Backpacking in Asia

What to Expect as a Backpacker in Asia

Backpackers in Asia
••• Backpackers in Asia just arriving by boat. Photo by Greg Rodgers

Backpacking in Asia is extremely popular. With budget accommodation, cheap food and drinks, and plenty of exotic culture to be enjoyed, Asia has been the premier destination for backpackers since hippies flocked to Kathmandu decades ago.

Backpackers of all ages can be seen traveling throughout Asia, particularly hotspots along the so-called Banana Pancake Trail. For budget travelers seeking a continent suitable for long-term travel, Asia has unlimited possibilities!

Why Is Backpacking in Asia so Popular?

Backpacking in Asia has been a hit since at least the 1950s when members of the Beat Generation traveled to Asia -- namely India, Nepal, and East Asia. Travelers at the time were interested in Eastern Philosophy and a less consumerism-oriented lifestyle. The availability of cheap drugs didn’t hurt, either! Traveling on a low budget was considered a counterculture alternative to the institutions of the time.

As word of Asia’s rewards spread, Tony and Maureen Wheeler appeared on the scene with their first travel guide: Across Asia on the Cheap. The two went on to found Lonely Planet -- a multi-million dollar enterprise that still dominates the travel-guide market.

More and more travelers began arriving in Asia, which caused infrastructure to spring up to support them. Today, countless restaurants, bars, and guesthouses target backpackers who prefer to sacrifice luxuries in exchange for cheaper prices on trips of long duration.

Where to Begin Backpacking in Asia?

With cheap flights, a central location, and an excellent travel infrastructure, Bangkok is the first stop for a majority of backpackers who opt to explore Southeast Asia. Bangkok’s budget-travel neighborhood centered around Khao San Road in Banglamphu is arguably the budget backpacker hub for Asia, if not the world. The busy-and-chaotic street has morphed into somewhat of a circus over the decades, but the area offers some of the cheapest accommodation in Bangkok. Like minds gather there for drinks and discuss past and future adventures further afield.

Once Thailand is explored, neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are only a short flight or extended bus ride away. Budget airlines keep Bangkok well connected with all points throughout Asia.

What is the Banana Pancake Trail?

Although certainly nothing 'official,' backpackers in Asia tend to visit many of the same places. Over the years, a well-worn 'trail' popped up with guesthouses, reggae bars, parties, and Western food on hand to keep travelers happy. The route through Southeast Asia was unofficially deemed the Banana Pancake Trail because of the many banana pancake street carts found along the way.

Ironically, as more and more backpackers search for authentic experiences, the Banana Pancake Trail itself inevitably expands. Know how to travel responsibly to limit your impact on local culture as much as possible.

What’s the Difference Between a Backpacker and a Tourist?

The long-running debate of terminology for travelers is a beaten horse. Although technically the terms are interchangeable, most backpackers take offense to being called a ‘tourist’ and consider it a pejorative. The word ‘tourist’ often conjures up images of wealthy vacationers on two-week packaged tours, rather than those who intrepidly travel independently for months.

The United Nations set the definition for the word ‘tourist’ in 1945 as someone who travels abroad for less than six months. Like it or not, that includes backpackers regardless of the budget or travel style. If a trip extends beyond six months, the United Nations considers that traveler to be an ‘expatriate’ -- usually just shortened to ‘expat.’

A new generation of tour companies now caters to backpackers with adventurous interests. So should you opt for a tour or go alone? Use this guide to decide if tours in Asia are right for you.

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip to Asia

The initial trip planning for Asia is roughly the same, no matter the travel style. You’ll need to get a passport, check on vaccinations for Asia, research any necessary visas, then begin to gear up and plan.

This step-by-step Asia travel guide will walk you through trip planning, with phases that take the longest starting first. For instance, some vaccinations for Asia need to be spaced apart by months to achieve immunity.

While backpacking in any part of the world is certainly possible, long-term travelers with limited savings or budgets tend to begin in cheaper countries first. For instance, you’ll spend far less money in Thailand or Cambodia than you will in Singapore. Japan and Korea are far more expensive for backpackers than China and India. Use this where-to-go guide for comparing budgets and interests in Asia. But don’t despair: money can be saved on accommodation in expensive destinations by trying out couch surfing.

And remember: backpacking travel perpetuates itself. The more great people you meet, the more invitations you’ll receive – and places to crash – in Europe, Australia, and around the world!

If you choose to begin in Bangkok as many backpackers do, see some examples for the cost of travel in Thailand.