8 Backpackers’ paradises for the outdoor lovers

8 Backpackers’ paradises for the outdoor lovers

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.

backpacker destinations in Asia

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.

backpacker destinations in Asia

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.

backpacker destinations in Asia

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.

backpacker destinations in Asia

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

backpacker destinations in Asia

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.

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

One of the things that really thrills me when it comes to travel, is the feeling of going back in time. I love the poetry of places that have kept strong customs and tradition for centuries. Those which stay true to their culture, either because of the scarcity of contact with the outside world or for the pride of their people. This is pure travel magic for me.
Today I collected eight of this magical places. Some are easy to reach, while others are hidden corners of rural regions that I found strolling around with a motorbike and that I would struggle to place on a map myself. Or maybe I just want to keep them secret for a little bit longer. But you can read their story and see some pictures further below. So keep on reading and follow me in this very special trip back in time.

 

Places to travel back in time

1. The holy city of Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a place of life and death. India’s oldest and holiest city, it has been sitting on the sacred waters of Ganges since 1200 BC. The ones who get cremated on its shores attain peace, stopping the endless reincarnation cycle. Varanasi is quintessential India: sharp contrasts, devoted spirituality, dirt, flowers, life, sickness, death. Everything happens under the sun: the funeral processions, the chanting and the burning never stop. The codified movements of the low cast wood porters and the experienced acts of the corps burners have been unchanged for centuries. The same goes for the traditional wooden boats, the crumbling temples and buildings, the sunset puja ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the sadus, the pilgrims bathing just a few meters downstream of the burning ghats, the ladies washing their laundry, the lepers, the wandering cows, the stray dogs and the goats. Everything is timeless.
[SEE ALL VARANASI PICTURES]

 

Places to travel back in time

2. The hill tribes’ villages around Kentung, Myanmar

The small town of Kentung is hidden between the mountains of Shan State, in the eastern Myanmar area known as the Golden Triangle, where China, Thailand and Myanmar meet. A place full of charm and history, once renown for the cultivation of opium and drug trafficking. The surrounding area is the home of more than 30 local ethnicities like Akha, Lahu, Wa and of course Shan. You can spot tribes people at the local market early in the morning, sometimes donning colourful traditional costumes. But the best way to meet them is hiking or biking to their hill villages. One of my biggest regrets is that the day of the hike I felt super sick, so I only have a few poor pictures and I couldn’t really hike a lot. We weren’t hiring any guide; we just went around the area with two local motorbike drivers. We met Akha ladies with black theeths, local men dragging huge logs for construction, armed hunters (with rifles dating back to the 50’s) and we crossed a couple of villages with wooden made aqueducts and every sort of wind chimes. Probably one of my best experiences in Myanmar.
[SEE MYANMAR GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

3. The hidden fishing island of Pulau Weh, Indonesia

Pulau Weh is a tiny island north of Sumatra. It’s the northern tip of Indonesia. Miraculously spared from the 2004 tsunami, Pulau Weh is a fishermen’s island slowly converting to tourism (the enforced Sharia law still keeps the crowds at bay). A mecca for divers, it still holds the feeling of a lost paradise covered in jungle. Riding a motorbike all around the island is an adventure in itself. The winding single track road crosses the thick jungle and the local monkey’s territory. Be mindful if you meet one sitting in the middle of the road staring at you, that’s their home and they’re ready to fight for it!

 

4. Folegandros, the forgotten Cyclade, Greece

This tiny pearl of the Cyclades is a couple of hour boat ride from crowded Santorini and Ios. Probably because of its famous neighbours, Folegandros has been spared by mass tourism. Its bare hills are mostly populated by goats and dotted with white and blue orthodox churches. Almost ten years ago, while hiking there with friends, I heard silence for the first time. Most of the fishermen live downhill, close to the port or in the Chora (the main village), a place where time seems to have stop fifty years ago. The cobblestone lanes are lined with white and blue houses decorated with colourful flowers. The local eateries often display the catch of the day, so it’s not rare to see octopus hanging on a line outside of a restaurant. The dream-like turquoise beaches are usually reachable only on foot, hiking for a good hour. If you get lost, do not fear: ask the local toothless men. Some of them are so old that they can still say a few words in Italian.

 

Places to travel back in time

5. The mountain district of Val Brembana, Italian Alps

The valley of the river Brembo, aka Val Brembana, connects the smooth Bergamo hills with the high peaks of the Italian Alps. This is a wonderful place to go hiking, with paths ranging from mildly steep to vertical ice peaks. The communities that live here are mostly tiny villages scattered on the slopes of the valley. A bunch of stone houses perched upon cobblestone lanes and an old church. The feeling of history and remoteness lingers there all year long, but the best time to visit is in summer, when communities are alive with local Patron Saint festivals, which usually include a Catholic rite, traditional dancing, music and a shitload of local tasty food. Unmissable.

 

6. The lush rural villages in Barisal region, Southern Bangladesh

This is an example of what I mean by not being able to locate a place on the map anymore. I went to Bangladesh in 2014, following my aunt while she was checking on the many projects she built there with her NGO. Southern Bangladesh is a thick jungle full of water and life. Rivers, ponds and lotus flowers are the typical rural scenario there. Following the maze of tracks that cross the rice fields and the fishing ponds, you end up in tiny villages made of straw huts. Their curious people can be Muslim, Indus or even Catholic. I was there just after the rice harvest. The grains were laid out on a cloth to dry in the sun. So were dung patties, used as a stove fuel.
[SEE BANGLADESH GALLERY]

 

Places to travel back in time

7. Hill tribe villages around Tham Lot, Northern Thailand

Another gem of the Golden Triangle is the Mae Hong Son region in Northern Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, for decades now it has been the home of local tribes as well as of refugies from Myanmar. From the lush village of Tham Lot you can start long hikes on the hills, were local families don’t wear the old costumes anymore but still keep their legacy alive, staying in traditional huts and living off farming and the spare cow or chicken.
[SEE NORTHERN THAILAND GALLERY]

 

8. Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia

I know that when thinking of timeless Cambodia, the mind goes straight to the centuries-old Angkor Wat temples. Which surely is a wonderful display of Khmer history, but it’s also jam-packed with tourists all year long, so that it’s not easy to feel the magic. A lesser known historical site is city of Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia, a few kilometers away from Phnom Penh. A complex of temples and palaces from the 19th century, nestled in a thick jungle inhabited by a band of monkeys. Climbing the 509 stone steps to the hill top temple will reward you with astonishing views of the surrounding countryside. That’s the thing, all around there isn’t any touristy infrastructure. Instead, the countryside is dotted with rural villages bustling with life. People going around for their daily chores in old Vietnamese bicycles. Kids going to school in outdated (but super cute) uniforms, chickens running, everyone shouting hello and eventually pointing in the direction of Phnom Penh for you: the dusty red tracks that connect one village to the other have no road signs. [SEE CAMBODIA GALLERY]

Are you ready for India?  Most common fears and how to overcome them

Are you ready for India? Most common fears and how to overcome them

“I would love to go to India, but I think I’m not ready yet”. I heard this from many fellow travellers over the years. Some of them were quite experienced travellers as well, who may have crossed all South America on their own, but for some reason, India seems always a step up on the backpacking game and not all of us are ready to take it.

I totally respect the choice, knowing one’s limits is fundamental. I also understand that India may not be for everyone. Many people prefer relaxing places where the less people they meet the better they feel. But for those who are intrigued by the magic of this very special Country but still haven’t booked the ticket because they’re scared, well, knowing what to expect is key. A trip to India will surely include many challenges and some frustrations, it’s part of the game, but I can assure you that none of them will cloud the value of a trip to India.

Here are some of the most common fears about India and my tips on how to overcome them.

first time in India

Surviving the culture shock

On your first time in India, be prepared for a significant culture shock.

All Asia is renowned for provoking this type of reaction in western first timers, but India takes it to the next level. The usual Asian mess made of huge crowds, hectic traffic, funny smells, open sewage, questionable hygienic standards and poverty, in India is ten times bolder.

TIP: The difference with your own Country will be extreme (which is also the reason why you’re there in the first place) and the secret to cope is taking it easy. You can’t handle the street chaos anymore? Treat yourself to an accommodation that is fancier than your standard. It will be pretty cheap anyway and It will work as your detoxing secrete escape.

Adapting to different public hygiene standards

India is extremely real and human in every possible sense. You will notice that most of human activities like cooking, eating, going to the toilet, being sick can be carried out in the streets. In Varanasi, the holy city on Ganges shores, you can even witness funeral processions, open air cremations and bodies floating on the river. On top of that, you have all sorts of farm animals living –and pooping- in the streets, a consistent amount of rubbish and the odd open sewage.

TIP: Wear closed shoes or sturdy sandals like Birkenstock. Street-level flip-flops are a big no. Don’t put your backpack on the ground (or at least check the floor before you do it – this one I learned it the hard way). A light scarf can be of great use to create a barrier between you and the funniest smells.

first time in India

Witnessing social injustice and poverty

Most of the time, travelling to India feels like time travel. And in some ways it is so! Some traditions have stayed the same for thousands of years. Unfortunately, one of those is the infamous cast system, which is still thriving in India. Believing in casts and karma means that if someone is in a shitty condition it means that A- they deserved it because of what they did in their past lives and B-there’s nothing they can do to change the situation in this life. This creates a fatalist and hierarchical society, where you will sometimes witness graphic scenes of poverty, sickness, child begging or violence that will be completely overlooked by thousands of other people passing by.

TIP: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it (at least not in short exploring trip). Take your time to adjust to the new environment. If it takes you two days to find the courage to exit your hostel in Delhi, let it be. Then donate if you feel like it, but always avoid giving money to begging children, not to encourage the practice.

first time in India

Making your way through the crowds

Because of the huge number of inhabitants, in the streets the mantra is “every man for himself” everywhere, all the time. It’s the law of the jungle, even when trying to get a seat on the train, queuing for the toilet, buying bus tickets. You will have to fight your way through a sweaty and solid crowd many, many times.

TIP: Do not overload your days with activities. Visiting a popular site in India can be overwhelming, don’t ask yourself too much. Try not to be in a tight schedule, moving around India is already stressing enough. Leave yourself generous margins to reschedule things due to fatigue, unexpected glitches, sickness or just changes of plan.

Avoiding scams and dangers

Scams happen (and not just in India), that’s a matter of fact. Research online before you go so you can try to avoid the most obvious ones, like the one of the closed hotel (so that the tuk tuk driver can take you to his cousin’s guest house).

TIP: Be ready to hustle: bargaining is key to avoid paying double or triple the price of things. Be prepared to insist if you suffer an injustice (cancelled flights, wrong hotel).

Staying safe as a woman travelling solo

You will notice that Indians stare A LOT. Which, most of the time, is out of curiosity. Thus said, when a horde of men stares at you, maybe even pressing closer, it can be quite intimidating. If you don’t like a situation, just walk away asap (this applies to Planet Earth in general). Guys will ask to take photos with you (they probably just want to show off with family and friends). In this case you can politely decline and walk away or propose a “group photo” this will: A- saves you time, otherwise everybody else will want a picture with you and B- gives you the chance to include other women in the picture. On night trains choose the upper classes, where you will mostly share your trip with families. In stations team up with other local women, that generally are super curious and have a protective attitude toward you crazy gal who’s wandering around alone!

TIP: make sure to dress in a humble and respectful way. If you don’t want to be stared more than necessary, wear long trousers or a Sari, avoid sporting a décolleté and always take a scarf with you. This will help you stand out less in the crowds.

Delhi Belly

Well, just embrace the risk. Even if you drink and brush your teeth with bottled water, you keep your mouth shut while showering, you repeat “no-water-no-ice-please” as a mantra all day long, you eat at the best looking eateries… You might get sick. I get sick on every single trip. May it be an easy two weeks’ getaway to Bali or a three months long South East Asia experience, I will get sick. It’s a matter of fact. It happens every time and India was no exception. It was actually one of the worst (probably water) intoxication I ever gone through. But for me it’s part of the game now, I’ve been through so many embarrassing situations that Delhi Belly does not scare me anymore.

TIP: be prepared and take the traveller’s Holy Trinity with you. And by that I mean:

  1. Antidiarrheal drug of choice
  2. Broad spectrum of antibiotic (I use Ciproxin)
  3. Probiotics to restore the flora

Just to be on the safe side, I also carry antacid and antispasmodic drugs to settle my stomach and tummy.

Don’t let your fears stop you!

While you are preparing for the worse, a ton other wonderful things will happen: you will witness incredible traditions, costumes, art, architecture and food. You will be amazed by the people: their genuine curiosity towards you and the country you come from (top tip: bring a family photo to pass around while telling –or gesturing- your story to locals, you’ll be amazed by the reactions) their kindness, their understanding despite the culture and language gap. You’ll found that connecting with Indians was way easier than with every other people in Asia (the fact that many of them speak English helps for sure).

My general suggestion here is, if you can, to travel to at least one other Asian country before travelling to India. Learning how to deal with Vietnamese street frenzy, Cambodian dizzying wealth gap or Indonesian no-sewage situation may prepare you for India. But not for the cows (and their poop) in the streets. That’s just in India!

So what are you waiting for? Book that ticket for your first time in India and don’t worry if you’re travelling alone, you will meet plenty of other likeminded travellers to share the road, a laugh and adventure with. And you will have the experience of your life enjoying this mystical, chaotic, colourful and magical Country.

Want more?
Browse my India photo gallery:

VARANASI

INCREDIBLE INDIA

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