7 top travel destinations for “Wow!” factor.

A travel story can often be a good conversation piece, whether you are killing time at the airport, agonizing on a blind date gone wrong or waiting for death to take you during a really boring conference. Unfortunately, the story of you getting drunk at an all inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic is unlikely to do the trick. What you need is “Wow!” factor. Of all the places I have travelled to in nearly a hundred countries, 97.67% fall in the “Low Wow Factor” category. Here are 7 that don’t:

1. North Korea

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Mass Games: 100,000 people putting on a show in the world’s biggest stadium.

We only hear crazy stuff about the Hermit Kingdom. When Kim Il-Sung died, he went from “President for Life” to “President for Eternity”. His son pulled the same move, so North Korea is now the only country where the Head of State, the Head of the Ruling Party and the Head of the Military are people who are, well, not technically alive. But the truth is, 99.5% of the time, North Koreans are perfectly normal people doing perfectly normal things (being Asian, that means smoking, drinking and singing karaoke). 0.5% of the time, they are totally wacko! Not only will you see things that will likely never exist anywhere else ever again, but if you chose the right travel company, North Korea can be a crazy party destination. Possibly my best trip ever.

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Don’t worry, the roller coaster is German built.

Wow factor:  Very high

Difficulty:      Low (Chinese visa for transit)

Danger:         Very low (high if you MUST share your love of Jesus while visiting)

Cost:              Very high

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Nothing more romantic than visiting the Kims on your wedding day.

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Marked streets; to line-up people for parades.

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That’s when the crowd goes wild!

 

2. The Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

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Lakes of acid, Dallol.

National Geographic called the Danakil “the cruelest place on Earth”. With the highest yearly average temperature on the planet (above 34 Celsius), lakes of sulphuric acid, a boiling lake of lava and hordes of hostage taking terrorists from the neighbouring rogue country of Eritrea, the Danakil is not the most welcoming place. While 100% toilet-free, you will never have to go behind a bush, because there are no bushes.

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Of one a handful of lava lakes in the world: Erta Ale

Wow factor:   Very high

Difficulty:       Medium high (Roads? Hotels? Toilets? No, no and no)

Danger:          Medium (with mandatory local police, Federal Police and Army escort)

Cost:               High

 

Salt caravans of the Afar people. Go back 1,000 years in time and nothing would be different.

Salt caravans of the Afar people. Go back 1,000 years in time and nothing would be different.

One of the toughest jobs in the world, but still smiling.

One of the toughest jobs in the world, but still smiling.

The hotel has no WiFi.

The hotel has no WiFi.

 

3. Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic

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The colony. All of it.

The most remote inhabited settlement on the planet. TdC’s 265 inhabitants live more than  2,400 km from their nearest neighbours (St-Helena) and share only 7 different last names. With no airport and only a few visits a year by small cargo and fishing vessels, it is one of the most logistically difficult places to go to. The English speaking Tristanians will amaze you with their hospitality, and every morning you will wake up thinking “I can’t believe I’m here”.

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Think you’ve been to the middle of nowhere? Think again.

Wow factor:   High.

Difficulty:       Very high, unless you own a ship that can cross the South Atlantic.

Danger:          Very low, unless you need emergency medical care while there. Then you’re dead.

Cost:               High.

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The sign is only up when there is a visitor, or else the wind knocks it down.

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When the bar closes, you go bottle feed a lamb, obviously.

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10% of the island’s total population is in this shot.

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Last view, with an albatross.

 

4. The Lower Zambezi River, Zambia / Zimbabwe border

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Cute but dangerous.

The Lower Zambezi National Park is so awesome that until 1983, it was the personal reserve of the President of Zambia. Getting there will involve driving a 4×4 carefully, poorly scheduled ferries and somewhat expensive hotels and game drives. But go on the river in a canoe and you will get closer to the animals than anywhere else in Africa. The hardest animal to spot: another tourist.

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On the river, 3-4 m from the elephant.

Wow factor:   High if you take good pictures

Difficulty:       High (remote)

Danger:          Medium low (angry hippos)

Cost:               Medium high

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In the jungle, it’s bird eat bird.

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The big bird did not expect the canoe.

 

5. Namibia

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Sand dunes of the Sossusvlei.

Fantastic National Parks, the oldest and tallest dunes in the world, great roads and potable tap water. What’s not to love about the former German Colony? Most of the country is so sparsely populated that mini-villages exist to provide a gas station, because the distance between towns is so great, some cars could not make it without carrying jerrycans!

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Wow factor:   High if you take good pictures

Difficulty:       Low

Danger:          Very low

Cost:               Medium

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Wander off road to pick-up rocks and you’ll likely get shot. This is the Forbidden Land, diamond country.

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Sand vs buildings. Sand wins. Kolmanskop.

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The permanent fog of the Skeleton Coast.

 

6. Yemen

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Village cistern, Hababa.

At the Grand Mosque in Sanaa, my guide pointed to an important looking man and said: “He spent 3 years in Guantanamo”. Clear to me I was not in Kansas anymore. I got stopped by hostage takers on the highway, but they wanted a hostage of a specific tribe, not a foreigner! Socotra Island is Yemeni and off the coast of Somalia. Incidentally, it attracts few tourists, despite being the only really safe place in Yemen.

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Surprised to see a tourist, these guys asked ME to take their picture!

Wow factor:  Medium

Difficulty:       Low (visa)

Danger:          Very low to suicidal, depending on the region

Cost:               Mostly low

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Socotra: the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.

 

7. Mount Everest, Tibet side (seeing it, not climbing it!)

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Beer is fun. Beer above 5,000 m altitude is funner. Oh, and that’s Mount Everest!

The roof of the world needs no introduction. On the Nepal side you can hike for days to reach the base camp, but in Tibet you can drive there. One of the few places in the world where you can drive above 5,200m (17,000 feet), the roadside stops will provide some of the most impressive views in the world.

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Convenience store at 5,000 m: one kind of potato chips, 2 kinds of canned oxygen!

Wow factor: Medium

Difficulty: Medium (Chinese visa, Tibet permit)

Danger: Medium low (I went the week after a base camp storm killed 4 hikers)

Cost: Medium

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