February 15, 2014

SE Asia City Review

I'm not a traveller. I've been around, but I prefer to live somewhere, pick up the language and become immersed in the culture. This is the American way. You meet a whole lot of Westerns who say they don't meet many Americans and that we don't travel outside of our borders. Americans are not travellers looking to party and pick up whores, we'd rather expand our cultural boundaries, fall in love, start a business, and become part of the landscape. This is how I roll as well.

Asia is my home. I lived in Korea 2005-2006, China 2007-2008 and have been to Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Philippines and Indonesia. A goal of mine when first coming to SE Asia was to determining a place to stay for a few years. I'd like to use this space to discuss my perspective of various cities in SE Asia. I prefer big cities to rural living, so though there are wonderful places to settle with fewer than 5 million dwellers, any smaller than that and I miss the traffic.

Kuala Lumpur has awesome access to cheap products for export. In the city center, if you want 100,000 pieces of a particular product, it can be found, no sweat. KL has easy skytrain access which can get you everywhere you need to go cheaply. The people are hit and miss. I wouldn't say KL is a super friendly, smiley city. Malaysia is also a Muslim country, so you should be comfortable with women covering up. It's not Saudi Arabia, so Western women won't be harassed on the street for wearing shorts, but they will get disapproving looks.

The food options are incredible especially if you have specific dietary needs. Imagine buffets on the street. You can choose from a ton of options of curries, fruit and vegetables with spicy sauces, and get anything you can think of fried. If you are a low carber, or eat paleo, you don't have to get rice. Be ready to tell them to hold the mayo and butter because they slather it on as if they were healthy condiments. Malaysian are big people, they're not scared of decadent food.

Malaysia is a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians which is great food-wise because you can get a wide selection of authentic choices. Chinatown is my favorite spot to live due to extensive street food access, beds for as cheap as $4 per night, and a lively street atmosphere. The structure of society is such that the Malays run the government, Chinese run business and the Indians earn more than they would back in India, but I wouldn't say that there is huge overlap culture-wise. It is not a melting pot, but rather a stew where the vegetables coexist peacefully, but without mixing. The Chinese and Indians are at a disadvantage as the Malays get benefits that the other ethnicities do not. Though frustrating if you're not Malay, it is what it is. It cannot be easily changed. Despite peaceful protests, I don't see major progress coming in the short or medium term.

The Philippines is my favorite country in the world. However, it is tough for Westerners who hope to live cheaply AND comfortably. If you want the same standard of living as you are used to in the first world, you have to pay for it in Manila. $800/month is the bottom of the line if you want your Western standards for your apartment. However, if you opt for a non-Manila city, you can live cheaper. If you are ok living in a rural setting, you can buy a house for $10,000 or rent one for $100/month.

Filipinos are unbelievable is every way. They smile with their hearts, are soulful, and will make your life incredible if you spend time with them. Filipinos speak English in school and are generally fluent, though they may be a bit shy since they use Tagalog or various dialects depending on where they live. It is not uncommon for Filipinos to speak several Filipino languages plus English, and then they may study another language in school. K-12 education is at an extremely high level, to the extent that I'd be happy sending my kids to K-12 in the Philippines.

Food in the Philippines is delicious. It tends toward the heavy side with lots of oil and fat. Like in Malaysia, you can easily choose what you eat at "turo turo" food stalls. "Turo turo" translates to "point, point" where you see an array of dishes still in the cooking pot, you point that you'll have a serving of this, some of that, and a few of something else. Being choosy about your diet is not a problem. At 'turo turo,' you can find lots of meats and veggies, and everything in between.

I would say though, that the comfort level of accommodation will not be as high if you choose to spend less than Western prices. For example, if you live like the Filipinos, they usually have a lot of people living in one house, so furniture is often too space-consuming. People usually hang out outside on the stoop with their neighbors. You can't expect comfy sofas, beds and carpeted floors. I sleep and work on the floor. If you want to experience the joy of the Philippines, live among the locals and learn to accept the aches and pains that come with being without furniture.

Singapore is a country of extremes. It is a masterfully planned society by the mad scientist Lee Kwan Yew. He studied societies around the world and took the best of each place. He created a system in which efficiency is the goal and the good of the whole comes before the individual. Singapore has little need for a military, though almost as a method for ensuring the population further submits to the government, all males go through the service. It is a fraternity-type atmosphere due to the understanding that there will be no military battles. Learning to use automatic weapons is more of a video game, without the seriousness of life-or-death. Being able to do a certain number of pull ups is more about friendly competition and meeting standards than ensuring that you can pull yourself over a fence when running from stray bullets.

Singaporeans, as a whole, are extremely rich. One in six families are millionaires. The government ensures that real estate only goes up in value. Singapore is an economic fantasy land. There are downsides however to the engineered city-state that has taken over Switzerland as the banking capital of the world for the ultra-rich. Singaporean workers are seen as cogs in the machine. They can easily be replaced. Salaries are low compared to the high cost of living. The culture reflects the country. People are efficient, highly educated, good at their jobs, but lack the depth of soul that is self-evident in the Philippines. Everything works, but it might be nice if not everything worked so well. Sometimes, you need a bit of struggle, a bit of second-world grit, some aggravation to keep you on your toes. From my perspective, life is too easy in Singapore. It would not be my choice for settling down.

Vietnam is a wild place, especially Ho Chi Minh City. People are aggressive when trying to sell to you. Motorbike taxi drivers will constantly harass you and crossing the street is a challenge due to handlebar to handlebar traffic. Imagine 50 motorbikes taking up the entire width of the street, then seeing 20 rows of those 50 motorbikes, it's wild. There is no subway or skytrain. Getting around, motorbike is your option. Even if you negotiate a rate beforehand with the driver, you will have to fight with them when you arrive at your destination to simply pay the negotiated rate. You have to make sure they don't steal your wallet or your bag. Ho Chi Minh City is the Wild West.

Hanoi, however, is much more calm. You don't get harassed on the street, but the taxi meter will go at supersonic speeds. Food-wise, you can get more meat in the Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh City. The culture of the North and South are like night and day. Despite the North and South unifying to become one Vietnam in 1976, the culture is completely different. Food-wise, I eat paleo which mean meat-fruit-veggies and little bread or rice. For those who eat on the street, as I do, being paleo in Vietnam is difficult. For street food, baguettes, omelets, seafood and soups are your major options. I recommend Hanoi for a peaceful life, but business-wise, Ho Chi Minh City is preferable.

Cambodia is the third world. If you are a entrepreneur who likes to push the boundaries and be the first to build a certain type of business in the country, Penom Penh is your city. Be ready to have your mind blown. Life is different in the third world than in the previously mentioned places in this blog post. On your motorbike, the dust will choke you out without your dust scarf. You may get beaten to a bloody pulp with metal pipes by a gang of Cambodians who like your smart phone. I've seen it happen. If you need a bit of danger in your life, Penom Penh will give you the rush you're looking for. The government does not regulate businesses. You WILL have to deal with thugs who demand a cut of revenues if you are clearly a foreigner business. However, you can build a monopoly in almost any business you feel like creating. I highly recommend Penom Penh as it is a growth machine.

Bangkok is lovely. It provides comforts unimaginable for a Westerner who has left their home for the less developed world. Bangkok has an awesome skytrain system which will get you wherever you need to go. The Thai people smile at you for no apparent reason, but also give you the space to feel free. Bangkok does not steal your ability to remain completely detached from your surroundings if you want to do so. Be warned, Thais do NOT speak English. If you insist on speaking English, you will be charged more, and experience great frustration. Just learn Thai. Tonal languages are learnable. Don't be an idiot and assume that you can survive speaking English everywhere around the world. Whether English is your first language or not, stop being ridiculous. I've spent significant time in Mexico, Israel, China, and Korea. Each time, I just learn the language. I do the same when I'm just travelling and don't plan to spend significant time somewhere. It's just the right thing to do.

I always say that there are many different Bangkoks. It is a party city, and a business city, and a family city, and a city for people interested in none of these things. If you want something in Bangkok, you can find it. There is nothing you can't obtain. It is not as dirty as China, or South Asia or Mongolia. You have access to brilliant foreigners if you're looking for them. The travellers are worldly and fascinating and are from every corner of the globe. When in Bangkok, I get to practice languages that I haven't spoken for many years because of necessity. Sometimes you meet Chinese who speak no English. Other times, you get to break out Middle Eastern languages. There is endless culture to experience when dealing with foreigners in Bangkok. The street food is immaculately clean. Life is affordable with the all of the comforts of the West. Also, contrary to the West, where political protests are anti-rich, in Bangkok you get to join the political uprising against populism. Protests are incredibly well-organized. They sell whistles, flags, t-shirts and wrist bands with Thai colors which everyone buys. The feeling is celebratory, with a "Fight for Thailand" spirit. The Thais see passionate support by foreigners and are appreciative of the solidarity. The protests are incredibly safe despite being in a sea of 10,000 people. I love Bangkok and recommend it to people no matter what their interests. Whoever you are, there's something for you in Bangkok.

SEE ALSO: SE Asia Visa Guide


  1. I just read now about the Philippines and I just have a comment about one particular observation of yours:

    "Live among the locals and learn to accept the aches and pains that come with being without furniture."

    Umm...people who haven't been to the Philippines may think that it's the norm there. Actually, it's not. It's just true with the particular house you've stayed in. True, not all have first-world standards in furniture, but we are not as impoverished as you make it sound. I suggest going back there and befriending more locals. You would know the difference.

    This post is seriously comprehensive, though. If you need photos per country, let me know and I can provide you some.

  2. This is a fabulous post. Far reaching in scope and breadth, yet perceptive in detail and cultural observations. You could write a good country guide.

  3. @Aleah: Agreed. I have been in lots of Filipino homes with furniture. I'd love to include some of your photos!

    @Anonymous: Thanks, I've written longer guides as well. If you know a publishing company that wants to offer a book deal, feel free to pass it along : )