Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

One of the things that really thrills me when it comes to travel, is the feeling of going back in time. I love the poetry of places that have kept strong customs and tradition for centuries. Those which stay true to their culture, either because of the scarcity of contact with the outside world or for the pride of their people. This is pure travel magic for me.
Today I collected eight of this magical places. Some are easy to reach, while others are hidden corners of rural regions that I found strolling around with a motorbike and that I would struggle to place on a map myself. Or maybe I just want to keep them secret for a little bit longer. But you can read their story and see some pictures further below. So keep on reading and follow me in this very special trip back in time.

 

Places to travel back in time

1. The holy city of Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a place of life and death. India’s oldest and holiest city, it has been sitting on the sacred waters of Ganges since 1200 BC. The ones who get cremated on its shores attain peace, stopping the endless reincarnation cycle. Varanasi is quintessential India: sharp contrasts, devoted spirituality, dirt, flowers, life, sickness, death. Everything happens under the sun: the funeral processions, the chanting and the burning never stop. The codified movements of the low cast wood porters and the experienced acts of the corps burners have been unchanged for centuries. The same goes for the traditional wooden boats, the crumbling temples and buildings, the sunset puja ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the sadus, the pilgrims bathing just a few meters downstream of the burning ghats, the ladies washing their laundry, the lepers, the wandering cows, the stray dogs and the goats. Everything is timeless.
[SEE ALL VARANASI PICTURES]

 

Places to travel back in time

2. The hill tribes’ villages around Kentung, Myanmar

The small town of Kentung is hidden between the mountains of Shan State, in the eastern Myanmar area known as the Golden Triangle, where China, Thailand and Myanmar meet. A place full of charm and history, once renown for the cultivation of opium and drug trafficking. The surrounding area is the home of more than 30 local ethnicities like Akha, Lahu, Wa and of course Shan. You can spot tribes people at the local market early in the morning, sometimes donning colourful traditional costumes. But the best way to meet them is hiking or biking to their hill villages. One of my biggest regrets is that the day of the hike I felt super sick, so I only have a few poor pictures and I couldn’t really hike a lot. We weren’t hiring any guide; we just went around the area with two local motorbike drivers. We met Akha ladies with black theeths, local men dragging huge logs for construction, armed hunters (with rifles dating back to the 50’s) and we crossed a couple of villages with wooden made aqueducts and every sort of wind chimes. Probably one of my best experiences in Myanmar.
[SEE MYANMAR GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

3. The hidden fishing island of Pulau Weh, Indonesia

Pulau Weh is a tiny island north of Sumatra. It’s the northern tip of Indonesia. Miraculously spared from the 2004 tsunami, Pulau Weh is a fishermen’s island slowly converting to tourism (the enforced Sharia law still keeps the crowds at bay). A mecca for divers, it still holds the feeling of a lost paradise covered in jungle. Riding a motorbike all around the island is an adventure in itself. The winding single track road crosses the thick jungle and the local monkey’s territory. Be mindful if you meet one sitting in the middle of the road staring at you, that’s their home and they’re ready to fight for it!

 

4. Folegandros, the forgotten Cyclade, Greece

This tiny pearl of the Cyclades is a couple of hour boat ride from crowded Santorini and Ios. Probably because of its famous neighbours, Folegandros has been spared by mass tourism. Its bare hills are mostly populated by goats and dotted with white and blue orthodox churches. Almost ten years ago, while hiking there with friends, I heard silence for the first time. Most of the fishermen live downhill, close to the port or in the Chora (the main village), a place where time seems to have stop fifty years ago. The cobblestone lanes are lined with white and blue houses decorated with colourful flowers. The local eateries often display the catch of the day, so it’s not rare to see octopus hanging on a line outside of a restaurant. The dream-like turquoise beaches are usually reachable only on foot, hiking for a good hour. If you get lost, do not fear: ask the local toothless men. Some of them are so old that they can still say a few words in Italian.

 

Places to travel back in time

5. The mountain district of Val Brembana, Italian Alps

The valley of the river Brembo, aka Val Brembana, connects the smooth Bergamo hills with the high peaks of the Italian Alps. This is a wonderful place to go hiking, with paths ranging from mildly steep to vertical ice peaks. The communities that live here are mostly tiny villages scattered on the slopes of the valley. A bunch of stone houses perched upon cobblestone lanes and an old church. The feeling of history and remoteness lingers there all year long, but the best time to visit is in summer, when communities are alive with local Patron Saint festivals, which usually include a Catholic rite, traditional dancing, music and a shitload of local tasty food. Unmissable.

 

6. The lush rural villages in Barisal region, Southern Bangladesh

This is an example of what I mean by not being able to locate a place on the map anymore. I went to Bangladesh in 2014, following my aunt while she was checking on the many projects she built there with her NGO. Southern Bangladesh is a thick jungle full of water and life. Rivers, ponds and lotus flowers are the typical rural scenario there. Following the maze of tracks that cross the rice fields and the fishing ponds, you end up in tiny villages made of straw huts. Their curious people can be Muslim, Indus or even Catholic. I was there just after the rice harvest. The grains were laid out on a cloth to dry in the sun. So were dung patties, used as a stove fuel.
[SEE BANGLADESH GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

7. Hill tribe villages around Tham Lot, Northern Thailand

Another gem of the Golden Triangle is the Mae Hong Son region in Northern Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, for decades now it has been the home of local tribes as well as of refugies from Myanmar. From the lush village of Tham Lot you can start long hikes on the hills, were local families don’t wear the old costumes anymore but still keep their legacy alive, staying in traditional huts and living off farming and the spare cow or chicken.
[SEE NORTHERN THAILAND GALLERY]

 

8. Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia

I know that when thinking of timeless Cambodia, the mind goes straight to the centuries-old Angkor Wat temples. Which surely is a wonderful display of Khmer history, but it’s also jam-packed with tourists all year long, so that it’s not easy to feel the magic. A lesser known historical site is city of Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia, a few kilometers away from Phnom Penh. A complex of temples and palaces from the 19th century, nestled in a thick jungle inhabited by a band of monkeys. Climbing the 509 stone steps to the hill top temple will reward you with astonishing views of the surrounding countryside. That’s the thing, all around there isn’t any touristy infrastructure. Instead, the countryside is dotted with rural villages bustling with life. People going around for their daily chores in old Vietnamese bicycles. Kids going to school in outdated (but super cute) uniforms, chickens running, everyone shouting hello and eventually pointing in the direction of Phnom Penh for you: the dusty red tracks that connect one village to the other have no road signs. [SEE CAMBODIA GALLERY]

Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

South East Asia by motorbike

This is not a post for people that have never driven a scooter in their lives and decide to give it a try in Ko Phangan to reach the Full Moon Party. Which, by the way, it’s something that I don’t recommend considering that Ko Phangan has probably the steepest roads of Thailand, usually followed by sharp turns. You’ll see plenty of bandaged backpackers there; they call it “the Thai kiss”. Anyway, this post is for the experienced drivers, the ones that are comfortable with bike riding at home and want to travel independently and adventurously. Long distance travel by motorbike in South East Asia is for motorbike lovers, those who do not fear dust, misadventures and a fair amount of super-fast and life-challenging decision making.

If you fit this description, check out my guide for travelling around South East Asia by motorbike!

Getting the bike:

  • Get an international driving licence before you leave home. Not that it’s really needed, but this is just one of the trillions of excuses that a local policeman will find to fine you.
  • Make sure that your travel insurance covers motorbike accidents.
  • If possible, rent (or buy) from a local place that has been suggested to you by fellow travellers (either online or live). This way you will probably find a seller / renter that speaks English and is kinda trustable. Otherwise, if you feel rich, rent from a foreigner business. You will find them in major cities. They are definitely twice or trice more expensive than local business but you will actually get insurance and a customer service.
  • Choose the most common model on the market. In Asia it’s Hondas. Choosing a common model is fundamental to be able to find spare parts easily along the journey (yes, the bike will break down, it’s a matter of fact).
South East Asia by motorbike
  • If your bike breaks down, you will have to pay for the mechanic even if it’s not your fault and you just rented it 2 days ago. Don’t be afraid, it’s usually minor fixies that will cost you a few dollars. Anyway, it’s always a good idea to have the mechanic to call the renter. This way they can agree on the solution to the bike problem and you’ll probably get a better deal.
  • If the bike gets stolen, you’ll have to pay for it. Same for accidents. This is always true, road insurance is almost never included (it never was in my experience)
  • It is normal to leave your passport to the renter as an insurance that you won’t stole the bike. It’s a common practice that everyone requests. Just take a big breath and trust the renter (but carry photocopies on you). If you’re pulled over, the police will ask for your licence but is well aware that the renter has probably kept your passport as a guarantee.
  • Renting from locals is cheap, but you won’t have a big choice of bikes. Usually they rent only 100cc or, when you’re lucky, 250cc up to 600cc (that only happens in the most tourist destinations like Bali). If you’re planning a long trip, rent one bike per person. Please don’t assume that you can travel with your girlfriend behind you just because you do it back home. Even if you rent the biggest and “comfiest” bike, you will still have to secure some luggage behind the passenger. The restricted space, the dust, corrugated or semi paved roads and the hectic traffic will be a little too much if you’re travelling on the same bike of your partner. I tell you this from experience.
  • Always ask for a helmet. I know that wind in your hair is the best feeling ever and that locals almost never wear helmets, but please, do. First, because driving in South East Asia is crazy dangerous most of the time. Secondly, because not wearing a helmet is a popular excuse for police to fine you (even if no one else wears it).
  • On police: avoid them. If you see a patrol on the right side of the road, drive as left as you can. Do not stop unless you really have to (like there’s a bunch of cops on both sides of the road).
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

What to do if the police stop you

In South East Asia you will notice that locals travel on motorbikes in a very creative way. You will cross entire families of six on the same scooter, people carrying animals (dead or alive) or transporting massive loads of goods. Sometimes I even crossed people driving with a sick relative behind them, who was carrying a medical drip along. Despite this street anarchy, you will notice that policemen tend to stop only pale foreigners. They will then fine them for whatever tiniest problem they may or may not have (no helmet, no local licence, lights not working, speeding, running a red light, you name it). This happens because fines are a big part of their wages. That’s exactly why you should avoid them as much as possible, but if the police stop you, remember to:

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Take the keys out of the bike and put it in your pocket. This is the first and most important thing to do straight away. If a policeman gets hold of your keys he will be able to ask you whatever amount of money to give them back to you.
  • Have a close look on where your documents go if you hand them out to the police (for the same reason of above).
  • Don’t be scared by the random menaces (“you will have to come to the police station with me” / “we will take your bike”). Try to play it cool and negotiate your way out.
  • Start haggling the “fine”. Propose at least half of what they ask and keep on bargaining. Police “bribes” standards vary a lot from Country to Country. In Cambodia, 1 to 5 dollars is considered ok for minor issues, while in Bali they asked us 30$. Just keep it cool and work it out like it was just another market negotiation.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

Unwritten rules of the road

In Asia they honk a lot. But fear not, there’s always a good reason. With so many vehicles doing whatever on the road, honking means “watch out I’m moving close to you”. So it is usually a life-saver used to signal overtaking, turning, sudden U turns or simply that someone close to you is going to do something risky.

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Before overtaking, always check that no one is overtaking you already and then honk while you accelerate. While you do this, you may notice that someone else is doing the same manoeuvre in the opposite direction. Try to stay cool, zig zag the least possible and move quickly.
  • Cover yourself up with long sleeved T-shirts and long trousers if you do not want to be beaten up by the strong sun and the dust. For the same reason remember sunglasses and a scarf to put on your mouth when the dust / smog situation becomes too much. Put heavy sunscreen on your hands and knuckles. If you burn them, you will have to buy gloves (not the easiest task in rural Asia) to be able to drive again.
  • Secure your backpack behind you with hooked elastic bands. Don’t carry it over your shoulders or you’ll suffer from back pain for the rest of your life.
  • Always carry a rain cover for your backpack and a plastic poncho that is large enough to cover your legs as well. Tropical rain is sudden and strong.

A SUV that overtakes a bus in the opposite direction
while you’re overtaking a massive truck full of rocks
which is exhaling black exhaust gas will soon become familiar.

  • It’s cool to have a local sim card to be able to use data and google maps while driving, but bringing a good old paper map is a good idea. If you’re lost, ask the locals. In the most faraway places they may not be able to read a map but they will be more than happy to point out the direction of your destination.
  • If you can, refill in gas stations, but don’t be afraid to stop along the road to the local mamas that sell gas in old coca cola glass bottles. It’s a bit more expensive but a life-saver in most cases.
  • Never underestimate distances. What looks like a major state road on a map can turn out to be a super busy, one-lane road used by oxcart, scooters, huge trucks, SUVs, local bus, etc. In Sumatra it took us a good 12h a day to cover 350km.
  • When you park in crowded areas, along with many other scooters, it’s normal to find your bike somewhere else. People will move it in order to get theirs out. Before panicking, have a look around. Top tip: if you just rented the average black scooter, try to personalize it with a ribbon or something that will help you spot it easily.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

In general, keep it cool, travel at slow pace and enjoy the journey. Sometimes you will be driving through horrendously polluted and busy cities. Other times you’ll peacefully ride along jungle roads or close to the ocean. You will end up in places that are impossible to reach with any other mean of transport. You will really eat and sleep with the local communities and you will find yourself laughing together even if they don’t speak a word of English. You’ll break the bike, repair it, and then break it again. You may get sick. Or very sick. And convince yourself that you’re gonna die that night, in the middle of nowhere.

Well, It may not be for the faint-hearted but it’s very, very rewarding. So good luck and enjoy travelling South East Asia by motorbike!

Want more?
Browse my Cambodia photo gallery:

CAMBODIA ON TWO WHEELS

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