Updated: Mar 11, 2021
There is no such a thing as apolitical travel.
A quick Google search of ‘The Top Ten Places To Travel’ will give you hundreds of lists, and after a cursory look over just a few, you will start to see a trend. The places that occupy the top positions are often affluent, European cities. This raises the glaring question of what we, collectively, deem worthy of our time, attention and money. What places do we choose to elevate and assign cultural value? It is not about where we travel, or why we travel, but where we see as worthy of travel.
Even something as seemingly individual as travel bucket lists are deeply rooted in the politics of our time. Many negative assumptions about the so-called ‘developing’ world were produced and perpetuated in accordance with the political concerns of the three largest colonial powers, the British, French and American. This was not accidental, but a systematic approach to devaluing the cultural and civilisational significance of the places they conquered.
The cultural capitals of the world were decided and the rest were relegated to dangerous, insignificant or backwards sidelines. This is despite the fact that places like Paris, with some of the highest crime rates in the world, are seen as idyllic and people travelling there are even encouraged to accept small crimes like petty theft as part of the experience, not a failure of the state.
This list has been curated by our writers - each sharing their insights about places that they were lucky enough to visit but have yet to see included on a Top 10 List.
Fez | فاس | Morocco
The place, not the hat. ‘Fez, the Spiritual City,’ was and continues to be a cultural and intellectual hub of the Muslim world. Being a medieval city, it’s labyrinthine streets wind together, only wide enough for people on foot and donkeys to pass through. The souks are filled with fresh spices, carpets, antique jewellery stores, and hundreds of olive and pomegranate vendors. There’s an absence of cars and fortress walls encompass the entirety of the old city. Often, the outside of a building will match the rest of the street, the door dull and unnoticeable. However, once you step inside, the spectacular majesty of the place is revealed, usually with gilded courtyards, high ceilings and intricate gardens that is completely different to what we’re used to in the West, with everything facing inward rather than outward. Riads (houses) reflect the Islamic tradition that wealth should not be displayed in humility and the grandeur should be reserved for the family.
We think of universities as a Western invention but the first modern degree-granting university, Al-Karaouine, was founded in Fez by Fatima Al-Fihri in 859 CE and is still open for exploring today. Historically called ‘Fez The Spiritual City’, this was a name to honour an academic tradition where scholarship and spirituality were inextricably linked, where to pursue knowledge was to pursue God. This university was also the first institution in the world to offer courses outside the bounds of religion in the fields of medicine, mathematics and linguistics.
A word of warning about Fez: a hammam is not what you think it is.
Sylhet | সিলেট | Bangladesh
Sylhet is one of the spiritual heartlands of Bangladesh, a sacred area that has been able to sustain its beauty and spirituality throughout the years. It’s one of the birthplaces for Sufism in Bangladesh, a form of mystical Islam that emphasises the importance of introspection. A tea-filled (cha bagan) province with lush greenery, it is also home to the site of the Dorgah Mohalla (a mosque and the tomb of Shah Jalal) which thousands of visitors pass through every day. Hazrat Shah Jalal was a Sufi scholar and the tale of his importance to Sylhet goes like this: one day, his uncle gave him a handful of soil and said, “find the place where the soil in your hand matches the soil from the land”. He travelled from Mecca, through Iraq and Iran and eventually found his match in Sylhet, where he settled.
Sufism brought with it many devotees who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of spiritual perfection through worship (ibadah) which they often expressed through poetry, art and music (ghazal). Once he passed away, his tomb was transformed into a madrassa and mosque. To preserve the sanctity of the mosque, four families were assigned the responsibility to guard and protect it.
It also has particularly delicious bananas, if you ever find yourself visiting and near to a tree.
Battambang | បាត់ដំបង| Cambodia
Battambang is often left out from tourist itineraries. Its tranquil, gentle charm doesn’t appear to market itself loudly but once there, speeding past an array of jungles, mountains, hidden temples and rice fields in a tuk tuk, you quickly became enamoured. The Battambang is a province located in the far Northwest of Cambodia, also known as ‘the rice bowl of Cambodia.’ The speeding tuk tuk rides are a heady experiences, as drivers race and outmanoeuvre each other to make Vin Diesel jealous. You’ll find yourself amazed by the mountains that just seem to rise out from sprawling fields. Like many places in Cambodia, the town wears its history openly, with French-style architecture remnants of a colonial past, dotted by broken disrepair and a shadow of the Khmer Rouge’s vicious rule.
Mountain top temples and beautiful, hidden pagodas are only a day-trip from the main town. The caves of Phnom Sampeau serve as a microcosm of the blend of breathtaking natural beauty, rich spirituality and haunting sadness that defines Cambodia. The caves were once Buddhist temples but when the Khmer Rouge swept through the country, they terrorised the people by executing them on top of these caves and leaving their bodies to rot. Today, there is a memorial with the bones and skulls of some of the victims.
Each evening you can sit at the base of the bat-caves and watch as hundreds of bats pour out in a steady stream.
Medina | ٱلْمَدِيْنَة ٱلْمُنَوَّرَة | Saudi Arabia
Medina Munawara is also known as the ‘City of Light’. This refers to the light of Islam brought to the city by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is the home of Masjid Al-Nawabi, where he is buried. To say that it is one of the most spectacular cities is to understate its spiritual significance. Medina witnesses the convergence of hundreds of thousands of people a day, from every country, every language, culture and walk of life (my dad jokingly says that it’s the “true United Nations”).
From people who travelled from the deserts of Rajasthan to the Indonesian women who hold hands whenever they try to move against the crowd, to the Belgian girls who’d come with fifteen of their friends and chatter excitedly in the elevators. The true beauty of Medina is in its ability to strip people bare of their trappings of wealth, history and language, and bring them together for a holy purpose, the same one for each person.
The mosque is the heart of the city and when it’s time to pray pilgrims flood the main streets heading towards the centre. The music of the adhan (the call to prayer) rings across the city five times a day and each time it is as though someone presses a universal pause button. Shopkeepers close their stalls and simply walk out to pray, only to return in fifteen minutes to business as usual. The mosque has a capacity of one million, crafted with pink marble that turns violet during sunset, contrasting with the orange skies.
To be there is to be humbled by the sheer magnitude of people, united in a single faith, following the same rituals, uttering the same prayers.
Badakhshan | بدخشان ولایت | Afghanistan
Badakhshan is a place that you wouldn’t know still exists in Afghanistan. It’s a province that borders Tajikistan and Pakistan, and when walking around it becomes abundantly clear that you are witnessing the true Afghan manners and hospitality that the ancients extolled. Families leave their animals (primarily goats) to graze in parks as they walk to the river and mingle with whoever else is around, evoking the feeling of a close-quarters village. You are greeted by strangers with the familiarity of a friend and are given a cup of tea in any interaction in a shop longer than two minutes.
Life is difficult in Badakhshan and in many ways it’s like stepping backwards in time. People have survived here with a long history of extending a hand to their neighbours. In Badakhshan can be seen some of the most extreme examples of throwing caution to the wind with city planning, like a rickety bridge over a gushing river that takes on three rows of vehicles at a time, or a small raft made of tyres and rope being the only way to transport entire families over another crashing river to the only medical centre in the region.
If you do ever go there, stay away from their energy drink of choice ‘Ginseng’.
Jakarta | Indonesia
Jakarta, the ethnically diverse sprawling capital of Indonesia, is a booming city covered by a perpetual grey smog that dulls the entire scenery but not the life within it. The city shouldn't be overlooked for its vibrant and colourful sibling, Bali. Rather, the city should be seen as a reflection for the colourful life that exists within the people.
Sitting in a traffic jam, you can see the street vendors busily cooking martabak (pancakes) as hungry men and women loiter around the cart. Children clamour together wearing shorts and flip-flops sometimes laughing, sometimes running but always sticking together. You can see people begging, with restless hands in need of relief. You can see poverty. You can see wealth and you will wonder how two opposites can live in such a place. Stray dogs prowl around warungs (street vendors) patiently waiting for scraps. Women and men come to car windows selling trinkets and souvenirs in one hand and an open palm on the other waiting for potential customers to respond. Piles of cut open coconuts emptied of its juices litter the side of the road, where a man wielding a large machete cuts it open for another thirsty customer.
When arriving late to anything in Jakarta just say ‘macet’ (traffic jam), you will be forgiven purely on the basis that they too were probably at the mercy of the traffic.