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]

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

Disclaimer: This post has been written in 2014, when the country just stared to open up. Since then, things have changed A LOT. Friends that visited last year told me stories of cheap sim cards and 3G everywhere; online accommodation booking and no more Chinese trucks from the ‘40s. Anyway, the struggle is still real. The message here is that while Myanmar is a wonderful and still partly unspoiled Country, it ain’t no entry level Asian destination. I often discuss this matter with other well-seasoned backpackers that have been there too and everyone admits it’s a tough Country to travel in. I don’t mean to discourage you if you’re planning to go, but be aware that it won’t be a walk in the park, at all. Be prepared. So here are my tips for travelling to Burma.

“This is Burma
and it is unlike
any land you know about”

That is how Rudyard Kipling introduced Burma in his Letters From The East in 1898. More than a hundred years later, when you step in Myanmar, the feeling still stands. With a contemporary history marked by the longest military dictatorship in the world, the opening of its borders is quite a novelty. Virtually cut off from Western progress and influence, Burma is still a place where people travel on carts towed by oxen, on plows, on Chinese trucks 50 years old with bare engines and, more generally, on Thai vehicles (left-hand drive) driving the English way (driving on the left).

Both the direction of travel and the name of the country changed in 1948. Burma became Myanmar when the newly born military junta wanted to take a sharp turn after the English era.

 

Tips for travelling to burma

Outside the big centres, women still make laundry at the river. They carry water at home two ounces at a time, and electricity is almost never working. Even in Yangon and Mandalay, blackouts are still quite common, that’s why you’ll see gigantic diesel generators outside of most buildings. Although internet and mobile phones are spreading fast, costs are still a bit crazy: one hundred dollars for a sim card and a Wi-Fi connection speed that takes you back to the nineties. On street corners, you’ll find ladies sitting at small desks with a landline phone on top. They are the freelance of the phone booth: people go see them to make phone calls with spare change.

Myanmar is also a country inhabited by a huge variety of ethnic minorities. Tribal groups speak their own language, have different traditions and different religion. For decades they have fought for territorial independence, meeting the hard knock of the regime, bloodshed and persecution.

Despite the alleged current peace, disorders continue in various areas, obviously off limits for tourists. Indeed, entire parts of the country are still closed, others have just opened and can only be reached with endless combinations of buses, boats and jeeps, or even exclusively by air. In any case, no one seems to be able to provide reliable information about where you can go and where you can’t.

However, things are changing fast in Myanmar. In recent years, the regime has finally released the political prisoner and democratic ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi, it organized a pseudo-election and finally welcomed some opposition members in parliament. Some hundreds of political prisoners have been released, although as many remain in prison. Newspapers and magazines still have to pass through government censorship, making it impossible to publish anything more frequent than a weekly paper, but you can now see pictures and articles of the Lady in the local press. In many restaurants, you’ll find her portrait on the walls and people start to be less afraid.

 Since last August (2013), three land crossings with Thailand have been opened, and the tourist visa has been extended to twenty-eight days. All these changes have created a few discrepancies with the travel stories we collected before coming to Burma. Those who had been here only three or four years ago complained the lack of time and advised all the experiences they couldn’t do: day trekking through the countryside around Inle Lake, almost unattainable archaeological sites, slow boat cruises that lasted two/three days and so on. On the other hand, those who just came back argued that surviving the long month of the visa wasn’t easy. The truth is that traveling to Burma is tiring and exhausting. There are just four main destinations where tourists are pushed: Bagan Pagodas, the placid Inle Lake, Yangoon and Mandalay. Despite this, huge gaps in the newly born tourist industry make travelling extremely complex and tiring.

Long distance buses pass only once a day and usually leave on early evening, which means that their passengers will be conveniently vomited at their destination between 2 to 5 amWhile accommodation prices skyrocketed in recent years due to government taxes on foreign tourism, the overall quality is extremely poor if compared to the rest of South East Asia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a true down-to-basics hard-core backpacker, but I still get pissed when a lacklustre double room that in Thailand or Cambodia would cost a handful of dollars max, in Myanmar is worth more than twenty. But assuming that one does not go to Myanmar to relax (in theory, not even to freak out 24 hours a day),

There are many reasons
why the country of the golden pagodas
is worth visiting:

1. Exiting overland crossing

Crossing the border from Mae Sot to Myawaddy by land means moving along with thousands of Burmese and Thais on their way to the Friendship Bridge carrying massive luggage. We crossed the border mountain range on a six-seater car, with seven people aboard, on a dirt road where the traffic is one-way every other day. A desperate trip made in an infinite convoy of vehicles of all sorts and age, usually with a load twice their size. A compact mess that moves at 20km/h and stops each time a truck takes a break to cool down its tires and engine (locals has set up roadside business of water cane cooling, as in the best Asian entrepreneurship tradition).

Tips for travelling to burma

2. Folks and local traditions

The red grins of men, with their mouth full of betel. That’s a chewing mixture of nicotine-like herbs and red roots that makes everyone look like Dracula. The women’s shy smiles, with their tulle hats and their tanaka-painted face, the traditional make-up made of powdered bark and aloe, which keeps their skin fresh. The children who say hello non-stop: “hello, bye bye, ningalabaaaaaah!” Music that is everywhere and anywhere all the time. Everyone is singing, listening to a blasting radio or pumping traditional songs in home-made sound systems for the benefit of the whole village. The cult of tea and tea houses, open as early as 3am to welcome at their comforting bonfire the spare travellers that just descended a bus and have no idea where to go. Burmese tea is often mixed with condensed milk and served with hot fritters: so sweet that your coronaries might explode just looking at it.

3. Getting out of the beaten track

Near the southern border with Thailand you’ll find Hpa-an’s rice fields and granite pinnacles, Bhuddas-filled caverns and sleepy villages. Very few tourists make it till here so the place still holds plenty of atmosphere.

The railway line between Mandalay and Lashio sways for 240km through the countryside. From the window youl’ll spot farmers with the typical pointed hat and children walking to school wearing the traditional lonji (the local sarong). Misty mountains are crossed by the massive Goteik viaduct, where the train slows down at a crawl.

Absolutely not to miss are the tribal villages of the Golden Triangle, on the border with Laos and northern Thailand. Here time seems to have stopped a hundred years ago. Akha women still wear elaborate hats decorated with silver coins, while Ann women wear garments as black as their smile, darkened by the spices they mix with betel.

4. Making new friends

Myanmar ain’t no backpacker paradise. Actually, most of the time you can count tourists on one hand. This plus the scarcity of areas where you can actually go means that you’ll easily meet the same people everywhere. When I spent a day alone at Inle Lake (Andrea was back to Bagan to see the temples he hadn’t seen due to fever) I met more people then than during the previous month. I had a bike ride, I crossed the lake with other people loading five bikes on a longtail boat, I swam, climbed up to a mountain monastery, and attended an unlikely wine tasting on the hills at sunset. I even had an Italian dinner prepared by a local chef who learned the art from a passing italian. Everything was priceless.

 

Thus said, there are also many reasons
why I don’t recommend Myanmar
to Asia first timers or glampackers:

1. Moneywise it’s a mess

Theoretically, you shall enter Burma with all the cash you’ll need for your trip. No credit cards, no traveler’s checks, no ATMs. (Disclaimer: this is outdated, apparently ATMs are now present in big cities and locals accept also warned-out dollars)

The wad has to be equally divided in brand new US dollars and in Kyat, the local currency. Which can be tricky if you’re not coming from home but from Thailand, and you have just one credit card left between the two of you (This is another story, but just in case you are in the same situation: raise the card withdrawal limit, find a big bank like Bank of Thailand that allows cash back operations, withdrawl in bahts, change the bahts in dollars and then change half of it into Kyat on the black market of the border: swift and easy).

2. Constant travel discomfort

Like when we spent two days and one night on the local boat from Bagan to Mandalay, without any book, playing cards, food (or at least edible food), toilets (apart from a hole in the floor in the back of the boat), nor sleep. As if deck sleeping wasn’t sweet enough, the village where the boat was docked transmitted three hours of super loud Buddhist prayers in the middle of the night. A gem.

Be prepared for the sleepless nights. There will be many. Night buses arrive at destination in middle of the night, so you’ll spend the wee hours staring at roadside bonfires (bless the tea houses) waiting for guesthouses to open and eventually check you in. Continuous changes of plan due to travel complications, illness, rain or generalized desperation. I remember spending long hours wandering in Mandalay in search of something edible between dense traffic, the darkness of blackouts, and the constant terror of falling in the open sewage strategically placed where a sidewalk should be. Or to undertake a 200km train journey to go on an off-the-beaten-track hiking trip just to be bounced off to marvellous Mandalay again because of the non-stop rain (in the middle of the dry season!)

3. Sound pollution on public transport

On long distance buses, the ubiquitous TV-set broadcasts loud local soap operas with actors donning longjis and tanaka. Or super lame shows that include songs, dances, traditional costumes and very sad jokes highlighted by laugh track. Or even pop song karaoke videos. With the singers that look like faded photocopies of Western pop stars who struggle with love triangles. For some obscure reason aircon is always adjusted on level “arctic breeze”. Not that the rest of South East Asia is any better on the matter. So, as a general rule, wear your warmest clothes and for god sake put on a beanie. Buy one at the bus station if need to. You’ll thank me later. You’re welcome.

 

In short, Myanmar is a mess. If you choose to go, be ready. And if you’re ready, be more ready! Try to avoid the beaten track (the coasts of the south and the north-western territories just opened) and for the love of God keep away from the boats!

Want more?
Browse my Burma Photogallery:

BURMESE DAYS

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