A break from the norm, a culturally inexplicable moment, a happy outbreak of lunacy – sights and places that revel in a touch of the weird are an always-welcome part of any adventure, and often provide vivid post-holiday memories, not to mention talking-point photos.
One of my strongest – it would be pushing it to say fondest – memories of California is the sedate town of San Luis Obispo, where just off the main drag I had the good fortune of wandering down an alley completely covered in bubble gum, a sickly scented rainbow of thousands upon thousands of gum blotches, chewed up and stuck to the walls by passers-by over the past five decades. Oddly captivating, in a mildly stomach churning kind of way.
God knows what they would make of gum alley in Singapore – but then, what would the good Californians of SLO make of Singapore’s park of the bizarre, as detailed below? Read on for some other favourites, and let us know yours as well...
Haw Par Villa, Singapore
What to do if you’ve just made a fortune through developing the all-round popular miracle cure Tiger Balm? Easy: piece together a theme park in Singapore featuring 1,000 statues, many of which are obviously the demented offspring of a frenzied imagination. That’s what brothers Aw Boob Haw and Aw Boon Par did in the 1930s, and although the exhibits have seen better days and a visitor nowadays may just have the place to himself, it’s worth a look for that bonkers statuary.
A woman breastfeeding her father-in-law, a giant crab with a man’s head, skeletal monks and warrior monkeys – yup, they’re all here, as are rats on the telephone, tiger-headed cars and the piece de resistance, the Ten Courts of Hell, a gruesome tableau that takes it cue from Chinese mythology – the creator obviously attacked with merry abandon the job of depicting hell in all its gory glory. Disturbing and hilarious, this is Singapore’s twisted little treasure. Quite a few images here.
Underwater Museum, Mexico
In Cancun’s beautiful waters, just off the Isla Mujeres, efforts to bolster the coral reef have a touch of the surreal about them. Sculptures litter the seabed: concrete figures luxuriating among sand and stones; giant heads home to young coral and tropical fish; a man sits at his desk, 10 metres below the water’s surface; a ring of figures stand facing outwards holding hands. The ‘silent evolution’ of Mexico’s Caribbean underwater is inventive environmentalism and challenging public art in one fell swoop. Have a look at the museum’s website for some great photos.
And if you’re travelling around Mexico, consider taking a day trip from the country’s capital to nearby Xochimilco’s Island of the Dolls, a creepy collection of decomposing dolls – some beheaded, many limbless – scattered nightmareishly around the gardens and trees of an island among eerily quiet canals. Gruesome, and enough to prompt some post-holiday therapy sessions.
Serpent Temple, Benin
Benin’s Serpent Temple was presumably the inspiration for the snake-infested Well of the Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A venerated place in the town of Ouidah, the birthplace of voodoo, the temple is home to a writhing mass of royal pythons. Around the temple are animal sacrifice sites, purification huts and a collection of illuminating murals, while 60 or so snakes live inside – all in all quite a sight to stumble into. Somewhat terrifyingly, come nighttime they are released and make their way around town, a fact that the locals seem entirely comfortable with. Fascinating, and a little scary.
Like that? Then after Benin, make a beeline for India, and Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, where rats are treated as sacred. The place teems with black rats – about 20,000 – and spotting a white rat among them is considered good luck. Sounds like a fun game.
All of Odaiba, Japan
You can always rely on Japan to throw up off-kilter sights. From the deeply bleak like Mt Fuji’s ‘suicide woods’ to decadent wine spas, to shrines dedicated to anime robots, chalking up sightings of the eccentric is practically a competitive sport among some visitors. Even by Tokyo standards, the reclaimed island of Odaiba is an oddball-eyeful, a window into future urban entertainment and indulgence: 24-hour karaoke; theme parks; a Venice-themed shopping mall; and faithful reproductions of Hong Kong streets in buildings some seven floors up. And weirdest of all for this most urban of urban areas, a beach.
Take your pick: flex your credit card as you stroll through 18th century Italy, fountains tinkling and the sun setting every 30 minutes, or nose your way through authentic Chinese restaurants on Hong Kong’s mean streets complete with traffic noises and cardboard cut-outs of Jackie Chan. Afterwards, you could make like the locals and head over to the ‘cat petting zoo’ to play with the little kitties or just head to the water to watch the sunset over the Statue of Liberty. A great place for a brilliantly barmy day out. Stay too long and you’ll go mad.
Seen any unusual and strange places on your travels? Leave a comment below and tell us about them!