5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]

Buddha Toilet In France Causes International Fracas

A small hotel in the Burgundy region of eastern France did what legions of Pier 1 and World Market shoppers have done and used the image of Buddha for decorating purposes, devoting one of its individually themed rooms to the spiritual figure. And they found out that the motif isn’t so innocent when an embassy contacted the management to complain, according to the International Herald Tribune.

The biggest problem was that Moulin de Broaille, the hotel, extended the image to the room’s toilet seat, a placement that is offensive to many Buddhists. A Bangkok newspaper reported that followers in Thailand were “enraged” and wanted Buddha dethroned.

The French embassy in Bangkok and Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs became involved after a group, called Knowing Buddha, fielded complaints. The group works to educate the rest of the world that using the god’s image flippantly isn’t just inconsiderate, but “tramples on the Buddhist’s heart.” Its Facebook page posts images of “overseas disrespectful cases,” including portable toilets in the Netherlands and skateboards in the U.S.

In addition to associating Buddha with bathrooms, the easiest way to misstep is to place the image on or near the ground, especially where someone could walk on it. House slippers, doormats, and skateboards have drawn Knowing Buddha’s reprimand. Wearing the image on the lower half of the body, as on a skirt, is also a no-no. Towels, dinner plates, napkins, toys, furniture, tattoos, bars named after Buddha and Buddha-head soap are other offensive treatments.

%Gallery-181006%The group responds by educating the offender on why Buddhists consider the image rude, and encourages its followers to rectify the situation by, when possible, elevating the Buddha image to a spot above eye level.

If you need an alternative exotic Eastern motif to a Buddha statue that you have no intention of meditating before, ever, the gorgeously graphic letters of the Thai alphabet, as seen on Knowing Buddha’s Facebook page, should keep you off your embassy’s radar.

[Photo credit: Knowing Buddha]

Thailand Announces End Of Ivory Trade

Thailand will ban ivory tradeIt’s no secret that the demand for ivory in Asia has led to the slaughter of countless elephants in Africa. Whole herds have been decimated over the past decade and many African countries have watched their elephant populations dwindle to historically low levels. But on Sunday, the fight against the illegal ivory trade got a much needed boost when the Prime Minister of Thailand announced that her country would take major steps to end the sale of ivory for the first time.

Speaking at the annual Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), Prime Minister Shinawatra said that her country’s goal was to fall in line with “international norms” in regard to the sale of ivory. That means banning the sale of any products made from the substance, which is currently freely sold throughout Thailand. Some of those products are made from the ivory harvested from domesticated elephants, but because demand is so high there, much of it comes into the country illegally from Africa.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Thailand is second only to China in terms of the amount of illegal ivory trafficking. Because the sale of ivory is so common there, the country is often used as a destination to launder illegal ivory being funneled into Asia from Africa. If Prime Minister Shinawatra has her way, all ivory sales will be banned, making it much harder to smuggle elephant tusks into Asia. In the long run, this could help lower demand and lower the number of elephants that are being killed in the process.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister didn’t share any details to her plan. At this point we don’t know how soon a ban could go into effect or how widespread it will be. Still, she seems committed to ending the sale of ivory in her country and protecting the remaining elephant herds both at home and abroad.

Video Of The Day: 10 Days In Thailand

Ten Days in Thailand” from fredparis11 on Vimeo.

This video of Thailand is gorgeous. Chronicling ten days spent in the country, filmmaker Fred Albrecht captures his moments spent in Thailand with precise beauty. It seems as though each shot could suffice as a telling photo on its own – a characteristic that truly distinguishes the best films from the rest. If you need a relaxing break from your day, take a moment to watch the scenes in this video unfold.

Visit the Cobra Village in Thailand

Video Of The Day: Scenes From Southeast Asia

This video made by Birk Poßecker and Diana Weschke is a collection of scenes from a trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this past October. It takes viewers across these countries via motorcycle, zipline, plane, bus, van and even the back of an elephant. From scenes shot deep underwater to time-lapse shots from the tops of skyscrapers, it showcases many of the quintessential experiences travelers seek out in Southeast Asia.