8 Places You’ve Never Considered Visiting—But Should!
Looking for off-the-beaten-path travel inspiration? Take a cue from Canadian globe-trotter Karim Ladak, who chronicles his journeys through 166 countries in this excerpt from his new book, The Cosmopolitan Nomad: A Globetrotter’s Story.
If you are in search of happiness, look no further than Bhutan—a tiny kingdom in the foothills of the gigantic Himalayas. Sandwiched between two powerful neighbours, China and India, it is the world’s most intriguing country. This is not an exaggeration: Bhutan officially measures gross national happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Bhutan is a little hard to get to, but once there, its pristine beauty sweeps you away. It takes pride in being the only remaining Buddhist kingdom and has jealously guarded its ancient culture and traditions. It opened its doors to the world only in 1974 and television was only allowed into the country in 1999. At one time, Bhutan received just around 10,000 tourists annually—even less than Antarctica. But this is rapidly changing.
The highlight of Bhutan is is the Paro Taktsang, otherwise known as Tiger’s Nest (above), a monastery and the holiest site in Bhutan. It is high up in the mountains, perched on a cliff. The monastery is pure magnificence in its simplicity, structure, and symbolism. It is both a sacred site and a significant statement. According to local legend, Indian saint Padmasambhva flew here from Tibet on the back of a tiger. (Check out 10 more unforgettable ways to feel small next to nature.)
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In spite of being one of the smallest countries in the world, this famous destination with a total population of just 93,000 across its 115 islands, grabs attention. Even more surprising, 95 of these 115 islands still remain uninhabited. The bulk of citizens lives on the main island of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue. What piqued my interest is that of the total size, only 0.1% of the Seychelles is land mass and 99.9% is the sea. (Check out the world’s 10 most exclusive private islands.)
This is arguably the best place if you wish to escape the maddening crowds of the city. It’s as if the Seychelles have captured the best of Mauritius, Maldives and Fiji. The world-class hotels, the infrastructure, and an atmosphere that is exclusive but not snobbish, all add to the flavour of the islands. There is no wildlife of the type you see in Eastern Africa across the Indian Ocean, and it appears that the Seychelles is not prone to natural disasters like some other islands. With all this, and year-round comfortable temperatures, Seychelles is akin to paradise on earth.
The highlights for me were the islands of La Digue and Praslin. La Digue was like a picture-perfect postcard with only a couple of thousand people who until recently just used bicycles to get around. The combination of the rocks, the pattern on the sands and the colours of the waters combine to create this idyllic landscape.
This is the least-visited country in Europe—and it’s absolutely stunning!
Long avoided by the outside world due to global politics and international sanctions, Iran, also called Persia, is now a hot destination. This beautiful country has everything that appeals to a discerning world traveller: nature, history, breathtaking art, architecture, friendly people and irresistible food. (These are the world’s 10 most impressive museums.)
What struck me in speaking to several people is that despite the sanctions, there was no resentment of the outside world. Only warmth, curiosity, and an enthusiastic welcome. The people I met here like to inject life into everything they do. I felt safe, welcomed and humbled.
Isfahan (above) is a vibrant medieval city known for its 11 beautiful and romantic bridges on the Zayandeh Rud: the river that gives life. Isfahan’s prized attraction is the 17th-century Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. Literally meaning “a picture of the world,” this historic place is not to be missed. It takes you back to the days of Ali Qapu Palace Pavilion, leaving you to imagine carriages, fountains and gardens inside this massive eight square-hectare space.
A few quick tips: international credit cards are not yet accepted everywhere, so carry a lot of cash. Also, it is a requirement to have a certified guide with you for the entire trip if you come from Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom.
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Namibia’s sand dunes are always an invitation for adventures and action. Having been to Jordan, the Sinai and the Sahara, I knew how dreamy these landscapes could be, but the Namib—one of the oldest deserts in the world—was diifferent. The landscapes here were more pronounced, more dramatic… Just surreal.
My wake-up call at 3:30AM was well worth it. We headed out to watch the sunrise. It was indescribable. When the sun shone on one side of the dunes, the other was totally dark, so one had an eclipse of sorts, an incredible image. We arrived at “Big Daddy,” the sky-scraper sized granddad of all dunes by 9AM. It felt like the mid-day sun was upon us. (Here are 10 of the best places to watch the sunrise and sunset.)
As we were about to hike up the 300 metre sand dune, I paused and had one of my “I can’t do this” moments. The scorching heat, the unforgiving sun, my knees, my fear of heights… All these elements played on my emotions and my mind. But somewhere inside, I knew I had to do it or live with the regret of missing my chance.
No regrets. We got all the way up and I was sweating buckets, my knees exhausted. Who would have thought that the inhospitable desert could look so innocent, inviting and beautiful? Even the patterns on the sand are captivating. I felt giddy looking at both sides. Knowing we had a long walk before the decline, we decided to slide down the dune. What fun that was! Legs in the sand, off we went. Rolling in the sand was a lot more enjoyable and gentle than sliding down water.
Namibia has left a strong imprint on my travel experiences, and I would love to go back. There is still so much to explore in this vast land with its tempered history and welcoming people.
“Djibouti? Where’s that?” I got asked when I announced my next destination.
Djibouti, sitting on the Horn of Africa, surrounded by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is still unexplored and rarely features in tourist brochures. This former French colony neighbours Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, and is a short boat ride away from Yemen. I travelled to Djibouti after a whirlwind tour of West Africa. It was only meant to be a point of rest for me as I was not expecting an adventure. Funny how life works, when we least expect anything, we get a bundle of surprises.
Lake Assal (above) is a beautiful gift given by Mother Nature to Djibouti. The colours of this unique natural wonder just took my breath away. Sitting at 150 metres below seal level, the lake is the third lowest point on Earth after the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and is the world’s largest salt reserve. The crater salt lake emits both green and blue waters because of the salt crystals. Here, you don’t sink in the water, but you float. I left Lake Assal feeling calm and captivated by its natural beauty.
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Tucked between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Albania has millenniums of historical and cultural heritage. Although it is remembered as Mother Theresa’s birthplace, she was really born in Macedonia. And this symbolizes so much of Albania; it is not what people think it is. (Here are 30 more geography facts everyone keeps getting wrong.)
For many, Albania is not a prime destination mostly due to adverse global exposure and a troubled history. Economically, the country had a late start in joining the world community and one can witness the struggle to catch up on lost time. It is only now that tourist traffic is increasing dramatically, and to some, Albania is the best-kept secret in Europe. (Here are 10 more underrated European destinations.)
Berat City stole my heart. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city houses an ancient citadel, alleyways, picturesque hills, and has origins dating back 2,400 years. The old town is like a film set, full of alleys and vines, old houses, courtyards, and populated by only about 100 people.
The “newer city” has two sides, historically. Mangalam, the traditional Muslim area, lies north of the river, and Gorica, the Christian area, is south of the river. One is an architectural wonder hosting the “Hill of the Thousand Windows” (above) comprised of houses perched on a hill with no roadways—just steps and paths. The other is a majestic hill of olives. We sat in a restaurant on a hill dominating the Osumi River and the Myzeqe lowlands. I was spellbound in admiration of the land and its history, and as I gazed at the hill of the thousand windows, could not help wondering what conversations were taking place inside those windows.
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Uzbekistan is a unique and unusual brew of the ancient and the modern. It remains largely untapped by the tourist industry but will greatly impress as a relic of the silk route and keeper of historical stories, treasures and mausoleums.
In Uzbekistan, one learns to look at the ceilings, which are as complete and as ornate as any other part of a monunent or palace.
Bukhara (above) was Uzbekistan’s old capital that pegged its prosperity on the old tradition of the “Caravanserai” or overnight inns used by caravan traders in the early days. It still maintains the confidence of a city of importance and combines the old and new in ways that retain its old world character. The old town is now a lively entertainment district and a walker’s paradise with restaurants, shops and concerts in some of the old courtyards. I was more tempted to stop and admire its beautiful sights than to walk!
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Situated between Turkey, Iran, Georgian and Azerbaijan, the former Soviet State of Armenia has much to offer. It boasts untouched natural beauty and some of the most beautiful monasteries in the world that are perched on the tops of hills or in steep gorges. But Armenia is more than just mountains, music and hermitages. Its rich history and cultural mix make it, as the locals say, “the land where God descended from Heaven.”
Armenia always had a lure for me, perhaps due to its seemingly conflictive identity as both European and Asian. I was expecting artisans and tradesmen, lots of history, cobblestone roads and lively cafes, and I was not disappointed. The capital city of Yerevan celebrates its 2,980th birthday in 2018, making it older than Rome. It’s a city steeped in history, but youthful in spirit. People are outgoing and enjoy a lively social life. I stayed in Republic Square, where the typical Yerevan pink stone is ever present, making the whole square look like a painting. This is the heart of the city, which hosts the main museum and several official buildings. Thinking of the sun rising and setting on the pink stone, I felt the stone was as strong as the people, and the sun shining on it was a metaphor for the peoples’ strength.
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Recommended reading: The Cosmopolitan Nomad
For more off-the-beaten path travel inspiration, check out The Cosmopolitan Nomad: A Globetrotter’s Story by Karim G. R. Ladak (Crownbird Publishers, $50, 2017).
Next: These are the top seven destinations in the best-seller, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die!