OK, you’ve been saving up your cash and now you’re ready to go to Asia to chill, eat some killer food, relax, and maybe do a little socializing (aka partying!). Here are the 10 Best South/South-East Asia destinations for chill budget travel; you can’t go wrong!
1. Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand
This is a classic backpacker destination. And for a good reason, because it’s an awesome place to be lazy and chill. It has an unhindered party atmosphere; some refer to it as a “playground for adults.” If you want to get into it, you can find it there (we encourage you to use common sense, however). The accommodations are as convenient as they are cheap! Bungalows start at $5 per night.
In addition you can find amazing, world-class rock climbing and deep water soloing right on the beach (some climbing can also be accessed by boat). It’s particularly awesome to go for a swim after a long day on the limestone cliffs. The climbing routes are generally for more advanced enthusiasts, but it is readily accessible to all abilities for those inclined. Obviously there are guides and equipment available for hire. Ask around to get a good recommendation for a guide and take a look at his/her credentials to ensure legitimacy. In general we recommend solid travel insurance, however make sure that your policy covers climbing if you plan to partake. Insurance company lingo often uses “mountain climbing” or “mountaineering” to refer to rock climbing. If your policy excludes it, or you are unsure, specialized adventure sports travel insurance is available.
From Tonsai you can walk to some of the best and most iconic beaches of the Indian Ocean. And there are lots of good cheap bars to be found right on the beach. The phenomenal restaurants (who doesn’t like Thai food?) are very inexpensive; delicious meals start at $2. Let me say that again, $2!!! As opposed to some other uptight tourist destinations the locals enjoy socializing and partying with tourist which is a nice bonus.
To get to Tonsai, you’re likely to fly into the Krabi airport. From there, take a shuttle bus to Ao Nang (tickets can be purchased in the arrivals area). In Ao Nang go to the south-east end of the main beach strip to find the ticket office for boats to Tonsai.
Note: For the savvy traveller the following budget airlines serve Krabi: AirAsia, Tiger Airways, and Thai Smile at the time of writing.
2. Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa is a beautiful tribal village in North Vietnam that is home to people from the H’mong, Dao, Tay and several other minority tribal groups. The accommodations in Sapa tend to be very affordable and are comfortably clean. Although North Vietnamese food doesn’t have quite the reputation that Thai cuisine does, the eateries in this village are better than most in the area; and of course it’s very inexpensive.
The beautiful, verdant mountains that surround this town can be easily accessed. Just work out a price with a local for a moped ride to your trailhead of choice. Plus, if you’re coming from Hanoi, there’s an overnight train to Sapa that is comfortable and fun. (Splurge and take the Pumpkin train to Sapa. The regular train beds are more like prison beds.)
Locals are very charismatic and friendly in this town. A major source of income for the native tribal women is to sell tourist goods. Even if you have no interest in buying their trinkets remain polite and friendly (as you would in general). If these ladies feel that a tourist is acting rudely or aggressively repelling them, the situation will get very unpleasant.
3. Varkala, India
This relaxed beach is easily accessed and boasts very inexpensive accommodation; and to boot it is 100% backpacker friendly. Generally speaking the food is good for Southeast Asian standards; but it’s not the greatest representation of the phenomenal food India is known for. If you want to meet people, it is very easy to chat anyone up in the bars and restaurants on the main path. If you like yoga, it has some of the cheapest yoga classes in South Asia with plenty of options. And there is always Ayurvedic message – a local specialty that shouldn’t to be missed; regular messages can also be found if you want to mix it up.
To get to Varkala, take the Indian Railway from the nearest transit hub – in this case Trivandrum (aka Thiruvananthapuram) or failing that, Kochi (aka Fort Cochin). I’ve used Orbitz to score super cheap flights to Kochi and even got a free stopover in Bahrain.
4. Sihanoukville, Cambodia
This epic place has great beaches, but Cambodia is less developed than Thailand and thus has less tourist services. However, if you are looking for something more remote, this is the place. But don’t worry, you won’t be all alone; there is a growing backpacker scene, so it’s easy to meet people. Sihanoukville is about 4-5 hours from Phnom Penh. Frequent vans rides cost around $10 a pop. And of course plenty of low-cost airlines service Phnom Penh airport: AirAsia, Dragonair, JetStar Asia Airways, SilkAir, Tiger Airways, etc.
5. Goa, India
This is the iconic “hippy beach” and was the ultimate destination for the “Hippy Trail” in the 1960’s. In recent years the Goan beaches have become more developed and exclusive. Nevertheless, it remains a classic stop on any backpacking tour of Asia; it shouldn’t be missed. Of course Goan beaches like Anjuna and Baga have a great backpacker scene with amazing beach bars, restaurants, and of course clubs (the place has been around since the 60’s). The food is outstanding, especially by South Asia standards. And the restaurants are far cheaper than those in neighboring Sri Lanka. Many budget and non-budget airlines fly directly to the Goa Airport including some of India’s leading budget carriers: SpiceJet, IndiGo and GoAir.
6. Bangkok, Thailand
As you may have already guessed this is also a classic backpacker destination. Your money will go far in this high-tech Asian capital (unlike many other capitals in the area). The lodging is very cheap. The common backpacker hangout spot “Khao San Road” is an excellent place to meet fellow travelers. And the food is some of the best in the world, including the street food – wish we were eating some right now!
AirAsia, Nok Air, and several other regional budget airlines serve the newly refurbished Don Meung airport, which is very cheap and easy to use. While these discount airlines don’t fly into the main BKK “Suvarnabhumi Airport”, free shuttle busses leave hourly to ferry passengers between the two airports. The journey takes 40 minutes, but can grow to 2 hours in rush hour traffic.
Make sure that you’re aware of the scams targeting tourists in Bangkok. Tourism is a huge source of income for Thais but you may encounter a few shady characters. These scams can involve gems, stolen credit cards, or inflated taxi/tuk-tuk fares. Make sure you have a good (and relatively sober) head on your shoulders. If in doubt, you can always just walk away if you suspect a scam.
7. Gili Islands, Indonesia
These islands lay claim to really nice panoramic beaches, which are quiet, peacefully and very relaxing. No cars or motorbikes can be found on the island making for a very peaceful place! In addition the Gili Islands boast great scuba diving and snorkeling. From Lombok or Bali you must take a ferryboat, which can be a little pricey for Southeast Asian standards ($30-$100 round-trip) but if you stay for a while it’s worth it.
It does rain much less here than in nearby islands (including Bali) so it’s also a great alternative in inclement weather.
8. Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
Although Sri Lanka is more expensive than most other countries in South Asia, it still remains a great value. The food is phenomenal and so are the restaurants. You can easily eat your meal right on the beach too! As is the trend in many of these beach areas, the locals are very friendly. So what’s not to love? The transportation is very, very cheap but be prepared to deal with overcrowding, heat, and moving at a snails pace. But what’s the rush? Soak in your surroundings, you’re on vacation!
To get there, fly into Colombo’s main Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) and take a train (or a bus if trains aren’t running) south in the direction of Mirissa. Note: You may prefer to take the bus only as far as Galle, and then grab a tuktuk for short trip down to Unawatuna.
9. Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Unreal photogenic scenery surrounds this wonderful area. The lodging here may take the prize of the best value in South East Asia. If you’re into outdoor activities there is great rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking. These awesome sport options only add to the overall positive vibe. Plus there are some nice beaches available to chill on.
On the other hand there are downsides to this place. The food is so-so, the ocean can be a little dirty and the weather is on the rougher side. Nightlife is not that great but if you’re there to do adventure sports and then chill out at night it will be a great fit.
It’s easy to get to Cat Ba with the frequent bus/ferry combination services running daily from Hanoi.
10. Rural North Thailand
This region is ridiculously cheap for an already inexpensive country. Both restaurants and lodging will not set you back much – so head north if you’re running low on cash. Pai, Mae Hong Son, and Soppong offer fabulous scenery; bring your camera!
Since it is so rural, Northern Thailand is way less touristy than the cities and beaches down south; a good option to escape the sometimes-maddening crowds of the peak season. Also there is far less partying here, something that can easily get overwhelming in southern Thailand… depending on what your scene is.
To explore places like Soppong, use Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai as a jumping off point. Of the two, Chiang Mai may be a better option, considering it’s status as a regional transit hub (complete with international airport).
Know of some other chill destinations in South Asia or have some additional info on the ones mentioned here? Feel free to add some comments below!