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12 best-value cities in Asia for budget travelers

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Similar to our recent article discussing our picks for the 11 best-value cities in Europe, we’re taking a closer look at Asia to sort out the places that are highlights of many trips, plus great value for the budget traveler.

Being honest, every destination in Asia outside of Japan will be cheap for most travelers, at least once you get there, so this list shows the best of the best, which shouldn’t be missed if you are nearby. You can check the main Asia Backpacker Index for 2011 list for price details of every major tourist city in the region.

It’s also worth mentioning that finding good and cheap hotels in Asia tends to be less straightforward than in most of the rest of the world. If you know how and where to look you can often find lovely and clean rooms at family-run hotels that charge half of what you’ll find on hotel-booking sites. We’ve compiled our tips for finding cheap hotel rooms in Asia for your benefit.

12 best-value cities in Asia

This list runs from cheapest to most expensive, not necessarily from best to worst.

1 – Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam’s ancient capital city has a compact and easy-to-visit center that is a great mix of Colonial and Asian architecture. While the motorbike traffic can feel overwhelmingfor those who are new to Asia, it’s actually quite fun to learn how to safely cross the street in daredevil fashion.

The food is notoriously good here, with arguably the best street-side Phở soup in the country. If you join the locals on the tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalks you can eat well for almost nothing here, but even in the tourist restaurants things tend to be cheap and delicious. The attractions, including Ho Chi Minh’s Tomb and the “Hanoi Hilton” prison, are also free or extremely cheap.

2 – Goa, India

The western Indian state of Goa is not a place to go for temples and culture, but it’s a fantastic and cheap group of beach towns that are perfect for relaxing in the sun when you’re all templed out. And in spite of its heady reputation, there are virtually no chain hotels or restaurants to be found, so everything feels local and authentic, even though most of the visitors are Europeans.

With no taxes on alcohol, plus an absence of laws that prevent or restrict it like in most of India, Goa is a cheapskate drinker’s paradise, with giant ice-cold bottles of Kingfisher going for under US$2 even at the beach shacks. The

3 – Hoi An, Vietnam

There are a few people who aren’t charmed by Vietnam’s most touristy city by the beach, but for most the visit to Hoi An is the highlight of the country. The Old Town is a small and protected Chinese-style fishing village that is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and even the more-modern city that surrounds it has a pleasant feel plus some very cheap hotels.

Hoi An can have a bit of a Disneyland feel to it, but it’s also beautiful and very unique. The best part for many of us is the food scene, which is one of the finest in Asia. A few special local dishes are only found here, but almost anything you order will not only be a farm-fresh treat, it will also be extremely inexpensive. This is also the best spot to enjoy Bia Hoi, which is the world’s cheapest beer or the best bahn mi sandwich anywhere.

4 – Pokhara, Nepal

The main highlight of Nepal for most people is its gorgeous scenery andthe trekking that goes along with it. Visitors usually fly first into the capital of Kathmandu, but Pokhara is really the tourism hub, and the starting point for most treks, including the famous Annapurna Circuit.

Even though most travelers tend to be busy hiking around most of the time, it would be hard to find a more pleasant backpacker town than Pokhara. Its Lakeside neighborhood is low-key and lined with cheap guesthouses and restaurants, plus countless shops selling souvenirs and name-brand trekking gear. The only problem is that it will be chilly or rainy or hazy for at least six months out of the year, so pick your dates carefully.

5 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Between Bangkok and the Thai islands, most visitors to Thailand bounce back and forth from an enormous shopping city and touristy beach areas, but way up north in Chiang Mai you’ll get something different. Noted for an abundance of beautiful temples, Chiang Mai is far more low-key and also much cheaper than those others, so it’s a good place to relax and enjoy the cooler evenings and the Night Market.

This is also a big hub for trekking in the area, plus visits to small and less touristy towns, so it’s a great base for those on longer trips. The food in Chiang Mai is yet another highlight, with slight variations on most of the famous dishes found in Bangkok and elsewhere, at lower prices as well.

6 – Luang Prabang, Laos

The main tourist city in the often-forgotten country of Laos is one of the nicest cities that so few have ever even heard of. More charming and scenic than the capital of Vientiane, Luang Prabang is suddenly on more and more itineraries, and prices are beginning to move up, but it’s still cheap and a great bargain for those exploring the region.

The old colonial city center is filled with excellent restaurants and surprisingly nice guesthouses, plus a temple on a hill that has the best views in the area. Many arrive by a 2-day slow boat ride from the Thai border on the Mekong River, but if you are able it’s far nicer and less crowded if you can leave that way instead, heading to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai next.

7 – Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

Kuta is the main budget beach resort town, often filled with Australian surfers and backpackers, but this recommendation actually goes for the whole island. The tourism scene all over Bali has been expanding at a frenetic pace for more than a decade, especially in the mid-range and high-end parts of the spectrum, but the cheap and simple options are still available as well.

Vehicle traffic is now a major problem, so touring all the temples and artist towns in a day is nearly impossible. It’s better to stay at least a few days at the huge strip of places in or near Kuta, or in Sanur Beach not far away, and then spend a few more days in Ubud or elsewhere inland to get that more authentic Balinese feeling of paradise.

8 – Bangkok, Thailand

As a major hub for air traffic, flights to Bangkok are usually the cheapest for Southeast Asia, which is perfect because it’s also the best place to start a trip to the region. This is a sprawling and enormous city that could feel intimidating if not for the fact that most important sights are walking distance from the Kho San Road backpacker district.

Bangkok is also known for food, especially the cheap and abundant street food that is available around the clock. But this is also one of the world’s shopping meccas, with a central district that is literally one indoor mall after another after another. From high fashion at reasonable prices to cheap brand-name electronics, there are thousands of shops to compare and choose from.

9 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

As a city alone Siem Reap would be well up this list in the cheaper zone, but the total price we used includes admission to the mind-blowing Angkor Wat temple complex just north of town. The temples are on par with the Great Pyramids of Giza or the lost city of Machu Picchu, so many people choose to spend 3 days or even a week exploring the massive attraction.

With Angkor Wat at the edge of town, you might expect Siem Reap itself to be a cheesy tourist dive, but fortunately the city is one of the nicest and most pleasant in all of Southeast Asia. There are other things to see, plus interesting local crafts, and even mellow bike paths between them. You’ve also got loads of great restaurants that serve cheap local dishes and happy-hour glasses of Angkor draft beer for US$0.50 each.

10 – Beijing, China

With all the international chatter about how “overvalued” the Chinese currency is, it might be surprising to find that Beijing is one of the more expensive cities in Asia and on this list. Still, compared to the West, this is a fantastic bargain, and Beijing is definitely one of the world’s great cities.

With the Forbidden City at its heart, and the most popular section of the Great Wall just a short bus ride away, Beijing is the only place to really begin to understand China’s ancient past alongside its surging future. The quality of even the cheaper hotels here tends to be surprisingly good, and some excellent local food is never more than a block or two away.

11 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Along with the rest of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur tends to be forgotten and under appreciated. This is another ideal city for its cheap long-distance flights, plus an exotic-feeling culture that is very easy to deal with for new arrivals. Similar to Singapore, which is not far south of KL, this is a large and very modern city that seems to have more than its fair share of shopping centers, but it’s also weirdly cheap considering the cosmopolitan feel.

The influences of both China and India tend to be easy to spot in the food and the culture, but the mixture of the two provides another interesting counterpoint that you don’t find in many other places. There are excellent international restaurants in every neighborhood, plus more liberal alcohol laws that help make this a worthwhile party city as well.

12 – Hong Kong, China

Decades ago, Hong Kong was known as one of the cheapest tourist cities in the world, but things have been changing and many of the bargains are gone. Still, even though it’s relatively expensive for Asia, this is such a striking and dynamic city that it’s worth paying a bit more during a visit.

The skyline of Hong Kong Island itself is one of the most scenic in the world, and the views from the Peak are unforgettable any time of the day. The bustling harbour and the cheap and famous Star Ferries are attractions unto themselves, plus the food culture and party scene here are absolutely world-class, though not necessarily cheap at the same time.

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