He Said/She Said: SE Asia vs South America

He Said/She Said: SE Asia vs South America


“Backpackers of the world UNITE!” could be a rallying cry, if they didn’t naturally unite on the major backpacking trails of the world.  The two most popular, hands-down, are Southeast Asia (centered around Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos) and South America (specifically Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador).  There are few places where budget travelers can do more, party harder, or take better facebook profile photos than these regions.  So which one is best?




Asia or South America?  Hmm…this is a hard one.  A twenty-year old me chose South America and spent over a year exploring, experiencing and enjoying much that the continent had to offer.  Back then, when I was a kid,  South America cost me less than $20 a day to live like a king.  LOCAVORista and I took a “high-end” tour of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu for $150 dollars.  Nowadays it costs at least $50 a day to do much in South America and that Inca Trail tour costs at least $500…if you can get a reservation.  While I love South America, having spent almost two years traveling the continent, I honestly have to say, “Southeast Asia is so much more fun than South America.”

It’s not just money.  When I came to South America it was every lawless stereotype of Latin America.  The taxi drivers robbed people they picked up from the airport (OK, it still happens occasionally), you couldn’t get dinner without being offered cocaine, and it was normal for police to storm into hostel dorms to bust room mates that were stupid enough to buy the cocaine, demanding cash to “fix the situation”.  It was wild, it was amazing.  South America was so great I can’t tell you most of the stories, because they’re that good.

Take Bolivia for example, if you go today you can cycle down the “world’s most dangerous road”, the problem is that it’s not a road anymore, it’s just a bike path.  When I was there it was the only road, less than 10 feet wide at parts, with cliffs up to 1,800 feet on the side.  There was two-way cargo and bus traffic that would meet, head-on, and one would have to backup until the other could get by.  Once every two weeks a bus went over the side, often killing the passengers.  It happened, twice, while I was there.  Cyclists had to fight traffic the entire day and see the fallen trucks and buses.  Today though, people come, do the road with no traffic (hence it’s not the “world’s most dangerous road” any longer) then get a t-shirt.  You know what you got when I did it?  Happiness in surviving…

Not only has their infrastructure improved to the point that people don’t have to worry about their buses falling off cliffs, socially they’ve developed more than I imagined possible just 10 years ago.  Bolivians used to lock up their prisoners into a jail run by the prisoners themselves.  There were no guards inside.  Best of all, with a quick payment to the guards the entrepreneurial prisoners offered tours.  Your safety was promised by both the guards and the prisoners, but nothing was guaranteed, rumor had it that a couple tourists failed to make it out alive. It made it the tour of a lifetime (don’t believe me? pick up Marching Powder to find out more).  The upgrades to South America, while presumably great for the people, has removed so much of the fun.

While costs of South America have increased, adventure has decreased, making Southeast Asia, with it’s ever present deal making, amazing foods, and shadiness the place to go for budget travelers seeking unbelievable stories they’ll share for the rest of their life.




South East Asia and Latin America are popular backpacker trails for a reason, they offer great tourist infrastructure and just enough adventure to enjoy yourself without getting in too much trouble, at least for most of us.  But, choosing between these two popular routes is tough.  The natural beauty of South America and the incredible sights of SE Asia make it hard to pick which one is better.  Since I spent my 20’s backpacking in Europe my point of reference for both places is this trip.  We started our trip by spending six months in SE Asia and now we are ending our trip with six months in South America.  Maybe it’s the timing of our visits, but I have found myself missing Asia a lot while in South America.

South America is expensive, the distances are vast and the cities just aren’t as safe.  I miss being able to buy street food for a dollar, hopping on a bus in the morning and being at my destination by mid-day and most of all I miss not having to watch my belongings like a hawk to prevent someone from swooping in and relieving me of my stuff.  But, it’s not just cheap prices (and cheap beer) that fuels the fun in SE Asia.

Delicious pad thai for only a dollar on the streets of Bangkok

Part of the fun of travel is discovering new food and trying the local flavors, in SE Asia the wide range of delicious treats to taste is never ending. Spicy pad thai, exotic dragon fruit and more variations of green curry than I can recount are just a few of my food memories from SE Asia.  South America doesn’t deliver when it comes to variety and spice.  I have eaten lots of chicken in South America, but nothing to write home about.

When it comes to entertainment, SE Asia wins hands down.  The clubbing in South America is great, but there is no place like Khao San Road in Bangkok where you can simply enjoy a beer in the street and be entertained until the wee hours of the morning.  I haven’t found anywhere in South America where you can rent a tube and spend the day drinking your way down a river the way you can in Vang Vieng, Laos nor have I found as laid back a beach destination as Sihanoukville, Cambodia to enjoy beer and a sunset.

While it is a close race between South America and SE Asia, this is one that we both agree on, SE Asia offers more bang for you buck, tastier treats, cheap entertainment and the kind of stories that every backpacker is seeking.

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» Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) :
May 29, 2013

South America is still squarely on our “some day” list. It looks incredible, but when we decided where we most wanted to tackle on our trip, we knew it was Asia & Europe. Of course, we never expected when we set off that we’d still be in Asia 10 months later, but it has proved impossible to just breeze through here, especially when the cost of living is so low in most places. It’s the perfect place to go slow and really soak in the culture, traditions, and gorge ourselves on great food. We’ll have to save up our pennies for SA, but it sounds like we’ll need significantly more in our travel fund than we did this time around!
Read Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)’s awesome post Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (& More!) About: The Philippine Islands

thinkCHUA Reply:

The best part is that South America is close to North America and you won’t have any jet lag if you want to make a short trip there. It’s a lot easier to head south than to Asia/Europe!

» Mom A :
May 29, 2013

I get a kick out of your mention of a favorite laid back beach, Shianoukville. It is one of my vivid memories and I can close my eyes and be there! Can’t help but be delighted that It is one of the few places I visited before you and that you loved it, too!

thinkCHUA Reply:

It’s OK, you actually visited earth before us…long before us…

» Eric Reed :
May 29, 2013

Sadly I hear rumors that Vang Vieng has cleaned up its act. I read an article a little while back that the government cracked down, and the river just isn’t what it used to be.

thinkCHUA Reply:

This appears to be true, but trust me, take me with you to Cambodia and I’ll show you a wild great time in many other places.

» David :
May 30, 2013

Shoulda seen colombia, ecuador and Peru in ’78 when I did my first 7 month trip there…wish we had the internet. my folks had no idea if i was dead or alive

thinkCHUA Reply:

Oh how I wish I could have seen that. I bet you were better off without the internet and digital cameras recording the escapades…

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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