Monday, December 2, 2013

How to Plan a Budget for Backpacking in Southeast Asia

"How much money did you spend to go backpacking in Southeast Asia?"

Thus goes a question I often get asked. The truth is, I never have a definitive answer. When I first went backpacking in Southeast Asia, I had an initial budget for three months of travel. But that soon extended to six months, which then became a digital nomad life wherein I earned while I traveled. It was, and still is, difficult to identify an exact figure.

Then again, even if I knew my exact figure, telling it to people might not be useful anyway precisely because it is *my* budget. At the end of the day, we will differ in how we spend money as we all differ on how we travel.

So instead of telling you how much money I spent to go backpacking in Southeast Asia (whichever of my trips you were referring to), let me tell you how I plan my budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia. It will provide more value, I think, for those planning their own short or extended trip in this region. Plus, it'll be simpler for me. Here are my five easy steps:

Singaporean Dollars
Planning a budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia? Easy!

1. Budget for accommodations.

When I plan my budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia, the basic fund for accommodations is a meager 10 USD. (See how cheap it can be?) A budget of 10 USD normally affords me a bed in a hostel dorm room for one night, my preferred accommodation. In a small town in the countryside, the same amount can afford me a private room or a spartan bungalow per night. It's double (or triple) that amount if I want to stay in a private room in a hostel or a budget hotel in the city.

If I were staying for at least a month in one city, I might be able to bargain that 10 USD down to 5 USD a night. I did so many times in Chiang Mai for a furnished studio apartment (AC, WiFi, and utilities all included). Then again, Chiang Mai can be a really cheap place (which I love).

If I wanted better facilities but still stay in a hostel setup, I would find a boutique hostel (e.g. Grid 9 in Kuala Lumpur, Six Degrees in Jakarta) and spend a few dollars more. Of course, with boutique hostels like May de Ville in Hanoi or EDU Hostel in Yogyakarta, you actually spend less than 10 USD, providing you great value for money.

EDU Hostel, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
A boutique hostel with an awesome hangout area like this and for 7 USD a night? Yes, please!

By the way, I use Hostelbookers or Hostelworld to book the first night or first couple of nights wherever I go. I just prefer not lugging my backpack around upon arriving in a new city looking for one available and affordable hostel after another. Personal preference. It might not be yours.

10 USDper night for a bed in a hostel
15 USDper night for a bed in a boutique hostel
20 USDper night per person for a private room

2. Budget for food.

This one is easy. Southeast Asia is chock-full of places where cheap, good food can be had. Street-side food stalls, food markets, food courts, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and hawker centers provide backpackers and budget travelers great value for money. You don't need to go far to find these places, too. They are literally everywhere.

Often, I only spend 1 to 2 USD per meal to get my fill of good food. This applies to places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In places like Malaysia, Singapore, and oddly enough, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines, maybe 3 to 4 USD would be a better budget allocation.

Bun Thit Nuong, Hoi An, Vietnam
The best bun thit nuong (rice noodle salad with grilled pork) that 1 USD could buy in Hoi An, Vietnam

I rarely go mid-range with my food choices while I travel, but when I do, I spend about 5 USD and rarely spend more than 10 USD.

2 USDper meal in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia
3 USDper meal in Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines
5 USDper meal to dine in a mid-range restaurant (up to 10 USD maybe)

3. Budget for transport

This one is a little trickier to include in a budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia. If the entire trip lasts only a few days to a week, then it's likely that I know which cities and towns I'm covering. Thus, figuring out transport options and fares is a little bit easier. It's just a matter of checking different resources (Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Seat61, etc.) to get the most reliable information.

Longer than a week, however, when itineraries (if it's wise to have them at all) become really loose, what I would typically do is set a fund for travel from one city to the next. For overland travel (buses or trains), I set a fund of 25 USD.

Why 25 USD? Because a surprising number of routes actually costs 25 USD: a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, from Saigon to Siem Reap, from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (cheaper the other way around); or, a train from Hanoi to Sapa, from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. They all cost more or less 25 USD. (I kid you not. Look it up.) Admittedly, there are routes costing less, especially when you don't mind giving up a few creature comforts or when your next destination is close by. Still, 25 USD is a good number to work with, no?

Sleeper Bus in Vietnam
A typical sleeper bus in Vietnam (not in the shot: snoring seatmates)

If the next city I am heading to requires me to travel more than 12 hours overland, then I start considering flying instead. With budget airlines and promo fares regularly available, a one-way flight to anywhere within Southeast Asia should only be around 80 USD. Anything above 100 USD, I suck it up and travel overland.

25 USDper overland trip (bus, train) from one city to the next
80 USDper one-way flight for distant cities

4. Budget for the big-ticket tourist attractions.

Then, there are the big-ticket tourist attractions. This is something I meticulously include in my budget when backpacking in Southeast Asia because most of these tourist attractions are quite expensive. Not taking them into consideration will blow my budget off the roof. That I don't want to happen.

Of course, you can always argue that seeing these big-ticket tourist attractions isn't really an absolute necessity. I'd agree. You can have the best time backpacking in Southeast Asia without seeing Halong Bay, Angkor Wat, or what have you. Ultimately, it will be your choice to see them or not. It was mine.

Anyway, what are these big-ticket tourist attractions? Angkor Archeological Park in Cambodia, The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo in East Java, and many others.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
One of the biggest big-ticket attractions in Southeast Asia: Halong Bay

Lonely Planet and Wikitravel usually have enough information on entrance fees, tour costs, or transport fares for these big-ticket tourist attractions. Basically, I figure out which attractions I absolutely cannot miss and account their specific costs into the budget.

5. Budget for miscellaneous expenses.

This part is totally up to the traveler. Typically, what I do is match my miscellaneous expenses fund for the day with my food fund for the day. If my food fund for the day is 6 USD (given my usual budget of 2 USD per meal), then my miscellaneous expenses per day is 6 USD. This usually affords me transport to get around within cities and towns (if I need them at all as I usually just prefer to walk), small costs like snacks and water, and small-ticket attractions like temples and museums.

Exploring Northern Thailand on a Motorbike
Six dollars US is just enough to be able to scooter around Northern Thailand for a day!

Naturally, you can add a few more bucks to your budget to account for night time entertainment (that is, booze, buckets, and beer), shopping, massages, ice cream (Swensen's, am I right?), etc. That's totally up to you.

  1. One possible extra cost is the visa fees. Because this is Southeast Asia we are talking about here, visa fees are rarely my concern. My country, the Philippines, is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thus, I am allowed two to four weeks of visa-free access to countries in Southeast Asia. For non-ASEAN citizens, this is something you will want to look into and include in your budget.

  2. Visa-Free
    Visa-free visit pass stamps in Malaysia and Indonesia

  3. Another possible significant extra cost is the cost to get from the airport to the city. When arriving at night or when transport options are limited from the airport, a taxi might be the only access to the city. That could be expensive. Typically, I would identify which cities I was flying into and figure out transport options from there. Lonely Planet and Wikitravel usually have a "getting to the city from the airport" section for major Southeast Asian destinations. Look it up as necessary.

  4. Finally, a third extra possible cost to consider is the airport fees. Only a few airports in Southeast Asia have these, or more accurately, have them separate from the ticket cost. In these airports, you queue and cough up money before boarding your flight. That I know of, the airports that have these fees are those in Indonesia (4 USD when flying domestic; 15 USD international) and in the Philippines (1-5 USD domestic; 13 USD international with an additional 37 USD if you're a Filipino citizen). Note that you will be paying these airport fees in local currency.

Using the above information, let me create a couple of sample travel scenarios involving backpacking in Southeast Asia and their corresponding budget.

Scenario 01: Backpacking Saigon and Siem Reap for Six Days

Budget Scenario 01 for Backpacking in Southeast Asia

Scenario 02: Backpacking Southeast Asia for One Month Covering Five Cities

Budget Scenario 02 for Backpacking in Southeast Asia

That is it! I told you it was easy. Quite affordable, too, right? Anything else you think I might have missed in this guide to planning a budget for backpacking in Southeast Asia?

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