7 surprises after years spent in Asia

We’ve been back ‘in the West’ less than three weeks; it’s still fresh and different.

Actually, after more than four-and-a-half years living and traveling in Asia, many things are borderline shocking to this former American resident.

First we spent several years in Southeast Asia. Then we finished our nine-month tour of India and Nepal in May 2023; spent almost three weeks in UAE on a long ‘layover’; and have been exploring Serbia and Romania ever since.

Here are seven stunning surprises we’ve encountered upon returning to ‘Western’ civilization after 55 months living in Asia.

7 surprises after years spent in Asia

1.  Pasty white people are everywhere

Surprise: there are lots of people like us! Tender, milky-white, and easily sunburned. No surprise really, but after so many years of being in the tiny minority of folks that were NOT brown skinned, I can’t help but notice.

scantily clad young women in belgrade, serbia

What’s more, many of them are tall and/or wide. Not uncommon in the West, but honestly, for nearly five years in Asia, I have usually been one of the larger human specimens — certainly in the top 20 percent. At 5′ 9″ and 175 pounds, I’m now back to being in the bottom third in terms of stature.

Perhaps most shocking of all: many of the young women here are half naked! In contrast, I can count on one hand the times I saw a female in a low-cut top, daisy dukes, or mini skirt/dress in India (they were always foreigners). Legs, bare shoulders, cleavage – never! Hindus always dress modestly. Same for the locals in UAE, Malaysia, even Thailand. The Catholic-majority Philippines was more ‘relaxed’ – but since leaving there, I have rarely even seen a man shirtless except when swimming.

(For the record, I’ve not witnessed any guy urinating in public since leaving India. Folks in conservative Asia apparently have no problem with this act. But in UAE and the Balkans it’s a no-no, or at least done discreetly).

2. Meat overload

Here in Serbia and Romania it is often hard for Ellen – currently a vegetarian – to find a meal on a menu. Ninety-five percent of restaurant foods are meat focused. Greek-style salads are usually the only option (and pizza parlors).

Meanwhile, in the last five weeks of Balkan travel, I’ve eaten so much sausage, shawarma, barbecue, burgers, and schnitzel that I feel unhealthy.

sausage and schnitzel in eastern europe

I need a balance like what is easily available in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam.

It’s the exact opposite of India/Nepal, where I sometimes struggled to find any meat. (Hindus are vegetarian, and cows are sacred.) Thankfully, Indian Muslim communities could usually be found where chicken was always available and cheap.

3.  Gambling parlors

Do these exist in America? Not when I was last there. ‘Off track betting’ is old school. But I know various new forms of gambling are now legal in different U.S. states.

Anyway, in Serbia and Romania, small storefront gaming parlors seem to be on every city block. The windows are always completely covered, but I’ve peeked inside to see video poker/slot machines and clouds of cigarette smoke.

betting parlours in eastern europe

I’d forgotten about these businesses after noting them in England, southern Europe, and Croatia back in 2018. But there seem to be many more in the Eastern Balkans.

4.  Smoking

Another European habit I’d happily forgotten. Sure, there are smokers in Asia, but comparatively few. Bottom line: most people in developing countries don’t have extra money for cigarettes – even though they are cheap in Asia by Western standards.

But in Eastern European towns, the smell of cigarettes is nearly constant. It feels like half the population smokes. And we are always cognizant of smokers/vapers when picking an outdoor cafe/restaurant table (indoor smoking is mostly ‘prohibited’). We’ve moved tables a few times in recent weeks when necessary.

5.  Graffiti 

I’ve never seen so much spray-paint graffiti as in Belgrade, Serbia. Most every building was tagged. In Romania there is less — but still a lot compared to Asia.

graffiti in eastern europe

In fact, I can only recall rare instances of graffiti in even the biggest Asia metropolises: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t know if religion or culture or punishment is the deterrent, but graffiti hardly exists. Most likely, as with cigarettes, the few bucks needed to buy spray paint is disincentive enough to hungry, would-be ‘artists’ in developing nations.

6.  Motorbikes, the lack thereof

If you are unaware, India is swarming with scooters – as is much of Asia. New car dealerships are popping up everywhere, yet in my estimation, 75-80% of all motorized vehicles in many Asian countries are still small motorbikes (under 150cc engines). 

In Eastern Europe today – the opposite. In fact, most of the few motorbikes we’ve seen in UAE, Serbia, and Romania are food delivery drivers. That’s it. Gas prices have been high for a generation ($7-$8 per gallon), but there are ever more autos on the roads here; mostly small hatchbacks – very few pickup trucks or electric cars. Parking is always an issue for owners.

One more vehicle related surprise — Yugos are still on the road!

an old yugo car in serbia

7.  The weather

How about finishing the list of surprises with a positive. 

Since arriving on the European continent, we’ve enjoyed glorious, mild weather conditions. Highs in the low 80s. Lows in the mid-60s. Average rainfall – mostly at night. Perfect. And a far cry from the 100+ degree days we experienced regularly throughout April and May in India and UAE, and the hot, humid jungles of the rest of Asia.

Of course, there is plenty more summer to come – and the climate seems more unpredictable than ever. But the summer heat we expected isn’t here yet. We haven’t used our AC in weeks.

— A word about prices

Finally, you may have been expecting to see ‘high prices’ as one of the shocks or surprises of a move to Europe. But honestly, most prices are about what we expected to find in the Balkans.

Still, if you are wondering, compared to India, prices are quite a bit higher for most goods — often close to double. Our typical Airbnb lodging is $35-$40 per night, instead of $20-$25. Moderate restaurant meals are at least double ($25 instead of $12). Train and bus transport are about double too. Thankfully, carry-out beer is a steal — often ‘on sale’ for 60-80 cents per 500ml can. Similar brews in restaurants/bars run $2.50 to $4.50 each.

Of course, we know east Balkan living expenses are still far below those of northern Europe and the USA. That’s why we came here! And we have upped our budget. Stay tuned for more exact price updates and monthly budget breakdowns once we start some month-long stays in coming months.

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

ellen and theo in romania, theo with beer

Thanks for reading, “7 surprises after years spent in Asia.”

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2 thoughts on “7 surprises after years spent in Asia”

  1. We’re currently in Japan, and we’ve noticed a lot of these differences from our time in Europe last year. The lack of smoke is breathtaking (pun intended).

    One thing we’ve notice, at least in Kyoto, is that few people have dogs, so we never have to dodge dog poop on the streets. We wonder if this will change when we get to Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia later in the year.

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