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How to Backpack Through Southeast Asia Cheaply

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Anna is a New Yorker writing about her globe-trotting, culinary, and healthy living adventures. Plus, she loves sharing beauty finds.

Beach in Phuket

Beach in Phuket

Southeast Asia Travel Budget

Southeast Asia is a spectacular location to fulfill your vagabonding dreams. Majestic temples, lush landscapes, smiling locals, intriguing street food, crazy parties and all nicely packaged with cheap prices for Westerners. My boyfriend and I backpacked through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam for two months in 2010 and I'm happy to share some tips with you on how you too can backpack through the beautiful region, cheaply.

When traveling through Southeast Asia, on average, you can live comfortably on just about $20 a day (that excludes Singapore, Hong Kong, and some parts of Malaysia). Your biggest expense in Southeast Asia will be the airfare getting there. And thereafter, transportation costs from city to city, followed by how much beer you consume and whether you take daily tours.

You may be wondering how exactly you can save money when you’re on this incredible journey. Well let’s get right to it! Below, I will walk you through some money saving tips for accommodations, transportation, food and other costs to help you have the backpacking trip of a lifetime, cheaply.

A guest house room I stayed at in Siem Reap

A guest house room I stayed at in Siem Reap

Budget Accommodation Tips

Since you’re traveling on a shoestring, you’re in luck because accommodations in this part of the world are really cheap. In fact, the cheapest hostel in the world is located in Cambodia. It’s a guesthouse in Siem Reap called the Garden Village Guesthouse that costs just $1 for a dorm bed. If you’re looking only for the cheapest possible hostels and guesthouses to stay at while traveling, in Cambodia and Laos, you can expect to pay just around $2; in Vietnam, around $5; and in Thailand, around $6. But you’ll have to shop around and book in advance. I booked all my hostels as soon as I knew my next destination, except for Siem Reap where we decided to wing it and book something when we get there. Bad idea. Although we didn’t have a problem finding a hostel, since tuk tuks were waiting at the bus stop, eager to take spontaneous guests like us to the hostel where they get the highest commission. We found the recommended backpacker’s hostel expensive, dirty, and far away from the center. We switched to another guesthouse the next day by looking for something with better reviews on Hostelworld.com but it took some time to find one that wasn’t fully booked so we had to settle for something like our 8th choice.

Tips for Securing a Cheap Hostel / Guesthouse:

  • Book in advance – If you don’t book in advance, you run the risk of the cheap places being fully booked, especially if you’re in Southeast Asia during the high season.
  • Share a room with another traveler.
  • If you’re staying at one particular hostel or guesthouse for multiple nights, try to negotiate a lower price.
  • Check hostel and guesthouse reviews on Hostelworld.com
It's fun and convenient to get around Southeast Asian cities on a scooter

It's fun and convenient to get around Southeast Asian cities on a scooter

Tuk tuks are great if you need to travel a short distance quickly

Tuk tuks are great if you need to travel a short distance quickly

Take a Budget Airline

No frills carriers in Southeast Asia include:

  • Air Asia
  • Tiger Airways
  • Lion Air
  • Jetstar
  • Silk Air
In the mood for a snack? How about some fried crickets?! They can be found just at about any market in Southeast Asia

In the mood for a snack? How about some fried crickets?! They can be found just at about any market in Southeast Asia

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Tips for Cheap Food

Being on a budget is no problem when looking for a bite to eat. Food is generally very cheap and you can manage on just a couple of dollars a day if you eat local food at food stalls.

Tips for Eating Cheap

  • Eat at food stalls and avoid restaurants, especially Western ones which will set you back at least $5 a meal.
  • Shop around, vendors sometimes sell the same food for different prices
  • Buy snacks from small local shops rather than the more commercial stores
  • Drink local beer which is usually really cheap at around 50 cents, instead of imported beer

Transportation

In Southeast Asia, it’s amazing how cheaply and easily you can travel between cities and countries on buses. You can easily buy a bus ticket to your next destination at a local tourist agency or even sometimes at your hostel.

Tips for Getting Around Within Each City

  • When inside your destination city, take public transportation like buses or trains.
  • Rent bicycles to get around town which sometimes hostels provide for free to guests or cost just around $1 for a day.
  • If you'll need to travel long distances, consider renting a scooter which is relatively cheap (about 200 Baht in Thailand) and is a very convenient way to get around.
  • Don't take tuk-tuks for long distances as that will cost you generally more than any other mode of transportation. Tuk-tuks are a good option for short distances if you need to get somewhere quickly because they zoom their way through traffic. Make sure though to settle on a price before getting in the tuk-tuk. And another thing, in Thailand, tuk-tuk drivers get 50 Baht gas credit for each customer they bring into a store and they will certainly try to bring you to shops in order to buy precious gems, a suit, and tour packages. So, if you have some time to spare and plan to buy a tour package, you can actually get to your destination for free if you arrange with the driver to stop by a couple of shops. We did this and it worked.
Floating market outside of Bangkok

Floating market outside of Bangkok

On top of the world at Angkor Wat

On top of the world at Angkor Wat

Word of Caution About Common Backpackers Splurges

Although SE Asia is very cheap, many tourists spend way more than planned because of extras such as day trips to islands, bar tabs and other occasional splurges like cute Ganesha statues in Cambodia. Keep that in mind if you’re trying to not spend too much.

Advice About Touristy Destinations

More touristy cities like Phuket and Siem Reap are generally more expensive but even in those places, you can still find cheap accommodations as long as you’re willing to stay in less touristy parts of town.

General Tips for Traveling Southeast Asia on a Budget

  • Negotiate at the markets.
  • Don’t buy maps, ask your hostel or guesthouse if they have a free map and if not, ask a travel agency.
  • Exchange just enough money at the airport to get you to your hostel or guesthouse. Airports usually charge a commission and give the worst rate
  • Don’t exchange too much money because you may not spend it all. And then what are you going to do with all that leftover Dong (Vietnamese currency)?
  • Hand-wash your underwear and socks instead of using a laundry service for everything, which is by the kilogram, by the way. If you’re really trying to save money, you can buy some detergent and hand wash everything.
  • Bring your own towel to the beach instead of renting a beach chair.
  • If you want to book a package tour, shop around for prices because they will vary and you can negotiate the price down. Better yet, make your own tour by finding out how to get to the destination via public transportation or by scooter.
Elephant trekking in Vietnam

Elephant trekking in Vietnam

Closing Thoughts

Traveling around Southeast Asia cheaply is easy. It’s choosing where to go that’s hard! Speaking from experience.

Below is the route that my boyfriend and I took.

Our Route

© 2012 Anna

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