Backpacking Route for New Zealand

asia/oceania routes


New Zealand Backpacking Route

by Kayla Kurin

Our New Zealand travel itinerary starts in Christchurch and loops around the South Island for wildlife, camping, glaciers, and activities for adventure junkies. The route then crosses to the North Island for immersive indigenous culture, unique natural hot-spots, and, of course, filming locations from the Lord of the Rings films.


TIME NEEDED – 5 weeks


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1500 | €1700 | US$2000 | 3000 New Zealand Dollars

US$60/day is certainly doable in New Zealand but these figures are fairly rough and depend greatly on how you travel and what kind of trip you want. Hostels are reasonably good value with prices tending to range from US$10-20/night. Renting a car may cost roughly US$150/week + gas so obviously the trip will become more affordable if you’re travelling with other people. Many of the highlights on this route are natural ones and are generally free but if you plan on doing lots of extra trips/tours/activities, you could end up spending more.

This budget doesn’t include the cost of getting to/from New Zealand or any other pre-trip expenses. It is loosely based on November 2017 exchange rates. Read our more detailed Backpacking Budget for New Zealand which includes more typical travel costs in the country.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR COUNTRY

New Zealand has pretty relaxed entry requirements and citizens of visa-waiver countries are eligible to stay for up to 3 months without a visa (6 months if you are British). Working holiday visas are also quite popular and relatively easy to obtain for those aged 18-30 and will allow you to stay for up to a year.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

Travel insurance is advisable. Australian company World Nomads are one option for adventurous trips in this part of the world.


NEW ZEALAND BACKPACKER TOURS

Stray Travel are a Kiwi company that have a number of options for exploring the country with other travellers if you’re not keen on going it alone. They also have hop-on, hop-off bus passes if you’re reluctant to travel by car/public transport but this route is based on travelling independently.


Backpacking route for New Zealand

New Zealand is easy to get around and is set up for backpackers, so you’ll have no problem finding places to camp or hostels to chill out in. Our recommended mode of transportation is by car. While getting around on public transit is possible, you’ll have less flexibility and miss out on that undiscovered lookout point when you stop for lunch. The roads in New Zealand are generally well- maintained and highways connect most of the spots on our itinerary.

This route summarises a typical path travellers in the country take and you could easily do it in reverse, depending on where you want to fly out of.


Christchurch

(2-3 days)

Take a day to get settled – you’ve probably had a long flight in. The next morning take a stroll to the Re: Start Mall – a mall made of shipping containers that was built after the earthquake in 2011. After stocking up on snacks and local crafts, take a stroll through the botanic gardens, and finish off the day with a beer in a container bar like the Retro-Politan.

If you’d like to spend a third day here, hop in your rental car to Akaroa for a day trip and charming seaside town.


Oamaru

(1 day)

The main reason to visit Oamaru is to see the yellow-eyed penguins. They don’t come out until sunset, so it’s worth it to stay the night. If you have time before sunset, check out the ‘Steampunk HQ’ in the centre of town.


Dunedin

Backpacking in New Zealand

(2 days)

Fur seals, sea lions, and more penguins can be found on the beach in Dunedin along one of the many coastal walking trails. Chocolate lovers can enjoy a visit to the Cadbury factory, and history buffs will have time to explore the many museums in Dunedin. This is also one of the few locations you can see the Southern Lights, or, Aurora Australis!


Queenstown

(3-6 days)

On the way to Queenstown, be sure to stop off at Slope Point, the Southernmost point of the South Island. You’re now closer to the South Pole than to the Equator!

In the winter season, you can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, or bungy jumping. In the summer, you’ll find hiking trails, white water rafting, skydiving, zip-trekking, or dirt biking. For those not into heart-stopping activities, you can spend a few days ambling around town, enjoying hot chocolate, taking in the scenery, and partying.


Milford Sound

Milford Sound New Zealand

(1 day)

Best done as a day trip from Queenstown, unless you want to hike the Milford Track (3-4 days). The best way to see the sound is to hop on one of the many boat tours. Don’t forget the windbreaker.


Franz Joseph Glacier

(1 day)

Join a glacier hiking tour, or just enjoy the views from the ground. The Franz Joseph glacier is the best glacier park in New Zealand and offers a unique backdrop for your road trip!


Arthur’s pass

(1-2 day)

To make your way back to to the east coast, follow the road north and then cross the country through Arthur’s Pass. Enjoy the scenic views while driving through, or spend a few days camping and hiking in the area. There are hostels and campgrounds available in various parts of the pass.


Kaikoura

Backpacking in New Zealand

(1 day)

A nice place to stop on the way to the North Island. Here you’ll find a colony of baby seals and wildlife lazing on the beach.


Picton & Abel Tasman National Park

(2-3 days)

This seaside town is best known for its ferry connection to Wellington, but don’t miss the chance to spend a couple days here and enjoy the kayaking trails around Picton and Abel Tasman National Park. You can do one-day kayak trips or multi-day adventures.


Wellington

(3-10 days)

You won’t run out of things to enjoy in Wellington. First, there’s the cool cafes, restaurants, and bars that litter the winding streets of the city centre. Then, there’s the harbour where you can catch university students jumping into the ocean on a nice day. History nerds can visit the Te Papa museum to learn more about New Zealand’s history, and Zealandia, an exhibition of New Zealand’s natural history. When you’re tired of the city centre, the hills surrounding Wellington make great day hikes or mountain biking adventures. For wine lovers, the Martinborough region is a days’ drive away from Wellington, and for movie, nerds visit the WETA workshop, famous for creating the creatures in the Lord of the Rings films.


Tongariro Northern Circuit

Backpacking Route for New Zealand

(2-4 days)

Ever wanted to cross an active volcano? A volcano better known as Mount Doom? The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks and takes 2-4 days to walk (43km). Hiking huts are available to sleep in but need to be booked in advance. You can also do a through day hike (Tongariro Alpine Crossing).


Waitomo glowworm caves

(1 day)

If you’re into caves and glowy things, splurge on a boat trip through the Waitomo glowworm caves for a unique experience. After the caves, either spend the night in Waitomo, or head to Rotorua for 2 full days there.


Rotorua

(2 days)

Most people come to Rotorua for the thermal pools, but there are a few other reasons to visit. There’s a living Maori village that you can see, and many opportunities to learn more about the Maori culture and history. If all else fails, head to the volcanic hills winery.


Auckland & Around

(2-8 days)

The centre of Auckland may feel a bit dull compared to Wellington, but there is a lot to explore in the area. Stroll around the harbour, and visit some of the many galleries and gardens in Auckland. Waiheke Island is worth at least a day trip – rent some bikes and go on a self-guided wine tasting with stunning views. If you have the time, you can spend a few days on the Bay of Islands to enjoy the scenery and quiet pace of life.

If you haven’t gotten your LOTR/Hobbit fix yet, take a day trip to the Hobbiton Film Set – which is still a working farm. It’s a 2-hour drive from Auckland, which can make for a nice day trip, or you can stay overnight in the nearby town of Matamata.

Hobbiton



Extending your trip

You can extend your trip by staying longer in any of the places on this route. Adventure junkies and nature enthusiasts may wish to spend more time in Queenstown, the home of the Southern Alps, known for its hiking, skiing, bungy jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, and more. Those more interested in culture might wish to extend their stays in Wellington or the Auckland area.

You can also extend your stay in Oceania by linking this New Zealand backpacking route with our Australia route.



Author Bio

Kayla left Canada to go on a round the world trip in 2012 and hasn’t stopped traveling since! She’s visited, lived, and worked in over 40 countries and writes about her travels, social enterprise, and the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. Follow her journey on her website, twitter, and instagram.

 


This article was published in Novermber 2017.


Frugal Backpackers Guide to Eating in Siem Reap,

Budget Guide to Eating in Siem Reap

by Milda from Asian Rooms

siem reap food

Siem Reap is ideal for people travelling on a budget who want to experience a piece of the local culture. Many backpackers like to really get stuck in and try some of the more traditional places, rather than the obvious tourist spots. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia, so there are plenty of interesting places to eat scattered around the city. It is located in Northwest Cambodia and is best known for the nearby World Heritage site, the Angkor ruins (right). Many travelers come here just to see the magnificent ancient temples. However, the city has recently angkorexperienced an influx of tourists so the number of restaurants and bars is growing rapidly.

The city has a vibrant nightlife, a friendly atmosphere, fascinating sites and great food, making it perfect for frugal backpackers. The restaurants here serve a fantastic range of delicious food including Asian, Khmer, BBQ and Western food. If you are planning to visit Siem Reap on a tight budget then you will easily be able to get some tasty food at reasonable prices. Here are some of the best restaurants and cafes for frugal backpackers.

Khmer restaurants

Angkor Palm

A favourite with locals and tourists alike, Angkor Palm is located near Pub Street. Here you can experience traditional Khmer dishes and well known soups. If you want to sample a bit of everything then they serve platters with a variety of dishes such as salad, spring rolls and fish dishes. This restaurant is especially good for backpackers because they do cooking classes, giving you a chance to learn to cook Khmer style.

Butterflies

lake in siem reapThis restaurant has been around for a while so you are pretty much guaranteed a quality meal in a beautiful setting. You can dine in their garden which has 1500 Angkorean butterflies resting on 500 plants and trees. They also play relaxing music so you can enjoy your meal in peace. They have a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs and on Tuesdays at 7.30 you can watch a traditional dance in the garden. If you want to write a blog post about your experience then you can use the free wifi. It’s a good place to escape to if you need a break from the crowded city streets.

International Cuisine

Red Piano

Red Piano is a popular restaurant which serves local dishes and Asian favourites, as well as Western food. It’s located 50 metres Northwest of the Old Market. People love this restaurant because of the quality of the food and the great atmosphere. It has a distinctly local feel and the staff are very friendly. You can enjoy a few drinks after your meal when the restaurant converts into a bar around 10pm. Dishes cost between $5 and $10 and they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Chusska

Chusska is a charming vegetarian restaurant serving Indian food. The food is very fresh and authentic and they are generous with their portions. Their dishes include favourites such as the samosas, naan bread, Daal and mixed vegetable curry. You can also get set meals here if you want to try lots of things for a set price.

Street Food

street food in siem reapSome people get a bit put off by street food, but they are missing out on the true taste of Cambodia. It is only here that you can really enjoy fresh food and taste the real dishes of Siem Reap. Digging into a street food dish is an experience in itself because you get authentic food in a vibrant atmosphere.

Don’t be discouraged by the locals asking you to eat at their stall, just wander through the streets and take your time choosing somewhere to grab a bite to eat. Head to the Old Market and the stalls just off Pub street. As the evening begins lots of different stalls pop up and the streets start to come alive. You can try a range of local and international dishes such as noodles, salads, pasta, BBQ, soups and fried dishes. Enjoy some fresh market food in a lively atmosphere for low prices.

Local Restaurants

The local restaurants don’t look as glamorous as some of the more up market places, but that doesn’t mean the food is any different. In fact, the food is probably better in some of the more local restaurants.

Mr Grill

Mr Grill serves mouth watering BBQ food as well as some well known Khmer favourites. Lots of locals come here to enjoy the extensive range of Khmer dishes and relax with their friends. You can cook your food yourself if you like on their barbeque, adding something special to your dining experience. It does get quite busy here because it is a local favourite but that just adds to the atmosphere. Don’t miss this experience on your next trip to Siem Reap.

Soup Dragon

The Soup Dragon is a Khmer and Vietnamese restaurant with very reasonable prices. You can also get a few Western dishes here if you don’t fancy a local delicacy. You can do some people watching at the roadside as you enjoy your food and watch the world go by. Here you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner for excellent prices.

Cafes

There are lots of pleasant cafes in Siem Reap where you can get a fairly cheap meal. If you fancy a light bite or a sweet treat then head to one of the local cafes. Some of them serve more substantial dishes if you want a proper meal. The best cafes include Blue Pumpkin, The Art Deli, La Boulangerie and Haven. You can snack on homemade bread and ice cream, pastries, sandwiches, salads and quiches. Some of the cafes have wifi so you can surf the internet whilst you enjoy an aromatic coffee.


About the author:

mildaMilda is the Community Manager @ AsiaRooms. Born in Lithuania (love it!), studied in the UK, travelled around Asia and USA, taught in Africa and now residing in Singapore where, equipped with a strong cup of coffee and surrounded by an amazing team I’m blogging about travels, cultures, events and hotels in Asia.



 This article was published in March 2013.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.


Backpackers Guide to Cambodia: Lakeside, Phnom Penh

Cambodia: Trippy Times in Phnom Penh’s Lakeside

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside

Introducing the Craziest Place in the World?

lakeside in phnom penh

NOTE – This article is over 5 years old & the info may no longer be reliable.

The lakeside (Boeung Kak) in Phnom Penh is an area a fair walk or short tuk-tuk ride from the centre and is one of the craziest place that you will ever visit. This bizarre wasteland is home to all sorts of freaks from all over the world. The Stone Roses and Bob Marley blare out from the bars and guesthouses 24 hours a day as 80’s Madchester meets Jamaica in a psychedelic heaven even if it looks more like hell.

It’s called the Lakeside because you guessed it there is a lake and a favourite backpacker pass-time in these parts is watching the sunset from the outrageously comfy chairs in one of the guesthouses while drinking cool Angkor beer and smoking high quality marijuana. In the middle of all this sweet local kids as young as 4 or 5 wander the main street and head into the bars trying to sell knock-off books and playing games on the phones of foreigners. In short this place is weird yet strangely charming and one way or another alot of fun. It’s a great place to stay when visiting Phnom Penh although it is constantly rumoured to be getting demolished so go there while you still can.

Drugs

Whatever your opinion on the subject, drugs are a major reason why many backpackers come to Cambodia. In Phnom Penh’s Lakeside district all the guesthouses sell marijuana and it is generally fine to smoke anywhere in them, check with the reception although they will probably try to sell you a huge amount when you check in.

The bars and guesthouses in the lakeside pay a small monthly bribe to the police every month so they don’t get any hassle. $10 gets an enormous amount of weed in Cambodia, so much so that you might never want to leave. The bars all sell spliffs and at closing time things can get a little bit crazy if somebody appears with mushrooms or cocaine.

The street is full of Cambodians and Africans selling every drug you care to think of. This can be intimidating at first but these people are friendly enough but desperate for money and often meth addicts, so it is obviously riskier buying from them and occasionally the police will come in and bust one of them. Head into any of the bars or guesthouses and you will see people smoking joints.

People who spend too long in Cambodia often go a little bit bonkers so if you are someone who enjoys taking drugs, some serious self-discipline is needed to prevent this from happening. If you are that way inclined then arriving in Cambodia and the lakeside especially you may feel as though all your birthdays and Christmas’s have come at once.

Eating, Sleeping & Drinking

Happy Pizza MarijuanaA lot of the guesthouses on the banks of the lake (on the right side of the main street when coming in) double up as 24 hour bars and restaurants so you could happily spend all day on the comfy seats looking over the lake with cheap and tasty food and drink brought to you. Most of the guesthouses are pretty much the same with rooms as cheap as $2 a night, so wander into a few, they will happily show you the rooms and pick one you fancy. The Number 9 Guesthouse is highly recommended!

There’s several curry places which are great if you’ve got the munchies doing 3 dish specials for $2 or thereabouts. There’s a few cool bars with pool tables and live sports and a few ‘happy’ pizza joints (non happy pizza’s are available but when in Rome….).

 

Country Guide|Temples of Angkor Wat|Cambodian Genocide|Phnom Penh’s Lakeside


This article was published in November 2011.

Word has it that the Lakeside area has since been demolished. Please comment below if you have more up-to-date info.

Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.


 

Backpackers Guide to Cambodia: Understand the Cambodian Genocide

Cambodia: Witness the Horrors of Pol Pot

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside

NOTE – This article was published in 2011. Some info may no longer be accurate.

Background: Pol Pot & The Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge were a Communist group which rose to power in the aftermath of the Vietnam War which had a devastating effect on Cambodia, leading to some 2 million refugees and the danger of a huge famine. Led by Pol Pot many hoped the regime would lead to a fairer more peaceful era for the Khmer people. Tragically though around a quarter of the 8 million population died from execution, overwork and starvation. Ethnic minorities and those in the skilled professions such as doctors and teachers were targeted in a horrific genocide. It is impossible to underestimate the brutality and shocking nature of this 4 year episode which the world turned a blind eye to and no-one has ever been brought to justice for. The Vietnamese invaded to put an end to the regime in 1978, but this was by no means the end of the Khmer Rouge influence in the country, often supported in the 1980’s by powerful western nations.

Today while the Khmer Rouge has gone and the world is no longer turning a blind eye to what happened, the descendants of those who ruled then are still among the wealthy elite. Their are two main sites in and around the capital open to visitors relating to the genocide that took place and both will give you a detailed account of what took place here. Visiting the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Prison is a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the genocide.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng Prison Phnom PenhThis is the prison in the centre of town where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands before sending them to be slaughtered at Choeung Ek. Originally a high school, the building was turned into a prison and torture house by the Khmer Rouge after their rise to power. Various gruesome methods of torture were used to extract often fake confessions. Around 20,000 people were held here between 1975 and 1979 including many foreigners. This was also the site of many executions, before the more remote fields at Choeung Ek became the primary location for executions.

Now a genocide museum, It receives many visitors from abroad and from local schoolchildren. It contains photos of the victims, methods of torture and a detailed history of the events that took place here and across the country in the late 1970’s.Easy enough to walk to from the centre or get a moto ride for under a $1. Entry is $2, open daily 8am-5pm.

Visiting The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek

mass grave in cambodia

The killing fields of Choeung Ek is the site where 17,000 men, women and children were brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge. There have been in fact over 300 mass graves discovered, so this is just one of the many ‘killing fields’ across the country. It is now a memorial to the victims with a small museum. A Buddhist stupa contains the skulls of around 5000 victims, while you can walk around the fields where human bones are still very visible.

Cycle or ask any tuk-tuk or moto taxi driver to take you out to the Killing Fields, just outside of Phnom Penh. $5 should be enough for a return trip (they wait at the gates till you’ve finished). Entry is $2, you are expected to buy a flower to place at the foot of the white monument containing the skulls, before starting your visit. Open 7am-5:30pm, allow 1-2 hours to see it all.

It is pretty grim and some would argue that this kind of tourism is wrong, but it’s undoubtedly somewhere you need to visit to understand the horrors that took place in Cambodia. Needless to say you should behave in a respectful and dignified manner at all times while here. Take off your shoes before entering the memorial stupa.

 

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside


This article was published in June 2011.


Backpackers Guide to Cambodia: Visiting the Temples of Angkor Wat

Cambodia: Visiting the Temples of Angkor Wat

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside

The Glory Days of the Khmer Kingdom

angkor wat

NOTE – This article is over 5 years old. Some of the info may no longer be accurate, particularly in relation to the ‘Buying Tickets’ section.

Angkor was the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire which controlled almost all of South East Asia from Burma to Vietnam between the 9th & 13th centuries. It was the world’s largest civilization and is the source of immense pride to Cambodians.

The temples are spread over a large area and were re-discovered and restored in the 20th century. The main temples include Angkor Wat itself, the largest religious structure in the world. Bayon a weird ruin in the middle of Angkor Thom, with hundreds of large faces all staring at you. Also not to be missed is Ta Prohm a mysterious temple swallowed up the jungle.

These temples in their own right are fascinating but the sheer number and size of the place, makes the Temples of Angkor Wat one of the true wanders of the world. Tourist numbers are increasing but still tiny compared to other famous sites around the world which have been ruined by mass international tourism.

Getting There & Around the Temples

Inside temples of angkor watWhen planning it is important to realise that the temples of Ankor Wat are set over a vast area. The ancient city of Angkor Thom was once home to a million people (roughly the size of modern day Birmingham (UK) or Dallas, Texas hence it is not somewhere you can walk around. Indeed most of the ruins lie outside the ancient city walls.

There are two main routes, the little circuit (17km) and the big circuit (26km) follow the same course up until just past Bayon. Both take in the temples at Angkor Wat and the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The big route includes Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean and Eastern Baray. The little route goes via Ta Prohm and Ta Keo. There are also many temples and ruins that neither route takes in, some being as far as 80km from Siem Reap. There is a huge amount to see and your chosen route will depend on how many days you intend to stick around, your chosen mode of transport and your level of interest in Khmer history.

Bicycles can be rented for little more than a dollar in Siem Reap, although set out early if you want to see it all in a day, and the big circuit is around 40km in total given it starts around 8km from the centre of Siem Reap. Your bike will come with a lock so it is safe to leave by any of the temples you decide to check out. Otherwise find a moto driver in Siem Reap (it’s not hard) to transport you around the temples for the day for around $8. Add $5 or so for a moto pulled trailer tuk-tuk thing (not sure of the exact name) which is perfect for two. Elephant rides are available for $10 from the south gate of Angkor Thom to Bayon.

Buying Tickets

The official Angkor Ticket Office (5am-5:30pm) is on the main road to Angkor from Siem Reap.

1 day US$20
3 days US$40

7 days US$60

Your pass will have your photo on and you can only pay in cash, so take enough out from one of the ATM’s in Siem Reap. The pass allows you to visit any of the 80 or so temples and ruins. The Temple of Angkor Wat is manned by several staff at the front gate who you will have to show your pass to gain entry. The other temples don’t require you to show your pass to enter, however you must have it with you at all times and there is a fine if you’re caught without it.

The temples are open for visitors from 5am to 6:30pm. If cycling you may want to head back before 6ish because it gets dark quick and there are no streetlights.

Top Temples Tips

1) Get a guide (either Cambodian moto guy or guide book) to get the most out of your visit.

2) Cycling is a fun way to see the temples, watch out for the moody teenage girls who expect payment to ‘look after your bike’. We were told our bike would be broken if we ever returned because we only bought one bottle of their water.

3) You’re supposed to be out of the temple complex by dusk, but we can’t think of a better or spookier way to spend a night than camping out by one of the temples. You will probably get in some trouble if caught.

sculptures in wall temples of angkor wat4) Don’t forget to buy your pass and once you’ve got it don’t lose it. You will need it to get into the main temples and will be fined $30 if caught without it.

5) The temple of Angkor Wat may be impressive and has to be visited but is flooded with tourists and people trying to sell stuff. Visit any of the other 70+ ruins for a more peaceful real experience.

6) Unless you’re a real temple history geek a week pass is likely to be too long. Having said that 1 day is not enough to see everything and take it all in. We reckon the 3 day $40 pass is your best bet.

7) It is true that $20 goes a long way in Cambodia but seriously don’t be tempted to skip this because it is more costly than other activities you’ve taken part in during your time in Cambodia.

8) It’s normally hot and sunny in Cambodia. Drink alot of water. Sold outside the main temples but not all so bring supplies.

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside


This article was published in June 2011


Backpackers Guide to Cambodia

Backpackers Guide to Cambodia

Country Guide | Temples of Angkor Wat | Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh’s Lakeside

cambodia entry


NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old so some of the info may no longer be 100% accurate. Get more current info on Cambodia and the rest of the region in our Southeast Backpackers Guide (EBOOK).


Basic Shizzle

Population: 15 million (rough estimate)
Size: 180,000km2, bit smaller than UK, about same size as Oklahoma, USA and bit bigger than Greece.
Weather: Monsoons from May to October, dry November to April. Hot all year with temperatures varying between 30-35°C. November to January is the peak time to visit when the monsoons are over and the temperatures are at their lowest.
Law: Laws aren’t dissimilar to most countries, however the law enforcement here is very different. The cops are almost all corrupt and as a foreigner you can probably to do what the hell you like. If caught breaking the law and they actually bother to chase you down, a small bribe normally will see you on your way, bearing in mind the wages for some policemen can be as low as $20/month.
Exchange Rate: Steady at around $1:4000 Riel. In reality the US Dollar is the main currency in Cambodia and are preferred except for when paying for items under $2 or so. You will often receive change in Riel as US coins aren’t accepted. ATM’s in main towns but not in less touristy parts so take enough cash out before heading to rural areas.
Time: GMT +7 hours, same as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Religion: 95% Buddhist

Vaccinations/Health

Typhoid and Hepatitis A are recommended. If you’re staying a long time (over 3 months) in Cambodia and South East Asia you might want to look into several more vaccines such as Hepatitis B and Diphtheria so consult your local health surgery. If arriving directly from yellow fever infected countries you need a certificate of immunistation but this only applies if coming from parts of Africa or South America. Malaria is a problem in pretty much all of Cambodia so you’re going to need some malaria tablets such as mefloquine.

Getting In

cambodia child in lakeVisas required for most nationalities including British, US, EU and Australian citizens. Easy to obtain on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap Airports and valid for 1 month. Also can be obtained on arrival at Bavet (from Vietnam), Poipet and Koh Kong (from Thailand) Border Posts. Cost is $20 (and is payable in US$), slight overcharging is fairly common practice. You do NOT need a return or onward ticket.

From Bangkok:
take a bus or train to Aranya Prathet (4 hour bus 6 hour train). Take a tuk-tuk to the border post which is open 7.30am-5pm. Cross the border into Poipet and catch a share taxi to Siem Reap (2-3 hours). The whole journey should be about $10. There are direct buses from Bangkok to Siem Reap although reports exist of this been a nightmare journey, so be adventurous and go it alone. If your heading to Sihanoukville then head to Hat Lek and cross there.

From Ho Chi Minh City:
Buses go to Phnom Penh and cost 150,000 Baht ($7-8) plus $25 instead of the official $20 for sorting the Cambodian Visa out when you approach the border, which is annoying but they have been known to leave people stranded at the border who refuse to pay the extra $5. The journey is around 6 hours on a good day although border formalities can take a while so allow for more.

From Laos: Few travellers cross from Laos into Cambodia but if you fancy heading off the beaten track it’s well worth it. There’s only one crossing and it’s not an official one. The Voen Khan-Dom Kralor crossing is open 8am to 5pm and guards may ask for “administration fees” which you can probably bargain down. You need a visa in advance which can be obtained in Vientiane. There are buses from Pakse to the border taking 3+ hours for $2ish. After crossing the border, Stung Treng is a 90 minute speedboat ride away.

Border Crossings (Cambodian town is always second)

VIETNAM
Moc Bai-Bavet
Vinh Xuong-Kaam Samnor
Tinh Bien-Phnom Den
Xa Xia-Prek Chek

LAOS
Voen Kahn-Dom Kralor

THAILAND
Choam Srawngam-Choam
Chong Jom-O Smach
Aranya Prathet-Poipet
Ban Pakard-Psar Pruhm
Hat Lek-Krong Koh Kong

Best Places to Visit

Entrance to Angkor ThomThe Temples of Angkor Wat are without doubt the highlight of this country and source of immense national pride. You don’t have to be a history buff or have a fascination for architecture to appreciate it. They are located just outside Siem Reap, which has developed into a great place in it’s own right to spend a few nights. It is also the most touristy part of the country but not overwhelmingly so by any means. For a taste of the real Cambodia of the 21st century then visit anywhere else in the country.

Capital Phnom Penh is the only place resembling a city but is as laid back a capital as you’re ever likely to find. It’s also a good place to learn about the horrific genocide that took place here in the late 1970’s. Visit’s to the genocide museum and killing fields are grim but educational and shed light on the horrors that took place here. Buddhism is thriving here, monk’s roam the streets and there’s many wats, pagodas and palaces that make this city surprisingly pleasant on the eye. Aside from that Phnom Penh is a downright bizarre psychedelic kind of place. Other fun activities here include firing weapons and cockfighting. If you have the money the Cambodian Military will let you loose on any of their weapons from machine guns to rocket launchers! For those not in the know cockfighting involves chickens with blades attached to their feet going at each other until one decides to through in the towel. This is serious business, punters bet on the outcome and $2 will get you a ringside seat at a cockfighting event.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Aura Thematic Hostel, Phnom Penh 

Cambodia has a lively hostel scene that is great value. This is a good bet in the capital.


Beach bums should head to Sihanoukville (one of our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots). This is where the best beaches in Cambodia are, although they don’t really compare to those in Thailand. A good idea might be to head off to one of the islands off the coast which are often deserted. Other highlights with very few tourists include Ratanakiri province in the far north-east which provide opportunities for trekking through the highlands and forests of the Virachay National Park, swimming in a volcanic crater and some impressive waterfalls.

Getting Around

Buses like just about everything else in Cambodia are ridiculously cheap and will get you to the main towns from Phnom Penh. Unfortunately there are no buses from Sihanoukville to Battambang or Siem Reap, so some thought should go into planning your travels here to avoid having to backtrack, even if you are a go with the flow kind of traveller. Journeys can be slow and not always comfortable, but the main bus companies such as Mekong Express do have air conditioning that will make you feel like you’re somewhere in Antarctica. Buses normally depart from the main market square in each town and don’t depart until they’re pretty full.

There are no trains running any more in Cambodia. The Battambang to Phnom Penh train stopped in 2009. Share taxis and pick-up trucks offer alternatives to buses and your best option in parts of the country. Share taxis normally involve alot of random driving around until the car is full to bursting (you’d be surprised how many people you can fit into a 5-seater!). It’s not an uncommon sight to see pick-up trucks with upto maybe 50 standing local people crammed in the back on the main highways.

There’s also various journeys you can do by boat along the Mekong River which runs from Vietnam through the heart of Cambodia and up north to Laos. You can also catch the fast boats from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, costing $20-25 along the huge Tonle Sap Lake in the heart of the country. Boat journeys are scenic but can be crowded and have little protection against the sun.

If you plan on independent travelling by bike or long hikes then be very careful not to stray after major paths, there are still millions of landmines all over this country and people regularly lose limbs to them. Bicycles can be rented for as little as $1/day and are a fun way to get around the Temples of Angkor Wat.You can get by on foot in all the towns, but tuk-tuks and moto taxis are everywhere, and you can arrange single, return or day trips with them.

The most common route through Cambodia for a South East Asia backpacker is probably Bangkok-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh-HCMC or vice versa. Each leg on this journey is roughly 6 hours although can be and often is more. The border towns on this route aren’t pleasant with massive casino resorts to attract the wealthy folk from Thailand and Vietnam, so be prepared for a negative first impression of this country. Buses run all the way along this route, although you might want to consider a share taxi from Siem Reap to Poipet on the Thai Border.

For fitting it into a South East Asia trip see our Backpacking Route for the region.

Nightlife

There is some exciting nightlife in the main towns of Phnom Penh, Siam Reap and Sihanoukville. Inevitably in a country where drugs are so cheap and readily available, nights can get a little crazy and you will encounter many people, locals and foreigners alike completely off their faces on drugs. Each town has a slightly different scene though.

Cambodia Fish MassageSiem Reap attracts more package tourist types with a bit more cash and the town has a slightly classier feel, but there is still a great traveller vibe to it with people just come back from a day at Angkor. There are some lively bars on and around the brilliantly named Pub Street and this town really comes alive at night with some great night markets to test your haggling skills and fish massage places that you should check out!

Phnom Penh has the biggest selection of nightlife. The main backpacker ghetto is the lakeside (Boeung Kak) and the place is oddly charming even if drugs aren’t your thing, although it certainly helps! Elsewhere bars and clubs are dotted around the city, attracting a mix of foreigners and wealthy local youths. Phnom Penh is actually fairly safe when you consider the utter lawlessness of the place (the police are corrupt and useless). Compared to Bangkok it’s nowhere near as seedy although the city does have it’s share of prostitutes and ladyboys. Happy pizza parlours are found all over the city, offering tasty pizzas that get you high…fun times!

Sihanoukville has lots too offer too. There’s plenty of 24 hour bars so nightlife here can and does last too well past sunset. There’s lots of beachside bars and budget food places and bbq’s. If you arrive at full moon time then there’s often parties on the beach if not quite on the scale of Koh Phangan. The most lively backpacker scene is around Serendipity Beach.

Local Lingo

Khmer is the official language and script of Cambodia. Anyone working in the tourist sector will speak enough English so you don’t have to know Khmer but if heading off into the wilderness it’s very useful to learn some basics.

hello- johm riab sua
goodbye- lia suhn hao-y
yes-baat (if you’re a dude) jaa (if you’re a girl)
no- te
please-sohm
thank you-aw kohn

when does the bus leave?-laan ch’nual jein maong pohnmaan?
bus station- kuhnlaing laan ch’nual
how much is that?- nih th’lay pohnmaan?
too much- th’lay pek!

1 muy 2 pii 3 bei 4 buan 5 bram 6 bram muy 7 bram pii 8 bram bei 9 bram buan 10 dawp 11 dawp muy 12 dawp pii

beef-sait kow
chicken-sait moan
fish-trei

Typical Backpacker Budget

Roughly $20 a day or less will get you a basic room and couple of decent meals a day with enough left over for several drinks in the bar and a couple of joints if you so fancy. Most activities and tourist attractions are cheap and you can travel practically the length of the country for under $5. The main towns are all small enough to get by on foot, but it won’t break the bank to take a tuk-tuk every now and then. The temples of Angkor Wat is the only exception to the general cheapness with entry fees of $20 as it is the only site in Cambodia which attracts large numbers of international tourists.

Budget room in Phnom Penh $3/night
Budget room in Siem Reap $4/night
Draught glass of Angkor Beer 2000 Riel
Jug of Angkor Beer $1.50 (6000 Riel)
Joint in a bar $1
Ounce of weed (bought in guesthouse or on street) $10
6 hour bus journey $4
A meal in a cheap restaurant $3
A moto ride in town 2000 Riel
A moto ride at night $1

Country Guide|Temples of Angkor Wat|Cambodian Genocide|Phnom Penh’s Lakeside


AUGUST 2015 UPDATE 

Recent traveller reports suggest inflation has hit and although Cambodia is still very cheap to travel in, the prices featured in this guide may have increased. For the latest check out our article on the cost of travel in Cambodia, which is newer and will be updated more regularly.


This article was published in May 2011.


Backpackers Guide to Colombia

Backpackers Guide to Colombia

backpackers guide to colombia

Note – This article was published in 2010 so some of the info is likely to be out-of-date.

Basic Shizzle

Population: 45 million
Size: 1.15 million km2 it’s bigger than every country in Europe except Russia, think France + Spain= Colombia
Weather: Varies greatly depending on altitude. You can be on a hot Caribbean beach with snow capped peaks in the background. An hour or two on bus can transport you to vastly different weather conditions so pack for hot, cold and wet weather, possibly all on the same day.
Law: For those inclined, you will be offered marijuana and yes cocaine at various points on your trip, especially in the big cities. You are legally allowed to carry small quantities of almost any drug including cocaine and marijuana (under 20g is considered personal use and okay). The buying/selling of drugs is illegal however so take care and cocaine in Colombia is much stronger than the stuff that gets sold in the streets of Western countries. Travellers have died in recent years due to underestimating the strength of cocaine. Always check the current legal status as laws can and do change. The legal high Ayahuasca is used by many indigenous folk in the Amazon and is gaining in popularity with travellers looking for spiritual enlightenment.
Exchange Rate: Colombian Pesos is the currency and rates are about $1=1800COP £1=2900COP EUR1=2500COP
Time: GMT- 5 hours with no daylight saving time
Religion: Catholic country with more churches than you can shake a stick at, but many people aren’t actively religious. There’s also a few indigenous religions.


Vaccinations/Health

The water is okay and probably safe to drink although some more cautious folk wouldn’t recommend it but in the big cities it’s fine. The most likely illness you will suffer is altitude sickness. It’s best to take a few days to acclimatize to the height before attempting any major physical activity such as mountain biking or hiking up a mountain. Antimalarials are important if you intend to visit the Amazon region of the country (South). Most of the points of interest are at an altitude high enough where malaria presents little to no risk so you don’t need tablets in the big cities for example. If you’re staying long on the coast (except Cartagena where there is no malaria) then it is advisable to take tablets. No vaccination certificate is required. Tetanus, hep A and yellow fever are the recommended vaccinations.


Getting In

The improved safety of Colombia is leading to increasing numbers of flights into the country as tourists wake up to what Colombia has to offer. Budget airline Spirit offer flights from Fort Lauderdale (Florida) to several cities in Colombia and there are also flights from the capitals in Central America with Panama City the closest and cheapest. Bogota is the main airport with flights to/from Europe as well as cities right across North and South America. There are also international airports in Cali, Medellin and Cartagena.

By land heading from Brazil or Peru you must get to the Colombian jungle outpost of Leticia where three countries meet. The crossing is by boat and is the only official way in from either Brazil/Peru and a day long bus journey still awaits before you reach a major town. From Ecuador and Venezuela there are land crossings.

While Panama and Colombia share a border there is no official land crossing. For more info on getting to/from Panama check out the article on crossing the Darien Gap.
Border Crossings (Colombian town is always second)

ECUADOR
Tulcan-Ipiales
PERU
Manaus-Leticia
BRAZIL
Tabatinga-Leticia
VENEZUELA
San Antonio del Tachira-Cucuta
Maracaibo-Maicao (Paraguachon crossing)
Puerto Paez-Puerto Carreno

 

Best Places to Visit

Colombia features prominently in our South America backpacking route, which contains a suggested itinerary through the country.

Chances are you will know very little about the main tourist attractions in Colombia. This is in many ways a good thing as the country will surprise you in ways you couldn’t have expected. Indeed just 5 years ago the country was considered too dangerous to visit for all but hardcore travellers. This is no longer the case, the country is almost certainly safer than Ecuador or Peru which receive huge numbers of backpackers every year who have chosen to skip Colombia due to its negative reputation. There is a great deal of interesting places to visit and you could feasibly stay for months and still discover new places. There is no reason why you shouldn’t head off the beaten track although it’s never a bad idea to check the current situation as there are still a few FARC guerilla fighters and bandits left in some more remote regions. The following places are the most popular places to visit:

Bogota cafesBogota, the country’s groovy capital is in the middle of the country, home to 9 million people and fast becoming one of the biggest and most happening cities in the world. There is loads to do here both in the day and at night, weekends are best and you will need several days to a week here at least to see it all. There are many museums, most of which are free, the best include the National Museum, Museum del Oro (rated the best Gold Museum in the world) and Police Museum which includes a delightful guided tour in English and provides a great insight into Colombia’s recent troubles. Don’t miss the Ciclovia every Sunday from 7am to 2pm when cars are banned from many of the main streets which quickly fill up with bicycles, rollerbladers, skateboarders and joggers. You can rent a bike in the old town for COP15,000 for half a day and enjoy the unique experience of cycling around a huge city in safety.

The second and third biggest cities, Medellin and Cali each have a slightly different vibe and have plenty to interest the visitor. Medellin once home to the infamous Cartel of Pablo Escobar and was once the most dangerous city in the world so it has an interesting history it’s fair to say. Those days are long gone and the city and it’s surrounding area is very safe to visit with great shopping, nightlife and interesting artwork. Cali doesn’t have a great deal of sights but is pleasant enough for a day or two and you can take salsa classes in the day to get ready for a night in the cities lively clubs. There are still elements of danger in the major cities, which have beggars and a few unsavory characters. Muggings happen but no more so here than other big South American cities.

Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast and has a fabulously preserved old town and a rather average beach but there are nicer ones around. It is a mix of Latin and Caribbean culture and tourism is booming, with a new district by the beach full of high rise hotels. Some of the best beaches are off the beaten track such as Capurgana. Santa Marta and Taganga are fairly overrated with beaches are average at best and often dirty and crowded. To get the best out of the Caribbean coast head to the stunning Parque Nacional Tayrona and for the adventurous head to the lost city (Ciudad Perdida) which is supposedly as good as Machhu Pichhu with almost no tourists. The Pacific Coastal region lacks basic infrastructure and doesn’t cater to the budget traveller as well.

San Gil (pictured below and featured in our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots) is the place to go for adventure sports. Grade 5 Rafting, Paragliding, Bungeejumping, Hydrospeeding (body boarding down rapids) are all possible and many times cheaper than other more popular touristy countries. There’s also a 200m waterfall which is a 2 hour bike ride away and well worth the trip. Most hostels in town will sort you out with these trips or there’s a few rafting companies in town. San Gil is small and in a stunning setting so if tranquil hikes are more your thing you could still have alot of fun here exploring the mountainous countryside that surrounds the town.

san gil waterfall

There is a whole host of beautiful Spanish colonial towns dotted around the highlands. Popayan is perhaps the best with 5 beautiful churches restored following a devastating earthquake in the 1980’s. Barichara near San Gil is a beautiful village while Villa de Leyva has an enormous square and attracts many visitors from the capital.

A word on the Colombia people. Most travellers report them to be among the friendliest they have ever come across. This is largely the case and your average Colombian is typically very pleasant but the country has its fair share of crooks and people who you shouldn’t trust. Common sense as always helps and carry as little as possible at night in the cities. Interact with the locals, go to local bars and you will meet some of the most genuinely nice people you have ever met. Most Colombians are happy, peaceful folk with a good sense of humour who are proud of their country and reveling in the freedom and safety which has been lacking for so long.

 

Getting Around

Colombia is a pretty big and mountainous country so journeys are long and like much of Latin America buses are the only real option. Fortunately the bus network is widespread and buses are regular. Night buses are a good option for journeys of over 10 hours such as Santa Marta to San Gil or Bogota to Cali. Buses are now safe even at night (except between Popayan and Pasto/Ipiales where unpleasant incidents are very common). Each town or city has a main bus terminal, sometimes rather inconveniently on the outskirts of the city (eg Cartagena, Bogota) and therefore the journey from the centre to the terminal can be an hour or so and it’s not always easy to work out which bus you need to catch to reach the terminal.

Colombia Copetrans busOnce at the bus terminal there are normally many companies vying for your business. Prices are not fixed so it is a good idea to know what a typical fare for your route might be before arriving at the terminal. You can haggle for a cheaper price and certainly should do this if the quoted price seems too high. If there is more than one company running the route, you are in a pretty strong position and can haggle for the best price. If there is only one company running it they may try to rip you off been a foreigner and all so stand your ground. Copetrans (left) and Boliviriano are probably the best but can be slightly more expensive than rivals but they have nice coaches. Concorde are pretty average with shoddy packed minibuses and staff that will try to rip you off. Watch out for the freezing air conditioning so take some warm clothes out of your backpack before piling it in the luggage compartment. You might want to stock on food/drinks for the journey before arriving at the terminal where stuff is often overpriced. The better buses have a toilet and brief refreshment breaks typically happen every 4 or 5 hours.

The smaller towns are easy to see on foot and bikes are a good way to explore the surrounding areas which are often stunning. Medellin is the only city with a subway/rail network (metro). Bogota has a Transmilenio, which is basically buses than run along designated routes which are Transmilenio only so they are quite quick as there is no other traffic and it is run like a metro network, with designated stations and you must buy your ticket before boarding. Cali has a similar set-up known as the Masivo Integrado de Occidente, but the city is smaller and you can probably see the centre in a day on foot. Everywhere has collectivos or minibuses which you can use to get anywhere in the town including the bus terminal (Terminal de Transportes) if you manage to work out which bus is the one you want. Being able to speak Spanish is very helpful. Taxis are fairly reasonable, agree the price before getting in.

 

Nightlife

Each major city has a Zona Rosa (the main centre for nightlife in Latin American towns) and many also have an old town where the hostels tend to be so there are often some cheap interesting bars in the backpacker areas.

Bogota is lively at weekends. Every Friday night the central Carrera 7 shuts down to traffic and people flood the streets to watch street performers, eat from the food stalls and drink beer. The Zona Rosa is 6km away from La Candeleria (old town where most backpackers stay). Both are lively at weekends, the Zona Rosa is pricier but safer, while La Candeleria is more alternative with dingy cheap cafes and bars with a mix of students, backpackers while the odd beggar and thief roam the streets. Some of the hostels have lively little bars that stay open late and attract a friendly crowd of locals and foreigners.

salsa in CaliCali is city with a reputation for vibrant nightlife with passionate salsa dancing the order of the night. There are many stylish bars and clubs in the cities Zona Rosa playing many types of music as well as salsa. The Zona Rosa is more modern than Bogota’s equivalent and has more hookers. It can be quiet on weeknights however. Medellin is home to some western style superclubs and the city is famous for its attractive if not entirely natural looking women.

Even many of the smaller towns have lively bars and a few discos open late on weekends. Colombians drink Aguilla, the national beer or Aguadiente which is a surprisingly pleasant spirit. Many corner shops have tables and chairs where you can drink anything you buy and you will see people drinking at any hour on any day.


Local Lingo

Espanol is the local lingo and you will need at least some basic Spanish to survive in Colombia and indeed much of Latin America. Very few people speak English in Colombia, although most hostels have English speaking staff.

As a starting point it’s very helpful to know the numbers to avoid being overcharged for items. Costs for basic items run into the thousands due to the exchange rates, so know that mil means a thousand (not a million as you might have thought) Some basics for ordering food, drinks and sorting out accommodation will also be helpful. You will have a much more rewarding trip if you either know or learn some Spanish before arriving as it will enable you to interact with the typically very friendly locals. Spanish lessons are fairly cheap in the country but it is cheaper to take lessons in Guatemala, Nicaragua or Ecuador ($5/hour for private lessons is a typical price) if you are travelling around in the region.

1000 mil
2000 dos mil
3000 tres mil
4000 cuatro mil
5000 cinco mil
6000 seis mil
7000 siete mil
8000 ocho mil
9000 nueve mil
10,000 diez mil
50,000 cincuenta mil
100,000 cien mil

Greetings (Very Common and important greetings in Latin America)

Buenos Dias- Good Morning
Buenas Tardes- Good Afternoon
Buenas Noches- Good Evening/Night
Buenas- You can respond to most greetings with a simple buenas

como estas?- How are you?
Yo estoy bien/feliz/aburrida/cansada/enojada/enferma-
I am good/happy/bored/tired/angry/sick

me gusta …..- I like…..
no me gusta- I don’t like it

De Donde es?- Where are you from?
Yo soy de ……..- I’m from …….

Donde hay un hostal?- Where’s a hostel?
Cuanto Cuesta?- How much does it cost?
Yo no entiendo- I don’t understand.

abierto-open
cerrado-closed
hoy- today
manana- tomorrow
frio- cold
caliente- hot
desayuno-breakfast
almuerzos- cheap set dinner, typically includeas a soup and a main dish of chicken/meat, rice and beans
salsateca- salsa night club
colectivo- shared taxi/minibus
bicicleta- bicycle
terminal de transportes- main bus terminal

 

Typical Backpacker Budget

As a guide Colombia is slightly more expensive than travelling in most of it’s Latin American neighbours such as Ecuador, Peru and most of Central America. This is largely due to the cost of getting around and the size of the country. A 10 hour bus journey can be around $30 as opposed to $10 in the much smaller Ecuador or countries in Central America. Bus journeys cost approximately 5,000 COP per hour of travel, to see the all the main travel destinations budget around 250,000 COP for your total transport costs in Colombia ($140, EUR100, £90).

Accommodation is typically around 15,000COP for a bed in the very cheapest hotels and hostels but Colombia is not overly touristy and information about your options can be hard to find.

On the positive side food is cheap, a decent sized meal can be had for 5,000COP in cheap restaurants. Beer is cheap with Aguila the most common local brand and a bottle is under $1 in many places. Many hostels also have bars which are typically reasonably priced but you often pay for everything when you check out so the temptation to drink to excess is very real when you aren’t handing over cash.

Your budget depends on how long you intend to stay in each place. It is possible to get by in Bogota or indeed most towns on $15/day if you’re not drinking alcohol or doing any other exciting activities (things like rafting or diving). In reality you will probably want to do both and adding transport costs into this then $25 a day is more realistic, possibly more if you’re moving quickly through the country.

There is more up-to-date info here on the cost of travel in Colombia.


Pic courtesy of
hilcias78 (salsa) on flickr

 


This article was published in November 2010.

Some of the info, particularly regarding prices, is likely to be unreliable now! Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018  for an up-to-date overview of budget travel in the region.


 

Backpackers Guide to Poland

Backpackers Guide to Poland

poznan in poland

NOTE – This article is over 5 years old and may contain some inaccurate info.

Basic Shizzle

Population: 38 million
Size: 310,000 km ² …Poland is pretty big, bigger than Britain and Italy for example and only slightly smaller than neighbours Germany.
Weather: Summers are decently warm (70-85°F), with the southern part of the country leaning towards the warmer side. Winters are cold (0-35°F), with temperatures dropping below that in the mountains.
Law: Unlike some European countries, drinking in public isn’t legal, however you will see many people doing so. The Poles like a drink and drink driving is a problem here despite the zero tolerance approach of the police. Most laws are pretty comparable to those in Western countries such as the US or UK.
Exchange Rate: As of Sep 2010, the Polish Zloty trades at £1=4.8PLN €1=3.96PLN $1=3.1PLN
Time: GMT+1 (Central European Time) same as most of continental Europe including Germany, France and Czech Rep.
Religion: Poland is a staunchly Catholic country and the previous pope John Paul II is a source of great national pride.

 

Vaccinations/Health

No vaccinations are strongly encouraged for Poland. However, for any traveler, Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are good to have. You can also ask your doctor to prescribe you some antibiotics to bring along just in case you get traveler’s diarrhea but you are no more likely to get ill in Poland than back home.

Getting In

There are loads of cheap flights to all around Poland from the UK. Fares can be as low as £5 with Ryanair when they have flight sales on (which is pretty much always). Coming from further afield it may be cheaper to fly into a major European hub and then catch a budget flight to your destination in Poland. Direct trains and buses link Poland to the neighbouring countries. If you’re coming from the Belarus or Ukraine the journey might be a slow one, but there are modern and fairly quick links to the other countries.

Border Crossings

Poland Ukraine border crossingPoland borders seven countries, the four in the EU (Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Lithuania) are easy to travel to and from. The situation is a little more complicated for Ukraine and Belarus which are worth visiting if you want to get a better feel of what Communist Eastern Europe was like. Travelling into Ukraine (left:border crossing) is smoother than coming back due to the large numbers of people who smuggle cheap Cigarettes from Ukraine into the EU where their value increases tenfold. You don’t need a visa for Ukraine but you do for Belarus and Kaliningrad (a Russian outpost between Poland and Lithuania).

 

Best Places to Visit

Kraków is without doubt one of the finest cities in Central Europe and a fitting rival to Prague. What was once Poland’s capital, this Renaissance city is now left as one of the most enchanting cities in the world. Start your time there by exploring the Rynek Glówny (market square). This is the heart of the city. Go into the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the middle of the square and look at all the beautiful jewelry, furs, and trinkets the vendors in it have to offer. Then go to Kośćiół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) and check out its beautiful Gothic design. However, the main attraction of the church is the trumpet player that plays a historical tune atop the tower every hour of every day. Notice that the tune cuts off midway. Legend has it that the trumpet player in the 13th century was shot in the throat by attackers of the city.

Afterwards, go to the large statue of Adam Mickiewicz and sit down to enjoy some people and pigeon watching. This is the spot to feed pigeons and watch the excitement of everyone around. It’s very similar to what you may see at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Enjoy the rest of the day by exploring all the little shops and cafes of the artery streets of the Rynek. At the end of Floriańska street, you’ll see a wall/gate. It was made in the 14th century to protect the city from attacks. And behind it you will see a barbican, which was also a part of the fortifications of the city.

krakow

Enjoy another day in Kraków exploring the Wawel Castle. Make sure that when you get to the top of the Wawel cathedral’s tower, you place your hand on Zygmunt’s Bell and make a wish. Two more legends fill the castle: that the castle is one of the seven chakras in the world and that a giant dragon once inhabited a cave by the castle. Finish off your day at the Kazimierz district of Kraków. This is the Jewish district and is filled with intriguing cafes, clubs, two synagogues, a beautiful church, an eerie cemetery, and the best zapiekanki in the city (located in the new square of Kaziemierz). Another day go take a tour of the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University. It’s beautiful inside and exciting to see where Nicolaus Copernicus went to school. End the day on top of the Kościuszko Mound to get an amazing view of the city.

There are three places to visit not too far from Kraków. One is the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps (Oświęcim and Brzezinka in Polish). Located about an hour and a half outside of the city, it is an eerie and surreal experience. You can still see the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign and the massive amounts of clothes, shoes, hair from all the people of the camps, along with the barracks and the train tracks that brought the people out there. Buses go from the main train station of Kraków very often and a shuttle runs between the two camps.

polish mountainThe second place outside of Kraków to visit is Zakopane, a mountain town. Again buses go from the main train station and it’s about a two hour ride. Enjoy good food and bargaining for fur, cheese, and much more on the street of Krupowki. Spend whole days in the mountain hiking. For those who enjoy mountains without hiking go up to Gubałówka to Kasprowy Wierch by funicular. Make sure to bring a light jacket when you go to Kasprowy Wierch as it gets cold up there. For a pleasant hike, go to Morskie Oko. A small bus will take you to the starting point of this hike. Finally, the last city outside of Kraków to visit is Wieliczka. The thing to see here is the huge salt mine. This is a quick day trip from Kraków, but it is definitely worth seeing.

If you are looking for a more metropolitan city, you must visit Warsaw, the nation’s capital. The city is rather new, because the majority of it was completely destroyed during WWII. It’s “Old Town” was carefully reproduced after its destruction and still offers an old charm to it. Look for the mermaid in the center of the Old Town. She is the symbol of Warszawa. Enjoy some greenery by visiting both the Wilanów Palace and Łazienki. Learn some history by visiting the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and then enjoy the architecture of the city, such as the Opera House. Finish off your trip to the capital with a day at one of the malls, particularly Złote Tarasy.

If you have time there is plenty more to see. Gdansk on the north coast like Warsaw was completely destroyed in WW2 but has been restored to some of its old charm and is a nice stopping point if your heading across the Baltic Sea. Finally if Krakow is getting too touristy for you then you should definitely head to Wroclaw (which people are starting to call the new Krakow!). The city has alot to offer built on islands much like Venice or Amsterdam, it has a ridiculous amount of bridges and boasts buzzing nightlife every night of the week to please the enormous student population.

 

Getting Around

mountains near zakopaneTrains and buses run between cities. To find your route use this website. You can also always go to any train and bust station and get information there. Most stations have at least one attendant that speaks English (usually someone younger). In Kraków, you get around everywhere either by walking or taking a tram. In Warszawa, you will find a plethora of buses and the Metro. Avoid cabs in Warszawa as the traffic is extremely awful and you’ll more likely get somewhere faster by taking the Metro. In Zakopane, you’ll be walking everywhere. However, there are small buses going from the main station that will take you to hiking starting points. At certain spots you will also see horse and carriage to take you up and down mountains.

 

Nightlife

If you are looking for the best nightlife, head to Kraków. This party city has more bars/clubs per square metre than any other city in the entire world. Most of the nightlife occurs underground below the architecture of the city. A great place to visit for a chill night is C.K. Browar, which is a local brewery on Krupnicza Street just outside of the Market Square. There you can get table tappers for a decent price. Some of the best clubs within the Market Square are Frantic, Prozak, MusicBox, Cień, Carpe Diem I and II, and Ministerstwo. If you really want to hang with the locals, visit Pod Jaszczurami in the Square. Finally, some of the most interesting and exciting nightlife exists in Kazimierz (theJewish district). If you are looking for a few drinks with a great atmosphere, visit Alchemia in the New Square of Kazimierz. If you are looking for some great all night dancing, head over to Łubu-Dubu and Kitsch (in the same building). Kazimierz also has a great Hookah bar called Flower Power. And every night in the Market Square stand attractive guys and gals with discount cards for their bars and clubs. Grab one and see where the night leads you. It saves you money and opens up the doors to new clubs.

Warsaw also has a great nightlife. The Old Town offers some cozy pubs but you’ll also find some great places down Nowy Swiat street. Platinum is a hot club with great music. Piekarnia is a hot spot and then party into the after-hours at Luzztro. If you are looking for a chill night, head over to Browarmia, a brew pub with a great crowd.

Outside of these cities, university towns tend to have an array of nightlife to choose from. Nightlife in cities such as Katowice can get a little rough at times and despite it’s history Poland has it’s fair share of right-wing white supremist skinheads who often go out looking for a fight so stear clear of bars that look a bit dodgy.

For an idea of what going out in one of the less-visited cities is like, see Ben Gould’s account of an alcohol-fuelled weekend in Poznan.


Local Lingo

English is fairfly widely spoken amongst the younger generation but most people over 40 will speak little if any English so it is necessary to learn a little Polish and it will definitely earn you a bit of respect of the locals.

Good morning/hello: Dzień dobry
Good evening: Dobry wieczór
Please: Proszę
Thank you: Dziękuję
Good-bye: Dowidzenia
Yes: Tak
No: Nie
How much does this cost?: Ile to kosztuję?
What time is the bus at?: O której jest autobus?
At what time is the train to ___ departing?: O której odjeżdża poćiąg do ____
Where is ……?: Gdzie jest…?
Chicken: Kurczak
Pork: Wiepszowina
Fish: Ryba
Bread: Chleb
Salad: Salata
Soup: Zupa
Milk: Mleko
Beer: Piwo
Water: Woda
Toilet: toaleta or WC (pronounced voo ceh)

 

Typical Backpacker Budget

As always the budget depends on you. Poland is cheaper than all of Western Europe but the gap is narrowing and fairly quickly so expect to see it moving down our world budget travel table.

Accomodation:
You can take advantage of midweek discounts in Krakow especially which is full of weekend vistors from across Europe. Roughly 7 Euros should get you a bed for the night in any of the major towns.

Food/Drink: There’s some groovy cheap Polish restaurants to be found serving up pirogi among other local favourites. Polish beer and vodka is exported all over the world and it is as you would expect cheap and of high quality in Poland. There’s a good mix of bars and clubs and the ones at the bottom end of the scale are dirt cheap by anyones standards.

Transport: Single tickets on the metro/trams are about a Euro and if you’re staying anywhere for a while then a month pass is excellent value. The express trains between Krakow and Warsaw and also Katowice and Warsaw (there’s not alot to see in Katowice!) are very quick, much quicker than any of the trains in Britain for example and cost about 90PLN with discounts for students/under 26’s. There are also slower trains and buses that link these cities and the rest of the country at a much cheaper rate. Poland is a major crossroads between East and West on the European rail map and there are sleeper trains you can catch to pretty much anywhere from Berlin to Kiev or Bucharest. It’s cheaper going east and it might be worthwhile getting an Interail pass if you intend to travel around alot.

Thanks to Ann Opalka for writing the main part and supplying pictures for this guide. If you enjoyed reading it then you can also check out her travel blog!

 


This article was published way back in October 2010.

Therefore some info may be out-of-date.


 

A Backpackers Guide to Staying in Youth Hostels

A Guide to Staying in Youth Hostels

dorm in mexico hostelIf you’re going travelling for a decent length of time and you don’t happen to be obscenely rich then chances are you’re basically going to be living in hostels for a while. You’ll get to know these places pretty well on your travels and chances are any preconceptions about youth hostels will be smashed fairly quickly. Here are some basics to help you on your way.

Useful Hostel Lingo

Dorms- A room with numerous normally bunk-beds that anyone can book into. This can range from anything from 2 to 20+ single beds in one room and you will obviously be sharing with travellers you don’t know unless you happen to be the only person/group that has booked in. Some dormitories are mixed, while some are male/female only. If you want the cheapest price ask to stay in the largest dorm.

Privates- A private room obviously means you will have you own room. The only thing to bear in mind here is you will normally have to pay for the number of beds in the room, for example if you travelling as a group of 3 and there are 4 beds in the room you will have to pay for the price of 4 people.

Shared Bathroom- Your dorm or private room will either be en-suite or shared bathroom. If it is the latter there will be at least one bathroom somewhere in the corridor which is for communal use.

Self-catering Facilities- A hostel with a shared kitchen is a big plus for anyone travelling on a tight budget because it enables you to cook your own food. It can also be used to store alcohol and is often the centre of social life in the hostel if it doesn’t have a bar or common area such as a TV room.

mexico hostel poolCommon Area- A room or section of the hostel that anyone can use. It may close at a certain time but is a good place to hang out and meet other travellers. Some hostels arrange parties for their guests while during the day you can do stuff like watch TV/DVD’s, read books, play cards or just chill.

Party Hostel-
Some hostels sell themselves as party hostels. This isn’t a place to get much sleep but if you want somewhere lively with an active social scene then they’re worth heading to. Expect to encounter lots of drunk people pretty much every night. Others will insist that they are not party hostels, which is likely to mean lights out and quiet in dorms for 11pm or thereabouts so they are decent places to get some kip but don’t expect to have much fun. Most hostels fall in between the two categories and it tends to depend on the number and type of people who are staying as to what the vibe is.

Curfew- In some places you will need to be back in the hostel by a certain time e.g. Midnight. After the set curfew, they will lock the doors and not have anyone on reception to let you in. Not many hostels have a curfew but it is worth checking when you book/arrive especially if you intend on going out to bars/clubs etc.

Internet available-
Most hostels have a computer with internet access and normally will also have wifi you can use (ask for the password on arrival).

Luggage Storage- Most hostels will store your luggage after you check out. This is useful if you have a late bus or train to catch and want to spend the day exploring the town. Sometimes there will be a charge for this service.

 

FAQ’s about staying in hostels

Where can I wash my clothes?

Most hostels will have some form of laundry facilities. Normally you hand your clothes in at reception, they are weighed and you will get quoted a price and told when they will be ready. Occasionally you may be able to do it yourself but you will almost always have to pay and it is often more than the going rate. If you’re in a popular backpacking town, it may be worth finding a launderette elsewhere which will probably do it cheaper. Alternatively you can always wash your clothes by hand in a sink but some places don’t like you doing this.

Aren’t hostels a bit dirty?

Like hotels, you get good and bad ones but most hostels are pretty clean and if they’re not then their ratings will plummet on hostel review sites. Just because you are paying less, it isn’t an excuse for a lack of basic hygiene. Of course on your travels you are likely to hear a few horror stories and will at some point end up staying somewhere a bit grimy. Remember you can always ask to see the room before committing to book in.

Do people have sex in dorms?

The traveller scene can be a bit crazy at times but having sex in dorms is generally speaking still frowned upon. If you want to have sex, there should be a few more discreet spots you can do it or alternatively get a private room for Christ’s sake!

Are hostels safe?

Good hostels will have lockers where you can store any valuables. Non residents are normally not allowed in but rules like this are difficult to enforce. As in all walks of life, some people steal from others so normal common sense applies. Look after your belongings, invest in a padlock and be wary of anyone acting suspiciously. Thefts are pretty rare but do unfortunately happen.

What sort of facilities are there?

hammocks in youth hostelA basic hostel normally has a mixture of dorms/private rooms, bathroom facilities, a reception area and either a kitchen or common area. Better ones may have other areas such as a bar, TV room, swimming pool, games room, terrace, laundry room etc. Some hostels have surprisingly good facilities yet still charge rock bottom prices. Some also may double up as a tour company or should at least have contacts allowing you to book tours/visits of nearby sights and will at the be able to provide you with decent local knowledge.

Some hostels will have DVD’s or playstation games you can use while book exchanges are also popular in hostels in some parts of the world where you can take out a book from the collection provided you replace it with one of your own. Some particularly groovy hostels have hammocks (RIGHT).

How much should I expect to pay per night?

This varies greatly depending on what part of the world you are in. You can get your own basic en-suite room for as little as US$2/night in some countries (e.g. Bolivia, Cambodia), however you can end up paying over US$30 just for a bed in a dorm in wealthy parts of the world like Western Europe and North America. Generally speaking no matter where you are, weekends are normally a bit more expensive and there tends to be a high season and a low season with different prices.

Do I need to book in advance?

Booking in advance is rarely necessary but does give you one less thing to worry about when you arrive somewhere. If you are travelling in the high season and hostels seem to be pretty much full everywhere then you might want to consider it. Most seasoned travellers do not book hostels in advance but it is a good idea to have a few places in mind before arriving somewhere. Booking.com is a very useful hostel booking site for when you want something concrete booked before arriving. It is recommended to book in advance during peak periods like festivals or holidays. Prices should in theory be cheaper by booking on arrival but this isn’t always the case.

Do I need bed linen?

No, hostels should always provide this and beds are normally already made when you arrive. You may need to return sheets to reception when you check-out.

Do I need a towel?

Yes, towels are very rarely provided in hostels.

I’m a solo female traveller, is it safe to stay in a dorm?

Yes, many girls travel alone and very rarely encounter any problems. Dorms are great places to meet people and make friends and most hostels will have female only dorms if you’re at all worried about sharing a room with some perverted dude.

Are Youth Hostels just for young people?

No is the simple answer to this question. The idea that youth hostels are just going to be full of teenaged gap year students couldn’t be further from the truth. Of all the people who you meet in hostels, probably less than 10% are under the age of 20. While most travellers are likely to be in their 20’s or early 30’s, there are hardly any hostels that actually enforce age restrictions and plenty of older travellers choose to stay in them too.

Is it easy to meet other travellers?

It depends on the hostel and who is staying there at the time but generally hostels are pretty sociable places and although a bit daunting at first it’s quite easy to make friends. Staying in dorms, hanging around in common areas and getting involved with organised events like bar crawls are very good ways to make new travel buddies.

Check out The 8 types of people you meet in Hostels for an idea of the sort of crowd that tends to reside in these places.

If you’re looking for an alternative to hostels then consider Airbnb, a booking platform where you can rent rooms or beds in local people’s homes. Read our Airbnb review.


This page was last updated in June 2012.


 

Backpackers Guide to Malawi

Backpackers Guide to Malawi

by Kate Sanger

Malawi Zebras

NOTE – This article was written in September 2010. Some of the info may no longer be accurate.

Basic Shizzle

Population: 14 million (ish)
Size: 120,000km2, small by African standards but it is quite long and travelling even short distances can be painfully slow.
Weather: The warm and wet season runs from November to April. The rest of year is very dry with cooler temperatures (around 20°C and much less at night) from May to August. September and October are much hotter (30°C+).
Law: Cannabis and most other drugs are illegal. Homosexual acts are also illegal in Malawi. Discretion is advised if you intend to indulge in either activity.
Exchange Rate:
Malawi Kwachas (MWK) trade at around £1=230MWK, €1=190MWK, $1=150MWK
Time: GMT+ 2
Religion: 75% Christian (mostly Protestant) 20% Muslim

Vaccinations/Health

Malaria and rabies are pretty common in Malawi, so you should take Malaria tablets and you might even want to consider the Rabies jab if you’re heading off the beaten track seen as healthcare ain’t so great. Yellow fever certification may be required if you’re coming from an infected country. Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Tetanus and Polio are all reccomended. Even though HIV rates are higher in many other African countries, the risks are still great so extreme care should be taken.

Getting In

Flying in, Lilongwe International Airport is your best bet with flights too and from Nairobi, Harare and Lusaka as well as the main cities in South Africa. Air Malawi has some pretty good regional connections. You can get the steamboat from Mozambique across Lake Malawi into the country. You must get your passport stamped at the immigration post on Likoma Island when coming in this way. Otherwise there’s a load of cheap bus/minibus routes you can use for getting in from Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia or Zimbabwe.

Best Places to Visit

The thing that makes Malawi special is the fact it has everything a traveller could ask for in a small space. You can travel from the top to the bottom of the country in a day, yet in that space you can sunbathe on the beautiful lake at Cape Maclear, go tracking elephants on foot at Vwaza Marsh, trek up Mulanje mountain to see beautiful vistas and rummage for clothes in the immense clothes markets at Lilongwe.

Backpackers guide to MalawiThe main draw to Malawi is the crystal lake which extends 500km along the border with Mozambique. The endless palm beaches provide the illusion of an inland sea and its sheer beauty makes it a focal point for travellers with a host of activities such as diving, kayaking, boat trips as well as the obligatory sunbathing!

There are many places to visit along the lake however Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay are definately traveller favourites and have a busy, party atmosphere with lots going on and a whole host activities ranging from diving to attempting to master the art of paddling a traditional dug out canoe. Whereas the tranquil islands of Likomo & Chizimulu are much less developed and provide a peaceful place to get away from it all and relax while taking in the stunning scenery.

The abundance of wildlife in Malawi means a visit cannot be complete without a safari and there are several safari parks catering for a range of budgets and tastes. Liwonde is the biggest and most well known offering copious amounts of elephants, hippo, crocodile, antelope, zebra and more. It caters to a higher budget than the smaller parks but you definately get what you pay for. However not to be overshadowed is Vwaza Marsh. Vwaza is much smaller and less than developed than Liwonde but offers a more rustic, intimate safari experience including unforgettable walking safaris with elephants only meters away.

Malawi scenery mountainsFor the more adventurous Malawi provides many opportunities for travellers to absorb its varied and beautiful countryside. Zomba plateau with its luscious green forests and dramatic views, and Nyikah plateau with surprising population of zebra roaming over scenery reminiscent of Scotland supply plenty of walking/driving and cycling trails and stunning scenery.

While exhausting and gruelling at times, a trek up Mulanje Mountain has to be a must for all travellers. Your (obligatory) guide will introduce you to amazing views over the country as you scramble up the steep slopes while local villagers run past barefoot carrying an unfathomable weight of logs on their heads. At the end of each day curl up next to an open wood fire in picturesque communal mountain huts nestled into gorgeous spots on the mountain.

Another beautiful place, which is worth the long walk or drive is Livingstone, this historic, isolated settlement high in the North of Malawi provides amazing views over the country out to the lake. Traveller-favourite Mushroom farm or the more secluded, eco-friendly Lukwe both provide beautiful places to camp or rooms to stay in balanced right on the cliff edge and are the perfect places to chill out after some hectic travelling.

Getting Around

The transport in Malawi is an experience in itself ranging from sharing a seat meant for 2 with a whole family and a chicken to clinging onto the top of a pick up truck loaded up to the roof with plantain and maize, and again there will probably be a chicken somewhere.

Transport is relatively easy compared to the bigger countries such as Mozambique, the short distances mean fewer of the 10 hour bus rides and 4am starts you will grow to love in the larger countries! The majority of the roads, especially the main routes through the country, are tarmaced, there are some roads however which will still leave you looking like a bad accident with a bottle of foundation after several hours of bumping along a dusty track in an open pick up!

Large buses run between the big towns such as Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu at pretty much set times, however minibuses and pick ups, called matolas, run along these main routes and serve all the smaller routes as well. As long as you aren’t too picky about the type of transport you get and are willing to spend a while sitting around the bus stations, you will generally be able to get to your destination with little stress. However it is best to leave earlier in the day as more matolas run in the morning especially on the less popular routes. Buses normally depart from the main bus stations in towns and don’t leave until they are full.

Boat on Malawi lakeThe Ilala ferry travels once a week in each direction up and down the lake making 13 stops at villages an towns on the way, it takes 3 days to cover the whole distance but many people get on and off along the way. The Ilala is an experience in itself. It is a great way to see the lake and make friends with travellers and Malawians alike, nights are spent on the open deck watching the stars and fishing boats twinkling.

Many people on longer trips pass through the country in 4×4’s, which is a great way to see the country and also gives the option to hitch. Malwaians really are the friendliest people and will direct you to the bus station, walk you to the right bus/pick up and very good at letting you know of any changes you need to take. Just remember if someone tells you a journey will take 2 hours it will probably take at least 4!

Nightlife

Nightlife in Malawi varies depending on where you are. In the places popular with backpackers such as Nhkata Bay, Lilongwe and Blantyre there are many bars and clubs frequented by locals, travellers and expats. Hostels such as Maboya lodge in Lilongwe and Mayoka village in Nhkata Bay have happy hours and themed nights and there will always be someone heading into town.

However in the smaller towns such as Zomba, Rumpi and Mzuzu, as well as all the bigger places, nightlife centres around small bars in the markets and dotted all over town. These bars are where the locals gather in the evening to catch up and relax, beer and soft drinks are generally the only drinks on offer in more rural locations, however spirits can be easily found.

A local speciality which many locals clutch, and on first glimpse appears to be milk cartons, is chibuku, a maize based drink which looks and tastes like a soupy alcohol with bits floating in it and tastes just as delighful! It is very cheap and apparently starts to ferment after it is open so gets stronger and stronger, try it if you dare!

Another local speciality are the packets of gin and whiskey that come in shot sized amounts and can be bought in some bars and most supermarkets, while the Malawians seem to drink these neat they are much nicer mixed with bottles of tonic and soft drinks! Malawians are very friendly and sociable so if you do go to local bars you are bound to make some new friends!

Local Lingo

English is the official language and widely spoken. Chichewa is the national language and you can impress your hosts with a few of these random words/phrases:

moni : hello
muli bwanji? : how are you?
zikomo : thank you
kama : bed
kudya : to eat
njoka : snake!
ngona : crocodile!
ndalama zingati? : how much?

Typical Backpacker Budget

Malawi is a country that can be done on any budget, accommodation ranges from luxury safari lodges and hotels cheap local hotels and dormitories in hostels. The cheapest way to see the country is to bring a tent and camp, all of the backpacker hostels, safari parks and places like Zomba and Nyikah have areas for camping at a fraction of the price of rooms.

For example Maboya camp in Lilongwe charges from $4 for camping up to $18 for a 2 person room, although it is worth remembering prices in the big cities are more expensive than in towns like Zomba and Mzuzu. Camping also removes the pressure for booking ahead and planning in advance and means you will rarely turn up after dark in a new place with no bed for the night.

Food again ranges from supermarkets and restaurants in the bigger towns where food catering to a more Western taste can be found, to the cheap, market stalls and local food places where a plate of nsima (a dough like carbohydrate eaten with the hands) or rice with vegetable, meat or fish costs about 70 pence and a beer about 40 pence. The local markets also provide an array of fruits, vegetable, rice, bread and many ingredients enabling you to cook for yourselves on your own gas or where possible on an open fire.

Activities can again be done on a wide range of budgets, a walking safari at Vwaza will cost about £3 whereas at the larger Liwonde a boat safari will be more like £60. However even the more expensive activities such as scuba diving are relatively cheap compared with elsewhere in the world, an open water course can be done for about £230.

As a guide, I spent well under £1000 in 2 months. I camped in a tent in most places and bought food from markets and supermarkets to cook on a gas stove. I saw most of the country including a 3 day trek up Mulanje, scuba diving on Likoma island, several safari drives and walks at Vwaza marsh and Majete, boat trips on the lake and a fair few beers!

Thanks to Kate Sanger who travelled in Malawi last year for the article.

you can also follow Kate on twitter!


This article was published in September 2010