From Mandalay to Timbuktu: Great Names, Lousy Places

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  06.09.11 | 12:31 PM ET

Mandalay. Photo by Stefan Munder via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

In an excerpt from his new book, “The Tao of Travel,” Paul Theroux recalls a number of places that just didn’t live up to the romance evoked by their names:

Mandalay: an enormous grid of dusty streets occupied by dispirited and oppressed Burmese, and policed by a military tyranny.

Tahiti: a mildewed island of surly colonials, exasperated French soldiers and indignant natives, with overpriced hotels, one of the world’s worst traffic problems and undrinkable water.

Timbuktu: dust, hideous hotels, unreliable transport, freeloaders, pestering people, garbage heaps everywhere, poisonous food.

I was always drawn to Kuala Lumpur because of its name. I loved just saying the words, and I loved the way they sounded. I loved the way they evoked lumpy koala bears, or something even more exotic that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

When I finally went there, I was initially underwhelmed. The Petronas Towers are impressive, but they’re not lumpy koala bears. After exploring the city for a couple of days, however, getting lost in Indian neighborhoods with sari shops and aromatic cafes, and even spending a couple of hours in an elegant old theater watching a Bollywood movie I couldn’t understand, I decided Kuala Lumpur had its lumpy charms.

Ever gone to a place that didn’t live up to its great name? Or that did?

4 Comments for From Mandalay to Timbuktu: Great Names, Lousy Places

Terry Ward 06.09.11 | 12:43 PM ET

Fakarava—an atoll in the Tuamotu islands of French Polynesia—is a place that lived up to its romantic name, with the best diving I’ve ever experienced, blue lagoons and a serendipitous encounter with a fleet of Polynesian canoes that had just arrived from a 30-day trip from New Zealand. And Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas is a place I dream of visiting based on the way the name rolls off my tongue…

Jim Benning 06.09.11 | 1:04 PM ET

Fakarava? That is a great name. So glad to hear the place actually lives up to it, Terry.

For me, the Marquesas evoke that kind of romance, too. Never been. One of these days.

Epiphanie Bloom 06.09.11 | 1:44 PM ET

I was in love with the idea of visiting “Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon” but was dreadfully disappointed at the noise and air pollution. Tay Ninh, on the other hand, impressed me with its Cao Dai temples as much as I thought it would.

Thomas Dembie 06.17.11 | 11:36 PM ET

Ljubljana - A hard name to pronounce, an easy place to like.

Dreamland Bali - The name might have been applicable in years gone by, but no more.

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