How to Travel Southeast Asia on a Budget (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam)
Southeast Asia is becoming more and more sought after in western countries and there are a lot of reasons why: Beautiful beaches, partying until the sun rises, never-ending jungles, hidden waterfalls, and a beautiful culture you cannot find anywhere else in the world.
And the best of all: You can travel extremely cheap in Southeast Asia but still enjoy some luxury from time to time.
Back in 2017 I went backpacking with a friend in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam for 5 weeks and my total cost was $800 (flights excluded).
We spent the entire month of July in those countries and had lots of fascinating experiences to remember. When traveling in the summertime, be warned, there are pretty high temperatures you have to endure (up to 40°C (104°F) in some places). The occasional rainy days didn’t bother us at all - it actually cooled everything down to like 30°C, which was pleasant.
If you want to travel during the summer months, make sure to bring a raincoat and some anti-mosquito-spray because those will be your biggest pain point.
Now, I am not saying that the rain is going to ruin your vacation because that’s simply not the case. The monsoon rain only lasts about 1-2h and occured maybe twice a day for us, so don’t worry too much about it.
Otherwise, just travel in the winter months to escape the high humidity and rain.
As you can see in the image below you will meet plenty of other tourists in the cooler months as well. Now if you’re looking for adventures, this should come in handy. But if you want to relax in silence, take a second look at the tourist rates during each month and reconsider your plans.
Another last friendly reminder for the planning of your trip: You don’t necessarily need to vaccinate against malaria because it can get costly. I would advise you to consider vaccination against Hepatitis A + B since it’s easy to do and use. Now if you plan to wander around in remote areas up north and in the jungle, go ahead and purchase the malaria pills and vaccinate against rabies.
But definitely go and talk to a doctor for any further medical advice. I doubt that anything bad would happen but it’s always better to be on the safe side.
And with that being said, let’s move on to the fun part!
LET’S GET INTO SOME TRAVEL ADVICE FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA…
Our backpacking adventure was as follows:
Arrival in Phuket, Thailand -> Phi Phi Islands -> Krabi - Surat Thani -> Koh Samui, Phangan, and Tao -> Bangkok -> Siem Reap, Cambodia -> Phnom Penh -> Mekong Delta, Vietnam -> Ho Chi Minh City
The first flight was with Thai Airways and I seldom have seen such good service inside an aircraft.. until we flew back with Singapore Airlines, which was arguably even better. Both airline stewardesses were polite, fluent in English and did not neglect us one wish. The seats itself were comfortable and you had enough space in every direction, which is most important for me. The phenomenal selection of TV shows and movies made the whole flight a comfortable way to travel the globe.
As you can see on the map, we did not travel all the way up to the north, although we considered it. Time management is hard if you don’t plan the whole trip beforehand. We just booked the two flights and our first hotel in Phuket, everything between arrival and departure was totally spontaneous and we don’t regret it one bit!
Wait, now that I remember, we also booked our stay in the Aquarius Urban Resort in Phnom Penh on the 21st of July, 2017 beforehand, so we had a rough time table to stick to. Spoiler: we had no troubles getting there in time, so there’s no “fight through unkempt jungles” story unfortunately.
I had seen the hotel in a video on YouTube and a deep urge to visit this place shot up immediately. An infinity pool with a glass wall?! What else is there to say?
By deciding spontaneously where to stay you can stay longer in places you enjoy and you don’t have to leave after just two nights.
For booking our hotels and hostels we used Booking.com and our credit cards (be sure to take one with you). You can easily find pretty cheap spots all over the three countries we traveled.
The first one in Phuket was the worst though (that’s a whole other story in and of itself), so we weren’t off to a good start as you can imagine. You just have to stay positive and know that it could only get better, right? 🤙🏻
Food and accommodation was no problem at all since you can eat literally everywhere in tourist areas. We advise you to go with traditional Asian meals since they are much cheaper than western food in restaurants. There are locals cooking rice and chicken on every street and you can buy a good portion for $1 whereas you’d pay $8 for a burger. Those little wagons the locals use to prepare the food in front of you, might scare some people because of the simplicity, but all in all they were always super friendly and it tasted great.
Don’t get me wrong though, after three weeks of rice and noodles it’s not a crime to visit a nearby Burger King or McDonald's, but stick to local food if you want to save money. You can also shop in 7-Elevens, which are literally everywhere to get your daily dosage of coffee, toast, and snacks.
From Phuket we proceeded to the Phi Phi Islands for a day trip and then further to the coast in Krabi. The Phi Phi Islands were probably the most stunning experience of the whole trip. Pristine beaches, clear waters, unbelievable rocks with healthy trees all over them. We can’t really support the all too common assumption that tons of people visit this place since we were pretty much alone on our island. The reason for that is simple: we didn’t visit the “Hollywood beaches”, but rather rented a canoe and made our way to smaller beaches, which were equally pretty if not even prettier.
Our stay in Krabi took the whole adventure to new heights, quite literally, since we climbed somewhere around 1000 steps to reach the Tiger Cave Temple on top of a mountain. With our last breaths and after countless little stops we finally reached the last step and freshened us up with the little fountain that accompanied the temple.
The hotel in Krabi was called “Krabi Home Town Boutique” and pretty far out of the main city. We had to walk a lot, and I mean A LOT to get to restaurants, bars and 7-Elevens. The long walks were pleasant though, since you get to see the “normal” life of the locals and as mentioned, temperatures didn’t drop below 28°C.
View from the Tiger Temple.
From Krabi on we proceeded to Koh Samui and the accompanying other Islands up north. Snorkeling tours, the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, scooter pathways, exotic beaches and waterfalls are all things that are worth checking out when staying on these islands. In case you want to see elephants or other animals, make sure to check beforehand whether they are living in peace in the sanctuary or if the owners only use them to make money. We should sincerely care about the circumstances in which they live and not support unrightful behavior by the operators.
All in all, we traveled somewhere around 2000+ km and most of it by bus. Other modes of transport we used were boats, tuk-tuks, taxis, and trains. You can easily book longer bus rides online or in shops nearby for as low as ten bucks. From the last island Koh Tao, we took the night train up to Bangkok and comfortably slept through the whole ride - a luxury you probably won’t get on a bus, since the roads in Southeast Asia are often very bad and you have to step outside from time to time because of pauses by the driver or when you’re entering a new country.
The night train cost us somewhere around $20 per person.
Getting Visas to cross borders is usually not a big deal, depending on where you’re from; you can even get them on airports and country lines for a small raise in price. The other option is to send your passport to the embassy in your home country and get the visa there for a little more money. Our first stop after Bangkok was Siem Reap, famous for the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, beautifully hidden temples in the jungle. Most hotels offer their guests a private tour before sunrise to these sights. Although, as you can imagine, countless tourists check out the temples as well, you’ll still enjoy your own exploration since the area is pretty big.
Siem Reap was also the place with the best budget hotel. We paid $14 a night for two pools and a gym, beautiful rooms with a rain shower, a private tuk tuk service into the city and very kind employees. It’s unbelievable what kind of value you get for such a little price.
After 2 days, we took another bus to the next city: Phnom Penh. This was all arranged by the hotel as well, we didn’t have to worry at all.
As mentioned earlier, we booked our stay in the Aquarius Urban Resort beforehand and were super satisfied with our stay. Amazing service once again!
For moving around within one city tuk-tuk drivers are your best bet. They are cheap and support the overall cultural immersiveness. However they are also famous for “suddenly” asking you if you want to see all the sights in the city and then charge you more than necessary. That’s why you have to decide on the price before you hop in the vehicle and clearly say where you want to go. I advise using Google Translator and your downloaded maps (you can easily download them in hotels via wifi). Prices for an average Tuk Tuk ride are $2 - $5.
Most of the locals in Southeast Asia don’t speak English fluently, this, however, does not apply to hotel-/hostel- and tourist-center employees. You can ask them almost everything and you’ll get an understandable response.
We actually met quite a few foreign accommodation owners, too. They came from places such as the Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy, and Germany and they were fluent in English. Feel free to ask them for recommendations in every way: Restaurants, beaches, sights, clubs and possible tourist-tours you may wanna take. Ask locals as well because they will know the best spots and hidden gems in their area, which are often not that crowded with tourists.
Through the Mekong Delta we took a boat ride and it was arranged by our small hotel in Cần Thơ, it was called “Minh Vuong Hotel” (super friendly people). There was only one other guest because this was not a tourist area at all and we took the boat ride with him. We had a personal guide for us three and watched giant boats with 100+ people go by. You can’t imagine how glad we were to not be on their boat.
The canoeist led us through the tiniest water gaps into the most tropical parts of the delta and it was truly beautiful. We stopped at a hidden restaurant where we could drink cocktails while chilling in a hammock at the same time and witnessed the famous floating market first hand. Delicious foods prepared on the boats while enjoying the sunrise - 7 hours of entertainment for $30 per person. And this was probably even the costliest trip we made (excluding a snorkeling tour with an island trip in Koh Samui) but it was totally worth it!
I could go on and on about our trip and the adventures we had but I don’t want to bore you with my stories. Instead, you should go out there and have some adventures by yourself!
If you want to know more about my travels and advice, just let me know and I’ll write some new content.
And don’t worry, I simply can’t end this blogpost and travel guide without mentioning some accommodation highlights as well as sights you have to see for yourself.
And don’t forget to mention “Robin Klose” to get a discount there! No I’m just kidding around, they won’t remember me at all probably :p
What follows are some of the spots with prices per night per person:
Krabi Home Town Boutique (Krabi) - $25
Pamoni (Koh Samui) - $28
Pap’s Place (Koh Phangan) - $27
Mythai Guesthouse (Koh Phangan) - $22
Koh Tao Central Hostel (Koh Tao) - $19
Bangkok 68 (Bangkok) - $19
Suon Angkor Boutique (Siem Reap) - $14 (Highlight)
Good Morning Guesthouse (Phnom Penh) - $8
Aquarius Hotel and Urban Resort (Phnom Penh) - $56 (Luxurious Highlight)
Minh Vuong Hotel (Can Tho) - $10
Sasa Hotel (Ho Chi Minh City) - $16
And here are some more Highlights you should definitely visit:
Phi Phi Islands visitation - $20
(don’t go to the tourist areas, get a canoe and find your own beaches)
Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi - Free
Taking Tuk Tuks around the city - $2-$5
Finding Waterfalls on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan - Free
Coral Cove Beach on Koh Samui - Free
Fullmoon Party on Koh Phangan - $3
Mekong Delta Tour - $30
Infinity pool in the Aquarius Hotel and Urban Resort - $60
Night train to Bangkok - $20
Visiting Bars and Clubs in the cities - Depends