Tips for budget travel around South East Asia

How much money would you need for a long-term, independent travel around South East Asia? The shortest answer is: it depends on you. Estimating the budget of your trip is one of the most crucial element of the trip but equally important is learning where and how you could possibly save money during your backpacking trip to Asia.

One-size-fits-all travel budget doesn’t exists

Simply providing a price bracket is not an answer. Your budget will depend on your priorities, when do you travel and what are you willing to give up in order to save some money.

Our South- East- Asia daily budget

Me and my partner managed to go below most of the ‘backpacker budget’ estimates we came across in the travel blogs and guidebooks, spending £10-11 per person per day in most of the mainland South East Asian countries we visited in 2018-2019. We saved whatever we could on accommodation, transport and food but we did not compromise on experiences and the number of destinations visited in each country.

Author enjoying budget trip on the steps of the third class train in Sri Lanka

Theoretically, it would have been possible to cut accommodation and transportation expenses to almost zero but I believe that would have severely limited and constrained our travel experience.

No matter how well you prepare, your calculations are bound to be wrong to some extent. Unexpected expenses are inevitable during long term travel and you might also find yourself yielding to some irresistible treats every now and then.

BUDGET ACCOMMODATION

Free accommodation for backpackers

Let’s consider closer the question of free accommodation. The most easily available options worldwide include: Couchsurfing (hospitality service and social network where members can either search for free accommodation with a local host or host others), Workaway (hospitality service based on exchange between hosts in need of free workforce and travelers looking for free accommodation) and WWOOFing (movement connecting organic farm growers with volunteers eager to work on such farms in exchange for food and lodging).

The author and her partner sitting on either side of a female Couchsurfing host in her luxurious apartment in Hanoi

Couchsurfing is an amazing concept but be aware that the hosts won’t be available at every destination you’d like to go to, particularly if it’s off the beaten track.

The number of Workawaying and WWOOFing offers is far more limited than the number of the Couchsurfing hosts. In some countries, there will be literally 1 or 2 options available at any given time. Furthermore, often you’d need to apply for your work swap experience well in advance as the spots tend to fill up quickly in the peak season. That would naturally limit your flexibility in terms of travel plans and make your journey less spontaneous.

A group of school-aged Cambodian kids practicing yoga in a yoga studio in Siem Reap

Relying on Workaway or WWOOFing is also a considerable risk, particularly if you’ve never done it before. Typically, you’d need to commit at least 2 weeks to work 5 hours a day (those skilled e.g. in marketing, photography or programming have better working conditions) and you’d be limited to one location for that period of time.

I did enjoy teaching yoga to kids in Cambodia but didn’t like being stuck in Siem Reap for long 2 weeks out of a 1 month visa. Even if you choose to work in an interesting region you won’t be able to take trips outside the town or village you reside in apart from the weekends. Of course, you can always extend your visa but that would incur an additional cost which you are after all trying to avoid.

Single versus couple accommodation expenses

We had our minimum requirements regarding paid accommodation. My husband insisted on not using dorms and indeed we stayed in a dorm just twice. On the contrary, during my solo trip to Malaysia, Sri Lanka and northern Thailand I was staying only in hostels or with free hosts.

Author lying in a hammock on a veranda of a simple, tiny hut among the palms on Ko Lanta in Thailand

I don’t think we’d have saved very much as a couple by staying at the hostels, though. In most of the places we visited, two dorm beds would be more expensive than the cheapest shared bathroom double room or a basic hut. Travelling together and sharing a room, not necessarily as a couple, would certainly save you a lot of money.

BUDGET TRANSPORTATION

Free transport – hitchhiking

Hitchhiking as a form of free travel is less problematic than free accommodation. It simply takes a longer time to hitchhike than to take direct connections and sometimes you’d have trouble getting exactly where you were heading. Hitchhiking is a great way to meet local people from all walks of life (unlike Couch Surfing which in Asia is dominated with upper class people). However, you need to have guts to go hitchhiking (especially if you’re a female solo traveler) and be ready for the unexpected. If you want to be sure you tick all your ‘must-sees’ and have a specific time frame, hitchhiking probably won’t be the best option for you. We hitch-hiked only on short-distance routes on those rare occasions where no other means of transport was available. We enjoyed it thoroughly but wouldn’t even consider relying on this mode of transportation entirely.

Sayak looking out of a pick-up truck onto a dirt road,  green paddy fields and karst landscape behind him.

Budget transportation options in SEA

If you’re not up for hitch-hiking, transportation is surely going to be your major expense, considering you are going to be on the move most of the time. Obviously, the more places you want to see, the more you’d need to spend. There is a great variation in prices and availability of transport in different countries of South East Asia.

Regional variation

It’s always worth to compare the prices of various means of transportation rather than make assumptions. In Thailand, a cheap flight might be more affordable than a long- distance bus journey. Trains are more expensive than buses in Vietnam but cheaper than buses in Myanmar. In Thailand, 3rd class trains are more affordable than buses on short routes. In a word, there is no general rule so refer to my posts for a specific country for more accurate advice.

Islands are expensive

This being said, ferry and plane are likely to be the most expensive means of transportation so the more you avoid islands in your trip, the cheaper your trip will become.

A catamaran to Ko Tao moored at the pier and small, rocky islands on the horizon

Local vs. tourist buses

Bear in mind there might be also a great variety in prices between various bus companies. The ones catering for locals are likely to be cheaper (albeit less comfortable) than those reaching out to tourists. The countries blessed with a good network of public transport (Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India) will be more pocket-friendly than those with poor infrastructure (like Cambodia).

The author looking up at the folded berth in a second class sleeper train in Thailand

Save on accommodation by overnight journeys

Lastly, an overnight travel, whether on a sleeper train or a sleeper bus (lying-down versions available in some places in India and throughout Vietnam) will save you money on accommodation. The downside to this strategy is an early morning arrival at a destination where early check-in is not always possible.

The interior of a Vietnamese sleeper bus with three rows of bunk reclining seats

Beware of scams

There are lots of scams and overpricing related to bus travel in South East Asia. Be extra careful and always get your tickets online, at the counter at the bus station or on the bus. That alone might not be sufficient precaution so try to get to know what is the local price before you get the ticket and be prepared to politely argue.

Author with her partner sitting inside a rural bus in Vietnam, a bare foot of a fellow passenger sticking out from behind their seats.

Use mobile apps for taxi services

As for the short-distance travel, we tended to walk or use public transport whenever possible. If we decided to use a hired transport (tuk-tuk, a motorbike taxi and very rarely a car taxi), it’d be through a local app to avoid cheating and overpricing.

A row of empty tuk-tuks parked on a Bangkok street at night

There are taxi apps throughout the region with Grab working in Thailand (car/tuk-tuk/motorbike), Vietnam (car/motorbike) and Malaysia (car only), Ola and Uber in India (car/ auto rickshaw-only in some cities) and PassApp in Cambodia (tuk-tuk/autorickshaw).

Bear in mind that a motorcycle taxi is great for a single traveler but there isn’t usually much difference in price between two moto taxis and a car taxi.

Using any form of taxis has its challenges, the biggest of which is a language barrier which can make getting to the destination far less smooth than expected. If you constantly use any hired vehicle for getting around the cities, you cannot expect your trip to be cheap.

BUDGET FOOD

Although we saved a lot of money on food, (eating mostly at the cheapest road-side eateries and at the markets), there were some circumstances which increased our food expenses slightly.

Vegan vs. meat meal prices in South East Asia

First and foremost, I’m a vegan and ironically, that sometimes meant I had to pay more to get a meatless fare. In the very meat- or fish- oriented countries (especially Laos but also Cambodia and Thailand), the only option to get a nutritious vegan meal (i.e. protein-rich) was often to visit a restaurant catering for the tourists, which was always at least a bit more expensive than a local one. Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Myanmar were the countries where vegan dishes were in fact cheaper than the meat ones.

Burmese vegan buffet selection: over a dozen of bowls with various vegetable dishes

Local budget eateries and markets

The easiest way to save on food is to eat at the most local, cheap eateries, markets and street stalls you can find. The rule of the thumb is that if the place has ‘an ambience’, a nice interior, a view and a couple of Western dishes in the English menu, it is meant for the backpackers and the prices are much higher than they should be.

Sayak sitting cross-legged on a straw mat among Khmer people on a night market in Phnom Penh, a selection of BBQ skewers and noodle soups in front of him

Generally, try to avoid eating at the backpackers’ hubs (there are exceptions to this rule) and venture to the areas inhabited by the locals to find the most unassuming and simple eateries where only locals dine. Sometimes all it takes is just a 15 minutes walk to the other part of the town. Apart from the lower price, the food is more likely to be if not more tasty, then at least more authentic.

Fresh markets

Try to limit yourself to one or two meals out. Buy your breakfast at the morning market as it would be certainly THE cheapest option so long as the prices quoted would be the real, local prices.

Instead of sticking to your usual eating habits and paying fortune for yoghurt with cereals or a toast, check what the locals eat and imitate that or adjust it to your needs. This could be soya milk with sweet puffed rice in Thailand, baguette with avocado/ tofu bought at the market in Vietnam or local pastries in Sri Lanka. Various deep fried snacks and filling sweets widely available across the region often served us as a breakfast, lunch or supper, depending on circumstances.

A steel plate with Sri Lankan deep fried savoury snacks of various sizes and shapes

Asia is a paradise for fans of tropical fruit. I probably spent on fruit more than my husband did on cigarettes and coffee combined. To save on fruit, always go for the fruit which is in season at particular moment and choose the one that is whole rather than already cut in pieces.

Know the prices before going to the market

Markets, street stalls and local shops are great places to buy only if the people working there are honest. Again, the more tourist-infested the area is, the more likely you are to be cheated on the food prices. Sometimes we were asked for such ridiculously astronomical prices for fruit that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The best alternative is to venture far enough from the area affected by tourism.

A Vietnamese street fruit seller in Hoi An is posing to a photo with the author, both wearing conical hats and carrying baskets on the pole

Unfortunately, this is not always possible and in those cases supermarket chains or backpacker options might turn out cheaper than trying to ‘go local’. Non-touristy districts of big cities and off-the-beaten track destinations are normally the best places to get cheap food but even there you would need to know the ‘real’ price to be 100% free from the cheating risk. Be aware of the regional variations: coffee in southern Vietnam is dirt cheap but in the north where mostly tea is consumed, it becomes 2-3 times more expensive.

Water and other drinks

Free water

Drinks deserve a separate note. Travelling in Asia, you will consume hectolitres of water. Be good to your wallet as well as the environment and ditch bottled water whenever possible. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia all offer various forms of water refill.

Water vs. hygiene in South East Asia

If you have to buy water, getting a 5-litre bottle would be more economic. I found that water and ice served in the restaurants of all standards throughout South East Asia is safe to drink which is definitely not the case at the cheapest eateries in India.

Save on unessential drinks

Remember that fruit smoothies are going to cost you much more than buying fruit on the market. Think of the environment: smoothies will inevitably be served in a lidded plastic cup and with a plastic straw (in Thailand that plastic cup will be then placed in a plastic bag!).

Coffee in a street cafe in Vietnam: served in a glass immersed in a bowl filled with water with coffee slowly filtering down from the cafetera

Also carrying your own supply of coffee (together with a metal cup and an immersion heater) will reduce your budget drastically. The only affordable coffee in the region is in Vietnam. Pretty much the same goes for tea, Vietnam being the only country serving free green tea with coffee and any meal.

Finally, alcohol is likely to be a big expense (particularly in Malaysia, Thailand and India). On the other hand, some tourist areas in Cambodia and Vietnam sell beer for as little as 50 cents.

Budget food and hygiene

There is not much to worry about in terms of hygiene in South East Asia. Water served even in the most modest food joints was always safe and neither me nor my husband got food poisoning even once during the entire trip. That’s in sharp contrast to India, where water tends to be unsafe and raw ingredients in the snacks sold at the street stalls should be avoided.

SAVE ON SIGHTSEEING AND ACTIVITIES

Our main priorities during our trip were sightseeing and activities. That doesn’t mean we were splashing out mindlessly, though. We were willing to spend the money if we considered it was worth the price. For example, we never took a guided trekking tour  through ethnic minority villages which is a quintessential South-East-Asian experience. The reason is simple: we didn’t understand why would we pay the same money for a two day trip in a jungle or low mountains as for a one-week long trekking in the Indian Himalayas (with a porter and a cook included).

Avoid paying for guides

More importantly, often hiring guides isn’t really necessary. Ethnic minority villages in Laos and Vietnam can be visited independently and you don’t need to be Bear Grylls to find them. Maps.me application would do. We preferred getting lost and finding our way in the Vietnamese and Laotian mountains, asking the locals for the directions and shelter from the rain. Certainly, it was much more authentic experience than being invited by the locals to participate in their daily activities or festivals just because the guide paid them to do so!

A Burmese female guide wearing a baseball cap and a pink sarong standing in front of one of the ancient cave temples in Monywa

There were rare moment when we did appreciate taking a local guide to show us around monuments there isn’t much information available online, one of them being a lovely lady in Monywa, Myanmar.

National Parks aren’t for budget travellers

National Parks across South and South-East Asia are among the most expensive tourist attractions. The general trend from India to Vietnam is to limit the access to the park only to guided trips. In some places it can be justified by the genuine risk of encountering potentially dangerous animals but often it seems to be a way of generating more profit.

In India or Sri Lanka, safaris turn into a mass tourism and a nightmare to the constantly chased wildlife. On the other hand, just a few national parks in mainland South East Asia give a fair chance of spotting rare wildlife. Do your homework to decide whether it’s really worth to visit a particular park.

We learned a lot as we traveled, so we know now we’d have never spent that much money in Thailand as we did if we were aware we could have had the same kind of experience for much lower prices in our favourite Vietnam.

Author enjoying the views of the sea and islands in the distance from a yellow kayak

Organised tourism

Usually, the cheapest organised trips are the most local ones. It’s better to travel right to the actual attraction and search for the trip options there rather than to book a tour from your hostel requiring transfer to that attraction. This being said, some hostels and hotels offer discounts and good deals with travel agencies. It’s always worth to spend some time comparing the offers and choosing the most economical option. In the low season, it’s always a good idea to bargain: the less demand, the better chance you have to lower the price significantly. Team up with other travelers you meet: prices for larger groups are always lower.

Authors and a guide- driver on a narrow tourist boat in Myanmar

For detailed prices, check other posts

So, how much would it cost YOU to travel around Asia? I simply cannot tell you that. However, in the country -specific posts in this blog you can find a detailed breakdown of the common expenses, examples of prices of accommodation, food and travel plus tips on how the expenses could be lowered even further.

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