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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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?
- 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
- 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?