The world is a vast place and even as you travel to new places, previously visited locations remain an ever-changing weave of people, architecture, and natural beauty. I first visited Burma (Myanmar) in 2006. At that time, it was not yet fully open to tourism, with the exception of well-developed tourist tracks. I was tasked with a research expedition for the company I was working for to identify new opportunities for travel to show people the unseen. Several days traveling on boats under known and unknown military surveillance up the Irrawaddy took me to the foothills of the Himalaya in the Kachin State. After just two days, I found I was far from welcome with an early morning departure suggested by a local I befriended. The friend pounded on my door and rushed us to pack our bags for an early morning train back down South. A few stops down the train line, and I had a line of soldiers sitting in the hallway outside our cabin for the remainder of the trip back to Mandalay. The early days of this trip should have tipped me off, but I was pushed to see somewhere that few had access to.
Burma has changed, and so have many other locations I have been fortunate enough to travel to. While some areas of Burma remain dangerous and off-limits (ie: Sittwe & The Rohingya), the difficulties I faced on that trip likely wouldn’t happen today. Burma was essentially opened back up in 2013 and while it still has a long road of recovery ahead, it has become a more welcoming country for tourism. Remembering this trip made me want to compile a few other destinations I have experienced that are down the road less taken for most travelers searching for their next great adventure:
Banfora, Burkina Faso
Unless someone was in foreign service, or was a volunteer in the Peace Corps, I’ve not known a single person to visit Burkina Faso, much less Banfora. Approximately 8 hours (or often more) by buses, bush taxis, or other vehicles, this is not a quick trip from the capital city of Ouagadougou. The natural beauty and feeling that you truly are one of the only tourists when you do arrive is priceless. Upon check-in to our guest house, we went to a local cafe for lunch and arranged motorbike rentals to explore the surrounding area and more specifically have a local try to guide us to elephants known to be in the area. While we came out flat on elephants in their physical form, we did see plenty of evidence left behind in the form of dung. I’m now forgetting if we did ever get on one of the seemingly leaking wooden canoes carved of old logs for hippopotamus viewing, but if we did, I recall quickly turning back after imagining a hippo quickly flipping our not-so-stable boat. We did see plenty on the lake from a safe distance along with a few crocodiles.
While the wildlife viewing in the country is very do-it-yourself and hit or miss, the natural beauty is stunning. The two major draws are Les Cascades de Banfora for waterfalls and hiking, then the Les Pics de Sindou are limestone rock formations that seem to rise out of the plains. Given little regulation, one is able to scramble through the area ascending pillars for fantastic views of the region.
Kerala Backwaters and Munnar, India
While everyone should visit Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Agra for the Taj Mahal, spend just a few days to cover the must-see’s, then escape. Known widely among Indian tourists, the Kerala Backwaters near Alappuzha (also known as Allepey) host what is the equivalent of their Kentucky Derby, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. In fact, tomorrow, Saturday, August 13 is the 64th annual event and will be nationally broadcast across India.
The beauty is in escaping the town center and experiencing the houseboats here. Often a top honeymoon destination for Indians, the remote villages inspired me to design a week long service adventure here living on the boats and helping different villages (the project even landed me on the national news).
For most people one night on a houseboat in the backwaters is enough, so part two after your stop through Cochin is the mountains of Munnar and the West Ghats. Home to elephants, tea plantations and plenty of village-to-village hiking, you are sure to get your fill of wilderness, Indian hospitality, and plenty of fresh tea. If you are lucky, you may even spot one of the few remaining tigers.
Puerto Montt, Chile
A timely destination for anyone looking to extend their Olympics trip from Rio right now. This escape is on the Argentinian border and in the Winter is home to skiing and mountaineering on the Osorno Volcano. In the Summer, when I have traveled, Osorno creates an amazing accent to the horizon as you dip in the waters of Llanquihue Lake, which stretches across the border of Chile and Argentina, making it an easy ferry trip for those wishing to have a dual-country vacation. Off the lake, the surrounding region makes Puerto Montt considered the gateway to Patagonia. The adventurous must make it to Tierra Del Fuego for trekking if time permits. Unfortunately my trip did not afford me that time. I did however enjoy a bit of horseback riding and my very first experience with Canyoning. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a Penguin sliding down rocks and waterfalls at the zoo, then this is your chance. I had an amazing time and highly recommend it to anyone traveling here. The females I was traveling with, also enjoyed Arno, our fearless and attractive French guide.
Oh Ladakh, how I always yearn for thee! Another love of mine in India. While you can make the long, multiple day journey, by road through Srinagar, a quick 1-hour flight from Delhi to the capital city of Leh takes you up from about 700 feet of elevation to over 10,500 feet. The region is home to ancient Buddhist monasteries that are on par with places like Tibet and Bhutan. It is also home to the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, Khardung La, at an elevation of 18,380 feet. At that elevation, an iPod won’t function due to the thin air. The cold, remote winters of Ladakh also lend themselves to hockey, but not the typical Indian past time of field hockey, rather that of ice hockey. Al Jazeera profiled a player’s journey to excellence in a documentary video called “On Thin Ice: India’s National Ice Hockey Team.”
Villages dot the region and an 8-hour adventure toward Tsomoriri Lake can provide some with the opportunity to visit with the Changpa people, who live a nomadic, yak herding lifestyle on the Tibetan plains of Ladakh, which border Tibet. The lonely town of Karzhok sees few visitors, which makes this an incredible visit. To stay a bit closer to Leh, take the four hour trip over Khardung La into the Nubra Valley and visit Diskit. While the drive is serene and memorable, the town itself is remote and only accessible parts of the year due to the treacherous pass. It has a beautiful monastery, however, and several guest houses, but the unique aspect to most tourists is the desert area outside of town that provides the opportunity for a partial day camel trek, topping out the numerous unique opportunities of Ladakh. If you are going to make the trip to Ladakh, leave the day you arrive free, because you’ll need to acclimate. I also recommend reading this book and possibly seeing the video as well, which is Helena Norberg-Hodge’s “Ancient Futures.”
To see an old video I had put together including my travels to Ladakh, click here.
Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania
When you hear most people heading to Africa for a safari, Kenya and South Africa tend to be the primary destinations. About two and a half hours from Arusha, and lesser known than Serengeti National Park, the Ngorogoro Crater almost ensures your viewing of the Big Five as the animals are nestled in a volcanic caldera that creates a natural fence. This natural fence can have some side effects on inbreeding, which is touched on here for a bit more information.
After a day spent spotting lions, zebra, elephants, rhinos, cape buffalo, antelope, hippo’s and more, you can retreat back to a nearby village or tea plantation guest house for a night of rest, or stay in one of the luxurious resorts looking out from the edge of the craters. Many of these resorts enjoy the opportunity to have elephants crossing the properties as you watch the sunset eating dinner, or sipping a glass of wine. This is the perfect way to wind down after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits located just outside of Arusha.
Bagan is home to over 2,000 ancient temples that seem to go on as far as the eye can see across the plains of the Mandalay region. When visiting, you have the opportunity for guided tours that ensure you experience the most historical and elaborate temples, or you can rent a bicycle and choose your own adventure. Both have their benefits depending on time constraints, but I found exploration by bicycle to be the most magical. On several occasions, my travel partners and I found ourselves standing outside of a locked temple with no one around. Suddenly a novice (young) monk would come running out of nowhere with a ring of keys jingling and offer to open the interior for a few Kyat (local currency). This exploration made you feel as though you truly were away from the crowds and far off the beaten path in Burma.
For many that have been to Burma, they know this is the tourist track. For most, however, Burma is a no-go country, so the tourist track is far from Disney World. In reality, over the past couple years it has opened up, thereby making it easier and more safe to travel through the country. I would, however strongly suggest doing your research on airline safety and make sure you do not fly some of the lesser regulated airlines.
Bob Marshall Wilderness
I feel travelers discount destinations in their home country, so I wanted to close with this Montana wilderness wonderland as an accessible option. Do you love fresh fish, sweeping mountain views, and adventure? Look no further than Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Just north of Missoula, this wilderness complex sits at the cross-section of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, the Swan Range, and the Flathead Range, but comes with views of the Mission range. Travel can be dangerous, with what is considered the highest concentration of Grizzly Bears in the lower 48 states, you will definitely want to be up on your bear safety protocol.
With limited road access, the Bob Marshall Wilderness requires more than a few days to truly experience it, but you are rewarded by likely not seeing another human for the duration of your trip. My experience backpacking here during college included a trip into “The Bob” near the alpine lakes south of Three Eagles Mountain (though I don’t have documentation, my maps research and memory puts me there). We were able to to dine on freshly caught lake trout that no fine-dining restaurant had access to, drink freshly purified water from the high alpine lakes fed by glaciers, and sleep beneath the stars in one of America’s best kept wilderness and adventure secrets. While packing out, the garbage (Leave No Trace) we were carrying attracted the scent of a curious Grizzly. We only knew once we had our packs in the car, and drove down the rough access road and the bear came into the road from above, where we had just hiked down, and locked eyes with us as we departed. A stark reminder of the wild that surrounded us as we slept soundly each night.
Where are your favorite travel destinations off the beaten path? Feel free to leave your top picks in the comments below.