Looking for the Soul of a City

Something I’ve noticed in the past few years as I’ve traveled is that things are starting to look the same.  The globalization of our world has been erasing the uniqueness and distinctiveness of cities around the world.  At the surface, one can point to the fact that you can find a McDonald’s (103 countries), Subway (100 countries) or Starbucks (62 countries) on many street corners in any major metropolitan city around the world.  When you dive a bit below the surface, it’s easy to start noticing that the architecture also starts to look the same, as do the stores in which we buy our clothing and hotels in which we sleep in as visitors to foreign lands.

One thing that has surprised me about watching Asian tourists in Bangkok is that they all love to go to the malls here… and shop at the very same stores that exist in their home city (i.e. H&M, Forever 21, Marks and Spencer, to name a few).  The styles are all the same, and although there may be a slight price difference due to cost of living adjustments, it’s curious to me that one would fly 3-4 hours from your home to go shopping in a mall that looks just like the one in your home city.  If cities are starting to look more and more alike, what’s the purpose of leaving and exploring somewhere new?

For that reason, when I travel, I try my hardest to stay out of locations that are built and created for tourists.  I enjoy finding strange little markets and neighborhoods through back alleys, wandering the city, hoping to catch a glimpse of how life works in this particular place.  One of the joys of travel for me is looking for, and finding the soul of a city.   You can see it in the eyes of the street vendors, people going to work on the subway, or one of my favorite ways, but sharing a meal with someone who has invested in that city, and allow them to tell you their story.

After I left my job in December, I was faced with a tough question as to what to do career-wise.  On the table was always the option of returning to corporate life and jumping back into a Marketing role somewhere.   I also felt like it was a good time to ask myself some tough questions about what really excited me and to see if there was a way to find a career that aligned with my passions: traveling, food, people, and philanthropy.  After a month of traveling and volunteering in April here in Thailand, I returned to Hong Kong with an idea that allowed me to indulge in all four!


UrbanTOX, my new venture was created as a means to allow others to see the great beauty of the soul that I’ve found in this rich city of Bangkok.  Many people have preconceptions about Bangkok as being a big partying or shopping destination, and after visiting this place for many years, I too, had never seen this city for what it has to offer until I met Patricia DeWit, who conceptualized this idea two years ago.  Over the 22 years that she has lived here, she has cultivated countless relationships with Bangkok’s residents: artists, entrepreneurs, NGO workers, chefs, architects, and many others.  UrbanTOX was designed to offer a more authentic way to travel, by introducing a culture to travelers through interactions with locals and seeing the city through a local’s eyes.  If you like how Anthony Bourdain travels on his show, No Reservations, then you’ll probably dig what we’ve put together here.  Fantastic food, amazing people, and unforgettable stories.

I would invite you to take a look at the site that I’ve been building over the last two months.  Perhaps, if you have some time in the coming months, and you are interested in taking a different sort of trip, that you and/or your friends might join me for a week here in Bangkok.

I believe that this type of travel has the ability to transform you.  When you go searching for the soul of a city, it oftentimes also serves as a mirror unto ourselves, and helps us to see new things about ourselves, discover new passions, or simply allow for a new conversation to exist within our heads that may challenge us to question things that we may previously have held to be true.  Something that I’ve also found is that we rarely get to process verbally (and to think critically about it) what we see when we travel, and as such, we’ll spend some time regularly throughout the trip to have conversations about what we’ve experienced so that you may be enriched by the different viewpoints of other travelers on the trip.

I’m so excited to get things off the ground because I see how much this business has helped me to grow personally in the last few months.  I couldn’t be more excited to show others what I have found and to introduce you all to the amazing people I’ve met who are living here and shaping the culture of this city.

  1. Ali H

    August 12th, 2013 23:02

    Nice post and congrats on taking the plunge! BTW, re: malls / tourists... My wife and I went to Bangkok about 4 years ago and we did some "one on one" tours that really helped us maximize our short time there (did a cooking lesson with a local that involved trip to the market to pick ingredients and then lessons at house). We did succumb to some mall madness however (after 3 days) only because the colors/sounds/sights/smells of BK can be overwhelming at times; a little bit of "mall therapy" offered a nice little break before our next adventure.

    • Mac Ling

      August 12th, 2013 23:05

      Totally agree that the malls are a nice way to take a break from the madness of the city and for some much needed air conditioning at times too! I think it's when you spend the majority of your time there and don't step out into the real world that you miss things. :)

  2. Joe Ling

    August 13th, 2013 3:15

    Great write-up and good introduction to Urbantox !!!

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