The beaches of Thailand, the rice paddies of Vietnam, the islands of the Philippines - and let's not forget about India! If you're traveling on a budget, Asia couldn't have more appealing options. It's just a matter of choosing an itinerary....
If you want to be in the center of the action (and crowds), Southeast Asia can't be beat. But if you're looking to get off the beaten path and explore a totally foreign region with stunning scenery, welcoming locals, and a plethora of outdoor activities, you might consider a different part of Asia: Central Asia. Central Asia isn't on most travelers' radars, but that's part of what makes it such an amazing secret. Oh yeah, and you can get by on mere dollars a day.
With gorgeous mountains, alpine lakes, and even a large walnut forest, Kyrgyzstan is the perfect place for an outdoor adventure, whether that be a day of swimming at one of the many lakes, climbing a high peak, or an overnight horse trek. Spend the night with local sheep herders and you'll feel like you've landed in a whole new world. But Kyrgyzstan isn't all about nature and wilderness. For a taste of nightlife, visit the capital, Bishkek. Here you can also see the country's old Soviet architecture and talk with locals about the many changes the country is experiencing. Osh, near the Uzbek border, is a great place to check out Kyrgyzstan's outdoor markets. Knowing some basic Russian will definitely be helpful, but most young people, especially in Osh and Bishkek, speak English.
Top spots: Visit Lake Issyk-kul for the beaches (you can even stay in a yurt camp in Tosor). Do an overnight horse trek in Kochkor or go even farther off the beaten path up to Son Kul, where you can enjoy scenic landscapes alone with your horse, some sheep, and a few yurts. For a relaxing break from the adventure, head to Arslanbob and enjoy the tranquility of the walnut forest.
Famous for the Pamir Highway, which is the second highest highway in the world, Tajikistan is a dream destination for nature lovers and one of the most scenic. The people in Tajikistan are incredibly welcoming and there's a strong camaraderie amongst travelers there - don't be surprised to see the same people at each of your guesthouses - the backpacking world is small in Central Asia! If you do somehow tire of the outdoors, head to the capital Dushanbe for a dose of city life and one of the friendliest cities in the region.
Top spots: The Pamir Highway is a must for anyone looking for an exotic adventure. You'll find yourself struggling to breathe on the higher passes that reach over 15,000 feet - both from the thin air and the breathtaking views. Spend a few nights in Khorog, a charming town nestled at the foot of the Wakhan Valley, which itself is worth a visit for its dramatic views. And don't be surprised by the high level of English in Khorog. With a large population of Ismaili Muslims, the town gets funding from Aga Khan, the bulk of which is used on education.
Kazakhstan is enormous and you could easily spend months exploring here. So big, in fact, Kazakhstan has over twice as much land as all the other Central Asian countries combined. It's also the richest of the Central Asian nations, and its wide open landscape and Soviet past give it a bit of a mysterious feel.
Top spots: Near the Kyrgyz border, Almaty is a favorite for travelers. Kazakhstan's largest city, the area is bustling with markets, hip cafes and bars. But it's also worth getting outside the city and into the surrounding mountains. You can travel farther up into the Altai Mountains by the Mongolian border, which is an area strongly influenced by their culture. And if you want a truly bizarre experience, head to Kazakhstan's capital Astana. The city is sparkling new and unlike any other city you've seen. Really.
If you're into Silk Road history, or just history or architecture in general, Uzbekistan is the place to go. It's a bit more expensive then Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (though still very budget-friendly), and you'll definitely see a good number of tour groups here. In fact, you'll notice that most of the stops on your Uzbekistan itinerary are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which won't come as any surprise once you see how majestic they are!
Top spots: For Silk Road architecture you'll want to head to Samarkand and Bukhara, and if you have time, take the journey 300 miles west out of Bukhara to Khiva, which is often referred to as a real-life Agraba (from Aladdin). If you're a meat eater be sure to stop in one of the many traditional plov restaurants for a delicious and very Uzbek meal of lamb and rice pilaf.
How to Do It
Most Central Asian adventures begin or end in Kashgar, China (the westernmost city in the country). A fascinating place in it's own right, Kashgar was also a stop on the Silk Road, and the epicenter of trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia. You can get to Kashgar by flight or local bus.