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Old 12-22-2013, 05:21 PM   #1
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Myanmar - Ride, Enjoy, Crash, Evacuate

Myanmar - Ride, Enjoy, Crash, Evacuate

In December 2012 I joined Eric Wasson of Myanmar Motorcycle Tours and another customer for a ten day ride around northern Myanmar. I crash-landed on my head after a few days with the engine shut off (for how I managed that feat see "Over the Top: How the Honda Let Me Down" farther down), putting myself out of action in the Shan countryside. Evacuation to Singapore hospital took two very painful days. Here's the delightful start and sorry ending, with photos of Yangon, Mandalay, and Shan states ... and inside a Myanmar hospital.

The Itinerary:

Day 1: Fly to Yangon
Day 2: Sightsee Yangon
Day 3: Fly to Mandalay
Day 4: Ride to Kalaw
Day 5: Ride to Paoh Village; Crash; Evacuate
Day 6: Fly to Yangon
Day 7: Fly to Singapore

Yangon (Day 1 and 2)

Eric met me at the airport and took me to the hotel. Day 1 was free and easy, mostly on foot. Motorcycles are not allowed in the city. The Clover Hotel:

The architecture, smells, and sounds of Yangon are like Mumbai - no surprise, since the British ran India from 1858 to 1947 and ran Burma from 1824 to 1948. From 1885 to 1937 Burma was a province of British India. But the people on the street are Asian not Indian.

Downtown Yangon:

The friendly boys in blue:

People in Yangon:

Not everyone is poor - those at the top of the system are do very well:


The girls love thanaka wood paste on their cheeks, a natural cosmetic:

It not only is attractive, it protects the skin from the sun:

Even some men wear thanaka:

But not everyone!

Yangon Fish Market

Day 2 included an early-morning walking tour of the Fish Market, Yangon's tourist attraction number two:

Lanmadaw School

Lanmadaw School, established 1864 for boys, turned coeducational over a century later in 1991:

Yangon Central Women's Hospital

Yangon Central Women's Hospital, founded 1897:

Photography was not allowed ...

Shwedagon Pagoda

Tourist attraction number one, the impressive gilded pagoda:


On day three we flew to Mandalay to collect the motorcycles. Day 3 was free and easy, based in the best hotel of the trip:

The moat:

The Royal Palace:

Around Mandalay:

Sunset from Mandalay Hill:

Riding Off

Adventure awaits:

The Thailand-made Honda CRF250Ls were new.

A satisfied customer:

Petrol stop:

Kyaukse Technological University

Ride to Kyaukse

The riding was, as much as possible, on local trekking trails and oxcart roads:

Electric fishing - stunning the fish with an electric current:

Village Rest Stop

We ate fruit from her stall, but she would not let us pay:

Gus gave a lesson, speaking in Spanish. The children loved it:

Meanwhile Eric gave another sort of lesson:

Ride to Kalaw

Lunch in the Galaxy Café in Kyaukse, dedicated to Michael Jackson and Mother Teresa:

Some Myanmarese petrol stations serve refreshments:

Flying cow dung was a riding hazard:

Five kilos of luggage in a kayak bag for two weeks:

The evening ride to Kalaw was wonderful:

The Dream Villa 1-Star Hotel in Kalaw:

Breakfast at the Dream Villa, behind a secure fence:

Kalaw School

Khun Tee, the founder of this boarding school for poor children (to which we all made a donation), the owner of a restaurant and trekking guide company, our group's local guide for the backroads of Kalaw, and my god-sent helper for two days after the crash later in the afternoon:

The shoes arranged neatly and tidily outside the door of the school:

The dormitory:

A study room:

The kitchen and student cooks:

Around the campus:

Around Kalaw

The rolling stock is a little tired:

But the people are happy:

Filling up petrol and checking the motorcycles:

Ride to Paoh Village

Back on the oxcart highways:

Photographing vistas like this would be my downfall:

Snack time at the "Nepalese Resting Place" Viewpoint:

Eric leading the way:

A brief stop on a Palaung village to say hello, with Khun Tee - respected by the villagers - as interpreter:

A few years ago, these people had never seen a foreign face. Now they receive trekkers every day, some staying overnight. Cycle and motorbike-tourists pass by once a week. Khun Tee brings trekking business to the village, but there is no tipping, thank goodness, and the interaction with the tourists is genuine.

Threshing time:

Chillies are a hot business in the area:

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Old 12-22-2013, 05:22 PM   #2
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Paoh Village Wedding

A Paoh village on the trail. We were the only foreigners, of course:

We entertained them, and they entertained us:

The wedding, all-day affair with people coming and going, giving blessings and gifts, and receiving snacks and smokes:

The groom, bride, and a well-wisher:

Khun Tee, Eric, and Gus giving blessings:

The village mayor:

The village elder - Number One Man:

The village elder's wife - Number One Woman. Full of life and poised ... and enjoying a good betel chew:

Heading off:

Note the Schuberth J1 helmet chin guard which would smash my collarbone into pieces 15 minutes later.

Over the Top: How the Honda Let Me Down

I stopped here on the trail to take another photo while my two companions rode on ahead. Note the narrow ledge on the right of the bike and how close I am to the verge. This was the last photo of me in one piece:

In fact there was no reason to stop near the edge because we were on a trail and there was no traffic, but that was an old habit from civilization, perhaps because I'm tall enough to put both feet flat on the ground with bent knees even on the largest of motorcycles.

I shut off the engine and put my right foot down but there was a dip in the road and my foot felt nothing but air. I felt myself falling to the right. The bike fell over without any damage at all. But this is where I was launched:

As the bike tipped over it catapulted me head-first down the embankment. My feet came to rest a meter lower than the bike and my head landed about two meters lower than my feet. So my upper body was injured as I smashed down on my head and back from a height of ten feet or so. As I came down I heard a loud SNAP! as my right collarbone was shattered into five pieces by the force of it landing on the bottom of my Schuberth J1 helmet as I landed upside down, and a loud THUD! as the rest of my body slammed down on my back protector.

Had I not been wearing the Schuberth J1 helmet, I might not have broken my clavicle; I might have broken my neck. Had I not been wearing this Dainese "Ninja Turtle" safety suit under my mesh jacket, I might have broken my spine:

I lay on the ground unable to breathe. I was suffocating but with much effort I managed to gulp a few short gasps, accompanied by gurgling sounds; my right lung was collapsing but I wouldn't know that for two days. I was alone in silence. No one knew I was there, but I knew the bike was lying visible on the side of the trail and Eric and Gus would eventually return. After slowly gaining limited painful breath I tried moving all the parts of my body. I could not move my right arm but with my left hand was able to remove my helmet. I was afraid the motorcycle might fall on me, so little by little I used my uninjured feet to push myself farther down the hillside, with my head still lower than my feet.

I lay there for about ten minutes, unable to sit up. Eventually I heard the sounds of a bullock cart. When the sound got closer, I yelled as loudly as I could, which was a low moan. I heard the farmers talking and then I saw their faces looking down at me from up on the hill. Shouting to each other they scrambled down the hill and tried to help me to stand up, but I howled in pain. Of course they spoke no English but they did everything they could to help the strange foreigner. Eventually, slowly, the farmers helped me to sit up until Eric returned about 15 minutes after the crash.

Eric performed first aid and made a sling to support my broken collarbone. He helped me to stand up, and we found a track up the hill back to the trail. But how to travel about four kilometers on a very bumpy trail to the nearest paved road? On the back of Eric's Honda, with good suspension but with only one arm to hold on? Or on the back of a bullock cart, with no suspension (and wood-and-steel wheels) but resting on large sacks? I opted for the bullock cart and sacks. Eric and the two farmers lifted me onto the car and off I went:

Within seconds I was moaning "I THINK I'M GONNA DIE!" as the ends of my broken bones ground together. But I couldn't shout over the noise of the rattling bullock cart wheels to tell the drivers that I was in pain. After what seemed like an eternity but was in fact five minutes I got them to stop. Eric arrived at the cart after a few minutes and carefully lifted me off the cart and onto the back of his Honda for the rest of the ride to the trailhead at Bawningon junction. There Eric and Khun Tee arranged transportation using a mobile phone.

The ribbed back protector pattern was imprinted on the mesh jacket by the force of the impact:

It took several hours for the truck to arrive at the junction, and by then it was dark. All this time, the bullock cart drivers never left my side. Traditional Lao medication was on hand so - medicated and now smiling - we waited for the truck:

Eric did everything he could to help and sent me off with Khun Tee, who would stay with me until Yangon airport check-in two days later. Meanwhile Eric and Gus rode off under the stars for the monastery lodge some 40km distant, with only their weak motorcycle headlights to guide them, which was a sacrifice and risk on their part (they arrived at midnight under a sky full of stars; Gus later told me it was the most unforgettable night of the trip). The truck is behind the oxcart in this photo, with the Honda and Khun Tee in the back:

I traveled 5 km in that truck sitting in the front seat going 30 km per hour to make the potholes less painful, and then 75 km in a Toyota taxi with softer suspension going slightly faster. The journey to the hospital took two painful hours, as the medication wore off.

Taunggyi Tun Hospital

We drove to Taunggyi Tun Medical Center; this is said to be the best private hospital in Shan state, where the generals go for treatment. The service was prompt and they did their best with their limited resources. All the doctors and most of the nurses spoke English well. Myanmar is more like India than Southeast Asia when it comes to English fluency.

The emergency ward where I was admitted:

The waiting room:

The doctor on duty, an orthopedic surgeon, shouted "Oh my God!" when I removed my shirt, which was unprofessional. Here's what my collarbone looked like to the Taunggyi Tun Hospital vintage Toshiba X-ray machine, operated by a matron in a brown overcoat:

The doctor recommended I return to Singapore immediately for surgery, but only with a helper, without whom I could not lie down, get up, pay bills, get food and water, or carry a bag. He gave me a "Fit to Fly" certificate, when I wasn't in any shape to fly, and luckily I was able to go home as soon as possible for surgery. The hospital's written report listed my blood pressure and pulse, which were never measured, and also said there was no pneumothorax (collapsed lung), which was wrong - but the hospital did not use an oximeter.

Whenever it was time for Tramadol pain killer, Khun Tee had to go downstairs to the pharmacy, buy it with cash, and bring it to the nurse. Even the X-rays and a sling had to be paid for in advance with cash. If you don't have cash, you are in trouble. The hospital pharmacy:

The nurses were friendly and their needles were new; only their gentle latex-gloved hands touched my buttocks:

But there seemed to be more receptionists than nurses:

The room has a helper's bed as well as the patient's bed. This is because the nurses only provide medical support; the helper has to go out and bring back toilet paper, food, and water and help the patient to sleep and wash. If you don't have a helper, you are in trouble. My room and Khun Tee:

The view of Taunggyi from my room:

The corridor in front of my room and the nurses:

The ironing lady:

The outside of the hospital:

The day after the accident we flew to Yangon and took the closest good hotel to the airport, to minimize the pain and further injury from driving on potholed roads:

Unfortunately my room was on the second floor; it was exhausting to climb the stairs using one lung, which I had to do only once thanks to room service. Room service had to be paid for in cash in advance.

The last night in Yangon was torture, so there are no photos. Lying on my back pressed on the broken ribs and punctured lung, and the clavicle fragments were being ground together as well. I was so mangled that I could not move at all when I was laid down to sleep, not an inch, not a centimeter. As a result I ended up with pressure sores on my lower back like a quadriplegic, which took a week to heal.

In the morning it took three men to get me out of bed by lifting up the end of the mattress until I was nearly vertical. A doctor told me later that it was dangerous for me to have slept horizontally and I should have slept in a sitting position to avoid further lung damage. Khun Tee and I took a taxi to the airport where I was wheelchaired onto the plane. Business class was full, but Singapore Airlines put me in the bulkhead seat with a vacant seat on each side. I flew home, and was wheelchaired by Singapore Airlines staff out to my wife, who rushed me to Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

Singapore Surgery

In Singapore my blood oxygen was measured and was low. I was rushed into a CT scan, which confirmed a collapsed lung. I was given blessed morphine and was comfortable for the first time in two days. At first the doctor thought I would need a skin graft because the broken bone had nearly poked out through the skin and killed part of it, but the surgery was in time to save it:

While I was delightfully high a chest tube was inserted with a tool that looked like an ice pick; I could feel it grinding its way through my chest but felt no pain:

A few hours later I was in surgery for over two hours. It is amazing how much damage you can do to yourself with your engine shut off, while standing still!

My titanium clavicle, ten screws, and the chest tube:

The comma shape is the end view of a broken rib.

A few days later:

The contents of my lungs:

... about the same volume as a bottle of Myanmar Lager.

The chest tube was removed and I was discharged after six nights. Recovery took many painful months because of the ribs. Because of the pneumothorax, I am cautioned not to scuba dive again, ever, because the damage is permanent. As the pneumologist put it, "Do you want to risk your life to see fish?"

This baggage tag from Heho airport near Taunggyi made me chuckle every time I saw it:

But chuckling hurt for two months until the ribs set.

Recovery and Afterthoughts

I count my blessings. I now have a titanium friend who goes with me wherever I go. Things have healed up reasonably well, albeit not as good as new:

I was not far from a wheelchair, or a coffin and the Darwin Awards; another meter of height or a descent onto a rock could have paralyzed me. I had a buddy to help me but what would have happened if I'd done the same thing riding alone? Lessons learned:

* Watch where you put down your foot, and stay away from the edge of the road! I didn't pay attention to my foot - I was looking at the view. After 300,000 motorcycle touring kilometers I am appalled I made this mistake.

* Have travel insurance. My travel claim came to US$32,000, most of which was eventually paid (I had AIG TravelGuard Premier). I did not have to use my domestic hospital insurance.

* Phone the insurer's toll-free emergency number as soon as possible after the accident, write down the name of the operator you are speaking to (for the claim later), ask him for instructions, and follow them. Fortunately AIG advised me to get the Fit-to-Fly certificate from the hospital in Taunggyi, otherwise I would have been turned away from the plane at Yangon - I was asked to show the certificate when I checked in.

* In Myanmar, have at least an extra US$1000 in crisp new $100 bills hidden away to pay for emergency care. The unexpected hotel night in Yangon on the way back was over $350 - when you are in misery, you will take whatever you can get. The night in the Taunggyi hospital, including three X-rays and medication was only $150.

* Have the local contact numbers for your airline with you. I learned the hard way that Singapore airlines does not put the Myanmar contact number on their tickets or on their website! Their Singapore call center number could not be reached from Taunggyi using IDD or Skype; it could only be reached using the Myanmarese equivalent of Skype but the keypad function did not work so I kept getting "invalid keyboard entry" recordings and could never reach a human. Two painful hours later I discovered the Singapore Airlines Yangon phone number from a local travel agent.

* Wear your safety gear even riding on slow back roads.

* Don't ride in the back of a bullock cart if you have broken bones.

* Avoid wearing your belt bag while riding. I was wearing this bulky one with the camera in it (sitting on the table):

but fortunately I had swung it around to the front moments before I fell over. If the camera had been strapped behind me when I crashed on my back, I might have snapped my spine on it.

* Don't evacuate Gangnam style!

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Old 12-22-2013, 05:48 PM   #3
U lie&yo'breff stank
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damn dude.

nice pictures.

i havent seen many ride reports from this area.

good stuff.
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Old 12-22-2013, 07:36 PM   #4
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I’m happy that you healed up pretty well. Some great lessons learned the hard way. Looked like you were well prepared. The photo’s and story were great, sorry your trip was cut off short but sure could have been a lot worse. Thank you.
The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. Theodore Roosevelt
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Old 12-22-2013, 07:47 PM   #5
with the band
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That happened to me once. Not off a cliff though. Great pics!
¿pәpuɐq әq ı plnoɥs
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Old 12-22-2013, 08:06 PM   #6
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Ouch- Could have been much worse. I fell in a similar manner, but even with full protection, landing on my head caused a compression fracture of my T5. Fortunately healed up fairly well.
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Old 12-22-2013, 08:50 PM   #7
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Titanium Club

Fantastic photos... Sorry to hear about your accident. I FX'ed my right clavicle in 3 parts too, so welcome to the titanium club! I would venture to guess quite a few inmates have had similar injuries due to riding motorcycles....
I had a pulmonary embolism as a result of my ortho surgery and not being put on blood thinners as a precaution. Apparently, this is a standard medical procedure around the world- EXCEPT for the U.S.
That was more serious than the fracture
Anyway, you will recover and be good as new and back in the saddle again...!
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Old 12-22-2013, 08:57 PM   #8
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You managed to have both incredibly bad and incredibly good luck. I'm glad that AIG paid off on the insurance claim. I have had nothing but bad things to say about them ever since they stranded my very sick g/f at 14,000 feet in Nepal. She was at a tiny hospital staffed by a volunteer western doctor and the bastards at AIG treated him like an impostor and refused the authorize the helo evac that she needed, since the doc had concluded she was too sick to make the 2-3 day walk to the nearest airstrip where she might get a flight to Kathmandu and that she needed to get to lower altitude. If they came through for you maybe they are changing for the better.

You took some great photos, and your "lessons learned" is invaluable.

Thanks for posting!

Blader54 screwed with this post 12-22-2013 at 09:02 PM
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Old 12-22-2013, 09:22 PM   #9
Mucha distancia
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Thanks for the glimpse into a place that many don't get to see. Interesting comparison between India and Myanmar. Looks like the English left a few tea pots behind too.

Glad you recovered, and great tips for Med evac.
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Old 12-23-2013, 12:58 PM   #10
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Enjoyed your pictures
Sorry to hear about your crash. Get well and hopefully you can return and finish your ride report.
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Old 12-24-2013, 01:08 AM   #11
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For anyone interested, here is my experience with AIG Travelguard. The time to settlement from the day that my claim was submitted was 4.5 months.

If I had known then what I know now, I could have cut the processing time in half. Worse, if I had not chased it the claim would never have been paid. Here is the log, counted from the date of the submission of the claim.

Claim -15 Days: I had a serious accident in Myanmar.

Claim -14 Days: I called the toll-free AIG emergency number from Taunggyi, advised them of my accident, got the operator's name, and received his instructions, which I summarize as "Get to a hospital that can treat you as best you can and keep the receipts. If your condition is not life-threatening you have to take public transport. Don't forget to get a Fit-to-Fly certificate before you go to the airport." They would do nothing to assist with a non life-threatening evacuation. The fact that I was able to talk to him on the phone in short gasps must have meant that my condition was stable. Both the FTF certificate and the keeping of receipts were good tips. If you don't get his receipt while you are standing in front of a supplier in a third-world country, there is no way you are going to get him to mail you one later. All those little chits add up. No paper, no payment.

Claim -7 Days: I was discharged from hospital.

Claim Day: I called my local AIG agent to inform him about my accident. The agent offered to collect the claim and original receipts from my home and have them scanned. I appreciated that.

Claim + 5 Days: The agent came to the house and took my claim and original receipts. I would (and should) have scanned them myself, but was too weak to do so.

Claim + 8 Days: The agent emailed me to say that he sent the claim to AIG for scanning and processing.

Claim + 14 Days: No news so I emailed the agent. The agent replied that "AIG would not take long approving it."

Claim + 15 Days: The agent emailed me a scanned copy of the original documents, a 103 page PDF. There were a LOT of receipts, many of them hard to understand and reconcile and in three currencies.

Claim + 20 Days: No news so I emailed the agent. My Amex bill was due, and it was huge.

Claim + 22 Days: AIG sent me a letter asking for the receipts that were already given to the AIG agent, and informing me that my surgeon was sent a query. I informed the agent.

Claim + 26 Days: No news so I emailed the agent. The agent responded that "they will be in touch once there is news."

Claim + 76 Days: Seven more weeks without "news" from AIG. I made several attempts over a week via the call center to speak with the AIG adjuster to find out the status. The call center staff were friendly but had no information. After two missed returned calls from AIG I spoke with the adjuster, who was also friendly and said the surgeon had not replied to their letter sent two months previously. I asked him if he had sent a reminder to the doctor, or received any acknowledgement from the doctor, and he said no; he said would wait indefinitely for a response. Processing had simply stopped. I called the surgeon, who said he had not received any letter from AIG. I called the AIG adjuster, and asked for letter to be faxed to the surgeon. I provided the correct fax number. The adjuster faxed the letter to the surgeon. The surgeon replied to the fax from the adjuster the same day, and later showed me the fax; it had just four or five basic questions.

Claim + 97 Days: After three more weeks, the agent emailed me two questions concerning a "photocopy" stamp on a $120 invoice (put there by AIG--the scanned copy from the agent does not have a "photocopy" stamp); the other concerning an interim statement which was superceded by the final "certified copy" statement. I emailed the agent with the answers to the two questions. The agent acknowledged receipt of answers to the two questions.

Claim + 124 Days: After four more weeks, no news so I called the call center. I realized I should have bypassed the agent a long time ago. The call center returned my call to say that the two questions answered above have still not been answered, which was not true. I decided to visit the call center in person every week until the claim was paid. There is a Starbucks downstairs.

Claim + 125 Days: I visited the AIG customer service center in person and gave two customer service agents printouts of the same information given to the agent above. They took my phone number and email and promised me an update in a few days time. They said that these should be the last queries from AIG and they expect that my claim will now be processed.

Claim + 131 Days: They never updated me as promised so I visited the AIG customer service center again. The receptionist said that the questions were still outstanding. I asked to speak to the same customer service agents, who reappeared and said that the computer was not updated, and the status should really be "in process." She said that AIG had no further questions and the claim was back in the queue for review and a decision "on a without prejudice basis." They explained that the process for claims over $2,000 is slower than the process for routine claims.

Claim + 134 Days: I received a letter that my claim had been approved, except for some taxis, missed by accident; a prepaid but not taken $300 hot air balloon flight in Bagan (for which I had expected to be reimbursed); the airfare (which I had not expected them to reimburse, but the agent said to try it); and all follow-up medical expenses beyond 30 days after the accident (which are not covered by AIG travel insurance and I had not expected them to reimburse, but the agent said to try it). In hindsight, the agent's advice was a little weird.

Claim + 138 Days: I visited the AIG customer service center again and explained the unpaid items to the same two customer service agents. They said they will advise the adjuster.

Claim + 139 Days: The AIG adjuster called and agreed to include the taxi fare but not the rest, as these are not covered by the policy. Fair enough. I soon received a cheque.

All in all, I am satisfied with the outcome and I will continue to buy AIG Travelguard insurance, but I did not appreciate the unnecessary work it took to get the claim paid. I was in enough pain as it was. When AIG sends a letter to a doctor it should follow up after a reasonable time, and let the patient know there has been a problem with the processing. It should not wait forever for a response, perhaps hoping the claim will disappear. Everyone at AIG is friendly, but in the claims department there is no momentum.
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Old 12-24-2013, 01:32 AM   #12
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Thanks for posting, it's a timely reminder that things can go wrong, and so easily. Statistics show that accidents are more likely to happen to other people, so when it happens to us, we are surprised. So, you have my commiserations and we have the opportunity to learn from your misfortune, so thanks again for sharing.
Also, thanks for posting your photos of Myanmar, it's scenery and it's people. I look forward to following in your footsteps, well, not exactly in your footsteps, but close enough.
All the best,
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Old 12-24-2013, 05:48 PM   #13
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The other rider Gus was kind enough to share a few photos of what I missed during the six days of riding with Eric after my accident:

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Old 12-24-2013, 06:31 PM   #14
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Great pictures Sorry about the accident !
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Old 12-24-2013, 09:06 PM   #15
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Awesome photos! Thanks for sharing....a bummer you weren't there yourself. Next time I go to a far-off place I'll be looking for an alternative to AIG for evac insurance. After our initial call, in which they did not say they would only authorize air evac for life-threatening conditions, they promised to call back at a certain time and then did not call. So we would have to spend more of our dwindling funds to pay the owner of the one sat phone to call them, and when we got them, the agent always acted like they had never heard of our case and we had to give them all the information again. And then they would say that they had to get approvals and would call back. And of course they never did, and so the cycle would repeat. After the 4th episode I was about ready to explode. We had given AIG a complete itinerary before we left home but they professed to have no idea where we were. The doctor told me that he had spoken to other insurance companies for patients as sick as my g/f and NOT ONE had ever refused a flight. That's the kind of insurance company I'll be looking for next time. Glad you eventually got your claim sorted. Keep on healing.....and riding!
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