Like any guy who's traveled more than usual in a given time period, I now feel like I'm an expert. I, therefore, have become an asshole like I think everybody else is.
Are you going to Taiwan?
Yeah, I am.
Well, there's really nothing to see there. There's the Taipei 101 and the usual museums, but apart from that, nothing. But walking around is nice, surprisingly nice. And you have to try the street food. You'll have to go to the night markets, but you'll have to try the street food.
See what I mean?
I'm not really a guy who likes the usual tourist spots, though. See? I told you. An asshole. I'm an asshole, trying to set myself apart from the crowd. Really, though. Tourist spots can be boring. You enter it and you really know what to expect. Sure, you have to go there, especially if it's your first time in a foreign city, but you can't say you've had a good trip on the back of tourist spots alone.
I'm not suggesting we go to the other extreme, though, the whole "off the beaten track" thing that's as beaten as the opposite of what it suggests.
I told you. I am an asshole.
But that's self-loathing taking control of the blog entry. Anyway. Tourist spots. Never been a fan of them. I've written about it before: I've always liked just walking the streets, letting whatever catches my eye guide me. I respond either with my camera - the result being photos that would never see the light of day - or with my wallet.
Singapore used to be good for this. Humidity aside, it's an eminently walkable city. I once managed to walk the apparently long distance from City Hall to my hotel at Scotts Road, roughly five and a half train stations away. I don't quite know why I walked it, but I did, and yes, I got back to my hotel feeling really stuffy and craving for a bath. Why didn't I take the train? Singapore has really good trains! Yes, you can easily get around in Singapore, but you will have to sweat a lot even if the sun isn't really up.
But then, apart from those few patches on Orchard Road where people are allowed to sell things or perform feats, there really is nothing to see on the sidewalks of Singapore. That country, of course, is known for being sanitary to the point of boring. If you've been there many times, or for a long time, the fact that everything just works (unlike in, well, the Philippines) ceases to become amazing. You get hungry and you walk a little further just to find a convenience store. Good luck with that. There are many, sure, but they won't usually be in the main thoroughfares. Do you want to get lost? Come on. Go off the beaten path! Blah.
I started heading towards that realization when I went to Hong Kong two years ago. I had a day to myself - my companion was only arriving in the evening - so I just started walking. From my hotel in that part of Wan Chai filled with vendors of home fixtures, I walked east, attempting to find the Monocle store. Upon finding it - I had no plans to buy anything, yet - I walked the opposite way, went past home base, and walked the few blocks towards Causeway Bay.
Both Hong Kong and Singapore share a British colonial past, but the two don't feel alike now. Maybe the Chinese are just good at chaos. Maybe it's the whole Lee Kuan Yew thing. But you walk in Singapore and it feels perfectly manicured. (There are a few exceptions, of course. I liked strolling through Little Indie precisely because it feels chaotic.) You walk in Hong Kong and it feels, well, slightly less manicured. There's a good chance you'll bump into people walking to somewhere, or maybe you'll bump into a fire hydrant or a street sign.
More importantly, the shops spill out into the streets, and not in a frou frou flat white kind of way the people at Monocle seem to favor. I don't just mean the newsstands that are still a frequent sight in Hong Kong (and they said print is dead!). The shops themselves may be contained by walls and windows and awnings, but they have this energy. They spill out into the streets. There are the street food establishments with items that you want to buy, but can't because you're not quite sure what they are. You can see the smoke coming out of pots of dumplings, or whatever that is. In fact, everything seems to spill into the streets, never mind if there are glass windows or not. I guess it's because Hong Kong - or at least the parts I've walked: snatches of Kowloon, of Wanchai and Causeway Bay and whatever's in between - is a claustrophobic paradise, where you have to look up just to make sense of where you are. The sidewalks are small. Everything just screams at you, even the toilets and ceramic tiles on sale.
Despite the Chinese factor, however, Taipei's streets feel mostly manicured, too. It's orderly in a way that reminds me of Singapore: here you're compelled to cross the road only when the green running man shows up. And yet, in some places - okay, they are packaged as tourist spots - but in some places, you get a buzz that just excites you.
Ximen is an obvious culprit. Packaged as a shopping destination frequented by Taiwanese youth, there just is a lot going on in there. The moment you get out of the train station (and provided you get out at the right exit - that would be Exit 6, as Jackie reminds me, not Exit 1 like I previously typed) you'll find yourself swarmed by tourists and locals alike, shopping or eating or just walking around. Or maybe trying to figure out where they exactly are.
I went there twice. The first time, I went solo, attempting to find yet another branch of Eslite. The moment I got out of the exit, two Americans came to me, asking me a question in Chinese. Great. Someone thought I was a local. Are my eyes really that small? It's one thing to get mistaken for a local by a local. "Is this the way to Shandong Temple station?" an elderly lady asked me on the train queue. But I have Americans practicing their Chinese on me! Turns out they wanted me to take a photo of them. One was studying in Taipei and the other, her sister, was visiting. I wish I talked to them more, got a good story out of it. I later drowned my regret by ordering a really big chicken chop from Hot Star, so big that I finished it the next day.
Taipei spoiled me. It has really good street food. It also kicked Singapore off its pedestal. Singapore has hawker centers, sure - yes, you will still have to figure out what exactly you're ordering, unless you're happy with the usual chicken rice or char kway teow - but those are buried deep in residential communities or industrial estates. Like, you can't have these if you don't dig deep enough. There's a side that's a little more chaotic and a little more exciting, but, well, we'll just give you our spitting clean side. (No spitting.) And that's fun for a while, but eventually it ceases to be. You've seen it all. There's nothing left to navigate, or even ogle, unless you're a frou frou flat white kind of guy.
Or maybe it's because I'm just not a tourist spot person, but a food person. That's it. That's why I absolutely loved Taipei. Whenever I walk, there's a lot to snack on, whether it be the stalls at the night market, or some malted milk at a nearby convenience store. I found myself returning to that when I was darting back and forth the night market at Jonker Street in Malacca. It's pretty much the Taiwanese experience transported to a Malaysian setting, with equally interesting street food - although a good percentage of those are Taiwanese - and a homogenous feeling creeping through. All the shops have the same name outside, selling the same things: tourist-y shirts, tourist-y fridge magnets, you get the idea.
"This feels Taiwanese" was also my first thought when Shalla and I went around Namdaemun Market in Seoul. With its clothing stores and (inevitably) make-up stalls, it's essentially Divisoria, only cooler and safer. Maybe I should go to Divisoria for street adventures. I remember walking along Parañaque, early morning, near the city hall, and realizing that all the noodle stalls and siopao stalls, and all the activity as a supermarket prepared to open - I would enjoy those things if it was abroad, but here, it's somehow superficially icky.
Anyway, Namdaemun. Lots of food there, too. It's winter, so that means tteokbokki (which I somehow did not have) and hotteok (which we both love). It's actually hard to be in a street where nobody is selling you food. I assume when the summer rolls in all these stalls selling hotdogs wrapped in squid and perilla leaf will give way to stalls selling bingsu. But, when we were there last December, our choices were endless: steamed corn, what I'd call "potato dog" - corndogs, essentially, but with fries instead - and baked sweet potatoes. Shalla loved those, and I did too, although they were particularly hard to find. The street outside our small hotel in Dongdaemun - where one of Seoul's busiest subway stations are - is filled with stalls selling breads of different kinds, sitting alongside restaurants selling all sorts of prepared dishes, and convenience stores where a beer is easy to grab, and, of course, make-up stores blasting K-pop. It's not really a big area, but man, was it fun to walk in. The stalls seem to change every night, even, although they really didn't.
If only Shalla wasn't as allergic to all those foods. Again, nuts, certain seafood, definitely shellfish... and she avoided the tteokbokki because it's spicy. But who am I to complain? I tried silkworms and had a breakout!
This November, we'll be traveling to Kuala Lumpur, our first trip together, and just us. Dreamed too big. We could've gone to a local destination first. But, no, somehow, bad timing aside, we decided to go to Kuala Lumpur. She can finally meet Zaty, and I can finally be with her alone, just the two of us, for five days. I've been mapping out the places we can go to in my head. She has not been to Kuala Lumpur, so the tourist spots we can easily get to have to be on the list. The Batu Caves are a few trains away, provided you can wait for the transfers, or even go through the whole process. I think she'll be willing to climb the 272 steps to the shrine up the mountain. There will be monkeys to cheer her on, and refreshing coconut water at the end to cool us down. I plan to go to the Petronas Towers, finally climb it, or maybe Menara KL; I never got to do that the first time I went there. Which streets will we walk? It can be busy in downtown Kuala Lumpur, but it's not as thrilling as Hong Kong or Taipei are.
Does Kuala Lumpur have good street food? I've been there twice and all I end up doing is buying coffee for my mother. (A cup of white coffee with nothing else is quite good.) I remember this vegetarian restaurant near my hotel the first time, but that's a restaurant, albeit out in the open. I should ask Zaty, but, well, she will remind me of the nyonya kueh - rice cakes, essentially; kutsinta, essentially - I bought in Malacca. And Malacca is far.
See? I told you. I just traveled a bit and I suddenly know a lot. I am an asshole.