Last year, I spent three months backpacking solo around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and I was really surprised at how little the whole trip cost me! It’s a common misconception that travel is very expensive, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. I didn’t try particularly hard to budget, and I still only spent around USD1,200 per month. This was pushed up by lots of activities in Vietnam, plus I ate in more expensive restaurants in Cambodia after a particularly bad case of food poisoning. You could easily get by on as little as USD15 a day if you wanted to, although USD25 is more achievable. Here are just a few tips and tricks that could help you budget during your backpacking trip through gorgeous SE Asia.
Travel during off season
Off season in SE Asia is from June to November, as this is the typical monsoon season. Traveling at this time will allow you to negotiate cheaper prices for accommodation, transport and activities. Don’t be put off by the rain – it really isn’t as bad as you might think. It’s usually limited to a daily afternoon shower, which will actually give you some relief from the sweltering heat. It’s still possible to do lots of sightseeing, just get a rain mac and an umbrella. If you plan to spend some time at beach destinations, try to plan these for the first half of the wet season, as the rain will not be as frequent or heavy. If you are lucky, you will get to see some pretty awesome thunderstorms too!
An example of the terrible weather during monsoon season
Choose cheaper locations
Some South East Asian countries are much more expensive than others (Singapore is VERY expensive!). Before setting off on your trip, make sure to research which countries you can realistically fit into your budget. Also, trying to tick off too many countries will make your trip rushed. I would recommend either three weeks or a month per country to get the most out of your experience. It’s also a good idea to avoid spending too long in big cities (e.g. Bangkok), as they tend to have much more expensive accommodation and activities. You’ll also be tempted to eat in more fancy restaurants and drink more alcohol!
Find cheap accommodation or couch surf
I stayed in hostel dorms as much as possible during my trip, and a bed usually cost me between USD 3-7 dollars per night. Staying in hostels is also a great way to meet new friends, and they often organize activities and tours for a very good price. I used Hostelworld and Booking.com to look at reviews, but I tended to book upon arrival, as most places will usually offer a discount. Some hostels and guesthouses will even provide a free breakfast!
My new hostel buddies
Avoid organized tours
This is a huge budget buster! Tours may make things a bit easier, but it’s much cheaper to try and organize things yourself. All it takes is a little bit of research and some form of transport, and you are all set. Cycling can be a great way to explore and also get fit, or if you have a license, motor biking is very popular in SE Asia. This is the number one way to get injured while backpacking though, so make sure to practice or even get a couple of local lessons.
Travel with friends or make new travel buddies
Traveling with others will really help to cut the costs of your trips. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel solo, as you can easily make friends on the road. It will mean that you can split the cost of transport, order a variety of food at a restaurant, or share a room.
Take public transport
Public transport is so cheap in SE Asia, and will save you a lot of money. For three months, I almost exclusively traveled by bus, except for the flight back to Bangkok from Hanoi. Most buses cost between USD 5 to 10, and you can save even more money if you travel by night bus, as you won’t require accommodation for that night. The only downside of the bus is that they can take much longer than advertised. For example, one of my bus journeys in Laos took 12 hours instead of 7! You’ll find time goes quickly though, especially if you have met some new friends on the way. It’s also a nice way to interact with the locals; they might their bus snacks with you if you are lucky!
Eat street food
Some of the tastiest and cheapest food can be found on the streets in SE Asia, and most meals will cost around USD2-3. I loved going to the markets in the evening and wandering around trying to find what I wanted to eat. I know that lots of people worry about getting food poisoning, but most of the food is very fresh, and you can see it being prepared in front of you. If you are a bit worried, just order something that is cooked on a high heat, like fried noodles. Another tip is too pick a food stall that is popular with the locals – they are the experts!
Street food is the best food!
Drink less alcohol
Although it’s cheaper to drink here compared to Western prices, even a couple of drinks per night could still blow your budget. I’m not saying don’t have fun, but just don’t party every night if you want to save money. If you do plan to drink, try to find out when and where there are happy hour deals. Most bars will offer some sort of discount or a 2 for 1 deal. Be careful when drinking in SE Asia, as the alcohol they use for mixed drinks isn’t always the best quality and can be a lot stronger than the standard alcohol percentage (e.g. standard Vodka is usually 40% alcohol content). You are also a lot more vulnerable after a few drinks, so stay safe and avoiding walking alone at night.
It’s inevitable that you will spend more money if you consistently move between places every few days. Traveling slow will help you to save money and also allow you to soak in more of the culture in a new place. It will also mean that you might be able to arrange an accommodation discount for a longer booking.
Learn to haggle
I packed super light for my trip, as I knew it would be cheaper to buy clothes along the way at the various markets and cloth stalls. It’s almost a guarantee that the price they quote you will be much higher than the items worth, as they are used to people haggling. My tip would be to offer half their original asking price and work from there. I’m actually really terrible at haggling, as I always just give in and buy it! The trick is to actually walk away and don’t look back; they will soon see you mean business and match your price.