and security conditions that could affect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad, not on political considerations.” 

Cuba-US People to People Partnership booth at the New York Times Travel Show: The US State Department’s Level 3 travel advisory (Reconsider Travel) for Cuba is controversial. The government says it is based on “health attacks directed at US Embassy employees” but Canada’s embassy had a similar episode and did not withdraw its diplomats, no other incidents were reported and tourists continue to come. Indeed, International Tourism Fair in Madrid recently judged Cuba “Safest Destination in the World.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the Obama administration there was an attempt to make it easier for travelers to come into US. How has the Trump Administration changed the way visitors are treated? Travel into the US from abroad is down 4-6% in 2017 – an otherwise a banner year for international travel – which is estimated to cost the US economy $4.5 billion and the loss of 40,000 jobs. Is this something the State Dept is concerned about?

“The Department of State remains committed to efficiently processing applications for legitimate travel to the United States.

“At the same time, every visa decision is a national security decision, and we must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States.   We have never hesitated to spend additional time evaluating visa applications to this end.

“However, we do recognize the importance of international travel and tourism to the U.S. Economy. 75.6 million visitors traveled to the United States in 2016.  These visitors spent $244.7 billion and supported 1.2 million jobs here in the United States in 2016.  The U.S. travel industry (international and domestic) is a substantial component of U.S. GDP and employment, contributing $1.6 trillion in economic activity.

“Together with other agencies, we are in contact with industry groups and work with them regularly to discuss concerns and opportunities.”

Some 15 countries around the world have travel alerts about travel to the United States because of gun violence. Can you comment?

“Our responsibility is to provide information for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.  We’re aware that some countries have their own travel alerts, including regarding the United States, but we’d have to refer you to those countries for information on how they develop their alerts.”

During the Obama Administration, there also were programs to facilitate and encourage young people to travel abroad, take foreign internships, join programs like Peace Corps, coordinated through the State Department. Can you comment on such programs under the Trump Administration? 

“Again this year, the Open Doors student mobility numbers showed an increase in American students studying abroad, topping more than 325,000 American students in academic year 2015/16. Increasingly, U.S. colleges and universities are making study abroad an integral component of the higher education experience for Americans.  And more U.S. students than ever before are taking advantage of study abroad opportunities in a wide range of countries.

“To help facilitate this growth, the State Department launched the U.S. Study Abroad Office in 2015 with the goal of further increasing and diversifying U.S. participation in study abroad, including diversity of study, geographic representation and diversity of institutional types, as well as diversity of study abroad destinations around the globe. We work with U.S. and foreign institutions to expand opportunities and highlight the value of studying abroad. Our Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program increases participation in study abroad by providing resources to federal Pell grants recipients, and Critical Language Scholarship Programs provide training in over a dozen foreign languages critical to U.S. foreign policy priorities.

“Study abroad helps students understand the perspectives and values of others, enabling them to succeed in our diverse workplaces, communities and educational institutions. The State Department supports American colleges and universities in their efforts to increase study abroad. You can find more here: https://studyabroad.state.gov.”

Biking through Albania, a country totally unknown or misunderstood by Americans: The State Department designates Albania as Level 1: Exercise normal precautions. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is the position from the State Department about the benefit of international travel – Americans going abroad and foreigners visiting the US – in terms of fostering people-to-people understanding?

“All of us who work in this field know how vital exchange programs and international study is to our shared future. It is one of the key means for the next generation of global leaders to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in our global economy, foster progress in our societies, and address shared challenges.

“When people go abroad, they make connections that broaden their worldview.  They become part of an international network of individuals with the shared experience of navigating new and unfamiliar languages, cultures and institutions, as they gain knowledge and develop resourcefulness and critical thinking skills. This experience is especially crucial for young people who will increasingly compete and interact in an interconnected world.

“The State Department sponsors exchange programs to increase mutual understanding and respect between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, as a goal of U.S. foreign policy.  These include the International Visitor Leadership Program and Fulbright Program, our flagship exchanges, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, Critical Language Scholarships, high school exchanges, as well as support for the global network of EducationUSA educational advising centers that provides information on U.S. study to international students worldwide.”

See also:

New York Times Travel Show: American Travelers Resilient In Face of Crises

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

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© 2018 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