The sun was setting on the town of Siem Reap as I clung to the back of my moto driver. Threading our way through traffic, we rode out until town finally gave way to forest and we entered the Angkor site. In front of us were the iconic lotus-bud towers of Angkor Wat, looking like giant pine cones, resplendent in the light. Sunset is the best time to view west-facing Angkor Wat, from the top of nearby temple-mountain, Phnom Bakheng, when the greying stone of the towers glow red under the glare of the dying sun.

The secret of Angkor is to explore the galleries and enclosures at your own pace. Wander the corridors and you’ll stumble across aged monks performing blessings on curious tourists; wafting bundles of burning incense over their bodies and loudly clapping a cupped palm across their backs. The outer walls of the temple are covered with bas-reliefs retelling stories of Hindu battles and mythology, whose intricately etched bodies are worn smooth by thousands of hands. And all around is the echo of children playing in the cool passageways and juvenile hawkers who sell cold drinks and trinkets out of plastic carrier bags.

The next morning I went back to see Angkor Thom, with its lichen-covered towers revealing exquisite faces carved into rock: fat, curvaceous lips smiling benevolently beneath half-closed eyes. Thick jungle once shrouded this lost twelfth-century Khmer kingdom. Its painstaking restoration involved numbering and cataloguing each and every stone block before setting it back into its original position.

The destructive force of nature and time on stone is no more evident than at Ta Prohm, the temple left to the jungle. Here huge tree trunks, hard as cement, spill out over the scattered blocks like the creamy bellies of snakes. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, and once you’re done exploring the doorways and the curious shapes of the forest entwined with boulders, sit back, kick off your shoes and listen to the insects whirring in the sun and birds squawking in a soothing blend of background noise.

The Angkor site is 5km from Siem Riep; to visit you need a pass valid for one, three or seven days.

 

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As tourists start flooding into Myanmar (Burma), Melanie Kramers dives into the deep countryside to live like a local and discovers a beguiling mix of past and present.

Hand-rolled cheroot clamped between her teeth, the elderly woman stares hard at us and issues a guttural grunt. While it sounds like the kind of grumpy growl you’d expect from a monosyllabic adolescent, this is belied by the wide grin her weather-worn face creases into. It’s a noise we’ll hear frequently during our three-day trek through the countryside in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. As our guide Do’h later explains, low-pitched grunts are how people express agreement in the local Pa’o dialect.

Before arriving in Myanmar I’d wondered what kind of reception we’d get. It was difficult to build up a picture of a country and people largely isolated from the world for the past 50 years. I’d seen pictures of flower-wearing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest to participate in the first democratic elections in decades and read about foreign investment flooding in. Now I wanted to see what life was like in a nation apparently poised on the cusp of dramatic change.

Here in the fertile farmland between Kalaw and Inle Lake, the peasants manually working the fields appear stuck in a time warp. A group of four labouring women, wearing chequered orange headscarves that stand out vividly against the drab mud, pause to wave before returning to swinging their hoes in unison. It looks like backbreaking work in the fierce sun. Traditional gender roles are clearly defined in these rural communities; women sow seeds and weed while it’s down to men to lead docile water buffaloes in heavy wooden ploughs – then take the afternoon off.

But back in the villages there are hints of modern influence, from a flash of neon green nail polish on a teenage girl’s toes to trendy bleached hairstyles you might see in a hipster bar. Although agricultural work seems completely unmechanised, roadside stalls sell pale yellow gasoline in recycled whisky bottles to those lucky enough to own shiny, new imported Korean motorbikes.

Atop a house made of woven bamboo in contrasting shades, Do’h points out a single solar tile gleaming on the corrugated iron roof. He says it generates enough power for an electric bulb or two at night and to watch the occasional DVD. Inside, a calendar bearing Aung San Suu Kyi’s face – until recently illegal – is now proudly pinned up.

Despite these signs, it’s hard to judge the pace of change among rural communities who we’re told have long preferred to keep to themselves to avoid government interference. Officially, March 2nd is a public holiday to celebrate Peasants Day, but the villagers continue working obliviously, taking their rest days according to the lunar calendar. However, we see several roads being built, indicating that modern, urban life may soon be roaring into these remote spots.

In dry season, the walk along dusty red earth paths is straightforward, though the intense midday sun necessitates strategic breaks under the shady canopy of sprawling 100-year old Banyan trees. Beside a rare river, emerald green onion shoots are growing in a seedlings nursery, while neatly ploughed furrows await potatoes on terraces stepped like an amphitheatre. I salivate over tall papaya and banana trees and am disappointed to learn that the blossoming mango trees won’t bear fruit till July. Do’h cracks open a white speckled custard bean. It’s used a laxative, he explains. Not quite what I was looking for.

In the afternoon we arrive at Kyauk Su village, home to about 10 families, and scoop water from the well to scrub off the rust-coloured dust stuck to our legs. Our smiling, grunting hostess indicates this should be performed from a bucket at one side, not where the washing up takes place.

At 6.30pm night arrives promptly and absolutely. Stars flicker brightly in the velvety blackness. Sitting indoors on bamboo mats at low round wooden tables, we’re served coriander-infused fish broth followed by fried noodles with tofu and garlicky watercress. After a sugar fix of sticky peanut brittle, the village’s young men invite us to join them round a crackling campfire, taking it in turns to strum a guitar and earnestly croon soft-rock love songs. We can’t understand the words but the emotion is palpable. Shamefully, the only tune our international trek group of eight all know is Frère Jacques. The boys clap politely then return to their ballads.

Our communal first floor bedroom is over a storage space piled high with fresh ginger, which adds a piquant spice to dreams. We sleep on thin mattresses lined up so the soles of our feet point away from the Buddha icon on a flower-bedecked shelf, to avoid causing grave offence.

I wake up to the soft whoosh of wings and chatter of small birds in the rafters above my head. Outside are the sounds of villagers beginning their day: the put-put of motorbikes as boys head into town, the rattle of coriander seeds being raked out to dry on a plastic sheet, children playing and water buffalo lowing. Our hostess comes in with small dishes of rice and water to place on the shrine, and we are treated to pancakes and a thermos of steaming green ginger tea.

All photos within the article by Melanie Kramers

I’m impressed by how welcome we’re made to feel as we pass through people’s intimate lives. Excitable children, cheeks smeared with pale yellow thanaka paste, a natural sun block made from crushed tree root, happily show off dance routines and pose for photos. Hosts are usually the older generation, who seem pleased to have a new, easier source of income now their hard fieldwork days are over.

But how long will foreign tourists be an interesting novelty? Larger Puttu village, where we stay on our second night, is an established base for trek groups, and has a notable difference in atmosphere. We’re told Myanmar received about 300,000 tourists in 2011, which rocketed to 1 million during 2012, with numbers set to shoot up even more this year.

Our experienced guide reflects that the income provided by increased tourism will benefit locals, but unless managed sensitively a jump in numbers could spoil the experience visitors are seeking. How will the Burmese adapt to meet the challenges ahead?

In Myanmar, locals greet each other by asking ‘Where have you been? Where are you going?’ In these changing times, it seems a very apt question.

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

Waitomo sits on a veritable Swiss cheese of limestone, with deep sinkholes and beautifully sculpted tunnels all lit up by ghostly constellations of glow worms. As you ride in a dinghy across an inky underground lake the green pinpricks above your head resemble the heavens of some parallel universe.

Coober Pedy, Australia

In the virtually waterless outback, in searing temperatures and extreme terrain, the underground people of this town have created the “opal capital of the world”. The name Coober Pedy stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” and here homes, museums, opal shops and even art galleries all exist beneath the surface.

Cango Caves, South Africa

A quarter of a million visitors come to Oudtshoorn each year to gasp at the fantastic cavernous spaces, dripping rocks and towering columns of calcite in the Cango Caves. The awesome formations here are the work of water constantly percolating through rock and dissolving limestone on the way.

La Ville Souterraine, Canada

Winter in Canada is extreme and canny Montréalers have created the largest underground city in the world in order to avoid the cold. Since the 1960s, 33km of connected passages have spread to provide access to the Métro, major hotels, shopping malls, thousands of offices, apartments and restaurants and a good smattering of cinemas and theatres.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, USA

This surreal 83-square-mile park in southern Idaho arose from successive waves of lava pouring from wounds in the earth’s crust for over a millennium. The caves are damp, pitch black and silent, but where rocks have collapsed bright sunlight floods in to reveal the secrets of the underground.

City Hall Station, USA

This New York City subway station opened to great fanfare in 1904 but is today eerily silent. The architectural grandeur of the disused station – stained glass windows, skylights and brass chandeliers adorn its curved walls and arched ceilings – can only be viewed by passengers as train #6 loops back uptown or at occasional events like this Centennial celebration.

Yucatan’s cenotes, Mexico

The limestone shelf that forms the Yucatan Peninsula is riddled with sinkholes called cenotes. The most stunning are enormous deep wells of turquoise water set in dramatic caverns and considered by the Maya to be gateways to the underworld.

Puerto Princesa Underground River, Phillippines

A guided boat tour beneath low-lying limestone cliffs and through vast unlit sepulchral chambers is an unforgettable and magical experience. This unique underwater river system is said to be the longest in the world and is visited by more than five hundred thousand tourists each year.

Reed Flute Cave, China

Named for the reeds once found outside the entrance, this natural limestone cave is a brightly lit magical fairyland with impressive stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations. This reflective pool in the heart of the cave makes for a breathtaking spectacle.

Mary King’s Close, Scotland

Spooky tours led by costumed actors explore the warren of underground streets and spaces beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Tenements had been built on the steep hillside and when work on the City Chambers began in 1753, the tops of existing houses were simply sliced through and the new building constructed on top.

Ajanta Caves, India

Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. The remarkably preserved murals, carvings and sculpture dating from 200 BC to 650 AD are considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art.

Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

Located in a rain-washed basin in Southern Cappadocia, this extensive ancient underground city contains family rooms, communal areas, stables, churches, wine and oil presses, chimneys to bring fresh air, wells to bring fresh water, a school complete with study rooms, and even makeshift tombs. Thousands of people could retreat behind stone doors to safety.

Catacombs of Paris, France

Tourists can wander through miles of claustrophobic, dark and damp caves, tunnels and quarries said to hold the bones of around six million Parisians. Lining the gloomy passageways, long thigh bones are stacked end-on, forming a wall to keep in the smaller bones and shards, which can be seen in dusty, higgledy-piggledy heaps behind.

Cheddar Caves, England

Beneath the towering Cheddar Gorge in the southwest of England, the Cheddar Caves were scooped out by underground rivers in the wake of the Ice Age. Today the vast caverns are floodlit so that visitors can gaze upon beautiful stalagmites, stalactites and rock formations mirrored in glassy pools.

Kverkfjöll Glacier Caves, Iceland

Lurking beneath Iceland’s stark interior is a frighteningly active volcano whose intense heat melts ice from the base of the glacier. The tunnels and caverns etched by the rivers are enthralling frozen palaces that stretch for over 2km and are best explored with an experienced guide.

Capuchin Ossuary, Italy

This macabre attraction beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome displays the bones of more than 4,000 friars who died between 1500 and 1870 in elaborate and ornamental designs along the walls.

Casemates du Bock, Luxembourg

Beneath the northeastern corner of Luxembourg City’s old historic district, the vast network of underground passages and chambers here are a clear legacy of the country’s strategic position within Europe. Now a World Heritage Site, what remains of the underground ramparts is eerie, claustrophobic and utterly fascinating.

Grotto di Nettuno, Sardinia

Reached either by boat or by 656 vertiginous steps carved into the face of the cliff, these stunning natural caves became a popular tourist attraction after being discovered by fishermen in the eighteenth century. Stalactite and stalagmite formations and a saltwater lake are highlights inside.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Placed on the original UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978, this astounding underground mine not far from Kraków is visited by more than one million tourists each year. Nine levels have more than 300km of galleries with works of art, altars, and historic and religious figures sculpted in the salt.

Grotte de Pech Merle, France

Original prehistoric cave paintings can be viewed close to the village of Cabrerets in southwest France. The astonishing rock art depicting bison and mammoths was discovered in 1922 and short of inventing a time machine, this is the closest you’ll get to the mind of Stone Age man.

When it first emerged in the city’s brothels and slums sometime in the 1890s, the world’s sexiest ballroom dance, the tango, horrified the genteel residents of Buenos Aires. Some of the city’s more liberal-minded upper-class youths fell in love with tango, though, and brought it to Paris, where the dance’s characteristic haunting melodies, seductive gazes and prostitute-inspired split skirts took the capital of passion by storm. By the 1910s tango’s popularity had gone global, but Buenos Aires was and remains the spiritual and professional home of both the music form and dance.

If you want to keep a low profile, head to a tango show. Aimed squarely at tourists, these are glitzy, polished, expensive affairs where the dance is performed on stage by professionals. More earthy and authentic – and worth seeking out – are the milongas, or tango gatherings, where everyone takes part. These range from stately mid-afternoon affairs in the city’s exquisite Art Deco tea salons to smoky, late-night events behind unmarked doors deep in the suburbs and youthful tango-meets-techno milongas in the city’s trendy districts. Long-running milongas include the traditional Tango Ideal at the Confitería Ideal and the hip Parakultural events in Palermo.

For those who want to take part, some milongas are preceded by a tango lesson – you’ll need several of these, and, if you’re a woman, a killer pair of heels – before you can master the basics of the fairly complex dance. It’s also perfectly acceptable to turn up, albeit smartly dressed, and simply enjoy the music while watching the dancers glide with apparent ease across the floor. Beware, though: the music and the locals may have you under their spell – and in their arms – faster than you may have anticipated.

Venues and times of milongas are constantly changing, so seek local advice; a good place to start is www.tangobuenosaires.gov.ar.

 

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In a country where a small spider can kill you it’s reassuring to know Mother Nature has a softer side. Hidden in the prehistoric valleys of the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales are hundreds of plants used by Aboriginal peoples to cure everything from earache and fevers to snake bites and colds. The best chance you have of spotting them and learning about the art of bush medicine is to delve deep into the forest with an expert guide. Walking ancient hunting tracks used by indigenous peoples, far from the car parks and crowded viewpoints, you will discover a different side of this wonderful national park.

One of the first things you are struck by as you descend into the chiselled gorges of the park is the smell – an astringent mix of eucalyptus and tea tree, a result of the oils evaporating from these plants which also gives the air its blue haze. While you might think of tea-tree oil being used to zap the odd spot, Aboriginals used it widely, inhaling the infused oil to cure coughs and stuffing the raw leaves into cuts to prevent infection. Colonial settlers soon learnt about this miracle plant and tea-tree oil was even issued to Australian soldiers in WWII.

Descending further, the hum of cicadas gets louder and the air becomes humid as you enter the moss- and lichen-encrusted cloudforest. While you concentrate on the barely distinguishable path, your eagle-eyed guide will point out everything from bush pears, an ancient Aboriginal snack, to the aptly named headache vine, once crushed and rubbed
directly into the skin to treat migraines. As the gradient steepens, you’re glad of the guide ropes attached to the slippery stone walls. Nonetheless most people end up with an impromptu mud pack on their lower half before they reach the bottom of the creek. As the air grows warmer and your spirits start to flag, your ears will welcome the hiss of the nearby Wentworth Falls, signalling both the hike’s end point and the prospect of an invigorating swim.

Blue Mountains bushwalks are offered year-round by River Deep Mountain High (www.rdmh.com.au) based in Katoomba, Blue Mountains National Park.

 

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Some of the world’s greatest cities are no more. Once thriving, hundreds of cities across the world now lie in ruins – ravaged either by war or simply natural progression. These are the world’s greatest lost cities.

1. Tikal, Guatemala

Gautemala’s crown jewel is Tikal, perhaps the greatest of all the Maya city-states. Its magnificent six temples still dominate the landscape much as they did a thousand years ago, soaring above the rainforest canopy and making one wonder at the ceremonies that once took place here, and the size of the city now swallowed up by the jungle.

2. Ctesiphon, Iraq

Ctesiphon was the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, and is located on the River Tigris not far from modern Baghdad. Its showstopper is the enormous vaulted hall, dominated by what is still the world’s largest brick-built arch (pictured). The throne room behind it was 30m high and 48m long: truly fit for a king.

3. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Built by the Gokomere people in the eleventh century on a plateau around 150km from modern-day Harare, Great Zimbabwe’s centre was a palace enclosed by a granite wall some five metres high. Once a stone city that formed the hub of a major trade network in gold, ivory and cattle, today the ruins lie scattered over a wide and verdant valley.

4. Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan

The civilization that flourished in the Indus Valley and built Mohenjo-Daro around 2600 BC was a rival of its better-known Greek and Egyptian equivalents – though little is known about its people, who were early masters of town planning and civil engineering. Today its complex of houses, shops, ramparts and streets are under threat from erosion.

5. Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh

At the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, a fifteenth-century Turkish general ordered a town to be built, filled with palaces, mosques and tombs (including his own). This city of 360 mosques, an outpost of the Islamic world, fell into disrepair shortly after the death of its founder and lay for centuries under vegetation; it has now been partly restored.

6. Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA

The Mesa Verde National Park contains over 600 cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Anasazi people, who lived here from the seventh to fourteenth centuries AD. Built mainly from sandstone, wood and mortar under the overhang of ridges, the most famous – Cliff Palace – housed around 100 people, and was accessed via ladders.

7. Vijayanagar, India

You’ve probably never heard of it, but in 1500 AD Vijayanagar had twice the population of Paris and was the hub of the greatest empire in southern India. Built around a set of holy places including the spectacular Virupaksha Temple (which still stands), today its temple districts and shrines are revered by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

8. Ani, Turkey

The magnificent capital of a tenth-century Armenian kingdom, Ani was known as ‘The City of 1001 Churches’. Many of them remain in place today, bewitchingly out of place in the green fields that surround them. It’s hard to imagine that these evocative ruins once formed part of a city-state that rivalled Damascus or Constantinople.

9. Thebes, Egypt

From around 2040 to 1070 BC, Thebes was the capital of Egypt and the city dedicated to Amon, the supreme sun god. Even today its splendour is unrivalled: the Temple of Luxor, Karnak Complex and Temple of Ramesses II remain some of the greatest architectural achievements the world can offer. Oh, and the tomb of Tutankhamun is here too.

10. Carthage, Tunisia

A Phoenician trading town that was sacked and rebuilt by the Romans, Carthage grew into a major port, at its height second only to Rome in terms of its size. Later it was captured by the Vandals and then the Arabs, but much of the atmospheric ruins that remain today are Roman in origin, especially the amphitheatre and Antonine Baths (pictured).

11. Persepolis, Iran

A magnificent city founded by Darius I in 518 BC, Persepolis took over a century to build. Entering through the massive Gate of All Nations, you get a sense of why: a huge terrace faces you, and in every part of the complex are intricate carvings of slaves, kings, officials and representatives from across the Persian empire.

12. Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus was a port on the River Cayster that grew into one of the largest Mediterranean cities in the Classical era. The Temple of Artemis – a wonder of the Ancient World – once stood here, and the Library of Celsus (pictured) still stands, a grandiose testament to one senator’s wealth, that later served as his tomb.

13. Palenque, Mexico

A mid-sized Maya city-state, Palenque was at its height in the seventh century under Pacal the Great. Its appeal lies in the quality of its architecture and sculpture, and the fact that 90 percent of the settlement still lies buried under the jungle that crawled back over it after the site was abandoned around 1120 AD.

14. Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy

The city of Pompeii was covered under a wave of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, with many of its citizens buried alive, complete with their animals and possessions, and perfectly preserved. Nearby Herculaneum was evacuated in time but buried deeper under the ash; here doors and even food remained intact. Together they work as a kind of morbid time capsule.

15. Petra, Jordan

The capital of the Nabateans and a key trading centre for silk and spices that linked Asia with Arabia and the West, Petra fell into decline under Roman rule in the fourth century AD and wasn’t rediscovered until 1812. Its tombs – especially The Treasury (of Indiana Jones fame) and The Monastery – are spellbinding, all the more so as they were carved into the rock face itself.

16. Angkor, Cambodia

One of the world’s greatest sights, the Angkor complex encompasses various capitals of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries AD. It stretches over 400 square kilometres, though the highlight is the incomparable Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple with fir-cone towers, stylised sculptures of human faces and carved reliefs of Hindu myths.

17. La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

Literally “The Lost City”, Ciudad Perdida is at least six centuries older than Machu Picchu and was the heart of the Tayrona civilization, whose farms and fishing villages lined the shores of the Colombian coast. It was rediscovered by treasure hunters in 1972, and tours started again in 2005. Visit and you’ll have these mysterious terraces and plazas largely to yourself.

18. Machu Picchu, Peru

Constructed in the mountains of Peru by the Incas around 1450 and abandoned only a century later, Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) was rediscovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, who was actually looking for another lost city called Vilcabamba. It may now be a huge tourist draw, but its setting and mystery have lost none of their drama.

19. Chichén Itzá, Mexico

One of the great urban centres of the Maya-Toltec civilization that existed roughly from 900–1400 AD, Chichén Itzá’s pyramids and observatories survive as monuments to a people whose mastery of astronomy defies belief. Each spring and autumn equinox, the shadow of the sun forms a wriggling serpent on the steps of the Temple of Kukulkan.

20. Xanadu, Mongolia

Xanadu (or Shangdu) was, as any Coleridge fan will tell you, where Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome, and spent his summers. When Marco Polo visited in 1275, he described “a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds…” Today little remains of this great capital, but your imagination will be working overtime.

Wipe the dust from your rear-view mirror and keep one juddering eyeball fixed on the sky behind you. At any moment a plane could drop down, flinging hot sand into your paintwork, and you’ll be expected to give it enough space to land. On Fraser Island’s 75 Mile Beach, you see, the highway doubles up as a runway – and pilots have priority. But nearly everywhere else on the world’s largest sand island, you’re better off in a 4WD.

Fraser Island is Australia at its most rugged and a tarmac-free zone. From the moment you roll off the ferry and begin trundling down the interior’s steamy forest trails, you can expect to have your driving skills tested to the limit. As your tyres begin to slip into the powder-fine sand and the cabin begins to fill with the tangy smell of burnt clutch, you’ll also need to look out for fallen trees, deep creeks and the resident population of hungry, pure-blood dingoes. It’s not all slow and steady, though; when you hit the beach highway you can floor the accelerator, sending high-pitched tyre squeals through the rickety roll cage. The key to beach driving is to look out for treachorous patches of wet sand and remember not panic when you hear the “pop-pop-pop” of washed-up jellyfish being squashed under the wheels.

On a good day, it’s possible to dash between multicoloured sand dunes, Aboriginal Reserves and sparkling freshwater lakes in a single afternoon. But you won’t see all of Fraser Island in a day, no matter how good your driving is, and that’s why most visitors camp here overnight. So when you see a plane taking off, do give it plenty of room, but don’t start to wish you were on board. After all, it’s down here on the ground, with the dingoes and the dust, that you’ll feel every jolt of the island.

Fraser Island is a 25–40min ferry ride from Hervey Bay, in the southern part of Queensland. Fraser Magic 4WD Hire (www.fraser4wdhire.com.au), based in Hervey Bay, offers a range of self-drive options.

 

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Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Just off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, the island of Cocos has a tropical rainforest. In fact, it’s the only island with a tropical rainforest in this neck of the woods, which makes it a fascinating anomaly. The surrounding waters hold even more wonders, with divers reporting superb conditions in which to goggle at sharks, rays and dolphins.

Studenica Monastery, Serbia

As the biggest and best of Serbia’s Orthodox monasteries, complete with two white marble churches (the Church of the King and the Church of the Virgin), Studenica reflects the country’s medieval boom time. The remains of the first Serb kings lie in rest here, and inside the churches are breathtaking Byzantine paintings.

St Kilda, Scotland

The last residents were evacuated from the Outer Hebrides island of St Kilda in the 1930s, no longer able to sustain themselves in tough, remote conditions. It’s now given over to seabirds, who have rendered this place Europe’s most important seabird colony. Along with the puffins and gannets are the remains of abandoned villages, and these are now protected by a team of conservationists and volunteers from the National Trust.

Mazagan, Morocco

Morocco is already a top tourist destination, and almost everyone has heard of the big draws like Marrakesh, Fes and Essaouira. Mazagan, 90km southwest of Casablanca, is an often overlooked city brimming with rich historical significance. Originally built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it was taken over by the Moroccans in 1769 and today exhibits a special architectural amalgamation of the two nations.

Lumbini, Nepal

The birthplace of Buddha, Lumbini in southern Nepal is currently being developed, with temples under construction and gardens cultivated around pre-existing archeological sites. As this is where Buddha lived till he was 29, Lumbini is already a very holy place, yet the expansion is aiming to attract larger numbers of pilgrims.

Tubbataha Reef, Philippines

A diver’s paradise, for Tubbataha Reef, southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, literally teems with precious marine life. From multi-coloured coral and hammerhead sharks to silvery barracudas and thick-lipped Napoleon wrasse, the icing on the cake is undoubtedly seeing Hawksbill and Green Bill turtles. It’s an isolated reef, so to visit you’ll have to set sail on a liveaboard boat.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

This exquisite Silk Road city is over 2000 years old, and lays claim to being the most complete medieval city in Central Asia. Some of its monuments and buildings would alone be enough to secure World Heritage status, but it’s the integrity and unity of the conglomeration that’s truly startling. A highlight here is the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a magnum opus of Muslim architecture.

Volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

Gloriously peppered about the glacial Kamchatka region in eastern Russia, these volcanoes are thought to be some of the most beautiful in the world – yet not many people know about them. Perhaps that’s because they’ve never been particularly destructive, though many are active. The area supports some wonderful wildlife including sea eagles, sea otters and peregrine falcons.

Vredefort Dome, South Africa

A place of superlatives, as South Africa’s Vredefort Dome, 120km southwest of Johannesburg, is not only the oldest astrobleme (literally “star wound”) but the largest as well. 2, 023 million years ago, an enormous meteorite thumped into the earth’s crust, creating a gigantic hole measuring 190km across. The effects must have been devastating. Today, visitors come to gawp at the depth and size of the crater, an impressive reminder of quite how old our planet is.

Gebel Barkal and the Sites of Napatan, Sudan

Together with the small mountain dubbed the Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the five Sites of the Napatan straddle the River Nile and spread over 60km. These sites are seriously, seriously old, representing both the Napatan (900 to 270 BC) and Meroitic (270 to 350 AD) dynasties. You’ll find ancient pyramids, tombs, temples and palaces here – some still worshipped by the locals today.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Hidden deep beneath scrubby New Mexico land, the 117 caves that make up Carlsbad Caverns National Park have a wonderful, magical feel to them, despite the fact you have to be decontaminated before entering. Carlsbad Cavern is the biggest and most exciting chamber in the park, housing all sorts of delightfully named stalactites such as the “Witch’s Finger” and the “Totem Pole”.

Le Havre, France

Compared with more traditional French sights like Arles and the Canal du Midi, some might dispute the inclusion of the northern town of Le Havre on the UNESCO list. However, that would be to disregard the monumental achievements by a certain Monsieur Auguste Peret, who rebuilt the town to a spectacularly unified and consistent design, following its flattening during World War II bomb raids.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, Canada

This badland park in Alberta has the richest deposit of dinosaur bones and fossils in the world. From being doused by great rivers and later covered by a thick sheet of ice during the Ice Age, to switching to swampy grove and morphing into today’s drier, rocky land, the area has undergone perfect conditions to preserve many species of reptilian beasties.

Saltaire, England

Saltaire near Bradford in West Yorkshire was founded by eminent Victorian industrialist Sir Titus Salt, who built a textiles mill and village to house his workers on the banks of the River Aire. Hence the name: Salt–aire. Far from being a stuffed model, it is still a living village. Salt built a concert hall, hospital, gymnasium and washhouses with running water for his employees.

Aigai, Greece

We all know Greece is loaded with ancient archeological sites, but Aigai, near modern-day Vergina in the north of the country, is a particularly important find – and relatively overlooked. Touted as the first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, the site features a massive palace plastered with amazing mosaics, and a huge burial ground with over 300 tombs and graves.

China Danxia, Southwest China

China Danxia is a catch-all term referring to several World Heritage sites in the southwest of the country that are typified by incredible rock formations erupting from red sedimentary beds. Weathering has contributed to the creation of odd-shaped ravines, waterfalls, caves, towers and pillars, all soaked in mesmerizing colours like russet, burnt orange, rose pink and apricot.

Rohtas Fort, Pakistan

It’s hard to take in the sheer size of this majestic fort with its vast, bastion-lined walls stretching out 4km long. The fort, situated near the city of Jhelum in northern Pakistan, dates back to the sixteenth century and is the best-known example of early Muslim military architecture.

Gulf of Porto, Corsica

Created in 1975, Corsica’s Regional Natural Park covers nearly 40 percent of the island and includes the wild Gulf of Porto on the island’s western coastline. This part of the island, particularly around the so-called Scandola peninsula, features a mass of rust-red porphyritic rocks, spiked islets, gaping caves and sea stacks.

Shibam, Yemen

An incongruous sight, this: tower blocks soaring several stories high, encompassed by a fortified wall and plonked in the middle of the South Arabian plateau. But these are no ordinary towers; dating to the sixteenth century, these amazing buildings are made entirely out of sun-dried mud. It’s no surprise that Shibam is cutely nicknamed the “Manhatten of the Desert”.

Rock paintings, Baja California

The people who created these magnificent rock paintings have long gone, but the figures of animals and humans are as dramatic and brightly coloured today as the day they were daubed, in pre-Hispanic times. The dry heat of the Sierra de San Francisco and the inaccessibility of the caves have ensured their remarkable preservation, though a visit is certainly possible – just be prepared for long journeys involving driving, hiking and mule-riding.

The Nile is often associated with bad puns and Egypt, but the world’s longest river actually stretches over ten countries and assumes a variety of identities along its 4,130 mile course. Taking in (deep breath) Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and of course Egypt, it’s a magnificent stretch of waterway full of breathtaking sights and steeped in history.

Hover over this custom Rough Guides map to bring up photos, information and video from across its course. Go rafting in Jinja, see the treasures of Alexandria, and take a hot air balloon over the Valley of the Kings. And head to our Thinglink page for more.

Chinatown, San Francisco

Ethnic enclaves exist throughout the world, bringing a beguiling slice of foreign lands to many countries. The largest Asian community outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a bigger draw than the Golden Gate Bridge. Within the USA’s highest population density west of Manhattan, the district has had a big influence. The famous dim sum teahouses are popular for their bite-sized morsels, while moon-cakes, pastries filled with bean paste and egg, are a delicious staple of the district’s Autumn Moon Festival.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Nothing says Gallic imperialism quite like a frog curry on the banks of the Mekong. Phnom Penh has been Cambodia’s capital since French colonization. It’s is a stark blend of Khmer and French architecture, with Riviera-style mansions lining the wide and manic boulevards. One great preserve of the French Protectorate are the boulangeries, where the fresh baguettes are a unique and welcome luxury in south-east Asia.

Colonia Tovar, Venezuela

Just an hour from Caracas, Colonia Tovar would look more at home beneath the Eiger than beside the Caribbean. This Black Forest village, founded by Bavarian immigrants in 1843, still speaks a colonial form of German and preserves Old Country traditions. Weekenders come to gawk at the bizarre spectacle and to sample the authentic sausage, strudel and locally-brewed beer, which receives extra attention during the annual Oktoberfest.

Little Italy, New York

A six-block stretch along Mulberry St in Lower Manhattan, New York’s Little Italy is the cradle of Italian-American culture in the United States. Established by nineteenth century immigrants, by 1920 the district’s community was 400,000 strong. Visitors come for the food, particularly in mid-September, when the 11-day festival of San Gennaro, Sicily’s patron saint, sees parades, parties and the all-important cannoli-eating contest.

Liberdade, Sao Paolo

An influx of east asians at the turn of the twentieth century left São Paolo with the highest density of Japanese residents outside Japan. The district of Liberdade is the world’s biggest ‘Japantown’. A nine-metre high torii (shinto arch) marks the entrance to a cosplay and manga mecca, where a weekly street fair offers a unique hybrid cuisine, and a Japanese-language bookshop sells fish beside the fiction.

Little India, Singapore

Mixing the mutinous anarchy of India with the sterile order of Singapore has resulted in the best of both worlds on the humid island state. One of the city’s most attractive and colourful sectors, Little India is bursting with open-fronted sweet shops, chai houses and authentic curry restaurants, where you’ll be expected to make like the locals and eat with your hands in the traditional style.

Christiania, Denmark

A long-standing bastion of hippie ideology, central Copenhagen’s Christiania has been a counter-culture commune since the abandoned military barracks was occupied in 1971. The 35-acre area is home to a thousand-strong community, not strictly an ethnic enclave but a popular attraction for visitors during the long Scandinavian summer days, who come to enjoy the atmosphere, live music, and special herbs sold in the world’s only open cannabis market.

Thames Town, Shanghai

Having written the textbook on western knock-offs, China went one step further with its bizarre ‘One City, Nine Towns’ housing initiative. Local Shanghai government built Thames Town, a suburb of the country’s financial capital resembling an English village, replete with mock-Tudor, Victorian red-brick houses and red phone boxes. Only the mandarin script, intense humidity and suspiciously unfaded appearance suggest you aren’t in Blighty.

Simla, India

A summer capital built by the British in the Himalayan foothills of Himchal Pradesh to escape the heat of the plains below, Simla (or Shimla as it was then known), looks rather more like Chester than Chandigarh. Check out the Downton-esque Viceregal Lodge, wander the mock tudor-lined ‘Ridge’, and ride the toy train that ferried imperialists to and from this surreal monument to the British Raj.

Chubut, Argentina

“Patagonia seemed like the ideal place” to found an outpost of Welsh values, according to one of the original 153 settlers that stepped off the boat in Argentina’s Chubut province in 1865. Gaiman, the cultural centre of ‘Y Wladfa’ or ‘The Colony’, attracts tourists with its Welsh protestant chapels, tea rooms serving astronomically-priced cream teas and its annual cultural festival, ‘Eisteddfod de Chubut’, every October.

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