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Backpacking Tips, Travel hacks

Friendliest International Destinations for the Indian Backpacker

While the nifty Indian backpacker is all set to conquer the world, it is not a bad idea for the wannabes and the first timers to take stock of international destinations that are easier to explore. Once you get the hang of backpacking, well, who knows where you pitch your tent next!

For the benefit of the novice traveler, I have created an IBF Index or International Backpacking Friendliness Index in order to rank the friendliest places in the world for Indian backpackers. This index takes eight main elements into consideration, namely, ease of obtaining visa, affordability of sightseeing tours/activities, transport, safety in travelling alone, political situation, amicable people, availability of vegetarian food and availability of cheap accommodation.

Based on the IBF Index, the friendliest international travel destination for the Indian traveler is Sri Lanka (not counting Nepal and Bhutan). Surprised? Well, let’s take a look at how Sri Lanka and a few other countries score on a scale of 1 to 10 against each element in the IBF index.

#1 Sri Lanka

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 10

Transport: 7

Solo travel: 10

Political situation: 10

People: 10

Availability of vegetarian food: 10

Cheap accommodation: 9

Hortons Plains_Sri Lanka.jpg

Sri Lanka is a perfect getaway if you are on your maiden journey with your passport tucked in the front pocket of your backpack and a very thin wallet. This island country has a lot to offer in terms of history, culture, pristine beaches, adventure, wildlife and natural beauty. Trains and buses are cheap and easily available to cover almost all the destinations, buses being more frequent and convenient than trains on certain routes. However, road conditions are not that good, making travel time quite long.

Sinhalese people are an extremely social lot and their hospitality will amaze you most of the times. An average budget of 20-25 USD per day should be enough to take care of travel (by buses), food and other activities. Cheap accommodation is available in plenty in every part of this country, except Colombo (being the capital  city) and Bentota beach (for luxury tourists). ATMs are available in all major towns and cities, so getting access to your cash is not a problem. Cash transactions are prevalent in this country. And for food, gorge into delicious vegetarian, meat and seafood curries at the tiny roadside eateries. If you avoid the more touristy places and delve deep into the cultural belts, you can’t help falling in love with Sri Lanka!

*Find out more about backpacking in Sri Lanka.

#2 North Thailand

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 8

Transport: 10

Solo travel: 10

Political situation: 9

People: 9

Availability of vegetarian food: 9

Cheap accommodation: 8

Longtail boat-Thailand-cropped

In Thailand, nothing amazes the traveler more than its diversity. Northern part of this beautiful country is quite different from its expensive and more touristy Southern counterpart. While Southern Thailand is famous for its idyllic beaches with picture postcard settings and vibrant nightlife, the North boasts of hauntingly beautiful landscapes replete with Thai culture and tradition. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Kanchanaburi and other parts are easily accessible from Bangkok by train or bus. Though language can be challenging as the locals hardly speak much English, but the whole tourist sector is well organised and you can do things on your own without much conversation with locals.

Roads are generally in good condition and bus travel is smooth and affordable. Transportation is a major plus in Thailand and moves like clockwork. The Thais are a very hospitable bunch though you might sometimes get conned by certain local travel operators who could overcharge you for day tours. It is advisable to check out the reviews online on the tour operator before booking a tour. Keep your cash ready for all transactions if you haven’t already booked in advance online. Finding ATMs is not difficult. There is plenty to do and see in Thailand so backpackers love to return here again and again. And, there is no dearth of vegetarian fare for the hardcore vegans. Average cost for food, accommodation, transport and sightseeing would amount to 30-35 USD per day.

#3 Indonesia

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 8

Transport: 8

Solo travel: 9

Political situation: 8

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 10

Cheap accommodation: 9

Batu-bolong-temple-Lombok

Despite political uprisings every now and then, Indonesia has emerged as a captivating cultural destination for backpackers. The country still boasts of unspoiled natural beauty and beaches. Interestingly, you will not come across the regular local transport (like bus, train, metro or tram) for commuting from one part of town to another except in main cities like Jakarta (capital of Indonesia) and Sumatra. The usual backpacking routes in Indonesia include Java, Sumatra, Bali and Lombok regions. Besides, culture and natural beauty, Bali is also known for its exciting and infamous nightlife.

Despite the lack of the usual transport, all major destinations across towns can be easily accessed by Ojek (a scooter or motorbike that takes a paying passenger; fares begin at around 20000 IDR for 5 km), metered taxi (fairly cheap), Bemo (a minibus or van with a row of low seats down each side in a slightly cramped condition), Dokar or Cidomo (two varieties of pony cart still prevalent in Lombok and parts of Denpasar & Kuta; fares start at 5000 IDR). Local flights (from Denpasar to Lombok) are quite affordable too.

Indonesians are deep-rooted in culture and tradition which they love to showcase to foreigners visiting their beautiful country. Sightseeing and activities are affordable too. The local tour operators in Bali and Lombok pack in quite a few locations and activities in their daily itineraries that help you cover a lot of interesting places in one day without wasting time in commuting on your own. You can enjoy all your activities at a leisurely pace without worrying about missing out on something interesting. However, make sure you compare the prices of various tour operators online before choosing the best out of them.

Accommodation in Indonesia is cheap, well-located and in abundance. Vegetarian food is easily available and a tasty meal will cost you the same price as it would back home. Daily cost of travel in Indonesia would be around 25-30 USD (with a decent air-conditioned accommodation). The only tour that you may find expensive would be the 2-day Orangutan Trek in Bukit Lawang National Park (from 85 USD onwards) due to the steep park fees. Indonesia prevalently deals with cash, so it is better to keep a stash while travelling in this country.

#4 Cambodia

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 9

Transport: 7

Solo travel: 10

Political situation: 9

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 9

Cheap accommodation: 8

Bayon temple_Cambodia

Presently, Cambodia is recognized as top destination in Southeast Asia chiefly due to the temples of Angkor. Besides Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s gory past (Khymer Rouge) draws a fair amount of curious travelers to this underdeveloped country. The country’s close proximity to Thailand also acts as catalyst to its booming tourism. Even though the highly organized road and transport system in Thailand is a stark contrast to the transportation available in Cambodia, yet the latter has a raw beauty that beckons to backpackers worldwide. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are the two major destinations, besides Sihanoukville (white sandy beaches) and Battambang (11th century Khymer empire).

If you begin your tour from Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), you can reach Phnom Penh by plane, bus or ferry. It goes without saying that airfare is costliest (around 70 USD) and bus fare is cheapest (15 USD), but both are equally frequent in a day. Ferries cost around 18-25 USD one way (once at 7.30 am daily), but are very basic in nature. Roads are not in great shape though development work continues in most regions. Motorcycle taxis and motorcycle tuk-tuks are quite prevalent besides buses and ferries. Locals in Cambodia are a friendly lot, but more inclined towards the American dollar than any other currency. Though ATMs are available in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, it is advisable to carry cash ( US dollars) while travelling in Cambodia. Cambodia is surprisingly vegetarian friendly with an array of street and restaurant food at affordable prices. Cost would average at 25-30 USD daily for accommodation, food and sightseeing.

#5 Laos

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 7

Transport: 7

Solo travel: 9

Political situation: 8

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 8

Cheap accommodation: 9

cropped-rajarshi-image4.jpg

While Vientiane is the official capital of Laos, Luang Prabang is most certainly the cultural capital. Backpackers usually cross over from Thailand to Vientiane and head straight for Lunag Prabang by bus. Road travel in Laos is quite a challenge. Though VIP buses and minibuses are cheap and ply regularly between all major towns, pitiable road conditions make the journey longer than usual. Torrential rain during monsoons turn Laos into a green haven, but the roads transform into small muddy pools. Besides buses, Songtheaws (tuk-tuks) too are cheap and reliable modes of transportation. Their availability and timings are based on how fast they get filled up with passengers. Since boat trips and airfares are different for foreigners, they can drain your budget at times.

In general, food and accommodation in Laos are reasonably cheaper than in its South Asian neighbours. Unlike what you may learn from other online blogs, Laos definitely serves real good vegetarian fare, and quite reasonably priced too. Certain day tours are charged very hefty sums by local operators, especially around Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Pakse. Since doing these tours on your own would mean spending more time in each destination due to poor accessibility (lack of direct transportation could make you end up in taking more than one mode of transport to reach a certain place), it makes sense to go with a local tour operator. Backpackers love to head for Vang Vieng, a small town between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, to catch up with the infamous party circuit in Laos. Lately, Vang Vieng is also being promoted for its beautiful natural caves and waterfalls.

Although you may think otherwise, solo travel is relatively safe if you avoid any kind of night travel. People are very simple and friendly even though they might appear tough to foreigners. Their poverty sometimes drives them to keep foreign pricing for their services. Language, too, is a big hurdle, so it is better to keep guidebooks handy. Overall, Laos is quite cheap if you have time in hand and do most of the sightseeing on your own. Although ATMs are available in most of the Laotian cities, it gets difficult to carry large quantities of notes in Laotian currency (1 USD = 8120 Kip). You can easily make your purchases with Thai Bahts and US dollars. An average day in Laos will cost you about 20-30 USD (slightly higher in North Laos).

#6 Myanmar

Ease of obtaining visa: 9 (e-visa accepted only in major airports)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 7

Solo travel: 9

Political situation: 9

People: 9

Availability of vegetarian food: 10

Cheap accommodation: 8

Bagan-Myanmar

The government reforms of 2012 has been a shot in the arm for the tourism industry in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Though some of the areas are still out of bounds for foreign travelers, Myanmar has more or less opened its doors to the outside world. And boy, aren’t we lucky that they did so! Who can afford to miss the ethereal sunrise in sacred Bagan? Or the unspoiled beauty of the countryside! People are extremely friendly as they are still curious to learn about the world beyond their little country. Age-old traditions are well preserved though. Things, however, are rapidly evolving since the country has become more lenient on various regulations for tourists.

In general, Myanmar is relatively economical except for hotels and organised day trips. Food is cheap and delicious. It goes without saying that vegetarians have nothing to worry about in this country. Though local food could seem a bit bland to the Indian taste buds, you can easily manage your own Indian meals. Be ready with a budget of 32-35 USD /day for a comfortable travel around the country. Tourist pricing for foreigners in temples (or Pyays) and government-run establishments can sometimes be a let down in this sector. Transportation like buses and taxis are reasonably priced. Taxis charge somewhere between 2-3 USD to travel across the town. There are certain challenges though. Since the taxis are not metered, you need to bargain with the drivers prior to the ride. Bus journeys, though cheap, are long and arduous. However, there is plenty to catch up on the move, so it is never boring. You could also save yourself a lot of unwanted trouble if you book your onward bus tickets in advance with your guesthouse/hotel. VIP buses cost a few dollars more than the regular ones, but are very comfortable (blankets, reclining chair, dinner) for long distance journeys (12-15 hours).

While ATMs are no longer a rarity in this country, crisp US dollars are preferred over the local Kyat (1 USD = 1215 Kyat approx.). Soiled notes are rejected outright, so be mindful of this while traveling. Credit cards are still not accepted in this country. Wi-fi connections are a huge challenge, especially in Bagan and Inle lake. In rest of the regions, you will have to manage with slow-speed networks. Due to sudden tourist influx, it is wise to book hotels in advance online before arriving at Myanmar to avoid disappointment. With time though, these challenges will definitely get sorted out. However, it is a good idea to visit Myanmar right now while the country still boasts of its pristine beauty.

#7 Malaysia

Ease of obtaining visa: 7 (to be obtained from India prior to travel)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 8

Solo travel: 10

Political situation: 7

People: 9

Availability of vegetarian food:

Cheap accommodation: 8

Berhala Island-Malaysia

Move over Penang, Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malacca, Langkawi and Genting Highlands! Sabah and Sarawak, parts of Malaysian Borneo (East coast), are the new backpacking destinations in Malaysia that never cease to amaze the next generation adventurous  traveler. Kuching, Mulu, Sibu and Miri in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu and Lok Kawi in Sabah have a lot to offer when it comes to discovering offbeat trails. These locations are a welcome respite from the commercial and over-exploited spots on peninsular Malaysia. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to catch up on the colonial past in Penang, Malacca and KL or the magnificent tea estates of Cameron Highlands. Among all the Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia (like India) offers far more diversity in terms of natural landscape, food, culture and heritage.

Though Indians need to get their passports stamped from the Malaysian High Commission based in India before their trip to Malaysia, incidentally, you can get a visa on arrival for 100 USD (bit expensive) if you already hold a valid Thailand visa or Singapore visa. This option makes it easy for a traveler to cross over from Singapore or Thailand into peninsular Malaysia. Once you reach KL, you can easily book cheap flights to various destinations in Sabah and Sarawak. The recent political unrest in Sarawak has left some tourists wondering whether it is safe to travel there, but life goes on for the backpacking community.

You need to keep aside a daily allowance of 25-45 USD for food, accommodation and travel in Malaysia. Your budget may fluctuate a bit based on the parts your visit. For instance, Kota Kinabalu will swing towards the higher side while Kuching can be a backpacker’s true paradise in terms of expenses. Public transport is cheap and easily accessible. Buses are safe and comfortable modes of transportation across towns. They also happen to be cheaper than trains and have wider network. However, they take longer to reach far-flung towns. Boats are useful to commute from island to island (Kuching to Sibu, for instance) and fares are almost same as buses. Taxis are also available everywhere in the country (rather expensive) but make sure the meter works! Taxi drivers are notorious in KL as they tend to overcharge or even take detours to increase the meter fare.

Locals in Malaysia are peace-loving and easy to please as long as you respect their culture since Malaysians are predominantly Muslims. Local tour operators, however, charge quite a bit if you choose to book any of the activities, more so if you go trekking with a guide in any of the wildlife parks such as Taman Negara or Boka. Diving costs are the most expensive in the region. Accommodation, too, is reasonably priced in most parts of Malaysia, except in more touristy locations. As far as food goes, the vegetarian options are many and much cheaper than seafood and meat. Local cuisine is mostly rice-based with salads and vegetables as accompaniments, a tad  bland for the Indian palate that is used to more spices. Overall, though slightly more expensive than most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia is fairly affordable if you stay off the beaten track and choose your activities carefully.

#8 Vietnam

Ease of obtaining visa: 7 (to be obtained from India prior to travel)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 8

Solo travel: 10

Political situation: 9

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 9

Cheap accommodation: 8

Halong Bay_Vietnam

Despite being slightly more touristy than other Southeast Asian countries (except Southern Thailand which is far more touristy), a trip to the Southeast region in the Asian map is incomplete without a visit to Vietnam. The historic past of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) city, the breathtaking beauty of Halong Bay and the unique culture of ancient hill tribes will put you right into the folds of this resilient country. Over the centuries the Vietnamese people have bravely foiled the attempts of their enemies to conquer them. As a result, Vietnam stands as a proud nation with a civilization as sophisticated as neighboring China.

Vietnam is known for its vast number of value-for-money organised tours and activities. Due to long distances between towns, it makes sense to opt for these trips despite the fact that you are time bound and following the tourist trail. You also get to split the costs with large tourist groups. Foreign pricing can rather be a challenge in most places. Road conditions are pretty pathetic up north that increase travel time. Train journeys are far more comfortable, though slightly expensive than buses. Local flights, too, offer services in various sectors at varying prices that depend on the seasons and special offers. If you wish to get off the usual tourist trail, you could book yourself a motorbike tour with Easy Riders from Dalat. Though costlier than the usual tours, you can explore the countryside freely. Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces in Northeast Vietnam have some amazing off-beat trails to offer. Phong Nha Ke-Bang in central Vietnam and the nearby beaches in Dong Hoi will also open many scenic vistas. The most expensive activity in Vietnam is a cruise on Halong Bay (64 USD/person).

Even though Vietnam is a safe country to travel alone, beware of occasional thefts. Dong is the local currency and it is safer to use Dong instead of any other currency to avoid any altercation later. Though US dollars (1 USD = 22000 VND approx.) are accepted in many places, the exchange rate is, however, chosen by the vendor and may not be the actual exchange rate since it is illegal in Vietnam to “list prices or ask for payment in any currency that is not the Dong”. Major credit cards, too, are accepted in hotels and restaurants. In every street, you will find a cashier or a branch of a Vietnamese bank where you can withdraw money from the ATM. However, each branch has a varying maximum limit of money that can be withdrawn. The place to cash travelers checks is at a Vietcom bank, which charges no commission for exchange of US dollars to Dong. Always remember to exchange your Dong before leaving the country as the currency is not accepted anywhere outside Vietnam (except in parts of Cambodia).

Vietnamese people in the North are different in their attitude from those in the South. While the locals in the South are polite and can come to terms with your travel plans, the North Vietnamese people are weary of tourists and make no effort to disguise it. There is also a considerable difference in the lifestyle of locals in Ho Chi Minh city (South Vietnam) and Hanoi (North Vietnam). Hanoi looks like a simple and poor sibling compared to its Southern counterpart. You will find a wide variety of delectable food that can be cheap to expensive based on the establishment you choose. Cheap vegetarian food is easily available from street vendors in Ho Chi Minh, while it is more expensive in Hanoi.

Cost of accommodation in Vietnam vary from place to place. The more scenic and organized the location in terms of resources, more expensive is the accommodation. While a guesthouse in Sapa can cost you as much as 20 USD, a similar category in Hoi An or Hanoi would cost you half or less. Everything is negotiable, so book your tours and hotels directly after reaching the location. I would suggest a daily budget of around 40-45 USD for Vietnam, if you can avoid foreign pricing.

#9 Mauritius

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (90 days free)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 6

Solo travel: 9

Political situation: 10

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 9

Cheap accommodation: 6

Black River gorges National Park-Mauritius

Backpacking in Mauritius? Is that even possible? What with expensive star accommodation strewn around the beaches, it is difficult to imagine a backpacking trip in this tropical paradise frequented by honeymooners and retirees. Well, the good news is, ever since affordable, though basic, guesthouses (15 USD/night onwards) have mushroomed near the city centre in the last few years, there is a sudden spurt in the number of backpackers. It certainly didn’t seem fair to be denied of such beauty because of the expenses. There is so much more to Mauritius than just beach hopping. It has its incredible share of natural reserves and even a volcanic crater to explore.

Let’s take a look at the cost of other elements like transport, food and sightseeing. Buses will take you to almost every place worth visiting on this island. Different bus operators cover the north and south islands. Buses operate from 5.30 am – 8.00 pm in more populous areas and 6.30 am – 6.30 pm in the countryside. The minimum fare is as low as 0.5 USD. Due to the number of stops and distance between the sites, the commute could be a long one, but it is never devoid of scenic beauty. Taxis are faster but can be very expensive, especially those taken from the hotels.

Where there are so many ethnic settlers of Indian origin, there is bound to be all kinds of delicious vegetarian food, reasonably priced (around 2-10 USD if you avoid the bigger or popular restaurants). While rice and stuffed parathas are staples, you will find a lot of creole and french delicacies too. If you stay away from the expensive water sports, it doesn’t take much to explore this beautiful island though you may face some foreign pricing. The entry fee to Casela bird park, a nature and adventure park located in western Mauritius, is 20 USD for foreigners and just 10.5 USD for locals. In case you want a memorable experience of walking with the king of beasts (read lion), you need to shell out another 21 USD (approx.), but you won’t be disappointed with this indulgence. A guided trek in the Black River Gorges national park, located in the hilly south-western part of Mauritius, could cost you anywhere between 42-59 USD depending on the tour operator you opt for. You can also do this on your own for free without a guide (with a trail map costing around 1.40 USD). Apart from these nature parks and Ile Aux Cerf Island (famous for water sports activities), you can explore the entire country by spending almost nothing (besides the bus fare). Solo travel is perfectly safe, but stay away from the watering holes after dark to avoid any unpleasant experience. Creoles might not be a friendly lot in these places. However, generally, Mauritian people are quite friendly and hospitable.

ATMs are plentiful and easy to use in Mauritius. You may be charged a fee by your bank to process cash withdrawn from ATMs. The preferred currency is the Mauritian Rupee (MUR) that can easily be exchanged at the airport. Euros and US dollars actually get you unfavourable rate of exchange at various establishments in the country.

To summarize, average daily cost in Mauritius as a tourist would be somewhere around 45-50 USD if you choose a decent accommodation in the city centre and avoid expensive water activities like recreational scuba diving (89 USD onwards), swimming with the dolphins (50 USD onwards) and whale watching (65 USD onwards).

#10 Madagascar

Ease of obtaining visa: 10 (30 days free on arrival)

Affordable sightseeing tours/activities: 7

Solo travel: 8

Political situation: 7

People: 8

Availability of vegetarian food: 5

Cheap accommodation: 7

4026784053_40b0b19bfc_b
Photo Credit: Flickr/Frank Vassen

Though the isolated island of Madagascar fell on the tourist radar in the ’90s, it was not until 2011-12 that tourism saw any real boost. This is mainly because of political crisis in 2004 and 2009 due to severe recession. The island is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. Madagascar is a treasure trove of unique flora, fauna historical sites and craftsmen communities.

Mostly, organised tourism, though expensive, is opted over independent travel due to lack of better public transport. However, you can still enjoy Madagascar on a shoestring budget by using taxi brousse or shared mini buses and shuttle. Taxi brousse is generally a cramped, overcrowded minibus or 4×4 , but it is the cheapest means to traverse the country. Always stay updated on the route you take as being a poor country, certain belts or zones might stir up unwanted disturbances (like robbery or purse snatching) now and then. Despite this, tourists are generally safe and welcomed by the locals. Malagasy people are friendly, humble and warm. In return they expect you to stay humble during your visit and respect their culture. They have strong taboo systems or cultural norms that vary from village to village. Studying the Malagasy culture can be quite fascinating and insightful. It will definitely help you avoid hurting local sentiments and staying safe.

ATMs (Visa and MasterCard) are widely available in large towns and cities. In more rural areas, you still need to take out only cash. Euros are the easiest foreign currency to exchange. Since 2005, the official currency of Madagascar is the Malagasy Ariary (MGA), replacing the Malagasy franc. However, certain rural areas still follow the franc. You have to be extremely careful while transacting in these parts.

Hotels and guesthouses are relatively cheap, but vary in quality (somewhere around 15-25 USD/night depending on the season). Breakfast is rarely included in the room price. When visiting the national parks, you will need the service of guides. In order to keep your costs low, try sharing the guide fee with others as a guide can accommodate up to four travelers in a single trip. Also opt for day trips instead of overnight treks as the former is much cheaper. You can pitch your own tent during your treks through the parks instead of spending money on a proper hotel. However, make sure you are well prepared during the winter months if you choose to visit then.

Madagascar has limited cheap vegetarian options such as plain rice and vegetable stew (loaka). However, you might get lucky at the street markets. Otherwise, vegetarians might have to spend more in French restaurants. An average meal would cost you anywhere between 2 USD and 15 USD (if having something special). You should be able to keep the daily travel expense in Madagascar at around 40-48 USD if you manage to stay patient on the road and avoid private transport and tour operators. Keep time in hand when visiting this untamed and hauntingly beautiful country.

Hope this top ten list motivates you enough to be on the next flight heading for one of these destinations. Good luck and bon voyage!

Do you have any more tips to share on the above destinations? I would be happy to add them or update any possible outdated information mentioned here. Looking forward to your valuable comments!

 

 

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