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 .
If you are in search of happiness, look no further than Bhutan—a tiny kingdom in the foothills of the gigantic Himalayas. 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.
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. 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.
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 3:30 AM 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 9 AM. 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.
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.
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.
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.