By The Secret Traveller
Every country has its quirks. And while there’s no scale to measure weirdness, it’s a safe bet that the five countries listed below are among the weirdest in the world.
“We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important”. And so the teenage King of Bhutan famously said in 1979. Since then, Gross National Happiness has become a Bhutanese philosophy. It is enshrined in the country’s constitution, and Bhutan’s people have many things to be happy about. Seventy per cent of the Himalayan kingdom is forest, while towering, monastery-dotted mountains cradle pristine rivers and ancient villages. It’s no wonder visitors refer to the isolated Himalayan nation as the world’s last Shangri-La. However, Bhutan does have a penchant for the peculiar. Huge, decorative phallic symbols adorn temples, houses, and government buildings, while chilli is considered a full meal and rice is served red. All tourists must pay $250 per person per day. On its face, this may seem expensive, but it covers accommodation, transport, a guide, food, and entry fees. Plus, it keeps the backpacking hordes at bay.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat put Kazakhstan on the map in 2006, and left millions scratching their head about the weird Central Asian country. While Borat’s representations weren’t exactly accurate, there’s no denying Kazakhstan does have it's quirks. The national drink is made from fermented horse milk (not urine as Borat would have you believe!); one of Kazakhstan’s most popular dishes, Kazy, is smoked horsemeat sausage; and the country’s most popular sport, “Buzkashi”, which literally means “grabbing the dead goat”, sees players on horseback vie for control of the “ball”, which, as the name suggests, is the headless carcass of a goat. And after a game, the players all have a party. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country on earth and is a melting pot of over 130 nationalities. The big cities – Almaty and Astana, boast futuristic skylines, a thriving pub scene and intriguing soviet-era museums. As Borat says, “Big country, people good”.
A proudly reclusive, quasi-communist state, no list of the world’s weirdest countries would be complete without North Korea. While Beijing is the only way for Western tourists to enter the country, once inside, it’s surprisingly safe, provided you toe the government’s line. You’ll be accompanied everywhere by two state-employed guides, and hear a somewhat questionable account of North Korea’s history. You’ll be under constant surveillance during your stay, and probably only see what the government wants you to see. Unsettling, yes, but it is a small preview of what life is like in the world’s most tightly controlled nation. Visas to North Korea are issued in Beijing, so this is where you should shop around for tours. Koryo Tours has been touring North Korea for 20 years, while Young Pioneer Tours is the go-to group for younger travellers. Currently, the Australian government asks travellers to reconsider their need to travel to North Korea. As such, you should take note of which activities and circumstances are not covered by travel insurance.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a cluster of countries in Eastern Europe pushed to join the EU. Enticed by grand promises from the continent’s big players, Belarus’s neighbours quickly signed up. But Belarus, nestled between Russia and Poland, bucked the trend and opted for isolation and reclusiveness, essentially turning its back on a united Europe. Off the radar of most travellers, a trip to Belarus offers a much-needed respite from the crowds of Europe’s more popular cities. Its capital, Minsk, has been burned down 18 times. Concrete statues sit atop rolling hills studded with traditional windmills, while striking Soviet memorials sit next to fairy tale castles. There’s also plenty to see for those keen on the weird and wacky, including a spooky Museum of Malformations of the Human Body, located in the basement of the Grodno Medical State University. Belarus has recently loosened its entry requirements, meaning Australians can now enter visa-free for five days, via Minsk International Airport.
Armenia, the country where chess is a compulsory subject in school. Yes, you heard that right. Chess is part of the primary school curriculum and valued as much as maths and history. It’s a national obsession, so don’t expect an easy win when local school kids challenge you to a game. Steeped in history and culture, this landlocked country is bordered on the north by Georgia and on the south by Iran and Turkey. Its capital, Yerevan, is also known as the ‘pink city’ for its ancient buildings built from a pinkish volcanic rock. Armenia has a rich Christian history, and many Armenians are still convinced Noah’s Ark is embedded in ice atop the impressive Mount Ararat. A piece of the Ark can even be viewed in the Etchmiadzin Cathedral Museum.
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