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Everyone who’s been knows, and everyone who hasn’t has heard: Southeast Asia is cheap.
You can live like a rockstar for a fraction of what you normally spend back home (if you’re smart).
But, all too often, people visit Southeast Asia expecting everything to be cheap and that’s simply not the case. There are a countless number of ways you can get ripped off or pushed into a more expensive option when it’s simply not necessary.
A lot of these learnings simply come with experience and awareness. I personally learned a lot during my time there, specifically 5 odd lessons from long-term travel.
Nonetheless, a few tips can go a long way to help ensure you have that rockstar experience and are able to get the most ‘bang for your buck’.
1. Eat the street food
Whatever preconceived notions you have about street food need to be left back home. The food is delicious, sanitary, and cheap!
Eating food from these street stalls and carts is almost always the best option. If you want your foreign currency to go a long way, this is a must.
A lot of people have this idea that the street food is more likely to get them sick—wrong!
After over three months of traveling through Southeast Asia I got sick twice. Both times from pizza. Never from the street food.
In fact, most travelers said the same thing: it was the Western food that got them sick.
In Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos you can usually have a delicious meal for about $1-3. Throw in a beer and you’re looking at the cheapest, most economical meal you’ve had in a long time.
2. Research your accommodation
Hostels aren’t big in Southeast Asia. You won’t find many at all.
What you will find are great little guesthouses and homestays. You’ll almost always have your own room, and this can be shared with your travel partners.
A lot of people like to just show up to each new country/city and find a place on the spot. While this is very possible, I don’t entirely recommend it.
a) During busy/high season most of the best value spots will be booked up already.
b) You may end up wandering the streets for hours with your luggage/backpack before you find a place you like and want to call home for a few nights.
c) You will probably end up paying more, and if you go for the cheapest option it’s not going to be pretty.
A little research goes a long way. Your best friends during your travels here are:
a) Travelfish.org – Incredible website run by a super cool couple living in Southeast Asia. They are absolute experts on every little town and their accommodation reviews were very helpful and accurate. We found some gems through them—highly recommended.
b) TripAdvisor.com – If it was rated highly on TripAdvisor it was almost always a great spot. They also have an app you should download for your smartphone, which helps you make quick decisions as you’re moving around.
c) LonelyPlanet.com – Good, but their accommodation reviews and recommendations were not nearly as updated or reliable as the first two.
I don’t recommend hostelworld.com for Southeast Asia travel, but I did occasionally use it to pre-book places. Generally, you end up paying a lot more and they don’t have a lot of the best guesthouses.
If you’re looking for the hostel experience and want to meet other travelers, you can still find great spots through the aforementioned sites.
I am a big advocate of having a wide-open itinerary with very few actual plans. It’s all about letting go and allowing the adventure to unfold. With that said, I found that researching accommodations paid off huge.
Below is picture of the place I stayed at for one month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For less than $300—total.
I told you, rockstar life. :)
When you’re booking it doesn’t need to be far in advance. Most days it was a matter of sitting down the night before or even the day of and deciding where to stay next (during high season you may want to book further in advance).
Important note: In terms of actual reservations and booking, sometimes a quick phone call will do. Don’t book online unless it’s necessary to secure the spot. If you do, only book the first 1-2 nights. The guesthouse gets charged a fee/commission on these bookings, so it’s best you just show up and do a little negotiating to get the best rate possible.
3. Easy on the booze
I remember reading this tip once on a site and it really bothered me. Why should I not have a beer with my dinner? Or a mojito with my breakfast? Just kidding… ;)
All jokes aside, the alcohol does add up. So while I’m not saying don’t party or don’t drink, I am saying you should go with the local beers and look for happy hours and good deals.
No matter where you are in the world, alcoholic drinks do add up very quickly.
However, in most countries throughout Southeast Asia you can usually get a large beer for under $3, and in some for just $1 from 7-Eleven.
4. Choose your adventures wisely
There are tons of guided tours, adventures, and all sorts of fun you can get into. This is where people really make money on you.
Think through what sorts of new adventures you’d like to try and find companies that are reliable and highly rated to go through.
For example, I did my scuba diving open water certification in Koh Tao, Thailand. It was only $300 USD including accommodation for 3 nights—that’s a no brainer.
I also researched which diving school I wanted to go to (shout out to Big Blue Diving), and selected them because of their fun and friendly instructors.
5. Get pampered
Massages, spa treatments, manicures, pedicures, body scrubs—you name it. They have it all and it’s a fraction of the price you would be paying back home.
My advice? Go for it. Go big. Go to town!
Get that massage because you will never want to pay $75+ for a massage back home after getting the exact same thing for around $5.
This is an area where I think you need to go for the nicer, more expensive spots. Why? Because even the fancier spots here are still incredibly cheap (relative to prices back home), so take advantage and enjoy the experience.
6. How to get around
Depending on where you are, transportation is super easy. There is a “tuk-tuk”, taxi, pickup truck, or motorcycle taxi waiting on every corner and they’re all looking to give you a ride.
It’s cheap. Nonetheless, there are a couple things to be wary of…
a) In Bangkok: don’t take a tuk-tuk. It’s just a giant scam. Outside of Bangkok, tuk-tuk’s are a pretty good option. Also, don’t take a taxi unless they agree to turn on the meter. If they try to quote you a price, it’s okay to walk away. A local or your guesthouse can help you get a metered taxi, but usually just asking is enough.
b) Agree on the price beforehand. Do a little bargaining and get yourself a decent rate. If you don’t know what’s fair, ask the guesthouse or hotel you’re staying at. It’s okay to walk away if the rate is high or unfair.
If you’re comfortable with riding a motorbike (which is basically just a scooter), rent one.
If you plan on doing a lot of moving around and like the freedom and convenience, a motorbike is for you. If you’ve never rode one before or you’re unsure of your ability, perhaps another option is best.
If you decide to rent a motorbike—be careful. I can’t stress this enough. Always wear a helmet and ride slow. There are accidents every single day, and they usually involve a foreigner.
Traffic flows down the left side of the street in most countries there, so that is also a huge adjustment for some.
I had a motorbike 90% of the time throughout my 3+ months in Southeast Asia, and I loved it.
Important note: On some islands and certain very ‘touristy’ destinations, there is a motorbike scam. Don’t bother renting if you read or hear that there are problems there. They will claim you damaged the motorbike and hold your passport until you pay extravagant fees. If you do actually drop the bike and cause any damage it can be even worse.
Also, they will ask for your passport. I always pushed back with my drivers license instead, and was able to get away with this around 25% of the time. Your passport is your baby, don’t lose it! :)
7. Become friends with other travelers
The true secret to living like a rockstar in Southeast Asia is to talk to other travelers, especially the experienced ones.
If someone recommends a spot off the beaten path, a cool restaurant, a small village, a jungle adventure—whatever—just do it.
I met Alex AKA Travel Fashion Girl in a pickup truck crossing the border from Cambodia to Thailand, and then ran into her at a cafe in Bali. She had some awesome insights on Bali and some great world-class diving spots I never would have heard of.
She also has amazing advice on packing and travel accessories, so be sure to check out her site.
The best adventures will not be found on the internet, and are kept secret by locals and travelers who have the inside knowledge. The best deals are also kept secret, so my advice is to be friendly and become friends with these people.
Locals can also be very helpful, so start a conversation! Be interested in their lives, their story, and what they like to do for fun. Things move much more slowly in Southeast Asia, so take the time to have coffee with a new friend and allow the adventures to unfold.
On the other hand—if someone tells you a certain place “sucks” or is simply “worth skipping”—just smile, nod, and say thank you. Don’t ever take someone else’s negative experience as absolute truth.
Every single person’s experience is different, and I found that almost every single place I went to that another person didn’t enjoy, I loved. I’m glad I continued and went to those destinations, because some of them were my favorite spots.
In general, you don’t need to worry about bad experiences. If it happens, then it happens. But every destination and new location is an adventure waiting to unfold. You truly never know what you’ll find.
Just keep an open mind, be flexible, have zero expectations, and enjoy the ride.
P.S. A quick note on “haggling”. Once you’re there it’s easy to get caught up in the bargaining culture of Southeast Asia. Here’s what you need to understand…
It’s not about bargaining everything down to the last penny and battling it out with each vendor or taxi driver. Bargaining is part of the culture, it’s not meant to create conflict or disagreement.
Bargaining should be done with a smile, a laugh, and a handshake.
If you ever find yourself getting frustrated by someone and their bargaining, then you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s okay to just walk away and start over.
There’s a big difference between someone trying to rip you off, and simply bargaining the price of a necklace at the night market.
Haggling is not a part of Western cultures. Therefore, it’s a very foreign concept and can be a bit difficult at times. Just try not to get caught up in it all. After all—if you’re trying to bargain something from 100 Thai Baht to 80 Baht, we’re talking about 70 cents. Remember that.
P.P.S. Please pass this article along to a friend that’s heading to Southeast Asia. Hopefully they’ll pick up a new tip or two!
Photo Credit: Feeding the elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand