Bucket List Backpacking on a Budget

I’m often asked how I managed to travel to 24 countries in 12 months on a $35-a-day budget.  It was actually easier than you’d think.  For starters, I backpacked exclusively, staying in cheap hostels and hotels.  I budgeted carefully, but most importantly, I went to countries where I knew my dollar could streeeeeeeeeeetch.   In India, it’s possible to live well for as little as $10 – $15 a day (of course, well being entirely subjective!).  Below are five countries where value, exchange rates and inspiring travel plays in your favour. Here are some choice destinations for bucket list backpacking on a budget.


Besides the colour, the food, the characters, the temples and the sheer exhilaration of India, the fact that you can eat and sleep for well under 70 AED a day makes it an obvious destination for backpackers on a tight budget.   There are plenty of established routes around the country for backpackers to follow, making it easy to make friends and find transport.     My own route took me from Mumbai to Goa to Delhi to Rishikesh to Dharamsala.   It was just a fraction of the country, but given the savings in costs, I could spend longer in India than in most countries on the planet.  Consider that a lunch plate (thali) of delicious curry will cost as little as $2, and you get a sense of just how far your dollars can take you.


It’s the poorest country in South America, and yet it has some of the continent’s most breath-taking landscapes. Hop on the Gringo Trail to the world’s highest navigable lake, Titicaca. Or explore the winding markets of dusty La Paz, the world’s highest capital.   There’s rich history in the silver mines of Potosi, or head south to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert. In this otherworldly landscape, you’ll find bright red and green mineral lakes, flamingos, llamas, rock formations and steaming volcanoes. Everywhere you look is a photograph. Landlocked Bolivia might be the poor man of the continent, but it is a treasure for the traveller.


Central America has stabilized since the 1980’s, both economically and politically.   Today, the region offers great value for the budget conscious traveller. Guatemala is very cheap, but I love returning to Nicaragua.   The country has beautiful beaches, some unusual activities (volcano boarding, anyone?) and all the cobblestone colonial charm you’ll find in other, pricier Latin American countries.   Managua does not have a fierce reputation of other capital cities in the region, and backpackers will relish swimming under the stars in the warm fresh water of the Laguna De Apoyo.


Southeast Asia offers plenty of bang for the backpacker buck. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have tremendous value, but landlocked Laos is a true jewel.   Poor yet friendly, unassuming yet beautiful, the country has its challenges – roads, funny money, infrastructure – but offers wonderful rewards too.   The Buddhist temples and monks of Luang Prabang sparkle, the capital of Vientiane is a modern city evolving, the Plain of Jars has history and mystery, and Vang Vieng has become nothing short than a backpacker Cancun.   Floating down the Mekong River on a rubber tube for hours is a lazy way to pass the day, and with its rock bottom prices, there’s no rush to move anywhere else in a hurry.


Western Europe is expensive.   Head north to the Baltics however, and you’ll find the charm of Europe – the cobblestone, the cafes, the medieval churches, high cheek boned locals and beautiful rolling countryside – all for a fraction of the price. Lithuania, cheaper than Estonia or Latvia, seems like a country waiting to be discovered. The food is excellent, its history rich, its people friendly, yet attractions and accommodation are at a discount price.   While it has joined the European Union and adopted the euro, prices remain low, even in the bustling capital of Vilnius.   Once you head into the countryside, which remains almost completely undiscovered by Western tourists, you can find fantastic hiking, biking, and historical trails.   With a proud yet tragic tradition of standing up to the Nazis and the Soviets, history buffs will be in their element too.


A Bucket List of the World’s Best Night Markets



There’s simply no choice between a mall and a night market.   Instead of food courts, you have local cuisine cooked before your eyes. Instead of multinational clothing chains, you have handmade knits and knock-off fakes.   Instead of sterile hallways, you have cluttered narrow pathways full of smiles, smells, and secrets.   After shopping around, here’s our pick of the best:

  1. Luang Prabang, Laos

Night markets in Asia are usually loud and chaotic, yet my memory of this sleepy city’s night market, located along Sisavangvong Road, is one of calm. There is very little pushing and prodding to buy this or that, in stark contrast to markets found in neighbouring Thailand or Cambodia. Around 300 traders sell a wide range of goods – from pillows and covers to lanterns to cheap Beer Lao T-shirts, the perfect souvenir from Laos. Without the pressure, it’s almost impossible not to spend your kip, the local currency. It’s always advisable to haggle, and don’t expect the best quality.   Open daily, the market closes early at around 10pm.

  1. Queen Victoria Markets, Melbourne Australia

During the summer months, Melbourne has several vibrant night markets, gathering local artists, designers, traders, with food and entertainment from around the world. Every Wednesday November to March at the Queen Victoria Markets, on the corner of Peel and Victoria streets, you can find the popular Suzuki Night Market, with 35 ethnic food stalls, art, clothes, and jewelry traders. On Fridays in late January/February, you can shop away and enjoy the atmosphere at the Geelong Night Market in Johnstone Park.   Besides the stalls, there is also a health and harmony section, and licensed bars to enjoy a cool drink on a warm summer night.

  1. Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

There are six major night markets in hot and sticky Taipei, with the most famous, and most notorious, being Huaxi, also known as Snake Alley. Once a legal red light district, Snake Alley is known for the exotic dishes served by its restaurants and stalls.   These include snake meat, including their blood or even their venom, milked from their fangs. There’s also turtle meat, deer penis soup, and other delicacies that draw tourists. Surrounding the market are stalls selling all manner of goods, proudly Made in Taiwan.

  1. Summer Night Market, Richmond, BC

During summer, some 300 traders set up stalls each weekend in Richmond, one of the growing satellite cities next to Vancouver.   Reflecting the multiculturalism of Richmond’s large immigrant population, the night market features strong Asian, Indian and Latin American influences. Grab yourself a bubble tea and catch a live salsa performance on the 60ft stage, or just roam the alleys looking for bargains on clothing, electronics and souvenirs. The market attracts some two million visitors a year, and often features themed nights, like Taste of Asia, or Chinese Karaoke Night.

  1. Chiang Mai Night Market, Thailand

Crammed into three blocks on Chan Klan Road, the night market and bazaar of Chiang Mai is extremely popular with visitors.   All manner of goods are on sale from traders packed on the sidewalks, or in purpose-built malls. Friendly tailors beckon you into their shops, old ladies fry up noodles, and lanterns cast a soft glow in the night. Operating every night of the year, the market is considered to be amongst the cheapest in the country.   Don’t expect lasting quality from the goods on sale, although I still have various candleholders and even some shirts I bought many years after my visit. Traders will typically start their price at double what you should pay, so remember to bargain.

  1. Batu Ferringhi Night Market, Penang, Malaysia

The Malay word for night market is “pasar malam”, a popular example of which can be found in Penang at Batu Ferringhi (literally, “Foreigner’s Rock”). Vendors in small stalls sell the usual knick knacks – clothes, shoes, accessories, bags, watches, jewelry, and other goods of authentic or dubious origins. The night market draws tourists with the sweet smells of local cuisine, and is close to a beach and pool area as well.   It sets up each day in the late afternoon and operates from 6pm until the customers thin out.  International hotels are located along the beach strip, with some directly facing the market.

  1. Christmas Market, Nuremburg, Germany

Every Xmas, markets pop up all over the Germany, differing from region to region. Frankfurt has the largest Christmas Market in Germany, along with the tallest Christmas tree. But the most famous Christmas market is in the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. This market is a popular place to pick up toys, ornaments and candles, along with treats like biscuits and sausages roasted over wood fires. Located throughout the old town, the market has nearly 200 wooden stalls, many sporting red and white cloth.   They even compete for the most beautiful and tasteful stall award. More than two million people visit it each year.

  1. Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a legendary destination, and its most popular night market doesn’t disappoint. There’s a wild variety of goods and services on offer, including fortune tellers, palm readers and impromptu Opera street performances. Open from 2pm onwards, the market is located on Temple Street next to the Jordan MTR station in Kowloon. As with most night markets, street food features prominently. Try some of the sticky sweet desserts and browse for electronics, antiques, and lamps. But remember, you break you buy

  1. Marrakech Night Market, Morocco

Enter the Jemaa El Fna night market near the heart of Marrakech’s medina, and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled onto a set of Indiana Jones. Expect a cacophony of snake charmers and monkey dancers, hagglers and hustlers, juice being freshly pressed over the sounds of salesmen beckoning their next client. Each night, over 100 open kitchens are set up, serving cheap but delicious Moroccan cuisines to patrons seated at long rows of wooden tables. Each kitchen typically serves one dish, and you might want to watch your food being cooked to avoid any tummy upsets later. The night market is open until 2am in summer, and around midnight in winter

  1. Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing, China

Here’s what I like about this particular night market: where else can you find rows of stalls featuring raw insects, scorpions, crickets, centipedes and lizards, ready to be deep fried in wok for your culinary enjoyment?   Sure, you can stick with dumplings, noodles or fresh fruit, but sometimes, you just find yourself craving a deep fried starfish.   All the prices are marked (in case you’re too hungry to haggle) and conveniently displayed in both Mandarin and English.   Don’t know about you, but I’m salivating at the thought of it!