Five Main Differences between China and South-East Asian Countries

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. Happy Philippines

    i enjoyed reading this. haven’t been to China but I agree with the walking ATM part in some countries in SE Asia. love the floating mountains as well. thanks for sharing!

  2. Nice article. Seem you travel a lot especially in South East Asia. Do you visit Malaysia before? It’s really nice country.

  3. I did a month long trip around China about 5 years ago now, and agree with everything you have said above. I must admit that before I visited I didn’t realise that pretty much no one spoke English (I realise that its bad that I expected them to), but it makes it very hard when all the signs are in a language so foreign and the pronunciation is so much different to my mother tongue. I need to try and make time to blog about my experiences in China – but yes I definitely agree it is SO much different to SE Asia.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      That’s true. Not many people speak English. It was hard for me to get used to it but as soon as you start speaking Chinese you can realize you don’t need English at all and your life is much easier :-). It is actually more fun talking in China than in English for me at the moment. It’s still difficult, but practice makes perfect :-)

  4. Angel Rodriguez

    This is a really cool post. I enjoyed reading about this. My wife is Chinese, and though I have traveled to Asia, I believe our experiences were 100% different. I don’t recall people being very friendly to me, in fact some were downright hostile because a gwailo was with one of their ladies. Maybe it’s your cute smile and pretty hair that gets you nicer treatment?

    1. Agness Walewinder

      LOL my cute smile and blonde hair help a lot indeed :) :P. I’m always open to new friendships and for some reason locals like me :). Your wife’s Chinese? That’s great. I hope you speak some Chinese :)

  5. Having lived in China for several years and traveled in SEA extensively, I think you make some really great points. They are VERY different and even China itself is incredibly varied. I traveled to Xinjiang Province (China’s Northwest) and it was like being in a different country. . . Language, religion, food, landscape, architecture–it was all very different from the east coast.

    Quite frankly, I prefer traveling in SEA, but I’m really happy living in China. It never stops being interesting!

  6. Hi, again, another spot-on article! I lived in Vietnam and Thailand as a teacher and I totally agree with what you said. I am fortunate that I now live in Hangzhou, which is a cleaner, more upscale city than other Chinese cities. The only time I’ve been “ripped off” in China was when I bought shoes or tried to buy things at markets. But, even then I just didn’t get much of a discount when I purchased items and I didn’t have a deep discount like many locals would get. Also, store owners have tried to overcharge me on water or beer on a couple occasions, but nothing serious yet (knock on wood). I felt Vietnam was much worse than here, IMO. But, great blog!

  7. I am quiet disagree with no.1, based on my close relatives/friends experience while travelling in China(Beijing, Shanghai), it seems like most of them having a moment that they were ripped off by the vendors and if they left without buying anything, they will curse by them. Maybe because my relatives/friends are from south east asian or maybe they just unlucky to meet those people…. not sure.. because I never been there…

  8. It’s true that in China you don’t usually get ripped off on small things, like taxi fares or stuff like that (foreigners can get charged more in cheap markets where they sell clothes, but obviously not in chain shops).

    That’s just one side of the story though. Attempt to do anything big in China, like rent a flat or do any kind of business, and you are probably more likely to get ripped off than in South-East Asia, or at least very likely. Many Chinese just aren’t very honest when they do business.

  9. I live in SE Asia and have been to China 3 times. As an Asian (a Thai), I understand Chinese culture well. I am half Chinese myself. Your experience sort of explained itself. China has less “white” foreign tourists because China is still new to tourism. SE Asia has long been one of the world’s favorite destinations. If you find yourself got ripped off in SE Asia, that’s because people there rely more on tourism for a living than their Chinese counterparts. I am sorry for your experience. But Asian tourists have been ripped off in China for ages. I have been in China 3 times, and I got cheated or ripped off each and every time. I never got angry, it was how they deal with their target tourists. You see, Chinese merchants have been praying on Asian tourists (like myself) forever. In years to come, it will be westerners’ turn to get dealt with unfairly. I can assure you about that. Chinese are materialist by their cultural inclination. But I can see that you still don’t have a real understanding with Asian cultures.

    China indeed has beautiful scenery, it’s a huge country with lots of natural resources. Soon China may replace SE Asia for top tourist destination.

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