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]

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

This article originally appeared on my old blog, Downunderpirates, in June 2014.

 

Today I’m finally taking you to amazing Thailand, a place that everyone has to see at least once in its life. Thailand it’s an extremely easy country to travel in. It is South East Asia’s tourist hub and the final gateway to wilder destinations. A cosy country that welcomes you with a sticky hug and lulls you with its wonderful beaches, luxury accommodation, tasty food, bright colours and infinite smiles. Thailand is the perfect destination to have a glimpse of South East Asian lifestyle without behind swallowed by the hard-core frenzy of Vietnam, Cambodia and so on. Here are my tips for a nice backpacker trip to Thailand.

 

Thailand is the best Country
to start exploring South East Asia
if you’re new to the region

Coming from the challenging journey through Burma, Thailand was like a breath of fresh air for us: Reliable transport system, English speaking people, edible food (even western food sometimes!) lovely accommodations and no open sewage anywhere to be seen!
I know I might sound like a spoiled western tourist that travels around in stilettos and fancy dresses, but trust me, I’m not. After backpacking our way overland through Cambodia and Burma for two months, while also experiencing serious food poisoning along the way, we were a mess and we deserved a break.

backpacker trip to Thailand

We stepped in the northern part of the country as March and the hot season were approaching. Northern Thailand is a lush highland territory, known for its temples-filled cities: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; and its backpacker trail of small mountain communities and former hill tribe villages that still populate the border areas.

We embarked in an off road
scooter adventure
with nothing more than
a crayon-written map
of the area as GPS

As we still were in the mood for meet ups with hill tribe villagers, we embarked in an off road scooter adventure to explore the villages near Ta Ton. It was a big mistake. We ended up on narrow mountain tracks, then into a creek and in the end we Andre even had to push the scooter under the midday sun on an extremely steep and slippery hill. With no water. And nothing more than a crayon-written map of the area as GPS.
backpacker trip to Thailand
Of course there were entire Thai families travelling on the same scooter, who were handling this no worries, but hey, they’re local. Personally, I almost cried when we hit asphalt again. By the way there were no “traditional” villages to be seen, just regular mountain huts. Fail. Anyway, totally worth it. (Maybe not.)

Pai is a lush playground
for people
in their twenties

The next stop in our northern circuit was backpacker’s paradise and hippy headquarters Pai village. Pai is a (not so) hidden gem of the northern mountains, reachable only with a 4h minibus journey from Chiang Mai. The road is wonderful. Dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. It’s extremely winding as well, and you have good chances of smelling puke on your way into town. If you’re lucky it won’t be yours. We spent four lovely days there, enjoying fellow travellers company again, strolling through night markets (where we ate THE BEST PIZZA in more than one year) and chilled by the pool. Basically it was like a playground for people in their twenties.

From there we moved north again, close to Burma, to have a last glimpse of the hill tribes before heading south for the islands. We explored the surroundings of Tham Lot cave, staying in the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life (you can see some pictures here). Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find any other “traditional” tribe. At least not as traditional as the ones that we met in Burma. I fear that in today’s Thailand hill tribes have been exploited for tourism purposes for so long that nowadays they (almost) blurred into modern Thailand.

Thus said, Thai constitution does not consider them as citizens, basically leaving them to themselves without even basic services such as schooling, healthcare, age care and so on. Don’t get me wrong, even if they don’t dress traditionally anymore, they are very interesting people to meet and have a chat with – we spoke with an Akha catholic catechist, that loved Pope Francis almost as Thai whiskey. But please, stay away from all those tourist-trap agencies in Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai that promise to bring you on “hill tribe tours”, often showing you the Padaung -long neck- women in in a very sad, sort of human safari situation. Spoiler: Padaung women are not Thai, they come from Burma EXCLUSIVELY to be exploited in the tourism industry. Please stay away.

In Krabi we assisted to our first
family friendly transgender beauty contest

From Pai, we engaged in a 48h trip that involved a minibus and two overnight buses to Krabi. Located on the Adaman sea, Krabi is the heart of a stunning coastline dotted with limestone formations and colourful ocean environment. The final scene of the famous 007 movie “The Man with a Golden Gun” was actually shoot here. In Krabi, we rested on stunning beaches that you can see here and went island hopping, experiencing the stark difference between westerner and Thai habits when on a boat trip. Thai do swim (with “swimming” I mean floating around in life vests and snorkelling gear) FULLY clothed. Which involves sitting on the boat all dripping wet. For them, a darker tone of skin is not desirable, so they make sure that even their hands and face (the only exposed body parts) are abundantly covered in SPF 90 or something. At the same time the few westerners that were with us lied bare skin on the prow of the long tail boat, sunbathing carelessly.

Diving in Ko Lanta was
one of the highlights of my life

From Krabi, where we happily assisted to our first family friendly transgender beauty contest, Miss Krabi, we moved south to Ko Lanta, which didn’t really stand out for us. Anyway, we got the change to dive here. It was my first dive! There’s no words to explain how great it was. I’m pretty claustrophobic by nature and the idea of going 12 meters underwater didn’t really excite me, but guys, it was seriously one of the highlights of my life. Never mind if the day after I was so sick that I thought I caught Dengue fever. The corals and the fish that we saw were as flashy as the ones that you can see on a National Geographic issue. Underwater it’s full of life, and crazy creatures and Co2 bubbles that float around. It was just perfect. Ten thousand times better than the poor Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that is now sadly greyish and dying. Not to mention that Australian Pacific waters are freaking cold even with a thick full sleeves wet suit. In Thailand you can dive comfortably with a short sleeved suit. Or even in your bikini if you’re called Sarah and you are a dive instructor coming from the UK, and therefore laughing in the face of anything warmer of the North Sea.

Ko Phangan is more than
anyone in their twenties
may ask for a holiday

From there, we finally got to our last beach destination, the ultimate backpackers paradise, the hippiest party island on planet earth, home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people to the biggest beach party of the world: Ko Phangan. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe we consider 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 paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. We decided to avoid the Full Moon Party, mostly because accommodation prices in those days raise even three times more than usual, and because going as a couple to a massive rave party didn’t seem to fit. But I’m definitely ready to get back as soon as some of my friends will want to. Ko Phangan is fun.

The mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties (a part from the Full Moon one, there’s plenty of smaller happenings all along the month), cool people in their twenties, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. More than anyone my age can ask from a holiday. We stayed in Ko Phangan six days, the longest stop ever in our year-and-three-months of travelling.

From there on, our beach time was over, and our long long trip as well. But bustling Bangkok still stood in the way and offered us four days of crazy shopping, good food, amazing sightseeing (check out the Royal Palace pictures here!) and a pretty neat insight of what a South East Asian megalopolis looks like. I loved it. It was not as messy as Phnom Penh and way more clean than Yangoon or Mandalay. Bangkok is a city of sharp contrasts and surprising beauty. It has water canals and massive highways, majestic shopping palaces and narrow alleyways in Chinatown, historical palaces and skyscrapers. Make sure you check it off your bucket list soon!

Want more?
Browse my Thailand Photogalleries:

NORTHERN THAILAND

THAILAND BEACHES

BUSTLING BANGKOK

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