South America or Southeast Asia: Which do you think is the ultimate backpacking destination?
South America, Southeast Asia

Joining the Backpacker Debate: Southeast Asia vs. South America

South America or Southeast Asia–which region deserves the title of the Ultimate Backpacker Destination?  The debate rages on among backpackers despite the fact that there really is no right answer here, it’s more a matter of personal preference.

I’m lucky enough to have traveled extensively in both of these regions, though admittedly I know them in two very different ways.

In Southeast Asia, I spent over a year living and working exclusively in Thailand and taking quick trips to other countries as my schedule would allow.  In total, I visited 7 countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

South America or Southeast Asia: Where should you go backpacking?

A day in the life of an English teacher in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In South America, on the other hand, I traveled as a true backpacker for 8 months, spending more or less equal amounts of time in a total of 6 countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.  I volunteered a couple of times, but never had a stable day-to-day routine like I had in Thailand.

South America or Southeast Asia: where should you travel?

Completing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu while backpacking through Peru.

The major draw to both places for backpackers is obvious–affordability.  Prices of transportation, accommodation, tours, and food are rock bottom in comparison to other regions such as Europe or North America, for example, and backpackers are a breed that like to stretch their cash as far as possible.  And especially when a dollar saved here and there could mean an extra week (or month) of travel, you can’t really blame us.

A second influential factor in the huge influx of backpackers year after year is a thriving party scene.  Yes, the rich culture and tradition is important to a lot of backpackers (but unfortunately not all of them), but perhaps equally enticing is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dance the night away before watching the sun rise on the beach at one of Thailand’s full moon parties, or to lose your inhibitions at the infamous Lokis and Wild Rovers–the premier party hostels–of Peru.

That said, the two are similar in a few important ways, but different in so many others.

“Same same, but different.”

These differences make it difficult for me to think objectively about which one is “better,” as it feels a bit like comparing apples to oranges, and it kind of is.  For one thing, South America is an entire continent with a much greater land area, making the geographical diversity much greater.  Southeast Asia is located entirely in the tropics, making the climate and landscape similar throughout.  The list could go on, but for the sake of brevity (I’m trying, guys, I really am) I’ll stop there.

In any case, I don’t think I could ever actually choose between the two, as they both hold a very special place in my heart for different reasons.  Instead I’ll simply list my praises and grievances (fancy way of saying “pros and cons,” eh?) of each.  These are nothing more than my own personal opinions of course, and hopefully will not dissuade anyone from visiting either region.  They are both incredible destinations with so much more to offer than cheap thrills and parties.

Grievances: Southeast Asia

  • Expensive to get there
  • Hot and humid year long
  • Tough to learn useful phrases in several different languages, some of them tonal
  • Serious lack of cheese and wine
  • Overcrowded roadways and general lack of traffic safety
  • Cultural differences made making friends difficult (for me)
  • Sugar is added to EVERYTHING…even the ketchup is sweeter
Grievances: South America

  • Ultra-long bus rides required to get from place to place
  • Street food is typically fatty and fried
  • More expensive that Southeast Asia
  • PDA is often taken a little too far
  • Siesta time kills weekends
  • Hard to find coffee without sugar
  • Sometimes I just don’t want to listen to salsa music, ok?
Praises: Southeast Asia

  • Stunning white sand beaches
  • Cheap everything!
  • Easy and affordable to drive or fly from place to place
  • Amazing nightlife
  • Good food and local beer in every country
  • Easy to find work as an expat
  • Friendly locals
Praises: South America

  • Stunning mountain ranges
  • Diverse landscapes
  • Inexpensive to fly there from the US
  • Amazing food in most countries
  • Abundant wine and cheese
  • Only two languages to learn!  Qué bien!
  • Easy to make friends with locals

I could go on!  But I won’t.  I have so much more exploring to do in both South America and Southeast Asia, so perhaps my opinion will change and one day I’ll be able to name a favorite, but for now let’s just call it a draw.

Where do you stand in this debate? Do you have a clear favorite between the two?

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6 Comments

  • Reply Andre August 21, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Too many things I recognise to even comment on…Not having been to South America, I can’t really comment, but I think the hot weather in Asia really made the backpacking experience for me. Travelling in cold countries means so many more clothes, and you have to stay warm…for a warm blooded person like me it detracts from the relaxed atmosphere. But the lack of cheese and wine in Asia is pretty tough in the long term 😛

    • Reply LaMochilera August 22, 2014 at 6:47 am

      I guess I can agree with that sentiment, traveling in cold weather isn’t quite as nice as warm weather so that’s a definite downside to many parts of South America. I bought so many jackets and sweaters when I lived in Cusco! If I was too cold I didn’t want to even leave the hostel. But yes when it comes down to it, no wine and cheese (and no steak, no mexican food, no good coffee…) would really get to me! Haha I’m making myself sound like such a fat kid!

  • Reply Justine August 21, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    It’s so awesome you’ve been able to travel so extensively in both regions. Since all I’ve seen of South America is Colombia, I can’t claim a favorite. Though from my experience I have a feeling I’d love them both equally and in different ways. Although I love Southeast Asia, I agree that there is most definitely a SERIOUS lack of wine and cheese here. In Indonesia most cheeses are quick-melt and if you’re lucky enough to find imported cheese it’s SO expensive. And due to the “sin tax” wine costs an astronomical amount of money here, like $30-40 for Yellow Tail! I think it’s safe to say I won’t be drinking wine for the next year — a definite drawback.
    Justine recently posted…How to Visit Indonesia’s Prambanan Temple on a BudgetMy Profile

    • Reply LaMochilera August 22, 2014 at 6:57 am

      Wow that’s crazy expensive for Yellow Tail!! Don’t they have a cheap alternative? There were 5-liter boxes of some cheap brand in Thailand, it wasn’t great but it was drinkable! I think you would definitely love them both, I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t. I’ve been to a lot of countries in Southeast Asia but very limited places within those countries, Indonesia included. I am dying to see Jakarta someday, maybe if you’re still there in a few years I’ll come visit…how much wine are you allowed to bring through customs again? Haha

  • Reply Katie Featherstone August 22, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Yup, I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here! I miss the prices of Asia but am loving learning Spanish and the amazing scenery here in South America. South-East Asia definitly wins for food though!

    • Reply LaMochilera August 23, 2014 at 9:53 am

      I had a really hard time picking a food favorite, because I am absolutely in love with Thai food and a few dishes from other countries over there, but Peru and Argentina both stand out in my mind as having to-die-for food that is completely different! I guess I just love food…

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