This week I wanted to make a selection of my favourite playgrounds around Asia and Australia. Some of them are really mainstream while others are still a bit out of the backpackers’ trail. But that’s the point, I love to travel out of the beaten path, but sometimes I also like to stop in a chill place where I can meet like-minded travellers and enjoy a laid-back routine for a while. These are places for outdoor lovers, where you can surf or hike or do yoga every day, but where you can also sleep in a comfy bungalow every night and have fresh fruits for breakfast. These are my favourite backpacker destinations in Asia and Australia.
1. Bali, Indonesia
Bali is still the ultimate backpackers’ paradise. You might have to get over the crowded shores of Kuta, but then the heart of the island will unfold into lush jungles and rice fields. Driving a motorbike up and down its green hills dotted with temples and coffee plantations is one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in Asia altogether. Bali for me means dreamy beaches, clear water, incredible cliffs and rock formations. The outdoor lovers won’t risk boredom. If you’re into surfing, you will find breaks for any level. Waves are consistent and the water is crystal clear. You can check out all the surf spots here. The turquoise waters are also a blessing for snorkelers and divers. In Bali you can dive in the north and on the east side of the island, but also around nearby islands. Hikers can choose to trek around the rice fields or to climb Mount Batur (1700m) or Mount Agung (3000m) the two Balinese volcanos.
Where to stay: Bali has so many wonderful accommodations that it would be impossible to choose one. Just avoid busy Kuta and try to book your nights in expat favourites Canggu and Ubud.
When to Go: The dry season here is pretty long, it runs from April to November.
2. Gili Islands, Indonesia
Just 45 minutes of fast boat away from Bali you will land on three tiny paradise islands: The Gilis. No cars nor scooters here, just horses and. Gili T is the party Island, Gili Meno is a teeny tiny islet, very quiet and honeymoony, and Gili Air is the happy hippy place where I spent four days eating fresh grilled tuna and swimming with turtles. The islands are surrounded by calm waters and wonderful reefs that you can reach just swimming off the beach.
Where to stay: in every island with a little of bargaining you can win a decent bungalow with a beach view for a few dollars. But if you’re feeling spendy, opportunities are endless!
When to Go: As in neighbouring Bali, the dry season here is pretty long, it runs from April to November.
3. Pai, Northern Thailand
Pai is the backpackers’ paradise and the hippy headquarters of Thailand northern circuit. Hidden on the northern mountains, it is reachable with a 4h winding minibus ride from Chiang Mai. The chill out atmosphere, the cheap and tasty restaurants, the night markets (where we ate the best pizza in more than one year of travels), the pool with a bar and a sound system, the natural hot springs and the night parties around bonfires basically make it the best playground for backpackers. The surroundings of the village are dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. Nature lovers will find a bunch of jungle trails that lead to waterfalls and natural hot springs. Not too far from Pai, you can also explore Tham Lot cave and visit some traditional tribe villages.
Where to stay: I don’t really have a special place to recommend in Pai, but I can definitely recommend the guesthouse we stayed in Tham Lot: the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life.
When to go: November to March are the driest months. A lot of sunshine but not so much water to pump the beautiful waterfall.
4. Koh Phangan, Thailand
Koh Phangan: home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people at the biggest beach party of the world. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe is considered a party island, Ko Phangan kicks ass. The good thing about it is that it actually gets rid of the 200.000 clubbers as soon as the morning comes. Leaving the island to the quiet, hippie paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. Everything is extremely sweet here: the mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties, cool travellers, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. Phangan is also the place to be if you’re into colourful and rich diving. You can also hike from the west coast the eastern on a kinda steep 2h trail. It starts from Haad Khom and goes to charming Bottle Beach. From here you can get back by boat if you’re too tired. The island also has a small kitesurfing scene if you fancy the wind sports.
Where to go: The area around Haad Rin (the Full Moon Party beach) can be three times more expensive than the rest of the island, especially around the full moon. The west coast is cheaper and quieter.
When to go: The dry season runs from mid-December to April. You can still find mostly sunny weather with the occasional storm until September
5. Siargao, Philippines
Siargao is a surfers’ paradise located in the south-west of the Philippines archipelago. It’s a tiny island covered in coconut tree forests, still untouched by mass tourism. The island has a chill-out vibe and is visited year-round by surfers and local backpackers. The only two locations that offer accommodations are General Luna and Pacifico. GL is actually where most of the surf spots are located, world-class Cloud 9 included. The island offers a lot for non-surfers as well: island hopping and snorkelling, diving, scooter driving to beautiful lagoons, yoga classes and beach parties every night, where you can meet young locals and travellers alike. This is going to be my home base from January 2018, so no need to detail further how much I am in love with the island and its lovely people.
Where to stay: I can’t recommend enough the chill and friendly Paglaom Hostel. Sunny, Koy and their cute doggies are going to make you feel at home.
When to go: The dry season in this area of the Philippines runs from March to October. For surfers, the best period is August to November, when the swell and wind conditions are at their best.
6. Noosa, Australia (QLD)
Noosa is the not-so-secret pearl of the Sunshine Coast, a long strip of beach that connects the bustling South to the jungle North of East Coast Australia. A small surfers’ town surrounded by the last stretch of the rainforest. The water is about the warmest it can get when it comes to Australian surf spots. I still had to wear my full sleeves wetsuit but I’m a spoiled Mediterranean girl used to the warmth of the South East Asian Pacific waves. There are several breaks for any level. As a beginner, I had some of my best Australian waves there. For those who aren’t into surfing, you can hike under the thick canopy of the Noosa National Park: a maze of lush jungle trails that end up in ocean viewpoints and small waterfalls. You can also kayak on the Everglades, the mysterious and tranquil mirrored waters of the wetlands. At night Noosa is alive with its casual surfers’ hangouts and a tiny but lively party scene. Backies claim that “Noosa Bug” is a thing: once you arrive here, you’ll never want to leave.
Where to stay: Halse Lodge is a YHA Australia Hostel in a marvellous historical Queenslander, the traditional wooden houses of Queensland. Vanlifers can park their vans there and use all the hostel facilities for a small fee, while long-term travellers can work a few hours here in exchange for accommodation. The chill and friendly atmosphere and small parrots that come visit at breakfast time will make you stay forever.
When to go: the dry season in Queensland runs from April to November.
7. Byron Bay, Australia (NSW)
Byron Bay is a hippie enclave in the North of coastal New South Wales. This is the place to be if you want to surf with dolphins in crystal clear waters. Which should be more than enough to go there if you ask my opinion! Surf is the biggest outdoor activity here, but you can hike and cycle in the surroundings. The coastal trail from the main beach to the lighthouse it’s just stunning. You can also rent a kayak for the day and go in search of dolphins. Not too far from Byron Bay you can hike to lush Minyon Falls, or make a day trip to Nimbin, aka the hippie capital of Australia. In the early 1970s, a group of Sydney University students choose Nimbin as the location for the Australian version of Woodstock; a counter-culture festival that celebrated art, sustainability, harmony and freedom. Many young hippies decided to stay in the area after the festival starting small businesses like alternative healers, therapists and yoga teachers. Nowadays Nimbin is a colourful, decaying, weed-powered hill community. Definitely worth a visit. If you stay long enough you can also have the chance to attend one of their famous parties.
Where to stay: Definitely stay in Arts Factory Backpacker’s Lodge in Byron Bay. It’s a 5-acres subtropical campground with tepees, bungalows, dorms, parking for vanlifers and a pool (yay!). Various workshops are available including drumming, didgeridoo making, yoga and juggling. The nights here are filled with music and artsy entertainment. A bit far out but totally worth it!
When to go: the dry season in Byron runs from April to November.
8. Pushkar, India
One of the classic stops of the Rajasthan Circuit, Pushkar is built around a sacred lake, a popular pilgrimage site for Indians. Sitting by the lake at sunset while the neighbouring temples raise their chanting prayers is a magical experience. If you’re into hiking, the real gem of the place is the Savitri Mandir, a hill temple where you can have the best 360 view of the lake and the surrounding desert. The one-hour long hike to get there will reward you with the best picture opportunities, especially if you get there at sunset or at sunrise. Despite the holiness of the place, Pushkar is also a hub for backpackers. You can start the night in one of the local bars as the Pink Floyd Café, the Funky Monkey Café or the Rainbow. Here you will meet travellers and regulars alike and will probably get invited in one of the frequent rave parties happening on the hills. Those parties are only spread by word-of-mouth, so keep an ear out!
Where to stay: I tried really hard but I can’t remember the name of the wonderful backpacker’s Haveli we stayed in! This is why you should keep a diary while travelling! Anyway, the city is filled with extremely charming (and cheap) options for backpackers.
When to go: Pushkar is dry for most of the year. You should be fine from October to May, then the monsoon kicks in.