Ayutthaya, Thailand > TheRoamingNoodle

Backpacking Asia on $30 a Day

Think you need a ton of money to go on a backpacking trip through Asia? Wrong! Here’s how I pulled off my trip on $30 a day!

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When I first started throwing ideas against my thought wall of an adventure to embark on I never consider an extended vacation abroad. Let’s be honest for a second in that growing up we hardly took vacations as a family. My parents worked a lot to provide a roof over our heads and hot meals on the table, money for leisure travels was out of the question. We did spend two weeks down in Florida as kids, but that was more of a business trip for my dad than anything else. Plus it was Florida. As an adult I didn’t really traveled until well into my late-20s. It just wasn’t something I was interested in let alone spending my monies on.

That all changed after my first stint to Europe when the travel bug hit and it never let up. The next few years had me pinning destinations on maps, saving all my tips from our noodle shop, planning and re-planning itineraries, squeezing in new locations by any means. My appetite was satiated with the adventures I found myself on, but only just. Something was constantly gnawing at me and I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the monkey on my back. But, just then an idea popped into my head: sabbatical!

Initially I wanted to spend a year abroad, traveling on a round-the-world ticket. But the more I dived into the finances of the deal, not to mention the fine print, it proved more hassle than was worth. I decided that SE Asia would be the perfect mixture of time abroad and not destroying my bank account. The idea at first was daunting, not because of the time I’d spent away or the dangers I could be in, no, it was the sheer cost of it that gave me reservations. Or so I thought.

I had to plan out a budget and had very little idea of where to start. The next few months saw me researching until my eyes bled in front of my computer. Slowly things started coming together, bit by bit, like the thousand piece puzzle still on my coffee table. My budget minus airfare there and back (used my miles for this) was to be $30 a day. This would include my lodging, food and even activities. Crazy right?! I would have to leave America with about $6000 in my account ($5400 [$30*180 days]) and $600 as a cushion.)

My budget minus airfare there and back was to be $30 a day

Now all that was left was to execute the plan: save as much as possible! I settled on being away for half a year which struck a nice balance of not too short, not too long. So I worked, and I worked, and I stayed home, foregone romantic relationships, made my own coffee, ate canned fish and ramen. The going was tough to say the least.

Fast forward a year of very hard work, navigating a social life, juggling two jobs and saving for a trip of a lifetime I left the states with a hefty $13,000 stashed away in the cloud. I was always meticulously staying on the safe side of things when it came to finances and having this budget put my mind at ease. I had a budget of $30 to spend on everything I need each day meant I had to plan smart, but also leave enough discretional funds for experiences, because why else would I be out here!

My budget breakdown:

Lodging was simple: hostels. These just MADE sense when you’re in SE Asia. Not only were they cheap, with rates of $4 (Cambodia) to $10 (Thailand) nightly for a bed, the amenities you get more than justified the bad image they’re associated with. We’re talking always hot showers, clean beds (off chance you might get bed bugs, but hey you run that chance in a hotel too), free breakfast, fast WIFI and best of all: other like minded travelers with a plethora of KNOWLEDGE.

I never once had a bad stay in a hostel aside from a few group of Brits coming home super late or the Chinese tourist snoring to the heavens in the bunk above me. Overall it was a great choice to spend my monies on. Before you scoff at the idea of staying in a hostel I heavily recommend you stay in one, especially in SE Asia. For the money you are truly getting some near five star accommodations. Don’t want to dorm? Cool, most places have private rooms. Solo female traveler preferring female only dorms? You bet they got those, too.

$10 was the amount I was willing to part with nightly for a bed in a dorm. Rarely, and I mean RARELY did I ever exceeded that, maybe $11, but never more. With every dollar I saved I put it back into my cloud bank so that my budget stayed healthy or for the occasional resort I wanted to stay in. Also, those resorts were DIRT CHEAP compared to any I stayed in before.

Use apps and websites like Hostel World or Agoda and compare prices, read reviews or just check out the photos, you’re going to be glad you did is all I am saying! Plus you get to meet travelers from all over the world!

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When it came to food no where else in the world topped SE Asia and I stand by this statement. We’re talking street food (Thailand), off road restaurants with tiny stools (Vietnam), hawker centers (Malaysia), and you’re never far away from a 7-11 (toasties) or Circle K. Everything’s fast, delicious and CHEAP. I don’t think I ever paid more than $5 for a sit down meal with air-con turned to the North Pole setting, ever.

Be adventurous and order that meat stick for $0.30 while walking through Chiang Mai or pay the lady her $0.75 for a bowl of bun rieu in Hue. Want two Kampot black peppercorn crabs with a big Angkor beer at a seaside restaurant? It’ll cost you a mere $5.67. How about some mi goreng in Kuala Lumpur for $1? Just don’t forget that 32oz fresh sugarcane juice for $0.40. Seriously, you won’t ever go hungry when you’re here, just probably have to pick up a new pair of shorts, or two, ha. I’ve made $10 go further on food in Asia for a day than at the drive-thru lane at my local McDonalds with the munchies.

A pro-tip I have is when you’re booking a hostel see if they have free breakfast. Sure it could range from toast with chocolate spread or make your own pho station, but it’ll least take one meal off of your day’s budget. Toss the remainder back into your cloud bank or save it for that extra fancy dinner. You still probably won’t break the bank!

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Going on adventures was my only remaining wildcard, aside from transportation that I got a good lock on finding cheap ways to get around, I had to somewhat be budget conscious about. As you can imagine there is so much to do and experience when you’re abroad that you don’t want the idea of money hampering those moments.

With a daily budget of, you guessed it, $10 made it a bit hard to go on wild excursions. So I let loose quite a lot when it came down to this area of my travels. For starters I didn’t come all this way to NOT hike volcanoes, visit monasteries, dive with turtles over shipwreck sites, watch a real muy Thai bout, or do river cruises for a chance to spot wild Asian elephants. But I didn’t want to blow through my budget entirely in one go either.

My plan of attack was simple in nature yet proved to be so effective that even I surprised myself. I would spend every few days just walking the city, enjoy the sights and sounds, or kicking it with hostel mates. This would keep my budget well below to that of just lodging and food. While other days I would have something on the books as an experience like visiting Angkor Wat ($35) or go on a nine tank dive ($240) that were going to blow the budget without doubt.

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By the trip’s end I had accomplished everything I wanted to experience and then some! No means was I frugal when it came down to adventures, I was even ready to smash my budget to smithereens if it meant I would have stories to last a lifetime. Fortunately, I didn’t have to compromise on either!

During my trip I made an expense log that I updated as frequently as possible. I wanted to have an idea of how much overall it would’ve cost me, but also be starting point for others. Below you can see how much time and money was spent in each location when I touched down in Bangkok to when I flew home from Singapore.

CountryTotal DaysCurrency Conversion
USD | Local
Total Spent (In Local)Total USDDaily Average
Thailand35$1 | 31.39 Baht44,893$1,430.16$40.86
Vietnam30$1 | 23,200 Dong26,083,522$1,124.28$37.47
Cambodia (took USD)27$1 | 4,014 Riel774.37 USD$774.37$28.68
Malaysia (plus Borneo)25$1 | 4.18 Ringgit3,229.55$772.61$30.90
Indonesia32$1 | 14,400 Rupiahs15,101,975$1,048.74$32.77
Singapore5$1 | 1.36 S$295.90$217.57$43.51
Total154$5,367.73$34.85
2019 SE Asia Solo Backpacking Expense

$5,367.73. This was the total it cost me to travel abroad for a bit over five months! My daily average of $34.85 wasn’t entirely out to lunch with my initial budget of $30/day either! For comparison the average vacation for family of four costs $4800. I was abroad for five months for a little more than that! Another comparison can be an individual vacation costing $1200. That would be $12,000 had it been for the timeframe I was gone.

Once I did the math it boggled my mind at how cheap everything ended up being. Of course my years of traveling had cemented a few tricks up my sleeve that helped along the way. But more importantly than the money was the experiences it gave me in return. I’m not bashing on your all inclusive vacation if that’s your thing, it’s just not my type of vacation. I made sacrifices in comfort along the way because the end result was worth the trouble.

These weren’t my ONLY expenses though. There were things I also did that I didn’t factor into my budget above. Those were items entirely out of the three main categories (lodging, food, adventure) I kept separate from my calculations. For the sake of being transparent view the chart below and see what other expenditure I accrued.

FlightsTattoosSuitDivingMisc.Total
Hanoi $50Sak Yant $350Merino 3-Piece $545Certification $380Baggage Fee $40
Da Nang $50A.B. Tribute $350Tailored Shirts $118Bornean Dive $240 (9 tanks)Visa Fine (overstay) $70
Phuket $66Bali (misc.) $150
Koh Samui $111
Borneo (Sabah) $50
Kuala Lumpur $50
Jakarta $50
Bali $150
Singapore $100
Borneo (Sarawak) $150
Total$827$700$663$620$260$3,070
Misc. Expenses

Take in the total of both charts and you arrive at $8,454.30. That is a 57% increase in my total overall budget. So how did this happen?

For one thing the extra flights I took ended up costing more than I’d anticipated, but still far less than what it could’ve been. At times I got lazy and flew instead of taking the bus or train, my preferred method. Other times it was a last minute decision to go somewhere new, deviating from my plan, this cost accrued over the months abroad.

I also got tattoos in Thailand and Vietnam and took my PADI OW diving certification because it was much cheaper, and better diving, than back home in the states. Add to this my spur of the moment decision to get a tailored three piece merino wool suit in Hoi An made and shipped back to the states while I was still gallivanting around Asia. The last of it was the truly unexpected cost of baggage fees and overstaying my visa in Indonesia. Count your days on your visa because getting pulled into the customs office and being dropped with the 1 million rupiah fine was not on my agenda, ha!

Chiang Rai > TheRoamingNoodle
Chiang Rai, Feb 2019

Even with that total my original cushion of $13,000 in the cloud was never fully emptied. If you took out the frivolous spending I did and went on the budget I had set you realize how cheap a trip like this can REALLY be. The crazy part of it all is that it could be done EVEN CHEAPER. I spoke to so many other travelers I met and most of their budget were much smaller than my final expenditure! Compared to them I was living lavishly while being a backpacker, ha!

In retrospect I realized just how much a trip of this size had taught me. Not only with making a plan, but deviating from said plans, or a budget and staying well within it and having the time of my life. Those were great lessons, too, but the most important one was having a goal and working hard to achieve it.

I needed a break from life, to gain new perspective of worlds much different than my own. As a human I was ready and willing to grow, I just needed a catalyst to kickstart what is now a never ending journey for more. More knowledge of culture and people, of new places and experiences, of moments with unfamiliar faces, rekindling relationships with old ones. The price of this trip pale in comparison to what I gained in return.

… I was ready and willing to grow, I just needed a catalyst to kickstart what is now a never ending journey for more.

If a kid from the suburbs of Boston can concoct a wild idea as taking a sabbatical and following through with it, then what’s your excuse? Don’t say it’s money because now that’s no longer valid!

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