American contestants Ken and Sherrie Fardie review strategies at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh.
RAFFLES Hotel Le Royal may not exactly fit the seasoned backpacker's idea of roughing it, but for 24 hours this week the hotel played host to 50 intrepid tourists, contending for the title of World's Greatest Traveler.
Described by its Canadian creator William Chalmer as "the Amazing Race for real people", the Global Scavenger Hunt 2009 will take its contestants on a circumnavigation of the world, through 10 countries and four continents, in a 23-day mission designed to truly test their travelling know-how.
"You can go anywhere in the world and stay in a hotel and feel like you are in Boston, but to me travelling is really getting out of your comfort zone," said Chalmer. "Challenges like language, cultural differences, strange food, heat, temple burn-out, jetlag - they all add up."
And unlike in other pre-cast, melodramatic, reality-TV equivalents, Chalmer wants his participants to get their hands both physically and culturally dirty.
Accruing points for each task, the 25 teams will attempt to fulfill as many of Chalmer's prescribed "scavenges" as possible for each location, without the aid of guidebooks, travel agents, hotel concierges and, importantly, foresight.
This year's event started at Seattle airport at 2am on Sunday morning when competitors assembled for check-in on a flight to their first mystery destination.
Similarly, after less than 48 hours in Cambodia, they will depart the Kingdom on Thursday morning on another unknown international voyage.
Array of challenges
But before doing so, they must first find their way to Siem Reap (no planes, taxis or private buses allowed), and if possible, eat a garlicky cricket, pay a visit to Sambo, learn a joke from a local cab driver, walk through National Museum after dark, purchase a litre of gas, deliver supplies to Lighthouse Orphanage, have a traditional French breakfast and visit the night market.
So how are participants to achieve all this unaided, disoriented and sleep-deprived, to become a truly great traveller?
"It takes a lot of skills", said Chalmer. "You have to be really patient and very flexible and allow serendipity and spontaneity to take over. You have to be able to trust strangers in strange lands."
The latter skill is the theme for this year's hunt, and Chalmer explains that it does not come easily to all.
"We're taught from a very young age, especially in North America, to be scared of strangers. So it's counter-intuitive to go to strange places and actually trust people."
But Chalmer is not trying to jeopardiSe his contestants' lives with shady characters in dark alleys.
"I want people to be safe and nourished, to take time to smell the roses and really experience the joy of doing stuff. That's why I made all the scavenges optional, so people just have to choose the things they like doing best," he said.
And despite the hectic pace, the competitors seem to be embracing the scavenger challenge.
"It's exhausting, and having no time to map out your strategy is really hard," said Kris Belding, a contestant from the United States.
"Being in a place you don't know without any ability to do research and [speak] a foreign language, you truly have to rely on the goodness of strangers," explains fellow American competitor Sherry Fardie.
And although contestants may be scavenging from locals, it is by no means an unrequited arrangement.
While boosting the local economy through bulk purchases, the scavengers have also embraced challenges from giving blood to donating blankets to orphanages and delivering schoolbooks and supplies to local schools.
So, too, all funds raised through sponsorship of competitors will go to Chalmer's Great Escape Foundation, which provides microfinance loans to a dozen Cambodians and helps fund the construction of schools.
"The frivolousness of this event was not enough to inspire me, so I started the foundation. So now, competitors are not only having a wonderful time and testing themselves, but most importantly, they're giving something back to every place they go," said Chalmer.