Budgeting Backpacking in SE Asia

(Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam)

**May 2013 Update: Click here for my new budgeting article on India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka!

**May 2013 Update: One more travel note related to Alcohol. During my trip I did drink casually but not to a level which people might during a shorter vacation-type trip. Party-people should adjust their budgets up.

**March 2013 Update: Thanks for everyone for visiting my site and checking out my article. The response has been incredible! 2,600+ unique views after being posted on just a couple websites. I’ve even gotten some direct mails from future travelers with planning questions to which I’ve happily responded. Of all the feedback I’ve received the most important has been about travel timing. My trip fell during the shoulder tourism months for the region. Just as my trip was coming to an end I had entered peak season and prices noticeably increased sometimes overnight. If you plan on traveling during peak season I’d estimate the total cost for this type of trip to increase at least 30%, possibly more. Please do further research if this applies to your trip timing!

Introduction

There seems to be a set of standard questions individuals tend to ask when I share my experiences with long term international travel: Which country has been your favorite?, Where do you sleep each night?, How can you afford to be on vacation for that long? Responses to these questions will be long and there may not be a possible answer for the first as each unique experience was so meaningful. The final question, however, is the most tangible and my goal is to detail it so that it can be replicated by others. This is my individual experience and can vary for everyone; make sure you research further before embarking.

The questions asked aren’t framed properly, however. Vacations are a costly proposition for even higher-class people in wealthier nations, where a one week exotic vacation can cost over $1,000 without batting an eyelash. What looks on paper to be a $15,000 vacation can be quite mindboggling for anyone who wants to replicate my traveling vacation in any fashion. In truth, though, this wasn’t a vacation that I was actually on.

Many people, at least in the US, have little to no experience with backpack traveling and how it differs from vacationing. For them backpacking is vacationing. They could not be more different. Vacations are short term, high cost, focused, planned, and pleasurable experiences. Even if you subject yourself to a three-week-long intensive trek in the Nepali Himalayas, you plan to come back energized from the break in your normal routine. Traveling, specifically budget backpacking, is open-ended, cost conscious, confusing, exciting, exhausting, uncomfortable, and an endless learning experience. Long haul buses, dorms, street food, limited alcohol, budget activities, haggling, bugs, rodents, illness, ride shares, sweating, endless walking, scams. If you are expecting that my article will reveal the Top 10 Secrets of Vacationing on a Budget then you will be severely disappointed. Instead, read on if the adventures in the world you wish to face might have some bugs and bumps between you and your final destination.

About Joseph

  • Born in the USA
  • 27 years old at the time of travel
  • B.S. degree in finance and marketing
  • Former project manager in the tech industry

The Trip & Cost Logging

My budget backpacking trip through four countries in Southeast Asia began mid-June 2012 and continued through mid-September. Other than leaving the region in September for travel, in India little of the 103 days were planned. I didn’t even know where I would go after arriving in Bangkok from Philadelphia on my one way ticket. As I would quickly come to find out, open ended travel in Southeast Asia tends to work itself out without much effort or expense. And after logging every single expense along the way, down to a pack of chips, I have support to back up that claim.

Yes, you read that correctly. Over the course of the 3 months I recorded every purchase no matter how small. Meals, water, coffee, transportation, visas, chips, smoothies, gum, ticket fees, housing, and more. To be exact, I recorded 1,040 purchases. Even further, each purchase was eventually entered into a database and tagged in detail. Immediately after completing the database and reviewing cost summaries, I knew a fair amount of commenting and qualifications would be required in order for others to accurately interpret the information.

The first qualification that I should make is about the nature of my trip. My time in Southeast Asia was the first part of a larger world trip also through Southern Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Therefore, traveling was a lifestyle and my purchasing habits reflected this fact. For example, at times I spent money on movie tickets, hard-to-find pricey western products, travel gear, and electronics replacements. Travelers facing a nearer term return home might be able to hold off on such purchases but my sanity demanded that I did not. To make this article useful to both world and region-only trip planners I’ll provide separate cost views to surface a handful of my substantial world-trip expenses.

Top Experiences:

Trip Map:

Trip Map

Total Trip Length: 103 Days
Thailand18 days Laos24 days Cambodia16 days Vietnam29 days Thailand16 days
  1. Bangkok
  2. Chiang Mai
  3. Chiang Rai
  4. Chiang Kong
  1. Pak Bang
  2. Luang Prabang
  3. Nong Khiaw
  4. Vang Vieng
  5. Vientiane
  6. Tha Khaek
  7. Pakse
  8. Don Det & Don Khon
  1. Siem Reap
  2. Battambang
  3. Phnom Penh
  1. Ho Chi Minh City
  2. Mui Ne
  3. Dalat
  4. Hoi An
  5. Hue
  6. Hanoi
  7. SaPa
  1. Bangkok
  2. Koh Tao

Logging Method

During my trip cost logging was an ongoing daily process. After some practice it was easy to remember even the paltriest of purchases 24 hours after the fact. Depending on mood and contextual value I would record varying levels of deal. Sometimes a 45 Thai baht dinner would simply be recorded in the day’s log as “dinner 45”. Other foods might have more detail if they were particularly tasty or cost was out of the ordinary. E.g. “pineapple passion fruit mango smoothie 40”. Eventually I transferred these simple notes into a database, manually categorized them, and applied currency conversions to normalize the different currencies. Almost each purchase type has a main type category and sub-type but some of the sub categories have not been meaningful or straightforward so I’ve omitted them from many of the summaries.

Example of transcribed database entry:

Database Example

Purchase Types

Cost Calculator

This article ended up being a lot more detailed than I had ever imagined it would be so I created this nifty budget calculator using all my purchase information to make things easier. It’s still important that you read through the article before using it to gain a general understanding of its methods. If you find that the totals don’t match up please let me know! Click the icon download…

excel_icon

Exchange Rates Used

The accuracy of this article will likely fluctuate with currency exchange rates and local inflation/deflation. If current exchange rates differ greatly from below then consider making the appropriate adjustments to your total cost.

1 USD to THB = 31.887755

1 USD to LAK = 8,000

1 USD to VND = 20,845

1 USD to KHR = 4,000

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude by reiterating the piece of travel wisdom which I opened with in the summary section: don’t micromanage your spending while traveling. I’ve provided a lot of detail here so you can confidently build an overall budget target before heading out. Once you arrive let it all go, follow the budget backpacker crowds, maintain a weekly feel for your spending, and enjoy your trip!

Support the Site

Even after spending a considerable amount of time writing this article I’ve decided to release it onto the internet for free. If you found this site useful please consider supporting the site in these ways:

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Contact Me

If you have any questions about what I’ve written please share them publicly via the commenting system on this page so that others can benefit from answers that I share. Private inquiries can be made by emailing me at eme.


Number crunchers and serious trip planners forge on…

Cost Summary & Cost per Day (Excl. Flights)

Finally! Numbers. A lot of them. Before we dive in I’d like to provide a piece of travel wisdom: Don’t micro-manage your spending. While I was militant about recording my costs, I rarely thought about my spending deeper than daily and weekly targets. I drank an excessive number of fruit shakes, enjoyed local beer, ate fancy cake, went to movies, canyoned down waterfalls, went rafting, watched muy thai matches, rented scooters, booked tours, etc. Big purchases were weighted against general feel for how it would fit into my budget and rarely did I decide not to go off on a popular activity in a travel local. Use much of this data to get your general bearings and only dive deep out of curiosity.

Table1: Region Totals

In Table 1 one you’ll see a familiar list of cost types but now with numbers attached. The Grant Totals are total USD spent in all 4 countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vientam). For example, during my 103 day trip I spent $958 on food. The Food category also has sub-item detail showing how much of that $958 was spent on meals ($575) or water ($44). I’ve also broken down the grand totals into two additional columns: Regional Base and +World Trip. The regional base column only includes purchases that I feel are relevant to all travelers in the region. If travel in this region is part of a larger world trip then you should consider including the costs in the +World Trip column as well. If you add the regional base column to the world trip column it will equal the grand totals.

Continuing, the ‘Region Base’ and ‘With +World Trip’ cost per day columns contain some of the most useful numbers in this entire report. The Regional Base per day column divides the row sum by total number of days of my trip. E.g. for Health, $35 / 103 days = $0.34 per day. The With +World Trip per day column is grand total divided by total days of my trip. E.g. for Health, ($35 +$127) / 103 days = $1.58.

Follow down these two cost per day columns to find two very important figures of grand total cost per day. For region-only budget backpackers I estimate it would cost approximately $36 a day and for world trippers $44. As long as you travel in the region for a similar amount of time you can use these numbers to estimate a total cost. E.G. 90 days * $36 for slightly shorter trip or 120 days * $36 for a longer one. Wait…! We’re not done yet. Keep reading.

I’ve chosen to exclude a major cost, in fact the most major cost, from these numbers: flights. This was done because it has such a large impact on trip cost but it’s also very variable for each individual traveler. I’d highly recommend that each budget traveler plan their trip to minimize or even totally eliminate intra-region flights between the 4 countries. Aside from my flight into the region, a flight from Hanoi and Bangkok, then my flight out the region all transport was by land or water. I’ll talk more about this and a few other important cost considerations in the section “Putting it All Together”.

Table 2: World Trip Detail

So what’s all this +World Trip column nonsense? I explained the purpose above but here is the exact detail of what these numbers contain. Note that the grand total of the column in Table 1 ($861) matches the grand total in Table 2. With this detail you can mix and mash your own totals and costs per day.

Table 3 is my attempt to surface the most costly purchases during the entirety of my trip. These top 20 costs represent only 2% of total purchase count but a whopping 42% of total cost. Big purchases, in this case greater than $28, will make or break your budgeting. The main purpose of sharing this view is to allow trip planners to subtract my large purchases from the grand totals in Table 1 and produce your own more accurate cost per day numbers. I.E. If you certainly don’t plan on getting scuba diving certifications then it would be wise as a world tripper to subtract $282 for Open water and $240 for Advanced certification from the $4,533 grand total in Table 1. Then divide by my total number of days (103) to generate a more conservative cost per day. The total cost math would be as follows for a shorter 90 day trip without scuba certification (($4,533 – $282 – $240) / 103 days) * 90 days =  ~$3505 total cost. I provide more examples of how to generate your own cost per day and total cost further down in the report.

Table 3: Individual Purchases

Putting it All Together

After running through all of my numbers I hope you were able to come up with your own magic total cost number. With this number you complete final stretch of budget planning and get a ‘final final’ total cost. The number you have now is just the total cost excluding flights but also excludes a few other important costs. The first are gear costs. Unless you’ve gone on a similar trip in the past you’ll need to buy nice backpack and probably a few other things. E.g. first aid kit, SD memory cards for your camera, travel towel, dry bags. World trippers will have to stock up on more items many of which are specialized for rough handling and are expensive. Without going into further detail my own world tripper gear cost was approximately $1,500. Perhaps in the future I will write another cost article on just travel gear.

Next you’ll have to research and add in travel insurance cost. This can be pretty simple since at the time of this writing World Nomads seems to be the go-to travel insurer for most backpackers. Visit their site to get a quote and don’t go cheap. Buy their ‘deluxe’ option. At the time of this writing their standard 3 month plan costs $185 and their deluxe Explorer plan costs $250. If you are feeling particularly generous, buy your World Nomads insurance package through my referral under the section Support the Site.

And finally, the 20% safety buffer. Saving up beyond the estimated total cost is a wise move in my opinion. It will give you peace of mind, an emergency fund, and if you’re lucky you’ll come back home after your trip with some breathing room. Coming home broke can’t be a good thing, right?

That’s about all I can think of. Total Cost.

(Your Total Cost + flight costs + gear cost + travel insurance costs) * 1.2 safety buffer = Total Cost

A Few More Examples

Example 1:

You are a region-only traveler with plans to travel throughout all 4 countries for 75 days. An organized trip to SaPa, Vietnam and getting a custom tailored suit in Hoi An, Vietnam are of no interest to you.

Region-base grand total (Table 1): $3,672

Joseph’s trip length (Table 1): 103 days

2 day, 1 night SaPa tour (Table 3): $116

Custom tailored suit in Vietnam (Table 3): $126

Shipping custom tailored suit to USA (Table 3): $62

The math…

example_1_formula

Example 2:

You are a world tripper with plans to travel throughout all 4 countries for 120 days. Open water scuba PADI certification sounds good but you’re not interested in getting certified as advanced. Also, you have great vision!

Grand Total (Table 1): $4,533

Joseph’s trip length (Table 1): 103 days

Advanced scuba certification (Table 3): $240

Contact lenses (Table 3): $82

The math…

example_2_formula

Country Detail

The next 4 sections will follow a format similar to the overall cost summary but will be filtered for an individual country. The sum of each country’s Grand Total equals the sum of the overall Grand Total. Using this detail a trip planner can further adjust their grand totals to remove an entire country from their itinerary or plan a single-country backpacking trip. I’ve also included a new table in each section which lists costs for individual daily purchases such a bottle of coke, toilet paper, and mosquito spray.  Use these daily numbers just to get your bearings and satisfy curiosities. They’re not meant to help with cost planning.

Thailand

Total Costs: Thailand

Top 10 Costs: Thailand

Individual Purchases: Thailand

Laos

Total Cost: Laos

Top 10 Costs: Laos

Individual Purchases: Laos

Cambodia

Total Cost: Cambodia

Top 10 Costs: Cambodia

Individual Purchases: Cambodia

Vietnam

Total Cost: Vietnam

Top 10 Costs: Vietnam

Individual Purchases: Vietnam

One Final Example

You are a regional traveler who is planning a 70 day trip through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam and scuba diving certification in Thailand doesn’t interest you.

Region-base grand total (Table 1): $3,672

Joseph’s total trip length (Table 1): 103 days

Joseph’s Vietnam trip length: 29 days

Vietnam region-base grand total (Table 4): $1,054

Open water scuba certification (Table 3): $282

Advanced scuba certification (Table 3): $240

The math…

example_final_formula

Note: Notice in this example I’ve subtracted 29 days from my total trip length before finding cost per day. Since we’re removing an entire country from the trip budget rather than just a single activity such as scuba diving it’s important to more accurately represent total days of the trip.

You’ve made it to end! Thanks for reading!

  • http://www.goldenbooktraveler.com Jason Boehle

    Great detailed post. I can tell you put alot of work in this article. Im in Malaysia at the moment and plan on doing on of these backpacking trips very soon!

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      Thanks for reading! It took a lot longer to out this together than I thought it would. Hopefully at least a few people find it useful for planning their own trips. … When I make it back to the region Malaysia will be on my list of places to visit. Heard there are some good scuba deals there.

  • arnold

    thanks Joseph. I’m heading to Chiang Mai soon. This info is helpful

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      No problem. Glad to hear it helps.

  • michael

    Very interesting. I’m on the same curcuit at the moment as well and budgeting the same way. Although my journey in Asia will be roughly 15 months I’m looking at doing something very similar to your travels in mainland south east asia and on a similar budget. Some nice help and interesting to see how well you kept records of all your expenses.

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      It was a blast! Cost tracking was a small thing even though the length of the writeup suggests otherwise. I just wanted to put out something helpful and unique. Enjoy your trip!

  • disqus_ZT0zpdY3zP

    I think you should clarify that these accomodation costs were extremely basic i.e. dorm and totally off season. Realistically I don’t think anyone can get these prices for accomodation.in traveling november – march. Im in Phnom Penh, as of February 2012 paying 12 dollars for a fan room, which is ok. For 7 dollars I could get a terrible one. Bangkok is way more expensive than Phnom Penh. So the above figures may be realistic for off season, two people travelling together and willing to put up with the lowest of low accomodation, otherwise it’s not realistic.

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      Correct. This is one of the things I’ll need to add to the article soon. I felt the high season price hike just as I was leaving the region. Season really really matters. I’d estimate at least a 30% price increase, sometimes overnight, if you trip overlaps the official high season months. Thanks for your comment. Great catch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zuzana.alexandrova.1 Zuzana Alexandrova

    Thanks for the tips… Me and my boyfriend plan a 6 months trip to Thailand and Malaysia this year… As it’s first backpacking trip for us, this is very helpful. :)

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      No problem! Glad it helped. Enjoy your trip.

      —– Reply message —–

  • NoPoMan

    Great site!! Very comprehensive. To expect the prices you paid for things, would you recommend traveling from April – on, is that the off season?

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      Thanks! Take a look at Lonely Plant’s weather section for each country that you are interested in visiting. For example, for Thailand they listed April to June, September and October as less busy months. Found here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/weather

  • Marian Newman

    Wonderful – Just the sort of information we need. Will be travelling Nov’13 to March 14. Have spent 2x 4 months backpacking southern India and this is great for comparing prices – India does appear to be a cheaper option but it’s time for a change!

  • Ian

    Amazing. All the while i thought i am too stupid to log everything i spend for. At the moment, im at my 111th day and spent an average of $13/day, but hoping to meet my $10 budget within the coming 2 months. And Hope to even get it below that as I complete my 1 year travelling (assimming im becoming smarter with my expenses as i progress along). I logged all my expenditure here http://www.limbonis.com/2014/05/my-limbonisasia-trip-365days-challenge.html?m=1

    • http://waytomanang.com/ Joseph

      Hey Ian — Great photos on your site! $10/day?! It’d be hard for me to pull that off. Looks like you’re having a great time.