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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Friends in Real Life – Man Opens Iconic Sitcom Cafe in Beijing

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If you were a fan of the hugely popular sitcom Friends, you surely remember their favorite meeting place, the Central Perk Cafe. Tired of just seeing the characters experience the coziness of that soft orange couch, one Chinese fan decided to create his own Friends cafe, in Beijing.

Like so many of us, Du Xin loved Friends. “I’m crazy about Friends. For me, it’s like a religion. It’s my life,” he told NPR. After watching the show, he started searching around Beijing for a place where he could actually sit on an orange couch just like the one his favorite heroes relaxed on in the sitcom. When he couldn’t find a Central Perk, he decided to create it himself. And he wasn’t going to settle for something similar, he wanted a place that looked exactly like what he’d seen on TV all those years, down to the tiniest details. Tucked away on the sixth-floor of the Chaowai Soho complex, this replica of Central Perk has the coveted couch, the same windows and doorway as the original, the brick interior and even the same hand written snack items featured on Friends. In order to nail all the things he wanted, Du studied thousands of photos of the show’s set and watched endless reruns, and five months later he had the cafe of his dreams.

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Okunoshima Island – Japan’s Rabbit Paradise

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Okunoshima is a small Japanese island, located in the Inland Sea of Japan, in the Hiroshima Prefecture. What’s special about this place is that it is completely crawling with rabbits – a bunny paradise of sorts. Nicknamed the Rabbit Okunoshima attracts thousands of animal lovers every year. Feeding bunnies can be one of the most relaxing pastimes, and people come here to do just that. The island is a popular day-trip and weekend holiday destination.

Okunoshima might be a place of natural beauty, but it has a dark, dirty past as well. In the early 20th century, it served as the base for the Imperial Army’s lethal gas operation. Over 6,000 tons of about 5 types of poison gas were manufactured on this very island between the years of 1929 and 1945. The mission was top secret back then, so Okunoshima was actually omitted from maps and workers were sworn to secrecy. Today, you can still see the ruins of these factories on the island. Given its history, there are several explanations of the unusually large number of rabbits in this place. Some sources say the furry animals were brought over during World War II, to test the effects of the poisonous gases. When the war ended, the workers are said to have released the rabbits into the wild. Other sources claim that a group of children were on a field trip at Okunoshima in 1971, when they left behind 8 bunnies. Well, we might never know how the first rabbits got on to the island, but they did their job well – copulating to make sure they left behind hundreds of their progeny to roam the island today. Hundreds might not sound like a lot, but on an island just 2.5 kilometers in circumference they make their presence felt.

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The Amazing Tree Houses of the Korowai Tribe

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In our part of the world, grown-ups are known to build tree houses for their kids, but there exists a parallel culture on this very planet, where the grown-ups themselves live in tree houses. I’m talking about the Korowai tribe of Papua, Indonesia, that has engineered and survived in towering tree homes as high as 114 feet above the ground. The tribe inhabits an inaccessible jungle located 150 km inland from the Arafura Sea, and was completely isolated from the world, until 1974, when they were discovered by a Dutch missionary. The Korowai tribe consists of a small society of traditional family ties, hunter gatherers who have been quite popular with the press for their cannibalistic tendencies.

However, what’s most fascinating about the Korowai people is the way they have designed their homes. There are a few reasons why they live up in the trees – to protect themselves from swarming mosquitoes, evil spirits, and of course, troublesome neighbors. What better way to escape the pesky next-door-neighbor than to hide up in a tree? Ideally, a Korowai tree house is constructed in a clearing, with a large Banyan or Wambom tree serving as the main pole. Once a suitable tree has been located, its top is removed. The floor frame is laid down first, made from branches and covered with sago palm. Walls and a roof are added, bound together with raffia. Additional poles are added to the corners for extra support. The average tree home ranges between 8 to 12 meters above ground level, but some go as high as 35 meters. Each house is sturdy enough to accommodate up to a dozen people.

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Tianducheng – A Small Piece of Paris, Made in China

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It appears that the Chinese have tired of imitating objects, so they’ve now moved on to entire cities. How else could you explain the gated community of Tianducheng, that boasts its very own Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and European-style villas? Located near Hangzhou, the capital of the coastal Zhejiang province, the community built by real estate company Zhejiang Guangsha Co. Ltd. in 2007 is a housing development meant to attract China’s rich and powerful. The developers apparently wanted to give the wealthy Chinese a chance to enjoy European culture without actually having to travel thousands of miles.  It took five years of meticulous construction and landscaping to create the entire 19 sq. km (12 sq. mile) community.

According to Lu Xiaotian, the company’s director, “The community can house up to 10,000 people comfortably.” Apart from the obvious touristy feel, the community also provides amenities ranging from a school, a country club and a hospital. All this, in the midst of the serene surroundings of a park atmosphere. The real estate group has largely capitalized on the fact that Chinese honeymooners tend to flock to Paris, and also that French designer labels and wine are popular status symbols in major Chinese cities. So the community of Tianducheng gives residents the opportunity to sit on the steps by their very own Bassin de Latone, a cleverly done imitation of the famous fountain located in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. They can also admire the Eiffel Tower, which is a 108 m high replica of the 324 m original, in their very own neighborhood. Apart from the obvious imitations of famous monuments, there are the Parisienne-style gardens surrounded by rows and rows of European-style villas.

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Loughareema – The Vanishing Lake of Northern Ireland

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When things mysteriously vanish in real life, sadly, there is always a scientific explanation behind it. And that includes Loughareema, the Vanishing Lake located on the coast road, a few miles from the town of Ballycastle, Ireland.

Irish lakes have always been the stuff legends are made of, and Loughareema is no different. At times, you could be driving down the entire stretch of the adjacent Loughareema road, go right to the middle of where the lake is supposed to be, and still not spot it. That’s because it conveniently vanishes from time to time. The trick to catching a good view of the Vanishing Lake is to be there at just the right moment. The lake actually drains itself out to such a degree that passersby wouldn’t even be able to tell that there was ever a lake in that very same spot. The secret behind Loughareema’s vanishing act is the fact that it sits on a leaky chalk-bed, a topographical feature called the ‘chalk ‘plug hole’. The hole sometimes gets jammed with peat, causing the depression to fill with water, which is when the lake is visible to all. When the plug clears, all the water in the lake drains underground at a rapid rate, so no one could ever know about its existence if they hadn’t seen it before.

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South Korea’s Toilet Theme Park

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We’ve seen our share of bizarre theme parks here on OC. Ranging from Hello Kitty to Atomic Reactors, we thought we’d seen it all. Until we heard of this extremely strange and slightly disturbing theme park in South Korea, based on the last place in the world you’d want to be stuck in – the toilet.

The Restroom Cultural Park,  in the city of Suwon, South Korea, is a massive complex dedicated to the humble toilet. The main exhibition hall itself is shaped like a large toilet bowl and the pathway leading up to it is adorned with bronze figures of humans in mid-squat. The facility was opened to public earlier this year and is the only one of its kind in the world. Other indoor exhibits include WC signs from around the world and toilet-themed art. What’s even more interesting than the toilet theme park is the story of its origin. Apparently, the place was initially home to the former Mayor of Suwon, Sim Jae-duck. He died in 2009, but that has not stopped the South Koreans from still regarding him as their very own ‘Mr. Toilet’. This was partly due to the fact that he ran a successful campaign in the 1980s to dramatically improve South Korea’s old toilet system, and also because Mr. Sim was born in his grandmother’s loo. So inspired was he by his place of birth that he built his own house in the shape of a toilet. He, in turn, is said to be the main inspiration behind the theme park.

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Nit Wit Ridge – A Mansion Built Entirely from Junk

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Nit Wit Ridge is such a whimsical name for a house. And I must say, the place completely lives up to its name. The 90-year-old two-and-a-half acre ramshackle home on the outskirts of Cambria, California is a Historic Landmark in the area and a fine example of folk art. It is located just a few miles down the road from another famous landmark, the Hearst Castle. Nit Wit Ridge is one-of-a-kind because it was built using millions of bits and pieces of recycled trash, and took over 50 years to complete. Arthur Harold Beal, a.k.a. Captain Nit Wit or Der Tinkerpaw, was a local trash hauler and loved all things rubbish. He basically suffered from the inability to throw anything away, collecting everything that the Cambrians threw away. So he used all his collections over the years, along with natural materials on the property to build the house, an effort that took him nearly a lifetime to complete, given his self-taught construction skills.

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Thailand’s Cobra Village – Where Men and Snakes Live in Harmony

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Sixty years ago, a doctor from Thailand had a vision for his small, dusty old village – to convert it into a major tourist attraction. And in an attempt to do so, he actually convinced his fellow villagers to raise pet snakes in their homes, putting them in shows for tourists. Surprisingly the ploy worked, and today the village of Ban Kok Sa-Nga in Thailand’s Northeastern Province of Khon Kaen is better known as ‘The Cobra Village’, among tourists.

All of the 140-odd homes in Ban Kok Sa-Nga have at least one pet snake, which they place outside in wooden boxes. The pet snakes range from deadly ones, such as king cobras or monocled cobras, to less dangerous ones such as copperheaded racers and pythons. The atmosphere in the village itself is always festive; it is one big snake show theme attraction. The snakes are bred in captivity and put together in daredevil shows such as – you won’t believe this – man vs. snake boxing matches. Obviously not for the light-hearted, these shows involve the handlers taunting an already enraged giant king cobra. As the snakes slither across the stage, the men pull their tails to provoke them further. Despite all the weird stunts that take place in these shows, what spooks out most tourists is the level of comfort the villagers share with the snakes. Most people are terrified of these creatures, but the people of Ban Kok Sa-Nga don’t even bat an eye-lid. Even the children are completely at ease; they are taught how to handle snakes, how to fight them and feed them, at a very young age.

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Aogashima Island – Living inside a Volcano

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Can you imagine yourself living in a giant volcanic crater? Well, for starters, you can forget about Starbucks. But it sure would be the ultimate destination to get away from it all. It’s not all that surprising then, that about 200 people actually inhabit the Japanese volcanic island of Aogashima, with only one school and a single post office.

Aogashima, a part of the Izu Archipelago, lies two hundred miles south of Tokyo, in the Philippine Sea. The island and its 205 inhabitants (as of 2009), are a part of Japan and governed by Tokyo. When I first saw pictures of this breathtaking location, it sort of reminded me of an inverted pudding on a plate. Or an oddly shaped donut. But Aogashima is really a volcano within a volcano. The island is quite well known for having a volcanic caldera within a larger caldera. So what you have is one big, giant crater, which is the island itself, inside which is nestled a much smaller version of itself. This gives the whole island a rather mysterious appeal, almost like something out of a fantasy movie. It’s hard to believe there are such places still left in the world, untouched by noisy human activity.

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Spassky Cave Church – A Russian Wonder Carved in Stone

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On the banks of the Don River, in the picturesque Voronezh region of Russia lies one of the most fascinating tourist attractions this country has to offer  - the Spassky Cave Church. For hundreds of years, this place has been at the mercy of the elements, then it had to face communist persecution, yet it still stands as a bastion of Russian Christianity.

It’s believed the first caves were dug into the cretaceous mounts of Kostomarovo before the adoption of Christianity in Russia. Hermit monks would use these austere cell-like spaces to hide  from persecution, and it wasn’t until the 12th century that the first rock monastery was carved in the region. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date the Spassky Cave Church appeared near the small Russian village of Kostomarovo, due to the lack of clear historical evidence, but it is now considered one of the most incredible monuments of ancient architecture in Russia. Dug into the cretaceous rocks known as “diva” in the Voronezh region, this unique holy place has a rugged exterior that hints at Byzantine influences, but its interior is much more polished, featuring straight walls, rounded arches and Orthodox decorations. It can accommodate 2,000 people and welcomes thousands of pilgrims from all over Russia, every year.

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Tasmania’s Town of Murals – A Colorful Outdoor Art Gallery

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If you didn’t believe in the power of art to change an entire community’s history and fortune, then Sheffield, also known as Tasmania’s Town of Murals, is the perfect example to convince you.

Despite being located in a spectacular natural setting, at the foothills of Mount Roland, in north-western Tasmania, the small town of Sheffield needed something more to help it overcome a steady economic decline. The population of this typical Tasmanian settlement went up dramatically when construction of several hydroelectric plants began in the area, but once the development was complete, workers started moving away to newer prospects, which led to a decline both in population and local economy. By the mid 1980s, the people of Sheffield realized the gorgeous setting wasn’t enough to attract enough tourists to boost their economy, so they formed a tourism association that decided to follow the example of a Canadian town that had a similar economic clump, and turn Sheffield into an outdoor mural art gallery.

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San Pedro Prison – Bolivia’s Most Bizarre Tourist Attraction

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San Pedro Prison is the largest in La Paz, Bolivia, housing around 1,500 inmates,  but that’s not what makes it special. Unlike most penitentiaries around the world, this place is a self-organized community with its own market stalls, restaurants, hairdressers and even a hotel. Oh, and no guards.

You’ve probably heard of or seen special prisons before. A few months ago we wrote an article on Norway’s Bastoy Island, where prisoners have hotel-like accommodations, are allowed to walk around freely and engage in a variety of relaxing activities. Today we take you on a tour of San Pedro, in La Paz, Bolivia, a sort of jail town where prisoners are free to live with their families and buy whatever they want without fearing repercussions from the guards. In fact there are no guards inside the large prison, or bars on the cell windows, so inmates have the relative freedom of going wherever they please. The police don’t interfere with the affairs of the inmates, who are expected to resolve their own issues with the help of representatives elected democratically.

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Thames Town – A Little Piece of England in China

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It’s no secret the Chinese wrote the book on knock-offs, but did you know they copy whole towns these days? Thames Town, in Shanghai, is a replica of small English town complete with everything you might expect, except the people.

“I wanted the properties to look exactly the same as those in the United Kingdom. I think English properties are very special. When we decide to learn from others, we should not make any improvements or changes.” That’s what James Ho, the head of Shanghai Hengde Real Estate, the company in charge of building Thames Town, told Reuters back in 2006, when the weird settlement was inaugurated. The buildings of Thames Town copy the real ones in England so closely that complaints have been filed by English pub owners, and this genuine British look was exactly what was supposed to draw people to this place. Only, like many other ambitious and expensive Chinese projects, Thames Town failed to impress a lot of people and is now virtually a ghost town in Shanghai, the city that drive’s China’s economy.

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