Top Five Cities in Asia

Victoria terminal in Mumbai Mumbai

Colourful, crowded and overflowing with life this city will sweep you off your feet with its vibrant energy and hectic traffic.  There is something about this post-colonial city – overrun by throngs of people and the humid jungle creeping back in the reclaim its place – that just gets to you.  Maybe it’s the thrill of dodging bull carts and buses when trying to cross the road or the primeval reminder of crumbling buildings and human chaos.  The 25+ million inhabitants buzz around clogging the narrow market lanes.  This is a place which ensures that going about your daily business is anything but routine and in the end you can’t help but be swept away.

Puja in VaranasiVaranasi

Varanasi is the city where you will see the most beautiful thing right next to the most disgusting.  It is India’s spiritual center, the oldest living city, an entire world of contradictions and, as such, a metaphor for India itself.  In the old part of the city the streets are so narrow that a single underfed cow can (and often does) take up the entire lane so that everyone must move into doorways and nearby buildings to let it pass.  There is a temple dedicated to Shiva, filled with gold and guarded by armed men who wouldn’t have been able to turn their rifles sideways in the narrow alleys.  The roads are so confusing that many an entrepreneur makes his living by escorting lost foreigners to and from the shops and guesthouses they’re looking for.  Half the streets come to dead ends and the other half lead to the edge of the Ganges; where the multitudes pray, where Hindus burn on low piers to be released from the cycle of birth and death, and where the populace bathes in the heavily polluted river.  We witnessed cobras being thrown from windows, people starving, road-side butchers and child acrobats.  In Varanasi many of the traditions and rituals date back 3000 years.  There is a nightly ceremony on the ghats where men blown conch horns, ring bells and dance with fire and smoke for hours.  To be here is to step back in time; a place where leprosy still exists, a place immune to the change on its doorstep, a holy city from ancient, dusty tomes.  Varanasi is the heart of northern India where the rejection or acceptance of one tourist (or thousands) means nothing in the face of so much culture and tradition.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar at sunriseAmritsar

The Punjab is like its own country, separate from the rest of India (though this can be said about many of the border regions of the sub-continent).  The population is predominately Sikh, a tall, strong people with warrior history, often sought after to work as bodyguards or military.  In Amritsar you find many highly educated people with interesting insight into Indian history and their own unique culture.  The most incredible sight in Amritsar is the Golden Temple.  Made of marble, precious stones and gold this beautiful gurdwara is the most peaceful and welcoming place of worship I have ever been.  The people are so friendly and there are free beds available for pilgrims and for anyone else in need.  Inside the walls there is a pool of water (or pool of nectar) surrounding the central temple, which is covered with gold on the outside and jewels on the inside.  At the very center there are musicians who play day and night on a continuous 24-hour loop.  This is one place not to be missed when planning a trip to northern India.

Pineapple vendor in HanoiHanoi

Hanoi for us came as a welcome surprise.  This thousand year old city is busy and moving but there are certain qualities of an older Asia that linger on.  Business men gather in coffee shops to smoke tobacco from long wooden pipes while peddlers sell their wares from overladen bicycles.  There are beautiful brick buildings and baguette shops which hark back to the times of French colonialism alongside the conical hats and motorcycle buzz of modern Vietnam.  The residents of Hanoi are up early and the city is in full swing by 6:00am.  Many have early morning exercise regimes starting at 5:00am by the lake in the center of Hanoi.  There are all types of entertainment from cinemas to classical water puppet shows but often in this city the most interesting activity is people watching.

Street art in YogyakartaYogyakarta

Bustling streets full of colour, horse-drawn carriages and friendly people from all over the globe.  Many come to Yogyakarta because of its proximity to the nearby temples of Borobudur and Prambanan but Yogya is much more that just a convenient place to stay, it is fascinating and culturally rich hosting Javanese dance concerts, shadow puppet plays and gamelan shows every day and night.  The city is ruled by a Sultanate and is the only region in Indonesia that is headed by a monarchy.  The Sultanate protects and promotes the cultural heritage of Java by opening the doors of the Kraton (palace) daily for visitors to come and see the royal museum as well as a traditional Javanese ballet or gamelan concert.  The city is full of artists, with nightly congregations of art students who practice drawing models in the main square.  We met people from Papua and other far flung Indonesian islands, many approaching us to talk, some shy but all friendly and charming.  Yogyakarta is very hospitable with so many unique and welcoming guesthouses to choose from you can’t help but want to stay longer than planned.