Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for: Southern Asia - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - aka some of the most worthwhile destinations on the planet!
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Also see: Indian Train System Explained
What follows are only basic snap shot summaries,
at a glance information you won't get from a guidebook. However, let's be fair,
with huge and complex countries like China and more to the point India, only
half the story is told. What you will find here should give you a good background,
but if you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and
need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement
what you find here with a planning guide. Trust
us, it will make life much easier.
For somewhere as huge and varied as India, the introduction and 'not to be missed' chapters in the Rough Guide are strongly recommended. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!).
If you want to read fiction, you are in luck as some of the world's best writers originate from India and Asia in general. All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out). To see why click here.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
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Many thanks to George Schoneveld for originally supplying this summary and the great photos. After a recent trip we have updated and very slightly revised.
The Sunderbans an area of mango-grove swamps which the country shares with India, and is a world heritage sight plus home to [man-eating] tigers (that you'll never see) is fairly inaccessible for budget travellers to visit independently - you'll need official guards to chaperone you, as there are incidents of banditry in the area. You need to arrange a tour and had travel around scheduled departures with a large-ish group (who may or may not be a great fun for the three days you spend with them). Bengal Tours and similar can arrange tours.
It's a strange fact, but Bangladesh/India is the world's only 3rd order enclave. That means there is a part of Indian in part of Bangladesh in a part of India! Ref
Primarily you! (you will be an attraction most of the time), Old Dhaka's frenzy (for as long as you can handle it), the Rocket Boat (or similar) trip, cycling around tea plantations in the North-East. The jury is out on the beaches as they are not good for swimming and despite the world famous length of the beach, the water is not clear and privacy is tough to find, coupled with the overdevelopment of both Chittagong District and St. Maarten's Island. Escaping the backpacker crowds. Being able to get off the beaten track.
The weather (hot and humid, apart from December and January when it can be
surprisingly cold). Lack of privacy and quality of facilities/transport, although if you give into it, it adds
to the experience. Going to the
requires a lot of hassle unless you book a tour. Although far from a low light, three days in a boat seeing few animals and mangrove after mangrove has limited attraction.
After 130 different countries we think Dhaka has the world's worst traffic!
Bangladesh may not have the highest total number of people living under the poverty line, but it has by far the highest percentage of any Asian nation - and it shows.
Visa strategy: Arrange beforehand; can be done in one day in Calcutta. If you fly into Dhaka, despite mixed information from embassies you can buy a visa at the airport.
Typical tourist trail: There is no tourist trail - this isn't India. There are not even any tourists.
Dangers: Riots in Dhaka and political instability at times. Some Muslim extremism and banditry in a few easy to avoid areas such as Sunderbans and Burmese border areas. And of course natural disasters most typically flooding. The Chittagong Hill Tracts has long been a sensitive area with past problems, but permits and at times escorts are now required to get near problem areas.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Same as India really. Monsoon starts in May/June and can lead to severe flooding. It is cooler than India in April/May. December and January can be quite cool, with a damp cold and heavy morning fogs. Take warm clothes at this time as the country is not 'set-up' for cold weather.
Costs: Cheap! Similar to India also, except that the food bill is always severely inflated. There is no (English) menu and determining price before ordering is strenuous, in part because nobody speaks English and not much effort is given to understand you. US$ 8-15/day
Money: ATM’s in Khulna, Chittagong, and Dhaka. Best rates on FX are the Indian Rupee and easiest to change with locals/stores as in many places there are no banks.
What to take: Leave your Western sense of privacy behind
Roads & Water: Easy, but all bus signs are in Bengali script. The slowest, but most spectacular way to get around it by boat, especially the Rocket (looks like one of those Mississippi-style pedal boats). This is the way to see the Bangladeshi river life! Has three classes, one is deck class, where you have to fight for a place on the ground, one is an 8 bunk room, and first class. First Class costs about 12 dollars (36 hour trip from Khulna to Dhaka), you have your own room and a deck with comfortable chairs on the front of the boat and a small dining facility, where they serve slightly pricey (but top rate) meals.
Trains: Comfortable and easy.
Air: Flights to Dhaka and Chittagong. Regent Airlines will allow you to book on-line and has a descent domestic network.
Locals: Extremely friendly! Foreigners are a real novelty. Having a Chai on the street will generate a fifty plus male crowd. It is worth remembering this use to be East-Pakistan and is an Islamic country and travelling as an unmarried couple is technically unacceptable. Better and easy to say you are married, but you won't have any real problems as an unmarried couple or with different sex friends.
Other travellers: Very few. Many expats (NGO’s) in the rich suburbs of Dhaka. Most people assume that travellers are working for local NGO’s.
Tourist factor: 2/10
Accommodation: Fairly decrepit as you might expect. Bangladeshis have little sense of shame, so expect people from the village to enter you room unannounced and stare, peer through cracks in the door or stare at you from the window. Hotel owners are usually really honoured you want to stay there, so will do anything for you (sometimes too much and too imposing). In some places in Old Dhaka they will not permit non-Muslims. Unmarried couples are banned from hotels without exception (as in Iran simply state you are married if asked).
Hot water: Less than common, only big/best hotels (normally in Dhaka)
Average cost: US$3-8 per room. US$20 will normally get you the best room in town
Communications: Outside big cities, no internet.
Health: Food poisoning commonplace in at least some measure during an extended stay. Bangladesh is definitely not the place to visit if you are hung up on hygiene
Food: Spicy Lamb, fish or chicken curry with chapati. Rarely anything else. Gets really boring. Sometimes you'll find kebabs.
Vegetarians: Nothing for exciting for vegetarians - can be tough. Plenty of chapti, plain rice and dal.
Hassle and annoyance factor: People don’t hassle you, but you may be overcharged in restaurants. The constant crowds foreigners draw get really tiring, but at the same time are also the charm. The annoyance is not really the crowd, it is the fact that a lot of the English spoken is very basic and having a conversation is hard work, plus you can be 'adopted' all too easily. Obviously with the extreme poverty comes a good number of beggars. Few if any target tourists (as there are none) and the local population gives readily (as is the Muslin culture). However many of the beggars are in a state [of physical appearance] that many will find tough to handle.
Women alone: Possible, but not recommended.
Local poisons for the body: Cigarettes very cheap. Alcohol only in large hotels and on the black-market (both at a high cost). If you like a drink pick up a bottle of something before you arrive.
Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - However bear in mind: a lot of hassle, heat and long distances.
Intro: Wow, here it is - the epitome of Asia and all travel. That love it / hate it thing that everyone speaks about. Yes, it's damn trying and hard work, but India has so much to offer on and off the tourist trail: English spoken, culturally/historically fascinating, good transport, cheap and just plain brilliant. But take it easy and do a little bit at a time. This really is one of the few places on the globe you can still get serious culture shock and sensual overload. India really is just so much it's almost impossible to introduce and summarise, perhaps the only common theme is you'll feel like all your senses are being assaulted. It's hard to understand and explain just why somewhere so often dirty, hot, ugly and full of hassle has such an appeal. The answer lies enigmatically with it being often the exact opposite. There is just no way that it won't have an effect on you and if (like me and thousands of others) you leave after your first trip loathing it, you'll probably remember your visit fondly and be back many, many times. The best advice to minimise the negative effect travel in India can have is to allow time or keep to a small route, pick a cooler time of year and remember that although India can be dirt cheap it will always be more expensive for a traveller. It is worth noting that southern areas like Goa and Kerala are significantly less stressful than bigger northern cities and especially the Rajasthan/Agra/Delhi tourist trail. Never forget you get what you pay for: a little extra goes a long way - for your sanity too. Flights are good value and well worth it if you have the funds. Other advice is getting a double entry visa so you can pop to Nepal for a break from it all.
Highlights: Taj Mahal (Agra, 1-2 hours from Delhi), Golden Temple (Amritsar), Varanasi , Goa & Kerala (both southern states not cities), Jaisalmer , Udaipur, Kanha National Park, the Pakistan border closing ceremony (near Amritsar), the food, the mountainous north (although Kashmir is better/safer and easier in Pakistan) incl. the road to Leh , Ladakh, trek to Gangotri Glacier - so much and especially the people and general feel.
Lowlights: The hassle, distances, getting ill, dirt/dust, heat, big crowds at major attractions (for example Leh in the summer, Goa at Christmas or Agra anytime). Despite having the main must see cities in India (Varanasi and Agra) any travel in the state of Uttar Pradesh just about sums up the lowlights of Indian travel and it's worth mentioning that if you limit your travels to this area, Delhi/Bombay and Rajasthan state (see map of Indian states), you'll see some great sights, but have far more of your share of hassle, crowds, dust and dirt, than a more encompassing Indian trip and probably feel a lot more negativity about the country than someone who saw Goa, Kerala, the far north or somewhere more off the beaten track.
Visa strategy: Yes you'll need a visa and normally will have to wait a day or two for it. Pick up in any major capital before you go. Valid for six months no longer (as previously) from date of issue. Multi and single entry often cost the same. With the 2014 change of government, India has once again promised to reform its visa policy and move to online applications. When/how this happens will be - no doubt - a typical saga of how Indian government departments operate.
Permits: Restricted area permits are required for the following states in India: Sikkim (15 days, get in Siliguri), Andaman Islands (30 days - issued at the airport if flying in, if coming by boat you'll need to get in advance). Permits are no longer needed for Assam, Tripura or Meghalaya, but you still need one for Manipur, the Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland.
Typical tourist trail: Delhi, Agra, loop around Rajasthan or Himachal Pradesh and then either to Goa or across to Varanasi to head to Nepal.
Dangers: Sometimes simply letting it all get to you. Other than this, food poisoning can be a serious issue as can petty theft. Be extra careful on overnight trains, with small bags on buses and always in Delhi. If on your own be on extra guard. Little scams are very common and can lead to a jaded experience. Be sensible: avoid Kashmir if your government advises. Another issue of concern for travellers is sexual harassment of women. Lone female travellers need to be extra careful travelling as Indian men will be very friendly and certainly do not engage in any tours, travels or long journeys (i.e. taxi charter) with only Indian male counterparts. Terrorism is also flagged as a concern by many, but in the big picture of Indian travel will be fairly low down your list of worries.
Costs: Cheap, but can end up averaging out a little bit more, since it's easy to spend more just to have a few creature comforts and because it is cheap you can start buying/paying for thing at liberty. A more comfortable standard of accommodation, especially in larger cities like Mumbai will greatly increase any budget. Coupled with inflation and increased energy prices, India is without a doubt more expensive than in days gone by. However the overall cost will be decided by the Rupee exchange rate, which has had a roller-caster ride up and down in previous years. Since the Great Financial Crisis the USDollar to INR has traded at anything from 40 Rupee to the dollar to 80! The GBPound has equally had a similar ride with the cost of India travel literally doubling or halving depending on when your have visited over the last ten years or so!
Money: Thomas Cook Traveller Cheques can be cashed commission free in branches in major cities, but any 'hard' currency brand of travellers cheques are fine. Then again you can find loads of ATMs to draw money from and credit cards can be used for large items such as plane tickets. In tourist areas virtually any hard currency cash can be exchanged (you name it CHF, AUD, CAD and so on), but Euros, GBP or US$ will be easiest overall. Also worth mentioning is the importance of smaller denomination rupee notes because change can be hard to come by, so break larger notes when you can and hang on to the small 10 & 50 notes.
What to take: Patience and a sense of humour
(land): Local and government buses can be okay, but aren't much fun for long distances: private (as in not operated by the state) buses or shared taxis are much better - all run frequently. Some tourists in Rajasthan and other areas hire a car and driver for several weeks - great idea, but only if your driver is good and not a pain as so many Indians can be, so in many ways this is a gamble and quite expensive comparatively if you are one or few.
(trains): India has a great rail service (www.indianrail.gov.in) which is also the world's biggest employer. There is so much that can be written on train travel in India, it has had to be given its own page. Click here to view: Indian Railways Explained. Outside of this page it's worth noting you can now reserve ahead on the internet (although fairly slow) and popular routes (Mumbai-Goa and Delhi-Agra) and popular trains (such as expresses or sleepers) can fill up fast, since in India people look to trains first and buses second. Getting a ticket can be a hassle, but many routes have foreigner quotas and most stations have foreigner counters/information. Many agencies offer train booking services and major stations have special offices for tourists. Outside of India the website Clear Trip will let you use an international credit card, check availability and is often recommended.
(planes): To really get around India on anything, but an very
extended trip you'll need to make some use of its airline network, which
has boomed in pass years. Indian trains are great, but costs in more comfortable
classes add up and after 25+ hours on the same train you might wish you
looked into flying. A real bonus is a 30% discount is offered for under
30s on internal Air India flights making for great value, but obviously
this line gets booked up first. Many other new budget airlines have recently
started business in India, making getting around if you've a little extra
cash to spare, much, much easier. However, do be warned that popular flights
in peak seasons (i.e. Bombay to Goa) will be booked up in advance
and simply because of the distances the price of some flights may seem expensive.
If you really need a flight for a short trip where time is important, book
ahead on the web (Spice Jet & Jet Airways both good on-line), inside India
you will find numerous offers for flight booking. On-line booking doesn't
seem possible for all lines, but this may change. Note that some budget
airlines foreigner price with non-Indian prices being much higher. You will
also need your printed confirmation to be able to get into the airport building.
Remember this is India and cancellations and delays are likely (fog during
winter brings the network to a standstill) - so if making connections allow
plenty of time - Jet and Kingfisher seem to have the best reputation.
As at 2014 a current list of internal Indian airlines include: SpiceJet, GoAir, IndiGo Airlines, Jet Airlines and Indian Airlines. For some links see here..
To Kathmandu (Nepal): The road trip from Varanasi takes two days (with a night stop). Flying is a popular and easy option. Easy to arrange from Calcutta, Varanasi or Delhi (or anywhere else with a connection).
Guide book: the book - LP India, but Footprint and Rough Guide are also very good. Second hand copies float around. Very few travellers see all of India in one go, so the best bet is to buy a regional guide, say for the most popular destination of Rajasthan. Himalayas, Goa and South India guides are also available. You will get a smaller, more detailed guide and when outside the region make your own way and ask to take a look at other travellers guides when needed.
Locals: With so much hassle it's easy to get disillusioned, but in fact Indians are extremely nice people. Remember rural India, in particular, is very conservative. It is important to dress modestly to avoid offending local sensibilities and also (especially for women) to avoid being the target of unwanted attention.
Other travellers: Very wide range, including large numbers of domestic tourists that crowd notable destinations during high seasons. Aside from Indians you will find travellers from all over Europe, USA and Australia/NZ, including as in Nepal/Thailand and South America, a large number of Israelis many of whom are fresh out of the army and seem to do everything they can to further worsen their reputation with locals and foreigners alike. Equally you will find an increasingly large number of Russians, particularly in Goa. And of course, being India you'll find many a non-too-talkative hardcore backpacker (everyone wants to think they are having the ultimate India experience) outside main tourist cities.
Tourist factor: 7-8/10, but easily escaped away from must-see sights and out of season
Accommodation: Loads of cheap guest houses, most a little hot, noisy and basic. Middle range rooms with AC are worth it at times. If you are hitting Goa at New Year or a tourist attraction during a festive, get there earlier or book ahead, otherwise there is plenty of accommodation and touts who will help you find it.
Hot water: Normally available, not so much in the south - it all depends on your budget: a little buys you a lot more. Note, however that hot water can often be charged extra on top of cheap rooms.
Average cost: From 10-15USD to average double 14USD (no AC). Much, much more expensive in Bombay (Mumbai), during festivals, some other big cities and in Goa during Christmas/New Year. If you are looking for more comfort then 25+USD normally gets you a nice room, but 10+% luxury tax can be added on.
Communications: Loads of internet access, but often slow. Phone calls home a breeze to make from numerous call shops and international rates very reasonable. Most guesthouses will also accept incoming calls if requested. India is now well connected with smart phones taking off. In big cities you will find cafes with Wi-Fi and a locally bought SIM card can provided a reasonable data connection. In other parts you will find technology facilities back in the 19th century.
Health: It's likely (but not certain) that as a traveller you will suffer at some stages from diarrhoea or, constipation or worse, food poisoning during a prolonged stay - don't let this put you off. It doesn't happen by default to everyone and when it does, usually passes quickly.
Food: Fantastic and loads of variety, but getting ill or fear of, makes you a little wary.
Vegetarians: Heaven on earth
Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Intro: Nepal is best known for its magnificent scenery, but it has much else to offer. It is inexpensive, the people are friendly and the atmosphere is laid back. Nepal contains a few areas, especially in Kathmandu and Pokhara, which are so full of good restaurants, shopping and bars that they can be hard to leave. Nepal at its best is trekking through its lush lowlands gouged with deep fertile valleys, its Alpine zone and of course through the jagged white peaks of the Himalayas. Nowhere in the world could trekking be as easy to organise. You do need to allow at least a couple of weeks to trek, which deters many who choose instead to do some quick toured trips. In Nepal you really don't have to worry about a thing but it is suggested that you avoid the peak season of September and October. If you have lots of time, there are huge deserted areas to explore, like the national parks in the south-west, and in addition you could add game parks, impressive architectural sights and rafting trips galore.
Highlights: Ancient villages, the historic religious town of Braktapur (or Bouddha), rafting... in fact pretty much everything, but especially trekking.
Lowlights: Really well-trodden trails and peak season crowds meaning fun and 'specialness' is taken out of many sights and activities. The poorest country in the region. The cooking on the treks can be bland.
Costs & Money: Cheap: US$25 a day, if trekking less than $15, rafting will be extra. ATMs in major towns. Cash can be changed commission free on a competitive market.
Visa strategy: Nepal has a pretty liberal, allowing citizens of almost all nations to obtain a tourist visa on arrival at any border. Pick it up in advance or use the new on-line visa system to avoid long lines. US$30 for 30 days. 15 or 45 days also available.
Typical tourist trail: Kathmandu to Pokhara or the Everest region and a trek
Tourist factor: 9/10 (especially in season) in localised areas.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Most visitors come to trek and plan their visit accordingly in September to November. Can get cold in December/January in highlands. Some good, less touristy trekking seasons in the spring. Trekking in the wet season not fun, with poor views and heat at lower levels, but far from impossible.
popular treks finding
the right path is easy: there are a few junctions here and there, but
another hiker or a local will help you out if you get confused. A map
and a compass are very useful for reassurance and route planning. You
do not need a tour or a guide. Most visitors choose the
circuit for good reason, but the area above Kathmandu is underrated
and the Everest area is overrated.
There are many other lesser known options to seek out and avoid
Picking your route: most visitors choose
Annapurna or Everest for good reason,
but the area above Kathmandu is underrated and the Everest area is often
overrated and certainly crowded(visiting Nepal it is very hard to get Everest out of your
head). Almost all of the treks start at lower altitudes
in the subtropical zone and rise up fairly high to the beginning of
the snow line, and occasionally above it. This means that you can see
a wide variety of ecosystems. There are plenty of waterfalls and in
some places ancient villages. All of the main walks come with a plentiful
supply of hotels with restaurants.
Roads have now been cut and
left rough around most of the Annapurna, but don't be too concerned;
there is no traffic at all on the Eastern side at the moment
and about 6 vehicles an hour on the Western side which is now rarely
walked. The Helambu has also been connected to the road network and
it is possible to get a bus from Thimbu back via Braktapur to Kathmandu,
saving lots of uncomfortable bus time if you intended to visit Braktapur
as a separate side trip.
If the Annapurna is busy the best little
used trek is the Langtang from where you can get onto the Gosankind
and finish with the Helambu. A walk with very little repetition.
Miss at your peril: Northern Pakistan & The Karakoram Highway - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
The KKH, particularly at a slow pace (e.g. bike), this area is relatively relaxed and safe. Around Karimabadand Passu are stunning. Peshawar and a trip up the Khyber Pass (although it's far from a relaxing experience). The Swat valley (when safe), Hindu Kush and the culturally unique Kalash Valley. Any trek and the people. Wagah border closing ceremony with India near Lahore. Islamabad for being such an easy introduction to the sub-continent (but for little else apart from some western style comfort). Good transportation and reasonably priced private transport available when needed.
The south, Lahore (despite interesting historic sights) pollution and theft issues. The south-west is inhospitable desert. Security concerns and an ever changing situation that needs to be monitored and studied when planning. Stability of KKH - landslides and snow do close this route for many months of the year. Massively time saving flights in and out of Northern mountainous towns are heavily booked and highly subject to weather conditions. The jury is out on Moenjodaro - ruins with a fascinating history, for many an underwhelming site.
The main feature and highlight of Pakistan is the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which neither crosses the Karakoram Pass nor is anything close to a smooth highway. This incredibly useful road is the only dependable overland route between China and the Subcontinent. Originating in Islamabad and terminating in Kashgar, China, the KKH is something that every traveller should aspire to see.
The area often referred to as Pakistani Kashmir (inc. the Gilgit province in the far north) is a great place to hang-out, walk, cycle or simply look dumbstruck out of a bus/jeep window. It's brilliantly accessible from the KKH with 7000+ metre peaks and glaciers practically by the road side. Away from the KKH, to name a few highlights - Islamabad is about the gentlest introduction to the continent you could get. Peshawar is a photogenic, hectic meddle of cultures and people. Spots like the Kalash valley in the Hindu Kush are stunning and culturally fascinating. The north is a patchwork of languages and culture (40% are tolerant Muslim) that change from one town to the next with few locals thinking of themselves as Pakistani. Women travellers will notice considerably less hassle in the north. Steep mountains and deep valleys make travel awe inspiring.
The rest of Pakistan is not quite such a dream. Lahore and the area directly below Islamabad can be loosely compared to India and are not of great interest. Further south the tone of the country changes. Ancient wonders can be hard to appreciate and the heat is oppressive as the country and the people begin to change. Islamic tones are stronger and cities like Karachi are inherently violent and not a place for backpackers. If you do find yourself planning to venture through this part of the country (i.e. coming or going to Iran), safety is an issue, but it's quite doable and a day/night in Quetta will be interesting.
Come see views you won't believe, meet some of the world's friendliest people. Experience some of the best Asia has to offer. Pakistan comes highly recommended.
Safety and secuirity in many parts of the country!
Visa strategy: Pretty much all nationalities require a visa. If coming from China get in Hong Kong or Beijing, there are none available in Kashgar or on the border. Visas also available in India and Iran. Many choose to pick it up in their home town. Costs vary: a multiple entry visa is highly recommended, a little more expensive but no problem – will allow side-trips to the two gems that are Kashgar and the road there (China) & Amritsar (India). Normally valid for four to six months. Extensions are available only in Islamabad and take time (expect a whole day) and hassle.
Typical tourist trail: Lahore - Islamabad - Karimabad.... continuing up to the border and Kashgar in China. Peshawar (the Khyber Pass), Chitral and the Kalash valley also feature on many trips, but in real terms few get there. The tourist heart of Pakistan is Karimabad and the only place you really see westerners in any numbers - it's the only place you could really label a tourist trap.
Costs: Cheap, cheap, budget travel on less than $15 a day possible. More goes a lot further, $25 allows for a good level of comfort. Comparable to India, Pakistan is slightly better value.
Money: Along the KKH cash is king. Hard currencies can be changed in a few towns along the KKH, but don't expect any banks and certainly no ATMs. ATMs are plentiful in big towns such as Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore, but international ones need some searching out. Citibank, Standard Chartered and AMB-AMRO are your best bets to try to locate. Simply ask in a hotel for the location of one or try a taxi driver. Citibank & Standard Chartered are on the Visa Plus network; ABM-AMRO are on Cirrus. These banks will be your best bet for cashing travellers cheques, but Pakistani banks will do this for you with the standard hassle. Some mid-range hotels and travel agencies will take credit cards, but airline offices such as China Southwest and PIA will want cold hard Rupees (or dollars). If you're heading north and plan to hire a jeep or get a flight take plenty of cash. Euros and USDs change equally as well. When paying for larger transactions Euros or USDs are welcomed.
What to take: Heading north, depending on the time of year, take warm clothing and decent footwear.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: The best times to visit the low lands is from late October to February. Expect pleasant dry days, but some chilly nights. In March the heat sets in: late June brings rain. In the Karakoram area you don't need to worry about rain for there isn't much, but if you are going at any other time than between June and August (the high season) it's going to be cold. During spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November) it is warm in the sun but cold in the shade: the nights are freezing. It's actually okay, the mountains look extra frosty and there are almost no tourists. Just take a good fleece. During mid-winter it's bearable in the sun, but the air is cold all day. There will probably be snow and the pass to China will close with deep snow (seen snow falling lightly on the pass in mid-September). Around mid-October tourist numbers die down, the leaves change colour, apples/apricots are ready - simply gorgeous. By far the most popular time is the summer months of July/August. The temperature is warm in the day (t-shirt weather) and mild at night. This is the high season and the best time to trek since a night in a tent is not so cold (but still pretty cold if at a base camp). Hotels/flights are at their fullest, conversely in the winter months many close/stop.
Road: Between major towns there are efficient
and comfortable bus services (such as Daewoo). Away from these
towns local buses are what you might expect - crowded and uncomfortable,
but cheap and always an adventure. Travel along the KKH is easy. Trains
have a bad reputation, but are okay if a little more difficult to get
tickets for. Jeeps are used in northern areas for journeys on
rough roads and getting to out of the way places. Shared jeeps leave
a few times a week on popular routes.
Air: Internal fights can be a bit
of a pain to arrange in Pakistan: they afford stunning views and save huge amounts
of time. For these reasons, combined with weather conditions (northern
area flights fly below some mountain peaks - they leave early and either
won't leave at all or will turn back mid-flight unless it's totally
clear), expect heavy demand, cancellations and at least a day's wait
it should not deter you making a trip, Pakistan has several areas of
instability and possible danger. With common sense and some simple planning/knowledge
any traveller should be able to avoid these and minimise any risk. Here's
a quick summary:
Guide book: The Pakistan and KKH Lonely Planet is your best bet and most up to date. Running all the way up the KKH including Kashgar, it works heading north up the KKH. The much older Lonely Planet KKH, which only covers the KKH, works heading south down the KKH. It's out of date, but like the other option, the Footprint Northern Pakistan, it's still reliable and with much more detail. The LP for Pakistan and many other countries is available in Islamabad and from a great little book stall on the Indian border crossing.
Locals: As you might expect in a country the size and geographic location of Pakistan, locals come in many flavours and forms. Afghans are easily spotted in and around Peshawar. Heading north there is a huge medley of ethnic groups: working up the KKH it's not unusual to find towns next to each other speaking different languages, many of whom don't even consider themselves as Pakistanis. Generally speaking Pakistanis are extremely friendly and welcoming. As a rule of thumb big city folk will be less friendly. Lahore for example has something approaching the hassle you might find in India, but working your way north up the KKH it gets friendlier with some ethnic groups around Passu and Sust being extremely welcoming to travellers. Exceptions (with the north being such a patchwork of cultures it's hard to generalise) would be a few paranoid and less than welcoming locals in off-the-beaten-track KKH trekking areas - nothing a guide can't help you with. And of course in the many sensitive religious areas of the country, if you want to be treated with respect and be welcomed, you must dress appropriately and conservatively - both men and women.
Travellers often think Pakistan is less Muslim than Iran. However, many religious assumptions are the same. While it is not legally required for women to cover up (arms/legs fully covered, loose fitting clothes and bottom covered by long top, head scarf at the ready), most do and apart from in the north, most westerners would be advised to do so as well. However as with Iran, the fact this is an Islamic Republic should not put anyone off travelling if done sensibly.
Other travellers: You won't see too many Americans or Israelis that's for sure (although the Americans that do make it are very much welcomed). Expect a good number of Dutch, English and Japanese with the rest made up by other European nationalities and Ozzies.
Trekking: There are loads of easy one day to three day treks on and around the KKH (although their have been security problems with some). A few recommended are in the Natar, Hushe and Astor valleys, Rakaposhi base camp and Ultar Meadow. All can be done in a day from the right village or in a more relaxed two days. The Lonely Planet vastly overestimates the time needed for fit individuals to do many treks (e.g. quoting three days for 12km!) In Karimabad and Passu you can find many guides who will take you on longer treks and have all the necessary kit. The Glassier View campsite/restaurant in Passu has a great guide available and nearby suspension bridges are a real thrill. Treks to see K2 are long and difficult (especially the base camp), not to be compared to getting to Everest base camp. There is no teahouse situation as in Nepal where you can eat/sleep along the trail.
Communications: On the KKH, Karimabad has a few internet places, but don't expect to find many or any others. In big towns out of the mountains there are plenty of places, which are much easier to find and faster in cities such as Islamabad (with its fair share of westerners) than in cities like Peshawar. International calls are easy from any little call shop and not too expensive.
Food: Similar to northern Indian cuisine using lentils, yogurt and curry heavily - apart from that, it's more meat laden. Pretty good food available with ease in most towns that see a small stream of tourists. Many hotels have good restaurants. Dhal and breads are standard options. Great selection in cities like Islamabad. Apart from there, international food is hard to find.
Vegetarians: Many dishes feature meat such as mutton. Fish uncommon. Veggie dishes uncommon, but normally one on each menu, although it's normally Dhal.
Language: Like India, English is widely spoken making travel much easier.
Health: Food poisoning doesn't seem to be the problem it can be in India (although this could just be circumstantial). Altitude can have an effect on some travellers.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Nothing compared to India. Expect some mild hassle and a million 'hello, how are you?' in cities like Peshawar and Lahore. Plus a few invites from the odd shop owner... but it's all very low key. Pakistan is pretty hassle free (similar to Kerala). Note that women often have separate queues in bus and train stations making their life even easier.
Women alone: Not a perfect situation, but far from impossible. Expect to be the subject of a constant curiosity and as in India some unwanted attention. Pakistani women rarely travel alone. Things are much easier in the KKH area. In towns such as Peshawar that border Afghanistan although not 100% necessary, a light scarf draped over your shoulders ready to cover your hair when needed (dupatta) and tunic-like light cotton top (shalwar-kamiz) that is lose fitting and hides bust and bottom makes life much easier, is highly recommended, is easily obtainable from a shop and will command you much higher levels of respect. See Iran country summary for a rough guideline - but remember Pakistan is not like Iran with its enforced dress code.
Local poisons for the body: Pakistan is, like Iran, a dry country, however as a non-Muslim tourist you can get a permit to buy alcohol, but there's little point because grog is only available in a few top end hotels. You might see Chinese beer for sale in a few places in Karimabad. In northern areas, huge beautiful marijuana plants can be seen growing wild, but locals show no interest and plants are pollinated (see images1 - image2). In the NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) many guides seem keen to arrange for you some grass or opium, but apart from this you are unlikely to be offered drugs despite the very obvious presence of weed and the country's opium trade. This is not Nepal or Thailand.
Rating: Let's think only of the best half of Pakistan and assume that political and security troubles subside: 9/10
Sri Lanka could be described as diet India. It's much easier to get around - well the distances are substantially less - and in many ways the country is a watered-down India. Definitely South Asian, but without much of the madness, sheer number of people and oppressing poverty found elsewhere on the continent. A compact circuit with a mixture of great beaches and inland temples makes life easy and is perfect for a first time Asia trip, even if only for a ten day break. This hasn't gone unnoticed: a huge package tourist industry (mainly European) has driven prices up (there is considerable foreigner pricing on entrance fees) and crowded, popular sights such as Sigiriya citadel and beaches such as the surf spot of Hikkaduwa (which is starting to model itself on a Spanish or Greek Island resort). If this is likely to bother you, you are advised to pick the much warmer, more humid off-season and not peak times such as Christmas.
Beaches (Passekudah on the east coast and less developed beaches along from Galle), some okay if slightly crowded surf breaks, Kandy, ancient cities (cycling around Anuradhapura & Polonnaruwa), hiring a motorbike and making your own way.
Poor transportation infrastructure (an obvious triangle of attractions has poor transport connections), foreigner pricing on entrance tickets and an annoying 10% added to most bills, crowds at peak times, beach resorts such as Negombo, the old gem scam (buying gems that turn out to be worthless). If you have seen the cream of Asia's ancient cities (for example Bagan in Burma or Angkor in Cambodia) you may be disappointed at Sri Lanka's equivalents. The same can be said for beaches.
Visa strategy: 30 days, available on arrival (via ETA) for most nationalities at US$30. You need to get Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) before you travel (which technically is your visa). A two day transit visa is free.
Typical tourist trail: Beaches, Kandy and the hill country, and
the ancient cities.
Colombo airport is actually 60km north of the capital. Colombo itself is not a noteworthy attraction. The not particularly appealing, but OK beach resort of Negombo can be reached for a few dollars (around Rs500) by tuk-tuk from outside the airport gate. From there you can travel direct to Galle or Kandy. Or taxis to Kandy or Galle can be taken from the airport for a fairly reasonable price.
Dangers: Malaria, food poisoning, Sri Lankan driving and some petty theft in Colombo or around tourist sights. The security situation is still obviously tense in central Colombo and around major tourist sights, and photography is limited or prohibited anywhere with a military presence. You are occasionally warned against travel to north or east of the island (apart from Trincomalee, Nilaveli and Arugam Bay, which are normally fine). Remember that much of the north and east of Sri Lanka remains heavily mined, particularly around the A9 road to Jaffna.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: For such a small country, a surprising amount of variation. The hill country in the centre is significantly cooler than the coast, or northern plains, but nowhere does it get cold. The two monsoons strike the west in April and May plus October and November. The east is hit in November and December. The hill country gets a more even dousing of rain year-round. About the only thing you can depend on is, apart from in the highlands, it's going to be pretty warm.
Costs: More expensive than India, but not as high as Brazil or Argentina. Thailand is perhaps a good approximation. Certainly 30-40US$/day is adequate if public transport is used, but for diving and in package resorts, as ever, you can spend what you like. Food is fantastic at tourist centres but the cost of can add up, particularly if you have a taste for prawns etc. Entrance fees also add up with tickets to the country's main attractions costing >US$50.
Money: Any major, hard currency travellers cheques or cash are fine. ATMs (all over the place) and credit cards can be used in major banks.
Taxi drivers can be hired for 20-40 USD/day depending on the distance to be travelled – agree the price in advance. Tuk-tuks can also be hired for fairly long distances. You can fly from Colombo's domestic airport to Jaffna – Sri Lanka's only internal flight.
With care, hired motorbikes are a fantastic way to explore away from the crowds and along the stunning southern/eastern coastlines.
Your best bet is to forget the numerous travel agents, many of whom will be unwilling to sell you a one-way ticket, and use the excellent Sri Lankan Airlines website where you can purchase tickets hassle free and at the best possible price. Tickets need to be picked up at a Sri Lankan Airlines office and you need to book a few days in advance. If you don't have a credit/debit card then head to the office with cash. To the cheapest/nearest destination, Trivandrum (Southern Kelara), it is around 100USD. Cochin is about 10 bucks more. On these routes there are at least two flights a day. Jet Airways also connects India and Sri Lanka, but with higher prices (Chennai route).
The Maldives and beyond: Flights to the Maldives, Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are a reasonable price and again, are easy to arrange though the Sri Lankan Airlines website.
Guide book: LP Sri Lanka is the main guide aimed at budget travellers, and seems up-to-date and reliable, but very widely used. Some prefer the Footprint version. Both are good.
Locals: Most Sri Lankans are charming, helpful and much less hassle than in India. The level of spoken English is good, and most signs are bi-lingual. Even the touts usually leave you alone if you ask them nicely.
Other travellers: Mostly northern European package tourists on the beaches and in ancient cities, fewer elsewhere.
Tourist factor: 8/10 on the beaches, 5/10 elsewhere.
Accommodation: Plenty of guest houses in tourist areas, most with mosquito nets. 3 or 4 star package tourist rooms with AC can often be had for 20USD
Hot water: Normally in any but the cheapest rooms, but always ask before you pay.
Average cost: From 6USD to average mid-range double 10-15USD. AC adds to the cost if you can find it, but generally good value accommodation is plentiful, particularly if looking away from guidebook recommendations. Off season expect some great bargains.
Books: Some towns have English-language bookstores, but these can be disappointing, filled with old, decaying school textbooks or second-rate 19th century novels. Colombo has a good selection, as does Kandy, and international newspapers can be found there too.
TV: Cable TV, Sky news and major sporting events, such as English football on ESPN. Cricket coverage everywhere.
Much less hassle than in India, though it is prudent to avoid parts of Colombo after dark, and groping on buses can be a problem. As in many Buddhist countries, cultural sensitivity means that legs should be covered, but Sri Lankans are usually too polite to mention this, and in beach resorts or Colombo, they are used to foreigners' strange customs.
'Having just returned from Sri Lanka, I'd just like to add that as a solo young woman I did have quite a bit of trouble from men, more so than I've had elsewhere, including West Africa (that said, I haven't been to India). Riding on a bike round Anaradhapura, I had a man circling me, slapping my arm, and speeding up and slowing down and generally following me. However, I think I was unlucky, as other solo women had hassle but not to the extent I did. Young tuk-tuk drivers seem to be particularly persistent. Even on my own, I managed to get by on $20 a day without grubbing it, using public transport.' - Alex
The best source of planning information is Trailblazer's
'Asia Overland', which is superb; there are many other resources.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
'It's a small world. So you gotta use your elbows a lot.'