Live Like a Genuine Convict at Latvia’s Prison Hotel

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Latvia’s Karosta Prison was used as a Nazi and Soviet military prison for most of the 20th century. Hundreds of prisoners are said to have died here, many of them shot in the head. Nowadays the nightmarish facility has been transformed in a prison-themed hotel where guests can sign an agreement to be treated like actual inmates.

Located in the city of Liepaja, Karosta Prison is one of Latvia’s most unique tourist attractions. Visitors can take tours of the old prison facility and learn the gruesome history of this place, visit the prison museum and even book a stay in one of the old cells. Karosta is certainly not the only prison converted to a hotel in the world, but it sets itself apart by allowing visitors to experience authentic prison life in Communist Era conditions. It might sound like a gimmick to attract tourists, but a stay at Karosta Prison is actually no walk in the park. To make sure there are no complaints, the hotel requires guests to sign an agreement acknowledging they are to be treated like prisoners by the trained staff. That includes sleeping in a cell on an old mattress laid over wooden boards, eating prison food served through the barred doors, getting verbally abused by the guards and following orders to the letter. Failure to comply to the strict code of conduct is punished through physical exercise and cleaning work around the prison.

Karosta-Prison-Hotel

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The Dancing Inmates of the Philippines

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The Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, in the Philippines, has become internationally famous for using choreographed dancing to rehabilitate dangerous inmates. Videos of their dance routines have registered tens of millions of views on sites like YouTube, and the prison itself is now a tourist attraction of sorts.

Prison life is tough everywhere – well, maybe except Norway – and the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center is no exception. Inmates sleep on hard pallets, share their cells with around a dozen other roommates and have a very strict schedule of work. But at least they get to dance. The truth is they don’t have a choice, because apart from the elderly and the sick, every one of the almost 2,000 prisoners is required to take part in the jail’s now-famous dance routines. Most of them enjoy doing it, because it takes their minds off their problems, keeps them away from drugs and violence, and teaches them discipline. In fact, two former inmates went on to become professional dancers when they got out. Introducing dancing as a rehabilitation technique was the idea of security consultant Byron Garcia. He was brought in to Cebu Prison in 2004, to deal with the constant riots. He moved the prisoners from an ancient stockade to a larger, more modern facility, fired dozens of corrupt guards, broke up gangs, banned the use of cash and introduced dancing. That last measure made the biggest difference. Violence subsided and the inmates health and behavior improved dramatically. Yet no one took notice…

dancing-inmates

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Houtong Cat Village – How a Few Purring Felines Saved a Dying Community

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This is the story of how a few dozen cats managed to save an entire community just by purring and looking pretty. Houtong was just another dilapidated mining town in the mountains of eastern New Taipei City, but everything changed when the felines came and livened up the place.

Houtong used to be one of Taiwan’s most important coal extraction sites, up until the 1970s. Then, oil and electricity took the place of coal, and the town suffered a steady decline. At one point it was reduced to a train stop along the Yilan line, one that most travelers ignored, and that forced many of its younger residents search for better opportunities elsewhere. The population of this defunct mining town dwindled from around six thousand inhabitants to a couple  of hundred, who struggled to survive. But their fortunes changed in 2008, when a cat lover who goes by the name “Palin88” organized a series of cat photography events in the mountain town. He and his friends posted the photos online, and got an overwhelming response from fellow feline enthusiasts. As they shared the photos on forums and social media sites, Houtong welcomed more and more tourists eager to photograph the cats themselves, or simply watch them roaming through the town. Nowadays, Houtong is known as the Cat Village, or Taiwan’s Cat Mecca.

Houtong-Cat-Village

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Jembatan Akar – Indonesia’s Amazing Tree Root Bridge

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For the last hundred years, the residents of two tiny Indonesian villages in West Sumatra have used a 30-meter-long bridge formed from the interconnected roots of two trees located on each side of a fast-flowing river, to reach each other and trade supplies. Today, the natural wonder known as “Jembatan Akar” has become a popular tourist attraction.

According to locals the amazing tree root bridge was built in 1890, by Pakih Sohan, a Muslim teacher from Lubuak Glare, disappointed by the fact that students from Pulut-pulut couldn’t attend his classes on Islam and Quran recitations due to the Batang Bayang river that separated the two settlements. He planted two small Jawi-jawi – a type of  broad-leaf banyan tree – and started stringing their roots around a stem bridge made of bamboo. In just a few years time the two trees reached each other over the river, but the bridge wouldn’t be able to support the passing villagers’ weight for another two decades. It took approximately 26 years for Jembatan Akar to become the sturdy bridge it is today, and with each passing year, it becomes even stronger, as the banyan tree roots continue to grow.

root-bridge-Indonesia4

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All Aboard the Controversy Inn’s Tram Apartments

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Viewed as one of the most unusual hotels in the world, the Controversy Inn gives the term “room and board” a whole new meaning by repurposing old tramcars  as luxurious accommodations for guests.

Located in Holland’s Hoogwoud village, the Controversy Inn is run by two kooky Prince fans and offers visitors the unique opportunity of sleeping in fully reconditioned tramcars that used to run in Germany and Amsterdam years ago. It might not sound like the most comfortable stay, but the owners of this wacky establishment have gone out of their way to make the trams as cozy as possible. All the “rooms” feature double beds, showers and toilet facilities, a well-supplied kitchenette, and lovely decorations made from old-traffic lights, discarded furniture, car parts and other recycled objects. The three tramcars and the full-sized railway car have all been themed around different cultures around the world – America, Italy, France and Mexico – and come with their own matching type of breakfast. Frank and Irma Appel, the two motoring enthusiasts behind the Controversy Inn, sleep in an English-style Double-Decker bus they’ve somehow managed to insert right in the living-room of their picturesque farmhouse. How crazy is that?

Controversy-Inn

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Playa del Amor – The Hidden Beach of Marieta Islands

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If it weren’t for the sound of the waves gently washing up on its fine sand beach, people would probably walk right past Playa del Amor without even knowing it was there. Located several meters inland on one of the Marieta Islands, the Hidden Beach is one of those unique natural wonders you definitely don’t want to miss.

The Marieta Islands archipelago, located off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico are believed to have formed centuries ago due to volcanic activity in the area. During the early 1900s, the Mexican Government took advantage of the fact they were completely uninhabited and used the islands to conduct military tests. After years of research and efforts to legally protect the archipelago, scientists led by the famous Jacques Cousteau managed to convince Mexican authorities to declare the Marietas a national park protected against fishing, hunting and any other harmful human activities. To this day, the islands remain uninhabited and only authorized boat service providers can take tourists to see their natural wonders up-close. Although the large explosions and bombings carried out for decades have greatly damaged the flora and fauna of this tropical paradise, some say they’re also responsible for the creation of one of its most amazing attractions – Playa del Amor, also known as the Hidden Beach of Mexico.

Hidden-Beach

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On the Wings of a Prayer – India’s Unique Airplane Temple Fuels Devotees’ Traveling Dreams

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It’s not unusual at Indian temples for devotees to make huge offerings of money and food, in exchange for their prayers to answered. But the case of this particular Sikh temple in Punjab is quite strange, even for Indian standards. The narrow, dusty alleyway leading up to the Sant Baba Nihal Singh Gurudwara in Punjab’s Doaba region, near the city of Jalandhar, is lined with a host of shops selling toy aircrafts of various sizes and colors. Although they sell like hot cakes, they are not meant to be travel souvenirs, but offerings to the temple. At the Sant Baba Nihal Singh Gurudwara, devotees make toy plane offerings in the hopes that their dreams of traveling abroad and starting a new life will come true.

It’s hard to say how the trend started. But the offering of the toy plane is quite befitting, since the thing most people pray for at this temple is to settle down in another country. According to one local shopkeeper, “Surely it must have been someone’s wish to go abroad coming true that must have started it all. It’s now become a tradition. For us it’s business.” So the sight of scores of devotees flocking at the century-old gurudwara gates, holding colorful toy planes might be a strange one to you but quite normal to the locals. They line up patiently, waiting for their turn to access the inner sanctum on the first floor, where several decorative model planes are placed in neat rows. The devotees place their rainbow-colored offerings in the demarcated enclosure, paying their obeisance to the Gurus of the Sikh tradition and to Baba Nihal Singh, a simple farmer of the nearby Doaba region after whom the gurudwara was named. After the offering is made, they then proceed to ask for their wish to be granted – to be sent abroad as soon as possible.

Airplane-temple

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Sliding Rock – Nature’s Waterslide

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Sliding Rock is a slide-like waterfall near Brevard, in North Carolina that has long been used as a natural waterslide by adventurous tourists looking for a fun way to cool off during the hot summer months.

The 60-foot-long gentle slide of Looking Glass Creek ends with a large 6-7-foot-deep pool of cold water. There are 2 observation platforms for those who prefer to watch others have all the fun, and lifeguards on duty at all times during the season to make sure no harm comes to visitors. There is a $2 entrance fee to access the recreation area, but judging by the photos and videos posted online, it’s a small price to pay for a great deal of fun. The season starts from Memorial Week and lasts through Labor Day, and according to reports this place can get pretty crowded so tourists are advised to come early if they don’t want to wait in a long queue before getting themselves wet. Sliding Rock is also accessible during the off season, but although waiting lines are much shorter, daredevils have to slide down the smooth rock slide at their own risk. The water is also considerably colder, but that doesn’t seem to bother those looking for a cool way to enjoy themselves. Sliding down is required in a sitting position only, and children have to of a certain size to slide alone, otherwise they have to sit on the lap of an adult.

Sliding-Rock

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Bathing in Pepto-Bismol – Australia’s Pink Lake

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Would you believe it if someone told you Pepto Bismal isn’t manufactured from chemicals, but sourced from the water of a natural lake? It isn’t true, but you certainly might you certainly might be tempted to believe it after seeing pictures of the Lake Hillier, a bright, bubble gum pink body of water located on the edge of Recherche Archipelago’s largest island, in Australia. The salt water lake is so striking that airplane passengers passing over Middle Island often get out of their seats just to get a glimpse of it.

The earliest records mentioning the existence of Lake Hillier are the journals of Matthew Flinders, a British navigator and hydrographer. In 1802, Flinders had to climb Middle Island’s highest peak to survey the surrounding waters and came across the remarkable pink lake. Hillier has been pretty much untouched by human hand for a long time, except for a few years when a salt extraction operation was set up in the area. The pink lake isn’t just stunningly beautiful, but a also a natural mystery scientists have been unable to unravel. So far, no explanation has ever been found for its unique hue. Some theories state that the color could result from a dye created by the organisms living in the lake – Dunaliella salina and Halobacteria. Another speculation is that the pink color might be  attributed to the presence of red halophilic bacteria in the salt crusts. No one knows for sure, but that bright pink definitely is definitely no illusion. When the water is collected in a container, it retains its pinkish tinge. Although the waters are shallow and have been deemed safe to swim in, most tourists are reluctant to go in for a dip in what looks like a delicious strawberry milk shake.

 

pink-lake

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Austria’s Healing Caves Offer Radioactive Miracle Cure

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The largest pain management center in the world, and a popular health tourism destination, the Healing Caves of Gastein welcome over 75,000 people every year. They all flock to this miraculous place to undergo a controversial form of therapy with radioactive radon gas used to cure a variety of medical conditions, from arthritis to psoriasis.

When the people of Gastein started exploring the nearby Radhausberg Mountain in search of gold, they had no idea they would discover something infinitely more valuable –  naturally occurring low levels of radon gas. In time, they realized that the radioactive gas combined with the mountain caves’ high humidity and temperatures of up to 41.5° Celsius helped strengthen their immune system and cured some very serious illnesses. Word about the Gastein Healing Caves spread like wild fire throughout all of Austria, Germany and other Central European countries, and today Gastein is known not only as a world-class skiing destination, but also as a miraculous place of healing with a mind-blowing success rate of 90%. Most of the people who come here for radon treatment say a few sessions in the caves keep them pain-free for a whole year. Apparently, the radioactive gas is absorbed through the skin and lungs, activating the body at a cellular level and stimulating the self-healing process.

Gastein-Healing-Caves

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Giethoorn – A Rural Venice in the Netherlands

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The tiny Dutch village of Giethoorn, located right in the middle of the De Wieden nature reserve, is fondly known as the Venice of Netherlands. Quite an apt name for the place, since it has distinct features that are reminiscent of the romantic Italian city – 7.5 km of canals, about 50 little wooden bridges, boat rides, quaint houses, and more.

If there’s something that Giethoorn does not have in common with Venice, it’s history. The small village was first inhabited in the year 1230 by a group of fugitives from the Mediterranean regions. It is said that when they first arrived in the area, they noticed an unusually large number of goat horns that were left over after the big flood of St Elisabeth had ravaged the area in 1170. So they named their settlement Geytenhorn (horn of goats), but with dialect changes over the years the name gradually changed to Giethoorn. There’s a story about how all the lakes came to be as well. Early settlers took to peat mining; they dug for peat in the areas that suited them the most and left holes in the ground. These holes soon filled up and turned into lakes of varying sizes. So to carry the peat from one area to another, they would sail through navigable canals and ditches. The means of transportation that was once a necessity is now a huge tourist attraction.

Giethoorn-Venice

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Conquer Your Fears in China’s Snake Village

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Nestled in the heart of a vast farmland in East China’s Zhejiang province, the small village of Zisiqiao has a pretty common look, but it hides a scary secret. The aptly names “snake village” is home to thousands of the most feared snaked species on Earth.

Snakes are a vital ingredient in Chinese medicine, and are also widely used to make soup and wine believed to increase a person’s immunity. As the number one snake village in China, Zisiqiao breeds and sells over 3 million snakes per year, to satisfy the ever-increasing demand. The 160 snake-breeding families living here now boast an annual income of several thousands yuan, and in this Year of the Snake, a significant profit increase is expected. The once poor village of Zisiqiao is now the envy of similar rural communities, with some of the larger snake farms making tens of thousands of dollars from this lucrative business. Obviously, it’s not the easiest job in the world, and most breeders admit they have been bitten several time, even by deadly snakes, but the rewards are definitely worth the risk.

Zisiqiao-snake-village

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Coober Pedy – Australia’s Underground Town

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Coober Pedy is a small town that’s one of a kind – for being down under in the Land Down Under. Yes, it’s the world’s only underground town, and it’s in Australia.

Located in South Australia, known for being the driest state on the driest continent on Earth, the town of Coober Pedy was established in 1915, when opal was first discovered in the region and miners started settling in. The temperature and weather conditions were so harsh that the miners began digging their homes into the hillsides. All they wanted was to find some respite from the scorching sun, but in the process they ended up creating a small town for themselves. To this day, the people of Coober Pedy prefer to build their houses under the ground. Summers are harsh around here, with temperatures easily rising over 40 degrees Celsius. Air conditioning is a necessity, not a luxury, if you choose to live above ground. But the scenario is completely different in the underground homes of Coober Pedy. The temperature remains at a cool, constant 24 degrees and the humidity doesn’t go beyond 20%. Winters can be rather cold, but people are willing to make that kind of compromise.

Coober-Pedy-Australia

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Colomares Castle – An Enchanting Masterpiece Dedicated to Christopher Columbus

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Boasting a combination of Byzantine, Roman, Gothic and Mudejar architectural styles, Colomares Castle, in the Spanish town of Benalmadena is a unique monument that pays homage to explorer Christopher Columbus.

Looking at this fairy-tale castle with all its exquisite details, you could never guess it was built by a doctor with no architectural background, and two local brick layers. Esteban Martin, M.D., spent seven years working on Colombares Castle, from 1987 to 1994, trying to create a marvelous monument honoring Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America. For the good doctor building the castle was a labor of love, undertaken in his spare time. He tried to combine all these different architectural styles and at the same time include various elements relating to Christopher Columbus and his historic journey, like finely carved representations of the three ships that made the trip to America. In the end, he manged to construct the largest monument dedicated to the Genovese explorer, covering an area of 1,500 square meters. At the same time, Colomares Castle made into the Guinness Book of Records for hosting the world’s tiniest chapel, just 1.96 square meters in size.

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The Maeklong Railway Food Market – A Strange Wonder of Thailand

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Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory loves trains, but I’m not too sure if he’d like this particular one. The Maeklong market railway passes right through the middle of a tightly packed market – so tight, that passengers can probably grab a few vegetables as they pass through. The market’s stalls are actually set up on the train rails, but shopkeepers know the train’s schedule, so just before it passes through, they quickly drag their goods into the shops and pull the roofs down. After the train has passed through, it’s back to business as usual. This happens no less than 8 times a day.

The Maeklong market has become so popular with tourists that there might actually be more people visiting to see it rather than buy anything. Located 72 km or an hour’s drive south-west of Bangkok, Maeklong is the capital of the Samut Songkhram province. Most people compare the market to something like a movie set; it’s that surreal. It’s amazing how every inch of space available has been utilized. The small stalls on either side of the railway track are made from tarpaulins and sometimes just a bedspread. They consist of plastic trays filled with vegetables and vibrant Thai fruit like mangosteens and rambutans. You can also find fresh-cut flowers, fragrant spices, cuts of meat, fresh seafood and poultry. And it doesn’t just stop with food; there are other goods to be purchased as well, like clothes, lingerie, toys, and pirated DVDs. Sometimes there aren’t even stalls, just people sitting on the ground with trays of fruit at their feet.

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