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Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for:
- aka some of the most worthwhile destinations on the planet!
One of the four main low [travel] cost regions of the world (SE Asia, South/Central America, being the others). Travel here is as enjoyable, frustrating and cheap as it gets. The Maldives has only recently opened up to independent visitors and almost nobody goes to Bangladesh and Pakistan (parts of which are unsafe). The bulk of visitors discover the amazing beaches in India/Sri Lanka and two of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges. Temples and alien culture are abound, alongside thousands of lesser-known worthwhile attractions void of others.
This is love it and hate it territory, and you will almost certainly hate it if your main focus is
only the most popular beaches and famous temples/monuments in a short space of time during the hottest periods.
Particularly the areas of high population density in Northern India, Southern Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Find some space and try not to just run from one sight to another. In Nepal and Sri Lanka you can relax. More than anywhere else on the planet you need to tune-in the culture just a little to enjoy it the most.
It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on.
Also see: Indian Train System Explained
What follows are only basic snap shot summaries, kind of at a glance information you won't get from a guidebook. However, let's be fair, with huge and complex countries like 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
Intro: Although Bangladesh has very few
sights and is not for the faint-hearted traveller, it is a beautifully green country with traditional
river life and small, quaint villages. Travel by boat is the way
to experience the heart of Bangladesh and any visit is certainly
about the journey and not the destination.
The highlight of Bangladesh is undeniably the people. Coming from the hassle in India, particularly Northern India, the genuine friendliness from the Bangladeshi is a breath of fresh air. Of course, it comes with a sense of guilt, when you are sometimes treated like a movie star and start to comprehend the reality of life for most of the population. It is a great way to learn about the country as at times it seems that every person that speaks some even a little English will want to strike up a conversation and offer you dinner, a place to stay, etc. (and not in the same way that can taint some similar experiences elsewhere on the Sub-continent where such an offer turns into a shopping trip or the like).
What you should always keep in mind is although developing in pockets, Bangladesh is very, very poor. So like in parts India, travel takes some effort and mostly - time; luxuries will be few and far between, but you won't spend much.
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 likely 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.
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.
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 150 different countries we think Dhaka has the world's worst traffic!
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$5-10 per room. US$20-30 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.
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.
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
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.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: May and June can be unbearable. The south is always hot, the mountains can be inaccessible in winter. The cooler seasons will bring more crowds, but the heat in India can really push you to the edge of the enjoyable factor of travel, so it is worth (many think) planning your trip to include either cooler regions or cooler weather.
On the whole before and during the monsoon, humidity is far more of a problem than straight heat. When places like Delhi hit over 40 degrees in April/May, don't fight it - pay the extra for an air conditioned room if available. Conversely, remember that large parts of India are mountains or desert regions, so it can get pretty cool at night. The winter months (November - March) will see the subcontinent enjoying relatively cool temperatures and clear skies.
Generally speaking, the best time to visit India is from October to mid-April. Summer season is from March to June, Monsoon from July to September, October is again a warm month and winter lasts from November to February. Hill stations are best enjoyed from mid-September to mid-December and then from March to mid-July. Ladakh is best visited from June to September, when most other parts of the country are in the grip of the monsoon. Mid-winter anywhere north of Udaipur (Southern Rajasthan) will be chilly morning/evenings and north of Delhi gets really quite cold.
Strictly speaking, the places to avoid are:
1. North and South Indian plains from April to July. 2. Coastal areas from May to September. 3. Hill-stations from mid-December to February and mid-July to mid-September. 4. Ladakh from October to May.
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 Indian Rupee 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: Plenty 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 2015 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).
Books: There are more books published each year in
India than anywhere else in the world. Pushkar is the place
for unlimited great value books. 'Are you experienced' is a
popular, short, quite funny if not a little juvenile read. There
are simply loads of good Indian books.
One of the best India 'feel' comes from the monster 'A Suitable Boy'. 'A Fine Balance' is highly recommended, but a little depressing. Salman Rushdie writes a great Indian novel, with the fantastic fantasy of 'Midnight's Children' also very popular. 'The god of small things' is a nice book, especially if heading for the south, but like most Booker Prize winners, a little overrated.
The current favourite seems to be Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which starts off excellent, but is a little disappointing towards the end. There are dozens of excellent books which make great Indian background reading - for a more detailed list of recommendations and guides click here.
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
Hassle and annoyance factor: This depends very much on
which part of the country you visit. The difference of a trip to
Uttar Pradesh, hassle wise will be noticeable, the latter being
just about as much as anyone can take, the prior being a bearable
level. On the whole there is a lot of hassle in India and it's generally
as in your face as it gets (although as mentioned regions do vary
- north worse than south, rural versus cities, etc.).
Learn to be cool: don't get bulled, be firm and humorous when talking and after a few weeks you will get less of it. As brilliant as India is, no one will kid you it doesn't take a lot of getting used to and adjusting. Well worth reading is the dealing with hassle and beggars section of this site and this comment in the guestbook.
Women alone: Expect a lot of unwanted attention and
some quite dangerous. To respect Indian sensitivities when in
public. Western women should wear skirts below the knees or longer
or relatively loose slacks, avoiding sleeveless tops, tight
trousers/pants, and shorts. Young women and teenage girls, especially
those dressed in tight or short Western dress, may attract undesirable
attention. These suggestions are especially important when visiting
rural areas or tradition-bound urban areas.
Local poisons for the body:
normally served as a legal yogurt drink (lassi) is made from the
leaves and shoots of hemp. The common effect is getting fairly stoned,
but sometimes you will feel no effect, other times you will be dangerously
off your head and quite unwell. It seems impossible to gauge the
strength of these drinks.
Pot is illegal (despite seeing Hindu holy men smoking it), but easily available in mountain regions, Pushkar, Goa and many others. Alcohol availability depends very much on how the state you are in views it, Goa being famously the most relaxed.
Like a lot of the other "dangers"
on the road (theft, illness, scams), it's important to keep the
whole thing in perspective. I spent two months in India and had
only one bad situation that wasn't either entirely in my head or
because of something stupid I did. In that event that situation
was easy to get out of by inventing a "husband waiting for me at
the hotel". As a woman alone, it is important to realise that, yes,
men will stare at you (sometimes leaving no doubt about what their
thoughts are!). Note staring is not taboo in Indian culture. Equally
men will sometimes strike up a conversation that might get borderline
inappropriate in terms of what you're used to quickly, such as being
propositioned. However staring and propositioning are not crimes
and to some extent underlines the cultural differences (which is
part of travel). In all honesty you're probably more a curiosity to
Indian men (and Indians in general) than a potential sex object.
Of course, it's extremely important as a woman travelling alone through
India to be culturally aware.
Dressing and behaving appropriately is key. Picking up one of those ubiquitous "Culture Shock: India!" books might not be a bad idea if you're coming in totally blind. More simple/obvious advice: don't walk around alone late at night, especially in smaller towns without a big backpacker scene; don't drink in bars alone; don't be over-friendly with local men (coed platonic "tomboy" style friendship basically doesn't exist in Indian culture) or they will get the wrong idea. Don't be too flirty. India is not a Girls Gone Wild sort of place where you will be appreciated for being sexy, brazen, or debauched. - great advice, with thanks to Sara Clarke.
The Maldives is amazing in terms of just how huge and how small it is at the same time. 1,192 islands spread over 90,000 square kilometre (35,000sq miles), yet each island is tiny (Male, the capital aside, - which is largely reclaimed land - expect to walk from one side of any island to the other in a few minutes) and getting to any more than five or six is a real challenge that requires deep pockets. It is Asia's smallest country in terms of both land size and population. It also has the lowest natural highest point in the world, at 2.4meters.
Islands are arranged [linked by] 26 different atols and are divided in to roughly three types: inhabited (local islands), resorts (only tourists and support staff) and uninhabited. Until recently all tourist were restricted to resort islands (expensive and with the price of a private boat transfers to also add) and unable to visit inhabited islands and thus mix with locals - equally there were no hotels even if they did. All this started to change in 2004 and it is now perfectly feasible to take local ferries and explore stunning palm fringed, coral reef hemmed islands. There are on Asian standards few places to stay and prices are far higher than elsewhere in developing Asia, but still broadly affordable (but don't expect any hostels).
The core issue is there is not a lot to do once you arrive and staying within a reasonable budget soon becomes impossible if you fill your day with snorkelling, island, diving, boat or other trips. Local ferries are very affordable, but do not run regularly. Ferries normally run once a day or once every other day and hopping [quickly] from one island to the next is painful unless you are willing to pay for private transfers ($100-300 depending on distance). Lazing on a beach or snorkelling within beautiful coral is not a bad way to spend your time, but expect none of the trappings of South East Asia or the Pacific equivalents (such as Fiji or the Philippines) - e.g. traveller friendly eating options, bars, frequent organised tours, street food - even wearing a binki is restricted to certain areas. As a Muslin nation, alcohol is banned outside of resort islands and the wearing of revealing swimwear is restricted to certain areas (a small section of beach).
Little to do and the total absence of hassle (India or Sri Lanka style) or drunken tourists, bar girls and blaring music is perhaps for many a blessing in disguise. For others it is not what they expect and soon bore. It is telling that all the inhabited islands run day trips to resort islands ($75-200/day) and all the resort islands run trips to inhabited islands as visitors look for ways to see/do more and fill time.
Underwater life. Zero hassle and stunning geography. Now much more affordable.
Diving is a little expensive, but coral is easily accessed by snorkelling (directly off the shore on some islands). This is where all is forgiven, with sea turtles, soft coral, manta rays, dolphins and sharks all easy to spot.
Most visitors will not go beyond a resort islands (those visiting on a packages) - most of which are around Male (those further afield require especially expensive transfers or the use of a seaplane). Those on a resort will naturally have a very different experience to those visiting independently. You can get a quick rundown on resort islands, their cost and quality on any hotel booking website. Some are just within an extended budget price range for a night or two, but forced high-cost transfers and food costs when there soon push costs to excess levels.
That really depend on what you class as a 'budget' and what you class as a 'backpacker destination'. Overall, the answer is yes in the same way as it is yes for the Caribbean - you just need slightly deeper pockets than the rest of developing Asia and very different expectations.
Expensive food/accommodation, irregular ferries, Male, Massfushi, lack of independent travel vibe and facilities. Local laws prohibiting alcohol and basic cuisine. Cost of transfers if you decide to spurge on a resort.
Getting around: There are essential 3 ways to get around the Maldives (sea plane and internal flights aside, which very few independent visitors take), all of which are as you would expect water based (on land you can walk everywhere in less an 15mins).
The 3 forms of water transport are:
1) government and public ferries (MTCC being the main provider). These are cheap.
2) It is hard to get information concerning, but it seem that there are many services either ferry of speedboat run by private individuals/companies at scheduled times that complement government ferries. Typically, these are services where there is high demand, such as weekends.
3) Finally you have private transfers which take you where you want when you want, but at substantial cost (the more you can get in the boat the cheaper the per person cost).
If you want to visit a resort islands, uninhabited islands or travel at a time regular ferries are not going - this is what you will need and the use of which will massively increase your budget.
It is not correct that all ferries stop on Friday (MTCC ferries do), but services are substantially limited.
Typical tourist trail - where to go: Overall it is a tough choice on deciding where to head as there is no simple 'island hopping trail'. Everyone will land in Male (well the island next to Male). Are will be faced with four basic possibilities:
1) Stay on Male or the airport island (Humalmale) - not recommended (although a night/day before a flight is okay on
Humalmale and accommodation is reasonable.
2) Head south to Maafusi - this is the easiest option since you have twice daily ferries from Male. This island has become a mini-resort and is more expensive and less Maldivian than others. A crowded bikini beach and extra charges at every turn - not recommended, but better than Humalmale or Male.
3) East to Russfi. Alternative day ferries and part of a small atoll. A few hotels and a great choice.
4) North of Male you have several islands many known for surfing with (like all islands) a relaxed vibe and natural beach. The islands with the best wave breaks do become quite busy during certain seasons.
Wherever you pick expect limited accommodation and eating options and nothing much to do apart from swim, snorkel, chill and read.
What to take: Mask, snorkel and flippers are normally provided (on tours or from hotels) or can be rented, but if you have your own take it. More important are shoes you can wear in the water, as coral is very sharp.
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.
Ancient villages, the historic religious town
Braktapur (or Bouddha), rafting... in fact pretty much everything, but especially
Not only are the views stunning, but nowhere else in the world is non-supported trekking so spectacular and accessible.
Really well-trodden trails and peak season crowds meaning fun and 'specialness' is taken out of many sights and activities. At peak-times on major treks, don't expect to have the trail to yourself. 2015 earthquake damage really made a mess of many of the historic buildings in Braktapur and the older parts of Kathmandu. Before and after.
Political situation and other problems: Nepal certainly has not had an easy time over the past decade or so. From a vile and shocking 2001 royal massacre, the Maoist insurgency (which now seem a distant memory) to the 2015 earthquake which damaged some many historic sites in and around Kathmandu. Politically, the situation is now stable but it is worth checking the situation before you go as anti government protests often take the form of road blocks which could have a significant impact on your travel plans.
Guides sometimes rush tourists through the walks as they do not
want the boredom of an acclimatisation day. Even extremely fit people
get problems if the standard advice is ignored, especially at
altitude. Buy anti diarrhoea,
and altitude tablets before trekking both available in the local
Many thanks to Piers Newberry for his efforts in updating this section and providing the bulk of the trekking advice and Rick Haworth for let us know about new trekking options.
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
Many would say avoid Annapurna in high season as it is too popular and at times hoteliers [guesthouse/teahouse owner] have to put people on the roof, in tents and on floors. At other times the numbers are much lower. One hotelier recommended the tail end of November as being the best time to go. Spring is also fine, things can get hazy from mid-May and into the rainy season though not in some higher regions.
Consider taking a flight into your chosen trekking area if you need to save time, though they can be subject to frequent cancellations and definitely cannot be relied upon for international connections.
Equipment can be rented [just about everything you could need] and you do not need a tent for most treks. Keep your bag as small and light as possible. In high season on the Annapurna route you will need a sleeping bag as there will not be enough blankets available, at other times and at all times on other treks take a sleeping bag or for the braver, a sown up sheet and thermal underwear and simply ask for blankets in the teahouses. Ideally take a water purifying bottle (like the Aquapure traveller), this disinfects and purifies water conveniently. If you are stuck with water purifying tablets take something to cover the taste such as Tang orange powder drink. Items like Tang are available on the path, but are quite expensive compared to towns with road connections. Porters and guides are readily available, though the vast majority of people happily do without either. Beware of guides, who rather than waiting for a day for acclimatisation, will push on too fast. The only people we met with altitude problems had been in their hands. Maps are readily available in Pokhara and Katmandu. The Annapurna is now completely marked out with green dots to show the way, the Gosankind and Helambu are also well marked.
You can get away with a day pack sized ruck sack, though this does mean you might have to wear t shirts and socks a few days in a row as washing and drying is not possible near the snow line. Thermals, a light fleece, a couple of t shirts, a couple of long sleeved t shirts, tiny to pack mac and trousers which turn into shorts are about all you need. Thick socks are recommended as they help keep your feet firmly in your shoes and usually prevent blisters. Any footwear with a tough sole which will help even out the lumps and bumps in the path is recommended. You really start to notice every ounce of weight in your pack at the end of a long day and it's worth being exceptionally careful about packing; half of a bar of soap, shampoo bar, tiny toothpaste tubes and so forth all help. Due to the very frequent failures in electricity supply a micro lantern (with a dozen LEDs) is useful and a multi compartment pill container cuts down a huge amount of bulk.
A Permit or a Trekkers’ Information Management Systems (TIMS) Card is required for all walks. If you buy your Annapurna trek permit in Pokhara rather than in Kathmandu you will find the office is well stocked with free information leaflets and maps. You will need a passport copy, and passport size photograph to obtain TIMS Card from Tourist Service Center office in Maligaon and Government registered trekking companies in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Each visitor who goes trekking through a trekking company must pay US$10 and each free individual trekker must pay US$20 per trekking route per person per entry (or equivalent Nepali Rupees).
'Very nice site, like the simplicity. I went to Nepal, trekked to Everest base camp and want to second what you say about not hiring a tour. Trekking intimidated me, I pictured huge snowy mountains and thought guides were necessary and was scared. My friend got me to go, we didn't use any guides. We picked up a porter when we got to high altitudes. Tell people to not worry, everyone can do it at their own pace and get what they need along the way. Also I went in monsoon season, it did rain but it wasn't crowded which was nice, going in the monsoon season is definitely a possibility. Views were cloudy but the clouds would open some of the time we got plenty of views. We did not see another white person for the first 7 days literally. Everyone was very nice, there were supposedly communist rebels running around. The US state department advises against travelling to Nepal, but it was not dangerous at all, the communists just take a fee from trekkers and let them go on their way.' - Danny
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.
The trekking section in the Lonely Planet is measly and it is worth getting a trekking guide book or at least a map to find about the dozens of interesting side trips on offer. There are plenty of experiences and wonderful sights on all of the treks which you will never forget. Trekking is easy and you do not need a tour to 'walk' - do it independently contracting your own guide if you want to.
Once again: keep your bag small and light; don't forget water purifying tablets and something to cover the taste i.e. Tang orange powder drink. Items like Tang are available on the path, but are quite expensive compared to towns with road connections. A porter is very handy to have, but you really don't need a guide if on a well-known trek.
Good advice is to start out carrying your own pack (make it a light one) and when you want a break, pick up a porter on the way for about US$10-15 a day (take the cash with you and plenty of socks). Taking a porter from a major town with you means costs are much higher with cuts being taken from agencies and the porter assuming the title of guide (which just means they speak good English and charge more than $20 a day).
Guides: Technically speaking new rules are in force that you must trek with a guide and those whom are in this business will go to great lengths to remind you of such. The move comes after several groups of trekkers on out of the way route encountered problems with rebels or were lost. However, the policy is far from enforced and you can still trek without if you want to save the money or feel it is unnecessary. There are pros and cons to guides, showing you the right way is a big pro and you can avoid the annoying instances when you take a wrong turn and have to double back. Equally someone from the region can really open doors culturally. An issue arises when you contract a guide who is lazy, constantly talking about getting a big tip and not so friendly. Either way you can always find a guide in local villages you pass through and in balance those in the more remote communities will benefit from the wage you pay more than perhaps others and will certainly have the local knowledge. If you are alone (sole walker), a guide would be recommended on all but the most packed treks.
Rick recommends a new trekking route which has opened, that currently doesn't appear in many guides. 'This trek is called the Mardi Himal trek which is in the Annapurna region. Its around a week long, is of moderate difficulty, and the route takes in lush forests and offers outstanding views of the Annapurna range throughout. You trek up to around 4,300 meters, which takes 3 days, before spending another 3 days walking back down again, staying in lovely villages and lodges on route. The route is largely unknown so you'll I spent long days and every night enjoying the amazing mountain views without sharing with any other travellers. It is worth hiring a guide as the route would be difficult to follow, however you do come across other who are without. The locals are very keen for people to start using this route as the wonderful people that run the lodges and homestays could really do with the business from trekkers. Many of the popular routes, such as the Poon hill trek and Annapurna base camp are overcrowded, and unfortunately, somewhat spoilt by tourism. The lodges are basic (showering from a bucket, and sleeping in nothing more than a brick hut) but are a real experience and the people will be so happy you are there and fantastically hospitable. There is a fantastic authentic village called Lwang on the way back down to Pokhara which is authentically Nepalese, and picture postcard beautiful. Highly recommended.'
Locals: On the whole welcoming and friendly, a little jaded sometimes in the Annapurna lodges.
Other travellers: Huge variety, a lot of older tour groups and first-time travellers
Accommodation: Huge choice. Tea houses on trekking routes are cheap, basic and comfortable. Advanced booking is not required aside from a couple of popular hotels in Kathmandu.
Hot water: Normally okay. Solar heated water sometimes available when trekking
Average cost: $20-25, less than $15 when trekking possible if in less developed region.
Communications: Fantastic internet in Kathmandu and all tourist hubs. Slower and more expensive in the rest of the country. Nepal is even by Asian standards a very poor country, so expect little of the beaten track, but a good mobile network can give you a decent connection even at Everest base camp and one company maintains you can get a connection even at the top of the earth's highest point!
Health: Minor food poisoning common and at least diarrhoea. It is worth noting the differences between giardia, dysentery and normal diarrhoea as they require different medications.
What to take: Walking footwear to trek, thermal leggings and a top: everything else from rain macs to sleeping bags you can hire or buy cheaply.
What to buy: There are literally thousands of cheap crafts that you will want to buy and much else besides
Getting around: Buses, internal flights, foot or raft - all very easy to arrange and good value between major towns/villages. Getting into the mountains will require trekking or an internal flight that will be subject to weather conditions and in heavy demand in the high season.
Guide book: Rough Guide Nepal, buy second hand there or cheaply from the shops in Kathmandu. Having a guide in an electronic format on your trek will ensure you don't have to deal with the extra weight of the print format.
Books: Fantastic selection of new and second hand books. Read 'Into Thin Air' for that Everest climbing experience. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog and Edmund Hilary's accounts of climbing Everest are also excellent.
TV: English language cable TV, a few bars in Kathmandu have big screens.
Food: The budget eating capital of the world, cheap with huge variety. Beware if you have a problem with MSG, since it ends up in many dishes. Avoid beef since it is poor quality and Hindu Nepalese do not eat it. Buffalo is tough but very tasty.
Vegetarians: Never a problem, amazing choice
Hassle and annoyance factor: Minimal. A few offers of hash and taxis in the main tourist area in Kathmandu, almost none elsewhere.
Woman alone: No problem
Local poisons for the body: Great bars and beer. Marijuana easily available and often seen growing wild whilst trekking
Intro: How to describe Pakistan? If you want a one-worder then you need no more than three letters: WOW. India without the hassle, Nepal without the crowds. Then again it's a little more complicated than that and probably more than any other country on the planet your opinion will depend on what part(s) you see. Whereas the three letters of 'wow' is undoubtedly the impression most will have visiting Northern areas, others might be forgiven for thinking of a few four letter words after making trips through the south of the country where travel is quite different.
Pakistan's main attractions are the mind boggling market town of Peshawar and the amazing, stunning and accessible jagged mountain scenery in the far north. Few travellers venture to Pakistan – it even seems to have become a bad word on traveller circuits. A poor media image, tension with India, terrorism, earthquakes, poverty... it's quite clear why so many neglect it, particularly with the likes of India and Nepal on its doorstep. Shame.
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.
Highlights: The KKH ,
particularly at a slow pace (e.g. bike), this area is relatively
relaxed and safe. Around Karimabad and
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
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.
Lowlights: 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.
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.
If you want to travel these routes in more comfort and when it suits you then you need to hire a private jeep which is easy if a little expensive on some routes. Theoretically booking ahead a jeep and driver for say five days to go from Islamabad to Peshawar then to Chitral you could pay around US$30 a day. For a half day jaunt around the KKH the price might be half this, but for a long haul and difficult trips, say to continue from Chitral to Gilgit, you will probably pay over US$100. You can do such routes on public transport, but private transport saves considerable time for those in a rush and enables greater freedom. Expect most transport in the north to be hair raising (and underwear soiling) with huge drops to the side of the road and stupendous views.
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
Tourists pay more, but get preferential treatment. Try to book ahead. If you are told the flight is full and must travel, buy a stand-by ticket and go to the airport - you might (probably won't) get on the first flight, but have a good chance the next day or if there is an extra flight. The main routes are: Islamabad to Gilgit (most in demand) - a good second option is Islamabad to Skardu and then enjoy the beautiful (scary) road trip to Giligt. Peshawar to Chitral. Between Chitral and Gilgit the only option is road. Flights in the south of the country are cheap and easy.
Despite what most guide books say there is a flight from Islamabad to Kashgar and back again. It leaves three times a week, is operated by China South-West Airlines and costs something like US$160 one-way and will save considerable time if you want to travel the KKH, but not continue travelling in China. Some travel agencies in Islamabad will make noises about not selling you a one-way ticket - just head to the airline office opposite the Saudi Tower. Not sure where the office is in Kashgar, where it's imagined buying a ticket might be a little bit more complex. Make sure you have cash to pay for the ticket.
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:
Line of control aka Kashmir - despite a lot of media attention, the worst that normally happens is some trekking areas around Skardu become out of bounds. There is no need to avoid northern areas. There have been some hostage taking incidence, but they were mainly on the Indian side. There are some areas where you should take a guide if you trek.
Baluchistan - this region encompasses most of the south-west of the country. The problem here is loose government control away from main cities, and bandits. Any trip to or from Iran will traverse this region. The Quetta-Taftan road is considered safe. The danger in the area is mostly apocryphal as few venture far enough out to discover it. (See excellent BBC News article).
Karachi and the Sindh - a small square region surrounding Karachi, bordering India. Not a place for travellers, to be avoided, intense communal violence. Karachi airport is safe enough, but it's best to jump straight on a cheap internal flight to Islamabad or Lahore.
The North West Frontier Province - commonly known as the NWFP, the area bordering Afghanistan from around Peshawar north to China. The area is thought of as lawless, but more fairly it has its own rather arbitrary tribal law. Not as dangerous as Sindh, but with much more hype. Still can seem like the Wild West with men carrying guns a common sight. Most dangerous areas are off limits to tourists. Feudal law applies to main roads. Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, Chitral (jumping off point for the Kalash valley) and main tourist destinations were safe enough, but with some Taliban activity of late, always get current information before visiting. The people you meet are friendly and will downplay dangers government advisories speak strongly about. Hard to find a balance. For the most part, the Pakistani government overprotects tourists requiring guides/guards in places (e.g. the Khyber Pass) and putting many others off limits.
Lahore - unlike Karachi not a violent place, but hotel rip-offs are common, even in nicer mid-range places. Be very careful of valuables in hotel rooms - don't leave your money in one or let the staff know when you plan to leave (theft will be at the last minute).
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.
Tourist factor: Really depends on the time of year and political situation. Mid-summer before 911 on the KKH would be pretty busy. In recent years in the north during the summer 6/10. In the winter and rest of the country 4 or 3/10. In late 2005 just before the major earthquake, things really seemed to be picking up again.
Accommodation: Plenty of rooms in most towns. Along the KKH almost any village on a road will have a cheap guest house. Always cheap and very cheap options available. On the tourist trail in the North you can expect some excellent value mid-range options. Travel slightly out of season to get great discounts. Likewise, in places like Swat, prices rise big style in the summer. Plenty of places to pitch tents, but why would you with such cheap options abundant? Many rustic spots have lodges owned by the forestry commission. Expect some great views and orchard-set places to stay on the KKH. Guesthouses normally have plenty of blankets but in midwinter a sleeping bag is useful. In big towns it's the normal soulless fare. There is no well-run teahouse situation as in Nepal for trekkers. If trekking at length you need a tent (this can normally be arranged locally - easy to sort out in main trekking areas on the KKH), besides there are plenty of good day treks if you are fairly fit.
Hot water: You get what you pay for and in dirt cheap and cheap rooms don't expect hot water. In nice (still cheap) accommodation on the tourist trail, hot water no problem.
Average cost: US$10-15. Rooms for half this easy to find. Great quality/value in many places if you double this price.
Books: You will find a pretty good selection of western fiction and guide books in Karimabad and an excellent selection in Islamabad including international magazines and maps. In Islamabad the best book shops are in the area known as F9. You will find basic English language fiction in many other towns. It's worth noting that there is a good second-hand book stall at the Indian border. It's small, but will have a few reasonable reads and guidebooks for India, China, Nepal, Iran and beyond. There are many great books on mountaineering in Pakistan (mainly on K2) and any reading on 'The Great Game' is worthwhile and interesting. Recommended is: The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk
TV: More expensive mid-range hotels (say $30-40 upwards) will have satellite television with at least a few international channels such as BBC World, AXN and Star Sports (showing live matches/games).
Movies: To view a few digital camera shot movies taken in Pakistan, click here.
The KKH or Karakoram Highway runs from Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China. Travelling non-stop (not recommended), the route would take about three/four days. Transport is easy and it is the only reliable overland route into China from the sub-continent. You need to arrange your onward visas before you leave Islamabad, or if heading into Pakistan, before you get to Kashgar.
[see map] From Islamabad/Rawalpindi to Chilas it's about 12 hours on a bus and a good road. At this point mountains appear and the scenery becomes jaw-dropping as Nanga Parbat (8126m) comes into sight. There are some good trekking areas, but few stop travelling all the way to Gilgit (4 hours on) in one go.
Gilgit is the biggest town in the region and apart from being a transport hub has few sights. Most fly (a few daily flights, weather permitting) in and out of Gilgit. From Gilgit you are about a day away from the border, but could spend weeks taking in the road there. The scenery is stunning with many day treks and the travellers' hub of Karimabad, which has plenty to keep you there for days, is a few hours up the road. From there, Passu and Sost are again only a few hours north, but it's worth stopping, particularly in Passu with its candlestick-like jagged peaks - the mountains start to get much starker. The road is single track tarred, but with the danger of frequent landslides. It's serviced by cheap passing shared transport or you can hire a jeep or even walk/cycle. See image.
From Sust, the next stop is the border where an international bus will drop you in Kashgar in two days (stopping overnight) unless you have rented your own transport. If you are not going to China, the views from Sust to the border can only be seen with private transport and are less spectacular than what you would have already seen. From Sust you ascend fast reaching the border pass at about 5000 metres. There's nothing up there, but high grasslands and nomads - it's stark and beautiful. See image. See movie.
The road is unsealed once in China, but not too bad. The bus stops after about four/five hours in Tashkurgan - where you can get a nice room at a fair rate and a beer! - and continues the next day. The journey then continues on high grassland with huge mountains in the distance past the stunning Lake Karakul (see image) where you could stay a night if you don't expect much comfort and don't mind the cold. From there the road enters a valley as it descends gradually and you enter China proper. (see image) The road from here is good. Next stop, Kashgar - roughly nine hours travel in total. The bus is not great but not too bad. [see map]
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
Intro: An Ireland-sized island just off the southern tip of India. The population of 25 million is mostly rural, except for Colombo, the capital. Stunning tropical beaches and coral on the west and south coasts are the main draw, but there are also ancient cities (ruined cliff palaces and temple complexes in the centre of the country) and the hill town of Kandy is on most people's itinerary. Plenty of interesting wildlife, including wild monkeys and elephants. The north is inhabited by Tamils (mostly Hindu), and the south by Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists). The north was off-limits for twenty years owing to a brutal civil war, but has opened up since 2002, as a ceasefire has been declared. This ceasefire has looked shaky at times since, but northern towns such as Jaffna are safe to visit, although of little tourist draw (apart from getting away from the hordes of European package tourist that descend on Sri Lanka throughout the year).
Many thanks to Peter John for supplying this summary. The information here is mainly from this author, but has been edited and updated to by the main site author after a recent journey. The views and facts expressed here are well-researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.
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.
Highlights: 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.
Lowlights: 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.
Getting around: Disappointingly slow transportation, given the size of the country (partly because of the hilly terrain). Limited and slow train service often booked days in advance, particularly Inter-city Expresses between Colombo and Kandy over public holidays. To travel at all widely on public transport, you're more or less forced into some reliance on public buses, but slow, windy and often crowded roads make for stressful rides. Private, AC luxury (term used loosely) buses are much more comfortable and not much more expensive than public rattletraps, but services are more limited.
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.
Food: Spicy, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Excellent seafood.
Vegetarians: No problem.
Communications: Loads of internet access, though prices can vary from 1 rupee to 10 from one shop to the next. Phone system unreliable and inefficient, and numbers have just changed beyond recognition.
Health: Don't use the tap water. It generally comes as ice in drinks. Mild diarrhoea common amongst travellers.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Much less than India, and much easier to deal with. Even the most persistent touts will leave you alone if asked politely. Avoid the old gem scam though. Occasionally taxi drivers, particularly at the International airport, will ask for more money than you have agreed, particularly late at night when many flights arrive. Infuriating, official over-charging of foreign tourists means that foreigners pay 72 times the Sri Lankan rate to get into the ancient city of Sigiriya for instance.
Local poisons for the body: Marijuana illegal, cigarettes plentiful. Some passable beers, but fermented fruit-juice ("toddy” or "arrack”) the real local tipple. Hikkaduwa has a drugs scene, nightlife pretty tame. However, if you want to party, best jump on a plane to Goa.
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.
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
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."