Smart Travel: Four World Destinations Easy on the Wallet

Tasting kottu rotis in Sri Lanka or riding the cave-waters in Laos; Márquez trail in Colombia or volcano-watching in Chile—there's no dearth of inspiring travel experiences on a budget, in countries with currencies cheaper than INR.  
Cheap Countries
Settlements along the Mekong river offers a peek into the quaint lives of locals. Photo by: Kevin Kelly/fStop/Getty Images

Laos

Currency/Exchange Rate: 1 INR = 123 LAK (Laotian Kip)

Cost: Rs1,00,000; 1 Traveller; 7 days *inclusive of flight fare

With an unhurried pace and great ethnic diversity, Laos is your gateway to an immersive cultural experience. Trek on trails offering vistas of mountains, ancient temples amid jungles, gleaming paddy fields, or rows of bamboo houses propped on stilts—in Laos, beauty isn’t something you need seek in order to find.

You chance upon it on a boat over the river slicing through the Kong Lor limestone cave. You may find it on a visit to the Buddhist temples in the ancient capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. Perhaps you’ll encounter it as you bite into Laos’ French colonial past over a freshly baked baguette in the capital, Vientiane, or while discovering secrets of its virginal nature in over 20 national protected areas with endemic wildlife, tropical forests, riddling rock formations and more.

Where to Go

Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the adventure hotspot Vang Vieng, coffee plantations of Champasak and Pakse, Kong Lor cave through the Kong Lor Loop and Si Phan Do or 4,000 Islands.

Things to Remember

Cheap Countries 1

he UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Laos’s most sought-after destination, is filled with surprises: reptile and insect rice whisky (right), Buddhist temples and monasteries (left). Photos by: undefined undefined/Moment/Getty Images (monk);
Luis Dafos/Moment/Getty Images (whisky)

Laos is a conservative country and people are expected to dress accordingly, especially in religious spots. Men and women must cover their elbows and knees when entering temples, and women must take care to not touch a monk. Carry a sarong or wrap to wear after a dip in the water.

The Laotian currency runs from denominations of 500 to 1,00,00. Bigger cities accept credit cards or USD for higher denominations, otherwise all transactions are in Laotian kip.

Having been one of the world’s major conflict zones, there are still unexploded bombs found in the Laotian countryside. Avoid exploring unknown trails without a local guide.

How to Travel

Overnight sleeper buses are most convenient for long-distance travel (tickets about Rs1,000; prices are higher between Nov-Feb). For shorter distances, opt for minivans that depart from bus stations. Seats are available on the spot, or ask your hostel/hotel to arrange a ticket. Tuk-tuks and songthaews, or repurposed pick-up trucks, are cheaper when travelling within the city but can get crowded. Tuk-tuk drivers can be persuaded to wait if you’re travelling further away from the city. In tourist hubs like Luang Prabang or Vientiane, you can also rent bicycles for up to Rs325/day.

Where to Stay

Most cities offer affordable options with prices starting from Rs500/night in hostels and guesthouses. Hotel prices can vary between Rs1,700 to Rs10,000, depending on the level of luxury you choose. It’s always a better idea to choose one which offers breakfast and airport transfers. Most accommodations also help arrange inter-city transport and day trips outside the city.

What to Eat

Padek or Lao fish sauce, the country’s most used condiment; Klai niaw, or sticky rice balls; Laap, a salad made with cooked or raw minced meat, and toasted rice, garnished with padek, kaffir leaves and cilantro; Tam mak, a tangy green papaya salad with chilli, lime and padek; Street-side barbeques, which include whole chicken, meat and offal, or fermented sausages—their casing is stuffed with sticky rice and allowed to ferment giving them a unique pungent taste; Lao lao, the Laotian whisky with reptiles or insects in them, which is found in Luang Prabang and believed to be a cure for joint pain.

 

Sri Lanka

Currency/Exchange Rate: 1 INR = 2.34 LKR (Sri Lankan Rupee)

Cost: Rs1,00,000 ; 1 Traveller; 7 Days *inclusive of flight fare

 

Cheap Countries 2

In Sri Lanka, jade tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya (left), and colonial influences in cities like Jaffna, coexist with the architecture of the Bahiravokanda Viharaya temple (right) in Kandy. Photo by: John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images (temple); Anders Blomqvist/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (tea garden)

You have a lot to look forward to when it comes to the velvety visage of Sri Lanka. A pearl drop in the Indian Ocean, it holds in its temple-elephant-tea-estate-freckled arms a history of over 2,000 years. Add to that knots of serene beaches and mountains. The Cultural Triangle is one of the country’s biggest draws. Breathtaking murals and reclining Buddhas in the dimly lit cave monasteries of Dambulla, the pilgrim-packed stupas of Anuradhapura, and an eagle’s-eye view of lush, forested miles from atop Sigirya Rock, make for trips to remember.

Stroll by Dutch monuments and the lighthouse by the sea in the historic port city of Galle. Hike up the misty peaks of Ella and take the scenic train ride from Ella to Kandy or Nuwara Eliya’s tea estates. If the cultural trail leaves you craving some natural, isolated hideouts, the country’s many national parks, such as Yala, Minneriya, Kumana and Wilpattu offer intimate encounters with leopards, elephants, crocodiles and rare migratory birds.

Yala, Sri Lanka’s most popular park and a hotbed of biodiversity, nurses a range of ecosystems including monsoonal forests and marine wetlands. The area is both wild and historic, once home to several ancient civilisations—now boasting six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries. Sri Lanka’s UNESCO sites and cities are as fulfilling as the kottu roti and lamprais they serve to hungry travellers. All this, over mild-mannered currency.

Where to Go

Colombo, Galle, Adam’s Peak, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Dambulla, Habarana, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura—they all offer different local flavours.

Cheap Countries 6

The street dance of Devi Nuwara Perhera gives a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s vibrant local cultures. Photo by: Mark Daffey/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Things to Remember

Sri Lanka demands a languid pace of vacationing. Sure, there’s a lot to pick from, but instead of whirlwinding, pick a few spots and drink each destination to the lees.

Sri Lanka’s sacred precincts follow strict dress codes. For instance, in Kandy, which has the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth, wearing clothes or accessories with Buddha prints is frowned upon.

The dry season (December to April) is the best time for those looking to enjoy outdoor activities.

How to Travel

Some towns are compact enough for soulful walks, and the country’s attractions are well connected by buses, taxis, and rickshaws or tuk-tuks (use your bargaining skills here). Buses are usually packed to the brim, so practise your hustle before hopping onto one. Car rentals are also available in major cities.

Where to Stay

College House in Colombo; Galle Heritage Villa and Pedlar’s Inn Hostel in Galle; Clock Inn in Kandy and Local B&Bs in Ella (that offer home-cooked meals and cooking classes) are some options.

What to Eat

Spicy-greasy kottu rotis—leftover rotis fried with vegetables, eggs or meat; Egg hoppers served with a side of sambol or coconut relish; Fish ambul thiyal or sour curry, which is made with a special type of tamarind called goraka; Lamprais, or mixed meat and rice in sambol chilli sauce; Dhal curry—red lentils cooked in coconut milk; polos or green jackfruit curry; Chicken in coconut milk-based gravy or kukul mas curry; and wood apple, a national obsession of sorts.

 

Colombia

Currency/Exchange Rate: 1 INR = 43.29 COP (Colombian Peso)

Cost: Rs2,00,000 ; 1 Traveller; 7 Days *inclusive of flight fare

 

Cheap Countries 3

Ensalada de frutas or fruit salad (often topped with condensed milk) is a popular streetside snack across Colombia. Photo by: Laura Grier/robertharding/Getty Images

Few countries offer the diversity of Colombia—the Amazon basin covers almost a third of the land, Andean summits loom high and desert-like arid forests stretch for miles, the Chocó Pacific and Caribbean coastlines promise pristine sandy beaches while the Coffee Triangle—Zona Cafetera—grows some of the world’s best beans.

Colombia has endured troubled times. The baggage of Escobar’s drug cartels and guerrilla wars cut the country out for tourists for years. But in the last two decades, Colombia has had an almost phoenix-like revival to find itself back in business.

Medellín, once Escobar’s stronghold, now flaunts streets swathed in art and graffiti, and is connected with an excellent network of metro and cable car. There’s a food revolution brewing in the capital, Bogotá—local produce is king. Do check out the Botero Museum, too. Tourists go click-crazy in Cartagena’s colonial Old Town. Santa Marta’s beaches are as clear as they come. Cali has the best salsa moves; it is hailed as the world’s salsa capital. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez head to the UNESCO site of Santa Cruz de Mompox, believed to be the inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Where to Go

Medellín, Bogotá, Santa Marta, Cartagena, the ancient city of Ciudad Perdida along the Lost City Trek, Mompox, Cali, Zona Cafetera, Cocora Valley to see the world’s tallest palms, the Chocó Pacific Coast, Tatacoa Desert and the Amazon.

Things to Remember

While relatively safe, it’s still good to be on your guard in Colombia.

Booking a cab is much better than hailing one. Use apps such as Tappsi and Easy Taxi. Uber is not a registered company in Colombia, and though the app is available, using it could get you into trouble.

Exchange money only at registered places like airports and hotels, and try not to accept battered notes because counterfeit currency is a problem, despite the cash-run economy.

Guided tours, especially for activities like the Lost City Trek, are popular but choose only reputed/registered companies. Ask your hostel/hotel for options.

A rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is useful since English is not widely spoken.

How to Travel

The most common and convenient way to get around, especially for overnight journeys, is by bus. Tickets can be bought at the bus terminal or from online platforms like redBus. Low-cost airlines operate between cities and are almost as affordable as buses. At Zona Cafetera and Antioquia, hop onto traditional buses or chivas.

Where to Stay

Colombia is backpacker-friendly and cities have a host of hostels offering dorm beds for under Rs1,000/night. Look for one in touristy areas that won’t be empty after dark. Mid-range and luxury hotels usually start at Rs2,000/night. At Zona Cafetera, opt for a coffee plantation stay.

What to Eat

Native fruits like zapote, lulo, and mangosteen; The four-metre long arapaima fish, grilled or steamed; The Caribbean favourite cazuela de mariscos, a hearty seafood stew; Arepas, egg- or cheese-stuffed deep-fried corn cakes; and the bandeja paisa platter with rice, beans, avocado, fried eggs, chorizo, sautéed ground meat and an arepa. Adventurous eaters try fried mojojoy worms, or hormigas culonas, fried big-bottomed ants.

 

Chile

Currency/Exchange Rate: 1 INR=9.30 CLP (Chilean Peso)

Cost: Rs 3,00,000; 1 Traveller; 7 Days *inclusive of flight fare

 

Cheap Countries 4

Traditional dancers rev up the energy in the streets of Iquique. Photo by: John Elk/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Cheap Countries 5

Guanacos, camelid natives of the region, are a common sight in Chilean Patagonia. Photo by: espiegle/E+/Getty Images

 

In Chile, expect the unexpected. The topography fascinates at bends you don’t see approaching. From magnificent glaciers to a parched desert landscape, from the southern fjords of Tierra del Fuego to the fertile central valley, the country is as diverse as it is strikingly shaped. Much of the country’s 4,300-kilometre-long territory shelters the kind of unsoiled natural beauty that is on every traveller’s bucket list. The best part: it is affordable; you can feast on fiery volcanoes and sunsets the shade of sopaipillas (pumpkin-flour fritters).

Where to Go

North San Pedro de Atacama, Arica, La Serena, Huasco Valley, Copiapó Valley, Alto el Loa heritage route.

Central Santiago, Valparaiso (stop at Pablo Neruda’s house), ski resorts like Valle Nevado and Portillo, Robinson Crusoe Island.

South Concepción, Puerto Varas, Puerto Montt, Pucón and Villarrica, Chiloé Island, Temuco and Lago Budi, Valdivia and Corral.

Easter Island Hanga Roa, Orongo, Anakena, Rano Kau, Rano Raraku.

Patagonia and Antártica Chilena Province Torres del Paine National Park, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, General Carrera Lake, Coyhaique, Tierra del Fuego.

Things to Remember

Use Chile’s SERNATUR (National Tourism Service website), to build a dependable base of information on your itinerary, then turn to your host or hotel staff for hyper-local details.

Feel free to ‘wing it’ in the popular tourist hubs, but for isolated landscapes like the Atacama or Torres del Paine, a good guide, especially a local, can go a long way. While locals are known to be welcoming (Chile ranked 24th in the Global Peaceful Index in 2017), be careful with your luggage, as some parts, including downtown Santiagio at late hours, have a reputation for purse-snatching and non-violent pick-pocketing. Hike up your guard at subway stations, bus terminals, and crowded areas in general.

You can find ATMs providing local currency in most major cities and established stores accept payments with international bank cards. Although some shops accept dollars and euros, it might be convenient to convert to Chilean pesos.

How to Travel

Public transport in Chile is not very cheap but reliable. For the cities you will find buses, taxis, car rentals and in Santiago, you have the subway. To move from one city to the other use flights, buses (they go everywhere), or rent a car.

Where to Stay

Airbnb is very popular. You can find budget-friendly hostels in the capital, Santiago, and the touristy Valparaiso for around Rs680-1,365/night. Camping is a good option in Patagonia or the many national parks around, and campsites can be rented as cheap as Rs820/night. Should you crave luxury, doubles in Santiago’s well-known chains start from around Rs6,815.

What to Eat

The famous ground beef pastries, empanadas, and the hot-dog-like completo; Seafood delicacies like the Chilean version of ceviche, white fish or reineta, and caldillo de congrio or conger eel stew; Chilean barbeques or asado which often include grilled sausages, choripanes; Mote con huesillos, a syrupy drink of peach nectar, dried peaches and husked wheat; Pastel de choclo, a corn pudding cooked and served in a clay bowls.

  • Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?