Making your first trip to East or Southeast Asia? Wondering where to go?
Okay, I've spent significant time in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. I can weigh in on those places for you. I haven't been to Macau, Laos, Burma, the Philippines, North Korea, or Indonesia yet - of them, I've heard great things about the Philippines and Indonesia in particular, but I can't comment.
So, some thoughts about every country -
Japan - Still the crown jewel of Asia, Japan has something for everyone. There's ancient and hyper-modern culture mixed all together. There's amazing technology, high levels of development, basically nonexistent crime, ridiculously high standards of quality and hygiene, and the people are friendly and polite. English isn't widely spoken, but the Japanese take being good hosts seriously and you'll be fine in any major city. You can find quite literally anything here - amazing camping and mountains and forests and oceans, or hyper-developed space-age districts in cities.
The downside of Japan - It's fucking expensive. Like, really really expensive. I hate spending money on eating and sleeping - every dollar I put into basic "staying alive" stuff is less money to be invested in commerce or philanthropy, or learning, or having unique experiences that are more interesting than... well, eating and sleeping. Yet, eating and sleeping is brutally expensive here. If you're not a veteran traveler and don't have friends here, you'll be hard pressed to spend less than $100/day in Japan. If you slum it hard, you can maybe get down to $50/day. Everything's ridiculously expensive, ranging from 400% to 2,000% higher than still-developing countries in Asia.
Also worth noting is you can seriously get "urban overwhelm" in Japan. Population density is extremely high, and if you don't know anyone here, your initial interactions might be polite but superficial without deep conversation (depending on how extroverted and outgoing you are, and how good you are at getting others to break out of their shell). If you've got significant cash and you're here for two weeks or more, I'd recommend 3-5 days in Tokyo, and then getting out to somewhere more quiet for 3-5 days to recharge before hitting Tokyo again. This minimizes the likelihood of overwhelm.
Verdict: Worth going if you can afford it. It's expensive and you've got to plan for urban overwhelm if you don't like being surrounded by tons of people. But really, this place easily generates more paradigm shifts and "WHOA WTF IS THAT?" moments than anywhere else on Earth. Everything modern and ancient, natural and man-made, and hybrids in between are here. Japan is definitely worth doing, if you can afford it.
Taiwan - I'd recommend Japan to everyone, but the second choice for a place depends on what you want. I feel like Taiwan is a very good second choice for the first time traveler to Asia. It's China, but more developed. You get authentic Han Chinese culture with better infrastructure, hygiene, more politeness, and less shouting/spitting/pollution. Though, depending on what year you read this, Mainland China might have passed Taiwan. Taiwan is a good moderate choice that's not too expensive, is modern, safe, and clean, but offers unique experiences. The people are friendly, polite, well-dressed, and helpful. English is spoken widely enough that you'll never have problems. There's no real downsides to Taiwan if you like what the place offers in general - some traditional Chinese culture, but a highly developed society.
It's the best developed country in Asia to live cheaply. Street food is excellent for $2 to $3 per meal and you can eat rice balls, sandwiches, and good juices in convenience stores for $1 to $2 for a meal. You can probably slum it for $20 (very austerely and ambitious) per day, and live pretty decently well for $50 per day. These numbers go lower with some advance planning, getting an apartment, or friends in the society. I like Taiwan a lot - I could live in Taipei, and I'd recommend it highly.
China - It's hard to comment on China, because it's really really big. The moderately developed provinces, rural provinces, and big cities operate almost entirely differently and provide a completely different look and feel. If you're not a veteran traveler, I'd recommend Taiwan before China where you're going to pick up a lot of Chinese culture, but easier and safer. Also, for Americans, the minimum-cost $130 visa for China is a bummer for the 2-4 week trip if you're on a budget.
But China is a pretty remarkable place and should be on traveler's itinerary eventually. It's a great place to spend a few months traveling through. Beijing and Shanghai are major international cities with all of the major-international-city type feel to them, but the moderately developed and rural places offer the most unique feel. I like the cities of Guilin and Chengdu a lot for nature with a mix of decent city living. Beijing and Shanghai these days rivals any international city for high end luxury and such, and they're actually more expensive if you don't know your way around than somewhere like Taipei. (It's possible to live pretty cheaply in Beijing or Shanghai, but you need a local guide or to speak Mandarin to do it - you won't be able to figure it out on your own.)
The cost of living in China varies widely. Beijing and Shanghai you should budget international city money for if you don't have friends and don't speak Mandarin, so $30 a day slumming it to $60 per day on the mid-but-unexceptional-end. High end living is pretty expensive in these places and the major cities aren't fit to live large on a small budget. That same $30 to $60 per day can get you outrageously good quality out in the provinces though - the disparities are staggering. If you do China, spend a few days in the major cities and then hit the provinces.
South Korea - A brilliant and amazing place, but not suitable for the inexperienced traveler. The English language is poorly spoken, and Koreans are less welcoming and more xenophobic and racist than other parts of East Asia. Now inevitability, someone will respond that they've been to South Korea and people there are friendly and welcoming and such, and that's true. Individual Koreans can be extremely hospitable (just like people anywhere), but the society just isn't designed to accommodate tourism. Of course, on the high end, none of this matters, and to the veteran traveler, none of this matters.
I'd strongly recommend Seoul after you've gotten your traveling stripes as it's a wonderful society. Koreans are extraordinarily proud, and South Korea is far more traditional, masculine, and militant than the rest of the more-laid-back-East-Asian countries (which I personally like and respect). Koreans believe in massively long hours, traditional households, and have immense national, racial, and culture pride. Perhaps due to the mandatory military service, Korean men carry themselves with a martial spirit and move powerfully. But a lot of times, you won't get good service if you don't speak Korean and many people could care less about accommodating foreigners. (Again, many people are extraordinarily friendly, we're generalizing.) You'll be banned from some places as a foreigner if you're into exploring deep into the society.
Again, I should rush to add that I love Korea and respect Korean culture immensely, but I've got to call it like it is. It's not a good place for a first-time traveler to Asia - you might have an amazing experience, but then, you might not. Go on a subsequent visit. If you're creative, you can slum it for $40 or so per day. Basic comfortable living gets pricier at $100+ per day - it's one of those places where's not many in-between options for travelers.
Hong Kong - I've got mixed feelings on Hong Kong. It's got some absolutely fantastic attributes, but I'd probably recommend Taiwan or China instead for the traveler who wants to experience Chinese culture, and I'd recommend Japan or Singapore instead for someone who wants a very modern experience. Hong Kong is another society where you can find anything you want, but it's less Chinese than China and Taiwan, and less modern than Singapore and Japan... if you spend time in Asia, you'll almost certainly wind up swinging through Hong Kong at some point since it's a major hub in the region. You can theoretically slum it in HK for $25 to $45 per day, but it's not an enjoyable place to live cheaply.
If you're traveling on the ultra-high-end, then Hong Kong might be very appealing to you. Some of the luxuries there are exceptional, and it's probably easier to understand the nuances of HK high society than it is to understand the same in China, Taiwan, or Japan.
A lot of people want to visit Hong Kong at first since they figure it's "safe" and English is widely spoken. Well, English is widely spoken, but Japan and Taiwan are arguably safer societies with lower crime and less pollution and less chaos. Hong Kong very much has an "anything goes" vibe to it, so I wouldn't recommend it for the first time traveler on any sort of budget. Go for China or Taiwan if you want Chinese culture, or Singapore or Japan if you want somewhere developed in Asia.
Vietnam - Probably the best place to be in Asia as a non-veteran traveler on a budget. Exceptional food, juice, coffee, great service, friendly people, and amazing nature are all available for dirt cheap. It's less touristy than Thailand but still acceptably developed compared to somewhere like Cambodia.
Be ready for people to try to rip you off if you're not Vietnamese, and they'll succeed... and yet, it's still dirt cheap. You could live as cheaply as $15 per day for serious slumming it. $30 per day gets you relative luxury in a country where you can get a good meal for 50 cents and a massage for $5. There's not much violent crime and the police are generally pro-Westerner, but beware bag snatchers, pick pockets, and people just brazenly overcharging you. Some restaurants have different prices on their English and Vietnamese menus - that's just the culture there to some extent.
Still, a great place to go with little cash, and I'd recommend it over Thailand. There's websites where you can pay online for visas and pick them upon arrival at the airport, which is convenient enough. Beware of "Southeast Asia overwhelm" if you go - which applies to any country in SE Asia except Singapore. You're going to be hit by tons of noise, lights, and various mixed smells... you adapt to it after a couple months, but it can overwhelm the new traveler. It might make sense to spend 2-3 weeks in Vietnam (or somewhere else) with a stop somewhere very modern afterwards, and then an option to continue through SE Asia afterwards. But Vietnam is a fine choice on a budget.
Cambodia - A fascinating culture, but not suitable at all for the first-time traveler. You can live ultra-cheap in Cambodia... I can't even put numbers to how low you could go, but $20 per day is enough to live quite decently. It's actually hard to spend a lot of money in Cambodia since there's no luxuries and the few there are, aren't expensive.
It's dangerous, though. No infrastructure at all. I almost got killed there, incidentally, when I got hit by a kid on a motorcycle who was on the wrong side of the road. Anyways, it's nice and well-worth going if you're a veteran traveler. Definitely go to Siem Riep and see the Angkor ruins which are magnificent. But don't make it the first place you go in Asia unless you've already got serious experience in dangerous places.
Thailand - What can I say about Thailand that hasn't been said a million times before? Tourism makes up a huge chunk of their economy, so Thai society is heavily geared around service industries. There's lots of vacation and tourism options. You'll experience petty crime, but not too much, and people will try to cheat you, but not too much. It's safe enough, Western enough, and there's a lot of options on where to go and what to do.
Thailand is a big place, and there's some diversity among the various cities. You'll probably find somewhere you like in Thailand. The beaches/water/diving are incredible. On a culture/people level, if I want to say something insightful, I suppose I should remark that Thai men are underrated and Thai women are overrated. Thai men are strong, proud, cool, friendly, and loyal and make good friends and are interesting to converse with. Thai women are probably not good choices for mates for foreign men... the culture has a deep fundamental disdain for women who choose foreign men, which puts any woman who goes with you in a state of fundamental neurosis all the time, and if I had a nickel for every horror story I've heard about foreign men who thought a Thai girl really truly loved them...
So yeah, if you go to Thailand, make friends with the men (who are underrated - really exceptional guys) and be wary of the women (who are overrated and are likely to cause you serious problems if you're not Thai).
You can slum it in Thailand for quite cheaply... I'm not sure how low you could go, but $30 per day gets you solidly decent living, and $100 per day gets you palatial quality of life. Thailand is geared for tourism, so you might consider Vietnam if you want a less touristy experience, but Thailand is a fine choice for first time visitors to Asia.
Malaysia - A strange and wonderful place. I really like Malaysia. Malaysia is a melting pot of Indian, Malay, and Chinese cultures that didn't really melt all that much... you'll see Indian, Malay, and Chinese restaurants all next to each other in a row, but people tend to stick to their own groups. It's odd, in a way, because it's almost like experiencing Malay culture, Indian culture, or Chinese culture separately and individually when you enter into one of their spheres and neighborhoods.
As a great example of this, there's separate "Islamic Police" that enforce legal codes - for Muslims only. If you're not a Muslim, you're totally exempt from their jurisdiction. If you are a Muslim and break their laws, you can be arrested, sentenced, and go to court and pay fines or even be jailed. Odd, isn't it? But it works, because the Muslim population is happy that their religious law is upheld by the government, but the Indians, Chinese, and foreigners are happy that they can live how they please. The Muslim Police never exceed their jurisdiction - you have nothing to worry about as a non-Muslim, aside from abiding the basic normal laws of the society.
Malaysia has wonderful architecture and a nice culture. Being a Muslim country, it's harder to find "wild times" than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but there's amazing food, good beaches, and lots of great art. The Muslims are known for their exceptional hospitality, and definitely check out some mosques while you're there and the Islamic Art Museum with its wonderful collection of swords and maps and firearms and other art.
Again, it's not a raucous party culture. It can be a good stop before or after somewhere like Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, and it will seem extremely modern and developed in comparison (though will seem developing to someone coming from a Western country, Japan, or Singapore).
It's pretty cheap. You could slum it for $20 per day, and live really quite well for $60. Perhaps even cheaper if you don't mind going out to the suburbs and commuting - their infrastructure is excellent. I spent a month decompressing an hour outside of the city, and my rent is $120 for a room in a luxury condo, with food running $2 to $5 per meal for quite good food. Again, it's not wild and raucous and crazy at all, so skip it if that's what you're looking for. But a totally decent place to chill out and cool your heels on a budget.
Singapore - An oasis of sanity and modern culture in the middle of SE Asia. Singapore has completely eradicated crime and brought the highest levels of civility and modernity to the place. People can complain about the sterility of Singapore, but I loved it after being through the chaos of the rest of SE Asia. There's a nice international scene with lots of education, art, and decent (though not crazy) nightlife.
The only downside of Singapore is it's expensive compared to all its neighbors, but still not backbreaking. You can slum it for $40 per day, though living well costs quite a bit more. I wouldn't recommend it as the first place you go in Asia, because it's so similar to the West... it's a Western country right smack dab in the middle of SE Asia. But it's got the right mix of everything you'd want, and it's located really well to strike off on short trips to all the other countries in SE Asia. If you're doing a few months or more in the developing countries nearby, budget the occasional week in Singapore to keep your sanity and be in a well-ordered environment.
Must-see: Japan, because it has anything and everything you could possibly want. Go if you can afford it.
Very solid, balanced choice: Taiwan. Chinese culture, but modern and safe. Much cheaper than Japan. A very solid choice for the first time traveler.
Hold-your-hand cheap-ish tourism: Thailand.
Cheaper, less touristy tourism: Vietnam.
Relaxed and cheap: Malaysia.
I think all the countries on this list are worth going, but I think those five are the best choices for a first-time traveler: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. But it really depends on your preferences - China has an amazingly rich and deep culture, and is a great place to spend a few months. If you can handle chaos, Cambodia can be quite a head trip. Korea is magnificent for the more-veteran traveler who is comfortable being in a low-English society. Hong Kong and Singapore are both well-developed countries with high levels of English fluency and make good pitstops when you're feeling overwhelmed with foreign culture.
I hope the thoughts here help - and your thoughts and recommendations are very welcome in the comments.