This February I celebrate 10 years of traveling and life on the road. To commemorate this milestone, I’ve come up with a series of Top 10 posts. These choices are based solely on my personal experience.
Top 10 man-made wonders
Many of us travel the world to see amazing man-made structures. Many of them are inspiring, giving us a glimpse into the past and/or into a culture. I must confess that I haven’t been to some of the most iconic wonders of the world, i.e. the Taj Mahal in India or the Potala Palace in Tibet. But I have been to many, so selecting only 10 is a tall order. My choices are based not only on how amazing they are, but also on the connection I had with the place and how inspiring they are.
10. Alhambra, Spain
The last Moorish stronghold in Europe, the Alhambra is part fortress and part palace. This medieval complex reflects the splendor of Moorish civilization and offers visitors splendid ornamental architecture, spectacular Islamic motifs, lush gardens, cascading and dripping water features, and breathtaking views of the city. But in order to fully appreciate the unique architecture of the Alhambra set within the surrounding landscape, it is advisable to see the Alhambra for afar as well as up close.
This is the only wonder on the list that I visited twice. This alone attests to the beauty and attractiveness of the Alhambra. Even though it is one of the most visited places in Spain, it is possible to find peace in there. This is in part thanks to the ingenious management of the place, as well as how the place is designed; the noise from the city can’t reach it and the soothing sound of running water has a calming effect. Not to mention that the beauty you see in there will stun you into silence.
There were a few passage ways that made me stopped and stared. The walls were covered with colorful intricate Muslim motifs while the ceilings had been changed to white with bold Roman designs. This juxtaposition was painful to look at. Looking at it, I couldn’t help but wondered was it possible to see the beauty in the unknown, the opposite?
Sitting on a terrace in the Albaizin quarter, the Alhambra in front of me with a snowy mountain backdrop, all I saw was beauty; beauty in the man-made structure, regardless of its history; beauty in the surrounding and the snowy mountain that hadn’t change, even when empires had come and gone.
9. Ephesus, Turkey
I first heard of Ephesus in Sunday school, it’s one of the book in the Bible. The city of Ephesus was once an important center for trade and religion; it’s believed that the Gospel of John was written here. But all that’s today are nothing but ruins.
I arrived in Ephesus after an unforgettable detour (read here under Turkey). When I was exploring the ruins of Ephesus I was still brimming with positive energy and happiness, so the excessive number of tourists didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the place. It was a 1km walk to the entrance of Ephesus and just as I was a few hundred meters from it, a motorcycle stopped and asked me to hop on. Though it was a short distance, I was grateful to the tough looking young man for his gesture; and I’m sure he felt good too. For I believe that the rewards for any kindness shown are twofold: the giver and the receiver both receive positive energy.
The whole area is quite huge but I spent the bulk of my time there at the Great Theater (the biggest Roman theatre I’ve ever seen in my life) and the Library of Celsus. What’s so rewarding about being there was remembering all the stories about St. Paul and the early Christians I learned Sunday school. It was a past my personality and characters were built on. Even though today I might not be as religious as I once was, the good values taught to me then made me who I am today. Sometimes it’s good to remember the past, where we come from, so that we can appreciate where we are in the present.
8. The Great Wall of China
The only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon, the Great Wall of China is a testament to human ingenuity and willpower. It’s also a testament to human cruelty and one man’s power over their subjects.
I remember watching a TV series about the Qin Shi Huang building the Great Wall, and many other historical TV series where the Great Wall was featured. So this is one monument where I know all its history long before I went there.
The Great Wall of China spanned over 8,000km during the Ming dynasty. Today, many sections of the wall are either in ruins or gone. The ones that are opened to visitors are mostly restored sections of the Wall. The easiest to get to is Badaling; it’s also the most touristy with a constant flow of Chinese tour buses. Mutianyu is less touristy and featured more international visitors. However if you make the effort to go to Simatai and Jinshanling, you will be rewarded to have the place almost to yourself.
Standing on the Wall and looking at it as it snakes out to the rolling hills and mountains, I saw the history of China played out in my head, like a movie; it was a long and violent movie. As I descended from the Wall, I felt contented: firstly because I finally fulfilled one of my childhood dreams, seeing the Great Wall of China; secondly because I had made peace with my Chinese heritage.
7. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The oldest of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one that remains, the Pyramid of Giza is a symbol of a once flourished culture and developed nation. There are 3 pyramids in the Giza Necropolis, including the Sphinx.
There were some challenges getting to the entrance of the complex. The taxi we took from the metro station brought us to a travel agency trying to sell us camel rides in the desert, and the taxi driver wanted to charge us more to take us to the entrance. So we decided to just walk it. 20 minutes later, we were at the entrance for tour groups. We saw the opportunity to get in without paying by pretending we were with a tour group, and so we did. So what started as an unpleasant event led to something good.
I remember how filled with emotion I was when I first laid eyes on the pyramids. All my childhood fantasies of the pyramids were brought alive in front of my eyes. They are as large as my imagination allows, maybe even grander seeing them in real life. But the Sphinx is much smaller than expected.
It was quite unnerving being in the presence of something that predates anything I had known up till then. It also showcases the indomitability of time; no men, no matter how powerful or clever could escape time. Even these Great pyramids are slowing crumbling to dust.
6. Abu Simbel, Egypt
The Abu Simbel temples are 2 massive rock temples carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century B.C. These temples are what you expect of Egypt. There are huge statues of Pharaohs, massive columns, and most importantly, the walls inside are carved with hieroglyphics. Some of them still have their colors on.
Wandering through the maze-like interior of the temples, I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine, and was transported back to the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The whole experience was incredibly surreal. Some passages were dimly lit to protect the hieroglyphics on the walls; I couldn’t help but prepared myself to see a mummy coming at me. I do have a very vivid imagination.
I was actually sick the day I visited the temples, so when I exhausted all my energy, I sat on the bank of the Nile River, contemplating how these statues had sat watching the expansive desert. Oh wait! Actually these temples were relocated here in 1968 from its original location, to prevent them from being submerged under water with the creation of a dam on the Nile River. Does this make them less authentic? If you understand how huge the project was and then look at the final result, I don’t think anyone would ever feel cheated.
I definitely liked the Abu Simbel temples more than the iconic Pyramids of Giza (that’s why it’s higher on the list). While the Pyramids are best admired from a distance, the Abu Simbel temples lured you in. Once inside, they whisper their stories and secrets to you.
5. Sagrada Familia, Spain
Situated right in the heart of Barcelona, this is the only ‘modern’ structure on this list. The construction of this impressive Catholic Church began in 1882, and everything was going well until the untimely death of Antoni Gaudi, the soul of this project. His vision and creativity set this church apart from any other churches in the world. Progress has been slowly due to a number of reasons, one of it was that Guadi didn’t leave any complete blueprint of his vision behind, everything was in his head. Looking at the mammoth building, it is visible the new parts pale in comparison to the older part, built during Gaudi’s time.
Nevertheless, it is one sight to thrill and excite any architecture buffs and to convert non-believers to god. Some would describe seeing the Sagrada Familia a religious experience. Gaudi used the outer façades to tell biblical stories; depicted the birth, passion and resurrection of Christ.
Personally, there were too many tourists the day I went for me to have any kind of religious experience. It’s an impressive building, no argument there. Even though I saw it in 2004, I’m still awestruck just thinking about it, or looking at my photos of it. One thing I really admire about Gaudi is that he wasn’t limited by the conventional rules. He could think out of the box, transcended the ways things were supposed to be done and created his own style. Truly inspirational!
That night back in the hostel, the Hungarian girl who also went to see the Sagrada Familia told us she found god, “and his name is Guadi.” I couldn’t agree more.
4. Bagan, Myanmar
It was estimated that over 10,000 temples, stupas (aka pagodas), and monasteries once stood in this 42 square km plain of Bagan, of that about 2,000 are left standing today. These temples and stupas have stood through centuries of trials by the elements; and they have aged gracefully.
The fame of Bagan cannot rival that of Angkor in Cambodia (yet) but its beauty and the energy of the place is on par with that of Angkor. Both are breathtakingly and hauntingly beautiful.
The temples of Bagan are like an ensemble: most might not be impressive on their own, but together they will take your breath away. I remember the first day I climbed a pagoda to see the plain with countless spires and peeking out from a sea of green, as if playing hike and seek, I was awestruck; I was speechless looking this beauty before my eyes. I had never seen anything quite like this in my years of traveling.
I loved sitting on top of a stupa to watch the sunset. It was as if watching a makeup artist showing of his/her skill with different hues of yellow, orange and red. While the temples and stupas sit frozen like obedient customers, waiting for the artist to transform them. Magical!
On one contemplative moment meditating atop an abandoned temple, I saw that these time-worn temples were not only a symbol to a religion they were also the testimony to the impermanence of all things.
3. Angkor, Cambodia
Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries. It has been capturing the imagination of travelers, artists, and scholars for generations. Nestled amidst forests and rice fields, it was once voted as the most spiritual places on earth.
Stretching over an area of 400 square km, there are over 1,000 temples in the Angkor Archeological Park. The famous ones are: Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest religious monument; Ta Prohm, aka Lara Croft temple; and my personal favorite Bayon.
It will take at least a week to see all the temples. But, trust me, you’ll be ‘templed out’ after 3 days; there’re only so many temples you can visit without going numb. I didn’t squeeze in as many temples as most people would; preferring to spend my last day going back to those temples I liked most and spending quality time with them.
I loved being alone in these temples, to feel the energy of the place. And if I was still and quiet enough, I could hear them speak to me; through the laughter of the local children that echoed through the passage ways, the rustling of the leaves in the wind. One of my favorite moments is watching the thousand faces of Bayon came alive when the glow and warm of the rising sun hit them. There were nobody around (everyone was watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat), and I felt that that was a private show Bayon put on just for me.
That last day, I stopped many times along the way to seek shelter from the rain. At each place I was greeted warmly by the people, who offered me chair, drinks, fruits, etc. Their generosity humbled me. It’s often those that don’t have much that give the most.
2. Petra, Jordan
The capital of the Nabataean kingdom during the 6th B.C., Petra is famous for its rock-cut architecture. Praised in countless poems and featured in many Hollywood films, this is on the bucket list of many people. The whole area of Petra is over 700 square km, and it’s easy to spend 2-3 wondering and hiking around.
I first saw Petra on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and ever since then it had been a dream to go there. The most dramatic way to enter Petra is walk along the narrow siq, the dim, narrow gorge winds its way for over 1km, and then open up abruptly in front of the stunning Treasury; like a small child suddenly found himself/herself right in front of a towering giant.
I was rendered speechless and breathless before something so iconic. You know sometimes you build something up with such high expectations in your head that you are often let down by the real thing? That’s NOT the case with Petra. It far exceeded my expectations coated with a thick layer of childhood fantasy. For 2 days I wandered the whole of Petra, like a child in a candy store.
On my last day, as my companion and I reached the Treasury to exit through the siq, we decided to climb the cliff facing the Treasury, even though it was against the rule. We scrambled up using our hands and feet to a small flat area, almost as high as the roof of the Treasury. From there we saw the monument from a different perspective; suddenly it didn’t look as imposing as looking it from the ground, it actually looked welcoming, like a home. We need to break out of the box to see things in different light, and sometimes we could see beauty in a difficult situation.
1. Machu Picchu
An ancient Inca citadel set in a beautiful plateau at 2,400m, Machu Picchu has lured visitor far and wide ever since its discovery was made known to the outside world in 1911. Even though many archeological excavations have been carried out, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding this “Lost City of the Incas”. i.e. why the Incas abandoned it suddenly? Even the functions of the stone temples were educated guesses as there were no documents found on the site to enlighten us.
I sat on the grass damped with dew. My heart as heavy as my breathing: the impenetrable white mist obscured the very thing I went on a long and exhausting journey to see. Then as if the Inca gods heard my cry and sent a light breeze. Slowly the sea of whiteness dispersed unveiling the most magical sight I’d ever set eyes on: Machu Picchu.
Of all the man-made wonders in the world, this is by far the one that I wanted to see the most. My imagination craved for it, my heart yearned for it, and all my being wanted to embrace it. So you could understand the tears that welled up in my eyes, and later the lightness of my steps as I strolled through the stone houses and terraced landscape. I even climbed up to Huayna Picchu to have the bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu. No matter where or how you look at it, it will take your breath away.
After midday, I decided to leave. By then I had been soaking in the views and exploring the area for almost 5 hours. I felt the urge to stay, to linger on at this marvelous place, and hold on to this amazing moment. But I realized that this place didn’t belong to me, and there was no way for me to hold on to this moment. Sometimes letting go is the only way to contentment. So with a contented heart, I took one last look at this spiritual place, waved goodbye and descended back to reality.