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.

THE BREAKDOWN

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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Winter Solstice Parade

Minor Mishap Marching Band

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life..” started the event. Over 100 souls gathered. We sang Prince, Starman – Bowie, Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen, artists we lost in 2016. Costumes abounded, Christmasy devils, fairies, turtles and whatchamacallits. Lanterns of all makes, un-shapes and non-sizes. Minor Mishap Marching Band led the parade. After the singing came the brass.  The throaty tubas, the bellowing trombones, the trill of trumpets all in attendance. The gentle melodic wheezing of an elusive accordion. Some walked, some danced, some pranced and skipped. We made our way around the band, with them, sometimes in front of them. There were so many they spread out amongst the mobile crowd. Here and there one would stop to let their brass speak to us. We stopped, we walked, we stopped some more. The whole conglomerate of musicians a huge badass amoeba of talent.  Extending here, ebbing there. Advancing. A group reminiscient of the brass bands of New Orleans. Though these dames and gents put a singular Austiny flavor in their craft no doubt. Some sounds at some turns even seem to nod to the Romani. An orchestra of dance. A procession of wind and arm powered sound. This is how many of us Austinites chose to welcome in the winter.

Winter Solstice Parade

Minor Mishap Marching Band

Stick-and-Poke Tattoo

I once met a woman at a café. There more we talked, the more I enjoyed our conversation. She seemed to me to be a pleasant, open-minded individual. We talked about our origins, our travels, things that we were into. She showed me a tattoo on her shoulder done by hand, a stick-and-poke tattoo. as it’s called in common parlance. It was a beautiful geometric piece done with dots conglomerating into a whole. It had a certain softness. She explained how the artist was a woman named Maia from Spain, a medium through which certain energies channeled. She said that Maia choses a design for you that instills certain energies, depending on your energy. I found the artist via Instagram and followed her for many months.

One day, she posted saying that she was in Austin and booking people for tattoos. I jumped on this opportunity, emailing her tout de suite. She replied a couple days later and a meeting was set.

When we met, I didn’t have a design in mind. But given the beauty of her works I had seen on her page I wasn’t worried. We talked about family and my relationships with them that make up part of it. We talked about places in the world and dreams  I had recently and other things. She said she would have a design ready in about 3 weeks…

The allocated time later, I went to see the design. It was better than I could have hoped. She showed me a geometric piece with a vertical eye in the center of it. She said that the design would help me look within to find the answers. She said it would provide a safe place to explore the ways in which I can mend parts of myself that might need mending or to give strength. We set up a time for the next morning to do the ceremony.

I arrived on a drizzly, brisk Central Texan autumn morning. She had relocated to a little silver-bullet trailer with a new wooden patio attached to it. There was a massage table and a native rug strewn over the floor. A light cloth covered over what would be openings in the wood. She had me stand facing her, with my eyes closed. She whispered prayers so soft that I found them unintelligible. In any case I was following her instruction to follow my breathing and didn’t try too hard to make it out. I had electric chills running up and down my body. She rubbed agua florida in her hands and brought them near my nose to inhale. The fragrance gave me chills in my face muscles as well. She placed the print of the photo on my forearm, taking great care to make sure it was aligned properly. She had me lie down on the table as she set up the utensils of her art. They were comprised of a small jar of ink, and her needle. The needle resembled a section of quality dark-wood pencil with a needle fastened to it with soft off-white medical tape. I laid down on the comfortable hip-height table and she went about her work, dotting downwards into my skin at an easy, even pace. I passed the time enjoying the music, a band with female lead vocals from South America somewhere. Perhaps it was Argentina. I stared through the thin veil of the cloth separating me and the chilly morn beyond it. I felt at ease, equanimous, happy. For much of the duration I was so relaxed that I would’ve fallen asleep if not for the annoying reminder from the nerves in my arm not to. We spoke a little about my next travel plans, about places she had lived such as Palenque, and about her plans in Austin. For the most part we were silent though, each immersed in thoughts or non-thoughts.

Before I knew it she had finished. She gave the area one last look over and dotted a few times until she judged there to be nothing more to be done. I looked at the finished product and smiled. I was glad I had left much of the design process in her hands, it is a pleasing tattoo to behold, to me at least. We walked into the grassy yard adjacent her living quarters to get a few photos. Here is the result.

stick and poke tattoo

Marrakech Meandering

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In the summer of 08’ I was bumming around Spain. I had gotten a job working in Valencia as a translator, but when I wasn’t feeling the environment , I grabbed my bags and headed back to Madrid where I had previously made a few friends and used it as a jump off point to hit other cities in Spain. Bumming around pretty much sums up my travels that summer. I would arrive in a new place, no plans, ask directions to the city center, and walk or take a bus there and find a place to stay.

So having found round-trip tickets for 80 euro I arrived in Marrakesh, jumped in a taxi with a couple from Barcelona and tagged along to find out where the best place to stay was. Luckily, following them landed me in a good, clean, and most importantly, cheap hotel on the edge of the Djema al Fnaa (The main square in town). They were all booked up but I paid the equivalent of about $3 US to sleep on the terrace where they had an awning that covered a knee-high bench with a number of mattress pads each big enough for one person. I didn’t mind sleeping in the open air plus I had use of all the shared bathrooms which was all I needed.

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Sleeping on the rooftop was amazing. Every morning I woke up when the sun rose, steadily baking the earth-colored, uneven rooftops in the North African desert. It would get so hot and bright I couldn’t ignore it any longer and had to get up and get ready. I would then wander around the Djema Al Fnaa, eating Tajine and other yummy foods, and meet other travelers (mostly French or French Canadians). At the western edge of the Djema al Fnaa is a red earth colored Mosque with a very beautiful minaret. It was the same exact style as the minaret I had seen in Granada, a testament to the North African’s long rule over southern Spain.

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In the square there were always a number of spectacles to see. There were the snake charmers, people flying small kites, acrobats juggling various sharp things or things on fire, and the boxing lads. The boxing lads were teenagers who stood in the middle of an uneven square that was formed by onlookers. A man leading the event would try to pump up the crowd to get them to throw coins into the circle to pay to see the young chaps to duke it out. He only let them box after he deemed there to be enough coins on the ground. The streets and alleys that feed into the Djema al Fnaa formed a ruddy colored twisting labyrinth of shops, hotels and homes tightly packed together. Walking these alleys were fashionable young guys offering me hashish at every turn. Another aspect that really stood out to me about Marrakesh was the tea. Moroccan tea was green tea with a lot of sugar and a lot of mint leaves. Just like in most Muslim countries chai is a staple at any time of the day with any meal and is served in fancy tea pots and fancy tea cups. The Moroccans pride themselves on their tea and their ability to pour from several feet above the shot-glass sized tea cup which mixes up the ingredients in your cup and forms a bit of foam at the top. Having chai and fresh orange juice with crêpes du miel for breakfast every morning was one of my favorite parts of my stay. And so my days went, eating, chatting with French travelers, and walking the winding streets around the square. One day I decided to take a trip that included snaking through the Atlas mountains, riding camels to the edge of the Sahara and camping out with Bedouins for a night amongst the dunes and stars, but that’s another story.