In 2007, my boyfriend and I were scheming about where to go for a 6-week trip. I desperately wanted to go to South America, but Aaron relentlessly argued that we should head to Southeast Asia instead – specifically Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Let’s just say I was skeptical, to say the least. I knew nothing about these countries. The language, customs and food seemed so incredibly foreign to me. At the time, I was a relatively inexperienced traveler and, to be honest, I was pretty nervous about the idea of venturing so far outside of my comfort zone.
Deciding to go to Southeast Asia versus South America was one of the best decisions I ever made. And after six incredible and mind opening weeks, I was hooked. Since then I’ve returned to the region twice. Once in 2010 and more recently in 2013, for a lengthy journey from which I returned a few months ago.
For years I made tentative plans to visit South America. But given my obsession with Asia, they just never panned out – until now! A week ago, Aaron and I made a kind of spur-of-the-moment decision and bought two one-way tickets to Bogotá, Colombia. I am so excited about our new adventure, but to be honest I am also slightly apprehensive about my first trip to a new continent. In my opinion, Southeast Asia is amazing. I could do without the heat but other than that it’s pretty perfect! And there’s a part of me that wonders if anywhere else in the world can top it.
I’m lucky to finally have the opportunity to compare these two very amazing and very different places. So as I make the transition from east to west, I’ve compiled a list of the top five things I’m going to miss about Southeast Asia, and I’ve jotted down five things I think I’m going to love about South America.
Top 5 things I’ll miss about Southeast Asia:
1.) The food – The food in Southeast Asia is absolutely ridiculous – in a good way, of course. Not only am I a vegetarian but I’m a budget traveler, so let’s just say I’m more than a little picky when it comes to eating out. Some of the best food I’ve ever tasted has been in Southeast Asia. From the spicy curries of Thailand to the noodle soups of Vietnam, what’s not to love? And let’s not forget about my love affair with Indonesia’s gado-gado (vegetables smothered in peanut sauce) and Malaysia’s world famous satay (again, vegetables smothered in peanut sauce). These items just scratch the surface of the delectable fare I’ve sampled throughout the region. Not only are they vegetarian, but they can all be purchased from street vendors for as little as $1-2 USD (sometimes even less). When it comes to food, Southeast Asia is going to be tough to beat.
2.) The beaches – Oh the beaches! I’ve seen some stunning beaches during my travels. But two of my all-time favorites are located in Southeast Asia. With its crystal clear waters and sugary white sand, Boracay, Philippines, is by far my favorite. Coming in at a close second is Railay, Thailand. The towering limestone karsts jutting out of the ocean make for some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. I wonder if any of the beaches I encounter in Colombia, or South America in general, will rival Boracay or Railay.
3.) The cost – I don’t care what anyone says; Southeast Asia is an incredible bargain – whether we’re talking food, accommodation or activities. During my most recent trip I was able to pretty much live it up on a budget of $40 a day. I was able to eat well both at street carts and at more pricey tourist-oriented restaurants. The value of hotels was unbelievable (see #4). I was able to splurge and take tours – from a three-day cruise to Halong Bay, Vietnam, to a snorkeling trip around the Gili Islands, Indonesia – and still come in under budget. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll even be able to travel on $40 a day South America. And if I do, I won’t be living it up in quite the same way as I did Southeast Asia.
4.) Value of accommodation – Since I travel with my boyfriend, I tend to avoid dorms. We like to enjoy a few more creature comforts than your average backpacker. So for us, spending a few dollars more on a nice hotel room is money well spent. For $20-30 a night we were consistently able to find some amazing deals – we’re talking air conditioning, flat screen TVs, stable WiFi, comfy beds and sometimes even a pool. Pretty awesome, right? It will be interesting to see what I can find in South America for that price. Though if my previous travels in Central America are any indicator, then that price will only afford me a pretty basic double room.
5.) The familiarity – It sounds odd, but despite the fact that I’m a California native there is something familiar about Southeast Asia. As a traveler, it’s become my home away from home. This will be my first trip to South America, and it always takes time to get acquainted with a new place. Hey, it took awhile for me to fall in love with Southeast Asia!
5 Things I’m going to love about South America:
1) Learning Spanish – A few years ago I flew to Havana, Cuba, to spend the summer learning Spanish. Let’s just say I dropped out of school the first day and traveled around the country instead. It might be one of the greatest decisions I ever made because it taught me how to travel in true budget fashion. However, I regret not completing the 6-week course because my Spanish-speaking skills are most definitely not up to par. Though I know a little bit of the language – at least enough to get by – I have zero ability to hold a conversation. So I’m hoping I can pick up a little bit more during the 2-3 months I have to travel around. Also, it will be nice to be able to read street signs, ask for directions and read menus – things I couldn’t always do in Asia.
2) The food – Being half Mexican, of course my favorite food is Mexican food. Now, I realize that South American cuisine will not be the same or even close. But I’m super excited for beans, tortillas (or variations thereof) and cheese! These are all things I missed desperately in Asia. Even though I know it will be difficult to be a vegetarian in Colombia (and Latin America in general), there is still plenty to eat. For example, I’m dying to stuff my face with arepas (thick tortillas stuffed with cheese or meat) and empandas (baked or fried pastries filled with meat or cheese) which are ubiquitous on Colombia’s streets (and cost about $1 USD).
3) Driving on the right side of the road – Yes, I’m American. And yes we drive on the right side of the road. This makes driving (or even crossing the street) in most Southeast Asian cities absolutely terrifying – okay, that might be due to the insane and chaotic driving methods they employ in many these countries. But I’m kind of excited to be back in a land where I don’t have to think twice about which side of the road I should be driving on or which way to look when I’m crossing the street.
4) The history – I’m fascinated by the history of this part of the world. From the Incas and Machu Picchu to the colonial period to Colombia’s cartels, South America has a rich and varied history. Growing up in the States I’ve learned bits and pieces of these stories, but having the chance to be here and experience these things for myself is just amazing.
5) The Caribbean – So I’ve gone on and on about my love for Southeast Asia. But I’m a traveler and I have lots of favorite places. And one of them just happens to be the Caribbean. I’m kicking off my South American journey in Colombia and I can’t wait to get reacquainted with the Caribbean. The city of Cartagena lies on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Everything from its beautiful beaches to the Afro-Caribbean vibe to the old colonial buildings excites me. And I can’t wait to get there!
Regardless of my reservations about traveling in a new place, I am an explorer at heart. And I am thrilled to experience a new corner of the world. Since I just returned from seven months in Southeast Asia I’m in a unique position to compare these two backpacker meccas. And can’t wait to share my thoughts with you!
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Join the debate! Which do you prefer – Southeast Asia or South America? What are some of your favorite things about them?