Summertime, and the backpacking is easy...

You've survived the exams. You deserve the holiday. And to save you any more swotting, here are Giles Denny's key notes on backpackers' Asia
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The Independent Travel
NOW THAT those stressful exams are almost over, the time has come to start planning a seriously mellow summer vacation. Forget Ibiza or Florida. East, as ever, is the direction for all self- respecting backpackers.

The Asian route may be a pretty well-worn trail these days, but the reasons for doing it are as good as they ever were. First, you can see a lot of strange countries, eat their food and meet their people. Second, you can escape from the pressures of home and college. Third, you can afford it (especially now, with exchange rates so favourable). Last but not least, you can learn the unique pleasure of hanging out with the international community of travellers. You may not yet see the point of travelling thousands of miles to chill out over breakfasts of banana pancakes and muesli with Dutch hippies - but you probably will, once you've sweated your way across jungles and deserts to reach them.

Here then, from east to west, is our list of the current best places to hang out in Asia:

n India

What with economic reforms and nuclear tests, the chill-out country par excellence has become pretty hectic in recent years. Which is not to say that backpackers have nowhere left to mellow out.

n Goa

The former Portuguese colony, famous among travellers for its palm-frond shacks, white beaches and hedonism, was the place that practically invented hippydom in the 1960s, though the original hippies have now been completely swamped by the arrival of mass tourism.

In spite of these changes, the northern part of the region is still awash with budget travellers. People looking to sample a little of Goa as it used to be - long stays, low budgets - should head for the more undeveloped beaches, such as Anjuna, Chapora and Vagator (though even these will be too developed for some). Here, on full-moon nights, gatherings of the old hippy clans still take place.

n Gokarna

In the state of Karnataka, 50km to the south of Karwar, is the unspoilt, ramshackle little town of Gokarna, notable for its sacred Mahabaleshwara Temple. When things became too commercialised in Goa, the hard-core hippy element moved down here, along with Hindu pilgrims and travellers who fancied a stint living on a beach. There's nothing to spend your money on and, with the town a good 25-minute hike from the beach, bohemians can even spliff before breakfast (if they really have to).

n Hampi

Also in Karnataka are the ruins of the ancient, abandoned city of Vijayanagar, near the tiny village of Hampi. The ruins themselves once housed half-a- million souls. Today, deserted, they are an eerie sight in a magnificent setting and the village of Hampi has become one of those mellow, semi- mystical places where travellers congregate. Further away from the mass tourism of southern Goa you could not possibly get.

n Kovalam

Now that Kovalam in the far south has become the latest gateway for two- week "see India" packages, you're as likely to meet retired bank managers down here as relaxing backpackers. For the time being, however, tourists and travellers are co-existing, and, in addition to upmarket hotels, plenty of friendly, low-budget options still exist in the coconut groves behind the beach.

n Puri

In Orissa, on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, is the holy town of Puri, where dope is legal and the government thoughtfully provide bhang shops that sell everything a smoker could want. But this is no tropical paradise. As the local fishermen gut their catches on the beach, also used as a public lavatory, it can get pretty pongy. Better beaches, where backpackers congregate, extend past the village to the east.

n Pushkar

Further north, in Rajasthan, is this beguiling little town famed for its November camel fair. The town is a pilgrimage centre not only for travellers seeking respite from the bustle of India, but also for Hindus who come to bathe in the holy waters of the lake. The town's status as a holy place means that alcohol, meat and even eggs are off the menu, but there is compensation in the form of "special lassi", a concoction of yoghurt, iced water and bhang - the local form of marijuana.

n Manali

Up in the chilly northern province of Himachel Pradesh, this is another one of those towns which is not quite what it used to be (it has a Holiday Inn, and activities include paragliding and skiing). But Old Manali is still a delightful place to stay, with cheap old guest-houses and orchards. The surrounding countryside is full of forests and the town makes a good base for hiking.

n Nepal

Nepal is even more conducive to mellowing out than India. And although the capital, Kathmandu, is now taking on some of the trappings of a serious city (traffic etc) the country as a whole is still an excellent place to meet fellow travellers.

n Kathmandu

With its temples and cool(ish) mountain air, Kathmandu has long been a backpackers' breeding-ground. The Thamel district has become the local travellers' ghetto, crowded with hotels, places to eat and the usual assortment of shops and backpacker service industries. Even cheaper are the places on legendary Freak Street, named after its colourful hippy residents of the Sixties and Seventies. Throughout both districts you'll find cafes offering delicacies ranging from lemon-meringue pie to croissants to spaghetti bolognese - all the more welcome for travellers who have spent months living off dal and rice.

n Pokara

Not as busy as Kathmandu, Nepal's second town still retains that easy-going attitude brought by the hippies when they first came to practise free love and grow their hair. The cuisine isn't as varied as in Kathmandu, but the pace of life is even slower.

n China

In many respects, China is the least relaxing country in Asia, which is presumably why the few chill-out holes there are have got so popular.

n Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

This extraordinarily gigantic (and grotesquely ugly) tower block in the middle of Kowloon contains more guest-houses and snack-bars than some medium-sized African countries; they also happen to be the only places in Hong Kong that most backpackers can afford. The incense-wafted Sino- Indian atmosphere is Hong Kong at its best.

n Turfan

Far away in the western deserts of Xinjiang, this little town is an oasis in more senses than one. Not only is it a place to grow grapes - when all around is barren desert - but it is also the perfect escape from the exhausting treadmill that is backpacking in China. You can drink wine and eat apple-pie under vine trellises in a place called John's Cafe. Get here by bus from Urumqi or Kashgar.

n Yangshuo

In the south-western Yunnan province, not far from the regional capital Guilin, is the most scenic, relaxing town in China. Extraordinary vertical stone hills rocket out from the lush green paddy- fields in all directions. You can walk through the paddy-fields or take boats along the river. Banana pancakes available by the truck-load.

n Thailand

Some parts of Thailand feel like the centre of the backpacking world, and the excellent food and beaches (this year at rock-bottom prices) are the reason why.

n Khao San Road, Bangkok

The food stalls lining this street in the Banglamphu district of Bangkok, and the vast number of travel agencies and guest-houses, attract the greatest concentration of backpackers in the world. The guest-houses are dirt-cheap as well as numerous and, if there is a backpacking heaven, this may well be it.

n Koh Phan Gan Island

Once a retreat for those who wanted something quieter than Ko Samui, this island is now being developed with vigour, especially the area around Hat Rin. Monthly full-moon parties flood the area with travellers (and the local psychiatric hospital with admissions), and some prefer to base themselves further up the coast at Tong Nai Pan, where the Panviman Resort offers splendid views of the two bays. The north side of the island, particularly Bottle Beach, is the most secluded area; no road link means boat access only, so tranquillity is assured.

n Vietnam

Although Vietnam is not a "mellow" country as such, the combination of low prices, good food and beaches has worked its usual magic. In just a few years, Vietnam has developed a fully-fledged industry catering for backpackers.

n Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

Most westerners on a budget head for the Pham Ngu Lao area, and more recently Bui Vien Street, for good-value guest-houses. The banana-pancake brigade tends to eat at places like Kim's Cafe in De Tham Street, and get drunk in the Bar Rolling Stone. In the centre of town, they go to Apocalypse Now for that last-day-in-town-before-hitting-the-jungle atmosphere.

n Nha Trang

This quiet resort has one of the best beaches in the country, with clear blue water excellent for fishing, snorkelling or scuba-diving. The beach services are excellent: cold beer, lunch, massage, you name it. The Huu Nghi Hotel is the usual bolthole for the backpacker, and most westerners eat at the Nha Trang Sailing Club. Don't forget to try the dragon fruit, since it only grows locally.

n Indonesia

The recent political upheavals in this huge country are unlikely to affect travellers. If anything, the collapse of the currency has made it even more attractive to backpackers, as long as their consciences are not pricked by the sight of poverty.

n Ubud, Bali

First visited in the Thirties by western artists and intellectuals, Ubud has remained one of the centres of Balinese art, which involves a lot of music and dancing. As well as the art scene there are numerous hiking trails as well as beaches. With the excellent food, good cheap accommodation, lovely countryside and balmy climate, Bali is one of those places where days can easily merge into weeks.

n Lombok

Across the straits from Bali, the main backpacker centre is the Gill Islands. Even the largest (Gill Trawangan) can be comfortably walked round in an afternoon. There's cheap accommodation, good coral-reefs and the obligatory party every full moon.

Meanwhile, on Lombok itself, Kuta Beach (not to be confused with the sprawling resort of Kuta on Bali), has a beautiful stretch of sand and is another cool spot to try your body-surfing skills.

n Samosir Island, Sumatra

This is not only a great place to chill out, but also a freak of nature. The island is located inside a lake which fills the crater of a long-extinct volcano. The setting makes it one of the most beautiful places in south- east Asia. Most travellers stay in the small village, Tuk Tuk, on the island, which has boomed in the past few years.

n Pangandaran, Java

This is Java's most popular beach resort and, despite the fearsome currents and black sand, the people are friendly, the food good and the accommodation cheap. On the beaches just outside Pangandaran, the accommodation is run by ex-backpackers who know just what their customers want. The beach road to the west has plenty of good- value places in which to stay.

backpacker's fact file

Getting there

For flight-only options, there are currently deals to India,Thailand or Hong Kong for between pounds 300 and pounds 400. Getting to Indonesia or Vietnam is fractionally more expensive. The main cut-price youth flight bookers include STA (0171-937 9962; 0161-834 0668 and other centres); and Campus Travel (0171-730 3402; 0131-225 6111 and other centres). Note: availability will be very tight for height of summer.

Other cheap deals

Worldwide Journeys (0171-388 6000); Omega Travel (01223 506888); Airtickets Direct (0990 320321); The Travel Bug (0990 737747); Bridge the World (0171- 911 0900).

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