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Friday, August 22, 2008

How to Backpack Around Southeast Asia on $20 a Day

Tell your friends you’re going backpacking in Southeast Asia and they may smirk at the suggestion you’re getting in touch with your spiritual side. But there’s another kind of inner peace you may discover, the kind that can only come from saving money while still having the time of your life.

Southeast Asia is beautiful, culturally rich and a place where its easy to live off of $20 or less a day. You won’t even feel guilty eating greasy street food–the cheapest way to dine–because you’ll burn off all the calories on the trail. Go now and you’ll avoid the crowds that come in peak season but still benefit from the cooler weather.

Your biggest expense will be the airfare—getting there can be pricey, but Cathay Pacific’s All Asia Pass gives you 21 days to fly to four destinations and starts at $1,199. Here are some of the hot spots included—and why they belong on your itinerary.

Mae Hong Son

This northwestern Thai mountain region draws fewer tourists than Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, but it still has everything a backpacker would need. You’ll find basic necessities like ATM machines and Internet cafes in the town of Mae Hong Son. Make this town or Pai your home base, but head to hill tribe villages for unforgettable culture and Thai food cooked fresh over an open fire. Hire a guide who can arrange your meals and campsites, or check into a Pai hotel for less than $30 a night and go on day hikes.

Currency: baht

Peak season: November to April

Ho Chi Minh City

Hostels can cost as little as $10 a night in the city’s backpacker ghetto, Ngu Lao. Spend a day trekking the Cu Chi Tunnels, a piece of Vietnam War history outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), before getting out and going north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hop-on, hop-off buses cost about $20 to take you all the way to Hanoi. The one place you’ll want to make sure to get off the bus is Dalat valley. See coffee and silk being made, and take in waterfall views.

Currency: dong

Peak season: November to March

Phnom Penh

This Cambodian city draws a slew of tourists gawking at French colonial architecture and learning grim Khmer Rouge history on the Killing Fields just outside the city. The real attraction is Angkor Wat (near Siem Reap); a spectacularly preserved temple that was first built as a Khmer castle in the 12th century and has served as religious center for both Hindus and Buddhists. The less spiritual among you may recognize the temple as the site used in the 2001 movie, Tomb Raider. Siem Reap is backpacker-friendly with a number of inexpensive restaurants, Internet cafes, and places to burn CDs of your trip photos. Hostels in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap cost $10 and up a night, while buses between the two are $5–10.

Currency: riel (US dollars are widely accepted in cities)

Peak season: October to June


Southeast Asia’s own Sin City is the ideal place to celebrate the end of your long trek. The Guardian ranked The Dome Bangkok’s best bar, and it’s true that the swank rooftop lounge is a good way to indulge. On the other end of the spectrum, you can kick back with a beer in the aptly named Cheap Charlie’s, a shack surrounded by massage parlors (I’m not here to judge). Rest your head at Bangkok Centre Sukumvit 25, touted as the world’s largest budget accommodation ($9 a night in a dorm-style room), close to all transportation and equipped with WiFi.

Currency: baht

Peak season: April to August

Now that you have climbed Buddhist temple stairs, stood on the killing fields and partied in Bangkok, you can spread the word to all those smirky friends that backpacking in Southeast Asia isn’t just for college kids trying to find themselves. Or you may want to keep the information to yourself so it will still be affordable next time you go.