Smog, sweaty humidity, potholes, hawkers and street side food vendors with dirty floors: if you were to list all the things that make a city great, these may not make the top ten.
Undoubtedly, there’s nothing particularly enticing about them as stand-alone qualities, but when you wrap them all up into one, that’s when the magic happens!
As someone who was born and raised in a very privileged, simple environment, it took a long time for me to understand that there is more to this world than my instant potato lifestyle. It’s easy to get comfortable in a place like Canada because everything is pretty much available to you, often just because you live there.
Between subjective school lessons, one-sided news channels and general conversation with my peers, I grew up with the understanding that I had the best of everything right here at home. In my naivety, my mind painted a poor picture of anywhere east of Italy: destitute, third world countries that were of no interest to me. They were all just dirty places, as far as I was concerned.
I resent the fact that I spent so many years living with this false notion in my head but the sad truth is that if you trust everything you hear without question, you tend to accept it. And I did, for a very long time. Truthfully, to this day, these things are so engrained in my mind that I still catch myself surprised that there are upscale shopping malls in places like India… even though I’ve worked for several global retailers and know better.
I’m working on that.
It wasn’t until 2013, nine years after graduating high school, that I experienced Bangladesh for the first time and realized I had a thing for these “dirty” countries.
I had heard of culture shock but never had I been smacked in the face with it! The manic traffic, the beggars, the dirty streets, the heat… I lasted a mere four hours before crashing into a deep sleep of recovery. I was overwhelmed, to be sure, but in a way I couldn’t describe. It was everything I had pictured, yet so much more than I could comprehend.
By the end of that trip, I’d figured it out: the feeling I couldn’t shake was one of infatuation! The chaos excited me, the beggars awakened me, the streets and the heat warmed my heart in their own respective ways.
These days, I’ve fallen emphatically in love with places like Dhaka and Bangkok and when I’m home, I spend most of my days just trying to find a way back to Asia. What a difference ten years can make!
The truth is, dirty cities are better and I’m going to try and sell you on this concept because if you’re mentally stuck in a similar place to where my head was, you’re totally missing out.
There is personality in every pothole
Within the cities I love the most, a well-worn street is among the most common attributes. I can’t quite describe it but I find a certain charm in the impact time can have on a road so traveled.
It’s reasonable to think that we take these roads for granted after awhile but I like to picture the day that they were completed. I imagine those that built the road; their dry, cracked hands finally at rest, and pride glowing from their eyes as the first vehicles rolled through.
Everyone must have been so pleased with their new road. But as time passes with every commute, the pavement gives way to the cracks. What was once a smooth testament to hard work now tells the tales of daily local life; thousands of bustling bodies heading to work or running errands.
There is personality and character in those cracks, if you can see past the broken facade. And you can find this sort of character all around you if you’re paying attention.
I like that.
A More Authentic Experience
It’s different back home. When potholes or cracks appear, they’re hastily covered up or repaired. Those stories never had a chance! Some places seem so determined to maintain a clean-cut appearance that it almost feels like they’re hiding behind it.
There is a raw, authentic beauty in allowing something to evolve with age — to become as it was intended to be; to crack and fade in sync with time. Much like small wrinkles earned progressively over a long and fulfilling lifetime, they eventually take over as a new identity. Each line sharing tales of stress and laughter; of achievements and failures.
Of course, potholes are just one example. This authenticity can be found all around you. In the buildings, the cars, the businesses… even the way in which food is served!
But most importantly, it exists in the hearts and smiles of the locals. Upon each visit, I’ve been met with an indescribable warmth that I’ve yearned to find at home. A genuine welcoming, like no one is going out of their way to try and cater to me and my wallet but still friendly enough to make eye contact and smile. There’s this sense of family, gratitude, and hospitality in the air that draws me back each and every time.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not to say that it isn’t possible to exude such character in a “clean” city; but in these suburban lands of pre-fabricated houses and fast food restaurants, it’s quite difficult to come by.
If you’re still not sold, well… it's cheaper!
Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think there is anything more gratifying than finding a city with endless options in delicious, affordable food. So, one might expect that this has a lot to do with my passionate love affair with cities like Bangkok.
The food is SO much cheaper (read: less expensive) than anywhere else in the world and arguably (or in my opinion, factually) far more delicious. You can get some of the best dishes on this planet for under a dollar — or feast like a king for the price of a fast food combo back home!
That alone should make you reconsider everything you think you know about Asia.
But it doesn’t stop there! Transportation, accommodations, entertainment, souvenirs, and generally everything in between is cheaper. This is a budget traveller’s dream come true. Once your flight is paid for, you’d have to go out of your way to overspend. You’d need to seek out more expensive areas or higher-priced restaurants. But why would you when the best parts of these cities are inexpensive and right at your doorstep.
A No Frills Lifestyle, with Extra Flavour
It’s quite simple to sustain a low cost trip because all of the lower priced services are readily available to you, in ample numbers. This simplicity seems to be a key metric in this way of life. The locals don’t expect or insist on extra frills. They seem to understand that such expectations come with an unnecessary price tag and so they’re avoided as a result.
When I think of a city like this, one of the first images that comes to mind is a plastic red stackable chair. This iconic symbol represents this element of simplicity so effectively. Vendors don’t have time for fancy chairs — they need something efficient, quick to clean, and easy to store so they can do what they came to do: cook. Customers just came to eat that food.
It’s a business transaction in it’s simplest form and it works! And you can’t tell me it doesn’t add to that charm I was talking about.
This no frills lifestyle carries through in most aspects of their daily lives — with the important exception of the ingredients and flavours in their food. That $1 meal is so packed with complex flavours! With each bite, you can taste the years of experience and hard work that has gone into the creation of each dish. Your tastebuds will come to life and you’ll need to remind yourself to take a breath between bites.
Yet it’s served on a disposable plate, to be eaten off of a plastic table on the side of the road: a stoic reminder that we need not worry about the details and simply focus on what’s important.
Don’t forget to stop and take it all in
As you dine curb-side, seated on a red plastic chair, enjoying your lunch, you may find that your world suddenly becomes a far more colourful place.
Take that moment to stop. Have a look around. Breathe between your bites.
Allow yourself to absorb into the unique and abundant cultures that exist in these dirty cities! Between the warmth in the radiant local smiles, the alluring yet affordable assortment of food, and the captivating charm in your surroundings — I’m certain that you’ll fall in love, too.