12 Affordable Boat Adventures in Asia

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ON THE WATER IN ASIA

Traveling by boat in Asia can offer a glimpse of old traditions, insight into a unique way of life, access to a hard-to-reach locale, or a new perspective on a popular tourist attraction. From paddleboats to freighters, the boat trips on this list don't require tossing your travel budget overboard. (Be sure to check the U.S. State Department website for travel advisories before booking.)

ROW THE RIVER GANGES AT DAWN

The holy waters of the Ganges have long been polluted, but what better way to experience Varanasi, the most sacred city in India? Take an early-morning rowboat past the ghats -- the iconic stone steps leading down to the river -- and you might see pink dolphins swimming past decaying stone temples, worshippers lighting incense and throwing flowers, or even cremation ceremonies. Whether the scenes are magical or unnerving is a matter of perspective. Tip: Barter with a boatman before embarking. Aim for 120 to 150 rupees (about $1.81 to $2.26) for up to four people.

CROSS THE CASPIAN SEA BY CARGO SHIP

The journey from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, by cargo ship is not for the faint of heart -- expect everything from delays at the border to unclean bathrooms. But you'll see breathtaking sunsets over the Caspian Sea and Neft Daşları, an offshore settlement built atop old oil rigs. The ticket price for the (usually) two-day voyage varies from 40 to 95 manat (about $38 to $90). Food and drink should be available on the ship, but it's wise to bring rations should supplies run out.

SEE FLYING FISH IN TIMOR-LESTE

Dolphins, whales, and flying fish are known to join this ferryboat as it chugs across the Banda Sea past some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. Timor-Leste has hardly been touched by tourism, and the three-hour boat trip from the capital of Dili to the island of Atauro offers local flavor and natural beauty. The ferry runs on Saturdays and costs $10 each way for foreigners. If that doesn't fit your schedule, it's possible to hitch a boat ride with a local fisherman for about the same price and arrange for a meal of fresh-caught fish upon return to the mainland.

PADDLE THE PARTY IN BEIJING

Three adjoining lakes north of Beijing's Forbidden City were once part of the Emperor's vast gardens, but today they're a trendy area of the Chinese capital buzzing with hip cafés, rooftop bars, and restaurants. Houhai, the most popular of the lakes, offers boat rentals starting at about 40 yuan ($6.27) an hour for a paddleboat. Boaters can enjoy the family-friendly daytime atmosphere, or visit after dark when the area comes alive with neon lights and live bands.

EXPLORE AN ANCIENT WATER VILLAGE IN BRUNEI

Kampong Ayer, the world's largest water village, is home to more than 30,000 people -- about 10 percent of the total population in the tiny, oil-rich country of Brunei. Kampong Ayer is crisscrossed by a maze of wooden walkways, but most residents get around by boat. Boatmen can be hired for less than 30 Brunei dollars (about $20), but don't be afraid to haggle. For an even cheaper option, hail a local water taxi to take you from the riverbank into the village for 1 Brunei dollar (about 70 cents).

BOAT WITH BUFFALOS IN THE MALAYSIAN JUNGLE

Taman Negara is not only one of Malaysia's most popular attractions; it's also the oldest rainforest in the world. Getting there by boat along the Tembeling River is a three-hour ride with views of playful macaque monkeys and bathing water buffalo. Boat fare is 35 ringgit (about $8) departing from Kuala Tembeling, or about 75 ringgit (about $17) including a bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. Enter the national park for 1 ringgit (about 24 cents) to hike trails, meet indigenous tribes, and tiptoe over a dizzying suspension bridge for a small fee (5 ringgit, or about $1.18).

SPLASH IN INDONESIA'S GREEN CANYON

The Green Canyon on the Cijulang River in Java is a popular boating destination with mossy, emerald-green rock faces rising steeply on both sides. Hire a wooden boat with a guide for between 75,000 and 125,000 Indonesian rupiah (about $5 to $9), or book a full-day tour from nearby Pangandaran for about 150,000 rupiah (about $10). Guides stop for 15 minutes at a verdant cave and waterfall, but 100 rupiah (less than 1 cent) can convince them to linger for swimming and rock jumping.

SAIL HONG KONG'S VICTORIA BAY ON A TRADITIONAL JUNK

The Duk Ling, the last of the traditional Chinese fishing boats, was restored in the 1980s and offers 45-minute tours around Hong Kong's Victoria Bay for 160 to 230 Hong Kong dollars (about $20 to $30). The views of the skyline are worth the price, but a cheaper option is the Aqua Luna, another old-style ship that provides hour-long hop-on, hop-off tours of Victoria Bay. A day pass for unlimited rides costs 130 HKD (about $16.77) for adults and 90 HKD ($11.61) for children.

SEE (AND SMELL) THE REAL BANGKOK FROM A KHLONG BOAT

For a gritty taste of daily life in the capital of Thailand, explore Bangkok via the city's khlong boat service. Traversing about 11 miles of the Saen Saep canal, small, rickety boats carry 30 or so passengers (mostly locals) past crowded riverbanks for a fare of 10 to 20 baht (about 28 to 56 cents). The river is filthy and the boats are noisy, so forget any notions of a romantic cruise, but this is an interesting way to get to some of Bangkok's main attractions on a shoestring budget.

PADDLE IN THE SHADOW OF THE HIMALAYAS

Just west of Pokhara, Nepal's second largest city, Phewa Lake is surrounded by dense forest and mirrors snow-capped mountains. Rent a paddleboat in the Lakeside area to visit the World Peace Pagoda, which offers spectacular views of the mountain range. Paddleboat rentals run in the neighborhood of 300 rupees ($2.83) for one hour; guides in rowboats for hire take passengers to the pagoda and back for about 500 rupees ($4.72). Tip: Some travelers complain that the waters of the lake are brown and murky during the rainy season.

CRUISE THE KERALA BACKWATERS

The upper deck of a kettuvallam, a thatched-roof rice barge, is an ideal vantage point to see the paddy fields, farming villages, and luxury resorts of Kerala, India. With about 500 houseboats in Alleppey (a popular base for the boat trip), there are plenty of budget options. Prices for overnight trips start at about 6,000 rupees (about $90) and more than double for nicer accommodations. Fresh-cooked meals are typically included. Don't be shy about haggling and check the calendar before making plans: Prices can triple during December and January but often are discounted during monsoon season (June to September).

SLOW DOWN ON THE MEKONG RIVER

The slow boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos is a well-worn section of the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia, but this Mekong River journey is popular for a reason. It's a cheap way to get from point A to point B, and with two full days on the river, there's little to do but relax with fellow passengers and enjoy the view. A ticket purchased at the dock in Huay Xai costs 220,000 kip (about $27). The boat stops overnight in Pakbeng, where modest guesthouses are available for less than 80,000 kip (less than $10) a night. Consider bringing food and drink to avoid overpriced fare on board.