Big Adventures, Small Budget
You don't need to be a high-roller to get the best from Southeast Asia – in fact you can live like a cheapskate and still bask on beautiful beaches, visit magnificent temples and delve into tropical jungles. But you do need to watch your spending and plan wisely.
Sidebar: Planning & Costs
- Planning Timeline
12 months before Calculate a trip budget and start saving.
6 months Pick which countries to visit, when and for how long. Research long-haul flights.
8 to 6 weeks Make passport and visa arrangements as needed.
4 weeks Get vaccinations and travel insurance.
2 weeks Reserve high-season transport and accommodation for popular destinations and activities.
1 week Book accommodation for arrival city; start packing.
- Average Costs
Bottle of beer US$1–3
Long-distance bus ticket US$10–30
Food-stall meal US$2–5
Guesthouse room US$5–20
Internet access per hour Free, or up to US$5
Domestic flight US$50–150
Southeast Asia's cost of living is very reasonable, so it's no struggle to get by on a daily budget of about US$25 to US$50 a day. This covers the basics: food, shelter, local transport and the odd cold beer. Costs will of course vary by country, the popularity of the destination and the time of year.
Factor any long-distance travel by bus, boat or air into your budget, and allow funds for any special activities, such as diving, wildlife tours or rock-climbing. Then add a buffer for unexpected expenses, such as increased costs during holiday periods or needing to get somewhere fast.
Accommodation costs will be a big portion of your budget; luckily, cheap digs abound, and the more creature comforts (air-con, hot water, en suite) you can forsake, the more you’ll save.
Public transport within each country is affordable, particularly if you travel as locals do – ie mainly by boat and bus. Air travel, rail travel, chartering boats and using taxis will ramp up your costs; use scheduled ferries and public buses or city mass transit networks to keep a lid on expenses.
Getting around some islands can be expensive because of price-fixing or lack of competition. Renting a motorcycle can be an affordable alternative to local transport. Even cheaper is bicycle hire, which is a great way to explore.
We posed the following question to our writers: What's the cheapest place for the best time in each country?
Brunei Darussalam Tiny, oil-rich Brunei can be a great budget destination if you arrive by bus from Malaysian Borneo. Stay in a hostel, dine in the open-air markets and tour the free cultural sights.
Cambodia You can have a great time living it up on the cheap on the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia's new party beaches, where you can score dorm beds for around US$5.
Indonesia Do Bali on the cheap by opting for an Ulu Watu homestay. Enjoy a surfer-chic scene and epic views with enough spare cash to wash it all down with several Bintangs.
Laos Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) is quintessential lotus-eating country: come for hammock-hanging, tubing down the river, river-dolphin-spotting, laid-back island life and the fun traveller scene.
Malaysia Pulau Perhentian is an awesome deal and has some of the cheapest diving in Asia, comparable to Ko Tao. Cherating is another budget-friendly beach.
Myanmar Although increasingly on the map, Hsipaw is still a charming traveller centre with plenty of budget food, activities and digs. Consider Kalaw or Kyaingtong for inexpensive tribal treks.
Philippines North Luzon and Palawan are inexpensive, off-the-beaten-track options. Sleep amid Batad’s rice terraces or camp on the beach in Coron or El Nido.
Singapore It's tricky be a high-flyer in Singapore on a shoestring, but the city's food centres offer gourmet eating for bargain prices.
Thailand Ko Tao is still a cheap place for an Open Water diving certificate. Heading south, eastern Ko Pha Ngan remains a bargain, and Railay near Krabi offers plenty of cheap digs for climbers.
Timor-Leste Catch a microlet (local bus) heading to Liquiçá (US$1) and hop off at the rocky point near the Pope’s monument. Welcome to Dili Rock West, a great spot for free snorkelling with amazing coral and fish.
Vietnam With some of the cheapest beer in the region (from US$0.30 a glass), Vietnam might win the budget showdown. Nha Trang is the backpackers’ beach, with a rocking nightlife and affordable lodging.
Sticking to a Budget
- Eat like a local at street stalls and day or night markets.
- Opt for dorm rooms or share a room with a friend.
- Stay in fan (non-air-con) rooms with shared bathrooms.
- Travel by road or boat instead of flying.
- Go snorkelling instead of diving.
- Hire a bicycle instead of a motorbike.
- Choose which national parks to visit based on entry fees.
- Know the price of local transport and bargain accordingly.
- Leave souvenir shopping to the end of your trip to avoid blowing your budget.
- Track your daily expenses so you know your average daily costs.
Accommodation will be one of your biggest expenses. Here are some tips for saving money:
- If the price is too high, ask if they have a cheaper room.
- Enquire about discounts in the low season.
- Once you’ve paid for a room, there's no refund, so pay by the day.
- When making bookings, don’t rely on agents, as they'll charge a commission.
- Consider overnight bus and boat journeys to save the cost of a night's accommodation.
Take as little as possible in your luggage: you’re going to have to carry it everywhere. Pack your bag once and then repack it with a third less stuff. Aim to make your pack small enough to fit into the aircraft’s overhead compartment, which represents the average size of most stowage areas on buses and trains. The smaller your pack the easier it will be to climb on and off public transport and to explore a new place on foot – and you’ll look like less of a target for touts and hustlers.
- Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date.
- Check if you need any visas before arrival.
- Organise travel insurance and an international driving permit.
- Visit a doctor to get any recommended vaccinations.
- Inform your bank and credit-card provider of your travel plans.
- Check your mobile phone is set up for international roaming.
What to Take
- A week's worth of lightweight clothes
- Rain gear (jacket, breathable poncho, dry pack for electronics)
- Comfortable sandals and walking shoes
- Medicine/first-aid kit
- USB drive for storing digital copies of documents and photos
- GSM mobile phone
- Refillable water bottle
- Sunscreen and heavy-duty deodorant
What to Wear
In general, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes are the most comfortable option. Swimwear is pretty much essential, but only appropriate for the beach. Shorts are ideal for the climate, but may be frowned on in rural areas; loose-fitting long cotton trousers work everywhere.
Bring comfortable thongs (flip-flops) or sandals – they're easy to slip on and kick off when entering homes, hostels and religious buildings – along with comfortable walking shoes (sneakers are generally fine) for hikes and motorcycle rides.
Wear clothes that cover down to your elbows and knees for visits to temples, mosques and rural villages. A sarong can be purchased locally and is handy for quick cover-ups. Bring a jacket or fleece for cool temperatures in the mountains and on heavily air-conditioned buses.