A Backpacker’s Debate: Southeast Asia vs. South America

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.

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Gado-gado is one of Indonesia’s national dishes. It’s made up of boiled veggies and tofu, all topped with a creamy peanut sauce.
Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Street food stalls in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are renowned for their satay. Skewered meat and vegetables are grilled and dipped in a delectable peanut sauce.

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.

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Boracay is world famous due to its white sand beaches and turquoise water.
Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Gigantic limestone formations decorate the coastline of Thailand’s Railay Beach. If you look closely you can see swimmers floating in the water.

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.

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
“Cruise ships” docked at Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam. Thousands of limestone formations are found in the waters here.

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).

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
It might not be the healthiest, but the street food is pretty amazing in Colombia!

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.

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Motorcycle madness in Hanoi, Vietnam. Crossing the street here is slightly terrifying.

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!

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush
Colorful colonial building in the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia.

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!

Planning your travels.  Pin this article for later!

Backpacking Southeast Asia vs. South America - Travel Lush

Join the debate!  Which do you prefer – Southeast Asia or South America?  What are some of your favorite things about them? 

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

28 thoughts on “A Backpacker’s Debate: Southeast Asia vs. South America

  1. I can relate to your dilemma. We too love SE Asia and have visited it many times. But now, we’re really interested in trying something different. We’re thinking of going in South America on our next over seas destination.

    We can’t wait to read more about your adventures in that continent. Maybe it will help with our decision 🙂

    Have fun!

    1. It’s been an odd transition. And I can’t wait to report back to you about my journey. In my experience trying something new is always a good thing. So far I am very pleasantly surprised. I’m really enjoying my time in Bogotá. It’s completely surpassed my expectations. I actually really love it here 🙂

  2. I feel you! I just came back from a three month trip to South America two months ago. It was awesome! But I also went to SE Asia a year and a half ago and everyday I think about going back because I loved it so much. It ruined me!!

    1. Ugh, I know. I’ve been in Colombia for four days and I’m completely loving it. But I know Southeast Asia is a place I will return to again and again. It’s such an amazing place. But I’m hoping I’ll be saying the same thing about South America by the end of my trip!

  3. Love your account of Southeast Asia! And your anticipation of new experiences is exciting! Your pics are great too! Looking forward to more updates!

    1. Thanks Cindy. It’s so fun to be able share our travels through this blog! I’m planning on posting more on our adventures in Bogotá soon. And more pictures too! Miss you and Bill (and Jake and Woofie, of course!).

  4. You are going to love South America. it’s so different to Asia/South East Asia (err obviously) but I just loved the culture and the history and learning the language when I was there. So funny you were thinking about doing a 6 week trip to S.America in 2007- that’s when we were travelling there. I obviously have no idea about prices these days but we stayed in some super awesome hostels (usually in a private room). I really need to go back to South America some day soon- so much still to see. really looking forward to following along on your adventure! J xx

    1. I’ve been in Bogotá for a few days and I LOVE it! It’s definitely so different than Southeast Asia but in a good way. The culture, the language, the food and the weather are all so refreshing. So far, so good!

  5. Glad you are enjoying Bogota. Did you do any research on the Lost City? was it for you? In answer to the question, I think SE Asia is most people’s first choice because it is cheaper both in terms of accommodation and flights. But I really wanna get to Peru and Rio soon! I don’t mind spending the extra cash…maybe even head up to Mexico and see Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza! Have a great time in Colombia!

    1. I did! The trek to the Lost City sounds incredible. And it’s something I would absolutely want to do. I haven’t looked into costs yet, so that could be an issue. I also didn’t pack hiking boots and it looks like they might be necessary. I agree, a large part of the reason I keep returning to SE Asia is because it’s so cheap (plus I love it!). But South America has so much to offer and I really have been dreaming of traveling here for what seems like forever. Peru and Rio are on my list too. I have traveled through Mexico and I loved it. You definitely need to go!

  6. I couldn’t agree with all of your SE Asia comments – it’s really hard to beat that incredible bargain. We didn’t have to choose whether we would do something or not based on money – ever. Haven’t been to South America yet, but in our trips to central america I felt like I had to skip some activities due to cost. The same quality hotel costed at least double in central america as it did in SE Asia. Oh, SE Asia also has massages for SOOO CHEAP! We keep considering heading to S America, though, so I’m excited to read your posts on it!

    1. Totally. I was able to do (most everything) I wanted to do in SE Asia. When you compare travel costs in places like the Caribbean and Central America, the incredible value that SE Asia offers is made VERY apparent. I too had to pass on a lot of activities due to price in Central America. And I’m assuming the same will happen during my time in South America. But I’ve learned you just have to pick and choose the things you really want to do. It’s the curse of the budget traveler 😉

    1. I love that question! To be honest, the Philippines was one of the most difficult countries I’ve been to in terms of being a vegetarian. However, Cebu offered the most vegetarian options of any other Philippine city. Ha, I found lots of veg friendly restaurants at the Ayala mall! But eating difficulties aside, the Philippines is by far my most favorite Southeast Asian country. I absolutely love it there!!

  7. Oh I can so understand this dilema. Ever since I left high schol I wanted to travel to South America lng-term, but never really got round to do it. When I took a career break from my job three years ago I thought that the time had finally come, but in the end I ended up in Cambodia as the job offer there sounded better. I ended up staying for two years and travelled the región extensively. I am now in South America though, as I thought that 2 years is enough and that I should finally follow my heart. I love it here and so will you. If you make it to Peru, let me know. I will settle down here in Arequipa for a while.

    1. Hi Tammy! Now that I’m here (in Colombia), I totally love it! And I’m so very glad that I finally took the jump to come to South America. I debated on whether or not to go to Peru or Colombia, but in the end Colombia won. I would absolutely love to make it down to Peru, via Ecuador. Though I’m potentially going to be looking for a job in South America so I’m still not really sure where I’ll end up. Thanks, I will definitely let you know if I make it to Peru 🙂

  8. I’m happy I stumbled across this post because my fiance and I are planning a long-term trip around South East Asia and I too had originally had my eyes set on South America. I don’t know if it was more for comfort as it was for the opportunity to improve upon my Spanish but in the end, I’m happy to visit a part of the world that is foreign to me. South East Asia is a big step outside of my comfort zone, which in the end–isn’t that what travel is all about: 🙂
    I tend to fly to Central or South America every year with girlfriends anyway since from NYC it is fairly cheap and easy to get there. Enjoy your travels!

    1. You are going to have the time of your life in Southeast Asia! I think one of the things I love the most about it is how it constantly takes you out of your comfort zone. Everything from the food to the language to the customs are fascinating and eye-opening. And they differ from country to country, which is so cool. I’m so excited for you! Where are you planning on going?

        1. You’re going to love Bali. I was just there a few months ago. I wrote a few posts about it. Definitely check out Nusa Lembongan and the Gili Islands if you have the chance. I loved both of them 🙂

    1. Ha, poor us! How exciting that you’ll be traveling to Southeast Asia. I’ve been back here four times now. I honestly just can’t seem to stay away. The beaches are great but the food is the best — especially for vegetarians like us 🙂

  9. Ohhhh yes, what a choice! I’m in the position you were at the start of the post; I loved SE Asia and have found it the best place to go backpacking in the world – not just because of the reasons you state but also because it’s full of other backpackers so you’ll always meet interesting people on the road (useful for solo travellers like me).

    But I’ve always been interested in South America and imagined that of all the places in the world, it would probably be the one which would call out to me the most. At the time of writing however, I’ve only been to Chile, which I really got into – it doesn’t look much on arrival in Santago but once you let it get under your skin it’s a lively and interesting place.

    My main concern is the language – I don’t know Spanish at all (when I was growing up, our schools concentrated on French, with usually German as ‘the other foreign language’ available); and while I just about managed in Chile okay, for the longer haul around Argentina and Bolivia I really think I should learn at least enough to buy in markets and be able to ask directions etc.

    One day I’ll make it 🙂
    The Barefoot Backpacker recently posted…Why I don’t want to holiday in Australia again!

    1. There is something about Southeast Asia that I can’t get enough of. I was a little hesitant when I made the decision to travel long term here, only because I’d already been to the region before and I felt like I’d be missing out on all the other amazing places I hadn’t been to yet. But in the end I was able to explore the region so much more thoroughly than I had before, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Plus, I was able to visit countries like Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of which I loved and hadn’t visited before.

      Southeast Asia is a great place for backpackers but I think South America is too. After I wrote this post I ended up spending two months in Colombia and fell in love with it. It was full of backpackers too, which really surprised me. I do understand being hesitant to travel in South America without having any knowledge of Spanish. I know enough to get by and it did come in handy. But, I’ve also been to plenty of places in Central Europe and SE Asia where no one speak English and somehow I always manage to get by. Now that I’m living in Jakarta, I deal with the language barrier A LOT but I just deal. I hope to explore more of South America too. Bolivia and Peru are really calling my name. Hopefully both of us make it back there…and soon!

  10. Hi there,

    I know this was posted a while ago but I am debating central america versus south east asia and wanting to hear from someone who has done both which it appears you have. Me and my boyfriend are going to one of the two places for two weeks. We have been to Thailand before but that is it for Asia. What are your thoughts on what one is better? We are 25 and 28. Love good food exploring beaches just experiencing and being immersed in culture really. Truthfully I don’t want central america to be a dud compared to Asia if you know what I mean

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