For student backpackers, Southeast Asia is probably one of the best destinations possible. Not as expensive as Europe but lacking the hostage takers of South America or the railway system of India, Southeast Asia has become a well-trod route on the backpacking circuit.
This comes with inevitable but undesirable stereotypes: burnt-out lifers on pot and Red Bull, horny and unprincipled Aussies, pasty Brits who still keep up with the football scores, creepy old men with young Thai girlfriends and, above all, students.
The popularity of the area with young people has led to some snobbery among "real" backpackers who deride the availability of 7-11 and Boots Pharmacy. As one writer on the Lonely Planet discussion board asked "is there actually anything to see in Thailand or is it just a place for gap-year kids who can't get by without their McDonald's?"
This is simply not true.
There's a lot of bad associated with the tourism boom, but the boom is occurring because it's an amazing place to go. Scuba diving, beach combing, riding motorbikes, rock climbing, reading, caving, kayaking, shopping, trekking, temple-hunting, Full Moon parties, Dark Moon Parties and photography are just some of the things you can do--it's a hell of a lot more than the shagging and drinking attributed to students.
Thailand does not equal Fort Lauderdale.
While the giant corporations are scary and to be avoided, most of the guest houses, restaurants and guide services are run by locals, improving their income over what coconut harvesting brings in. This grassroots level of business is what a lot of people love about the area--who wouldn't rather stay at a mom and pop establishment than a Holiday Inn? In addition, the widespread use of English and numerous tourism institutions like the Tourism Authority of Thailand makes traveling sans tour bus easier than anyone ever expects.
There are a lot of Alberta homebodies who find the idea of backpacking (especially in Asia) physically and mentally exhausting, but if you can book a bus ticket, hail a taxi and survive without a hair dryer, you'll be fine. It may sound strange, but going where you want and doing what you feel like is quite relaxing.
English books are available almost everywhere, bars and eateries frequent and exciting, activities and sights abundant and, above all, you are surrounded by people who are not averse to the idea of meeting you.
Unlike some North American cities, making eye contact doesn't mean "I'm hitting on you" or "I want to pick a fight." People genuinely want to talk to you and know about your life, even with a language barrier.
In Thailand, a group of college-aged girls adopted me for the night, taking me out for Pat Thai and talking about boyfriends and majors.
A man in Laos chatted to me about his family while he cast his fishing nets and a monk told me about his sister going to college in the capital. I can't tell you if it's because people are curious about your different culture or simply friendlier, but either way it's a great environment to be in.
Another part of the colour of traveling is simply the way things look different, and there are many exotic and beautiful sights in this part of the world. In Vietnam, schoolgirls bicycle the morning streets in traditional white ao dais and conical hats dot the rice paddies. The landscapes are distinct in each country, while the amount of history you will learn far outstrips your Social Studies 30 curriculum.
In addition, it's incredibly cheap to travel in Southeast Asia. Over four months, I only spent $3,000. A man from Montreal gleefully told me it was less expensive for him to travel here than to live at home. However, the reason for this is because they are developing countries, and poverty is something you will always encounter.
It is hard to visit as a tourist without feeling guilty for having that opportunity, which I often think is the reason you'll see backpackers talking more to fellow travelers than to locals. However, this will only diminish your possible experiences and reinforce an uppity tourist image.
Also, backpackers have an innate fear of being ripped off, but just chalk it up to karma and let it go. If you get approached by kids, try to give them food rather than money, they often aren't the actual recipients. (Warning: little girls in Cambodia cry when you don't buy postcards. Deal with it as best you can.)
Prostitution is another disturbing part of life in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, but it's only truly blatant in red-light districts. You might see a couple of older white men accompanied by young women or have a guest house next door to a brothel. If you're really unlucky you might mistake a brothel for a guest house! But the sleazy, sex-show side of Bangkok is only a small part of it.
Despite that image, Southeast Asia is a very safe place to travel. While women are, in a way, constantly vulnerable, I traveled with strangers (new friends), rode alone on night buses and walked around after dark.
The stupidest thing you can do is drink your face off or get high in an unknown environment. Avoid that and you'll probably miss most of the dangers.
While some countries may seem dodgy--land mine warnings in Cambodia, morning military announcements in Vietnam--as a tourist you are fairly protected by your relative wealth. And keep in mind, there is a huge volume of young, inexperienced backpackers who have made it through and loved it without being kidnapped as sex slaves or used as a drug mules.
In short, Southeast Asia is a safe, fun, cheap, friendly, beautiful place to go. And you can tell that to the "real" backpackers.