When I set out to visit Thailand I had no idea my three week vacation would become two months of backpacking Southeast Asia.
I packed, budgeted and planned for three weeks in Thailand. So how is it possible that I turned a planned vacation into a two month tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos?
Well, there were two reasons and they have a lot to do with budgeting: I had the summer off as a teacher and was still receiving paychecks from the previous school year and traveling in Southeast Asia (excluding the flight) was cheaper than living in DC or New Orleans.
Regardless, what I’m here to share is how to budget for a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. Since my experience was a bit spontaneous, my budget was blown and I did not travel as cheaply as I could have backpacking. If you need to travel on a budget though, it is fairly easy to do with a little planning.
The Local Currency
There are three types of currency I dealt with during my trip, baht (THB) in Thailand, US dollars (USD) in Cambodia and kip (LAK) in Laos. Yes, you read that right, Cambodia uses US dollars, and since they obviously do not produce the money themselves they will only take crisp bills without tears. The only time I encountered Cambodian riel (KHR) was when they were returning change because they don’t use American coins (1000 KHR is about 25 cents).
The exchange rates of October 6, 2014…
Gimme Some Cash
I did not order any currency in advance and brought about $600 on cash with me. When I arrived at BKK, I exchanged about $400 cash at a currency exchange counter in the airport. Following this I obtained all my local currency from local ATMs using a capital one check card.
In the case that you lose your card, report it at the first chance you get. It’s also a good idea to know your bank’s support options for sending a new card to a foreign country. I strongly recommend keeping a backup and separating your two cards. An ATM ate my check card in Koh Tao, Maggie’s credit card was stolen and charged with a lot of money in Koh Phi Phi and an ATM ate Maggie’s check card in Luang Prabang (which we thankfully got back by walking to the bank’s local office and asking them to retrieve it out of the machine… we really couldn’t handle losing another check card).
Here’s what I spent…
During 6 weeks backpacking in Southeast Asia, I spent:
Total with flight: $3,803
This figure can decrease significantly if you avoid premium expenses like airfare, use miles to reduce airfare to SEA or opt for budget accommodation.
This will likely be the most expensive part of your trip. We monitored flights for a few months and ended up booking with Emirates two months before our trip when we saw a round trip flight (IAD to BKK) for $1,200. Add in the $389 cost of changing our departure flight, we paid approximately $1,589 each.
Southeast Asia has a fairly dependable and consistent network for getting around. Airfare within the region can be extremely cheap (we flew from Bangkok to Phuket for just $56) or rather pricey (we flew from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang for $290) depending on the frequency of flights operating the route you are traveling. Trains cost much less at about $27 each way and buses were the cheapest, ranging from $5-20.
We mixed a variety of cheap and expensive options and came in at just over $500 for transportation costs during our six weeks backpacking (this does not include taxis – I included taxis in my daily allowance). Remember, traveling slower will save you money in the long run.
If you are looking for more information on transportation in Southeast Asia, check out my comprehensive guide to getting around.
Accommodations are fairly inexpensive in general, and dirt cheap if you stay in hostels. We found that splitting a private was sometimes as cheap as the dorm beds so don’t worry if you need your personal space.
We stayed at some really nice hostels and some not so nice hostels but when I did the math, we spent an average $8/night. This figure could be greatly reduced if you stick to budget accommodations. Wondering where to stay? Check out my guide here.
After looking at all of my expenses, I used an average of $30/day in spending money, however some days I spent next to nothing and other days I shopped Khaosan road and bought over $100 in souvenirs. I think setting aside enough for $30/day should be plenty for the average backpacker.
That being said, things in large cities like Bangkok and popular destinations like the islands are definitely more expensive than the other cities because they know there are tourists to pay the premium prices. Eating in a decent restaurant here could cost you anywhere from 220 to 450 THB ($7-14) for a dish, water and beverage. The smaller destinations were noticeably less expensive.
I probably spent way too much on food in the beginning of my trip because we ate in restaurants. The street food is faster, cheaper, fresher and way more delicious – you could easily get a dish like Pad Thai or a banana pancake for 50 THB or less. Plus, it’s a fun little adventure. If you’d like to know more, check out my guide to street food.
Another way to save money, is to buy water in places like 7 Eleven. Water in shops can cost as low as 7 THB a bottle and I was never turned away at a restaurant for bringing my own water (alcohol was a different story of course).
Although prices are higher in large cities like Bangkok and Siem Reap, it is easy to haggle because there is so much competition on the streets (you know, same same but different).
Shopping wasn’t a huge expense for me because I had to carry what I bought – no thanks. I waited until the last week to buy most of my mementos. Here are some tips for shopping and haggling in Southeast Asia.
Taxis usually cost $5-15 (split by all passengers) depending on the length of the trip. We didn’t take taxis everyday but the money I spent on taxis is figured into the $30/day average.
TOURS + EXCURSIONS
Guided tours and excursions are one of the best ways to see a lot of an area in a short period of time. My favorite tours included a jeep tour on Koh Samui, the James Bond island tour in Phuket (included the Monkey Temple) and the Maya Bay tour in Koh Phi Phi. And of course, my trip would not have been the same without our day at the Elephant Nature Park.
We spent $215 on excursions and it was all money well spent. We could not have achieved the experiences we had without the tour guides and packages listed above.
So how should you budget your trip?
In order to budget my trip to Thailand (the three weeks that I did budget for) I added up my potential daily cost ($30/day), the cost of the flight, the average cost per night for accommodations and any transportation or excursions I anticipated.It’s always better to save a little extra for unexpected expenses. Need some help budgeting your trip? Check out my budgeting worksheet here.
I would love to help you plan for your next trip! Shoot me an email or let me know if you have any questions/suggestions regarding budgeting for SEA in the comments below.
If you are looking for a packing guide, read this post.
Check out this post if you are looking for hostel recommendations.
And you can even take a look at my suggested itinerary.
Need help planning your own trip? Follow these 5 easy steps for building a travel itinerary.