While planning my first backpacking trip to Asia I googled the cost of travel over and over and never really believed the claims that I could backpack the region on $30 a day and now I’m here telling you its entirely doable with the right know-how.
However, I felt that $40 per day for food, accommodation activities and transportation gave me a little breathing room to not worry about money too much. It allows the occasional splurge - a souvenir her and there.
I also highly recommend picking up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The money saving advice in this guide is worth its weight in gold for new backpackers. I tore out the maps as I went which helped for when I arrived in new towns and wanted to save money on taxis.
Six months is plenty of time to see six or seven countries in Southeast Asia. Allow one month for Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, they’re packed with places to go and gorgeous beaches to lounge away the days. For Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia two to three weeks is plenty as Laos and Malaysia are sparse with attractions, Myanmar has off limit regions, and Cambodia’s small. Three to five days in Singapore is perfect.
(this bowl of pork noodle soup cost me $2 at a street market stall in Thailand)
The rule of thumb for backpacking costs in Southeast Asia is $1000 a month or $6000 give or take for half a year. As a rookie backpacker at the time I spent $6000 over five months and that extra $1000 went on some unnecessary within-region flights.
You see, in my pre-trip nerves, I pre-booked a few flights to make things easier for myself, flying from Malaysia to Thailand because I’d read some scare stories about the Malay/Thai border. I also flew from Thailand to Laos and then later from Laos to Vietnam so that I wouldn’t have to take the three day slow boat ride to Laos or twenty hour bus ride across the border to Vietnam. Don't be like me - just book a one-way ticket (unless you fly into Singapore because then you'll need proof of onward travel).
I also chose the location of my accommodation based on their proximity to public transportation or for their central location, sometimes paying a few extra dollars a night and saving it later in transportation costs. To balance the extra spending I would seek out free activities like museums and temples or even just walking the streets, camera in hand.
All my accommodation was booked a day in advance through Hostelworld, a site that allows you to compare and search for hostels in your destination city. I used it back when I first started travelling and still use it today.
All costs in this guide are in $USD.
Singapore - $80 a day
I started my journey in Singapore. I wanted an east-meets-west experience that would help ease me into Southeast Asia. My budget was $50 a day but spent closer to $80 each day! This is because I was completely new to travel budgeting and of course, Singapore is incredibly expensive to travel around.
Hostels in Singapore are going to set you back $30 a night, tough luck but that’s Singapore for you. To balance the accommodation costs out, I recommend staying near Chinatown, where there are plenty of hawker markets with $2 a bowl noodle and rice dishes.
My breakfast was provided (the usual white bread and jam) and my days were spent window shopping and walking around Little India and Chinatown, with a few expensive activities thrown in with the Singapore Flyer at S$30 and the Singapore Zoo at S$20.
I could have taken the bus into Malaysia, but I liked the idea of getting a first class train ticket across the border, setting me back $55.
Malaysia - $35 a day
Malaysia in comparison to Singapore is a whole lot cheaper, but still a smidgen more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia. My hostel bed was $12 a night in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, not bad considering I was there right on Chinese New Year and if you are too, book your accommodation a couple weeks in advance or risk wandering around for hours trying to find a bed for the night.
Food at your standard restaurant is around $3 a plate and heavily features Chinese and Indian dishes. Your backpacking budget for Malaysia will be around $35 a day with a six hour inter-city bus ride at around $10.
Thailand - $40 a day
Thailand is slightly cheaper again, but with all the activities on offer (elephant encounters, snorkelling, cooking classes, zip lining – I could go on and on) Thailand works out to be $40 a day – unless all you want to do is beach bum with a cold beer in hand (also fantastic) then you’re looking at less than $30 per day.
While the activities can eat into your savings (you'll want to try everything in Thailand) they are still excellent value for money. Many of the tours will pick you up from your hostel, drive you to location, provide you with lunch and drinks before dropping you off at the end of the day. Cooking classes and snorkelling trips go for around four to six hours and cost around $30, zip lines and elephant encounter trips are $50 upwards.
Food clocks in at $2 for street pad thai or $5-7 for restaurant pad thai – both equally good food-wise but the extra dollars buy air conditioning in the restaurant.
Hostels are expensive in Bangkok at $14-18, elsewhere in Thailand $8 a night for a dorm bed is standard.
Laos - $20 a day
Once you get into Laos, all your previous ventures into other “cheap” countries will feel like you’ve been paying far, far too much. Suddenly, hotel rooms are $7 a night, luxury bungalows are $15 a night, beers are 40c each and food is around $2 for a bowl of noodle soup.
Backpacking Laos is going to cost $25 a day, but it is a whole lot harder to stay a budget traveller when a few extra dollars buys a whole lot more and $50 a day can have you living like a king.
In Laos I partook in a silk weaving class for $60, tubed down Vang Vieng River for $4 and kayaked in Don Det for $10 but otherwise Laos is all about taking it slow. Buses are a dollar an hour and it doesn't get much better than that anywhere.
Vietnam - $25 a day
Vietnam stays much the same price as Laos as far as food and transportation go. Accommodation is closer in price to Thailand at around $10 a night for a dorm bed and a local beer is 50c. All well and good, except that now you’ll be getting the hard sell from anyone who has something to peddle. People want you to buy anything and everything and you’ll probably end up with a few things that you don’t need.
In Vietnam I took a three day Halong Bay tour at $99, booked through my hostel and with only three other girls, we had the boat to ourselves. Book your tours when you arrive – you’ll get lower 'last minute rates' rather than the international prices you’d pay if you booked online. I also highly recommend doing the easy riders motorbike tour in Da Lat at $50 for the day and I had a dress made in Hoi An for $50.
Cambodia - $30 a day
Finally we have Cambodia. I found the food in Cambodia to be a little expensive at $3 - $4 (sheesh, Southeast Asia changed how I looked at money). Hostel beds can be as cheap as $2 a night but I usually paid around $5.
A combined day trip to the killing fields and S21 prison is $30 and a one day pass to Ankor Wat was $50 with an extra $30 for a tour guide and tuk tuk.
Myanmar - $40 a day
Okay, Myanmar is expensive - but only because anything tourist related is taxed by the government. That's anything from tours to hotels to entry tickets to restaurants. You can get around it somewhat - for example if you eat at local restaurants they wont bother with taxes. Just the ones with English language only menus. Also if you go to Bagan, which you will, you'll have to pay a $20 tourist fee just to enter the city.
Hostels are expensive and don't go for cheaper than $10 a dorm bed and quality is both limited and poor.
Meals cost around $3-4 in most restaurants, unless you're looking for local street food and then you can grab a bowl of noodles for about a dollar.
We spent $12 each on a motorboat trip on Inle Lake, $15 each on a day tour around Mandalay and a $20 entrance fee to Bagan.
Indonesia - $20 a day
While my experience of Indonesia is limited to Bali (where I travelled on $40 a day) the rest of Indonesia is much cheaper.
Indonesian dishes cost about $2 - $5 and western food like burgers and pizza cost $5 - $8. So like with other countries in Southeast Asia, you'll get better prices by eating local (better food too in most cases).
Hostels on the tourist islands of Indonesia are around $12 a night for a dorm bed. Getting off the beaten path will halve your travel budget.
Your biggest expenses will likely be scuba diving which can cost between $100 and $300 dollars depending on dive sites and companies. A day of snorkelling however costs around $10 - $15.
Over all while $30 a day in Southeast Asia is totally doable - I would say save enough for $40 a day (plus your flight money, insurance etc) and then when you’re over there, aim for $30. That extra $10 a day can be put aside for when you want a night out or there’s a little emergency. There are very few regions in the world that offer the same value as Southeast Asia, it's possible to spend a lot less than the $30-40 a day I've suggested here but it's at the loss of some wonderful activities. Don't cut yourself short on the experience of your life.
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