10 unique modes of transportation around the world

chicken busCars, trains, buses, and planes aren’t the only way to get around a country. From the Bamboo Train in Cambodia to the Rail Cart in the the Philippines to the Couch Bike in Canada, here are ten unique modes of transportation from around the world.

Chicken Bus
Guatemala, Central America

While variations of the chicken bus can be found in many different countries (this reminds me a lot of taking the tro-tro in Ghana, Africa), this vehicle is used not only to transport people but also livestock, hence the name. These U.S. school buses are very eye-catching as they are colorfully painted and decorated. When taking one expect cramped conditions, as chicken buses tend to be packed to capacity, and hectic driving at Nascar speeds.Sled Dogs
Alaska, USA

Sled dogs are highly trained dogs that are used to pull a dog sled, which is a vehicle without wheels that glides over snow and ice. If you need a mental image, think Santa being pulled by reindeer, only you’re not flying and there are dogs instead of deer. Endurance and speed are the two main qualities that sled dogs must possess, and this transportation type has become a popular winter sport in other countries around the world such as Japan and Germany.

human powered rickshawHuman Powered Rickshaws
Kyoto, Japan

While urbanization across Asia has mostly done away with this traditional form of transportation, you can still find them used in certain areas where cars are not accessible in Kyoto, Japan, as well as in some parts of India. According to Kelvin Lim of BootsnAll, many rickshaw “drivers” wear a special foot-glove that helps them travel through various types of terrain without slipping.

India and Asia

In India and many places in South East Asia, an elephant is not only an animal but also a mode of transport. When I was Vietnam I actually went on an elephant ride with a local school owner named Roy who explained to me that “in many Asian countries we use animals to help with labor”. While once used to carry the wealthy around, today exploring a country on the back of an elephant is a big tourist attraction.

habal habal Habal Habal
Philippines, Asia

The Habal Habal is a unique motorcycle that can seat many people. The simpler versions seat 4-5 people, with a seat that extends over the back wheel, while the more complex type of Habal Habal can seat up to thirteen people and their luggage with the addition of wooden planks acting as benches.

Rail Cart
Philippines, Southeast Asia

The rail cart is most commonly found in the Philippines and is literally a cart that is pulled along rail tracks by a person, people, or a horse. The special wheels on the cart allow for quick transport but, unfortunately, are not always fast enough to get out of the way of the real trains that also use the tracks.

reed boatsReed Boat
Lake Titicana, Peru

Lake Titicana stretches across the countries of Peru and Bolivia and is home to many floating villages around Southern Peru. These villages are inhabited by the Uro people, who use natural resources, like reed, to construct homes and boats. The boats are light but resiliant and, built in the shape of a dragon, are said to have been used by the anicent Incas to ward off evil spirits.

Camel Back
Jordan, Middle East

While there are many places where camel rides are popular, one way to try out this transport option for yourself is by trekking through the beautiful rose colored deserts of Wadi Rum in Jordan. Cairo, Dubai, Mongolia, Morocco, and many deserts in India are also known for being camel riding hotspots.

couch bikeCouch Bike

When I found this highly unusual mode of transportation, I was kind of expecting it to be from America. The Couch Bike, which is literally a couch that you pedal like a bike, pokes fun at sedentary culture while providing an eco-friendly alternative to driving. Just make sure you know the traffic laws of the city you’ll be riding in, as the vehicle may not be legal to drive in all areas.

Monte Toboggan Ride
Madeira, Portugal

This unique transport mode is only for the adventureous. Once a popular mode of transport in the 1800’s-early 1900’s, it is a big tourist attraction today in Madeira. Passengers sit in a wicker or wooden tobaggan and ride down the mountain from Monte to Funchal. While an exhilerating experience, you don’t have to worry too much about crashing as there are two locals “steering” the vehicle from the outside. It’s kind of like being a kid again and having your parents pull you around in a sled, only your parents probably weren’t yanking you down a steep mountain with winding turns.

Man sets out on 5,000 mile hike throughout Asia to raise money for charity

man walks 5,000 miles across asia to help children Winston Fiore, a 26 year old Marine from Bloomington, Indiana, has set out on a 5,000 mile journey, by foot, throughout Southeast Asia and China. Fiore arrived in Southeast Asia on September 25, 2011, for what is called “Smile Trek”, and is projecting it will take him a year to walk the entire route, which begins and ends in Singapore.

The goal of the journey is to raise $50,000 or more for the International Children’s Surgery Foundation, a not-for-profit that provides children in developing countries with free corrective surgery. Through fundraising efforts, such as giving presentations at rotary clubs across the United States as well as having help from the CouchSurfing community who have helped organize benefit dinners, charity walks, and media interviews, Fiore has been able to raise over $28,000 for the cause.

Fiore’s inspiration for Smile Trek stems from an experience he had when training for the Marines in a very poor region of Lingure, Senegal. When he returned home, he read a newspaper article about a successful plastic surgeon in the United States who gave up his career to perform free surgeries in developing nations for children with cleft palates and lips. From there, the idea began to grow.

To follow Fiore’s Smile Trek or donate to his cause, visit his blog here.

10 crazy cocktails from around the world

Snake WineWhatever happened to the days of just drinking vodka mixed with juice? Maybe some fruit added in, a sugar stick, or a mint leaf garnish. Apparently, these simple recipes are being replaced with edible scorpions, dead birds, and fermented rodents.

Snake Wine, Vietnam

In South East Asia, snakes are considered to be good for the health, with the thinking being that a shot or two can cure all ailments. According to happyhourmagonline.com, this wine is created by infusing an entire snake into in rice wine or grain alcohol. Apparently, there is even a snake village in Hanoi, Vietnam, which features numerous bars and restaurants where customers can sample the wine, among other snake delicacies, such as snake steak and fried snake skin.

Scorpion Vodka from EnglandScorpion Vodka, England

This vodka is five times distilled and is produced 100% from single grain wheat. Who really cares about that, though, once you find out it is also enhanced with a real, edible (farm raised!) scorpion. Right on the website, the company promises that the scorpion’s “diet and environment is controlled to assure their good quality” and is “processed for human consumption, according to high quality food preparation standards”. Thank goodness!

Lizard Wine, China

This unique wine, according to Florin Nedelcu, is made by fermenting Ginseng, Gecko lizards, and rice wine in a clay vat for a year. The final product is green liquid (hmmm, wonder what that’s from?) and is said to taste similar to brandy, as well as improve vision and ward off evil spirits.

Seagull Wine, Arctic Circle

While my mother always warned me never to touch a dead bird, the people living up towards the North Pole must have been taught differently. The recipe for this wine is very simple, take a dead seagull, stuff it into a bottle of water, and leave it to ferment under the sun for a few days. I am not sure how they discovered that drinking dead seagull juice could get you drunk, but it apparently does the trick.

Mezcal, Mexico

While many people have heard of the tequila worm, it is actually a bottle of Mezcal that you should purchase if looking to swallow the worm at the bottom. Like tequila, it is made by distilling the fermented juice of agave plants in Mexico. The worm that you will sometimes find in the bottle, according to tastings.com, is actually “the larvae of one of two moths that live on the agave plant”. While the reason for adding the worm to some Mezcals isn’t set in stone, it is believed that it shows drinkers that the proof of the alcohol is high enough to keep the worm in tact.

Deer Penis Wine, China

I’m sure you’re probably thinking that the name must be a joke but, alas, this drink is exactly what you think it is, a deer penis fermenting in wine. According to TreeHugger.com, the cocktail is said to cure sports related injuries, even being banned from athletes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to the fact that it is thought to contain herbal ephedrine, which would lead to athletes being disqualified if found in their systems.

Cricket Cocktail, USA, New York

Known as “Summer” at the bar White & Church in TriBeCa, New York, this Piña~Colada-type concoction is a frothy, sweet cocktail and comes with bamboo (inedible) and crickets (edible). In the mood for a different species of garnish on your drink? The restaurant also features a martini topped with scorpions and a frozen margarita-type drink containing spicy worms.

Baby Mouse Wine, China

Is there no end to the animals you can ferment to make wine? Like snake wine, the product of drowning a family of baby mice in a vat of wine and letting it ferment for a year is supposed to be good for your health, curing liver problems, skin ailments, and asthma. I think I’ll stick with taking vitamins.

Fermented Mare’s Milk, Mongolia

Called Airag, this horse milk is said to “refreshen and sparkle the tongue” and tastes “slightly sour”. With only 2% alcohol it probably won’t get you drunk, but you should get used to the taste anyway. According to happyhourmagonline.com, it is a tradition in Mongolia to offer guests this drink when they enter your home, and guests who refuse it are seen as impolite.

Snake’s Blood, South East Asia

Like many of these wild drinks, drinking snake’s blood is believed to have health and wellness properties, such as increasing sex drive, helping repair eyesight, and keeping hair loss at bay. According to treehugger.com, this crazy cocktail is made by slicing the snake’s body and draining the blood directly into a glass. While snake’s blood can be drank by itself, it can also be enjoyed with alcohol.

A Subjective Guide to the Budget Hotels of the Orient

In Asia, most luxury hotels have been fine-tuned to eliminate the prospect of unpredictability. Specific amenities aside, a given Ritz-Carlton or Shangri-La property is designed to feel the same from city to city. This ensures a consistent level of comfort for clients, but it rarely makes for distinctive travel memories.

The budget hotels of Asia, on the other hand, are charming precisely because you can’t predict what kind of experiences await from destination to destination. Guidebooks might offer general information about prices and services, but it isn’t until you encounter them first-hand (in the context of your own personal idiosyncrasies) that you get a sense for how these budget hotels can enhance your travel experience.

This in mind, here’s my subjective guide to some of the cheapest, frumpiest hotels in the Orient:

Ngoc Linh Hotel, Kontum, Vietnam
$12 for a private room; $5 for a dorm room (tel: 84-60-864560)
The owner’s daughter, a cute, almond-eyed child, is scared of you. Whenever you walk through the lobby, she bursts into tears. Though you have enough money for a private room, you elect to stay in the dorm. The only other occupant is a Japanese backpacker. He ties a beer can to the end of a shoelace and bangs it on the floor because he thinks there are rats under the beds. When you return for a second night, you notice that the maids have turned off the ceiling fan and stolen your bananas, but they did not bother to actually clean the room. That evening you notice that the owner’s daughter is no longer scared of you. You also notice that she is eating a banana.Jackson’s Hotel, Jabalpur, India
$10 a night (tel: 91-761-323412)
Manoj, a Brahmin-caste pharmaceutical salesman you met in the lobby, has taken you under his wing. One day he invites you to a colorful Hindu wedding. You take lots of photographs there, because this is the kind of thing you imagined you’d photograph before you started traveling. Manoj dresses in American fashions, so it never occurs to you to take his picture. Each night, back in your room, you call the front desk and a watery-eyed Sikh brings butter chicken to your room for 100 rupees. On the fourth night the Sikh tells you the price has gone up to 105 rupees. The difference is little more than a dime, but you never order butter chicken from the Sikh again.

Santyphab Hotel, Savannakhet, Laos
$1.50 a night, (tel: 856-41-2122777)
The owners have obviously stopped caring about the upkeep of the facilities, and this makes your room more interesting. A previous traveler has drawn a rough map of the world onto the wall over the bed, and many people have penciled in comments about the places they’ve been. Under the map, in big letters, someone has written: “FREE TIBET (inquire at front desk).” You dig out your ballpoint pen, but can’t think of anything clever to write. You notice that the small window in the bathroom is broken, and a bird has made a nest in the empty frame. Later, while you’re taking a shower, the bird flies in and sits in the nest. Taking great pains not to scare the bird, you creep back into the room, fetch your camera, and take a photo. When this photo comes back from the developer dim and blurry, you can’t recall why you found it so important to take the picture in the first place.

Momo’s Hostel, Tel Aviv, Israel
$8 a night, (tel: 972-3-5287471)
The kid from Los Angeles shows you a Star of David tattooed on his thigh. He tells you that his father is Mexican and his mother is Jewish. When you mention you were in Syria last week, he says that Arabs are putos, and that he would visit Syria only if he were driving an Israeli army tank. Your other dorm-mate is Charley, a middle-aged man from England. Charley keeps talking about how he quit drinking five days ago, so you congratulate him and wish him good luck. A blonde South African girl tends the bar downstairs. She is traveling with her mother. They are both beautiful, and this makes Charley the Englishman sad. You start talking to a group of Italian travelers, and when you turn to Charley again, you see that he is quietly downing a glass of whiskey. Unlike other hostels in Tel Aviv, Momo’s has no curfew, so you leave with the Italians to go nightclubbing.

Crystal Inn, Phuket, Thailand
$10 a night, (tel: 65-7621-88702)
The bellboy makes you nervous, because he insists on pointing out how everything in the room works — the lights, the water, the windows. You already know how these things work, but you give him a tip anyway. When you leave the next day, you steal one of the towels to make up for the towel you misplaced two days before, on Phi Phi Island. When the bellboy chases you down the alley to ask for the towel back, you pretend you don’t know what he’s talking about. You are obviously in the wrong, but you keep thinking back to how he really didn’t deserve that tip.

Camel Caravan Guesthouse, Dahab, Egypt
$6 a night, (tel: 20-69-5794004)
Your minivan arrives late, and you choose the Camel Caravan because it is the nearest hotel to your drop-off point. When you awaken the following morning and order tea in the courtyard, you recognize several people you met the week before in Cairo. Of these four people, Paul and Dan will go on to become your good friends; you will later hang out together in San Diego. A third person, Nele, tells you how she lost her little toe in a go-kart accident when she was a child in Belgium. Her friend, Stefie, will give you a haircut on the roof of the hotel. You and Stefie will later become lovers, and she will invite you to spend Christmas with her in Brussels. You will accept, but the affair will turn sour because in Belgium you are not the same person for her that you were for her in Egypt.

Smiley’s Guesthouse, Siem Reap, Cambodia
$6 a night, (tel: 855-63-852955)
A Canadian traveler in the courtyard is headed for the Thai border, and he is trying to give his marijuana away. The marijuana sits in a small pile on a crumpled piece of brown paper. He cups the paper with two hands, as if it were a small and fragile animal. You tell him no thanks, because you don’t smoke marijuana; other travelers tell him that they already have more marijuana than they can smoke. Finally, the Canadian traveler gently places the marijuana onto the communal dining table and walks off. Everyone who sees this smirks in amusement. Later, when your friends ask you what Cambodia is like, you will tell them this story.

[flickr image via katclay]

What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800’s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

[flickr image via Ian @ The Paperboy]