Budget Travel in Southeast Asia


Sukhotai, Thailand

– “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then, take half the clothes and twice the money” – Susan Weller

Last year I spent about 7 months total in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia before going to India. Here are a few general budgetary guidelines that I hope prove useful for you when traveling the area. Note that travel in other SE Asian countries like Singapore or Indonesia is more costly. Malaysia and Myanmar should be comparable to the four I visited.

Here’s what I’ve discovered after a few months of travelling in the region:

I aimed for about $25-30/day. There were days where I spent $40, and other days I got by on $15 or less. $25-30/day is a good average. It comes out to roughly $1,000 per month. That budget takes into account accommodations, food, transportation, and buying personal items. There are backpackers who spend less than $1,000 per month ($600/month is my record low). There are also others who grossly surpass that.


Accommodation – From $3 to $12. That’s staying in whatever I could find; hostels, guesthouses, or cheap hotel/motels. The cheapest place I stayed at was $2.50/night in southern Laos. The most expensive was around $12/night. That’s common for a hotel room in cities devoid of western tourism. I found the magic number to be $7/night for most budget accommodations in the region.

–         Look at the cheapest price of a place in a guidebook such as Lonely Planet. Go to that area and price a couple hostels/guesthouses/hotels within a couple blocks radius.  Do this before checking out the one in the guidebook. Don’t book online unless there’s a holiday during that time or the place you want to stay is popular. Most places always have a room available when you arrive at their door. Booking a place makes your travel less fluid.

Luang Prabang

Food – from $1 to $5 a meal, $3 to $15 a day. That’s assuming that you eat three meals a day. I eat 4 meals a day, and I am addicted to fruit shakes, so my personal budget for food was usually about $15 per day.

–         To cut on food costs, seek out the places where the locals go. These are the street food stalls or restaurants with only a handful of items on the menu, if they have a menu at all. The more items on the menu, the higher the prices will be. Many backpackers seek out restaurants with western food. They see the menu at one of these places and think “that’s not bad, only $5 a plate.” Remember, the locals are eating for a fraction of that cost… and so can you. Plus, it’s more authentic.

Transportation – Under $10/travel day. This one has a lot of variables. If you are going long distances each time you change location, trying to ‘see it all’, you’re going to spend a lot. I stayed in most cities at least 3 days, and over a week in places that I really liked. If you only have a short time to travel, I recommend sticking to an area within the country. It’s more rewarding than hopping around a lot. You’ll spend less of your vacation in transit that way.

–         Take local buses from place to place. Show up at the local bus station early in the morning. The local buses will be less comfortable and will take a little longer to get there. But, the fare costs a fraction of what a bus with amenities does. While in any city, avoid taking Tuk Tuks unless it’s necessary. They usually overcharge foreigners. Instead, walk or rent a bicycle or motorbike to get around town. A bicycle usually costs less than $2/day. A motorbike or scooter is often less than $7/day including fuel.

Buying stuff – Remember that any objects you buy, you’ll have to lug around in your backpack. Instead, try to spend money on experiences rather than objects.

–         If you must buy stuff, consider shipping it home via the local post office. I once sent myself an enormous nargileh (hookah) from Istanbul. I also bought about 5 kg of goods in India and shipped it to the US for $25. It can be done, and is much better than lugging it around in your backpack.

I don’t pretend to be a minimalist. I travel light, and cut corners on costs a lot. Though, I don’t deny myself something I really want.  Some things I dished out for in the last year – scuba certification, a motorcycle, and a few tattoos.  I try to find balance in life on the road and I feel happy with my travel spending and budget habits. Explore what’s right for you and you’ll have one less thing to worry about.

Happy travels dames and gents!


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