NORTH ASIA OR SOUTHEAST ASIA: WHICH IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
So, what’s the difference?
To a non-Asian, the divide between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia is a curious one that takes much time to understand. But as a first-time traveler may find out, there are obvious differences in the people, the traditions, the daily lives and the social and political characteristics between these regions. Let’s try to break it down a bit:
Northeast Asia (China, Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia the Koreas, Japan and Taiwan) and Southeast Asia(Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore) are both extraordinary places to visit- with thousands of years of history, crowded metropolises, warm people and wonderful culinary traditions.
Generally, North Asian countries, while all having unique characteristics, are largely influenced by Confucianism and ancient China. With the recent economic rise of China, the continuing growth of South Korea and Taiwan and the established prosperity of Japan and Hong Kong, North Asia is one of the world’s most prosperous regions and also one of its most urbane and dynamic. Work ethic and hierarchy are strict and provide an invisible and unwritten structure and order to things. Culturally and ethnically, these places are homogenous and insular. Outsiders may be greeted with dismissal and fear, or inconceivable warmth, based on their appearance and manners. In short, the image of North Asia is one of flashing cities, straight-faced business-suited commuters being shoved into trains, mass consumerism and a hyper-media.
Pair that with the image and reality of Southeast Asia and you have a great contrast. Southeast Asia is still a land of temples, expansive beaches, sleepy fishing villages, steaming volcanoes, stifling heat and the poverty of shantytowns set against modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Southeast Asian countries tend to be a bit less homogenous, more touristic and more relaxed. English is more common and visitors are often treated less as aliens and more as, well…tourists.
These regions have had shifting fortunes over the past century. Hundreds of years ago, Cambodia was considered to be the wealthy “rice bowl” of Asia. Just over thirty-five years ago, it had been plunged into hell. During the British occupation, Burma was the wealthiest economy in Southeast Asia and the world’s largest exporter of rice. The Philippines was, for a long time, perhaps second only to Japan in its development and, in 1965, The Beatles played Tokyo and Manila on their only tour of Asia. Today the country struggles to surmount corruption and inequality. This tumultuous history, both human and political, gives Southeast Asia a turmoil that it only now appears to be overcoming, as economies are growing and political stability is being sought.
Which one is right for me?
I’ve found that urbane, independent travelers who enjoy overcoming a language barrier and hopping right into the belly of the beast may enjoy North Asia more. These countries are more established and set in their ways and offer an experience navigating an impenetrable cultural wall like no other. Though the capitals (Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Beijing) see some tourists and business travelers, the large, provincial cities (think: Daegu, Sapporo, Wuhan, Kaohsiung) are largely uncharted by tourists. I remember five days I spent in a business hotel in Changsha, China in which I didn’t see another westerner, or speak English, entirely. In a metropolis of six million souls, this may induce extreme loneliness in some, but will be memorable to those who don’t mind some isolation and alienation. If you would enjoy feeling like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, then North Asia may be for you.
Though some places are traveled more than others, Southeast Asia tends to be far more touristic than North Asia. My first day in Southeast Asia, I remember seeing more tourists in one day (Luang Prabang, Laos) than I had in the previous two weeks (the cities of Guangdong and Guangxi, China). Backpackers have been arriving inSoutheast Asia for decades, and with good reason: excellent food, an established tourist infrastructure, great temples and beaches and all at an amazing value. Though Cambodia may look exotic and faraway on a map, tourists are riding up and down the highways in a very high proportion to the local people. If you prefer to relax and meet / party with other travelers and have easier communication with locals, Southeast Asia may be for you.
What about costs?
Because Southeast Asia is developing later, it is cheaper. Also, there tends to be more competition for the tourist market, which drops prices down and has created more informal, small businesses such as guesthouses and independent transportation companies. Travel infrastructure in North Asia tends to be geared towards business travelers, with a more established urban infrastructure, while Southeast Asia caters to both business travelers and backpackers, with many routes and companies established just to cater to backpackers. Still, China, Korea and Taiwan can offer excellent value to a backpacker, while prices in Japan are relative to North America and Western Europe.
To a western traveler, China and North Korea are the only countries in North Asia that require tourists to arrive with a visa. In Southeast Asia, a visa can usually be bought on arrival (Vietnam and Myanmar inconsistently) and most countries will require them, generally in the $25-50 range.
Any final advice?
Go to both. A week in Beijing + a week in Bangkok and surroundings will offer up completely different experiences. If you only have time for one country, Vietnam has a large Chinese influence and a special offers a mix of haphazard Southeast Asian and stoic North Asian influence.