How to Budget for South-East Asia Islands – South-East Asia is certainly considered an affordable travel destination, which helps make it so gosh-darn fun and wonderful. When I backpacked through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Borneo, I often spent an average of $6 – $12 US a day. Really!! This daily budget usually included my accommodation (shared), two to three meals + goodies, transportation, and any event or touristy activity I had planned such as entrance fees, bike rentals, a movie treat….and the occasional beer or two. It’s important to note that this budget significantly depended on whether we stayed in one spot for a few days or were on the move since constant travel will indeed be more pricy. Also, many guesthouses will provide a better rate if you stay for three or four nights instead of just one night.
Just how did I travel so cheaply? – I kept to a budget and was perhaps a bit OCD about sticking to my “recommended” daily allotment. Tough decisions such as “should I buy dessert or this pretty bracelet today?” were the norm, and I often chose to walk several miles to a temple or beach instead of taking a tuk-tuk or hiring a driver. Liz, Jen and I hunted around for affordable accommodation instead of going with the touts at the bus station, and we made every attempt to eat with the locals at markets or street cafes. Every cent added up and sticking to a budget allowed me to travel for several months longer than I had previously anticipated. Who doesn’t love that?
However, even with a budget, we quickly discovered that island hopping through South-East Asia was much more expensive than traveling on the mainland. A bowl of noodles doubled in price (and decreased in deliciousness), a room was 50% more per night, beer was always more expensive, and petrol/ gas prices increased – thus increasing the cost of island transport. Since skipping our island travel was NOT an option, we quickly learned a few tips and tricks that helped stretch both our dollars and our travel time in the islands.
Travel Local – Why yes, that Bangkok to Ko Samui backpacker bus might be the quickest, but are you really going to enjoy traveling with 45 other Westerners for fourteen hours? Isn’t the point of traveling to meet the locals and experience the culture? Instead of spending your time with obnoxious GAP year students on a cattle bus, try the train or local bus routes. It might take a wee bit more planning, and gasp! you may have to put in some effort in going to the bus station to purchase a ticket. Go for it. You’ll thank yourself in the end, and you can now use that extra money to buy yet another yarn bracelet on Ko Tao.
Eat and Drink Street Food – I’ll admit it. One of my biggest pet peeves of other travelers is when they shy away from or flat out refuse to eat street food. What is wrong with you people? Sure, maybe you got a case of Delhi Belly from a street samosa, but will that really cause you to simply give up these fantastic, savory delights? Street food is cheap, often 1/4 the cost of a sit-down restaurant meal. Street food is often hygienically safer than restaurant food too. A plate of pad thai is cooked it right in front of you. It’s hot. The bugs are dead…or they will be soon. Street food is also a cultural experience. Where do you see the locals eating? Take the time to sit (or squat) on that plastic stool and start a conversation with them. (Hint: Instead of hitting up the Starbucks on Haad Rin Beach, head to the left one more street. You’ll find the most delicious -and strong- coffee! A plus? You get to drink it out of a plastic bag!)
Find Travel Buddies – Traveling single? Make friends with your seat buddy on the bus or the single traveler reading a book at the cafe. If no signs point to “crazy lunatic,” perhaps consider sharing a guesthouse room or splitting the moto-ride across the island. Check out travel forums for other single travelers. (Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums is a good one). Prices will be cheaper when you can split the cost and your room will often be nicer (are sometimes larger too). I’ve shared with dozens of people I’ve met along the backpacker trail, and I once spent two weeks sharing accommodation with an actor from the UK as we trekked the Annapurna trail. Male or female, young or old – try it out. You don’t have to become best friends, and you can easily part ways if you find out they snore, smell, or attempt to get into bed with you. (Hopefully the later doesn’t happen!)
Accept Imperfection – Local travel can be different, but you didn’t come to the Perhentian Islands to stay at the Hilton. Yes, your bus might stop along an empty road for a bathroom break. Never peed in the middle of a field with fifty other people? Yeah – well, get over it. Can’t find anything to eat at the local market? ASK!! More often than not, the cook will be only too happy to make what you request if you simply point to the food choices you’d like. Your bunk might be hard, the shower might be freezing cold, your fan might not circulate as much air as you’d like. Get over it and put your big girl britches on.
Save the Party Lifestyle for Later – You’re not rushing for a sorority, sweetie. There is no need to get sloshing drunk every night. You will only waste money and look like an idiot. Plus, unless you are completely comfortable with your surroundings, getting obliterated is dangerous and could make you an easy target for robbery or something worse.
Look at it this way. Alcohol is usually the most expensive item on a menu. One drink is more than one meal. You do the math. Of course, enjoy yourself by all means, but save the heavy partying for another time. Your wallet – and liver- will thank you.
Try Something Un-Touristy– Hang out on the beach. Watch people. Grab a bench in the town square. Journal. Take photos. Sketch. Hike. Watch people. Visit with the locals. Find a school and volunteer for a day. Feed the homeless animals. You don’t have to surf, skydive, waterboogieboard, jetski, get massages, or do something from the Lonely Planet Guidebook every.single.day.
But most of all…….
Be Patient – Stop. Put down that heavy backpack. Take a deep breath. And relax for goodness sake. You’re traveling the world. There is no need to loose your cool or have a breakdown. I know it’s confusing to communicate in another language, try to explain which bunk you want on an overnight bus ride, or attempt to understand when the train will arrive in the depot at 2 a.m because you don’t know the city and how in the heck are you going to find a place to sleep at that time in the morning anyway? I’ve been there.
I once flat out started crying because I was so frustrated with myself and the bus-ticket-lady in some out of the way destination. There was a huge line of waiting passengers behind me, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, and it was about 110 degrees in the station. As I tried to smile through my tears and wipe away the sweat pouring down my face, the bus-ticket-lady pulled out a napkin, sat me on a plastic stool, and proceeded to draw me a very detailed map, thus ignoring the annoyed people behind me and helping me figure out where I was going. The locals will help you if you don’t act like an jerk Westerner. Be friendly. Learn a few words of the local language and slow….the….heck…down.
Of course, you will spend money on things you don’t need. We all do. I have a collection of oddly shaped Buddha statues sitting in a box in my garage, and an equally embarrassing assortment of ill-fitting fisherman pants stuffed in a bottom drawer. And I indeed bought way too much crap at the various Boots chemists sprinkled throughout Thailand. Impulse buys? Probably. Whoops. Have your fun and get back on track the next day….or the next. Simply having an idea of a budget and how long your current savings will last during your travels is a terrific start. Get on your way, kid!