Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. – Mark Twain
Having the opportunity to spending more than a year in Central America (#CA) and more than seven months in Southeast Asia (#SEA), I wanted to do a simple breakdown of the differences of the two based upon my experiences. I hope this will help other budget travelers and backpackers that may have curiosity between the two and what they can expect. Beginning my travels in Central America, I had the privilege of spending time in every country, which for those that may be geographically impaired these countries include: #Belize, #Guatemala, #Honduras, #ElSalvador, #Nicaragua, #CostaRica, and #Panama, as far as Southeast Asia, I have spent time in; #Thailand, #Malaysia, #Indonesia, #Singapore, #Laos, #Cambodia, and #Vietnam. Let’s get started, yo.
SEA: Due to restrictions, it more difficult to spend longer periods of time in each country unless you are willing to pay for extensions. The average tourist visa is 30 days and the average cost for visas on arrival (with the exception of Thailand and Singapore) is between $25-$60. This also makes doing visas runs to re-enter on a new tourist visa more expensive and must be adjusted for your travel budget.
CA: Based upon most nationalities and most every country, with the exception of El Salvador that still continues to follow the C-4 Agreement and Belize (30-day tourist visa), you are given a 90-day tourist visa in each country, and since there are no visas to obtain the minimal costs are either entry or exit fees for each country. Belize has the highest exit fee $40 (as of recently, I think I paid $15 in 2012) and Nicaragua has the highest entrance fee at $14.
ADVANTAGE: CENTRAL AMERICA (#CA)
CA: The average hostel dorm will be between $5-$10 and private rooms can range, but typically peak at $10-$20.
SEA: There is still a reason it is the backpacker’s mecca for budget travel. Dorms can be as cheap as $1 and privates can be obtained for as cheap as $5 on average.
I will note that I have negotiated a private bungalow for as cheap as $1.87 per night that was situated directly on the Mekong River in Laos and rented an apartment in Guatemala for around the same price.
ADVANTAGE: SOUTH EAST ASIA (#SEA)
There is no debate on this topic when it comes to a variety of cheap local cuisines as SEA touts some of the best dishes in the world. While you can get cheap meals at the mercados in CA, the variety is quite limited. The costs can hover around the same price of $1-$2 for street food, even full meals, but it’s the diversity in all of the variations you can sample in SEA that makes it a fat kid’s dream.
ADVANTAGE: SOUHT EAST ASIA (#SEA)
It’s no secret that backpackers have been flocking to SEA for quite some time as it is the mecca for budget travel, however CA is still an unknown region to many backpackers, whether it’s safety concerns or just a lack of information regarding the region. More people I have met will often overlook this narrow region and will jump directly to wanting to travel South America (SA) bypassing an incredible region that is far cheaper than SA overall.
The reason I have given this a tie when it comes to cost is factoring in some of the cheaper accommodations of SEA but also the more expensive border fees/visas, the food costs, activity costs, transportation, etc. I have felt that a very modest budget of $10-$25 a day can be achieved in both regions.
This can be an unfair debate since the overland routes are dramatically difference in amount of time you will spend on buses due to the geographical features.
CA: If you avoid the larger bus companies in CA and opt for the “chicken buses” local transportation this is significantly cheaper, brings more of an experience of immersion, but can be a bit intimidating until you get the hang of it and have.
SEA: The region has a well-defined network of travel agencies that can organize domestic or international travel and will include pick up from your hostel (most of the time) and includes all transfers from your point of origination to your point of destination. The buses are more comfortable and offer more overnight buses, but again the amount of time and distances covered are hard to compare between the two. I think often this equates to how much time you have to travel either region.
ADVANTAGE: TIE (*depending upon how you are traveling, i.e. overall region, number of countries, trip duration, daily budget, etc)
This varies greatly since SEA tends to have younger travelers (teens and early twenties) that are on a gap year or are taking a one-month holiday from Australia or Europe and there is a reason that SEA does have a reputation for an atmosphere of wild partying backpackers and I will have to admit that I saw more young and out of control travelers behaving badly than anyplace else I have been in the world.
I personally felt that the level of maturity was a bit higher for CA because it can also hold a stigma of a more dangerous region and even though I still met young backpackers they weren’t behaving nearly as out of control as I’ve seen just walking around areas of SEA.
ADVANTAGE: CENTRAL AMERICA (#CA)
In both regions there are plenty of stories of petty theft of electronic devices, wallets, etc but I think the difference in how I will gauge this will be from talking with females and looking at the overall cultural differences of how they are treated in public. For example in CA women (locals and foreigners alike) experience more of the “machismo” behavior that can seem very intimidating and aggressive. Generally this is limited to cat calls, but there are more cases that I saw where the men can become, in some ways, confrontational.
SEA has more of the stereotypical Asian cultural understanding of respect, again generally speaking, and women felt much more comfortable in Asia than in Latin America for their personal safety.
I will note that the only petty theft experiences I have had in over 2 years of traveling has unfortunately been in CA. Both instances occurred when the thief or thieves came in to my room (once when I was not there and once while four of us were sleeping in the early morning) and took money. The first was in Honduras where four of us were asleep in our dorm on the third floor and the person(s) responsible were brave enough to enter our room and go through the pockets of clothing on the floor. The second was in Guatemala where I had a locked room on the second floor with no balcony and even though I had my bag locked (since there were no lockers) they cut the inside of my bag with a knife to get to my cash.
ADVANTAGE: SOUTH EAST ASIA (#SEA)
CA is such a small region you can travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific in a day, which means you can go from diving to surfing in a matter of hours, and there are plenty of natural beauties to explore in between. Whether that is dense jungle, hiking one of the many volcanoes in the region, or visiting some of the beautiful cities or towns, there is still plenty to see and do, plus because there is a common language for both CA as well as Latin America is makes it easier to communicate with locals.
SEA has a rich history and offers a variety of things to do. You have the same activities with the numerous beaches and islands to soak in the sun, as well as jungles, temples, and mixes of large prosperous cities.
I first saw the quote used for this blog from my cousin Scott, an avid traveler himself along with his wife Summer, and I am excited that they have the same passion to explore more than a little corner of the globe as well by broadening their outlook on life. I think that the importance in seeing that while we are separated by invisible borders drawn up by those in power, in reality, we are not all that much different from one another–we all breathe the same air and traverse through life with hopes, and dreams, and goals to achieve–it is what makes us human and binds us together. Another great quote that I have taken states, “the best way to serve God is to serve His creation,” and I have to say that my level of compassion continues to grow for others. When you stop and look into the eyes of someone and share a moment, especially those where verbal communication is not possible, that glance you embrace in will share with you more than I feel words could explain. It is a silent exchange of understanding. It is the power of the human spirit that lies within us all. So I implore you to be an individual that is not merely surviving life, but experiencing it. I will tell you that as I continue to live with less (almost with each stop I make before moving on I end up giving things away) and I feel more free knowing that the small amount of material possessions I do own, well, they do not own me, for I have all that I need to live life free. I think after experiencing various forms of poverty in some of the poorest countries in the world I have seen a need for people, travelers or not, that living simply in order for others to simply live is a conscious decision that needs to be evaluated on a personal level. It’s often hard to realize that 16% of the world’s wealthiest nations consumes 80% of the world’s natural resources (according to a 1999 study, and can only imagine how much more unbalanced it is in 2014).