Travel is about getting out of my comfort zone and exploring places that make me hold on to the edge of my seat. But these days it’s getting harder and harder to find untouched destinations – places that remain relatively raw and non-commercialized.
That’s why I like visiting less conventional destinations. More often than not, the places I enjoy most are those with slightly negative connotations.These are also the most ethically challenging places to visit – the “extreme adventure” destinations that confront our beliefs and world views and help us to learn more about our planet and its people.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not silly enough to put my life at risk for bragging rights. But even Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet who recently wrote a book on his tour of the axis of evil, poised it eloquently, “In almost every bad land I am moved by the outgoing friendliness of ordinary men and women. I have come to see that bad is a relative term, and that there are always two sides to every story.”
Forget about holiday brochures – get your atlas, find somewhere you’ve never heard about before, and go there. I promise you nothing will make you feel more alive.
It comes as a surprise to many that anyone can visit North Korea as a tourist. Notorious as one of the “axis of evil”, North Korea (better known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is often sullied by negative perceptions.
Since the end of World War II, the DPRK has closed its doors to the outside world. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet access and only 2,500 foreign tourists (not including the Chinese) visit the country each year.
North Koreans are taught to think that anything foreign is a threat – yet, I was surprised to find how curious locals were of us. On the subway, we interacted with people, showing them our photos and laughing along with them.
We even had the chance to play with Korean children at a park, through charades and guessing games.
In fact, the DPRK actually appeared rather tame until we saw the stern soldiers at the DMZ (demilitarized zone.) They confiscated a camera from a member of our group.
Another member of Tony Wheeler’s “axis of evil”, Albania is intrinsically associated with the Cold War even today. More than 40 years of communist rule (under the dictator Enver Hoxha,) followed by a period of extreme mid-90s capitalism, the country is still struggling to get back on its feet.
During my visit in May 2010, Albania surprised me with the hospitality of welcoming locals (I lost my wallet and a local brought me to the police station and even lent me some money), local cuisine that easily tops anywhere else I’ve been, and clusters of beautiful towns tucked high in the mountains.
Of course there are always things to be wary of in Albania – such as petty crime on public transport and safety on the streets at night. But all in all, Albania is definitely a unique place to visit.
Due to decades of political conflict, travel to Myanmar (formerly Burma) presents an ethical decision – are we encouraging the regime by visiting? While Myanmar remains a troubled country, things are definitely looking up. Following the election in 2010, a civilian government took over, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and the tourism boycott has since been lifted.
Traditional and surreal at the same time, visiting Myanmar allows you to travel back to a time when paved roads were non-existent and creaking buses throttled along packed with hundreds of passengers. It is a country that stirs my soul with its thousands of sacred stupas, poetic Buddhist towns, and mystical lakes. It remains one of my favorite countries to date.
Perhaps it’s because of years of isolation, perhaps it’s the deep-rooted Burmese culture, Myanmar remains pure and untainted – for now. Today’s Burma is still struggling with poverty and its tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent, but as long as you’re prepared for the bumpy rides and harsh conditions, you’ll be in for a rewarding journey.
Stories of violence, kidnapping, and drug trafficking incidents are all too common in Central America. Based on a CNN report on Guatemala, 6,500 people met violent deaths in 2009 and nearly 6,000 were slain in 2010. 41% of these deaths were associated with drug trafficking. Worst of all, more than 96% of all crimes go unpunished.
When I was in Guatemala several years back, I was stumped by my fellow travelers’ tales of mugging and rape.
Danger may be lurking in certain corners, but that doesn’t stop Guatemala from being a popular backpacking spot. It didn’t take me long to fall for the charms of this diverse, rustic nation. I traversed the country from the charming colonial city of Antigua to the impressive Tikal ruins in the north, and never got mugged once or felt like I was in any sort of danger. But then again, I steered clear from Guatemala City – the most potent part of the country where crime and violence are part of daily life.
Like the others on the list, Zimbabwe has been making headlines for the wrong reasons. Since Robert Mugabe took ruling power in 1980, the country has spiraled into a series of racial conflicts, human rights abuse and violence. Although the country’s economy is slowly recuperating, millions of people are still living on food aid and struggling with disease outbreaks.
Behind this dark history lies a gorgeous country waiting to be explored. From the wilderness of Mana Pools to the chaos of Harare, Zimbabwe shows Africa at its best.
Granted, dodgy streets in the cities are best avoided and crowded markets remain off the tourist radar. But thankfully, I got a chance to know its people – who all warmly welcomed me into a country clearly misunderstood by the world.
I’m not saying that these countries are “easy” travel destinations, either in terms of comfort or ethics. But to me that’s what travel is all about.
by Nellie Huang
With an eye for adventure and a thirst for the unknown, Nellie is a travel writer and blogger who loves to veer way beyond the conventional trail. Her blog, WildJunket is the child of all her adventures (and misadventures) around the world. Since the success of her blog, along with her photographer/designer husband, she has also launched a digital flipbook magazine, WildJunket Magazine.