Tourism in Asia is growing at a faster pace than anywhere else on the planet, according to travel industry experts. One of the most famous backpacking routes in Southeast Asia is the Banana Pancake Trail. It isn't so much a specific path marked out on a map. This historic trail, created by scores of counterculture explorers of the 1950s and 1960s, is a network of traveler-friendly, inexpensive hostels, cafes, bars, restaurants, and guest houses in popular backpacking areas such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.
Not all backpacking experiences require sleeping in a tent in the wilderness or on a beach or trekking through jungle terrain. The definition of "backpacking" has evolved in recent years. For most people, backpacking is a flexible, less-expensive way to explore the world, and Southeast Asia offers an amazing backpacking experience. The Banana Pancake Trail has established a reputation as one of the best backpacking experiences because of the variety of places to explore along the routes. Whether you plan on a two-week trek or a 9-month adventure, backpacking allows you to create a travel plan geared for the type of experience you choose.
The Banana Pancake Trail is more of an affectionate term for the numerous businesses and hostels in the heavily backpacked areas because they serve a type of banana pancakes to travelers. These banana pancakes are a crispy, sweet version served for breakfast, but not the same style of pancakes Americans are familiar with. The cook drops the pancake dough into the oil, then tops it with sliced bananas. They will then fold each of the four sides of the pancake dough, one side at a time, enclosing the banana slices in a pocket. As the outside becomes crispy, the bananas melt on the inside, creating a sticky-but-delicious treat.
For those who are venturing out on an extended backpacking trip for the first time, the Banana Pancake Trail is an excellent beginner's experience. The cities along the trail are generally safe. Most of the locals in the areas along the trail speak English, to some degree. There's no doubt you'll run into other backpackers from all over the world in different locations along the way. You'll meet lots of people throughout your travels. You'll say your goodbyes and part ways, then run into them again in one of the other major stops down the trail.
Many backpackers choose to start the trail by flying into Bangkok, Thailand. From the airport, head to the famous Khao San Road and you'll find loads of low-cost guesthouses and hotels, in addition to market stalls, book stores, cafes, bars, and restaurants. Other travelers prefer landing in Singapore instead. Although it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, you'll find a variety of direct flights from the Americas and Europe through most of the airline carriers. Once you arrive in Singapore, you'll discover an array of affordable hotels, a selection of extraordinary food, and the fastest internet speed in the world.
Many backpackers prefer the city of Chiang Mai over Bangkok, mostly because of the misty mountains and interesting adventures. For those seeking more of a spiritual or cultural journey, you'll find opportunities here to study traditional Thai massage, cooking, and meditation practices. If it's an adventure you're seeking, try a night safari either on foot or in an open-sided tram. Feed wild animals by hand and experience the Thai wilderness by moonlight. Backpackers who plan to explore the natural areas outside of the city, set up base in Chiang Mai.
If you started in Bangkok, make plans to travel to nearby Cambodia to see a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap. It's a cheap one-hour flight from Thailand. The ancient, 12th-century site is famous for its lotus-blossom towers, Buddha images, and its apsara statues representing the female spirit of the clouds and water in Buddhist and Hindu culture. The city of Siem Reap is a hidden gem along the trail, offering friendly locals, inexpensive lodgings, and inspirational food experiences.
After exploring the temples, you can catch a bus to Sihanoukville, a beachside locale known for its relaxing atmosphere and unspoiled beaches. Enjoy swimming or snorkeling or take advantage of one of the boat trips to see the many islands nearby. Due to its large size, the best way to explore Sihanoukville is to rent a motorbike. Once the sun goes down, you'll find a vibrant nightlife here with a great selection of bars to try out.
This capital city was once a French trading post, and visitors will see the connection even today. The city attracts those seeking a quiet place to spend a holiday or an inexpensive day at the spa. Backpackers can explore the city on foot, on a bicycle, or by tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw that you can usually rent from one of the many guest houses here. Visit the Pha That Luang, a sacred monument dating back to the 3rd century. If you want to explore the local nightlife but prefer a more low-key evening, you'll find it here. There's a great selection of bars and restaurants serving everything from Lao-style BBQ to stir-fry dishes, pizza, fajitas and more.
Sitting at the junction of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, is the former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. This beautiful city has an abundance of Buddhist monasteries. Visitors will see the monks' morning processions through the streets as they collect their alms, which is their food for the day. Travelers can participate by handing out alms if they follow a few rules of etiquette attached to the practice. For those that appreciate architecture, you'll love the French colonial buildings. Join in on a meditation class, create art with a local craftsman, or take a boat tour at sunset.
Recognized as the "backpacker district," this neighborhood is the place to find modestly priced lodging, delicious street food. You can also purchase a mug of the world's cheapest draft beer, bia hoi draught beer or explore the thriving art scene. Pham Ngu Lao Street is close to many of the famous landmarks in Ho Chi Minh City, some within a 15-minute walk. To the northeast, you'll see the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the War Remnants Museum. The area is relatively safe, but the more experienced travelers suggest using caution when venturing out after dark due to harassment from those seeking to earn a quick buck from tourists.
Home to the highest mountain in Vietnam, Mount Fansipan, Sapa is a popular destination for Banana Pancake Trail hikers, trekkers, and those who wish to experience the breathtaking mountain views. From Hanoi, it is a six-hour bus ride. You can also reach Sapa aboard an overnight train. Five of Vietnam's most famous ethnic tribes live here, so it is also a revered stop for travelers seeking a traditional Vietnamese cultural encounter. If you're on a budget, try one of the homestay lodging options with a variety of amenities available, from very basic accommodations to more upscale options.
This metropolitan city, just a couple of hours from Singapore, offers a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures. People who live here are from all over the world, creating a unique and distinctive vibe throughout Kuala Lumpur. The best way to get around the city is on foot or by monorail. There are taxis available, but they aren't worth the hassle. If you're a foodie--or if you're just hungry--stroll over to the Jalan Alor neighborhood to sample the sensational varieties of street food. Bollywood fans will love the Little India neighborhood, also known as the Brickyards. You'll catch the smell of curry wafting through the air as you walk down its main road, Jalan Tun Sambanthan.