7 Off The Beaten Path Wonderful Experiences Of The World. Have you put together your bucket list for incredible travel experiences? Many people dream of visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Rio for Carnival, or Pamplona Spain for the running of the bulls. All truly fun and memorable experiences, but these events have been recorded ad nauseam.
In this post, I have created an alternative list. A list that is not as well-marketed or well-known, but maybe even more rewarding. One of the other major benefits or attending some of these events is you might be the only foreigners in attendance. Talk about a command performance.
Royal Drummers of Burundi
When putting together bucket lists in Africa, Burundi does not often come to mind. This diminutive country in East Africa is not often visited by tourists. The true highlight of visiting Burundi is a performance by the Royal Drummers of Burundi. The drummers have been performing for centuries in a tradition that is passed down from father to son. These performances historically are part of ceremonies such as coronations, births, and funerals.
My visit to Burundi was part of a four country East Africa road trip and this was my least anticipated visit of my trip. I had somewhere between low and no expectations for this country. I was not really aware of any highlights for Burundi. Yet, I was to be totally wowed for an hour of pure bliss. My guide brought me to the new capital, Gitega, to a non-descript hill. It was a personal performance of the Royal Drummers, solely for me. Thirty drummers dressed in the colors of the Burundi flag drummed and danced in a virtuosic performance.
Wai Kru Sak Yant Festival
Sak Yant is an ancient tattoo tradition that dates back to the Khmer Empire and has spread through the centuries to current day Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. In Thailand, these tattoos are provided by ajarns (teachers). These Sak Yant tattoos are believed to bestow special powers to the owners such as special powers, protection or good luck. Overtime, the Sak Yant’s power decreases over time and needs to be recharged. Wai Kru is a ceremony where students pay respect to their teachers, whether it is your teacher at school or your coach at the Muay Thai gym. This ritual also takes place at Wat Bang Phra, a large Buddhist temple outside of Bangkok. This annual festival finds thousands of adherents paying honor to their teachers as well as receiving Sak Yant tattoos.
I have been fortunate to attend this event the last seven years and yet never tire of this weekend. The crowds, the energy, and the insanity contribute to a memorable experience with tons of photos. I like to arrive during the late afternoon on the Friday of the Wai Kru Festival. A dozen ajarns are set up across multiple stations. Scores of adherents line up with alms waiting for their chance to receive a Sak Yant tattoo. This goes on throughout the night into the morning. On Saturday, I arrive in the morning darkness and gather with 10,000 spectators. The morning is spent watching in awe as adherents become possessed and charge the stage as the monks chant from the stage.
The Ashanti Empire ruled parts of Ghana for nearly 300 years and was well regarded for its military prowess, wealth, and culture. The kingdom officially ended in 1957 and transitioned into a culturally protected state within Ghana. The kingdom is based in Kumasi, a centrally located city in Ghana. Visitors can tour the official residence, the Manhyia Palace, built in 1925 within the royal grounds of the palace. The Akwasidae Festival is held once every six weeks on a Sunday based upon the traditional calendar used by the Ashanti people. This festival celebrates reverence for their ancestors, honoring the current and past kings, and feats of the Ashanti Kingdom. Expect ostentatious pomp and circumstance as the king arrives via a palanquin.
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart. I was having a late-night dinner on the lakeshore of Lake Volta when I struck up a conversation with the only other diner at the hotel restaurant. They shared with me that they were attending the Akwasidae Festival in Kumasi the following morning. While I too was driving to Kumasi I was completely unaware of the Akwasidae Festival. So the following morning I left in darkness to drive to Kumasi to attend this brilliant festival. The added bonus was that Prince Charles was visiting the Ashanti royal family. The entire day was spent in head-spinning wonder from the colors, the costumes, the music, to the pageantry.
Steam Train in Eritrea
They are many fabled train journeys around the world from the Trans-Siberian to the Orient Express. But one of the most underrated rides is the Eritrean Railway’s journey between Asmara, the capital, and Massawa, a port city. Eritrea, a small country located on the Horn of Africa, was a former Italian colony. The railway was a labor of love that began in the 19th century and was challenging due to the mountainous terrain. It required 65 bridges and 39 tunnels and reached a height of nearly 8,000 feet. Train buffs hold this journey in high regard since the original locomotives powered by steam from the 1920s and 1930s are still in use today.
I arrived in Eritrea with great anticipation for celebrating their independence holiday as well as riding their historic steam locomotive. While the train does not currently run on a schedule it is possible to charter the train privately. The train stood await with the engineer shoveling coal into the furnace. My group piled into the lone passenger car and readied ourselves onto the wooden benches. The train puffed through the countryside, gliding through small villages and traversing bridges. Animated kids rejoiced upon seeing the train and gave chase as we made our leisurely escape.
Bukashi In Afghanistan
Buzkashi is considered the national sport of Central Asia. It is a bit similar to polo, where horse-mounted players compete to place the ball in the goal, except in this case, the ball is either a headless goat or calf carcass. Buzkaski traces its roots to the nomadic cultures of the region. Some date it back to Genghis Khan in the 13th century while others trace it back over 3,000 years to Alexander the Great. Regardless, this is a high energy event that plays a central cultural role especially in Afghanistan.
After noon prayers, men and boys gather in a large, dirt expanse in the northern Afghan city of Mazār-e Sharīf. I had seen pictures over the years of men competing on their steeds playing the game of Buzkashi and this was definitely high on my bucket list. Today was the day I would be a spectator. In the slight chill and gloomy overcast skies, I watched as men sprinted on their horses competing for the headless carcass of a calf. The crowd cheered and jeered as the announcer provided color commentary.
Chin Tattoo Women
The Chin, ethnic group, are believed to have settled in present day Chin State of Myanmar in the 14th century. This Sino-Tibetan minority in Myanmar is known for its unique tradition of facial tattoos. It was common for pre-adolescent females to receive elaborate facial tattoos. Legend has it that the Chin girls were given these elaborate facial tattoos to discourage royals from kidnapping them. The tattoos were meant to displease their potential suitors. Overtime, the tattoos were recognized as a sign a beauty within the Chin community. Today, this practice is banned in Myanmar, but you can still glimpse this ancient tradition with the older generation in some areas of Chin State.
I have been fortunate to visit the Chin tattoo women on two different locations. The first time I left the northwestern town of Mrauk U and then took a three-hour boat ride to a couple of small villages. With my guide, I roamed around and met the locals as well as some of the Chin tattoo women. On the next occasion, I was in the mountain town of Mindat, rented some motorbikes and headed into the hills. After a couple of hours, I arrived at a small village again where I was able to meet some of the women with face tattoos. While cash gifts were exchanged, it was still a relaxed, fun, and authentic experience.
Armenian Genocide Day
Over 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in 1915. The Armenians were citizens of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire at that time, when the government began a systematic slaughter of one of the most vibrant and prosperous people of the empire. Part of Armenia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1922 and gained its independence in 1991. A memorial to those killed was built during the times of the Soviet Union.
Just a couple of miles from the center of town, the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, sits on the edge of a hill overlooking Yerevan. Throughout the year, thousands pay homage at the memorial to those who perished at the hands of the Turks. Yet on April 24th, the day of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide, is a day of solemn reflection. Many gather in the center of Yerevan near the Opera Theater built in 1933 to create a miles long procession to the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Hundreds of thousands accompanied by flags, banners, and torches snake their way to the memorial, singing and chanting. The memorial, which was opened in 1967, maintains an eternal flame. The procession culminates as thousands lay flowers at the flame, say a silent prayer to honor those who have perished at the hand of the Ottoman Turks.
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7 Off The Beaten Path Wonderful Experiences Of The World