South Asia travel is exciting, extreme, mostly cheap, and unforgettable. A visit to the most populous — and frenetic — region on earth provides plenty of opportunity for adventure and lasting memories.
Hitting up the three most popular destinations (India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) for a South Asia “Grand Slam” on the same trip is entirely possible. Although any of the three can easily hold their own alone as a top destination, combining them makes for an enjoyable, diverse sample of South Asia.
Nepal offers up Kathmandu, Mount Everest, the birthplace of Buddha, and other travel treats. Sri Lanka provides an island experience, abundant flora and fauna, surfing, whale spotting, and as many beach cocktails in king coconuts as you can handle — useful for warming up after the Himalayas.
From the highest mountains in the world to one of the most biodiverse islands in the world, traveling to South Asia is well worth the madness of being stuck on a plane so long. Despite some challenges, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have good tourist infrastructures. They’re also excellent choices for budget travelers on extended trips abroad. You certainly get a lot of cultural “bang” for the buck in each.
Choosing When to Travel to South Asia
To properly enjoy any time in the Himalayas — one of South Asia’s most inviting features — you’ll need to plan around the extreme weather in Nepal. Snow atop mountains is beautiful when viewed from afar, not when stuck in a remote outpost waiting weeks for roads or runways to clear. India and Sri Lanka can be added before or after a trip to the Himalayas.
For taking advantage of fair weather in the mountains, you’ll have to decide between Nepal’s two busy seasons: spring or fall.
The Best Time to Visit Nepal
Nepal’s rainy season begins in June and runs until sometime in September. Although the air may be cleaner, mud and leeches really cut into the fun. The autumn months, especially October, are the most popular in Nepal. During this busy time, you may have trouble finding accommodation in lodges on popular trails, especially if you decide to go trekking independently without a tour.
Spring is a popular time to visit Nepal for viewing wildflowers, but as temperatures warm, mountain views are reduced by humidity. May is a good — and busy — month for trekking to Everest Base Camp to see climbers preparing for their life-and-death challenge.
The Best Time to Visit India
The Indian subcontinent is so large that you’ll find good weather somewhere no matter the time of year. Traveling to India will probably be the highlight of your travels in South Asia.
That being said, the monsoon season begins in June and runs until October. The rain can be heavy and disruptive, especially in some destinations such as Goa. The weeks leading up to monsoon season are unbearably hot, so taking a chance with shoulder seasons are best.
Destinations in the north may become inaccessible in November as snow begins to close mountain passes. If rain or cold pose too much of a challenge, you could always head to Rajasthan — India’s desert state — to see ancient forts and enjoy a camel safari in Jaisalmer.
Before solidifying dates for travel to South Asia, check to see how they mesh with the busiest holidays in India. You wouldn’t want to just narrowly miss one of these spectacular events. Dealing with the aftermath without getting to participate in the festival is no fun at all!
The Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
Surprising for its size, Sri Lanka experiences two distinct monsoon seasons that divide the island. The best time for visiting the beautiful beaches in the south is from November to April. Whale spotting season begins in November. During dry season in the south, rain soaks the northern half of the island.
Regardless of the time of year, your only worry in Sri Lanka is rain. The island will be more than warm enough, particularly if you’ve just come from the Himalayas!
Getting to South Asia
Unsurprisingly, India is well connected with flights from North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia. There aren’t any direct flights between the United States and Sri Lanka, so beginning in India is a good plan unless you’ll be coming from a different part of Asia.
Great deals can be found for flights between India and Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. One popular strategy is to grab a cheap flight to Southeast Asia (the cheapest flights often arrive in Bangkok), spend a few days acclimatizing in an “easy” environment and beating jetlag, enjoy some delicious Thai noodles, then fly onward to India to begin your South Asia travel adventure.
If you choose to begin in Nepal, know what to expect when landing in Kathmandu.
Moving Between India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka
Without a doubt, the most time efficient and least painful way to move between the three countries is by taking budget flights. Unfortunately, flying is also the surest way to miss out on some wild experiences that happen on the ground when least expected.
Terrain features, road conditions, and severe overcrowding make moving long distances by bus a little extra painful than usual. Trains are a better option than night buses, but they aren’t always available. Moving around India and Sri Lanka by train can be an enjoyable travel experience.
Although you can cross into Nepal from the northern border of India, you’ll have to deal with winding roads, high-elevation passes, and the whim of military officials who may want additional incentive (money) to allow you to pass. Simply put, flying is well worth the money spent unless your primary objective is the additional adventure.
Ferry service from India to Sri Lanka was terminated. You’ll find lots of cheap flights to Colombo from different points in India.
What About Other Places in South Asia?
This itinerary only covers India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka because visiting the three is popular and fairly straightforward. With additional trip time and planning, a foray into Bangladesh could be added. South Asia is actually made up of eight nations.
The Maldives, popular with honeymooners, are a little inconvenient on a trip of this nature and are probably best left as a vacation-style destination all their own. Visiting Bhutan requires commitment — and upfront payment — for a government-regulated tour.
Presently, most world governments have a warning against all nonessential travel to Pakistan. If you’d still like to visit, speak with the High Commission for Pakistan in New Delhi about obtaining a visa. Travelers from countries on the list of “Tourist Friendly Countries” may obtain a 30-day visa on arrival but must travel with an authorized tour agency.
Afghanistan is blessed with the mountainous beauty to become a top travel destination one day, but for now remains mostly inaccessible.