Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Feb. 20 2015 8:30 AM

The Beer Bottle Temple of Thailand

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In 1984, one monk and his acolytes had grown tired of the mounting litter in the Sisaket area of Thailand near the Cambodian border. To promote recycling and the cleaning of the landscape, the monks encouraged everyone in the area to bring them recycled beer bottles that would be used to build a temple complex. The result was Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew: the Million Bottle Temple.

Using mostly green Heineken and brown Chang (the local favorite) beer bottles, the monks began with a temple and later formed a crematorium, water towers, sleeping quarters and even toilets. Pushed into the concrete of the walls, the recycled bottles—around 1.5 million of them—form every detail of the buildings, inside and out. Aside from whole bottles, the monks also incorporated bottle caps to create mosaics and Buddhist designs inside of the temple.

Other eye-catching temples around the world:

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Feb. 18 2015 8:30 AM

Livraria Lello, Portugal’s Most Beautiful Bookstore

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When you first enter Porto's Livraria Lello, you might think that you've stumbled into a church instead of a bookstore.

Its Neo-Gothic façade hides a beautiful Art Nouveau interior, with a stained glass ceiling, carved wood paneling, and a breathtaking, curvaceous staircase that stretches across the store. 

The building was designed by Portuguese architect Xavier Esteves. Over the windows can be seen figures painted by José Bielman, representing "Science" and "Art." Along with a stained glass window bearing a monogram of "Lello and Brother" with their motto Decus in Labore ("Honor in Work"), are plant motifs and geometric shapes.

Opened in 1906, Livraria Lello has certainly aged well over the years. It is consistently named one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Other bewitching bookstores around the globe:

Feb. 16 2015 8:35 AM

A Swiss Bridge Built for the Daring Adventurer

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Stretching over an arm of Lake Triftsee (itself a product of the Trift glacier), hidden among the high Swiss Alps, the Trift Bridge is a thin modern suspension bridge that looks like it could blow over with one stray wind, but is in fact quite safe. 

Originally built in 2004, the bridge was replaced in 2009. The first bridge was constructed to allow workers from the Trift hydroelectric plant to access a power plant that was built below the glacier to collect and use the run off. A few short years after the original bridge was built, the second, sturdier model was hung across the wide ravine and the site was opened to the public.

Currently the bridge spans a vertigo-inducing 560-foot gap in the mountains, suspended over 300 feet from the valley floor. Unlike some of its more primitive inspirations, the Trift bridge is made of thick steel cables over which wooden planks have been bolted. Despite the modern construction it still looks like a death trap.  

While the bridge itself is an impressive site to visit, the journey there is harrowing in and of itself. You'll need to take a cable car, which also rises high above the ground.

Other breathtaking bridges:

Feb. 13 2015 10:26 AM

Forbidden Corner: Garden of the Odd and Unexpected

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Within Tupgill Park in North Yorkshire, England, is a garden full of grottoes, tunnels and mazes that bills itself as the strangest place in the world. 

Built during the ’80s and ’90s, the Forbidden Corner has faces in its grotto walls, arms sticking out from beneath building eaves, and a stone knight in armor holding his own severed leg aloft. A giant ax sticks out of the ground and a horse’s head peers over one of the stone walls. Nothing quite makes sense, and there is no central motif beyond oddness.

Though initially intended as a private garden, the Forbidden Corner opened to all in in 1994 in response to demands from the curious public. Visitors do not receive a map, but are instead given a checklist of things to look out for, including a tree spirit, a temple leading to the underworld, and a giant skull.

The Forbidden Corner opens for the 2015 season on March 28. Admission is by prepurchased ticket only.

Other gardens that confound and delight:

Feb. 11 2015 10:04 AM

Grave Cages and Medical Murder: The Body-Snatching Era in Scotland

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Amid the cracked, moss-covered gravestones of Greyfriars Kirkyard, an Edinburgh church cemetery established in the mid-16th century, sit two large iron cages. Each covers a grave, and each is secured with a chain and padlock. These cages are known as mortsafes, and they were installed in the early 19th century to deter resurrectionists—otherwise known as body snatchers.

As the field of anatomy developed in the 1820s, British medical schools needed corpses to dissect. Because most people believed that dissection damned a dead person’s soul, cadavers were in scarce supply. Anatomists used the bodies of executed criminals, but this source also dried up after a parliamentary act reduced mandatory death penalties.

So scarce were cadavers that a thriving trade in illicit bodies emerged. Grave robbers, or “resurrection men,” would dig up recently buried bodies in the dead of night and sell them to doctors willing to look the other way. To two Edinburgh men in particular, the grave exhumation seemed a superfluous step. Why dig up a corpse, they wondered, when you could generate your own?

William Burke and William Hare began supplying fresh bodies after a man at Hare’s lodging house died of natural causes in 1827. Seeking a way to be reimbursed for the 4-pound rent the man owed, the duo took the corpse to Edinburgh University, where Dr. Robert Knox purchased it for £7.10s.

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A mortsafe at Greyfriars.

Photo: Postdlf/Creative Commons

Having scored a princely sum with no questions asked, Burke and Hare were emboldened to step up their efforts. They began to prey on elderly, stray, and desperate people, on the assumption that they wouldn’t be missed. The pair developed a routine: They would invite their victims to the boarding house, ply them with whiskey, suffocate them, and deliver their bodies to Dr. Knox in an old herring barrel or tea chest.

As the pace of the murders quickened and the desire for money increased, Burke and Hare became increasingly careless. After murdering an elderly woman and her deaf grandson in a particularly brutal manner—Hare stretched the young boy over his knee and broke his back as the old woman looked on—the men targeted a well-loved, intellectually disabled 18-year-old named James Wilson. When “Daft Jamie,” as the locals called him, turned up on the autopsy table, several students recognized him. The jig was up.

The lack of compassion the men showed their victims extended to their treatment of one another. Due to a shortage of evidence, the court offered Hare immunity if he confessed and testified against Burke. He readily agreed, and Burke was sentenced to death, hanged, and, in an appropriate act of revenge, publicly dissected at Edinburgh University. Burke’s death mask, a printed description of his execution from 1829, and a book made from his skin are on display at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. 

Following the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which made it legal for anatomists to obtain unclaimed corpses, body snatching became a much less pressing concern in Scotland. That said, you can still see remnants of the resurrectionist era: In addition to the mortsafes at Greyfriars, grave cages remain at Logierait kirkyard in Atholl and Cluny kirkyard in Aberdeenshire.

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Mortsafes at Cluny kirkyard.

Photo: Martyn Gorman/Creative Commons

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Mortsafes at Logierait.

Photo: Martyn Gorman/Creative Commons

More on body snatching and grave robbing:

Feb. 10 2015 10:35 AM

The Cave Church of Garbage City

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Large Christian communities are not abundant in Muslim-dominated Egypt. One of the more populous groups is the garbage-scavenging Zabbaleen, who have retained their Coptic beliefs and established the largest Christian church in the Middle East at the Monastery of St. Simon.

The Zabbaleen (meaning literally “garbage people”) village at the base of the Mokattam cliffs began around 1969 when the Cairo governor decided to move all of the garbage collectors to a single settlement. The garbage collectors were largely Coptic Christians, and as their numbers continued to grow over the years the need for a centralized church began to grow. In 1975 the first Christian church was built in the village, but after a large fire broke out nearby, work began on a monastery that was built right into the cliffside. 

The Monastery of St. Simon was the result of this new project. Simon the Tanner was a craftsman who lived during the 10th century, and the cave church that was dedicated to him seems as though it might last for 10 more. Using a pre-existing cave and the slope that led into it, the current monastery seats 20,000 people around a central pulpit. Other nearby caves have also been built into separate church spaces, and all of them have been linked to create a massive Christian complex in the heart of garbage city.

Since tourism through the scavenger’s village is not a thriving industry, reaching the Monastery of St. Simon is no small feat, yet as the largest Christian church within a handful of countries, hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage each year.    

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Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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An Egyptian girl runs up the stands ahead of a service.

Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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Egyptian Copts attended a Mass celebration in the cave church on December 13, 2012, where they prayed for Egypt ahead of the disputed referendum on the new draft Constitution.

Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Other churches tucked away in caves:

Feb. 9 2015 9:35 AM

The Ransacked Mummies of Chauchilla Cemetery

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Since 1997, Peruvian law has protected the haunting Chauchilla Cemetery, a Nazca burial ground where mummified corpses were laid to rest until the ninth century. Prior to 1997, it was ravaged mercilessly by Peruvian grave robbers. For many of these ancient corpses, it was the second time they lost their heads. 

Scattered among the many full-bodied mummies at Chauchilla Cemetery are a number of mummified heads. Many of the heads have been specially prepared with holes drilled into the backs of their skulls, and in some cases rope has been threaded through the mummified head. This is possibly so they could be worn as a necklace or as a jaunty charm hanging off of a belt. Though originally believed to be "trophy heads" taken in battles, recent evidence shows that the heads actually came from the same population as the rest of the mummies, suggesting the heads may not have been taken in battle after all. The exact nature and use of the heads remains distinctly unclear. 

Despite the fact that the burial grounds have not been utilized since the ninth century, the human remains are astoundingly well-preserved. The Peruvian Desert's dry climate is of course a factor in the preservation, but burial practices also contributed to the condition of many of the corpses, some still hanging on to their hair and skin over 1200 years after their demise.

Clothed in cotton and painted with resin, the deceased were placed in mud-bricked tombs. Wooden posts that were once assigned by archeologists to the category of religious use are now thought to be drying posts for the dead, which would explain the added step needed for such an impressive example of mummification.

Discovered in the 1920s, the remains and artifacts were spread across the area, picked over by nefarious pilferers. The burial ground has been restored to as close to its original state as possible, with the bones, bodies, heads, and artifacts either returned to tombs or showcased in displays.

Other unusual cemeteries around the world:

Feb. 6 2015 1:21 PM

The Abandoned Power Plant of Charleroi, Belgium

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In a small neighborhood known as Monceau-sur-Sambre, within the Belgian town of Charleroi, sits an abandoned power station. Its magnificent cooling tower still looms over the town no longer creating electricity, but providing plenty of dystopian vistas.

Power Plant IM was originally built in 1921. When it was finished, it was one of the largest coal burning power plants in Belgium. Water would be let into the cooling tower, where it would be cooled by the wind that swept in from portals in the base of the tower, releasing billowing columns of hot air. By 1977, the power plant and its massive tower was the main source of energy in the Charleroi area and is said to have been able to cool down 480,000 gallons of water per minute. During the 1970s, new components were even added to the power plant that could also use gas power. However, the power plant's days in the sun were numbered.

Following years of service, a report found that Power Plant IM was responsible for 10 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions in Belgium. Due to this, protests from Greenpeace in 2006 gave the power plant a lot of negative attention and it closed in 2007.

After it was closed down, there were reports of looting by metal scrappers. Today security guards are often posted on site—a fact that has not deterred many an urban explorer from investigating the cooling tower's moss-coated innards.

Other abandoned power plants to explore:

Feb. 5 2015 1:38 PM

Little Boy Zero: The Swine Flu Statue of Mexico

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Located 120 miles east of Mexico City, the tiny town of La Gloria—population 2,300—is home to a bronze statue of a little boy named Edgar Hernandez. Standing four-foot-three and clad in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers, the statue holds a frog in its right hand. This frog, symbolizing one of the seven deadly plagues, also represents swine flu—Hernandez was four when he survived the earliest documented case of H1N1 in April 2009.

Guided by the belief that La Gloria's swine flu fame could bring a tourism boom, then Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera Beltran unveiled the statue in August 2009—at the height of the global pandemic that killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide in a year, according to the CDC. The bronza figure is modeled after Belgium's inexplicably popular urinating toddler statue, Manneken Pis. There's a reason for the resemblance—according to Beltran, Hernandez's recovery from swine flu caused people to believe his urine had healing powers, and the boy would often be followed to the bathroom.

Thus far, La Gloria's H1N1 statue has not generated a steady stream of swine flu tourists.

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Edgar Hernandez in April 2010.

Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Other double-take-inducing statues and sculptures:

Feb. 4 2015 11:14 AM

The Gurgling Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Half of the world’s 700 mud volcanoes—oozing, gurgling mounds of once-subterranean sludge and methane—are located in Azerbaijan, concentrated around Gobustan National Park along the coast of the Caspian Sea.

Unlike lava-spewing igneous volcanoes or the whiffy bubbling mud of Rotorua, the contents of Gobustan’s mud domes are cold. Their main danger is in their unpredictability—a buildup of pressurized gas in the cone can be released without warning, causing possible asphyxiation, triggering a jet of fire, and drawing a torrent of fast-flowing mud from the volcano.

In 2001 gas seepage caused a mud volcano near Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku to explode. The mound shot flames hundreds of feet into the air, burned for three days, and filled the sky with mud and black smoke.

If you’re pondering a visit to the gurgly hills of Gobustan, make sure to also see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed rock art in the area, which dates back tens of thousands of years.

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Ancient rock art in Gobustan.

Photo: Azeri/Creative Commons

More mud in which to wallow:

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