Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: why some sights require a journey of the mind

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay says some ancient sites demand more of a traveller's imagination than others.

You might think that the glazed look on the faces of visitors to Stonehenge signified them pondering the mysteries of Neolithic life. Perhaps. But in a few cases, it probably reflects a thought closer to: am I in the right place? Truth be told, this enigmatic circle of stones on Salisbury Plain is a prime example of how some sights on Lonely Planet’s ultimate travel list demand more of a visitor than others. In this case, it's a leap of the imagination.

However heretical it might sound to say this about one of England's most recognisable (not to mention most visited) icons, it's a touch underwhelming at first glance – a glance taken from a car or bus on the traffic-choked A303. That road detracts from the impact of Stonehenge (although it could be worse – at least a carpet of grass hides the old A344, which used to pass within a few yards of the circle), but it isn't the only problem. The largest sarsen stone weighs 30 tonnes, yet overall the site is smaller than you might expect; and, unless you organise access beforehand (or, perhaps, go elbow to elbow with a tie-dyed New Age druid during a solstice), you can't get into the circle itself.

Dig deep for insight

If you left it at that – a quick walk-by of the circle – you might come away from the experience feeling that the country's premier archaeological site (a place that has attracted pilgrims, poets and philosophers for five millennia, remember) is, whisper it quietly, a bit of a damp squib. But you'd have missed the point. To appreciate Stonehenge, you need to spend time in the £27m visitor centre a mile and half down the road.

Yes, it entertains (you can stand in a 360-degree projection of the circle through the ages and seasons), but more importantly, it offers insight. The visible remains of Stonehenge might prompt a shrug of the shoulders, but surely not the revelation that it forms the centrepiece of a complex spreading out for miles beneath the plain, nor the knowledge that some of the stones came from 250km away in Wales by means unknown. Context is all.

Stonehenge © William Toti / 500px Stonehenge: smaller in real life? © William Toti / 500px

Forewarned is forearmed

A few decades after Stonehenge's builders had hauled their materials into position, Pharaoh Khufu oversaw the similarly mysterious construction of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. No one can say that scale is a disappointment there, given that the Great Pyramid held the title of world's tallest building for 3,800 years. And yet the Pyramids rank only 25th on Lonely Planet’s list. Why?

If Stonehenge exemplifies what we might call the 'read up beforehand to avoid anticlimax' syndrome, the Pyramids are a model of how some attractions suffer from their own popularity, particularly if you travel in ignorance of what to expect. Woe betide the visitor who imagines they'll find a quiet spot to savour this, the last intact Wonder of the Ancient World; even if you could somehow shake off your fellow tourists, the hawkers have other ideas, and they'll pursue you with the tenacity of a fly homing in on a camel’s backside.

Exercise your mind

The hard sell, of course, just goes with the territory for many of the planet’s mega attractions, as does the presence of enormous, energy-sapping crowds. They don't come any more mega than the temples of Angkor, which sits at the pinnacle of the list. It has its fair share of sleeve-plucking frustration, too, and watching the sun rise over the world's largest religious monument loses a little magic when the dawn chorus is drowned out by the clicking of a thousand camera shutters.

Angkor manages to overcome these hurdles to enjoyment through sheer scale – with more than a 1000 temples in varying states of dilapidation across 400 sq km of Cambodia, there is a real possibility of escape for a traveller willing to step off the most well-trodden tracks. But just as with Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and many other attractions on the list, you’ll need to exercise your mind as well as your sense of adventure to appreciate the splendour of these scattered ruins.