He Said/She Said: First World Asia

He Said/She Said: First World Asia

We have written about the culture shock upon arrival in Hong Kong (click here to read), but we haven’t dwelled much on the developed Asian countries that aren’t on the backpacker circuit.  Because of first-world Asia costs as much as first-world anywhere, people skip it.  It is a shame to visit Asia and only see the developing world, here is how seeing the developed Asia changed our views on Asia as a whole.


Asia is developing, fast.  From the oil rich countries of the former USSR to China, growth and development is on everyone’s mind.  When we think of Asia we tend to think of the developing nations of Asia: China, Southeast Asia and India.  These countries were destitute just a generation ago, but today are rising fast.  It is their time, their industrial revolution, and they are catching up to the West at breakneck speed.  Where are they going though?  What will become of them?  Seeing just developing world Asia can leave a traveler frustrated and skeptical that these countries can ever “get it together”, but Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea are living examples of their future.

We often forget that in the midst of these developing economies are developed ones that play on the world stage.  Many people forget how powerful and rich Japan is.  Most people don’t know just how well-off South Korea is, even though it gets plenty of public attention (it has hosted the Olympics, World Cup, and will be hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics).  Hong Kong is a first world powerhouse that culturally is inextricably connected to China.  When Asian countries look for examples of how to develop, of what to invest in, and set their targets, they do look west, but needn’t strain their neck looking at Europe and North America, they can look at their successful neighbors.

As much of Asia is “keeping up with the Joneses” of their neighbors, I am willing to bet that most will never become Japan or Singapore, those are one-off societies that can’t really be replicated. Their desire for social order, let alone willingness to be subjugated to someone else’s social order, is unrealistic in most of Asia.  While Japanese and Singaporeans are germaphobes, I can’t see how you could completely, literally, cleanse many of these countries without a complete cultural and regulatory perspective shift.  I think they just don’t care to do this.

South Korea and Hong Kong though seem very instructive of what developing Asia will become.  The skylines will be gorgeous, but inside may reveal a thin veneer.  The bathrooms will be dubious and probably smell, but that won’t concern anyone.  The sidewalks may crumble in parts or be a mishmash of styles, and the stairs will probably be uneven.  Traditional medicine will be sold alongside the Western variations.  Everything will be nice, quite nice, but the cities will rarely match the order, cleanliness and regulations of Tokyo, Frankfurt or Chicago.  This will not be a bad thing though, for the vast majority of people in developing country Asia will live a considerably better life when they approach their first-world role-models.


When thinkCHUA burst into our room in Thailand and said that he had found an amazing fare to Japan and South Korea, but we had just five minutes to decide my first reaction was let’s skip it.  However, I couldn’t resist the fare price and his excitement- he was like a kid in a candy store kind of giddy.  We booked our flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo on to Busan, South Korea.  We weren’t expecting to go to these countries due to the expense, but it had quickly become part of our itinerary.

I have been to Japan before and while I liked it, I was concerned about the cost of spending almost a month there.  South Korea was a new destination for me, but one I had never had a lot of interest in visiting so I wasn’t anticipating these stops as much as my husband.  However, both stops proved to be a nice break from third world travel and offered us a glimpse into modern and luxurious Asia.

Not only was there a huge contrast between SE Asia and Japan, it was futuristic compared to back home.  The toilets had more buttons than a TV remote and using simple appliances such as a washing machine was too difficult to even attempt.  Japan’s advanced and built out transport system as well as the cleanliness of the streets blew me away even though this was my third visit to the country.  Even ordering lunch was like an episode of Futurama as everything was done through a vending machine.

South Korea was not as much like fast forwarding in time, but it was still a reminder of how comfortable our lives were back home.  Food was easily accessible, streets were clean and everyone obeyed traffic lights (although their driving does leave something to be desired).  I was most impressed with South Korea’s built out tourist infrastructure.  There were tourist information centers everywhere making travel so much easier.

Ultimately visiting South Korea and Japan provided a more comprehensive view of Asia and was a much needed reprieve before moving onto a three month stint in China.  However, if you are concerned about budget and want to see the developing world before it’s done developing I would say that you can cross out Japan and South Korea and see them when you have the money to enjoy them.

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» Cindy :
Aug 7, 2011

It’s great you were able to add these destinations to add to the overall perspective of your journals. Your future itinerary looks awesome.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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