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.
You don´t like thai food? what a waste! 🙂
I do agree though…it´s a tough call.
My vote would go to SE Asia, though if its getting away from crowds and spending some time in raw wilderness…South America has way more options.
But as for food…well…SE Asia hands down!!
I don’t tend to admit it often but it’s true, I don’t really like Thai food that much. There are a few South East Asian dishes that I do like, Bo Luc Lac for example, but I am much more of a meat, potatoes, veggie and cous-cous girl so I really like Mediterranean and European food. I love Chinese, Indian and Mexican food too. Meat and carbs for me 🙂
I actually haven’t been to either, but am FINALLY arriving in SEAsia in less than a month and am excited about everything you mention. I mean SEAsia is like the HOLY GRAIL of backpacking jaja. I’m honestly doing SEAsia on this trip because I know it’s much cheaper than S. America. I didn’t visit any part of S. America on this trop though because I know I really wanna do it proper by spending a year or two alone there. It’s on my list of next HUGE adventures and hope to get to it soon. I love all the points you made because I believe they are all right.
Thank you very much. You will LOVE SE Asia! Of course, this post is generalised and specific to my own likes/dislikes. I know I stand alone with the food as most people LOVE SE Asian food. It’s just that I don’t like fish and most things have fish/seafood or fish sauce in them. And I LOVE Asia for being cheap. The buses are crappy but they are cheap so you don’t mind them. In an ideal world I would have a South American standard bus at the price of an Asian one 🙂 The language thing in South America is easier if you know Spanish, but then English seems to be more used in Asia so you can always get by anyway.
You are right to do both regions as separate trips as they are so huge they each need a decent amount of time to explore. Just make sure that your budget for South America is bigger 🙂
Never made it to South America so can’t compare. S.E Asia I love, and am returning there next year to do a tefl course and then use it to further my travels.
Most of my mates reckon S. America holds more appeal when the two are compared.
Great blog miss. Keep up the good work. 😉
Thanks for the comment. Where will you do your TEFL course?
I have to disagree on food. I think SE Asia has the best food on the planet. It’s a shame you dont like it.
Although food is relative, I definitely think that transport should go to SE Asia. You have a choice between flights, bus, car, train, tuk tuk or whatever. When comparing buses only, SAmerica may come in front. Although when I splurged on a bus ride to Malaysia, I rode on a double decker with the widest lie flat seats and individual tv screens. Again its about choice and its really how much money your willing to part with.
I knew that people would find my food choice strange! It’s mainly that I just don’t like fish and it’s hard to avoid in SE Asia. I love meat, and find that the meat quality in SE Asian food is pretty poor – tiny slivers of unidentifiable meat, usually on the bone. The transport one was a difficult call, and if you compare ALL forms of transport SE Asia would win on budget flights alone. But I loved the buses in South America (not the price), the roads were clear and endless, and the service was impeccable. Much as I love South East Asia, there is no concept of customer service. I haven’t used the buses in Malaysia, thanks for the tip – I will try them out. Thanks for dropping by and commenting 🙂
I’ve been to SE Asia and loved it so much, it was difficult to choose a new location to jet off to next. But I will be heading to South America in December and i just LOVED reading your comparisons. So relieved to hear that buses are nicer in South America but I am really going to miss those SE Asia guest houses!
Britany Robinson recently posted..‘Round the World Wrap-up, 9/3
You are REALLY going to miss SE Asia guest houses in South America!! The hostels are quite expensive in most countries and the communal kitchens pretty filthy, and we only had a private bathroom once or twice because it was so much more expensive. You really can’t beat SE Asia for accommodation! Where are you going in South America?
I really enjoyed reading your comparisons – very interesting 🙂
Whilst I´ve travelled all around south-east Asia I have yet to explore much of South America (other than minimal travel in the north of the continent).
Very glad to hear that the buses are better in South America than some of the terrifying night-buses in SE Asia!
Marianne recently posted..East of Málaga: So near, yet so far away
The buses are expensive in South America but they are really comfortable! I am excluding Bolivia and Colombia’s buses from this statement though as they are more terrifying than SE Asian buses!!
What a flawed comparison. You are comparing the whole of South America with just the southeastern part of Asia?? Asia is HUGE and far more diverse than South America could ever be. It is also a no-brainer that Asian cuisine is far superior to South American food. I disagree pretty much on everything you write here…
Hey, I said that it was a completely subjective post and that I don’t expect people to agree with me. I know that Asia is much larger than only SE Asia, but my basis of comparison was restricted to the parts of Asia that are most popular on the tourist trail – and that is Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos etc…
As for the food – the post was entirely my own opinion of the two regions (and clearly stated so at the beginning of the post) and I much prefer the food in South America. Therefore, I find your comment about it being a ‘no-brainer’ somewhat narrow minded. Am I not as equally entitled to an opinion as you? If we all thought the same the world would be a very dull place.
Happy holidays 🙂
You are fascinated how the Spanish pretty much wiped out all indigenous culture? I would rather prefer hearing exotic languages, eating exotic foods and witnessing exotic rituals and religions. Instead i get just hispanic culture most of the time. Sorry, to disagree big time here – but the “same same but different” applies much more to South America than Asia…
I didn’t say that I agreed with it, or that I think it is right. I am merely fascinated by how it happens. Once again, we don’t have to agree, we are all entitled to our own opinion.
I hope that you are enjoying your Christmas holiday wherever you are in the world.
Great article, just wanted to update on the buses in South East Asia, this has been changing over the past couple years, the quality is getting better, a lot of companies are getting new buses etc. A lot of routes now have luxury buses but cost more, though still cheap. They’re realizing the need for quality buses and adapting now.
Thanks for the update – that’s great news! I should head back to South East Asia and check them out 🙂
I think it would be unfair to skip out both India and China on this comparison. China has the deserts and glaciers, not to mention both countries are rich in culture and history
I agree that both China and India are excellent travel destinations, however, for the purpose of this article I wanted to focus solely on South East Asia as it is a more common region for young first-time travellers. I will hopefully go back to both China and India in order to write more about the culture and history of those regions.
Good post. Very much what I was looking for after travelling SE Asia for 16 months. Thanks
Thai make the best chicken and pork dishes ever, so I don’t know why you chose fish while being there.
I didn’t choose fish. I don’t like fish – in the post I said “I don’t eat any seafood” so I’m not really sure where you got that idea from. I know that Thai chicken and pork dishes are nice – I just prefer steak, and I prefer potatoes to rice or noodles, hence why I enjoyed South American food more. It is not a criticism, just a preference.
Thanks for commenting.
I disagree with most of what you wrote. You compared a couple well-trodden SE Asian countries with an entire continent. If you include the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar in the equation then it’s really a no-brainer. SE wins, by a landslide. Transportation options are far more convenient and cheaper in SE Asia. Often the only option for traveling between SA countries is a very expensive flight. <$700 is rare. In SE Asia there are good and cheap overnight trains in many places, and Air Asia has super cheap flights covering the entire region, not to mention bus options everywhere.
As far as food goes… I really don't know what to say. SE Asian food is probably the best in the world. Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean. It sounds like the real issue is you have mundane tastes, "meat and potatoes", sorry to say. Aside from Peru I don't think the food in SA is really very good or interesting.
SA culture is more diverse than SE Asia? You've got to be kidding! SE Asia must have the greatest assortment of languages and cultures in the world! Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, animist, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, Laotian, Cambodian, Tagalog, innumerable local dialects and indigenous people. SA has the Spanish mestizo culture and a legacy of rape and genocide… whatever.
Thank you for taking the time to comment. I compared the parts of each region that I have been to, therefore I am unable to include some of the places that you mention as I have yet to visit those countries. Maybe my opinion will change once I have been to them, who knows?
As I stated very clearly in the article: “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”.
Therefore I do not feel the need to justify or defend my position further. However, I have added an edit to the original piece as I feel that my wording suggested that I admire the Spanish takeover, which was not my meaning at all. I merely meant that I find it fascinating that the continent has ancient cultures, which were (sadly) so easily expunged by another – but in no way did I mean that I agree with those actions.
As for the food, I make absolutely no apology. Quite simply, I don’t like seafood of any sort so much of SE Asian food doesn’t appeal to me. I like my meat and it’s too thin on the ground for my liking in Asia. Other than India, which is the food of the gods as far as I am concerned.
If we all felt the same about everything then the world would be a dull place 😉
Hi there! I just wanted to say it’s a real treat to hear someone’s stories of their travels; I have no idea why anyone would waste their time picking apart your article because they disagree with it! Perhaps your mention of the fact that it’s SUBJECTIVE went over their heads. Who knows but ignore them and don’t let a few weirdos put you off! I guarantee that with their attitudes, they are selling themselves short and probably have no idea how to get the best out their travels, which is quite sad really.
I’ve been travelling for nearly 2 years now, a lot of it in Europe and SEA. Living in Chiang Mai for now, but cannot wait to hit Latin America probably at the beginning of 2017.
Hope you are well wherever you are, and thanks again 🙂
Hi, thank you for putting together such a great blog! I am currently pulling together my own plan for travel and am trying to decide not on which region to visit, but rather how to split my time. I prefer the “quiet” life of hiking, animal watching and people watching but also love a bit of a dance and some beautiful food. I think that I will find this in both regions in different ways but think that I will spend a bit more of my time in South America as want to learn Spanish! I too love meat so am very much looking forward to a big steak!
I spent years in both, and South America wins hands down in terms of best destination, if you don’t mind paying a bit more for accomodation, travel and putting up for sometimes more bland food.
SEA has the beaches, the food, the accomodation, the cheap bus rides and flights, but South America is the true , real travellers, treasure chest!