Saturday, January 14, 2012

9 Backpacker Districts Every Budget Traveler in Asia Should Know About

More often than not, when we talk about budget travel, we usually refer to traveling backpacker style. This usually means hostels instead of hotels, street food stalls instead of restaurants, and do-it-yourself sightseeing instead of packaged tours. There is a lot more flexibility nowadays, of course. But it is still well worth knowing which area in your next travel destination to check out when you want to find the cheapest options available.

In my travels around Asia, I tended to trod along the backpacker trail. (Why wouldn't I?) Thus, I had been able to see first-hand how each place checks out. I have my favorites and, of course, my not-so favorites. Let me list them all down here:

1. Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

The very busy Pham Ngu Lao street juts out southwest from the Ho Chi Minh City Bus Station. That alone is a plus point for me. It's close to the center of everything. The area is a dizzying combination of street signs, bootleg book peddlers, sidewalk food courts, bright and gaudy bars and restaurants, and of course, motorcycles! I have been to Ho Chi Minh twice (thrice, if you count my transiting there from Cambodia) and I know I will stay in the Pham Ngu Lao area the next time I am in Ho Chi Minh.

Recommends: My My Arthouse (hostel's a bit tricky to locate but great value at 7 USD per bed)

Cheers to Saigon

(See more posts about Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam: Surviving Saigon, Vietnam: Sights in Saigon)

2. Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Ahhh...Khao San Road. How can anyone make a list of backpacker haunts in Asia without mentioning Khao San Road? It's the end-all, be-all of backpacker districts in Southeast Asia (SEA). Anyone backpacking in the region will inevitably find himself or herself among the noisy bars, the shirtless and scantily-clad gap year travelers, the relentless touts, and the outdoor massage parlors. I like it because everything here is so gosh darn cheap (street food, bucket-size cocktails, massages, etc.). It can get a bit too much, though. Too noisy, too crowded, too in-your-face. So a couple of days should be enough. You will want to explore the rest of Thailand at that point.

Recommends: Bangkok Homestay (relatively new and quiet hostel on Tanee Road, street close to Khao San Road), Nappark Hostel (friend who has traveled around Southeast Asia a lot swears by this one)

Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

(See more posts about Bangkok: Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

3. Tha Pae Gate, Chiang Mai, Thailand

If there was one place in Southeast Asia I found to be genuinely livable, it would be Chiang Mai. I will write more about this wonderful city in the coming weeks. However, if you are just backpacking through Chiang Mai, your best bet to find the cheapest accommodations will be the area north of the old city's main gate, Tha Pae. Walk around the little alleyways (which the Thais call soi) within the area and you are sure to find a place that suits your needs. The best part is, it's close to the Sunday Night Market, the biggest night market I've been to in SEA.

Recommends: Black Canyon Coffee (great cappuccinos but I personally prefer their Thai milk tea, also free WiFi and outlets to charge your laptops)

Tha Pae, Chiang Mai, Thailand

4. Pub Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Let me begin by saying that I did not stay in a hostel close Pub Street when I was in Siem Reap. I still had a decent-paying office job then, which meant that mid-range hotels were an option for me. However, I did most of my eating, drinking and shopping in this area. If I ever go back to Siem Reap, this is the first place I would check out for cheap accommodations.

Recommends: Blue Pumpkin (cheap, hearty breads), Angkor What? (great atmosphere and cheap drinks), Angkor Night Market (after exploring the temples the whole day, you may want some retail therapy here)

Angkor What?

(See more posts about Cambodia: Cambodia: Angkor's Royal Foundations, Cambodia: Siem Reap's Night Life)

5. Little India, Singapore

Don't think for a second that because I included Singapore's Little India in this list, the hostels here will be friendly to your pockets. This is still Singapore and everything is, unfortunately, very expensive. Dorm beds in shared rooms go for 15 to 25 USD. That's high by SEA standards. You can get your own private room for a fraction of that in Vietnam. But as far as budget accommodation goes, this is the area in Singapore where you'll find the cheapest rooms.

Recommends: any Indian canteen (one that has local Indians there) to get the best Indian food outside of India

Little India, Singapore

(See more posts about Singapore: Singapore: Little India, Singapore Is People and the Food)

6. Pahar Ganj, New Delhi, India

Again, let me clarify that I did not stay in the Pahar Ganj area. We planned to, even booked accommodation there. But we were lucky that our friend in New Delhi allowed us to stay in his place. We did, however, quickly browsed through the shops and stores here. It is noisy and chaotic (hey, it is India), but surely, its redeeming value is that it is right outside the New Delhi Railway Station. If you're traveling through India on a budget, you will at many points get on the Indian railway system. And not having to deal with pushy taxi and rickshaw drivers to get to your accommodation after your train ride is a gift that keeps on giving.

Recommends: None (I didn't stay here. Give me a break!)

Photo by Miran Rijavec | CC BY-SA

(See more posts about Delhi: Best Mystery Meat in Delhi, Roomorama Has Got It Going On)

7. Taj South Gate, Agra, India

If you like small, busy, chaotic streets (who doesn't?), then you might just like the Taj South Gate area. This is where most cheap accommodations are, right outside (and I mean, right outside) the gates of one of the greatest, most recognizable landmarks in the world, the Taj Mahal. I admit, we stayed in another area (a little farther from the Taj from the East Gate), but we did eat in one of the restaurants here. That was about all we could take.

Recommends: Shanti Lodge Restaurant (not the best food, sure, but great views of the Taj from their rooftop restaurant)

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
© Paul Xymon Garcia 2011

8. Lakeside, Pokhara, Nepal

The hotels running along the winding road beside the lake is what comprises the tourist area known as Lakeside in Pokhara, central Nepal. It's quite the perfect setting, actually. You have beautiful Phewa Lake on one side, and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas on the other. You wouldn't find dorm-type accommodations here. They don't have lots of those in Nepal, but singles and doubles are very, very affordable. The many shops, bookstores, cafes and restaurant here, all of them very inviting, are really just a plus, a big plus.

Recommends: Baba Lodge (on the far end of lakeside, closer to the bus station), Black and White German Bakery and Restaurant (really tasty dishes, especially the chicken tikka masala)

Lakeside, Pokhara, Nepal

9. Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal

If you were to ask me which backpacker district is my favorite, I would easily answer by saying Thamel. It has got it all. The right amount of chaos, the thousand and one shops for outdoor gear, the cheap western food, the cozy cafes (all of them with free WiFi), the small grocery shops, and the million and one tour agencies which make it easy for everyone, budget travelers included, to book their next outdoor adventure in this Himalayan country. It's easy to live here, and frankly, I wanted to stay longer. I have yet to write about all of my own adventures in Nepal, including those in Thamel. It takes some planning and drafting as I want to do justice to the country I left my heart in.

Recommends: I'll save this for another post. I have a lot of recommendations in Thamel alone!

Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal

(See more posts about Thamel: Bungy in the Nepal Himalaya)


There are a couple more backpacker haunts I wanted to include in the list. But they are not exactly "backpacker districts" as they are more like whole "backpacker towns." That is, the whole town is overrun with travelers (whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you). I am referring to McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, India (see my Dharamsala posts here) and Pai in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. They are both small towns which have blended the local culture with the tourist (which happened to be the backpacker-hippie) crowd. Don't get me wrong. I love both of them and I would go back in a heartbeat. I thought I mention them here.

Do you also stay in backpacker districts when you travel? Any particular reason why? Why not? Any other backpacker districts in Asia worth checking out?

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