Gold is still king in some less developed parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Khmers, Malaysians, Thais and others still use it to bypass financial institutions that have been tainted by widespread banking malpractice. 

Maybe not for long, as bitcoin — easier to move and safer to carry around — makes inroads.

The APAC region’s banks are “opaque,” as well as “plagued by bad debts, corruption and nepotism,” Agence France-Presse wrote in a story last year about the jailing in Vietnam by 46 bankers over a loan swindle. And still, investors who shun banks and store gold jewellery at home, often at the risk of being robbed. 

So-called digital gold is challenging the real stuff. Cryptocurrencies — bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and Ethereum — offer people the opportunity to avoid the shady banking system without the downside of having to lug around a gold bar. They are widely recognized units of value, worth the same in Vietnam as in the U.S. or the U.K. 

Their platforms eliminate the need for a bank to validate transactions and enable faster, cheaper interactions between sellers and purchasers. For example, sending a wire transfer within the U.S. ranges from $25 to $45, and more internationally. But a Bitcoin transaction typically runs well under a dollar

This is all great news for a region where about 650 million people do not use banks.

In 2018, Southeast Asian fintech startup funding skyrocketed 143% year-on-year, hitting a record $485 million. Many of those deals involve Blockchain projects and cryptocurrency. These startups range throughout the region and address many different parts of cryptocurrency systems. 

In the Philippines, where more than three in four citizens are unbanked, two mobile wallet crypto startups — Satoshi Citadel Industries and Coins.ph — have emerged to help citizens store their digital currencies safely and easily. Concerns about storage have been among the major obstacles to a wider public embrace of crypto. “Your phone is the only wallet you’ll ever need!” says Coins.ph, which was bought by Indonesia’s Gojek for $72 million in January and boasts five million customers.

Regional fintech rivals include the Vietnamese cryptocurrency exchange Bitcoinvn and the open-source credit and big-data bureau MicroMoney, which has offices in Myanmar and Indonesia. The strongest contender, Singapore, is home to aggressively backed players including the global cryptocurrency payment service TenX and the versatile Spiking, a trading app that offers “verified trading information in real-time updates on the big whales in the cryptos, options, and stock markets.” 

Then there is Cambodia’s CryptoAsia, which lets users accept Bitcoin payments and be paid in dollars. Thailand’s digital asset exchange Bitkub lets users buy, sell and store Bitcoin, Ether, and other cryptocurrencies with Thai Baht, providing touted “total financial freedom.”

Booming in Thailand

Lucy Lin, the founder of the Blockchain-geared consultancy Forestlyn, said Thailand’s cryptocurrency community is “thriving with activity,” particularly in Bangkok, where billboards and flyers advertising Bitcoin and crypto services abound. Outside big cities, she noted, crypto meetups happen in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and Bali, both of which have ATMs. “There is a lot of passion and a lot of belief that it will help get away from the centralized corporate systems and help the unbanked and developing nations with a new financial system,” she said.

“Investing in cryptocurrencies is not for the faint of heart. This is compounded by the fact that more and more cryptocurrencies are popping up every day, meaning there is a dizzying array of choices.”

However, a large segment of the public remains skeptical. Many of them do not understand how cryptocurrency works and how they can participate.

In an APAC-geared February post, Brandwatch analyst Kevin Virsolvy wrote that “the cryptocurrency and Blockchain space remain prone to consumer misunderstanding and confusion. This has led to a significant amount of uncertainty and anxiety.”

Many consumers are also concerned about digital currency’s volatility. Bitcoin reached a high of over $20,000 in early 2018 but plummeted below $3,500 11 months later. It is currently hovering over $9,500.

“Investing in cryptocurrencies is not for the faint of heart,” said innovation consultant Mike Plishka, who runs his own agency, ZenStorming. “This is compounded by the fact that more and more cryptocurrencies are popping up every day, meaning there is a dizzying array of choices.”

He added that the tremendous swings that crypto entails mean people need faith.

Meanwhile, increasing public acceptance has been difficult because consumers have had poor experiences setting up wallets and purchasing cryptocurrency, said Rossco Paddison, the Australian co-founder of Mosendo. The Vietnam-based digital wallet provider says it does $23.5 million in daily trade volume.

“Most people who have tried have been put off by the complicated nature of setting up a wallet,” Paddison told Karma. 

Crypto-backed transactions should feel easy and familiar. He has been encouraged by the success of two Vietnam competitors Zalo Pay and MoMo, which also provide wallet services. MoMo raised a C venture round earlier this year led by private equity giant Warburg Pincus. It got almost $35 million in its earlier rounds and counted Standard Chartered and Goldman Sachs among its investors. 

Echoing Paddison, James Bennett, a strategic advisor for the fintech data hub Bytetree said: “Crypto can be complicated, so it is important to make- very intuitive platforms for people to interact with – as well as providing the education.”