Ten hot backpacker destinations

Though the backpacker scene feels more hipster than hippie these days, the same formula remains: young travelers plus a small budget plus a long trip. While individuals certainly differ, the stereotype of a budget traveler toting a bedraggled pack to cheap destinations is there for a reason.

So where are the kids congregating these days? Here are our top ten backpacker locations (in no particular order):

Thailand A long-time favorite, Thailand’s low costs, relative ease of travel, and scenic beaches are obvious draws. Add to those hill tribes, jungle and elephant trekking, and some awesome grub, and you have a nearly perfect combination – which is probably why the country also hosts a number of expats.

Amsterdam Need we say anything more? Laws are loose, and for those American kids who never had the chance to experiment, the freedom is heavenly. Oh, and there are sex shows.

Guatemala Travelers learning Spanish flock to Antigua, where language schools and home stays are offered in the picturesque colonial town. Jungles, volcanoes, lakes and Mayan ruins round out the offerings.

Goa “Buddha Lounge” music drifts across Palolem Beach, an impossibly cheap swoop of sand on India’s west coast. It’s easy to drop out for a while here, renting out some small, rickety beach hut and bobbing around in the warm sea.
Nepal “Backpacking” takes on a literal meaning (as does “getting high”) when you’re trekking across the Himalayas. Long on the backpacker circuit, Nepal’s appeal is in cheap prices and natural wonders.

Bali An Indonesian island of volcanoes, jungle, beaches and, thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert, 30-something divorcees…. The backpacker hotspot here is Ubud, a smallish town in the center of the island that is a center for dance, music, and arts.

Australia Though Australia seems to churn out backpackers like Orcs from Mordor, the country itself is a sweet spot for extended travels. Big enough to explore for years, wild enough to satiate nature lovers, and warm enough for beach and surf fanatics, Australia has a broad-range appeal. Plus, the language and the culture are familiar, making it a nice introduction to travel for newbies.

Argentina Good wine, and Italian influence, a vibrant capital city, and budget prices: what’s not to appeal to a backpacker? Whether it’s club-hopping in Buenos Aires or working on an organic farm in the countryside, this South American country appeals to a spectrum of budget travelers.

New Zealand Another country that nails it all: great surfing and countless other outdoor activities, friendly folks, and the Flight of the Conchords.

Greek Islands A haven of sun, sand, and souvlaki, the Greek Islands have always been a favorite. There’s ritzy Santorini, mountainous Crete, party-time Ios, and dozens more. Take an overnight ferry, make some new friends, and party your holiday away.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Rene Ehrhartdt]

10 Things to do in Bali

Located just south of the equator, Bali bombards you with beauty, beaches, and culture. The entire experience feels at once effortless and nonpareil – the apex of tropical living. Sure, the beaches provide a gravity that draws travelers from all over the globe to this tiny Indonesian Island, but the culture brings them back. The lure is as persistent and persuasive as a boiler room hustler. There’s a saying that God lives in the Himalayas. I have a feeling he vacations in Bali.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Bali. The easiest way to get to Bali is through Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta. From any of these locations, it’s simple to hop on a direct flight to Bali’s airport in Denpasar. The cheapest international flights to Bali are from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on Airasia or Jetstar. It’s possible to fly from the United States to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur for under $1000 round trip, and onward to Bali for around $100 round trip. This is the cheapest way to get to Bali.

So what do you do when you’ve actually reached this pristine place? Read on…

Bicycle around Ubud

The streets of Ubud teem with culture. A great way to see the town, surrounding artistic villages, and working rice paddies is on bicycle. Start at Monkey Forest and visit with the infamous residents — crab-eating macaques. Mid-day, head over to Goa Gajah, one of Bali’s most unique holy places. To end your day, ride to the village of Petulu. A massive nightly Heron migration is said to be the manifestation of spirits felled in a communist cleansing back in the 1960s. The birds began showing up exactly one week after an especially brutal massacre and have roosted in Petulu every night since. The scene is holy.

No trip to Bali is complete without a stay in Ubud. Some of my favorite Ubud guest-houses are Tegal Sari, Tepi Sawah, and Greenfields. Book early and get a view overlooking the rice paddies. Some great bike tour companies are Bike Baik and Banyan Tree, but setting off on your own trip of discovery is much more exhilarating.

%Gallery-100701%Learn to Surf in Kuta

If the heart of Bali’s culture beats in Ubud, then its hard charging Bintang gripping extremities flail about in Kuta. The scene is all here: bikinis on the beach, clubs that go all night, expat bars, hip travel cognoscenti, and intoxicated Australian high fivers. Depending on the experience you expect to derive from travel, Kuta will either be a place to remember or a place to forget. Perhaps, even a place to remember forgetting. Either way, Kuta does surf lessons brilliantly. Since the Kuta wave breaks over sand rather than coral, new riders do not exit the water grasping for gauze. This provides a perfect arrangement for wide-eyed noobs to pick up the surf game. After a day spent learning your way around a barrel, quench your thirst with fresh fruit drinks and a sunset at KuDeTa.

There’s a saying that God lives in the Himalayas. I have a feeling he vacations in Bali.

Kuta Beach is a quick ride from the airport and full of cheap accommodations. Some great surfing schools are Odyssey and Rip Curl School of Surf, though hiring a local guide will likely be cheaper. If you possess some serious skills check out the legendary Ulu Watu break. KuDeTa is a seaside bar and restaurant that draws huge crowds. Get there early to secure a spot for sunset.

Sunset at Tanah Lot

The sea-draped temple of Tanah Lot rises out of the surf like a hazy dream along Bali’s southwest coast. Beneath the waves that crash along the dark temple walls, a pride of banded sea kraits patrol the waters. The snakes guard the temple from evil spirits and harm. (Or so I’ve been told.) Tanah Lot is many things: magical, stunning, unlikely, romantic, and strange. It has a plucked from a dream aesthetic that allows you to believe the lore and have fun with it. A local told me about those sea kraits, and I believed him because the place looks so unreal. It seems to exist on dreamlike terms. Catching it at sunset frames the temple at its most beautiful and surreal.

On a map, Tanah Lot seems close to much of south Bali. Due to the layout of the roads, however, it takes quite a while to get there. It is best to hire a driver. Enjoy the sunset from the beach at low tide or up on the cliffs at a cafe. The nearby markets are a great place to grab some touristy trinkets and cheap art. I once bought 5 Balinese paintings for $27. If you enjoy golfing, then the nearby Nirwana Resort has the best links course in Bali.

Kecak Dance in Ulu Watu

In the 1930’s, a German artist taught the Balinese a peculiar performance called the Kecak. The dance has no instruments, just vocal chords, about 100 of them. They chant generously and costumed performers dance and act out the Ramayana. While the 20th century German impetus may sound slightly inauthentic, you will hardly care about details as the sun slowly sets beyond the cliffs of Ulu Watu and you get lost in the chant. There is also lots of fire.

The show begins at 6:00pm nightly. Hire a taxi to drop you off at Ulu Watu temple. Once there, follow the crowds to the performance area. It is perched on the cliffs at the southernmost tip of Bali. Your driver will undoubtedly offer to take you to a Jimbaran seafood dinner after the show. Decline this service. It is an expensive tourist trap.

Snorkeling around Menjangan Island

Menjangan Island in the far west is a long trip from almost anywhere in Bali. The remote location augments the pristine experience by discouraging crowds. Much of West Bali is sparsely populated parkland, so it is a departure from the bustling south. In Menjangan, hire a boatman to take you out to the reefs for the day, and prepare to get your mind blown. Snorkeling does not get better than this. The bright reefs and strange fish will tattoo a smile upon your face. At the end of the day, shack up on the beach in nearby Pemuteran. It is wise to stay a night, or three. If you have time, then take a trip into Taman Nasional Bali Barat to view some Balinese flora and fauna.

The drive is over 3 hours from south Bali, so a day trip is way too cumbersome. A great way to experience Menjangan is too stay in nearby Pemuteran for a few nights. The Amertha in Pemuteran grazes perfection. Its secluded location framed by towering mountains and gorgeous villas with private pools is well worth the modest splurge. The amazing house reef full of critters just meters offshore will almost talk you out of visiting Menjangan. Don’t let it.

Road Trip to Lake Bratan

With taxi rates substantially lower than Western standards, it is cheap and easy to hire a driver for a good old-fashioned chauffeured road trip: $50 for an entire day is about average. One of my favorite paths begins in the southern part of Bali and snakes up through the lush highlands ending at the otherworldly Lake Bratan. It takes about 2 hours. The lake is home to the unbelievably photogenic cover-girl temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. The mist hangs low, the air is much cooler, and it all feels so right. This is an enlightened place.

Arrange a driver for the day through your guest-house or hotel, or use my favorite driver, the extremely jovial Made Dana (081338719877).

Climbing Mount Batur

The volcanic Mount Batur and surrounding lake provide a proper setting for a gorgeous clamber to the summit. The best time to climb is the morning. Most groups begin their ascent around 4am, hitting the summit at 6 to watch the sun slowly rise over the Lombok strait. Bring a jacket and be careful at the summit. Batur is an active volcano and an unfortunate tourist fell into the cauldron in early 2010.

You can arrange a trip up the mountain with your guest-house or driver. It is not too physically demanding. If you find yourself bit by the climbing bug, check out Mt. Rinjani on nearby Lombok Island. It is beast and takes several days to summit.

Eat Babi Guling at Ibu Oka in Ubud

Babi Guling, or suckling pig, has made a name for itself as Bali’s main course. Many roadside warungs serve the oinkers, but Ibu Oka has garnered some serious praise for its delectable hogs. Anthony Bourdain called it the best. We are in agreement on this point. Just go there, order a combo plate, and find a place in the crowds to hunker down and grub. It costs about 2.50 for a plate, which is a small penance for something with a “best” moniker. Wash it all down with an ice cold fruit drink.

It is hard to miss Ibu Oka in the heart of Ubud near Ubud Market. Just ask around. Be sure to arrive early for lunch; 11 am is early enough. They only prepare a few beasts each day, and once the food is gone… they shut down.

Rafting through the heart of Bali

You will get drenched, and you will love it. Rafting through the heart of Bali thrills the heart and frightens the mind. The rapids shoot you through Bali’s lush interior like a drunken torpedo. The voyage zips passed rice paddies with working farmers and kids flying kites. It feels like traveling through a privileged backstage portion of Bali, and that is a great feeling.

Bali adventure tours near Ubud can arrange your rafting adventure. Like everything else is Bali, just ask your driver or guest-house for arrangements to be made. They will be happy to phone in their commission. Banyan Tree also arranges rafting excursions.

Attend a Buffalo Race in Negara

Water Buffaloes serve many purposes throughout Southeast Asia. They are agricultural tractors, beasts of burden, milk producers, a source of food, and…racing machines. In western Bali, on Sundays, these beasts line up and drag jockeyed chariots around an oval course like cans behind a car. The brightly accessorized water buffaloes grunt around the dusty track while local spectators shout their Bahasa encouragements.

Negara is quite a haul from South Bali, and the buffalo races start very early on every other Sunday during the dry season (July to October) around 7am. To arrive on time, it is best to stay the night prior to the races. Medewi is a nearby surf town with nice accommodations. Check out Medewi Beach Cottages or Medewi Bay Retreat. Once there, it is simple to arrange a driver to the races. To determine when the races take place, ask a tour operator or driver before heading towards West Bali. Things change often in Bali, and it is best to be informed to avoid disappointment.

Justin Delaney is a Seed.com contributor. All the photos above are copyright Justin Delaney. Read his blog (and check out more of his top-notch photos) at Goboogo.

Eat, Pray, Love movie review

Elizabeth Gilbert’s personal transformation from depressed divorcee to healthy, balanced woman in love were recorded in her bestselling memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love.” The book resonated with so many people that a movie adaptation was made, with Julia Roberts playing the lead.

Filming highlighted the beauty of the locations, especially Italy and Bali. A soft focus gave a dreamlike quality, with Roberts’ golden hair glowing like a halo. India didn’t get as much glamor, though the chaos of the country, especially to a new arrival, was portrayed fairly accurately.

Though the movie definitely employed “pretty power,” it wasn’t able to really tell a story. Lost is the complexity of Gilbert’s situation and relationships. We see her in New York, telling her husband she doesn’t want to be married, but there’s no background. The pivotal moment in her story, when she first talks to God, seems out-of-place and as if it came out of nowhere.
The rest of the movie is similar. Gilbert goes searching for herself, but as viewers we’re not really sure what she’s in search of — or if she really ever finds it. Relationships don’t have the weight they should, and thus Gilbert’s journey is lost. Gone is the story of her building herself back up, learning to be alone, and eschewing romance in favor of nurturing her soul. People pop up, friendships are made, but none of it seems to make much sense. And while Roberts does a fantastic job of conveying pain, she doesn’t have the perk that led to Gilbert’s being assigned to the job of Key Hostess in her ashram in India. Thus, Gilbert’s charisma is also gone, and with it any sympathy the viewer might have had for her. When there is an emotional scene, it just tries too hard — like the awkward, pointless confession from Richard from Texas (played by Richard Jenkins).

At least it’s beautiful. And not just the scenery or the Italian food porn: Roberts is surround by a cast of sexy eye candy, including Billy Crudup, James Franco, and Javier Bardem. Unfortunately the beauty of these men in contrast with the lack of character development will only serve to amplify the dreamlike, fantastical quality of the movie; rather than focus on the work that Gilbert did on herself in order to become a more aware human being (what makes the story appealing and relatable), female fans are likely to get lost in the dream of travel and sexy men. I don’t suppose that’s the end of the world, and it is definitely what Hollywood is for, but again, the bigger message of Gilbert’s story is pretty much only conveyed in a final voice-over at the very end.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mzarzar]

Cultures of Indonesia: From Sea Gypsies to cannibals and more

Indonesia is a sprawling island nation with a rich cultural heritage. From the temples in Bali to the unique street food, it’s easy to immerse yourself in all the aspects of Indonesia. If you’ve ever wanted to know about the culture, scene and surroundings of one of the world’s most intriguing destinations, read on…

Sea Gypsies
From the Burma Banks in Myanmar to Eastern Indonesia, the Sea Gypsies stretch across an extremely vast and diverse region. These seafarers survive completely from the ocean’s bounty, hunting for fish and mollusks with only their hands and spears. They live in boats or in houses on stilts. A Swedish researcher tested the eyesight of sea gypsy children and compared the results with youngsters from Europe visiting the same geographical area. The results showed that the Europeans saw half as well underwater. Sea Gypsy children possess several eye functions that Western children simply do not, like an ability to constrict their pupils to 1.5mm in diameter. This helps them to see the tiny pearls that they later use to barter. During the fierce tsunami of 2004, their unique understanding of the ocean tipped them off to the approaching danger. They fled for higher ground several days before the waves struck, and as result, waited out the carnage safely in the hills.

The most accessible place to view Sea Gyspies is Phang Nga Bay near Phuket, Thailand. The most culturally preserved place to view the seafarers is the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar. A great Indonesian place for gypsies is in north Sulawesi. Their sea huts are common in the coastal areas, and you can ponder how little you have in common while you cruise by in a motorboat. You can fly into Manado on Silk Air from Singapore, and combine a visit to the sea gypsies with Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Full of nature’s oddities like Tarsiers and massive hornbills, Tangkoko is not to be missed. All of this can be arranged in Manado or through your guesthouse. Stay at Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort on the fringe of Tangkoko for a perfect home base to explore the region. You can arrange fishing with the locals for a few dollars.

Batak of Sumatra
Sumatra is a dense, jungled sliver of Western Indonesia home to orangutans, tigers, great waves, and the Batak tribe. While their proximity to tourist-heavy Lake Toba has left them open to the influence of modernity, many of their customs and rituals remain intact. In the age of discovery, many explorers visited Sumatra and observed a strange phenomenon among the Batak people — cannibalism. They seemed to have a serious taste for human flesh. Due to the influence of Islam and Christianity, this part of their culture died out around the turn of the 20th century. Rest assured, if you go to view their unique customs and sublime tropical architecture, you will not end up in some kind of elaborate jungle stew.

Flying into Medan and taking a bus to Lake Toba is the ideal plan for checking out the Batak tribes. Medan can be reached by Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world, is home to several Batak villages. You can take a boat ride to gorgeous Samosir Island in the middle of the lake to check out the Batak. Arrangements can be made with a local guide or through a prepackaged tour in Medan.

Baliem Valley Tribes of West Papua
Getting to the The Baliem Valley in West Papua involves iffy connections and white-knuckled flights. For those who brave the ride though, cultural treasures await. More languages exist than swimming pools in West Papua, which is a fine ratio for the intrepid. Aside from an occasional Nike-capped native reminding you of consumerism’s astonishing imperial reach, the preservation of Stone Age culture remains intact. Discovered by the West in the 1930s, Baliem hosts several tribes like the Dani. They wear bird of paradise headdresses, gauge success in terms of pigs slaughtered, and are famous headhunters.

To arrange a trip into the Baliem Valley, Jakarta is a great starting point serviced by numerous international cities. From there, book a flight on Indonesia’s safest domestic airline, Garuda, to Jayapura in West Papua. In Jayapura, you need to obtain a permit (easy and cheap) to visit the interior of the island. Since no roads lead into the valley, you must again fly, this time to Wamena. Wamena is the jumping off point for treks into the valley and hiring a guide is a necessity. It is possible to volunteer with local mission groups to reach the villages, but this can be difficult to arrange in advance.

Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi
More accessible than West Papua, Tana Toraja in the misty central highlands of Sulawesi also offers a portal into the past. Aside from rich indigenous customs, architecture — and allegedly the best coffee in the world — the main draw is the epic funeral ceremony. Like the tribal equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the ceremony includes elaborate dances, buffalo fights, chanting through the streets, and a full buffet of animal slaughter. All of this goes on for one week. Some families take years to raise the funds for the funeral procession, with the body presumably just standing by for his or her big day.

The cheapest way to fly into Sulawesi is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Makassar (Ujung Padang). From Makassar, arrange a driver or take a bus to Torajaland. The ride through dense rain forest will take about 8 hours. Cost is around $10 for a bus and close to $100 for a private taxi. Best time to visit is in the late summer and early fall, which is funeral season.

Hindus of Bali
Bali has a reputation for being an idyllic beach paradise, but the real draw is its exceedingly rich and pervasive culture. Reminders of the Hindu faith enrich the Balinese experience in such a ubiquitous manner that you feel part of something divine throughout your visit. Little offering trays top nearly every surface — even mopeds. Every village has a village temple and every home has its own small home temple. Unlike many places in the world, where the contemporary use of historic sites serves the tourist function more than their original intention, famous temples in Bali still play a significant role in daily religious life. As a result, you are part of an experience more than an exercise in aesthetic appreciation. It is not uncommon to stumble upon a traditional dance or funeral procession while passing through the open corridors of rich Balinese history.

Bali is the most accessible island in Indonesia, and the cheapest way to get there is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. It is possible to get the flight for around $100 roundtrip. Ubud in central Bali provides a great base of operations for cultural endeavors. My favorite places to stay in Ubud are Tegal Sari, Greenfields, and Tepi Sawah. Be sure to book early and get a rice paddy view. For a great show, check out the Kecak dance near Ulu Watu temple. The performance is based on the Ramayana and takes place just as the sun sets beyond the cliffs of south Bali.

Dayak Tribes of Borneo
The Dayak tribes of Borneo live in unique community longhouses in the interior of maybe the wildest island on the planet. They hunt animals by blow dart, practice shamanism, and were once feared headhunters. Their headhunting practice resurfaced briefly in the early 21st century, during an unfortunate ethnic war with the Madurese from northeastern Java. Unlike most bros on Spring Break, the Datak have spiritual meaning behind their tribal tattoos. Many youth commemorate their first hunting kill with a tattoo, and animal tattoos are routinely used to draw power from the represented animal spirit. Today, Christianity or Islam has replaced much of their animist heritage, a theme common in Indonesia.

It is possible to visit The Dayak in both Indonesian (South) and Malaysian (North) Borneo. For the wildest experience, fly to Balikpapan in Indonesia, which is serviced from Jakarta on Garuda. Arrange a river cruise down the Mahakam River with a local guide agency to view Datak river life. You can also plan a multi-day package tour if you really want to go deep into the jungle of Borneo.

Seed contributor Justin Delaney prefers to live out of his backpack, and has taken more than 30 flights in the last 2 months. Check out his adventures at Goboogo.