Budget your trip: Southern Thailand + Bangkok

We spent two months (Apr-June 2018) travelling around southern Thailand and around Bangkok. Our route was: Bangkok- Ko Tao- Ko Samui- Ko Lanta- Krabi- Phang Nga- Khao Sok- Phuket- Bangkok + surrounding areas (Ayutthaya and the floating markets).

Thailand is one of my favourite places in South East Asia and I believe it’s a great starting point of a travel around the region. Southern Thailand’s main attraction are the beaches and beautiful islands which means you don’t need to travel too much to get the feel of the place. You don’t need to be a beach bum to enjoy your trip, either. We did lots of activities such as snorkeling, boat trips, kayaking, hiking, etc. which kept us very busy while on the islands.

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Southern Thailand isn’t just the beaches

IS THAILAND EXPENSIVE?

Southern Thailand is an expensive destination for a combination of reasons: getting to the islands is always expensive, Thailand is very touristy and there are lots of irresistible yet pricey activities available. Please keep in mind that every time I use the word ‘expensive’, I do it in reference to the prices in other South East Asian countries, not the Western ones.

As Thailand is a developed and relatively rich country, the day to day expenses are very low. In most of the places, it’s easy to find water dispensing machines, laundromats and lots of cheap street food. We were eating the cheapest food in the cheapest places (though sometimes only tourist-geared restaurants were available). We also used the cheapest transport available. On the coast we had to resort to motorbike rental. Travel in the interior (with a network of public bus system and 3rd class trains) cost us much less than on the coastline. As I was travelling with my husband, we usually ended up in bamboo huts or rooms with shared bathroom which were most of the time cheaper than two beds in a dorm.

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A basic hut for two often costs the same as two dorm beds

The most annoying thing about Thailand is the prevalent practice of over-pricing the tourists. It applies to shopping on the market as much as to taking various means of transport. Knowing the ‘real’ price helps but if the vendor- and all his competitors- are adamant, there is nothing you can do about it.

OVERALL COST OF THE THAILAND TRIP

Flights

Bangkok is one of the biggest transport hubs in South East Asia which makes flights to Thailand relatively affordable. The prices fluctuate a lot over the year so make sure you avoid the peak season (roughly Nov-Feb), particularly the peak of the peak (mid December- mid January).

Visa

The citizens of 57 countries (including most of the EU) can enjoy a visa-free stay for 30 days and 5 lucky nations can stay even for 90 days. Most of the others could get a 15 days long visa on arrival for THB 2000 (which from time to time gets lowered or waived to boost tourism). It’s important to realize that applying for a visa in an embassy would be much cheaper than getting a visa on arrival. I got a 60 day visa to Thailand at Thai Consulate in India for around THB 1000.

Expenses per day (low season)

Without counting getting to and from Thailand or the cost of the visa and not taking into consideration splashing out for the Open Water Diving Course, we spent as a couple £13 per person per day However, by cutting down on activities it could have easily gone down to £10. Note that the prices in southern Thailand are very uneven as will become clear from the detailed breakdown below.

Low/ high season

We were in southern Thailand at the right moment: it was already a low season which meant prices on the islands were slashed by a half or even more. The expenses you can see below would have been incomparably higher if our trip had taken place in December or January. Low season or at least shoulder season is a great time to go to Thailand. There were very few people around in April- June and despite what you might read in guide books, the weather was actually great (we could have been simply lucky).

Prices for Ko Tao and Ko Samui you can find below are shoulder season prices since the May-Sept monsoon doesn’t really affect the east coast, while the prices for Ko Lanta, Krabi, Phuket, Phang Nga and Kao Sok are applicable for the low season.

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Low-season = empty beaches and cheap accommodation

THAI EAST COAST

Ko Tao prices

Ko Tao, a small and less-visited island on the east coast, was by far the most pricey destination among the ones we visited. Nevertheless, we loved this snorkeling and diving paradise so much that we didn’t mind spending extra money.

Both accommodation  and food were expensive. Even prices in 7/11 supermarkets were higher than on the mainland. Unlike most places in Thailand, we couldn’t find water dispensing machines.

The transport within the island was ridiculously expensive. Taxis on Ko Tao were simply a robbery. Make sure you get accommodation within walking distance from the ferry pier to avoid this expense. We walked wherever we could and when the distance was too great for walking, we hired a motorbike. Keep in mind that driving on Ko Tao  carries a significant risk if you’re not used to it – I haven’t seen steeper roads in my life.

Getting to the island was expensive, too, though we later discovered than instead of taking a quick and fancy tourist ferry we could go overnight with a car ferry, like the locals did.

Ko Tao was the only place in Thailand where we had to pay to access some of the beaches. One thing really worth splashing out was an organized, mass tourism boat trip. Despite what it sounds like it was amazing and we saw lots of marine fauna only thanks to this trip. If you don’t have an action camera, don’t hesitate to spend a lot for renting one for the day- otherwise you might regret not being able to capture on the camera the underwater beauty.

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Sample of prices on Ko Tao:

  • 400 THB a night in a basic double room with a shared bathroom
  • 30 THB one mango [In Thailand that’s very expensive]
  • 55 THB 5l water
  • 80 THB a meal in a roadside eatery
  • 1000 THB combined 2nd class sleeper train+ bus+ferry ticket from Bangkok to Chumphon and from Chumphon to Ko Tao [would be cheaper if you broke down the journey and took overnight ferry to Ko Tao]
  • 600 THB ferry from Ko Tao to Ko Samui
  • 40 THB 1kg laundry with drying and ironing
  • 400 THB sunscreen
  • 50 THB snorkel hire for a day
  • 50 THB entrance to Hin Wong beach [or you can buy drinks from the bar]
  • 1400 THB snorkeling trip + 100 THB for landing on Ko Nang Yuan island
  • 8000 THB Open Water Diving Course giving you diving license for life

Ko Samui prices

Ko Samui – the biggest of the three island of the Chumphon archipelago is catering mostly for mainstream tourists so we didn’t find it particularly exciting. We went there solely for the purpose of attending a donation based, 7-day meditation course. It was a wonderful experience and it cost us close to nothing (apart from getting to and from the island). It’s possible to take a similar course at Wat Suan Mokh near Chaiya on east coast, cutting the costs even further.

Ko Samui was significantly cheaper than Ko Tao. The beaches had free sunbeds, there were some water dispenser machines and the prices in the supermarkets are almost the same as mainland.
Ko Samui is incomparably bigger than Ko Tao which means some sort of transportation is necessary to get from one part of the island to the other. The songthaews (truck-like tuk- tuks) are pricey and they constitute the only available form of organized transport. Avoid taking songthaews early in the morning or in the evening as you’ll be charged double the normal price.

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Sample prices on Ko Samui:

  • 300 THB accommodation in a hut with a bathroom
  • 70 THB a dinner at a cheap restaurant
  • 100/200 THB songthaew from Lamai beach to Nathon pier (usual/ outside normal hours)
  • 230 THB ferry Ko Samui- Surat Thani

THAI WEST COAST

Ko Lanta prices

Ko Lanta is one of the major islands on the west coast. Its major draw are beaches (some of them unsuitable for swimming) and the surrounding tiny virgin islands accessible only in the dry season. It becomes pretty much deserted in the low season and the prices are much lower than on Thailand’s east coast at the same time.

All of the beaches and most of the accommodation are located on the west coast of the island. Staying on the east coast means it is necessary to hire a motorbike to get to the beach. The further south you stay on the west coast, the nicer and quieter the beaches become but also the higher the price of a minivan to and from the island.

We paid for accommodation on Ko Lanta half of what we paid on the east coast. The food was also cheaper than on the east coast but more expensive than in mainland Thailand.

Paid attractions on Ko Lanta in the low season include kayaking through mangroves, visiting local caves and a boat trip to paradise beach and a hidden lagoon. Camping on a virgin island of Ko Rok is possible only in the dry season. The kayaking, although price is negotiable in the low season, could easily be done cheaper in another South-East-Asian country. We did enjoy the boat trip to the lagoon and stunning Ko Ngai but didn’t have a chance to go to Ko Rok.

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Sample of prices on Ko Lanta:

  • 200 THB accommodation in a basic bamboo hut with en-suite bathroom (and an access to a swimming pool)
  • 60-80 THB cheap meal
  • 40 THB coconut water
  • 10-20  THB one mango
  • 150 THB bus Surat Thani-Krabi (beware of scams, buy the ticket on the bus!)
  • 300 THB minivan Krabi-Ko Lanta
  • 250 THB scooter hire for one day [cheaper if you hire it for few days]
  • 50 THB petrol for the whole day of driving a scooter
  • 200 THB tuk-tuk from old Lanta to the west coast
  • 200 THB kayak hire for two people
  • 20 THB entrance to the mangrove park
  • 750 THB whole day boat tour (snorkeling-paradise beach-swimming through a cave to a lagoon, lunch incl.)

Krabi prices

Krabi is a nice town on the coast and a great base for kayaking among karst formations and lagoons, hiking through the most amazing scenery as well as visiting the iconic Railey beach.

It’s worth to stay in Krabi town (rather than Ao Nang beach) as it has cheap accommodation and marvelously cheap food. Krabi has an enormous morning market with the cheapest food in the whole southern Thailand as well as more fancy night market. It’s there I discovered for the first time Chinese, Buddhist canteens serving vegan food for incredibly low prices.
It’s possible to get to Railey by regular boat service and to Tiger Hill as well as Ao Nang by a songtheow but for hiking and less touristy beaches you’d need to hire a motorbike.

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Sample prices in Krabi:

  • 300 THB a minivan from Ko Lanta (Khlong Kong beach) to Krabi
  • 200 THB accommodation in a good standard room with a bathroom with hot water and a powerful fan
  • 90 THB dinner with drinks and dessert
  • 50-60 THB meal from the night market
  • 30 THB meal in a vegetarian eatery
  • 5 THB one pineapple
  • 200 THB scootie hire for one day
  • 100 THB full tank of petrol (enough for 2 days of driving)
  • 40 THB bus from Krabi to Phang Nga
  • 900 THB half day kayaking tour (karst formations, caves with prehistoric paintings, hidden lagoons, lunch incl.)

Phang Nga prices

Phang Nga Bay with its fantastic karst formations immersed in the sea is one of the major Thailand’s attraction. In my opinion, it can easily be given a miss. Huge karst rocks on Cheow Lake in Khao Sok National Park are equally impressive and if you’re planning to visit Vietnam, nothing can beat the landscape of Ha Long Bay.

A bitterly haggled, 2-hour boat tour with no add-ons and with a guide who didn’t speak English cost the same as the whole day trip on a large boat with all facilities, free meal, fruit and water in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, (which included kayaking, swimming in 2 locations and a visit at a fish farm).

Phang Nga town is a tiny, sleepy place with rather poor value for money accommodation but marvelously cheap food.

Sample prices in Phang Nga:

  • 350 THB cheapest double room
  • 50 THB a meal at a street stall
  • 700 THB 2/3- hour boat tour of Phang Nga bay

Phuket prices

Phuket is the epitome of mass tourism and thus should be avoided. There are many prettier and much less developed or crowded islands in Thailand so apart from visiting historical Phuket town, boasting colonial architecture, there isn’t much reason to pay a visit.

The accommodation in a historical Phuket town is more expensive than on the main beaches but as it’s a living, breathing city, everything else is cheaper. We stayed there most of the time and used songthaews to travel across the island. Unusually, songthaews had the same, official price for locals and tourists. Finding a cheap accommodation on Phuket off season is very easy but finding cheap dining and shopping will be more of a trouble.
Phuket is connected with the mainland by bridge so you can get there by bus. However, you might find a flight more affordable if you’re heading back to Bangkok.

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Sample prices on Phuket:

  • 350 THB double en-suite room in Phuket Town, (breakfast included)
  • 250 THB double en-suite room in Patong
  • 45 THB meal in a cheap veggie eatery in Phuket’s China Town
  • 20 THB 4kg laundry done in laundromat and dried at the guest house
  • 30 THB a songthaeow from Phuket Town to Karon beach
  • 200 THB minivan from Patong beach to the airport
  • 500 THB flight to Bangkok (cheaper than an arduous 12 hour journey by bus!)

INLAND THAILAND

Kao Sok prices

Kao Sok National Park is a truly magical place with enchanting natural beauty and thankfully free from mass tourism, famous for its virgin tropical forest and karst formations immersed in an enormous, artificial lake.

You’d require significant amount of money to fully enjoy Kao Sok. If you’re not willing to spend much, you’ll be stuck in a village on the edge of a national park. Accommodations near Kao Sok aren’t affected by the low season price drop as spectacularly as on the west coast but they’re still very affordable. There are a couple of cheap eateries in the village but grocery shops have unreasonably high prices.

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The park has just one short, unexcited route accessible for independent tourists- all the attractions within the park require hiring a quite expensive guide. I’m very glad we decided to splash out for a day trip to Cheow Lan Lake – the single most expensive tour of the entire journey as it was REALLY worth it. The place was of incomparable beauty, the group was small and the guide spoke good English.

Sample prices in Khao Sok:

  • 350 THB accommodation in a hut with a bathroom.
  • 60-70 THB meal in the cheapest eatery
  • 300 THB entrance fee to the national park
  • 1800 THB a whole day trip to the lake and cave (incl. park fee)

BANGKOK AND THE SURROUNDINGS

Bangkok prices

Visiting Thailand, you’re bound to pass by its bustling capital. Bangkok’s elaborately decorated temples and palaces are well worth lingering for a couple of days.

We stayed in Banglamphu district, near the (in)famous Khao San Rd. It had its advantages despite the fact it was a typical backpackers ghetto. There was an eatery just next to our accommodation selling unbelievably cheap meals and there was a fairly priced market nearby, too. To find good value for money accommodation in Bangkok isn’t easy- they tend to be dirty and ran down but our room with shared bathroom wasn’t too bad.

Bangkok has plenty of beautiful places to see (both in the city itself and as 1-day trips) but sightseeing is relatively expensive. The cheapest way to move around the city is by public buses or public (not touristy) boats. Getting out of the city, whether by train, bus or plane is really easy and budget options abound.

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Sample prices in Bangkok:

  • 365 THB a double room with shared bathroom, breakfast incl.
  • 30 THB a meal in the cheapest eatery in Baglamphu
  • 500 THB a 3-course meal at a riverside, fancy restaurant
  • 30 THB laundry in a laundromat (no drying)
  • 50 THB bus from the airport to Kao San Rd
  • 500 THB ticket to the Grand Palace (worth it!)
  • 7 THB city bus ticket
  • 4 THB ferry to the other side of the river

Floating markets and Ayutthaya prices

Floating markets scattered outside the capital are a major draw for tourists. Reaching those markets independently isn’t cheap unless done by a very slow train connection (requiring a VERY early start). Floating markets themselves are typical tourist traps so eating there definitely won’t be budget- friendly.

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Getting to Ayutthaya – the old Siam capital and a UNESCO Heritage Site- by train is marvelously cheap. The city is absolutely beautiful and its multiple temples deserve an overnight stay. Bike hire is the most affordable way to see all the sights in one day. The sightseeing itself is expensive but, for the most part, worth it.

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Sample prices at the markets around Bangkok and in Ayutthaya:

  • 30 THB songhteow between the markets
  • 60-70 THB bus or minivan from Bangkok to Damnoen Saduak or Amphawa market
  • 15 THB 3rd class train ticket Bangkok-Ayutthaya
  • 50 THB bicycle rental in Ayutthaya
  • 50 THB entrance to each major site in Ayutthaya

Other expenses in Thailand:

550 THB sim with data for one month

Thailand has fast and reliable internet connection, even on the islands.

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