South America and South East Asia are both very popular tourist destinations, but unless you are on a RTW trip you are probably going to have to choose one region or the other. Having spent the first decade of my travelling life solely in and around Asia purely due to budget restrictions I put off South America until I could afford to visit.
As a frequent traveller it is inevitable that you will draw comparisons between the places you have visited and I often found myself comparing South America with South East Asia—sometimes favourably and other times not.
I am writing this post fully aware that it is completely subjective and that many people will disagree with my thoughts, but I am not writing it to start a South America vs. South East Asia war: merely to dissect my own thoughts and to find out which region I truly prefer.
Both regions are very beautiful, but South America is far more diverse. Sure, South East Asia offers stunning jungle, beaches, mountains, volcanoes and canyons, but you aren’t going to find any glaciers, deserts, entire lakes made from salt, or vast wildlife reserves (particularly ones with a focus on conservation, rather than exploitation) on top of that. While the mountains of South East Asia are stunning, they are no match for the Andes. And whilst the Mekong Delta is a rich and fertile area, can it compare to the Amazon Rainforest? South America is just so big, there’s so much space it’s hard to even imagine until you have been there.
South America wins for me because I found that when it comes to landscape in South East Asia the popular ‘Same, Same, but different’ adage begins to ring true.
South America: 1
There are gorgeous beaches in both, but South East Asia’s tropical climate means that the numerous beaches found in the area can be enjoyed year round. Even in rainy season. For me, this one’s a no brainer.
South East Asia: 1
I fell in love with a few cities in South America: Santiago de Chile, Valparaiso, Cusco and Cartagena in particular. South American cities are generally much more organised with better infrastructure, than South East Asian cities. I do, however, love the craziness that comes with a South East Asian city—from the bright neon lights to the tangled electricity cables hanging dangerously above the streets. I’m going to award a point for each on this one.
South America: 1, South East Asia: 1
South East Asia is undoubtedly the safest region in general, but that does not necessarily make it completely safe. Of course, this is all relative: I was robbed twice in South East Asia but never in South America, but then I spent 3 years in South East Asia and only 5 months in South America. I have heard of machete attacks on tourists taking place in both Colombia and Vietnam.
Having said that I award the point to South East Asia because armed attacks are still very rare. Pickpocketing is a risk everywhere.
South East Asia: 1
South East Asia is cheap, cheap, cheap. Flights are cheap. Buses are cheap. Taxis are cheap. For a budget traveller South East Asia is difficult, nay impossible, to beat. But bus journeys are long, we’re talking 5 hours to travel 200km, and the buses are uncomfortable. You also have to factor in the numerous stops at tiny roadside shacks with questionable roadside food.
It is not uncommon to find that your bed on a sleeper bus is double booked, your seat on an overnight bus doesn’t recline, or that the a/c unit drips ice-cold water on you all night. The driver will honk the horn incessantly and play local music at full volume for the entire journey.
South America buses vary on where you go, but with the exception of Bolivia and Colombia, they are very high quality. Most are fitted out with comfortable reclining chairs, on board catering service, clean working toilet, blankets & pillow, and a driver who respects that passengers want to sleep. The buses are pricey but the service exceptional.
South America: 1
I loathe dormitories. I loathe sharing a bathroom. I resent paying extortionate amounts of money to stay in a room with 10 other people. I kind of like the idea of hostels, but think they have a tendency to encourage people to hang-out in ‘travel cliques’ according to who your dorm-mates are. If the hostel has a bar then many backpackers don’t even bother to go out and explore the city.
On the other hand, I like cheap guest houses with a private bathroom and a room that includes fridge/TV and air con for less than $10. Many South East Asian guest houses only have a handful of rooms and no bar or restaurant, forcing the guests to get out and explore. In my opinion, South East Asia wins this one hands-down.
South East Asia: 1
This category totally comes down to personal choice. I don’t eat any seafood and I don’t like coconut or any kind of Thai curry. I like rice but could equally live without it. I want to eat the local food when I travel, but there is just a lot of South East Asian food that doesn’t appeal. I love good quality meat and the best I have ever tasted is in South America. Empanadas are the food of the gods! The desserts are also much better in South America.
South America: 1
Drinking & Dancing:
This largely depends on where you want to drink and dance, and who with. If you want cheap, lethal cocktails, dancing on the beach and people from all nationalities speaking predominantly English, then South East Asia is the place to be. You will meet locals but the language barrier and the financial discrepancy between East and West often means that you can’t meet as equals.
The common language of Spanish makes the majority of South America very accessible if you master a basic understanding. You can party in the bars and clubs with the Spanish as equals, and you’ll find that they are very welcoming towards travellers. A man will approach a woman to dance salsa, not because they are hitting on her but simply because everybody just loves to dance.
The music and the dancing in South America is far superior but I will award a point for each here as it really depends on what you’re looking for and I like a bit of both!
South America 1: South East Asia 1
Culture & History:
Another category where it depends largely on what you’re looking for. Both regions have their fair share of interesting history, remnants of older civilisations, and have overcome hardship: for example, there are as many churches in South America to rival the temples of South East Asia, and the Government Junta of Chile shares more than a few similarities to Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge.
I am personally more fascinated by Spanish culture, in particular how the Spanish Conquistadors single-handedly expunged civilisations such as the Incas and enforced their religion upon the whole region. I am also more familiar with Latin American literature through the works of Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Ariel Dorfman, than South East Asian literature, so for these reasons I award my final point to South America.
Edit: some of the comments made below have drawn to my attention the fact that I have not explained this point clearly, and that I am suggesting that I admire the Spanish takeover of South America. Reading the phrasing of the above, I can see how this miscommunication has transpired (oh, for an editor!), so let me clarify. I am fascinated by the indigenous cultures of South America, and feel that it is a great loss to our modern world that they no longer exist, other than in ruined buildings and archaeological sites. I find it interesting to see how one culture can just wipe-out another e.g. how does it happen? How can that culture justify its actions? etc… but I in no way believe that it is right to do so.
South America: 1
So, how do these two regions fare against each other in my opinion?
South America: 6 South East Asia: 5
In my opinion, South America wins purely on diversity, infrastructure and cultural appreciation. It also has the considerable advantage of a common language. Sadly, most of South America is not cheap and for that reason alone I will probably return to South East Asia more often than I will return to South America, but for now at least it seems that South America is my favourite!
By the way, you will not find a good pizza in either South America or South East Asia. Just so you know 🙂
Now, it’s your turn. Have you been to both? How would you rate each? I already know that I am in the minority when it comes to the food section! Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you enjoyed the post, then please share.