The world seems to get smaller every day, so it’s heartening to know there are still places where you can feel like a traveller, not a tourist. Step off the beaten track with our top destinations for backpackers in the year ahead.
It may be South America’s smallest nation, but Suriname packs in huge amounts to rival its larger neighbours. The half-million population is a cosmopolitan mix of Chinese, Javanese, Indian, West African and Dutch, a legacy of which is the spicy food and surprisingly lively nightlife in the colonial capital, Paramaribo. Yet some of the world’s best-preserved tropical jungle is just half a day away. Getting around takes initiative: you can travel by bus to Albina to see the giant leatherback turtles at Babunsanti beach; drift by dugout canoe to visit the Amerindian tribespeople in Palameu; and take a Cessna flight to Raleighvallen, to commune with the howler monkeys. The country’s eco-agency, Stinasu (www.stinasu.com), makes all this easier to organise. METS (www.surinamevacations.com) is another reliable outfit.
Everyone knows about the spectacular Khmer temples at Angkor – and they definitely shouldn’t be missed. But now you can team Siem Reap and Phnom Penh with a wilderness adventure in the Cardamom Mountains, overnighting in hammocks in the most pristine raft of rainforest in South East Asia. Infrastructure here amounts to a trailblazing eco-lodge on the Tatai River (www.rainbowlodgecambodia.com), offering simple bungalows, guided treks and waterfall swims. A bus from Phnom Penh takes five hours. Even more adventurous is mountain biking from Chi Phat, gateway to the Cardamoms (www.mountainbikingcardamoms.com), where reformed poachers lay on homestays, hornbill-watching and hardcore jungle cycle-treks. Local tour operator Hanuman (www.hanumantourism.com) can help you put together a trip.
The new Croatia? Europe’s latest country (it split from Serbia in 2006) would like you to believe that, and is moving fast to construct yacht marinas, golf courses and swanky hotels. It’s a pity because this mountainous chunk of the Adriatic is a pocket-sized paradise for hiking, biking and skiing – go quick, before it’s gone. On the coast, don’t miss Kotor, shelving steeply out of its picturesque fjord; nor the sandy beaches around Sveti Stefan. There is hiking close by, on the flanks of Mount Lovcen, stalked by bears and wolves (www.nparkovi.co.me). But the big thrills are in breathtaking Dumitor National Park, especially rafting the Colorado-class Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest (www.tara-tour.com).
Hunting with eagles, goat polo and lashings of fermented mare’s milk: Kyrgyzstan really is like nowhere else on earth. It’s also the most hospitable of the “Stans”, with a leafy capital, Bishkek, interesting Silk Road heritage (especially in the sprawling bazaar at Osh) and limitless opportunities for horse riding and trekking in the sensational Tien Shan range. That’s mainly what you come for: galloping among gorges and glacial streams, then camping out in your yurt under the stars. Companies such as Explore (www.explore.co.uk) and Equine Adventures (www.equineadventures.co.uk) offer group itineraries; or organise your own trip through the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association (www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg), which offers eco-tours and homestays.
Remote Yunnan has been described as “China distilled into one superlative province”, with its outlandish karst-limestone peaks, endless rice terraces and time-warp towns. The best triangular tour is out from the capital Kunming, linked to Beijing and Shanghai by daily flights (www.airchina.co.uk), to explore Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian – cobbled market towns connected by panoramic train and bus rides and crowded with temples, tai chi and (in Zhongdian) Tibetan colour. You can do the epic Tiger Leaping Gorge trek here (take the bus from Lijiang), get pummelled at the Blind Massage School in Jinghong, or take on some serious jungle treks in Xishuangbanna; the Forest Cafe (www.forest-cafe.org) at Jinghong is a great place to pick up travel information.
THE ESSENTIAL KIT
Happy backpacking is all about travelling light – and packing versatile gear that will cope with anything the world might throw at you. The right rucksack is key, and they don’t come more flexible than our Jalan 70+20, an ingenious pack that combines a roomy 70-litre main compartment with a removable day-sack for short trips.
Clothing-wise, our men’s Short Haul shirt or women’s South Island shirt is perfect as it is high wicking, fast drying, and has UPF 50 sun protection and permanent odour protection. Our Paclite is a godsend for this kind of trip, too: waterproof and breathable but incredibly light, it’s the only jacket you’ll need.
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We’d love to hear your comments on our articles, especially if you’ve been to any of these places.