Category Archives: Regional Oddities

5 Fictional Destinations You Can Actually Visit

There’s something magical about seeing the real life setting of a beloved fictional world. These destinations draw travelers to places they might not otherwise go for the pleasantly jarring sensation of finding Tatooine in Tunisia or Narnia in Norway. Here are five of our favorite places that serve as intersections of invention and reality, mixing the familiar with the surprising.

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Mdina, Malta: King’s Landing (Game of Thrones)

Westeros may be fictional, but Game of Thrones fans know the series films everywhere from Iceland to Croatia to recreate locations from the books. The medieval walled city of Mdina in Malta acts as King’s Landing in the show, and travelers may recognize the Mdina Gate as the entrance to the fictional capital. Mdina’s dusky stone buildings and mix of Norman and Baroque architecture lend it a mysterious and mythic quality that translates perfectly into the show. It’s known as the “Silent City:” No cars are allowed within the city walls, and only about 300 people live inside.

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Prince Edward Island: Anne of Green Gables

Since Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, children and adults have made the pilgrimage to Canada’s lovely Prince Edward Island, where the book is set. The Green Gables farmhouse that inspired L.M. Montgomery’s classic books still stands in Cavendish (named Avonlea in the books) and can be visited year round. Even Mindy Kaling is desperate to see where Anne grew up. In a recent interview with the LA Times, she said, “The other book world I would like to live in is Anne of Green Gables. Living on Prince Edward Island would be so badass.”

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Petra, Jordan: Canyon of the Crescent Moon (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

It’s hard to imagine a more imposingly beautiful filming location for a grail quest than the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Although Petra was carved into sandstone 2,000 years ago, it only came to the attention of the Western world in 1812 when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself in Bedouin costume to sneak into the site. The Treasury, Al-Khazneh, was most famously used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and is still open for visitors.

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Angel Falls in Venezuela: Paradise Falls (Up)

Paradise Falls is the central destination Pixar’s Up. Carl’s beloved Ellie never gets to see it herself, but with the help of about 10,000 balloons, Carl and Russell manage to make the trip. Its real life counterpart is Angel Falls in Venezuela, part of the Auyantepui mountain in Canaima National Park. At a height of over 3,000 feet, it’s the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world. The hike to see the falls from the top can be a multi-day journey, but the stunning view is worth the trek.

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Matamata, New Zealand: Hobbiton (The Lord of the Rings)

Perhaps the most famous fictional travel destination is the Hobbiton set of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. Nestled in the countryside surrounding Matamata in New Zealand, the set features over 30 hobbit dwellings as well as a mill and a double-arched stone bridge. After The Hobbit movies finished filming, the houses were left fully furnished for visitors. Truly devoted fans can even enjoy Second Breakfast at the nearby Shire’s Rest Cafe.

Halloween Celebrations from Around the Globe

In America, Halloween is truly an all-ages celebration. For kids, the day means trick-or-treating, costume parades, and an excuse to indulge in candy. For adults, the day/night entails house parties and bar crawls, costume contests, and an excuse to indulge in candy (among other things)! Throw in a haunted house or a Jack-O-Lantern carving party and Halloween has become a holiday with reliable traditions. Itching to try something new? Consider celebrating Halloween abroad this year! The following destinations have their own distinct versions of America’s spookiest celebration.

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1. Mexico

Perhaps the most famous Halloween celebration outside the U.S. occurs in Mexico, where November 1 is known as the Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Many countries throughout Latin America celebrate the day, but Mexico is where the tradition of honoring the dead with lively festivals originated. With roots in both indigenous Aztec rituals as well as the Catholicism brought to the region by the Spanish, the day celebrates the lives of those who have left us with food, drink, parties and activities that the deceased enjoyed when alive. Celebrators of the Dia de Los Muertos reason that the deceased would prefer this to the more expected mourning and sadness accompanying loss. Skeletons (calaveras) and skulls (calacas) are a recurring motif, appearing in many forms ranging from sweets to masks and dolls. These are not the somber black and white skulls accompanying American Halloween celebrations: The calacas and calaveras are colorful and are shown dressed in their best clothing and enjoying life. Visitors staying in Mexico City should check out the affordable and family-friendly Hotel Sybharis or the luxurious and modern Hilton Mexico City Reforma.

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2. Ireland

Many historians suggest the origins of Halloween took root in Ireland, namely in the ancient Irish festival of the dead, known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). Celtic lore divides the year into halves, associated with dark and light, and Samhain marks the beginning of the dark half at sunset on November 1st. (The light half begins at sunset on May 1st, the festival of Bealtaine.) Ancient traditions included communal feasts that included the dearly departed as guests; windows and doors were left unlatched, and the food set aside for them had to be untouched by mortals, as it would condemn that person to a hungry spirit in the afterlife. Nowadays, bonfires are lit in rural areas across Ireland, and children dress in costumes. County Meath hosts a yearly Samhain festival and is conveniently 40 minutes north of Dublin. Travelers should check out the budget-friendly Croke Park Hotel or the luxurious Merrion Hotel, which boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant.

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3. The United Kingdom

Our neighbors across the pond have their own Halloween-like ritual, but it occurs a few days later, on November 5. Though Guy Fawkes Day shares some traditions with the American Halloween and Irish Samhain, its origins are entirely unique. The day and night’s festivities are designed to commemorate the notorious Englishman Guy Fawkes, a Catholic who was executed on November 5, 1606 after being convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament and oust the Protestant King James from power. The original Guy Fawkes Day occurred moments after his execution, with celebratory “bone fires” set up to burn effigies and “bones” of the Catholic pope. Two centuries later, the effigies burned became those of Fawkes. Children in some parts of the country walked the streets carrying effigies and asking “for a penny for the guy” and imploring everyone to “remember, remember the Fifth of November.” Nowadays, thanks to graphic novels like V for Vendetta and its accompanying film, Fawkes has transformed from traitor into revolutionary, with masks of his face being worn at protests such as Occupy Wall Street. London is well worth visiting to experience the bonfires and celebrations, and travelers should consider the quaint Colonnade Hotel, a refurbished Victorian townhouse in central London, or the glamorous Strand Palace, located in the Covent Garden neighborhood.

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4. The Philippines

Those wishing to journey to a more tropical location should check out All Saints and All Souls Day in the Philippines on November 1st. Filipino traditions include visiting the tombs of deceased family members in order to clean and repair them, and offering prayers, flowers, and candles. Many also hold reunions at the graves themselves, where they play games and music, sing karaoke, and feast. The day is meant to remember deceased loved ones, reflect on their influence, and continue to seek guidance from them. First-time visitors to the island should try staying in Manila, which boasts numerous five star yet affordable lodgings such as the Manila Hotel and the New World Manila Bay Hotel.

Columbus Day Celebrations from Around the Globe

October 12th marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 arrival in the Americas, and Americans have celebrated the occasion in an official capacity since 1937.  While schoolchildren in the U.S. learn about the journey made on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, the holiday has become more recognized as a day off from work and the unofficial beginning of the fall sale shopping season. Travelers interested in seeing how other nations with a connection to Columbus celebrate the day should take a long weekend trip to the following four places.

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1. The Bahamas

In the Bahamas, October 12th, once known as Discovery Day, is now celebrated as Heroes Day. Columbus’s initial landfall occurred on the Bahamian island of Guanahani, where he christened it San Salvador Island, and it’s now famous for its secluded and idyllic beaches. Like Columbus Day in the United States, Heroes Day in the Bahamas is accompanied by the closure of schools, banks, public offices, and most shops. This October, Heroes Day will be celebrated with a five day festival from October 8 to October 13, featuring traditional Bahamian food, drink, and performances.  Those wishing to visit during that time should stay on the main island, in Nassau, which has a range of hotel options to suit all budgets. Travelers looking to splurge should check out the luxurious Cove Atlantis resort, while those hoping to save should try the Best Western Bay View Suites.

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2. Mexico

In Mexico, Columbus Day is celebrated as Dia de La Raza (“day of the race”). Dia de la Raza is a public and bank holiday, but that’s where the similarities with the U.S. celebration of Columbus Day end. Many activists in Mexico, and other Spanish-speaking countries, have chosen to reclaim the day as a celebration of indigenous life and traditions, because for these nations, the arrival of Columbus from Spain led to nearly all of Central and South America’s eventual colonization by the Spanish. Thus, the Dia de La Raza has become a celebration and remembrance of the mixing of peoples and cultures. In Mexico, the Dia de La Raza has been celebrated countrywide since 1928, with Mexicans celebrating both their Spanish and indigenous roots. First-time visitors to Mexico should try staying in Mexico City, the capital and the country’s largest city. Mexico City boasts a population comprised of many people with indigenous roots, coming from all over the country. Try staying in downtown’s Hotel Imperial Reforma, offering a great location at a hard-to-beat price, or the upscale and charming Green Park Hotel.  

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3. Spain

As Spain’s Queen Isabella was the monarch backing Columbus’s fateful expedition, it’s no surprise that the explorer’s journey to the Americas is a holiday known as the Fiesta Nacional, which celebrates the diversity of the worldwide Spanish-speaking community. However, the day is shared with two other significant events: the Day of Armed Forces, marked by an extravagant military parade, and the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, the patron saint of Spain’s Civil Guard. Those wishing to be in Madrid for the assorted festivities should stay at the affordable yet luxurious Hotel La Moraleja or the ultra-modern Urban Hotel, both located in the city proper.

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4. Italy

Travelers wishing to learn more about the explorer himself should try to take a trip to Italy, particularly Columbus’s homeland of Genoa. While Italian-Americans have long celebrated the explorer in the U.S., with San Francisco’s Italian Heritage Parade and New York City’s Columbus Day Parade being notable celebrations, his home country has only started feteing Columbus more recently. In fact, Columbus Day is not a national holiday in Italy, but his native Genoa hosts celebrations. In recent years, Americans living in Genoa join local politicians for a ceremony and reception at Columbus’s home, restored in 2001. Visitors to Genoa should stay at the budget-friendly and conveniently located Hotel Continental Genoa or the upscale Clarion Collection Hotel Astoria Genova.

Alaska Ferries Eliminate Famous And Beloved Bars

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Spending four days on a choppy boat with no Internet sounds daunting, especially when it’s spent on a deck chair and not in a cabin. But Alaska’s ferries offer an odd but charming mix of local culture, scenic views, and until recently, cheap drinks.

The Alaska Department of Transportation recently announced that they will be eliminating the famous and beloved bars on the ferries operated by the Alaska Marine Highway system. According to the Department, the bars have been losing $100,000 annually, and the estimated $750,000 that will be saved by closing them will contribute to alleviating a $3.5 million deficit. Gift shops on the ferries will also be eliminated, but it has been stressed that there will be no layoffs because of the cuts. Bartenders and gift shops workers will be assigned to other duties onboard the ships.

Many worry that the budget deficit will eventually lead to reduced service as well, despite the reassurances of the Department of Transportation. Alaskan residents who live in remote towns and islands such as those of the Inside Passage and the Aleutian chain rely on the ferries for transportation.

Out of town travelers may be affected as well — they usually pack the ferries in the summer months and provide much-needed tourism dollars to Alaskan businesses. The lack of bars may prove a disincentive for travelers to use the ferry system at all.

In the end, it’s not so much the booze as the bar culture that ferry riders will miss. Ferry routes can last as long as four days, and the bars allowed people from all occupations and walks of life to mix and converse in a relaxed atmosphere on extended trips. The bars were also famous in their own right. The tiny Pitch and Roll Bar lives aboard the Tustumena, which serves a notoriously choppy route from Homer to Kodiak Island. The 1970s decor scheme, which includes red carpet on the walls, also features barf bags and convenient railings. Its charm and distinctive qualities led Esquire to name it one of the 10 best bars in the world in 2007.

Wine and beer will continue to be served during meal hours in single-serving sizes, but it won’t be quite the same. Tony Tengs, the Alaska Marine Highways’ senior bartender, sums up the ineffable quality of the onboard bars: “There are things that have value that just can’t be equated and which people will never forget. Like the folks who got married in the bar on the Taku and the many who have gathered there on their way to and from funerals.”

Although the bars will be closed, the six ferries that once possessed them (Kennicott, Matanuska, Columbia, Tustumena, Malaspina, Taku) will remain in service. On a positive note, the news of the bar closings can also serve as a reminder to travelers contemplating Alaskan trips to take advantage of what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful and unique transportation system.

Book hotels in these regions to try these unique desserts.

Desserts Around the World Worth Traveling For

Traveling around the world is an adventure in and of itself. But what makes the adventure even more delicious? Planning your trip based on the best desserts worth traveling for! And why take one trip when you can take several? Whether you are a full-blown foodie that savors the unique combination of exotic ingredients or your average sweet tooth who enjoys a simple yet delectable treat at the end of a meal, there are many unique desserts available to sample as you travel the world on your next adventure. From Tire sur la Neige to Martabak, here are just a few of the amazing desserts to build a trip around.

Haupia: A popular treat in Hawaii, Haupia is a thick, coconut pudding made from coconut milk, a thickener, sugar and salt. It’s like the islands’ version of gelatin with a tropical twist. Can’t you picture yourself sitting on a beach, enjoying Haupia along with a fancy drink and umbrella?

Crème de Abacate: Avocados are good for you, right? Why not enjoy a dessert that might actually offer some health benefits! Crème de Abacate is a specialty in Brazil where there is an abundance of avocados. This yummy dessert is composed of mashed up avocados, milk and sugar. It is garnished with lime wedges and served both hot and cold. Talk about a versatile dessert!

Tire sur la Neige: This simple dessert is a classic when traveling to French Canada during the winter months. Buckets or troughs are filled with snow. Then, maple syrup is poured over the frozen flakes. The liquid syrup quickly becomes taffy-like and is rolled onto sticks. What a fun treat before or after hitting the slopes! If you happen to be staying in a Quebec hotel like the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, this treat is also called tire d’erable.

Martabak: Head to Yemen, Indonesia and you will delight in these delectable desserts. Originally a street food found in Saudi Arabia, there is now a sweet and a savory version available. Choose between a chocolate and cheese stuffed fluffy pancake sprinkled with chocolate rice, jam and crushed peanuts and the savory, not as fluffy version filled with meats (traditionally mutton), onions, eggs and other herbs. This decision will likely be the toughest thing you encounter on your world-traveling dessert trip!

Now, where did you put your passport and your elastic-waist travel pants?

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Mongolian Wrestling: From Genghis Khan to Modern Day Mongolia

Seated on a grassy field in the afternoon light, a panel of serious looking judges survey the competitors before them. Half a dozen bare chested men, feet planted squarely on the ground, stretch their muscles and roll their shoulders, some, adjusting their outfits.

And how striking they are! Pink cropped jackets are fastened loosely with string over the men’s stomachs, and below, cling snug blue briefs. Calf-high leather boots and a four sided pointed hat completes the ensemble. To an outsider, it seems oddly incongruous to the men’s broad shouldered and fighter honed bodies. For these are Mongolian wrestlers: practitioners of a set of techniques, thousands of years old known as Bökh, or ‘durability’.

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Nicknamed one of Mongolia’s “three manly sports” (the others being archery and horse racing, san saddle, which girls and women now participate in), wrestling is to Mongolians what soccer is to Brazilians. So much more than just athleticism, wrestling here, embodies the traditions of Mongolian culture as far back as Genghis Khan. The ruthlessly successful 13th century conqueror encouraged his men to stay battle ready through training in what was then, a military sport. Even further back, cave paintings have been discovered in the Bayankhongor region of Southern Mongolia dating from 7000 BC, which depict men grappling in front of crowds.

And while the country is changing at an increasing rate, wrought by a mining boom attracting big international investment, little has changed within Mongolia’s wrestling heritage.

This month, it’s Naadam (‘game’ in English), Mongolia’s annual sporting festival, which celebrates all three traditional endeavours. But it’s wrestling in particular that draws the crowds.

“Wrestlers are the ideal Mongolian men, given our history of being warriors,” explains Lkhagva Erdene, the Executive Producer of Mongol TV, which covers the games every year.

And it takes a lot of work to live up to the expectations of a nation.

“Most wrestlers are in their training camps now. They are forbidden from talking to family or friends during the intense weeks before Naadam, and they will not talk to strangers; it’s bad luck for them.”

The hunt for Mongolia’s top wrestler begins on July 11th, the start of Naadam and Mongolia’s Independence Day. It will be decided over three days.

Preliminary rounds are held on a smaller scale in the countryside, in a provincial stadium or even an open field. The finals are held in the National Sports Stadium of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city.

The countdown has already begun.

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Batbileg Munkhtur trains with national wrestlers from all over the country.

“What’s unique about Mongolian wrestling for me is there are no weight categories and almost unlimited time for the competition.”

Whether skinny, fat, short, tall, young or old, fighters can be paired with each other. Each round is a knockout, with the winner moving forward and the loser being eliminated from the competition.

The rules themselves are very simple: the first man whose back, bum or knee touches the ground, loses. Hitting your opponent, gouging or strangling him is forbidden. Naturally.

“Techniques wise, they can be as sophisticated and elegant as judo.” enthuses Munkhtur.

Grappling holds, leg sweeps, throws and counters can see a man weighing more than 350 lbs lifted cleanly through the air, spiralling over an opponent’s shoulder before being slammed onto the ground.
However, the ceremony begins with a little more grace.

Each wrestler performs a short eagle dance (“devekh”) around the flag of Mongolia, followed by a few slaps on the thighs. Imitating an eagle has it’s origins in shamanism, a form of spirituality still alive in Mongolia despite the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century. The symbolism of the fighter’s dance represents power and elegance. The thigh slaps indicate the wrestler is ready.

Then, with hands gripped tightly onto each others arms, the fight begins.

Renown wrestlers, and those who advance to the higher rounds, also have a zasuul, or “fixer”, who acts both as a motivator, and the fighter’s hat holder during his rounds. Whilst there is technically no time limit, one of the zasuul’s roles is to slap the buttocks of his fighter, if he is deemed to be taking too long. Sometimes eliciting a friendly laugh from the crowd, it seems to do the trick.

As the games progress, wrestlers will begin to accumulate titles. The lowest rank awarded is ‘the Falcon of Sum’, and the highest is ‘Giant’. They get longer as fighters win more victories, with additional reverence being added. For example, a ‘Titan’ can become an ‘Invincible Titan’ and even an ‘Invincible Titan to be remembered by all’.

Munkhtur also stresses the importance of tradition.
“Mongolian wrestling is embedded with a lot of cultural aspects.”

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Indeed, the hard and fast of training in the physical techniques of grappling is still coupled with the old legends. Even the wrestling uniform is explained through folklore. The story goes that the reason for the frontless jackets is that there was once a skilled champion who remained unbeatable in many regions. Eventually, the other fighters discovered that their opponent was in fact a woman! Ever since, wrestlers have had to compete bare-chested, to avoid such duplicity occurring again.

Genghis Khan is even said to have had political rivals killed off in bouts.

It seems unthinkable that this remembrance of Mongolia’s past, both real and imagined, will ever change. Yet the balance of ancient and modern in Mongolia is clearly starting to shift. More than a decade-long mineral boom has introduced a taste for Western pleasures to one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth. Shiny Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores glint invitingly in Ulaanbaatar. Many tour companies now give quotes for their travel packages in $US rather than Mongolian Tugriks. And even for wrestlers, there’s the chance to get a slice of the burgeoning wealth within their country. Becoming a champion can be a gateway into politics aor a lucrative business.
All this goes on every year, largely overlooked by the Western world. Indeed, Americans seem to have largely forgotten the immense Asian nation, nestled between Russia and China. (At 1.6 million km², Mongolia is nearly as large as Alaska). Apart from a brief spike of interest in the 1920’s, when American Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, said to be the real life inspiration for Indiana Jones (fewer hearts being ripped out and more dangerous encounters with bandits and wild beasts) discovered the first dinosaur eggs buried in the Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Across America, a dinosaur craze ensued, and Mongolia was put on the map. Briefly.

It’s time to take notice again.

Open to the Western world since 1990, the “Land of Blue Sky” is one of the few places on earth where travellers can still glimpse the lives of true nomadic peoples. It’s so called because there are said to be about 250 sunny days throughout each year.

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Make the most of the clear weather and head out of Ulaanbaatar. US passport holders don’t have to pay for a 90 day tourist visa, which is more than enough time to explore the far corners of the countryside of Mongolia, where the diversity can be extreme. More than just rolling grassy steppes, there are the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, the permafrost ice valley in Yolyn Am and the thick forests and lakes of Khövsgöl, the “Switzerland of Mongolia.”

Despite all the talk these days of the world getting smaller, that sense does not exist in Mongolia. In a country so large with only 2.8 million inhabitants, you could drive for the better part of a day without seeing a single other soul. With such little light pollution, and hardly any evidence of human construction marring the horizon, the sky became truly vast.

By day, you’ll never have seen a sky stretching out so far. At night, the stars blaze undimmed by any obfuscation.

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For those of you who fancy your chances, the countryside is also the place to try your hand at Mongolian wrestling. Just remember to tell any tour companies back in Ulaanbaatar that you’re interested, whilst asking for package quotes. All participants must be registered in advance.

Yes, sure, there is a lot that’s unique about Mongolia. Throat singing, staying in yurts (called gers) with nomads and shamanism are all big tourist draws. But, unlike those more exotic pursuits, there’s something about close contact competitive fighting that is so much more elemental. Just look at the huge interest in the West in MMA and boxing matches. Somehow, that makes wrestling more relatable.
So what does Munkhtur think will be occupying the thoughts of every Mongolian wrestler right now?
“Rank. Rank is in their minds.”

He explains that a wrestler’s title can only be decided by the hotly contested bouts of Naadam, and not in any other competition. Once earned, they last for life.

And when this year’s games are over, thousands of wrestler’s hopes will spark again. Maybe next year will be theirs.

Maybe next year will connect them to nine thousand years of history, as they simultaneously become a new face of modern Mongolia.

A Day with the Haridwar Pilgrims

Speeding along in the comfortable, air-conditioned class of the Derahdun Express, it is nearly impossible to imagine the beautiful chaos that awaits visitors in Haridwar, India, a sacred gem on the Ganges River that seems unknown to even the most well traveled tourists in India. Set where misty mountains meet sprawling plains, the town is one of the seven holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims. During the summer pilgrimage season, the city hosts millions of orange-clad Shiva devotees who walk from all over the country to bathe in the cleansing, churning water of the most important river in India. With just an extra summer day or two, those tired of the Delhi city scene can experience the true wonder of the Haridwar pilgrimage.

Stepping off the train is equivalent to entering another world, one where all feet are marching towards the Ghats, smiles are wide and festive and the palpable celebratory atmosphere is felt immediately. A walk through the colorful main baazar area, where cars and rickshaws are prohibited, is really the only way to begin to appreciate the city. It’s simple to fall in line with the constant stream of shrine-toting young men heading towards the Har ki Pauri, the most sacred of the city’s Ghats. Now is the time to immerse oneself in the awe-inspiring show of Hindu spirituality. Borrow a noisemaker. Carry one of the gaudy, plastic shrines. Buy an orange outfit. Walk alongside locals in the monsoon rains. Chat with one of the pilgrims; they seem happy to share their thoughts on Hindu religion and tradition. Bask in the brilliant cultural experience that is Haridwar.

As the crowd nears the river, the orange mass spreads out along the Ghats where individuals collect water, wash their precious shrines and then take a dip themselves. The best place to observe the odd goings on is from one of the several pedestrian bridges built over the wide and imposing river. A glance up to the hazy hilltops reveals another vantage point, Mansa Devi Temple. A short, inexpensive cable car ride or a two kilometer hike both lead to the top, where, shoes removed and heads bent, pilgrims make offerings of food and sweet treats to the Goddess of Desires. Tourists may be more interested in the commanding panoramic view of the river and city below. As the hot Indian sun begins to sink, a calm comes over the temporary inhabitants of Haridwar. In the dusky light, there are still those who are bathing and gathering tiny vials of water, but soon they turn their attention elsewhere. Slowly, slowly, after evening prayers are said, they begin to make their offerings of flower petals and incense before candles are lit and set afloat on rafts made of leaves. As night falls, the river is left shimmering with the light of hundreds of candles, each one making it further than the last on its journey to the Bay of Bengal. When each of the devoted followers finishes the rituals associated with a pilgrimage to Haridwar, they begin the long and arduous journey home again. Resting on shoulders are the shrines they so lovingly washed and the vessels of Ganges water they so lovingly filled. Observing such a fascinating cultural event leaves the mind marveling and the senses stuck in overdrive. No summer trip north of Delhi would be complete without spending a day with the pilgrims.

Katheryn Hoerster

Katheryn is a lover of travel, culture and adventure. She resides in Llano, Texas, but regularly escapes to the outside world where she chases new experiences and connects with new friends.

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Bangkok’s top 5 off-the-beaten-path attractions

Getting off the tourist trail in Bangkok

Bangkok is one of the world’s biggest, and most bustling cities. It goes by several names, including the official Thai name “Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit” (no joke!). This is the longest city name in the world, or just “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon” for short, translating to City of Angels. Curiously enough, the more westernized name is almost opposite of this, as it is referred to as the “Sin City of Asia” with reference to the busy night life. Being one of the oldest Asian trade cities in dealing with the West, it has had a long term standing accommodating foreigners. This has brought about many popular attractions, and some at high tourist prices!

So what can you do that’s fun, interesting, and not really on the beaten-path? Being such a massive metropolis, there’s hidden gems around every corner in Bangkok. Here’s some of my favourite discoveries:

Forensic Museum

The forensic museum is not your run of the mill museum. This off-the-beaten-path museum is located at Siriaj Hospital, in central Bangkok. This place is crazy… and certainly not for the faint of heart! The Forensic and Pathology Museum takes you through a variety of different exhibits, examining different elements of the CSI related science, and it’s use in Bangkok. The exhibits include coronary studies, head injuries, a Tsunami 2004 exhibit, and even the mummified cadaver of the most infamous serial killer in Thailand. It’s not your run of the mill attraction, but certainly brings with it a heap of information and an inside look at this interesting study.

Thai Barbecue

Perhaps not best to combine this with your day at the Forensic Museum, this is a very popular Thai activity. Similar to a Korean BBQ, the Thai version incorporates a bowl at the bottom of the grill for making a soup with noodles, greens, wontons and of course some drippings from the meat being cooked on the grill above. It’s a do-it-yourself activity, and all you can eat. The typical Thai BBQs run about 120 Thai Baht, and often don’t have time limits dictating your stay. The buffet is immense, with tons of tasty food to try – including salads and desserts! Best if you go with some friends so you have some company to engage with while waiting on your meat to cook to your liking! They can be found all over the city – my personal favourite is Pla Thong located centrally in Bangkok near the Victory Monument sky train station!

Go to the Cinema… in bed

Going to the movies in Thailand may not seem like such a big deal. Sure there’s lots of English choices available, but they’re no different from the movies you can watch back home… except for one detail. A few theater complexes have developed VIP theatres. If you’ve got an extra evening to kill, and you really want to check out that new film your friends back home have been raving about – this is an experience in itself. Often with 3 different seating options, you can choose between the front gallery, where you’ll sit comfortably under the screen in body fitting bean-bag chairs. Moving up a notch going up the sides of the theatre, you will be watching the movie with the comfort of home, in a leather recliner chair – equipped with a blanket for maximum comfort.

And then.. the cream of the crop – Check out the fully reclinable ‘bed’ seats. These ones go up the centre of the theater for the best seating. They have enclosing walls so you and a friend don’t get the distracting sounds from people chatting around you. They also happen to recline almost completely horizontally for the effect of laying in bed. Equipped with pillows and a blanket, this is the ultimate comfort in movie watching.

This is like flying first class, minus the turbulence, and with a giant state of the art screen and surround sound system, to comfortably transport you to a far away land. Oh.. and did I mention they deliver popcorn and drinks directly to your seat? The seating runs about 300-1000 Thai Baht – cheaper than a night out back home, and in much more class and comfort. The Paragon Cineplex in central Bangkok is perhaps the most state of the art if considering this fun option.

Chatuchak Weekend Market

This is about as full on as markets get. At the very end of the sky train and subway lines, it’s easy to get to from nearly every central point in Bangkok. This market is probably the largest of it’s kind that I’ve ever been to. It’s definitely the biggest in Bangkok. It’s so big in fact, there’s maps available showing you the different areas to visit, and how to navigate to them. It’s roughly 4 city blocks in size, and easy to get caught up in and just spend the day browsing! You can get just about anything here – from clothing, to food, to art work, and even pure bred puppies! Once you’ve finished your shopping, or just need a break, there’s a massive park right next to it that you can go and lounge in and examine your loot! You’ll find some of the best prices here, and is a great option for buying souvenirs.

Visit Refugee Prisoners at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC)

Now this can be a tough one for some people. It doesn’t exactly sound like the beaches and temples vacation you had originally planned on doing, but may be one of the most rewarding off-the-beaten-path experiences in Bangkok. There are countless people who have been imprisoned for overstaying their visas or living here illegally as refugees. They live with very little, and lack some basic necessities, such as vitamins, carbohydrates and hygiene products. There are a few NGOs in Bangkok who, for a very small fee of about $15, take you to visit some of the refugees and bring them these products with your donation. When you get out of your comfort zone and try to help others in need, you quickly learn the benefits of love and adventure that come from changing people’s lives for the better.

Ian Ord

An explorer since birth, Ian has now spent the better half of his life travelling. Spanning all 7 continents, and leaving no stone unturned, he continues to pursue discover new cultures, festivals, foods and all the other riches the world has to offer.

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My First Haircut in Chiang Mai (and Where to Get one Near Chiang Mai Gate)

It’s been about a month since I buzzed my hair on Koh Toa in Thailand, so I went looking for a barber shop in Chiang Mai today. I’m staying at the Smith Residence, located right by the Chiang Mai gate — so that’s where I started my barber search. On my way back from devouring some delicious Pad Thai at Drink More, I stopped at a barber shop right up the street from the Smith Residence. There was one Thai lady inside giving a pedicure to another Thai lady. The conversation went something like this (the barber had the other Thai lady translate for her):

Me: Can you “buzz”/cut my hair?

Her: The man who can buzz your hair is on a break

Me: Okay. When should I come back?

Her: The man will be back on Saturday

Me: Umm..okay. Thank you.

Today is Wednesday. The guy that could “buzz” my hair (a 15 minute task) was taking a break until Saturday. That’s 4 days. Only in Thailand.

I walked back to Smith Residence, asked the manager where I could get my hair cut and he said there was a place less than 20 meters down the road. I took his advice and headed in that direction — and found a barber who was not on break (imagine that)! The barber there spent 10 minutes “buzzing” my head, then I got an amazing shampoo/head massage. The whole 20 minute ordeal cost me 150 Thai Baht — and it was worth every penny!

The name was only written in Thai or I’d include the name of it. From Smith Residence, you can walk out the front door, turn left and the barber shop is less than 20 meters down the street on the left hand sign — with a red sign with Thai writing on it.

Drew Meyers

Drew Meyers is the co-founder of Horizon & Oh Hey World. He worked for Zillow from September of 2005 to January of 2010 on the marketing team managing Zillow’s API program and various online partnerships. Founder of Geek Estate Blog, a multi-author blog focused on real estate technology for real estate professionals, and, a blog devoted to exploring the world of microfinance. As passionate as you get about travel.

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Traveling and Obscene (Fun?) Guestures

For those travelers who enjoy making obscene gestures in foreign lands — here’s a guide just for you.

And let’s be real…who doesn’t enjoy obscene gestures in random places around the globe (at least in good fun)?

Drew Meyers

Drew Meyers is the co-founder of Horizon & Oh Hey World. He worked for Zillow from September of 2005 to January of 2010 on the marketing team managing Zillow’s API program and various online partnerships. Founder of Geek Estate Blog, a multi-author blog focused on real estate technology for real estate professionals, and, a blog devoted to exploring the world of microfinance. As passionate as you get about travel.

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Follow Me:
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