Back in the days, traveling was a luxury. A stamp on a passport was seen as a badge reserved for the well-heeled, retirees, and those who can afford to take time off from their 9-to-5 grind. But thanks to the recent surge of low-cost airlines and seat sales, travel fairs and deal sites, plus charming homestays and budget hotels, traveling has become so much easier.
Ready for your next adventure? That's where the Banana Pancake Trail comes in. Wittingly named after the simple, sweet, and affordable breakfast staple of backpackers, this preeminent backpacking route inspires travelers from different continents to wander through Southeast Asia on a shoestring—after all, it is where commuting is relatively cheap and easy, culture is diverse, locals are friendly, cuisine is eclectic, and views are unlike any other in the world. Simply put, you can cover more fascinating places while spending less!
Go on your sweetest escape across Southeast Asia with this handy guide that includes stay lengths, unmissable stops, and the most a-peel-ing activities available along the Banana Pancake trail.
With lush jungles, tropical beaches, delicious fare, crazy parties, and super affordable lodging, Thailand is a great jumping-off point. Famed as the heart of the trail, Khao San Road in Bangkok is the place to meet fellow travelers who are likewise there for the incredibly cheap bites and booze. In Chiang Mai, you can go see the 300+ temples including Wat Doi Suthep; shop jewelry, instruments, souvenirs, and fruit wine at the huge Weekend Market downtown; learn the art of Thai massage; and have an ethical elephant encounter at the Hand-2-Trunk, a sanctuary for rescued gentle giants—the national symbol of Thailand.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 4 to 10 Days
Despite still grappling with the brutal effects of the from Khmer Rouge regime which claimed over 2 million lives in the 1970s, Cambodia is home to some of the kindest and most resilient humans in the world. Getting lost in its energetic cities, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, is more of a blessing especially when you’re exploring on wheels. Many people—as you should—visit to lay their eyes on the Angkor Wat, snorkel over glowing planktons in Koh Rong, and care for the free-roaming elephants at Mondulkiri Project. Globetrotting foodies must stop by the coastal town of Sihanoukville, sprinkled with restaurants focusing on seafood, vegan dishes, and specialty cuisines like Mediterranean, Italian, French, and Khmer.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 3 to 4 Days
In this landlocked kingdom, everything seems unhurried. Ditch the whirlwind itinerary to uncover the layers of flavors, traditions, local life, and coffee culture that thrives in Laos. Take a step back in time as you traverse the French cafés and night markets, as well as the architectural sights and otherworldly jungles of Luang Prabang. Enjoy refreshing drinks with scenic views at a party in Vang Vieng. Take a dip in the many cascading natural pools like Kuang Si Waterfall. Or, cocoon yourself in the world’s highest treehouse with a Gibbon Experience for an out-of-this-world getaway. At the end of each day, you'll find yourself wanting to see more and stay a little longer.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 7 to 14 Days
If spelunking inside the world’s biggest cave, exploring multiple UNESCO heritage sites and antiquated towns, and mountain trekking are right up your alley, then Vietnam will be one of the highlights of your trip. Navigate the historic Cu Chi Tunnels that served their purpose during the Vietnam War in 1954, cruise along Halong Bay to see the country’s mountainous limestone rocks, watch shows that celebrate the ancient art of Water Puppetry, and support the talented tailors in Hoi An by having a silk suit custom made for you. While you're exploring the city, knock yourself out with daily servings of bánh mì, pho, and Viet iced coffee that are fortunately cheap as chips!
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 5 to 8 Days
Locals will agree that Malaysia’s multifaceted beauty goes beyond the Petronas Twin Towers or Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur and the luxury resorts off the coast of Penang. Trek the verdant slopes of Cameron Highlands to visit the fruit farms or tour the tea and coffee plantations. Those who have a penchant for history and art can fancy themselves with a culture trip to the museums, galleries, and historical sites in Malacca. Adventure junkies can spend a day or two ziplining, mountain climbing, white water rafting, and tandem paragliding in Borneo, an island shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Diversity here is best represented through its cuisine, so don’t leave without sampling authentic street food dishes like satay, lok-lok, and its cultural icon, nasi lemak.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 4 to 14 Days
Living by the motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (which means unity in diversity), Indonesia is a potpourri of unique cultures and astonishing landscapes that reaps a lot of love from tourists. Bali alone draws in flocks of high-spirited millennials with its pretty beaches, chilled-out pubs, surf towns, diving spots, and towering cliffs with spellbinding views—although the less crowded but equally beautiful Gili Islands might appeal more to introverted vagabonds. Hailed as the Emerald of the Equator, Indonesia is also where wildlife's greatest treasures are hidden, like the last remaining dragons at Komodo National Park and the orangutans in the Sumatra Jungle. Climbing the epic volcano of Mt. Bromo in Java is definitely one for the books, but joining a yoga retreat in Ubud or Kuta may be just as rewarding to those on a soulful sojourn.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 4 to 10 Days
While enumerating each of the Philippines’ 7,000+ islands may sound like a Guinness World Records entry, Boracay, Palawan, and Siargao certainly ring a bell to anyone who's on the hunt for the world’s best islands. Witness the limestone cliffs, naked beaches, and hidden lagoons of El Nido and Coron on an expedition. Settle in one of the stations of Boracay to marvel at romantic sunsets from its soft white-sand shores. Or, brave the waves in any of the surfing spots in Siargao. If you’d like to experience the best of both worlds—laid-back beaches and bustling city life—Cebu is a great option, too, considering the religious sites, historic museums, and open food markets you can pop into without blowing your backpacker budget.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 4 Days per Island
If you don’t mind loud, busy streets, frequent dry days, and a culture immensely different from ours, India is more than ready for you. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, this exotic locale offers a rollercoaster of experience—from snowcapped peaks and vast deserts, big urban cities and little historic towns, and rich curry delicacies and colorful festivals (including a color festival). Although it’s much safer to travel here with a group, the beauty of Taj Mahal in Agra, desert adventures of Rajasthan, beaches and parties in Goa, and spiritual retreats in Varanasi are just some of the reasons to bump India to the top of your bucket list. For a spiritual journey, trek through the hills of McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 5 to 14 Days
Simultaneously one of the oldest civilizations and a rapidly developing country, China offers a beguiling mix of tradition and new technology. They say first-time visitors can't go here without climbing the Great Wall, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but indie travelers have also discovered the joy in hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, catching a glimpse of the Three Pagodas of Dali in Yunnan, and meandering the ancient towns of Lijang. If you’re visiting in the winter months, don’t miss out on the Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, China’s so-called ice city. Artists from all over the globe come to create massive snow sculptures and ice castles and dress them up with neon lights that make quite the psychedelic experience.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 4 Days per City
If you're done with the city sights and prefer to get slightly off the beaten track, the near-fairytale land of Nepal is a worthy addition to the trail. Be lured by the Himalayan peaks, rare wildlife, medieval cities, sacred spaces, and ancient traditions that were kept secret from the world until the 1950s. Hidden in the "Roof of Asia" is the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, but Poon Hill gets traction, too, for the glorious views of Mt. Dhaulagiri, Tukuche Peak, Nilgiri, the Annapurna massif, Machhapuchhare, and Lamjung Himal that await the ambitious trekker. Exploring the old temples and squares in Kathmandu Valley, spotting the casually-striding rhinos in Chitwan National Park, and catching the sunset at Pokhara Lake are great starters for an epic trip—the rest is up to you.
IDEAL LENGTH OF STAY: 7 to 14 Days
While legend says that Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are the well-trodden stops of the trail, the route continues to expand as veteran backpackers search far and wide for more authentic and enriching cultural experiences. Where do you see them—or yourself—heading next?
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