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Southeast Asia vs South America: Which is Better for a Gap Year?

Written by Milly Whitehead on 21 / 07 / 2015

Gap Year Advice

They are two of the most popular gap year destinations at the moment, and for good reason. The culture, landscapes and experiences on offer are second to none in both Southeast Asia and South America.

But whilst it would be impossible to compared these kinds of qualities, there are certain factors about the two continents that may help you determine which is better for your gap year. Read on to discover more about the prices, people and safety, amongst other things, in Southeast Asia and South America.

How Much Do They Cost?


The major draw to both places for backpackers is affordability. Prices of things such as food, transport and accommodation are so low in comparison to Europe and the States. Despite the fact that Southeast Asia is so popular, it’s still very cheap and, even in high season, you can get a private bungalow by the beach for just $20.

South America is somewhat pricier, though it very much depends where you are – Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador are amongst the cheapest places to go, so those looking to save the pennies should opt to visit these countries over Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

What’s The Food Like?


Naturally, this is more subjective and depends what your tastes are, but pretty much every country in Southeast Asia is renowned for its delicious cuisine, whereas South America is a bit more hit-and-miss. In both places, you can find excellent street food throughout, with tasty curries in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, and an array of cheesy and meaty snacks, such as empanadas and arepas, in countries like Argentina and Colombia.

For vegetarians, there is more on offer in Southeast Asia, as grilled meat is a prominent feature in Latin American cuisine. In Asia you'll undoubtedly find yourself craving dairy products, as these are hard to come by in this part of the world, whereas they are abundant in South America.

Are The Local People Accommodating?


Expect to meet the happiest, friendliest and most hospitable people in Southeast Asia, where it’s easy to make friends. The locals here will make you feel at home, no matter where you are, and treat you like a member of their family.

Despite the cultural differences and language barriers, they still make an effort to communicate with westerners and often shower them with compliments (this might take some getting used to).

In South America, it’s more or less the same, though once again this depends on where you are. In my experience, the Peruvians, Colombians and Brazilians are insanely friendly and nice, whereas Bolivians tend to act with more hostility towards outsiders, whether they’re from other parts of the continent or elsewhere. In fact, Bolivia is officially the unfriendliest country in the world according to a World Economic Forum report on the matter.

What Are Other Backpackers in the Region Like?

You’ll find that the majority of backpackers in Southeast Asia are a) very young and b) from either Europe or Australia. There is so much of a party vibe that things can get a little wild at times, and the backpackers here have a tendency to go rather over-the-top with their drinking.

On the other hand in South America you’ll meet people from across the globe that have come to explore this corner of the world, including travellers from other parts of the continent. In general, they are older, more mature and more interested in cultural experiences than just getting lashed every night of the week.

Is The Nightlife Any Good?


As I mentioned previously, the majority of travellers in Southeast Asia are from Europe and the States and the parties here seem to be designed exclusively for them; with the exception of a few Thais at the Full Moon Parties, you won’t find many other locals raving it up with the backpackers.

It’s not that the locals dislike partying, but rather their idea of what constitutes a party is different, and they tend to prefer hanging out with friends and family than attending a huge party. This excellent article over at artofadventuring.com has some more insightful observations on these cultural differences.

In South America, party towns are not exclusive to foreigners and you’ll find just as many locals on nights out across the continent. The exception to this is La Paz in Bolivia, where there is a huge party scene that revolves primarily around the tourist trade.

Are These Safe Places To Travel?


No doubt you’ll hear tales of petty theft in Southeast Asia, like people getting their wallets, iPods and phones stolen. But on the whole you have no reason to feel unsafe traveling through these parts.

There is political unrest in parts of Thailand and the Phillipines but to be honest, the greatest danger here is probably the accidents that occur as a result of heavy drinking.

Sadly, in South America you need to be much more on guard, as muggings are a lot more common, particularly in the big cities. Just be sure that if you’re travelling round this part of the world, you keep your wits about you and avoid carrying valuable items around with you.

Concerned about travelling safely? There's some excellent advice on how to travel with care all around the world in the 'What Not to Do' chapter of our free guide, the Gap Adventure Blueprint.

The Bottom Line

Overall, both Southeast Asia and South America are incredible destinations with a great deal to offer backpackers, so ultimately it depends on what you’re looking to gain from your gap year. There are two volunteering placements in Asia and three volunteering placements in South America available with The Leap, so be sure to check those out before you go any further.

Have you been travelling in these continents before? Which did you prefer? Let us know by posting in the comments box below.

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