Travel is a passion of mine. When I am not on vacation, I am planning the next one or reflecting on the previous. Research suggests that anticipation of a great trip can be a source of happiness in itself, and I could not agree more.
Wanderlust is my periodic travel fix. I will either review one of my favorite destinations or share some research on a dream destination. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive travel guide, but rather to inspire you to feed your travel bug. The world is a huge, wonderful place. I can’t see it all, but I can try!
If you truly have wanderlust, you are always planning a future trip—no matter how far away or improbable. This week’s post highlights three exotic, off-the-beaten-path, and difficult to visit locales that I would give my left…pinky toe?…to visit some day. Vámonos!
1. RAPA ITI
To touch foot on this island destination, you will need desire, persistence, a little luck, possibly your own boat, and probably some insanity. Rapa Iti (or “Little Rapa”, not to be confused with Rapa Nui—”Big Rapa”—aka Easter Island) is situated smack dab in the middle of freakin’ nowhere in the South Pacific Ocean.
I first read about Rapa Iti in Judith Schalansky’s hypnotic, semi-fictional Atlas of Remote Islands. And oh, it is remote: 4000 miles west of Chile, 2500 miles east of New Zealand, and 800 miles south of Tahiti. The nearest inhabited island—French Polynesia’s Raivavae, with a whopping 975 people—is over 300 miles away.
You can’t fly to Rapa Iti because there is no airport or landing strip. The only way to get there (barring a boat of your own) is via a cruise/cargo ship (the Tuhaa Pae IV) that supplies Rapa Iti once per month. You have to really want it.
Yes, people live here
About 500 at last count. Historians think it was colonized by seafaring Polynesians in the 13th century, and it was “discovered” for the rest of the world by Brit-slporer extraordinaire George Vancouver in 1791. As native encounters with Europeans tended to proceed in those days, disease, liquor, and slavery decimated the native population. The 2000 souls living there in 1791 were reduced to less than 120 by the late 1800s. The vast majority of islanders today are descendants of those individuals.
Much of the pre-contact history of the island is lost to time and clouded by legend, but ancient ruins corroborate the oral history of war and violence passed down over the years. Scattered on the peaks and ridges of the island’s mountains are the remains of a dozen stone fortresses, known as “pa” or “pare”, which housed warring factions of islanders during the peak of its civilization. It is thought that increased population pressures combined with finite natural resources led to fragmentation and eventual infighting of the previously united people as they competed to survive. The overgrown remnants of many of these fortresses remain visible today.
Roughly C-shaped, Rapa Iti consists of a curved mountain ridge surrounded by a central harbor—the remnant of an ancient volcanic eruption.
The temperate island is lush and rainy, and can get downright chilly in the southern winter—dropping as low as 40° F. Sheer green mountain ridges and cliffs draw comparisons to the Na Pali coast of Kauai. It’s like Jurassic Park, but with sweater weather.
What would I do here?
I’m not gonna pretend a visit to Rapa Iti woud be nonstop action and entertainment. Tourist infrastructure is essentially nonexistent. From what I have read, there are no hotels on the island, and visitors stay in the home of a local family. Nonetheless, the rare visitors to the island report an exceedingly friendly and hospitable people.
Photographs of the island are surprisingly scarce in our current age of travel porn and Instagram. I would revel in being able to photograph and document some of the island. Standing in a strong wind and glinting sun that makes my eyes water, and smiling despite myself, is magical to me. I would hike around the island, and tread on ground that few have walked on before me. As I explore, I would imagine the people who lived and died here—perhaps violently—and marvel how they arrived at such a remote location.
Because it is so difficult to get here, visitors—especially those who have sailed to Rapa Iti—often stay for weeks at a time. I could take that time to learn the Old Rapa language, one which emerged from the island’s physical and historical isolation. As with most ancient languages which few speak, it is slowly dying. If I ever make it there, I will try to embrace the slower pace of life common to many islands, interact with as many locals as possible, and explore this far-flung corner of the world.
2. HANG SON DOONG CAVE
The world might never have known of this geological wonder were it not for local resident Ho Khanh, a Vietnamese villager who decided to go hunting one day in 1991 (presumably rocking out to Nirvana and/or Amy Grant on his Sony Discman). I don’t know if his hunt was successful, but he did find the largest frickin’ cave in the world. He saw full-sized clouds billowing from the enormous cave entrance, and heard the roar of a river emanating from the cave floor far below.
After conveying his astounding discovery to family and friends, he proceeded to forget where it was located for almost 20 years. Fast forward to 2008, and good old Ho implausibly stumbles on the massive cave entrance again—this time taking really good notes and mental pictures—and puts Hang Son Doong on the map once and for all.
No one truly understood Hang Son Doong’s record-breaking size until British cavers (again, with the British) began to map it in 2009. After some epic mouth gapes and pants poops by those initial explorers, word quickly got out that something incredible lurked beneath the dense jungle.
Calling all spelunkers!
Hang Son Doong—meaning “cave of the mountain river”—is a cave of superlatives: largest (by cubic volume) cave system in the world, tallest stalagmites at 230 feet tall, and most phallic-sounding cave of all time (at least to my juvenile ears).
The cave is incredible for many reasons. First, it’s huge: nearly 5 miles long and up to 500 feet wide and 650 feet tall in sections—with a cross-section twice that of the second largest cave in the world. Second, it has two large dolines—sections of the cave in which the ceiling has collapsed, exposing it to the jungle above and allowing trees and vegetation to grow inside the cave. Third, it has it’s own fast-moving, subterranean river. Fourth, it has the largest recorded cave pearls, which geologists seem to love, but to the rest of us are balls of rock. I could go on.
To reach Hang Son Doong, you must be in reasonable but not Ironman shape. A 4-hour trek through the jungle of central Vietnam will get you to the cave entrance, and you will spend the rest of the time camping in the cave and exploring its bigness.
But if you want to channel your inner explorer, you best hurry up: Hang Son Doong seems ripe for a tourism explosion. Only 800 tourists are permitted per year for now, but there are plans to build a cable car system through the cave (I’m not kidding).
3. MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO
The year is 1693. You are captain of a merchant ship in the British East India Company, departing India with a hold full of the finest Assam tea that should earn you and your crew a small fortune.* Suddenly, a violent squall! Your mast and sails are destroyed, and you drift eastward through the night from the Bay of Bengal into the Andaman Sea.
Just before dawn, you awaken to find your boat floating in calm seas among dozens of jungle-covered islands with pristine white beaches. The local native fisherman—who seem to live on their boats—are casting their nets and spearfishing at a nearby reef. One of your crew spots a tiger prowling in and out of the jungle on the nearest island. Monkeys scour the beach to find crabs for their breakfast. As the sun rises over the archipelago, you realize that you might have found paradise.
Over 300 years later, these islands and the way of life will be remarkably similar.
To those who might balk at a visit to remote, rainy Rapa Iti or challenging, uncharted Hang Son Doong cave, I present to you the tropical, nearly-deserted paradise that is the Mergui Archipelago.
I first became aware of this group of 800 islands mere months ago in most unlikely place—Hudson’s Restaurant on Hilton Head Island, SC. You never know what you might discover if you strike up a conversation, and such was the case with our waitress that day.
She owned a boat and sailed all over the world for part of the year, only returning stateside to work when she needed money. The stories she told of the island paradises of Myanmar, relatively untouched by tourism, had me intrigued to say the least. It sounded like the beaches of Thailand, but without the resorts, tourists, or raves under the full moon.
A shadowy past
All is not perfect in paradise, which is part of the reason it remained undiscovered by tourist hordes for so long. In recent years, the former military dictatorship of Myanmar has slowly opened its borders to tourism, and they have come in ever-growing numbers. But in the Mergui, lack of infrastructure, limited access, and military control of some parts of the archipelago keep it relatively deserted.
As recently as 1998, 59 civilians were massacred by the former dictator U Than Shwe after they were discovered near a restricted military base on Christie Island in Mergui. The military still has bases in the archipelago. This is not a place you want to puttering around on your own: visitors must travel and live on a government approved charter boat.
Life on the boat
So you’ve snagged a spot on one of a handful of tour operators that run multi-day cruises around the archipelago. What can you expect to see?
In short, lots of stunning scenery and not a lot of people. Deserted, sifted-flour beaches ring the numerous islands of dense jungle. Locals say that tigers still reside on a few of the larger ones. Snorkeling and scuba-diving are reportedly world-class.
Not many tourists make it to Mergui, but the islands are far from uninhabited. The semi-nomadic Moken people have lived here for time immemorial, spending much of their lives on boats, harvesting the bounty of the sea.
The Moken have embraced some modern conveniences, one being TNT. Yes, they have discovered it’s a whole lot easier to fish with dynamite than with nets and spears; as you can imagine, this has resulted in some damage to the delicate coral reefs in the area.
But for the most part, life is not much different here than it was hundreds of years ago. Only a handful of resorts—exactly three by my count—currently exist on the islands, but word is that foreign investors are salivating at the chance to open more. The Moken have settled a few permanent villages, which are popular stops on boat tours, and scattered buddhist temples and monasteries add to the mystique of the islands. I’ll give the same advice as I did with Hang Son Doong cave: visit before the rest of the world does.
*May not be historically accurate. Didn’t bother to Google.
There you have it: my first Wanderlust Wish List. Thank you for indulging my travel fantasies. Now, where to you want to go?