Europe or Southeast Asia? Which is better for American backpackers?

EuropevsSEAI talk to countless people that want to travel long-term, the majority of them being (American) college students who are just months away from graduation. They usually ask about my RTW trip and then tell me how they’ve always thought about backpacking around Europe after graduation. Why is it always Europe?!

OK, I get it. South America can have significant language barriers, Africa’s infrastructure isn’t ideal for backpacking, etc. There are more ideal options for your first extended trip. Europe is great, but so many Americans overlook Asia–in particular, Southeast Asia. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the two most popular backpacking areas for a young first-time backpacker:


Unless you live in Hawaii, Europe is going to be significantly closer and easier to reach than Southeast Asia. Less connections, less time in a plane, less jet lag. But what about the cost? Surprisingly, they are about the same. I just checked Expedia for flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok in May (right after most graduations). 866 dollars round trip. For the same dates, New York to London is 951 dollars. Changing dates and cities will lead to different results, but the bottom line is that Asia is not significantly more expensive to get to; it just takes a little more time. As for Visas, Europe is a cinch for Americans (thank you Schengen Agreement). Most countries don’t require visas in advance. Asia can be just as easy, but some countries have more difficult processes and restrictions. For example, you can only stay in Thailand for two weeks if arriving by land (Hint: Take a puddle jumper and you can stay four weeks).

Advantage: Europe

Getting Around:

Europe is famous for its high-speed trains and efficient transportation network. Unfortunately, as a backpacker, you probably won’t be able to afford any of these high-speed trains. But it’s true, getting around Western Europe is a snap. With low-cost flight options like RyanAir and stupid cheap international buses (Student Agency Bus), you don’t even need trains. If you do want to go that route, the Eurail passes can be a good deal but you have to do your homework. While most of Europe is very easy to get around, it’s worth noting that some places in Eastern Europe can be much tougher. I got stuck in Croatia for over two days trying to get to Budapest (which was only three hours away by car). Many bus/train routes in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia Herzegovina have been canceled or are seasonal.

Southeast Asia conjures up images of rickety motorcycle taxis zooming through traffic, and occasionally that’s accurate. However, the region also has ridiculously cheap airlines like Air Asia (I got a flight from Malaysia to Thailand for 44 dollars), a respectable train network, and efficient ferries. It’s dirt cheap to get around the region and you can often do combined ferry and bus journeys with one ticket. An added benefit of Southeast Asia is that it is incredibly inexpensive to rent a moped, giving you the freedom to explore on your own. With all of this being said, Europe does have an overall more modern and reliable transportation network, so despite the savings in Asia, Europe wins by a hair.

Advantage: Europe


Different people like different weather, but in general, do you want to be in a swimsuit or a rain jacket? Europe is beautiful in the summer, but it can be rainy and winters are cold. Southeast Asia will make you sweat A LOT, but you’ll be rewarded with shorts year-round and lots of sun. You’ll see plenty of storms, especially in the monsoon season, but they generally pass quickly. One huge advantage of warm weather is that summer clothes take up a fraction of backpack space that winter clothes do.

Advantage: Southeast Asia

Croatia in April vs. Thailand in April

Croatia in April vs. Thailand in April


If you’re into history, Europe is the place to be. While many 20-somethings associate history with boring museums, there’s nothing like seeing the Berlin Wall or the Coliseum in person. Southeast Asia has plenty of interesting history too; Angkor Wat could top just about any historical building in Europe. But when it comes down to it, Europe can’t be beat.

Advantage: Europe

Things to do:

Obviously there is a ton to do in both regions. The way I look at it is that Europe has a lot to see, Southeast Asia has a lot to do. If you want to visit lots of historical landmarks and see shows then Europe is ideal. If scuba diving and hanging out with elephants are more your style then go to Southeast Asia.

Advantage: Depends on your preference


Europe is legendary for its nightlife and rightfully so; the club scenes in Ibiza and Berlin are the best in the world. Bars and clubs stay open until sunrise. Not only that, but you can drink your weight in the best beer and wine that money can buy.

At the same time, Southeast Asia is wild. Full moon/half moon parties are no secret anymore, but when you arrive to Haad Rin for the first time, your mind will be blown. In addition, you can find Spain-caliber clubs in Singapore; Zouk is one of the top ten in the world. And the things you’ll see on Khao San Road in Bangkok will make Vegas seem like a nice wholesome town. Europe will meet your highest nightlife expectations; Southeast Asia will take your expectations and turn them upside down.

Advantage: Toss up


How do you compare a home-cooked Italian meal in Tuscany to the delicious hawker food in Singapore? You don’t. The food in both regions is amazing.

Advantage: Toss up


This seems cut and dried: Europe=expensive, Asia=cheap. Sure, London and Paris are some of the most expensive cities in the world. But you have to look at the whole picture. Budapest is very cheap and it gets better the further east you go. By the time you get to Serbia and Bulgaria, it’s cheaper than many Asian destinations. If you are leaning toward Europe, don’t forget about the East! On the flip side, many people don’t realize that Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still, when averaged out, Europe just can’t match the seven dollar a night hostels and 25 cent beers of Southeast Asia. Your dollar goes further than in the Eurozone which means you can afford to travel longer.

Advantage: Southeast Asia

Language Barrier:

This really depends on where you are. In Western Europe, almost everyone will speak some English. In Singapore, English is one of the official languages.  In Eastern Europe, English is less common but still widely spoken among younger generations. And many travelers are surprised to find out how common English is in Asia. Generally speaking, English speakers will have no problem getting around any major city or tourist destination in either area. However, if you go to a rural village in northern Myanmar or a small town in Eastern Croatia, you may find yourself doing lots of hand motions.

Advantage: Toss up


In my opinion, the best part about Europe is how small the countries are and how easy it is to jump between them. You can be at a bullfight and eating tapas in Madrid, and be listening to bagpipe music in the Scottish highlands the next day. Europe is like a variety pack of your favorite candy.

As for Southeast Asia, I love the complete shock of it all. As an American, going to Europe really isn’t that different from home. If you took a picture on a random street in New York, London, Berlin, and Barcelona, it would be hard to tell them apart. To be fair, you could do that in parts of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur too. But, you won’t find anything remotely similar to a wet market in Singapore’s Little India, flushing a toilet with a bucket in Laos, or cruising through Ha Long Bay on a junk boat in Vietnam. You become a sponge, absorbing every little detail of your surroundings. Europe is well within most Americans’ comfort zone. If you want a truly unique experience then throw yourself into Southeast Asia.

Advantage: Southeast Asia


The final tally comes to 3-3 with a bunch of ties. Call me indecisive, but they truly are neck and neck. It comes down to preference. If you haven’t noticed yet, I prefer Southeast Asia. For me, Europe starts to blend together. In my opinion, you can only see so many old buildings and drink at so many hole-in-the-wall bars before they lose their luster. Sometimes I have trouble trying to remember if I saw something in Zagreb or Vienna. At the end of the day, I like to do things. I find Southeast Asia to be much better for action based activities. Also, I enjoy how different Asia is from home and I love warm weather. With all of that being said, don’t let anyone ever tell you where to travel. If you want to go to Europe, then go. My aim for this post isn’t to tell people why they shouldn’t go to Europe, it’s to open people’s eyes to Southeast Asia. For Americans, backpacking often leads to snap associations with (Western) Europe. Hopefully this post is useful for anyone that is weighing all of their options. Happy planning!

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The Vietnam Vet

“Does this bus go to the Tri-Rail station?”

With one foot on the bus and one on the street, I waited for confirmation from the bus driver. I was hunched over from the weight of my 60 Liter backpack and clearly stood out from the commuters that filled the Miami bus. The driver nodded and I sat down near the front of the bus across from a few disinterested elderly passengers. I heard a voice from a few rows back on the bus.

“You trying to catch the Tri-Rail?”

I looked back to see a man in his fifties or early sixties, several days removed from a shower with greasy hair and a face full of stubble. He was wearing  jeans and a denim jacket, but it was his hat that caught my attention–“Vietnam War Veteran.”

I responded with a quick glance and a disinterested “yeah.” The man scurried up to the front and sat across from me.

“I’ll let you know where you need to get off. I take the Tri-Rail all the time. You just gotta get off up here at Government Center and take the Metrorail to Metro Center. You can catch the Tri-Rail there.”

“Thanks,” I replied. I appreciated the directions, but wasn’t too interested in carrying on the conversation.

He continued to tell me about the intricacies of the Miami Public Transit station for the next ten minutes. He explained the difference between the Metrorail and the Tri-Rail, how much each ticket I needed would cost, and how many stops I would go on each leg of the journey. It was clear this guy knew his way around, but I didn’t trust his intentions. As I got off at the Metrorail stop, I fully expected for him to grab me by the shoulder and ask for a few bucks for the help. Instead, he got off with me.

“I’m going the same way. I’ll walk with you.”

We rode the escalator as he continued to guide me through every single step of the ticket buying process. I kept my words to a minimum and tried to carry on as if I were on my own and he just happened to be walking alongside me. As we rode the escalator toward the tracks, he informed me that I would have to get a fare card before I could buy credits and that it cost extra. I was still expecting him to ask me to buy him his next ride, when he instead offered me his fare card.

“I have this extra one. It doesn’t have any money on it, but it’ll save you from having to buy one. Here ya go.”

Wow. Maybe this guy is alright.

He waited for me as I loaded money onto the fare card and we walked up to the platform. He started telling me all kinds of Miami history, explaining each building of the skyline in detail.

“None of this was here back in the 70s. All of this…it popped up in the 80s and 90s. You wanna know how? Cocaine. Coke money built all of this.”

I was intrigued by the idea, but not really sure I believed his theory (Turns out he’s right). Nevertheless, I started to come around to the idea that maybe this guy was just really friendly. He told me that he was going to visit his daughter up in Hialeah. Sure enough, she called him and they talked on the phone for a few minutes. He told me all about her and his ex-wife.

We hopped on the Metrorail train and he kept talking. I started to open up and made an effort to converse with him. I still thought that he may have been a little off or looking for a pay out when we finally parted ways, but he was helpful and exceptionally friendly. The least I could do was be a passing friend to him. He probably just wanted someone to talk to on his trip.

We chatted for the duration of the otherwise silent train ride. I’m sure other train passengers looked on at this homeless looking man and a young backpacker with the same cynical thoughts that I had. I could feel the eyes gazing on us, listening to our conversation, but at this point we were traveling together. It may have been an uncommon pair, but there we were. I let my guard down and enjoyed the ride.

We reached my stop before his, and I stood up to get off. I have to admit that I still  half-expected him to give me a nudge for some spare change, but at the same time, by this point I wasn’t surprised when instead he gave me a wave. “Have a good day, man!”

I stepped onto the platform with a bounce in my step. There’s nothing that makes me happier than random acts of kindness; I felt guilty that I had doubted my new friend. I hoped that I had at least returned the favor in brightening his day by providing some momentary companionship.

Strangely enough, I encountered a remarkably similar situation in Los Angeles following a month out of the country. I had just arrived from Brazil and was excited to spend a day in the States before continuing on to New Zealand. I hopped on a city bus full of glaring eyes and rough looking characters. It was deja vu; a Vietnam Veteran sat down across from me and asked me where I was going. This time my attitude was a little different.

Vietnam War veterans are the subject of countless stereotypes and myths. Unfortunately, I was a part of perpetuating some of these. The least I can do is to try to spread some facts. Here are some interesting statistics from the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation:

  • 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam, this number represents 9.7% of their generation.
  • 25% (648,500) of total forces in country were draftees
  • There is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam Veterans and non-Vietnam Veterans of the same age group.
  • Vietnam Veterans are less likely to be in prison – only 0.5% of Vietnam Veterans have been jailed for crimes.
  • 97% of Vietnam-era veterans were honorably discharged. 
  • 91% of actual Vietnam War veterans and 90% of those who saw heavy combat are proud to have served their country. 
  • During the 2000 Census, the number of Americans falsely claiming to have served in-country is: 13,853,027. By this census, four out of five who claim to be Vietnam vets are not. 


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Timelapse Video: Southwest Roadtrip

A few timelapse clips from Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Be sure to watch in HD!

Locations include Denver, Boulder, Loveland Pass, Arapahoe Basin, Arches National Park, Monument Valley, and Horseshoe Bend. 



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Arches National Park, Utah

North Window

North Window

Located just a few minutes outside of Moab, Arches National Park is an awe-inspiring area packed full of geological wonders. For 10 dollars (5 if walking in) you can enter the park and stay as long as you’d like. The best part–it’s open 24/7.

The park lies high above the entrance and visitor’s center, separated by a series of switchbacks. The lone two-lane road leads to all of the numerous arches (2,000 total) and other features of the park. Following a cluster of less-famous landmarks at the top of the switchbacks, the next prominent feature is Balanced Rock. As the name implies, it’s a massive boulder perched precariously on a narrow rock column. Also nearby are The Windows and Double Arch. All of these initial features are easily accessible by short and relatively easy trails.

Sunrise at North Window

Sunrise at North Window

The pride and joy of the park, Delicate Arch, is located about five miles beyond Balanced Rock. A distant viewpoint lies a short walk from the road. To reach the arch itself you have to hike a relatively difficult 1.5 mile trail. The path is tame to start, but about halfway in it changes to steep slick rock. However, the views are well worth the trouble.

Delicate Arch at Sunset

Delicate Arch at Sunset

The furthest cluster of features is called the “Devil’s Garden,” nearly twenty miles into the park. The road ends at the parking area and trailhead, however there is one other major area called the “Klondike Bluffs” that can only be accessed via 4WD vehicle. The Devil’s Garden is less crowded than the first two areas, but the trail is more difficult. The path is flat and leisurely up until the massive Landscape Arch, offering great views of Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch along the way. However, immediately following Landscape Arch the path becomes very steep, narrow, and rocky. Parts of the trail involve climbing up ledges and squeezing through narrow openings. In addition, there can be significant drop-offs on either side of the trail. On the bright side, there are several amazing arches further down the path that are skipped by the majority of visitors. Private arch and Double O Arch are some of the most impressive of the whole park.

Landscape Arch

Landscape Arch

Although relatively small for a National Park, there is a ton to see in Arches. One full afternoon (~6 hours) is the minimum to experience the must-sees of the park. You could easily spend 2+ days. As one of five national parks in Utah, there is plenty of competition for your time and attention. But with so many amazing features packed into a small park, it’s hard to beat the bang for your buck that Arches National Park provides.

Pine Tree Arch

Pine Tree Arch

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VIDEO: Great Lakes Roadtrip

2 Countries
5 Great Lakes
2,500 miles
10 Days

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25 safari pictures that will make you want to go to Africa right now

Chobe Hippos

Baboons in Chobe





Chobe Elephants

Zebras in Okavango Delta

Giraffe in Okavango Delta

Crocodile eating Impala in Chobe


African Fish Eagle

Red Lechwe in Okavango Delta


Photos are a mix from South Africa (Kruger), Botswana (Okavango Delta/Chobe), and Kenya (Maasai Mara). All pictures are property of Paul Van Dyke and Adam Van Dyke. 

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Victoria Falls vs. Iguazu Falls

There’s something about waterfalls that captivates the human mind. Like gazing into a campfire, it’s easy to become mesmerized by a little falling water. Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls have established themselves as two of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, leaving millions of visitors awestruck each year. Both falls offer incredible views, numerous activities, and plenty of wildlife. However, they each have several unique advantages and disadvantages.

Victoria Falls

Located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is a popular starting/ending destination for a southern Africa trip. With a maximum height of 355 feet (108m) and a width of over a mile (1,708m), Victoria Falls claims the title of “biggest single curtain of water” of any waterfall in the world.


Victoria Falls can be easily reached from the Zambian town of Livingstone or the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls. Getting a short term visa to cross between the two countries for a day is relatively easy and direct flights from Johannesburg are less than two hours long. The falls are located in National Parks on both sides. While tourism and development are increasing (there are plenty of locals to sell you souvenirs at the park entrance), the area is nowhere near the concrete jungle of Niagara Falls.


The biggest drawback of Victoria Falls is that the water essentially cascades into a large crevice. It isn’t possible to see the falls from the bottom of the gorge. In fact, you barely even see the bottom of the falls during the rainy season due to the powerful mist rising up from the gorge to a height of 1,300+ feet (400m+). The only way to really appreciate the vastness of the falls is by helicopter. However, despite the mist, seeing and hearing the roar of the falls from up close is an incredible experience.


Victoria Falls is a phenomenal place for adrenaline junkies. The bridge spanning the first gorge offers a 364 foot (111m) bungee jumping opportunity, although their safety record is a bit questionable. You can also take powerboat rides along the Upper Zambezi River through the rapids to Livingstone Island at the edge of the falls. Once at Livingstone Island, it’s possible during the low flow months to swim directly to the edge of the falls at the “Devil’s Pool” with nothing but a slippery rock wall separating you from the massive drop.


Mist rising from Victoria Falls

Mist rising from Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls from Zambian side

Victoria Falls from Zambian side

Mist at the start of the rainy season

Jumping into the Devil's Pool

Jumping into the Devil’s Pool

Devil's Pool in December

Devil’s Pool in December

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls is situated in a rainforest on the border of Argentina and Brazil. With a maximum height of 269 feet (82m), it is considerably smaller vertically than Victoria Falls. However, the falls span an area of 1.7 miles (2,700m) with numerous separate cascades instead of one large curtain.


Iguazu Falls can be reached via the smaller Argentinian town of Puerto Iguazu or the larger Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. From either municipality, the entrance to the country’s respective national park is only a short bus ride away. Unfortunately, there are no short term visa options so a full $160 visa is required (for US citizens at least) even if you just want to see the other side for a few hours. Direct flights are available from major Argentinian and Brazilian cities but, like most South American flights, they are quite expensive. Many visitors opt for comfortable overnight buses from Buenos Aires or São Paulo (18+ hours). 80% of the falls lie on the Argentian side, with only 20% on the Brazilian side. However, both sides are well worth a visit.


The views offered at Iguazu Falls are unmatched by any waterfall in the world. From the Argentinian side, you can see the falls up close from the top (just feet from the edge) and the bottom via an excellent network of trails in the national park. The views from the Brazilian side are incredible in their own right. You can see views of the falls from high above and then experience panoramic views with water falling on three sides of you (260 degrees) inside the “Devil’s Throat” (Portuguese: Garganta do Diabo). The trail networks do a good job of providing countless incredible viewpoints without being too obstructive or distracting from the natural beauty.


While Iguazu Falls can’t match Victoria Falls in terms of adrenaline activities, there is plenty to keep you busy. Odds of seeing wildlife around the falls on any given day are quite high. Coatis, Capybaras, Caimans, and other animals are common. One of the best parts of Iguazu Falls is that you can access the bottom of the falls via boat. For less than 20 USD you can catch a powerboat from the Argentinian side directly to the bottom of the falls. The boats are agile enough to navigate the rapids and get you right underneath some of the drops. Getting soaked to the bone is inevitable, which isn’t so bad considering it’s usually sweltering hot (swimming isn’t allowed).


Iguazu Falls from the Argentinian side

Iguazu Falls from the Argentinian side

Devil's Throat from the top (Argentinian side)

Devil’s Throat from the top (Argentinian side)

Devil’s Throat from the Brazilian side

The boat rides are a great way to see the falls up close

The boat rides are a great way to see the falls up close

The Brazilian side offers great "big picture" views

The Brazilian side offers great “big picture” views



Both Victoria and Iguazu Falls are incredible, but each one caters to different desires. If you are looking for the biggest, baddest waterfall imaginable with a deafening roar and mist so strong that it’s raining upwards, go to Victoria Falls during the rainy season. Likewise, adrenaline junkies have more options at Africa’s contender. If you are a photographer looking to get the best possible waterfall pictures or just like being surrounded by natural beauty rather than above it, Iguazu is a better bet. Considering the fact that views are the best part of visiting waterfalls for the majority of people, I have to give the nod to Iguazu Falls, just because the viewing options are unparalleled.


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