Asia is a continent of exotica and amazing contrasts, attracting visitors in the millions each year. If you’re a budget traveler, Asia is the place to go. Based on over thirty years of trekking the length and breadth of this fantastic land, here are ten of the least expensive Asian vacation destinations; places where you can have an amazing experience without busting your bank account. Like most people, I have my own favorites. After you’ve experienced what Asia has to offer, you will probably come up with a completely different list.
Thailand. Despite the political turmoil, Thailand is still a favored Asian vacation spot. Bangkok is crowded and polluted and not at all what it was in the 1960s, so if the airport is open, my advice is just transit on your way to the real hot spots for touring.
For a look at a different aspect of Thailand, take one of the several daily flights to Chiang Mai in the north. This quaint city has transformed itself over the last ten years into a booming metropolis, but still retains some of the charms that make it a great jumping off point for the delights of the north. It has everything from classy four-star hotels to cheap guest houses. Daily tours can be arranged to go elephant riding, visiting a hill tribe village, or just trekking through the mountains. In the city itself, you can visit the night market inside the old city which is surrounded by a moat, or take a taxi up to Doi Suthep, an old Buddhist temple which affords a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.
If you’re into surfing or bumming around on the beach, try Pattaya, about a one-hour bus ride south of Bangkok. Again, hotels range from expensive upscale to modest guest houses. Thai food at all locations is exquisite and shopping ranges from gems to silk fabrics. Another island resort that is highly recommended is Ko Samui, south of Bangkok. Beach massages, parasailing, and snorkeling are among the offerings. Or, you can just loll around on the beach and enjoy the view. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” you simply must visit the real Bridge on the River Kwai which is located northwest of Bangkok, about a three hour drive. You can ride a train over the bridge, visit the museum, or take a trip to the allied cemetery where many of the British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died building the bridge are buried.
Laos. Laos is a prime example of ‘sleepy backwater.’ Even though it has a Communist government, the people remain quintessentially Lao. This means easygoing, friendly, and slow. Getting to Laos is easy; you can fly into Vientiane from Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, or travel overland from border towns in Thailand. While Vientiane is an interesting city to visit, with some temples, a few local and western restaurants and decent hotels at reasonable prices, the best place to tour is Luang Prabang, home to the oldest and most famous temples in the country. The language and customs of Laos are not too different from Thailand, but the food is distinctive. Handicrafts and gems are available just as in Thailand, but at somewhat lower prices.
Cambodia. Say Cambodia and people usually think of Angkor Wat or “The Killing Fields.” A trip to the country is not complete without a visit to the famous temples of Angkor Wat, but there is much, much more to see and do in the Khmer kingdom. After a tour of the temples, a short flight or a three to five hour drive to Phnom Penh, the capitol, allows you to get a close up view of the country’s tragic past at Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge execution center. But, the city also has the famous Wat Phnom, which sits on the hill overlooking the Mekong River.
North of Phnom Penh, about three hours drive, is the city of Kratie, home to some of the few remaining fresh water dolphins. They can be seen frolicking in the Mekong either from shore or poled boats. About four hours south of Phnom Penh is Sihanoukville, a coastal town with some of the country’s best seafood restaurants, and beachside bungalows. Cambodia has a number of expensive three and four star hotels in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap (where Angkor Wat is located), but there are also hundreds of budget hotels and hostels for the budget traveler. Cambodian cuisine varies, with the local food based primarily on fish and rice, and is spicier than Thai, Vietnamese, or Lao food. The major cities and towns also offer decent western, Thai and Vietnamese food, and in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville you can find North Korean noodle restaurants staffed by cooks from Pyongyang. Handicrafts include wood carvings, gold and gems, as well as silk which is priced below what you pay in Thailand. A word of caution: Be careful about anything that looks like an antiquity; which is illegal to take out of the country.
Sri Lanka. Now that the civil war is settled, the former Ceylon is a highly recommended destination. A visit to Kandy affords a look at the location where the “Bridge over the River Kwai” was filmed. Of course, the easygoing pace of life in Colombo with its pristine Indian Ocean beaches is worth the trip. Despite their unfortunate history of violent warfare, Sri Lankans are generally warm and friendly, and the food is a fusion of Indian and Malaysian. There is a wide range of accommodations, from expensive Western style hotels to budget inns.
India. The second most populous country on earth and the biggest democracy can be a memorable place to visit. A must see there is the Taj Mahal in Agra, south of Delhi. The train ride from the main station takes you through the heavily populated countryside, and is preferable to travel by road as you avoid the cows that are all over the place. Hotels in the Agra area are reasonably priced, and the food is classic south Asian; with an emphasis on curries. India is a major textile producer and as you might imagine, roadside vendors offer a large number of woven products which, if you are prepared to bargain, are a great deal.