Backpacking in Asia: Frequently Asked Questions

What to Expect as a First-Time Backpacker in Asia

A backpacker in Asia stands in a train station

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Backpacking in Asia is extremely popular, especially for young travelers on their first extended trips abroad. With a relatively inexpensive cost of living, low crime, and plenty of interesting culture to be enjoyed, Asia has been the premier destination for backpackers since the early pioneers of the Beat Generation flocked to Kathmandu and India in the 1950s.

Backpackers of all ages can be seen traveling throughout Asia, particularly in hotspots along the "Banana Pancake Trail." Solo budget travelers have unlimited opportunities for socializing and meeting other like-minded people.

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. The "Hippie Trail" was paved by travelers at the time who were interested in Eastern Philosophy and a less consumerism-oriented lifestyle. The availability of cheap drugs didn’t hurt, either. Traveling around 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 guidebook empire that still dominates the travel-guide market.

With help from friends and guidebooks demystifying the idea of traveling so far, more and more backpackers began arriving in Asia. New infrastructure sprang up to support their needs and capitalize on the new trend. In 2000, Alex Garland's novel The Beach was made into a film starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio. In the movie, he finds a hidden subculture in the Thai Islands. The idea and beautiful setting fueled wanderlust for a new generation of backpackers.

Today, countless restaurants, bars, and guesthouses cater to backpackers who prefer to sacrifice luxuries (and some comfort) in exchange for cheaper prices. Do you really need cable TV in a place you only plan to sleep and shower? By keeping costs low, trips of longer duration can be enjoyed.

Where Is the Best Place to Begin Backpacking in Asia?

With cheap flights, a central location, and an excellent travel infrastructure, Bangkok is often the first stop for new backpackers who plan to explore Southeast Asia.

Bangkok’s budget-travel neighborhood centered around Khao San Road in Banglamphu is arguably the backpacker hub for Asia, if not the world. The busy, chaotic street has morphed into somewhat of a party-circus scene over the decades. But Khao San Road (sometimes mispronounced as "Koh San Road") offers some of the cheapest accommodation in Bangkok. Like-minded travelers gather there for drinks and to team up for adventures further afield.

Neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are only a short flight or long-haul bus ride away. Budget airlines keep Bangkok well connected with all points throughout Asia.

What Is the Banana Pancake Trail?

Although certainly not set in stone, backpackers in Asia tend to follow a loose circuit as they 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 throughout Asia was unofficially deemed the Banana Pancake Trail because of the many street-food carts and guesthouses offering banana pancakes.

Ironically, as more and more backpackers search for authentic experiences, the Banana Pancake Trail itself inevitably expands. Traveling responsibly and reducing cultural mutation are more important than ever.

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

The long-running debate of terminology for travelers is more about culture than choice of luggage carried.

Although technically the terms "backpacker" and "tourist" are interchangeable, most backpackers take offense to being called a "tourist" and consider the word a pejorative. "Tourist" can conjure up images of wealthy vacationers on two-week packaged tours rather than travelers who intrepidly wander 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. If a trip extends beyond six months, the United Nations considers that traveler to be an "expatriate" — usually shortened to "expat" in daily use.

How to Begin Planning a Backpacking Trip

You’ll need to get a passport, check on vaccinations for Asia, research any necessary travel visas, then begin to gear up and plan a loose itinerary.

Don't delay getting a passport and beginning immunizations! Some vaccinations for Asia need to be spaced apart by months to achieve immunity. These two things will come in handy no matter when you decide to travel.

Although backpacking in any part of the world is 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 considered more expensive for backpackers than China and India.

But don’t let financial fears stop you: Money can be saved on accommodation in expensive destinations by trying out couch surfing. Another thing to remember is that backpacking travel tends to perpetuate itself. The more great people you meet in Asia, the more invitations you’ll receive for places to crash in Europe, Australia, and around the world!

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