Updated November 30th, 2017.
For many newbie backpackers, South East Asia is the perfect first-time destination. With steaming jungles and glistening temples, raging rivers and cavernous mountains; this part of the world truly does have something for everybody. With beer from 25 cents, a meal from a dollar and accommodation for just a few bucks, it seems like the kind of place where one could travel for years with just a few thousand dollars. Unfortunately, South East Asia is actually the kind of place where you can wake up one morning with a splitting headache, an empty wallet and a lost phone. Horror stories of outrageous rip-offs, expensive tourist buses and tourist scams plague the backpacker circuit. Even if you are never scammed, if your not careful it really is pretty easy to simply blow your budget on too many big nights out…
Luckily, if you know what you’re doing, it really is possible to get the most out of South East Asia without breaking the bank. Veteran traveller, Will Hatton from The Broke Backpacker, lays down his rules for travelling around South East Asia on a budget of just $100 a week…
Haggle your socks off!
When it comes to buying something in South East Asia, pretty much anything can be negotiated. Whether your after a silk scarf for your mum, a cheap room for the night or even a tour; it’s possible to get a discount on almost anything. You just need to be polite. When haggling, treat it as a game, you don’t want to make anybody lose face, the whole thing should be light and jovial. You shouldn’t aim to get a ridiculous discount but do ask around and find out what the going rate is for whatever it is you need. Haggling is a real skill which, when developed properly, can help you save consistently whilst travelling.
Every backpacker and their mum these days knows about Couchsurfing. It used to be one of the best kept secrets in the backpacking world but most travellers try it at least once on an adventure abroad. Couchsurfing is a great way to help save some money but it’s more than that, it’s an exchange of cultures which will often let you get behind the scenes and see stuff which you would never normally see whilst backpacking. I personally have had some incredible experiences which were only made possible through Couchsurfing, from crashing in a rock-cut cave with a Rastafarian Bedhouin (totally a thing) to spending a week with a brain surgeon in Mumbai living on the top floor of a hospital. Most of the time, Couchsurfing experiences are not quite that crazy but they are consistently good way to save some pennies and to meet cool people.
Now, The Lonely Planet, your mum and many of your buddies may not recommend hitching but take it from me; hitch-hiking is one of the most fun parts of travelling. You meet amazing people, see incredible things and you dont spend a penny. Sure, you will at some point get dropped off in totally the wrong place and be totally screwed but it’s all part of the adventure. I have hitched all over the world and without a doubt, South East Asia was one of my favourite places to stick out my thumb and clamber into the back of a pick-up with a bunch of orange-robed monks…
Take local buses!
Sometimes you may not be able to hitch or may fancy simply kicking back and chilling out on a bus; no worries, I get it, hitching takes time and if your in a bit of a rush it makes sense to simply catch a bus. Where many travellers go wrong is that they take the big shiny VIP tourist buses. Instead, do as the locals do and take a local bus, it will be a fraction of the price.
Spend longer in cheaper destinations
There’s no denying it, some countries are definitely cheaper than others. Cambodia is probably the cheapest country in South East Asia, closely followed by The Philippines. Myanmar and Indonesia are two of the more expensive countries and Thailand is so full of backpackers that prices rarely drop, even if you are amazing at haggling! If your on a tight budget, plan on spending more time in some of the cheaper countries; you will get more value for money and be able to try more exciting activities such as white water rafting, diving and mountain climbing; at the end of the day, for me, that’s what its all about. Also beer… beer in Cambodia is literally 25 cents. Be happy to spend weeks, months, hell even years in a cheap bamboo hut on the beach! With your ocean as your playground – what more could you ask for?
The more people you hang with, the more your buying power goes up. If you can cram four or five of you into a taxi, that taxi suddenly becomes crazy cheap! If you have buddies to split the cost with, your expenses go down massively – whether you’re splitting a pitcher of beer or just sharing a room. Making buddies on the road is relatively easy even if you’re a solo traveller and even if you’re a little shy – simply smile and be positive!
Pick up work
If you find yourself running low of cash, maybe consider picking up some work on the road. It is very easy to get bar or flyering work on the backpacker circuit. If you have a fair bit of time to kill, maybe consider teaching English, this is a great way to earn some serious money and to experience living in an Asian city at the same time. My recommendation? Hanoi, where you can earn over $20 USD / hour teaching English in private language academies… I hope to teach English in Hanoi for a few months soon.
Volunteering abroad can be a total god-damn nightmare. Voluntourism has well and truly reared it’s ugly head in South East Asia and these days it is very difficult to choose an ethical organisation which isn’t simply going to rip you off. Many companies charge obscene amounts for the pleasure of volunteering but it doesn’t have to be like this. Volunteering can be cheap, it should be cheap. Volunteering abroad can really help your budget as if you find a decent project, food and accommodation should be included… think of it as getting a job except your also trying to save the world, a bit like some kind of super-hero!
So there you have it budding adventurers, hit the road – haggle your socks off, make some friends, stick out your thumb, couch surf whenever you can, get a job (you damn hippy!), volunteer, chat with locals on dilapidated buses and spend weeks at a time drinking dirt cheap beer in dirt cheap Cambodia… Travelling on a budget in South East Asia really is quite easy, you just need to know what your doing!
About the Writer and photographer, Will Hatton – S.E.A Backpacker Ambassador: Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will is an avid hitch-hiker, couch-surfer and bargain-seeker. He is a devout follower of the High Temple of Backpackistan and the proud inventor of the man-hug. Will blogs over at www.thebrokebackpacker.com about his adventures around the world, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter or, if you’re really friendly, hunt him down on the road for a cheeky pint.
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