A backpacking trip to Asia can truly be the adventure of a lifetime. By using a backpack instead of a cumbersome piece of luggage, you’ll be able to start exploring as soon as you arrive at your destination. But what should you bring along, or more importantly, not bring along? And where are the best places to go without much confusion? The following is a travel guide to three of the best Asian countries to visit, with a special focus on urban backpackers.
What you’ll bring on your backpacking trip depends on whether you’re planning on camping or staying in affordable hostels. You’ll also have to decide if you’re backcountry camping, which will require more equipment. Before you start compiling a list of items to bring, remember everything you’ll pack is what you’ll be carrying and decide what you should leave at home, like your laptop or an additional camera. If you decide to camp through Asia, you should bring along a tent, sleeping bag, a tarp, first aid kit, toiletries and other essential items like your ATM card. On the other hand, you won’t face the challenge of carrying additional weight if you decide to stay in hostels. Either way, you should create a checklist of items to bring along while envisioning what everything would look like once you’re ready for the trip. Here’s an excellent checklist from the U.S. National Park Service.
One of the purposes of your backpacking trip may be to escape the connected world. On the other hand, having a smartphone can assist you in a number of ways during your trip, e.g. the GPS, maps, travel apps, tips on meals, photography, phone calls and posting on social media. If you want to stay connected while traveling abroad, you have a few options to consider before your departure. First off is to decide whether you want to purchase an additional service for overseas calling and/or Wi-Fi, or wait until you arrive and purchase an inexpensive SIM card for the duration of your stay. Between the two, the SIM card is the more affordable choice. However, it’s important to purchase a card from a reliable source and, if possible, to have them install it for you. If you decide to go with a SIM card, remember to bring a container to store your original SIM card. You could also rent a phone from an airport or other provider, or purchase a disposable cell. It really depends upon your needs. But if you really want to go low budget, you can always build yourself a “cantenna.”
In addition to items essential to your backpacking trip, you must have a valid U.S. passport. You can determine the entry requirements of an Asian country by visiting the U.S. Passports and International Travel website, then click on the tab for Country Information and enter the name of the country.
Travelers must also be mindful of any travel alerts posted by the U.S. Passports and International Travel.
There are nearly 50 countries to visit in Asia, with some that may surprise people. For instance, Iran, Iraq and Israel are all in Western Asia, in addition to other countries most people associate with the world’s largest and most populated continent, such as China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. New Zealand and Australia are technically part of Asia, although some Asian countries like China would disagree. Russia is also part of Asia.
The following are three of the safest countries to visit in Asia. Each of these countries offers a national rail pass for extended travel, and information in English is superior to most other Asian countries.
It’s no secret that a visit can be incredibly expensive place to visit. Nevertheless, the Land of the Rising Sun can actually be quite affordable, especially for backpackers. In fact, there are more than 70 hostels averaging under $30 per night in Tokyo alone. What’s more, there are a few campsites available for reservations in the city and even more that are completely free.
In all, there are more than 3,000 campsites starting at about $25 per in Japan, in addition to hundreds of free campsites that can be reviewed on the established website Hatinosu. While camping in Japan may seem appealing, the cost savings are minimal in comparison to hostels and the majority of campsites are hard to reach, with limited access via public transportation.
For travelers interested in staying in a hostel in Tokyo or other Japanese cities, the most reliable sources of information are Hostels.com, HostelWorld and HostelBookers. Each site provides individual hostel information and are categorized by rating from best to worst, much like what’s found on Trip Advisor, the world’s leading site for travel reviews.
Japan has a wealth of amazing attractions and destinations to visit. Among the best for backpackers are Mount Fuji, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the snow monkeys of Jigokudani and most important of all, the ancient capital city of Kyoto.
How To Get Around Japan
Japan is well known for its efficient public transportation, particularly the shinkasen (bullet trains). But the more affordable ways to travel between destinations in the country are highway buses or local trains, which are substantially cheaper than the bullet trains. For intercity travel, all of the major cities in Japan offer regional transportation, including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
Tokyo is an amazing city for the first time visitor to Japan, and it’s fairly easy to get around the city with the Tokyo Metro subway system. Backpackers just need to know to avoid riding the subway during commute hours and visit city attractions like Sensio-ji Temple, Tokyo Tower, Tsukiji Market and fascinating neighborhoods like the Ginza, Shinjuku and Harajuku.
While South Korea lags far behind in tourism compared to some other Asian countries, it’s a better choice, especially for backpackers who are traveling solo. What’s more, it is a well-educated Asian country with a strong economy, and English is widely taught as a second language, making it easy for travelers to converse in major cities.
One drawback that may deter some backpackers is the accessibility of camping throughout South Korea. Most are relegated to national parks and no backcountry camping is allowed. Backpackers interested in knowing more about campsites in the country can visit the official Korea National Park Service website.
South Korea does offer a similar number of hostels as neighboring Japan. Not surprisingly, Seoul, the capital and largest city, boasts the largest amount of budget accommodations with just over 200. One of the top hostels in Seoul is Seoul Backpackers, with prices starting around $12 per night and others averaging between $8-16. Still, Seoul currently ranks second behind Tokyo as the world’s largest city when the greater metropolitan areas are put into the equation.
After visiting interesting sites in the city such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and exciting neighborhoods like Myeong-dong, backpackers might want to venture on to other parts of the country. Other top destinations in South Korea include Seongsan Sunrise Peak, Kkotiji Beach and the breathtaking Boseong Green Tea Fields.
Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail) has its own form of high-speed train (KTX), with speeds of more than 215 mph. More affordable rail service like Mugunghwa-ho is also available from national railroad operator, as are tourist trains and subway lines within Seoul.
Serving the greater metropolitan region, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway is considered one of the world’s finest subway systems. it’s known for featuring clean subway cars and stations, in addition to cutting edge technology. A single ride on a subway line is about $1.20, with additional charges for distances exceeding 10km or 6.2 miles.
Reading the Seoul Metro subway map may be a little intimidating for some backpackers, but it distinctly resembles other major city subway maps like Paris, London and Tokyo.
Thailand, also known as the Land of Smiles, can truly be a backpacker’s dream destination. It’s also one of the world’s most affordable destinations for Americans, with many three-star hotels available for under $50 per night and hostels for as little as $5 nightly. Camping is also available in Thailand, particularly in national parks but hostels can easily provide much more comfort.
In Bangkok alone, there are more than 200 hostels in the area and over 500 throughout the country. While it’s important to visit the country’s largest city, especially the magnificent Buddhist temples and the Grand Palace, it’s very important to consider visiting other portions of the country, such as Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and the enchanting island of Koh Chang, just off the coast of the southeastern portion of the country.
There is a reason past visitors consistently recommend visiting Chiang Mai, known as the “Rose of the North.” With a storied history stretching back to the 13th century, the largest city in Northern Thailand features more than 300 Buddhist temples and variety of things to do, including nature and wildlife tours for a real authentic Thai experience from reputable companies such as Local Alike. There is also river rafting, elephant rides and cooking classes. Among the excursions offered by Local Alike are day trips to Chiang Mai or Bangkok, starting around 1,500 baht, or approximately $42, and a three-day, two-night trip to Trat for about 3,000 baht or $84, which includes roundtrip van transportation. For overnight accommodations, Chiang Mai has more than 100 hostels available, starting at just $3 per night, as well as amazing two-star hotels beginning around $15 nightly.
Accessible only by ferryboat, Koh Chang is in many ways a better choice for backpackers than Phuket, the more celebrated destination. Koh Chang is the largest portion of an archipelago consisting of more than 50 islands and part of Mu Koh Chang National Park. Only a few hostels are listed on the island, but there are several other places to stay, including tree cottages with prices starting at $11 per night.
How To Get Around Thailand
Thailand has an extensive railway network, extending as far north as Chiang Mai and as far south as Sungai Kolok at the Malaysian border. Train travel is very affordable for Americans in comparison to some other countries, with a single ride train ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai available for under $20. Backpackers planning a trip north of Bangkok should also consider making a stop in Ayutthaya, the site of second capital of Thailand, founded in 1350.
Bus service in Thailand is even more affordable, with several bus companies operating out of Bangkok, in addition to regional service to major cities. The official site of the Tourism Authority of Thailand lists 11 bus companies, along with a search function to determine what other forms of transport are available to a given destination. Other Thai websites such as Sawadee and ExploreKohChang provide additional information for bus service to Trat Province and the island of Koh Chang.
In order to get around Bangkok, backpackers have several transportation options — Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), BTS Skytrain, the underground MRT, taxi service which includes cars, motorcycles and the ubiquitous tuk-tuks, otherwise known as motorized rickshaws. The Skytrain and MRT may be the most efficient ways to travel quickly about the city, but backpackers are strongly encouraged to experience the popular and very affordable tuk-tuks.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com