Cycle through the ancient structures of Angkor Complex, swing into the jade-green chill waters at Kwangsi Waterfalls, or get your skin caressed by the majestic sun as you lay on South Thailand’s beaches; travellers flock to this well-worn backpackers’ circuit, Southeast Asia, each year. Undoubtedly, the lower cost of living is one of the main reasons you have big haversacks in your face when travelling to popular destinations such as Phnom Penh,Phuket, Ho Chi Minh City, or Yangon.
Last winter, I jumped on the ‘cheap and independent travel’ bandwagon and bought myself a one-way ticket with a meagre S$1000 in my emaciated bank; after packing my obnoxious backpack that needed a lot of getting used to.
Though I came back 2 inches off my waist, many friends and like-minded travellers have been asking me how I spent 7 weeks on the road with less than S$1000. Here’s how:
1. Opt for midnight transportation to save on accommodation
Southeast Asia has an extensive overland travel system; bus and rail. With the sleeper buses and sleeping cabins on the trains, fret not about waking up with a chronic backache.
Furthermore, you won’t spend the supposed time meant for city-exploration in the day staring out of trains’ windows. What’s more? Accommodation for the night is sorted.
2. Overland transportations > Air travel
An add-on to the aforementioned, overland travels in Southeast Asia is relatively safe – even for solo female travellers – and a more affordable alternative compared to air travel if you’re planning to linger in this region for a long period of time. You have the choice of dropping off at any station before reaching your pre-planned destination.
Another cost-saving advantage of overland travels is that bus terminals and train stations are usually located in the central area of the city compared to the airport. You can save on taxis or airport buses when getting to your accommodation.
3. Pack dry food for long journeys
Not only will these help you cut costs, they will be your life saviour. During long overland travels such as 28 hours bus ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi City, I ran out of local currencies and could not dine at stopovers, let alone afford those rip-off snacks from the aunties’ hand carried baskets.
4. Couchsurf as much as possible
Who says budget travelling would be a breeze by just saving on your massive lootings at night markets and taking cheaper, budget airlines? You’ll have to start doing work the minute you purchase your plane tickets.
Once you have a brief idea on the dates around the region, start sending requests on Couchsurfing to look for Couch Hosts! Do note that some hosts will only take in members with positive reviews; this means you’ll need some time in your local community by hosting others or bringing tourists around.
Couchsurfing is non-profit organisation for travellers to ‘surf on couches’ in a new city. Not only is this a brilliant way to save costs on accommodations, you experience cultural exchange! If you have time with your hosts, you can even get tips on how to travel the city and what to avoid.
5. Don’t pick what you eat
At the start of my backpacking trip, I had to spend double during meals because I hated those bean sprouts and raw vegetables that filled half the bowl, and I was always hungry. Think: Vietnamese Phở. After the first week, I’ve learned to stop picking at my food and I had my fill from finishing the ingredients I once disliked. After all, loving one’s food is part of understanding the culture.
If you have no dietary restrictions, go for the cheaper alternatives.
6. Set a budget every morning
After planning on the places you are going to visit, set aside money for respective transportations, entrance fees, necessities, and expenses. Trust me when I say the markets in Southeast Asia are infinite mazes. I found myself going in awe at the different products, ranging from intricate paintings to hand-sewn accessories to must-have elephant pants, and was tempted to bag them all home. While you should and can still enjoy despite travelling on a low budget, setting an expenditure ceiling every morning will increase your awareness in spending and prevent exceeding.
Given the exquisity of the goods and its relatively lower cost, you will find your wallet emptying out at an increasing pace if you don’t set yourself a budget everyday.
7. Know the different routes and local names to your destinations
Most tourists see Southeast Asia as the paradise for taking Tuk Tuks or motorbike taxis at a negligible price. However, bear in mind that some of these tourist attractions are within walking distances or have shuttle buses to them.
When you have Wifi, or a map, note down the different possible routes and local names to your destinations. Save on Tuk Tuks and walk if possible. Also, knowing the local names to your destinations will save you the possibility of getting lost and the hassle of backtracking.
8. Avoid national and public holidays
Don’t have to be an economist to know the price relationship with demand and supply. Avoid cities during their public holidays, as prices of accommodations and transportations will multiple by folds and may sell out.
If the public holiday is your purpose of visit, make sure you reach the place before the actual day to avoid disappointment.