In Europe the road less traveled leads directly to Macedonia. A land of stunning natural beauty, an eclectic mix of ancient history and modernity and some of the most welcoming people on the continent.
At every turn I was welcomed with open arms, offered coffee, followed quickly by a shot (or two) of rakiya, a strong fruit brandy, and often food followed. This is not the cold Europe that many have come to expect. In fact it is more reminiscent of an Ottoman and Soviet infused dreamland.
The landscape is absolutely stunning from the glittering shores of Lake Ohrit to the steep cliffs of Matka Canyon. Unfortunately, as is the case across much of the former Yugoslavia, industry has disappeared, and along with it went the jobs and the social safety net. While everything is relatively cheap, the average wage is the lowest in Balkans at less than $400 per month.
Jobs are increasingly scarce in Macedonia’s slumping economy, however the younger generation is tapping into the global, digital gold rush. In Veles I met a professional video game player. A few of his friends are part of a ring of over 100 fake new websites based in Veles that tapped into the US economy by spreading fake news. It turned into a very lucrative hobby as the US election heated up.
Corruption runs rampant and is clearly visible in the capital, Skopje, currently undergoing a massive government-led transformation. Most Macedonians think that the money is being misused. Giant statues of Alexander are great, but all the money could be spent in far more productive way. The roads are full of potholes and crucial infrastructure is crumbling. Turns out construction is a wonderful way to launder money and this is not lost on the people. They voiced their disgust with the ruling party during the Colorful Revolution this past summer, but so far it was only a small step in the right direction.
Macedonia is immune to labels and endlessly fascinating. Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman history, this tiny country has much to offer. Ultimately I would return simply for the people. It is not too late to explore Macedonia and experience a little known slice of Europe before it lurches out of obscurity.
Through couchsurfing I me a guy traversing the Balkans in a van. We decided to drive to Macedonia together. After corrupt border officials held the van for hours, we were finally let through and set off to find a obscure village in the rural Macedonian hills. This is the village we stumbled upon.
The village was Rusjatsi (Русјаци) in the western hills of Macedonia. As we pulled up, we ran into Simon. Here he is standing on top of the guesthouse he is constructing in the center of the village. He had recently returned from Australia, after spending the last 35 years there in the ‘special forces.’
In typical Macedonian fashion Simon immediately quickly invited us in to his home and offered us coffee, followed by whiskey and beer. We ended up staying with him for two nights.
Feeling slightly buzzed from the potent mix of beverages, Simon offered to show us around the village.
Upon returning to his house it was clear that word had spread quickly of our arrival.
Simon’s next door neighbor was Milosim Vojneski, the mayor of Macedonia Brod. Later that evening he too invited over for a more coffee and Rakija.
All across the former Yugoslavia, industry has collapsed. Leaving many towns, like Macedonia Brod much worse off than they were during days of Yugaslavia when there was a big arms factory nearby. It is not uncommon to hear people longing for the good old days when work and wives were plentiful.
I set up camp in the mayor’s back yard.
It was Sunday and we were wandering the streets of Macedonia Brod looking for a place to eat. I asked this man if he could point me in the right direction. Instead he invited me into his home and his mother quickly prepared coffee, while the father fetched the rakiya. As we drank they harvested some tomatoes, peppers and corn from their small garden and served them to us with big hunk of Sirene cheese from their farm outside of the town. Sirene is a brined cheese like feta. We could not have asked for better meal.
After returning to Rusjatsi, I ventured off on my own to explore. As I was taking pictures of the donkey, this woman invited me in for coffee.
Stepping into their home was like going back in time.
Turns out their children live in Chicago. One is a barber. They had a little shrine of all the items their kids had sent them. Everything was untouched in its original packaging, They didn’t know how to open the plastic packaging.
It was to be our last night in Rusjatsi so Peter’s pal, Slavko, cooked us feast. He piled pork, potatoes, onions and chillies in the wood fired stove and cooked it to perfection. Great way to end our stay in the obscure Macedonian village.
After a few days in rural Macedonia I headed out on my own to the capital Skopje, which lies on the banks of the Vardar River.
The center of Skopje is undergoing a massive transformation.
Alexander the Great towers over everyone.
Last summer anti government protests erupted in Skopje when the President stopped the ongoing investigations of the Prime minister and dozens of other politicians involved in a wiretapping scandal.
Protesters threw paint filled balloons at government buildings, statues and monuments. The colors have been left as a constant visual reminder of the corrupt government.
Crawling through the streets of Skopje is a fleet of new Chinese knockoffs of London’s classic Routemaster double decker busses.
The oldest references to Skopje’s Old Bazaar date back to the 12th century. It was damaged numerous times during the 20th century, but it is still going strong and full of cafes and mosques.
No trip to Macedonia is complete without tasting the Kebapi at Destan, Skopje’s oldest Kebapi spot in the Old Bazaar.
I ate burek every morning with a glass of yogurt. There were usually three options: meat, spinach and cheese. It is similar to quiche with croissant crust.
I ran into the owner of my hostel in a the city park practicing axe throwing. Never know when it could come in handy.
Shutka, the gypsy capital of the world, lies on the outskirts of Skopje. As one of the largest Romani towns in the world, it is the only place where Romani language is the official language and taught in primary school.
It is also home to cheap and bustling street market.
It is a wonderful place to wander around, shop, eat and meet people.
Like this guy, the local goose walker.
Or this happy guy.
A mosque in the center of Shutka.
Just west of Skopje is Matka Canyon. The canyon area is home to several historic churches and monasteries dating back to the 14th Century, including St. Andrew’s Monastery which contains frescoes painted by Jovan the Metropolitan.
I was invited by a friend to visit her home in Veles. The city made international news in 2016 when it was revealed that a group of teenagers were controlling over 100 websites producing fake news articles in support of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, which were heavily publicized on the social media sites like Facebook.
My friend’s grandma rocking traditional clothing.
Her parents spent all afternoon preparing a delicious dinner of succulent pork, juicy chicken, and stuffed peppers, followed by homemade mastika (Macedonian ouzo.)
I never expected to end up in Albania, but once I did, and tasted the delicious burek and coffee, met wonderful people and experienced the untapped beauty, I had a difficult time leaving.
Albania was under the tight grip of communism for nearly 50 years. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron fist as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule Albania declared itself the first atheist state and destroyed many religious artifacts. Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and the country has been rapidly opened itself up to the world since.
Now it is a land of opportunity, just starting to crank it into high gear. You can sense an eagerness to embrace western culture. Unfortunately corruption runs rampant and the average salary is hovering around $300 a month. This does make the country cheap for travelers who can take advantage of the wealth of natural beauty and history. The best part is that you can do it without running into any other tourists. Lets go on a journey back to the days when coffee and tobacco ruled and family was the only law. Visit now before its too late.
I started my Albanian adventure in Shkodër. A city in the north overlooked by an impressive medieval castle built by Venetians, and crisscrossed by wide communist-era boulevards.
We woke up at the crack of dawn and drove deep into the Albanian Alps to Lake Koman. At the small dock we watched as ferries and boats were loaded up with people, goods and cars.
We hopped on a boat and headed out as spectacularly green cliffs plunged into the water all around us. After a short ride we rented kayaks and explored on our own.
We arrived at a farm after a hour or so. There were chickens and donkeys, grapes and fruit trees. We were welcomed in (for a small fee) and served a tasty fish lunch.
On the outskirts of the Skoder I stumbled upon a Roma community (behind the fisherman).
Some lived in pretty standard houses, while others like this family, lived in huts amongst mounds scraps and junk.
A Roma girl inspects me from her families encampment filled with things they had collected.
After a few days in the north I settled into Tirana, the capital of Albania. I was lucky enough to find a great couchsurfing host.
Albania, like the rest of the Balkan countries, is small. My host had a car so we decided to drive to the coast about an hour from Tirana.
The Byzantine Forum (Macellum) is in the center of the coastal city of Durrës. Greedy and corrupt politicians have sanctioned big, ugly developments next to and on top of ancient ruins across the city.
Constructing houses and other developments is a great way to launder money.
Albania was under communist control from 1946-1992. The country is home to lots of communist era statues and military bunkers.
We arrived at the Cape and were greeted with a beach all to ourselves and clear blue water.
Not a bad place to spend a few days relaxing.
After the Cape we headed south to Beat.
Overlooking Berat, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, from the old citadel. One of the most refreshing aspects of the country is that there is the tourist infrastructure.
Back on the valley as the sun set.
The old city of Berat.
No rules apply to the Albanian streets and roads.
After Berat we drove for a while longer into Osum Canyon
A shephard grazes his sheep along the main highway into Tirana.
Albania is littered with ugly incomplete buildings. This is the most glaring example in downtown Tirana.
A young boy practices football in the little play area in the center of my block of apartment buildings.
The central market after the rain stops.
People smoke a lot of cigarettes across the Balkans and Albania is no exception. There is a tobacco section in the market where you can buy half kilos straight from the farm for cheap..
The driving in Albania is insane. Seems like there are no rules, or lines on the street
Coffee plays an important part in everyday life in Albania. This young woman enjoys an expresso during a warm summer afternoon.
Bagan is home to Myanmar’s precious “Valley of a Thousand Temples”. It is a place quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen, a landscape that is both barren, and vibrant, and host to an ancient culture that is in the midst of modernization.
There are many questions left to be answered regarding this modernization, especially with regards to the new youth of Myanmar, many of whom are now working in the tourism industry, a business that didn’t exist when their parents were their age. Many Burmese people, both young and old, have acknowledged that as Myanmar opens itself up to the world, it is inevitable that change will happen. However, both have expressed sentiments that aim to preserve as much of their traditional culture as they can. As I walked around the plains of Bagan, meeting with locals and travelers alike, I asked myself, how will Myanmar look in 10 years? It was then, that I met a young Burmese girl, who introduced herself as Ma (younger sister in Burmese). She approached me, with a stack of foreign money in her hand, and asked me where I was from. I told her the United States, and she promptly spoke to me in English. Perfect English, not a word wrong, her accent was impeccable. She reminded me of a highly intelligent young girl in junior high. So what was she doing with a stack of money from all over the world?
“I can speak all of these languages” she told me.
“Every single one?” I looked at the stack, there were bills from all over the world. France, Brazil, England, Chile, China, everyone was accounted for.
I tried Spanish with her, she nailed it. French, again, perfect. Her Portuguese was good enough to get her a job in Rio. I couldn’t believe it. We walked for some time, and she told me how she learned so much.
“Tourists are my teachers” she said with a smile. Ma has been a tour guide for 5 years, literally starting as soon as the borders opened. In that time, she has worked all around Bagan, hiking from one temple to the next, with a bag full of postcards, and foreign currency. From sunrise to sunset, this has been her life. As the tourists come in larger and larger numbers, Ma has seen more and more business. So, how is this influx of global culture affecting young people like Ma?
In a recent study published by Routledge, a publishing company that specializes in providing academic books and journals regarding humanities and social sciences, researchers went to Bagan, and conducted interviews with locals, who described the three biggest changes that they had seen since the opening of the borders. People of all ages agreed on three major areas; theconsumption of alcohol, the way thanaka (traditional make-up of the Burmese people) is wornand the perceived importance of marriage (Rich and Franck 334-44). Although, tourism in not alone to blame for these changes. Free access to the Internet has also helped foster a developing mindset in the minds of many young Burmese people, especially with regards to drinking alcohol, and relationships. According to the study, it is in conjunction with modern media formats that Burmese people have been exposed to and have assimilated new cultural identities.
There are undoubtedly benefits to tourism, and most locals do agree that those benefits are very important to providing new opportunities for the next generation. Many young men and women are now able to afford luxuries that their parents could not have thought possible at their age, and many more are able to attend schools now. Whatever future these changes hold in store for Myanmar, it is important to learn from the successes and failures of nearby destinations like Thailand and Cambodia. Will Bagan’s Valley of a Thousand Temples someday have backpacker ghettos lined up across it’s plains? Will the environment suffer the way it has in some parts of Thailand? These questions are left to the people of Myanmar to manage, and to hopefully, resolve. Either way, it is a fascinating time to be young in Bagan ;a time when the new generation is setting out to define itself, and decide what direction it wants this new Myanmar to go.
Large tour busses are beginning to arrive in Bagan, bringing with them thousands of tourists every year.
The market in Bagan is always a good place to get great food, and meet some interesting locals.
Wandering around the ancient temples in Bagan, one is almost nervous of touching the walls.
Each temple offers something hidden inside of it’s walls, and no two are alike.
The valley stretches as far as the eye can see, with temples poking up from the horizon everywhere.
A statue of the Buddha hidden inside a large temple.
Tourists line up to see another one of Bagan’s many legendary temples.
A group of young Burmese schoolchildren on a field trip to Bagan.
Although there is indeed a huge influx of tourism, there are still places hidden away that can offer us a moment to reflect.
Myanmar, delicious, refreshing, and probably the only cold thing you’ll get on one of Bagan’s hottest days.
A glorious sunset from one of Bagans largest temples.
Rich, Anna-Katharina, and Anja K. Franck. “Tourism Development in Bagan, Myanmar: Perceptions of Its Influences upon Young Peoples’ Cultural Identity.” Tourism Planning & Development 13.3 (2015): 333-50. Print.
For anyone interested in reading more about Myanmar, here are some interesting books to check out:
The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Freedom from Fear, Kyi, Aung San Suu. London: Viking, 2009.
There is undoubtedly an air of electricity in Yangon. Myanmar’s largest city is in the midst of an incredible growth spurt, brought about by foreign investment from countries like China, Japan and Korea. Ever since Myanmar opened its doors to tourism in 2011 the country has experienced a huge upsurge in the number of people visiting, giving the former capital of Myanmar, a breath of new life.
I ventured to Yangon in January of 2016 to see for myself what the city looked like beneath the surface of so much change. What I found were good people, great food and a city that was ready to embrace its bright new future.
Traffic in Yangon
A typical alleyway in the big city
A group of hungry customers waiting to eat one of Yangon’s delicious street stall delicacies.
A street vendor moves his stall closer to the action.
When in doubt, eat what the locals eat.
The Yangon Circle Line goes all around Yangon, even farther out into surrounding the townships, until it finally returns.
Democracy in Myanmar is popular topic on the minds of most locals.
There’s no better place to get lost than in a market in Myanmar
Burmese women negotiating at peak hours.
A father and son stopped to say hello.
Betel leaf stacked in an intricate pattern
The smell of dried fish fills the air in the local markets.
A smaller temple, located near the Shwedagon Pagoda
I have no idea what this was, but I will never forget its overwhelming stench
Delicious snacks make for tantalizing temptations.
Intricate details outside of a small library
A Burmese student on his way to school.
A young boy gets dressed up by his family
The circle line in Yangon
A Burmese man.
Families and tourists use the trains to get around Yangon
A busy day for locals.
A genuine moment of laughter between two worlds.
The glorious Shwedagon Pagoda
Monks in Myanmar are beginning to embrace technology, in order to learn more about the world around them, and stay connected to other monasteries.
A group of young monks sitting before their teacher.
Marrakesh or Marrakech, meaning Land of God, is a city lying in the North-Western African nation Morocco. The city is divided into two sections called Medina and Gueliz. The city has a large number of historical sites and museums for tourists and even locals to visit. The thing about Medina is that you can reach a lot of places on foot, even though the walk is long, you do not have to worry about paying for transport. So, if you decide to spend your vacations in this beautiful city, here are some places you might want to consider visiting:
The Masjid is the symbol of Marrakech. This place is as important as the Eifel Tower is to Paris. It is right beside Djemaa El-Fna and is named after the booksellers market that was once located there. It is still used for prayers and non-Muslims are not allowed to enter but they can see it from the outside. It was built following the themes of the Almohad and topped with four copper globes.
This is the most popular market place of the Marrakech. All you just need is to name an item and you will find it at really affordable rates if you are a local. If you are a foreigner, then they will probably demand more so do not forget to bargain with them. Secondly, if you run out of local currency, then you will find merchants willing to accept the equivalent amount in dollars. Its located north of Jemaa El-Fna.
Maison Tiskiwin is a big chunk of private property under the name of a veteran Dutch anthropologist. The house is decorated by arts and crafts that have been collected from South Morocco and Sahara. The tour is basically a walk through the different countries from the Tunisia to Timbuktu. The entry is not free but it is still really cheap.
The Saadian Tombs were discovered pretty late, around the turn of 20th century. They are located near the Kasbah masjid which is extremely popular among the visitors. If you visit the tombs, then you would always find a large crowd so be prepared to stand in line for a while. You will also find tombs of Jews and Christians. There is a small entry fee here as well.
The palace offers a proper tour by providing you with a guide on your visit. Those who want to experience the life of a 19th century nobleman would definitely find this an ideal stop. The exterior is decorated with a big garden containing a large number of beautiful flowers and fruit plants. There are usually very few people gathered at the Palace so you have the freedom to roam around without bumping into people.
While Majorelle Gardens are breathtaking and consists of unique plants and vegetation, it is also a bit overpriced when you compare it with all the other great places you can visit in Marrakech. But, nonetheless, it is a great place to run off to find peace when the city becomes too overbearing. There is a café and a museum in the gardens, and there is a gift shop at the end which also contains 100 year old photographs among other things.
At the end of the day when you are too tired, you would find a lot of exquisite hotels to rest up in. Some of which include Riad El Fenn, Jnane Tamsna, Peacock Pavilions, etc. Enjoy your trip to Marrakech and do not forget to pay a visit to all the above mentioned neighborhoods while you are there.
Author Bio: Alison works at Dissertation cube where she provides dissertation writing help to students. In spare time she writes blogs for students starting their career and for those who are still in jobs. Find her on Google+.