Southern Asia

India and the countries that broke from it (Pakistan & Bangladesh) provide some of the world most rewarding (and trying) travel. Sri Lanka and Nepal complete the package of stunning beaches, towering mountains and amazing cuisine.

Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for:

Southern Asia - Bangladesh, India, Maldives Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

- aka some of the most worthwhile destinations on the planet!

For Northern Asia (China/Mongolia/Japan/Korea) go here.
For South East Asia (Thailand/Philippines/Singapore/etc) go here.


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.

Taj Mahal

* It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on.

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.

[book]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.

BangladeshThe 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 Sunderbans 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

  • Getting around:

    • Ferry 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.

  • Guidebook: Lonely Planet is poor, with many errors. The Bradt guide is a welcome relief and excellent. Midnight Children (Rushdie) has a part on the Sunderbans.

  • People vibe:

    • 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

  • Bengali BoatCommunications: 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.

    * Rating: 6/10

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

-divider-
Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel' - However bear in mind: a lot of hassle, heat and long distances.

Indian Colour 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.

  • Taj MahalHot/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.

  • MoneyCosts: 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).

  • Media:

    • 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.

[book]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.

Elsewhere on the net, recommend are the IndiaTree and India Mike as great and more comprehensive online India resources.

  • People vibe:

    • 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 Kerala compared 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: Bhang 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.

    * Rating: 8.5/10

-divider-

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.

Beach 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.

  • FerryGetting 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.

    No SignWherever you pick expect limited accommodation and eating options and nothing much to do apart from swim, snorkel, chill and read.

  • UnderConWhat 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.

Miss at your peril - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

RecommendedEasy

Ancient villages, the historic religious town of Braktapur (or Bouddha), rafting... in fact pretty much everything, but especially trekking .

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.

-divider-
Miss at your peril: Northern Pakistan & The Karakoram Highway - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

Recommended

PakistanThe 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.

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]

-divider-

Sri Lankan beach Edit 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.

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.

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.

Can you help? E '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.

[i] 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."