Western impressions from South-East Asia

20 04 2010

Below is an article that I wrote for a friend’s blog.  You can check out Natasha’s blog here and a permanent link to my article here.  I was very amused reading Natasha’s introduction that I included at the end of the article.


The first thing that I noticed upon arriving in South-East Asia was the entrepreneurial spirit of the people—a spirit that was noticeable everywhere we went. It might be the case that a lot of the people have been forced to start their own business out of lack of options, but that certainly does not apply to all of them. I started thinking about all the people I know who dream of starting their own business. Do we need to be forced to live the lives we dream of? Being your own boss, though, is not just fun and play, since there is often no one to take care of business for you—and this leads to the next topic: work-life balance

People in South-East Asia seem to work from very early in the morning to very late in the evening, often over sixteen hours a day, and work seems to be their life. If you work sixteen hours and have kids, you have a problem. That problem seems to be fixed in two ways: either people take their kids to work or they depend on their extended family. As you know, the elders in Asia are not put in old people’s homes, but live with their families and have their role there. I’m not saying it should be like this in the West—it’s just nice to see how that works well in Asia.

There is one thing that has bothered me for a long time and that is the feature creep. All too often in the past I wanted to buy something that I had previously been very satisfied with, like the computer that I bought two years ago or the Nokia 5110 phone or a bike with just five gears. Those things should be available at a fairly low price but no, you can only buy the latest model with all the new features that have been invented since. In Asia this is actually possible! It is possible to buy a phone that only does SMS and phone calls, or a bike with no gears, or a low-cost computer that does what you want it to and nothing more.

You can’t miss the great importance of spirituality in Asia. In three of the four countries I visited, Theravada Buddhism is the main religion and participation is very high. Buddhism is quite different from the Abrahamic religions and it seems like spirituality is intertwined with every aspect of people’s lives. In the West there has been more focus on organized religions than on individual and private involvement.

During my travels I also noted at least three issues that are connected with the development of the countries of South-East Asia and their quest to be among the developed nations of this world. I have a lot of questions around those topics but haven’t had the time to find the answers. Maybe you have some insights?

First, how will Asia deal with all the pollution and garbage in the coming years, as they develop? As we consume more resources we create more waste—unless something changes in the way we act. Both garbage and pollution are already a problem in the region, so it is imperative that these countries find new solutions to deal with the waste they create.

Second, how can Asia sustain its agriculture, as the food consumption moves away from rice production towards greater use of meat and grains? When nations become richer they consume more meat and grains than before, which puts more pressure on local resources and on the environment. This will become a big problem in regions that are already under much pressure.

And third, how will Asia deal with even more traffic, with the increase of cars on the roads? When people have more money to spend, more and more of them choose to opt for a car instead of the more traditional scooter. This will put pressure on the already congested traffic system. As I said, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they kept popping up as we traveled though the region.


Örn Thordarson was born in Húsavík, on the northern tip of Iceland—the most beautiful place on Earth and home of the Icelandic Phallological Museum. He has a background in computer science and worked in the financial sector for about ten years before getting his MBA from the University of St. Gallen, where he is known for introducing fellow students to fermented shark and sheep’s balls (in addition to numerous other qualities). He is currently travelling in China and plans on returning to Iceland in May 2010.



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