In the days leading up to Thailand’s annual Loy Krathong Festival of Light, pretty little baskets fashioned from banana leaves and filled with orchids and marigolds begin to appear at market stalls across the country. On festival night everyone gathers at the nearest body of water – beside the riverbank or neighbourhood canal, on the seashore, even at the village fishpond. Crouching down beside the water, you light the candle and incense sticks poking out of your floral basket, say a prayer of thanks to the water goddess, in whose honour this festival is held, and set your offering afloat. As the bobbing lights of hundreds of miniature basket-boats drift away on the breeze, taking with them any bad luck accrued over the past year, the Loy Krathong song rings out over the sound system, contestants for the Miss Loy Krathong beauty pageant take to the stage and Chang beer begins to flow.

One of the best places to experience Loy Krathong is in Sukhothai, the first Thai capital, 400km north of Bangkok, where the ruins of the ancient capital are lit up by fireworks.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Who would have thought you could relive the resurrection of Christ and pay respects at the Wailing Wall in Argentina; Tierra Santa, Buenos Aires, is Latin America‘s first ever religious theme park. Heidi Fuller-Love went along for some spiritual fun.

“If you’re a nun you get in free,” says Frederico, my tango teacher turned Tierra Santa guide for the day. After a half hour ride on the number 56 bus from Buenos Aires, we pull up outside the park.

I’m expecting to see serious faces and hear muttered prayers, but the city’s votive funfair has a holiday atmosphere. A replica of Golgotha – complete with three plaster statues nailed to three huge crosses – stands opposite a pier lined with food stands selling bulky chorizo-stuffed choripan sandwiches and people fishing off the edge. “Welcome to Buenos Aires,” Frederico laughs at the sight of my vaguely scandalised expression.

Opened in 2001, the city’s version of Jerusalem covers a seven-hectare plot of land and was built when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A few days before my arrival, the white smoke had shot up the Vatican chimney signalling the election of Latin America’s first pontiff – and already there are Pope Francis key rings, cuff links and furry dice on sale from the scattering of stands at the entrance.

Passing the Roman soldiers with drawn swords guarding the gate, we enter the park. Life-size plaster donkeys stand alongside stiffly swaying plastic palm trees with trunks like string-laced sausages. Attendants dressed in biblical gear hand us leaflets telling us the times of the different shows. It is mid-afternoon, but the park is almost empty. “Everyone comes for the Resurrections, but it’s out of season now, so there are only performances after sunset. People will show up later,” Frederico explains apologetically.

We watch the first show – a group of animatronic wise men bending on badly oiled knees to worship baby Jesus as a dramatic “Hallelujah” chorus blasts out over the sound system – and then wander up a narrow alley to the top of Golgotha hill to admire views over the ochre domes of Tierra Santa, fringed by the glittering high-rise blocks of Buenos Aires’ suburbs. An aeroplane from neighbouring Jorge Newbery airport flies noisily overhead, wings grazing the air just a few metres above a statue of the Virgin Mary hugging her crucified son.

A group of veiled women dash along the street beneath us in a clashing cacophony of tinsel and sequins. “The belly dance show!” Frederico exclaims. He chivvies me though a confusing labyrinth of alleys towards a central square with a stage set up in one corner. En route we pass several churches, a synagogue and a mosque – Frederico tells me this is because the park “wants to maintain an open dialogue with all faiths”.

There are only a dozen people watching, but the belly dancers give a lively performance, culminating in a rattle of midriff coins around Frederico, their teacher, who has been coerced to join in the dance.

By now it’s late afternoon and we’re feeling peckish. We hesitate between the vine-fringed terrace of Noah’s Ark and the Salem Pizzeria. “Fishes or loaves?” Frederico jokes. Eventually we chose the cheaper Bagdad Cafe where we sate our hunger with pork and salad stuffed pitta bread and ladles of creamy hummus.

After our snack we head for Genesis, an extravagant light-and-sound show where an animatronic Adam and Eve – complete with fig leaves and surrounded by stiffly animated hippos and giraffes – act out the seven-day creation of the universe in just twenty minutes.

As we emerge, blinking, into the dimming light, long shadows are cast by  plastic palm trees over a group bowed before the replica Wailing Wall; there’s only half an hour to go before the Resurrection and the park is starting to fill up. In no time we are surrounded by seething, expectant crowds. There are proud parents with small children whose shiny shoes mirror their neatly combed hair and couples who fidget and take pictures of each other striking tragic poses beneath the mount where Jesus is due to rise.

When the chorus from Handel’s Messiah booms out over the park and the twelve-metre-high statue of Jesus rises creakily from behind a rock, there are howls and cries among the crowd. Frederico, next to me, is on his feet and cheering as if he’s at a football match. The animated statue blinks several times and swivels slowly, blessing the four cardinal points. As our saviour sinks behind the rock to a last chorus of “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” a plump woman with a walking stick bursts into tears.

That was it – the pinnacle and highlight of this bizarre and eclectic Christianity-themed park. As we file out into the dark night lit by the scented flames of mobile choripan stands, Frederico asks: “Did you enjoy Tierra Santa?” with a grin that dares me to deny it.

“I think it’s one of those things that gets lost in translation,” I cautiously reply.

Explore more of Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina, or take a big trip across this continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Most visitors to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco in southern Peru are drawn by the extraordinary ruined temples and palaces and the dramatic scenery of the high Andes. But the only true way to get to the heart of the indigenous Andean culture is to join a traditional fiesta. Nearly every town and village in the region engages in these raucous and chaotic celebrations, a window on a secret world that has survived centuries of oppression.

Of all the fiestas, the most extraordinary and spectacular is Qoyllur Riti, held at an extremely high altitude in a remote Andean valley to the south of Cusco. Here you can join tens of thousands of indigenous pilgrims, both Quechua and Aymara, as they trek up to a campsite at the foot of a glacier to celebrate the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation in the southern sky – a phenomenon that has long been used to predict when crops should be planted.

At the heart of the fiesta are young men dressed in ritual costumes of the Ukuku, a half-man, half-bear trickster hero from Andean mythology, and if you’re hardy enough, you can join them as they climb even higher to spend the night singing, dancing and engaging in ritual combat on the glacier itself. Be warned, though, that this is an extreme celebration. Some years, pilgrims have died during the night, having frozen or fallen into crevasses, and when the pilgrim-celebrants descend from the mountain at first light, waving flags and toting blocks of ice on their backs, they bear the bodies, the blood sacrifice at once mourned and celebrated as vital to the success of the
agricultural year ahead.

Qoyllur Riti happens every year in early May. You can arrange transport to the start of the trek near the town of Ocongate with tour companies in Cusco.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

As dawn breaks in India’s largest and noisiest city, there’s a hubbub on Chowpatty beach that sounds altogether stranger than the car horns, bus engines and tinny radios that provide the usual rush-hour soundtrack. Standing in a circle on the pale yellow sands of the beach, a group of men and women are twirling their arms in the air like portly birds trying to take off. Dressed in a mix of saris, t-shirts and punjabis, they take their cue from Kishore Kuvavala, a man with a smile as wide as the Ganges, and the leader of the Chowpatty Beach Laughter Yoga Club.

Invented by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in the mid-Nineties, laughter yoga now has thousands of devotees. Many sessions, such as Kuvavala’s, are free for anybody to join, providing newcomers don’t mind an early start. Propelled by the philosophy that laughter gives humans huge spiritual and medical benefits, the session is book-ended by prayer and breathing sessions, and its main objective couldn’t be simpler – to set your giggling, howling, chortling and smirking instincts free.

Kataria soon found out after starting his original group that simple joke-telling wasn’t enough – not least because his devotees ran out of gags. So these days, laughter yoga clubs rely on physical comedy: stirring an imaginary bowl of lassi, laughing at yourself in an imaginary mirror, pretending to be an aeroplane and doing a giant hokey-cokey are all part of the forty-five minute Chowpatty beach session, which ends with a huge call and response shout-a-thon. It’s hard to let yourself go, but look around at the hordes of men and women roaring without restraint and soon you’ll be producing laughter of a volume and tone that would get you thrown out of most bars.

It certainly seems to be working. Laughter yoga clubs have now sprung up across the USA and Europe. The smiles on the faces of our motley crew of policemen, pensioners, students and office workers as they leave for work tell their own story. As Kishore explains at the end of the giggle-fest. “No need for lie-ins – but every need for laughter!”

The Chowpatty beach laughter club meets every morning at 7am at the eastern end of Chowpatty beach in South Mumbai. For more information on Kishore Kuvavala, see www.essenceoflaughter.com.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Embarking on a very personal and spiritual journey, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski shares her ayahuasca experience, after ingesting the hallucinogenic vines of the Amazon Basin.

The ancient Volkswagen Beetle climbs the hairpin bends high into the mountains, the lights of Cusco spread out in the valley beneath us.  On a particularly steep bend, it gives up the ghost and stalls. We follow the shaman up through unlit alleyways, accompanied by a howling chorus of the neighbourhood canines.

Behind a steel gate, a stone puma guards the steps down into the ceremonial hut with its thatched roof and skylights, lit by dim reddish bulbs and candles. Inside, there are several berths covered with thick woollen blankets, and an arcane-looking shrine covered with candles, crystals, giant dark feathers, mysterious little bottles and rocks. There are eight of us: Eddie and Katarina from New York, an Eastern European guy, an Aussie couple, a Spanish girl, myself, and an elfin girl with dark eyes who looks like she might be a regular. So what brings us all here?

Hallucinogenic vines

Associated largely with shamanism, the psychotropic Banisteriopsis caapi jungle vine Ayahuascaaya (spirit) and waska (vine) in Quechua – has been used as a religious sacrament for centuries by the indigenous tribes of northern South America and Brazil. The use of the brew to gain access to higher spiritual dimensions was described as ‘the work of the devil’ when 16th century Christian missionaries first came across it, but despite attempts to suppress the practice, it still flourishes, particularly in and around the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca is not for recreational use; it is said that it’s best to approach it with specific spiritual goals or questions in mind, and also with an experienced shaman present – not just one who knows how to brew the vine in the correct proportions, but also to provide spiritual protection. Ayahuasca is not known to cause flashbacks or to have long-term side effects but it’s an intense experience.

Kush certainly seems suitably shaman-like – an aquiline nose, indigenous features, shoulder-length greying hair, outlandish clothes and a powerful presence that inspires confidence. We talk to him about what we’re hoping to get out of this experience: shedding the fear of failure, trying to decide on a career path, finding love… Kush then asks us all whether we’ve ever experimented with any mind-altering substances before, to see how much he should give us to start with. He checks that we all have plenty of water and hands out plastic buckets, since ayahuasca is a powerful “cleanser” it often purges you of your stomach contents.

Psychedelic colours

Kush lights a candle, takes a small bottle of liquid, pours it into a stone receptacle filled with ashes, and sets it on fire. It burns with a strong blue light. He lowers his head and says something that sounds like a prayer, in a language that I don’t understand. He shakes a bottle filled with pinkish liquid and pours different measures for us all.

The liquid has a strong, bitter and organic taste, with grit at the bottom. I gulp it down, wrap myself in blankets, lie down and close my eyes. I wonder if I’d made a mistake by not being able to resist an avocado salad that lunchtime; you’re supposed to avoid meat, sex, alcohol, spices, citrus fruit, sugar and fat for at least a day before ingesting ayahuasca in order to leave the path clear for visions.

Kush begins to chant. Almost immediately, I begin to see kaleidoscopic shapes, psychedelic colours, lime-green snakes moving, changing in time with the chanting. When the chanting changes tempo, so do the shapes. I feel strangely removed from my body; it’s as if something is raising my body up, while another force is pressing down on it. When the feeling gets too intense, I open my eyes for a second and it abates. When I twitch my nose, it feels like my face doesn’t belong to me. My body seems far away. There are shivers down my spine, creeping slowly; I don’t feel them, but rather see them as lines of light, slow and thick like electric molasses. The chanting is replaced by the playing of a reed flute – a repetitive trill that triggers more images, more changing colours.

Hearing voices

When I open my eyes, I see a giant dark figure in the middle of room that is half-man, half-wolf. Then the Peruvian wolf moves into the candlelight, shrinks, and turns into Kush again.

Even when the chanting and the music stops, the sounds reverberate inside my head, become voices, and build into a crescendo. When it becomes too much, I open my eyes, see Eddie sitting up, the shaman kneeling in front of him, holding giant feathers in the air, one in each hand, chanting.

I lose all sense of time; I don’t know if minutes have passed, or hours, whether I have been dreaming or hallucinating. More images come: abstract colours, the face of an Andean child, a woman, a wizened old person. Then an undead face covered in cobwebs thrusts itself at me – it’s startling, but not frightening. Everything seems to shake, and I think there’s an earthquake, yet when I open my eyes, all is silent and still.

More voices, more faces – tribesmen from the jungle; the forest green is encroaching on my space, it’s intense, the tribesmen not friendly, nor overly hostile. The sounds in my head turn into a ringing in my ears which builds up and up. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I open my eyes and throw up into the bucket next to me. Everyone else is lying still. My vision is blurred, the room is spinning.

Then it feels as if I’d dreamed it all. Not sure if I had even been sick; only the slight rasping in my throat makes me sit up and check the bucket. Affirmative. The candle above the door seems to be crackling with purple lightning. I feel immediate relief after purging, and sink back down.

More images come, obeying the repetitive chant, the reed flute of the shaman’s assistant, the light drumming. I don’t know at what point the shaman falls silent. I sleep a dreamless sleep until it’s morning, and I can feel the sun through the skylight.

The following morning, as we head back down into central Cusco, we’re all silent, each of us still absorbing the night’s experience. Kush tells us that we’d been under the influence for five hours or so. It has been an intense, uncomfortable ride, but most importantly, we all feel that we got what we came for.

Explore more of Peru with the Rough Guide to Peru, or see the whole continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The pace of life is deliciously slow in Luang Prabang, but if you opt for a lie-in you’ll miss the perfect start to the day. As dawn breaks over this most languorous of Buddhist towns, saffron-robed monks emerge from their temple-monasteries to collect alms from their neighbours, the riverbanks begin to come alive and the smell of freshly baked baguettes draws you to one of the many cafés. It’s a captivating scene whichever way you turn: ringed by mountains and encircled by the Mekong and Khan rivers, the old quarter’s temple roofs peep out from the palm groves, its streets still lined with wood-shuttered shophouses and French-colonial mansions.

Though it has the air of a rather grand village, Luang Prabang is the ancient Lao capital, seat of the royal family that ruled the country for six hundred years until the Communists exiled them in the 1970s. It remains the most cultured town in Laos (not a hard-won accolade it’s true, in this poor, undeveloped nation), and one of the best preserved in Southeast Asia – something now formalized by World Heritage status. Chief among its many beautiful temples is the entrancing sixteenth-century Wat Xieng Thong, whose tiered roofs frame an exquisite glass mosaic of the tree of life and attendant creatures, flanked by pillars and doors picked out in brilliant gold-leaf stencils. It’s a gentle stroll from here to the graceful teak and rosewood buildings of the Royal Palace Museum and the dazzling gilded murals of neighbouring Wat Mai.

When you tire of the monuments, there are riverside caves, waterfalls and even a whisky-making village to explore, and plenty of shops selling intricate textiles and Hmong hill-tribe jewellery. Serenity returns at sunset, when the monks’ chants drift over the temple walls and everyone else heads for high ground to soak up the view.

Luang Prabang is served by flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane. You can also reach it by bus and boat from Vientiane and by boat from the Thai–Lao border at Chiang Khong/Houayxai.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Myanmar (Burma) is a beautiful and culturally rich country, but has been cursed for decades with a brutally oppressive regime. Now, following the softening and then removal of the 15-year-long tourism boycott, tourist numbers have swollen. This is a fascinating time to discover Myanmar’s temples, rice fields, and mountains, and meet the people eager to introduce foreigners to their country and culture. Taken from the Rough Guides Snapshot Myanmar (Burma) by John Oates, here are six highlights of Myanmar (Burma):

1. Yangon: seek out colonial architecture and join crowds at the country’s spiritual heart.

2. Hpa-an: head through rice fields to visit caves and a mountain-top monastery.

3. Bagan: watch the sun set over a plain dotted with thousands of temples.

4. Inle Lake: visit crumbling stupas, traditional markets, workshops and stilt villages.

5. Ayeyarwady River: join locals on a multi-day ferry trip south from Bhamo.

6. Hsipaw: trek through beautiful valleys and sleep in remote ethnic-minority villages.

You can download the The Rough Guide Snapshot Myanmar (Burma) for your device here – only £2.99.

Secreted away in the souk quarter behind the Basilica of the Annunciation, in a maze of streets too narrow for cars, lies the Fauzi Azar Inn – a 200-year-old mansion that has been converted into the most welcoming place to stay in Nazareth. Centred on an arched courtyard, its ten adjoining rooms are decked out with heavy drapes and cushions that soften the heavy sandstone walls and high painted ceilings, making this an oasis of calm beside the daily hubbub of the markets.

But the Inn’s owner, Maoz Inon, has bigger dreams for Fauzi Azar, and has designed it to be more than just a relaxing hideaway. He has developed a “Jesus Trail” – a 65km walking route that traces a path between some of the most significant points in the story of the Gospels, from the fields and forests that surround Nazareth, along the Sea of Galilee to the place where Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount. With the help of volunteers (who get free lodging in Fauzi Azar for four weeks or more in return) he has worked with various other guesthouses to mark out the route with accommodation stops along the way. So rather fittingly, the Jesus Trail ensures that in one of the world’s most divided countries, there is always a welcome at the inn.

For directions, rates, reservations and volunteering info see www.fauziazarinn.com; +972 4602 0469. Further info on the Jesus Trail is at www.jesustrail.com.

 

For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, grab a copy of Great Escapes.

Every year in Ireland, thousands of people do the Newgrange lottery. Entry is by application form, with the draw made in October by local schoolchildren. And the prize? The lucky winners are invited to a bleak, wintry field in the middle of County Meath on the longest night of the year, to huddle into a dank and claustrophobic tunnel and wait for the sun to come up.

It’s not just any old field, though, but part of Brú na Boinne, one of Europe’s most important archeological sites. A slow bend in the River Boyne cradles this extraordinary ritual landscape of some forty Neolithic mounds, which served not only as graves but also as spiritual and ceremonial meeting places for the locals, five thousand years ago.

The tunnel belongs to the most famous passage mound, Newgrange, which stretches over 273ft in diameter, weighs 200,000 tons in total and is likely to have taken forty years to build. The lottery winners get to experience the annual astronomical event for which the tomb’s passage was precisely and ingeniously designed: through a roofbox over the entrance, the first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice shine unerringly into the burial chamber in the heart of the mound, 65ft away at the end of the passage.

Not everyone gets to win the lottery, of course, so throughout the year as part of an entertaining guided tour of the mound, visitors are shown an electrically powered simulation of the solstice dawn in the central chamber. Once you’ve taken the tour and seen the impressive visitor centre, the perfect complement is to drive 19 miles west to the Loughcrew Cairns, a group of thirty similar mounds that are largely unexcavated. Here, you borrow a torch and the key to the main passage tomb, Cairn T, and you’ll almost certainly have the place to yourself. With views of up to sixteen counties on a clear day, you can let your imagination run wild in an unspoilt and enigmatic landscape.

The Brú na Boinne visitor centre (www.heritageireland.ie) is 10km southwest of Drogheda in Co. Meath. The Loughcrew Cairns, near Oldcastle, are accessible only with your own transport – pick up the key for Cairn T from the coffee shop at Loughcrew Gardens (www.loughcrew.com).

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

It’s mid-afternoon and you’re sitting in an outdoor café when suddenly the street is closed to traffic and a procession of villagers comes streaming by. Women with delicate frangipani blossoms woven into their hair balance lavish offerings of food, fruit and flowers on their heads and walk with grace and poise, while men march by playing musical instruments or sporting ceremonial swords. All are making their way to one of the village temples to honour its gods and celebrate the anniversary of its dedication.

Bali is home to over 10,000 temples of varying sizes, each one of which has a dedication ceremony at least once during the course of the Balinese year of 210 days. Each anniversary celebration, known as an odalan, is carried out on an auspicious date set by a local priest and usually lasts three days. In preparation the temple is cleaned, blessed and decorated with flowers, silk sarongs and colourful umbrellas. Women spend hours weaving elaborate headpieces and decorations from palm leaves while men carve ornate objects from wood. Streets leading to the temple are lined with vivid flags, banners and long, decorated bamboo poles (penjors) that arch overhead with woven garlands of dried flowers and ornaments fashioned from young palm leaves. Worshippers from around the island arrive en masse to celebrate with prayer, ceremonial dance, drama, musical performances and food to entice the gods and spirits.

Celebrations take place inside the temple walls: fragrant hair oils and smoke from sandalwood incense fill the air as the chimes of bells and the shimmering sounds of the gamelan orchestra electrify the atmosphere. In one corner worshippers kneel before an altar filled with offerings to recite prayers and be blessed with holy water and rice, while in another spectators are treated to an elegant dance of girls in golden costumes. Shadow-puppet performances recount ancient tales while barong dances ward off evil sprits. All this activity competes with the sizzling smells of saté being grilled over coconut husks and the laughter of lads gambling with cards.

Foreigners are invited to attend temple cere-monies, however you must respect local customs and ensure you are appropriately dressed with a sarong, headpiece and footwear.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month