We spent 2 years living in Southeast Asia. We’ve spent almost 8 months in South America. It’s time to compare the two.
A quick disclaimer here: your mileage will vary, obviously. Think of this as the 10,000 meter, very general overview based on personal experiences.
To say I love getting off the tourist trail is an understatement. Whether we’re exploring hell temples or local animal markets, there’s almost always something weird around town. When we’re not exploring, however, we’re in an apartment or hotel somewhere around the world. That’s where this ‘South America vs. Southeast Asia’ comparison comes in.
Cost of living
Southeast Asia ends up cheaper than South America the majority of the time if you’re comparing apples to apples. You can definitely find a cheap hostel or a five-star hotel in either area, naturally, and it’s relatively easy to live or travel on a budget or enjoy the high-end side in either area.
Advantage: SE Asia
Southeast Asia suffers a bit here. On one hand, you’ll find yourself pretty well-accommodated in touristy areas without needing to resort to the local language. Once off the beaten place, English becomes rarer and less likely to see. Thai has five tones, a fact that tends to discourage the vast majority of tourists from putting in any serious time to learn it.
With only one major exception in Brazil, you’ll find South America open for business if you have even a conversational level of Spanish – a language you probably learned in high school, and a language that’s easier to pick up than most anything you’ll find in SE Asia. Advantage: South America.
I really love living in Southeast Asia, one of the biggest reasons is due to the lack of ‘PCness’ in the country. You can get away with driving after a few beers – knowing there isn’t a near zero tolerance from the police, you can request what you want to eat at many restaurants and they’ll make it and if you pay a few extra dollars you can get what you want to a point. With so few regulations, it can also be a pain with a higher risk of food poisoning, exploited workers and getting things done takes longer in general.
Southeast Asia is great for being able to rent a scooter without needing to show a local (or any) drivers license, just a passport to put down as a deposit. Southeast Asia is also fairly notorious for being pretty…. flexible… in how the rules of the road are applied in real life. The general lack of regulation is a double-edged sword, which can be a pro and con. You may not need to wear a helmet while meandering around Thailand, and the 500 baht (around $15) fine may not be a huge deterrence. You’ll also have no one but yourself to blame if your college education comes spilling out along a road somewhere.
While my observation on South America comes from only a couple of countries and no traveling via rented motorcycle or car, South America seems to have a greater awareness of the rule of law. There isn’t the same sort of ‘the law is just a suggestion’ or ‘the law only applies to the foreigners while the locals go free’, which was seen frequently. The occasional bus still runs a red light, but the rule of law definitely seems more respected in South America. That means you might not be able to rent a scooter so easily, but that also means no one else can either. Ethics? While traveling through Southeast Asia, I sometimes felt like I saw dollar signs light up in the locals eyes. It wasn’t always the ‘how much can I get away with?’ look, but caution was definitely indicated with almost every transaction. It wears you down after awhile. It was also Southeast Asia that had animals on display for the enjoyment of tourists, whether it was elephant rides or the like. South America, at least after 8 months and several cities, hasn’t displayed that.
I may be biased, but I love South America. I have roamed all over the continent several times and for months at end, and never perceived any particular danger. I think being Italian and speaking Spanish definitely helps a lot in communicating with the locals. In the course of my time there I learned to appreciate the culture, the way of life and the overall vibe.
Also, there is a lot of difference between the various countries of South America, where Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are much more advanced (and perceived as safer) than the rest. Speaking about South America in general terms may thus be misleading.
This is not to say that I felt unsafe in South East Asia – not at all indeed. But the fact that the culture is so different, the language barriers so strong, and the quantity of people who live there huge made it a bit overwhelming for me. I couldn’t wait to get away!
To be clear, neither Laura nor I are not the type to stay out super-late or stumble out of bars visibly drunk. We both have great street-smarts, and (knock on wood) have yet to have had any serious safety issues while traveling. As Southeast Asia goes, it definitely felt like there were more opportunistic types out and about, especially in the touristy areas. South America? I’ve been annoyed by people selling stuff on the bus, the sidewalks, etc. – but haven’t really felt unsafe in South America.
Your feelings of safety will vary greatly based on the country, the city, the time of day, and plenty of other things – averaging a bunch of things, though, I’ve gotta give it to South America.
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