Myan-mar-a-la-go very fast

April 20 – Myanmar day 2

We wake up at 5:30am ready to go, except one thing – there’s not a drop of water in our hotel.  

I walk to the front desk and find that the workers are missing and the outdoor seating area has been converted to a monastery.

I report back to Vi. “There’s no one out there except a bunch of guys dressed like monks.”

She laughs. “Why guys dressed like monks? Why not just monks?”

I’m open minded enough to leave all possibilities open.

We go to the “bus” station and get wedged into the back of a flatbed truck equipped with narrow bench seating. I see them dip small children into vats of Crisco so it is easier to squeeze them into any gaps left between shoulders and knees making the back of the truck one gelatinous human blob with 60 heads.

Keep your hands inside the car at all times…yeah,right

45 minutes of hairpin turns at breakneck speed up a jagged mountain gets us to a local tourist trap. I mean locals. I am the only white man. I know this because I am a foot taller than the entire sea of people. At a checkpoint, Vi and I are plucked out of the crowd and forced to pay a Foreign Visitor entrance fee. I’m insulted they presumed who we were based on the color of our skin.

A brief aside. Myanmar is not built for someone my size. It’s like I’m at the amusement park but forced to ride the kiddie rides, so that I’m bulging out in every direction like a fat lady in a bikini. The guy at the bus station yelled at me for taking two seats because I had to sit sideways, the idea that my femur was too long to allow me to sit straight forward was inconceivable to him. I attempted a demonstration that only triggered more yelling. I don’t speak Burmese but I think he said “I’m going to get Olga the Killer Masseuse to stomp your thigh bones to dust and then you’ll fit, Mr. Squishy Legs.” Seats and doorways aren’t made for me.

So far both country scavenge lists have included “get coffee with a local and ask these questions.”  I can honestly say that Vi and I would quite likely go to a coffee shop, the girl needs caffeine or else Tame Dragon Lady (500pts), but we wouldn’t talk to anyone.  Meeting a young man who wants to be an architect, dreams of going to Singapore, and loves the freedoms developing under the new government enriched our experience of Myanmar. Under the old government only the rich could get richer, now he thinks the system is that anyone can move up if they work hard. If everyone in the world could sit down for coffee and share their hopes and dreams we’d find we all want the same things. There would probably be no need for war. Too bad there are jerks like me who don’t drink coffee.  

We make the hike to Golden Rock. It wasn’t always golden. But is so precariously positioned that it could only be put there by the hand of God. It is now a mountaintop Buddhist temple and worshippers rub on super thin sheets of gold. Vi points out a monk with a tattoo of a scorpion on his neck and I remind her of the “guys dressed as monks” statement. We see another smoking a cigarette. Is anything sacred anymore?

Myanmar tourists snap almost as many photos of the Golden Boulder as they do the Great Pasty White Wonder from America. I’m a celebrity. We rename Golden Rock to Golden Boulder for merchandising purposes. A Golden Boulder Trapper Keeper Folder just sounds more enticing. And who wouldn’t want an Over the Shoulder Golden Boulder Holder?

We get back to our hotel and need a taxi back to Yangon Airport. It’s a 3.5 hour drive to catch a flight to Mandalay that leaves in 4 hours. Our fearless Ringleader hath said, “ if you’ve never missed a flight that means you spend too much time in airports.”  No time like the present to put the mantra to the test.

Only it takes us a half hour to get a taxi after getting shuffled from one to another. After painstaking delay we get a taxi with a Toyota Racing logo on the side. Our driver cracks his knuckles, packs a wad of betel leaves into his mouth, grins like he’s in pole position for the Indy 500. He names his price with a smile of dotted red and brown stained lower teeth. No sense negotiating, Vi agrees to give her firstborn if we make the flight.

Vi is a savvy negotiator, that sucker had no idea we aren’t going to have kids.

At some point it dawns on me that getting in an accident to make a flight isn’t worth it. That thought might have been provoked by passing other vehicles while going uphill around a curve at 90 km/h, a time-saving tip I’ve never thought to employ. Forget San Jose, Myanmar is the real test for autonomous driving. The slowest cars drive to the sides and other cars squeeze by through the middle from either direction. The driver is on the right side of the car and right side of the road.  Which means the car has to be almost in the middle for the driver to see if it is safe to pass. Slower drivers will put on their left turn signal to let drivers behind know it is safe to pass and they give a quick “beep beep” to let you know your rear bumper has passed their front one so you can cut back in after passing. It isn’t the dance we are used to, the rhythm is different and the steps are foreign, but we didn’t witness anyone step on anyone else’s toes.

Our driver has unilaterally decided to save gas or freon and not use the air conditioning on this 100 degree day. About halfway there we pay a toll and are granted access to a well constructed highway.  The admission fee must be hefty because we had the road to ourselves. That’s when he shifted into seventh and we “took off so fast I nearly got whiplash” (for the DJ Jazzy Jeff fans).

We get to the town outside the airport with 45 minutes before departure. It all seems possible, until our driver pulls to the side of the road and stops. I expect a shakedown for our secondborn. He made a phone call and got out of his car and walked away. Vi and I looked at each other. Vi said she had workdays where she wanted to do the same.

Minutes tick by and our driver returns. Another man runs up, gives our driver a beer, and they both get in the car. The new guy takes the wheel and our driver cracks open the beer in the passenger seat. The new driver doesn’t start the car, instead he puts his hands together, bows his head, and prays.

This doesn’t seem good. I try to call my lawyer but have no cell service.

Between the two of them, they have no idea how to get to the domestic terminal and neither wants to believe my pointing. When we get to the airport it is 30 minutes until departure.  We run in and check in. We race through lackluster security and make it. Mind you we haven’t showered since the morning before, we bared 104 degree heat, ran with heavy backpacks on, and sat in a nervous sweat for three hours while racing across Myanmar – we were going to transform that puddle jumper into a flying sauna of stench.  

But we made it! (Zero points)

We leave the bulk of our luggage at the airport in Mandalay and take a taxi to a jetty, scoot across a river in a wooden boat, and hop into the back of a horse cart for a brief tour of Inwa for big points and the chance to jam myself into a “carriage” made for hobbits. We see the ancient city walls and score even bigger points when we stop to play chinlone (imagine swapping out badminton rackets and shuttlecocks for an oversized hackysack). The game looks like it should be impossible to play. I manage to get a knee-head-head-foot combo and back over the net inbounds and Vi manages to somehow not record it. That’s par for the course for me and sports – my greatest hits montage will be all fumbles, stumbles, airballs, and gutterballs whereas all the moments of glory are somehow absent from record. It’s a strange cross to bear.

A cart driver stuck between the three smelliest places on Earth.

We return to our taxi by boat and head to world’s most dangerous giant teak bridge. The only thing true about all those words is the teak part. It’s more of an elevated walkway, sometimes 20 or 30 feet high, with no railings, spanning a marsh to connect two towns. The builders never anticipated people walking while looking at cellphones and I half expect to see the bodies of mangled teenagers littering the ground below after unfortunate selfie events. Vi takes an incredible picture of the sun looking like a drop of orange paint in the sky.

We arrive at our hotel at 7:30pm and check in under our new nicknames, Greaseball and Pigpen. It is an all out brawl to get to the shower first, but Vi is so grimy she slips through my grip and into the bathroom. When its my turn I notice the shampoo is called Jasmin. I readily welcome the opportunity to smell like a Disney princess.

Vi and I are exhausted but force ourselves to go eat dinner. We have the most amazing roti we have ever had and then return to the hotel and crash.

We do not set an alarm.

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Get to Myanmar!

April 19th

We start the morning slowly to try to get a call to the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration. After a few disconnections I finally get a hold of someone who assures me it will be processed immediately. We head to the airport, grab our tickets, and no one even asks to see our Visa. Thailand sure is different than Vietnam!

We sail through immigration and get to the gate. We swipe our tickets at the last point before getting on the plane and an “EEEEH, EEEEH” rings out like I just got a question wrong on a game show. Vi and I must show our visas.

Apparently in Southeast Asia they only hire “A” students at the airlines because she spotted the single number discrepancy as if it were a fresh ketchup stain on a white dress shirt and looked at it with similar disapproval. Busted.

I plead with them to call the Ministry but I am not invited to participate in the discussion. The three women argue over it, I can’t tell but it looks like it was two against one, then one against two, and then one against all until one of them pulled an official looking triplicate. I could sign away Vietnam from any responsibility when Myanmar throws me in a muddy hole in the ground for having a typo on my visa. I sign readily.

When we get to Myanmar Immigration the whole scenario ends with an unsatisfactory “plop.” The woman grabs my form and never even looks at the dates.

Given the time of day and lack of available flights, we hop in a car to go see the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo. We call a hotel from the airport on the mountain top and they tell us they have a room. I reserve the room and tell him we will be there in 4 hours. As we leave the airport I get an email from the Ministry of Immigration, my new visa has been approved. Our Ringleader warned us that Myanmar is on island time.

Vi and I can finally start our Myanmar challenge!

Nothing makes you feel rich like looking at your account balance in Myanmar kyat.

We do the 3.5 hour drive and arrive at 7:45pm to the base of the mountain but our taxi driver refuses to go up. He says it is closed to taxis. The only way up is government bus that runs from 6am to 6pm. We call the hotel and say that we are at the bottom of the mountain and ask how to get up.

“You can’t,” a man responds.

“But you told us you have a room,” I say.

“Yes, I do,” he says.

“But we can’t get up? Why did you tell me you have a room?” I asked.

“Because I have a room,” he says.

“That we can’t get to?”

“No.”

“Why did you tell us we have a room but didn’t tell us we wouldn’t be able to get to it when we said we were coming from Yangon?”

“You didn’t ask.”

Heavy sigh.

Our taxi driver takes us to the “Caesar Hotel” which sounds luxurious until you find that it is a truck repair station with the “Sea Sar” concrete jail cell minus the bars. The gap under the door is large enough to let the lizards in to eat the mosquitoes to allow us to be one with Nature. The place is clearly managed by teenage boys because no one else would decorate the walls with squashed bugs. I kind of liked it.

We have to earn some points for the day so I bum some betel leaf from our taxi driver. 25 points to put something disgusting in my mouth. I could do that all day! Then Vi and I find some curry and green tea salad for dinner before calling it a night.

Watch out giant gold rock, we are coming to get you tomorrow!

Roll with the punches.

April 18

Off to Myanmar. Almost.

At the airport I become A Man Without A Country. Okay, maybe a bit dramatic but a typo on my visa regarding the expiration date of my passport meant they wouldn’t let me on the plane. The woman at the ticket counter even said it was a typo, one number off on the year, but she couldn’t let me through with a typo. I love blind adherence to rules!

Then the whole thing became one of those SAT questions that goes something like this:

Sal needs to fly to Myanmar as soon as possible, he has a valid passport and no visas.

He can get a visa online from the Myanmar site when the government is open.

He can fly to Bangkok (half way there), but can only be admitted to Thailand without a visa if he has an exit flight booked.  

The Myanmar government is shut down for a holiday for 24 hours – no visas issued.

The agent at the gate won’t let Sal buy a ticket to Yangon from Bangkok without a valid visa to Yangon and won’t let Sal buy a ticket to Bangkok one-way.

If your mind is blown, then you are in good company, so was the entire staff of Vietnam Airlines. Solving this problem took longer than taking the SAT and was approached with the same sweat-dripping-down-the-temple worry as the rookie bomb squad agent wondering to cut the red or green wire to stop a nuclear detonation.

Ultimately we won, if you can call it that, and boarded a flight to Thailand that afternoon.  

Go to Bonus Country of your choice (300 points).

Now you understand why there is plenty of time to blog. In the spirit of the game, we spent zero time looking at info on Myanmar so instead swam with bats. The hotel pool came replete with a squadron of bats that skimmed the surface every dusk in search of tourist blood. Vi was terrorized, me amused. To quote Vicky Vale in the Tim Burton version, “I like bats.”

Dinner was Din Tai Fung, a Shanghai dumpling house that sprouts up, saprophytically, along the walls of high end malls across Asia. Their soup dumplings will never earn points, but are so tasty.

My cold is finally clearing. My plan on leaving a snail trail of mucous around the world looks like it won’t come to fruition. Instead, I’ll be dropping dirty clothes in countries like a bird marking cars on its flight south.

Our Ringmaster said there will be hiccups. Sometimes those hiccups are minor belches. And other times the world tries to vomit all over you. Nice try World, Vi and I just made vomit-ade and drank it down like champions.

Tomorrow, Myanmar, whether they want us or not.

Master of Puppets

April 16th Ho Chi Minh

7am and we are fed and out the door. When our Ringmaster said to have fun in Saigon, Vi got excited thinking he just let slip our next destination. I had to spoil her euphoria and tell her Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city.

Our taxi driver goes rogue, ignores my pointing at the map, but my sense of direction is good enough to realize we are nowhere near our desired destination, but very close to the Cho Lon Market, another travel destination to rack up points. This little bit of serendipity will add up as the day progresses.

We find the weirdest food in the market (IMHO). Trachea with esophagus. Something new to try for the upcoming summer bbq season! Vi says she wasn’t up for eating a fertilized, nearly ready to hatch, cooked duck egg. Points lost is one thing, but c’mon, this is a Filipino delicacy. Get back to your roots, girl.

I’ll take two tracheas and a wad of intestines to go, please.

After the market we headed across the city to go to the botanical gardens, but jumped out of the cab at a red light because of more good luck, we were right next to a Karaoke bar, it was 830am, and it was open! Points to be scored! My voice is about as melodious as a junkyard car crusher machine so Vietnam was about to get an early morning treat.

Vi and I sang three songs (Joan Jett isn’t dead but I’m sure she rolled over wherever she was when we butchered “I love Rock and Roll.”) But no problem, Vi and I were in a private room. No audience…that is until we went to leave and every employee there was laughing at us, unabashedly. Word to the would be traveler: the walls are thin. They gave us ceramic ornaments that said “nice” on them as consolation prizes.

Next stop Botanical Gardens, but lo and behold, a restaurant on the list was right down the street from the karaoke joint. A pit stop and then the gardens and zoo. While looking for creatures to score points we came across this anomaly. Of course there is a Siamese goat so close to Siam.

We hit up a temple and a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain visited. We buy a “street pizza” and two Americans buying food off the sidewalk is apparently just as amusing as us singing karaoke to the locals. If getting laughed at scored points the other teams wouldn’t stand a chance.

This flamingo Catholic church wasn’t a scavenge, but deserves points for being so gaudy.

Pretty in pink.

We visited the War Remnants Museum –  a powerful reminder on how the victor gets to write the history of war. Nearly every mention of the US was preceded with the adjective “aggressor.” Apparently the North and South didn’t exist, just a big bad horrible US coming to take away their country. And we were horrible – the photos of war atrocities truly belonged in a holocaust museum. The only thing that would lift our somber spirits was more coffee…and a puppet show!

Let’s just say there is a reason why no one you know has gone to a puppet show in the last year. The plot was thin and predictable yet the action sequences impressive given the medium. The language barrier was perhaps the biggest hurdle which was why Vi fell asleep and woke herself with a jerk…repeatedly.

Onward. Jet lag is kicking our butts almost as aggressively as Olga the Killer Masseuse. We find a guy who speaks English and he helps us hail a taxi driver to bring us to restaurant of the taxi driver’s choice, a challenge called “Taxi Driver Roulette.”  We go all of four blocks and stop in front of a restaurant. The taxi driver proceeds to grab the equivalent of a 20$ bill from me and then not give me adequate change for a 1$ ride. Let’s just say I shouldn’t play roulette.

Get swindled. (40 points)

We race from the restaurant to a local movie theater to squeeze in a flick before we have to turn in our score sheets but get turned away at the door. You can’t get in if the movie started 10 minutes ago. Precious points…missed. A travel agency down the street is open and the woman working there directs us to the nearest casino. The little casino is heavy with smoke and despite all the bright lights of gambling machines has the mood of a funeral parlor. Cards are illegal, so the blackjack dealers swipe screens to “deal” cards off the deck to the players. The feel of the cards is part of the fun. Now I know what the older generations mean when they lament that the real thing was so much better than the digital one.

We returned to the hotel, turned in our score sheets and found out we are headed to Myanmar in the morning for four days! So long, Saigon.

Late entry 2: Ho Chi Minh

April 15th

Getting off in Ho Chi Minh City from the airplane was like stepping into a steamy shower. Just the change in humidity was a telltale sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Toto wouldn’t have liked it either, they eat his kind here.

A short ride to the hotel revealed this is a bustling city with new skyscrapers edging out the old buildings. The vision of quaint Vietnam with oxen pulling carts was quickly replaced by flocks of scooters weaving their way through traffic. My Rambo reference showed just how out of time I was.

We were given our mission booklets and set loose on the city. Our first stop was a coffee shop, a two birds with one stone endeavor, Vi got her much needed coffee, but for 40 points we spoke with a local couple to get answers to some questions in the book. We chose them because of the Dorito bag – no easier way to bait and catch Americans.

The conversation drifted and what I walked away with is that young adults are full of optimism. There are jobs and the economy is growing. The fact that they are communist and other political parties are illegal didn’t arise.

We walked to the local market and tried lychee, dragonfruit, longan – three fruits for 25 points all for less than a dollar (Which another local said we overpaid for). The lychee and longans once peeled kind of look and squish like eyeballs for those of you looking for exotic fruits for your next Halloween party.

The streets were lined with the concrete slab buildings expected in developing countries, plus modern skyscrapers, and sprawling French Colonial complexes. This was a French colony for almost 100 years and the world has the banh mi sandwiches to prove it. Grilled pork, pickled carrots, cilantro and cabbage on fresh french bread…tasty!

Another mission was to find a cobra. Done.

BABY COBRA WITH SCORPION IN A BOTTLE OF LIQUOR. MMM…MMM…MMM


Jetlag set in and we dragged ourselves to the top of a skyscraper for a view of the city. And then we hired a cab to get a panoramic view of the city from across the Mekong. Sounds boring until your cab gets pulled over for driving in the wrong lane! And if you saw how they drive in this city you’d find yourself questioning if there are any traffic rules. Surely scooters can drive the wrong way up on a sidewalk weaving through pedestrians if the direction of traffic doesn’t jive with where they want to go. Red lights, optional at best. Getting pulled over should have been worth a load of points as it seems almost impossible to accomplish.

We had some pho for 25 points. Giving me credit for eating pho is like giving me credit for breathing. We were exhausted, but while dragging ourselves back to the hotel we stopped in for a massage (gimme points for Vi). I got one against my will and regretted it. My masseuse might have been 4 ½ feet tall and weighed 80 pounds, but her name was probably Olga and her apparently only desire in life was to see if she could shove my cervical spine out my mouth. Only then would there be enough room for her to push the back off my skull out between my teeth. My cries for “Go lighter,” were met with “No English” as she went back to torture. Now I know why there are so many towels around, I needed them to sop up my tears. Yes, it was a head and neck massage but my feet hurt afterwards from curling up my toes in pain as she did jumping jacks on my clavicles.

Break 18 ribs. (50 points).

Can’t wait for tomorrow.

Is there a doctor on board?

April 14, 2019, Taipei (late entry) — Vi here, so no boy humor in this post… As Sal mentioned we’re headed to Vietnam!  

We left Vancouver at 2am. I finally got to sleep a few hours into the flight when I was awakened by an overhead announcement calling for any medical personnel who could assist with an emergency. Of course, I get up and Sal says his usual, “Come get me if you need help with an airway,” as if I’d give up an airway to him. Hah!  I find a flight attendant who is shaking with panic and as we speedwalk to the back of the plane she says, “It’s a baby. She needs you!  It’s an emergency!”  So much for getting any sleep on this flight…This is a physician’s worst case scenario…a baby in extremis on a trans-Pacific flight with flight attendants who speak minimal English and no nurse!  I was the only medical person who responded. 

I get to the back of the plane and much to my surprise and delight I see the “baby” is a 3-year old girl sitting on the floor with a scalp full of blood, looking at me very suspiciously. Thank goodness this was not the worst case scenario!  Apparently she fell out of her plane seat onto the floor and lacerated her head. While it bled a lot she was fine. I rummaged through their medical supplies and while I found laryngoscope blades and IV amiodarone, there was no skin glue, sutures or steristrips. She braved water bottle irrigation and tolerated me closing her lac with hair-tie approximation without shedding a single tear until the very end. Then her eyes welled up and two large tears dripped down her cheeks. The flight attendants were super appreciative and gave me tons of swag, which I can’t carry with me on this trip, sadly.  Anyway, off to Ho Chi Minh City!

Sticking with “V”

Today was a “practice” scavenge in Vancouver, a great way to try to get us newbies on the same playing field as the more experienced teams. We covered Vancouver on foot, by bus (didn’t have the fare and when my credit card didn’t work the driver let us ride for free – hooray, kind bus driver!), aquabus, train, ferry, and tandem. Yep, Vi and I braved the 46 degree, cold rain to ride a tandem seven miles through a park just to get practice points. Having been with me for so long, Vi is accustomed to the saying “no pain, no gain,”. She does frequently ask when the gain part comes in.

Of all the sites we saw, Vi was most keen on taking a photo of me in this alleyway. There were some really twitchy junkies just outside the frame to make me feel like I’m back in San Francisco.

For those of you headed to Vancouver, you might want to spend oodles of dough on funky shoes at John Fluevog. If Steve Madden and Doc Marten had a son, it would be John. We aren’t shoe shoppers, but one of the challenges was to discover the story behind their most expensive shoe. Happy to know Tina Turner has a home outside of Mad Max movies.

Our indigestion challenge was to eat a Japadog – a Japanese style hot dog complete with dried seaweed, onions, and teriyaki sauce. Let’s just say that by the time we get to the airport it will have likely been exported.

Last but not least, we are leaving in four hours for Vietnam! Vi and I have never been, so this will be exciting as my only knowledge of the country comes from Rambo: First Blood Part II. That probably gives us an unfair advantage.

More to come!

And please don’t suggest or give tips to our already extensive knowledge of Vietnam. I’ve got a red bandana and a black tank top, what more could I need?