As you might guess, I get asked this a lot.
Updated 29 May 2016
Weird, in my book, has three pre-requisites:
- It’s about weird places, not weird people, weird food, or weird cultural practices. People or food may well factor in, but I focus on places you can see, touch, and/or experience for yourself.
- It’s legal and safe to enter. Lest this sound like a no-brainer, a few of my more adventurous friends are urban explorers — the sort that hop fences and risk arrest to say they’ve been there or to get the picture. All respect to them, but that’s not really my style.
- There’s something to see / experience once you arrive. Ghost stories are fun and can be done well, but weird stuff needs to be more than a mind game.
After those three pre-requisites are met, most ‘weird’ places come down to one of three things:
- Necessity (the mother of invention, but it’s also a breeding ground for weirdness)
- An eccentric person (or group of people)
- Unusual religious beliefs or circumstances involving religions.
I’ll also be looking for the following:
A vivid story or history to a place. This is absolutely essential for place that lack or have few things to see (e.g. ghost house, old temple). Ideally the story is told in English somewhere on-site, but knowing the story before you go is fine as well.
Places that haven’t been kept up too well. They’re open, and there are staff around to give tickets or clean up, but perhaps it’s an older place with its own charm. Think deteriorating, not decrepit.
A museum, park, or statue honoring someone or something unusual (a park dedicated to heroic / faithful dogs, for example).
Combinations that don’t seem to make much sense when you first hear them (a temple where you learn martial arts from Buddhist monks, for example). As you can guess there’s history, a story or some kind of context to understand (Korean Buddhist monks helped citizens to fight against Japanese invasions in the late 16th century).
Places where something bizarre or iconic is made (a center that makes paper out of elephant poo is one example in northern Thailand). Bonus points if there’s some traditional or historic element to the story.
Places where sex, alcohol, or other vices / ‘sins’ take center stage (a park / beach full of artistic erotic sculptures retired from a life in museums). While I don’t typically set a hard-and-fast rule on what is or isn’t in good taste, the acid test is this: when you tell your friends about it, will they recoil and say ‘gross!’ or ask for more details?
Obscure or isolated places not found in the mainstream guidebooks (a Buddhist temple that displays thousands of buffalo skulls). In some cases they’re obscure for a good reason (they’re very difficult to reach, there’s not much to see once there, it’s only rarely open), but authors of guidebooks often miss some gems. Being difficult to reach or in the middle of nowhere isn’t a deal-breaker, though it still needs to be worth the effort.
Kitschy, exotic, or seemingly random collections of stuff (the World War II museum near the Kwai river bridge in Thailand that has pictures of former Miss Thailand’s, among many other random oddities). Large collections of weird stuff are also worth considering (the 10,000 plastic Buddhas at the Manbulsa temple in South Korea).
Places commemorated by the locals for something that happened or someone of notoriety (a South Korean island where prisoners were harshly trained to carry out an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il). As elsewhere, the story is important, especially if what there is to see is small or doesn’t take much time.
Plants, food, or animals displayed or collected in an unusual way (a museum dedicated to the local garlic industry, or a zoo that only has white deer) While this ends up being an area where everyone has different ideas on what’s best for the idea, places that are abusive or dangerous to animals should not be considered. A performance of a daredevil putting his hand in a crocodile’s mouth might be OK; a cockfighting ring or attraction that allows you to ride elephants is not.
Places with a mystery or aura about them (a temple with unusual, unique statues that historians have yet to decipher, despite excavations and studies.) There have to be some remains around, or something to see — a field where something happened centuries ago is not interesting. Telling the story is essential — the sense of mystery needs to come complete with a sense of what’s been done to solve it.
Places that claim a weird superlative or record of some kind. Sure, the world’s biggest ball of string fits, but I like to get creative, such as the world’s smallest chicken bowl. The first of its kind, the only, the last of its kind, the most, the least, the smallest, the biggest and so on. If it’s a Guinness World Record you can see or touch, it’s bound to be a possibility.