Five Main Differences between China and South-East Asian Countries

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Here are five differences between China and South-East Asian countries we have spotted right away when traveling in 2011/2012. First of all, China is not located in South-East Asia, but many people tend to believe that there’s no difference :-).

Spring in China, blossom flowers and the temple
Spring in China. Looks like Japan scenery, huh?

Before you read further, let’s look at the common questions people ask me:

Do I need to go to China if have already been in South-East Asian countries? Yes, you do.

Is anything going to surprise me there? Yes, you will be shocked!

Is China just like any other South-East Asian country? Hell, no!

Let’s have a look at what makes China so different and unique cultural discovery.

A plate of Chinese baozi and a hat
Chinese baozi. We can’t get enough of them.

1. You are not walking ATM

Yes, in South-East Asia most of the local people admire Western countries for the invention of walking ATMs, so-called tourists or foreigners of any kind. They have quickly learned, that we don’t like to be called by this name and branded us “friends” for camouflage. Nevertheless, we (travelers) know what they think of us and how they give us higher prices for pretty much everything.

Chinese people are making a toast with a white girl
Chinese love drinking with you. The more you drink, the better. That was me and my friends celebrating Chinese New Year last year.

China is different. With exception of the few big and touristy cities, it’s more likely that people will give you something for free than rip you off. All together I have been in China for more than 11 months I have never been ripped-off. I have been happily living paying local prices or not paying at all, because it was a great honor to present foreigner with a gift.

2. It’s way dirtier

South-East Asia is not a place associated with cleanliness, neither is China. However, on a comparison, places like Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam are way cleaner than China. Once again, big cities could serve as exceptions, but most of China consists of smaller towns, where there’s no need for trash bins, use the street for it.

A Chinese woman is carrying two bags, dirty area
China can be very dirty. You can find trash everywhere.

Restaurants would be a great example. Whereas in Vietnam, you get a strange feeling when you have to throw something on the floor, in China you have to do it, even in the high-end (posh) restaurants. Cleaning after business dinner could sometimes be compared to cleaning after construction work.

3. Nobody understands you

If you think that in SE Asia you were rarely understood by locals, it means that China is a place where you have to go with a translator. In comparison, it’s like Thai people are native English speakers. You will rarely get anyone who could help you with basic tasks, but this is the best way to learn the language. After being stranded for few months in rural China, where I was the only foreigner, I can tell you that within 2 weeks you can learn to do shopping in a foreign language.

A girl standing on the square in Beijing holding a Chinese flag.
Chinese might not understand the language you talk to them in, but they do understand gestures. My first visit to Beijing.

Another issue could be a body language. As far as most of your movements will be understood if they are logical enough. Some will leave a confusion on a face of the person you are talking to. Now try to show that you don’t know and if you shrugged, then forget about it, nobody will understand what you mean.

4. You are the top attraction

Ever wanted someone to take a photo of you when traveling solo or as a couple? For some it’s out of their comfort zone. I’d recommend finding the courage or going to China, where people will approach you to ask if they can take a photo with you. Imagine walking on the Great Wall of China and more people see you as the biggest attraction of their day. Even better if you go to places less travelled, like Zhangjiajie, where locals invite you for a dinner at their home for taking a photo with you (happened to me twice there).

3 people in Fenghuang. A white girl, black guy and Chinese guy
Ken, one of the foreign teachers I worked with

In South-East Asia it is hard now to find an amazing scenery with no foreigners now, hence people got used to seeing and speaking to travelers. You may be asked to pose for a photo, but chances are, the people who asked are Chinese tourists.

The Floating Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie.
The Floating Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie. Stunning!
The Floating Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie.
Have you seen something like that in SE Asia?

5. You seldom meet other travelers

Apart from the big attractions, you will rarely see other foreigners. The huge population and massive territory of China reduces the chances of bumping into other travelers. Especially when you travel by local means of transport and to less-known places. That’s where the real adventure starts. The thing is, once you meet another foreign traveller, it’s much easier to strike up a conversation and possibly continue together.

Frozen in time Fenghuang
Frozen in time Fenghuang

That’s only five main differences, but there are many more. Based on them you should already know if you’d love or hate to experience China. Either way you should go and see it yourself.

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Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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54 thoughts on “Five Main Differences between China and South-East Asian Countries”

  1. Dui, dui, dui!
    I’d be lying if I said this was all untrue ;) Obviously it isn’t and you know I’m also going to urge people to go to China! Whenever I go travelling and back to where I’m living, it feels like home because I’m so comfortable and happy to be here!
    China rocks! :D

    1. Dui! LOL, I keep saying that to my students making fun of them :). Yes, that’s China – love it or hate it, but it ROCKS and we both know that :):). I also feel happy :)

  2. Dui! I’ve said that word so many times yet never written it or seen it spelt out in English.

    My trips often involve Shanghai and this not been ripped off things doesn’t apply there. Locals tell me each shop has 3 prices:- the lowest is for the Shanghai-ese, the next level up is for Chinese not from Shanghai then finally the most expensive is for foreigners.

    I’ve even heard of restaurants round the country with either different menus or one menu with no prices listed. Then they just charge what they want.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I always hang out with locals and speaking Chinese helps a lot. I know the prices and never paid tourist price, maybe in Beijing or Shanghai it happened twice to me, but that’s all. Locals in capital cities tend to take an advantage of travelers and I don’t like it at all but they need to get the money from somewhere :). That’s true many restaurants have different menu for Chinese and different for foreigners often lacking the price tags :)

  3. Hahah so true! When we left China we hated it, but now we actually miss it and are already talking about going back there! It’s so intense and different and dirty, yes very dirty hahah.

    (I had to laugh really hard at: “They have quickly learned, that we don’t like to be called by this name and branded us “friends” for camouflage”)

    1. Firstly I didn’t like here that much then I left China for 7 months to travel and live in SE Asia and started apprecite how wonderful China was :-P That’s a funny sentence I agree :):):D

  4. I was swarmed by a crowd at the Summer Palace in Beijing. Everyone stood around me, supposedly asking for a picture and wanting to shake my hand. I had to laugh at one little old lady who kept shouting something at me and then patting my chest. My friend thought she was asking if I’d follow her to marry her grand daughter. My guess was that she wanted to know if I was friends with Kobe. I’ll never know. :P

    1. Hahahahaha that story really made me laugh !! :-D I guess she wanted you to follow her to merry her grand daughter, that’s for sure. It happened to Cez many times and he was so confused and embarassed ;-P.

  5. Good post for ‘beginners to China’ Agness! I can actually relate to not meeting other travellers…even when I was in Japan I barely met anyone else which is so different to South East Asia that’s for sure! :)

    1. I remember living in a small village called Huayuan located in Hunan province for 10 months and there was only one foreign teacher from Cameroon with me. We made friends but still I was missing foreigners a lot and felt so lonely. The place was in the middle of nowwhere with a few buses running every 2 hours so I struggled a lot after 3 months with feeling lonely! Blogging saved my life at that time. Now I am staing in a huge city and meet foreigners every week :)

  6. Londoner Kate

    I am heading to SE Asia fpr 7 months but I really REALLY want to see China and Japan. It’s been a dream of mine since I was young. I was wondering the same to be honest. Wasn’t sure how far the similarities between the two countries go. The floating mountains look beautiful, for me it’s more about what I will see rather than anything else. Also price. It is more expensive. I would like your advice. I am travelling for 7-8 months around SE Asia. Before that I was considering visiting Japan and China. Will this be a big expense. It is easy to backpack around these countries? I would really appreciate any advice.

    1. Unfortunately, we have not been to Japan yet but heading there very soon. We have heard Japan is as expensive as you want it to be. If you do couchsurfing, do not overspend on your souvenirs and shopping, dine out in local restaurants you can be able to live for less than $20 per day in Japan. Our friend did it and she was like “I don’t know why people complain about Japan being so expensive. It’s not that bad!” As for China, it is also very cheap, especially when you travel solo. Chinese will treat you with some free food from time to time but you need to explore off the beaten paths, don’t stay in Shanghai or Beijing all the time – that might be expensive especially when you hang out with foreigners who tend to spend a lot on alcohol and parties. Go couchsurfing. Chinese are very hospitable and your host can show you many interesting places on a budget. My advice would be to start from Japan, then go to China for at least a month and head from China to Vietnam, then Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. If you need some specific info on accommodation send me an e-mail at [email protected]. Would be more than happy to recommend some cheap places :). Good luck x

  7. We haven’t been to China yet, we are definitely willing to go even if we heard so many ‘unpleasant’ stories about it.
    I like the fact that it can be challenging and, even if it might be frustrating at times, might makes our experience richer.
    From a communication point of view I think a carry-on dictionary is a must until we pick up some basic words.
    These Chinese baozi look very tasty, looking forward to try some ;)

    Is it true that transportation is very expensive?

    1. Nope, transportation is not expensive at all. Trains are super cheap, especially hard seat tickets, but flights are expensive for the sake of enormous distances between provinces. China in general is cheap. One baozi costs only 10p :), so you can eat 10 just for a pound.

  8. Ron | Active Planet Travels

    Those are some pretty vivid points. I’m anxious to move to Thailand here in a few short weeks I just sure hope they don’t all consider me a walking ATM…lol. On another note, I can’t wait to see the floating Hallelujah Mountains for myself. Must be stunning! :-D

    1. Moving to Thailand? So awesome. Of course you will be another ATM there :-) sorry, but it’s so true. The floating Hallelujah Mountains are incredible indeed!

  9. It’s nice to know that Westerners aren’t treated like walking-ATMs in China. That’s one of the main reasons that we’re moving on from SE Asia – that attitude gets tiring after a while.

    1. So true. We were tired of this especially in Siem Reap. We tried our best to live like locals, but we paid for everything like tourists! :-/

  10. Leszek / The Indie Traveller

    Haha very funny, concise and so true! I just came here cos of the awesome photo of baozi to be honest :D I’m glad I stayed. I sort of funny at the beginning when people take photos with you isn’t it? Gives you the celeb feeling wink wink But the romance of it wears off after about a week I suppose haha Still, China is a super cool experience, despite some of the above mentioned, and I’m sure you both agree :)
    Are you travelling together again?
    Best from London!

    1. Hey man! Long time no see. Yeah, we are working and travelling together in Dongguan, nearby Hong Kong. I joined Cez after spending 2 months in Europe. Baozi rules indeed. That’s the reason we came back to China, LOL (just kidding)! Yeah, only in China you can feel like Justin Bieber :), nice feeling at the beginning then you feel tired and frustrated :)

  11. wow what a great post! and that first photo of the flowers is just plain gorgeous! i have never been to either parts of the world but am hoping to get to both someday! thanks for pointing out the main differences for us less-traveled! :)

  12. Excellent article, like usually and amazing photos!
    Baozi is probably the reason why I will set up in China for a while too! Love the way you describe the walking ATM! No worries, in Japan you will get the same superstar feeling with treatment from everyone just because you come from that far away. In Philippines, you will have to edit a T-Shit telling “I don’t want anything unless it is free!” or they will think you are a brand new walking ATM machine (instead to call you “friend” they will call you “m’am” and “sir”:P)

    1. Hahahah. Japan is the same? Awesome!!!! I don’t mind when people think I look like Lady Gaga or another superstar :):) LOL. Can’t wait for the Philippines experience :):-D

  13. I relate and agree to everything you have said here Agness! People should never look at China and SE Asia as being the same! Customs, culture, climate, people, scenery – everything is different! You’re definitely right about the rubbish in China – it’s overwhelming in areas, and shows big differences between city and provincial life.

    I love China and S E Asia – the similarity between both places, being, they give visitors an exciting and very unique time!

    1. Thanks, so glad to hear that :):) I had to point out the main differences between SE Asia and China as people think “I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos so there is not need to go to China”!

  14. Daniel McBane

    I feel like I’ve read a lot of posts about how terrible China is, so I’m happy to read one that says the opposite. I could never live in SE Asia, but I lived in Shanghai for two years and would happily go back. I could only live in a big city, though; small towns are wonderful to visit, but I would get bored living there. And by small town, I mean any place with less than 10 million people–it is China, after all…

    1. We lived in Siem Reap for more than two months and we had enough but still miss the place a lot and have great memories. We are in Dongguan now which is a huge city, much bigger than we were expecting to be but I wouldn’t mind moving to Shanghai or Beijing :-). Yeah, agree you can easily get bored in small places but it’s a great opportunity to pick up some language, blog, get closer with locals and fully experience the real China life.

  15. Maike von reisetage.blogspot.de

    LOL :-) I agree, China is a must see. Love your pictures. I’ve been to Gui Lin and Long Sheng Rice Terraces and the scenery is just amazung!!!

    1. I’m glad you also enjoyed China as much as we have and still are. Unfortunately, we have not been to Gui Lin, but we will definitely go there!

  16. I’ve been debating China for a while now – seems like it comes highly recommended by you, even after I’ve travelled the main SE Asia backpacking spots.
    Another for the bucket list I guess….!

    1. Yeah, China is definitely a country you should visit after SE Asia. Promise you you won’t regret going there! Let us know if you need some help x

  17. Jess @UsedYorkCity

    Wow, definitely shocking to see the street used for a trash can! The only Asian country I’ve been to thus far is Japan, which presented as far cleaner than even most big cities in the US!

    Love the article!:-)

  18. It is good to know that the tourist inflation is non existent in China as opposed to the South East Asia nations. I bet also there is less hustling in the markets with every seller trying to get you in their shops and negotiation is on the minimal. I have travelled to Thailand a number of times, and there negotiating is the order of the day. It can be a bit dauting if you are shy.

    1. Definitely. There is less hustling in China, but not only in the markets but everywhere. People are not that pushy.

  19. This is all so true! Also, I don’t think I’ve come across such helpful people, anywhere. Walking into any train station in China, people would come up to me and want to know where I wanted to go, in Chinglish, just because they’d know I would be confused. They don’t mind that their English isn’t the greatest, which is the opposite of places like Japan where people don’t want to lose face if their English isn’t good enough. I was taken aback by all the friendliness and helpfulness (even though sometimes it just made me more confused) – nobody had prepared me for that :)

    1. I know. They keep saying “I’m sorry. My English is so poor”, but they still try their best to talk to you.

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