Favourite travel destinations are such a personal things. A place that you thought was heaven on earth was probably a living hell for someone else. That’s because it’s the people you meet or the things that happen that make a place special. Having said that, I’ve listed my favourite 10, anyway. And if I do say so myself, you’d have to be hard to please if you didn’t find something to like about these places.
1. Istanbul, Turkey
Ahhh, old Constantinople. A mosque on every hill and a carpet salesman on every corner. Perched above the Bosphorus, it’s a bustling, hustling amalgamation where Europe meets Asia. At sunset, grab yourself a kebab, sit on the seats outside the Blue Mosque and marvel at the beauty of the call to prayer floating from the minarets of a hundred different mosques. At 4 o’clock the next morning, curse the very same calls for disturbing your sleep.
2. Budapest, Hungary
A lot of people plump for Prague in the battle of the Eastern European capitals, but I find the Czech capital a mite too prissy. That’s something you can’t accuse Budapest of. Grubby, derelict and scarred by the worst of Stalinist architecture, it still has a certain raw, experimental energy that’s lacking in Prague. The girls dress like hookers, the guys dress like poets and they all hang out in clubs where you’re just as likely to hear a thrash metal band as poetry readings.
3. Luang Prabang, Laos
Sleepy isn’t quite the world for this riverside town in central Laos. This former capital of a united Laos is positively comatose. Still, with its royal palaces, temples and caves, Luang Prabang is the historic, religious, social, artistic and cultural capital of Laos. The fact that you can still see the occasional HG Holden driving around is a good indication of how the world has largely passed this place by.
4. The road to Jalalabad, Afghanistan
You’ve got to love a country where you can dress up and pose for photos with the local mujaheddin leader holding a loaded M16. Sure, the jihadic fighters wandering the streets with AK47s and the occasional grenade launcher are a bit of a worry but most seem to be too wired to even notice you’re there. Definitely one to tell the grandkids about if you survive.
5. Esfahan, Iran
A lot of travellers rave about the Islamic architecture in this town, but for mine it’s the tea shop under the Si o Se Pol bridge that makes a visit to Esfahan worthwhile. Build in 1602, it has 33 arches under which waiters dish out sweet tea and hookah pipes to local riffraff and luminaries. The tiny rooms in the base of each arch are connected by rickety planks only inches above the rushing river. While it may not be too much fun watching the waiters they’re much too skilful to ever fall in visiting foreigners provide a wealth of entertainment possibilities.
6. Lamu, Kenya
Lamu, an ancient Arab trading post off the coast of Kenya, is a bizarre mix of Arab and African cultures. The women still wear the modest Arab chador, but when they start running about whistling and shrilling, it’s pure African sexuality. And then there’s the donkeys. If you’re ever trapped behind one in any of the narrow lanes don’t expect it to get out of your way. They own this town.
7. Tierradentro, Colombia
It’s not the ancient painted burial caves that make this place one of my favourite places in South America. Nor is it the spectacular setting amongst the huge rolling hills. It’s the annual fiesta at the local whitewashed church. If you’re lucky, the local drunk will start waving a knife about and shout ‘Don’t worry, I’m a butcher’ at you in slurred Spanish.
8. Siberut, Indonesia
Forget your expensive male bonding weekends, this is the real thing. The Mentawai people of Siberut, and island just off Padang in Sumatra, still get around in loincloths. And if you give them enough tobacco, they’ll let you do it too. Don’t expect to catch any monkeys with the bow and arrow they provide you with though. That’s just for their amusement. When the Mentawai want to catch a monkey for dinner, they use a gun.
9. Kathmandu, Nepal
A magical, mystical town that still holds its appeal despite the hordes of travellers in designer hiking gear. Sure Thamel is nothing more than an overgrown clothes shop but it’s still fun to watch travellers step out in their new ‘funky’ threads, convinced that they actually look cool.
10. Koh Phangan Thailand
Ever since the cops got greedy at Goa, this has become the ‘techno’ capital of Asia. Every full moon the beach at Hat Rin is packed with foreigners showing off their best ‘Big Box, Little Box’ dancing techniques. Despite the ready availability of speed punch and magic mushroom pancakes, I suggest you try to stay straight. You could be rewarded, as I was, with the sight of a girl walking up to a Thai policeman saying ‘Meow, I am a cat’, complete with appropriate hand movements.