“Down to Gehenna and up to the throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

—Rudyard Kipling

Not as horrible as Calcutta or as ugly as Seoul, Bangkok, spreading along the flat flanks of the Chao Phraya river, is the whorehouse of Asia. Berth girls and boys will do anything you like with a Coke bottle or Ping-Pong ball. The prostitution reflects the contrast between monks and catamites, luxury and squalor; between the graceful old temples and the hideous modern buildings. The overwhelming noise and pollution from the heavy traffic extend to the very edge of the sprawling city, and the lack of stoplights makes crossing the street a dicey and dangerous business.

On a three-hour walk from a luxurious riverside hotel to the National Museum, I passed scores of food shops—some with a single charcoal brazier, others cramped in a tiny alcove—as well as sections of town jammed with gem dealers, rice merchants, metal workers, and street traders operating on the most slender of margins. There were no solicitors or beggars (a great contrast to 20 years ago) and many spontaneous smiles. A slow boat, cruising from bank to bank, brought me back to the hotel and gave some sense of the atmosphere the city once possessed.

One Chinese restaurant had more staff than patrons: parking man, door boy, two cashiers (with abacus), headwaiter, three busboys, and eight giggling waitresses in pajamas. They translated the numbered dishes I had selected into Cantonese while the owner wrote them down. Half the food was what I had ordered (the noodles never came); half, what they drought I should have.

There is no traditional Asian model for a modern city of several million inhabitants. The new Creater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in Singapore has imitated the West and produced a sterilized and mechanized metropolis, dedicated to the aggressive acquisition of money and material goods. The old, two-story Chinese buildings are being ruthlessly razed and replaced by a conglomeration of high-rise shopping malls which extends from Orchard Road to Clifford Pier. The little satay stalls at the harbor have been amalgamated into a giant unappetizing Food Centre.

The lowlife described in Paul Theroux’s novel Saint Jack has been obliterated by the puritanical regime of Prime Minister Lee, and well-intentioned but repressive rules have been enacted against almost everything. (A beggar is unthinkable in prosperous Singapore, but I saw a few.) Nearly all interest has been drained out of this once colorful city, which is now about as interesting as downtown Denver. Yet it is still possible to see, in the constricted remains of Chinatown, elaborate preparations for the Year of the Rabbit; from pressed fan-dried ducks lo firecrackers, from calligraphed good-luck greetings to pickled snakes.

Though there is nothing of extraordinary interest to see in Malacca—halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur—this once busy and now sleepy Conradian town still has great character and charm.

Malacca has Sikh and Chinese temples, Malay mosques and cemeteries. The shops in the narrow streets of Jalan Gelegang sell batik, cheroots, caged birds, Malacca canes, and fine antiques—especially pottery influenced by Dutch designs and made for Straits Chinese. Decrepit sampans and junks sail along the waterfront. The shopkeepers are unassertive and curious about where the rare visitor came from. No Malays, with kris unsheathed, ran amok.

Borneo still has red-pelted orangutans. Land and Sea Dyaks, wild men, and headhunters. In Sarawak, in the northeast part of the island, now divided by Malaysia and Indonesia, Rajah Brooke and his English dynasty ruled for more than 100 years. Just north, in Kota Kinabalu (formerly Jesselton), destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt after the war, the dense jungle presses through the hills and comes right down to the sea. The distant volcanic mountain, which gives the town its name, can be seen from the port. The fish and vegetable markets, facing the offshore islands, were exceptionally large and clean. Unlicensed peddlers were gently moved on by the police. The markets offered a great range of exotic fruits, fierce little sharks, and 100-year-old eggs—long buried and surrounded by a hard black crust. Video games have not vet reached Borneo, and the boys still play the pinball machines.

In a surprisingly elegant antique shop, all sizes and styles of Chinese pottery (“maybe Ming, very old”) fell into two crude categories: with cracks $170, without cracks $340. When the owner immediately agreed to a reduction of 50 percent, I fled the shop in haste and confusion. I was refused admission to Friday prayers in the gaudy new state mosque that dominates the southern side of the hot (90 degrees) and humid (95 percent) town. But I saw the beautifully displayed cultural artifacts in the Sabah Museum, and had a superb lunch of satay and noodle soup in the museum restaurant. The toilet scats had been torn off in the lavatories and a sign depicting a man squatting with his feet on the rim of the bowl read: Don’t use this position. Keep feet on floor,” The museum disclaimed any responsibility for injuries to squatters who fall off or into the toilet.

The day I arrived in Manila, 12 people were killed as 10,000 farmers demonstrated in front of Malacañang Palace. My well-informed source there believes Corazon Aquino is idealistic and incorruptible, enjoys great popular support, and will survive the opposition of the relatively small number of communists and of Muslims in the south. The economy, which had been sloping downward, has now leveled off.

The first impression of the city—the antithesis of Singapore—is overwhelmingly depressing. It is ugly, crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, polluted, poor, and packed with beggars. The minimum wage (often not paid) is three dollars per day; the average income is $700 per year. There is not one attractive street or building in downtown Manila, which has become a huge brothel for Japanese businessmen. Child prostitution is quite common.

Tourist interest is very slight. Intramuros, the run-down quarter built by the Spanish, contains, within the old city walls, the Church of San Agustín, the Cathedral, and Fort Santiago, where the Japanese kept prisoners in barbaric conditions during their occupation of the country. Philippine Village, near the airport, has houses and handicrafts from different regions, but the atmosphere is dreary and depressing. The signs in the city are in English, and most people have some knowledge of that language. One boy approached me and politely remarked: “Good day, sir. Please enjoy yourself Have a good time in our fair city. And give me one dollar!”

I spent one afternoon at the handsome grounds and clubhouse of the Manila Polo Club, whose elegant members survived the Marcos regime, send their children to American universities, and seem to control half the wealth of the country. During the chukkers, under a heavy gray sky, the girls squealed with excitement. As I left the city, thousands of demonstrators were marching on the Presidential Palace.

In modern China, one sees the sad remnants of a great culture that has degenerated and been destroyed. I arrived in Canton on the first day of the lunar New Year, which lent a faintly festive air to an essentially drab and dusty, though friendly and orderly, city of seven million. Firecrackers exploded and vast crowds of people (who recalled Asian hordes swarming into battle) packed the streets and parks. Many of the hundreds of small private shops were open on the most important holiday of the year. Young couples obsessively snapped photos of the one pampered and adored child they are legally allowed to have.

Soldiers and police were inconspicuous; Mao suits, propaganda banners, and portraits of political leaders were scarce. Almost everyone now studies English, and almost no one speaks it. A rare sign in Roman letters read: “General Headquarters for Lamps Business.” Canton’s proximity to Hong Kong and the coast makes it more “Western” than other Chinese cities. Only yokels stare at foreigners. In the squat dwellings and side alleys off the main streets, families are crammed in with shops and stalls, laundry hangs in the foul air, caged birds chirp, and music blasts.

My guide looked as though he had been sent from central casting to play a sadistic torturer. Tipping in China is officially forbidden and gratefully received. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Classical Learning Academy, the public parks, and the vast zoo (with seedy-looking pandas) were all hideously ugly. I saw no building constructed before 1880. Several enormous hotels, built with foreign capital, have recently opened and the best double rooms cost $80 per night. The ten-dollar lunch at the Northern Garden restaurant, served by automaton waitresses, was elaborate and excellent. The atmosphere of Canton is a cross between Mädchen in Uniform and 1984.

Hong Kong—with Kandy, Bali, and Penang—is the most lively, interesting, and attractive place in Asia. The temperate climate is a pleasant change from the sweltering towns of the south. It has a scenic harbor equal to those of San Francisco, Sydney, and Rio, as well as English order and efficient transportation. The cable-car ride to Victoria Peak is charming, and the view is spectacular. The Hong Kong/Kowloon ferry (ten cents for the upper deck) is the best buy in the Orient. There is a fine beach at Repulse Bay and luxurious shopping in vertiginous malls with looping Piranesi staircases. There is exotic fifth and congestion on the sampans at Aberdeen and on the narrow ladder streets that snake into the hills. One especially abject beggar humiliated himself by thumping his head on the ground and clanging his tin cup, but he was ignored by the crowd that swirled around him.

Canton is only three hours away by train. Macao, 45 minutes by hydrofoil, has crumbling Portuguese buildings and superb Portuguese food. The Chinese are noisy and messy feeders. But if you avoid fish lips, pig snout, bear paws, and monkey brains, you can eat very well in Hong Kong. All the dishes are served at once, with the soup last. When I asked for a glass of water, I was told there was none; then I was brought hot water, bottled water, and finally, as I persisted, a glass of cold water.

On the second day of the New Year holiday I took an hour’s boat ride to the island of Cheng Chan. There were hundreds of live-in fishing boats in the harbor, decorated with flags and lights, and dozens of restaurants on the sea front. It seemed like a run-down resort at the wrong end of the Mediterranean. When I objected to an inflated bill for drinks, the proprietor immediately halved it to the correct amount. It is bad luck to quarrel at the beginning of the year. A gaudy Taoist temple was devoted to worshiping the god who protected fishermen, and smoke from incense sticks wafted messages to heaven. After nightfall, the skyscrapers along Hong Kong harbor were brilliantly illuminated by the annual fireworks display controlled by computers.

Communist China “guaranteed” that the government and economy of Hong Kong would remain the same after they took control of the colony. But most of the Hong Kong money was safely deposited in foreign banks. It is certainly in China’s interest to reap the benefits of economic prosperity, but how could Hong Kong remain capitalistic and democratic when the rest of the country is totalitarian? Tibet has certainly not retained its freedom, culture, and religion under Chinese rule. And dictatorships have not always followed self-interest. Both Stalin and Hitler destroyed their political, military, and professional elite in the 1930’s. Singapore, and even Shanghai, are eagerly waiting to replace Hong Kong as the commercial and tourist capital of Asia. When the crisis comes in the next decade, the people of Hong Kong-like the citizens of a country under siege—may remove their portable assets and flee before the hostile invaders.