Money, money, money…Backpacking Southeast Asia

According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans.  And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far.  We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend.  Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news.  We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases.  I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures.  For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen.  This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted.  We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions.  These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash.  The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip.  We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages.  For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).

First, the average accommodation prices.  Keep in mind these are double occupancy.  Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost.  Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.

Thailand: $13.89

Vietnam: $15.05

Nepal: $17.14

Laos: $9.96

Cambodia: $13.12

Myanmar: $20.61

Indonesia: $14.33

Malaysia: $15.76

Singapore: $22

Brunei: $26

We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.

Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries.  However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw.  In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food.  Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants.  Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu.  These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal.  Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning).  My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time.  Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.

Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries.  This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking.  Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.

Some tips for planning:

We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia).  These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers.  It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently.  Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive.  We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided).  Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+.  We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us.  It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles.  For a long trip like this, it was worth it.  For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.

Nepal is a tough one to write.  We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died.  It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete.  However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (deuchatri56@hotmail.com).  It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.

In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked.  The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort.  Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.

Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive.  While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours.  We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia.  Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.

As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia.  For this was the place to do it.  By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal.  And it was so worth it.  Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month.  You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam.  Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.

In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything.  Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive.  There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.

MONEY.  Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar).  We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs.  Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills.  Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards.  We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving).  Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards.  With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.

To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply.  Estimate accommodation according to above numbers.  Spend $3-8 on food per day.  Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar.  Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40.  We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service.  Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop.  For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab.  Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.

Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination.  They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet.  If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do.  Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here.  Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way.  Our recommendations will be in the next post.

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