I’m a city boy. I’ve never had a backyard or a driveway. I have probably spent more time in trains and buses than cars in my lifetime. I had never seen a Wal-Mart until I was 25.
Thus I feel compelled and qualify to judge the multitude of cities I visited on my journey. I tried to keep the cutoff around a million people, but in India and China, they have one million people in your average rest area. So no real criteria exists for what and what does not make the list. Sorry Melaka, Cochin, Lijiang and Luang Prabang.
From the moment you fly in over a polluted bay and shanty towns, the capital of the Philippines makes Detroit look like Valhalla. Horrific traffic doesn’t help, with 11 million people and mostly two lane roads, you’ll mostly view Manila through a taxi cab window. This is partially because nobody wants to go outside since the city isn’t safe. A lack of any sort of reasonable policing authority means every 7-11 or chicken shack you enter has its own security guard equipped with a 12 gauge shotgun.
A walk around Manila’s streets at night find a bunch of seedy folks looking for underage Filipina prostitutes as well as families of four sleeping on the street. My common reaction was to immediately turn back to the comfort of my middling hotel room. Hey maybe I was pussying out a bit, but I blame the city: it’s an urban disaster, with an exploding population and you wonder how in the hell it will ever get better.
Not as unsafe or nearly as populated as Manila, but still a polluted nightmare. Unlike Manila, the people are extremely friendly. Even if most of your interactions are with moto dopes or tuk-tuk drivers hounding you for business, they do so with just the right combination of laid-back pushiness so that you don’t take offense. Still there’s something weird about a people pimping their own horrid history for a few bucks, as the consistent calls of “tuk-tuk to Killing Fields?” grate on you after a while. Do Poles drive around hawking Auschwitz tours? Probably not.
But really it’s the garbage condems Phnom Penh to shitholedom: when you have a noticably worse trash problem than India, something is horribly, horribly wrong. Now I know this is because Cambodia’s government are corrupt crooks and I don’t want to blame the aforementioned and quite lovely population, but garbage is garbage.
Just to show I’m not being biased, the home city of my girlfriend’s family can compete with any non war-zone on the shithole meter. While there is plenty of garbage and cow shit on the side of the street (no sidewalks here!) the lack of functional traffic lights is Hyderbad’s claim to shithole fame. While there’s something enthralling about taking your life into your own hands every time you cross the street for the first 12 hours or so, it’s a fleeting feeling. Fear soon takes over.
More then anywhere, Hyderabad is a testament to the failure of India to manage its own development. An increase in wealth has led to a massive increase in vehicles, while population and particularly urban population continues to rise. But there’s absolutely no concurrent investment in public infrastructure to support the increase in population, or at least nowhere near the necessary levels. No highways, or public transportation. No public education movement to teach people that cows probably need to be in fields in a modern metropolis. So India remains stuck, with part of its populace trying to maintain the quaint urban life of their youth while millions more try to zoom around town in the 21st century. The results aren’t pretty.
Don’t Make A Wrong Turn
Shares most of the traffic and logistical problems of Hyderabad. Actually, it might be a little worse, since it’s firmly on the Indian tourist circuit meaning you have a whole host of people trying to rip you off, whereas no one goes to Hyderabad. Admiteddly, some of the tourist areas, particularly the Amber Fort high up in the hills are spectacular. This means little when you are stuck in a taxi, looking for your hotel, and you keep driving around the same rotary because your driver is lost and there’s too much traffic to get out of said rotary. Side note: The weather in Jaipur hits 55 degrees Centigrade in the hot season, so it may vacillate into shithole status.
In Delhi we went baller status for the one time on my trip, staying at the Taj Mahal hotel, located in the same residential where many powerful goverment officials lived. Wide streets and boulevards gave the appearence of what clean beautiful city should look like. Your average government official lived in a nice mansion with a gate, walls and security guard. The sidewalks outside were lined with birdshit, and clearly hadn’t been cleaned since the last monsoon. The message was simple: I’m not going to waste my time worrying about public spaces, even though that’s kind of my job, when I’m already getting mine.
Zoom over to Old Delhi and you see where the cities’16 million people actually live. On the street. Slammed into crowded boulevards where sidewalk is indistiguishable from lanes. A pickpocket’s wet dream. There’s something a little more invigorating about it than other Indian cities-maybe the fact that it’s the centre of India adds a little pride and pizzaz to the local population. But without a substantial bankroll or being part of the Nehru/Gandhi axis, it seems like it’d be difficult to survive long-term.
The second city of the Philippines is much more manageable and friendly than Manila. Still there’s a few too many prostitutues and shady streetside characters to consider calling it home.
Souless Mall Cities
I love hot weather, and I spent plenty of time in South India, Malaysia, Cambodia, all hot lowlands with oppressive humidity. Singapore takes it to another level though. I don’t know if its the urban setting or some sort of effect caused by being at the tip of the Malay pennisula (so that Singapore is affected by both the East Coast and West Coast monsoons. Basically its always rainy season.) But it was fucking humid. And the entire city appears to be built around avoiding that humidity. People walk outside for 15-30 minutes, then drenched in sweat escape into air conditioned malls or shopping centres. You’ll find many more people inside than outside, either at the aforementioned malls, or at one of the weirdo attractions that Singapore has built like Sentosa theme park or the Cable Car to Nowhere.
Plenty of people seem to like living here. But the combination of humidity and uniform thought pushed by a dictatorial government leaves something to be desired. Definitely a disappointment, although I’m willing to give it a longer look.
Its a Nice Place, but I Wouldn’t Want to Live Here
First the food. I’ll get more into this later, but let’s just agree that Sichuan has the best food in the world, and that’s that. If you live in Chengdu, you’ll eat like a king.
The place is also delightfully Chinese in a way Beijing and Hong Kong aren’t. I mean Beijing is China in many ways, but Chengdu is the Dirty Dirty South China. Just like Midwesterners and Southerners like to call their homes “real America,” you could imagine people from Chengdu calling their city “Real China.”
Of course part of what this implies is that the aforementioned “real” areas are shittier than their more famous counterparts like California or Beijing/Shanghai, so the populace has to create some sort of reason why the obviously shittier area is actually better. And of course in reality, they aren’t. Chengdu has all the pollution, traffic and weird smells of Beijing without the amazing public transportation system, history, quaint hutongs or world-class tourist sites. Plus there’s no central heating, even though winter temps easily drop to freezing.
This means you can’t do much other than eat and watch Sichuan people do crazy stuff. Which luckily, they do all the time. For example, my brother, his friend and I got a few snacks and watched a pickup soccer game one afternoon. To our great delighit, the soccer game devolved into an all-out brawl as several Sichuan alpha males tried to show who had the most face. A particularly fat guy tried to decapitate an opposing player with a dustpan, followed by both teams chasing said player around the field and kicking him on the ground. Then just like that, it was over. Phenomenal.
I’ve already declared Bangkok a wandering eater’s paradise, but it’s not without downsides. The traffic is horrific, and getting around the city would definitely grate on you after an extended period of living there. Additionally the city is prone to things like floods and riots which could put a bit of a damper on your Tuesday commute.
Still for visitation, Bangkok is a must. Along with the food, there’s plenty of Buddhist temples, shopping and partying at affordable prices to satisfy any traveller. You probably don’t need more than four or five days to get your fix, but it’s definitely a place you could come back to time and again.
Stay tuned for Part 2!