South East Asia or South America. These two parts of the world have seen an explosion of popularity over the past decade and for most people the decision of where to visit first is often a difficult one. In this entry, I'll try and rate each of the locations on factors that are important to the average person and come up with an overall rating.
Things to consider
Before I get things started, its important to note that my experiences over the two locations will vary. I spent more time in South East Asia, and it was also the place I decided to visit first. There are important locations missing from both locations. I didn't visit Laos in SE Asia and I didn't visit Colombia and Argentina in South America. Personally, I feel that Argentina is a significant omission due to the size of the country and the number of things to see and do. Ratings and experiences are also very subjective, my experience could be significantly different from the experience of others so I'd bare this in mind when you make your decision.
Finally, a comparison between the two locations isn't an exact science. The phrase apples and oranges comes to mind. Peru and Brazil have completely different cultures, speak completely different languages, yet for the purpose of comparison they have been lumped together under a loose 'South American' category. This entry is a subjective rough overview of my experiences and can form part of your research into each location.
From the UK, the distances to South America and SE Asia are remarkably similar. Flights from London/Birmingham to Lima/Rio are generally 13 hours whilst flight times to Bangkok clock-in about the same time (about 12 hours). However, direct flights are more expensive to both locations. I found that flying via Madrid to South America was the quickest non-direct (and cheapest) option, although depending on the carrier you can fly through a number of locations. The flight to Madrid is a little over two hours, and then following a variable layover, the flight from Madrid to Lima is just under 12 hours. Its a long second leg and it felt longer than my flight to SE Asia overall.
Most non-direct flights to Bangkok fly via one of the Gulf states. I flew with both Emirates and Qatar Airlines and I found this journey to be more manageable as the two legs are roughly 7 hours each. A small but possibly important factor is the quality of the airlines between the two locations. The Gulf airlines are famous for their high quality service and modern planes and I found a significant difference between Emirates/Qatar Airlines to SE Asia and Iberia/British Airways to South America. The planes to SE Asia are generally more modern with much better entertainment systems.
Jet lag is worse when you fly from west to east, and this means you can spend the first few days of your trip fighting jet lag when you fly to SE Asia, however, when you fly to South American, you gain a few hours and the jet lag doesn't kick in until your return flight. I don't mind spending a few days with jet lag back home, but feeling tired for a few days whilst you are away isn't ideal.
Once you get there, the distance between locations within the two areas vary. South America is the fourth largest continent and getting from country to country is either costly (if flying) or long (if using land transport). South East Asia makes up a small part of the worlds largest continent, with distances more manageable. Flights between countries are cheaper, and its possible to cover the entire area on land. I crossed from Ho Chi Minh City through Cambodia and into Bangkok overland in a relatively short amount of time.
Winner: SE Asia
Issues at airports
No matter where I went in either location, I had little or no issues with airport security or immigration. I was never once asked to remove my patka or dastaar, I cleared all the metal detector machines with no problems and immigration procedures were simple and straight forward.
Every time I go to an airport in Europe or North America, the whole process is uncomfortable. Even though I'm British and therefore an EU national, I have been questioned by immigration in Amsterdam, 'randomly' searched in London and had extra checks at pretty much every airport. In SE Asia and South America, there was no apprehension, no worries. No one looked at me twice, officials or fellow passengers and there were no extra checks. Even though I clear metal detector machines every time, its become almost a force of habit to stop and have the second search with a wand, when I stopped for a second search in Bangkok the guy just looked at me like he thought I was lost.
For first time and younger travellers this is one of the most important factors. I had to work a few years before I could afford to go to either location, but once I got there there was a clear difference between the two locations.
Flying from the UK to either location costs about the same. If you book in advance and take the non-direct option you can get to Lima/Rio or Bangkok for between £400-£500. If you book closer to the date of travel you could pay between £600-£700, and the price is even higher if you take the direct option. In terms of getting to either location, I found the difference in price to be negligible.
Once you are there, prices begin to diverge. As distances are smaller, its cheaper to get around in SE Asia. Flying from Bangkok to Hanoi , if booked in advance can cost under £200, however, flying from Calama to Santiago (both within Chile) costs more! A big reason is competition. There are numerous flights that go from Thailand to Vietnam and vice versa, however, if you want to fly from Peru to Bolivia, or Calama to Santiago, you only have an option between a couple of airlines.
SE Asia is also cheaper in terms of day to day costs. Catching a tuk-tuk around a city in a large city in Thailand/Vietnam/Cambodia is cheaper than catching a taxi around cities in Brazil/Chile/Peru. Food costs are also cheaper in SE Asia. Even in large cities such as Bangkok, you can easily eat until you are full for under £5. In large cities in South America, such as Rio, I found that I was spending between £7 and £12. It's a relatively small difference per day, but over a few weeks or months the costs begin to build up.
The cost of joining tours or doing activities in the two area's are broadly similar as larger tour companies tend to standardise costs. However its hard to make direct comparisons, mainly due to the differences in activities that are included between the locations. However, if you book with local tour operators in each location, I found that South America provides slightly more 'bang for your buck' just because distances are vast and the discount provided between internet bookings and local operators is larger.
Souvenirs and clothing are both significantly cheaper in SE Asia. I brought a fair few t-shirts and vests in SE Asia, especially from various night markets, however when looking at prices in markets in Peru, Bolivia, Chile or Brazil I kept thinking that I could probably get this cheaper on eBay. It's also much easier to haggle in SE Asia and this makes a huge difference to the price you pay. If you don't haggle then the difference between the two areas becomes small, haggle, and souvenirs from SE Asia can cost between a half and two thirds cheaper.
Winner: SE Asia
This is quite a broad category, and also a subjective one. Your experience will obviously depend on the activities that you do, but for me, adventure is something that takes you so far away from your day to day, doing something so different that you come back and have to question whether what you did actually happened.
In the large cities, English is understood, but Spanish and Portuguese hold sway in South America, whilst Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese are the most widely understood languages in SE Asia. In rural areas, English is relatively non existent.
SE Asia can be an adventure. Eating tarantulas and scorpions is adventurous. The road trip across Cambodia is an adventure, seeing different communities along the way and watching the changing scenery. The road from Bangkok to the north of Thailand is an adventure, and the hiking you can do in the north can provide special experiences. Something simple like walking through the crowded streets of Bangkok can feel like an adventure, it's quite unlike anything else. The island's in the south are something else and island hopping is an adventure in itself.
However, when I think of adventure, there is a clear winner. The mountains of Peru, the vast expanse of the salt plains in Bolivia, the desert of northern Chile, these are places where you really feel like you are transported to a different world. In these areas you can feel like you are completely on your own, so far removed from 'reality' and civilisation. Flying through the Cambodian jungle is very cool, but camping in the cool Peruvian air surrounded by nothing but snow peaks and rolling hills is something completely different.
Winner: South America
Both locations have fascinating histories, colonial periods and relatively short modern independent era's. The powerful Inca civilisation dominated the western half of the South American continent before being replaced by the Spanish who added their own cultural imprint on the continent, whilst the Portuguese did the same in the Eastern half of the continent. The Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese all have distinct cultures in SE Asia with strong Hindu and Buddhist influences. These made way for French influences during the colonial era that left their own footprint on the history of the area.
Perhaps its the smaller distances, maybe its just the sheer number of different influences, but I found myself drawn more to the culture in SE Asia. The area as a whole is unified through ancient Indian and Buddhist influences, but there are strong enough differences between the people of the different countries to have significantly different experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The temples in Bangkok are different from those in Chiang Mai, and these in turn are different to the constructions in Angkor and Phnom Penh. The strong French influence in places such as Battambang and Hanoi are juxtaposed with the traditional architecture and culture of places such as Sukhothai.
Don't get me wrong, Rio has a vibe that is completely unique and is culturally amazing, La Paz is a Wonder of the World for good reason, the Urubamba valley of Peru is as impressive as any area I have been to, but there are also other areas, large areas, that seem devoid of the level of history that is apparent in most places in SE Asia.
Winner: SE Asia
There were parts of South America where I had to rub my eyes, look twice, pinch myself and make sure I wasn't dreaming. From the gorgeous views of the Urubamba valley, to the backdrop of Machu Picchu and the majesty of Cusco, Peru is simply an incredible country when it comes to landscape and scenery. However it doesn't stop there. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and the mountains of the Altiplano give it a unique topography. Southern Bolivia continues the trend with the brilliantly white salt flats of Uyuni. Northern Chile has the expanse of the Atacama, while Santiago is bordered by the Andes. Literally everywhere I went I felt as if I were on some alien planet.
SE Asia isn't too shabby either. The Cambodian countryside and the grounds of Angkor are things of beauty and northern Thailand is one of my favourite places with thick jungles and hilly terrain. The south of Thailand has islands that could be described as paradise with golden sand and clear blue water. Snorkelling a few miles outside Ko Tao gave me the same feeling of remoteness that I had in the mountains outside of Ollantaytambo.
However, as spectacular as these islands are, they just didn't have that same breathtaking impact that much of the scenery in South America had. You really do have to see and experience it to believe it.
Winner: South America
South American cuisine varies from country to country. During my trip, Peru was repeatedly described as the gastronomical capital of the continent, taking a mantle usually associated with Argentina. I found Peruvian cuisine to be very rich and tasty, not too dissimilar to some of the Panjabi food I have back home. I wasn't too won over by the food in Bolivia, but the food in Chile and Brazil was delicious. Each country had its own specialities, and if you didn't like those, you could get a pizza pretty much anywhere in the continent. There were a lot of vegetarian options too and unlike certain parts of the world (the Mediterranean) if you are a vegetarian, you won't be starving here.
In terms of SE Asia, I have two words: Pad Thai. I had that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Absolutely loved it. Pho, a Vietnamese dish was another favourite of mine. Cambodia seemed to be my Bolivia of SE Asia, nothing too bad, but nothing that stood out. Again, there are plenty of vegetarian (and vegan) options, so that shouldn't be a worry when traveling to this part of the world.
When I think of a winner, I think about what I crave when I come back home, and the answer is always Pad Thai.
Winner: SE Asia
A vibrant and lively nightlife is an important part of any trip. Nightlife doesn't have to mean crazy parties, or the best clubs. Good nightlife can be night tours or night markets.
Koh Phangan is the party capital of Thailand and the full moon parties that it hosts are world famous. Even on nights when these parties do not happen, the fire shows and beach parties mean there is always something going on. I spent a couple of nights with my friend in Koh Samui and found the nightlife there to be also very lively.
In the north of Thailand, as well as Siem Reap and Hanoi you have particularly impressive night markets that sell a wide array of goods. These night markets were some of my favourite memories of SE Asia as there is something very special and unique about their atmosphere.
South East Asia has Bangkok, Siem Reap and Koh Phangan, South America has Rio and believe me, Rio can hold its own against them all. The area around the Copacabana is something else, with activities on the beach (such as football and volleyball) happening late into the night. The area of Lapa has some world famous clubs and Ipanema also has a famous nightlife. Spending a weekend in Santiago with my friend also gave me some insight into Chilean nightlife, and again I liked what I saw. My favourite moment however was definitely doing a little bhangra in a small club in Cusco!
This is a difficult aspect of my trips to rate, and I'm pretty sure the people I met along the way contributed to the winner of this category. Others may have different opinions on this,
Winner: SE Asia
Reception of locals
You ever walk down the street and somebody stares at you because as a brown person with your head covered in a European country, you stand out? Well this doesn't happen in either of these locations.
I understand that the importance of tourism means that the friendliness of locals is important for their livelihood, but people in SE Asia and South America do seem genuinely friendly. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. The guards on the Bolivian border, the check-in guy at Cusco airport and the Peruvian police officers all caused me a few issues. In SE Asia, a policeman with sniffer dogs went through my bags and I had to get a little jog on to escape some lady boys who really wanted me to spend some money on their karaoke show. However, on the whole, locals were very friendly and some were curious about my appearance.
I'll never forget the lady in Battambang, Cambodia who hugged me because she had a good experience with Sikhs when she was younger. Likewise, in Peru, the guide who said my long hair reminded her of her Incan heritage was also someone who I thought was particularly welcoming.
Vaccinations and Malaria
I hate injections. Putting a sharp metal instrument filled with viruses into my arms is not my idea of fun, but before spending a significant amount of time in either South America or SE Asia, you have to get your vaccinations.
The list of diseases you need to be vaccinated against is pretty long. Tetanus, two types of hepatitis, typhoid and rabies are important for both locations. Japanese encephalitis is recommended for SE Asia and yellow fever vaccinations are required for Bolivia. In fact, you can't get into Bolivia without showing a certification proving you were vaccinated.
The big one, however, is malaria. There is no effective vaccination against malaria and the best course of action is to take tablets. I decided against tablets and instead bought what I can only describe as poison. Boots branded 50% deet anti mosquito spray ensured I didn't get bitten, but I'm pretty sure putting those chemicals on your skin everyday can't be good for you. I got most of the vaccinations but not all (rabies and Japanese encephalitis were too expensive).
Although mosquito's are around in big numbers in both parts of the world, malarial mosquito's are found in higher numbers in the border areas of Thailand and Cambodia. I probably put more of the anti mosquito spray in the few days I spent in the border between the two countries than I did in my whole trip to South America.
Winner: South America
And the winner is...
It's a not an easy choice between the two, however, I have a slight preference for SE Asia. In the 10 categories that I rated the two parts of the world on, I preferred SE Asia in 5 (50%) however there were also a couple of ties, with South America coming out on top in 3 (33%).
As I mentioned in my introduction, comparing the two locations isn't straight forward and its like comparing apples and oranges. The ratings are also very subjective and skewed by my experiences, the people I met and the things I did. The weightings I attach to each category may also not be the same as others. For instance, culture means a lot to me, but others may find nightlife more important.
Notable also are the countries that I didn't visit in each location. Needless to say, I had a great time in both South America and South East Asia and the memories and experiences from both places, as well as the people that I met along the way will stay with me for a long time.
Do you agree or is South America hands down the best location? Get in touch or leave a comment.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.