In the space of a week, I found myself immersed in (and as always) eagerly trying to absorb the cultures of three very different Asian cities….Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila.
I still pinch myself and wonder how it is, I ended up roaming amongst the madness of these mighty metropolises.
At first glance, each share a generic constitution, brandishing that dynamic energy and exotic makeup that is typically Asian.
Get close enough though and you’ll see cities that showcase multiple personalities on all fronts – rich in their own culture, each full of hidden gems and distinctively amazing food.
Maybe that’s what really makes them typically part of Asia – the world’s largest and most populous continent – home to 4.3 billion people and hosting 60 per cent of the world’s population….these are three cities in Asia forever evolving.
What you first see is not always what you get.
For me, these are places full of untapped adventure, eye-opening customs and intoxicating lifestyles and each possess a uniqueness that makes it a Pearl of the Orient in its own right.
Bangkok, The City of Angels
It was my first time in Bangkok and I was keen to experience the culture this ‘City of Angels’ had to offer. With a population pushing 11-million the Thai capital is reputed to be equally as colorful and quirky as Hong Kong, but with a slightly edgier and little less sophisticated side than the Fragrant Harbour.
A quick two hour, fifty flight away, it was a mini holiday to this tropical hub, with my husband and our small person in tow. (Ok – really who am I kidding? No flight with a toddler is ever ‘quick’ is it!)
But, fortunately for us, this meant with hotelier friends in the ‘know,’ we were staying in five-star style. Met off the plane (literally) and escorted through the airport and the VIP immigration gate at a rate faster than a Grand Prix winner, bundled into a hotel car (not quite of Grand Prix proportions) before I could blink, we were headed directly into the heart of the Land of Smiles.
Now, I’m used to a pretty tight squeeze on the roads in Hong Kong, but it usually involves a swarm of iconic red taxis all fighting for space, criss-crossing in and out of each other’s paths, all with less than a centimetre to spare. It’s chaotic but generally, feels like well organized chaos. (And surprisingly there are very few road accidents.)
But Bangkok! Bangkok is a different league of traffic chaos altogether, it’s not organized, it’s noisy and it’s manic. Giant tourist coaches, busses, cars and taxis go head to head with tiny Tuk Tuks, scooters and the very brave on foot – attempting to push cart loads of goods through the middle of the traffic jams. Everyone is competing for a spot on the tightly congested roads, with little care for anyone or any thing who gets in their way.
So as we made our way through what can only be described as a ‘mishmash of humanity in all its glory,’ I desperately tried to soak up every piece of this patch-worked pandemonium, which at first glance felt like driving through a giant version of steamy island neighbor Phuket (minus those azure blue beaches to give it that tropical-holiday feel). I smiled as I spotted the ubiquitous and bizarrely named ‘Cabbages and Condoms’ chain. Yep, we’re in Thailand!
As we passed pretty sizable, shiny shopping centres, all boasting the big luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci, I thought of Hong Kong – then there were those globally recognized franchises like Maccas and Starbucks — which well, make you think of everywhere.
Then, juxtaposing these big names in complete contrast, row after row of street food stalls and colorful markets, literally ‘open for business’ on every spare patch of footpath, selling everything imaginable.
While there’s no doubt it’s this diverse in Hong Kong, markets and street food stalls tend to be confined to their specific spots across the city.
So, after the traffic frenzy and market mayhem, my immediate thought was the lack of skyscrapers in this busy downtown district – but (there’s a but) I’m starting to realize, after living amongst the world’s skyscraper capital for a decent period of time, no city, except perhaps New York, will ever seem quite as dense or concentrated – citified!
But scratch beneath the surface of Bangkok just a little, and it’s soon apparent that this is a city with a savvy and stylish scene of its own. Teeming with more Five Star sanctuaries than the average island paradise, you’ll be spoilt for luxury choice….day spas, infinity pools and rooftop bars proudly overlook the Bangkok hustle and bustle, that stretches out before them.
There are two sides to every city.
In scenes not dissimilar to the rest of Asian society, it’s a place where two worlds collide and extreme poverty is interspersed with overt wealth.
Graceful temples stand proud, gleaming with glistening gold-tipped spires, while beggars prey on tourists just outside, desperate for a handout.…not unlike a scene I saw today at Hong Kong’s busiest markets. A spot overflowing with tourists, a disfigured beggar sitting in the middle of the path, shaking his money tin, while people literally tripped over him to get by.
It’s a sad fact of life in most parts of the world and we were quickly reminded, no city is immune.
In one such instance, walking the streets (admittedly a little lost) a little ‘street boy’ no bigger than Ava rushed at her, ripping her drink bottle from her hands, having a good old slurp before I was even able to register what was happening. Not stopping there, he attempted to unzip her Peppa Pig backpack hanging on the back of the stroller and when he was given the quick brush off, attempted to take a quick chunk out of her arm, before reaching for a plastic stool and taking aim. Not a happy camper! Needless to say we hightailed it out of there in disbelief.
Not all Asian cities are alike when it comes to safety and while Hong Kong is regarded as one of the safest cities in the world, Bangkok (along with many others) have their dark sides.
When you can walk many of the streets of Hong Kong alone at night, it’s easy to become complacent, easy to forget a handbag in prominent view could be an easy target for shrewd thieves (many who use young children to distract naive parents) in broad daylight.
As we made our way through the city, resolving to keep our wits about us, the adventures came thick and fast.
In truth, it’s what I love most about traveling to new, unexplored and exotic places. The adrenalin that courses through your veins, as you try to navigate unknown territory, all the while putting out that calm and confident exterior. ‘Naive tourist, I am not!’ (As my husband gets out the map to read in full view.) 😉
Having lived and breathed Asia for over three years, it’s fair to say, I no longer feel like a barefaced tourist in these cities, there is a touch of traveler’s credibility comforting me as we stroll the streets or chug up the river on an old fishing boat filled with other tourists. I greet the scenes with as much fervor as I always have but also with a knowing familiarity of what lies beneath these oriental cities, that feel more like home to me, every day.
But I’m also blatantly aware, I’m not and never will be a ‘local.’ We’ll always be the ‘Gweilo’ family with a healthy dose of the unusual about us. An oddity amongst the masses, occasionally to be looked upon with sheer amusement. No matter how long you travel in Asia, you will always be in the spotlight of some intrigued locals.
Admittedly, drawing attention to one’s self is not an ideal plan of attack and if anyone was giving the game away in Bangkok, it turned out to be me (not my map-reading husband).
Trying to jump from an old boat, packed to the rafters, on to a rickety jetty (in heels) as it unexpectedly motors away at high speed – not such a great way to remain low key.
Nor is becoming a human roundabout for more than 100 scooters, with no concern whatsoever about roaring ‘around’ you on a busy highway. Rushing past within millimeters, I could literally feel the wind whip my cheeks!
(If we were out of place before, at this point we were clearly on display in all our ignorant road-crossing glory!)
Still, naivety aside, Bangkok is the Land of Smiles and the locals didn’t disappoint. For the most part, it’s a very friendly nation of super relaxed people with wide, toothy smiles, eager to please at every turn of our adventure.
In fact, it’s not unlike my other destination that very week, the Philippines. I’ve said it before on this blog, they are truly a people who radiate genuine warmth. It was no five star journey on this work trip to Manila but it was service with a smile all the way. Flying the nation’s own airline, Cebu Airlines was a ‘pile on board and go with the flow’ affair, but the flight attendants never stopped smiling and the pilot even stepped outside of his cabin to bid his passengers goodbye in person. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in all my ‘flying’ adventures?
Not such a tourist trap, Manila is a city facing many challenges. A lot grittier than both Hong Kong and Bangkok, it is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies but in contrast, it is a city that’s still steeped in poverty, with a distinct third world feel. It has some catching up to its counterparts to do but despite all of this country’s setbacks, it keeps on keeping on. You can read more about my adventures in the Philippines here, here and here.
One thing’s for sure though, Asia travel, whether it’s to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Manila — each are cities that remain ensconced in strong tradition, yet are brushed with a modern twist.
Not to mention that unmistakeable Asia smell. Step off the plane in any Asian city and you are hit with the instantly recognizable and distinctly local smells that waft through the streets, reminding you, you’re in the East.
The quintessential Asian city showcases a harmonious blend of the old with the new, where you can’t help but be captivated by the energy that runs through these oriental pearls.
Each city has allowed me the opportunity to enrich my understanding of these complex, diverse and charming cultures, where everyday holds the potential for a new adventure….the opportunity to feel alive!
To me, that’s priceless.
What about you? Tell me your biggest Asian adventure?