The backpacking trail through Southeast Asia is well worn. People have been traveling it since the 1970s. Starting in beautiful Thailand, the trail makes its way to up-and-coming Laos, through Vietnam, and through the temples of Angkor Wat. It then heads back into Thailand, where people head south to party in the Thai Islands before moving down to into Malaysia and Singapore. There’s a few variations on the trail but this is what it mostly covers. The warm months of November-April draw the biggest crowds. Everyone is escaping the cold in Europe, and it’s not too hot in the region. Despite the vastness of the region, the tourist trail is much more uniform in many ways than Europe. Prices can be quite similar in places, transportation types don’t vary too much, and general travel advice is usually the same.
Accommodation – Accommodation in Southeast Asia is really cheap. You can find dorm rooms for as little as 8,000-20,000 KHR or 16,000-40,500 LAK ($2-5 USD) in parts of Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, you will typically pay 200-440 THB ($6-13 USD) per night. In Vietnam, expect to pay 100,000-175,000 VND ($5-8 USD). In Indonesia, between 100,000-135,000 IDR ($8-10 USD). Private rooms with fan are around 140,000 IDR ($10 USD) while rooms with air-conditioning are around 280,000 IDR ($20 USD). Prices are higher in the cities and touristy areas and lower in rural areas. You can usually stay cheaply by booking hostels and guesthouses, so Couchsurfing and Airbnb don’t really need to be used here. Budgeting $10-20 USD per night for accommodation is pretty safe no matter where you go in Southeast Asia.
Over the last few years, hostels have been stepping up their game and have become a unique part of traveling in Southeast Asia. Most hostels offer much more than free Wifi, showers, and a place to sleep. Lots of them now come with cheap bars and restaurants attached, free breakfast, lounging spaces, bike rentals, book exchanges, organized activities, and lots of opportunities to socialize with other travelers. The facilities themselves have been upgraded too – so say hello to real mattresses and pristine bathrooms (sometimes!). There is no need to book accommodation in advance when traveling around Southeast Asia. Backpackers have the tendency to just show up and book a room on the spot. I only book the first night’s accommodation in any city (which is only because I’m usually too tired to walk around looking for a place to sleep at that point). If you want to book your accommodation sight-unseen, be sure to check the star ratings on TripAdvisor before you book a multiple-night stay.
If you’re looking for hotels or luxurious accommodation, you can definitely book that as well. This is a region of the world where your dollar stretches far, so go ahead and book a resort for a few nights (if that’s what you desire). I like to book through Agoda.com whenever booking non-hostel stays in Southeast Asia.
Food – Food is very inexpensive in Southeast Asia and if you are spending a lot of money on food, you are doing something wrong. Even with a balance of Western meals and local dishes, I rarely spend more than $15 per day on food unless I decide to feed my sushi addiction.
In Southeast Asia, street food is the most popular form of eating. On average, these meals cost no more than $1.50 USD. You find these stalls throughout this region lining major streets and at the markets. In Thailand, you even find markets specially for street food. In Singapore, you’ll find street food (or “hawker stands” as they are called there) to be around 4.25 SGD ($3 USD) for a meal. Even if you go into small local restaurants, the price does not increase that much. Food you can find for $1.50 USD at a street stall will only cost $3-5 USD at a local restaurant. Western meals, including burgers, bad pizza, sandwiches, cost around $5 USD for cheaply made food. This is going to be the most expensive part of your food budget. If you want something that actually tastes like it does back home, you’re looking at spending at least $10 USD for your meal. In the mood for a really nice bowl of pasta? $8 USD. Want a deliciously made steak? At least $20 USD. In short, even though the food is cheaper than back home, it is expensive by local standards and eating a lot of western food will diminish your ability to spend little in this region.
Transportation – The easiest and cheapest way to get around Asia is by bus. A bus will take you everywhere and anywhere you want to go, no matter how far. The backpacker trail is so worn that there is a very well established and oiled tourist bus system to take you anywhere. Buses costs vary between $5-8 USD for a 5-6 hours journey. Overnight buses cost $10-15 USD depending on distance. Local public transportation costs from a few pennies to a few dollars. In Bangkok, the public bus costs 4 THB (10 cents) while in the above and underground trains (they one of each) costs 35 THB ($1 USD). In Singapore, the local train system starts at 1.40 SGD ($1 USD).
Taxis and tuk tuks (small shared taxis with no meter) will require a bit of haggling and cost more than local transportation. Taxis and tuk tuks are normally double to triple what the local transportation is and you often have to haggle for the price. They start really high and you work towards something you are willing to pay. Eventually you come to a conclusion, which is usually about half the price they started with.
Outside of Thailand and the Singapore-Bangkok train (which is long and overpriced), train service is limited and not worth considering.
Activities – Activities here are pretty cheap. Most day tours only cost around $15 USD, often times less. Learning to scuba dive will set you back a few hundred dollars and the multi-day pass to Angkor Wat is 160,000 KHR ($39 USD).
Booking tours and experiences in Southeast Asia is a test of patience and negotiation skills. I’ve never booked anything before landing in any city because that’s a sure-fire way to overpay. Always wait until you get there. There are tons of tour operators and small shops dotting the backpacker streets that you can negotiate with to get a good price. Go to a few shops and ask around to get a feel for what you should be paying for a day-tour or excursion. Years ago, I paid 1,060 THB ($30 USD) to zip-line near Bangkok and found out that another guy had booked his trip online before he landed and paid over $100 USD for the exact same tour.
Money Saving Tips
Southeast Asia is really cheap. You can get by on as little as $15 USD per day if you want, though $25 USD is more realistic. There’s little opportunity to really spend a lot of money. The two reasons why most people end up overspending is that they eat a lot of western food and drink way too much. If you want to save money while traveling in this part of the world, you’ll need to cut down the drinking and try to eat as much local food as you can. After all, did you travel half way around the world to eat a crappy burger? Doubtful. If drink a lot or eat Western food, you’ll end up spending close to $35 USD per day.