It is the vastness of the contrast, between income, living standards, attitudes and quality of life.

I have just spent five weeks in Asia – three in the Philippines, one in Thailand, one in Cambodia.

By Southeast Asia standards, Canadians are rich beyond imagination. “I wish I’d been born into royalty,” my oldest daughter sighed during the trip. Looking out the van window at yet another slum, I replied “You were.”

According to the World Bank in 2012, Canada’s per capita income (gross domestic product divided by the population) was $52,219.

Thailand has come a long ways, now in the mid-ranks of the world with a per capita income of $5,480.

The Philippines is far behind, in the bottom third. The average per capita income is $2,587. Its greatest export and income earner are Filipinos living and working abroad – 12% of its people.

Cambodia is the poorest sister of Southeast Asia, at $946 annually per capita. Despite the horror of its history and the poverty, Cambodian people are graceful, courteous, and, dare one speculate, happy. Something to do with a society grounded in the Buddhist religion.

Through my travels, I asked about monthly wages for household help. The wealthy in these countries will employ at least two or three servants – a cook, housekeeper, and driver, kinda like a poor man’s Downton Abbey. By golly, Thailand is getting expensive! Five hundred dollars a month! In the Philippines, $200 would be a good monthly wage. And in Cambodia, $60 to $100. In Canada, $2,000 a month would pay a nanny working 40 to 44 hours a week.

Of course, many things are cheaper. But around the world, meat is close to Canadian prices. A litre of gas is still about a buck. They pay to see a doctor, we don’t. They pay to go to school, we don’t. In Cambodia, elementary school teachers are paid $50 a month by the government, then told to seek money from impoverished parents. No bribe, no school.

One cries for the Philippines. It is a mixed up place. The “problem” is 1 in 10 Filipinos - 12 million of a population of 100 million – work abroad. For those families receiving money from overseas, it’s a curse and a blessing. Mom and Dad go overseas on work visas. They see their children, raised by relatives, maybe every five years and only for a few weeks. In any village, one or two nice homes stand out among the tin roofs and woven palm walls. They belong to the families with relatives overseas.

Every Filipino kid dreams of going abroad. Boys want to be chefs or sailors. Little girls want to be nurses. Then they can go abroad and send money home to their family. Not good for nation building.

Corruption is a terrible cancer. The great disappointment in the Philippines was that the overthrow of the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 led to more, not less, corruption.

Anti-government protests are now happening in Bangkok. Thailand’s standard of living has steadily risen for the past 20 years. But the new, urban middle class is deeply worried that the current government – supported in rural areas due to rice buying subsidies – is devolving into Marcos-magnitude corruption, endangering all their hard-won societal gains.

We stayed in Cambodia at the tourism town of Siem Reap, beside the famous temple ruins of Angkor Wat . A poor country to begin with, Cambodia was devastated in the 1970s by the bloody Communist government that, for nothing but ideological reasons, killed three million of its 15 million people.

Government corruption remains problematic. The saving grace of Cambodia is a lack of big cities – it’s easier to be poor close to the land, and a graceful, positive societal attitude. For the tourist, it’s incredibly cheap – 75 cents for a mug of beer, $40 a night for an elegant hotel, taxi (tuk tuk) rentals, with driver, for $15 a day.

The most exciting news? For Philippines and Cambodia, an expected growth rate of 6% to 8% per year, well above First World growth rates. Maybe, over the long term, bringing a semblance of middle-class life to the masses.

The lesson for us in Canada?

Count our blessings, push on with automation and technology, squash any hint of corruption. It’s our brainpower, our honesty, and our skill at extracting natural resources that keep us where we are.

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379