Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand. Images courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, used with permission.
There’s no shame in visiting Southeast Asia on a budget. The region’s major cities welcome budget travelers with open arms, by providing backpacker districts lined with hostels, diners, and shops selling traveler necessities. Many of them give travelers their first look at the local culture, too, from cultural shows to restaurants hawking affordable local food.
Let’s start with the mother of all backpacker districts in Southeast Asia, located in Thailand. Bangkok’s Khao San Road crams an amazing amount of traveler-friendly services down its 1-kilometre stretch. If a backpacker wants it, Khao San has it: a wide range of budget accommodations; an endless selection of restaurants and bars offering international food and drinks; an army of food trucks offering Pad Thai and other Thai street dishes; money exchange counters; and tour operators preparing packages to elsewhere in Thailand and neighboring countries.
With its convenient location, travelers staying on Khao San Road can easily get around the old town on foot or bicycle, visiting Bangkok’s cultural landmarks like the Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Pho, the City Pillar Shrine, the National Museum and the National Gallery.
In Viet Nam, Ho Chi Minh City‘s backpacker district can be found around Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien and De Tham streets in District 1, with innumerable nameless alleys radiating away from these streets.
The shops and restaurants along the main thoroughfares have plenty of energy, but it’s in the alleyways where you’ll find the backpacker district’s soul: locals still live in these clean, well-lit passageways, their windows opening right out to the street so you might see them eating dinner in front of the TV just as you pass by!
Pham Ngu Lao’s shops sell everything travelers need: budget bookstores selling copies of Lonely Planet; surplus luggage shops hawking affordable branded backpacks; tour companies offering affordable travel packages; bars delivering cold beers to thirsty patrons; and comfy beds in the district’s many budget hotels.
Corner of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien Streets, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Image © Mike Aquino, used with permission.
Siem Reap has become Cambodia’s hottest backpacker destination by far (no small thanks to its proximity to the Angkor temples). The Old Market Area is its party and shopping epicenter: from the Old Market, you can walk a few minutes down to Pub Street and the Night Market. Finding Pub Street after dark isn’t so hard – just walk in the direction of the flashy neon lights!
The bars down Pub Street cater to all sorts: from hard-drinking friends looking to quaff a cold brew or three to romantic couples looking for a quiet date night. Across the road from Pub Street, the Night Market keeps odd hours for visiting shoppers, hawking everything from roast spiders to silks to packets of pepper from Kampot.
The town of New Bagan in Myanmar is a recent invention; the residents of “old” Bagan were moved here after large parts of Bagan were declared as part of an archaeological zone. The residents of New Bagan have found a silver lining to the situation by making a living out of catering to the torrents of tourists who visit Bagan to see the temples.
New Bagan is the most sedate locale on this list, but don’t count it out just yet. From this writer’s bunk bed at Ostello Bello Bagan, plenty of shops, restaurants and money changers were immediately within reach. Nearby Nyaung-U’s hostels may be cheaper, but New Bagan’s digs offer better proximity to the Bagan Archaeological Zone’s temples at still-reasonable prices.